The Civil War (Pharsalia)
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved.
This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.
- Book VIII:1-85 Pompey journeys to Lesbos
- Book VIII:86-108 Cornelia speaks
- Book VIII:109-158 Pompey sails from Lesbos
- Book VIII:159-201 Navigation by the stars
- Book VIII:202-255 Deiotarus’ mission
- Book VIII:256-330 Pompey at Syhedra (Sedra)
- Book VIII:331-455 Lentulus rejects Pompey’s plans
- Book VIII:456-535 Pompey reaches Egypt
- Book VIII:536-636 The murder of Pompey
- Book VIII:637-662 Cornelia laments
- Book VIII:663-711 The severed head
- Book VIII:712-822 Pompey’s grave
- Book VIII:823-870 A curse on Egypt
Book VIII:1-85 Pompey journeys to Lesbos
Meanwhile, by winding tracks, Pompey made for
the forested wastes of Thessaly beyond that vale
of Hercules, wooded Tempe, urging on a horse
wearied by flight and unresponsive to the spur,
masking the confused traces of his retreat with
a wandering labyrinth trail. He dreaded the roar
of the wind in the swaying trees, while the sound
of his comrades falling back to join him roused
fear and agitation. Though fallen from the heights,
he knew there was no trivial price on his head,
and, remembering his past, believed his death
would earn as great a reward as he would give
for Caesar’s severed head. Seeking solitude, he
yet knew that his noble and powerful features
would not allow him to hide from fate in a safe
retreat. Many still seeking his camp at Pharsalia
while rumour had not yet spread of his defeat
were amazed to meet their general, astounded
at his loss, and he was barely believed though
telling himself of the disaster, The presence of
any witness to his woe was galling to Pompey.
He sought to be unrecognised by all, and pass
through cities safely under an obscure identity,
but Fortune who had long favoured him, now
exacted a penalty from the wretched, bringing
his weight of fame against him, and burdening
him with his previous glories. Now he feels his
honours came too swiftly, and curses those acts
of his triumphant youth in Sulla’s day; now in
his fall he hates to remember his fleet’s pursuit
of Cilician pirates, his armies in Pontus. So long
years destroy mighty hearts, and life may outlast
power. Past greatness is a mockery unless our life
and happiness end together, a swift death averting
sorrow. Should any man dare to trust good fortune,
without the means of death at hand? Pompey had
reached the shore where the Peneus, already dyed
with blood from Pharsalia’s slaughter, flowed to
the sea. From there a boat vulnerable to the winds
and waves, barely safe in the shallows, bore him,
apprehensive, over the deep. He whose oars still
beat the waters off Corcyra (Corfu), and the bays
of Leucas (Lefkada), lord of the Cilicians and of
the Liburnian lands, cowered like a frightened
passenger in that skiff. He commanded the sail be
bent towards secluded Lesbos, the isle entrusted
with his beloved Cornelia, where she lay hidden
but sadder than if she stood on Pharsalia’s field.
Her sorrow was intensified by apprehension, her
sleep broken by anxiety and fear. Her every night
was haunted by Thessaly; thus, as darkness ended,
she ran to the heights of a steep cliff by the shore;
gazing over the waves, she was always first to spy
the sails of some approaching vessel, dipping in
the distance, afraid to ask after her husband’s fate.
Behold now, a boat with sail making for your isle!
What it bears you knows not; till now sad news
of war and ominous rumour fed your worst fears.
Now your husband comes to you in defeat. Why
lose a moment in mourning? Though you will
weep, as yet you only fear! But now, as the vessel
neared, she rose and marked the cruelty of guilty
heaven, her husband’s ghastly pallor, the grey
hair that hid his face, his clothes black with dust.
Faintness robbed her of the light of day, darkness
closed upon her grief, sorrow stopped her breath,
betrayed by the sinews her limbs folded, her heart
froze, and for a long time she lay expecting death.
A hawser was run to the shore, and Pompey trod
the empty sand. Her loyal attendants, seeing him
close at hand, dared not rail at fate except with
stifled moans, while trying in vain to raise their
mistress from the ground, but Pompey clasped
her in his arms, bringing life to her rigid limbs.
The blood returned to the surface of her flesh,
she became aware of his touch and was able
now to recognise her husband’s sorrowful face.
He forbade her to succumb to destiny, while
reproving her excess of grief: ‘A woman noted
for the titles, honours of such mighty ancestors,
why let the first stroke of ill-fortune sap your
strength? Here is your opportunity for centuries
of lasting fame. Neither war nor office yields
your sex glory, only a husband’s misfortune.
Rouse your courage, and let your affections
strive with fate, embrace the fact of my defeat.
Your is the greater glory now, since power,
and the dutiful ranks of senators, and all my
royal followers quit me: be you now Pompey’s
sole companion. As long as your husband lives,
such deep grief, admitting no relief, is unfitting;
the height of fidelity must be to mourn the man
himself. You suffered no loss from my defeat;
Pompey survived the battle, though his glory
perished. What you weep for, that you loved!’
Book VIII:86-108 Cornelia speaks
Rebuked thus by her husband, Cornelia slowly
raised her trembling limbs from the ground,
and her moans gave vent to this complaint:
‘O would that I were wedded to loathsome
Caesar, being an ill-omened bride, bringing
happiness to no man! Twice I harm mankind.
The Fury and those Crassi, now shades, led
me forth as a bride, and cursed by those dead
I bring another Carrhae now to this Civil War,
sending nations headlong, and driving heaven
away from the better cause. O noble husband,
too good for such a wife, has fate such power
over such a man? Why was I chosen to plague
your marriage bed; only to bring you sorrow?
