De Bello Civile, Book 1, lines 125 - 157

Pompey the oak and Caesar the thunderbolt

by Lucan

After ten years fighting to bring Gaul under Roman rule, Julius Caesar has been instructed to relinquish his command by the Senate: at Rome, his adversary, Pompey the Great, is in control. If Caesar obeys the Senate’s command, he will be defenceless, but defying it and remaining at the head of his army is likely to mean civil war. As he begins his epic, Lucan introduces us to the two protagonists. In a flattering and much-quoted line about the republican hero, Cato, at the beginning of the extract, Lucan gives us a strong indication of whose side he is on. We cannot know what sources or traditions he is drawing on in describing two great men who died around fifty years before he was born, and we certainly cannot rely on his impartiality, but his pen-pictures are certainly very striking.

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Quis iustius induit arma,
scire nefas: magno se iudice quisque tuetur:
victrix causa deis placuit, sed victa Catoni
nec coiere pares: alter, vergentibus annis
in senium, longoque togae tranquillior usu,
dedidicit iam pace ducem; famaeque petitor,
multa dare in vulgus; totus popularibus auris
impelli, plausuque sui gaudere theatri:
nec reparare novas vires, multumque priori
credere fortunae. Stat magni nominis umbra:
qualis frugifero quercus sublimis in agro,
exuvias veteres populi sacrataque gestans
dona ducum, nec iam validis radicibus haerens,
pondere fixa suo est; nudosque per aera ramos
effundens, trunco, non frondibus, efficit umbram;
et quamvis primo nutet casura sub Euro,
tot circum silvae firmo se robore tollant,
sola tamen colitur. Sed non in Caesare tantum
nomen erat, nec fama ducis: sed nescia virtus
stare loco: solusque pudor, non vincere bello.
acer et indomitus; quo spes, quoque ira vocasset,
ferre manum, et numquam temerando parcere ferro:
successus urgere suos, instare favori
numinis: impellens, quidquid sibi, summa petenti,
obstaret, gaudensque viam fecisse ruina.
qualiter expressum ventis per nubila fulmen
aetheris impulsi sonitu mundique fragore
emicuit, rupitque diem, populosque paventes
terruit, obliqua praestringens lumina flamma.
in sua templa furit: nullaque exire vetante
materia, magnamque cadens, magnamque revertens
dat stragem late, sparsosque recolligit ignes.

Which was more justified in taking up arms, it would be impiety to know. Each had the regard of a mighty judge: the winning cause was favoured by the Gods, but the losing one by Cato. Nor did they join battle as equals. One, his years now verging on old age, and the less active for having long been accustomed to wear civilian dress, had forgotten in peace the life of a commander. He cherished his reputation, gave generously to the common people, was entirely swayed by the breezes of popularity, revelled in the applause of the theatre which he himself had built, and, relying heavily on past success, did not refresh it by renewed exertions. He stood in the shade of his mighty name, like the tallest oak tree in a fertile field, bearing the people’s trophies from years gone by and offerings dedicated by generals, and which, no longer anchored by the strength in its roots, but held up by its own weight and putting out bare branches through the air, casts a shadow with its trunk and not with its leaves: and although it is teetering and ready to fall as soon as the south-east wind blows, and there are many trees rearing themselves up around it underpinned with solid timber, it alone is cherished. But Caesar did not just have a reputation, and fame as a general: he had energies that would not allow him to stand still, and the only thing that he felt shame at was not to be fighting and winning battles. He was aggressive and implacable Рin striking and in the merciless use of his fearsome forces wherever hope or resentment might call, in pressing on further when he had successes and in making the most of any good fortune, breaking down any obstacles that stood between him and his ultimate success, and revelling that his progress left destruction in his wake. He was like a thunderbolt which, driven through the clouds by the winds, flashes out with a roar from the stricken heavens and a crash from all creation, tears the light of day apart and terrifies the tribes of men, blinding their eyes with its slanting flash: then it rages back where it came from, with nothing able to hinder its return, and, both as it falls and as it returns, it strews ruin far and wide, drawing back in again the fires that it has hurled out.

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