The Civil War (Pharsalia)

Book I

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved.

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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