Exact then the penalty, which I will gladly pay:
give your companion to the waves, so the sea
may be calmer for you, your kings keep faith,
and the whole world more ready to serve you.
I had rather I had laid down my life to bring
your army victory; now Pompey expiate your
defeat. Unforgiving Julia, you who have cursed
our bed with civil strife, come from wherever
you are buried, and exact the penalty, and then,
appeased by your rival’s death, spare Pompey.’
With this she fell back into her husband’s arms,
and the eyes of all there were moved to tears.
Pompey’s stern heart was stirred, and Lesbos
troubled those eyes that were dry at Pharsalia.
Book VIII:109-158 Pompey sails from Lesbos
Then the people of Mytilene, filling the shoreline,
addressed Pompey: ‘Since it will ever have been
our greatest glory to have protected so mighty
a general’s wife, we pray you will honour our city
bound to you by sacred ties, finding our homes
worthy of sheltering you for this night at least.
Make this a place that all will visit for centuries,
where men shall come from Rome to worship.
No place is more fitting for you to enter in defeat:
all others may hope for the victor’s favour, while
this is already marked. Would Caesar not need
his fleet since Lesbos is an island? Then most
of the senators, aware of this, will gather here,
you shall restore your fortune on these shores.
Accept the wealth of our temples, the treasure
of the gods; make use of our forces, whether
on land or sea, whichever serves best. Employ
Lesbos in whatever manner she is worthy of.
Accept, in defeat, what Caesar will only steal.
Acquit our island, that has served you well,
of this one crime: that in adversity our loyalty
be doubted that you enjoyed in good fortune.’
Overjoyed, in defeat, to find such devotion,
glad, for mankind’s sake, for a faith unshaken,
Pompey replied: ‘I have shown by my actions
that no place on earth is dearer to me: while
Cornelia was your hostage, Lesbos was Rome
to me, my dear and sacred hearth and home;
I sailed my ship for no other shore in flight,
and though knowing Lesbos had earned cruel
Caesar’s anger in keeping my wife from harm,
I have not hesitated to commit myself to you,
a powerful means for you to regain his favour.
But here I must cease to implicate you further.
It is for me to follow wherever fate leads me.
Ah Lesbos, happiest of all, and famed forever,
whether she shows the way to other nations
and kingdoms to receive me, or alone is loyal.
Now I mean to discover where good and evil
dwell in this world. Hear a last prayer, you gods,
if any are yet with me, grant me the likes of these
people of Lesbos, who allow a defeated man,
pursued by Caesar, to enter their harbour then
leave again.’ So he spoke and led his saddened
wife aboard. Such a lament rose along the shore
you might have thought all were leaving their
native soil for some foreign land, their hands
thrust towards heaven. Pompey’s departure,
whose ill-fortune alone had stirred their grief,
moved them less than that of Cornelia, whom
they had considered as one of their own during
the conflict; at her leaving they groaned aloud.
The women would scarcely have parted from
her without tears even if she had been joining
a victorious spouse, such love had she inspired
in them, some by her modesty, others by her
truthfulness, and her pure and reticent looks,
because humble of heart, and no burdensome
guest to them all, she lived while her husband’s
fortunes stood as if her were already defeated.
Book VIII:159-201 Navigation by the stars
The sun’s fires by now were half-sunk in the waves,
half-seen by those from whose hemisphere he sank,
and by those, if such men exist, for whom he rose.
The thoughts that troubled Pompey’s mind turned
from allies in league with Rome to the uncertain
loyalties of kings, and the pathless lands that lay
beyond the burning skies to the south. Such was
the sad turmoil in his mind, such was his hatred
of tomorrow that he threw off the heavy burden
of uncertainty by asking the helmsman about
the stars: how did he steer for land, what aid
to cleave the waves lay in the sky, what stars
served to make for Syria, which of the Wain’s
were a pointer to Libya? The expert watcher
of the silent skies answered him thus: ‘Those
lights that glide and vanish from the starry sky,
its axle never-resting, deceiving the wretched
seaman, are not to be followed; but the un-setting
pole-star that never sinks beneath the waves,
brightest near the two Bears, guides our vessels.
When I see him always lift on high, where
Ursa Minor tops the mast-tree, then we face
the Bosphorus and the Black Sea that indents
the Scythian shore. But when the Bear-Keeper,
Bootes, hangs clear from the mast-head, when
the Little Bear sinks nearer the sea, the ship
is headed for Syrian harbour. Then there is
Canopus, a star that shuns the north and is
content to wander the southern sky: keep
that to port and sail past Pharos, your ship
will strike the Syrtes amidst the waves. But
where would you bid me sail, what should
our course be now?’ Pompey, unsure, replied:
‘Let this be your only care, in sailing onwards,
that the ship be further from Thessalian shores,
leave behind the western seas and skies, trust
the rest to the wind. I have my wife on board,
the pledge I left when I knew what shore to seek,
now chance must grant us harbour.’ So he spoke,
and the helmsman hauled hard on the level sail
stretched from the yardarms, and turned to port,
so as to cleave the rough waves roughened by
Chios and the cliffs of Asina, slacking the ropes
at the bow, while tightening those at the stern.
The waves responded, altering in sound, as their
prow sliced the sea and their course was changed
more skilfully than the charioteer who pivots on
his right wheel round the unscathed turning-post.
Book VIII:202-255 Deiotarus’ mission
The sun lit the earth and hid the stars. Whoever
had fled far from the stormy field of Pharsalia
now rallied to Pompey; the first to meet with him
once he had quit Lesbos’ shore was his son Sextus,
next a loyal band of senators arrived; even now,
cast down by fate and defeated in battle, Fortune
did not rob him of kings to serve him: his friends
in exile were lords of the earth, kings of the east.
