The Civil War (Pharsalia)
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved.
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- Book I:1-32 The nature of the war
- Book I:33-66 Homage to Nero
- Book I:67-97 The motives of the leaders
- Book I:98-157 Caesar and Pompey
- Book I:158-182 The hidden causes of the war
- Book I:183-227 Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon
- Book I:228-265 Entry into Ariminum (Rimini)
- Book I:266-351 The exiled tribunes: Caesar’s speech
- Book I:352-391 Laelius’ speech
- Book I:392-465 Caesar gathers his forces
- Book I:466-525 Fear and apprehension in Rome
- Book I:526-583 Ghosts and portents
- Book I:584-637 Arruns reads the future
- Book I:638-672 Figulus reads the heavens
- Book I:673-695 Apollo inspires a prophecy
Book I:1-32 The nature of the war
I sing of a worse than civil war, of war fought between kinsmen
over Pharsalia’s plains, of wickedness deemed justice; of how
a powerful people turned their own right hands against themselves;
of strife within families; how, with the first Triumvirate broken,
the forces of the quivering globe contended in mutual sinfulness;
standard ranged against standard, eagle matched against eagle,
spear threatening spear. What madness, my countrymen, how wild
that slaughter! With Crassus’ spirit still wandering un-avenged,
while it was yet your duty to strip proud Parthia of Italian spoils,
you chose instead to grant our enemies the sight of Roman strife,
waging a war that could win no triumphs! With that blood, alas,
spilled by Roman hands, what lands and seas might not have been
won, where night hides the stars and the sun rises, where fiery air
parches the south, where the winter’s cold that no spring can thaw
freezes the Black Sea in its icy grip! China might have passed
under our yoke, savage Armenia, and those peoples who know
the secret of the Nile’s hidden source. If Rome, then, has such
a love of illicit war, let her yet bring the whole earth under her
rule, before turning on herself; she has never yet lacked enemies.
If in Roman cities now the roofs and walls are half-demolished,
and the vast stones of shattered houses litter the earth; if dwellings
are untenanted, and scarcely a soul strays through the ancient sites;
if Italy’s unploughed soil is overgrown with thorns, year by year,
and the fields cry out in vain for men to till them, such vast ruin
is not due to proud Pyrrhus, or Hannibal; no foreign sword could
thrust so deep: those blows from the hands of kinfolk strike home.
Book I:33-66 Homage to Nero
Yet we’ll complain no more, you gods, if fate could find no other
way to Nero’s advent, if even the eternal kingdom cost you dear,
and Jupiter the Thunderer could not rule without warring with fierce
giants, even such wickedness and crime is not too high a price to pay.
Let Pharsalia’s dire plains be heaped with dead; let Hannibal’s shade
revel in the carnage; let final battle be joined at fatal Munda. Though
Perusia’s famine, Mutina’s horrors, the ships sunk at stormy Actium,
the war with the slaves near burning Etna, be added, still Rome owes
a deep debt to civil war, since what was done, Caesar, was all for you.
When your role on earth is over and at last you seek the stars,
the celestial palace you expect will welcome you, the heavens rejoice.
Whether you wield Jove’s sceptre, or mount Phoebus’ fiery chariot
circling, with your shifting flame, an earth unafraid of this new sun,
every deity will yield to you, and nature leave you to choose what god
you wish to be, and where you wish to set your universal throne.
Yet do not place it in the north, or where the hot opposing skies
of the south incline, from there your light would fall aslant on Rome.
If you lean on any one region of immense space, the axis will feel
the weight; balance heaven by holding the centre of the sphere.
Let all that region of the sky be clear, and no cloud hide our sight
of Caesar. Then let the human race lay down its arms, consider
its own good, and let all nations love one another; let Peace fly
over the earth, and shut tight the iron gates of warlike Janus.
Yet to me you are already divine; and were my heart inspired
by you, I’d not trouble the god of sacred Delphi, or summon
Bacchus from Nysa: you alone grant power to Roman verse.
Book I:67-97 The motives of the leaders
My mind is moved to set down the cause of these great events.
Vast the task before me, to show what impelled a frenzied people
to arms, and drove peace from the earth. It was a chain of fatal
happenings, the swift and painful collapse of excessive weight,
a Rome unable to bear her own greatness. So when the fabric
of the world dissolves, in that final hour that gathers in the ages,
reverting to primal chaos, star will clash with star in confusion,
the fiery constellations will sink into the sea, and earth heaving
upwards her flat shores will throw off the ocean, the moon will
move counter to her brother, and claiming the rule of day disdain
to drive her chariot on its slanting path, and the whole discordant
frame of the shattered firmament will break free of every law.
