The Civil War (Pharsalia)
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved.
This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Conditions and Exceptions apply.
- Book VI:1-27 Pompey defends Dyrrachium (Durres)
- Book VI:28-63 Caesar hems Pompey in
- Book VI:64-117 Both camps afflicted
- Book VI:118-195 Scaeva’s heroism at Minicius
- Book VI:196-262 Scaeva slays Aulus
- Book VI:263-313 Pompey attacks, Caesar retreats
- Book VI:314-380 Caesar heads for Thessaly
- Book VI:381-412 The accursed land
- Book VI:413-506 Thessalian witchcraft
- Book VI:507-568 The witch Erictho
- Book VI:569-623 Sextus seeks her aid
- Book VI:624-666 The cave of Erictho
- Book VI:667-718 Erictho invokes the infernal powers
- Book VI:719-774 She raises the dead to prophesy
- Book VI:775-830 The prophecy of the dead
Book VI:1-27 Pompey defends Dyrrachium (Durres)
So the generals, having pitched their camps on neighbouring
heights, minds set on battle, the armies came face to face,
and the gods gazed on the twin combatants. Caesar, scorning
to take Greek city after city, refusing to accept further victory
from fate, except victory over his kinsman, sought, with all
the force of prayer, the hour, fateful for the world, in which all
would be at stake, choosing that cast of the die which must
destroy one leader or the other. Showing himself never
backward in seeking the ruin of Rome, three times he deployed
his squadrons with their threatening standards on the hill-tops.
But when he saw that Pompey, trusting to his defensive works,
could not be tempted to fight by a show of force, he struck camp
and marched swiftly through wooded country that hid his plan
to seize the fortress of Dyrrachium. Pompey forestalled his move
by following the coastline and pitching camp on the hill that
the Taulantians call Petra, in order to defend that Corinthian
colony, a city protected by its cliffs. No ancient fortifications
surround it, no stones raised by mortal hand, which though
they raise their structures high, see them fall an easy prey
to siege, or all-razing time: its natural defences alone remain
bastions no siege-engine can shatter. Surrounded by a depth
of sea on all sides close to shore, and by cliffs that fling back
the breakers, only a raised neck of land of moderate size stops
the peninsula forming an island. Its walls hang over abysses
of rock, precipices feared by mariners, where southerly gales
raising the raging Ionian waves, hurl their spray high above
to the tallest roofs, shaking the walls of houses and temples.
Book VI:28-63 Caesar hems Pompey in
Here Caesar’s mind was captured by an audacious plan:
though the enemy force was scattered over a wide range
of hills, he planned to surround them with a line of remote
entrenchments without their knowing. He took a survey
of the ground with the naked eye, and not content merely
to raise instant walls of crumbling turf had huge rocks
and blocks of quarry stone brought there, the remains
of houses, and shattered walls. A structure rose, that no
strong battering ram nor violent engine of war could raze.
The mountains were pierced, and Caesar raised a wall of
identical height across the hills: he opened trenches, set
defensive towers at intervals along its length; a sweeping
boundary enclosed upland pastures, wooded wastelands,
forests, trapping the wild creatures in an enclosing snare.
Pompey had plains enough and grazing in abundance,
shifting his camp within Caesar’s encircling lines; there
many streams rose to exhaust themselves and vanished,
while Caesar viewing distant works was forced to rest,
wearied, in the midst of the fields. Now let legend sing
the walls of Troy, and ascribe them to the gods, and let
the flying Parthians in retreat, cry wonder at Babylon’s
encircling wall of brick. As great a space as is bounded
by the Tigris or swift Orontes, one large enough to hold
a kingdom of Assyrians in the east, see, here enclosed
by works constructed hastily under the exigencies of war.
Such transient effort! That labour might have linked Sestos
to Abydos, piling up earth till the Hellespont was bridged;
or Corinth might have been separated from Pelops’ realm
by canal, saving ships the long haul round Cape Malea;
or men might have defied nature elsewhere, and changed
some other region for the better. But there the field of war
contracted, there blood was shed to flow thereafter over
every land; there the victims of Pharsalia and Thapsus
were penned; civil madness raging in a narrow pound.
Book VI:64-117 Both camps afflicted
At first the rise of these works went unnoticed by Pompey,
as a man who lives in the heart of Sicily fails to hear
the yelp of Scylla’s dogs, or as the Britons in the north
fail to hear the raging breakers when the channel tides
break on the southern shores. But on seeing his position
encircled by wide entrenchments, he led his forces down
from Petra’s stronghold and scattered them over sundry
hills to extend Caesar’s troops and overstretch them as
they attempted a blockade with sparsely ordered lines.
As for himself he claimed as much land defended by
a palisade, as separates illustrious Rome from Aricia
whose grove is sacred to Mycenaean Diana; the same
as if Tiber ran from Rome unbending direct to the sea.
No war-cry sounds, missiles fly to and fro at random,
and injury is often wrought merely testing the distance.
More urgent problems stop the leaders from engaging.
Pompey was hampered by lack of fodder: the cavalry
had destroyed it, hooves ploughing up the grassy plains.
