Publius Papinius Statius

Thebaid

Book II

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


BkII:1-70 Mercury returns with Laius’ shade

Meanwhile Mercury, Maia’s winged son, had returned

From the chill shades, as mighty Jove had commanded;

Heavy cloud on all sides denied him passage, torpid air

Enveloped him; no zephyr sped him on his way, only

The foul breath of that silent country. Here Styx circled

In its nine folds, there blazing torrents blocked his path.

After him trailed old Laius’ trembling shade, slowed

Still by his wound. The impious blade with like stroke

Had transfixed his body, to the hilt, and driven home

The Furies’ primal wrath. Yet on he went, his steps

Steadied by the healing wand. Then the sterile groves

The phantom-haunted fields, the sombre forest stood

Amazed; Earth herself wondered at opening upwards;

And even the dead without light showed the livid hue

Of envy. One especially whose twisted purpose it had

Ever been in the upper world (thus his life ended ill)

To insult the wretched and gripe at prosperity, cried:

‘Go then, fortunate man, for whatever use you may

Be summoned. Whether Jupiter commands it, or some

Great Fury forces you to the light, or some priestess

Of Thessaly in her frenzy makes you quit your secret

Sepulchre, go, view the sweet sky and the sun you

Left behind, and the green earth, and oh, the rivers’

Pure springs, yet you will be all the sadder entering

These shadows once again.’ Cerberus saw them, too,

Where he lay on the dark threshold, and reared his

Snarling heads. Fierce to the crowd that passes in,

His black neck was already swelling with menace,

Already he pawed at the bones littering the ground,

But the god soothed his bristling with Lethe’s wand,

And closed his adamantine eyes in triple slumber.

There is a place (that the people of Inachus named

Taenarus) where foaming Malea’s dread promontory

Rises into the air; no gaze finds its summit, standing

High and serene, looking down on wind and rain;

And only the weary stars make it their station. Yet

The exhausted winds have their sleeping quarters

There, and there too are the paths of the lightning.

Dense clouds guard the mountain’s middle-slopes,

While no sound of wings reaches the highest; no

Hoarse thunder rumbles. But when the sun is low,

Its vast shadow sends long fingers over the waters,

And swims on the abyss. Deep in the inner bay,

Taenarus bends its lofty shores, where the billows

Dare not break. There Neptune harbours his steeds

Wearied by the Aegean waves; their hooves paw

The sands, their fish-like tails merge with the water.

In this place, they say, a winding path leads pale

Ghosts to black Pluto’s great halls enriched by death.

If the Laconian farmers speak true, screams are heard,

The groans of those who are punished, and the land

Is awake with dark tumult; often the stir and voices

Of the Furies sound in broad daylight, and Cerberus

The tri-formed keeper of the dead, heard by the farmers,

Drives them from the fields. This was the way by which

The god, cloaked in dark shadow, reached the upper world,

And shaking the subterranean mist from his face, cleared

His form with draughts of fresh air. Towards Arcturus,

Under the full and silent moon, he passed among fields

And races. Sleep, driving Night’s horses, met him there

And turning aside from heaven’s direct course he rose

Hastily to honour the deity. Laius’ shade flew on below

The god, viewing the stars he had lost, and his homeland.

Now he gazes on Cirrha’s heights, and Phocis tainted

By his burial. They came to Thebes and he groaned,

At his son’s threshold, loath to enter that familiar place.

And when he saw his own blood-stained chariot, its shaft

Resting against the tall pillars, he almost turned away,

In confusion; nor was it Jove the Thunderer’s command

That held him back, but the power of the Arcadian wand.

BkII:71-133 Laius’ shade appears to Eteocles in sleep

By chance, it was the day of Jove’s famous lightning-bolt

When his abrupt rescue of you, tender Bacchus, joined you

To him. That gave the Tyrian colonists a reason to prolong

A sleepless night in festive rivalry. In fields and houses,

Everywhere, among the empty wine-bowls and garlands,

They exhaled the breathy wine-god. There many a pipe

Of boxwood and many a cymbal sounded above the beat

Of the bull-hide drums. Cithaeron itself drove sane-minded

Mothers through the wild woods in a kindlier Bacchic rite.

Such feasts do the wild Bistones gather to on Rhodope,

Or in Ossa’s vales; and to them a half-dead sheep, meat

Snatched from the lion’s jaws, and blood mixed with fresh

Milk is a luxury; while if ever the fierce odour of Ogygian

Wine breathes on them they love to scatter wine-cups

And stones and, after spilling a friend’s innocent blood,

To start the day once more, and reload the festive tables.

Such was the eve when, from the silent air, swift-flying

Mercury glided to Eteocles’ bed. The Echionian king

Had laid his huge frame on a tall mattress, his limbs

Resting on heaped Assyrian robes. Ah, mortal minds

All ignorant of their fate! Even such dine, and sleep.