Great things destroy themselves: such is the limit the gods place
on all success. It was not Fortune fuelling the envy of foreign
nations against a people that ruled earth and sea: you, Rome,
were the cause of your own ills, made a servant of three masters,
when supreme power, never so shared before, forged a deadly pact.
O, evilly joined together, blinded by excessive greed, to what end
did those three unite their strength to rule the world between them?
While earth buoys up the sea and the heavens the earth, while
the sun revolves in his endless task, while night, in the sky above,
follows day through the same circuit of the twelve constellations,
no loyalty between sharers in tyranny; power endures no partner.
Seek the evidence in no other nation: no long searching for fatal
instances: Rome’s first walls were drenched in a brother’s blood.
Nor was the prize of such madness a dominion over land and sea,
the narrow bounds of a sanctuary for criminals caused the conflict.
Book I:98-157 Caesar and Pompey
For a short while a discordant harmony was maintained, there was
peace despite the leaders’ wills, since Crassus stood between them,
a check to imminent war. So the slender Isthmus divides the waves,
and separates two seas, forbidding their waters to merge; and yet
if the land were withdrawn, the Ionian would break on the Aegean.
Thus when Crassus, who kept those fierce competitors apart, died
pitifully, drenching Syrian Carrhae with Roman blood, that defeat
by Parthia let loose the furies on Rome. In that battle the Parthians
wrought better than they knew, visiting civil war on the defeated.
Power was divided by the sword; the wealth of an imperial people
who ruled the sea, the land, possessed the globe, was not enough
for two. For now, when Julia, Caesar’s daughter, Pompey’s wife,
was cut down by fate, she bore with her to the Shades the bonds
of affinity, and a marriage turned, by that dread omen, to mourning.
She, if fate had granted her longer life, might alone have restrained
her husband’s anger on the one side, and her father’s on the other.
She might have struck aside their swords, made them clasp hands,
as the Sabine women stood between their husbands and their fathers
and brought about reconciliation. But at her death bonds of loyalty
were broken, and the generals freed to pursue armed conflict.
A powerful rivalry drove them on: for Pompey feared fresh exploits
might obscure his former triumphs, his ridding the seas of pirates
yielding second place to Caesar’s victories in Gaul; while Caesar,
used to battle, inured to endless effort, was driven by an ambition
that yearned for supremacy; Caesar could accept none above him,
Pompey no equal. It is wrong to ask who had the greatest right
to seek war; each had great authority to support him: if the victor
had the gods on his side, the defeated had Cato. The contest was
unequal, Pompey being somewhat past his prime, long used
to the toga and forgetting in peace how to play a general’s part;
courting adulation, lavish with his gifts to the people of Rome,
swayed by popularity, overjoyed by the clamour that greeted him
in the theatre he had built, trusting in former claims to greatness,
he did nothing to establish wider power, and stood as the mere
shadow of a mighty name. So some oak-tree towers in a rich grove,
hung with a nation’s ancient trophies, sacred gifts of the victors,
and though its clinging roots have lost their strength, their weight
alone holds it, spreading naked branches to the sky, casting shade
not with leaves but its trunk alone, and though it quivers, doomed
to fall at the next gale, among the host of sounder trees that rise
around it, still it alone is celebrated. But Caesar possessed more
than mere name and military fame: his energies were un-resting,
his only shame in battle not to win; alert and unrestrained, every
summons of anger or ambition his strength answered, he never
shrank from an opportunistic use of the sword; intent on pursuing
each success, grasping the gods’ favour, pushing aside every
obstacle to his supremacy, happy to clear a path through ruin.
So a storm drives a lightning-bolt through the clouds, its flare
shattering the daylight sky, with the sound of thunderous air,
with a crash of the heavens, filling the human mind with terror,
dazzling the eye with its slanting flame. Rushing to a given
quarter of the skies, nothing material prevents its course;
mighty in its descent and its retreat it spreads destruction
far and wide, before gathering its scattered energies again.
