Publius Papinius Statius

Thebaid

Book III

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


BkIII:1-52 Maeon returns to Thebes

But the treacherous king in his Aonian palace finds no rest

In the perilous night, even though the dew-wet stars must

Journey long until the dawn. Anxiety keeps vigil in his

Mind, and exacts punishment for the crime he planned,

While fear, the worst of prophets in time of doubt, broods

Over many things. ‘Alas,’ he cries, ‘why all this delay?

(Since he had thought it an easy task and Tydeus no great

Challenge to such a force, not rating courage and spirit

Against large numbers.) ‘Did they miss him on the road?

Was help sent him from Argos? Has rumour of the plot

Spread to neighbouring cities? Did I choose too small

A force, great Mars, or are they weaklings? Yet brave

Chromis is there, and Dorylas, the scions of Thespius

Like two great turrets; they could raze all Argos at my

Order. Nor it seems to me is he impervious to weapons,

His limbs are scarcely made of bronze or adamant. Oh,

Cowards, if combat was joined, to struggle helplessly

Against one man!’ So he agonises, stirred by conflicting

Doubts, blaming himself above all for not striking down

The emissary as he spoke in the assembly, so sating his

Foul anger openly. Now he feels ashamed of his actions,

And regrets them. Like the master of a Calabrian vessel

In Ionian waters (no stranger to the sea but deceived, by

Capella the Olenian star’s clear rising, into leaving fair

Harbour) when a sudden crack of thunder echoes loud

Through the firmament and Orion bends the sky lower;

Who longs to be ashore, and struggles to reverse course,

But is driven on by a mighty gale astern, and forgetting

His skill groans and blindly goes where the sea takes him:

Thus Etoecles, the Agenorean king, berated Lucifer for

Dawdling, dawn for rising too slowly for anxious men.

Behold, as Night retreated and her chariot withdrew,

As the stars sank, while great Tethys urged on the Sun

Who lingered in eastern waters, the massy depths were

Stirred, a sign of grievous trouble, and the earth shook;

Mount Cithaeron moved, loosening its ancient snows.

The rooftops were seen to rise, the seven gates seemed

Level with the mountain ridge. The cause was apparent.

Maeon, Haemon’s son had returned in the chill dawn,

Angered by Fate, grieving that death was denied him.

His expression was not yet visible, but at a distance

He gave signs of great disaster, beating at his chest

And groaning: as for his tears he had shed them all.

So a herdsman, his cattle slaughtered in the night

By wolves after a sudden gale, when the wild horns

Of a winter moon have driven them into the woods,

Who, at dawn, finds the carnage there before his eyes,

In plain view, and fears to tell his master, face to face,

Of the tragedy, covering his head with dust, fills all

The fields with his lament, calling to the long ranks

Of lost bulls, hating the silence of their empty stall.

BkIII:53-113 Maeon commits suicide

When the women gathered at the threshold of the gate

Saw him alone (the horror!) no band of brave warriors

Round him, frightened to question him, they raised a cry

Like that last clamour when a city falls, or a ship sinks.

As soon as he was granted the audience he desired, he

Spoke to the hateful king: ‘Fierce Tydeus spared you this

One wretched life of our great company. It was decreed

By the gods perhaps, or Fortune, or, though pride hates

To confess it, his invincible might. I who report it to you

Scarce believe it; all are fallen, all. Night’s wandering

Planets I call as witnesses; my comrades’ shades; the evil

Omen of this earthquake at my return: that I won this cruel

Favour, this gift of shameful life, by no tears or cunning:

But the gods’ decree, inflexible Atropos, and a prophecy

Long ago that such fate would be denied me, averted death.

Now, that you may see my heart clings not to life, unafraid

Of the final hour, I say to you: ‘Murderer, you’ve launched

An unholy war, oblivious to the omens, proud to abolish

Rule of law, and reign while your brother’s doomed to exile.

A host of orphans, lost families, will haunt you with endless

Lament – and fifty ghosts will fly about you bringing fell

Terror by night and day, for I linger not.’ Though the fierce

King was already moved to anger, his scowling face suffused

With blood; though Phlegyas, and Labdacus a man not slow

To mischief (these the king’s bodyguards) prepared to drive

Maeon out by force, anticipating the king’s command, he,

The great-hearted seer had already bared his sword, and now,

Gazing at the blade, and then the tyrant’s fierce visage: cried:

‘You shall never have me in your power, nor strike the breast

That great Tydeus left unwounded. I go with joy, reach for

The death that was snatched from me, borne to my friends’

Shades that await my coming. You, I leave to your brother,

And the gods – ’ the sword he plunged deep in his side cut

Short his speech. He doubled over, fighting against the pain,

Straining against the mighty wound; then fell, and the blood

Gushed from mouth and flank with his last sobbing breaths.

