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Not thus did Fortune upon Caesar smile
In all the parts of earth;1 but 'gainst his arms
Dared somewhat, where Salona's lengthy waste
Is laved by Hadria, and Iadar warm
Meets with his waves the breezes of the west.
There brave Curectae dwell, whose island home
Is girded by the main; on whom relied
Antonius, and, beleaguered by the foe,
Upon the furthest margin of the shore
(Safe from all ills but famine) placed his camp.
But for his steeds the earth no forage gave,
Nor golden Ceres harvest; and his troops
Gnawed the dry herbage of the scanty turf
Within their rampart lines. But when they knew
That Basilus was on th' opposing shore
With friendly force, by novel mode of flight
They aim to reach him. Not the accustomed keel
They lay, nor build the ship, but shapeless rafts
Of timbers knit together, strong to bear
All ponderous weight; on empty casks beneath
By tightened chains made firm, in double rows
Supported; nor upon the deck were placed
The oarsmen, to the hostile dart exposed,
But in a hidden space, by beams concealed.
And thus the eye amazed beheld the mass
Move silent on its path across the sea,
By neither sail nor stalwart arm propelled.
They watch the main until the refluent waves
Ebb from the growing sands; then, on the tide
Receding, launch their vessel; thus she floats
With comrades twin: and rises over each
With quivering battlements a lofty tower.
Octavius, guardian of Illyrian seas,
Restrained his swifter keels, and left the rafts
Free from attack, in hope of larger spoil
From fresh adventures; for the peaceful sea
Might tempt them, and their goal in safety reached,
To dare a second voyage. Round the stag
Thus will the cunning hunter draw a line
Of tainted feathers poisoning the air;
Or spread the mesh, and muzzle in his grasp
The straining jaws of the Molossian hound,
And leash the Spartan pack; nor is the brake
Trusted to any dog but such as tracks
The scent with lowered nostrils, and refrains
From giving tongue the while; content to mark
By shaking cord the covert of the prey.
Ere long they manned the rafts in eager wish
To quit the island, when the latest glow
Still parted day from night. But Magnus' troops,
Cilician once, taught by their ancient art,
In fraudulent deceit had left the sea
To view unguarded; but with chains unseen
Fast to Illyrian shores, and hanging loose,
They blocked the outlet in the waves beneath.
The leading rafts passed safely, but the third,
Caught by the rope, was drawn beneath the rocks.
These, hollowed by the sea, in ponderous mass
O'erhanging, seemed upon the point to fall;
And trees made dark the wave. Here oft the main
Within the deep recess sweeps broken wrecks
And bodies of the drowned, till ebbing tides
Return the spoil. Then from the cavernous arch
Is belched the ocean forth in such turmoil
Of swirling billows, as excels the rage
Of that famed whirlpool on Sicilian shores.
Here, with Venetian settlers for its load,
Stood motionless the raft. Octavius' ships
Gathered around, while foemen on the land
Filled all the shore. But well the captain knew,
Volteius, how the secret fraud was planned,
And tried in vain with sword and steel to burst
The chains that held them; without hope he fights,
Uncertain where to avoid or front the foe.
Caught in the strait they strove as brave men should
Against opposing hosts; nor long the fight,
For fallen darkness brought a truce to arms.
Then to his men disheartened and in fear
Of coming fate Volteius, great of soul,
Thus spake in tones commanding: ' Free no more,
'Save for this little night, consult ye now
'In this last moment, soldiers, how to face
'Your final fortunes. No man's life is short
' Who can take thought for death, nor is your fame
' Less than a conqueror's, if with breast advanced
'Ye meet your destined doom. None know how long
'The life that waits them. Summon your own fate,
'And equal is your praise, whether the hand
'Quench the last flicker of departing light,
' Or shear the hope of years. But choice to die
'Is thrust not on the mind-we cannot flee;
'See at our throats, e'en now, our kinsmen's swords.
' Then choose for death; desire what fate decrees.
'At least in war's blind cloud we shall not fall;
' Nor when the flying weapons hide the day,
'And slaughtered heaps of foemen load the field,
'And death is common, and the brave man sinks
'Unknown, inglorious. Us within this ship,
'Seen of both friends and foes, the gods have placed;
'Both land and sea and island cliffs shall bear,
'From either shore, their witness to our death,
'In which some great and memorable fame
'Thou, Fortune, dost prepare. What glorious deeds
' Of warlike heroism, of noble faith,
'Time's annals show! All these shall we surpass.
