The Civil War (Pharsalia)

Book VII

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. Conditions and Exceptions apply.


Book VII:1-44 Pompey’s dream

A baleful Sun rose from Ocean, slow to answer the summons

of the eternal law, driving his steeds more fiercely than ever

against the revolution of the sky, urging his course backwards

though the heavens whirled him on, and ready to suffer eclipse

and the loss of his light, drawing cloud to him, not to feed his

flames but to prevent his clear rays falling on Thessalian lands.

That darkness, marking the end of his life’s happiness, troubled

Pompey’s care-filled sleep with idle phantoms. He thought he

sat in his own theatre, viewing the ghostly multitudes of Rome;

and his name was lifted to the heavens in shouts of joy, and all

the tiers of seats sounded his praise. Such the crowd’s aspect,

such their loud applause in his younger years, at his second

triumph, after he had subdued those tribes the Ebro borders,

defeating every force the elusive Sertorius threw against him,

and brought peace to the west. Now he sat, cheered by senators

while as yet no more than a Roman knight, but no less adored

in his white robe than in that which adorns the triumphal car.

Perhaps, fearful of the future and the ending of prosperity, his

dreams took refuge in happier days; perhaps sleep, as often,

presaged in her windings his dream’s opposite, foretold

a mighty lamentation; or Fortune showed him Rome so,

because he would be denied a last sight of his homeland.

Let the night-watch not break his sleep, nor the trumpet’s

blare beat against his ear. Tomorrow’s sleep will be haunted,

by sad images of the day, always the fatal field, always war.

Would that the Romans might have found such sleep, blessed

by such a night. Happy your Rome, Pompey, if she had but

seen you even in dream! One day at least the gods should have

granted you and your homeland, where knowing your fate

both might have taken a last delight in your mutual love.

You left Italy thinking to die in Rome, and Rome, finding

her prayers for you endlessly answered, could never have

believed such darkness might cling to fate, unable even

to bury her beloved Pompey, thus. Young and old, united

in grief, would have wept, and children without prompting,

and the multitude of women would have loosed their hair,

scarified their breasts as when Brutus himself was buried.

Even now, though men fear the victorious tyrant’s spear,

though Caesar himself declare you dead, they will weep,

while offering incense and laurel wreaths to the Thunderer.

O wretched people, whose groans swallow up their tears,

unable to gather and mourn you in your crowded theatre!

Book VII:45-86 Cicero’s speech

As daylight eclipsed the stars, the camps on both sides raised

a confused murmur, and with the fates dragging the world

to ruin, the soldiers sought the sign for battle. Most of that

wretched throng were destined not to see the day out, yet

they crowded round their leaders’ tents, muttering; in heat

and vast disorder they hastened the hour of imminent death.

A dire frenzy gripped them; each eager to bring on his own

and his country’s fate. Calling Pompey tardy and cowardly,

and too merciful to his father-in-law, they cry he has been

seduced by worldly power, wishing to hold too many sundry

nations to his rule, and mistrustful of peace. Indeed the kings

of the east and their armies detained far from their own lands,

complain that the war drags on. O gods, do you delight, when

you decide to overthrow all things, in adding rank perversity

to our errors? We rush upon disaster, and call for battles that

will ruin us, as in Pompey’s camp they begged for Pharsalia.

There the greatest of Rome’s orators, Cicero, articulated all

the protests of the multitude; Cicero, whose civil authority

caused savage Catiline to dread the power of peace; Cicero,

hating war, so long muzzled by military service, who longed

for the Forum and the rostrum. His eloquence seconded an

unsound cause: ‘Pompey, in return for all her favours to you,

Fortune makes one request, that you make use of her, while

we, the captains of your army, with the kings you created,

and a whole suppliant world beg you to humble Caesar.

Shall your father-in-law be an endless source of war for

humankind? Nations you conquered as you hastened past

have a right to resent your slowness to conquer now. Where

is your fervour, where is your faith in your star? Ungrateful

man, do you doubt the heavens, or fear to entrust the gods

with the Senate’s cause? The soldiers themselves will raise

your standards and attack: you should blush at being forced

to conquer. If the war is waged on our behalf, we who asked

you to lead us, then let us battle on whatever field we wish.

Why keep a host of sword-tips from tasting Caesar’s blood?

They shake their weapons, and can hardly wait for the signal

you delay. Make haste or your own trumpets will outrun you.

The senators would know, Pompey, do they follow you as

combatants or mere companions?’ The general groaned, he

feeling the gods were false, that fate ran counter to his wish.

Book VII:87-130 Pompey’s reply

‘If this is what all desire,’ he answered, ‘if the hour demands

Pompey the soldier, not the statesman, I will defy fate no

longer. Let Fortune involve the nations in common downfall,

and let this light be the last for the best part of mankind. Yet

I bear witness, Rome, that this day of universal destruction,

is forced upon me. The labour of war might have left Rome

unwounded; I could have won a bloodless victory, handed

Caesar, a captive, to the peaceful land he violated. What

evil madness is this, what blindness! Men ready to wage

civil war yet fear to win a bloodless victory! Have we not

wrenched the land from enemy hands, and expelled them

utterly from the seas, forced their starving ranks to steal

the un-ripened corn, made them pray instead to be slain

by the sword and mingle their vanquished dead with ours?

This war is half-won already if my recruits have no fear

of battle, if indeed the spur of emulation and the fieriness

of their ardour makes them seek the signal for action. Yet

many men are driven to the heights of danger by a mere

dread of imminent death. He is truly brave who is prompt

to endure the threat if it is close, but willing also to delay.