The nobles were startled, the anxious councillors murmured.

Maeon’s loyal wife and parents, the joy at his return so soon

Lost, carried his corpse home, its face grim, rigid with death

Achieved. But the infamous king’s wild anger was unsated;

He forbade the funeral fires, and impiously, though in vain,

Sought to deny the oblivious shade the quiet of the tomb.

And you, Maeon, splendid in spirit and destiny, never to be

Forgotten (as is fitting), who dared to challenge a king face

To face, and sanctify the path to wider freedom: what song,

Prophet beloved by the gods, what speech of mine suffices

To enhance the glory you deserve? Not in vain did Apollo

Teach you celestial wisdom; judge you worthy of his laurel:

Dodona, mother of sacred groves, and the Delphic oracle,

(Apollo silent)) are pleased to keep the nations in suspense.

Now you too, go, make your way through Elysian fields

Far from Tartarean Avernus, where the realm lies closed

To Ogygian shades, where the guilty tyrant’s orders lose

Their power. Let your limbs and clothes remain untouched

By blood-stained beasts, and the woods, the sad reverence

Of the birds, keep you from harm beneath that naked sky.

BkIII:114-168 Ide mourns the sons of Thespius

Now grieving wives and children and sorrowful parents

Poured from the city to the plain, the open wilderness,

Each running, desperate to seek their own dead, in sad

Rivalry, and as they went thousands accompanied them,

Trying to bring solace; others were keen to see the scene

Of one man’s deeds, the night’s mighty action. The road

Was loud with lament, the fields resounding to their grief.

But when they came to the fatal cliffs, the accursed wood,

Their first sorrow, their tears were as nothing to the pitiful

Clamour raised by the common cry; stirred by the blood,

The crowd were driven mad. There stood dread Mourning,

Clothes torn and blood-stained, striking his breast, calling

The women near. They examine the helms of the cold dead,

Pointing out the corpses they can name, clutching prostrate

At others’ and their own. Some trail their hair in the gore,

Others close eyes and lave deep wounds with their tears,

Some draw out spears with vainly cautious hands, others

Lay severed limbs in place, and set heads on their necks.

Ide, noble mother of the Thespiadae, now of twin corpses,

Wandered through thickets, and over the wide dusty plain,

Her hair vilely erect, her nails pressed to her bruised face

(Not merely pitiable, distressed, but with terror in her tears)

Everywhere she searched among the weapons and bodies

Seeking her boys, helplessly, and bemoaning every corpse,

Trailing her grey tresses on the fatal ground. So does some

Thessalian woman, whose nation’s dark craft it is to bring

The dead to life with magic spells, visit the battlefield at

Night rejoicing in recent conflict, holding her splintered

Torch of ancient cedar-wood on high, rolling the bodies

Over in their blood, examining the dead to see which one

She might most command in the light, as the sad conclave

Of spirits moan, and dark Avernus’ lord waxes wrathful.

The sons of Thespius lay together beneath a distant rock,

Happy in that they died on the same day by the same hand,

Linked by the spear that had pierced their wounded chests.

When she found them, Ide’s tears streamed down, crying:

‘Children, shall a mother endure to see such an embrace,

Such kisses? Was cruel death to join you in this way,

At the end? What wound shall I press, what face shall I

Stroke first? Are these a mother’s strength, a womb’s fate,

Through whom I thought to reach the gods and outdo all

Ogygian parents in my glory? How much happier with

Their lot, more sweetly wed, are those whose beds are

Barren, whose house Lucina, summoned by childbirth,

Never sees! My labour pains are now a cause of sorrow.

Not in the thick of battle, famous for your fate, your

Daring actions, destined to live in the memory of nations,

Did you find these wounds, a grieving mother laments;

You died an obscure death, amongst the crowd, alas,

Lying unnoticed, amongst the gore, none to praise you.

No, I dare not part your hands locked in this sad embrace,

And break the union of such a passing. Go, ever brothers,

Un-dissevered by the final pyre, mingle ashes in the urn.’

BkIII:169-217 Aletes condemns the king’s actions

No less lament arose from Cthonius’ wife; from Pentheus’

Mother Astyoche; as they realised the extent of the carnage.

Your children, Phaedimus, mere lads, learned of the loss

Of their father. Marpessa bathed the corpse of Phylleus,

Her betrothed; Acamas’ sisters washed his blood-stained

Body. Then they took an axe to the ancient trees, clearing

The summit of the nearby hill that overlooked the night’s

Work, and echoed to the moans; there, in front of the flames,

As they refused to be called away from their individual pyres,

Aged Aletes solaced the ill-starred gathering with his words:

‘Often our people has suffered misfortune, tested by various

Twists of fate, ever since the stranger from Sidon, Cadmus,

Sowed warriors’ seed in Aonian furrows, from which those

Armed men rose, such that the farmers feared their fields.