Then old Laius does as he is ordered; and lest he seem

An illusory phantom of the night, he adopts the blind

Visage and voice of long-lived Tiresias, and the familiar

Fillets of wool. His hair and the white beard on his chin,

And his pallor he retained, but a headband not his own

Circled his hair, where fillets entwined with grey olive

Gracefully emerged. He seemed then to touch the breast

Of the king with a twig, and to speak these fatal words:

‘This is no time to sleep, you who embrace night’s depths,

Sluggishly; heedless of your brother. Great deeds summon

You where you lie and weighty plans. You snore, like

A steersman asleep under dark clouds, all careless of his

Sails, and sea-driven rudder, while the winds raise high

The mighty Ionian waves. Even now (so Rumour has it)

Polynices prides himself on fresh marriage, and gathers

Strength to seize the kingdom, and make you resign it,

Promising himself an old age in your palace. Adrastus,

Destined by prophecy to be his father-in-law, and Argos,

The dowry, emboldens him, while Tydeus, tainted with

A brother’s blood, is his comrade, bonded to him for life.

Leave, swollen one, and you can expect your brother’s

Long exile. Pitying from on high, the father of the gods

Himself sends me to you: Hold Thebes, drive off your kin,

As blind with desire for power he would you, let him not

Trust for long in the evil he’s begun, wishing his brother

Dead, nor allow him to foist Mycenae’s rule on Cadmus.’

He spoke, and then departed (already the steeds of light

Were putting the pale stars to flight), tearing the twigs

And fillets of wool from his hair, revealing himself to be

The king’s grandfather. Bending over his fatal grandson’s

Bed, he bared the wide wound at his throat, and drenched

The sleeper with a stream of blood. The king’s slumber

Was broken. He raised his limbs, and leapt from that

Place of horror. Shaking off the phantom flow of gore,

He shuddered to see his grandfather, and turned at once

To seek his brother. As a tigress, at the sound of the hunt,

Her stripes rippling, shakes off the depths of sleep, roars

And shows her claws and, attacking the crowd of men,

Seizes one alive in her jaws, meat for her blood-stained

Cubs, so the furious king fought with his absent brother.

BkII:134-200 Adrastus pledges his daughters in marriage

And now Aurora, the dawn, has risen from her Mygdonian

Bed, and driven the chill shadows from heaven’s heights,

Shaken the dew from her hair, blushing at the chasing sun.

From her Lucifer in reddened cloud turns his waning fires,

As he leaves the sky with slow steeds, till the fiery father

Fully shows his face, forbidding even his own sister’s rays.

Then Adrastus, Talaus’ aged son; Polynices the Dircaean

Hero; and he of Achelous, Tydeus, hastened from their beds.

Over the latter two, wearied by wind and storm, Sleep had

Poured his brimming horn, but the king’s rest was troubled

As he pondered the gods’ will and the bonds of hospitality

Newly-forged, and asked what fate the finding of these

Sons-in-law had brought him. They met in the central hall

Of the palace and clasped hands in turn, then were seated

Where private matters could be safely raised and argued.

The two were hesitant, and Adrastus spoke first: ‘Young

Nobles, whom Night has not brought here to my kingdom

Without some higher purpose, whose steps Apollo guided

To my house through lightning, rain and threatening thunder,

I think it cannot be unknown to you, as to all the Pelasgians,

That eager crowds of suitors seek my daughters in marriage;

For they, a happy pledge to me of grandchildren, are entering

Womanhood under the one star. You need no father’s word,

You could judge their grace and modesty at last night’s feast.

Men both proud of their kingdoms and their far-flung power

(The list is long of Spartan and Thessalian lords) and mothers

Throughout the towns of Achaea have marked them out, hopes

Of posterity; nor did your own Oeneus reject more suitors for

Deianira, nor Oenomaus race more to death for Hippodamia.

But it is not right for me to choose among the sons of Sparta,

Or those from Elis: my blood and the inheritance of my palace

In the due course of things are promised to you. Thanks be

To the gods, you are such in birth and mind that the prophecy

Proves welcome. These are the honours you win for passing

So harsh a night, these the prizes attendant on your quarrel.’

They listened, then for a while fixed their gaze firmly on each

Other’s faces, each seeming to yield the first word to the other.

But Tydeus, ever the bolder in action, began: ‘How niggardly

Is your mature wisdom in confessing to your fame, how well

You temper favouring Fortune with virtue! To whom does

Adrastus bow in lordship? Who does not know how, summoned

From the throne of your ancestral Sicyon, you brought order

To unruly Argos? If only kind Jupiter might grant you rule

Of all the races the Dorian Isthmus holds back, and the far

Countries beyond its boundary. The sun would not have fled

From dire Mycenae, nor vales of Elis grieved at those bitter

Chariot races, nor other Furies have pursued other kings, nor

Would all you deplore more deeply, Theban, have occurred.

