The Civil War (Pharsalia)
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved.
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- Book IX:1-50 Cato imbued with Pompey’s spirit
- Book IX:51-116 Cornelia’s departure from Egypt
- Book IX:117-166 Pompey’s sons
- Book IX:167-214 Cato eulogises Pompey
- Book IX:215-252 Pompey’s men prepare to defect
- Book IX:253-293 Cato wins them over
- Book IX:294-347 The fleet reaches Lake Tritonis
- Book IX:348-410 Lake Tritonis: Cato’s speech
- Book IX:411-462 North Africa
- Book IX:463-510 The sandstorm
- Book IX:511-586 The Temple of Ammon (The oracle of Amun at Siwa)
- Book IX:587-618 Cato’s leadership
- Book IX:619-699 The tale of Perseus and Medusa
- Book IX:700-760 The Libyan serpents
- Book IX:761-788 The death of Sabellus
- Book IX:789-838 Further deaths by snake-bite
- Book IX:839-889 The soldiers’ heroic endurance
- Book IX:890-937 The Psylli combat the snakes
- Book IX:938-986 Caesar visits the site of Troy
- Book IX:987-1063 Caesar sails to Egypt
- Book IX:1064-1108 Caesar feigns grief at Pompey’s death
Book IX:1-50 Cato imbued with Pompey’s spirit
Now Pompey’s spirit found no rest among those Egyptian
embers, no heap of ash could constrain his mighty shade.
Soaring from the flames, leaving the charred flesh, and that
unworthy pyre behind, it sought the Thunderer in heaven.
Where our dark atmosphere, that fills the region between
Earth and the orbit of the moon, meets the starry spheres,
there dwell the shades of demi-gods, whose fiery virtues
fit them, their lives being guiltless, to inhabit the lower
regions of the aether, their souls gathered to the eternal
realms, barred to those shrouded with incense, entombed
in gold. Once steeped in the clear light of those regions,
Pompey’s shade gazed at the wandering planets, the fixed
stars of the heavens, saw beneath what darkness our light
lies, smiling at the headless travesty of a body that was
his. Thus his spirit flew over Pharsalia’s field, over cruel
Caesar’s standards, over the ships weaving about the sea,
to find a dwelling place in the mind of indomitable Cato,
then settle, an avenger of crime, in Brutus’ sacred breast.
Cato had hated Pompey as he did Caesar while the war’s
outcome was uncertain, and none could say whom civil
strife would make master of the world. Yet, driven on
by his country’s need, following the senators, he joined
Pompey’s camp; and now after Pharsalia’s disaster, he
wholeheartedly favoured Pompey. His country lacking
a defender, he took the role, revived the weakened body
of his nation, restoring the swords that cowardly hands
let fall, and waged civil war without ever seeking power
or fearing to serve. He did nothing warlike for his own
ends, and after Pompey’s death his whole party became
the party of freedom. Yet its adherents were scattered
round the coast and lest a victorious Caesar roll them
up in his rapid progress Cato sought refuge in Corfu,
carrying the remnants of Pharsalian disaster in a host
of vessels. Who would have thought those thousand
ships were now carrying an army in flight; who would
have thought the sea contained a fleet of the defeated?
Next Cato sailed for Dorian Malea, for Taenarus open
to the dead, then Cythera, shunning the coast of Greece,
as the north wind drove on his fleet, skirting the shores
of Crete as the waves yielded to them. When Libyan
Phycus dared to close its harbour to the ships, Cato
attacked and overthrew that town deserving of being
mercilessly ravaged. From there gentle breezes wafted
him to your shores, Paliurus, for Africa bears witness
that your quiet harbour pleased the Trojan steersman
Palinurus, remembered thus in other than Italian waters.
There the sight of sails far out to sea filled their minds
with doubt; did they carry companions in misfortune,
or their enemies? Fearful of Caesar’s rapid progress,
they conceived of his presence in every vessel seen.
Yet the ships were freighted with grief and mourning,
with misfortune to draw a tear even from stern Cato.
Book IX:51-116 Cornelia’s departure from Egypt
For Cornelia’s prayers having so restrained the flight
of her stepson and the crew, that it was clear Pompey’s
corpse would not be driven by the sea from the Egyptian
shore, and the rising smoke having indicated the flames
of his imperfect burial rite, she cried out then: ‘Fortune,
I was unworthy, it seems, to gather my Magnus’ body
from the waves, bend over his cold limbs, throw myself
on his corpse, let flow a flood of tears over every wound,
light my husband’s pyre, burn my plucked tresses, gather
to my heart scorched bone and ashes, so as to sprinkle
whatever was saved from the extinguished flames there
in the temples of the gods! The pyre burns on without
the funeral honours, and perhaps, unwelcomed by his
shade, some Egyptian hand performs this service. Well,
that the Crassi remained unburied! With these flames,
the gods show less respect to Pompey, Was there ever
a sadder fate than mine? Shall it never be granted me
to give a husband due burial? Never to mourn over
an urn filled with ashes? Yet why is a grave needful,
what trappings does grief require? Do I not, unworthy
woman, hold Pompey wholly in my heart? Does his
image not inhabit my inmost thoughts? Let a wife
who wishes to survive a husband seek out his ashes.
For now, this fire whose meagre light blazes far off,
rising from the Egyptian shore, reveals you, to me,
Magnus, still. And now the flames die, the smoke
that bears Pompey from me fades as the sun rises,
and a breeze I loathe is filling my vessel’s sails.
With sorrow, believe me, I leave Egypt’s shores.
They are more welcome to me than the conquered
lands that yielded Pompey triumphs, his chariot
rolling over the stones to the lofty Capital. That
fortunate Pompey lapses from my mind; the one
I need is he whom Nile possesses, and I moan
I may not cling to the land that saw this crime,
a land whose guilt commends its sands to me.
Sextus, I bid you seek the throes of war, carry
your father’s standard throughout the world.
For Pompey left this command for his sons,
left this message in my care: “When the fatal
hour brings my death, take up the civil war,
my sons, and while any offspring of my line
remains on earth, never let the Caesars reign
in peace. Rouse those kings and states strong
in their own freedom; invoke our glorious name;
this role, those armies I leave to you. Should
a Pompey take to the seas he will find fleets,
my heirs shall stir many a nation to battle;
only let your hearts remain indomitable,
remember your father’s power. Cato alone,
if he should rally a party to defend liberty,
you may fittingly obey.” Now I fulfil my
trust, and have done your bidding Pompey.
So you lured me successfully into living on,
that, deceived, I might not perfidiously
carry your message to the grave. Now I
can follow you, husband into the depths
of chaos, Tartarus, if such a place there be,
uncertain how distant lies my fated death;
punished by then for surviving over-long.
My heart had the strength to see you die,
Magnus, and not yet take refuge in death:
it will end bruised by blows, melt away
among tears, for I shall never touch rope
or blade, or launch myself through the air,
and shame on me if I do not die of grief
alone, now you are dead.’ Speaking thus,
she covered her head in a mourning veil,
and choosing to endure darkness she hid
herself in the ship’s hold, clasping her
grievous sorrow to herself, enamoured
of tears and loving grief in her husband’s
stead. Neither the height of the waves nor
the howl of the east wind in the rigging
troubled her, nor the shouts rising louder
as the danger grew. Begging to suffer what
the frightened sailors now begged to escape,
she lay as one dead, in league with the storm.
