This curious print was engraved by the 18th-century artist, Robert John Dunkarton, who copied the piece from a painting created by John Hamilton Mortimer (c. 1740-1779). Mortimer, in turn, had copied a fellow creator, named Lucan, for the idea behind the artwork. Lucan, however, was not a painter or an engraver. Instead, he was an ancient Roman poet who lived in the 1st century.
Lucan (c. 39-65) wrote an unfinished poem called Bellum Civile (or Civil War), which commentates on the events of the civil war that broke out in 49 BCE between the Roman factions of Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. By early 48 BCE, the focus of the war had shifted to Greece as Julius Caesar pursued Pompey deeper into the Greek lands. Now, while this chase was ongoing, the poet Lucan would like us to believe that Pompey the Great’s son, Sextus, chose this exact moment to seek out the lair of a notorious Thessalian witch named Erictho. His purpose in this endeavor has been awkwardly hinted at in Robert Dunkarton’s bulky title for the print: “Sextus (the Son of Pompey) applying to Erictho, to know the fate of the Battle Of Pharsalia.” Simply put, Lucan’s plot here revolves around Sextus hiring the witch, Erictho, to perform a morbid necromancy spell, through which she would hopefully gain some supernatural insight from the realm of the dead about how the civil war between Caesar and Pompey would turn out.
Erictho agreed to perform the spell, and Lucan spared no detail in describing the ceremony that the fictional witch performed. She obtained an adequate corpse for a knowledgeable ghost to inhabit, and prepared the lifeless body for possession by filling it with fresh blood. In addition, a wide variety of bizarre and grotesque ingredients were used in the dressing and anointing of the corpse for the spell. For the necromancy to work, Erictho employed a noxious concoction derived of such materials as froth from a dog’s mouth, guts of a lynx, joints of a hyena, marrow from a stag, and skins shed by various snakes. Also included were more mythical ingredients, such as eyes from a dragon, ash from a phoenix, and poison from the moon. With a few added incantations and extra magical craft, Erictho was eventually able to summon a spirit to do her bidding. Lucan described the curious scene:
“With these declarations
she lifted her head and frothing mouth and saw
stand forth before her the shade of the cast-off corpse,
afraid of its lifeless limbs, those hateful confines
of its old prison. It dreads to enter that opened chest
and guts and innards ruptured by lethal wounds.
Poor man, unfairly stripped of death’s last gift—
to not be able to die! Erictho is astounded
that fates are so free to linger, and, angry at the dead,
she whips the motionless body with a living serpent,
and down the gaping fissures in the earth her spells
had opened up she barks at the ghosts of the dead,
disturbing their kingdom’s silence”
(Lucan, Civil War, Book 6, approximately lines 708-734)
It is this scene that John Hamilton Mortimer and Robert John Dunkarton seem to depict in their artworks. The image appears to show the ghostly shade looking on unconvincingly at the corpse that the witch laid out. Erictho, in response, has her intimidating snakes in hand, ready to use them to whip and lash the uncooperative spirit into compliance. Sextus, meanwhile, is shown with his companions across from Erictho, and they could only watch with wonder and fear as the strange spell continued on its unnatural course. Despite the shade’s early hesitancy, it would eventually possess the offered body and reveal vague secrets about the future. Yet, the Pompeian faction was already doomed. Pompey the Great suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BCE, and after subsequently being forced to flee, he was assassinated in Alexandria, Egypt, later that year. Sextus lived on to continue fighting against Caesar and his successor, Octavian/Augustus. Nevertheless, Sextus, too, was ultimately captured and executed in 35 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Civil War, by Lucan, translated by Matthew Fox. New York: Penguin Classics, 2012.