Book One of the Pharsalia of Lucantranslated by David R. Slavitt
Romans fighting with Romans in a civil war—the worst
of all possible wars—on Pharsalia's plain in Greece:
there Pompey fought with Caesar, citizens both
and even relatives, too, in a most deplorable struggle
of army facing army in a frenzy of fratricide
that shook the earth with eagles attacked each other,
standard facing standard, and spears pointed at spears,
as if to quench the barbarians' thirst for Roman blood--
that is the theme I sing. Would it not have been better
to avenge the ghost of Crassus and kill his Parthian killers? 10
Could you not have directed your might against Babylon,
rich and proud, and from which you could have fetched fine trophies?
At such a great cost in blood, what other lands and oceans
might you not have subdued—from far in the East to the West,
from the South's fiery tropics to the frozen wastes of the North
where primitive Scythians live? Rome's power extends
from Araxes's riverbanks in Asia down to the source
of the Nile deep in Africa's deserts and dense jungles.
Could you not have extended the ambit of Rome's yoke
to include the rest of the world before, in your pride and passion, 20
you made one another your foes and turned your swords against
yourselves? Would it not have been wiser to struggle at home
with the ruined houses that mark our ancient streets on which
no footfall sounds for no one ventures out anymore?
The hearths are cold and abandoned and the fields, untilled for years,
are covered with brambles. Strewn fragments of statues lie
in the streets to give the lie to the claims of splendor they made
not so long ago. No Pyrrhus came to do this
nor did any Carthaginian chieftain thrust his sword
deep in our desperate hearts, but we ourselves were the cause 30
in this uncivil strife as we hacked at one another
to litter the field with groaning men and silent corpses.
And yet, if the Fates can find no other way to arrange
for Nero's coming, nor even the gods to gain their thrones
in heaven except by waging a dreadful war with the Giants,
we must content ourselves with the good results of the fighting.
(Can wickedness be welcomed? Can heinous crimes be praised?)
Pharsalia's fields are all but covered with Roman dead.
The defeated Punic ghosts of Hannibal's men were avenged
by Roman blood when invincible Julius Caesar defeated 40
Pompey's force; and at Thapsus, the Mauritanian King
Juba, Pompey's ally, gave way before the onslaught
of Caesar's legions in fighting from which the gushing blood
dripped through the earth to quench the thirst of Hannibal's spirit.
Add to this sanguinary catalogue of death
the famine at Perusia where Marc Antony's brother
was besieged by Octavianus (who later became Augustus)
and the battle at sea where Marc Antony himself
was put to rout at Actium near Leucas' rocky shore.
Even so, one could argue that Rome won all these engagements 50
because their result was that you, Nero, sit on the throne.
When you ascend at last to your place among the gods
the heavens will rejoice and you shall select a throne—
Jupiter's with the scepter and lightning bolts? Or will you
prefer Apollo's chariot from which to survey the earth
(guiding the steeds much better than at those Olympian games
so there will be no problem in the change of charioteers)?
All the gods will defer to your every wish as Nature
waits for you to decide. If I might suggest, avoid
the Arctic regions as well as the scorching lands to the South 60
for in either case the glare would exacerbate your squint.
Do not put too much of your more than ample weight
on any single spot lest you endanger the balance
by which the universe retains its elegant order.
But wherever you establish your seat among the stars,
let it be in a place where we all can notice the steady
shining of your pate as though from a new star.
At last may the warfare here on earth come to an end
so that the iron gates of Janus' Temple may close.
It is to you I turn for epic inspiration, 70
for we have no need of Apollo's help from Delphi's heights
nor that of Bacchus on Mount Nysa: I sing of Rome
and you can provide all on your own a poet's afflatus.
I must first explain what maddened the whole nation
and drove us to arms. It was Fate's harsh decrees that did it,
for we had become the world's mightiest nation and this
attracted first her attention and then her resentment. Greatness
begs to be brought down in spectacular collapse.
Just so, when the world comes to an end all things
shall revert to the chaos from which they first arose. Stars 80
shall crash and meteors, blazing, shall hurtle into the ocean,
the tides of which shall rise to overwhelm the bulwark
that separates it from the land. The moon shall lose her way
and wobble out of her orbit to crash into the sun
in a riotous discord that shall tear the spheres asunder.