It seems we must hand our present good fortune to chance,

and let the sword decide a world’s fate; they would rather

see a leader fight than conquer. Fortune, you granted me

the Roman state to rule: accept it now, greater yet than I

received it, and defend it in the blindness of war. Battle

will bring Pompey neither glory nor reproach. Caesar,

your wicked prayers to the gods prevail over mine: we

shall fight. What evil and suffering this day will bring

the nations! How many kingdoms will be ruined! How

dark Enipeus will flow with Roman blood. Let the first

spear hurled in this fateful war take my life, if my death

were without moment, and our cause undefeated; to me

victory is no more welcome than ruin. When today’s

carnage is over, Pompey’s name will be one for nations

either to hate or pity: for the conquered will suffer every

evil that final destruction brings, the conqueror commit

every wickedness.’ With this, he ordered the men to arms,

and loosed the reins of their furious ardour, in the same

way that a ship’s captain, defeated by the storm’s power,

his arts useless, yields the tiller to the wind, swept along

an ignominious burden. The camp hummed to a confused

and hasty tumult, as fierce hearts throbbed to the uncertain

beat within their breasts. The pallor of imminent death

was on many faces, and their aspect the image of doom.

Book VII:131-184 Preparations and omens

The day had come which would decide the fate of mankind

for centuries to come, and this battle determine clearly what

Rome was to be. Each man ignored his own danger, struck

by greater dread. Who could be selfish in his fear witness

to widespread destruction, the shore drowned by the ocean,

waves above mountain crests, the sun displaced, the sky

lowering over earth? Now men are not free to tremble for

themselves: they fear for Rome and Pompey. Now soldiers

only trust to their swords once the whetted blades strike fire

from the grindstones; now every lance is sharpened on stone,

bows are re-strung with stronger cord, the quivers carefully

filled with choice arrows. Now the cavalryman lengthens

his spurs and checks the reins and bridle. Likewise, if I

might compare the actions of men and gods, likewise

when Phlegra witnessed the Giants’ fury, Mars’s sword

was heated on Etna’s anvil, Neptune’s trident glowed

in the fire for a second time, Apollo re-forged those

arrow-heads that undid Python’s coils, Pallas Minerva

spread the Gorgon’s viperous tresses over her aegis,

and the Cyclopes struck new lightning-bolts for Jove.

Now Fortune too did not hesitate to reveal the future

by diverse signs. When the army made for Thessaly’s

fields, the whole sky opposed their march, hurling

meteors against them, columns of flame, whirlwinds

sucking up water and trees together, blinding their

eyes with lightning, striking crests from their helms,

melting the swords in their scabbards, tearing spears

from their grasp while fusing them, their evil blades

smoking with air-borne sulphur. The standards too

could barely be plucked from the soil, their great

weight bowing the heads of the standard-bearers;

and the standards wept real tears, for until Pharsalia,

they had signified Rome and the State. Then a bull,

readied for sacrifice overturned the altar, and fled

headlong into the fields of Thessaly, so there was

no victim for the ill-omened rite. Yet you, Caesar,

what evil deities below, what Furies did you invoke

with your rites? What powers of the Stygian realm,

what horrors of Hell, what savagery steeped in night,

and your prayer heard, though soon to wage impious

and cruel war! Now whether deceived by portents

or their own excessive fears many believed they saw

Pindus strike Olympus, the Balkan range subsiding

into its deep valleys, Pharsalia uttering the sounds

of night battles, while lake Boebeis by Ossa turned

red with blood. Men gazed in wonder at each other’s

faces veiled with mist, at the pallid light, the darkness

brooding above their helms, at phantoms of their dead

fathers and kin flickering to and fro before their eyes.

This alone brought solace to the minds of that host,

conscious of their own wicked desire to pierce some

father’s or brother’s throat, delighting in the portents,

a belief that this tumult in their minds, this sudden

ferment, was an omen of success in their wickedness.

Book VII:185-214 The augur’s cry

If it is granted to men’s minds to foreknow misfortune,

what wonder those whose last day loomed quaked with

intense fear! Every Roman, whether there in Phoenician

Cadiz, or in Armenia drinking the Araxes’ water, in all

climes and beneath every constellation of the heavens,

every Roman sorrowed, and knew not why, and chided

himself for his sadness; not realising what loss he was

suffering there and then in Thessaly. If one may credit

the legend, an augur, in the Euganean hills, that day,

sitting by the Aponus spring that smokes as it issues

from the ground, where Antenor’s Timavus river splits

into channels, cried out: ‘The great day dawns, the final

battle is waged; the armies of Caesar and Pompey meet

in impious war.’ Perhaps he heard the thunder and saw

Jove’s omen, the lightning bolt; perhaps he witnessed

all the firmament at war, the sky troubled on its axle;

or else the sad powers above marked the battle, the sun

dim and obscured. Nature at least ensured that the day

of Pharsalia differed from all others that she displays.

And if skilled augurs through human wit had viewed

every strange sign above, Pharsalia might have been

known the whole world over. How great those leaders

whose fates were signalled throughout earth, to whose

destiny the heavens in their entirety gave their attention!

Even for posterity, in generations to come, these things

will excite hope and fear and vain prayer, when the tale

of that battle is read, whether its own fame shall descend

to later centuries, or whether I by my care and effort might

do some service to those great men; all will be spellbound

when they read as if the outcome were yet to be decided

and not known, and will favour your cause Pompey, yet.