Book IX:117-166 Pompey’s sons
First Cyprus received their ship in its foaming
waves, then an easterly, ruling the sea but with
less fury, drove them to Libya and Cato’s camp.
Gnaeus, Pompey’s elder son, gazed in sorrow
from the shore at his brother, Sextus, and his
father’s friends, then rushed wildly into the sea,
shouting: ‘Brother, where is our father; is that
summit and crown of all the world still living,
or are we destroyed, has Magnus taken Rome
with him to the shadows?’ So Gnaeus spoke,
and his brother answered: ‘O, happy are you
whom fate drove to foreign shores, who only
heard evil: my eyes, brother, were condemned
to witness our father’s death. He did not fall
to Caesar’s weapons, no worthy hand proved
author of his ruin: he died in the power of that
vile ruler of the Nile, still relying on the gods
of hospitality, and that great favour he gifted
the dynasty: he fell victim to having granted
them the crown. I saw the murderers lacerate
our noble father’s breast. Not crediting the king
of Egypt with such boldness, I thought Caesar
must have reached the Nile. But more than his
bloody wounds, I grieved their carrying his
head through the city, fixed high on a pike.
They said the king sought proof of his crime,
that it was kept for the cruel conqueror to see.
As to the body, I do not know if it was torn
to pieces by the wild dogs of Egypt or by
vultures, or burnt in the stealthy fire I saw.
Whatever injury of fate robbed us of his
body, I free the heavens above of guilt,
but moan for the part which remained.’
Gnaeus did not display his grief in tears
or groans on hearing the tale but, burning
with indignation and love of his father,
cried: ‘To the ships, my mariners; quit
this shore; drive the oars and let the fleet
head boldly into the wind. With me, my
captains, to inter the unburied dead; no
greater prize was every offered to those
in civil conflict as this: appease the shade
of Pompey with the blood of this unmanly
king! Shall I not drag Alexander’s body
from its shrine, and sink it, with his city,
beneath the sluggish waves of Mareotis?
Shall I not haul Amasis and all those other
Pharaohs from their tombs in the Pyramids,
and send them swimming down the Nile?
Let the loss of their sepulchres atone for
Magnus who has none! I shall disclose that
funereal shrine of Isis, goddess of the nations,
and scatter Osiris, shrouded in linen, through
the streets. Their gods shall make a pyre for
my father’s head. Their land I shall give over
to punishment, leaving their fields with none
to tend them, Nile abandoned, men and gods
fleeing Egypt, which you alone, my father,
shall possess!’ So he swore, and sought in
anger to launch the fleet at once, but Cato,
while praising the youth, restrained his fury.
Book IX:167-214 Cato eulogises Pompey
As the news of Pompey’s death spread along
the shore, the sky rang to the beat of lament.
Unprecedented was that mourning; unknown
to any age such grief of a people for the great.
Yet when Cornelia disembarked from her ship,
her eyes weary with weeping, her hair falling
loose over her face, they redoubled their blows,
in renewed sorrow. When she had reached that
welcoming shore, she gathered up the clothes
and insignia of her poor Magnus, the weapons,
the gilded robes he had once worn, the togas
embroidered in many colours, robes Jupiter
saw him wear thrice in triumph; and set them
all on a funeral pyre. To her they did sad duty
as her husband’s relics. All the pious followed
her example, and pyres were raised all along
the shore, lit for those who died in Thessaly.
So Garganus, Vulture’s fields, and the mild
pastures of Matinus glitter when the Apulians
burn the stubble to fertilise the soil on their
close-cropped plains, and grow fresh grass
for winter herbage. No tribute so welcome
to the shade of Pompey was uttered (though
all dared to cry against heaven, and to blame
the gods for Pompey’s death) as Cato’s words,
few, but rising from a heart filled with truth:
‘This dead citizen, though far inferior to our
ancestors in knowledge of the lawful limits,
yet served our generation, which has shown
scant reverence for justice; though powerful,
defending liberty; alone remaining a private
citizen when a nation sought to be his slaves;
leader of a senate that yet ruled. He made no
claim by right of force; wishing that others
might have the power to refuse him what he
wished; he possessed vast wealth but gave
more than he retained. He took up the sword
knowing how to lay it down. He preferred
military service to public life, but, armed,
still loved peace; he was pleased to accept
leadership, and pleased to resign its power.
His household was chaste and free of luxury,
never corrupted by its master’s fortune. His
name is known and revered among nations,
and he did much service to our own state.
True belief in liberty died long ago, once
Marius and Sulla were admitted to Rome:
But now Pompey is lost from the world,
even the fiction of freedom has perished.
None who rule in future need feel shame,
blush to usurp power, or abuse the Senate
as a front. O happy was he, whose ending
followed on defeat, the Egyptian swords
offering the death he should have sought.
He might perhaps have lived on instead
under Caesar’s rule, yet the highest fate
is to know when to die, and the second
best to have such death forced upon one.
As for myself, if fate should place me
in another’s power, Fortune, let Juba
prove such a host; I am not unwilling
to be detained at the enemy’s pleasure,
so long as my head too is first severed.’
Book IX:215-252 Pompey’s men prepare to defect
Greater honour in death was thus rendered
the noble shade, than if Rome’s Rostrum
had sounded out his praises. But the men
were soon loud with discord, weary, now
Pompey was dead, of war and the camp.
Then King Tarcondimotus of Cilicia gave
the signal for deserting Cato. He readied
his ships for flight, but Cato followed him
to the shore and rebuked him, in these words:
‘O Cilician, never pacified, do you sail again
to plunder the shipping? Fate has removed
Pompey, and now you can return as a pirate
to the high seas!’ Then he gazed at all those
who were gathered in flight, but one whose
intention was clear addressed the commander:
‘Forgive us, Cato, our love of Pompey led us
to arm, not civil conflict, and we took sides
out of favour to him. But he lies low, whom
the world preferred to peace, and our cause
has perished; let us return to our native land,
the homes we left, and the children we love.
What end will there ever be to this warfare,
if not Pharsalia and Pompey’s death? Our
life’s effort has been lost; let our last days look
forward to the proper rites, since civil conflict
cannot even grant its leaders graves. Defeated,
no barbarous rule awaits us, savage Fortune
threatens me with no Scythian or Armenian
slavery; I pass into the civil power of Rome.
Whoever was second while Pompey lived
shall now be first, for me. I shall pay high
honour to the sacred dead; I shall own to
the master defeat forces on me, yet own to
no leader, but you, Magnus: you alone I
followed to war, now you are dead I will
follow fate; since no hope of good fortune
exists for me, nor is allowed. All fortune
follows Caesar; his victory has scattered
the forces in Thessaly; the wretched have
lost belief, and he alone in all the world
has power and will to grant the defeated
life. Civil engagement was loyalty while
Pompey lived, treachery now he is dead.
If you, Cato, are always faithful to your
country’s laws, and your homeland, then
let us seek the standard a Roman consul
bears.’ So saying, he leapt on board his
vessel, with a disordered swarm of men.
