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Texts : Lucan

Lucan, Pharsalia, Book 9, Verses 690-930 - [Ridley, 1919, Volume 2, Page 231-245]

Why thus in Libyan climate pests of death
Burst into being, and how Nature sowed
Her soil with venom brood, my care to know
Has not availed : but from the days of old
A fabled story has deceived the world.
On Libya's limits, where the burning shore
Is laved by ocean fervid from the sun
Plunged in its waters, lay Medusa's fields
Untilled ; nor forests shaded, nor the plough
Furrowed the soil, which by its mistress' gaze
Was hardened into stone : from her first drew
Malevolent nature forth these fatal pests ;
First from her jaws the sibilant hiss of snakes
Was issued ; round her back like woman's hair
The bunch was clustered, and they lashed her neck.
She gloried in their touch. Their lifted heads
Were poised above her and the viper slime
Dripped on her ordered locks. This sight alone
Thou hast, accursed one, on which men gaze
Unharmed ; for who upon that gaping mouth
Looked and could dread ? Whom suffered she to die
Who saw her face ? He rushed upon his fate
And ere he feared was stricken to the death.
His limbs while living perished, and his soul
Grew stiff and stark ere yet it fled the frame.
Men have been frenzied by the Furies' locks,
Not killed ; and Cerberus at Orpheus' song
Ceased from his hissing, and Alcides saw
The Hydra ere he slew. This monster born
Brought horror with her birth upon her sire
Phorcus, that god propitious to the waves,
And upon Ceto and the Gorgon brood,
Her sisters. She could threaten sea and sky
With deadly torpor, and from all the world
Bid cease the soil. Borne down by instant weight
Fowls fell from air, and beasts were fixed in stone.
Whole Ethiop tribes who tilled the neighbouring lands
Were stiffened into rock. The Gorgon sight
No creature bore and even her serpents turned
Back from her visage. Atlas in his place
Beside the Western columns, by her look
Was turned to granite ; and when Phlegra's brood
Gigantic, serpent-tailed, were feared of heaven,
She made them mountains ; and the Gorgon head
Borne on Athena's bosom closed the war.
Here born of Danae and the golden shower.
Came Perseus, floating on Arcadian wings.
Gift of that god who found for men the lyre
And taught to wrestle with anointed limbs.
Cyllenian Harpe flashed as he swooped down.
Though yet encrimsoned with the monster's blood
Who watched the heifer that was loved of Jove :
This virgin Pallas to her brother bore,
Price of Medusa's head ; and gave command
To seek the Gorgon realm, on pinions poised,
His head turned backward towards the rising sun :
And for his other arm a shining shield
Of yellow brass she gave, that he therein
Might gaze unscathed upon that awful face
Whose look made marble. Nor yet all in sleep
Was laid the monster, for the fates decreed
Death for such slumber. Serpent tresses waved
And hissed upon her head, to guard the fiend ;
While some upon her front and eyes were coiled.
Averse, the hero falters at the stroke :
The friendly goddess guides his trembling hand :
Cyllenian Harpe falls, and shears in twain
The broadening neck whence sprang the viper brood.
What visage bore the Gorgon as the steel
Thus reft her life ! what poison from her throat
Breathed ! from her eyes what deadly juice distilled !
The goddess dared not look, and Perseus' face
Had frozen, though turned aloof, had not Athena
Veiled thick with coils of snakes the features dead.
Then with the Gorgon head the hero flew
Uplifted on his wings and sought the sky.
Shorter had been his voyage through the midst
Of Europe's cities ; but the goddess bade
To spare her peoples and their fruitful lands ;
For who when such an airy courser passed
Had not looked up to heaven ? Western winds
Now sped his pinions, and he took his course
O'er Libya's regions, from the stars and suns
Veiled by no culture. Phoebus' nearer track
There burns the soil, and loftiest on the sky
There falls the night, to shade the wandering moon.
If e'er forgetful of her course oblique,
Straight through the stars, nor bending to the North
Nor to the South, she hastens. Yet that earth.
In nothing fertile, void of fruitful yield,
Drank in the poison of Medusa's blood,
Dripping in dreadful dews upon the soil,
And in the crumbling sands by heat matured.
Where first within the dust the venom germ
Took life, an asp was reared of turgid neck
And sleep compelling : thick the poison drop
That was his making, in no fang of snake
More closely pressed. Greedy of warmth it seeks
No frozen world itself, nor haunts the sands
Beyond the Nile ; yet has our thirst of gain
No shame nor limit, and this Libyan death.
This fatal pest we purchase for our own.
Hasmorrhois huge spreads out his scaly coils,
Who suffers not his hapless victims' blood
To stay within their veins. Chersydros sprang
To life, and dwells within the doubtful marsh ;
A cloud of spray marks fell chelyder's track :
And cenchris rose, straight gliding to his prey ;
Spots paint his belly, countless, more than those
Which tinge the Theban marble ; horned snakes
With spines contorted : and ammodytes
Coloured like torrid sand and hardly seen :
Sole of all serpents scitalis to shed
In vernal frosts his slough ; and thirsty dipsa;
Dread amphisbaena with his double head
Tapering ; and natrix who in bubbling fount
Fuses his venom. Greedy prester swells
His foaming jaws ; pareas, head erect
Furrows with tail alone his sandy path ;
Swift jaculus there, and seps whose poisonous juice
Melts bone and flesh : and basiliscus, king
Of vacant deserts, baneful by his glance,
With hissings drives the subject crowd afar.
