Sunday, March 11, 2007

Canto 18: Caesar pauses to destroy Marseilles

One of the more unusual pairings of Biblical and Classical exemplars comes in Canto 18, where we first are reminded of how Mary, after learning she was to be the mother of God, made haste to visit Elizabeth in the hill country, who was also pregnant (with John the Baptist). We are then treated to a scene from Lucan's Pharsalia where Caesar chooses to attack Marseilles, (here rendered as Massilia). Although in great haste to attack Spain, Caesar pauses at Marseilles long enough to destroy a sacred grove, set up the attack structures, and order his army to persist until the city falls. Impatient with the long siege, he then races off to Spain.

Here's part of the set-up for the scene:
But Caesar's visage stern betrayed his ire
Which thus broke forth in words: "Vain is the hope
Ye rest upon my march: speed though I may
Towards my western goal, time still remains
To blot Massilia out. Rejoice, my troops!
Unsought the war ye longed for meets you now:
The fates concede it. As the tempests lose
Their strength by sturdy forests unopposed,
And as the fire that finds no fuel dies,
Even so to find no foe is Caesar's ill.
When those who may be conquered will not fight
That is defeat. Degenerate, disarmed
Their gates admit me! Not content, forsooth,
With shutting Caesar out they shut him in!
They shun the taint of war! Such prayer for peace
Brings with it chastisement. In Caesar's age
Learn that not peace, but war within his ranks
Alone can make you safe." Lucan Bk III

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