As for us, we are willing, and our hearts are open.’ So spoke

The one and the other added: ‘Would not any man accept

Such a father-in-law? Exiles as we are, banished from our

Native lands, Venus has not yet brought joy, but the sorrow

Has abated in our hearts, and the pain fixed there has ceased.

This is no less a solace than the vessel finds, that driven by

The rushing gale sees friendly shores ahead. We are pleased

To follow fair omens of royalty, and spend what is left of fate

And life’s toils under your star.’ Spending no longer in speech,

They rose, and the Inachian father heaped promise on promise,

Swearing to help them both to recover their native kingdoms.

BkII:201-268 His daughters wed the heroes, Polynices and Tydeus

So, the news spread through the city: bridegrooms were there,

For the king’s daughters; peerless Argia, and Deipyle no less a

Match in beauty; that the girls mature now were ready to be wed,

And happily all prepared to rejoice. Rumour reached other cities,

Their neighbours, stirring the countryside round about, as far as

The glades of Lycaeus, past Parthenius, and to Ephyre’s fields.

That same goddess of disturbance descended on Ogygian Thebes,

Cloaked the city with her wings, frightened King Eteocles there

With echoes of night past, chanting of wedding feasts and guests,

Royal pacts and mingling of blood-lines, and then (what licence

The monster has; what madness she brings!) with sounds of war.

All Argos attended on the expected day: the royal halls were filled

With a happy crowd; close at hand they view images of ancestors,

Bronze contending with living faces. Hands have dared to create

All this! Here twin-horned Father Inachus himself sits, leaning

To his left, against his tilted urn. Old Iasus, gentle Phoroneus

There too; warlike Abas; Acrisius angry with the Thunderer;

Coroebus bearing the monster’s head on a naked sword-point,

And a likeness of Danaus, crime already present in his mind.

A thousand leaders follow. A wave of subjects murmurs there,

And flows through the noble doors, while all of the notables,

And those whose rank approaches royalty are ranked in order.

The inner halls are bright with the flames of sacrifice, noisy

With women’s cares; a band of chaste Argive ladies surround

The mother, others ring the girls, praising their new lords,

Comforting their fears. They move amongst them, splendid

Of face and dress, modesty blushing in their radiant cheeks,

Eyes downcast. The last breath of virgin love steals over them,

And the shame of first experience troubles their countenances.

Then virtuous showers wet their faces, and their tears delight

Their affectionate parents. It is as though Pallas, and Diana,

Apollo’s stern sister, both fierce in looks and weapons, blond

Hair braided, were to glide from the heavens leading their

Sacred bands, she of Aracynthus, she of Cynthus; such that

You’d never find by gazing, if that were permitted, which

Owned to richer beauty, or more grace, or greater authority;

Both such that were they to exchange dress with one another,

Pallas would adorn the quiver, and Diana the crested helm.

The sons of Inachus rivalled one another in joy, wearying

The gods with vows, worshipping in accord with their rites.

Some offered sacrificial beasts, and entrails, others, by altars

Of bare turf, invoked the gods with incense (no less heard

If their thoughts found acceptance) adorning their doorways

With gathered branches. But behold, sudden terror (so harsh

Lachesis decreed) startled their spirits; the father’s joy fled,

The day was spoiled, as they neared the threshold of virgin

Pallas’ temple, she who holds Argos’ citadel no less dear

Than Athenian heights. Here, by ancient custom when ripe

For marriage, the chaste daughters of Iasus would dedicate

Their virgin tresses, in propitiation of the wedding couch.

As they reached the lofty citadel, a bronze shield, the spoil

Of Arcadian Euhippus, fell to the steps from the tall summit

Of the shrine, striking down the bridal torches at the head

Of the procession, quenching their flames; then, as they

Hesitated to step forward, they were frightened by the blare

Of a mighty horn from the temple’s depths. Scarce crediting

Their hearing, all turn towards the king at the first alarm:

The dire omens of things to come, move them all, filled

With fear and murmuring. No wonder though, for Argia

Wears a fatal ornament, her husband’s present, the luckless

Necklace of Harmonia. Long, the well-known tale of woe

Which I will tell, by which the gift acquired its cruel power.

BkII:269-305 The necklace of Harmonia

Vulcan, so they say, made it for Harmonia, a gift to adorn

Her wedding day, for he had long resented Mars’ furtive

Pleasures, while punishment had failed to prevent adultery

Detected, even the vengeful chains powerless to restrain.

The Cyclopes, though their skills were in more massive

Work, laboured on it, and the Telchines, famed in crafts,

Lent zealous hands. But he himself sweated most of all.

