Publius Papinius Statius

Thebaid

Book XI

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


BkXI:1-56 The Thebans counter-attack

Once the fury of mighty Capaneus’ outrageous daring

Had faded, and he had exhaled the flames within him,

(Thebes’ wall branded by the track of vengeful lightning

That accompanied his fall from the battlements) Jupiter,

Victorious, calmed the shaken regions with his right hand,

And, with a look, restored the skies above, and the light.

The gods praised him as though he came breathless from

Battling the giants at Phlegra, and heaping Aetna above

Scorched Enceladus. Capaneus’ corpse, grim of aspect,

Still grasping fragments of the shattered tower, lay there,

Bequeathing to the nations the memory of his deeds, not

Unappreciated by Jupiter himself. The outstretched body

Bulked as large as that of the violator of Apollo’s mother,

Tityos, in Avernus, where even the vultures shudder as

They retreat from the cavities of his chest, viewing that

Prostrate giant’s limbs, his wretched entrails regenerating

To nourish them once more. So Capaneus, flung to earth,

Burdened the foreign field he scorched, the soil exhaling

Sulphur from the sky. Thebes breathed again, the bowed

Masses in the temples rose. Mothers dared to release their

Children from their arms, as the prayers and the despairing

Lamentations ceased. But the Achaeans sped over the plain

In scattered flight, fearing not merely the enemy squadrons

Or mortal blades, but the wrath of Jupiter still before their

Eyes, their armour burning them, and their helmets ringing,

With every pang of fear. In their terror, Jove himself seemed

To pursue them, and block their escape route with his flames.

The Theban army pressed on behind, taking advantage of that

Sky-born tumult. So growling bears, eager wolves approach,

After a lion in Massylian fields has rent the untamed leaders

Of the herd with his mighty jaws; the scavengers with lesser

Rage that come to feed on another creature’s prey. Eurymedon

On one flank, urged them on, wild and bristling in his armour,

Rough-cut javelins in his hand, his nature to stir trouble (Pan

Was his father); on the other flank young Alatreus, his deeds

More powerful than his years suggested, matching his youthful

Father; both joyful but the begetter happier, nor was it possible

To say whose weapons rang louder; who threw the swifter spear.

The ramparts of the Argive camp were crowded with a dense

Swarm of fugitives. Mars, your transformations! The Pelasgi

Who had lately scaled Thebes’ wall, now defended their own;

So clouds retreat, so crops bow this way and that as the south

Wind veers, so with white foam the tide now veils now bares

The thirsting sands. Tyrinthians died far and wide, who copy

The accoutrements of their nursling god; while that fierce son

Of Amphitryon, their Hercules, grieved as he watched among

The stars at Nemean hides, clubs, quivers, drenched in blood.

On the iron-clad top of an Argive tower stood Enyeus, adept

At urging men on with the trumpet to martial action. But now

He was sounding the retreat for those in trouble, urging their

Flight, giving the direction of the camp. Suddenly a missile

Descending caught him aslant, and passed through his hand

And his left ear as he blew. Now, his spirit fled to the empty

Breeze, his mouth cold and silent; the last note echoing alone.

BkXI:57-135 Tisiphone rouses her sister Megaera

Then Tisiphone, revelling in evil, exercised by the blood of both

Peoples, sought to end the war by a duel between the brothers.

Yet she doubted herself adequate to such a conflict unless she

Roused Megaera, with her kindred snakes, from the infernal deep,

To act as her companion in war. So she took herself to a secluded

Valley, and dug at the soil with her Stygian blade, and murmured

The name of her absent sister, and (sure signal to the Elysian realm)

Raised a horned serpent from her hair to utter a lengthy hiss. He was

The king of her dusky tresses, and when earth, sea and sky heard

Him they shuddered, and Jove again looked towards Aetna’s fires.