Book I:158-182 The hidden causes of the war
Such were the leaders’ motives; but there were those hidden causes
of the war, amongst the people, that will ever destroy powerful
nations. For, the world conquered, and fortune showering excessive
wealth on Rome, virtue yielded to riches, and those enemy spoils drew
men to luxury. They set no bounds to wealth or buildings; greed
disdained its former fare; men wore clothes scarcely decent on women;
austerity, the mother of virtue, fled; and whatever ruined other nations
was brought to Rome. Then estates were increased, until those fields
once tilled by Camillus’ iron ploughshare, or Curius’ spade, became
vast tracts tended by alien farmers. Such a people took no pleasure
in peace and tranquility, no delight in liberty free from the sword.
Thus they were quick to anger, and crime, prompted by need, was
treated lightly; it was a virtue to take up arms and hold more power
than the State, and might became the measure of right. Thence laws
and statutes of the people passed by force, thence the consuls
and tribunes alike confounding all justice; office snared by bribery,
popular support bought at auction, while corruption, year after year
perpetuating venal elections to the magistracy, destroyed the State;
thence voracious usury, interest greedily seeking payment,
trust readily broken, and multitudes profiting greatly from war.
Book I:183-227 Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon
Now, Caesar, swiftly surmounting the frozen Alps,
had set his mind on vast rebellion and future conflict.
On reaching the banks of the Rubicon’s narrow flow
that general saw a vision of his motherland in distress,
her sorrowful face showing clear in nocturnal darkness,
with the white hair streaming from her turreted head,
as with torn tresses and naked arms she stood before him
her speech broken by sobbing: ‘Where are you marching,
whither do you bear those standards, my warriors?
If you come as law-abiding citizens, here you must halt.’
Then the general’s limbs quaked, his hair stood on end,
faintness overcame him and he halted, his feet rooted
to the river-bank. But soon he spoke: ‘O, Jupiter, God
of Thunder, who gazes from the Tarpeian Rock over
the walls of the mighty city; O Trojan household gods
of the tribe of Iulus, and you, sacred relics of Quirinus;
O Jove of Latium, on Alba’s heights, and you, fires
of Vesta, and you, O Rome, equal in sanctity, favour
my enterprise; I bring no assault on you in wild warfare;
see me here, victorious by land and sea, always your
champion – now as ever, if that be possible. His
shall be the guilt, who forces me to act as your enemy.’
Then Caesar let loose the bonds of war, and led his
standards swiftly over the swollen stream; so a lion
in the untilled wastes of burning Libya, seeing his foes
nearby, crouches at first, uncertain, rousing himself to rage,
but soon maddened, lashing his tail, his mane erect,
sends out a roaring from his cavernous mouth, such
that if a nimble Moor pierces his flesh with the lance
he brandishes, or a spear lances at his vast chest, he
leaps over the weapons careless of such wounds.
The reddish waters of the Rubicon glide through
the valleys and serve as the boundary between
the land of Gaul and the farms of Italy. Born from
a modest spring it is parched by the heat of summer,
but then its volume was increased by winter, its waters
swollen by the third rising of a rain-bearing moon
with its moisture-laden horns, and by Alpine snows
melted by damp gales. The cavalry first met the flow,
taking position slantwise across the current, lessening
its power so the rest of the army could ford it with ease.
Once Caesar had crossed and reached the Italian shore
on the further side, he halted on territory proscribed to them:
‘Here I relinquish peace,’ he cried, ‘and the law already
scorned, to follow you, my Fortune. Let me hear no more
talk of pacts, I have placed my trust in those for far
too long, now I must seek the judgement of war.’
Book I:228-265 Entry into Ariminum (Rimini)
So he spoke, urging his men on through the shadows
of night swifter than the missile whirled from a Balearic
sling, or the arrow the Parthian looses behind him.
As the stars fled the light and the morning star shone
alone, he entered nearby Ariminum, bringing terror.
So the day dawned that witnessed the first turmoil
of the war; though, by the will of the gods, or a stormy
southerly wind, clouds veiled the mournful light.
Halting in the forum they had seized, the soldiers
were ordered to lay down their arms while a blare
of trumpets, shrill clarion calls and booming horns
sounded the civil war’s first alarm. Roused from sleep,
leaping from their beds, men snatched at the weapons
hung beside the household gods, arms of a long peace:
disintegrating shields bared to their frames, javelins
with bent points, swords scarred by the gnawing rust.
But on seeing the glitter of Roman eagles, and Caesar
on horseback with his army, they stood rooted by fear,
their chilled limbs shaking with terror, unspoken
complaint echoing in their minds: ‘Alas for our town,
so close to Gaul, doomed by its site to fatal misfortune!
Everyone else knows deep peace, profound tranquility,
but we grant the first spoils and bivouac to these madmen.
