The Pharsalia of Lucan

Book i

The Crossing of the Rubicon

Introduction, lines 1-50. Address to Nero, 51-75. Causes of the Civil War, 76-135. Character of Pompeius, 136-159; of Caesar, 160-176. Corruption of the times, 177-207. Caesar crosses the Rubicon, 208-257; and advances to Ariminum, 258-293. The Tribunes meet him and Curio addresses him, 294-334. Caesar’s speech to his soldiers, 335-402. The reply of Laelius, 403-449. The Roman forces are summoned from Gaul, 450-523. Terror at Rome and flight of Citizens and Senators, 524-579. Prodigies related, 580-641. Aruns the Seer is summoned to aid the nation, and makes an expiatory sacrifice, 642-705. Figulus prophesies the coming disasters, 706-743; and so does a frenzied nation, 751-772.

Wars worse than civil on Emathian 1 plains,

And crime let loose we sing; how Rome’s high race

Plunged in her vitals her victorious sword;

Armies akin embattled, with the force

Of all the shaken earth bent on the fray;

And burst asunder, to the common guilt,

A kingdom’s compact; eagle with eagle met,

Standard to standard, spear opposed to spear.

Whence, citizens, this rage, this boundless lust

To sate barbarians with the blood of Rome?10

Did not the shade of Crassus, wandering still, 2

Cry for his vengeance? Could ye not have spoiled,

To deck your trophies, haughty Babylon?

Why wage campaigns that send no laurels home?

What lands, what oceans might have been the prize

Of all the blood thus shed in civil strife!

Where Titan rises, where night hides the stars,

‘Neath southern noons all quivering with heat,

Or where keen frost that never yields to spring

In icy fetters binds the Scythian main:20

Long since barbarians by the Eastern sea

And far Araxes’ stream, and those who know

(If any such there be) the birth of Nile

Had felt our yoke. Then, Rome, upon thyself

With all the world beneath thee, if thou must,

Wage this nefarious war, but not till then.

Now view the houses with half-ruined walls

Throughout Italian cities; stone from stone

Has slipped and lies at length; within the home

No guard is found, and in the ancient streets so30

Scarce seen the passer by. The fields in vain,

Rugged with brambles and unploughed for years,

Ask for the hand of man; for man is not.

Nor savage Pyrrhus nor the Punic horde

E’er caused such havoc: to no foe was given

To strike thus deep; but civil strife alone

Dealt the fell wound and left the death behind.

Yet if the fates could find no other way 3

For Nero coming, nor the gods with ease

Gain thrones in heaven; and if the Thunderer40

Prevailed not till the giant’s war was done,

Complaint is silent. For this boon supreme

Welcome, ye gods, be wickedness and crime;

Thronged with our dead be dire Pharsalia’s fields,

Be Punic ghosts avenged by Roman blood;

Add to these ills the toils of Mutina;

Perusia’s dearth; on Munda’s final field

The shock of battle joined; let Leucas’ Cape

Shatter the routed navies; servile hands

Unsheath the sword on fiery Etna’s slopes:50

Still Rome is gainer by the civil war.

Thou, Caesar, art her prize. When thou shalt choose,

Thy watch relieved, to seek divine abodes,

All heaven rejoicing; and shalt hold a throne,

Or else elect to govern Phoebus’ car

And light a subject world that shall not dread

To owe her brightness to a different Sun;

All shall concede thy right: do what thou wilt,

Select thy Godhead, and the central clime

Whence thou shalt rule the world with power divine.60

And yet the Northern or the Southern Pole

We pray thee, choose not; but in rays direct

Vouchsafe thy radiance to thy city Rome.

Press thou on either side, the universe

Should lose its equipoise: take thou the midst,

And weight the scales, and let that part of heaven

Where Caesar sits, be evermore serene

And smile upon us with unclouded blue.

Then may all men lay down their arms, and peace

Through all the nations reign, and shut the gates70

That close the temple of the God of War.

Be thou my help, to me e’en now divine!

Let Delphi’s steep her own Apollo guard,

And Nysa keep her Bacchus, uninvoked.

Rome is my subject and my muse art thou!

First of such deeds I purpose to unfold

The causes — task immense — what drove to arms

A maddened nation, and from all the world

Struck peace away.

By envious fate’s decrees80

Abide not long the mightiest lords of earth;

Beneath too heavy a burden great the fall.

Thus Rome o’ergrew her strength. So when that hour,

The last in all the centuries, shall sound

The world’s disruption, all things shall revert

To that primaeval chaos, stars on stars

Shall crash; and fiery meteors from the sky

Plunge in the ocean. Earth shall then no more

Front with her bulwark the encroaching sea:

The moon, indignant at her path oblique,90

Shall drive her chariot ‘gainst her brother Sun

And claim the day for hers; and discord huge

Shall rend the spheres asunder.