Book VII:215-234 Pompey deploys his army

Pompey’s soldiers, illuminated by the sun’s opposing

rays, descending from the hills, flooded them with light.

Not launched randomly at the plain, the doomed ranks

were placed in definite order. Lentulus Spinther, you

held the left, with the first legion, the readiest for war,

and the fourth. The right wing of the host was entrusted

to you, Domitius Ahenobarbus, a brave but ill-starred

captain. While the strong centre of the battle line was

formed of the bravest men, whom you Scipio Metellus

had led from Cilicia, here a combatant, but later to hold

the high command in Africa. And by Enipeus’ waters

and marshy pools rode the riders from the Cappadocian

hills, and the loose-reined cavalry from Pontus. Most

of the dry ground was held by the kings, and tetrarchs,

and mighty potentates, and all wearers of purple who

served the power of Rome. Libya sent Numidians there,

Crete her Cydonians, there the arrows of the Itureans

were fired, the Gauls marched out against their known

foe, and there the Spaniards brandished battle-shields,

that Pompey might rob the victor of his subject nations,

and at once consume the source of all future triumphs

by exhausting in one battle the blood of all mankind!

Book VII:235-302 Caesar addresses his men

That day by chance, Caesar, relinquishing his position,

was about to disperse his troops to plunder the fields,

when he saw the enemy suddenly descend to the plain.

Before him lay his opportunity, the object of a thousand

prayers, to stake all on a single throw. Tired of delay,

and burning with desire for regal power, he had learned,

in the short space of civil war, to loathe this slow-wrought

crime. Yet when he felt the advent of that decisive battle,

which would resolve their rivalry, when he saw the ruins

of fate tottering to their fall, even his rage for instant

slaughter languished for a moment, and his mind ready

to vouch success wavered, how should fear for his own

fate not exist, nor the possibility of Pompey’s hopes?

Fear subsiding, confidence returned, the better to exhort

his troops: ‘Conquerors of the world, you soldiers who

are my fortune, here is the battle you so often wished for.

Prayer is no longer needed, now summon fate with your

swords. Caesar’s greatness lies in your hands. This is

the day I recall that you promised me by the Rubicon,

the hope of which led us to take up arms, for which we

delayed our return to the triumphs denied us. This is

the day witnessed by fate that will decide which of us

was right to take up arms; this battle will pronounce

the defeated guilty. You who attacked your native land

with fire and steel for me, fight fiercely, and absolve

yourselves of sin now with the sword. In the shifting

claims of warfare, no hand is pure. Not for my fortune

I pray but that you might be free to rule all nations.

I desire myself to return to private life, wear plebeian

dress, be a mere civilian: while you rule all I’ll refuse

nothing. Reign, while I gaze on with envy. Nor will

the world you hope for cost much in blood: you meet

lads culled from the Greek training-grounds, sapped

by the practices of the wrestling-ring, scarce strong

enough to bear arms; and barbarians in disordered

dissonant ranks, unable to endure the trumpet-blast

or the sound of their own marching. Few of you will

face other Romans; most of this fighting will thin

the world of nations and crush the enemies of Rome.

Attack these cowardly tribes and infamous kingdoms,

lay a world low with the first stroke of your blades;

make clear that the many who followed Pompey’s

chariot to Rome, cannot deliver him a single triumph.

Do Armenians care who holds the power in Rome?

Would some barbarian give a single drop of blood

to grant Pompey power in Italy? They hate all Romans

and disdain their masters; those they know, the most.

Fortune has rather entrusted me to the hands of my

own men, whom I know from many a battle in Gaul.

What blade do I not recognise? And when the javelin

flies quivering through the sky, I shall not fail to name

the arm that throws it. If I see those signs that never yet

played your leader false, fierce face and menacing gaze,

victory is yours. I think to see rivers of blood, kings all

trampled as one underfoot, the mangled flesh of senators,

whole nations drowned in one vast carnage. But I delay

my destiny, holding you here while you rage for battle.

Forgive my tardiness, unsettled by hope I have never

felt the gods so close or ready to grant so much; only

this narrow field keeps us from what we pray for. I

am the man, who when this fight is done, will have

the power to grant what belongs to nations and kings.

What movement of the heavens, what constellation

shifting in the sky grants this to Thessaly, you gods?

Book VII:303-336 Caesar launches the attack

Today before us is this war’s punishment or reward.

Imagine the chains, imagine the cross reserved for

Caesar, my head set on the Rostrum, limbs unburied.

Think of Sulla’s crime, the butchery in the Saepta’s

pound on the Campus Martius: we wage civil war

on Sulla’s pupil. My fears are for you; I shall seek

my own salvation in suicide; whoever looks back

if the foe is unbeaten, will see me stab my breast.

You gods, whose cares are drawn from heaven to

earth by Rome’s travails, give victory to one who

does not think it needful to draw cruel blades on

beaten men, nor thinks citizens commit a crime

merely by fighting him! When Pompey held you

fast, where your power was constrained, he then

sated his sword with streams of blood! This I beg

of you, my soldiers, let every fugitive pass as your

countryman, strike no man in the back. Yet while

their weapons glitter, no pious thought, no sight

of relatives in their front rank must move you;

strike confusion into every face you once revered.

