Caesar became a leviathan, a monster, a deity during the battle of Pharsalia. But Caesar’s apotheosis is momentary. Lucan takes the time to flash forward to his future death, in order to remind us of that. But the turn in Caesar’s fortune is instantaneous, not delayed.
As far as Pharsalia is the decisive battle of the Roman Civil War, there is no further peak to be reached for Caesar, only honors and formalities. While Caesar sought power, it was not lust for power that drove him to this point, but expression of power, the natural force that inhabited him.
The battle, which has been told more in rhetoric and metaphor than in actual depictions of warfare, ends with both Pompey and Caesar no longer embodying legions within them (Pompey half-heartedly), but reduced to the size of the human. For Pompey this is not a tremendous adjustment, but for Caesar it is. Victory and loss is handed out: these are not forces but conditions, and now Caesar is set upon by nightmares, of all things.
From deserving men
victory exacts stern penalties, and in sleep
hisses and flames assail them, shades of slain
fellow citizens appear, and each is haunted
by a specter of what frightens him the most.
One sees old men’s faces, another the shapes
of boys, another’s dreams are troubled by
corpses of his brothers, or his father
haunts another’s heart. But all of the phantoms
are inside Caesar—just as Orestes, in Pelops’ line,
before he had been purged at the Scythian altar,
beheld the Furies’ faces, or like the mutiny
of mind, utter bewilderment, that Pentheus felt
while he was raving, or that Agave felt
after her madness faded—so is he overwhelmed
that night by every sword Pharsalia saw,
or all that would be drawn on that day of vengeance
in the Senate. Infernal monsters torture him.
And how much punishment is his guilty conscience
sparing the wretch, when he sees in his dreams
the river Styx and Tartarus with its crowds of dead
while Pompey is still alive!
Civil War VII.894-915
I was shocked to read this, coming as it does immediately after the moment of Caesar’s triumph, and also because Caesar’s doubts have only been momentary and minor to this point. But here, it’s as though Caesar is being overwhelmed by the size of the forces that have been inhabiting him. As though they have no place to go now that he is victor but to turn on him. Though he recovers sufficiently the next day to survey the bloody battlefield with great satisfaction, this passage makes his ultimate doom inevitable.
Note that the Underworld itself is turning on him, as it never could on Erictho. He was only a temporary vessel for nature’s forces. The two mythical invocations are apt. Orestes kills his mother whilst spurred on by conflicting familial and ghostly duties. Agave in the Bacchae fades from her madness to see that she has killed her own son, just as Caesar has killed Rome in a bloody Dionysian ritual. But Lucan also cites Pentheus, Agave’s son, while he is possessed by madness, not after it fades, implying that both madness and sanity hold the same tortures. So it is not that Caesar has passed out of madness or into madness. He is just no longer the controlling force at work—and thus now a victim. Lucan denies him much in the way of enjoyment of his triumph.
Pompey is the loser, but at least gains peace in the process. He goes down without even letting all his men die for him, quite a contrast to the fervid suicides of earlier.
“Gods above, spare them!
Do not destroy all nations! Let the world stand,
let Rome survive! Magnus can be the one to suffer.
If more pain would please you, I have a wife and sons.
I’ve pledged them all as security to the Fates.
Is it not enough if the civil war wipe out
both me and mine? Are we too small a loss
when the world is spared? Why do you devastate
and labor to destroy all things? By now,
Fortune, I have nothing left.” So he declares,
and around the army and standards—troops afflicted
on every side—he goes and calls back those
rushing to early doom, tells them he’s not worth it.
Civil War VII.761-774
Again, the gods he appeals to are powerless. But no bad dreams spoil his night. He dreamed of happier times at the beginning of the book, and now sure of his loss, has little to fear. And with that, seemingly, comes much greater sympathy from Lucan.
Leave a Reply