The Civil War (Pharsalia)

Book VI

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

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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