If any man strikes a kinsman’s breast with the cruel

steel, let him accept the guilt, or if he violates no tie

of kinship with the blow let him do so for the death

of his unknown foe. Level the ramparts now and fill

the trenches with their ruins, so the whole army may

advance in ranks, in tight formation. Forget the camp,

you will find another in that place from which their

doomed army comes.’ Almost before Caesar ended,

each man took up his task, snatching food, and arming

in haste. Taking it as an omen of victory, they trampled

the ramparts, exiting in confusion, belying their orders,

and leaving all to fate. If every man there, entering that

deadly field had been Caesar and seeking to rule Rome,

they could not have flung themselves faster into the fray.

Book VII:337-384 Pompey addresses his men

When Pompey saw the enemy army advance directly,

to further the battle without delay, he stood appalled,

his blood froze, knowing this day chosen by the gods.

It was an omen to so great a soldier to so dread a battle.

But swallowing his fears he rode along the line on his

great war-horse. ‘Behold the day,’ he cried, ‘that your

virtue demanded, the end of the civil war you sought.

Expend all your strength; one last trial of arms is left;

a single hour that draws all nations here. Whoever

longs for his house and homeland, his wife, children,

dear ones left behind, must wield the sword: heaven

sets all on this one battle. Ours, the better cause, gives

hope of the gods’ favour: they will guide our spears

to Caesar’s heart, they wish to sanctify Rome’s laws

with his blood. If they chose to grant my father-in-law

the command of the world, they could hasten this grey

head of mine into the grave: but if they let Pompey lead

they cannot be angry with Rome or the nations. We

have assembled all, to make victory ours. Noble men

willingly face danger, so that our army has the sacred

aspect of former times, such that Curius, and Camillus,

and the Decii, those lives devoted to death, if the fates

had restored them to our times, would stand beside us.

The nations of the eastern dawn, of countless cities, are

gathered, such hosts as never were summoned before.

A whole world at once is for us. Whoever is bounded

by the zodiac to north and south make up our army,

and shall we not encircle the enemy forces, outflank

them with our wings? Victory demands but few to fight,

mere shouting is all the rest of our army requires to do:

Caesar’s force is not enough for us. Imagine Rome’s

mothers leaning with dishevelled hair from the high

walls of the city urging you to battle; imagine those

aged senators prevented from fighting by their years,

bowing their venerable grey heads before you; that

Rome herself fearful of tyranny comes to greet you;

imagine that present generations and those to come

both address their prayers to you: the latter desiring

to be born free, the former to die in freedom. If with

such at stake, there is still room for Pompey, then

with my wife and sons, I would kneel at your feet in

supplication, if that were in accord with the majesty

of my command. Except you conquer, Pompey is

exiled, scorned by Caesar, bringing shame on you,

and I pray to escape that final misery, in my closing

years, and not learn, an old man, to bear the yoke.’

Ending thus, his mournful voice stirred their valour,

Roman courage rose, and they resolved to win or die.

Book VII:385-459 The effects of Pharsalia

So the armies ran forward both roused by the same ardour,

one driven by fear of domination, the other to achieve it.

Those right hands guaranteed, that whatever this ninth

century from Rome’s foundation might reveal, it would

be emptied of swordsmen. This war would deny birth

to a generation, and prevent the birth of unborn nations.

Thus the whole Latin race would seem a fable; Gabii,

Veii, Cora, the hearths of Alba, houses of Laurentum,

barely revealed by dust-drowned ruins, an empty land,

where no men go but senators forced by Numa’s law,

which they resent, to spend the statutory night there.

It was not the tooth of time brought such destruction,

consigned the past monuments to decay; in all those

silent towns we witness the abomination of civil war.

How the numbers of the human race were lessened!

Those born into the world are not enough to populate

those towns and country, a single city contains us all.

The fields of Italy are tilled by men in chains, no one

lives beneath our ancient roofs, rotten and set to fall;

Rome is not peopled by citizens; full of the world’s

dross we have so ruined her, civil war among such

is no longer a threat. Pharsalia was the cause of all

that evil. Those deathly names, Cannae and Allia,

so long accursed in the Roman calendar, must yield

to this. Rome marks the date of lesser disasters, yet

chooses to ignore this day. Cruel destiny! Plague

bearing air, pestilence, famine that maddens, cities

given to the flames, tremors levelling populous

townships, all these might be sated with the men

Fate drew from every quarter to wretched death,

snatching away the gifts of years while revealing

them, displaying generals and nations in the field,

to show Rome in collapse what greatness also fell.

What city ruled a broader empire or hastened from

success to success more swiftly? Every war added

more subjects, every year the sun saw you advance

towards the poles; other than a small part of the East,

night, day, all the heavens revolved for you, Rome,

and all the wandering stars saw was yours. And yet

Pharsalia’s fatal dawn reversed your fate, and undid

the work of centuries. Thanks to that blood-drenched

day, India has no fear of Roman law, no consul makes

the nomad Dahae live behind walls, or with girt robe

founds a colony in Sarmatia, tracing it with the plough;

Pharsalia is why Parthia still awaits stern retribution,

that Liberty, fleeing civil war, has not returned from

beyond the Tigris or the Rhine, and often though we

have sought her with our life-blood, wanders, a boon

to Scythians and Germans, and never turns her eye

to Italy, would she had never been known to our race.

From the day Romulus founded you, Rome, marked

by the flight of a vulture on the left, and peopled you

with the criminals from the sanctuary in the Asylum,

down to the disaster of Pharsalia, you should have

stayed a slave. Fortune, I complain to you of the Bruti;

why did we enjoy lawful rule, years named for consuls?

