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Dr. Kristina Killgrove @DrKillgrove
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Gather round, kids, for an ancient #Roman #zombie story. It's legit good - from the 1st century AD and involves eyeballs, hag-hair, and Julius Caesar in addition to a reanimated corpse. 🧟‍♂️🧟‍♀️🏛️💀…

Remember the soothsayer in Shakespeare? You know you do -- think back to high school and the "beware the Ides of March" warning. Well, she was hella tame compared to Erichtho the apparently world-famous Thessalian witch.

But first things first...

The night before the Battle of Pharsalus (9 Aug 48 BC), Pompey the Great was freaking out. Julius Caesar, once his BFF (brother in the first triumvirate - wait, that doesn't have an F), was mounting a Civil War against Rome. Trying to become dictator for life.

Pompey was backed by the Roman government to stop Caesar. But Caesar was scrappy and Pompey was legit worried he'd lose in spite of all the resources he had at his disposal.

So, according to Lucan, a Roman poet who elegized the battle in his Pharsalia around 65 AD, Pompey sent his son Sextus to talk to a noted witch and find out what was gonna happen in the morning.

Now, Lucan was born in 39 AD, long after Caesar's Civil War and death. He basically epitomized the mantra 'life fast and die young' -- feuding with Nero and later, accused of treason, implicated his mom but then was forced to kill himself at age 25.

As Lucan bled to death on April 30, 65 AD, he purportedly recited some of his own prolific poetry, like a boss. Here's a modern bust of Lucan; no ancient ones exist, so that may explain why this one is so damn boring.

Alright, so we've established that Lucan likes drama. He wrote an epic poem about Caesar's Civil War and specifically about the Battle of Pharsalus, which is in Greece. So he has Sextus go looking for a witch, Erictho, also in Greece, to tell the future.

This happens in book 6 (of 10 because Lucan can't shut up about this battle), but towards the end after a whole bunch of militarying that I zoned out on because Roman military history is SO not my thing.

Line 413 is where it starts getting good. (And here I'm using a public domain translation by H.T. Riley from 1853, but I like it because it's super flowery with thees and thous.)…

Lucan starts by noting that "Because their fates are now close approaching,
degenerate minds tremble, and ponder on the worst. Mingled with the timid multitude is Sextus, an offspring unworthy of Magnus for a parent." -- not the last time Lucan will throw shade at Sextus.

Sextus doesn't go the normal route of augury or visit to the Pythia. No, he "had gained a knowledge of the secrets of the ruthless magicians detested by the Gods above, and the altars sad with dreadful sacrifices, and the aid of the shades below and of Pluto."


These witches Lucan writes of can make someone fall in love.

Not scary enough?

They also make moms hate their babies.

Still not scary?

OK, they can... change the weather!

No? Hm.

OK, how about...

"Them do the ravening tigers & wrath of the lions fawn upon with gentle mouth; for them does the serpent unfold his cold coils, and is extended in the frosty field. The knots of the vipers unite, their bodies cut asunder; and the snake dies, breathed upon by human poison."

Right, who are these "human poisons"? Well, this one is named Erictho & she's not allowed in polite company: "It is not permitted to place her deadly head within a roof or home in the city; she haunts the deserted piles & the ghosts expelled, takes possession of the tombs."

What does she look like, you ask? Let Lucan paint a picture:

"Leanness has possession of the features of the hag, foul with filthiness, and, unknown to a clear sky, her dreadful visage, laden with uncombed locks, is beset with Stygian paleness."

Erictho, who has to wander graveyards since she's not allowed in houses, just brings death at every turn: "The seeds she treads on of the fruitful corn she burns up, and by her breathing makes air noxious that was not deadly before."

For funzies, Erictho seems to just kill people: Souls that live, and still rule their respective limbs, she buries in the tomb; death reluctantly creeps up; the funeral procession turning back, the dead bodies she rescues from the tomb; corpses fly from death."

Flying corpses is not even the HALF of it.

