Those familiar with Shakespeare’s treatment of the story of Rome’s infamously slain dictator Julius Caesar likely recall the soothsayer who warned “beware the Ides of March.” But long before the Bard wrote this, a zombie of a soldier actually predicted his death. It’s a chilling tale that’s part Harry Potter and part inordinate amounts of gore. In short, all the fundamentals of an ancient Roman ghost story.
To set the scene, this zombie tale comes from Lucan‘s Pharsalia, an epic poem published in 65 AD that depicts the events of Caesar’s Civil War (49-45 BC), and more specifically the Battle of Pharsalus (Greece) where Caesar defeated former triumvirate ally and government-backed general Pompey, who fled to Egypt. But on the eve of the battle, before the underdog Caesar routed Pompey, the latter sent his son to Thessaly to ask noted witch Erictho to prophesy who would be victorious. The following quotes are from H.T. Riley’s 1853 translation from Latin to English.
Leanness has possession of the features of the hag [Erictho], foul with filthiness, and, unknown to a clear sky, her dreadful visage, laden with uncombed locks, is beset with Stygian paleness. If showers and black clouds obscure the stars, then does the Thessalian witch stalk forth from the spoiled pyres, and try to arrest the lightnings of the night.
Erictho is, of course, a foul and ugly creature, and her actions involve both murdering people and collecting their cremated remains for, presumably, her own nefarious purposes:
Souls that live, and still rule their respective limbs, she buries in the tomb; and death reluctantly creeps on upon those who owe lengthened years to the Fates; the funeral procession turning back, the dead bodies she rescues from the tomb; corpses fly from death. The smoking ashes of the young and the burning bones she snatches from the midst of the funeral pyres, and the very torch which the parents have held; the fragments, too, of the funeral bier that fly about in the black smoke, and the flowing robes does she collect amid the ashes, and the embers that still smell of the limbs.
It’s Erictho’s interference with those corpses buried in stone-lined graves, however, that bring out Lucan’s most florid language:
But when corpses are kept within stone, from which the moisture within is taken away, and, the corruption withdrawn, the bone marrow has grown hard; then does she greedily raven upon all the limbs, and bury her hands in the eyes, and delight to scoop out the dried-up balls, and gnaw the pallid nails of the shrunken hand; with her mouth she tears asunder the halter and the murderous knots; the bodies as they hang she gnaws, and scrapes the crosses; the entrails, too, smitten by the showers she rends asunder, and the parched marrow, the sun’s heat admitted thereto. Iron fastened into the hands, and the black corruption of the filthy matter that distills upon the limbs, and the slime that has collected, she bears off, and hangs to the bodies, as the sinews hold fast her bite.
Erictho buries her hands in the corpses’ eyes, delights in scooping out the dried-up balls, and gnaws the pallid nails of the shrunken hands. Yikes!
Nor do her hands refrain from murder, if she requires the life-blood, which is the first to spring from the divided throat. Nor does she shun slaughter, if her rites demand living gore, and her funeral tables demand the quivering entrails. So, through the wounds of the womb, not the way in which nature invites, is the embryo torn out, about to be placed upon the glowing altars.
And as often as she has need of grim and stalwart shades, she herself makes the ghosts; every kind of death among mankind is in her employ. She from the youthful body tears the down of the cheek; she with her left hand from the dying stripling cuts off the hair. Full often, too, at her kinsman’s pile has the dire Thessalian witch brooded over the dear limbs, and imprinting kisses, has both cut off the head, and torn away the cheeks pressed with her teeth, and biting off the end of the tongue as it cleaves to the dried throat, has poured forth murmurs into the cold lips, and has dispatched accursed secrets to the Stygian shades.
Lucan then details Sextus’s meeting with Erichto. Sextus doubts the outcome of the impending battle and asks her to make the outcome in favor of his father, Pompey. She declines to do this, but instead, since Sextus flattered her in mentioning her international reputation, Erictho offers him a zombie prophesy:
But if you are content to learn the events beforehand, paths easy and manifold will lie open to truth; earth, and sky, and Chaos, and seas, and plains, and the rocks of Rhodope, will converse with us. But it is easy, since there is a supply so vast of recent deaths, to raise a single body from the Pharsalian plains, that, with a clear voice, the lips of a corpse just dead and warm may utter their sounds, and no dismal ghost, the limbs scorched by the sun, may send forth indistinct screeching.
Not just any body will do. The soon-to-be-zombie needs to be mostly complete with intact lungs so that it can speak.
A body selected at length with pierced throat she takes, and, a hook being inserted with funereal ropes, the wretched carcass is dragged over rocks, over stones, destined to live once again; and beneath the lofty crags of the hollowed mountain, which the dire Erictho has destined for her rites, it is placed.
Sextus is freaked out at this point, as I imagine we all might be when faced with a wild-looking witch dragging a recent corpse around a mountainside, but Erictho, who’s now put on a multicolored dress and wreathed her hair with snakes, basically calls him a baby:
When she perceives the youth’s attendants alarmed, and himself trembling, and, casting down his eyes with looks struck with horror, she says: ‘Banish the fears conceived in your timid mind; now anew, now in its genuine form shall life be restored, that even tremblers may endure to hear him speak. But if I can show the Stygian lakes, and the shores that resound with flames; if, I being present, the Eumenides can be beheld, and Cerberus shaking his necks shaggy with serpents, and the Giants chained with their hands to their backs, what dread is there, cowards, to behold the frightened ghosts?’
