Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Sep. 26: Caesar's Victory over Pompey

Theodatus shows Caesar the head of Pompey; etching, 1820

On August 9, 48 BCE, Julius Caesar's faction in the upheaval known as "Caesar's Civil War" was victorious in the "Battle of Pharsalus" over Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known as "Pompey the Great." Caesar was outnumbered and under-provisioned; Pompey had intended to sit it out, but the Roman senators pushed him to proceed. He lost.

Caesar had won through sheer genius, though he credited his vow to build a temple to Venus Genetrix--not just the form of the goddess Venus as mother, but Caesar's own mythical ancestress. On this day, September 26, 46 BCE (just over two years later), he fulfilled his vow and built that temple.

Three of our classics writers owe their inspiration (in part) to the battle:
  • Caesar himself wrote about it in his Civil War.
  • The Roman poet Lucan wrote an epic poem called Pharsalia.
  • Shakespeare wrote of the aftermath in the first scene of Julius Caesar, where officers scold the people for celebrating Caesar's victory:
Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he [Caesar] home?
What tributaries follow him to Rome
To grace in captive bonds his chariot wheels?
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things,
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climbed up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day with patient expectation
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome.
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?
Be gone!
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.

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