Lucan, Pharsalia

translation and notes by the honored S. H. Braund

Notes follow translation and are organized by line numbers. Lines that have explanatory notes have the line number in brackets at the end of the line.

SELECTIONS FROM BOOK SIX: lines 413-437, 507-588, 685-718, 776-end


When the leaders had pitched their camps in this land [413-506]

doomed by the Fates, each mind is troubled by a sense

of future war, and it is clear that the hideous hour of greatest

crisis is approaching, that now the Fates draw ever nearer.

Base spirits tremble, pondering the worst;

a few fortify themselves ahead and rehearse both hope and fear

to face uncertainty. But mingled with the timid

multitude was Sextus, a son unworthy of his parent Magnus. [420]                 420

who later, prowling as an exile in Scylla's waves, [421-22]

as a Sicilian pirate stained his father's triumphs at sea.

Fear goaded him to know ahead of time Fate's course:

impatient of delay and sick at heart at all to come,

he consults not Delos' tripods, not Pythian caves [425]

nor does he wish to ask what sound Dodona, nurse of humankind [426]

with earliest fruits, makes from the bronze of Jupiter; [427]

nor did he ask who knows the Fates from entrails, who explains the birds, who watches  

lightning-flashes in the sky and with Assyrian zeal examines stars,

or anything secret yet permitted. He knew about

the mysteries of savage magicians, detested

by the gods above, and altars grim with dreadful rites,

proof of the truth that Dis and ghosts exist; it was clear to the unfortunate

that the gods above know too little. His foolish, cruel frenzy

is fostered by the place itself with cities of Thessalian witches

near the camp: they can be surpassed by no invented horror

of a free imagination; their art is the unbelievable


lines 507-588

These rites of wickedness, these crimes of savage race [507-69]

beastly Erichtho had condemned for their excessive holiness

and had applied her filthy skill to unknown rites.

For her it is wrong to rest her deathly head                                                     510                             

beneath a city's roof or home, so in abandoned tombs she lives

and, driving out the ghosts, is mistress of the graves, the darling

 of the gods of Erebus. To hear the meetings of the silent dead,

to know the Stygian homes and mysteries of hidden Dis

is not prevented by the gods or life. The blasphemer's face [515]

is gaunt and loathsome with decay: unknown to cloudless sky

and terrifying, by Stygian pallor it is tainted,

matted with uncombed hair: if rain and black

clouds obscure the stars, then out comes the Thessalian woman

from bare tombs and catches at night's thunderbolts.                           520

She tramples and she scorches up the seeds of fertile corn

and with her breath corrupts the breezes not fatal before.

She does not pray to gods above nor with suppliant chant

ask help of heaven nor does she know of propitiating

entrails: it is her joy to place on altars

funeral flames with incense she has stolen from the kindled pyre.

The gods above grant every wickedness to her at her first

utterance of prayer: they dread to hear a second spell.

Souls living, still in charge of their own limbs,

she has buried in the tomb and, while the Fates yet owe them years             530

unwillingly death steals on; funerals she has brought back from the grave,  

reversing the procession; corpses have escaped from death.

Smoking ashes of the young and blazing bones

she grabs from the middle of the pyre and even the torch [534-35]

held by the parents; she gathers fragments of the funeral

bier which fly about in black smoke, and clothes

crumbling into cinders, and ashes with the smell of limbs.

But when dead bodies are preserved in stone, which draws the inmost [538]

moisture off, and once the marrow's fluid is absorbed and they grow hard,

then greedily she vents her rage on the entire corpse:                          540

she sinks her hands into the eyes, she gleefully digs out

the cold eyeballs and gnaws the pallid nails [542]

on withered hand. With her own mouth has she burst

the noose and knots of the criminal, mangled bodies as they hung,

scraped clean the crosses, torn at guts beaten [545]

by the rains, at marrows exposed and baked by the sun.