War-horses starved on close-cropped ground, scorning
the mangers of imported hay, and neighing for fresh grass,
halting with quivering haunches in the act of wheeling,
and collapsing to die. As their corpses rotted, limb from
limb, the stagnant air rose in a dark pestilential cloud of
putrefaction. Such is the exhalation Nisida yields from
its volcanic rocks, as Typhon’s depths breathe madness
and death. The troops were stricken, and the water, more
absorbent than air of foulness, now hardened their innards
with its evils. The tightened skin grew rigid, making their
eyes start from their sockets, and the fiery pestilence, hot
with fever, inflamed their faces, their necks unable to bear
the head’s weight. Thus swift death increasingly bore all
before it; no period of illness divided life from death,
death arriving with infection; and the mass of victims
worsened the plague, since unburied corpses lay beside
the living. All the burial men could give was to throw
the bodies of their stricken countrymen beyond the line
of tents. Yet their ills were lessened by having the sea
at their backs, the air stirred by the northerlies, by ships
fully loaded with foreign grain, with access to the shore.
Caesar’s army, too, though camped on open heights, free
to range the land, untroubled by foul air or stagnant wells,
still suffered hunger pangs as though themselves besieged.
The corn was not yet ripe enough for harvest, so wretched
men were seen lying flat on the ground grazing like beasts,
plucking the foliage from trees and bushes, cutting dubious
leaves from unknown roots. Though besieging the well-fed
enemy army, they fought for food, whatever they could
seethe over a fire, shred with their teeth, swallow with
abraded throats, many things thought inedible by humans.
Book VI:118-195 Scaeva’s heroism at Minicius
When Pompey first felt free to burst the confines and emerge,
permitting himself to range widely, he did not seek the secret
dark of night, scorning to steal a march while the enemy rested.
He sought instead to force a wide breach, razing their ramparts,
throwing down their towers, facing every foe, by a path that
bloodshed must open. One section of the fortifications nearby
seemed to offer opportunities, left open by Minicius’ fortress,
while broken ground screened him with a thick wooded cover.
There he marched his men, without raising dust, and his army
reached the ramparts without warning. Now, his Roman eagles
in a trice glittered on the plain, now all his trumpets sounded.
So his victory should owe less to the sword, the sudden alarm
confounded the enemy. What valour could do, they did; dying
at their posts where duty placed them. The tempest of javelins
was wasted, lacking an enemy now to be dealt such wounds.
Then brands were hurled, falling and rolling in smoky flames;
Then the echoing turrets trembled and threatened to collapse,
ramparts sounding to the hail of blows from thudding timber.
Then Pompey’s eagles passed the summit of the tall mound,
granting him command of the free spaces. Though Fortune
seemed to have conspired with those thousand squadrons,
though Caesar could not hold the place, one man yet snatched
it from the conquerors, and refused its capture, while he still
wielded weapons and was not yet laid low, denying Pompey.
Scaeva was his name: he had served in the ranks since before
the fierce tribes of the Rhone were first encountered, promoted
for shedding his blood, bearing the vine-staff with centurion’s
rank, ready for anything, not realising that valour is a heinous
crime in civil war. Seeing his comrades ground their weapons
and seek safety in flight, he cried: ‘Where is fear driving you,
that wretched fear that is a stranger to Caesar’s armies? Do you
turn your backs on death? Soldiers, are you not ashamed that
you are missing from the heaps of bodies, are unsought among
the corpses? If duty seems distant, will not anger at least ensure
you stand your ground? The enemy host elects us, of all the army,
to charge from the ranks. This day will cost Pompey no small
amount of blood. I would seek the shades more happily with
Caesar watching: but since fate denies me that, let Pompey
praise my fall. Beat against their weapons till they shatter,
and blunt their steel with your bodies. Far off the dust rises
while the roar of destruction sounds, and this clash of arms
strikes Caesar’s unsuspecting ears. We conquer, comrades:
and he will come, to claim the stronghold, where we die.’
His speech roused greater enthusiasm than the first blast
of the war-trumpet. The soldiers, marvelling at Scaeva,
eager to look on, follow, to see if courage, outnumbered
and surrounded, can offer more than death. Taking his
stand on the crumbling rampart, he first rolled the enemy
corpses from the choked turrets, burying his foes beneath
the bodies. The collapsing structures became weapons as
he menaced the enemy with wooden beams, stone blocks,
or his own body. Now with stakes, now with strong poles
he thrust his adversaries from the wall. His sword severed
hands that grasped the battlements. He crushed one man’s
skull with a rock, scattering the brains ill-protected by
their brittle shell of bone: he set another’s hair and beard
ablaze, the flames crackling as the eye sockets scorched.
The heap of dead rose level with the wall. Then he sprang
over the enemy spikes into their midst, swiftly and surely
as a leopard springs over the tips of the hunters’ spears.
Wedged tight among the foe, circled by a whole army,
he slew men at his back, until his blade no longer served
the function of a sword, so blunted and dulled by caked
blood it bruised but failed to wound. Every hand and spear
was turned towards him; no lance, no aim missed its mark,
and Fortune witnessed something new to war, one man
against an army. His hard shield-boss rang to endless blows,
his hollow helm, now shattered, galled the brow it covered,
and nothing covered his vital organs but the spear-shafts
that stuck fast in his flesh and reached down to his bones.
Book VI:196-262 Scaeva slays Aulus
Madmen, why waste your javelin casts and arrow shots
that will not reach the very life? To fell him you must
employ a powered missile or the wall-defying weight
of a huge boulder; an iron battering-ram, or a catapult
alone will drive him from the threshold of the gateway.
