The Civil War (Pharsalia)


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

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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 know 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

them 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

once 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