Book IX:253-293 Cato wins them over
The Roman cause seemed as good as lost,
and the shore seethed with masterless men,
but speech broke from Cato’s sacred lips:
‘Soldiers, it seems you fought for the same
reason as others, for tyranny, for Pompey
and not for Rome. You now, who no longer
labour for a kingdom, whose lives are your
own and not your leader’s, who work to gain
the world for none and may safely win it for
yourselves alone; you flee the fight, and seek
a yoke now your necks are free, unable to live
without a master. Yet you have a cause now
worthy of brave men. Pompey was able to
abuse your powers, now freedom is in sight
do you refuse to fight, to die for your country?
Of the triumvirate only one remains. Shame
on you! Egypt’s Pharaoh and Parthian bows
have done more for the rule of law than you.
Depart, degenerates, spurning Ptolemy’s gift
to you and your own weapons. Who would
have ever thought your hands had dealt death?
Caesar will think you were quick to flee to him,
the first to take flight from Thessalian Pharsalia.
Go with impunity; worthy to render yourselves
to Caesar’s justice, who neither siege nor arms
conquered. O, vile slaves, after your former
master’s death, you run to his heir. Why not
seek a greater prize than mere life and pardon?
Seize Magnus’ unhappy wife, that daughter
of Metellus, carry her overseas; lead Pompey’s
sons captive, and outdo Ptolemy’s munificence!
Whoever bears my head to the hated tyrant will
win no small reward: from the price on my head
your men will know they did well to follow my
standard. So rouse yourselves, gain merit from
that heinous crime; flight is the sin of cowards!’
With this speech he recalled all the ships without
exception from the waves. So, when hosts of bees
depart the hive, where their young have hatched,
they neglect the waxy cells, their wings no longer
brush one another, each takes its own way, idling,
refraining now from sipping the flowering thyme
with its bitter taste; yet if the sound of Phrygian
cymbals rises, they interrupt their flight, in alarm,
returning to the performance of their flowery task,
and their love of gathering pollen. The shepherd
in Hybla’s meadows is relieved, delighted that
his honey harvest is secured. So Cato’s speech
persuaded his men to endure the lawful conflict.
Book IX:294-347 The fleet reaches Lake Tritonis
Now he resolved to keep these men busy, who could
not bear quiet, with endless tasks and military action.
First the soldiers tired themselves shifting sand on
the shore. Their next task was against the ramparts
and walls of Cyrene. Cato took no revenge for his
being refused entry, the sole punishment exacted
on the defeated was defeat. Then he chose to sail
to Juba’s Libyan realm, bordering Moorish lands,
though Nature barred their way, the Syrtes lying
between: the bold and brave hoped to defeat her.
When Nature first gave shape to the world, she
left sea and land to dispute the Syrtes, the earth
not low enough there to admit the water, nor
high enough to defend itself from the waves,
so the region is an uncertain waste, shallows
broken by shoals, land cut off by the waters,
and the breakers sound on strand after strand,
so harshly has Nature abandoned her creation
asking nothing of it. Or else perhaps Syrtis
once lay beneath deeper water, far beneath,
but the sunlight of the torrid zone evaporated
the ocean, sucking up the water, and though
the sea still resists being conquered by the sun
with fierce heat over lengths of injurious time
Syrtis will be dry land. Already the waves that
cover it are shallow, and doomed to disappear.
No sooner had oars begun to drive the sluggish
vessels through the waves, when a southerly
storm arose with dense rain. Blowing from
its own realm, defending the waters, where
the ships sailed, with a tempest, it now drove
the waves far from Syrtes, and interspersed
the sea with land. It tore the sails from any
ship with mast still standing, the rigging
straining in vain to oppose the wind, while
the canvas torn from the sailors’ grasp blew
from the ship, its folds flapping at the prow.
Any prudent captain who ran with his sails
brailed to the yard was driven off course,
defeated, under bare poles. Those vessels
met a better fate that rode over deep water,
tossed on a sea that was sea. But any ship
lightened by cutting the masts away, so
leaving the blasts of wind to scourge it,
was driven, helplessly, on a strong tide,
in an opposing direction to the gale; a tide
that carried it away and victoriously thrust
it against that countervailing southerly.
Such were left stranded in the shallows,
where the sea, eating at the land, wrecked
them, exposed to a twin danger, being
half-aground half-floating on the waves.
Then, driven further on-shore they struck
against dry land, which emerged as the sea
fell, for the waves raised by the southerly
often failed to lift above the sandbanks.
Far from the grassy shore, these ramparts
of sand, rising from the depths, defied
the waters; the wretched sailors stuck
fast, their keels aground, far from shore.
So the sea destroyed part of the fleet,
but the larger part, answering the helm,
were saved by flight, and finding pilots
familiar with that coast, they reached
its sluggish Lake Tritonis, unharmed.
Book IX:348-410 Lake Tritonis: Cato’s speech
The lake, as story tells, is dear to the god,
who is heard on every shore blowing his
sounding shell over the waves, and dear
also to Pallas who, born from her father’s
head, alighted first in Libya, whose hot
climate shows it most aligned to heaven:
there she stood on the lakeshore and saw
her face in the still waters, calling herself
after the lake, in delight at its far expanse.
Nearby, Lethe’s stream silently steals past,
which, they say, brings forgetfulness from
the depths of the underworld, and there is
the Garden of the Hesperides, once guarded
by the sleepless dragon, now despoiled,
its branches rifled. Invidious, those who
decry the myths of ancient times, those
who demand truth of poets. For there was
once a golden grove, its branches heavy
with a wealth of burnished fruit; a band
of virgins its custodians; and a dragon,
its eyes doomed never to close in sleep,
coiled about the trees bowed by the metal.
But Hercules relieved them of their task,
and their precious burden, leaving branches
robbed of their rich weight, carrying off
those shining apples for the king of Argos.
Now, the ships, off course, driven from
the Syrtes, clinging to the Libyan waters,
lingered on a more favourable coastline,
with Gnaeus in command. But bold Cato
impatient to move, trusting in the soldiers,
dared to commit them to unknown lands,
and bypass the Syrtes on foot. Winter too
persuaded him, by closing the high seas
to the fleet; while rain was a benefit to men
who feared excessive heat, and the passage
would be less harsh without burning sun
or freezing cold, Libya’s climate tempered
by winter. Before entering the barren desert,
Cato addressed his troops with this speech:
‘O you who choose the true path, to follow
my standards to the death, heads unbowed,
prepare yourselves for a feat of high courage,
and supreme hardship. We will march through
wastelands in an earthly furnace, where the sun
pours down endless heat, where there is rarely
water in the gullies, and the dry ground seethes
with venomous snakes. Hard is the path to law,
and a love of a ruined country. Let those march
on through the heart of Libya, finding a pathless
route, who have not a thought for turning back,
for whom it is enough to go onwards. For I have
no intent to deceive any man, nor draw the army
on by concealing danger. Let my companions be
those whom danger itself attracts, who, myself
as witness, think it glorious in a Roman to endure
even the worst. But any man who seeks a guarantee
of survival, tempted by life’s sweetness, let him
take the honeyed path to tyranny. I shall be first
to tread the desert, first to set my feet in the dust,
let the sky’s heat strike me, the poisonous snake
confront me; so test the danger first by my fate.