She has stolen the iron driven into hands, the black and putrid

liquid trickling through the limbs and the congealed slime

and, if muscle resisted her bite, she has tugged with all her weight.

And if any corpse lies on the naked earth, she camps                          550

before the beasts and birds come; she does not want to tear

the limbs with knife or her own hands, but awaits

the bites of wolves, to grab the bodies from their dry throats.

Nor do her hands refrain from murder, if she needs

some living blood which first bursts out when throat is slit                               555

and if her funeral feast demands still-quivering organs.                                     557

So through a wound in the belly, not nature's exit,

the foetus is extracted to be put on burning altars.

And whenever she has need of cruel, determined spirits,                                     560

herself she creates ghosts. Every human death is to her advantage.

She plucks from young men's faces the bloom of cheek

and from a dying boy cuts off a lock of hair with her left hand.

Often, even at a kinsman's funeral, the hideous Thessalian

bends over well-loved limbs and, while planting kisses, mutilates

the head and with her teeth she opens up the tight-closed

mouth and, biting off the tip of tongue which sticks

to parched throat, pours mumbles into icy lips

and sends a secret outrage to the Stygian shades.

When local rumour revealed her to Pompey, in the sky's [570-88]            570

deep night - the time when Titan ushers in

midday beneath our earth - through deserted fields

he picks his way. His usual, loyal aides in wickedness

roamed round the broken-open graves and tombs

and spotted her, sitting far away on a precipitous crag

where Haemus slopes down, stretching out Pharsalian ridges.

She was trying out words unknown to wizards and the gods

of wizardry and shaping a spell for novel purposes.

Because she feared that wandering war might pass into another

sphere and the Emathian land lose such abundant bloodshed,                   580

the witch forbade Philippi -- defiled by spells                          

and by dreadful juices spattered -- to shift the warfare,

soon to claim for herself so many deaths, soon to enjoy

the world's blood; she hopes to mangle corpses of slain

kings, to steal the ashes of the Hesperian race

and bones of noblemen and to acquire such mighty shades.

This is her passion and her sole concern: what can she grab from Magnus'

outstretched body? on which of Caesar's limbs swoop down?            588


lines 685-718

Last comes her voice, bewitching the gods of Lethe [685-718]                              685

more potently than any drug, first composed of jumbled noises,

jarring, utterly discordant with human speech:

the bark of dogs and howl of wolves,

the owl's cry of alarm, the screech-owl's night-time moan,

the wild beasts' shriek and wail, the serpent's hiss;                                     690

it utters too the beating of the cliff-smashed wave,

the sound of forests, and the thunderings of the fissured cloud;

of so many noises was one voice the source. Then she speaks

in Haemonian incantation and pierces Tartarus with utterance thus:

'I invoke the Eumenides, Hell's horror, and the Avengers; [695]

I invoke Chaos, eager to disorder countless worlds; [696]

I invoke the ruler of the earth, tormented for long future ages [697]

by the drawn-out death of the gods; I invoke the Styx, and the Elysian fields  

no witch of Thessaly may reach; I invoke Persephone, loathing sky

and mother; and the lowest form of our Hecate, through whom [700]                     700

the shades and I in silent utterance may commune;

I invoke the porter of the wide abode, who tosses human entrails

to the savage hound; I invoke the Sisters soon to spin a second thread

of life, and you, a ferryman of the blazing water, [704]

old man already tired out by shades returning to me:

heed my prayers. Do I summon you with mouth sufficiently

abominable and polluted? Do I ever chant these spells

without consuming human entrails? How many times have I cut out

breasts filled by deity and washed them with warm brains?

Are there no babes, about to enter life, who laid                                              710

their head and heart upon your dishes? Then obey my prayer.