But the lament was no greater than this when the ancient

Theban palace of Cadmus sank to ash at a lightning-stroke,

Cruel Juno so decreeing; nor when wretched Athamas with

Funereal dirge came down from the trembling mountain,

Carrying half-dead Learchus, and cried, alas, with insane joy!

Nor did our Phoenician houses ring more loudly when weary

Agave, recovered from her madness, was frightened to see

Her companions’ tears. One fatal day alone was like to this,

Equally calamitous, the day when Niobe, Tantalus’ daughter,

Paid for her proud boast and, encompassed by her total ruin,

Raised all those corpses from the ground to seek the pyre.

Such was the people’s mourning then, when young and old,

With a long file of women, reproaching the gods with cries

Of pity, bore a pair of corpses from each of the seven gates.

I remember how I myself (though not old enough to assist)

Wept none the less, equalled my parents’ grief with my own.

Yet those actions were the work of deities. I could no more

Lament, Diana, that Actaeon’s Molossian hounds destroyed

Their master, he profaning your chaste pool, sacrilegiously

Spying on you or, Bacchus, that royal Dirce became a pool,

Her blood suddenly transformed; for the Sisters had spun

That cruel thread, as Jove saw. But now it is by the work

Of an evil king that so many of the finest of our countrymen,

Of our innocent citizens, are dead. The news of the broken

Pact has not yet reached Argos and already we grieve for

What the worst of war will do. How men and horses will

Sweat in the mud and dust! Oh, how deeply will the rivers

Be cruelly stained with blood! Let war be the work of youth,

Green to battle, as for me let my pyre be lit while it may, let

Me be covered with my ancestral earth!’ So the aged man

Cried out, heaping reproaches on Eteocles, calling him

Cruel; an abomination: sure to pay dearly for his crimes.

Where did such licence come from? His last day was near,

His life was done; he sought honour in death long-delayed.

BkIII:218-259 Jupiter sends Mars to rouse Argos to war

The lord of the stars watching the blood-drenched citizens,

Meanwhile, from the heights of the world, ordered Mars

To be swiftly summoned. He had been ravaging the wild

Bistones, wreaking havoc in the Getic townships, and now

Was urging his chariot on to the heavenly citadel, vaunting

His splendid helm with its lightning-bolt crest, the shield

Of sombre gold alive with the fearful shapes of monsters.

His thunderous wheels sound in the sky while his shield

Blazes blood-red, its disc rivalling that of the distant sun.

When Jupiter saw him, still panting from his Sarmatian

Labours, his chest coated with the storm of war, he cried:

‘My son, get you to Argos, as you are; go with a dripping

Blade, in a cloud of anger. Let them discard constricting

Reins, and hating all, longing for you, rush to dedicate

Hands and lives away: spur the tardy, wreck the treaties:

We charge you with this, lawfully to set the celestial host

Themselves alight with war, and shatter my peace. I too

Have already sown the seeds of conflict. Tydeus returns

With news of wicked ambush, a royal crime, and so

A shameful provocation to war: stealth and treachery he

Avenged with his own weapons. Make sure he’s believed.

As for you, O deities, my bloodline, do not dispute in hate,

Nor try to tempt me with rival entreaties. Fate, the dark

Distaff of the Sisters, assures me: this day was doomed

To war from the creation of the world, these nations born

To fight each other. And should you disapprove my

Seeking retribution from these people for evils past,

And to punish their sinful offspring, I swear by this

Eternal citadel, the sanctuary of my thoughts, and those

Rivers of the underworld, that I too hold sacred, that I,

With my own hands will seize the walls of Thebes; then

Raze them to their foundations, snatching up her towers

And hurling them from on high onto Inachian rooftops,

Or sending rain to sweep them into the cerulean deep,

Though Juno herself should labour to protect her hills

And temples in the whirlwind.’ He finished speaking,

And they, so amazed at his decree you’d have declared

Them mortal, kept silence and controlled their thoughts,

As the winds hold their peace, when the sea grows calm,

And the shoreline stretches out in a tranquil slumber,

While idle summer soothes the clouds and forest-leaves,

The gale being done; and all the marshes and sounding

Lakes subside, and the sun-scorched rivers flow silently.

BkIII:260-323 Venus confronts Mars

Mars, proud of his task, and still aflame in his burning

Chariot, tugged the reins leftwards. He had just reached

His journey’s end, plunging from the sky, when Venus

Took her stand fearlessly there before his horses. They

Reared back, their rigid manes subsiding in supplication.