The great are dashed on the great, for the gods have set a limit
to the pride of power. Magnificent Rome, the lord of land
and sea, was thus brought low, the prey of triple despots
who fought among themselves as they were bound to do.
(Whoever heard of such an improbable arrangement?) 90
Those triumvirs conjoined were blind, each of them greedy
to hold all power himself as he was sure he deserved.
As long as the sea rests on the earth, and the earth on air,
as long as the Sun journeys through the twelve signs of the year,
and as long as day follows the night and night the day
Nature will never allow a ruler to endure
(never mind embrace) a rival. Look around
through all the annals of men in all the lands of the earth,
and you will not find any example. Rome itself
provides a demonstration, for Romulus shed the blood 100
of his brother upon the rising city walls—and for what?
A mere village then with nothing like our present
hegemony on the earth, not worth fratricide.
Only by a fluke could Concord maintain itself
on Discord's base, and it lasted only a short while.
Crassus, negotiating and moderating his rivals,
kept them from falling upon each other in fits of anger,
navigating these narrows as ships would have to do
if Nero built his canal across the Isthmus of Corinth,
where the waters of the Aegean would come rushing down to meet 110
the Ionian Sea. But Crassus perished with his legions
in the East, fighting the Parthians close to the town of Carrhae.
The Parthians gained much more than they could have expected
because back in Rome Julius Caesar and Pompey, each
arrogant and proud, took up their keen-edged swords
in civil strive, believing that, great as she was in extent
over the lands and seas, Rome could not find space
enough for them both. The cause (if, indeed, there are causes)
was the death of Caesar's daughter, so that the wedding torches
prepared for her marriage to Pompey were used for her funeral rites 120
and the bond of blood that might have held the two men together
was severed. Had Julia survived only a few years longer,
who knows what might have happened? Could she have persuaded
her father and her husband to put away their swords
and resolve their quarrels some other way. (The Sabine women
managed to pacify their husbands who had marched
on Rome to exact vengeance.) But Julia's death dissolved
the friendship of the two and left them to undertake
the battle for sole power and levy men for war.
Pompey worried that his defeat of Cilicia's pirates 130
might have been eclipsed by Caesar's conquest of Gaul.
On his side, Caesar, confident in his veteran soldiers
and believing himself to be a favorite of Fortune,
did not deign to accept a subordinate position.
The one would not accept any man as his equal;
the other refused to acknowledge any superior. Who
was in the right? One could make a case for either side.
The gods favored the winner; the loser had only Cato
(whom Caesar had insulted for opposing him in the senate).
It must be added that Pompey was not the man he had been, 140
and over the years of peace had unlearned all he knew
of the art of war. Instead he liked to put on shows
to impress the people and earn their gratitude. He gave
much to the needy and basked in the loud applause he got
whenever he entered the theater he had built. (The first
stone theater in Rome, it held 40,000 people.)
But Cato the Great was now a shadow of himself,
like an old, hollow oak in the field with feeble roots
that barely cling to the earth to support its height and weight.
Its branches are leafless now, but while it awaits the storm 150
that will bring it crashing down, it has not lost its grandeur
among the sturdier trees and offers a little shade
and ancient offerings still hang from its spreading limbs,
for this is the ghost tree that in the forest receives
the people's veneration. Opposed to Cato was Caesar,
full of life and vigor, a victorious general eager
for new conquests to feed his ravenous restlessness.
Not to be active was, for him, a deep disgrace
and he looked for any chance to lead his veterans again
to sink their unpitying swords into the flesh of a foe, 160
delighting in the havoc, and eager for spoils and the glory
he took to be reliable signs of the favor of gods
who were looking down upon him. He made his way to the summit
of earthly power, tracking from ruin up through triumph;
he was a lightning bolt that flashed down from the sky,
cleaving the air and obscuring the normal light of day
with its angled flash that men are terrified to see
as it blazes its path of sudden ruin upon the earth.