He sent Deiotarus, who had followed his leader
on his wanderings, to scour the world, saying:
‘O most loyal of rulers, since Rome’s sphere
has been eclipsed by our disaster at Pharsalia,
it remains to try the nations of the East, those
who drink the waters of Tigris and Euphrates,
as yet secure from Caesar. Seeking to change
our fate, do not hesitate to sound the reaches
of distant Scythia, and far Parthia; change skies,
carry this message to Parthia’s proud Arsaces:
‘If our former treaty holds, sworn in the name
of the Thunderer by me, and made binding by
your magi, fill your quivers, string those bows
from Armenia with Getic sinew; O Parthia,
did I not when I chased the doughty Alani,
eternally at war, towards the Caspian Gates,
did I not let you traverse the Persian plains,
refuse to force your hasty refuge in Babylon?
I passed Cyrus by, and the Chaldean realm,
where swift Ganges and Nysaean Hydaspes
flow towards the sea, closer to the flames
of the rising sun than Persia, and though
everywhere victorious I refused to add
the Parthians to my conquests and alone
among the kingdoms of the East, treated
you as equals. Twice, thanks to Pompey,
the Arcasids were saved; for who curbed
Rome’s righteous anger when wounded
by the slaughter at Carrhae? Let Parthia
now, bound to me by so many favours,
breach her borders, and pass the Euphrates,
a thing forbid for centuries, at Alexander’s
Zeugma (Birecik). Conquer Rome, Parthia,
for Pompey, and Rome will welcome you.’
Though the task was difficult, Deiotarus
did not refuse and, laying aside his royal
insignia, he left in haste, wearing a slave’s
garb. In time of danger a ruler finds it safer
to dress as a beggar; how much more secure
then the truly poor than the lords of the earth!
The king was set ashore, Pompey sailed past
the cliffs of Icaria, and shunning the placid
waters of Ephesus and Colophon, skirted
the foaming rocks of tiny Samos; a breeze
blew from the shores of Cos; he avoided
Cnidos, and Rhodes famed isle of the sun,
and by-passed the long bay of Telmessus,
keeping to open water. His ship now faced
the land of Pamphylia, and though he had
not yet dared to entrust himself to any city
Pompey now entered your gate, little
Phaselis (Tekirova), your scanty population
scarcely a threat, your homes drained of men,
such that there were more aboard ship than
behind your walls. From here he once more
set sail, until Mount Taurus rose to view,
and Dipsus descending from Mount Taurus.
Book VIII:256-330 Pompey at Syhedra (Sedra)
Could Pompey have conceived how by suppressing
piracy he himself would benefit? He fled unharmed
along Cilicia’s shores in his little vessel. A number
of senators followed, gathering to the fugitive leader;
and at Syhedra, that little harbour that sends outward
and receives again Selinus’ shipping, Pompey spoke
sadly to the assembled statesmen: ‘Comrades, in war
and in defeat, who represent our country, though I,
who seek your counsel, to endorse fresh strategy,
stand here on the barren shores of Cilicia, with no
army about me, yet hear me with hearts held high.
I did not yield to total defeat on Pharsalia’s field,
nor are my fortunes so low I cannot lift my head
once more, and shake off the disaster we suffered.
If Marius could rise again to office from the ruins
of Carthage, and grace those annals already filled
with his name, shall Fortune’s lighter blows deny
me? A thousand ships of mine ride Greek waters,
a thousand generals are mine. Pharsalia scattered
my forces rather than destroying them. Even now
I might be secure through a whole world of deeds,
and that name of mine that the whole world loves.
Weigh well those realms of Libya, Parthia, Egypt
as regards their strength and loyalty; say which
might worthily retrieve Rome’s fortunes, though
I will reveal to you my private thoughts, and this
decision to which my mind’s inclined. I mistrust
the extreme youth of Egypt’s new Ptolemy, since
loyalty in times of danger needs adult judgement.
Then, I fear two-faced Juba’s cunning, since that
impious son of Carthage, mindful of his ancestry,
threatens Italy; his empty head is full of Hannibal,
whose remote link to his Numidian forefathers,
taints his blood. When Varus once sought his aid,
Juba swelled with pride seeing Rome a suppliant.
So, up my friends, make haste for Eastern realms.
Euphrates’ waters hide a mighty world from us,
and the Caspian gates enclose vast solitudes;
a different hemisphere dictates Assyria’s changes
of night and day, and their sea is other than ours
and its water tinged differently. Their one desire
is warfare. Their horses are swift on the plains,
their bows are strong, neither young nor old are
slow to loose the deadly shaft, death accompanies
every arrow. Their archers were the first to break
the Macedonian phalanx, taking Bactra, capital
of the Medes, and Babylon, that city of Assyria
behind proud walls. Nor do they fear the Roman
javelin, riding boldly to war, proving the power
of their Scythian arrows the day that Crassus fell.
The bolts they fire do not rely on steel alone, for
their hurtling missiles are dipped deep in poison.
A slight wound kills, death is in a mere scratch.
Would that I had not such faith in the cruel sons
of Arsaces! This destiny that rules the Medes
too closely mirrors ours, and the gods greatly
nurture them. I shall pour forth nations uprooted
from alien lands, send out all the east summoned
from its cities. But if eastern faith and barbarian
treaties fail me, let fortune bear me, in my ruin,
beyond the beaten highways of the world: I shall
not beg from kings I made. If I fall at the earth’s
end, this will be a mighty solace in dying: Caesar
shall not outrage my corpse, nor pretend respect.
When I review the tale of my life, I was always
honoured in that Eastern world, famed indeed
beyond the Sea of Azov, and by Sarmatia’s Don!