Then leaning against the top of the shaft, her tearful face

Averted, while the horses bowed their heads and champed

The foaming bit before their mistress’ feet, she spoke out:

‘O finest of fathers, war against Thebes, is it war you plan,

The destruction of your own descendants? Harmonia’s race,

And the union we celebrated in heaven, and these my tears,

Do they not deter you, madman? Is this the reward for my

Shame? Is this what my lost name and honour, and Lemnos’

Net of chain deserve from you? Go your way, freely, yet

Elsewhere Vulcan defers to me, and my wronged husband

Though angered, serves me yet. If I ordered him to sweat

For me, spending sleepless nights at his everlasting forge,

He would be pleased and toil at new weapons, even for you.

But you – I seek to move stone, a heart of bronze, with my

Requests. Yet regarding this alone I entreat you, simply this:

Why did you have me wed my dear daughter, Harmonia,

To a Tyrian husband, those fatal nuptials, boasting that

Tyrians of Cadmus’ serpent-blood, a race descending

From the line of Jove, would be renowned in battle, their

Hearts eager for action? How I wish the girl had married

Beyond Thrace and Boreas, beneath the Sithonian Bear!

Was it not shame enough that Venus’ daughter slithers

Across the ground, shedding venom over Illyrian turf?

Yet now an innocent people –’ Here the lord of war

Could stand her tears no longer. Switching his spear

To his left hand he leapt from his tall chariot in a trice,

Clasping her to his shield, bruising her in his grip.

Then with fond words he attempted to soothe her.

‘O my solace after war, my sacred delight, my soul’s

Only peace, you alone of the deities have the power

To face my weapons without harm, to stand before

These steeds though they neigh amongst the slaughter,

And snatch this sword from my hand. I do not forget

That marriage of Sidonian Cadmus, nor your loyalty

(Seek no pleasure in false reproaches!): I’d sooner,

God though I am, be plunged in my uncle’s infernal

Deeps, and be led helpless among the pallid shades.

Yet, charged with carrying out the Fates’ warnings,

And the supreme father’s will (since Vulcan is no fit

Choice for the task) how can I oppose Jove or flout

His decree? Even now I saw the earth, sky and sea

Tremble at his words (what power!) and saw the ranks

Of deities cowed. But, have no fear, love, in the end

Since no power can prevent it, I will be there when

Those two nations battle beneath the walls of Thebes,

To aid them, allied in arms. Through blood-drenched

Fields you’ll see me seal the Argives doom, nor will I

Disappoint you. It is my right, the Fates agree.’ So he

Spoke, and drove his fiery horses forth. No swifter does

Jove’s wrath strike the earth, when he stands on snowy

Thracian Othrys, or Thessalian Ossa’s chill northern peak

Among the clouds, the lightning in his hand. The blazing

Bolt, with triple tail, leaps down, bearing the god’s fierce

Message, scaring the heavens, to send an omen to rich

Fields, or drown the wretched mariners in the waves.

BkIII:324-393 Tydeus returns to Argos

Now Tydeus completes his journey, and fearful to behold

Traverses with tired steps the Danaan fields, and the slopes

Of green Prosymna. His hair thick with dust, sweat flowing

From his soiled shoulders over his deep wounds, eyes red

And inflamed through lack of sleep, rabid thirst parches his

Throat, yet his mind, conscious of his deeds, fills with glory.

So a warring bull returns to his pasture, neck and shoulders

Drenched with blood, his rival’s and his own, his dewlaps torn,

Yet wearied, his courage is yet high, and he still paces proudly,

Scorning the ground, while his foe lies on bare earth, groaning

In shame, trying to deny the raw pain he is feeling. Such was

Tydeus, nor had he failed to stir the cities along his way, all

That lie between Boeotia’s river Asopus, and ancient Argos,

Relating the tale everywhere, time and time again, of how he

Had gone as an emissary from the Greeks to seek the realm

Of exiled Polynices, but met with violence, treachery, crime

In the night; that was how the Echionian king kept his oath.

The brother was denied his rights. All were swift to credit it.

The god, lord of war, had persuaded them to believe his tale,

And Rumour had increased their fear, once it was admitted.

Entering the gates, suddenly, as venerable Adrastus chanced

To be holding council, he shouted at the very palace doors:

‘Warriors, to arms, to arms! And you, the great lord of Lerna,

If the blood of your brave ancestors runs in your veins, take

Up your weapons! The love of kin is dead, the nations know

Neither justice nor morality nor do they pay heed to Jupiter.

Better if I had been sent as envoy to the wild Sarmatians or

To King Amycus, the cruel keeper of the Bebrycian forest.

Not that I complain at my mission, or the orders I received:

I am glad I went myself, and put guilty Thebes to the test.

They waged war against me, if you would believe it, war,

As if I were a mighty tower or walled town: warriors chosen

To set an ambush, and carrying every kind of weapon, and I,

Defenceless: they attacked at night with cunning, but in vain:

Now they lie drenched in their own blood, by a desolate city.

