Publius Papinius Statius

Thebaid

Book I

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2013 All Rights Reserved

This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.

Contents


BkI:1-45 Invocation to the Muses

The Muses’ fire inspires my mind to tell of fraternal war,

Of alternate kingship, of guilty Thebes disputed over

In impious hatred. Goddesses, where do you command me

To begin? Shall I sing the origins of that fateful people,

Of the Sidonian rape, and the sway of Agenor’s inexorable

Decree, that sent Cadmus to sail the waves in search?

The tale is long were I to recall that ploughman’s fearful

Sowing of conflict, the warriors out of unholy furrows,

Were I to pursue all that followed; how Amphion’s

Music drew piles of stone to form Thebes’ Tyrian walls;

What led to Bacchus’ fierce anger against his kindred city;

The savage act of Juno, through which wretched Athamas

Bent his bow, his wife Ino embracing the Ionian wave,

Plunging fearless into the depths with Palaemon her son.

Yet swiftly I leave the joys and sorrows of Cadmus’

Days behind: let my poem content itself with the troubled

House of Oedipus, since, as yet, I do not dare to sing

Of Italian arms and northern victories; twice-conquered

Rhine; the Danube twice brought under the rule of law;

The Dacians, in league, hurled from their mountain peaks;

Or earlier still the fight on the Capitoline resolved in youth;

O Domitian, a glory added to Latium’s fame, who as you

Pursue your father Vespasian’s aims anew, Rome wishes

Hers for eternity. Though the starry paths be more confined,

Where a shining tract of heaven, free of Boreas, the Pleiades,

The forked lightning, beckons you; though the Sun curbing

His fiery-footed steeds set his radiant halo on your brow,

Or Jove, on high, grant you an equal share of the wide sky,

May you, powerful on earth and sea, forgo the heavens,

May you rest content with the governance of mankind.

A time will come, when filled with brighter Pierian flame,

I shall sing your deeds: now, I but tune the lyre, enough

To recount Aonian conflict; a sceptre fatal to two brothers;

Anger outlasting death, flames warring still in strife above

The pyre; the bodies of kings left unburied, and cities

Emptied by continual slaughter, while Dirce’s crystal

Spring ran red with Lernaean blood, Thetis horrified

As the Ismenus, accustomed to flow past arid shores,

Rose in mighty flood. What hero would you have me first

Recall, Clio? Shall it be Tydeus, extravagant in his wrath?

Or the laurel-crowned seer Amphiaraus’ precipitous fall?

Wild Hippomedon too urges himself upon me, driving-on

The hostile corpse-filled waters, and I must mourn bold

Parthenopaeus, sing Capaneus’ unheard-of consternation.

BkI:46-87 Oedipus invokes Tisiphone

Once Oedipus with guilty hand had pierced his impious eyes,

And, condemned to eternal night, concealed his shame

He dragged out what life was left in a long drawn-out dying.

He pledged himself to darkness, and in the furthest corner

Of his dwelling he kept house, far from the rays of heaven;

Yet the fierce light of his conscience hovered round him

On restless wings, the avenging Furies were at his heart.

There he turned his sightless orbs, in crude, pitiful living

Punishment, towards the air, struck at the echoing earth

With bloodied hands, and uttered this prayer in wrath:

‘You Gods that rule guilty spirits and Tartarus too small

For retribution, and you, Styx, livid in the shadowy deep

I see; and you, Tisiphone, to whom I pray so often,

Assent, and grant your favour to my dark request.

If I am worthy, if it was you who nursed me in your lap

When I fell from the womb, and strengthened me when

They pierced my feet; if I sought Delphi’s Castalian

Spring flowing from the twin peaks, sought my father,

Though I might have lived content with Polybus as

Substitute and, catching the aged Laius in a narrow place

In triple-cleft Phocis, severed the old man’s trembling head;

If, taught by you, I had the wit to solve the cruel Sphinx’s

Riddle; if I entered the sweet madness of woeful marriage

With my mother, suffering many a night of sin, engendering

Children fit for you, as well you know; and if thereafter

I pressed yielding orbs against harsh fingers, relinquished sight

Beside my wretched mother’s corpse; hear me, if my prayer

Is worthy and such as yourself might whisper to my frenzy!

Those I begot, no matter in what bed, failed to aid me,

Bereft of sight and sceptre, or to ease my grief with words.

Behold how, in their pride – oh agony! – these kings, made so

By my tragedy, mock at my blindness, scorn their father’s pain.

Am I anathema to them too? Does the father of the gods see

And yet do nothing? Let you, at least, my fated champion,

Emerge, and set there my progeny in line for punishment.

Don this blood-stained crown I ripped with gory fingers

From my brow, spurred on by a father’s prayers, get you

Between these brothers, and let steel dissolve their pact

Of blood. Queen of subterranean Tartarus, grant the act

Of evil I desire. Youthful spirits will be quick to follow.