Where was my fame involved with more glorious
deeds, from where did I return in greater triumph?
Rome, favour my enterprise; what greater happiness
can the gods grant you than waging civil war with
Parthian troops, consuming their men, involving
then with our ills? When Caesar’s armies confront
the Medes, fortune avenges the Crassi or myself.’
So he spoke, but sensed from their mutterings that
the gathering condemned his plans. Lentulus, who
was most sensitive to honour’s pangs and wounded
nobility, spoke as befitted one who was once a consul:
Book VIII:331-455 Lentulus rejects Pompey’s plans
‘Has defeat in Thessaly so broken your spirit? Must
a single day determine the world’s fate? Is this issue
to be settled by the outcome of Pharsalia? Is there
no cure for a bleeding wound? Is all that fortune
leaves you, Pompey, to fall at the Parthians’ feet?
Why flee our world, scorning whole tracts of earth
and sky, seeking hostile heavens and alien stars,
to serve the Parthians, and worship at Chaldaean
altars with barbaric rites? Why pretend to a love
of freedom as your pretext for war? If you would
be a slave, why deceive a suffering world? When
you ruled Rome the Parthian king would tremble
at your name, seeing you lead captive kings from
Hyrcanian forests and Indian shores; shall he now
witness you cast down by fate, beaten and broken,
raising his insane ambition against Rome’s power,
measuring himself and Rome by Pompey’s pleas?
Your outpourings to him will be unworthy of your
courage and deeds; ignorant of our Latin tongue, he
will demand you beg with tears. Must we suffer this
stain upon our honour, that Parthia avenges Rome’s
disaster in Thessaly before Rome does so herself?
Surely she elected you for civil war; why broadcast
our sufferings and disasters among Scythian tribes
ignorant of them? Why teach the Parthians to cross
Euphrates? Rome loses much of the solace for her
misery if she submits to a foreign king rather than
obeying her own citizen. Is it your pleasure to march
through the world and lead savages against the walls
of Rome following standards taken on the Euphrates
from the Crassi? One king was missing at Pharsalia,
while Fortune’s favours lay hidden, and will he then
challenge Caesar’s power after hearing of his victory,
and make common cause with you? That nation of his
lacks the confidence. Every man born to Northern cold
is indomitable in war, courting death: but at every step
towards the warmer East, the inhabitants grow softer as
the sky becomes more clement. There it is all flowing
garments and loose robes, even amongst the men. In
the Persian lands, over Sarmatian plains, on the levels
that extend beside the Tigris, the Parthian is free to flee,
unconquerable by any; but where the land rises, he will
not climb harsh mountain ridges, fight on in the gloom
impaired by an uncertain mark for his bow, nor cleave
the river’s swift current by swimming. Nor, his limbs
coated in blood from battle, will he suffer the stifling
dust of a summer’s day. Parthia lacks battering rams,
the engines of war, and the strength to level ditches;
anything that obstructs an arrow will foil the pursuing
Persians. They skirmish, flee as they fight, and roam
in vague squadrons. They are quicker to yield ground
than dislodge the enemy. They smear poison on their
shafts, lacking the courage to engage at close quarters,
and draw their bows at a venture, then allow the wind
to carry their arrows where it will. All strength belongs
to the sword, and every manly race fights with the blade.
But the Parthian is disarmed in the moment of attack,
and forced to retreat with empty quiver. They ever rely
on poison, and never strength of arms. Do you, Pompey,
call on those who are scared to face war’s uncertainty
with the steel alone? Is the temptation of this shameful
alliance so great, that sees you parted from your country
by half a world, so you may lie beneath barbarous earth,
hidden in a poor and vile grave, yet shameful still while
Crassus seeks burial in vain? Yours is the easier destiny,
since the ultimate penalty holds scant fear for the brave,
but Cornelia has more to fear from the power of that
infamous king. Is that barbarous lust forgotten, which
flouts the marriage vows and the sanctities of wedlock
with polygamous union, in the manner of blind beasts;
where the secrets of the bridal chamber are infamously
revealed to his harem of a thousand women? The king
madly aroused by food and wine, dares couple in ways
the law finds too monstrous to define; the whole night
through will not serve to weary the man of such charms.
Their sisters lie in the beds of kings and, though sacred,
their mothers. In unhappy legend Thebes, Oedipus’ city,
was condemned by mankind for the crime he unwittingly
committed. And how often has an Arsaces not been born
of such a union to rule the Parthians! What is thought evil
by one who thinks it right to couple with his own mother?
Metellus’ noble daughter will serve the barbarian’s bed,
one more among a thousand wives; yet the king’s lust,
Pompey, will seize on her more than another, fired by
cruelty and her husbands’ fame, since it will heighten
that Parthian’s monstrous pleasure knowing that she
was once the wife of Crassus, as if to be carried off
a slave were the fate due her for his defeat at Carrhae.
If that wretched wound we suffered in the East still
rankles, you will not merely blush to seek aid from
that death-dealing king, but for having waged war
on Romans first. What greater reproach can people
bring against you and your father-in-law than that
while you met in conflict vengeance for the Crassi
was forgotten? All our generals should have gone
to Bactra and, so that not one single weapon were
lacking, the northern frontiers of the Empire laid
bare to the Dacians, the tribes beyond the Rhine,
while Babylon and perfidious Susa were laid in
ruins above their monarchs’ tombs. Fortune, we
pray that the Assyrian truce may end, and if this
civil war was settled at Pharsalia, let whoever
conquered head for Parthia. There is the nation
I would love to witness Caesar triumphing over.