"The smoking ashes of the young and the burning bones she snatches from the midst of the piles, 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 smell of the limbs."

If you think what Erictho does to cremated corpses is bad, hold my Falernian (Roman wine, duh) --

"But when corpses are kept within stone, from which the moisture within is taken away, and, the corruption withdrawn, the 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."

Y'all, it just gets worse.

"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."

Lucan tosses in scavenging: "Whatever carcass is lying on the bare ground, before beasts & the birds of the air does she sit; nor does she wish to separate the joints w/ iron and w/ her hands & about to tear the limbs from their parched jaws, she awaits bites of the wolves.

Oh, wait. There's more:

"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 funereal 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."

For good measure, Lucan adds Erictho "has cut off the head & torn away the cheeks pressed w/ her teeth, & biting off the end of the tongue as it cleaves to the dried throat, has poured forth murmurs into the cold lips, & has dispatched accursed secrets to Stygian shades."

Erictho's bona fides securely established, it's clear she's the person to give a prophesy about the Battle of Pharsalus, yes?

When Sextus reached Erictho, she was plotting ways to keep all the dead that would surely result near her so that she could "maim the corpses of slaughtered monarchs. This is her pursuit, her sole study."

We all need a hobby, right?

The "degenerate offspring of Pompey" (ouch, Lucan) asks Erictho to ensure that the battle goes Pompey's way. She declines but offers something else... (a zombie -- it's a zombie!)

It's WAY easier, she says, to tell him what'll happen than to change what will happen.

"But it is easy, since there is a supply so vast of recent deaths, to raise a single body, that, with a clear voice, the lips of a corpse just dead and warm may utter their sounds..."

Erictho "wanders amid the bodies of the slain, exposed, sepulchers being denied. The Thessalian witch selects her prophet, and, examining the marrow cold in death, finds the fibres of the stiffened lungs standing without a wound, and in the dead body seeks a voice."

"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."


Erictho now goes into full-on corpse-reanimation mode: "She puts on a dress, of various colors and fury-like with varied garb; and her locks removed, her features are revealed, and, bristling, with wreaths of vipers her hair is fastened round."

Sextus at this point is freaking out, like I imagine we all would when a witch is dragging a corpse up a mountain, but Erictho just laughs and 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'." She tells him to listen up, the zombie's gonna speak.

"Then in the first place does she fill his breast, opened by fresh wounds, with reeking blood, and she bathes his marrow with gore, and plentifully supplies venom from the moon."

All righty then.

Erictho then chews up and spits out some poison, and entreats the darkest spirits -- whom she's plied with "human entrails" and "warm brains" -- to tell her the future through her newly-created zombie.

The zombie, tho, wasn't excited abt this. "When she lifted up her head & her foaming lips, she beheld the ghost of the corpse standing by, dreading lifeless limbs & its former confinement. It was dreading to go into the gaping breasts, and entrails torn with deadly wound."

Erictho then really lets the dark spirits have it, cursing them every which way for, like, almost a stanza until: "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; a new life creeping on is mingled with the marrow so lately disused. Then does every-joint throb; the sinews are stretched; the dead body lifts itself from the earth & it is spurned by the ground & raised erect."

"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 this poor zombie soldier that she will bury him properly if he just tells her the future.

Sad and crying, the reanimated corpse says basically that everyone's gonna die - Pompey, Sextus, Caesar. Everyone. But since this is Lucan, it goes on for MANY LINES.

"After he has thus revealed the Fates, 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."

She then just, like, leaves him to jump on his own funeral pyre.

"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."

The zombie having been de-zombified, what happens now to Erictho? Surprisingly, "she goes attending Sextus to his father's camp."

That would... not be my choice for what to do with someone who'd just reanimated a corpse, but... Sextus is clearly the absolute WORST.

So that, kids, is how a zombie predicted the death of Caesar! 🧟‍♂️

P.S. Why couldn't we have read THIS in Latin class instead of Gallia est omnes divisa in partes tres.... buhhhh. Maybe I would have stuck with the language if we got to read this instead of Caesar.

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