Now, O now is the time to for action, while they’re troubled,

Pale with fright, while they are retrieving their dead. Now,

My father, now I would seek to go, while they remember

The weight of my hand, though I myself am wearied after

Making ghosts of those fifty warriors, and though I still bear

These wounds caked and foul with blood!’ The Argives,

Troubled in their turn, leapt from their seats, Polynices,

The Cadmean hero above all, his gaze anguished, cried:

‘Hated by the gods, a victim of life, as I am, can I view

Your wounds and feel content? O, my brother, was such

The homecoming you planned for me? Was it towards me

Those weapons were pointed? O shameful longing for life!

Unhappily, it is I who thwart my brother from committing

The crime he planned! Let your walls, at least, my friends,

Know peace and quiet. I must not prove a cause of trouble

To you. I am but a guest. I know (good fortune has not made

Me so unaware) how sad it is to be torn from wife, children,

And fatherland: so, let no man blame me for his family’s ills;

No angry mother look at me askance. I will go freely to my

Death, though the best of wives, and her father, restrain me

As he did once before. I owe a life to Thebes; to you, brother;

And to you great Tydeus.’ So with a flurry of words he tries

Their hearts, and aims his entreaty. His distress rouses anger,

And hot tears of indignation. There is but one thought in all,

In those chilled with sluggish age, not merely in the young,

That they must leave their homes behind bereft; summon

The neighbouring forces; and march at once. But Adrastus,

The king, profoundly wise, and no novice to the exercise

Of power said: ‘Leave it to the gods and my consideration,

I beg you. Your brother shall not wield the sceptre blithely,

But nor are we desirous of war. Yet, let us welcome Tydeus,

Oeneus’ noble son, triumphant after such mighty bloodshed,

Let rest refresh his brave spirit; anger must not act unwisely.’

BkIII:394-459 Adrastus and the seers seek omens

At that, his pale bride and troubled comrades gathered round

Tydeus, who was weary from the fighting and his journey.

He was content to stand in the hall’s depths, leaning his back

On a huge pillar, while Epidaurian Idmon (quick with a blade,

Gentle with compounds of warm herbs) bathed his wounds.

Caught up in his memories, he recounted again the origins

Of the dispute, what each man had said, the place of ambush,

The moment of furtive combat, the opposition, their names

And fame, the toughest duels, and how he spared Maeon

To carry the dread news. The loyal band of men, the nobles,

His father-in-law, were astounded, and Polynices smouldered.

Now the setting Sun had set free his fiery steeds by the curving

Rim of the western sea, and was bathing his red hair in Ocean’s

Stream. Nereus’ attendants thronged towards him from the deep,

With the swift-running Hours. They took the reins, relieved him

Of the mass of his golden crown, freed his chest of the burning

Leather straps, then they let out his faithful horses to their soft

Pasture, while the chariot was reversed with its pole in the air.

Night fell, stilling the cares of men, the movement of creatures,

Wrapping the sky in a mantle of darkness, sweet to all but you,

Adrastus, and Polynices. As for Tydeus, generous sleep had

Enfolded him in mighty dreams of valour. Now armed Mars

Among night-wandering shadows, strikes Arcadia’s borders,

Nemea’s fields, the peak of Taenarus and Apollo’s Therapne

With his thunderous weapons, and fills their troubled hearts

With longing for him. Madness and Anger adorn his crest,

Panic, armour-bearer, gives rein to the steeds, and Rumour,

Alert to every noise, surrounded by false tidings of conflict,

Flies before his chariot, driven by the horses’ panting breath,

Beating her restless wings, with a deep murmuring sound,

Urged on with blood-stained whip by the charioteer, to cry

False news and true, while the god from his high chariot

Spurs her forward, his Scythian lance at her head and back.

Even as Neptune, master of the Winds, drives them outward

From the Aetolian cave, and urges them freely over the wide

Aegean, a sombre company roars about Mars’ reins as he goes:

Gales and dark Storms, dense Clouds, and black Tempests,

Tearing at Earth’s foundations: shaken to their roots, trembling,

The Cyclades withstand them, while Delos fears to be parted

From Myconos and Gyaros, calling for help to her foster-child.

Now a seventh dawn’s blushing face brings bright day to gods

And men, as aged Adrastus leaves his inner sanctum, anxious,

Troubled in mind regarding war and his ambitious sons-in-law,

Uncertain whether to let weapons hold sway; let nations stir;

Or to rein-in anger and clamp loosened swords in their sheaths.

On the one hand he favours peace and tranquility, on the other

Inglorious quietude seems shameful, while men’s new found

Longing for battle is hard to quench. He ponders long: at last,

One thought commends itself, to consult prophetic minds,

And perform the sacred rites that forecast truly. To you,

Wise Amphiaraus, and Melampus son of Amythaus (older

But young in spirit, and blessed with Phoebus’ gift) is given

The task of reading the future. It is hard to say which seer

Apollo favours more, which is more graced by Delphi’s waters.