He set a ring of emeralds, florescent with secret fires,

Around its adamant forged with ill-omened shapes,

With Gorgon’s eyes; ash from a lightning-bolt’s remains,

Dross of a Sicilian anvil; shiny crests from green snakes’

Heads; and there a weeping shoot of the Hesperides, with

The fatal gold of the Golden Fleece. With these he mingled

Various ills, a lock snatched from Tisiphone’s black tresses,

And the most harmful powers that Venus’ girdle granted;

These he smeared cunningly with lunar foam, and over

The whole spread bright poisons. Neither Pasithea, first

Of the charming Graces, nor Cupid, the Idalian boy, had

Shaped it, but Grief, Anger, Sorrow, and Strife set there

The whole force of their hands. It first wrought its ill

When Harmonia’s cries turned to a serpent’s hiss and she

And Cadmus furrowed Illyria’s plains with prostrate forms,

And trailing bodies. Then daring Semele had scarce hung

The baneful gift at her neck, when Juno disguised crossed

The threshold. They say you too, unhappy Jocasta, owned

That lovely curse. With its glory you enhanced your looks,

To light, ah, such a marriage bed! Many another followed.

Eriphyle, wife of the doomed seer Amphiaraus, viewed it,

And at every banquet and altar nursed fierce secret envy:

If only she might one day make that cruel trinket her own.

Alas, the attendant auguries failed to warn. Oh, the grief

She prayed for, the tragedy she desired, impious woman!

She earned her own: yet a wretched husband’s embraces

Betrayed, a guiltless son’s insanity – were those deserved?

Now Argia shone with the gift, out-gleaming her sister’s

Lesser gems with its greater splendour of accursed gold.

BkII:306-362 Polynices desires to rule in Thebes

After twelve days the royal banquets and the people’s

Celebrations ended. Now the Ismenian hero turned his

Gaze towards Thebes, seeking to rule his own kingdom.

He thought of the day when fate favoured his brother,

When he stood in the Echionian palace a mere subject:

When he saw the gods had spurned him, friends lost

In fearful confusion. None stood with him, Fortune

Had fled. Only Antigone, his sister, wished to travel

With the exile on his sorrowful way, and even she

He left on the threshold, his vast anger stifling tears.

Night and day he listed those whom he saw delighted

At his leaving, those especially who courted the evil

King, and those few who shed a tear for the fugitive.

Then grief consumed his spirit, and a maddened rage,

And hope that, long deferred, proves heaviest of cares.

This cloud of thoughts circling in his mind, he planned

Now to journey to Thebes, Dirce, the halls of Cadmus

He was denied. Like a bull, leader of the herd, exiled

From his beloved valleys, driven from his customary

Pastures by some victor, and forced to live far from

His stolen heifers, one who when his power returns

Sets his mighty neck muscles straining, breaks oak

Trees with his chest, and so longs, stronger than ever

In hoof and horn, to fight to reclaim his meadows,

And herd, that the victor fears his return, and all

The herdsmen, amazed, scarcely know him: thus,

And not otherwise does the young Teumesian hero

Sharpen his anger in his silent heart. His loyal wife,

Sensed his private urge to be gone. Lying on their bed

Clasping him, in the first pale light of dawn, she cried:

‘Deceiver, what is it, what journey are you plotting?

Nothing escapes a lover. I feel the piercing sighs, your

Sleepless cares, you who never slumber peacefully.

How often when I touch you, I find your face is wet

With tears and your breast alive with dark anxieties!

The severing of our bond, our marriage, a widowed

Youth are not the worst, though our love is yet new,

And our bed has not yet cooled from our sacrament:

It is your safety, my beloved, I freely confess: that

Torments me. Will you go unarmed and friendless

To win a kingdom? Will you have the power to quit

Thebes if he refuse? And Rumour, that’s ever-skilful

At unmasking kings, reports him as vain, arrogant,

Proud of his spoils, set against you: his year not done.

Prophecies alarm me now, the entrails that convey

The gods’ menaces, gliding birds, troubled visions

In the dark, and Juno who (as I remember) never

Has deceived me, comes to me in the dead of night.

Why go unless some guilty passion draws you, or

Have you a finer father-in-law in Thebes?’ At this,

The young Echionian gave a laugh, and soothed

His wife’s tender sorrow with an embrace, planting

Timely kisses on her mournful eyes, and quenching

Her tears: ‘Let your heart be free of fear; have faith,

A peaceful day of speeches will greet the deserving.

Anxieties yet greater than your years do not suit you.

Let Jupiter determine our fate that day, and Justice,

If she chooses to turn her eyes toward us from heaven,

And defend what is right on earth: perhaps the day

Will come when you’ll see the walls of your husband’s

City, and walk there as the queen of both our realms.’

BkII:363-409 Tydeus goes to Thebes as emissary

Such his words, then swiftly he left the dear threshold.

He spoke, sadly, to Tydeus, companion in his actions,

And faithful sharer of his cares (so strong was the love

That bound them after their quarrel) and to Adrastus.

The discussion was lengthy, debating many options,

All finally agreeing on the best: to test his brother’s

Good faith first, requesting the safe transfer of power.

Brave Tydeus volunteered for the task, though Deipyle

His wife tried hard to restrain this boldest of Aetolians.