He stands, no fragile wall defending Caesar, holding
Pompey at bay. Fearing lest his shield arm be thought
idle, or that he has sought to survive, he no longer
guards his breast, he faces the wounding blows naked,
bearing a thicket of spears in his flesh, choosing in his
weariness a foe to crush in death. So an African elephant
attacked by a dense throng, their missiles bounding from
its thick hide, shrugs the clinging spearheads from its flesh,
its vitals safely protected, so that the javelins that pierce
and hold draw little blood from the beast, the wounds
from the countless spears and barbs too slight to kill.
Behold, a Cretan arrow, fired at Scaeva from a distance
more truly aimed than anticipated, struck his head,
piercing his left eyeball. Scaeva, bravely, pulled out
the clinging arrow, with the eyeball and its ligaments,
and trampled on eye and arrow both. So in the arena,
when the Libyan has hurled his javelin from its sling,
a Pannonian bear, maddened by the wound, turns on
the injury, attacks in rage the shaft that struck, whirling
round and chasing the spear-haft that circles with it.
Rage convulsed Scaeva’s features, his mutilated face
one mass of bleeding flesh. A shout from his victors
rose to the heavens; a little blood from a wound on
Caesar’s self would not have cheered them more.
Scaeva then suppressed his emotion, hiding it deep
in his heart, and banishing warlike ardour from his
features, he said mildly: ‘Spare me, countrymen,
avert your steel. Wounds can do no more to bring
about my death; no more spears are needed, only
the drawing of those that have already pierced me.
Lift me, and set me still living in Pompey’s camp.
Do your leader this service; let me be an example
of desertion from Caesar, not of glorious death.’
Aulus, ill-fated, believed this cunning speech,
not seeing that Scaeva’s sword was at the ready,
and was about to lift captive and blade together
when, lightening-swift, Scaeva struck him full
in the throat. Scaeva’s ardour rose, his enemy’s
death reviving him. ‘Whoever thought Scaeva
finished, let him pay the price,’ he cried. ‘Let
Pompey bow his head and lower the standards
before Caesar, if he wants this sword to rest.
Perhaps you think I am like you, afraid to die?
Pompey and the Senate’s cause is less to you
than this death to me.’ Even as he spoke a cloud
of dust showed Caesar’s cohorts approaching,
that fact alone saving Pompey from shameful
defeat, and the reproach that his whole army
had fled before you alone, Scaeva. As the foe
retreated, the hero collapsed, blood draining
from him; only the fight had lent him strength.
As he fell a crowd of his friends caught him,
gladly raising his limp body on their shoulders.
They worshipped the force that seemed to live
in that mutilated frame, a still-breathing icon
of that noble deity, Valour. They vied with
each other in plucking spears from your flesh,
adorning the breast of naked Mars and statues
of the other gods with your armour, Scaeva,
happier in this claim to fame if you had routed
hardy Iberians, the Cantabrians with their short
spears, or the Teutones with their long ones.
But you can never adorn the Thunderer’s shrine
with your trophies, nor will you shout for joy
in the triumph. Unhappy man, how great your
bravery that merely paved the way for a tyrant!
Book VI:263-313 Pompey attacks, Caesar retreats
Though beaten back at this point of his lines, Pompey
did not rest behind his defences, or delay the advance,
any more than the sea wearies, though driven against
the cliffs that stem its tide by rising winds, its waves
gnawing the high headlands that thus prepare for their
own later ruin. He sought the forts fronting calm bays,
attacking them simultaneously by land and sea, and he
spread his army far and wide, extending his forces on
the broad plain, using this chance to shift his ground.
So the swollen Po, its estuary flooding, will overflow
its banks, heaped into levees, and swamp the fields.
If the dykes yield and fall, failing to withstand the force
of the roaring waters, the river bursts through drowning
plains alien to it; here some flee their land, while there
they gain new fields by the river’s gift. Now Caesar had
scarce been aware of the fight, the news conveyed to him
by a signal fire from a watch-tower. He found the walls
already down, the dust cold and settled, all signs of ruin
as if ancient. The very peacefulness kindled his anger,
stirred by the Pompeians’ idleness, at rest after defeating
Caesar. He advanced even if it were towards disaster,
so long as it troubled their rejoicing. He rushed to threaten
Torquatus, who at the sight of his troops, stirred himself
like a mariner furling every sail on the trembling mast,
before the wind off Circeii. He brought his men behind
the curtain wall, to rank them closely in a narrow circuit.
Caesar had already passed the outermost ring of defences,
when Pompey launched his troops from every height,
pouring down his forces against the encircled enemy.
Caesar’s soldiers felt more fear than the valley-folk
of Enna do when the southerly blows and Etna looses
rivers of fire over the plain, from its abysses; shaken
before battle by the clouds of blinding dust, demoralised
by dread, flight sending them towards the foe, rushing
on death in panic. The civil war might have ended there,
peace following final bloodshed, but Pompey restrained
his army in their fury. If a Sulla had conquered there, you,
Rome might have ruled yourself; happily free of tyrants!
Grievous it is, and grievous shall ever be, that you, Caesar
gained by your deepest crime, in opposing a patriotic foe.