A soul I ask for, not one lying hid in the cave of Tartarus

and long accustomed to the darkness, but a soul on its way down,

life's light just fled, a soul still hesitating at the door

to pallid Orcus' chasm, a soul which, though he drain these drugs, [715]

will join the dead once only. Let the ghost of a soldier with us [716]

recently foretell all Pompey's future to the leader's son,

if civil wars have earned your gratitude.'


lines 776 to end of book six

With flowing tears the mournful corpse [776-820]

said 'Recalled from the silent river-bank, [777]

myself I have not seen the grim threads of the Parcae,

yet this from all the ghosts I learnt,

that wild discord disturbs the Roman shades                                                780

and wicked war has shattered the underworld's repose.

Latian generals variously have left the Elysian abodes

and gloomy Tartarus: these have made plain

the intentions of the Fates.  Grim were the faces

of the blessed ghosts: I saw the Decii, both son and father

lives given to expiate war, and Camillus weeping,

and the Curii and Sulla complaining, Fortune, of you; [787]

Scipio laments for his unlucky posterity, doomed to die [788]

on Libyan lands; a greater enemy of Carthage,

Cato mourns the fate of his descendant who refuses slavery.[790]                               790

You alone among the holy shades I saw rejoicing,

Brutus, first consul when the tyrants were expelled.

Threatening Catiline exults, his fetters burst

and shattered, and savage Marii and bare Cethegi;

myself I saw rejoice those radical names: [795]

the Drusi with their laws excessive, the Gracchi of enormous daring [796]

Their hands applauded, though eternal knots of iron

and Dis's prison confined them, and the guilty multitude

demands the fields of the blest. The lord of the stagnant

realm opens wide his pale abodes, he sharpens broken rocks               800

and hard steel for shackles and prepares the punishment

for the conqueror. Take back with you this consolation,

O young man, that in a calm retreat the shades await

both your father and your house, and in a cloudless region of the realm  

keep a place for the Pompeys. And be not troubled by the glory [805-06]

of a short life: the hour will come which levels

all the leaders. Make haste to die; exultant

in your mighty spirit, go down from tombs however small

and trample on the shades of the gods of Rome. [809]

The question is, whose grave Nile and whose Tiber will lap                        810

with waves: for the leaders, the battle concerns their burial alone.

Ask not about your own fate: though I keep silent,

the Parcae will grant you knowledge; a surer prophet will foretell [813-14]

all to you in the fields of Sicily, your father Pompey, himself,

even he uncertain where to summon you or drive you back,

which zones, which regions of the world to bid you shun.

Unhappy men! Be in dread of Europe, Libya. Asia: [817-18]

Fortune has distributed your graves between your triumphs.

O pitiable house, in all the world you will see nothing safer than Emathia.'

After so recounting destiny, [820-30]                                                820

he mournful stands with silent face and asks for death once more.

Magic spells and drugs are needed for the corpse to die:

the Fates cannot regain his soul, their power

over him exhausted already at one go. Then the witch heaps up

a pyre with plenteous timber; the dead man comes to the fire.

Once the youth was laid upon the kindled heap, Erichtho left him,

finally permitting him to die, and goes as Sextus' companion

to his father's camp, and though the sky was taking on day's colour,

until they safely brought their steps within the tents,

night was told to hold back the day and gave them shadows thick.                         830


413-506 Both sides pitch camp and await battle. Pompey's son Sextus goes to consult Thessalian witches about the outcome: their powers are described. Thessaly was a classic locale for witches, and these are classic witches: this is another Lucanian tour de force. Roman writers of all periods show an interest in the supernatural; this is particularly evident in Neronian writers.

420      Sextus: younger son of Pompey by his wife Mucia.

421-2   After he was outlawed in 43 BC Sextus occupied Sicily and used it as a base for blockading Italy: his plundering of supplies to Rome earned him the name of pirate. His father's triumphs at sea were over the pirates.

425      Delos' tripods: Delos was evidently an oracle-centre early in the archaic period, cf. Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo 131-2.

426             Dodona: the oracle of Zeus/Jupiter in Epirus, said to use one or more bronze cauldrons in prophecy.

427      earliest fruits: i.e. acorns, from Dodona's oak-trees.