Yet her father’s word, and an emissary’s assurance

Of safe return, and her sister’s rightful prayers prevailed.

Now Tydeus took the rough tracks by woods and shore:

Where Lerna’s marshes lie, the scorched Hydra yet

Warmed in their guilty depths; through Nemea where

Fearful shepherds, still afraid of lions, sound no flutes;

By Corinth whose flank slopes towards the easterlies,

And Sisyphus’ harbour Cenchrea and Palaemon’s

Lechaeum separate those breakers angered by land.

From there he passed by Megara, and left, by gentle

Eleusis, and now trod Boeotian fields and entered

Agenor’s Thebes. Beneath its towers he found harsh

Eteocles enthroned on high, fenced with sharp lances.

Though the lawful period of his reign was now done,

The fierce King governed the people, not his brother.

He sat, happy to commit any crime, yet complaining

That no claim had yet been made against the promise.

Tydeus presented himself (an olive branch declared

The emissary) and on request announced his name

And purpose. Forthright as he was, and always prone

To anger, his words were a mix of the just and severe:

‘If plain good faith and respect for the pledge you gave

Were yet yours, it were better if you had sent envoys

To your brother now your year has passed; laid your

Honours aside as agreed; renounced authority readily;

So that after his wanderings amongst strange cities,

His undeserved suffering, he might reign here at last,

As he desires. But since the love of kingship is sweet,

And power seduces I am here to make demand of you.

Already the swift globe has spun on its axis, already

The vanished shadows have returned to the mountains,

While your brother, a penniless exile, was enduring

Sad hours in unknown places. Now is the time for you

To suffer daylight under an open sky, feel earth’s chill

In your limbs, and kneel humbly beside foreign hearths.

Put an end to happiness. Rich in purple, conspicuous

With gold, you have mocked your poor brother’s lean

Years long enough. I counsel you to unlearn the joys

Of kingship and in patient exile to merit your return.’

BkII:410-481 Eteocles refuses to stand down

He spoke, and Eteocles’ hot heart roared in his silent

Breast, just as a snake, long thirsting in its hollow pit,

Rears, angered by a cast stone, weaves its whole body,

And summons its venom into its scaly neck and jaws:

‘Were I at all unsure, before, of my brother’s enmity;

If his secret hatred was at all obscure; this alone would

Provide the proof. How wildly you threaten, in his name,

As though the enemy’s sappers were already undermining

Our walled palisades while trumpets called the squadrons

To assault! If you’d spoken your message among Bistones,

Or the Geloni pale under the northern sun, your eloquence

Could scarce have been less, nor you the less attentive to

Impartial justice. Yet I’ll not accuse you of any madness.

You’ve executed your commission. Now since all you say

Is full of menace and, hand on hilt, you demand the throne,

Devoid of good faith, and peaceful offers, take this reply

To the Argive king, words not equal to yours in harshness:

‘The sceptre that a just fate, and the honour due my years

Pronounce mine, I hold and long will hold: to you belongs

Kingship by marriage, gifted to you by your Inachian bride.

Let Danae’s gold accumulate (why should I desire a greater

Realm?) Rule Argos and Lerna, under happy auspices: I

Will rule Dirce’s rough pastures and the shores Euboea’s

Waves confine, not afraid to call poor Oedipus my father:

Yours is nobility writ large (Pelops and Tantalus your

Ancestors) allied now more closely still to Jupiter’s line.

Would your queen, accustomed to her father’s fine house

Suffer this as her home, where our sisters would of right

Spin threads of anxiety for her, or our mother dishevelled

From long mourning, or that accursed king audible

Maybe in the depths of darkness, would offend her?

The people’s hearts by now are accustomed to my yoke:

I bear the shame, alas, for commoners and nobles both.

Must they suffer uncertainty and change of rule so often

That they groan; grudging obedience to a dubious claimant?

A brief reign is unsparing of a nation. Witness the dread,

Witness the dismay the citizens show at our arrangement.

Shall I abandon all those whom you are sure to punish?

Brother, you send in anger. Even if I were willing, if I read

Affection where gratitude is due, the noblemen will not

Allow me to desert the throne.’ Tydeus no longer bore it,

And in the midst of these final words, replied: ‘You shall,’

And again, ‘You shall; though ramparts of adamant ring

You round or Amphion sound another tune and build triple

Walls for you, neither the blade nor fire shall protect you

From punishment for your actions: you will die beneath

Our swords, striking the earth wearing the crown you stole.

Such you deserve; but, good king, I pity all those lives you

Hold cheap, sending them to death in bitter battle, snatching

Them from their wives and children. What corpses will roll

Amongst those blood-stained waters, Cithaeron and Ismenos!

This then is brotherly love, this your great loyalty! Nor do I

Wonder at the crimes of your race: such was the author

Of your being, such your father’s impure marriage; and yet

Origins deceive us: you alone are true heir of Oedipus. Such,

You man of violence, is the reward you shall reap for your

Action and your sin. We demand our year of rule. But I delay.’