Cruel fate! Libya and Spain would not have mourned for
the disasters at Utica and Munda; neither would the Nile,
defiled by vile bloodshed, have borne that corpse nobler
than a Pharaoh’s; King Juba’s naked body would not have
burdened the African sand nor Metellus Scipio appeased
the Carthaginian dead with his blood; nor the living have
lost their virtuous Cato. That day might have ended your
ills, Rome, and erased Pharsalia from the scroll of fate.
Book VI:314-380 Caesar heads for Thessaly
Caesar abandoned the site he had occupied against the will
of heaven, and headed for Thessaly with his battered army.
Pompey chose to pursue his father-in-law’s forces wherever
they went, and urged by his officers to change his plans,
and return to his native Italy, now his enemy was absent,
he answered: ‘I shall never return like Caesar to my country,
Rome shall not see me again till my forces are disbanded.
I might have held Italy when strife began if I had chosen
to initiate warfare in the shrines of Rome, been willing
to fight in the midst of the Forum. I would pass beyond
the furthest regions of Scythian cold, beyond the burning
sands, to relinquish war. Rome, shall I who fled to spare
you conflict, rob you of peace now when I am the victor?
Ah, rather, to spare you suffering in this struggle, Caesar
shall call you his.’ So Pompey spoke, and led his forces
eastwards, following a winding route, where Illyria’s deep
gorges open, reaching that Thessaly fate destined for war.
Mount Pelion’s ridge bounds Thessaly in the quarter where
the winter sun rises, Mount Ossa where in high summer
its shade obstructs the rays of Phoebus rising in the dawn;
while wooded Othrys dispels the flames of the southern sky,
at midsummer, opposing the brow of the all-devouring Lion;
and Mount Pindus outfacing westerlies and north-westerlies,
where daylight ebbs hastens evening on; while those who live
at the foot of Olympus never dreading the northerlies, know
nothing of the Great Bear’s stars shining a whole night long.
The low-lying lands in the region between these mountains
were once covered with endless marshes; since the plains
retained the waters, and the Vale of Tempe was insufficient
for them to reach the sea they formed continuous swampland,
and their only course was to rise. But when Hercules lifted
Ossa’s weight from Olympus, the sea felt a sudden onrush
of waters as Thessalian Pharsalos, that realm of Achilles
the hero born of a sea-goddess, rose above the surface,
a realm better drowned forever. There rose too, Phylace
whose king was first to land in the war at Troy; Pteleos;
Dorion, that laments the Muses’ anger and blind Thamyris;
Trachis; Meliboea whose Philoctetes received Hercules’
bow, for lighting that hero’s funeral pyre; Larisa, powerful
once; and the sites where the plough now passes over famed
Argos, where Echion’s Thebes once stood, to which Agave
howling bore the head of Pentheus giving it to the funeral
pyre, grieving to have carried off no other part of his flesh.
Thus the swamp was drained forming a host of rivers. From
there the Aeas, clear in its flow but of little volume, runs
westward to the Ionian Sea, the Inachus glides with no more
powerful a current (he was the river-god, father of ravished Io)
nor the Achelous (he almost won Deianeira, Oeneus’ daughter)
that silts the Echinades islands; there, the Euhenos, stained
as it is with Nessus’ blood runs through Meleager’s Calydon;
there Spercheos’ swift stream meets the Malian Gulf’s wave,
and the pure depths of the Amphrysos water those pastures
where Apollo herded cattle. There, the Asopos starts its flow,
and the Black River, and the Phoenix; there, the Anauros,
free of moist vapours, dew-drenched air, capricious breezes.
There too are the rivers which do not reach the sea themselves
but are tributaries of Peneus - the Apidanus, robbed of its flow,
the Enipeus never swift until it finds Peneus, and the Titaresos,
which alone, meeting with that river, keeps its waters intact,
glides on the surface, as though the greater river were dry land,
for legend says its stream flows from the pool of Styx, and so,
mindful of its source, scorns commingling with common water,
inspiring still that awe of its current the gods themselves feel.
Book VI:381-412 The accursed land
Once the waters had flowed away leaving dry land, the fertile
soil was furrowed by the ploughs of the Bebryces; the labour
of Leleges drove the share deep; the ground was broken by
Aeolidae and Dolopians, by Magnesians breeders of horses,
Minyae builders of ships. There in the caves of Pelethronium,
the cloud impregnated by Ixion bore the bi-formed Centaurs –
Monychus who shattered Pholoe’s hard rock with his hooves;
bold Rhoecus who employed uprooted ash-trees as spears,
beneath Oeta’s peak, trees the northerlies failed to overturn;
Pholus who entertained great Hercules; you, presumptuous
Nessus, who ferried travellers over the river and was doomed
to feel Hercules’ arrows; and you, aged Chiron, whose stars,
those of Sagittarius, gleam in the winter sky, as they aim
their Thessalian bow at the greater constellation of Scorpio.
In this soil the seeds of cruel war quickened. From her rock
struck by the sea’s trident first emerged the Thessalian
war-horse, threatening dire conflict; here he first champed
at the steel bit, unused to his Lapith master’s bridle, that
set him foaming at the mouth. The Argo, the first ship
to cut the waves, was launched from the shores of Pagasae,
sending men, creatures of the land, out on the unknown deep.