So it was with these two contending chieftains,
but among the people, too, there was sentiment for war, 170
for with Rome's great successes among the lesser nations,
Fortune provided a deep and steady stream of wealth.
We often suppose that luxury must be a blessing. Perhaps.
More often it is a curse. The ancient customs gave way
to an age of extravagant pomp, showy houses, clothes
that were dandified, and gourmet food instead of the plain
and simple fare that nourishes well enough. The poor
were scorned for being poor as if it were their fault.
From where can soldiers come except these simple people
who till the soil as Camillus did (who was called from the plough 180
to be Dictator) or Curius did (who put aside
his mattock to take up a sword instead to defeat the Samnites)?
Family farms disappeared, swallowed up by huge
latifundia foreigners worked, whose names the absent
landlords never bothered to learn. Boundaries blurred
not only in real estate but in politics and morals
as greed and ambition took hold of formerly sensible men.
Each wanted to rise, and would not hesitate
to resort to weapons or crimes of a subtler kind, which were
everywhere, as decrees were forced from the Senate and Plebs. 190
Consuls were corrupted and Tribunes were tainted, too.
You want the fasces? Buy them. The people can be managed.
Not even sports were immune as gamblers paid off
athletes and referees. Usurers sank their talons
into the rich who were not yet rich enough. Trust
in all things corroded, except in matters of war
where a cruel clarity still obtained. When Julius Caesar
crosses the Rubicon, he sees a vision of Rome,
her hair streaming as if in a great wind, but with locks
torn from her scalp. Her arms are naked. She sighs and says, 200
"What do you look for in Rome? Where do you take my standards?
If you come according to law, you must remain here,
for these are the bounds you know you may not cross." Caesar,
gazing in awe (or was it dread?), stops at the bank
and raises his eyes to pray: "Almighty Jove, hear me
as you look down from your temple on the Tarpeian Rock;
and you, the gods of the Julian clan and my household, to you
whose image my forebear, Aeneas, took from Troy I pray;
Romulus, now a god, I beseech you to favor my cause.
I do not go to Rome with any hostile purpose. 210
I am your soldier, successful on land and sea, here
and wherever else you will. If there must be bloodshed
let it be from those who in their calumnies
have said that I am enemy to you or the city of Rome.
None of my soldiers here bears any evil intent."
And with that, he gives the order and bids his legions cross
the swollen river. Think! So it must be in the jungle
where the lion crouches in wait as he watches his prey approach,
still except for the tail that now and again twitches.
But suppose some African hunter attacks, hurling a spear: 220
the deep roar erupts from his throat, the mane bristles,
and, ignoring the wound, he bounds forward in counterattack.
That is the mood of the moment. The muddy Rubicon flows,
a reddish brown, the color of dried blood. In the heat
of summer it dwindles down to a small stream, but then
winter revives it with snowmelt and spring rains refresh it.
Caesar ordered the horsemen to fall into line upstream
to form a kind of dam below which his archers could cross.
Caesar himself was the last man to traverse the river
and he turned and from the forbidden Italian bank spoke: 230
"I leave peace behind us, and the laws, putting my trust
in Fortune and the Fates. Enough of solemn treaties,
which I have honored too long now. War will be our judge
and decide between Pompey and myself." Then he ordered
the troops to advance, which they did with all the speed of a missile
flung from Balearic sling or a Parthian arrow.
They reached the walls of Rimini just as the stars were fading
and the morning star was announcing the coming on of a sun
veiled in clouds on that first morning of civil war.
They entered the town and the troops formed up and planted their standards, 240
while trumpets blared alarms to the sleeping population
who rushed to the town hall to fetch from the armory weapons
that had been left unused through the many years of peace:
shields with crumbling frames; javelins lacking points;
and swords with edges gnawed by the patient teeth of rust.
In the square they confronted an army in fighting trim with Caesar
towering high, mounted on his magnificent charger,
and they quaked in fear and thought how badly their forebears had chosen
such a site to settle, for any foes of Rome
took this route from the North. Anywhere else would have been 250
safer, some placed in the East or even the frozen Alps.
This was the route that the Gauls and the Carthaginians chose,
and the savage Teutons passed this way and the Cimbrians, too
to get to the wealth of Rome they wanted to loot and pillage.
