The Civil War (Pharsalia)
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved.
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- Book IV:1-47 Caesar attacks Ilerda (Lleida) in Spain
- Book IV:48-120 Caesar’s camp is flooded
- Book IV:121-156 The campaign is renewed
- Book IV:157-207 A temporary peace
- Book IV:208-253 Petreius recalls his men to duty
- Book IV:254-318 Caesar lays siege to the enemy camp
- Book IV:319-362 Lucius Afranius surrenders
- Book IV:363-401 Pompey’s army in Spain disbands
- Book IV:402-447 Conflict in Dalmatia
- Book IV:448-528 An incident at sea
- Book IV:529-581 Vulteius and his men commit suicide
- Book IV:582-660 The myth of Hercules and Antaeus
- Book IV:661-714 Pompey’s African army under Varus
- Book IV:715-787 Juba’s army defeats Curio
- Book IV:788-824 The spectre of corruption
Book IV:1-47 Caesar attacks Ilerda (Lleida) in Spain
But far off at the edge of Europe, fierce Caesar was waging war,
not with great loss of life but with warfare destined to influence
the fates of the two rivals decisively. Afranius and Petreius
were the joint leaders of Pompey’s army in Spain; of one mind,
they ruled alternately, equal in authority, sharing responsibility,
the diligent sentries guarding the ramparts honouring their
successive passwords. As well as the Roman troops they
commanded ready Asturians, nimble Vettones, and Celts,
settlers from an ancient Gallic tribe, merging their own name
to that of the Iberians, the Celtiberians. Where fertile land rises
in gentle slopes to a hill of modest height, Ilerda (Lleida) stands,
an ancient settlement. The quiet waters of the Sicoris (Segre)
flow by, not the least of European rivers, and the solid stone
arch of a bridge able to withstand winter floods spans them.
Pompey’s army occupied a steep hill nearby, while Caesar
had pitched camp on another equal height, the river flowing
between them and separating the two camps. Beyond stretch
level plains as far as the eye can see, while the fast-flowing
Cinga (Cinca) bounds the plains whose waters reach the sea
under another name, since it merges with the Hiberus (Ebro)
which gives its name to the whole country. The first days
of the war were free of bloodshed: serving only to reveal
the extent of each leaders’ forces, and their might. War
seemed loathsome; shame restrained the frenzy of battle,
a day’s respite was granted the land and the rule of law.
But as the sun sank towards night, Caesar fortified
a new site with a swiftly dug trench, while the front ranks
kept their ground, screening the place, behind the lines
of troops, and deceiving the enemy. At dawn he ordered
the men forward at speed, climbing the slopes which lay
between the site and Ilerda, those protecting the town.
Fear and shame drove the enemy to advance rapidly,
reach the slopes and occupy them. The courage
and fighting strength of Caesar’s men promised him
attainment of the ground, but the enemy relied on
actual possession. The heavily-burdened soldiers
struggled to climb the heights, the front ranks gazing
upwards, supported by the shields of those behind.
None was free to fling a weapon; each planted his
javelin again and again to secure a perilous foothold,
clutching at rocks and trees, hacking a path with his
sword, oblivious of the enemy. Seeing how risky
the position was, Caesar ordered the cavalry to advance
and wheel to the left, to shield the troops. The infantry
were quickly rescued, without pursuit; the enemy
held the slopes as their foe retreated, gaining little.
Book IV:48-120 Caesar’s camp is flooded
Such was the passage of arms; the rest of the campaign
was determined by various spells of adverse weather.
Winter constrained it with numbing cold and dry northerlies,
gripping the upper atmosphere and restricting the rainfall.
Only the mountains saw snow, while hoar frost covered
the low-lying plains, vanishing at the first glimpse of sun;
all the land towards the west hard and dry in the cloudless
winter weather. But when spring came, and Aries, the ram
from whom Helle fell, received the burning sun, and rose
before the other signs; and then, weighed once again
in unerring Libra’s balance, day gained the victory;
so the moon, retreating from the sun, and barely visible
at the new crescent, shut out the north wind, brightening
while an easterly blew, which drove the clouds westward
in blasts from Arabia, all those gathered in its own region,
all the mists the Arabs know, or Ganges exhales, all
the moisture the orient’s sun allows, all that the gale
that darkens the east impels, and all that screens India
from the sun. Day, there, was heated by a lack of clouds,
unable to release their burden of rain on the land below,
and instead carrying the moisture with them as they fled.
To north and south it was dry, while all the rainclouds
streamed towards Calpe. There where the west winds
rise, and the furthest bounds of the sky contain the sea,
the clouds, prevented from progressing, gathered into
dense masses; and the sky between earth and space
could scarcely hold the dark accumulations of mist.
Compressed beneath the heavens they flowed thickly,
the moisture condensing as rain; the lightning flashed
endlessly but was drowned in the constant downpour.
A rainbow’s broken arch spanned the sky, its spectrum
of colours dim; it seemed to drink the ocean, returning
water swiftly to the clouds, restoring that which poured
from the sky. Then the Pyrenean snows, which no sun
ever thawed, melted, the ice dissolved and the rocks
were drenched. Such a flood of water poured into every
channel, that the streams issuing from their usual founts
no longer held their banks. Now Caesar’s army afloat
on land foundered, his camp dissolved with the force
of the inundation, and the streams formed pools inside
his high ramparts. There was no way to locate cattle;
the furrows submerged the crops were ruined; the men
who sought plunder struggled over waterlogged fields,
deceived by the vanishing of tracks beneath the flood.