Come, in worthy measure, and you’ll know them mine.’

BkI:88-113 Tisiphone responds

The savage goddess turned her cruel face towards him

As he spoke. She chanced to be seated by foul Cocytus,

And loosing the serpent locks about her head, had let

Their snaky tongues lap at its sulphurous waters.

Now, swifter than Jove’s lightning or a falling star,

She leapt from the shore: a crowd of phantoms fled

Fearing to face their mistress. She through shades,

Through fields black with the swarm of ghosts,

Sought Taenarus’ threshold from which none return.

Day felt her near, Night’s pitch-dark cloud obstructed

Him, frightening his gleaming horses: far-off, tall

Atlas shuddered, the sky trembling on his shoulders.

Rising swiftly from Malea’s cleft she sped along

The familiar route to Thebes: no path does she travel

Faster, to and fro, holding her own Tartarus no dearer.

A hundred asps, erect, cast their shadows on her face,

A fraction of those that made her fearful hair; a steely

Light lurked in her sunken eyes, as when Thessalian

Witchcraft makes the eclipsed moon blush through cloud.

Her skin was taut and swollen, suffused with venom;

Her blackened mouth filled with fiery vapour, from which

Drought, plague and famine bring death to all; on her back

A dreadful cloak stiffens, knotted blue-black on her breast:

Atropos, the Fate, and Proserpine herself tend her dress:

Then their hands shake with wrath: the one gleams with

Funereal fire, the other lashes the air with a living snake.

BkI:114-196 She sows division In Thebes

She stood where Cithaeron’s highest summit meets

The sky, green tresses hissing fiercely all as one,

A sign to earth which all the Achaean seashores

And Pelop’s kingdom widely echoed. Parnassus,

Half-way to heaven, and Spartan Eurotas heard;

Oeta’s mountain-range wavered and slid side-wards,

And the Isthmus barely withstood the double wave.

Ino, Palaemon’s mother, caught him from the waves,

As he roamed on dolphin back, and pressed him to her.

When, at the Cadmaean citadel, Tisiphone halted

Her headlong course, and poisoned the atmosphere

With her accustomed cloud of vapour, shock gripped

The brothers’ hearts and ancestral madness seized

Their minds, with envy of the other’s good fortune;

Fear, engendering hatred; the fierce desire for rule;

Breach of mutual give and take; ambition impatient

Of subservience; the need to stand supreme, alone;

And conflict, the companion of shared sovereignty.

Just as two bullocks that a farmer takes from the wild

Herd and yokes to the plough, rebel; never having felt

The weight before that bows their necks and shoulders,

Such that, equally matched, they pull apart and strain

The ropes, with their crooked track vexing the furrow;

So the indomitable brothers raged in headlong strife.

Now they agreed, in alternate years, to exchange

Kingship for exile; so by malign treaty they decreed

Fortune must change sides, and the sceptre’s holder

Be ever-tormented by the swift course of succession.

This was the brotherly love between them, this the sole

Barrier to war; doomed to fail before the second reign.

This too was in days before coffered ceilings gleamed

With thick gilding, our high halls columned in Greek

Marble, with wide space to hold the assembled clients.

No spears then guarded the restless sleep of kings,

No ranks then of steel-bearing sentinels, no wealth

To drown jewels with wine, and gold with dainties:

Naked power armed them, at war for a pauper’s crown.

While they disputed as to who should plough cramped

Dirce’s barren acres or hold the Tyrian exile’s petty

Throne, justice perished, human and divine, all good,

All decency in life and death. Oh, wretched men, what

Purpose had your wrath? What though by such evil

You sought earth’s boundaries, that which the sun sees

When he leaps from the eastern threshold, that which

He gazes on as he sinks beyond the gates of Spain, all

The countries his slanting rays touch, those the north

Wind cools, those the moist south warms with its heat?

What though Tyre’s wealth and Phrygia’s be gathered

Together in one place? A cursed citadel, a house of terror,

Sufficed to hatred, a monstrous madness was the price

Of mounting Oedipus’ throne. Now Polynices’ kingship

Was set aside, deferred by lot. What a day that was, for you,

In your empty palace, cruel Eteocles, seeing all power yours,

All other men subservient, no head held as high! Now,

The opposition begins amongst the Theban people, now,

The silent masses resent their king, and as is the manner

Of the populace, the coming man is favourite amongst them.

So those, wishing to harm the ruler with base venom, ever

Unwilling to suffer those above them, began to mutter:

‘Is it the harsh Fates who inflict this burden on Thebes,

To be forever changing those we must fear, to bow

Our shoulders unsurely beneath alternate yokes?

Divided themselves, they control a nation’s destiny,

By force render Fortune fickle. Are we to be always

Enslaved by each exile in turn? Father of gods and men,

Was it you who decided that this pair should so decree?