They may have thought these things, but nobody said a word
and the square was as silent as any field in wintertime
from which the birds have fled or as the sea can be
in a dead calm: it seemed as if history held its breath.
Had there been in Caesar's mind any hesitation,
Fortune handed him another legitimate reason 260
to continue the battle, for this was when he made his offer—
he now promised that he, as soon as he reached Rome,
would resign, providing that Pompey agreed to do so as well.
In Rome, two Tribunes supported what seemed a fair proposal
but even despite the law that guaranteed their safety
the Consuls threatened them with the same fate as the Gracchi
(whom everyone knew had met with violent deaths) unless
both of them kept silent. The Tribunes fled the city
and sought protection from Caesar. Curio came with them,
who once had been Pompey's strong supporter but now had spoken 270
to endorse Caesar's offer and at least a hope of peace.
Finding that Caesar was troubled by doubts, Curio said:
"As long as I was able to speak on your behalf
I did so in the Senate. But now the constitution
has been suspended because of the threat of civil war.
These two Tribunes and I were driven out of Rome
and have come to you prepared to endure exile until
your victory can restore our rights as citizens.
The situation there is uncertain, but this is the moment
to strike, before your enemy has time to prepare 280
and organize his forces. To delay is to risk defeat.
You have campaigned before but never with such reward!
The Gauls occupied your forces for ten long years before
you vanquished them and took their piece of land. Now
with an engagement or two you and your battle-hardened soldiers
can subdue Rome, which is to say the entire world.
There will be no triumph for you with parades and captives
in native garb marching behind your chariot wheels
as you deserve, for spite and envy will begrudge this.
Indeed, were you to return in peace, your reward would be 290
a punishment. Instead, subdue your son-in-law.
If you cannot share the world with Pompey, rule alone."
Imagine a high-strung racehorse at Olympia in his stall,
pawing the ground, impatient for the contest to begin,
his ears pricked, his nostrils flaring, fighting against
the restraints that are holding him. Thus was Julius Caesar
eager for battle having been stirred by Curio's words.
He raises his hand commanding his soldiers to be silent
and speaks to them: "Comrades for ten arduous years,
victorious soldiers, you have endured harsh Alpine winters 300
and survived the myriad dangers of many battlefields,
I ask you if this is a proper thanks for what we have done
or a decent welcome? In Rome they are now mustering soldiers
as if you were Hannibal's army and not mine.
Woodsmen are cutting trees for shipwrights to make into masts,
outfitting a navy. They ready for battle on land and sea.
What would have been their response if we had lost to the Gauls
and their savages were chasing us down the peninsula?
It was Fortune's gift and the gods' that we achieved success,
but that is hardly a reason for Pompey to issue his challenge. 310
Let them come, a crowd of raw recruits softened
by years of peace. Their beloved Pompey will be their leader.
According to law, he was too young to be given a triumph
after his victory against the Numidian king,
but in his mind pride outweighed prudent respect.
During the famine he manipulated the prices
of grain to grow rich and then seize political power
with the naked swords of paid toughs that sullied the forum
and outraged Justice. Can you imagine it could be right
for a man like that to continue wielding a despot's power 320
that he has bought or rather bribed from the foolish rabble?
How long can he maintain even the flimsiest pretense
of legitimacy? He has cornered the world's market in grain
and extorts extravagant profits from the famines he has caused.
He sends his uniformed thugs into the courts of justice
armed with swords to frighten the jurors into giving
verdicts that meet his needs. (Remember Milo's trial?)
Yet again is Pompey preparing for civil war,
apparently reluctant to return to private life.
He doesn't want to be like Sulla, his father-in-law, 330
who retired to Puteoli and soon thereafter died.
I think of him as one of those terrible Persian tigers
that learned as a cub to lap the blood of slaughtered beasts
its mother had dragged back to their lair. Pompey, too,
acquired a taste for the blood that covered Sulla's sword
and never has he lost the love of it or the craving.
Shall there never be an end to this bloodthirstiness
that has made him a savage beast that preys on the people of Rome?