Will not the shade of Crassus, of that sorrowful
old man, pierced by Scythian arrows, hurl this
reproach at you, once you have crossed the cold
Araxes: “Do you come here to make peace, you
whom we unburied ghosts hoped would avenge
our ashes after death?” There signs of our defeat
will meet your eyes; those walls around which
they dragged the headless bodies of our generals,
where Euphrates’ waters closed over so many
famous men, and Tigris’ current bore our dead
deep underground and then once more to light.
If you can face that, Pompey, you might rather
petition Caesar ensconced on Pharsalia’s field.
Why not turn your eyes to the Roman world?
If you fear Juba’s lack of faith, whose realm
stretches far southward, then let Ptolemy’s
Egypt be our goal. His kingdom is protected
to the west by Libyan Syrtes, and to the north
the Nile, with its seven mouths, meets the sea.
A land replete with its own resources, it has no
need of trade or rainfall, so great is its reliance
on the Nile alone. The sceptre the boy Ptolemy
holds he owes to you, Pompey; it was entrusted
to your guardianship. Who can dread the mere
shadow of a name? He is harmless at that age.
Look not for justice, loyalty, or fear of the gods
in a long-established court. The habits of power
know no shame; a kingdom’s burden is lightest
when the king is new.’ Lentulus now fell silent,
but his speech had already swayed their minds.
What freedom is granted by a mere anticipation
of death! So Pompey’s proposals were defeated.
Book VIII:456-535 Pompey reaches Egypt
Now Pompey quit Cilicia’s shores and sailed his
ships in haste for Cyprus, which the goddess
Venus prefers to her other shrines, remembering
the Paphian waves if we are to believe the tale
of her birth, and if indeed it is right to propound
the view that the gods had a beginning. Skirting
its coast, passing the long line of cliffs projecting
southwards, they set a course across the open sea.
Unable to make Pharos, whose lighthouse at night
is a blessing, struggling with the sails, they reached
Egypt’s delta further east where of seven branches
of the dividing Nile the largest ends in the shoals
of Pelusium. It was on that day when Libra weighs
equal hours of night and daylight with level scales,
the shortening days thereafter recompensing wintry
night for the hours of darkness lost in spring. Now,
learning that Pharaoh was camped on Mount Casius,
Pompey sailed there, the sun and the sails yet aloft.
By then, a lookout, taking horse swiftly on the shore,
had filled the nervous court with news of the arrival.
There was barely time to consult; yet the counsellors
of the Pharaoh’s palace gathered, Acoreus among
them, made milder by his years, and sobered by
weakness, whom Memphis, with its vain rites, bore,
Memphis that measures the depth of the rising Nile;
and during his priesthood more than one Apis bull
had lived its quarter century assigned by the Moon.
He was first to speak at council, talking of loyalty,
mutual benefit, of the dead Pharaoh’s sacred treaty.
But Pothinus, one fitter to know and sway evil kings,
dared to argue for Pompey’s death, saying: ‘Ptolemy,
human rules and divine ones may send many wrong;
we must punish the loyalty we praise when it supports
those whom Fortune crushes. Follow fate and the gods:
court the fortunate, shun the defeated. Wrong-headed
rectitude and utility are far apart as earth from the stars,
fire from water. The sceptre’s power perishes utterly
one we begin to weigh thoughts of justice; too much
respect for virtue levels strongholds. Endless crimes,
and free use of the sword, make hated monarchs safe.
Commit every cruelty, and suffer for it unless you do.
Let the man who would be pious quit the court. Virtue
and absolute power never dwell together; for he who is
ashamed of cruelty, must live in fear. Let not Pompey
despise your youth with impunity, who believes you
incapable of driving a beaten man from your shores.
If you regret the kingship, there are others nearer you
in blood – restore Pharos and the Nile to your sister,
Cleopatra, whom you banished, rather than let some
foreigner rob us of the throne. Let us defend Egypt
from Roman arms, at least. Whatever did not belong
to Pompey during the war, is not the victor’s either.
Driven from place to place, no faith left in fortune,
he seeks a nation to share his fall. Dragged down
by the shades of the dead, it is not so much Caesar’s
sword he flies from, as the senate’s gaze, so many
senators glutted the vultures of Thessaly; he fears
the tribes he deserted, left weltering in their blood;
dreads the kings whose might he destroyed; guilty
of Pharsalia, rejected by every land, now he troubles
our country, which he has not yet ruined. And our
complaint against him, Ptolemy, is more just than
any he has of us. Why does he sully our secluded
peace-loving Pharos with the sinful stain of war,
and give Caesar grounds for mistrusting us? Why,
in his fall, choose this country above all on which
to bring Pharsalia’s doom, a punishment not ours?
Already we incur a guilt purged only by the sword.
At his persuasion the Senate granted us sovereignty
over Egypt, and so we prayed for his victory. Yet
the sword that destiny commands me to brandish
I drew for the defeated, not intentionally for him.
Pompey, I shall pierce your heart, though I had
rather it had been Caesar’s: we are caught by this
flood that sweeps away all things. Do you not see
the need to do you violence while we can? What
misguided faith in our kingdom brings you here,
unhappy man? Do you not know our ineffectual
subjects, almost too weak to till the soil moistened
by the retreating Nile? If we must take the measure
of our kingdom, then we must confess our frailty.
Ptolemy, can you sustain Pompey’s ruin, beneath
which Rome is buried? Do you dare rake the ashes
of Pharsalia’s pyre, and bring war on your realm?
Why, before Pharsalia’s battle we refused to arm;
shall we join Pompey now when all desert him?
Do you challenge the victor’s power and proven
destiny? It is right in following success not to fail
it in defeat, but we need not befriend the wretched.’