Now came the famine, cruel famine that follows first
in the aftermath of great disasters, the soldiers starving
with no enemy at hand, giving their little wealth, though
no spendthrifts, for a handful of grain. A plague on pale
avarice! For gold, even the starving will sell their grain.
Now even hills submerged; the rivers beneath the flood
were swallowed by the vast reaches of a single lake,
which drowned the rocks in its depths, filling the lairs
engulfing the wild creatures, its loud waters churning
with sudden eddies, and even repelling the ocean tide.
Night veiling the sky was unaware of sunrise, all
natural distinctions were lost in the endless darkness,
the dread complexion of the sky. Such are the farthest
regions of the world, in the icy zone of perpetual winter,
where no stars are visible, and the barren cold bearing
nothing only tempers the fire of the equatorial signs.
O supreme Father of the universe, and you, O Neptune,
to whom fate granted a lesser power over the ocean,
(such was the prayer) may it be your will, that one god
fills the sky with endless rain, while the other stops
the tide from ever ebbing again! Let the rivers find
no passage to the sea, but be held back by the waves!
Let the earth quake and extend the river courses, let
Rhine and Rhone flood Spanish fields! Bring down
the melted snows of the Riphaean mountains, bring
the waters of every pond and lake and stagnant marsh
throughout the world, and keep the land from civil war.
Book IV:121-156 The campaign is renewed
But Fortune, content with having troubled her favourite
a little, returned in full flow, and the gods earned pardon
with a mighty show of support, for the skies cleared,
the sun more than a match for the rain broke the dense
cloud into fleecy vapours, and the dark sky grew red
at dawn. The elements occupied their proper regions,
the heavens were free of moisture and the water that
had fallen settled to the lowest levels. Trees raised
their heads, hills rose above the flood, and valleys
grew firm again in the warmth of sunlight. As soon
as Sicoris retreating from the plains showed its banks,
osiers from hoary willows were steeped and plaited
to make coracles, covered with ox-skin, that could
carry passengers, and safely ride the swollen rivers.
So the Venetians do, to sail the flooded River Po,
and the Britons their wide estuaries; and when Nile
inundates the land, so Memphis uses parched papyrus.
Caesar’s soldiers were ferried across in such craft,
then trees were felled and quickly spanned the river,
carrying the arches far into the fields, the bridge set
distant from the river banks, for fear of its power
when in full spate. Also to prevent the Sicoris boldly
repeating its flooding, it was canalised, punished for
overflowing by having its course divided in channels.
When Petreius saw how Caesar’s destiny was carrying
all before it, he abandoned Ilerda on its heights; wary
of using existing resources, he sought dauntless tribes
in unknown regions, whom contempt for death renders
ever eager for battle, and headed for central Spain.
Caesar, seeing the hills empty and the enemy camp
deserted, told his men to arm and swim the river,
without waiting to reach the bridge or fords. They
obeyed, rushing into battle and therefore eager
for a crossing they would have feared if retreating.
Soon they dried themselves and, re-arming, marched
quickly to warm their chilled bodies, until the time
approached noon and the shadows grew shorter.
Meanwhile the cavalry harassed the enemy rear, as
the foe hesitated, uncertain whether to fight or flee.
Book IV:157-207 A temporary peace
Where a hollow valley lay between two rugged ridges
that crossed the plain, the land rose in an unbroken
range of high hills, among which a shadowy winding
trail offered a safe and hidden passage. Caesar, seeing
that the initiative would slip from his hands, if the foe
reached that gorge, and be occupied by wild tribes from
savage regions, cried: ‘Break ranks and advance, regain
the victory their flight has robbed you of; give battle
with menace, fearful though they are, let them not die
a coward’s death, but meet your swords as they retreat.’
As ordered, they overtook their enemies as they sought
to win the mountain pass. There, both sides made camp,
near each other, behind low ramparts. As gaze met gaze,
uncloaked by distance, seeing each other’s faces clearly,
the horrors of civil war were brought home. For a time,
discipline dictated silence, and they greeted friends there
with a nod of the head or a lifted sword; but as soon as
the stronger motivation of close affection weakened their
sense of duty, the men climbed their respective palisades,
and stretched out their arms in embrace. One calls a friend
by name, another greets his kinsman; shared memories
of boyhood games prompt recognition of a face, and he
who found no acquaintance opposite was no true Roman.
Their weapons were wet with tears; sighs accompanied
their embraces; and even when unstained by previous
bloodshed, they shuddered at the thought of evil actions
which if they had occurred might have involved them.
‘Fools’, conscience cried, ‘why beat your chests, groan,
and shed useless tears? Confess, you obey monstrous
orders, of your own free will! Do you so fear a leader
whom you alone make fearsome? When he sounds
the battle trumpet, close your ears to its cruel note;
refuse to advance beneath his standards, behold
the fury of civil war will end in an instant, Caesar,
a private citizen, will again befriend his son-in-law.