On themselves

Great powers are dashed: such bounds the gods have placed

Upon the prosperous; nor doth Fortune lend

To any nations, so that they may strike

The sovereign power that rules the earth and sea,

The weapons of her envy. Triple reign

And baleful compact for divided power —100

Ne’er without peril separate before —

Made Rome their victim. Oh! Ambition blind,

That stirred the leaders so to join their strength

In peace that ended ill, their prize the world!

For while the Sea on Earth and Earth on Air

Lean for support: while Titan runs his course,

And night with day divides an equal sphere,

No king shall brook his fellow, nor shall power

Endure a rival. Search no foreign lands:

These walls are proof that in their infant days110

A hamlet, not the world, was prize enough

To cause the shedding of a brother’s blood.

Concord, on discord based, brief time endured,

Unwelcome to the rivals; and alone

Crassus delayed the advent of the war.

Like to the slender neck that separates

The seas of Graecia: should it be engulfed

Then would th’ Ionian and Aegean mains 4

Break each on other: thus when Crassus fell,

Who held apart the chiefs, in piteous death,120

And stained Assyria’s plains with Latian blood,

Defeat in Parthia loosed the war in Rome.

More in that victory than ye thought was won,

Ye sons of Arsaces; your conquered foes

Took at your hands the rage of civil strife.

The mighty realm that earth and sea contained,

To which all peoples bowed, split by the sword,

Could not find space for two 5. For Julia bore,

Cut off by fate unpitying6, the bond

Of that ill-omened marriage, and the pledge130

Of blood united, to the shades below.

Had’st thou but longer stayed, it had been thine

To keep the husband and the sire apart,

And, as the Sabine women did of old,

Dash down the threatening swords and join the hands.

With thee all trust was buried, and the chiefs

Could give their courage vent, and rushed to war.

Lest newer glories triumphs past obscure,

Late conquered Gaul the bays from pirates won,

This, Magnus, was thy fear; thy roll of fame,140

Of glorious deeds accomplished for the state

Allows no equal; nor will Caesar’s pride

A prior rival in his triumphs brook;

Which had the right ’twere impious to enquire;

Each for his cause can vouch a judge supreme;

The victor, heaven: the vanquished, Cato, thee. 7

Nor were they like to like: the one in years

Now verging towards decay, in times of peace

Had unlearned war; but thirsting for applause

Had given the people much, and proud of fame150

His former glory cared not to renew,

But joyed in plaudits of the theatre, 8

His gift to Rome: his triumphs in the past,

Himself the shadow of a mighty name.

As when some oak, in fruitful field sublime,

Adorned with venerable spoils, and gifts

Of bygone leaders, by its weight to earth

With feeble roots still clings; its naked arms

And hollow trunk, though leafless, give a shade;

And though condemned beneath the tempest’s shock160

To speedy fall, amid the sturdier trees

In sacred grandeur rules the forest still.

No such repute had Ceesar won, nor fame;

But energy was his that could not rest —

The only shame he knew was not to win.

Keen and unvanquished 9, where revenge or hope

Might call, resistless would he strike the blow

With sword unpitying: every victory won

Reaped to the full; the favour of the gods

Pressed to the utmost; all that stayed his course170

Aimed at the summit of power, was thrust aside:

Triumph his joy, though ruin marked his track.

As parts the clouds a bolt by winds compelled,

With crack of riven air and crash of worlds,

And veils the light of day, and on mankind,

Blasting their vision with its flames oblique,

Sheds deadly fright; then turning to its home, ’

Nought but the air opposing, through its path

Spreads havoc, and collects its scattered fires.

Such were the hidden motives of the chiefs;180

But in the public life the seeds of war

Their hold had taken, such as are the doom

Of potent nations: and when fortune poured

Through Roman gates the booty of a world,

The curse of luxury, chief bane of states,

Fell on her sons. Farewell the ancient ways!

Behold the pomp profuse, the houses decked

With ornament; their hunger loathed the food

Of former days; men wore attire for dames

Scarce fitly fashioned; poverty was scorned,190

Fruitful of warriors; and from all the world

Came that which ruins nations; while the fields

Furrowed of yore by great Camillus’ plough,

Or by the mattock which a Curius held,

Lost their once narrow bounds, and widening tracts

By hinds unknown were tilled. No nation this

To sheathe the sword, with tranquil peace content

And with her liberties; but prone to ire;

Crime holding light as though by want compelled:

And great the glory in the minds of men,200

Ambition lawful even at point of sword,

To rise above their country: might their law:

Decrees are forced from Senate and from Plebs:

Consul and Tribune break the laws alike:

Bought are the fasces, and the people sell

For gain their favour: bribery’s fatal curse

Corrupts the annual contests of the Field.

Then covetous usury rose, and interest

Was greedier ever as the seasons came;

Faith tottered; thousands saw their gain in war.210

Caesar has crossed the Alps, his mighty soul

Great tumults pondering and the coming shock.

Now on the marge of Rubicon, he saw,

In face most sorrowful and ghostly guise,

His trembling country’s image; huge it seemed

Through mists of night obscure; and hoary hair

Streamed from the lofty front with turrets crowned:

Torn were her locks and naked were her arms.