'True, Caesar, that to fall upon our swords
'For thee is little; yet beleaguered thus,
'With neither sons nor parents at our sides,
'Shorn of the glory that we might have earned,
'We give thee here the only pledge we may.
'Yet let these hostile thousands fear the souls
'That rage for battle and that welcome death,
'And know us for invincible, and joy
'That no more rafts were stayed. They'll offer terms,
'And tempt us with a base unhonoured life.
'Would that, to give that death which shall be ours
'The greater glory, they may bid us hope
'For pardon and for life! lest when our swords
'Are reeking with our hearts'-blood, they may say
'This was despair of living. Great must be
'The prowess of our end, if in the hosts
'That fight his battles, Caesar is to mourn
'This little handful lost. For me, should fate
'Grant us retreat-myself would scorn to shun
'The coming onset. Life I cast away,
'The frenzy of the death that comes apace
'Controls my being. Those whose end is near
'Alone may know the happiness of death;
'Which pitying heaven from all else conceals
'That men may bear to live.'2 His stirring words
Warmed his brave comrades' hearts-they who with fear
And tearful eyes had looked upon the Wain,
Turning his nightly course, now hoped for day,
Such precepts deep within them. Nor delayed
The sky to dip the stars below the main;
For Phoebus in the Twins his chariot drave
At noon near Cancer; and the hours of night 3
Were shortened by the Archer.
When day broke,
Lo! on the rocks the Istrians;4 while the sea
Swarmed with the galleys and their Grecian fleet
All armed for fight: but first the war was stayed
And terms proposed: life to the foe they thought
Would seem the sweeter, by delay of death
Thus granted. But the band devoted stood,
Proud of their promised end, life all forsworn,
And careless of the fight: no jarring note
Opposed their high resolve. In numbers few
'Gainst foemen numberless by land and sea,
They wage the desperate war; then satiate
Turn from the foe. And first demanding death
Volteius bared his throat. ' What youth,' he cries,
' Dares strike me down, and through his captain's wounds
'Attest his love for death? ' Then through his side
Plunge blades uncounted on the moment drawn.
He praises all : but him who struck the first
Grateful, with dying strength, he does to death.
They rush together, and without a foe
Work all the guilt of battle. Thus of yore,
Rose up the glittering Dircaean band
From seed by Cadmus sown, and fought and died,
Dire omen for the brother kings of Thebes.
And so in Phasis' fields the sons of earth,
Born of the sleepless dragon, all inflamed
By magic incantations, with their blood
Deluged the monstrous furrow, while the Queen
Feared at the spells she wrought. Devoted thus
To death, they fall, yet in their death itself
Less valour show than in the fatal wounds
They take and give; for e'en the dying hand
Missed not a blow nor did the stroke alone
Inflict the wound, but rushing on the sword
Their throat or breast received it to the hilt;
And when by fatal chance or sire with son,
Or brothers met, yet with unfaltering weight
Down flashed the pitiless sword: this proved their love,
To give no second blow. Half living now
They dragged their mangled bodies to the side,
Whence flowed into the sea a crimson stream
Of slaughter. 'Twas their pleasure yet to see
The light they scorned; with haughty looks to scan
The faces of their victors, and to feel
The death approaching. But the raft was now
Piled up with dead; which, when the foemen saw,
Wondering at such a chief and such a deed,
They gave them burial. Never through the world
Of any brave achievement was the fame
More widely blazed. Yet meaner men, untaught
By such examples, see not that the hand
Which frees from slavery needs no valiant mind
To guide the stroke. But tyranny is feared
As dealing death; and Freedom's self is galled
By ruthless arms; and knows not that the sword
Was given for this, that none need live a slave.
Ah Death! wouldst thou but let the coward live
And grant the brave alone the prize to die!
Nor less were Libyan fields ablaze with war.
1 The scene is the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic. Here was Diocletian's palace.
2 Quoted in Sir T. Browne's 'Religio Medici,' i., 44. 'There be many excellent strains in that Poet wherewith his stoical genius hath liberally supplied him.'
3 That is, night was at its shortest.
4 On this passage see Dean Merivale's remarks, 'History of the Roman Empire,' chapter xvi.
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