Harmony, embrace us now in your eternal bond,
be near us, you saviour of the world and all things,
you bearer of sacred universal love! At this moment,
our time can influence the future mightily, the cloak
of evil is removed, the guilty nation has no excuse
for these enemies recognise themselves as kinsmen.
Cursed Fortune, whose malignant power employs
this brief respite to render great evil even greater!
There was peace, and enemies mingled together,
wandering through either camp; they ate together
in harmony, seated on the hard ground, and shared
the flowing wine; fire burned on beds of turf, where
lying side by side unsleeping they told tales of war
all night, where they first fought, and how fiercely
they had flung the javelin. But in boasting of their
bravery, or in challenging the truth of others’ tales,
their friendship was strengthened, as fate designed,
such that the coming evil seemed worse by contrast.
For Petreius, learning of the fraternisation, seeing
his camp infiltrated, infamously armed his slaves.
Book IV:208-253 Petreius recalls his men to duty
Surrounded by this force he drove the unarmed enemy
soldiers from the camp, separating friends with swords,
and shattering the peace with a fierce letting of blood,
his ferocious anger prompting a speech to arouse war:
‘Soldiers, neglectful of your country, oblivious to your
standards, if you, in the Senate’s cause, will not return
as liberators, you should at least fight and be conquered.
With swords in your hands, the outcome still uncertain,
and blood in your veins to shed, will you serve a leader
and carry standards you once opposed? Must Caesar
be implored not to treat you as he does his other foes?
Have you begged quarter for us generals too? Our lives
will never be the prize, the payment for foul treason!
It is not our lives we fight for in this civil war. Shall we
be dragged to captivity in the name of a false peace?
Men do not burrow deep to mine our iron ore, cities
are not fortified with walls, spirited chargers are not
bred for battle, nor are fleets launched and turreted
vessels sent out on the seas, so that we can barter
freedom for peace. My enemies hold true to oaths
they swore, binding them to commit evil crimes;
yet your allegiance is less firm, no doubt because,
soldiers in a just cause, you might hope for pardon!
Alas that honour should meet so vile an end! Our
leader, Pompey, ignorant of his fate as yet, raises
armies through the world, rouses kings who rule
at the earth’s end, yet this peace of ours perhaps
may already have thrown away his life.’ His words
stunned them and re-awakened their sinful ardour.
Likewise wild beasts that have lost their woodland
habits, growing tame in close captivity, relinquish
their cruel aspect and learn to submit to man; yet
if their thirst is quenched with blood their furious
rage returns, the taste reminding them of their past
life, their throats swelling, and their anger boiling,
their frightened keeper scarcely winning free. So
those soldiers set their hands to every guilty action,
and the horrors that Fortune, to the gods’ discredit,
might have enacted in the blind obscurity of battle,
loyalty perpetrated here. Among the couches, amid
the tables, they pierced the breasts they had but now
embraced, and though at first they groaned to bare
their blades, yet once the sword, that counsellor
of evil, was in their hand, they felt hatred for their
friends, striking blows that confirmed their wavering
purpose. The camp now seethed in uproar, and as if
a crime hidden was valueless, they revealed every
horror to the eyes of their officers, glorying in guilt.
Book IV:254-318 Caesar lays siege to the enemy camp
Though many of his troops were lost, Caesar recognised
the hand of heaven; he was never more fortunate, neither
in the Emathian Plain at Pharsalia, nor the sea-battle off
Phocian Marseilles, nor was Pompey’s death on Egypt’s
shores a greater triumph, for by this one act of civil war
he was seen thereafter as the leader of the nobler cause.
The enemy generals dared not allow their men, polluted
by foul bloodshed, to camp nearby, but directed their
retreat towards the walls of lofty Ilerda. Caesar’s cavalry
met them and drove them from the plain, trapping them
amongst parched hills. Caesar then sought to surround
them swiftly with a deep trench, so as to prevent the men
from reaching the river banks, or their outworks from
embracing flowing founts. When the enemy saw death
before them, their fear was changed to impetuous ardour.
Slaughtering their horses, useless to men besieged, they
were forced to abandon hopes of flight, and rushed at
the foe determined to win or die. Caesar seeing them
committed to the advance, rushing towards their deaths
at headlong speed, called to his men: ‘Stand firm a while,
restrain from meeting with the sword all those who run
towards it; let no man here lose his life; he who provokes
his foe into giving up his life, gains victory at little cost.
See these men come, despising life, holding theirs cheap,
to burden me now with their deaths; oblivious to their
wounds, they rush upon the sword, happy to shed their
blood. Their wild ardour will abate, their mad eagerness
cease, their will to die vanish.’ By thus refusing battle,
he allowed their waning threats to ebb away with the sun,
night replacing its light with her own. Deprived of that
opportunity to slay and be slain, their fire abated, their
spirits cooled. So a wounded fighter has greater courage
when wounds and pain are recent, while warm blood
lends vigour to the body, before the skin has shrunk
back across the bones; but if his opponent, knowing
his blow sunk home, holds his ground but refrains
from striking, a numbing chill gripping mind and flesh,
as congealing blood tightens the open wound, robs
the loser of his strength. Afterwards, short of water,
the enemy began digging in search of hidden springs,
and subterranean channels, using their swords as well
as iron picks and rakes to pierce the ground, sinking
wells through the earth to the depths of the moist plain.