There Ionos, King of Thessaly, was first to hammer molten
metal into shape, melting silver in the flames, forming gold
into coins, and smelting copper in huge furnaces. There it was
granted men to count their wealth, tempting them to the evils
of war. From Thessaly too, the Python, greatest of serpents,
glided south to Delphi; thus the laurels for the Pythian Games
are sourced from there. And from there rebellious Aloeus
launched his giant sons against the gods, when Mount Pelion,
piled on Olympus, almost reached the stars, and Mount Ossa,
encroaching on the planets’ orbits, obstructed their course.
Book VI:413-506 Thessalian witchcraft
Once the generals had set up camp in that accursed land
all minds were troubled by presentiments of war; it was
plain that the fateful hour, the final outcome, was upon
them, and that destiny drew near. The cowards trembled,
expecting the worst; others, strengthening themselves
to meet the unknown, experienced hope as well as fear,
while among that uncertain host was Sextus, Pompey’s
unworthy son, who later, exiled, stained Scylla’s waters
with Sicilian piracy, tarnishing his father’s naval glory.
Impatient of delay and troubled by whatever was to come,
fear drove him to seek prior knowledge of fate’s course,
but it was not the Delian tripods nor Delphi’s caverns
that he tried, nor cared he to inquire what sounds issue
from Jupiter’s cauldron at Dodona, whose oak-trees
furnished man’s first nourishment; he did not ask
who could read the future from sacrificial entrails,
interpret the flight of birds, the lightning in the sky,
or probe the stars with Babylonian lore, he avoided
knowledge which though secret was yet permitted.
He sought savage rites of witchcraft that the gods
abhor, and those funereal practices on grim altars.
He worshipped Dis and the shades below, a wretch
convinced the gods above knew too little. The place
the army camped fuelled his false and cruel delusion,
being near the dwellings of those Thessalian witches
whom no conjuring of imaginary horrors can outdo,
and whose arts concern all that is thought impossible.
Moreover Thessaly’s heights yield many baneful herbs,
its rocks bear witness to wizards chanting deadly spells.
A host of plants grow there with numinous powers;
Colchian Medea plucked herbs from Thessalian soil
to carry over the sea. The impious spells of that dire
cohort reach the ears of the gods, deaf to so many
nations and peoples. Their voices alone penetrate
the furthest depths of the heavens, bearing words
that bind the reluctant powers whose duty towards
the sky and the spinning firmament fails to distract
their listening. When the Thessalian witches’ dark
murmurings reach the stars the gods will be enticed
from other altars, though Persian Babylon, though
arcane Memphis open every shrine of their ancient
magi. Through their spells an un-predestined love
steals into resistant hearts, and severe old age burns
with illicit passion. Not their baleful concoctions
alone have power, not their stealing the caul from
the foal, a sign that the mare will love her offspring,
the caul that filled with the waters veils its forehead;
for even when unaffected by foul poisonous draughts,
the minds of men are destroyed by their incantations.
Those no marriage pledge nor allurement of beauty
binds, are drawn by the twirling magic of twisted
threads. Natural order ceases, daylight is held back
by the endless night; the ether disobeys all laws,
the swift firmament stalls at the sound of their chant,
and Jupiter, urging onward the flying heavens on their
axle, wonders why they fall still. Now those witches
drench the world with rain, and veil the burning sun
with cloud, and the heavens sound, Jupiter unaware;
now with spells they disperse the watery canopy,
and the dishevelled tresses of the thunder-clouds.
The ocean rises though the winds are still; or
instead is forbidden to feel the storm, falling
silent while the southerly blusters, though sails
speed the ships on, swelling against the breeze.
Now the waterfall on the steep cliff-face halts;
the river flows, but not on its downward course.
The Nile’s summer inundation fails; Maeander
straightens out its channel; Arar (Saône) drives
the sluggish Rhone; the mountains lower their
peaks and level their ridges; Olympus finds now
the clouds are high above; and Scythian snows
thaw in wintry cold despite the sun’s absence.
When the tide swells under the moon, the spells
cast by Thessalian witches cause its ebb, guard
the shore. Earth’s ponderous mass too is shaken
on its axis, the pressure acting towards its centre
eases, the great orb opens struck by the spell,
and reveals to sight the revolving sky beneath.
Every creature with power to cause death, born
to harm, both fears the Thessalian witches and
supplies their arts with a means of destruction.
The savage tiger, the fierce and noble lion, fawn
upon them lick their hands; the snake unwinding
his chilly coils stretches at full length on the cold
ground; knotted vipers disentangle and re-unite,
and the serpent dies blasted by human poison.
Why do the gods labour to empower these spells
and herbs, fearing to scorn them? What mutual
pact constrains them? Must they obey, or do they
delight in doing so? Do they reward some piety
unknown to us, or do they bow to silent threats?
Has witchcraft power over all the gods, or are
these tyrannical spells aimed at one alone, who
can compel the world as he himself is compelled?
By them the stars were first plucked down from
the swift-moving sky, the clear moon likewise
attacked by the dire ills of incantation, dimmed
and glowed with a dark terrestrial light, as if
Earth separated her from her brother’s glory,
casting a shadow, obstructing heaven’s fires.
Greatly troubled, she is drawn down by magic,
until she sheds spume on nearby plants below.