Then thus, with broken sighs the Vision spake:

“What seek ye, men of Rome? and whither hence220

Bear ye my standards? If by right ye come,

My citizens, stay here; these are the bounds;

No further dare.” But Caesar’s hair was stiff

With horror as he gazed, and ghastly dread

Restrained his footsteps on the further bank.

Then spake he, “Thunderer, who from the rock

Tarpeian seest the wall of mighty Rome;

Gods of my race who watched o’er Troy of old;

Thou Jove of Alba’s height, and Vestal fires,

And rites of Romulus erst rapt to heaven,230

And God-like Rome; be friendly to my quest.

Not with offence or hostfie arms I come,

Thy Caesar, conqueror by land and sea,

Thy soldier here and wheresoe’er thou wilt:

No other’s; his, his only be the guilt

Whose acts make me thy foe.’ He gives the word

And bids his standards cross the swollen stream.

So in the wastes of Afric’s burning clime

The lion crouches as his foes draw near,

Feeding his wrath the while, his lashing tail240

Provokes his fury; stiff upon his neck

Bristles his mane: deep from his gaping jaws

Resounds a muttered growl, and should a lance

Or javelin reach him from the hunter’s ring,

Scorning the puny scratch he bounds afield.

From modest fountain blood-red Rubicon

In summer’s heat flows on; his pigmy tide

Creeps through the valleys and with slender marge

Divides the Italian peasant from the Gaul.

Then winter gave him strength, and fraught with rain250

The third day’s crescent moon; while Eastern winds

Thawed from the Alpine slopes the yielding snow.

The cavalry first form across the stream ’

To break the torrent’s force; the rest with ease

Beneath their shelter gain the further bank.

When Csesar crossed and trod beneath his feet

The soil of Italy’s forbidden fields,

“Here,” spake he, “peace, here broken laws be left;

Farewell to treaties. Fortune, lead me on;

War is our judge, and in the fates our trust.”260

Then in the shades of night he leads the troops

Swifter than Balearic sling or shaft

Winged by retreating Parthian, to the walls

Of threatened Rimini, while fled the stars,

Save Lucifer, before the coming sun,

Whose fires were veiled in clouds, by south wind driven,

Or else at heaven’s command: and thus drew on

The first dark morning of the civil war.

Now stand the troops within the captured town,

Their standards planted; and the trumpet clang270

Rings forth in harsh alarums, giving note

Of impious strife: roused from their sleep the men

Rush to the hall and snatch the ancient arms

Long hanging through the years of peace; the shield

With crumbling frame; dark with the tooth of rust

Their swords 10; and javelins with blunted point.

But when the well-known signs and eagles shone,

And Caesar towering o’er the throng was seen,

They shook for terror, fear possessed their limbs,

And thoughts unuttered stirred within their souls.280

“O miserable those to whom their home

Denies the peace that all men else enjoy!

Placed as we are beside the Northern bounds

And scarce a footstep from the restless Gaul,

We fall the first; would that our lot had been

Beneath the Eastern sky, or frozen North,

To lead a wandering life, rather than keep

The gates of Latium. Brennus sacked the town

And Hannibal, and all the Teuton hosts.

For when the fate of Rome is in the scale290

By this path war advances.” Thus they moan

Their fears but speak them not; no sound is heard

Giving their anguish utterance: as when

In depth of winter all the fields are still,

The birds are voiceless and no sound is heard

To break the silence of the central sea.

But when the day had broken through the shades

Of chilly darkness, lo! the torch of war!

For by the hand of Fate is swift dispersed

All Caesar’s shame of battle, and his mind300

Scarce doubted more; and Fortune toiled to make

His action just and give him cause for arms.

For while Rome doubted and the tongues of men

Spoke of the chiefs who won them rights of yore,

The hostile Senate, in contempt of right,

Drove out the Tribunes. They to Caesar’s camp

With Curio hasten, who of venal tongue,

Bold, prompt, persuasive, had been wont to preach

Of Freedom to the people, and to call

Upon the chiefs to lay their weapons down 11.310

And when he saw how deeply Caesar mused,

“While from the rostrum I had power,” he said,

To call the populace to aid thy cause,

By this my voice against the Senate’s will

Was thy command prolonged. But silenced now

Are laws in war: we driven from our homes;

Yet is our exile willing; for thine arms

Shall make us citizens of Rome again.

Strike; for no strength as yet the foe hath gained.

Occasion calls, delay shall mar it soon:320

Like risk, like labour, thou hast known before,

But never such reward. Could Gallia hold

Thine armies ten long years ere victory came,

That little nook of earth? One paltry fight

Or twain, fought out by thy resistless hand,

And Rome for thee shall have subdued the world:

’Tis true no triumph now would bring thee home;

No captive tribes would grace thy chariot wheels

Winding in pomp around the ancient hill.

Spite gnaws the factions; for thy conquests won330

Scarce shalt thou be unpunished. Yet ’tis fate

Thou should’st subdue thy kinsman: share the world

With him thou canst not; rule thou canst, alone.”