Megaera, who was standing beside Dis while Capaneus, bathing his

Noble shade in the stream of Styx, was lauded by the assembled host,

Heard the sound. Bursting the earth apart, the dead rejoicing, she stood

At once, beneath the stars; and while the blackness below grew lighter,

So the daylight above waned. Her dark sister, with a clasp of the hand,

Welcomed her, saying: ‘Alone on earth, facing a hostile world, Sister,

I have executed our Stygian Father’s dread commands, and endured

The frenzy imposed, while you others hold Elysium and the compliant

Shades in check; nor have my labours been in vain: nor my spoils here

Shameful. That all this plain is drenched, pooled with steaming blood,

That Lethe’s bank holds a countless swarm, such is my meaning, those

The happy tokens. Why speak of it? Let Mars have them, and let Enyo

Boast of them to the world. You saw (for he was surely visible from

The Stygian shades) that general’s jaws foul with blood, face dripping

With dark gore, as he chewed insatiably on the wretched skull I gave

Him. Just now did you not hear a dreadful noise descending to your

World from the stars? That sacred thunderstorm was mine; I mingled

Among the warriors with their frenzied weapons, scorning the warring

Gods and the lightning-bolt’s mighty wrath, but now (I must confess)

My heart grows weary with long labour, Sister, my hands are slowed:

Hell’s torch of yew is dulled by the light; unwonted rays of too many

Stars make my serpents drowsy. Join forces with me, you whose fury

Is still intense, whose joyous tresses wave fresh from Cocytus’ fount.

We shall prepare no customary battle, no war of armies, but brothers’

Swords must be drawn in conflict, brothers’ I say (though kindly Faith,

And Piety resist us, they shall be conquered). A mighty task! Let us

Assume their hatred and their hostile weapons. Why do you delay?

Come: choose which banner you shall bear. Both ready, and ours.

Yet I fear lest the uncertain mob, a mother’s pleas, or Antigone’s

Gentleness in entreaty, retard our progress somewhat. And even he,

Who wearies us with his prayers and calls on us to avenge his lost

Sight, plays the father: he is said to weep by himself alone, apart

From all others. Indeed I myself hesitate to burst into Thebes, my

Familiar home. Make the impious exile obey you; urge on Argive

Wickedness; let mild Adrastus not prevail; and beware lest the host

Of Lerna delay. Go, and return as my enemy, in this duel of theirs.’

Such were the tasks the sisters undertook, taking their separate paths;

Just as the North wind and the South stir war from the opposite poles,

The former feeding on Rhipaean snows, the latter on Libyan sands;

And sea, rivers, sky, woods complain while disaster looms; farmers

Bemoan their losses, yet pity the sailors overwhelmed in the depths.

When Jupiter from high Olympus saw the daylight thicken, the sun’s

Trembling orb stained and spotted, he uttered a spate of grave words:

‘You gods have seen martial fury taken to the limit of what is lawful,

Or acceptable in war, though one of them chose impious means; daring,

But doomed to fall by my hand. Now a terrible duel approaches, one

Unknown before to wretched earth. Avert your eyes! Let them hide

From Jove, and attempt such things only in the gods’ absence. Enough

To have seen Tantalus’ dire banquet, Lycaon’s guilty altars, Mycenae

Hastening to shroud the sky with starry darkness. Now too day must be

Confounded. Earth, receive the clouds that veil evil, let the sky be dim;

I am resolved to spare the universe and my celestials the sight. Let not

The stars of kindly Virgo or the Twins bear witness.’ So the almighty

Father spoke, removing his gaze from the guilt-ridden fields, while

The lands beneath now missed the clear skies that were dear to them.

BkXI:136-204 Megaera spurs on Polynices

And now the virgin daughter of Erebus traced Polynices path through

The Argive army and found him at the gate itself, uncertain whether

To attempt escape by death or flight from such weighty misfortune.

The doubts in his troubled mind were fuelled by omens. Wandering

The ramparts in the depths of night, in ill thought, anxious, considering

The worst, he had seen the image of his wife Argia, lacerated, bearing

A funeral torch (the gods show us signs: so she would walk; the torch

Such as she would carry for her husband): when he asked where she

Was going, why the grief, why the emblems of mourning, she merely

Wept, and silently averted the flame. He knew the dark vision existed

Only in his mind; for how could his wife have come from Mycenae,

And be suddenly there on the rampart, but he recognised it as a fatal

Warning of his approaching death, and accepting it as such was afraid.