Book VI:507-568 The witch Erictho
The witch Erictho had scorned these wicked
rites and practices of an accursed race, as still
insufficient, and had turned her vile arts to rites
unknown. It was a crime to her to shelter her
evil head under a roof by a city hearth. Dear
to the deities of Erebus, she dwelt in deserted
tombs, and haunted the graves from which
ghosts had been expelled. Neither the gods
above, nor that she was one of the living,
stopped her overhearing the silent shades,
or knowing the Stygian realm, and unseen
Dis’s mysteries. The witch’s face haggard,
vile with neglect, her dreadful countenance
of a hellish pallor, freighted with uncombed
locks, is unknown to the pure heavens above;
but when black clouds and tempests drown
the stars, she will emerge from empty tombs,
and trap nocturnal lightning. Her tread blights
the seed in the rich fields, her breath poisons
the untainted air. She never prays to heaven,
invokes no divine power with suppliant hymn,
knows nothing of the sacrificial entrails; she
delights in setting funereal fires on the altars,
scattering incense snatched from a burning pyre.
The gods grant every horror at the first cry
of her voice, dreading a second incantation.
Living spirits, still in control of their bodies,
she buries in the grave, and while fate still
owes them years death strikes against their will;
or reversing the rite she brings back the dead
from the tomb, their corpses escaping to life.
She snatches the charred bones and smoking
ashes of children from the midst of the pyre,
and the very torches from their parents’ hands;
She gathers the fragments of the funeral bier,
and the fluttering grave-clothes turned to ash,
and the cinders that reek of the corpse. And if
the dead are sealed in a sarcophagus, that dries
the internal moisture, absorbs the corruption
of the marrow-bones, and stiffens the corpse,
then she vents her anger eagerly on its limbs,
thrusting her fingers deep in the eye-sockets,
scooping out the solidified eyeballs in delight,
gnawing the yellowed nails on withered hands.
She mangles the hanged corpse, cuts the fatal
noose with her teeth, scrapes at the crucified,
tears at rain-beaten flesh and bones scorched
by the sun. She steals nails that have pierced
hands, the clotted gore and the black residues
of putrefaction that oozed over all the limbs;
and hangs her weight on sinews that resist
her teeth. She squats by any corpse exposed
on the ground, before birds or beasts arrive,
not severing the limbs with her bare hands
or a knife, but waiting for wolves to tear
the flesh, ready to snatch the morsels from
their un-slaked jaws. Nor does she hesitate
to take life if warm blood’s needed that flows
when a throat is slit, and her ghoulish feasts
demand still quivering flesh. Thus she pierces
the womb and extracts the child, not as nature
intended, in order to set it in the altar flames.
And when a cruel and forceful ghost is wanted,
she takes its life herself. Every man’s death
serves her turn. She tears the bloom from the face
on some youngster’s body, her left hand slicing
a lock of hair from the dying lad’s head. Often
too, when a loved one is buried, the dreadful
witch will hang over the body in kissing it,
mutilates the head, opens the closed mouth
with her teeth, bites the tip of the inert tongue
in the dry mouth, infuses the cold lips with
murmuring sound, and sends a wicked and
arcane message down to the Stygian shades.
Book VI:569-623 Sextus seeks her aid
Sextus heard local tales of Erictho, and made
his way to her dwelling when night ruled the sky,
at the hour in those deserted fields when the sun
is in the zenith for those on the other side of earth.
Guides, the faithful servants of her wickedness,
sought her among the empty graves and tombs
until they saw her far off sitting on a high cliff,
where the Balkan mountains slope to Pharsalia.
She was attempting a spell unknown to wizards
or the powers of wizardry, creating a charm
for a novel purpose. She feared the armies might
move to some other site, and Thessaly miss out
on mighty carnage; so the witch forbade the war
to shift from Pharsalia, darkened by her spells
and sprinkled over by her noxious compounds,
so all the dead would be hers, and all the blood,
shed there, hers to employ. She hoped to mutilate
the corpses of slain kings, plunder the ashes of
the Roman people, and the bones of noblemen,
and master the ghosts of the great. Her sole
labour and passion was to snatch what part
she could of Pompey’s outstretched corpse,
pounce on what of Caesar’s limbs she might.
Pompey’s unworthy son spoke first, saying:
‘O famed Thessalian, with the power to reveal
the future to mortal men, and alter the course
of events, I pray I might be allowed certain
knowledge of the outcome of the coming battle.
I am not the least of Romans, a son of renowned
Pompey, a lord of the world or the heir to doom.
My heart quakes, shaken by uncertainty, yet
ready also to face known dangers. Take from
events the power to rush upon us suddenly
and blindly. Trouble the gods or, abandoning
them, extort the truth from the shades below.
Reveal the Elysian realms, and summon Death
himself: force him to show which among us is his.
It is no mean task: yet for your own ends too it is
worth your labour to know how the die will fall.’
Proud of her great fame, the Thessalian witch
replied: ‘If it were a lesser decree of fate you
sought to change, young man, it would be
easy to force the gods to any course you wish.
If the planets in their aspects presage death
for one alone, our arts can summon a delay.
Likewise though all the stars foretell long years,
we can cut short a life by the use of magic herbs.
But sometimes the chain of events is fixed
from the beginning of the world; if we seek
to make a change all fates are altered, all
humankind is affected by a single blow,
and all the Thessalian coven then confess
Destiny’s greater powers. But if to foreknow
events contents you, many and easy the ways
to the truth: earth, sky, abyss, the sea, the plains,
the cliffs of Rhodope will speak. And since
there is a wealth of recent slaughter, the simplest
way is to steal a corpse from the Thessalian field;
the lips of a fresh cadaver, still warm, will speak
loud, not some dismal shade, limbs withered
from the sun, gibbering vaguely in our ears.’