Let him thirst who sees me drink, or feel the heat,
who sees me seek the shade, or tire, who sees me
ride when the army marches: or find anything to
show whether I am the general or the plain soldier!
Snakes, thirst, burning sand, are sweet to the brave;
the tough delight in hardship; virtue finds joy in
its degree of constancy. Libya alone, with all her
ills, can prove that defeat makes no man unworthy.’
So he stirred courage and love of toil in their fearful
hearts, and began a march from which there would
be no return, by forging a way through the desert;
Libya determined an uncaring Cato’s fate, Libya
destined to inter his name in a humble grave.
Book IX:411-462 North Africa
Africa is a third of everything, if you are willing,
on the whole, to credit report; yet if you judge
by wind and weather, it is part of Europe, since
the banks of the Nile are no further than the Don
is from Cadiz in the far west, where Europe and
Africa are separated, and their coasts make room
for the sea to enter; while Asia alone is a larger
portion of the world. It takes Europe and Africa
together to pour out the west wind, while Asia,
feeling the northerlies on one side, southerlies
on the other, alone owns the winds of the east.
The fertile part of Africa is towards the west,
though even there the land is devoid of rivers,
and receives scant rain when northerlies blow
and our temperate climate refreshes its fields.
It is not worked for riches; neither copper nor
gold are smelted, its untouched soil is still pure
earth below. The people are rich in nothing but
Mauretania’s timber, which they have no idea
how to use, content to live in the citrus-tree’s
leafy shade. Our axes have invaded the virgin
groves, we seek wood for our tables as well as
foodstuffs from the ends of the earth. But that
coast which embraces shifting Syrtes, lying
beneath the parching sun under a burning sky,
burns the crops, smothers the vines with dust,
and no roots bind the crumbling soil. Living
things lack temperate air, Jove cares nothing
for the rainless land below; nature is torpid,
the unmoving sand experiences no seasons.
Yet this barren land produces a scattering
of grass, cut by the Nasamonians, a hardy
race who live in nakedness along the coast,
while cruel Syrtes sends them the world’s
salvage; for the wreckers wait on the sandy
shore, familiar with trade-goods though no
vessel harbours there; through shipwrecks
they sample the commerce of all nations!
Cato’s stern virtue bade him march there.
And there the soldiers, expecting no gales
or tempest on land, endured the equivalent
of those at sea. For the southerlies blow
more fiercely on the dry coast of the Syrtes
than over the deep, and are more damaging.
Libya has no mountains to break their force,
no tall cliffs to oppose and dissipate them,
turning the fierce gusts to tranquil breezes;
nor do they meet forest, weary themselves
bowing ancient oaks: the whole land is flat,
and an Aeolian fury freely scours the desert.
There is no moisture in the whirling clouds
of dust, driven violently in spirals, a vast
amount of sand is raised and, merged with
the air, never falls. The poor Nasamonians
see their possessions fly in the wind, their
huts razed; the Garamantians, unhoused,
see their roofs snatched up and blown away
Flames are smothered; as high as the smoke
rises to darken day the dust is already there.
Book IX:463-510 The sandstorm
Now the wind attacked the Roman columns
more fiercely than ever, the men staggering,
unable to find a footing, the very sand they
stood on being blown away. If the Libyan
land was solid, with a ponderous weight
of cliffs that confined the southerlies in
cavernous spaces, the winds would shake
the earth, wrench the globe from its place;
but because the drifting sand is so easily
disturbed, the ground offers no resistance,
earth below solid, while its surface is bared.
The storm, blowing violently, snatched at
the men’s javelins, shields and helmets,
whirling them fiercely through the sky’s
great void, perhaps to fall, like a portent,
in some remote and distant country, men
there fearful of armour from the heavens,
thinking a gift of the gods what was torn
from men’s grasp. Surely those sacred shields
that fell around Numa as he made sacrifice,
which elders elect now carry on their shoulders
were stripped from their owners by the south
or north winds, and in that way became ours.
Now, as the wind tormented the world thus,
the Roman soldiers flung themselves down,
fearful of being blown away, and buckling
their armour tight, they clutched the ground,
strength as well as weight holding them there,
barely surviving the storm, that roiled vast
piles of sand over them, burying their bodies
in the dirt. Crushed by the weight, they could
scarcely rise from the ground. Ramparts of sand
kept them anchored where they stood, prevented
from moving by the surging dust. The storm
broke down walls, tore out the stones within,
and dropped them far off, a strange quirk of fate
when, seeing no houses, people saw their ruins
fall from the sky. Now the route was totally
obscured, devoid of landmarks, and they found
their way by the stars; though the regions of sky
that cover the lands of North Africa did not show
all the usual constellations, many being concealed
below the horizon. At dawn it grew burning hot,
the sun’s heat expanding the air compressed by
the storm; sweat poured from their bodies, their
mouths parched with thirst. A meagre trickle of
a stream was found some way off, and a soldier
filled the hollow of his helm with water, won
with care from the sand, then offered it to his
general. Every mouth was dry with dust, so that
their leader holding the least drop in his hands,
was an object of envy. ‘Do you, you rascal, think
me the only man lacking fortitude in this army?
Do I seem soft as that, unequal to the first blaze
of heat? What a fitting punishment for you that
would be, made to drink, as all round you thirst!’
Thus provoked to anger he emptied out the helm,
and left what water there was to suffice for all.
Book IX:511-586 The Temple of Ammon (The oracle of Amun at Siwa)
They came to the shrine of the crude Garamantians,
the only temple the Libyan tribes possess. They say
Jupiter has an oracle there, but Ammon, unlike our
god, never wields the lightning bolt, and has curved
horns. It is no rich temple the Libyan peoples have
built there, no altars resplendent with eastern gems.
Though the Ethiopians and others, and the wealthy
tribes of Arabs, have but one god, Jupiter Ammon,
yet their god is a pauper, his temple has remained
untainted by riches throughout the centuries, while
the deity, in ancient mode, now defends his shrine
against Roman gold. Yet the heavenly powers are
attested by an oasis of trees, the only broad grove
in the Libyan desert. All the expanse of arid sand
that separates burning Berenice (Benghazi) from
more temperate Leptis Magna (Lebda) is devoid
of foliage; Ammon appropriated the only grove.
A local spring feeds the trees, binding the dusty
soil, its waters cementing the subjugated sands.
Yet even here nothing hinders the sun, when that
orb of light balances at the zenith, the trees barely
darkening their trunks, so small the arc of shadow
thrown by its rays. This the region, we find, where
the sun at solstice is almost overhead at midday.
The shadows of whatever people you may be who
are separated from us by these Libyan tropics, fall
southwards, where ours fall northwards. Slowly
the Little Bear ascends for you, and you may
suppose our un-wetted Wain to sink in the sea,
and every star overhead meet the ocean; either
pole equidistant, the Zodiac’s constellations
sweep through the zenith. They do not move
obliquely, Scorpio is as upright as Taurus, on
rising; Aries gives nothing away to Libra; nor
does Virgo cause Pisces to set more gradually.