Happy the Arabs, Medes, the lands of the East, whom

destiny granted endlessly to tyrants. Of all the nations

under tyranny our fate is the worst, to whom slavery

is shame. No deities aid us, we lie when we say Jove

reigns, since it is blind chance drives the world along.

Would a Jupiter grasping the lightning-bolt gaze idly

from high heaven at Pharsalia’s slaughter? Would he

aim his fires at Pholoe and Oeta, the pines of Mimas,

and Rhodope’s blameless forest, yet Cassius, not he,

strike Caesar down? He brought night to Thyestes,

in dooming Argos to a premature darkness, shall he

then leave Thessaly in the light where, an equal crime,

fathers and brothers wield swords against each other?

No god watches over mankind. Yet we have vengeance

for that disaster insofar as gods can satisfy us mortals:

this civil war would make gods equal to those above;

Rome would deck the spirits of the dead with haloes,

with lightning-bolts and stars, and here, in the temples

of the gods, Romans swear their oaths by their shades.

Book VII:460-505 Battle is joined

When both armies had swiftly crossed the open ground

that lay between them and that final act of destiny, and

were only separated by a little space, each man looked

to see where his javelin might fall, or whose arm fate

might raise to threaten him. There they could see fathers’

and brothers’ faces opposite, weapons at their side, yet

chose to hold position. But their blood ran cold, torpor

seized them, numbed at the heart from that blow to all

natural affection, and whole companies grasped their

motionless javelins in a rigid grip. And may the gods

grant you, Cratinus, whose spear-blow began the battle,

staining Thessaly with Roman blood, not mere death,

which lies in store for all, but the pains beyond death.

What mad rashness! When Caesar restrained his spear,

had any other hand the precedence? Then the clarions

gave a strident blast, a horn sounded out the war-note,

the trumpets bold to give the signal, then a roar rose

to the heavens, breaking on the dome of far Olympus,

above the clouds, where no sound of thunder reaches.

The Haemus range’s echoing gorges took up the cry

and passed it onwards for Pelion’s caverns to repeat.

Pindus growled, and the Pangaean rocks resounded,

while Oeta’s cliffs bellowed, till all were terrified by

that sound of wild voices returned by Mother Earth.

Innumerable spears were thrown, with differing aim;

some hoping to wound, some to bury the spearhead

in the ground and keep their hands unstained. But

chance rules all, and random fortune renders guilty

whom it will. The Ituraeans, Medes and lone Arabs,

formidable with the bow, firing at no specific mark,

aimed only at the sky over the battlefield, and death

rained down, but no guilt stained their foreign steel,

all evil was confined to the Roman javelins. The air

was thick with metal, the gloom of the interweaving

weapons masked the plain. But the least part of that

slaughter was due to the flying metal hurled or fired!

The sword alone could satisfy the civil war’s hatreds,

drawing right hands towards the hearts of Romans.

Pompey’s forces packed in close ranks, linked arms,

shield-boss after shield-boss, in an unbroken line;

with barely space where they stood to move hand

or weapon, so crowded they feared their own swords.

Caesar’s force, with wild and headlong speed, charged

the dense ranks, finding a way through shields and men;

where the woven mail presents its heavy links, where

the breast is protected by the armour, even to the vitals,

all that lies beneath, the blows they delivered penetrated.

One army suffers this civil war that a second one inflicts:

swords hang idle there in Pompey’s ranks, while each

guilty blade of Caesar’s grows hot. And Fortune, now,

needing no great space of time to overturn so weighty

a force, sweeps away that vast ruin in its fatal flow.

Book VII:506-544 Caesar destroys Pompey’s cavalry

When Pompey’s two cavalry wings extended their arc

over the plain beyond the flanks of infantry, his light

troops pushed on in loose order into the opposing men,

and launched fierce attacks against Caesar’s front ranks.

Each soldier wielded his usual weapons, all alike after

Roman blood, with flights of arrows, brands and stones,

and weighted bullets melted and fused by their passage.

But Caesar, fearing his vanguard might be broken, sent

the cohorts in reserve, positioned at an angle to his lines

behind the standards, into attack, while the wings waited,

against that part of the battlefield where all was in chaos.

Pompey’s cavalry fled headlong, in shameless cowardice,

showing the folly of entrusting civil conflict to barbarians.

As the first warhorse, pierced in the chest, threw its rider

headlong and trampled on his body, the rest fled the field,

their horses charging, a dense mass, into their own ranks.

Countless deaths ensued, a slaughter not a battle, as here

the steel blades waged war, and there the throats were cut.

Caesar’s army tired of killing all those men facing death.

Would that Pharsalia’s plain might have been content

with the blood of foreigners, theirs the gore that stained

her springs, their corpses the covering for her battlefield!

Or that, desiring to be glutted with Roman blood, she

might spare Galatian lives, and those of the Syrians,

Cappadocians, Gauls, Iberians from afar, Armenians

Cilicians, for when the war was ended these would

form the Roman people. Panic, now spread to all

Pompey’s force, and fate declared itself for Caesar.

Book VII:545-596 Caesar seizes victory

It was now the turn of Pompey’s centre, his main strength.

The fight which had raged at random over the whole field

was here concentrated, and fortune checked Caesar’s attack.