Book VI:624-666 The cave of Erictho
So she spoke: then, night doubly darkened by her art,
her shadowy head veiled in vile mist, she strayed
among the scattered corpses of dead men denied burial.
The wolves at once fled, the vultures sheathed their
talons, and unsated took flight, as the witch picked out
her prophet, prodding the innermost organs deathly cold
seeking a corpse, its pair of lungs firm and un-wounded
whose rigid sacs might still possess power of utterance.
The fate of a multitude of slain now hangs in the balance:
which will she choose to restore to life? If she had tried
to raise up a whole army on that plain, to fight once more,
the laws of Erebus would have rested in abeyance, a host
brought from Stygian Avernus by her monstrous powers
would have warred again. Finally, she chose a cadaver
thrusting a hook through a noose tied around its neck,
then dragging the wretched corpse, doomed to live again,
along over rocks, through scree, to her lair under a high
cliff of that cavernous mountain, which cruel Erictho
had destined for her rites. There the ground fell in sheer
descent to well-nigh reach the invisible caverns of Dis.
Dark trees with bowed branches hemmed it in, yew-trees
the sunlight never penetrated, their tips shunning the sky.
Within the caves, faint shadows and pallid decay reigned
in endless night; no light illuminating them but by magic.
Even in Taenarus’ gorge the air is less stagnant; here was
the gloomy border of the unseen world and ours; so that
the gods of Tartarus had no fear in allowing the dead there.
For though the Thessalian witch has power over the fates,
it is uncertain whether she questions the dead souls by
drawing them to her, or descending to them. Now, she
donned diverse and multi-coloured raiment fit for a fiend
to wear, threw back her hair and revealed her face, tying
her dreadful locks with wreathed vipers. Seeing Sextus’
companions trembling with dread and he himself afraid,
seeing their fixed glaze and bloodless features, she cried:
‘Set aside the fears your fearful minds conceive; now
life in familiar shape will return to him, so that even
the fearful might hear him speak. Though I were to show
the pools of Styx whose shores roar with flame, though
my commands let you view the Kindly Ones, or Cerberus
shaking his snaky mane, or the chained forms of the Giants,
why, cowards, fear those shades, who themselves fear me?’
Book VI:667-718 Erictho invokes the infernal powers
Then she began by filling fresh wounds in the breast
of that corpse with warm blood, washing the innards
clean of gore pouring into them moon-born poison.
In this was mingled all that Nature wrongly bears;
the spume of rabid dogs, a lynx’s innards, a foul
hyena’s hump, and the marrow of a snake-fed stag;
the remora was there, that echeneis, that grips ships
holding them motionless mid-ocean though the wind
fills their sails; and the eyes of dragons, and the stones
that sound when warmed by a nesting eagle; the flying
snake of Arabia, and the viper born beside the Red Sea
that guards pearl-oysters; the skin the horned Libyan
snake will shed while alive; the ashes of the Phoenix
that immolates itself in the flames of the eastern altar.
To which she added commonly-known baneful weeds,
and leaves steeped with unspeakable spells, and herbs
her own deadly mouth had spat upon at birth, with all
the venom she herself had given to the world. Then
her voice, more powerful than any herb to bewitch
the powers of Lethe, began to utter dissonant cries,
far different from any human speech. The dog’s yowl,
the wolf’s howl, were there, the restless barn-owl’s hoot,
and the screech-owl’s call, beasts’ wails and shrieks,
the hissing of snakes, they were all expressed within;
and the roar of waves beating on rocks, the forest’s
moan, the thunder through a rift in the cloud, all
such things formed that single voice. Next she began
a Thessalian spell, in accents that penetrated Tartarus:
‘You Furies, and you Stygian horrors, you torments
of the guilty, and you, Chaos, ready to confound
innumerable worlds in ruin; and you, ruler of the world
below, a god whom lingering Death torments through
long centuries; and Styx, and that Elysium no Thessalian
witch deserves; and Persephone who shuns her mother
in heaven; and the third form of our patroness, Hecate,
through whom the shades and I converse silently;
and the Janitor of the wide realm, who throws men’s
flesh to the savage hound; and the Sisters who must
re-spin the thread of life; and you, ancient ferryman
of the fiery wave, weary of rowing shades back to me:
hear my prayer! If I invoke you with sufficiently foul
and impious lips; if I never chant these spells fasting
from human flesh; if I have often slit open those breasts
filled with divinity, and laved them with warm brains;
if any infant whose head and organs were laid on your
platters might prevail with you, grant me my request.
I do not ask for one who lurks in the depths of Tartarus,
long accustomed to the dark, but for some descending
spirit fleeing the light; one who clings to the threshold
still of gloomy Orcus, who obeying my spells now will
only go down once among the shades. If this civil war
deserves your favour, let the shade of some Pompeian,
lately among us, prophesy all things to Pompey’s son.’
Book VI:719-774 She raises the dead to prophesy
With this, foaming at the mouth, she raised her head
to find the shade of the unburied dead close beside her.
It feared the lifeless corpse, the loathsome confinement
of its former prison; it shrank from entering the gaping
breast, the flesh and innards ruined by the mortal wound.