To begin they read the blood and entrails of sheep, seeking

The gods’ will, alarmed as discoloured hearts, veins boding

Ill, greet them. Yet they decide to go seek omens in the sky.

BkIII:460-498 They consult the flight of birds

There is a mountain whose bold ridge rises to the heavens

(The farmers of Lerna call it Aphesas) that had long been

Sacred to the Argive people. They used to say swift Perseus

Pierced the clouds there as he hovered in flight, while his

Fearful mother watched her boy’s parting steps from a crag

And almost followed. This the two seers, their sacred heads

Adorned with leaves of grey olive, brows with snow-white

Ribbons, climbed once bright sunrise melted the hard frost

On the damp fields. First Amphiaraus in customary prayer

Seeks the favour of the god: ‘Almighty Jupiter (since we

Are taught that you grant wisdom through the flight of birds,

Sending omens on swift wings, and revealing in the heavens

Prophecies and hidden causes) Delphi does not more surely

Send the divine word from its cave; nor the Chaonian leaves

Thought to produce sounds at your command in the groves

Of Epirus, while parched Ammon feels envy, and the oracle

In Lycian Patara, and Apis by the Nile, and Branchus who

Equals his father by repute, and that Pan whom farmers hear

At night in Lycaonian shadows by wave-swept Pisa, seek

To compete; than does he, more possessed in spirit, to whom

You, Dictaean Jove, reveal yourself, rousing prophetic birds.

Unknown it is why they have long possessed this wondrous

Honour; whether because the creator of the heavenly palace

Decreed it so, when he wove new beings from random chaos,

Or whether to them, who take to the air transformed, bodies

Changed from those we owned before, rarely landing here

On earth, the purer sky devoid of evil teaches truth, only you

The supreme originator of earth and gods can rightly know.

Let us learn from the sky, in advance, if Argive strife is here,

And of the toil to come. If that request is granted and the cruel

Fates decree we should rattle the gates of Thebes with Argive

Spears, show a sign, send thunder on the left; let every bird

Flying about the stars cry benign omens in harmony in their

Secret tongue. If you deny it, cause delay, and cloud the void

Of day with birds on the right.’ So he spoke, and disposed his

Limbs on a tall rock; then he added prayers to other unknown

Deities, and found delight in the darkness of the wide universe.

BkIII:499-565 The omens are revealed

Once they had apportioned the stars between them and scanned

The heavens attentively with close gaze, then Amythaon’s son

Melampus, the seer, finally spoke: ‘Amphiaraus, do you see

How under the high dome of the living sky not one bird wings

Its peaceful way, hangs wheeling in the heavens in airy course,

Or screams a benign omen as it vanishes? No raven, attendant

Of the tripod; no fiery eagle, bearer of the lightning bolt, is by;

No hooting taloned owl of fair Minerva with favourable sign.

Vultures and raptors cry from far above, plundering their prey.

Monstrous things take wing, fateful birds shriek in the clouds,

Screech owls and nocturnal horned owls wail, calling out death

And disaster. What portents of the gods should have primacy?

Lord of Thymbra, great Apollo, shall the heavens be given over

To such as these? In fury their curved talons slash away at each

Other’s heads and with flapping wings like mourners who beat

Their chests they stir the breezes, strike at their feathered breasts.’

Amphiaraus answered: ‘Revered father, I have often delivered

Omens of subtle Apollo. Even when, among the regal demigods,

Thessalian Argo, that ship of pine, carried me onwards in green

Youth, those warriors were amazed when I foresaw the dangers

Of the sea and land, and Jason consulted me as often as Mopsus,

As I told of things to come. Yet I have never seen the heavens

More prodigious of terrors: though still greater things appear.

Look upwards: innumerable swans are marshalling their ranks

In the bright regions of the deep sky, driven by Boreas perhaps

From the Thracian north, or summoned by the fertile richness

Of placid Nile. Take them as symbolising Thebes; since calm

And silent they wheel in unbroken rings as though behind walls

And ramparts. But see, a nobler flight approaches in the void.

I see seven eagles, weapon-bearers of highest Jupiter, exulting

In tawny line. Consider them the Argive royalty. They invade

The circles of the snowy flock, opening their hooked beaks

For fresh slaughter, plunging with talons drawn. Do you see

How the air drips blood as never before, how day rains feathers?

Yet what fierce anger of baleful Jove’s drives the conquerors

To sudden death? One eagle, seeking the heights, bursts into

Flame from the sun’s torch, his pride quenched; the wings

Of another, younger eagle, fail as he flies after larger birds;

One falls entangled with his prey; one turns back in flight

Leaving the ranks of his comrades to their fate; another ends

In a mass of storm-cloud; a sixth dying feeds on a living bird;

Revered Melampus, why weep covertly? I know the seventh

Who falls there.’ Terror gripped the seers, appalled by a weight

Of futurity, suffering the vision of all that would come to pass.