Those who plied arms and waged war there were not men

drawn as auxiliaries from foreign armies; here men faced

fathers and brothers. Here, Caesar, your fury was revealed,

your madnesses, your crimes! Would that my mind might

shun these acts of war, give them to darkness, that no age

might learn from me, in verse, of such horrors, or the full

depths of civil conflict. Far better that our tears and groans

were in vain, and that I were silent as to your part, Rome!

For Caesar, rousing his soldiers’ madness and fury, went

here and there among the lines, adding fire to their burning

ardour, so that nowhere was free of guilt. He noted whose

blade was all blood, whose glittered with only its tip red,

whose sword-hand trembled, whose grip on his spear was

firm, whose was slack, who delighted in warfare, and who

merely obeyed orders, whose countenance changed when

he killed a countryman. He surveyed the bodies fallen on

the battlefield, with his own hand staunching the wounds

that would else have drained the blood of many a soldier.

Like Bellona brandishing the blood-stained scourge, or

like Mars urging on the Bistones, lashing his horses with

savage blows as they run in fear of Pallas and her aegis,

so wherever Caesar goes darkness of crime and slaughter

loom, groaning of great voices, heavy sounds of armour

falling, and the blows of steel against steel. His the hands

that grant fresh blades, new missiles, commanding that

they hack with swords the faces of the foe. He himself

leads the advance and, urging on the stragglers, rouses

the laggards with blows from the butt-end of his spear.

Telling them to spare the rank and file, he points out

to them the senators, knowing the arteries of the state,

the heart of power, how to strike at Rome, and where

Liberty might be wounded, making her last stand here.

Senators, knights and noblemen are put to the sword;

The Lepidi and Metelli are slain, the Corvini, the house

of Torquatus, once leaders of the state, ruling all men

Pompey, except only you. And, oh, why are you there,

Marcus Junius Brutus, sword in hand, hiding your face

from the enemy under a common soldier’s helm? Glory

of Rome, the Senate’s final hope, last scion of a house

famous throughout our history, do not charge so rashly

through the enemy ranks, seeking your doom before

Philippi, your own Pharsalia. To aim at Caesar’s life

is useless here: he has not reached the summit yet, not

risen far enough beyond those lawful heights of human

power that constrain all, to earn of fate so noble a death.

Let him live, to fall to Brutus’ dagger, let him reign!

Book VII:597-646 ‘A whole world died’

There all the glory of our country perished: a great pile

of noble corpses, unmixed with common soldiers lay

there on that field. Yet one death was most noteworthy

in that carnage, that of Domitius, the stubborn warrior,

whom fate led from defeat to defeat, never absent when

Pompey’s fortunes faded. Conquered so often by Caesar,

still he died here without loss of his liberty. Thus he fell

to a host of wounds, glad not to suffer a second pardon.

Caesar found him weltering in a pool of blood, taunting

him: ‘Domitius, my successor in Gaul, now you desert

Pompey’s cause; yet the war will go on without you.’

So he spoke, but the courage still beating in Domitius’

breast sufficed for speech; in dying he opened his lips:

‘The fatal reward for your crimes, is not yet yours,

Caesar! Knowing your fate is undecided, and your

inferiority to your son-in-law, I go free, untroubled,

to the Stygian shades, with Pompey still my leader.

Though I die, I yet can hope that you, submerged

by savage conflict, will pay Pompey and myself

a heavy reckoning.’ Before he could speak again,

life left him, and a deep darkness veiled his eyes.

When a whole world died there, it seems shameful

to spend tears on each of the innumerable dead,

follow individual fates to ask whose vital organs

the death-dealing sword penetrated, who trampled

on his own bloody entrails, who facing his enemy

pulled the buried blade from his own throat, with

his last gasp, in dying. Some fell at a blow; others

stood upright though their arms were lopped; these

were pierced by spears; those pinned to the ground;

some fell on the enemy weapons, spouting blood

from their veins; one stabbed his brother’s breast,

then to spoil the body of his kin, severed the head

and flung it far off; while another slashed at his

father’s face, trying in wild fury to show those

looking-on the man he slew was not his father.

But no other death deserves a sole lament, we

have no space to mourn individual men. This

battle of Pharsalia was different than all other

disasters: Rome suffered many deaths elsewhere,

here Rome perished in the deaths of nations;

there soldiers died, here it was whole peoples;

here the blood of Pontus, Assyria, and Achaea

flowed, and all that gore a torrent from Roman

veins washed from the field, while forbidding it

to linger. The nations in this conflict were dealt

a wound too heavy for their age alone to bear;

here more than simply life and limb it was that

perished: we were laid low for centuries, all

generations doomed to slavery were conquered

by those swords. What fault did we, their sons,

their grandsons, commit that we deserved to be

born under tyranny? Did we fight fearfully or

shield our throats from the sword? The guilt

for others’ cowardice is pinned to our necks.

If fate gave us, born later, a lord and master,

it should have also granted us chance to fight!

Book VII:647-697 Pompey takes flight

By now, wretched Pompey had realised the god’s

no longer favoured him, nor was the fate of Rome

in his hands, compelled against his will by such

disaster to despair of his fortunes. He stood far off

on rising ground, from where he saw the carnage

grip a Thessaly darkened by the clouds of battle.

He saw the missiles aimed towards him, the piles

of corpses, his own end presaged by all that blood.

Yet he did not delight, as the wretched so often do,

in drawing the whole world to destruction with him,

and involving all mankind in his ruin. He still saw

the gods as deserving of his prayer that the majority

of Romans might survive him, a solace to him in

his downfall. ‘Refrain, you gods,’ he cried, ‘from

the destruction of the nations. Let the world remain,

let Rome survive, though Pompey should be ruined.