The pallid miner after Asturian gold does not delve
as deep, leaving the light so far behind. But no sound
of hidden streams met their ears, no fresh springs
gushed from the echoing rock, no damp caves oozed
scant moisture, no gravel stirred and lifted to a thin
flowing thread. The men were hauled to the surface,
exhausted by their intense effort to mine the flint;
rendered by their search for water even less equipped
to abide the heat and drought. Nor could they eat,
and refresh their weak and weary bodies, all meat
unpalatable while hungry they cried out from thirst.
Wherever the soft soil oozed moisture they squeezed
damp clods to their mouths. Wherever stagnant pools
of black mud existed, caked with filth, men eagerly
lapped at the foul water, swallowing what they would
have balked at if assured of staying alive; like wild
beasts they sucked at the swollen udders of cows,
draining blood from the empty teats if the milk failed,
or they crushed grass and leaves to extract their sap,
or the soft pith of trees, or drank dew from twigs, or
brushed the damp from the green shoots of bushes.
Book IV:319-362 Lucius Afranius surrenders
Caesar had been free to lace with blood and bodies
of wild beasts and with deadly aconite that grows
in the rocks of Crete the Spanish streams, so that
Pompey’s soldiers drank unaware of the stratagem.
O they seem fortunate whom a cruel foe, retreating,
killed in the fields by poisoning the watercourses,
for the survivors feel their innards scorched by fire,
their mouths dry and hard, their scaled tongues coarse,
their pulse drops and their lungs starved of moisture
restrict the flow of breath, and what there is pains
their cracked palates, yet still they pant eager for
the air that hurts them. They long for rain, that rain
which lately flooded the land, gazing at idle clouds.
And to increase their torment through thirst, render
them more wretched, their camp was not pitched
above parched Meroe, on the tropic of Cancer,
where the naked Garamentes live, but, besieged
between the brimming Segre and the swift Ibro,
the thirsting army saw both rivers near at hand.
At last Pompey’s generals, defeated, yielded;
and Afranius, despairing of resistance, advised
that terms be sought, led his weakened squadrons
to the enemy camp, and stood a supplicant before
Caesar. Yet he maintained his dignity, unbroken
by disaster, with the bearing of a general though
defeated, lapsed from his former fortune through
recent evil chance, and his conscience at ease he
asked pardon: ‘If I had lost to an unworthy enemy
through fate, my own strong arm would have
guaranteed my suicide; my sole reason for begging
for my life, is that you Caesar are worthy to grant it.
We were not stirred by any partisanship; nor did we
take up arms to oppose your plans. It was civil war
that found us leaders, and we were loyal to our
former duty, while that was possible. We shall not
hinder destiny: we surrender the nations of the west
to you, and open the gateway to the east, and leave
you secure possession of the lands you leave behind.
Your victory has not been gained in blood poured
out on the field, nor by the sword wielded till arms
were weary; forgive your foes this offence alone,
that still you triumph over us. We ask little: only
rest for the exhausted, and freedom from military
service for those you let live. Consider our ranks
as prostrate on the field; your captives should not
share your triumph, warriors condemned by fate
should not join their conquerors: my army has
fulfilled its destiny, and we beg that you will not
compel the conquered to seek victory under you.’
Book IV:363-401 Pompey’s army in Spain disbands
So he spoke, and Caesar with a calm look readily agreed,
excusing them from army service and from punishment.
As soon as an appropriate peace treaty had been settled,
the men rushed down unchecked to the rivers, lay down
along the banks and muddied the streams freely. They
gulped the water steadily, in draughts that prevented
air passing to the lungs, constricting and blocking
many a throat, nor did their parching thirst soon abate,
but their craving sought still more even when the gut
was filled. Soon though, their limbs gaining strength,
the soldiers recovered. O luxury, prodigal of resources,
only satisfied by what is dear; and you, with gourmet
appetites, eager for rare foods sought by land and sea,
you who pride yourselves in feasting on delicacies,
learn how little is needed to sustain life, how little
nature herself demands. It takes no famous vintage,
sealed in the year of some long-forgotten consul,
to restore these to health; revived by pure water,
and not imbibed from gold or agate vessels; pure
flowing water and Ceres’ bread suffice mankind.
Abandoning their arms to the victor, secure now
though stripped of their defensive armour, free
from care and inoffensive, they are set at liberty
among their native townships, regretting, now
that they enjoy the gift of peace, that they ever
hurled the spear with vigorous arm, suffered
thirst, or begged the gods, wrongly, for victory.
Alas for those who still wage war! Such battles
with uncertain outcome lie ahead for the victors!
Even if Fortune, arbitrary in her favours, fails
to desert them, they must yet go on fighting,
shedding their blood everywhere, following
Caesar’s destiny. Happy these others who,
while all the world is tumbling about them,
already know the place where they may rest.
No battles will call them from their sanctuary;
no sounds of trumpets will shatter their sleep.
Their wives and babes, their simple dwellings,
their native soil not some colony, receive them.
Fortune relieves them of another burden too;
their minds are free of all allegiance: if Pompey
was their leader, Caesar grants them their lives.
They alone are the fortunate spectators of this
civil war, free of the wish for either’s success.