Or was Thebes’ ancient destiny determined in the days

When Cadmus, searched the Carpathian Sea as decreed

Vainly seeking the Sidonian bull’s seductive burden,

Founded, as an exile, a kingdom in Hyantean fields,

And fraternal warfare erupted from pregnant earth,

As an augury of what faced his remote posterity?

See how absolute power acts more cruelly, rises

To threaten us with stern gaze? What menace

Inhabits that face, how his pride oppresses all!

Can he be a mere citizen again, ever? His brother

Was kinder to the suppliant, gentler of speech, more

Patient in doing right. No wonder, lacking sole power.

We are a base mob, now, fit to be used by any master.

Just as chill Boreas drives the sails one way, moist Eurus

Another, and the ship’s fate hovers between them,

Caught in dire uncertainty, alas, a fate too cruel for any

Nation to bear, so the one commands, the other threatens.’

BkI:197-247 Jupiter addresses the Gods

Now, at Jupiter’s orders, the supreme gods assembled

In the house of the whirling heavens, at the centre

Of the sky. All places neighbour upon it, the spaces

Of sunrise and sunset, land and sea revealed to light.

Towering Jove himself makes his way among the gods,

So that all tremble though his aspect remains serene;

And mounts to his starry throne; nor do the skyey ones

Dare at once to follow, waiting till the Father himself

With tranquil gesture, allows them to be seated. Soon,

A mass of vagrant demigods, with the river-gods kin

To the highest clouds, and the winds, their roar restrained

By fear, fill the golden hall. At the majesty of the mingled

Deities the dome trembles, its heights glow a deeper blue,

And its doorways shine, florescent with arcane light.

Silence was commanded; the earth was mute with terror.

He spoke from on high (his sacred words are both weighty

And immutable, and the Fates follow his every dictum):

‘I groan for the sins of earth, and the human mind that no

Vengeful Fury can satisfy! I weary of wielding my wrathful

Lightning bolts, such that the Cyclops’ shoulders tire of their

Forging, and Vulcan’s anvils exhaust their supplies of fuel.

Though I suffered the Sun’s steeds, loosed by the unskilled

Phaethon, to set the sky on fire while the wheels ran wild,

And the earth was covered with the lad’s ashes, even that

Had no effect, nor that you Poseidon, my brother, with your

Great trident let the sea roam newly-free over dry land.

Now I am forced to punish two Houses, born of my blood.

One stream descended to Adrastus in Persean Argos,

The other flowed from its source to Aonian Thebes.

The same character marks them both: who does not know

Of Cadmus’ troubles, how often the host of Furies, roused

From their infernal halls, made war; of the evil bacchanals

Of the Theban women, their wild coursing through the deep

Forests, and those actions of the gods best left unspoken.

I could scarcely enumerate in the space of a day and a night

Till the following dawn, all the profane exploits of that race.

That impious heir, Oedipus, even dared to climb into his own

Father’s bed, and defile his innocent mother’s womb,

So returning (monstrously!) to his own source. He paid,

However, a lasting penalty before the gods, excluding light,

And he no longer breathes our air; and then, in falling,

His sons (a deed lacking all morality) trampled his blind orbs.

Now, now, shall your prayer be answered, fateful old man.

Your darkness is worthy of your desire: that Jove avenge.

I shall bring new warfare on that guilt-ridden kingship,

And tear that whole fatal stock out by the root. Let the seed

Of battle be King Adrastus’ gift of his daughter in a union

Not blessed by heaven. His line too I resolve to afflict

With punishment; since Tantalus’ deceit, and the outrage

Of his cruel banquet are yet present in the depths of my heart.’

BkI:248-282 Juno replies

So spoke the all-powerful Father, but wounded by his words

And with a sudden tremor in her burning heart, Juno gave

This answer: ‘Is it I whom you command to wage war, O

Most righteous of the gods, is it I? You know I ever aided

The Cyclopean towers and great Phoroneus’ famed sceptre

With men and wealth, though in that land you chose to kill

Argus, guardian of the Pharian heifer Io, in deadly sleep,

And enter Danae’s prison tower in your aureate disguise.

I forgive your deceitful antics in bed, yet I hate that city

Where you show yourself openly; thunder; hurl what should be

Mine, the lightning-bolt, sign and compact of our great union.

Let Thebes expiate its crimes, but why make Argos its enemy?

If discord in our sacred marriage chamber is worth the price,

Then raze Samos and ancient Mycenae in war, and lay Sparta

Level with the soil. Why should your wife’s altars, piled high

With eastern incense, rejoicing in festal blood, warm any land?

Let Mareotic Coptos rather know the smoke of holy vows,

Rather the mournful currents of the sistrum-rattling Nile.