As when at Elis’ festival a horse

In stable pent gnaws at his prison bars

Impatient, and should clamour from without

Strike on his ear, bounds furious at restraint,

So then was Caesar, eager for the fight,

Stirred by the words of Curio. To the ranks

He bids his soldiers; with majestic mien340

And hand commanding silence as they come.

“Comrades,” he cried, “victorious returned,

Who by my side for ten long years have faced,

‘Mid Alpine winters and on Arctic shores,

The thousand dangers of the battle-field —

Is this our country’s welcome, this her prize

For death and wounds and Roman blood outpoured?

Rome arms her choicest sons; the sturdy oaks

Are felled to make a fleet; — what could she more

If from the Alps fierce Hannibal were come350

With all his Punic host? By land and sea

Caesar shall fly! Fly? Though in adverse war

Our best had fallen, and the savage Gaul

Were hard upon our track, we would not fly.

And now, when fortune smiles and kindly gods

Beckon us on to glory! — Let him come

Fresh from his years of peace, with all his crowd

Of conscript burgesses, Marcellus’ tongue 12

And Cato’s empty name! We will not fly.

Shall Eastern hordes and greedy hirelings keep360

Their loved Pompeius ever at the helm?

Shall chariots of triumph be for him

Though youth and law forbad them? Shall he seize

On Rome’s chief honours ne’er to be resigned?

And what of harvests 13 blighted through the world

And ghastly famine made to serve his ends?

Who hath forgotten how Pompeius’ bands

Seized on the forum, and with glittering arms

Made outraged justice tremble, while their swords

Hemmed in the judgment-seat where Milo 14 stood?370

And now when worn and old and ripe for rest 15,

Greedy of power, the impious sword again

He draws. As tigers in Hyrcanian woods

Wandering, or in the caves that saw their birth,

Once having lapped the blood of slaughtered kine,

Shall never cease from rage; e’en so this whelp

Of cruel Sulla, nursed in civil war,

Outstrips his master; and the tongue which licked

That reeking weapon ever thirsts for more.

Stain once the lips with blood, no other meal380

They shall enjoy. And shall there be no end

Of these long years of power and of crime?

Nay, this one lesson, e’er it be too late,

Learn of thy gentle Sulla — to retire!

Of old his victory o’er Cilician thieves

And Pontus’ weary monarch gave him fame,

By poison scarce attained. His latest prize

Shall I be, Caesar, I, who would not quit

My conquering eagles at his proud command?

Nay, if no triumph is reserved for me,390

Let these at least of long and toilsome war

‘Neath other leaders the rewards enjoy.

Where shall the weary soldier find his rest?

What cottage homes their joys, what fields their fruit

Shall to our veterans yield? Will Magnus say

That pirates only till the fields alight?

Unfurl your standards; victory gilds them yet,

As through those glorious years. Deny our rights!

He that denies them makes our quarrel just.

Nay! use the strength that we have made our own.400

No booty seek we, nor imperial power.

This would-be ruler of subservient Rome

We force to quit his grasp; and Heaven shall smile

On those who seek to drag the tyrant down.”

Thus Caesar spake; but doubtful murmurs ran

Throughout the listening crowd, this way and that

Their wishes urging them; the thoughts of home

And household gods and kindred gave them pause:

But fear of Caesar and the pride of war

Their doubts resolved. Then Laelius, who wore410

The well-earned crown for Roman life preserved,

The foremost Captain of the army, spake:

“O greatest leader of the Roman name,

If ’tis thy wish the very truth to hear

’Tis mine to speak it; we complain of this,

That gifted with such strength thou did’st refrain

From using it. Had’st thou no trust in us?

While the hot life-blood fills these glowing veins,

While these strong arms avail to hurl the lance,

Wilt thou make peace and bear the Senate’s rule?420

Is civil conquest then so base and vile?

Lead us through Scythian deserts, lead us where

The inhospitable Syrtes line the shore

Of Afric’s burning sands, or where thou wilt:

This hand, to leave a conquered world behind,

Held firm the oar that tamed the Northern Sea

And Rhine’s swift torrent foaming to the main.

To follow thee fate gives me now the power:

The will was mine before. No citizen

I count the man ‘gainst whom thy trumpets sound.430

By ten campaigns of victory, I swear,

By all thy world-wide triumphs, though with hand

Unwilling, should’st thou now demand the life

Of sire or brother or of faithful spouse,

Caesar, the life were thine. To spoil the gods

And sack great Juno’s temple on the hill,

To plant our arms o’er Tiber’s yellow stream,

To measure out the camp, against the wall

To drive the fatal ram, and raze the town,

This arm shall not refuse, though Rome the prize.”440

His comrades swore consent with lifted hands

And vowed to follow wheresoe’er he led.

And such a clamour rent the sky as when

Some Thracian blast on Ossa’s pine-clad rocks

Falls headlong, and the loud reechoing woods,

Or bending, or rebounding from the stroke,

In sounding chorus lift the roar on high.