And you, ye dragons who in other lands
Are harmless, golden scaled, adored as gods,
Are deadly here : for Afric's burning air
Bestows malignant gift, and poised on wmgs
Whole herds of kine ye follow, and with coils
Encircling close, crush in the mighty bull.
The giant elephant no bulk protects :
All creatures living on the earth ye slay
Nor need a poison fang to work your will.
Amid these pests undaunted Cato urged
His desert journey on. His hardy troops
Scarce wounded, perish in strange forms of death.
Tyrrhenian Aulus, bearer of a flag,
Trod on a dipsa ; quick with head reversed
The serpent struck ; no pang betrayed the tooth ;
No deadly aspect was upon the wound,
No warning token : but the secret plague
Gnawed at the tissues of his inward frame
And drained the natural juices that were spread
Around his vitals ; in his arid jaws
Set flame upon his tongue : his wearied limbs
No sweat bedewed ; dried up, the fount of tears
Fled from his eyelids : fire consumed the man.
He dashed his standard down ; not pride in Rome,
Not Cato's stern commandment could withhold ;
And madly sought for water through the plain
To quench the poison thirsting at his heart.
Plunge him in Tanais, in Rhone and Po,
Pour on his tongue the flood of brimming Nile,
Yet were the plague unquenched ; for dipsa gains
From Libya's scorching clime a deadly fire,
Not his by fate or name. Next Aulus seeks
Amid the sands, all barren to the depths.
For moisture : then returning to the shoals
Laps them with greed—in vain—the briny draught
Scarce quenched the thirst it made. Nor knowing yet
The poison in his frame, he steels himself
To rip his swollen veins and drink the gore.
Cato bids lift the standard, lest his troops
May find in thirst a pardon for the deed.
But on Sabellus' yet more piteous death
Their eyes were fastened. For a puny seps
With curving tooth was clinging to his shin :
He tore it forth and fixed it to the sands,
Pierced with his javelin. Small the serpent's bulk ;
None shall more surely deal a stroke of death.
For swift the flesh dissolving round the wound
Bared the pale bone ; swam all his limbs in blood ;
His calves and knees were wasted and his thighs
Were thawed in black distilment, and the sheath
Parted, that bound his vitals, which abroad
Flowed upon earth : yet not his solid frame
Was all spread forth, for by the venom drop
Were all the bands that held his muscles drawn
Down to a juice ; the framework of his chest
Was bare, its cavity, and all the parts
Hid by the organs of life, that make the man.
So by unholy death there stood revealed
His inmost nature. Head and stalwart arms,
And neck and shoulders, from their solid mass
Melt in corruption. Not more swiftly flows
Wax at the sun's command, nor snow compelled
By southern breezes. Yet not all is said:
For so to noxious humours fire consumes
Our fleshly frame ; but on the funeral pyre
What bones have perished ? These dissolve no less
Than did the mouldered tissues, nor of death
Thus swift is left a trace. Of Afric pests
Thou bear'st the palm for hurtfulness : the life
They snatch, thou only with the life the clay.
But now befell a death in differing form ;
No melted fate ! A burning prester's fang
Nasidius struck, who erst in Marsian fields
Guided the plough. Upon his face there glows
A redness as of flame : the skin is stretched
On one vast tumour past the growth of men ;
A gory juice puffs out upon the mass
That hides his body, and his corslet plates
Burst with the monstrous bulk. Not to such height
In brazen cauldron boils the steaming wave,
Nor in such bellying curves does canvas bend
To western tempests. Now the pile of flesh
No more contains the limbs ; the shapeless trunk
Burdens the earth : and there, untouched by fowl.
To beasts a fatal meal, they leave the corse ;
Nor dare to place, yet swelling, in the tomb.
More dreadful sights the Libyan pests prepared.
On Tullus, great in heart, a noble youth.
Fast bound to Cato with admiring soul,
A fierce haemorrhois fixed. From all his members,
As from a statue pressed in every part
Jets forth a saffron spray, there spouts for blood
A ruddy poison : from the natural pores
Of moisture, gore profuse ; his mouth was filled
And gaping nostrils ; blood were all his tears.
Brimmed full his veins ; his very sweat was red ;
All was one wound.
Then Levus next in sleep
Was victim to a serpent of the Nile ;
The blood stayed round his heart : no pain he felt
Of venomous tooth, but swift upon him fell
Death, and he sought the shades ; more swift to kill
No draught in poisonous cups from ripened plants
Of direst growth the Sabine wizard brews.
Lo ! at a distance on a branchless stump
A jaculus (so named in Libyan clime)
Spat forth his venom which through Paullus' brain
And temples pierced—but had no space to kill.
For fate and death were instant with the wound.
Thus did they know how slowly speeds the bolt
Flung by a sling ; how gentle is the flight
Of Scythian arrows hurtling from the bow.
How prospered Murrus when his lance transfixed
A basilisk ? Swift through the weapon ran
The poison to his hand : he drew his sword
And at one blow he swept the limb away :
So did he live and gazed upon the hand
Which dying paid his ransom. Who would deem
A puny scorpion had strength to slay ?
Yet with his threatening coils and barb erect
He won the glory of Orion slain ;
So bear the stars their witness.