Sagittarius rises high as Gemini, rain-bringing
Capricorn as burning Cancer, Leo as Aquarius.
Messengers from the east stood before the doors
of the shrine, seeking to learn the future from
the oracle of horned Jupiter; but they gave way
to the Roman general, his officers begging Cato
to try the oracle, famed throughout North Africa,
and to pass judgement on its ancient reputation.
Labienus, in particular, urged him to question
the future by means of the divine voice. ‘Chance,’
he said, ‘ and the fortunes of the way present
the word of the great god and his wisdom to us;
we can enjoy his guidance through the Syrtes,
and discover the outcome appointed for the war.
I cannot believe the heavens would reveal their
mysteries and dictate the truth more to any man
than virtuous Cato. Have you not always ruled
your life according to heavenly law, a follower
of the divine? Now behold you are free to speak
with Jove: ask as to the fate of that abomination
Caesar, and view the future state of our country:
Will the people enjoy their laws and freedoms,
or has the civil war been all in vain? Fill your
breath with the god’s voice; a lover of harsh
virtues should at least seek where virtue lies,
and demand to see the likeness of goodness.’
Then Cato, filled with the god that he bore
concealed in his heart, poured out a speech
worthy of the oracle itself: ‘What question
would you have me ask, Labienus? Whether
I would rather die, a free man, in battle, than
see a tyrant in power? Whether it matters if
a life is long or short? Whether power can
ever harm the good; if fate threatens virtue
in vain; whether the desire for the laudable
is enough, and virtue no greater for success?
The answers to these things I know; Ammon
cannot instil them more deeply in my mind.
We are all close to the divine; let the oracle
be dumb, we do nothing without the gods’
will it. The powers above have no need for
speech; whatever we are permitted to know
our maker told us once and for all at birth.
Did he choose these barren sands, so only
a few might hear his voice, burying all truth
in this desert? Has he any dwelling place
but earth, sea, air, heaven and the virtuous?
Why seek the gods beyond? Whatever you
see, whatever you do, is Jove. Let those
seek oracles who doubt, forever anxious
about what it is to come: no oracle can
grant me certainty, but only the certainty
of death. The coward and the brave man
both die: let that be enough, Jove has said.’
With that, he departed, leaving the oracle’s
reputation still intact, and Ammon, untried,
for the tribes to worship there at their altars.
Book IX:587-618 Cato’s leadership
Cato now led his gasping soldiers on foot,
carrying his javelin in his hand, issuing
no orders, showing them how to endure
hardship, shunning being carried on men’s
shoulders, or riding in a cart; sleeping less
than any; and when a spring was found,
and the thirsty men must queue and gaze,
he waited till the last camp-follower had
drunk. If true merit accrues great honour,
and naked virtue is separate from success,
whatever we praise regarding our ancestors
mere Fortune granted. Who has deserved
greater fame, simply by winning wars, by
shedding the blood of nations? For I would
rather have led that triumph through farthest
Libya and the Syrtes, than climb the Capitol
thrice in Pompey’s chariot, strangle Jugurtha
in his prison. Behold, the true father of his
country, a man worthy to be worshipped,
Rome, at your altars; by whom none need
blush to swear, and who, if you ever free
your neck from the yoke, shall be made a god.
Now the heat increased, they trod the sands
beyond which the heavens decree no living
thing can endure noon, and water was scarcer.
A lone spring was found deep in the desert,
flowing with water, but guarded by such a host
of serpents the place could scarcely hold them.
Parched asps held the margin, while thirsting
dipsades filled the pool. Seeing the men would
die if they shunned the water, Cato gave speech:
‘Men, do not hesitate to drink, they are harmless,
the threat of death that terrifies you is illusory.
Snake venom is only deadly in the bloodstream;
The fangs threaten death, the poison is in their
bite, but there is no death in the drinking cup.’
So saying, he drank the suspect liquid, and this
was the only spring in all the Libyan desert
where Cato chose to taste the water first.
Book IX:619-699 The tale of Perseus and Medusa
No care or labour of ours will serve to reveal why
the Libyan climate breeds such pest, and teems
with deathly creatures, what secret noxiousness
Nature has mixed with its soil; though a vulgar
fable has concealed the true cause from all men
everywhere. At the far western limits of Africa,
where the burning earth receives an Ocean heated
by the setting sun, lay the wide, untilled land
of Medusa, Phorcys’ daughter, a land without
shade of tree, unworked by the plough, but harsh
with the stone produced by their mistress’ gaze.
Within her body nature first bred those savage
pests, from her throat slid those snakes, hissing
fiercely with strident tongues. They lashed about
the neck of Medusa, delighting her; those vipers
flowing down her back, rearing up at her brow,
in the fashion of woman’s hair; oozing venom
when the tresses were combed. These were all
of unhappy Medusa men viewed with impunity;
for who had time to fear the monstrous face, her
gaping maw, when whoever looked straight into
that face, Medusa caused their death? For she
forestalled all fear, hastening the fatal moment,
the limbs transformed while breath yet lingered,
the shade imprisoned hardening beneath the bones.
The tresses of the Furies merely brought madness;
Cerberus softened his growling when Orpheus
played; and Hercules could watch the Hydra as
he slew it; but even Phorcys, second to Neptune
her own father, in ruling the sea, feared Medusa,
as did her mother, Ceto, and her sister Gorgons;
she had power to threaten sea and sky with rare
paralysis, and clothe the world with stone. Birds
suddenly heavy fell from the sky; wild creatures
froze to the rocks; and whole tribes of Ethiopians
around were turned to statues. Nothing living
could endure her gaze, and even the Gorgon’s
serpents all reared backwards to avoid her face.
She turned Atlas, the Titan, he who supports
the Pillars of the West to a craggy mountain;
and when the gods long ago dreaded the Giants
with serpent legs, she changed them at Phlegra
to lofty summits, the Gorgon ending that fearful
battle, she who adorns the centre of Pallas’ aegis.
To this land Perseus came, he who had sprung
from Danae’s womb, sired by a shower of gold.
He flew with winged feet, as Arcadian Mercury,
the god who gave us the lyre, and wrestler’s oil.
When he suddenly raised the Cyllenian scimitar,
red with another monster’s blood, after he had
slain Argus, guard of Io the heifer, Jupiter’s love,
virgin Pallas brought aid to her winged brother.
She bargained for the Gorgon’s head, ordering
Perseus, on reaching the border of Libya to turn
towards the rising sun and fly backwards through
the Gorgon’s realm: she also set a gleaming shield
of tawny bronze on his left arm, and told him only
to view Medusa, who turned all to stone, therein.
Sleep had overcome Medusa, and yet not wholly,
a sleep that would bring death’s eternal slumber;
many of the serpents, her tresses, were vigilant,
and those hydra locks reared forward to defend
her head; the others shrouded her eyes and face.
Now Pallas herself directed the speeding Perseus;
her right hand guided the quivering Cyllenian
scimitar, which Perseus brandished, face averted,
severing the snaky head where it joined the neck.
What a look the Gorgon’s face must have had,
after her neck was sliced by the curving blade!