If races must expiate the crimes of their ancient ancestors,

If such late resolve has entered your troubled mind, to review

Past times, how far must we return to cancel earth’s mad deeds,

Amending the ages backwards? Begin at once with Olympia

From which the sea-travelled waters of Alpheus slide, retracing

From afar his Sicanian amours: or where Arcadians set your altar

(Shamelessly) on sullied ground. Where sped Oenomaus’ chariot,

A gift of Mars, and horses fit to be stabled by Thracian Haemus.

Where yet, stark and unburied, lie the mangled heads of suitors,

Torn from their bodies. Yet the tribute of a temple there pleases

You; and Cretan Mount Ida that falsely claims your burial place.

Why begrudge me a house in the land of Tantalus? Avoid the pain

Of war, take pity on your own. There are wicked realms for you,

On every side, more fit to have royal daughters wed guilty men.’

BkI:283-311 Jupiter sends Mercury to stir up strife

So Juno ended, with both request and reproach combined. Yet

The words of his reply were not harsh, though they were firm:

‘I scarcely dreamt you’d bless any action I might take against

Your Argos, despite my justice; nor do I ignore that, given any

Chance, Bacchus and Dione would plead at length for Thebes;

Though reverence for my power should forbid it. Indeed I call

On Pluto my brother’s Stygian waves to witness my fixed, my

Irrevocable decree: and no speech shall ever alter my intention.

So, Mercury, move your wings, fly faster than the urging wind,

Glide through the pure air to the land of darkness, and there say

To its lord, your uncle: let aged Laius ascend to the earth above.

Slain by his son Oedipus’ sword, Lethe’s shore, in accord with

The laws of deep Erebus, has not yet known him. Let him carry

My commands to Eteocles, his fatal grandson, whose brother,

Polynices, hopes much from exile, stirred by Argive friendship.

Let the foul king, as he would, keep Polynices from his palace;

Let him refuse the agreed alternation of royal power. Let that

Hereafter be a cause of wrath; what follows I will surely guide.’

The grandson of Atlas obeyed his father’s words, now swiftly

Fastening the winged sandals to his ankles, covering his head

With his broad hat: so moderating the heat of the fiery stars.

Then he took the wand in his right hand, which banishes sweet

Sleep, or brings it on, and with which he enters black Tartarus

And gives breath again to the bloodless shades. Down he sped,

And shivered as the thin atmosphere received him. Without

Pausing, he undertakes his high swift flight through the void,

And he traces a gigantic arc as he travels through the clouds.

BkI:312-335 Polynices journeys to the Isthmus

Long a wanderer, exiled from his native land, Polynices,

Son of Oedipus, secretly traversed the wastes of Aonia.

Time and again his thoughts dwelt on his kingship long

Overdue, and sighed at the lingering seasons, at the slow

Pace of the stars. He brooded constantly, day and night,

On this recurring question: would he ever see his brother

Humbly relinquish power, and leave him sole authority

In Thebes? He would happily barter a lifetime for that day.

Now he bemoans the long stretch of exile, now he embraces

Princely pride, and imagines himself seated there on high,

His brother already dethroned: tormenting hope plagues

His thoughts, prolongation of desire consumes the dream.

Thus he decided to strike out boldly for the cities of Inachus;

Danae’s fields; Mycenae darkened when the sun turned back.

Did a Fury lead him as his guide; or the fortunes of the road;

Or did inexorable Atropos summon him in that direction?

He left the glades where Ogygian fury howled, and hills

Blood-stained by Bacchic rites. From there he passed,

To the land where Cithaeron extends, sinking gently

To the plane, and slopes its weary heights to the sea.

Here, taking the steep and narrow rocky path, leaving

Behind Sciron’s infamous cliffs, and the fields of Scylla

Where purple-locked Nisus ruled, and wealthy Corinth,

In the midst of the land he could hear the twin seas roar.

BkI:336-389 Polynices reaches Argos in a storm

Now Phoebus’s work was done, Titanis was rising nearby,

Through the wide silent sky, carried in her dew-wet chariot,

Parting the cool atmosphere. Now all the birds and beasts

Were still, Sleep clouding biting care, leaning down from

The air; and bringing sweet forgetfulness of life’s labours.

But no reddened clouds in the sky promised day’s return,

No long twilight shone with refracted light thinning shadow.

Black impenetrable night rose more densely over the earth,

Hiding the heavens. Now the caves of ice-bound Aeolia

Resounded with the wild threat of the oncoming storm.

The winds roared together in conflict, plucking at the arc

Of the sky, stirring it on its hinges, as if each would snatch

The heavens for itself. Auster, the southerly, most congealed

The night, whirling in coils of darkness, pouring dense rain

Which harsh Boreas, the north wind, solidified with his cold

Breath before it fell. Now quivering lightning seared the sky,

Now the scorched air was pierced by sudden bursts of light.