They wished they had not witnessed that gathering of birds,

Not forced their wish on heaven that denied them, distressed

That the gods had heard their prayer. Why did poor mortals

On this earth first nurture the ill longing to know futurity?

Shall we call it a gift of the gods! Or is it that we ourselves,

This greedy species, are never satisfied with what we have,

And must predict the birth and end of life, what the kind

Father of the gods intends, what harsh Clotho has in view?

So divination from entrails, sounds of birds in the clouds,

The movements of the stars, the footsteps of the moon,

Thessalian witchcraft. But the ancestral race of the golden

Age and the Arcadians born of rocks and trees did not so.

Their only wish was, by hand, to tame the fields and forests,

And what tomorrow might bring was sin for a man to know.

We a depraved and lamentable crew question the high gods

Deeply, hence comes fear and anger, hence comes treachery

And crime, and a host of demands, beyond all moderation.

BkIII:566-597 Argos prepares for war

Amphiaraus tore the sacred ribbons and the guilty garlands

From his head, threw away the twigs, and without honours

Descended the hateful mountain. Now with the war trumpets

To hand and distant Thebes oppressing his heart, he cannot

Stand the sight of the multitude, nor the king’s council nor

The noble gatherings, but cloistered in his dark dwelling he

Refuses to divulge the omens of the gods (Melampus clings

To the countryside from shame and anxiety): Amphiaraus

Keeps silent for twelve days raising doubts among the people

And their leaders, but then the Thunderer’s high command

Sounds out, emptying fields and ancient cities of their men.

Everywhere Mars, the god of war, drives countless columns

Before him. Men desert their homes joyfully, leaving loved

Wives and children weeping on the threshold, so strongly

Do the gods grip and inspire them. Eagerly they snatch

Weapons from their doorposts, commandeering chariots

From the shrines, refurbishing the pikes tarnished with rust,

Swords sheathed in their neglected scabbards, grinding them

To render them new again, ready to deal out cruel wounds.

Some try the fit of rounded helms, jerkins of bronze mail,

The tunics clinking with disused iron. Others bend Cretan

Bows from Gortyn. Now the ploughshares, sickles, harrows,

And curved hoes redden fiercely in the consuming furnace.

They dare to hew strong shafts from sacred wood, to cover

A shield from a slaughtered ox too old for work. Into Argos

They burst, and cried war at the doors of the sorrowful king,

War with their mouths, war at their heart. The clamour rose,

Loud as the crashing of Tyrrhenian breakers; or as the giant

Enceladus shifting from side to side, while fiery Aetna above

Thunders through its depths, the summit gushes, the straits

By Pelorus contract, and the severed lands hope to be united.

BkIII:598-677Amphiaraus counters Capaneus’ enthusiasm

Capaneus was inspired by a mighty lust for war, his swollen

Pride had long argued against the endless peace (he was noble

And of ancient blood, while he himself had outdone the finest

Deeds of his fathers. He had scorned the gods with impunity,

Restless for justice, and prodigal of life when anger prompted.)

Like a denizen of the dark woods of Pholoe, or one who might

Stand equal with Aetna’s brothers, he shouted before the doors

Of Amphiaraus’ dwelling, where a crowd of warriors with their

Leaders gathered: ‘What cowardice is this, you sons of Inachus,

And you Achaeans our allies? Must so many warriors, prepared

And armed, linger uncertain at a single citizen’s plebeian gate?

(Oh, for shame!) Were Apollo himself (so cowards and Rumour

Have it, whoever speaks!) to bellow in frenzy, deep in his cave,

Under Delphi’s hollow peak, I’d not wait for the pallid priestess

To announce her fearful and enigmatic prophecies. Courage is

My god, and the sword I hold. Now let this priest with his holy

Deceptions appear, or I’ll test this mighty power of birds today.’

The Achaean warriors shouted joyfully and added their assent

To his madness. Forced at length to show himself, Amphiaraus

Cried: ‘I am not drawn from darkness by a young blasphemer’s

Reckless cries, or those words; wild though his threats may be.

A storm of other cares assails me. My last day will be subject

To another fate, my death will not be due to mortal weapons.

Yet my love for you and all-too-powerful Phoebus urge me on

To speak my knowledge. I will lay bare to you what lies beyond,

What things will come. As for you, madman, no warning will

Serve, for you alone our lord Apollo is silent. Wretched men,

Why rush to arms when the Fates and the gods above oppose it?