How can we expect him to abdicate his powers
after so many years of violence and vileness? 340
The one lesson of Sulla's he seems not to have learned
is when to step down. He prides himself on his old campaigns—
against the Cilician pirates and then against Mithridates
who, after forty years of fighting against Rome,
succumbed at last-- not to the force of arms but to poison.
(And where is the glory in that?) Shall Pompey gain his new
prize by defeating Caesar, who comes to Rome by right
with these loyal and triumphant legions I am proud to command?
I do not think of myself. I have no need of honors,
but you, who have served so well in a long and arduous war, 350
you deserve both honor and more substantial rewards.
Whoever is your commander, you have earned Rome's thanks.
Those who have re-enlisted should have their grants of land,
fields and orchards, and homes in which to live out their days.
Will pompous Pompey grant to you less than he gave
his defeated Cilician pirates whom he settled here and there
around the empire, not just in their native lands
but in Greece and even here in Italy as well?
Think of the old saying about the risks of denying
a strong man what he's owed, for he will take whatever 360
he can without limit. Raise your glorious standards
and rely on the gods' favor as we make use of our strength.
We come neither for plunder nor to take power ourselves
but only to bring down the tyrant of Rome and free her."
There was no applause. Just silence. The soldiers were contemplating
what he had said. They had grown hard and were used to blood
but this was a frightening question. They were all loyal to Caesar,
and proud of how he had led them in the many years of fighting,
but could they dare to do what he was now urging? Laelus
then spoke, a centurion who wore the badge of honor 370
for having saved the life of one of his wounded comrades.
"O greatest leader, with permission, I would explain
what perplexes the men. Our main complaint is this—
that having such great strength, you hesitate to use it.
Have you no trust in us? While blood flows in my veins
and while these arms of mine can hurl a pointed lance,
will you be content to endure the Senate's absurd rule?
Is the conquest of baseness base or vileness vile? Lead us
wherever you will, to Scythia's deserts or Africa's sands.
Gaul we conquered for you and then we boarded ships 380
to do the same in Britain. We entered the mouth of the Rhine
and its turbulent water flowing into the North Sea.
Loyalty to you has become our second nature.
Let the trumpets sound their battle call, and those
who do not respond I will not call my fellow Romans!
I swear by the ten victories we have won together
that I will plunge my sword into whatever body
your orders specify, be it my own father
or brother or even pregnant wife. I will not fail you.
Bid me plunder the gods' temples or set them afire 390
and I will do so, breaking the images to melt
for the gold to resupply your war chest. Show me where
and I shall pitch camp in any piazza you name.
I'll tear down the city walls if you order me to,
guiding the ram myself and splitting the huge stones."
The assembled men as one raise their arms in salute
and their shouting reaches heaven. Think of a wind from Thrace
blasting across the slopes of Mt. Ossa so that the pines
among the rocks all bend and their branches, whistle and wail
into the echoing woods that resound in a mighty chorus. 400
Caesar looked out at this declaration of love and support
from the men but also from Fortune. How else could he decide?
He ordered the troops who were still in Gaul to come and join him,
summoned his other more distant soldiers, broke camp and began
the march to Rome. From far off in the North they all came,
from the Alps and the Vosges mountains and also from Gallic rivers,
the Isère and the Rhone, the gently flowing Var,
and the gentle Aude. The galleys of Rome no longer patrolled
these waterways. They left Monaco's harbors where tides
of enormous size are at war about what should be dry land 410
and what should be part of the sea. Whether this is because
of the strong winds of the region or the influence of the moon,
or, as some say, the sun, searching among the clouds
for fuel for his fires, I haven't the vaguest idea. I leave
such things to the gods who seem to know what they're doing.
From the West they came as well, from the quiet Garonne River
with its banks surrounded on both sides by grassy meadows.
The garrisons from Spier and Lacq (Tarbellian lands
around the Adour high in the Pyrenees) broke camp
to hurry to join Caesar and aid in his new campaign. 420
Gaul was now at peace and the men of Saintes and Bourges
no longer hurled their lances or drove their chariots forward
except in harmless play at festivals and fairs.