Yet now when the Fury out of Acheron touched his breastplate three

Times with her whip, he burned, helpless with martial ardour, eager

Not so much for the throne itself, but for fratricide, and slaughter,

For the death of a brother drenched in blood. He spoke to Adrastus,

In a moment: ‘A last survivor of the Argives and their allies, Father,

I have reflected on our present troubles. There was a time, before

Achaean blood was shed, when I might have gone forth to fight my

Own battles, and not sent out the flower of the Danaan people, nor

Sacrificed the lives of kings, nor made so many cities grieve, that I

Might place a crown upon my head. But since the moment for such

Courage has now passed let me at least make reparation according

To my deserts. Father, though you hide the wound deep, and respect

You son-in-law’s sense of honour, I am the one, exiled from throne

And country (an ill guest; would I had been inflicted on some other

City!), who when you ruled in righteous peace…yet exact punishment

Now: I challenge my brother (why shudder? It is decreed and fated.)

To mortal combat. Do not try to prevent me: you cannot. Not even

If my mother or my unfortunate sisters, dressed in mourning, were

To encumber my arms, or my father to press his blind face against

My shield, and obstruct me as I rushed out to fight, would I desist.

How can I watch these last Inachian lives be lost, or take advantage

Of your deaths? I saw the earth open and gape wide on my account,

And did not enter. I brought about Tydeus’ crime and saw him dead:

Defenceless Tegea demands her king of me, and his bereaved mother

Cries to me from some Parrhasian hollow. I failed to climb the banks

Of Ismenos while Hippomedon’s blood stained its waters; nor did I,

Scale the Theban tower with you, Capaneus, to share the lightning

And the frenzy. Was I so afraid of death? But I shall make payment,

Worthily. Let the Pelasgian wives, mothers, and aged fathers whom I

Have robbed of so much joy, and whose houses I have made desolate,

Gather together wherever they may be. I and my brother shall fight,

What more is needed? Let them watch and pray for Eteocles’ victory.

And now farewell, my wife, and farewell sweet Mycenae! May you,

Dear sire be kind to my ashes (for the blame for my ills falls not on

Me alone, the gods and the Fates must share my guilt) and after this

Battle save my body; defend it from the scavengers and my brother;

Take back my urn; and make a better marriage for your daughter;

That is all.’ They wept, as Bistonian snows melt with spring’s return,

And mighty Haemus slides and Rhodope slips into the river gorges.

The aged king tried to calm the exile’s ardour with words of gentle

Encouragement, but the blood-stained Fury cut short his words with

Fresh terrors and in the guise of Inachian Phereclus brought Polynices’

Swift charger and deadly arms, the helm shutting out well-intentioned

Speech in an instant. Then she summoned him: ‘Delay no more, make

Haste! Eteocles too, they say, advances from the gate.’ So, all-powerful

She grasped him and hurled him onto his horse. Pallid, he flew over

The open plain, and saw, all about him, the goddess’ looming shadow.

BkXI:205-256 Tisiphone re-directs Eteocles’ prayer

The Theban king was offering sacrificial thanks to Jove for the bolt

Of lightning, thinking the Danai’s power had diminished, but in vain.

Neither the heavenly Father, nor any other deity, had visited the altar,

For wicked Tisiphone was among the trembling acolytes, re-directing

His words to the lord of the underworld: ‘Greatest of gods, for Thebes

Owes her origin to you; though fierce Juno and her accursed Argos

Were envious, from the day when you scattered the Sidonian dancers

On the shore and, as seducer, uttered deceitful lowing over the calm

Waters, and deigned to bear Europa on your back. Nor is it an idle tale

That you ravished Cadmean Semele, lustily invading her Theban home;

Think yet, I ask, of your kin in marriage with gratitude, and the walls

We cherish, and as our champion wield the thunder. We saw you stir

The clouds and defend our high towers, as though your own celestial

Palace were attacked; we recognised the saving lightning-bolt with joy,

The flames our ancestors witnessed. Now receive the pick of our herd,

A votive bull, and the high-piled incense. But worthy thanks are beyond

The work of mortals. Let Hercules and our Bacchus compete in gratitude

Towards you; you preserve these walls for them.’ Thus Eteocles prayed,

But dark flames struck at his mouth and eyes, hurled the crown from his

Head and engulfed it. Then the angry bull bloodied the shrine with its

Foam before the sacrificial blow could fall, breaking from the restraining

Crowd and, in the turmoil, carrying the altar away with a frantic tossing

Of its horns. The attendants scattered; the soothsayer consoled the king.