Better if Fate had set us down under an Eastern sky,
or in the frozen north guarding the tents of nomads
and not the gateway to Italy. We were the first to feel
the advance of the Senones, the swords of Hannibal,
the Cimbrian invasion, the wild onrush of the Teutones:
whenever Fate turns on Rome, its attackers take the road
that passes through here.’ Such was each man’s silent
moan, not daring to utter his fears aloud; none voiced
his grief; so the fields are silent when winter strikes
bird-life dumb, or the wide ocean, muted in calm weather.
And now, as light dispersed the chill shades of night,
Destiny lit the flames of war, setting the spur to Caesar’s
wavering heart, shattering the barriers shame interposed
and driving him on to conflict. Fate worked to justify
his rebellion, and found a pretext for his use of arms.
Book I:266-351 The exiled tribunes: Caesar’s speech
For the Senators, exceeding their powers, had threatened
the fractious tribunes and expelled them from the anxious
city, recalling the like fate of the Gracchi; and so the exiles
headed for Caesar’s camp, now advanced close to Rome.
With them was daring Curio of the venal tongue, once
the voice of the people and a bold champion of freedom,
bringing armed leaders down to the level of the crowd.
Finding Caesar turning over alternative paths in his mind,
he cried: ‘I, when my voice could serve your interests, Caesar,
when I was allowed to take the Rostrum, cementing waverers
to your cause, I extended your command, defied the Senate.
But now the strictures of war silence law; driven from our
city, we suffer exile willingly; for your victory will render us
citizens once more. While your enemies are in confusion,
be swift; to those who are on the brink, delay is ever fatal.
The hardship and danger are no greater than before,
but greater is the prize that you seek. Ten years you fought
the Gauls, yet how small a part of Earth Gaul represents!
Win a few battles and Rome that subdued the world is yours.
As things are, no long triumphal procession awaits you,
the Capitol demands no laurels of yours be consecrated;
rather gnawing envy denies you all, and your conquests
of foreign lands will meet only with reprimand. Pompey,
your son-in-law, resolves to topple you from power.
You could rule not half the world, but the whole of it, alone.’
Eager as Caesar was for war already, this speech increased
his fury, and added to his fervour, as a racehorse at Olympia,
already straining against the barrier, trying to loose the bolts
with its forehead, is encouraged further by the shouting.
There and then he summoned his legions to the standards;
a look silenced the clamour and confusion of the troops,
a gesture commanded quiet, and he addressed them:
‘Friends, who have faced with me the perils of a thousand
battles these ten years past, is this, in victory, your reward
for the blood with which you drenched the northern fields,
for winter, wounds and death beneath the Alps? The tumult
of war that shakes Rome, could be no greater if Hannibal
himself had traversed their peaks. Recruits swell the cohorts’
ranks; the forests are felled to build ships; Caesar is ordered
to be hounded by land and sea. If my standards were levelled
in defeat, if the fierce tribes of Gaul were raging at my back,
how would my enemies be acting then? Yet now, when Fate
favours me, and summons me to power, they challenge me.
Let Pompey, weakened by long peace, come and make war
with his fresh levies and his toga-wearing partisans, eloquent
Marcellus, and Cato that empty name. Shall Pompey be fed
with despotic power perpetually renewed by his mean venal
followers? Must Pompey hold the reins before lawful age?
Shall Pompey cling forever to the honours he has stolen?
Should I not complain when he grasped the whole world’s
harvest and commanded the hungry to obey him? Who
does not know how the barracks invaded the fearful courts,
how soldiers with grim blades gleaming surrounded stunned
and anxious jurors? How warriors broke into the sanctuary
of justice, Pompey’s standards laying siege to Milo in the dock?
Now once more, he plans illegal conflict, to escape the taint
of an old age buried in obscurity. He’s used to civil war,
taught wickedness by Sulla and in line to outdo his teacher.
Just as the fierce tiger, that has drunk deep of the blood
of the cattle slain as he follows his mate from lair to lair
in the Hyrcanian jungle, never again loses his fierceness,
so Pompey, who once licked Sulla’s sword, still thirsts.
Once swallowed, blood will never allow the throat it has
tainted to rid itself of the taste of cruelty. Where is the end
to power so long continued? Where, the limits to his crimes?
Let the wretch learn from Sulla’s example and relinquish power.