Oh wretched ghost, iniquitously robbed of death’s final
gift, that is: to die no more! Erictho marvelled that fate
could be delayed so, and enraged by the dead she lashed
the inert corpse with a live serpent, and through the clefts
where the earth had been split by her spells she growled
like a dog at the shades below and shattering the silence
of their realm, cried: ‘Tisiphone and Megaera, unheeding
of my voice, will you not drive the unhappy spirit with
your cruel whips from the void of Erebus? Or shall I
summon you by your secret names, Hounds of Hell, and
render you helpless in the light above; there to keep you
from graves and funerals; banish you from tombs, drive
you from urns of the dead. And you, Hecate, all pale
and withered in form, who paint your face before you
visit the gods above, I will show them you as you are,
and prevent you altering your hellish form. I shall speak
aloud about that food which confines Proserpine beneath
the vast weight of earth above, by what compact she loves
the gloomy king of darkness, what defilement she suffered
such that you Ceres would not recall her. I shall burst your
caves asunder, Ruler of the Underworld, and admit light
instantly to blast you. Will you obey me? Or shall I call
on one at the sound of whose name earth ever quakes
and trembles, who views the Gorgon’s head without its
veil, who lashes the cowering Fury with her own whip,
who dwells in Tartarus beyond your sight, for whom you
are the gods above, who swears by Styx while perjuring
himself.’ Instantly the clotted blood grew warm, heating
the livid wounds, coursing through veins and extremities
of the limbs. The vital organs, stirred, thrilled in the cold
flesh; and a new life stealing through the numbed innards
contested with death. Each limb quivered, sinews strained,
and the dead man rose, not limb by limb, but bounding up,
swiftly, and at once standing erect. His mouth gaped wide,
his eyes opened, not with the aspect of one living as yet,
but already half-alive. Pallor and rigidity remaining, he
was dazed by his restoration to this world. And the fettered
mouth uttered no sound: a voice and tongue were granted
him but only for reply. ‘Speak as I command,’ the witch
cried, ‘and great will be your reward, for if you speak true
I shall render you immune to Thessalian arts for all time;
I will burn your body on such a pyre and with such fuel,
with such Stygian chanting, that your spirit shall be deaf
to all sorcerers’ spells. Let it be worth that to live again:
and once I again grant you death no herb or spell shall
break your long Lethean sleep. Riddling prophecies may
suit the priests and tripods of the gods; but you must let
any man who seeks truth from the shades, brave enough
to approach the oracles of fierce death, depart in certainty.
Do not begrudge this, I pray: give acts a name and place,
yield a voice through which fate may reveal itself to me.’
Book VI:775-830 The prophecy of the dead
Then she cast a spell that gave the shade power to know
all that she asked. The sad flesh spoke, its tears flowing:
‘Summoned from the high bank of the silent river, I saw
nothing of the Fates’ mournful spinning, but this I was
able to learn from the host of shades: that savage strife
stirs the Roman ghosts, impious war shatters the peace
of the infernal regions. The great Romans, from diverse
sides, came from Elysian realms and gloomy Tartarus.
They made clear what fate intends. The blessed dead
wore sorrowful faces. I saw the Decii, father and son,
lives purified in battle, Camillus and Curius, weeping;
and Sulla railing against you, Fortune. Scipio grieved
that his unhappy scion should fall on Libyan soil; Cato
the Censor, a still fiercer enemy of Carthage mourned
the death his descendant would prefer to slavery. Among
all the pious shades I saw only you, Brutus, rejoicing,
you, Rome’s first consul after the tyrants were deposed.
But threatening Catiline, snapped and broke his chains,
and was exulting, with fierce Marius and bare-armed
Cethegus; and I saw Drusus the demagogue and rash
legislator, joyful, and the Gracchi, the greatly daring.
Hands, bound by eternal links of steel in Dis’s prison,
clapped with delight, and the wicked sought the plains
of the blessed. The lord of that bloodless realm threw
wide his pallid realm, and with steep jagged cliffs
and harsh steel for chains prepared his punishment
for the victorious. Sextus, take consolation in this:
the dead look to welcome your father and his house
to a place of peace, keeping a bright region of their
realm for them. Let no short-lived victory trouble
you: cometh the hour that makes all generals equal.
You proud, with your high hearts, hasten to die,
then descend from so pitiful a grave to trample
on the ghosts of the deified Romans. By whose
grave the Nile or by whose the Tiber will flow,
is in question, yet the conflict of generals
only settles their place of burial: of your own fate
seek nothing, the fates will tell you without my
saying, since your father, Sextus, a surer prophet
will tell you all in the land of Sicily, though even
he is unsure of where to summon you to, or what
to warn you of, what regions, what climes he ought
to order you to avoid. Fear Europe, Africa, and Asia
wretched house! Fortune divides your graves among
the continents you triumphed over. O ill-fated ones,
finding nowhere in the world safer than Pharsalia!’
So ending his prophecy, he stood there sorrowful
with silent face, ready to die again. Herbs and magic
spells were once more needed before the cadaver
could fall, since death having exerted all its power
once, could not reclaim that spirit itself. Then
the witch built a tall pyre of wood; and the dead
man approached the fire. Erictho left him to stretch
out on the burning pile, allowing him to die at last.
She accompanied Sextus to his father’s camp as
the sky took on the hue of dawn, but at her order
night held back day producing a veil of darkness
for them till they set foot in safety among the tents.
End of Book VI