What foul venom was expelled from her mouth,
and how death must have flowed from her eyes!
Even Pallas could not view her, and that gaze
would have frozen Perseus’ backward glance,
had not Pallas veiled it with that snaky host.
So, seizing the Gorgon’s head, he leapt towards
the sky. He thought to shorten the route, lessen
his journey, by flying over inhabited Europe,
but Pallas ordered him to avoid fertile lands,
and spare the populace, for who might not gaze
at the sky when such things flew past? And so,
the hero flew east and passed over Libya, free
of cultivation, exposed to sky and sun, whose
path overhead parches the soil; earth’s shadow
at night nowhere higher in the sky, eclipsing
the moon, forgetful of her slanting orbit, when
she follows the zodiac neither north or south
of that shadow. Though those lands are sterile,
fecund with no good seed, they drank venom
from the blood-wet dripping head of Medusa,
soaked with the foul dew of that savage blood,
distilled by heat, and dyeing the putrid sand.
Book IX:700-760 The Libyan serpents
The first of the plagues of snakes that ever raised its
heads above the sand there, was of swollen-necked
sleep-inducing asps. Their throats are fuller with blood
and thick venom; in no snake is it more concentrated.
Loving heat, never travelling to cold regions, they lurk
in the sands stretching to the Nile. Yet we – are we
ever ashamed of chasing profit? – import Africa’s
bane into Italy, and make the asp an article of trade.
There too the huge haemorrhois, which causes its
victims to bleed to death, unfolds its scaly coils;
and the chersydros inhabiting the uncertain Syrtes;
the chelydrus leaving a trail of smoke; the cenchris,
that glides in a straight line, its belly more stained
and chequered than Theban serpentine, in intricate
patterns. Then there is the ammodytes, its colour
indistinguishable from scorched sand; the cerastes,
moving with curving spine; the cytale that sheds
its skin only when the frost still coats the ground;
the parched dipsas; the fell amphisbaena, its two
heads facing each other; the natrix that poisons
wells; and the flying iaculus; the parias content
to plough a furrow with its tail; the greedy prester,
distended with foaming jaws; the wasting seps that
dissolves both flesh and bone; and the basilisk that
threatens all other snakes with the hisses it pours
out, killing before its venom, compelling the host
to keep their distance, and ruling the empty sands.
You dragons too, glittering with golden sheen,
that crawl, divine and harmless, through all other
lands, burning Africa renders deadly; you draw
the air of heaven to you with your wings, then
pursuing whole herds of cattle, coil round mighty
bulls and crush them with blows from your tails;
nor are elephants saved by their bulk: you consign
all things to death, and need no venom to destroy.
Cato and his hardy soldiers marched among these
pests on the waterless way, witnessing the cruel
fate of man after man, strange manners of dying
from the slightest of wounds. Thus Aulus, a lad
of Etruscan blood, and a standard-bearer, trod on
a dipsas that reared back its head and bit him. He
scarcely felt the bite, was free of pain, the wound
not dangerous in appearance, nor threatening any
injurious effect. Behold, the hidden venom rises,
devouring heat seizes the marrow, and scorches
the innards with wasting heat. The poison drank
the humours about the vital organs, and began
to wither the tongue in his parched mouth. No
sweat ran down the weakened limbs, no flow
of tears wet the eyes. Neither a soldier’s pride,
nor Cato’s command halted the burning man,
who dared to hurl away the standard, wildly
seeking water anywhere the scorching venom
at his heart demanded. He would have burned
though plunged in the Don, the Rhone, the Po,
though he drank of the Nile’s flood in the fields.
Libya’s climate empowers death, and given
that scorching soil, the dipsas deserves less
credit for its powers. Men go seeking water
deep in the barren sand, then run to the Syrtes
and swallow brine; the liquid wave brings relief,
but not enough. Thinking it merely thirst, Aulus,
not feeling the nature of his hurt, deadly venom,
ventured to open a swollen vein with his sword,
and then filled his mouth with his own blood.
Book IX:761-788 The death of Sabellus
Cato quickly ordered the standards onward: none
was allowed to see to what thirst could drive a man
to do. Yet a sadder death than that of Aulus occurred
before their eyes, as a tiny seps pierced the unlucky
Sabellus’ leg, and clung there with its barbed fangs;
he tore it free, pinning it to the sand with his spear.
Though small, no other snake deals such cruel death,
for the broken skin near the wound shrank all round,
showing white bone until, as the opening widened,
all was one bare fleshless wound. The limbs swam
with corruption, the calves melted, the knees were
stripped of tissue, the sinews of the thighs melted,
and a black discharge issued from the groin. Then
the membrane holding the guts snapped, the bowels
spilling out. Less than a whole body slid to the sand,
for the cruel venom dissolved the limbs, and death
reduced the total to a little pool of slime. What a
man consists of is shown by the poison’s unholy
nature: the strictures of ligaments, the texture of
the lungs, the hollow of the chest, all the vital
organs conceal is laid bare in death. The mighty
arms and shoulders melt, head and neck liquefy,
faster than snow fades and runs in a warm south
wind, or wax in the sun. Not only, I say, is flesh
consumed, and rendered down by the venom,
which fire can also do, but the bones vanish too,
which no pyre achieves, with the putrid marrow,
leaving not a trace behind of so rapid a death.
Among the snakes of Africa, seps, you win
death’s palm, all take life, you alone the body!
Book IX:789-838 Further deaths by snake-bite
Behold, now, a manner of death in contrast
to liquefaction. Nasidius, earlier a farmer in
Marsian fields, was struck by a red hot prester.
His face burned fiery red, the skin was stretched,
all features lost in the swelling tumour; then as
the powerful venom worked the corruption spread
over all his limbs, inflated far beyond any human
frame, the man himself buried deep within his
bloated body, his breastplate unable to contain
the distension of his swollen chest. The cloud
of hissing steam pours out less fiercely from a
heated cauldron; canvas sails fill less in a gale.
The body no longer contained the swelling, now
a shapeless globule, the trunk a featureless mass.
Left untouched by the carrion birds, no beast
feeding there with impunity, the soldiers dared
not give the corpse to the flames, but took flight,
leaving it still swelling, its growth not yet done.
The Libyan snakes produced still greater marvels.
Tullus, a brave youth who admired Cato, was
bitten by a fierce haemorrhois. As Corycian
saffron-water can be made to spout from every
part of a statue at once, so all his members shed
venomous crimson instead of blood. His tears
ran blood; blood flowed copiously from every
orifice of his body; his mouth and nostrils filled
with it; his sweat was red; all his limbs streamed
with the content of his veins; his whole body was
one wound. Then a Nile serpent froze your blood
luckless Laevus, and stopped your heart. No pang
bore witness to the bite, the darkness of death fell
suddenly, in sleep you joined the friendly shades.
Even the poisonous plants the seers of Sais pluck,
whose deadly stems resemble the Sabaean stalks
steeped in the cup, never brought so swift a death.
Behold too, a fierce snake, the Libyans call iaculus,
reared and launched itself from a barren tree nearby,
pierced Paulus’ head through the temples, and fled.
