One of the more intensely poetic passages of the Aeneid is one in which Virgil (70-19 BC) tells us the death and the end of Priam , the aged king of Troy, in the Book II.
The verses 554-558 on this passage, which cause both an emotional and rational impression, are especially emotive,:
Such final doom
fell on him, while his dying eyes surveyed
Troy burning, and her altars overthrown,
though once of many an orient land and tribe
the boasted lord. In huge dismemberment
his severed trunk lies tombless on the shore,
the head from shoulder torn, the corpse unknown.
(Trans. de John Dryden.)
haec finis Priami fatorum, hic exitus illum
sorte tulit Troiam incensam et prolapsa uidentem
Pergama, tot quondam populis terrisque superbum
regnatorem Asiae. iacet ingens litore truncus,
auulsumque umeris caput et sine nomine corpus.
What is a headless body but a nameless trunk, amorphous body, no identity?
Well, the reality is often stranger than fiction. Virgil was born in October 70 B.C. and the battle of Pharsalia took place in August 48 BC, and therefore was almost 22 years old. Virgil knew the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey and certainly knew the chronicle of the battle of Pharsalia and the sad end of Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus, ie Pompey the Great.
Pompey was a member of one of the most important Italic families; was three times consul and was a great general and major combat operations entrust to him for the benefit of Rome; three times won the prize of triumph , who had just given up on a great contest, for his victories in Africa, his victories in Hispania against Sertorius and then against the remnants of the army of Spartacus and the third by his victory over the pirates and victories in Asia.
The victory great ceremony, the triumph, is a military parade of the general with his troops and booty in the streets of Rome, from the Campus Martius to the Capitol; the general dressed as the god Jupiter in his car amounted to the temple of Jupiter Optimus and Maximux (Iuppiter Optimus Maximus).
The triumph was the greatest reward for a Roman general, who was recognized as "imperator". Imagine, then, Pompey triumphant three times in the streets of Rome.
Well, Caesar and Pompey kept family relationships (he was married to Julia, daughter of Caesar, who died young in childbirth), true friendship and a balanced political relationship that led them to share power with Crassus, enormously rich, and form the famous triumvirate, or government of the three men (tri = three, vir = man).
Crassus, defeated. died in Carras, in modern Turkey, in the year 53 BC and the relationship between Caesar and Pompey was not only cooling but impossible to maintain for the ambition and personality of both. Came the war of the Roman legions and allies against the Roman legions and allies. The Battle of Pharsalus was decisive in the year 48. Caesar, with a smaller but well-trained army, defeated the Great Pompey, Pompeius Magnus, who had a much larger army.
After the defeat, Pompey did not correspond and behaved as expected of a Roman general. Abandoned his soldiers and fled into Egypt seeking the help of King Tolomeus, still a child. He arrived in Alexandria, the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, received him warmly and asked to appear before the king. A little boat, in which were among others the royal prefect Aquilas and Lucius Septimius, who was centurion of Pompey in the war of the pirates, approached to the ship that carried Pompey. Pompey went to the little boat and there was stabbed and killed by these two men in front of his own wife, the day before he would be 59 years old. They cut and preserved the head of the great general to give it to Caesar. They left the naked body on the beach.
Plutarch (46-120?) says in Pompey, 80.1
But they cut off Pompey's head, and threw the rest of his body unclothed out of the boat, and left it for those who craved so pitiful a sight.
τοῦ δὲ Πομπηΐου τὴν μὲν κεφαλὴν ἀποτέμνουσι, τὸ δὲ ἄλλο σῶμα γυμνὸν ἐκβαλόντες ἀπὸ τῆς ἁλιάδος τοῖς δεομένοις τοιούτου θεάματος ἀπέλιπον.
That is, it is actually the image of what would later say Virgil poetically:
iacet ingens litore truncus,
auulsumque umeris caput et sine nomine corpus.
Who so often had saved Rome, who on three occasions, like a god up the Capitoline hill slope celebrating the triumph, the greatest reward for the winners, now lies abandoned on the beach.
The next day soldiers taken the trunk "sine capite, sine nomine" and gave him pious grave. This death, which seems to us an enormous cruelty, not detract from another part of the brutal and gratuitous violence that often employed Pompey, whom Valerius Maximus, a writer of the time of Tiberius (14-37) describes in his "Facta et dicta memorabilia, 6,2.8 (Memorable Deeds and Sayings) as "adulescentulus carnifex" (the young butcher).
Would have Virgil this disturbing picture on his retina when narrates the end of Priam, old and venerable king of Troy?
Velleiius Paterculus (19 BC-31 AD) tells in Roman History 2.53.3 the end opposing his glorious military career to his sad death; this would be already a commonplace among historians:
So died in his fifty-eighth year, on the very eve of his birthday, that upright and illustrious man, after holding three consulships, p169celebrating three triumphs, conquering the whole world, and attaining to a pinnacle of fame beyond which it is impossible to rise. Such was the inconsistency of fortune in his case, that he who but a short time before had found no more lands to conquer now found none for his burial. (Transl. published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1924)
Hic post tres consulatus et totidem triumphos domitumque terrarum orbem sanctissimi atque praestantissimi viri in id evecti, super quod ascendi non potest, duodesexagesimum annum agentis pridie natalem ipsius vitae fuit exitus, in tantum in illo viro a se discordante fortuna, ut cui modo ad victoriam terra defuerat, deesset ad sepulturam.
Appian (95? -165?), in his Roman History, in the share of Civil Wars, BC 2, 12, 85-86 also tells this sad end with similar words.
Pompey's wife and friends who saw this at a distance cried out and, lifting their hands to heaven, invoked the gods, the avengers of violated faith. Then they sailed away in all haste as from an enemy's country. The servants of Pothinus cut off Pompey's head and kept it for Cæsar, in expectation of a large reward, but he visited condign punishment on them for their nefarious deed. The remainder of the body was buried by somebody on the shore, and a small monument was erected over it, on which somebody else wrote this inscription: —
"What a pitiful tomb is here for one who had temples in abundance." (Horace White, Ed.)
Dion Cassius tells us in his Roman History LXIX. 11 that years later the emperor Hadrian, in the year 122, passed through Judaea into Egypt, visited the tomb of Pompey, now fallen in ruins, and recited the verse also cited by Appian:
“What a pitiful tomb is here for one who had temples in abundance”
and ordered restore his monument.