Auvergne was quiet that claims (falsely, I do believe)
to descend from Troy, which would make them distant kin of the Romans.
The Ardennes where the Nervi live, who murdered Caesar's friend,
the general Quintus Auriculus Cotta, was now secure
and the legions that had been stationed there were no longer needed.
No more reason to worry about what the people of Worms,
who dress themselves in baggy pantaloons in the style 430
of those the Sarmatians wear; no cause for any alarm
when the brazen war-horns blow of Batavian hordes; while those
who live on the banks of the Rhone and the Saône are dwelling in peace.
The Ligurians are tamed and their long hair that cascaded
down the back of their necks has been trimmed short and they
can pass for civilized. The peace even includes
those Gauls who worship their gods, the merciless Teutas, Esus,
and Taranis, whom they propitiate with rites
of human sacrifices, awesome to behold.
The bards who sang their lays of ancient times and heroes 440
are free to do so again without fear of reprisal.
And off in Britain, the Druids, after the war was over,
could return to their ceremonies in secluded groves in the woods
and preach their peculiar doctrine—that the shades of men do not
dwell in the dismal world of Erebus forever
but receive again the breath of life and thus return
to live another life in a possibly better age.
Life, then death, then life is what they believe is the rule
and thus they have no fear of what everyone else
dreads even to think of. Their soldiers rush into battle 450
unconcerned that they may at any moment be killed
because they think it will be only temporary.
Fearless, then, they are all the stronger and better able
to do astonishing deeds. Other legions arrived
from the banks of the Rhine where the Teuton tribes were now at peace
but could look ahead to a time when they would regain their strength
and they could resume their usual practice of raiding their neighbors.
Caesar posted his men in all the towns of the region
and the fearful rumors, already spread through the population,
acquired enough truth from which to exaggerate 460
and further increase Caesar's actual troop strength.
Fear amplifies further the reports of the vast numbers
of soldiers he has with him. "Caesar is fierce," says one
"and his legionnaires have already reached the Umbrian meadows
where the white oxen graze and have gone well beyond that,
as far as the confluence of the Nar and the River Tiber.
His enormous Belgian horses make all haste to the South
along with his eagle-standards that sweep across the land."
They know Caesar but still imagine him larger than human,
stronger and far more pitiless, having spent long years 470
in battle with the barbarian hordes he has subdued.
And has he brought them with him, those savages and brutes
following in his train to sack the cities he takes
while the helpless victims look on? Each man's terror adds
to the general mood of panic that rumor magnifies
and they fear phantoms that they themselves have conjured up.
In Rome, the Consuls fled in such haste as to omit
the customary sacrifices before a war.
Caesar had not yet appeared but in anticipation
the citizens fled in crowds so dense as to block the gates, 480
leaving their empty homes as if they were already burning.
In mass madness they hastened away as if in exile
was their only hope of safety. Imagine one of those sudden
storms when the strong wind from Africa wreaks it havoc
and breaks the masts of ships that are trying to find safe harbor.
The mast and the sails are gone, but the ship's frame is sound:
meanwhile the crew and the captain do not have the faith to wait
for it to right itself but leap down into the ocean,
each contriving his own personal shipwreck. So
it was with these people of Rome, shouldering through the gates 490
blindly to escape the catastrophe they supposed
would soon come. You'd think that husbands and wives at least
would pause for a last look back at the city or pray
that the gods would intervene to prevent its total destruction.
There must have been some who were dubious enough
to consider staying where they were, but no old sire
could persuade his son to wait nor could a wife prevail
upon her husband at least to delay a little longer
before this pell-mell flight. Look to the gods perhaps
who had given Rome so much and guarded her so well? 500
It never crossed anyone's mind. The great city
whose boundaries had included so much of mankind now
appeared to be populated by stupid people and cowards
stampeding irresistibly forward. Who could bid
farewell in such a panic to his household gods?
What this meant was that Caesar when he at last arrived
encountered little resistance, if any at all. In camp
the soldiers had always posted guards to remain alert
while the rest of the men slept. Here in the great city
the battlements were deserted, the watchmen having fled, 510
as if those famous walls could not withstand for a night
the terrible assault they all believed was coming.