Now Nemea, now the high Arcadian peaks, Taenarus’ forests,

Were drenched through. Inachus foamed in spate, Erasinus

Surged in icy flood. Embankments failed to hold the waters,

That filled the once dry courses. And foaming with ancient

Venom, Lerna’s swamps surged frothing from their deeps.

Every wood was shattered; gusts broke the ancient limbs;

The shadowy haunts of Lycaeus, seen by no summer suns

Throughout the distant ages, were laid naked to the eye.

Now Polynices marvelled at rocks flung from the heights,

Now his ears were assaulted by the roar of cloud-fallen

Torrents flowing from the mountains, sweeping the flocks

And shepherds’ huts away in a mad whirl. Swiftly, frantic,

He took his doubtful desolate way through black silence.

Fear and his brother Terror oppress him from every side.

Like a sailor caught on a wintry sea, to whom neither

The slow Wain nor the Moon with her friendly glow

Show his course, who hangs confused in the midst

Of the tumult on land and wave, forever anticipating

Treacherous reefs in the shallows, or cliffs with jagged

Outlines foaming above his lifted prow, so the Cadmean

Hero; crossing the dark forest; now quickening his steps;

Driving wild beasts from fearsome lairs with his great

Shield; thrusting himself through thickets (spurred on

By the strength of his dark fears) till night was overcome

By the halls of Inachus, and Larisa’s pinnacle shone forth

Throwing light on the city steeps. There he hastened, urged

By hope, Juno’s temple on high Prosymna lay to the left,

To the right Lerna’s dark marsh-pools, scorched by Hercules.

At last he reached the open gates, and entered. There lay

The royal courtyard, there he lay down against the doors

Of the unfamiliar palace, all his limbs stiffened by wind

And rain, and welcomed restless sleep to his harsh bed.

BkI:390-446 Tydeus and Polynices quarrel

In Argos, King Adrastus, on the verge of old age, governed

His people in peace. He was of rich ancestry, tracing his line

To Jupiter on either side. He had lost his better half, supported

Though by the twin gift of flourishing daughters, and to him

Phoebus had prophesied (a fatal thing to speak of, but a truth

Soon to be revealed!) that fate was bringing each a husband,

One a tawny lion, one a bristling boar. Though their royal father,

And Amphiarus too, who was skilled in considering the future,

Pondered this, neither understood it, since Apollo, its source,

Forbade enlightenment, so worry festered in the father’s heart.

See then! Fate drives Tydeus the Olenian from ancient Calydon

(Exiled by guilt and fear, chancing to shed his brother’s blood)

And in the drowsy depths of night he too trod the selfsame path.

The same chill wind and rain assailed him and, ice on his head

And shoulders, hair drenched by the stormy showers, he came

To the same yard where the earlier exile lay on the chill ground.

Here fortune stirred both to the peak of a bloodthirsty quarrel.

They disdained to shelter from the night under a shared roof.

For a while they bickered, exchanging verbal threats. Then

When hurling abuse had sufficiently inflamed their anger,

They rose and bared their chests, challenging naked combat.

Polynices was taller, long-limbed and in his prime, but equal

Strength upheld Tydeus’ brave spirit, and the courage in every

Fibre of his body was all the greater despite his smaller stature.

Now they shower mighty blows, like those of javelins or those

Of Rhipaean hailstones, on face and curving temples, or pound

On bended knees at unprotected loins. As when, at Olympia,

Jupiter’s quinquennial games return, and the sand grows hot

With the athletes’ sweat, while the shouting crowd spur on

Tender youth, and mothers apart wait to know who has won,

So flushed with hatred, though not inspired by thought of glory,

Those two rushed in. Clawing hands raked at the eye-sockets,

Entering deep into yielding flesh. Perhaps (anger so urged them)

They might have unsheathed the swords at their sides, perhaps

The young Theban might have fallen to the enemy’s blade,

For his brother to mourn (and perhaps better so) if the old king

Sober and full of cares, had not found sleep hard to come by,

So wondered at this strange turmoil in the depths of night,

At the groans from straining chests, and made his way there.

Crossing the high halls in the bright torchlight, unbarring

The doors, there on the threshold he meets a fearful sight,

Torn flesh and faces stained with showers of blood. He cried:

‘What’s the reason for this madness, you young strangers?

No subject of mind would dare to commit such violence here.

Why this fierce urge to disrupt the quiet of night with brawling?

Was the day not long enough for this, do you find it so irksome

To settle for peace of mind and sleep awhile? Come, explain:

Where do you hail from; where journey, what’s your dispute?

Your blood-letting suggests the conflict of two proud races,

And such angry quarrelling argues you are of no low degree.’

