Caesar has crossed the Alps, his mighty soul
Great tumults pondering and the coming shock.
Now on the marge of Rubicon, he saw,
In face most sorrowful and ghostly guise,
His trembling country’s image; huge it seemed
Through mists of night obscure; and hoary hair
Streamed from the lofty front with turrets crowned:
Torn were her locks and naked were her arms.
Then thus, with broken sighs the Vision spake:
“What seek ye, men of Rome? and whither hence
Bear ye my standards? If by right ye come,
My citizens, stay here; these are the bounds;
No further dare.” But Caesar’s hair was stiff
With horror as he gazed, and ghastly dread
Restrained his footsteps on the further bank.
Then spake he, “Thunderer, who from the rock
Tarpeian seest the wall of mighty Rome;
Gods of my race who watched o’er Troy of old;
Thou Jove of Alba’s height, and Vestal fires,
And rites of Romulus erst rapt to heaven,
And God-like Rome; be friendly to my quest.
Not with offence or hostile arms I come,
Thy Caesar, conqueror by land and sea,
Thy soldier here and wheresoe’er thou wilt:
No other’s; his, his only be the guilt
Whose acts make me thy foe.’ He gives the word
And bids his standards cross the swollen stream.
So in the wastes of Afric’s burning clime
The lion crouches as his foes draw near,
Feeding his wrath the while, his lashing tail
Provokes his fury; stiff upon his neck
Bristles his mane: deep from his gaping jaws
Resounds a muttered growl, and should a lance
Or javelin reach him from the hunter’s ring,
Scorning the puny scratch he bounds afield.
From modest fountain blood-red Rubicon
In summer’s heat flows on; his pigmy tide
Creeps through the valleys and with slender marge
Divides the Italian peasant from the Gaul.
Then winter gave him strength, and fraught with rain
The third day’s crescent moon; while Eastern winds
Thawed from the Alpine slopes the yielding snow.
The cavalry first form across the stream
To break the torrent’s force; the rest with ease
Beneath their shelter gain the further bank.
When Caesar crossed and trod beneath his feet
The soil of Italy’s forbidden fields,
“Here,” spake he, “peace, here broken laws be left;
Farewell to treaties. Fortune, lead me on;
War is our judge, and in the fates our trust.”
Then in the shades of night he leads the troops
Swifter than Balearic sling or shaft
Winged by retreating Parthian, to the walls
Of threatened Rimini, while fled the stars,
Save Lucifer, before the coming sun,
Whose fires were veiled in clouds, by south wind driven,
Or else at heaven’s command: and thus drew on
The first dark morning of the civil war.
—from Book One of Pharsalia, or De Bello Civili (On the Civil Wars)
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The featured image is “César franchit le Rubicon” (1875) by Adolphe Yvon, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.