What Fury’s whip lashes you in your blindness? Are you so

Tired of life? Do you hate Argos so? Is home not sweet? Care

You not for omens? Why did you urge me climb with trembling

Steps to the arcane summit of Perseus’ mountain and interrupt

The council of the gods? I might have remained in ignorance

Like you as to the outcome of the conflict, the days of darkness,

The fate that begins here to unravel for all of you, and for me.

I summon as witness the secret places of the universe that I

Have questioned, the cries of birds, and you lord of Thymbra,

Never before so harsh in your reply, to the omens that I saw.

I witnessed portents of great disaster, terror for men and gods,

The Fury Megaera’s laughter, and Lachesis, snapping the rotten

Threads of generations. Hurl down your weapons. See, the god

Opposes your frenzy! Behold the god! Wretches, what glory

Is there in heaping Aonia, Cadmus’ fatal fields, with your

Defeated corpses? But why do I vainly prophesy? Why warn

Of certain fate? I go.’ The priest groaned, his lips now sealed.

Capaneus responded to him: ‘Let these ravings augur, only

That you, yourself, shall live empty and inglorious years,

And Etruscan clangour never echo round your brow. Why

Quench the better hopes of the brave? Is it simply so you

May keep your foolish birds, son, house, and a marriage bed

Where you lie fast asleep, that we must leave noble Tydeus

Un-avenged, all silent as to his wounds and the broken pact?

If you’d forbid these Greeks to wage savage war, then go

Yourself as emissary to our Theban enemies. Those ribbons

Will guarantee your safety. In short, your speech plucks

Pretexts, some darkened pattern of action, from thin air!

The gods are wretched indeed if they pay heed to chants

And human prayers. Why put fear into unknowing minds?

Fear first made the gods of this world. For now let this

Raving go unpunished. But when, from our helms, we drink

Dirce’s waters, and those of Ismenos, to the trumpet’s cry,

I warn you: do not try to stop me then, while I long for

Weapons and the sound of war, delaying battle with your

Birds and entrails. Those fragile ribbons and the madness

Of your dread Apollo will not help you then: There I shall

Be augur, and all who are ready to rave in battle with me.’

Again the mighty roar of the warriors thundered out, rising

In vast tumult to the stars. It flowed like the swift torrent,

Set loose by the mountains now freed of their winter cold

By spring breezes, that rushes across the plain, and leaps

Vain obstructions in its course: fields, cattle, houses drown

In the cross-currents, until the ungovernable tide is halted

By a steep hill slope, or comes to rest among vast ramparts.

But now night intervened to interrupt this leaders’ quarrel.

BkIII:678-721 Argia, Polynices’ wife, urges war

Now Argia could no longer endure her husband’s anguish;

Her troubled heart both sharing in and pitying his distress.

Unadorned, she ran to her revered father’s high palace, her

Beauty marred by the marks of tears on her face, hair torn,

Carrying little Thessander in her arms, to his beloved sire,

As night gave way to fresh light, and only the Ploughman

And his Wain remained to eye the stars sinking into Ocean.

Entering, she threw herself down before her royal father:

‘Father, even were I slow to tell you, you surely know why

I visit your house at night in tearful supplication, without my

Sorrowful husband. Yet I call on the sacred laws of marriage

As witness, and yourself, father, sleepless suffering demands

This, not he. For since Hymen and favourless Juno first raised

Ill-omened torches the pain and torment at my side has stolen

My rest. Were I a dreadful tigress, or possessed a heart harder

Than the sea-cliffs, still I could not bear it. You alone can help;

Yours the great power to heal. Let there be war, father; view

The thwarted fate of your exiled son-in-law, and this his child,

Who would feel ashamed some day of his birth. Oh, where is

The welcome you first showed, hands clasped, and the gods as

Witness? Surely Polynices is that man of fate Apollo foretold?

I burned no guilty torch of love, warmed by no stolen flame;

Your revered order, your counsel I cared for. But now how

Cruel were I to despise the plaintive cries of the wretched!

Father, you know not the feelings of a chaste and loving wife

Married to a grieving husband. Now in sorrow I ask a sombre

Joyless favour that brings with it fear and grief, though

When the sad day comes that severs our embraces, when

The trumpets sound their harsh signal to the departing host,

When the cruel metal hides your faces, then dear father,

Perhaps I shall demand its opposite.’ He, accepting tearful

Kisses from her lips, answered: ‘Daughter, I could never

Criticise such sorrow, set fear aside; your request deserves

Praise, it is worthy to be considered, but the gods (no, no,

Do not relinquish hope for what you urge!) and my qualms,

And the varying duties of kingship must give me thought.

What ought to be shall be, child, nor shall you complain

That you wept to no purpose. Comfort your husband, let

This just delay seem no harsh loss: with great preparations

One moves slowly, child. It will benefit the war.’ He speaks,

While dawning light gives warning, great cares bid him rise.


End of Book III