He, sadly persistent, ordered the rite to be renewed, and then completed,

Hiding his deep-felt fear with an assumed air of confidence. So, when

Hercules felt the Oetaean shirt of flame clinging to his limbs and the fire

Deep in his bones, he still sought to offer the prayer he had commenced,

Pouring the incense; still steadfast, enduring the pain; but not long after,

A great groan was forced from him, and Nessus’ poison raged victorious

Within him. Now Aepytus, breathless with his haste, mind in confusion,

Came running with a message for the king. He had abandoned his post

By the gate, and panted out his barely intelligible words to the trembling

Monarch: ‘Leader, break off your pious worship and those ill-timed rites.

Your brother threatens the walls on horseback, attacks the barred gates,

Calling out your name, demanding to fight you alone in battle. Behind

Him his saddened comrades weep, and both armies groan as he speaks,

Clashing their arms in protest, but he still summons you, crying: “Now

Is the moment, Great Begetter of the Gods. What less does Capaneus

Deserve?”’ In turmoil, the king shuddered with profound hatred; yet

Rejoiced despite his anger. Thus when a bull, the leader of the herd

Enjoying peace, his rival exiled, hears the faintest sound of the hostile

Bellowing and recognises its menace he stands before the herd alight

With fierce wrath, breathing out his readiness in ardent foam, stabbing

The ground with his hoof, the air with his horns, until the earth quakes

And the trembling valleys, shuddering, await the onset of their duel.

BkXI:257-314 Creon berates Eteocles

The courtiers did not desert their king: ‘Let Polynices beat at the walls

In vain. Does he dare to come this far with his shattered forces?’ ‘His is

The madness of despair: seeking peril, risking danger, despising safety.’

‘Rest here, secure of your throne, we’ll repel the enemy, command us!’

So the surrounding throng but, behold, Creon, still passionately grieving,

Came ready to speak his mind, and licensed to do so by the state of war.

The father knows no peace, Menoeceus’ death chafes his heart, he still

Seeks his image, clasps him, sees the streams of blood pour from his

Breast, as he falls eternally from the cruel tower. Sensing that Eteocles

Was uncertain, hesitant, he cried: ‘You must go. Grant us reparation.

We’ll no longer be forced to endure you, worst of leaders and brothers,

King only of your subjects’ deaths and sorrows, and guilty of the Furies’

Presence and the war. We have atoned enough, before the unkind gods,

For your perjury. You have been to this city, strong in arms and riches

And thronged but now with citizens, like a plague from the sky or from

Marshy ground, and even now your shadow over-looks its emptiness.

You lack men to serve you: the earth holds them, devoid of life; their

Native river already bears them to the sea. Some lack limbs, others

Tend agonising wounds. Can you give brothers, fathers or sons back

To us wretches, return the dead to their fields and homes? Where are

Mighty Hypseus and our close-neighbour Dryas, where now are those

Men of prophetic Phocis, and the captains of Euboea? Them the equal

Chances of battle brought to death at least, while my son, (Ah, shame!)

Was made a royal sacrifice, like a dumb beast of the herd, (Woe is me!),

Sprinkled with the altar libations in unholy rite and commanded to die.

Do you hesitate yet? Summoned by the armed enemy will you now

At least, keep faith? Or does the questionable Tiresias order another

Into battle, and once more weave oracles to my sorrow? Why else is

Haemon left to me and him alone? Order him to go, while you watch

From your seat in this high tower. Why the fierce rage? Why look to

Your crowd of lackeys? They too would have you pay the penalty.