Sextus doesn’t respond, and Lucan goes on to describe the zombie reanimation process that Erictho undertakes:
Erictho fills the corpse’s chest, opened by fresh wounds, with reeking blood, and she bathes his marrow with gore, and plentifully supplies venom from the moon. With this, after she has mingled abominations, vile, and possessing no names, she added leaves steeped in accursed spells, and herbs upon which, when shooting up, her direful mouth had spat, and whatever poisons she herself gave unto the world.
Then, a voice poured forth its murmurs, discordant, and differing much from the human tongue. The bark of dogs has she, and the howling of wolves; she sends forth the voice in which the scared owl, in which the screech of the night, complain, in which wild beasts shriek and yell, in which the serpent hisses, and the wailing of the waves dashed upon the rocks; the sounds, too, of the woods, and the thunders of the bursting cloud.
Then afterwards in a Haemonian chant she unfolds the rest, and her voice penetrates to Tartarus. [Erictho offers up a magical spell in the form of a prayer.] “Let the ghost of one but lately our soldier repeat the destinies of Pompey to the son of the chieftain, if the civil warfare deserves well at your hands.”
As soon as she says this, the ghost of the soldier is raised, none too happy that he’s been disturbed:
Erictho lifted up her head and her foaming lips; she beheld the ghost of the extended corpse standing by, dreading the lifeless limbs and the hated place of its former confinement. It was dreading to go into the gaping breasts, and the entrails torn with a deadly wound.
Super annoyed that the ghost doesn’t want to re-enter its corpse, Erictho beats the body with her snakes as she loudly and violently curses the spirits of the underworld, asking them to do her bidding. That seems to work:
Forthwith the clotted blood grows warm, and nourishes the blackened wounds, and runs into the veins and the extremities of the limbs. Smitten beneath the cold breast, the lungs palpitate; and a new life creeping on is mingled with the marrow so lately disused. Then does every-joint throb; the sinews are stretched; and not by degrees throughout the limbs does the dead body lift itself from the earth, and it is spurned by the ground, and raised erect at the same instant. The eyes with their apertures distended wide are opened. In it not as yet is there the face of one living, but of one now dying. His paleness and his stiffness remain, and, brought back to the world, he is astounded. But his sealed lips resound with no murmur. A voice and a tongue to answer alone are granted unto him.
Erictho promises the zombie soldier a proper burial if he tells her what will happen in the next day’s battle. He responds:
Called back from the heights of the silent shores I surely have not seen the sad threads of the Destinies; but, what from all the shades it has been allowed me to learn, fierce discord agitates the Roman ghosts, and impious arms disturb the rest of hell. Coming from different spots, some chieftains have left the Elysian abodes, and some the gloomy Tartarus; what fate is preparing these have disclosed. Sad was the countenance of the spirits of the blessed. The Decii I beheld, both son and father, the souls that expiated the warfare, and Camillus weeping, and the Curii; Sulla, too, Fortune, complaining of thee. Scipio is deploring his hapless descendant, doomed to perish in the Libyan lands. The elder Cato, the foe of Carthage, bemoans the destiny of his nephew who will not be a slave. Thee, Brutus, first Consul, the tyrants expelled, alone rejoicing did I behold among the pious shades. Threatening Catiline, his chains burst asunder and broken, exults, the fierce Marii, too, and the Cethegi with their bared arms. I beheld the Drusi exulting, names beloved by the populace; the Gracchi, exorbitant with their laws, and who dared such mighty exploits. Hands, bound with the eternal knots of iron, and in the dungeon of Dis, clap in applause, and the guilty multitude demands the fields of the blessed. The possessor of the empty realms is opening the pallid abodes, and is sharpening rocks torn off, and adamant hard with its chains, and is preparing punishment for the conqueror. Take back with thee, O youth, this comfort, that in their placid retreat the shades await thy father trod thy house, and in the serene quarter of the realms are preparing room for Pompey. And let not the glory of a short life cause thee anxiety; the hour will come that is to mingle all chieftains alike. Make ye haste to die, and proud with your high spirit go down though from humble graves, and tread under foot the ghosts of Romans deified. It is sought to know which tomb the wave of the Nile, and which that of the Tiber is to wash, and only is the combat among the chieftains as to their place of burial. Seek not thou to know thy own destiny; the Fates, while I am silent, will declare; a prophet more sure, Pompey himself, thy sire, will declare all things to thee in the Sicilian fields; he, too, uncertain whither he shall invite thee, whence warn thee away, what regions to bid thee avoid, what Constellations of the world. Wretched men, dread Europe, and Libya, and Asia; according to your triumphs does Fortune distribute your sepulchers. O wretched house, nothing throughout the whole earth wilt thou behold more safe than Pharsalus.
tl;dr – everyone will die, most particularly Pompey, Sextus, and Caesar. Having done what Erictho asked, the zombie soldier is given his reward:
Gloomy with speechless features he stands and demands death once again. Magic incantations are needed, and drugs, that the carcass may fall, and the Fates are unable to restore the soul to themselves, the law of hell now once broken. Then, with plenteous wood Erictho builds up a pyre; the dead man comes to the fires; the youth, placed upon the lighted heap, Erictho leaves, permitting him at length to die.
While Lucan’s epic was written long after the outcome of the battle and Julius Caesar’s fate were known, the zombie prophesy is an intriguing alternative to the “Ides of March” soothsayer, whose historical tradition was first mentioned in Plutarch’s Life of Caesar, dating to well after the death of Lucan.
The consultation of the dead for learning more about the future has an even longer history prior to Lucan’s Zombie-Caesar tale, though. The practice of necromancy goes back at least to ancient Greece and Egypt, so if this ghost story has whet your appetite for more information on ancient zombies, ghosts, vampires, sorcerers, and witches, check out Daniel Ogden’s Greek and Roman Necromancy.