When Csesar saw them welcome thus the war

And Fortune leading on, and favouring fates,

He seized the moment, called his troops from Gaul,450

And breaking up his camp set on for Rome.

The tents are vacant by Lake Leman’s side;

The camps upon the beetling crags of Vosges

No longer hold the warlike Lingon down,

Fierce in his painted arms; Isere is left,

Who past his shallows gliding, flows at last

Into the current of more famous Rhone,

To reach the ocean in another name.

The fair-haired people of Cevennes are free:

Soft Aude rejoicing bears no Roman keel,460

Nor pleasant Var, since then Italia’s bound;

The harbour sacred to Alcides’ name

Where hollow crags encroach upon the sea,

Is left in freedom: there nor Zephyr gains

Nor Caurus access, but the Circian blast 16

Forbids the roadstead by Monaecus’ hold.

And others left the doubtful shore, which sea

And land alternate claim, whene’er the tide

Pours in amain or when the wave rolls back —

Be it the wind which thus compels the deep470

From furthest pole, and leaves it at the flood;

Or else the moon that makes the tide to swell,

Or else, in search of fuel 17 for his fires,

The sun draws heavenward the ocean wave; —

Whate’er the cause that may control the main

I leave to others; let the gods for me

Lock in their breasts the secrets of the world.

Those who kept watch beside the western shore

Have moved their standards home; the happy Gaul

Rejoices in their absence; fair Garonne480

Through peaceful meads glides onward to the sea.

And where the river broadens, neath the cape

Her quiet harbour sleeps. No outstretched arm

Except in mimic war now hurls the lance.

No skilful warrior of Seine directs

The scythed chariot ‘gainst his country’s foe.

Now rest the Belgians, and the Arvernian race

That boasts our kinship by descent from Troy;

And those brave rebels whose undaunted hands

Were dipped in Cotta’s blood, and those who wear490

Sarmatian garb. Batavia’s warriors fierce

No longer listen for the bugle call,

Nor those who dwell where Rhone’s swift eddies sweep

Saone to the ocean; nor the mountain tribes

Who dwell about its source. Thou, too, oh Treves,

Rejoicest that the war has left thy bounds.

Ligurian tribes, now shorn, in ancient days

First of the long-haired nations, on whose necks

Once flowed the auburn locks in pride supreme;

And those who pacify with blood accursed500

Savage Teutates, Hesus’ horrid shrines,

And Taranis’ altars cruel as were those

Loved by Diana 18, goddess of the north;

All these now rest in peace. And you, ye Bards,

Whose martial lays send down to distant times

The fame of valorous deeds in battle done,

Pour forth in safety more abundant song.

While you, ye Druids 19, when the war was done,

To mysteries strange and hateful rites returned:

To you alone ’tis given the gods and stars510

To know or not to know; secluded groves

Your dwelling-place, and forests far remote.

If what ye sing be true, the shades of men

Seek not the dismal homes of Erebus

Or death’s pale kingdoms; but the breath of life

Still rules these bodies in another age —

Life on this hand and that, and death between.

Happy the peoples ‘neath the Northern Star

In this their false belief; for them no fear

Of that which frights all others: they with hands520

And hearts undaunted rush upon the foe

And scorn to spare the life that shall return.

Ye too depart who kept the banks of Rhine

Safe from the foe, and leave the Teuton tribes

Free at their will to march upon the world.

Caesar, with strength increased and gathered troops

New efforts daring, spreads his bands afar

Through Italy, and fills the neighbouring towns.

Then empty rumour to well-grounded fear

Gave strength, and heralding the coming war530

In hundred voices ‘midst the people spread.

One cries in terror, “Swift the squadrons come

Where Nar with Tiber joins: and where, in meads

By oxen loved, Mevania spreads her walls,

Fierce Caesar hurries his barbarian horse.

Eagles and standards wave above his head,

And broad the march that sweeps across the land.”

Nor is he pictured truly; greater far

More fierce and pitiless — from conquered foes

Advancing; in his rear the peoples march.540

Snatched from their homes between the Rhine and Alps,

To pillage Rome while Roman chiefs look on.

Thus each man’s panic thought swells rumour’s lie:

They fear the phantoms they themselves create.

Nor does the terror seize the crowd alone:

But fled the Fathers, to the Consuls 20 first

Issuing their hated order, as for war;

And doubting of their safety, doubting too

Where lay the peril, through the choking gates,

Each where he would, rushed all the people forth.550

Thou would’st believe that blazing to the torch

Were men’s abodes, or nodding to their fall.

So streamed they onwards, frenzied with affright,

As though in exile only could they find

Hope for their country. So, when southern blasts

From Libyan whirlpools drive the boundless main,

And mast and sail crash down upon a ship

With ponderous weight, but still the frame is sound,

Her crew and captain leap into the sea,

Each making shipwreck for himself. ’Twas thus560

They passed the city gates and fled to war.