Even your mother and sisters loathe you. Ardent against you, your

Brother threatens steel and death, tearing at the barred and guarded

Gates, do you not hear?’ So Creon spoke, grinding his teeth, seething

With rage and misery. The king replied: ‘You cannot deceive me.

Your son’s glorious fate is not what moves you. Such cant and rant

Become a father, but hope lurks beneath those tears, hope and hidden

Desire. You make his death a pretext for your mad ambition, urging

Me on, as one does who is next in succession to the vacant throne.

But Fortune will not so abandon Thebes that the sceptre falls to you,

One so undeserving of so great a son! Nor would I find it hard to take

Present vengeance. But to arms, to arms first, my men! Let brothers

Meet in battle: Creon would ease his sorrow. Let frenzy rule now:

When I am victor you will pay for all.’ So he deferred their quarrel

For a time, and sheathed the sword that anger was already thrusting

Into his hand, as a snake, disturbed at random by a shepherd, that

Coils and rises gathering the poison from its whole length into its

Jaw, yet if its enemy directs his steps away a little, and the threat

Subsides, drinks its own wrathful venom, its neck swollen in vain.

BkXI:315-353 Jocasta pleads with Eteocles, her son

But Jocasta, Eteocles’ mother, fearful, distraught, at the first rumour

Of unfolding fate (nor slow to credit it) ran, with torn hair, lacerated

Face and bare and bleeding breast, unmindful of her sex or what

Was fitting. She was like Pentheus’ mother, Agave, clambering

Madly to the summit of the mountain to bring the promised head

To cruel Bacchus. Neither her companions, nor her fond daughters

Could keep pace with her, such strength did profound misery

Grant the unhappy woman; bloodless age made wild by sorrow.

Meanwhile the king was donning his glorious helm, taking up

His fierce javelins, and examining his mount that rejoiced at

Trumpet-calls, fearless of the bugles, when suddenly his mother

Loomed before him. He and his followers turned pale with fear,

And his squire withdrew the spear he was proffering. She cried:

‘What madness is this? Why is some Fury risen again to oppress

Our kingdom? Will you yourselves stand face to face, after all?

Is it not enough to have led your respective armies up till now,

And delegated action? To what shall the victor seek to return?

To my arms? Oh, happy for once is my dire husband’s blindness!

Presumptuous eyes, you are punished, that I should see this day!

Whither cruel man do you turn your threatening gaze? Why does

Your face turn flushed and pale by turns? Why do your clenched

Teeth hold back a sinful muttering? Woe is me! You may conquer,

But first you must wield your weapons here: I will stand on the very

Threshold of the gate: an unhappy omen, a dreadful image of sin.

You must trample these white hairs, these breasts, you wicked man,

And ride your charger over your mother’s womb. Spare me; why

Thrust me from your path with hilt and shield? I took no dark

Vows to Stygian gods nor prayed to the Furies with blind speech,

Against you. Hear me! Your mother, alas, cruel man, it is who

Pleads with you, not your father. Hesitate to commit this crime,

And measure what you do. Yes your brother beats at the walls,

And stirs up impious war against you: no mother or sister stands

There to obstruct him. All things here entreat you, all here lament:

There, Adrastus can scarcely alone dissuade him from this duel;

Perhaps he even demands it; while it is from my embrace that you

Leave your gods and your ancestral threshold to fight your brother.’

BkXI:354-402 Antigone pleads with Polynices, her brother

Elsewhere Antigone sped with silent step towards the hostile

Tumult (chaste virginity not restraining her) eager to reach

The summit of the Ogygian Gate; with aged Actor at her heels,

Even though the strength to reach the very top might fail him.

She hesitated a moment gazing at such extent of military force,

Then recognised (what horror) Polynices, her brother, crying

Aloud in his pride as he attacked the city. At once her lament

Filled the air around, and she called to him loudly, making as

If to hurl herself from the walls: ‘Brother, hold your fire, look

To this tower a moment, turn your brave helm towards my eyes!

Are they your enemies? Is it thus we should invoke the annual

Pact; ensure good faith? Are these eyes a motive for complaint?

Is this a humble exile’s fine cause? By your Argive home (since

You no longer care for your Theban one) if in this place any are

Still dear to you, then I beg you, my brother, quench your pride.