BkI:447-481 Adrastus pacifies the combatants

Scarcely had he finished before they began with a shout,

And sideways looks: ‘O gentle King of the Achaeans,

What need for words? You can see yourself how our faces

Stream with blood.’ Such is the speech they interweave,

In mingled tones of wrathful utterance, till Tydeus begins

The tale in order: ‘Seeking solace after sad misfortune,

I left monster-bearing Calydon’s riches and the fields

Of Achelous. Behold, deepest night found me within

Your borders. Why should this fellow deny me shelter

From the storm, merely because he chanced to reach

Your threshold before me? Even the bi-formed Centaurs,

They say, lodge together; the Cyclopes in Etna couch

With one another. If savage monsters have their natural

Rules and laws, for us to share beds on the ground –

But why continue? You will either depart, good fellow,

Delighting in the spoils, or find me, unless my strength

Is exhausted, sapped by grief, one born of Oeneus’ race,

And not yet degenerated from my father’s warrior line.’

‘Nor do I lack high birth or courage,’ answered the other,

Though, conscious of the past, he hesitated to declare

His father’s name. Then the kindly Adrastus replied:

‘Now come, dispel the menace that night and anger

Or courage suddenly evoked, and pass beneath my roof.

Let your right hands be clasped and pledge your hearts.

What has happened was not in vain, nor the gods absent;

Perhaps this anger was herald of your future friendship,

And the memory will not prove unpleasant.’ Nor was

The old king an idle prophet, for they say that after their

Conflict they were bound in such loyalty as led Theseus

To share the worst with reckless Pirithous, and Pylades

To face Megaera’s fury, and shield the maddened Orestes.

Even in the heat of that moment they allowed the king

To calm their angry hearts with words and (now amenable

As a sea the winds fought over grows calm, while a light

Lingering breeze flaps the canvas) they entered the palace.

BkI:482-532 Adrastus prays to the goddess of Night

There, Adrastus first had chance to scan the heroes’ clothes

And fierce weapons. On Polynices back hung a stiffened

Lion-skin, with tangled mane, like to the one that Hercules,

Amphitryon’s son, tanned and wore in Teumesos’ valley,

In his youth, before he had battled with the Nemean lion.

While glorious spoils from a Calydonian boar stretched

Over Tydeus’ broad shoulders, a hide bristling fearfully,

And adorned with backward-arcing tusks. Astounded

By so clear a fulfilment of the prophecy, the aged king

Acknowledged the warning that Apollo’s sacred oracle

Had sounded from the echoing cave. His eyes glazed,

His frozen lips fell mute, and a tremor of joy ran through

His body. He saw that these would be those sons-in-law

Manifestly led there by a god, whose prophesied arrival,

In the symbolic semblance of wild beasts, Apollo the augur

Had enigmatically signified. Stretching his arms to the stars,

He cried: ‘O Night, who clasping to you the labours of earth

And sky, send the burning stars on their wide-ranging track,

Allowing the weary creatures to recharge their spirits, until

The rising sun prompts them to prepare for toil, of your grace

You grant me the proof I have long sought in my perplexity

And error, revealing the unwinding of an ancient destiny:

Stand by that work and render your omens true. This house

Will ever worship and honour you while the years measure

Their passage. Black cattle will bow their necks, goddess,

As your chosen sacrifice, and Vulcan’s flame sprinkled

With fresh milk will consume the lustral entrails. Hail,

Ancient promise of the tripods, and the darkened caves!

Fortune, I have snared the gods.’ So he spoke, clasping

Both by the hand and leading them to the inner halls

Of the palace. Flames still flickered amongst the grey ash

Of the dormant altars, their heat yet warming the sacrificial

Offerings. He commanded the fires relit, the recent rites

Renewed, and rival servants ran in haste to obey his word.

The royal hall hums with varied action. Some there adorn

The couches with fine-woven purples, rustling gold-thread,

Piling cushions high, others polish the circular tables, set

Them in place. Yet others try to banish night’s dark shades,

Raising lamps on gilded chains. To some falls the roasting

On spits of the raw flesh of slaughtered beasts, to others

The heaping high of baskets with corn ground by the mill.

Adrastus is pleased with his busy and obedient household.

Now he gleams himself, propped high on proud silken cloth,

On his ivory throne. There too the young guests recline,

Their wounds washed and dried, and gazing at each other’s

Bruised and battered faces, mutually forgive. Then the aged

King sent for Acaste (his daughters’ nurse, their faithful

Guardian, chosen to protect that modesty reserved for lawful

Love) and the long-lived monarch whispers in her listening ear.

BkI:533-595 Adrastus tells of the daughter of Crotopus (Psamathe)

She was not slow to obey, and his two daughters swiftly

Left the inner chambers: lovely to behold, their faces

Were equal to those of armed Pallas, and Diana of the bow,

Except that they inspired no terror. They saw the faces then

Of men new to their modest eyes. Both pallor and blushes

Showed on their noble cheeks, and their glances ashamed

Returned to their venerable father. When all had satisfied

Their appetites with the banquet, the scion of Iasus, called,

As was his custom, for the servants to bring the bowl bright

With gold, fashioned in relief, from which Danaus and old

Phoroneus were accustomed to pour libations to the gods.

