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Lucan: Over all the world you are victorious and your soldiers die


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace


From Pharsalia (Civil War)
Translated By J.D. Duff

…Caesar was returning triumphant over conquered Spain to carry into a new world his victorious eagles, when the flowing tide of his successes was almost turned aside by Heaven. For, unsubdued in the field, the general feared, within the tents of his camp, to lose the fruits of crime, when those troops that had been faithful through so many wars, sated at last with blood, came near to forsaking him. Was it perhaps the brief lull in the trumpet’s dismal note, and the cooling of the sword in its sheath, that had cast out the evil spirit of war? Or was it greed for greater rewards that made the soldiers repudiate their cause and their leader, and again put up for sale the swords already stained with guilt?

In no peril was Caesar more clearly taught how insecure and even tottering was the eminence from which he looked down on the world, and how the ground he stood on quaked beneath him. Maimed by the loss of so many hands, and almost left to the protection of his own weapon, he, who was dragging to war so many nations, learned that the sword, once drawn, belongs to the soldier and not to the general.

There was an end of timid muttering, an end of anger hidden in the secret heart; for what often binds a wavering allegiance — that each fears those to whom he himself is a terror, and each thinks that he alone resents the injustice of oppression — that motive had lost its hold. For their mere numbers had dispelled their fears and made them bold: the sin of thousands always goes unpunished.

Thus they poured forth their threats: “Give us leave, Caesar, to depart from the madness of civil war. You search over land and sea for swords to pierce our hearts, and you are ready to spill our worthless lives by the hand of any foe. Some of us were snatched from you by Gaul, others by the hard campaigns in Spain; others lie in Italy; over all the world you are victorious and your soldiers die. What boots it to have shed our blood in Northern lands, where we conquered the Rhone and the Rhine? As a reward for so many campaigns you have given me civil war…

“As we go on to every crime, though our hands and swords are guilty, our poverty absolves us. What limit of warfare do you seek? What will satisfy you if Rome is not enough? Consider at last our grey hairs; behold our enfeebled hands and wasted arms. We have lost the enjoyment of life, we have spent all our days in fighting. Now that we are old, disband us to die. See how extravagant are our demands!

“Save us from laying our dying limbs on the hard rampart of the camp, from breathing out our last breath against the bars of the helmet, and from looking in vain for a hand to close our dying eyes; and suffer us to sink into the arms of a weeping wife, and to know that the pyre stands ready for one corpse alone.

“Suffer us to end our old age by sickness; let not death by the sword be the only end for Caesar’s soldiers. Why do you lure us on with promises, as if we did not know the horrors of which we are to be the instruments?”

“Though Caesar was my general on the banks of the Rhine, he is my comrade here; crime levels those whom it pollutes.”

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