No aged parent now could stay his son;

Nor wife her spouse, nor did they pray the gods

To grant the safety of their fatherland.

None linger on the threshold for a look

Of their loved city, though perchance the last.

Ye gods, who lavish priceless gifts on men,

Nor care to guard them, see victorious Rome

Teeming with life, chief city of the world,

With ample walls that all mankind might hold,570

To coming Caesar left an easy prey.

The Roman soldier, when in foreign lands

Pressed by the enemy, in narrow trench

And hurried mound finds guard enough to make

His slumber safe; but thou, imperial Rome,

Alone on rumour of advancing foes

Art left a desert, and thy battlements

They trust not for one night. Yet for their fear

This one excuse was left; Pompeius fled.

Nor found they room for hope; for nature gave580

Unerring portents of worse ills to come.

The angry gods filled earth and air and sea

With frequent prodigies; in darkest nights

Strange constellations sparkled through the gloom:

The pole was all afire, and torches flew

Across the depths of heaven; with horrid hair

A blazing comet stretched from east to west

And threatened change to kingdoms. From the blue

Pale lightning flashed, and in the murky air

The fire took divers shapes; a lance afar590

Would seem to quiver or a misty torch;

A noiseless thunderbolt from cloudless sky

Rushed down, and drawing fire in northern parts

Plunged on the summit of the Alban mount.

The stars that run their courses in the night

Shone in full daylight; and the orbed moon,

Hid by the shade of earth, grew pale and wan.

The sun himself, when poised in mid career,

Shrouded his burning car in blackest gloom

And plunged the world in darkness, so that men600

Despaired of day — like as he veiled his light

From that fell banquet which Mycenae saw 21.

The jaws of Etna were agape with flame

That rose not heavenwards, but headlong fell

In smoking stream upon the Italian flank.

Then black Charybdis, from her boundless depth,

Threw up a gory sea. In piteous tones

Howled the wild dogs; the Vestal fire was snatched

From off the altar; and the flame that crowned

The Latin festival was split in twain,610

As on the Theban pyre 22, in ancient days;

Earth tottered on its base: the mighty Alps

From off their summits shook th’ eternal snow 23.

In huge upheaval Ocean raised his waves

O’er Calpe’s rock and Atlas’ hoary head.

The native gods shed tears, and holy sweat

Dropped from the idols; gifts in temples fell:

Foul birds defiled the day; beasts left the woods

And made their lair among the streets of Rome.

All this we hear; nay more: dumb oxen spake;620

Monsters were brought to birth and mothers shrieked

At their own offspring; words of dire import

From Cumae’s prophetess were noised abroad.

Bellona’s priests with bleeding arms, and slaves

Of Cybele’s worship, with ensanguined hair,

Howled chants of havoc and of woe to men.

Arms clashed; and sounding in the pathless woods

Were heard strange voices; spirits walked the earth:

And dead men’s ashes muttered from the urn.

Those who live near the walls desert their homes,630

For lo! with hissing serpents in her hair,

Waving in downward whirl a blazing pine,

A fiend patrols the town, like that which erst

At Thebes urged on Agave 24, or which hurled

Lycurgus’ bolts, or that which as he came

From Hades seen, at haughty Juno’s word,

Brought terror to the soul of Hercules.

Trumpets like those that summon armies forth

Were heard reechoing in the silent night:

And from the earth arising Sulla’s 25 ghost640

Sang gloomy oracles, and by Anio’s wave

All fled the homesteads, frighted by the shade

Of Marius waking from his broken tomb.

In such dismay they summon, as of yore,

The Tuscan sages to the nation’s aid.

Aruns, the eldest, leaving his abode

In desolate Luca, came, well versed in all

The lore of omens; knowing what may mean

The flight of hovering bird, the pulse that beats

In offered victims, and the levin bolt.650

All monsters first, by most unnatural birth

Brought into being, in accursd flames

He bids consume 26. Then round the walls of Rome

Each trembling citizen in turn proceeds.

The priests, chief guardians of the public faith,

With holy sprinkling purge the open space

That borders on the wall; in sacred garb

Follows the lesser crowd: the Vestals come

By priestess led with laurel crown bedecked,

To whom alone is given the right to see660

Minerva’s effigy that came from Troy 27.

Next come the keepers of the sacred books

And fate’s predictions; who from Almo’s brook

Bring back Cybebe laved; the augur too

Taught to observe sinister flight of birds;

And those who serve the banquets to the gods;

And Titian brethren; and the priest of Mars,

Proud of the buckler that adorns his neck;

By him the Flamen, on his noble head

The cap of office. While they tread the path670

That winds around the walls, the aged seer

Collects the thunderbolts that fell from heaven,

And lays them deep in earth, with muttered words

Naming the spot accursed. Next a steer,

Picked for his swelling neck and beauteous form,

He leads to the altar, and with slanting knife

Spreads on his brow the meal, and pours the wine.