Pompey had fled, or at least had left in a hurry, claiming
that he wanted to confirm that his legions down in Apulia
were still loyal. The people, nevertheless, read it
as an omen, and not a good one. There were other worrisome portents
in the earth and out at sea where sudden storms rose up
and then at once subsided. Meteors crossed the sky
and a long-tailed comet appeared of the kind that foretells
the death of princes or at least some fundamental change. 520
Lightning flashed in the murky air and took the shapes
of a flung lance or a torch. And then no sound of thunder
followed after. Stars one expects to see at midnight
shone at noon, while the moon, no longer pale and wan,
grew bright while her brother sun hid himself in blackness
so that men despaired that daylight had gone forever.
Some said it was like what happened on that grim night
in Mycenae when Aigisthus and Clytemnestra murdered
Agamemnon. Etna erupted and flames shot up
high in the air while smoke and molten rock flowed down 530
along its flank. Off shore, black Charybdis spewed
bloody vomitus from her whirlpool's depths and Scylla's
dogs howled all night. The Vestals' sacred fire
guttered and died. The blaze that ends the celebration
of the Latin festival split into two separate pieces,
a dire warning they saw at Thebes when Eteocles
and Polyneices were about to begin their struggle.
The earth on its axis wobbled and Atlas' aged head
trembled under the weight of the sky. There were avalanches
and tidal waves to make the Rock of Gibraltar shake. 540
In Rome, statues of household gods wept salty tears
and the idols appeared to sweat. Votive gifts on the walls
of temples fell to the floors. Ominous night birds
crossed the sky in daylight. Wild beasts from the woods
ventured into the city streets to make their lairs.
Animals spoke in human language: an ox asked
its astonished master, "Why do you trouble yourself or me
when all the customers for your crop will have perished before
the harvest?" Women gave birth to monsters lacking limbs
or having too many, and either way they were terrifying . 550
The Sybil of Cumae announced impending calamities
while the frenzied priests of Bellona performed their strenuous dance,
howling as they hacked at their own limbs with knives
and babbled about the gods and the anger they felt for Rome.
Cybele's eunuch priests threw their bloodied hair
this way and that, announcing woe to men. In the woods
were strange voices of restless spirits that walked the earth.
In their bronze urns the dry bones of dead men muttered.
Outside the city walls, the field laborers fled
in every direction, terrified by the apparition 560
of a huge Fury with writhing serpents on her head
instead of hair. She held a blazing pine tree, a torch
she carried upside down as a sign of death and mourning.
Such a creature drove Agave mad who led
the women of Thebes as they tore Pentheus, her son,
in pieces that strewed the ground. So was King Lycurgus
driven out of his mind: he killed his wife and son
and then as his frenzy continued he cut off his own legs,
which he mistook for vines. And remember malign Megaera,
the principal Fury who drove Hercules to madness, 570
having been dispatched by implacable Juno's order.
It was a moonless night without any breath of wind
but its calm was ripped asunder by the blare of martial trumpets
that summon armies to make the cacophony of battle.
Sulla's unquiet spirit arose from its tomb to declare
prophecies of doom and along the Anio's banks
farmers were horrified to see Marius wake
and walk the earth once more. Some sought the advice
of the Tuscan sages and asked them what to do to save
the endangered city. Arruns, expert in reading entrails 580
and interpreting lightning bolts and the flights of birds overhead,
bade them consign to the flames all those ill-formed monsters
and specified that the fire should made from unlucky lumber--
from trees that lightning had struck or spent funeral pyres.
At his direction the Romans marched around the city
with priests in the lead with aspergilla to sprinkle the ground
and the walls as they passed by. Behind them came the deacons
with togas tied in the way that household gods are portrayed.
Then the Vestals came, with their heads bound in wool,
and the Fifteen who keep the sacred sibylline books and who bathe 590
the image of Cybele in the Almo every year.
After them were the Augurs, and then Seven Feasters
who oversee the banquets in the gods' honor; then
the Leaping Priests of Mars who dance with the battle shields
hanging from their necks. And last was the Chief Pontiff
wearing his sheepskin cap. Meanwhile, Arruns collected
meteor fragment he buried while reciting incantations.