This he shouted, boldly, turning from the threshold, then ran

Headlong between the astounded ranks. So Diana’s avenging

Boar, in his bristling pride, hurls lightning from tusked jaws

While the Pelopean hunters pressing hard roll rocks in his path

And shattered trees from Achelous’ broken shores: first he

Hurls Telamon to the ground, now fells Ixion, then turns

On Meleager: there at last he halts at a spear-thrust, freeing

The blade caught in his straining shoulder. So the Calydonian

Hero, Tydeus, quitting the shuddering council grinds his jaws,

As though it were he himself who were denied the throne.

He hurries on his way, hurls aside the peace-offering of olive

Branches, while from the thresholds of their houses women

Watch amazed, and hurl curses at the fierce son of Oeneus,

And in the depths of their hearts at the stubborn king as well.

BkII:482-526 Eteocles prepares an ambush for Tydeus

Nor was the king idle, never free of wicked plans and vile

Treachery. He tempted loyal youths, chosen for battle skills,

First with ardent words and then with gold, and proposed

A vicious nocturnal ambush, eager to kill this emissary,

(A role sacred to all throughout history) with hidden blade.

What does kingship not hold cheap? What stratagems

Would he not devise if Fortune delivered him his brother?

O, blind counsels of the wicked! O crime, ever the coward!

A crowd of men sworn to arms, enough to assault a camp

Or shatter the high walls of a city with steady blows from

A battering ram, seek to take a single life. In close order,

Fifty warriors pour from the tall gate. So much for courage!

Glory to you who are thought worthy of such weapons!

A short cut leads through the trees. They hurry forward

On a secret track through the dense forest, saving time.

They choose a fitting site for ambush, far from the city,

Where a tortuous pass is hemmed in by hills, shrouded

By shade from the heights above, leafy wooded ridges

Curving inwards (Nature had made the place for crime,

The darkness aiding concealment.) A rough and narrow

Path pierced the cliffs, below a plain and a broad stretch

Of sloping meadows. Opposite was a dark ledge, home

To the Sphinx. Here the savage creature once waited,

Lifting pale cheeks, and eyes filled with putrid matter,

Feathers clotted with vile gore, standing on human limbs,

Pressing half-chewed bones to her naked breasts, viewing

The plain with wavering gaze, watching for some stranger

Who might dare to meet the challenge of enigmatic words,

And have commerce with her evil tongue. Then, quickly

Sharpening her extended nails, her livid hands, her teeth

Bared to wound, with frightful wings she would flap

Against the traveller’s face. Her riddle went unsolved,

Until Oedipus (a monster like herself, alas!) trapped her;

And subdued, her wings trailing, she dashed her foul

Form against the rocks below. The woods revealed their

Horror; cattle feared the nearby meadows, and hungry

Flocks shunned the tainted grass. The Dryad choruses

Dislike its shade unfitted to the rites of Fauns; even

The carrion birds flee the monstrous grove. There,

With muffled steps, the fatal band arrive, and leaning

On their spears, their shields grounded, wait for their

Proud enemy, ringing the wood with a circle of guards.

BkII:527-612 Tydeus faces his attackers

Night had begun to cloak Phoebus with her dewy mantle

And had cast her dusky shadows over earth, when nearing

The woods Tydeus saw, from a high hill, the reddish gleam

Of soldiers’ shields and crested helms, where branches left

Openings in the trees and, in the shadows opposite, tremors

Of flickering moonlight strayed over their bronze armour.

Shocked by the sight, he still went forward, merely gripping

His bristling spears and sheathed sword’s hilt more tightly.

Then, free of base fear, he challenged first: ‘Where do you

Hail from, men, with hidden weapons?’ No voice answered,

And the suspicious silence stirred mistrust of their intent.

Behold, Cthonius, their trusty leader hurled a spear that flew

Through the darkened air, from his huge arm; but Fortune

And the god deflected its flight. Still it struck the expanse

Of black, bristling Olenian boar-hide over his left shoulder,

Close to the flesh, the headless shaft scratching at his throat.

Then his hair stood on end, and the blood froze at his heart.

Fiercely, he shouts at them, angered in mind, face pale with

Fury (not dreaming the size of the enemy force): ‘Come out,

Face me here on the open field! What, scared to try? Such

Cowards then? Alone, I challenge you to fight, a man alone.’

At this they rush him, he sees more men than he had thought

Run from countless hiding places, some from the ridge, some

Adding to them from the valley’s depths, many from the plain,

The whole path gleaming with weapons, as wild beasts raised

By the hunt reveal themselves at a cry. Oppressed, one path

Lay clear; he headed for the vile Sphinx’s steep cliff: rasping

His clutching hands on the sheer crag he climbed the harsh

Heights, and gained a rock safe from danger behind while

The risky path lay below. From the cliff he prised a huge

Boulder, one that bullocks straining fully at the yoke would

Scarce have torn from the ground to bring it within a wall;

Then he raised it with all his strength, balancing the mighty

Mass on high, like great-hearted Pholus, the Centaur, lifting

An empty mixing bowl to fling it at his Lapith adversaries.