No venom acted there; death took him too suddenly.
Then they saw how slow a stone from the sling flies,
how sluggish the flight of Parthian arrows in the air.
What matter that wretched Murrus drove his spear
through the basilisk? The venom coursed through
the weapon, seized on his hand; at once he bared
his sword and, at a stroke, sliced hand from arm,
standing there, as it stilled, watching a manner
of death that would have been his own. And who
would dream a scorpion powerful enough to cause
swift death, yet the sky bears witness that Scorpio,
with bulbous tail and menacing sting erect, bears
the glory of defeating Orion! And who would fear
to tread on the salpuga ant’s nest? Yet even to such
the Stygian Fates gave power over the spun thread.
Book IX:839-889 The soldiers’ heroic endurance
Thus neither bright day nor dark night brought sleep
to the wretched men, fearful of the earth they lay on.
Lacking heaped-up leaves or piles of straw for beds,
they lay on the ground, exposed to the risk of death,
their warmth attracting snakes chilled by night cold,
their limbs heating the mouthing creatures, harmless
while their venom was frozen. They lacked all idea
of how far they had come, or the distance yet to go,
with only the stars as guides, and often complained:
‘You gods, bring back Pharsalia; return us the field
from which we fled. Sworn to wield the sword, why
do we suffer a coward’s death? The dipsas fights for
Caesar, the cerastes wins the civil war. Let us travel
the torrid zone instead, where the sun’s steeds scorch
the sky; happy to perish by fiery air, slain by heaven.
We do not complain of you Nature, or you, Africa;
you took a region bearing monstrosities and granted
it to the serpents, and condemned a soil, unsuitable
for crops, to lie untilled, devoid of men to be bitten.
We came to this land of snakes; receive our penance,
whatever power you are that, loathing our commerce,
bounded this region with a zone of fire to the south,
the shifting Syrtes northwards, and death in between.
Through your solitary reaches civil war marches on,
and we soldiers, now knowing this hidden world, beat
on the gates of the west. Perhaps worse things await
us, once there: the sun and hissing water will meet,
and nature be burdened by heaven; and that way no
land lies other than Juba’s gloomy realm, known to
us by report. Perhaps we shall regret this snaky land:
its climate brings one solace, that life exists here still.
We do not seek our native fields, not Europe, or Asia
under alien suns: yet by what corner of earth and sky
did we leave Africa? But now, winter gripped Cyrene;
can one short march destroy the cycle of the seasons?
We are marching towards the other pole, exiles from
our world, our backs turned for a fresh wind to strike;
perhaps Rome itself is now underneath our feet. We
seek solace in our plight: let our enemies come, let
Caesar follow where we flee!’ So stubborn patience
eases its burden of complaint. They were forced
to suffer such hardship by the virtue of their leader,
who kept watch lying on the bare sand, challenging
fate at every moment. Alone he was present at every
death; whenever they call, he goes, and confers that
mighty benefit, more than life: the courage to die;
so that, with him as witness, any man was ashamed
to die with a groan on his lips. What power did that
plague of creatures have over him? He conquered
death in another’s heart, and taught as he gazed on
the dying, that its pain possessed no great power.
Book IX:890-937 The Psylli combat the snakes
Tardily, Fortune, weary of inflicting such trials,
brought help to the wretched. One African tribe
alone are immune to the bite of those cruel snakes,
namely the Psylli of Marmarica. Their spittle acts
like powerful herbs, their blood is protected, no
poison gaining admittance, even without the use
of charms. The nature of this region has dictated
that they live unharmed in the midst of serpents;
they benefit from being surrounded by venom,
as death grants them a pass. They rely greatly on
selectivity in breeding: when an infant is newly
born, fearful of some admixture of foreign blood,
they test the babe in question with a venomous asp.
As Jupiter’s eagle, when its featherless chicks are
hatched from the warm egg, turns them to the rising
sun; those who can endure the rays, gazing straight
into its light, being saved to serve the god, while
those who cannot being discarded; so the Psylli
take it as a sign of purity if the infant is unafraid
of serpents, treating the given snake as a plaything.
Not content with protecting themselves alone, they
look out for strangers, and help others against those
deadly creatures. Thus they accompanied the Roman
army, and when Cato ordered the tents to be pitched,
they first purified the sand at the designated site,
banishing the snakes with spells and incantations.
Fumigating fires surrounded the camp, dwarf-elder
crackled there, and imported aromatic gum bubbled;
the thinly-leaved tamarisk, Eastern costus (sausurrea),
powerful all-heal, and Thessalian centaury, hog’s fennel
(peucedanum), and Sicilian mullein (thapsus) hissed
in the flames, and larch wood, and bitter southernwood
(artemisia abrotanum) whose smoke the snakes loathe;
with the horns of deer from distant parts. So the soldiers
were protected at night: but if any were bitten near to
death by day, then the magical powers of this wondrous
people were seen, a mighty battle between the Psylli
and the venomous bite ensues. They first mark the flesh
with a touch of saliva that halts the poison, confining
it to the wound, then their foaming lips chant many
a spell, a continuous murmur, for the surge of venom
allows no pause for breath, not one moment’s silence
in the face of death. Often the pestilence is expelled
from the blackened marrow by incantation; but when
the poison is slower to shift, and resists eradication,
then they lean down and lick at the yellowish wound,
draining the flesh and sucking the venom out through
their teeth, until victoriously they extract all the fatal
fluid from the chill flesh, spitting it from their mouths.
The Psylli are quick to know by the poisonous taste
what kind of snake it was whose bite was overcome.
Book IX:938-986 Caesar visits the site of Troy
Saved by their help, the Romans now wandered far
and wide over the barren plains. Rising and setting,
the moon twice went from full to full, while Cato
was lost in the desert, but now he felt the sand grow
ever firmer under his feet, and Africa was once more
solid ground. And now the foliage of scattered trees
appeared in the distance, and rough huts compacted
of straw. How those soldiers rejoiced to reach a safer
region, where only fierce lions now confronted them!
Leptis was nearby, and they spent all winter in those
peaceful quarters, untroubled by the heat or storms.
When Caesar, satiated with slaughter, left Pharsalia,
he ignored all other projects and turned his attention
wholly to Pompey. He followed his scattered traces
on land in vain, until fresh report directed him to sea.
He sailed the Thracian strait, by Hero’s tower, through
the narrows made famous by those lovers, the gloomy
shores where Helle, Nephele’s daughter, gave her name
to the waters. No narrower stretch of water separates
Europe from Asia, though the channel’s slight by which
the Euxine divides Byzantium from Chalcedon’s oyster
beds, and Propontis bears its waters through a little strait.
An admirer of past fame, he sought out Sigeum’s sands
Simois’ stream, Rhoeteum noted for great Ajax’ grave,
and those of the many shades who owe a debt to poetry.
He walked round the ruins of Troy of glorious name,
seeking the mighty remnants of the walls Apollo raised.