If you would wound me more, I have a wife and sons;

such hostages I have granted to fate. Is it not enough

that this civil war has destroyed me and mine. Is all

the world’s destruction insufficient? Why lacerate

all things? Why work at universal destruction? Now,

nothing of mine is left me, Fortune.’ So saying, he

then rode through the shattered ranks, all amongst

the troops, rallying them to the standards, halting

their flight to imminent death, saying he was not

worthy of their sacrifice. He had no fear of facing

those enemy swords, offering his chest or throat

to the fatal blow; but dreading lest if he was killed

his men might refuse to flee, and a whole world

be heaped above his corpse; or wishing to conceal

his death from Caesar’s eyes. In vain, poor man;

if his father-in-law needs gaze upon that head,

it shall be everywhere forthcoming. But you,

his wife, and your beloved face, are a further

cause for flight, the fates decreeing that he shall

not die with his better part absent. Thus Pompey

rode swiftly from the field, oblivious to the spears

around him, passing with high courage to his final

doom, without groans or tears, only a noble sorrow

filled with respect, as it was right for you to show

towards Rome’s ills, Pompey. With unchanged face

you gazed on Pharsalia: victory in war never saw

you arrogant, nor defeat downhearted, as superior

in your fall to faithless Fortune as you were when

delighting in your triumphs. Now Pompey goes

along released from care, free of the burden of fate;

now he can reflect on happier times; his unfulfilled

hopes receding, now he can dwell on what he was.

Flee from the fatal conflict, and summon the gods

to witness, Pompey, none who fight on die for you.

As in the later sad losses in Africa, as in the disaster

at Munda, and the slaughter by the Nile, most of

the fighting after Pharsalia and your flight, Pompey,

indicated not the world’s support for Pompey, nor

a passion for war, but was what we see endlessly,

the battle between power and freedom. When you

fled it was for their own cause the senators died.

Book VII:698-727 Pompey reaches Larissa

Was it not joy to you, Pompey, to have desisted

in defeat from war, and not to have witnessed

the final horror? Look back at the ranks drowned

in death, the rivers turbid with the flow of blood,

and pity Caesar. With what feelings will he enter

Rome, owing his power to such a battle as this?

Whatever you had yet to suffer, exiled and alone,

in foreign lands, whatever you had to endure from

a tyrant Pharaoh, believe the word of the gods, and

fortune that long favoured you, victory was worse.

Forbid the noise of lamentation, curb the weeping,

forgo the people’s tears and grief. Let the world bow

to Pompey in misfortune as they did in his success.

No suppliant, gaze calmly on kings, gaze on the cities

you seized, the thrones of Egypt and Libya you gave,

and choose a place to die. Larissa first witnessed your

fallen greatness, and that noble head unbowed by fate.

She poured out all her citizens through her gates, met

Pompey with all her people like a victor; with weeping,

promised him gifts; opened their homes and temples

to him, begging to share in his disaster. In fact, much

of his vast authority remained and, all being inferior

to him except his former self, he might have roused

the nations again to arms, once again tempted fate.

Yet: ‘What use have the defeated for cities or nations,’

he cried, ‘offer your loyalty to the victor!’ You, Caesar,

were still trampling the life out of your country, wading

through corpses piled high, while your son-in-law was

granting you whole nations as a gift. When Pompey rode

from Larissa, the groans and tears of the people followed,

and many a reproach was levelled against the cruel gods.

That day was proof, Pompey, of the affection you enjoyed,

and of its fruits: for the victor never knows if he is loved.

Book VII:728-780 The field of corpses

When Caesar thought the battlefield drenched enough in

Roman blood, he curbed the swords in soldiers’ hands,

granting their lives to those abject souls in the ranks

whose death would serve no purpose. But fearing they

might still rally to their opposing camp, and their fear

be quelled by a night’s rest, he chose to advance on

the enemy ramparts, striking while the iron was hot

and terror gripped the foe. He felt no fear that this

order of his would tire his battle-hardened troops.

The soldiers needed little exhortation to be led

towards the spoils. ‘The victory is complete, lads,’

he cried, ‘all that remains is the repayment for all

our blood they shed, that is for me to point you to;

with no talk of granting you what each may take

for himself. Before you lies their camp and a wealth

of precious metal; all the gold stolen from the West

is there, tents crammed with the treasure of the East.

The riches of many kings and of Pompey lies there

to be claimed by its new lords: soldiers, make haste

to outrun the fugitives; or all the wealth Pharsalia

brings you the vanquished will seize.’ What ditch

or rampart could impede his men, seeking the spoils

of war and wickedness? They rushed off to discover

the wages of their sin, finding indeed many a weighty

mass torn from a plundered world, against the costs

of war; but not enough to satisfy their greedy minds.

Though they had seized what Spain mines or Tagus

yields, or rich Arimaspians gather from the surface

of Scythian sands, they would have thought it poor

reward for their crime. They’d promised all in hopes

of plundering Rome, expecting the Tarpeian citadel

would fall to the victor, these men who now pillaged

a mere camp! Impious soldiers slept on turf piled high

for patricians, blood-stained commoners lay on beds

fit for kings, and the guilty rested their bodies where

fathers and brothers had lain. But nightmares troubled

their sleep, frenzied images of the battlefield disturbed

their tormented minds. The guilt for their savage crimes

awake in every heart, their minds were still absorbed

by war, their restless hands grasping at absent swords.