First the Cilician pirates, then the endless war with Mithridates,
that an infamous poisoning failed to end, and now am I, Caesar,
to be Pompey’s crowning task, for failing to surrender eagles
of victory? If they rob me of my just reward for my labours,
let my leaderless soldiers at least be paid for their long service;
let them march in triumph, whoever their new general may be.
What peaceful harbour shall they find when weakened by age?
Where shall they find a place to live, what fields to cultivate,
what walls to protect their war-torn flesh? Shall Pompey grant
colonies to his pirates? Raise your standards, long victorious!
Raise them high! Let us employ the power we have created.
He must yield all to the strong, who denies them their due.
Nor will heaven fail us. Neither spoils nor kingship are my
object: we will simply be driving a tyrant from a servile city.’
Book I:352-391 Laelius’ speech
So he spoke; but the men, doubtful, muttered anxiously
and uncertainly under their breath. Proud as they were,
and unafraid of bloodshed, they were torn by love for
their country and its gods, till recalled to fear of Caesar
and a dire propensity for slaughter. For Laelius, ranked
as chief centurion and bearing a well-earned decoration,
those oak-leaves granted for saving a Roman’s life,
called out: ‘Mightiest general of the Roman people,
if I have leave to speak, and to speak the truth, we say
you have endured too much and held back too long.
Do you lack faith in us? While the hot blood moves
and these bodies breathe, while our arms have strength
enough to hurl a javelin, must you submit to the toga,
to the Senate’s tyranny? Is it so bad to fight a civil war?
Lead us among the Scythian tribes, or the hostile shores
of Syrtes, or the burning sands of parched Libya, we
who to leave a conquered world behind us have tamed
the swelling ocean waves and the foaming waters
of Rhine: order me, I must follow with strength and will.
He is no friend of mine, Caesar, against whom your
trumpets sound. I swear by your standards of ten
victorious campaigns, and by your triumphs, whatever
the foe, if you command me to bury my blade in my
brother’s breast, in my father’s throat, in my wife’s
pregnant body, I will do all, though my arm waver.
If you’d have me despoil the gods, fire their temples,
the furnace that coins an army’s pay shall melt their
images; if you’d have me pitch camp by Tiber’s waters,
I’ll dare to invade the fields of Italy, mark out the lines;
whatever walls you’d level these arms will drive the ram,
and break their stones apart, though the city you doom
to utter destruction, be Rome herself.’ All the cohorts
shouted assent to this, raising their arms aloft together,
pledging themselves to any war to which Caesar called
them. Their cries rose to the heavens: as loud as when
a Thracian northerly falls on the cliffs of pine-clad Ossa,
and the forest roars earth-bent or rebounding to the sky.
Book I:392-465 Caesar gathers his forces
Caesar, finding civil war so eagerly welcomed by his men,
and finding fortune favourable, granted destiny no delay
due to idleness, but summoned all his forces scattered
throughout Gaul, moving every legion towards Rome.
From tents pitched in the mountains beside Lake Leman,
the soldiers came, from the fort on the heights of Vosegus
above winding shores, that controlled the warlike Lingones
with their painted weapons: others from the fords of the Isar,
that river which flows so great a distance, till its waters merge
with the more famous Danube, losing its name before
it meets the waves of the sea. The fair-haired Ruthenians
were freed from their station; the gentle Aude and the Var,
at the boundary of an enlarged Italy, joyed to bear no Roman
keels; free too that harbour of Monaco, sacred to Hercules,
its hollow cliffs encroaching on the sea and over which
neither Caurus nor Zephyrus has power; only Circius that
stirs the shoreline, holds it alone, and bars the safe roadstead;
and free that strip of Belgian coast, disputed, claimed by sea
and land in turn, when the vast ocean inundates it or ebbs away;
some onshore wind from the horizon blows perhaps, drives
the seas on then fails them, or perhaps Tethys’ wild waters
are attracted by the moon, stirred by the phases of that second
of celestial bodies, or perhaps fire-bearing Titan, to drink
the waves that nourish him raises the ocean billows skyward?