Book IV:402-447 Conflict in Dalmatia
The fortunes of war were not all in Caesar’s favour
daring to work against him in one instance. Where
the Adriatic waves beat against the straggling city
of Salona (Solin), where the mild Jadro runs to meet
the soft westerlies, there Gaius Antonius relying on
the warlike islanders of Curicta, who live encircled
by the Adriatic waters, was besieged in his camp
on the island’s shore, safe against attack if he could
keep famine, taker of impregnable fortresses, at bay.
The earth yielded nothing to feed the horses, golden
Ceres gave no crops, and the soldiers had stripped
the fields of grass, cropping the blades close with
their teeth, tearing dried tufts from their ramparts.
When they saw Basilus with an allied force, nearby
on the mainland, they devised a novel way to cross
the strait and join him. Unable to employ their usual
vessels, the long ships with their high sterns, they
lashed stout timbers together to carry their weight,
rafts made out of planks resting on double rows
of empty barrels linked by chains. The oarsmen
were protected against missiles against their sides
by defensive shields of wood, striking the waves
behind these, so that the rafts, carrying no sail
and without signs of flailing oars, seemed to move
mysteriously. Waiting till the tide was in full ebb
and the sands left bare by the receding flow, three
rafts were launched from the exposed shore into
the retreating waters, the leader driving onwards
through the waves, with her consorts behind her.
Each carried wooden battlements and high turrets,
nodding and menacing. Octavius, who held access
to the Adriatic, stooped short of attacking the rafts,
curbing his swift vessels until the enemy ventured
others, tempted by first success. Once they set out
on their rash attempt, he left the sea roads wide open
to encourage a second voyage. So the hunter works,
holding back the net of coloured feathers that scares
the deer with its scent, till he can pen them all, or
quieting the noise of the swift Molossian hounds,
leashing the dogs of Crete and Sparta, till he has set
his stakes and nets, leaving one hound alone to range
the ground, it puzzling out the scent and only barking
when the prey is found, content then to point toward
the creature’s lair while tugging at the leash. Soon
more rafts were manned, and the enemy embarked
eagerly, abandoning the island, at the moment when
twilight lingering holds off night’s deeper darkness.
Book IV:448-528 An incident at sea
Now the Cilicians in Pompey’s pay, relying on their
ancient cunning, prepared to set a trap for the rafts.
They hung cables at mid-depth below the surface,
fastened to the cliffs on the Illyrian side, and allowed
them to drift with the waves. Neither of the first two
rafts were caught, but the third was held and drawn
towards the cliffs as the cable tightened. The rocks
there overhang the waves, in firm masses that seem
ever about to fall, their trees overshadowing the sea.
And there ships wrecked by the northerlies, with their
crews of drowned sailors, were often carried by the tide,
to be swallowed by hidden caves.: and yet whenever
the tide ebbed from those caves, the waters beneath
would cast out their prey, the boiling waves outdoing
the fury of Sicilian Charybdis. Here the raft floated,
weighed down with Caesar’s men from Opitergium,
surrounded by enemy ships loosed from their moorings,
while others of their foes covered the cliffs and shore.
Vulteius the raft’s commander tried in vain to cut free
from the cables visible below the water, until at last
he called on his men to fight without hope of escape,
or even of knowing on which side to await attack.
Yet even so courage did all that courage can do
when at a disadvantage, and a fight began between
the thousands who swarmed around the stalled raft
and those on board, numbering less than six hundred.
As twilight ebbed with the shadows of night, the fight
ended, and the ensuing darkness brought a brief truce.
Vulteius steadied his men, fearful of death’s approach,
with this noble speech: ‘Soldiers, use this brief space
of time, this little interval of darkness, to choose your
path, in extremity. No instant is too short for a man
to kill himself; suicide is no less glorious when death
at another’s hand approaches. Every man’s span of life
being uncertain, it is as well for the mind to forfeit here
the mere moment of time that remains to you as long
years of life you had hoped for, seeking death by your
own actions: for no man wishes for death involuntarily.
Flight is not an option, our countrymen surround us
eager to take our lives: choose death and lose all fear:
let each man make whatever cannot be avoided his aim.
Yet we are not forced to die in the blind mist of battle,
where army’s own missiles cloak chaos with darkness.
When piles of corpses heap the field, each death is lost
in the common disaster, courage obscured and wasted.
But the gods have set us here, visible to friend and foe
alike, the sea our witness, the island, its highest cliffs;
and the two sides on opposing headlands will look on.
Fate intends, by our deaths, a memorable and glorious
example for posterity. Our company might have shown
our loyalty and devotion in battle, and beyond all others.
Yet though we know it is all too little for Caesar’s men
to fall on their swords in his cause, hemmed in as we are
we can grant him no greater pledge of our great devotion.
Fate has greatly limited our glory, in begrudging to hold
us captive with our old men and our sons, but let the foe
learn that we are unconquerable, let them fear the fierce
courage that embraces death; and rejoice that no more
of our rafts are held. They will tempt us now with offers
of a truce, try dishonourably to bribe us with our lives.
Let them promise pardons, let them foster such hopes,
so that our peerless deaths might gain greater glory,
and they not think us desperate when hot steel pierces.