See: two armies, and a host of others on both sides, beseech you.

Your Antigone loyal to her suffering own, suspected by the king,

Sister to you alone, pleads with you, oh hard heart! At least leave

Off your frowning looks. Let me know that face I love, perhaps

For the last time, and find my lament may move you. Our mother

Already sways Eteocles with her tearful pleas, and they say he will

Sheath his drawn sword. Are you still resolute for me? For me who

Night and day lament your exile and your wanderings, who often

Calmed our father’s growing anger against you? Why acquit your

Brother by a crime? Was it not he who broke the covenant agreed,

Broke faith; is it not he, the guilty one, who is cruel towards his kin?

Yet behold, though challenged, he does not appear.’ At these words,

His anger slowly began to weaken, though the Fury opposed such

In words and action: already his grasp slackened, the reins loosened,

He fell silent; then his groans erupted, his helm confessed his tears;

Wrath abated, and he felt ashamed either to appear guilty or depart;

When suddenly Tisiphone opposed the mother and drove Eteocles

Through the shattered gates. He cried: ‘I come, envying you in one

Thing alone, that yours was the first challenge. Do not cavil at this

Delay, our mother held firmly to my arm. Now my country, land

Unsure of your rightful king, oh now you must belong to the victor!’

Polynices was no less strident. ‘You savage, will you learn finally

What good faith means, meeting me on level terms? Now, for the first

Time in a good while, fight against me, my brother; such is the only

Ground; the only pact that remains.’ So he spoke, eyeing his brother

With hostile intent. For in his heart’s depths he chafed at the king’s

Endless retinue, his royal helm and purple-clothed mount, his shield

Glittering with gold, even though he himself was scarcely ill-dressed

And shone in no common cloak; Argia herself had fashioned his in

Maeonian style, her skilful fingers stitching gold thread to the purple.

BkXI:403-446 Adrastus tries to intervene in the conflict

Now prompted by the Furies, the brothers went out into the dusty plain,

Each with his dark companion to goad and guide him. The Furies it was

Who held the reins, adorning trappings and glittering armour, placing

Serpents to augment the crests. Crime bound by fraternal blood stood

In the field that mighty duel born of a single womb; beneath their helms

Twin faces gazed at one another. The banners trembled, the trumpets fell

Silent, the martial horns were dumb. Thrice thundered the eager king

Of the dark realms, thrice he shook the earth’s foundations, and the very

Gods of battle fled. Vanished, renowned Valour: extinguished, Bellona’s

Torches; Mars drove his fearful horses far away, merciless Minerva with

Her Gorgon breastplate stood aside; and in their place loomed the Stygian

Sisters. People crowded the open rooftops in their misery, tears falling

On all sides, and lamentation filling every height. Old men moaned that

They had lived too long, mothers stood bare-breasted telling their sons

Not to watch the fight. The lord of Tartarus himself commanded his gates

Be opened, and sent the Ogygian ghosts to view their countrymen’s foul

Deeds. Seated on their native hills, in a sad circle, they polluted daylight,

Rejoicing their own sins were now surpassed. But when Adrastus heard

That the pair (openly taunting each other) were about to fight and that

Shame no longer hindered their crime; he drove his chariot swiftly there

And set it between them. He himself was justly venerated for his years

And royalty, but what did foreign dignity mean to such as these, who

Cared not for kith and kin? Still he implored them: ‘Children of Inachus

And Thebes must we gaze on such wickedness? Where is right, where

Respect for the gods? Is this true warfare? Desist, relinquish your anger,

My enemy (though if anger could hear, you are not so distant from me

In lineage); and you, my son-in-law, I urge you too: if your desire for

A sceptre is so great, I’ll doff my regal robes, go: take Lerna and Argos

For your own!’ His persuasive words no more calmed their fiery mood,

Or altered their fixed intention, than Scythian Pontus, arched in towering

Waves, prevents the Cyaenean rocks from clashing. Seeing his prayers

Were in vain, that the chargers were galloping into battle in twin clouds

Of dust, and the maddened brothers were already fingering their javelins’

Throwing-straps, he fled, leaving all behind; the camp, and the men, his

Son-in-law and Thebes (urging Arion on, who wheeled about, warning

Of Fate) all pale as Dis, the ruler of the shades and last to inherit his

Share of the world after the adverse casting of the lots, who descended

In his chariot, entering Tartarus, with all the earth and the heavens lost.