Book VIII:536-636 The murder of Pompey
All seconded the crime. The boy-king was pleased by
a deference seldom shown him, in that his attendants
allowed him to command such a thing. Achillas was
chosen to commit that evil act, where the treacherous
land juts out among the sands of Mount Casius, where
the Egyptian shoals testify to neighbouring Syrtes,
and he manned a small boat with armed accomplices
for the wicked deed. O you gods, had the land of Nile,
barbarous Memphis, and those effeminate peoples
of Egyptian Canopus the courage for this? Had that
civil war so oppressed the world? Had Rome fallen
so far? What place had Egypt, and a Pharaoh’s sword
in our tragedy? Civil war should at least preserve this
nicety: death at Roman hands far from foreign vileness.
If Pompey’s bright name pricked a Caesar’s conscience,
should you, Ptolemy, not have feared its ruinous fall?
How did you dare, vile manikin, to involve your foul
sacrilegious self, while the heavens thundered? Had he,
Pompey, never conquered worlds, or driven thrice
to the Capitol in triumph, ruled kings, championed
the Senate, or been son-in-law to Caesar, yet still
he was a Roman, and that should have been enough
for a king of Egypt. Why probe our heart with your
blade, perverse child, who did not know where your
destiny lay? Already your claim to Egypt’s throne
was a lie, since civil war had overthrown him who
granted it. Pompey, denying the wind his sails, was
being rowed towards the accursed shore, when that
little twin-oared boat drew alongside carrying its
murderous crew. Feigning to welcome him to Egypt,
they bid him step from the stern of his tall vessel
into their little craft, pleading the shallow depth
and the surf of two seas breaking on the sandbars,
that prevented foreign ships from anchoring near.
What but the power of destiny, that tragic fate
decreed by the eternal order, drew him, doomed
to die, to that shore, such that all his comrades
felt presentiments of murder, for if the king had
been genuinely loyal, a Pharaoh would have met
him with all his fleet, and thrown open the court
to Pompey from whom its royalty derived? Yet
Pompey yielded to fate, obeying when requested
to leave his ship, choosing to die rather than show
fear. Cornelia in turn hastened to embark aboard
the hostile craft, fearing disaster and even less
willing therefore to be left behind by her husband,
but he cried: ‘Wait, my rash wife and you, my son,
I beg you; watch what occurs on shore and let my
survival prove this Pharaoh’s good faith.’ But, deaf
to his admonition, Cornelia stretched out her hands,
saying wildly: ‘Why are you leaving me, so cruelly?
Are you to desert me once more, as you so kept me
from the horrors of Pharsalia? Wretches parted with
never a happy omen! If you choose to keep me from
every shore, then you might as well, in fleeing, have
sailed past Lesbos, and left me there to my seclusion.
Is my company only pleasing to you on the waves?’
Pouring out her remonstrance in vain, she hung by
the ship’s side, fear and panic preventing her from
gazing at Pompey or averting her eyes. The fleet lay
at anchor, the crews fearful of their leader’s fate, not
that he might be attacked, but that he might bow low,
humbly petitioning one whose sceptre he had granted.
As he prepared to step across, a Roman soldier called
to him from the Egyptian boat, Septimius who, shame
on all the gods, had abandoned the javelin for the base
banner of a royal minion. Savage, violent, and brutal,
he was no more than a wild beast in his love of killing.
One might have thought Fortune was showing mercy
when she kept that blood-stained sword far distant
from Pharsalia, when he played no part in that battle,
but no, she scatters her weapons widely, so that no
place on earth is free of civil murder. In an act that
brought shame on Caesar himself, and will forever
be a reproach to heaven, it was a Roman obeyed
the boy Pharaoh’s order, and Pompey’s head was
severed by a man who had once served under him.
With what infamy Septimius’ name will descend
to posterity! If Brutus’ deed was called wicked,
what name should be granted to this crime? Now
Pompey’s day was done, borne off in the Egyptian
boat, he was already lost. Then the king’s creatures
drew their steel, and he, on seeing the approaching
blades, covered his head and face, disdaining to
expose them bare to Fortune’s stroke. Then closing
his eyes he stifled his breath, so he could not speak
or mar his eternal glory by weeping. When Achillas
drove the fatal point through his side, he gave no
cry, nor acknowledged the wicked act, remaining
motionless, proving his strength in dying, these
thoughts whirling in his mind: ‘Future ages that
never shall forget Rome’s turmoil, are watching
now; in every quarter of the world, those to come
will envision this boat, and a Pharaoh’s treachery:
think now of fame, you, to whom success flowed
throughout your long life, for men will not know
if you could endure adversity, unless you show it
by your death. Do not yield to shame nor grieve at
the author of your death: think it the hand of your
kinsman whoever slays you. Let them mutilate
and scatter my limbs, yet, you gods, I am content,
and no god can rob me of this. Life may alter our
good fortune; death can make no man wretched.
Cornelia and my son witness my murder, so then
with patience let resentment stifle its complaint;
If they admire the manner of my death, they will
love me all the more.’ Such power had Pompey
over his mind and spirit as he encountered death.
Book VIII:637-662 Cornelia laments
But Cornelia, readier to suffer savagery than witness it,
filled the air with her mournful cry: ‘O, my husband, I
am guilty of your death: Lesbos’ remoteness was cause
of your fatal delay, Caesar has reached Egypt’s shores
before you; for who else could command such a crime?
But whoever the gods sent to destroy him, whether you
serve Caesar’s hatred or your own, you do not see, cruel
man, where Pompey’s heart truly lies, showering your
blows in haste where, in defeat, he welcomes them. Let
him suffer a punishment as heavy as death, let him see
my head fall first. I am hardly free of guilt in this war,
a wife who accompanied him in camp and aboard ship,
undeterred by disaster, welcoming him in defeat though
kings feared so to do. Is this then my reward, husband,
to remain aboard ship, in safety? Faithless one, would
you spare me? Am I so worthy of life, while you go
seeking death? I too shall die, yet not owe it Ptolemy.