Now barren woods and their rotting tree-trunks burdened
Priam’s palace, the desiccated roots clutching the temples
of the gods, Pergama wholly shrouded in thorns: the very
ruins lost. He viewed Hesione’s rock; and then Anchises’
hidden marriage-chamber in the woods; and the cavern
where Paris sat in judgement; and the place from which
the lad, Ganymede, was snatched into the heavens; and
the summit where Oenone, the naiad, lamented: a legend
attached to every stone. The stream, snaking through dry
dust, he crossed unknowingly, was Xanthus. Where he
stepped idly through rank grass, and his Phrygian guide
bade him not to tread, lay Hector’s grave. And where
scattered stones lay, with no appearance of sanctity,
the man cried: ‘Have you no respect for Zeus’ altar?’
O mighty the sacred labour of the poet! He rescues
all from fate, and grants immortality to mortal beings.
Caesar, let not your envy touch the sacred dead; for if
our Latin Muses are permitted to promise anything,
those to come will read my verse, and read of you,
and our Pharsalia shall live on, as long as Homer’s
fame endures, no age condemning us to the shadows.
Book IX:987-1063 Caesar sails to Egypt
When Caesar had sated himself with those views
of the ancient past, he swiftly raised a pile of turf
as an altar, then he prayed, and not in vain, over
the flames smoking with incense: ‘You gods,
of the dead, that inhabit the ruins of Troy; you
household gods of my ancestor Aeneas which
Lavinium and Alba now protect, upon whose
altars Phrygian fire still glows; and you, image
of Pallas, famous pledge of the city’s safety,
that no man may view, in your secret shrine;
here in your ancient dwelling-place, I duly
call on you, I, the most glorious descendant
of Iulus’ race, and, as is right, burn incense.
Grant good fortune to the end of my journey,
and I will restore your nation: in gratitude
Italy will rebuild the Phrygian walls, and
a Roman Troy shall rise.’ So saying, he
re-embarked, and spread billowing sails
to a favourable wind. Driven by the gale,
eager to offset his delay at Troy, he ran
past mighty Asia Minor, leaving Rhodes
behind in the foaming waves. A westerly
never slackening the rigging, the seventh
night revealed Pharos’ flame, and Egypt.
But day had dawned and hid that nocturnal
beacon before he entered harbour, where
the port was in uproar, a confused murmur
of anxious voices, and so he kept aboard,
fearing to trust so treacherous a kingdom.
But a servant of the Pharaoh set out over
the waves, bearing a vile gift, Pompey’s
head wrapped in Egyptian linen, and first
spoke infamously commending the crime:
‘Conqueror of the world, and mightiest of
the Roman people, though you knew it not
you are now secure, your son-in-law is dead.
Pharaoh spares you the toil of battle on land
and sea, gifting the one thing lacking from
Pharsalia’s conflict. The civil war has ended
while you sailed, for we slew Pompey as he
sought to recover from the ruins of Thessaly.
We repay you, Caesar, with this great pledge;
with this death we seal our treaty with you.
Receive, without bloodshed, the Pharaonic
kingdom you sought; accept dominion over
the Nile; accept all you would have given
for Pompey’s life; believe us worthy servants
of your cause, whom fate wished to grant
such power over your son-in-law. Nor must
you think our deed worth little, that it was
something that came easily. He was our
friend of old, restoring the throne to our
Pharaoh’s banished father. What more is
there to say? You shall put a name to this
great action: ask what the world says of it.
If it is called a crime, your debt to us is all
the greater, since you did not commit it.’
So saying he uncovered Pompey’s head,
and held it out in his hands. Relaxed in death
the features of that famous countenance had
altered. Caesar did not at first reject the gift,
or avert his face; he gazed at it until he was
certain; then, accepting at last that evidence
of crime, thought it safe to play the loving
father-in-law, shedding false tears, forcing
groans from his breast, delight in his heart.
He avoided showing joy, solely in this way
denigrating his obligation to the vile tyrant,
choosing to grieve at his kinsman’s severed
head rather than own to a debt. He who with
stony face trampled the corpses of senators,
gazing dry-eyed at the aftermath of Pharsalia,
dared not deny you, alone, Magnus, his tears.
Oh, this the harshest blow of fate! Did you,
Caesar, pursue the man in impious warfare
only to weep for him at the last? Does that
bond of kinship move you now? Do your
daughter and your grandchild demand you
to grieve then? Do you think it might serve
your cause among the nations that love his
name? Perhaps, touched by envy of Ptolemy,
resentment that another held power over
the body of captive Pompey, makes you groan;
vengeance in battle lost, and your son-in-law
snatched from the clutches of his arrogant
conqueror? Whatever the motive for your
weeping, it was far removed from true grief.
Is that why you coursed over land and sea
with purpose, to ensure your kinsman was
not killed quietly? Well that death snatched
him from your jurisdiction! How deep was
the shame cruel Fortune saved Rome from;
in that you, a traitor, were prevented from
granting Magnus your pardon, while he lived!
Yet Caesar dared to utter words of deceit,
and gain credit for the sorrow in his face:
Book IX:1064-1108 Caesar feigns grief at Pompey’s death
‘You servants of the Pharaoh, remove his foul gift
from my sight; your crime does greater disservice
to Caesar than to Pompey; I am robbed of the sole
privilege of civil war, that of granting life to a man
defeated. If your Pharaoh did not hate his sister so,
I might have sent him Cleopatra’s head, returning
the kind of gift he deserves for such a one as this.
Why did his sword-blade move secretly, why thrust
his weapon into our business? Did Pharsalia’s field
grant rights to Macedonian steel? Was that my aim,
that your king should do as he wished? Shall I, who
would not allow Pompey to rule Rome with me, let
Ptolemy do so? If there is any power on earth save
Caesar’s, if any land owns to more than one master,
I will have troubled the world with civil war in vain.
I might have steered the Roman fleet from your shore;
care for my reputation prevented me, lest I were seen
to fear blood-stained Egypt rather than condemn her.
Do not think to deceive the victor: you would have
welcomed me in that manner too, and only victory
at Pharsalia ensures that my head’s not treated thus.
The risk that we ran in warfare was surely greater
than I feared: I dreaded only exile, my kinsman’s
threats, and Rome; yet the punishment for defeat
was Ptolemy’s! Nevertheless, I spare his youth,
and pardon his crime. Let the tyrant understand
that there can be no greater gift than pardon for
this killing. You must inter this great general’s
head, and not so that earth merely hides the crime:
grant incense for a fitting burial, placate his spirit,
collect his ashes strewn on the shore, and allow
his scattered remains to be re-united in the urn.
Let the dead know a kinsman is here; let his shade
hear my voice of piety and sorrow. Because he
preferred power above all to me, choosing to owe
his death to his Egyptian puppet, the world is
robbed of a joyful day, the nations have missed
our moment of reconciliation. My prayer, Pompey,
that I might lay down my weapons in success;
embrace you, asking for your former affection
and life; and, as sufficient reward for my labours,
rest content to be yours; that prayer lacked favour
with heaven. O then, in shared peace and trust,
I might have enabled you to forgive the gods
my victory, while you enabled Rome to forgive
me.’ So he said, but found none to share his
tears, nor did the onlookers believe his grief;
they left off groaning, hiding their misgivings
behind a joyful expression, and happily gazing
at the blood-stained relic; daring to do so –
O rare privilege – while Caesar mourned!
End of Book IX