I leave the cause to those who study the workings of the world,
from me let whatever makes that endless motion, as the gods wish,
be hidden. Gone, the soldiers who held the land of the Nemes,
and the banks of the Adour, where the Tarbellians hem in the sea
that beats gently against the winding shore. Their foe’s departure
delights the Santoni and Bituriges, the Suessones, nimble despite
their long spears; the Leuci and Remi, experts in the javelin,
the Sequani who delight in wheeling their bridled horses;
the Belgae, skilled in driving war-chariots of others devising,
and the Arvernian tribe who falsely claim kinship with Rome
through descent from Troy; the Nervii, prone to rebel endlessly
against us, tainted by breach of treaty with slaughtered Cotta;
the Vangiones, loose-trousered like the Sarmatians; the fierce
Batavians whose courage is roused by a blare of curved bronze
trumpets. There is joy where Cinca’s waters flow, where Rhone
takes the Saône in its swift course, and bears it onwards to the sea,
where tribes live perched on the mountain heights among the snowy
cliffs of the Cevennes. The Treviri rejoiced at the army’s leaving,
and the close-cropped Ligurians who once outdid their long-haired
neighbours with flowing locks that adorned their necks, and those
who, with pitiful victims, placate their harsh Teutatis, their Esus
whose savage shrines make men shudder, their Taranis whose
altar is no less cruel than that of Scythian Diana. The bards too
who in their verses sing the praise of famous heroes killed
in battle, poured out lays at their ease. The Druids laid down
their weapons and returned to their barbaric rites and alien modes
of worship. They alone are granted the true knowledge, or the false,
of the gods and celestial powers; they live in the furthest groves
of the deep forests; they teach that the soul does not descend
to Erebus’ silent land, to Dis’ sunless kingdom, but the same spirit
breathes in another body. If what they say is true, then our death
is merely a moment in the course of continuing life. Thus the tribes
on whom the pole star gazes are sweetly deceived, since they are
free of the terror of dying, our greatest fear, and the warrior there
is eager to meet the steel, is brave in the face of death, convinced
it is cowardice to be over-protective of a life that will be renewed.
Even men posted to keep the long-haired Cayci from the Belgae
abandoned the Rhine’s savage shores, heading for Rome, and all
the empire was left exposed to the advance of foreign nations.
Book I:466-525 Fear and apprehension in Rome
Gathering his forces together, encouraged, by the vastness
of his army, to greater things, Caesar advanced through Italy
occupying the nearest towns. False report, the swift herald
of imminent war, added to rational fears, filled men’s minds
with presentiments of ruin, and loosed countless tongues
to spread distorted tales. News was of some fierce cavalry
encounter on the wide plains that pasture Bevagna’s bulls;
that Caesar’s foreign horsemen scoured the region where
the Nar meets the Tiber; that the general, advancing with
all his gathered eagles and standards led his columns in
full march, halting in crowded bivouacs. Men’s previous
view of him differs from the present. They deem him now
a monster, more savage than the enemy he has conquered.
Men say the tribes between the Rhine and Elbe, uprooted
from their northern home, are following on behind him;
the order given that Rome be sacked by savage tribesmen
before their very eyes. So, in fear, each lends strength
to rumour, and dreads the nameless evils he invents.
Nor were the people alone filled with baseless terrors,
the House was stirred, Senators leapt from their seats
and fled, leaving the Consuls the task of declaring
a war they dreaded. Then, unsure of a safe haven
or how to escape danger, they followed the crowd
in headlong flight wherever their haste might lead,
pouring onwards in long unbroken streams. You
might have thought that impious flames had seized
their houses, or that the city swayed to an earthquake’s
shock, since the frenzied crowd ran wildly through
the city, as if the one hope of escape from ruin was
to flee their native walls. So a captain abandons ship,
when a southerly gale drives the waves from Libyan
Syrtes’ shoals, and the heavy mast topples with all
its canvas, he leaping with his crew into the waves,
each man choosing shipwreck before the timbers
of the hull are shattered. So with war they fled
the abandoned city. No aged father could restrain
his son, no weeping wife her husband, none stayed
to mouth a prayer for escape from danger before
their household gods, or lingered on the threshold,
at the last, filled with the sight of their beloved city.
The crowd’s flight was irrevocable. O how easily
the gods grant us supremacy, and how grudgingly
maintain it! Rome with its citizens and subject
peoples, a Rome that could well hold the whole
human race collected, was left a ready prize
to Caesar, by cowardly hands. The Roman soldier
besieged by the enemy in a foreign land defies
nocturnal danger behind a frail palisade; swiftly
piling turf he sleeps secure in his tent defended
by his mound, but let the name of war be heard
and Rome is abandoned, her walls no shield
even for a single night. Yet such depths of fear
must be forgiven; Pompey himself in flight gave
cause for fear. And hope for a future free of dread
was lacking, since clear signs of greater ills
to come were granted; the gods filled the earth,
the sea, the sky, with their menacing portents.