You sailors, let me leap headlong, twist a noose of rope
about my neck, or let some friend of Pompey’s prove
worthy of him by driving a sword through my flesh;
he may do it for Pompey and yet claim it for Caesar.
O you cruel men, do you thwart my readiness to die?
Though you yet breathe, husband, Cornelia is at liberty
no longer: they forbid me to summon death, kept alive
for Caesar.’ So she cried out, and fainting, was carried
off in her servants’ arms, as their ship tremulously fled.
Book VIII:663-711 The severed head
Now those who saw Pompey’s severed head after
the blade had passed from front to back admitted
that the noble beauty of these sacred features, that
the visage that frowned at heaven had not altered,
and that the onset of death had brought no change
to the look and countenance of the hero. Savage
Septimius, in the doing of his crime, had enacted
one still worse, slitting the fabric and uncovering
the sacred features of the dying Pompey, grasping
the still-breathing head, positioning the neck over
a thwart, severing the veins and sinews, hacking
at length through the vertebrae. It was not yet
the practice to send the head spinning at a blow.
Then when that head was severed from its body,
Achillas, the Egyptian lackey, appropriated it,
fondling it in his hands. Thus a Roman soldier
sank so low as to act the inferior role, slicing
the sacred head of Pompey from his body, with
his accursed sword, yet not retaining it himself!
O what a depth of shame was his! So the impious
boy-king might know Pompey was dead, hands
grasped the manly locks kings revered, the hair
that graced his noble brow, and while the face
still looked as it had in life, the lips as if still
murmuring with dying breath, the eyes glaring;
thrust the head on a pike; that head whose call
to arms banished peace, that shook the Senate,
the Campus and the Rostrum; that face, Rome’s
Destiny, that you were proud to wear. Not sated
with the sight of it the vile king wished proof
of his crime to remain, and so by hideous arts
the blood was drained from the flesh, the brain
removed, the skin dried, the moisture causing
corruption was drawn from the innermost parts
and, by infusions of drugs, the head embalmed.
Degenerate king, last scion of Macedonian Lagus,
doomed to yield the crown to an incestuous sister,
while you preserve Alexander’s corpse in a sacred
vault, while the ashes of kings rest beneath piles
of masonry, the dead Ptolemies, their worthless
dynasty, enclosed in pyramids and mausoleums,
shamelessly; the waves strike Pompey, whose
headless trunk is tossed about in the shallows.
Was it so hard to keep the body whole for his
kinsmen to see? Thus cruel Fate faithfully granted
him success till the very end, then she sought him
at the summit of his glory, by his death exacting
the price, in a single day, for all the disasters from
which she had defended him all those years. He,
Pompey, was the only man who never knew good
mixed with ill, whose happiness no god disturbed,
and whose ultimate wretchedness no deity spared.
Fortune having restrained herself struck him that
one blow. Tossed on the sand, bruised by the rocks,
his wounds washed by the sea, he was the plaything
of Ocean and, no feature remaining, the sole sign
this was Pompey was the lack of his severed head.
Book VIII:712-822 Pompey’s grave
Before Caesar could reach the sands of Egypt, Fortune
had granted Pompey a hasty burial, lest he lack a tomb
or receive a better. Swiftly, in fear, Cordus left the place
where he had hidden and descended to the shore; Cordus,
who as quaestor was Pompey’s unfortunate companion
on the voyage from the Icarian shore of Cyprus where
Cinyras reigned. He dared to make his way under cover
of darkness, and driven by duty, mastered his fear so as
to seek the corpse in the waves, find and drag it ashore.
A sorrowful moon shed little light through the dense
clouds, but the headless body’s darker colour made it
visible in the foam. Cordus held tightly to his master,
against the pull of the sea, then unequal to its power
waited for a wave to add its force to his efforts. Once
it was out of reach of the ocean, he clasped the corpse,
pouring tears over every wound, and cried to the faint
stars in heaven: ‘Fortune, no costly pyre heaped with
incense does Pompey, your favourite, ask of you; no
Eastern perfumes carried with its fumes to the stars;
no funeral procession displaying his former trophies
with pious Romans bearing on their shoulders a father
of their country; no sorrowful music to fill the Forum;
no army in mourning, with trailing weapons, to march
round the flames. Grant Pompey instead the wretched
bier of a pauper’s funeral, and let his wounded body
rest on a plain pyre, yet with no lack of wood for lowly
hand to kindle. Be sated then, you gods, that Cornelia
is not here to lie prostrate, with dishevelled hair, nor
will she clasp her husband or see the torches applied;
she, his unhappy wife, though not yet far distant from
the shore, cannot pay her last tribute here to the dead.’
When Cordus had spoken, he noticed at some distance
a feeble pyre, one now incinerating a corpse, untended
and unguarded. From this he hastily snatched a brand,
dragging the charred branch from beneath the body:
‘Pardon the alien hand,’ he cried, ‘whoever you were,
neglected and uncared for by your kin, yet still more
fortunate after death than Pompey; pardon the hand
that steals from your blazing pyre. If feelings remain
after death, you will yield me a flame, allow this theft
from your fire, ashamed to find your own cremation
before Pompey’s headless trunk.’ So saying, he took
the burning ember and returned to the body which
had almost been lifted by the sea from the shoreline.
He scraped at the sand then hastily laid fragments
of a broken boat found nearby in the narrow trench.