BkXI:447-496 The goddess Piety is opposed by Tisiphone

Yet Fortune did not further the duel as yet, but delayed and retarded

The sin’s inception; lingering a while. Twice they rode to the attack

In vain, twice benign errors made the horses swerve before meeting,

And the spears fell aslant, innocent of impious blood. Both tugging

At the reins, they urged the guiltless creatures on with cruel spurs.

The armies too were troubled by this awesome and unnatural duel

Allowed by the gods. Murmurs and muttering rose from both sides.

There were frequent attempts to renew the war and, by attacking,

Obstruct with warring troops this unfortunate fight between the two.

Meanwhile Piety has been seated in a secluded region of the heavens

Discontented with earth and the companionship of the gods; and not

In her former and familiar guise with face serene, but her ribbons

Stripped from her hair and weeping over the fraternal strife, like

The anguished mother and unhappy sisters of those two combatants;

Abusing cruel Jove and the guilty Fates, threatening to leave the sky

And its light and so descend to Erebus, favouring a Stygian home:

‘Why did you create me, Primal Nature, to contend with the savage

Passions of living things and even gods? I am nothing to people now.

No reverence is shown me, anywhere. Oh, madness! Oh, mankind,

Oh, Prometheus’ dire arts! How fine it would have been if Earth had

Not been re-populated after Pyrrha! Behold this race of mortals!’

So she spoke, and sensing the moment to help had come, said: ‘Let

Me try at least, though in vain.’ She leapt down from the heavens;

Beneath the darkening clouds a snowy trail marked the goddess’

Sad footsteps. She had barely touched the plain when, in an instant,

Both armies turned mild and pacific, perceiving all the wickedness.

Then faces and breasts were wet with tears and silent terror gripped

The brothers. Bearing the likeness of weapons and fittingly dressed,

She called to men here and there: ‘Go, move, prevent them, you

Who have brothers and sons in Argos, and you with your dear ones

Here in Thebes. Can you not see that, unsought, the gods pity them?

That spears fall short; the horses baulk, Fortune herself resists this.’

She might almost have resolved their doubts, if grim Tisiphone had

Not seen through her disguise, and swifter than lightning was there

Rebuking her: ‘Sluggish deity, involved in things of peace, why

Obstruct the work of war? Be gone, shameless one! This is our day,

Our field of action. Your defence of guilty Thebes comes too late.

Where were you when Bacchus stirred contention, when his orgies

Drove armed women mad? Where were you idling when the snake

Of Mars drank of the unholy pool, when Cadmus ploughed the soil,

When the Sphinx was vanquished, when Oedipus was questioned

By his father, when Jocasta was lit by our torches to her bridal bed?’

So Tisiphone savaged her and, as Piety shrank back before her face

And withdrew her own modest countenance, she brandished her torch,

And pressed towards her, her serpents hissing, until the meek goddess

Drew her cloak over her eyes and fled, bearing her complaint to Jove.

BkXI:497-579 Eteocles and Polynices kill each other

Then indeed were men spurred on to fiercer anger: ripe for conflict;

The troops’ minds were changed, and they gathered again to watch.

Once more the wicked contest began, the impious king readied his

Weapons and he was the first to chance a throw of his deadly spear.