The victim’s struggles prove the gods averse;

But when the servers press upon his horns

He bends the knee and yields him to the blow.680

No crimson torrent issued at the stroke,

But from the wound a dark empoisoned stream

Ebbed slowly downward. Aruns at the sight

Aghast, upon the entrails of the beast

Essayed to read the anger of the gods.

Their very colour terrified the seer;

Spotted they were and pale, with sable streaks

Of lukewarm gore bespread; the liver damp

With foul disease, and on the hostile part

The angry veins defiant; of the lungs690

The fibre hid, and through the vital parts

The membrane small; the heart had ceased to throb;

Blood oozes through the ducts; the caul is split:

And, fatal omen of impending ill,

One lobe o’ergrows the other; of the twain

The one lies flat and sick, the other beats

And keeps the pulse in rapid strokes astir.

Disaster’s near approach thus learned, he cries —

“Whate’er may be the purpose of the gods,

’Tis not for me to tell; this offered beast700

Not Jove possesses, but the gods below.

We dare not speak our fears, yet fear doth make

The future worse than fact. May all the gods

Prosper the tokens, and the sacrifice

Be void of truth, and Tages (famous seer)

Have vainly taught these mysteries.” Such his words

Involved, mysterious. Figulus, to whom

For knowledge of the secret depths of space

And laws harmonious that guide the stars,

Memphis could find no peer, then spake at large:710

“Either,” he said, “the world and countless orbs

Throughout the ages wander at their will;

Or, if the fates control them, ruin huge

Hangs o’er this city and o’er all mankind.

Shall Earth yawn open and engulph the towns?

Shall scorching heat usurp the temperate air

And fields refuse their timely fruit? The streams

Flow mixed with poison? In what plague, ye gods,

In what destruction shall ye wreak your ire?

Whate’er the truth, the days in which we live720

Shall find a doom for many. Had the star

Of baleful Saturn, frigid in the height,

Kindled his lurid fires, the sky had poured

Its torrents forth as in Deucalion’s time,

And whelmed the world in waters. Or if thou,

Phoebus, beside the Nemean lion fierce

Wert driving now thy chariot, flames should seize

The universe and set the air ablaze.

These are at peace; but, Mars, why art thou bent

On kindling thus the Scorpion, his tail730

Portending evil and his claws aflame?

Deep sunk is kindly Jupiter, and dull

Sweet Venus’ star, and rapid Mercury

Stays on his course: Mars only holds the sky.

Why does Orion’s sword too brightly shine?

Why planets leave their paths and through the void

Thus journey on obscure? ’Tis war that comes,

Fierce rabid war: the sword shall bear the rule

Confounding justice; hateful crime usurp

The name of virtue; and the havoc spread740

Through many a year. But why entreat the gods?

The end Rome longs for and the final peace

Comes with a despot. Draw thou out thy chain

Of lengthening slaughter, and (for such thy fate)

Make good thy liberty through civil war.”

The frightened people heard, and as they heard

His words prophetic made them fear the more.

But worse remained; for as on Pindus’ slopes

Possessed with fury from the Theban god

Speeds some Bacchante, thus in Roman streets750

Behold a matron run, who, in her trance,

Relieves her bosom of the god within.

“Where dost thou snatch me, Paean, to what shore

Through airy regions borne? I see the snows

Of Thracian mountains; and Philippi’s plains

Lie broad beneath. But why these battle lines,

No foe to vanquish — Rome on either hand?

Again I wander ‘neath the rosy hues

That paint thine eastern skies, where regal Nile

Meets with his flowing wave the rising tide.760

Known to mine eyes that mutilated trunk

That lies upon the sand! Across the seas

By changing whirlpools to the burning climes

Of Libya borne, again I see the hosts

From Thracia brought by fate’s command. And now

Thou bear’st me o’er the cloud-compelling Alps

And Pyrenean summits; next to Rome.

There in mid-Senate see the closing scene

Of this foul war in foulest murder done.

Again the factions rise; through all the world770

Once more I pass; but give me some new land,

Some other region, Phoebus, to behold!

Washed by the Pontic billows! for these eyes

Already once have seen Philippi’s plains!” 28

The frenzy left her and she speechless fell.

1 ‘The great Emathian conqueror’ (Milton’s sonnet). Emathia was part of Macedonia, but the word is used loosely for Thessaly or Macedonia.

2 Crassus had been defeated and slain by the Parthians in B.C. 53, four years before this period.

3 Mr. Froude in his essay entitled “Divus Caesar” hints that these famous lines may have been written in mockery. Probably the five years known as the Golden Era of Nero had passed when they were written: yet the text itself does not aid such a suggestion; and the view generally taken, namely that Lucan was in earnest, appears preferable. There were many who dreamed at the time that the disasters of the Civil War were being compensated by the wealth and prosperity of the empire under Nero; and the assurance of universal peace, then almost realised, which is expressed in lines 69–81, seems inconsistent with the idea that this passage was written in irony. (See Lecky’s “European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne”, vol. i.p.240, who describes these latter verses as Written with all the fervour of a Christian poet. See also Merivale’s “Roman Empire,” chapter liv.)