The body was not laid on a pile of wood, no pyre
exalts the noble dead, the fire was not beneath him
but all around him and, seated near to the flames,
Cordus cried: ‘O mighty general, and unique glory
of the Romans, if this fire is sadder for you than
no burial at all, than to be tossed by the sea, avert
your powerful spirit’s gaze from the rite I render;
the injuries of fate proclaim this lawful; accept
this lowly brand, all that is possible, so that no
sea-creature, beast or bird, or cruel Caesar’s wrath
dare come near: a Roman hand kindles the flames.
These sacred ashes shall not rest here if fate grants
us a return to Italy, but Cornelia will receive you,
Magnus, transferring them from my hand to an urn.
In the meantime, let me mark this place in the sand,
as a sign of your grave, so that whoever wishes to
placate the dead and pay full funeral honours may
recover your ashes and knows to what strand your
head belongs.’ With this, he added fresh fuel to
the flames. Slowly Pompey’s body was consumed,
and in melting fed the fire with the dissolving flesh.
By now the false dawn that precedes full daylight
had struck the stars; fearfully he broke off the rites
and sought his hiding place on the shore. Poor man,
what punishment should you dread for a crime for
which the voice of fame will welcome you for all
time to come? That impious father-in-law of his
will welcome the burial of Pompey’s bones: go,
certain of pardon, confessing you interred him,
demand the head. Duty demanded he complete
the task. Snatching up the charred bones not yet
fully parted from the sinews and quenching them,
oozing scorched marrow, in the sea, he piled them
together under the cover of a few handfuls of earth.
Then, lest the breeze should scatter the bare ashes,
he laid a stone in the sand, and so no sailor might
moor his boat there and disturb the grave, he wrote
the sacred name with a charred stick: ‘Pompey
lies here.’ Is fate happy to call this Pompey’s grave,
one that Caesar thought worse than no burial at all?
Rash hand, why thrust a tomb on Pompey, imprison
his wandering spirit? It roams wherever the furthest
land floats on Ocean’s encircling stream: the bounds
of his sepulchre are those of Rome’s name and power.
Away with that stone, and its reproach against heaven!
All Oeta is Hercules’, and Nysa’s hills know none
but Bacchus; why then but a single stone in Egypt
for Pompey? If no grave were attributed to his name,
he might lie anywhere in Pharaoh’s kingdom; mankind
in doubt would shun the sands of Nile, fearing to tread
on Pompey’s ashes. But if you think one stone suffices
to record his sacred name, then add his great victories,
the records of his mighty deeds; add fierce Lepidus’
rising, and the Alpine war; the victory over Sertorius
when the consul was recalled, and his triumph while
yet a knight; the seas made wholly safe for commerce,
and the Cilicians driven from the seas; add how he
subdued barbarous tribes, nomadic peoples, and all
the rulers to east and north. Say how he re-adopted
the citizen’s robes after every war, and that content
with three triumphs he deferred further celebration.
What tomb has space to record it all? Here instead
stands a little stele, with no titles, no rolls of office,
and Pompey’s name that men might read high on
the temples of the gods, and over arches decorated
with enemy spoils, is barely raised above the sands,
so low strangers must stoop to read, and travellers
from Rome would pass by were it not made known.
Book VIII:823-870 A curse on Egypt
O land of Egypt, rendered guilty through civil war,
how right the Cumaean Sibyl was to warn in her
verses that no Roman military man should visit
the mouths of the Nile nor its margins that flood
in summer. What curse can I invoke against those
cruel shores in punishment for so dreadful a crime?
May Nile’s waters flow backwards and be penned
there in that region where it rises; may the barren
fields be devoid of those winter rains, and may all
their soil revert to the dry sands Ethiopia knows.
You, Egypt, keep our dead a prisoner in your dust,
though we admit your Isis, your half-divine jackal
Anubis, and the sistrum summoning worshippers
to mourn the Osiris you prove mortal by your grief.
And Rome, though she has now dedicated a temple
to the tyrant Caesar has not yet reclaimed Pompey’s
ashes, and his shade remains in exile. If a former
generation feared Caesar’s menace, surely now
Rome might welcome the bones of her beloved
Pompey; if they still exist, that is, in that hateful
land, and have not been washed away by the sea.
Do men fear to disturb his grave, and remove
those sacred remains so worthy of reverence?
If only Rome would command me to perform
that act, and chose to make use of my services!
I would be content, oh more than that, blessed,
if it fell to me to despoil the grave so unworthy
of those remains, exhume them, and carry them
to Italy. Perhaps when Rome requires of heaven
an end to barren fields, deathly winds, excessive
heat, or earthquakes, the gods’ advice will bid
you return, Pompey, to your city, and the Pontiff
bear your ashes. Even now, those who travel
to Syene, parched under fiery Cancer, to Thebes
dry even beneath the rainy Pleiades, to regard
the Nile; all those who seek the Red Sea’s calm
waters, and the harbours of far Arabia to trade
in Eastern wares; will be summoned by that
gravestone and those ashes, disturbed by now,
maybe, and scattered on the sand; to worship
and appease Pompey’s spirit, giving preference
to him above Casian Jupiter. That grave cannot
impair his fame, his ashes were no more precious
if buried in a gilded shrine. Fortune, pent in this
grave, is a supreme deity at last; this wave-beaten
stone on Africa’s shore prouder than all Caesar’s
altars. Many who deny the Capitol’s gods their
gift of incense, worship the lightning-struck turf
fenced by the augur. One day it may prove better
that no great heap of solid marble were raised here
as a lasting monument. In a while the little mound
of dust will be scattered, the grave collapse, and all
trace of the dead Pompey will be lost. A happier age
will arise when no credence may be given the stone
that is displayed, and our descendants think Egypt
as false regarding Pompey’s tomb as Crete Jupiter’s.
End of Book VIII