Stupefied, the men below on the fatal track saw him there.

He hurled the rock, and its downfall overwhelmed them:

Heads, hands, weapons, with shattered breasts and armour

Were crushed beneath. Four men groaned there, smashed

To a common pulp. Now the terrified band relinquished

The attack since those who had fallen were noted warriors:

Dorylas the lightning-bolt, a king among men for his fiery

Courage; Theron, scion of Mars, trusting in his earthborn

Ancestry; Halys, a horseman second to none (foot-soldier

Now and dead on the ground); and Phaedimus, of the line

Of Pentheus, a race Bacchus had not yet forgiven. The men,

Appalled by their sudden end, broke their ranks in confusion.

Seeing this, Tydeus hurled two javelins he had carried in his

Hands and then set against the cliff at his fleeing enemies.

Then he freely chose to leap down, and snatch up the shield

He had seen thrown aside when Theron was crushed, so as

To protect his naked chest against weapons. Head and back

Guarded by its familiar presence, defending his front

With that enemy shield, he took his stand. Once again

The sons of Ogygus closed their ranks and stood firm.

Tydeus swiftly draws his Bistonian sword, great Oeneus’

Gift of Mars, and facing this group and that on every side

Shakes off the gleaming iron shafts. Their numbers impede

Them, shields caught together, their blows without force,

Striking at their own comrades, lurching about entangled

In the mass, while Tydeus waits for each attack, offering

A slim target to the spears, impregnable. So giant Briareus

If we can believe it, in Thracian Phlegra, took up arms

Against the gods, scorning Apollo’s bow on the one side,

And frowning Pallas’ serpents on the other; here Mars’

Thessalian pine tipped with a blade, there lightning bolt

On lightning bolt to weary the Cyclopes; attacked in vain

By all the Olympians, not all his hundred hands employed.

Such was Tydeus’ ardour, thrusting his shield to and fro,

Retiring, and circling the spot, then bearing down on his

Trembling enemies, plucking out the many javelins stuck

Quivering in his shield, to re-arm himself. Often he felt

Sharp blows, but none reached the life within, none could

Hope to kill. He himself whirls raging Deilochus round,

And calls Phegus, who threatens him with his raised axe,

To go join Deilochus among the shades, and likewise

Dircaean Gyas, and Echionian Lycophontes. Till, in fear,

They search and call the roll, their appetite for slaughter

Diminished, grieved at the thinning of their dense ranks.

BkII:613-681 He completes the slaughter

Behold Chromis, descendant of Cadmus (Chromis whom

Phoenician Dryope carried in her womb, and gave life to

When, suddenly caught up in the dancing, she forgot her

Burden, so that as she dragged a bull by the horn, for your

Sake Bacchus, her contractions began with the strain of it,

And the child was born). Brave Chromis, clad in the skin

Of a slain lion, grasping his spears, brandishing a knotted

Club of pine-wood, berated them thus: ‘Shall one man,

One man alone, return to Argos, warriors, in triumph at

The numbers he has killed? They will scarce believe it

When he reports. Alas, friends, are our hands and weapons

Useless? Cydon, Lampus is this the promise that we gave

The king? Yet as he shouted to them, a Theban javelin,

Plucked from the shield, entered his open mouth, pierced

His throat. His voice failed, the severed tongue gushed

Blood. Still he stood, until death seized his limbs, then

Fell to the ground, collapsing silently, biting on the spear.

You too, the sons of Thespius, why should I deny you

Your fame and honour? Periphas (none more renowned

For his natural gifts and love of kin) one of the two, raised

His dying brother from the earth, cradling the drooping

Head with his left arm, his brother’s body with the right.

Grief strained the armour none too large for his sorrow,

His helmet-straps barely held a helm drenched in tears.

Yet, as he groaned deeply, a heavy spear from behind

Shattered his rib-cage at a thrust, and pierced his own

Brother’s chest, its shaft pinning both of them together.

The brother gazed, eyes still alight with life, then seeing

His dying brother, closed them. Yet his spirit was not yet

Flown, and life hovering despite the wound, he cried:

‘Enemy, may your sons deal you such an embrace, such

Kisses.’ So they were doomed alike to die, and answering

Their sad prayer to die together, sealed each other’s eyes.

At once Tydeus drove the terrified Menoetes before him,

On shield and spear, till retreating, hastily, the Theban

Stumbling in panic, tripped on the rough ground and fell.

Hands spread wide in entreaty, he pushed the thrusting

Blade from his throat: ‘By those shadows and the stars

That glide across them, by the gods and this your night,

Let me carry the sad news to Thebes, sing your praises

Before the trembling people, in contempt of their king;

So may our weapons fall idle, the iron fail to pierce your

Flesh, and you return victorious as your friend desires.’