Its surface was chased with sculpted figures: Perseus, born

Of the shower of gold, bore Medusa’s severed snaky head,

And almost seemed leaping still into the passing breeze,

While her heavy eyes and dulled countenance seemed yet

To grow pale in the life-like gold. There Ganymede too,

The Phrygian hunter, was raised aloft in the eagle’s claws,

Gargara sinking behind, Troy receding, as he rose higher;

While his hounds tire their jaws in vain, barking at clouds,

And leaping at shadows. Adrastus, poured streams of wine

From this cup, invoking the gods in turn, Apollo above all.

His crowd of servants and companions adorned with chaste

Laurel gave praise together summoning Phoebus to the altar,

For whom this festal day is celebrated, for whom there glow

The re-kindled fires, with lavish incense, on the smoking altars.

‘Perhaps, young men’, said the king, ‘you are curious to know

Why we perform these rites, why we grant the highest honour

To Apollo? Religion persuades us to it, and not without reason.

Tested of old by grievous affliction, so the people of Argos

Now make sacrifice. Listen to me, and I will unfold the tale:

Apollo had killed the Python, engendered by Earth, the dark

Monster with its writhing coils that had smothered Delphi

Within those seven black folds, scoring the ancient oak-trees

With its scales, striking it as it lay by the Castalian spring,

Its triple-forked tongue seeking water to feed its dark venom,

The god making many wounds with his weapons, finally,

Leaving the monster spread over a hundred acres of Cirrha’s

Plain, when seeking to expiate that recent slaying he came

Beneath the modest roof of our own Crotopus. In his house

He had a daughter, scarce out of childhood, an inviolate

Virgin of wondrous beauty. Better if she had never shared

Delian mischief, Phoebus’ secret love! For, by the waters

Of the Inachus, Nemea’s river, she was taken by the god,

And when Cynthia showed her full face for the tenth time

She gave birth to a child, destined to be Latona’s grandson.

Fearing punishment (since her father would have shown no

Mercy or forgiveness, regarding that forced union) she took

To the pathless hills, and once amongst the sheepfolds secretly

Entrusted her son to a highland shepherd who might rear him.

Grassy turf was the boy’s cradle, one unworthy of his birth,

And the home that sheltered him was woven of oak branches.

His limbs were warmed by a wrapping of strawberry-tree bark,

A hollow reed lulled him to sleep, sharing earth with the sheep.

But the Fates would not concede even that. As he lay unaware

On the green turf, lips open to breathe the air, a pack of rabid

Murderous dogs tore him apart, in their blood-stained jaws.

When the evil news reached his mother, the shock drove shame;

Fear, father from her mind. She filled the house with wild cries,

And distraught, with her breasts bare, went of her own will

To that father of hers and confessed. Unmoved he commanded

(Infamously!) that she enter the darkness of death she desired.

BkI:596-672 Adrastus concludes his tale

Too late, Apollo remembered their union. To avenge her cruel

Fate, he summoned a monster begat in the Furies’ cruel den,

In the depths of Acheron; it had the face and breast of a girl;

Yet from its head rose a hissing snake, fronting the livid brow.

Moving by night, this fatal curse, slid foully into bedrooms;

Tore new-born infants from their mother’s breast; devoured

Them in blood-stained maw; fed richly on a country’s grief.

This proved too much for one Coroebus, a man noted for his

Skill and bravery in arms, who offered to lead a small chosen

Band of the hardiest youths, ready to set fame above life itself.

The monster, having plundered another home, was passing

The double gates, with the bodies of two children dangling

At her side, her claws already in their entrails, nails of iron

Hot at their tender hearts. The young hero faced her circled

By the warrior band, and buried his long blade in her breast

Of flint, sought the core of life with his glinting blade, then

Returned Pluto’s monstrous shade to him, to keep forever.

All joyed to view, close at hand, the eyes darkened in death,

The dreadful flux of its belly, and the breasts clotted thick

With the gore of our lost ones. The men were stupefied, then

After tears came great rejoicing despite their pallor. Some

Crushed the dead limbs with hardened staves (vain solace

For their sorrow) thrusting sharp stones into the eye-sockets.

Their power to do so failed to assuage their anger. Carrion

Birds flew from her unfed, circling with night-bound cries,

And the jaws of ravening dogs and fearful wolves gaped dry.

Robbed of his vengeance, Apollo waxed fiercer still against

The wretched folk, and seated amongst the topmost shades

Of twin-peaked Parnassus, the cruel god sent plague-bearing

Shafts from his angry bow, spreading a dense blanket of mist

Over the fields, and the high towers built by the Cyclopes.