It takes a great deed of courage for Caesar, who loses
thousands, to call a mere handful of lives a vast loss.
If Fate now allowed our retreat and loosed me from
her grasp, I should refuse to turn my back on this.
Life is behind me, comrades, and I am driven by
thoughts of death’s approach as by deep passion.
Only those who touch it’s threshold know death
is a blessing; the gods hide it from those destined
to survive, that they might go on living.’ His words
filled the soldiers’ swelling hearts with noble ardour.
Before his speech they had gazed weeping at the stars
trembling as the pole of the Wain circled above them,
but now their thoughts firm, filled with his exhortation,
they longed for dawn. Nor did the stars overhead take
long to vanish, for the sun was leaving Gemini, his track
near its highest inclination, entering the sign of Cancer;
while Sagittarius the Archer ruled brief brooding night.
Book IV:529-581 Vulteius and his men commit suicide
Dawn revealed Pompey’s Histrians stationed on the cliffs,
and his fierce Liburnians with the Greek fleet on the sea.
They delayed attack, trying to obtain their foe’s surrender,
thinking a death postponed might make life seem sweeter
to those on the trapped raft. But the loyal troops resisted:
disdain for survival granting courage, committed to suicide,
they were indifferent to the outcome of the fight: no noise
of battle could dissuade them from their resolution: their
small band, prepared for the worst, withstood the countless
enemies who attacked them together from land and sea,
so great is a resolve inspired by the prospect of death.
When they thought enough blood had been shed in battle,
they turned their force against themselves. First Vulteius
their captain, bared his throat and summoned death: ‘Where
is the soldier worthy to take my blood, who shall truly prove
his wish for death by killing me?’ Before he could speak
again, his body was pierced by a host of swords, but while
thanking all, in his gratitude he slew in dying him to whom
he owed the first wound. The others then met together, there
the horror of civil war was enacted in full by a single party.
So Theban warriors rose from the seed that Cadmus sowed,
and were likewise slain by their kin, a dismal presage of
the royal Theban brothers. So, by the Phasis, the offspring
of Earth, who sprang from the teeth of the unsleeping dragon,
drenched the long furrows in each other’s blood, magic spells
filling them with fury, Medea herself appalled by that crime
the first wrought by her untried herbs. So these soldiers died,
on oath to destroy each other; their own death being the least
their courage asked: as they dealt the fatal wound so they
incurred it, at the same moment, and no right arm failed them
though it struck in death. Nor were their wounds all owing
to a sword-blow; they drove their own chests against the steel,
throats meeting the approach of the blade. Though bloody fate
set brother against brother, son against father, their arms never
hesitated, driving home the swords with all their power. Only
the failure to strike a second blow gave proof of the slayer’s
affection. Half-dead, men dragged themselves along the planks
and drenched the sea with blood. They gloried in disdain for
the light of life, eyeing the victors with scornful gaze, as death
approached. When the raft was piled high with their corpses,
the victors set fire to that funeral pyre, the generals amazed
at their readiness to die for their leader they so clearly prized.
Fame, that travels the wide earth, never voiced more loudly
the glory of any death at sea. Yet even after the example set
by such heroes, nations of cowards still do not comprehend
how simple it is to escape captivity by suicide; so the tyrant’s
power is feared, freedom is constrained by savage weapons,
while all remain ignorant that the sword is there to deliver
every man from slavery. O, that death were only granted
to the brave, the coward denied a swift release from life!
Book IV:582-660 The myth of Hercules and Antaeus
The flames of war burned no less fiercely in Libya, then,
for bold Curio’s fleet had set sail from the coast of Sicily,
and a gentle northerly filled the sails, till he approached
a noted anchorage on the Libyan coast between Cape Bon
and the ruins of Carthage. He pitched his first camp some
distance from the breaking waves, where the Bagrada river
(the Medjerda) carves its slow channel through thirsty sands.
From there he marched to the rocky prominence, hollowed
out on every side, that tradition rightly calls Antaeus’ realm.
When Curio sought to learn the source of the ancient name,
a rough countryman told him the tale generations had told:
even after the Giants were born of her, Earth was capable
of childbearing, producing a dread offspring in a cave
in Libya, with more cause to boast of him than of Typhon,
Tityos or fierce Briareus, and to the gods above it seemed
a mercy she had not born him before that revolt at Phlegra.
She added to her child’s vast strength, granting him the gift
that when his limbs touched his mother earth, all weariness
would vanish and their strength would be renewed. The cave
there was his home; and men said he hid beneath the cliffs
above, and ate the flesh of the lions he hunted. When he slept,
his bed was not branches and the pelts of wild beasts, rather
he lay there on the bare ground and so refreshed his strength.
He killed the farmers in the Libyan fields, and slew strangers
the sea brought ashore; and had long found his mother’s aid
unnecessary, not needing the aid that touching the earth gave,
since he proved so strong no one could lift him from his feet.
The hero Hercules was clearing the land and sea of monsters
when reports of this bloody ogre drew him to Libya’s shores.
Challenging Antaeus, Hercules threw the Nemean lion’s skin
to the ground, while Antaeus matched it with a Libyan lion’s.
The hero, in the manner of Olympian wrestlers drenched his
limbs with oil; Antaeus, not content with feet alone touching
his mother earth, poured warm sand over his limbs to aid him.