I can well believe the land groaned, the guilty earth

breathed forth spirits, the air was thick with ghosts,

night in the upper world full of the terrors of hell.

Their victory rightly demands a grim retribution,

sleep bringing them flames and the serpents’ hiss.

The shades of dead countrymen stand beside them;

each man has his own shape of terror to haunt him:

one sees an old man’s face, another that of youth,

one is troubled all night by his brother’s corpse,

while a father’s ghost weighs on another’s breast,

and every phantom invaded Caesar’s dreams.

So Pelopean Orestes gazed on the Furies’ faces,

before he had been cleansed at the Scythian altar.

Neither Pentheus raving nor Agave newly sane

were subject to greater horror or mental turmoil.

Book VII:781-824 Caesar denies the enemy dead burial

That night, all those swords Pharsalia saw, all those

the day of vengeance would see drawn by senators,

were aimed at him; that night, the monsters of hell

scourged him. Yet how much that guilty conscience

of his could not yet punish, since Pompey still lived

when Caesar viewed the ghosts of the Styx, and all

of Hell, invading his sleep! All this he experienced,

yet when the clear light of day revealed Pharsalia’s

slaughter no feature of the land could drag his eyes

from that fatal field, and he gazed his fill on rivers

running with blood, and mighty mounds of corpses.

He beheld the heaps of bodies sliding to corruption,

counted nations of dead who had followed Pompey,

while a place was prepared for his meal, from which

he might study the faces and features of those corpses.

He rejoiced that the soil of Emathia was hidden from

view, the plain his eyes gazed on shrouded by corpses.

In that bloody carnage he discerned the gods’ favour

and his destiny. And loath to lose, in his madness,

the spectacle of that crime, he refused the wretched

dead a pyre and forced Emathia on a guilty heaven.

Cannae was lit by Libyan torches when Hannibal

buried Aemilius Paullus, but that example did not

serve to prompt Caesar to show humanity to his foe,

for his anger was not yet sated by slaughter against

these who he knew were his own countrymen. Yet

they asked no individual pyres, no separate burning,

the bodies might have been plunged in a single fire;

or if he had wished to punish his son-in-law, Caesar

might have heaped up Pindus’ timber and piled high

the oaks from Oeta’s forests, for Pompey, aboard

his ship, to view Pharsalia in flames. Still, such

anger achieved nothing; it mattered not whether

fire or putrefaction dissolved those corpses; nature

receives all in her gentle arms, and the dead grant

themselves their own end. If the flames do not take

them now, they will consume them with the earth

and the ocean waters later, when the communal

pyre that’s yet to come mingles dead men’s bones

with the stars. Wherever fortune summons yours,

Caesar, their spirits also will be there: you may

soar no further than they, nor seize a higher place

in Stygian darkness. The dead are free from fate;

earth takes back all she bears; he who has no urn

has the sky to cover him. You, who punish these

soldiers by denying them burial, why should you

flee this carnage, or desert these stinking fields?

Drink the water, Caesar; breathe the air if you can.

For the men who decompose there have snatched

Pharsalia from you, routed the victor, hold the field.

Book VII:825-872 Philippi anticipated

Not only Bistonian wolves were drawn to the dark

feast Pharsalia offered, but lions too from Pholoe,

scenting the rotting corpses. Bears left their dens

and vile dogs came from the villages, every beast

that scents foul air tainted by the smell of corruption.

Birds that had long been tracking the armies of that

civil war flocked there together. Cranes that migrate

to the Nile in Thracian winter delayed their flight

to the warm south. Never did the sky so shroud itself

with vultures nor a greater host of wings beat the air.

Every tree sent its birds, and their branches dripped

with crimson dew from those blood-stained feathers.

When the birds grew weary and dropped dead meat

from their talons, rotting flesh and drops of blood

fell on the victor’s face and his accursed standards.

That host of dead were not all picked to the bones

nor wholly devoured by those predatory creatures;

for though eating the limbs they ignored the vital

organs, not desirous of prying at the bone-marrow.

A greater part of the host they left to lie untouched;

corpses days of sun and rain dissolved, blending

them with the soil of Emathia. Wretched Thessaly,

what crime of yours offended the gods so deeply

that they forced on you such a mound of the dead,

and so evil a destiny? How many centuries suffice

for a neglectful posterity to take for granted the loss

this war incurred? When will crops grow untainted

in your blood-stained soil? To what Roman dead

must your ploughshares do violence? Fresh armies

will meet; and at Philippi, for a second time, before

this blood is dry, you will offer your land to crime.

Though we should empty the tombs of our ancestors,

those that still stand and those split by ancient roots

whose urns are broken, those ploughs of Thessaly

will turn up a greater heap of relics from the furrow,

and the harrows that till the fields strike still more.

No sailor should tie his rope to the Emathian shore,

no plough turn the soil of that grave of the Roman

people, for the farmer should flee the haunted fields;

the thickets should shelter no flocks, nor the shepherd

dare to graze his sheep on grass that grows above our

bones. And Thessaly should lie as naked and unknown

as lands made uninhabitable by zones of heat or cold,

as if it were the only soil, not merely the first, to endure

the evils of civil war. Oh, you gods above, would that

you granted us the power to curse that guilty country!

Why burden the whole earth so, and then absolve it?

The slaughter at Munda, the mournful sea off Sicily,

Mutina (Modena) and Actium have cleansed Pharsalia.

End of Book VII