With unchanging expression, Tydeus replied thus: ‘You

Shed your tears in vain; you too, if I mistake not, swore

To bring your unjust king my head. Now say farewell

To conflict and the light. Why seek to live a coward’s

Life? War abides.’ At this the spear, withdrawn, was

Wet with blood. Angered, he pursued his beaten foes

With bitter words: ‘This night sees no return of your

Triennial ancestral rite: here are no Cadmean orgies,

Here are no women intent on Bacchic desecration.

Think you those are the skins of fawns and frail wands

You bear, joining lascivious dances to unwarlike song,

To the sound of Marsyas’ pipe that real men know not?

To the shades with you, O band of cowards! So Tydeus

Roared, but his limbs began to fail him, and the blood

Throbbed wearily in his breast. Now his hand was lifted

In febrile blows, his steps slowed, the hand behind his

Shield-boss no longer raised the shield weighted with

Spears, a cold rain fell from his panting chest, his hair

And burning face were dewed with blood, all the foul

Spray from the dying. He was like a lion that chasing

The shepherd from the fields, gorging on Numidian

Sheep, its hunger sated in bloody slaughter, its mane

And neck weighed with gore, stands among the dead,

Gaping with sickness, filled with the meat, its fury lost

Till now it merely snarls, with empty jaws, at thin air,

And licks away soft wool with its protruding tongue.

BkII:682-743 He pays homage to Pallas Athene

Sated with spoils and slaughter, Tydeus would have

Entered Thebes to show himself to the people and

Their king, in triumph, if you Pallas had not deigned

To counsel him, afire and filled with the fog of battle

As he was: ‘Scion of proud Oeneus’ race, to whom

I have just granted victory over neighbouring Thebes,

Have done: do not test the patience of the generous

Gods. Ask only that this exploit finds credence; you

Have chanced Fortune far enough. Now, go.’ One

Unwilling survivor of the sad slaughter remained,

Maeon, son of Haemon, outlived his friends, having

Foreseen it all, since he was skilled in reading omens

From the flight of birds; nor had he failed to warn

The king, but Fate ensured that he was not believed.

The wretch was doomed to an unprofitable life. He

It was to whom Tydeus gave a pitiful task; ‘Whoever

You may be of Aonia’s sons, you, who by my grace

Survive the slaughter to see tomorrow’s sun, I order

You to take your lord this message: ‘Build ramparts

Round your gates, sharpen up your weapons, inspect

That ring of walls time has weakened, but above all

Pack them tightly with men; add to your dense ranks.

Behold this place stained far and wide by my sword:

So we will come at you, in war.’ Having spoken, he

Readied himself to pay due homage to Pallas, with

The blood-stained spoils. Joyfully he gathered arms

From the ground and viewed the results of his deeds.

An oak stood there, its tender youth long forgotten,

On a mound in the midst of the plain, vigorous still

And tough, with thick bark, and curving branches.

He brought dented helms and fastened them there;

Shields too scored with gashes, fixing there swords

Shattered by blows, spears drawn from dead limbs.

Then standing by the bodies and a pile of weapons,

He began, while the long night-bound ridge echoed

His words: ‘Oh, glory and spirit of your great father,

Fierce goddess, mighty in war, on whose fair head,

In fearful beauty, sits the grim helm; at whose breast

The blood-spattered Gorgon glares (nor could Mars

Nor Bellona armed with spear for battle raise more

Fiery trumpet blasts), show favour to these honours,

Whether you come from Pandion’s Athenian citadel

To see this slaughter, or turn aside from Aonian Itone,

Lover of the dance, or comb your hair bathed in Libya’s

Lake Tritonis, to which, at your call, your pair of virgin

Mares bear you, drawing your chariot on swift wheels:

To you I dedicate the shattered spoils, and shapeless

Trophies of these warriors. But if I should reach my

Native Calydonian lands again, and Aetolian Pleuron

Open her gates at my return, I shall dedicate a golden

Shrine to you on the city’s heights where it may be

Sweet to you to gaze on Ionian storms, where wild

Achelous raises the waves with his yellow head,

Leaving the Echinades, behind him, in his wake.

There I shall portray ancestral battles and the dread

Visages of great-hearted kings, and there I shall fix

Weapons to high walls, weapons I have gathered

Won by my efforts, and those that you, Tritonia,

Will grant when Thebes is taken. There a hundred

Calydonian maidens, vowed to serve your virgin

Altars, will duly wind purple ribbons striped with

White about the Attic torches made of your chaste

Olive-tree. And an aged priestess shall feed your

Eternal flame, your arcane image never to be seen.

In war or peace, by custom, you shall then receive

First fruits, nor shall Diana resent her loss of them.’

He spoke then took again the road to sweet Argos.


End of Book II