The place where lightning had struck, he designated as cursed
and there to sacrifice a perfect bull, he led
the animal to the altar. He spread the grain on its head 600
and poured the wine, but the beast struggled, which had to mean
that the gods were ill disposed. Nevertheless, they proceeded
and the acolytes seized the horns and made the bull kneel down,
but at the fatal blow there was no gush of blood;
instead came an ooze of gray-green, poisonous-looking stuff.
The priest examined the entrails, which were also of bad portent,
spotted with black streaks in unexpected places.
The heart was oddly shaped, the discolored entrails stank,
and the liver showed what fills interpreters with dread—
a secondary lobe that signifies a disaster. 610
One lobe was healthy, still throbbing with blood,
the other was limp and necrotic. (Did this represent Pompey?
Arruns announced to those in attendance, "This means trouble.
Jupiter rejects our sacrifice and the bull
has been assigned to the gods below. I say let them
have it. Disaster is now before us, worse than any
gloomy idea the most pessimistic person could have.
I pray that my predictions may prove to be mistaken,
or that there is a bright side that I have failed to discern.
It would be well if all divination were false 620
and all of us were imposters, but I fear it is not so."
Figulus then spoke, who was thought to be an expert
on the secrets of the stars and the changing whims of the gods.
Not even Egyptian astronomers knew more
or calculated with any greater accuracy
than he. "Either the universe moves in random ways,
or else there is a scheme of the stars' and planets' motions,
and I am afraid that Fate decrees what is going to happen—
that Rome is about to be destroyed and all the rest
of the human race with it. I cannot tell you how, 630
whether the earth with open up to swallow cities,
or a wave of heat will come that no one can endure,
or fields will go barren so that we all starve,
or water will be polluted so nobody can drink it.
The gods are angry but how they will demonstrate their ire
is not clear. I have cast and recast the horoscopes
and it appears that many thousands of men who were born
on different days and therefore under different signs
are about to perish together. It is not Aquarius' month;
Saturn is not ascendant to threaten us with floods 640
as in Deucalion's time; the sun is not in Leo's
house driving his chariot to set the air ablaze;
Saturn happens to be quiescent. But look at Mars,
menacing now and treading on Scorpio's curled tail
in a clear sign that evil is about to blossom forth.
Jupiter that beneficent planet is out of sight,
sunk below the western horizon, and Venus is dim.
It also appears that many planets have wandered away
from their usual courses. Orion, meanwhile, is bright
and his sword shines the brighter anticipating war. 650
The sword shall usurp justice as every blade becomes
a law unto itself. Wickedness will pass
as heroism and virtue over the many years
that madness will continue to thrive in our hurt world.
Worse, worst of all, is that we cannot pray
asking for battles to end, for peace will bring in its train
a tyranny that Rome has never known. Continue
the Civil War in the hope that freedom may continue."
The people were alarmed at the prophet's dreadful words
but there was a further and even stranger cause for panic. 660
A hitherto respectable woman, a wife and mother
known as a very model of decorousness, commenced
to run through the streets, maddened, screaming like a Bacchante
on the slopes of Mount Pindus. But Bacchus was not the god
prompting her words. Instead, Apollo commanded her spirit,
and she cried out to him: "Apollo, you lift me up!
I fly through the air. I despair of touching the ground again.
I look down and can see the mountain ranges of Thrace
covered with snow, and on their flank there is Philippi.
What is this madness? Why do Romans battle Romans? 670
There is a war without any enemy in sight.
You speed me further and now I see the River Nile
where it flows into the sea. I can make out, prone in the sand,
a mutilated corpse I fear I recognize.
Again, I fly through the air over Libya's treacherous coast
and I see the poor remnant of the army the harsh Fury,
Enyo, has brought here from Thrace to be undone
at Tharpsus. I soar higher and glide above the Alps
where Caesar will one day do battle with Pompey's sons.
Now I come back to Rome where the wicked war continues 680
with a foul murder that will engender further fighting
on Philippi's plain." And then the stern god released her,
the frenzy ended, and she , exhausted, fell to the ground.