They locked hands and twined their arms in a close embrace;
in vain, exerting powerful force, each tried to bow the other’s
neck, but both remained unbent with steady gaze, marvelling
to find their equal. Hercules slowly wore down his opponent,
not wishing to exert his full strength so early in the contest;
and soon Antaeus was left gasping, cold sweat pouring from
his tiring body. The neck bowed, the frame was dragged down,
the legs staggered, as Hercules struck his flanks with his fists.
Then the stronger grasped his foe’s bending back, gripped
the loins and squeezed the waist tight, his own legs thrusting
the other’s apart, till he laid him full length on the ground.
Yet as the dry soil swiftly drank his sweat, fresh blood filled
Antaeus’ veins, his muscles swelled, his body strengthened,
and he loosened Hercules’ grip by exerting renewed powers.
The latter was astonished by such resilience: he himself had
felt, all unknowing, less fear of the Hydra by Inachus’ flow,
when her snake-heads renewed after being severed. These
opponents were well-matched, though Antaeus fought with
the power of mother earth, Hercules his own strength alone.
Never was his cruel stepmother, Hera, more hopeful of his
defeat, seeing his body weary with the toil, shoulders bowed,
those shoulders that once supported the sky without effort.
Hercules grappled once more with his foe till he wearied;
but Antaeus willingly fell to earth without waiting for his
opponent’s clasp, and rose again filled with added strength.
All the vital powers of the earth refreshed his tired limbs;
Earth herself labouring to aid in her son’s wrestling match.
Seeing at last how his enemy was helped by contact with
his mother earth, Hercules cried: ‘I must keep you upright,
I’ll not allow you to lie down, or entrust you to the soil;
here you will stay locked in my embrace; and if you fall,
Antaeus, you’ll fall on me!’ So saying, Hercules lifted
the giant high as he tried to touch the ground, so Earth
could not strengthen her dying son’s frame with her own.
Hercules, between the two, clasped the constricted chest
already growing cold, long denying his foe the ground.
Hence that region took its name, preserved by tradition
which values the proud past. But Scipio brought greater
fame to those heights, when he drove Hannibal there
from the cities of Latium; camping there on reaching
the Libyan shore. There are the ruins of his ancient
ramparts; the fields that victorious Roman occupied.
Book IV:661-714 Pompey’s African army under Varus
Those parts of Africa which had yielded to Roman arms
were commanded at that time by Varus; and though he
relied on troops from Latium, he summoned the forces
of King Juba from every place, from the Libyan tribes,
and those from the furthest parts who followed the king.
There was no more extensive realm on earth; its width
bounded to the west by Atlas near Gades, on the east
by Ammon, bordering Syrtes; and lengthwise the fiery
regions of his huge kingdom separated the torrid zones
from the northern sea. The men reflected that vast space;
a host of tribes following the king; Autololes, wandering
Numidians, and alert Gaetulians, who ride bare-backed;
then Moors dark as Indians, ragged Nasamonians, swift
Marmaridae, and sun-burned Garamantes; the Mazaces
hurling quivering javelins to match a Parthian’s arrows,
and Massylians who also ride bare-backed and employ
a light whip to guide their horses, unbroken to the bit;
African hunters too, who stray through deserted villages,
and placing little faith in the spear, strangle fierce lions
with lengths of their robes. Juba was not roused to war
simply by his allegiance, but yielded to personal anger
too, since Curio, in the year when he was tribune, when
he offended heaven and earth, had tried to use the law
to rob Juba of his ancestral throne, wishing to seize Africa
from its ruler and at the same time set up a king in Rome.
Juba, remembering this grievance, considered civil war
was his opportunity for revenge on rescuing his crown,
and Curio was now alarmed by the rumour of the king’s
involvement, knowing his troops had not at first rallied
to Caesar’s side. No veterans, so, untested on the Rhine,
they had surrendered the citadel of Corfinium; disloyal
to Pompey’s cause then, they were distrusted by Curio
now, as men who thought it fine to fight for either side.
So when Curio saw the enervation produced by fear,
the dereliction that left the ramparts unwatched at night,
troubled in mind, he spoke these thoughts to himself:
‘Daring conceals the greatest fear; I will take the field
first. Let my soldiers, while they are still mine, descend
to the plain; inactivity always lead to wavering. Let me
by action rob of them the power to foment a plan; once
the sword is grasped, fatal passions rise, and the helm
hiding all blushes who thinks to compare their leaders
and weigh their causes? Each favours the side where
he stands. So those presented at the gladiatorial shows
in the arena, are not fed by some deep-seated anger,
they merely hate whoever is set against them.’ Then
Curio deployed his troops on the open plain, while
the gods of war seemed to welcome him, although
intending only to betray him to future ruin; for now
he drove Varus from the field, decimating his army
who fled shamefully, halting only on reaching camp.
Book IV:715-787 Juba’s army defeats Curio
Now when Juba heard of Varus’ poor showing in battle,
He rejoiced that the glory of the campaign was reserved
for him. He marched swiftly and secretly, avoiding his
movement being known by enforcing silence, his only
fear lest his incautious enemy might be fearful of him.