4 See a similar passage in the final scene of Ben Jonson’s “Catiline”. The cutting of the Isthmus of Corinth was proposed in Nero’s reign, and actually commenced in his presence; but abandoned because it was asserted that the level of the water in the Corinthian Gulf was higher than that in the Saronic Gulf, so that, if the canal were cut, the island of Aegina would be submerged. Merivale’s “Roman Empire”, chapter iv.

5 Compare:

“Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;

Nor can one England brook a double reign

Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.”

— “1 Henry IV”, Act v., Scene 4.

6 This had taken place in B.C.54, about five years before the action of the poem opens.

7 This famous line was quoted by Lamartine when addressing the French Assembly in 1848. He was advocating, against the interests of his own party (which in the Assembly was all-powerful), that the President of the Republic should be chosen by the nation, and not by the Assembly; and he ended by saying that if the course he advocated was disastrous to himself, ‘Victrix causa Diis placuit, sed victa Catoni.’

8 ‘Plausuque sui gaudere theatri.’ Quoted by Mr. Pitt, in his speech on the address in 1783, on the occasion of peace being made with France, Spain, and America; in allusion to Mr. Sheridan. The latter replied, ‘If ever I again engage in the compositions he alludes to, I may be tempted to an act of presumption — to attempt an improvement on one of Ben Jonson’s best characters — the character of the Angry Boy in the “Alchymist.”’

9 Cicero wrote thus of Caesar: 1Have you ever read or heard of a man more vigorous in action or more moderate in the use of victory than our Caesar?’ — Epp. ad Diversos,’ viii. 15.

10 Marlowe has it:

“ . . . And swords

With ugly teeth of black rust foully scarred.”

11 In the Senate, Curio had proposed and carried a resolution that Pompeius and Caesar should lay their arms down simultaneously; but this was resisted by the Oligarchal party, who endeavoured, though unsuccessfully, to expel Curio from the Senate, and who placed Pompeius in command of the legions at Capua. This was in effect a declaration of war; and Curio, after a last attempt at resistance, left the city, and betook himself to Caesar. (See the close of Book IV.)

12 Marcus Marcellus, Consul in B.C. 51.

13 Plutarch, “Pomp.”, 49. The harbours and places of trade were placed under his control in order that he might find a remedy for the scarcity of grain. But his enemies said that he had caused the scarcity in order to get the power.

14 Milo was brought to trial for the murder of Clodius in B.C.52, about three years before this. Pompeius, then sole Consul, had surrounded the tribunal with soldiers, who at one time charged the crowd. Milo was sent into exile at Massilia.

15 See Book II., 630.

16 The north-west wind. Circius was a violent wind from about the same quarter, but peculiar to the district.

17 This idea that the sun found fuel in the clouds appears again in Book VII., line 7; Book IX., line 379; and Book X., line 317.

18 This Diana was worshipped by the Tauri, a people who dwelt in the Crimea; and, according to legend, was propitiated by human sacrifices. Orestes on his return from his expiatory wanderings brought her image to Greece, and the Greeks identified her with their Artemis. (Compare Book VI., 93.)

19 The horror of the Druidical groves is again alluded to in Book III., lines 462–489. Dean Merivale remarks (chapter li.) on this passage, that in the despair of another life which pervaded Paganism at the time, the Roman was exasperated at the Druids’ assertion of the transmigration of souls. But the passage seems also to betray a lingering suspicion that the doctrine may in some shape be true, however horrible were the rites and sacrifices. The reality of a future life was a part of Lucan’s belief, as a state of reward for heroes. (See the passage at the beginning of Book IX.; and also Book VI., line 933). But all was vague and uncertain, and he appears to have viewed the Druidical transmigration rather with doubt and unbelief, as a possible form of future or recurring life, than with scorn as an absurdity.

20 Plutarch says the Consuls fled without making the sacrifices usual before wars. (“Pomp.” 61.)

21 Compare Ben Jonson’s “Catiline,” I. 1:—

Lecca: The day goes back,
Or else my senses.

Curius: As at Atreus’ feast.

22 When the Theban brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, were being burned on the same pyre, the flame shot up in two separate tongues, indicating that even in death they could not be reconciled. (Mr. Haskins’ note, citing Statius, “Thebiad”)

23 “Shook the old snow from off their trembling laps.” (Marlowe.) The Latin word is “jugis”.

24 Book VI., 420.

25 Sulla was buried in the Campus Martius. (Plutarch, “Sulla,”.) The corpse of Marius was dragged from his tomb by Sulla’s order, and thrown into the Anio.

26 Such a ceremonial took place in A.D. 56 under Nero, after the temples of Jupiter and Minerva had been struck by lightning, and was probably witnessed by Lucan himself. (See Merivale’s “History of the Roman Empire,” chapter lii.)

27 See Book IX., 1178.

28 The confusion between the site of the battle of Philippi and that of the battle of Pharsalia is common among the Roman writers. (See the note to Merivale, chapter xxvi.)

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:36