Sweet lives expire. Death with his blade severs the Sisters’

Threads, and clasping the defeated city bears it to the shades.

Their lord asks why: why the endless sinister fire from heaven,

Why should Sirius now reign all year round? Apollo, the cause,

Now commanded that the young men who saw the monster die

Should be sacrificed. Happy in their courage those noble spirits:

Earning a name throughout the ages, not basely hiding their act

Of bravery, nor fearing to go to certain death. Coroebus though

Stood at the entrance to Cirrha’s temple, and faced the square,

Daring then to exacerbate the God’s anger, with his words:

‘Thymbrean Apollo, I am not here by force or in supplication.

My love of country, my clear conscience summoned me here.

Phoebus, I am the one who laid your mortal avenger low, I am

The one you seek, cruel god, with your dark clouds and murky

Light your black plague of ill omen. Though savage monsters

Be dear to the gods, though men’s lives lost to the world may be

Of less value to them, though cruel heaven thus prove merciless,

Why has all Argos deserved this? Rather, I, I alone, greatest

Of gods, should offer my life to the Fates. Or does this seem

Kinder to you, to see houses desolate and the land alight,

The men who plough it given to the flames? Why let words

Restrain your arrows and your power? The mothers wait

Expectantly, offering their prayers once more. I am content,

I have deserved no mercy from you. Stir your quiver, then,

And stretch the sounding bow; put this noble spirit to death;

Yet as I die, dispel the dark mass that hangs over Inachian

Argos.’ A just fate waits on the deserving. Leto’s fiery son

Was gripped by reluctance to kill, and yielding he granted

The hero life’s sombre beauty: then the evil mists vanished

From the sky and Coroebus left the threshold of Apollo’s

Temple exonerated by the astonished god. So every year

We perform the appointed rites at this solemn festival,

And fresh worship appeases Phoebus’ shrine. You two

Visiting this altar by chance, of what stock are you both?

Though if the cry that reached my ears just now spoke true,

One here descends from Calydonian Oeneus, and knows

The rule of Porthaon’s house. But who are you that visit

Argos, tell? Now is the moment for a wealth of words.’

BkI:673-720 Polynices declares his parentage

At this the Ismenian hero gazed with sadness at the ground,

And glancing at Tydeus on his left, after a long pause, spoke:

‘It would be better to have waited until the sacred rite was done,

Before asking about my race and country, what ancient line

I am from: it troubles me to confess it amidst the worshippers.

But if you are so eager to know this wretched man’s origin,

My ancestor is Cadmus; my land is Mars’ own Thebes;

And Jocasta is my mother. Adrastus was moved, why hide

From your host what he knows well? (He had recognised him.)

He knows, news does not fail to make its way to Mycenae.

Whoever shivers in Arctic light, or drinks from the Ganges,

Or enters Ocean dark at sunset, or finds himself stranded

By Syrtes’ uncertain shore, knows of the king, his horror,

And his eyes destroyed through shame. Do not complain,

Or take on yourself the sorrows of those who reared you.

In my race too, respect for kin often went awry, yet guilt

Is not visited on later generations. If you differ from them

You may deserve success and make amends for your race.

But now with sloping shaft the icy Wain grows fainter,

Pour wine on the altar, and let us again and then again

Sing out our prayer to Leto’s son, our parents’ saviour.

O Father Phoebus, whether in Patara’s thickets among

Snow-bound Lycian hills, or delighting to drench golden

Locks in Castalia’s chaste water, whether at Thymbra

As patron of Troy, where the tale goes you carried blocks

Of that Phrygian stone on your shoulders, without reward,

Or whether you choose to favour Latona’s Mount Cynthus,

Whose shadow meets the Aegean, while no longer needing

To seek for Delos, now fixed in the sea: yours is the bow

You bend against fierce enemies, yours the arrows, gifts

Of your heavenly Father, yours the ever radiant cheeks;

You have skill to read the threads the Parcae spin, the fate

Beyond, and great Jove’s resolves – what plagues or wars

The year will bring to men, what kingdoms comets topple:

You conquered Phrygian Marsyas with the lyre; you spread

Earthborn Tityos over Stygian sands to your mother’s honour;

Green Python and Theban Niobe shuddered to know the fall

Of your arrows; and for you alone Megaera the grim avenger

Presses food on starving Phlegyas, where he lies beneath

Echoing cliffs, urging him, as his table companion, to eat

Unholy meats, while nausea counteracts his eternal hunger:

Oh, come, be mindful of our hospitality, and grant your love

And favour to Juno’s fields, whether it is right for us to call

You roseate Titan as the Achaemenians do; or, it may be,

Osiris bringer of fertile crops; or Mithras twisting the horns

Of some reluctant bull, in the depths of a stony Persian cave.’


End of Book I