Book I:526-583 Ghosts and portents
In the dark of night, unknown constellations were seen,
the sky ablaze with fire, light shooting across the void
of space, forming the hairy tail of that baleful star,
the comet, that signals a change of earthly power.
Lightning flared endlessly from a deceptively clear sky,
and the flames flickering in the heavens took sundry
shapes in the dense atmosphere, now a great javelin,
now a torch with scattered rays. A silent lightning bolt
gathering flame from the cloudless north, struck
Latium’s capital, Alba Longa, and the lesser lights
that move through the sunless sky by night were seen
at noon. The moon, at the full, her horns joined,
her orb reflecting her brother Phoebus’s light,
suddenly plunged into earth’s shadow, grew dim.
The sun himself, in raising his face to the zenith,
veiled his orb in shadow, hid his fiery chariot
in dense darkness, driving humankind to despair
of daylight; such was the darkness that swallowed
Thyestes’ city, Mycenae, when the sun turned back
to where he had risen. Fierce Mulciber, in Sicily,
opened Etna’s jaws wide; the flames not rising
skywards but leaning to engulf the Italian shore.
Charybdis the black churned bloody waves from
the ocean bed, and Scylla’s savage dogs whined.
The fire was violently doused on Vesta’s altar;
while the flames of the pyre signalling the end
of the Latin Festival split apart and, twin-tipped,
rose up like those of the royal Theban brothers.
Earth ceased turning on its axis; the Alpine chain
lost the ancient snow from its shivering summits;
and the sea flooded Calpe and far Atlas in the west.
They say the gods of the nations shed tears, while
sweat on the Lares testified to the city’s travails;
in the temples the offerings fell from the walls,
birds of ill-omen marred the day, and wild beasts
boldly made their lairs at night in the heart of Rome.
The jaws of brute creatures uttered human speech;
women bore monstrous offspring with surplus limbs,
the mothers appalled by this birth of strange infants;
while dire prophecies of the Cumaean Sibyl passed
from mouth to mouth. The faithful, inspired by fierce
Bellona, who slash their arms, chanted of heaven’s anger,
as the Galli whirled their gory locks, shrieking ruin
to the nations. Groans issued from the urns filled
with the ashes of the dead. The clash of weapons
was heard, loud cries in the forest depths, sounds
of ghostly armies locked in battle. Those who tilled
the fields near the outer walls fled on every side,
as the vast shape of a Fury stalked round the city,
tossing her hissing snaky locks, and brandishing
a burning pine-tree with its tip held downwards.
Such was the one who drove Agave to madness
at Thebes, or brandished fierce Lycurgus’ goads.
Such was Megaera, who as agent of Juno’s cruelty
terrified Hercules, though he’d seen the realm of Dis.
Trumpets blared, and as armies cry out as they clash,
so the dark of night rang out though the wind was still.
Now Sulla’s ghost was seen to rise from the midst
of the Campus Martius, prophesying doom, while
Marius, burst from his sepulchre, lifting his head
beside chill Anio’s stream, scattered the folk in flight.
Book I:584-637 Arruns reads the future
So they chose to follow ancient custom and summon
Etruscan seers. The most venerable was Arruns, who
lived in the deserted city of Luca, for whom the track
of the lightning bolt, the signs on the warm entrails,
and the significance of every bird wandering the sky
held no secrets. First he decreed that those monstrous
infants be destroyed, whom Nature at odds with herself
engendered from no true seed, ordering the vile
fruit of profitless wombs burned with inauspicious fuel.
Then, at his orders, the fearful citizens circled the city
while the pontiffs empowered to perform the task
cleansed the walls with solemn lustration, marching
around the sacred pomerium, the boundary of the city.
Behind them walked the lesser priests, girded in Gabine
fashion; the Vestal Virgins led by the priestess, her
brow bound with sacred ribbons, she alone allowed
to set eyes on Trojan Minerva; and next the Fifteen
who guard the divine prophecies and mystic chants,
who summon Cybele from her bath in Almo’s brook;
then the Augurs, who read the meaning of bird-flight
on the left; the Seven who hold the festal banquets;
the Titian Guild; the Salii who bear the sacred shields
on their shoulders in triumph; and the Flamen whose
pointed cap rises tall from his noble head. While this
long procession wound round the vast city, Arruns
gathered the scattered embers of the lightning-bolts
and buried them in the earth to a gloomy muttering.