Sabbura, second to the king in command of the army,
was dispatched with a small force to challenge the foe
and tempt them to fight. He was to pretend to lead out
the whole army, and simulate the main attack, while
the king held back a larger force, in a deep ravine.
So the more cunning Egyptian mongoose uses his tail
to deceive the snake, rousing the reptile to anger with
its flickering shadow, the snake striking vainly at the air,
till the creature, holding his head aslant, grips the throat,
and safely bites there, far enough from the deadly venom;
until a stream of poison flows from the thwarted fangs.
Fortune favoured Juba’s deceit, and bold Curio let his
cavalry roam the plain at night, ranging far and wide
through unfamiliar country, without being able to gauge
the enemy’s hidden strength. At the first breath of dawn
he sent out his infantry, though warned again and again
to beware of Libyan cunning, and how Punic warfare
was ever filled with guile. The doom of approaching
death had given the general over to destruction; now
civil war was claiming one who’d aided its inception.
He had led his men by a perilous path over the steep
rocks and cliffs, till the enemy could be seen far off,
from the heights. The foe with native cunning, held
off a while, till Curio should leave the hills and trust
his army to defile over the open plain. He, unaware
of their hidden plans, and thinking them in retreat,
marched his men down to the fields, as if victorious.
Soon the stratagem was revealed, as the Numidian
light cavalry gained the slopes and then surrounded
the Romans on every side, stunning the soldiers and
their leader alike: the coward did not seek to flee nor
the brave man to fight. For there the horses, un-roused
by the trumpet’s blare, did not champ the bit or scatter
stones with their stamping hooves, mane floating, ears
erect, or chafe at the restraint and shift their ground
with a clatter, till the bowed head sinks, the limbs reek
with sweat, the tongue protrudes, the mouth coarse
and dry, the lungs panting roughly breath labouring
as the spent flanks work, and froth cakes and dries
on the blood-stained bit. They refused to move a step,
though urged on by whips and blows, and the force
of continual spurring to drive them on; though no man
could profit there by conquering his mount’s resistance,
for no attack was possible, any charge would only carry
the rider nearer the foe, to offer a clear mark for a spear.
But as soon as the African skirmishers launched their
steeds at them, the plain shook with that trampling,
the soil was ploughed, and a pillar of dust rose, huge
as that whirled by a Thracian storm, veiling the sky
with its cloud and bringing darkness. Now the sad
doom of war bore down on the Roman infantrymen.
the issue never in doubt, this not even war’s lottery,
for every moment of conflict was filled with death:
with no possibility of attack or closing with the foe.
So the soldiers, surrounded on every side, fell to
sideways thrusts from close quarters, as well as to
spears flung from a distance, doomed by the bloody
wounds inflicted by a hail of missiles and the sheer
weight of steel. The vast army was driven into a tiny
space, and any man crawling in fear among that host
could barely move without hurt from his comrades’
swords, the crush growing greater as the front ranks
retreated, diminishing the circle. Without space even
to deploy their weapons, the crowd of soldiers were
squeezed ever tighter, armour dented by the pressure.
The conquering Moors could scarcely enjoy a clear
view of the victory fate granted them, unable to see
collapsing limbs, bodies striking the ground, streams
of blood, as the dead were held upright by the throng.
Book IV:788-824 The spectre of corruption
Destiny should have recalled to life the hated ghost
of dread Carthage to joy in such sacrificial slaughter;
so that blood-drenched Hannibal and the Punic dead
might welcome so terrible an expiation. What outrage,
you gods, that Pompey’s cause and the Senates’ wish
should be furthered by Roman dead on Libya’s soil.
Let Africa at least conquer us for her own foul ends!
Curio, seeing the ranks destroyed, the dust laid by
the blood revealing that dreadful slaughter, did not
stoop to thoughts of flight or surviving such defeat
but eager to face death, brave with the courage of
despair, himself died among the corpses of his men.
What good was it now to him to have raised that stir
on the Rostrum, in the tribunes’ stronghold the Forum,
where he raised the standard of the people, and from
which he roused the nations to arms? What good now
that he usurped the Senate’s rights and called on
Pompey and Caesar, Pompey’s father-in-law, to meet
in war? There he lay, as the two generals approached
the fatal field of Pharsalia, that spectacle of civil war
denied him. Such is the penalty of blood and steel,
you great ones exact on your wretched country; so
death atones for conflict. How fortunate were Rome,
how happy her citizens, if the gods were as careful
to preserve her freedom as they are to avenge its loss.
Behold, the unburied corpse of Curio, noble carrion,
feeds the Libyan vultures. And yet it would be wrong
to deny those deeds of his preserved from time’s
decay by their own worth: we should grant praise
to what in his life deserved it, for Rome never bore
a man of such great promise, nor one to whom while
he trod the true path, the constitution itself owed more.
But the corruption of our age proved fatal to the State,
ambition, luxury, the vast power of wealth, sweeping
away in their adverse currents, the frail foundations
on which Curio’s principles rested. When he yielded
to Caesar’s gold, to the proceeds of Gaul, his change
of stance swayed the scales of history. Though mighty
Sulla, bold Marius, bloodstained Cinna, all Caesar’s
line won the power to use the blade to cut our throats,
to which of them was granted privilege so great as to
enact it? They only bought their country Curio sold it!
End of Book IV