507-69 Lucan describes Erichtho, the most foul and extreme of the Thessalian witches. He caps his set piece on witches in general with a tour de force of gruesomeness and hideousness.

515      life: = the fact that she is living.

534-5   the torch held by the parents: it was the parents' duty to set alight the funeral pyre of their own children.

538           preserved in stone: in a stone sarcophagus. Cf. Pliny, Nat. Hist. 2. 211, 36. 131.

542      the pallid nails: lit. 'growths'; the nails continue to grow after death.

545 the crosses: where slaves were executed.

570-88 Sextus Pompey goes to Erichtho in the middle of the night and finds her casting spells to keep the war in Thessaly, to provide her with corpses.

685-718 The necromancy 6. Lucan describes Enchtho's voice: after the catalogue of magical substances, a catalogue of weird noises. Then Erichtho invokes the powers of the Underworld to release the corpse's soul to her. Cf. Medea's invocation, Seneca, Med. 740-51.

695      the Avengers: avenging goddesses, cf. Statius, Theb. 5. 60. ..

696      Chaos: variously conceived as the abyss from which all things arose and as one of the gods of darkness; in the latter sense here, as at Virgil, Aen. 4. 510.

697      the ruler of the earth: i.e. Pluto; in the division of the world, Jupiter received Heaven, Neptune the Sea, and Pluto the Underworld.

tormented: Pluto is tonnented either because the gods do not die and therefore do not enter his realm as his subjects or because he wishes to die and regrets that he is immortal.

700      the lowest form of our Hecate: Hecate had three manifestations: as the moon in the sky, as Diana on earth, and as Hecate in the Underworld, cf. Ovid, Met. 7. 194 'three-formed Hecate'. She is called 'our' here because of her association with witches.

704             ferryman: Charon.

715      Orcus: another name for the god of the Underworld.

716      will join the dead once only: she specifies that it is a recent corpse whose soul has hardly entered the Underworld; hence it will join the dead only once because it has not yet joined them.


776-820 The necromancy 9. The corpse reports the sadness of the Roman shades at the civil war, the joy of the shades of those Romans who were prepared to attack their fellow countrymen, and hints that Pompey and his sons will die soon. This passage is evidently designed as an inversion of the parade of future Roman heroes shown to Aeneas in the Underworld by his father Anchises, Virgil, Aen. 6. 756-885. Some of the plurals in these lines are generic, i.e. 'Curius and his sort'.

777      silent river-bank: of Lethe in the Underworld.

787      Sulla ...Fortune: Fortune was Sulla's guardian god (hence he took the name Felix, cf. 2. 221) and Sulla's faction was to be worsted in the civil war.

788      Scipio: cf. 306-13 n.

790      Cato: Marcus Porcius Cato the censor, 234-149 BC, who demanded the destruction of Carthage. His great-grandson was the Cato of the civil war.

795      those radical names: the Latin word popularis combines the meanings of 'favourites with the masses' and 'pursuing a political programme designed to favour the masses (as opposed to the elite)'; to be described as a popularis was generally an insult. [for an elite -AF]

796      the Drusi: a reference to Marcus Livius Drusus, tribune in 122 BC, and his son of the same name, tribune in 91 BC, who took up some of the measures of the Gracchi.

805-6   the glory of a short life: i.e. Caesar's short-lived rule.

809      the gods of Rome: a reference to deified emperors, of whom Julius Caesar was the first.

813-14 Evidently Lucan planned an episode in a later book which either was not written or does not survive in which the ghost of Pompey appeared to his son, as did Anchises to Aeneas in the Aeneid.

817-18 Lucan says that Pompey and his sons will die in lands over which Pompey had triumphed. Pompey dies in Egypt, Gnaeus in Spain, and Sextus in Miletus (Asia). Pompey's triumphs were awarded for victories over Numidia, Spain, and Asia. Thus Libya here stands for Africa.

820-30 The necromancy 10. Erichtho burns the corpse and Sextus returns to camp.