He sanctified the place, and brought a sacrificial bull
to a holy altar, a bull chosen for its size, but when
he began to pour the wine, and sprinkle the grain
from his slanting knife, the victim struggled violently
against the unwelcome sacrifice; yet when the noble
attendants dragged on its horns it sank to earth,
helplessly offering its unprotected neck to the blow.
The liquid that flowed from the gaping wound
was not red blood but a strange and terrible slime.
Appalled by the dark outcome, Arruns grew pale,
and snatched up the entrails to read the cause
of divine anger. Their very colour alarmed him,
the organs, black with congealed gore, were marked
with signs of malignant sickness, covered everywhere
with dull patches, and spots of blood. The liver,
he saw, was flabby and rotten, with ominous streaks
on its exposed part. The branches of the panting lungs
were indistinct, with only a thin membrane separating
the vital organs. The heart was flattened, the flesh
exuded corrupted blood through gaping cracks,
and the bowels betrayed their hiding place.
Behold, he saw a horror never once witnessed
in a victim’s entrails without disaster following;
a vast second lobe grew on the lobe of the liver,
so that one part hung flabby with sickness,
while the other quivered and its veins trembled
to an a-rhythmic beat. Perceiving the prediction
of profound disaster, he cried aloud: ‘I scarcely
dare to reveal to man the evil the gods prepare.
My sacrifice finds favour, not with mighty Jove
but with the infernal gods who enter the body
of this dead bull. We feared the worst, but what
follows will be worse than our fears. May the gods
re-cast what we saw, the entrails prove false,
and the arts of our founder Tages mere invention!’
So the Etruscan seer spoke of the tortuous future,
veiling and hiding it in profound ambiguity.
Book I:638-672 Figulus reads the heavens
And Figulus, whose aim it was to know the gods
and the secrets of the heavens, he whom not even
Egyptian Memphis equalled in stellar observation
or calculation of the stars’ passage, he also spoke:
‘If the universe changes endlessly ungoverned
by laws, then the heavenly bodies wander on
errant courses, but if it be guided by fate a swift
destruction will overtake Rome and all mankind.
Shall the ground open and cities be swallowed,
and fierce heat overtake our temperate clime?
Shall the unfaithful soil refuse its produce,
the waters everywhere running with poison?
What kind of ruin, O gods, does your anger
prepare, and by what means? The lives of many
are doomed to end on the same day. Were Saturn,
the cold and baleful planet displaying his dark
rays in the zenith, then Aquarius would pour
down upon us such floods as Deucalion saw,
and Earth would vanish under a waste of waters.
If the sun’s light were streaming from Nemean
Leo, then fire would bathe the world, the upper
air burning would be consumed by the solar chariot.
Their rays are quiet now, but Mars, what dire
purpose have you in rousing the threatening
Scorpion with fiery tail, scorching its pincers?
For benign Jupiter is hidden deep in the west,
Venus’ healthful planet is dimmed, Mercury’s
swift path is retrograde, Mars keeps the heavens
alone. Why have the constellations deserted
their known paths, moving obscurely through
the sky, yet Orion’s sword-girt flank shines
all too bright? War’s madness is upon us,
where the sword’s power will wildly confound
all law, and vicious crime be called virtue.
This frenzy will last many years, and what use
our praying to the gods above that it might end?
With peace will come dictatorship. Let Rome
drag out an unbroken succession of sufferings
and prolong her agony for years, free only
henceforth while such civil strife endures.
Book I:673-695 Apollo inspires a prophecy
These dire forebodings were enough to terrify
the fearful people, but worse was to follow.
For a woman ran through the stunned city,
as a Bacchante inspired by Theban Lyaeus
will rush down from the summit of Pindus,
revealing by her cries the force of Phoebus
in her chest: ‘Where are you carrying me,
O Paean, so swiftly through the heavens,
where will you set my feet? I see Pangaeus
bright with snowy ridges, and Philippi,
beneath Haemus’ crags. Say, O Phoebus,
what madness embroils Roman arms
and spears in battle, in war without a foe?
Where now am I driven? To the east you
carry me, where Nile’s Egyptian waters
stain the sea: I recognise that headless
corpse stranded on the sandy shore.
Grim Enyo has transferred Pharsalia’s
ranks over the waves to treacherous Syrtis
and parched Libya: there you transport me;
then away over the cloudy Alps and high
Pyrenees, back to my native city where
civil war reaches the very Senate House.
Faction again rears its head, and once more
I circle Earth. Grant me to see a different
land, O Phoebus, for Philippi I have seen.’
So saying she fell, abandoned, her frenzy spent.
End of Book I