The weapon struck Polynices’ shield-boss, but failed to penetrate,

Foiled by the layers of gold. Then the exile advanced, and uttered

A fatal prayer: ‘You gods, whom Oedipus of the lacerated face

Asked to stir the fires of wickedness, and not in vain, I make no

Wild demand: I’ll atone for my actions and pierce my breast with

This very blade, if he will leave me grasping the sceptre in death,

And, the lesser shade, take this grief-bearer with him.’ The spear

Flew swiftly between the horseman’s thigh and his horse’s flank,

Threatening death to both, but the rider moved his knee to evade

The blow, though the point, while failing of its purpose, struck

His mount slantwise through the ribs. Then the charger, scorning

The tightened reins, hurtled forward, and stained the ground red

With a pool of blood. Polynices exulted, believing the blood his

Brother’s, while Eteocles himself feared the same. Now the exile

Flicked the reins and dashed on blindly, in his eagerness, to meet

The wounded horse. Hands, harness, weapons clashed, and both

Steeds stumbling crashed to the ground. As when a brace of ships,

That a cloud-bearing southerly at night drives together, shattering

Their oars and entangling their rigging, sink together, interlocked

As they are, to the ocean bed after a lengthy struggle between them,

And against the darkness also and the storm: such was the shape of

That encounter. They clashed without rule or skill, only courage

And anger; viewing each other with fiery hatred and hostile glares

Through their visors. There was not an inch between them, their

Swords locked, their hands clasped, hearing each other’s murmurs

Of rage loud as trumpet-cries or bugles sounding. Fiercely they

Struggled, as wild-boars, fuelled by anger, crashing together like

Lightning-bolts, arch their bristling backs, eyes quivering with

Flame, their curved tusks hooked together and clashing noisily,

While a hunter watches the duel from some rock nearby, pale,

Hushing his hounds to silence. The brothers dealt no fatal blow

As yet, but bloodshed had begun, the crime was now enacted.

No need for the Furies now; they merely marvelled, and stood

Applauding, envying a human madness greater than their own.

Each brother sought the other’s blood with furious desire, and

Unaware of his own blood flowing. At last, exiled Polynices

Whose cause was greater and anger stronger, exhorted himself

To greater effort, and leaning in drove his sword deep into his

Brother’s body, where the end of the corselet barely covered

The thighs with a fringe of metal. Eteocles as yet felt no pain,

But sensing the first chill of cold steel drew his wounded body

Behind his shield. Soon, growing more and more conscious of

His hurt, he began to gasp in distress, his enemy giving him no

Quarter, taunting him as he retreated: ‘Where are you off to now,

Brother? Here’s the result of languid somnolence, of a regal and

Enfeebling peace, here’s the result of long-sheltered rule! While

Here, see my limbs hardened by exile and poverty. You should

Learn to bear life’s deprivations, and set no score by pleasures.’

So the wretched pair fought on. There was yet strength and blood

In the evil king, despite his weariness, and his legs still carried

Him for a while; but then he created a deliberate ploy, collapsing

Apparently in his death throes. Cithaeron echoed with the clamour;

His brother raised his arms to heaven, thinking himself victorious:

‘Be blessed, my prayers were not in vain. I see his eyes closing,

His face sunken in death. Bring me his sceptre and the crown

From his head, while he still lives!’ So saying he approached

The dying man, seeking to take his armour too and weapons

As though to carry them to his land, as spoils, and hang them

In triumph in some temple. But his brother was not yet a shade,

Clinging to life with a vengeful anger, and when he saw his

Brother loom over him, bending towards his chest, he raised

His sword covertly and with the bare remnants of his failing

Strength, joyful in death, set the blade in his brother’s breast.

Polynices cried: ‘You live yet? Or is it your anger that still

Survives you, traitor, ever unworthy of the abodes of peace?

Come with me to the shades! There I’ll demand, once more,

What was agreed, if Minos the Agenorean judge’s Cnossian

Urn still stands and kings are thereby punished.’ Ceasing,

He fell, the whole weight of his armour crushing his brother.

Go, savage spirits, and in death pollute grim Tartarus, and

Exhaust the torments of Erebus. And you, Stygian goddesses,

Spare mankind such malice: and may no later day witness

So foul a crime, but throughout all the lands and centuries,

May the monstrous sin fade in the minds of new generations,

And let only those who rule us still recall that dreadful duel.

BkXI:580-647 Oedipus mourns: Jocasta kills herself

When Oedipus learned of the fatal result, he emerged from

The dark depths of his dwelling, offering his imperfections

To the light: beard and hair caked and filthy with primal gore,

Matted tresses cloaking his Fury-ravaged head. The hollows

Of his eye-sockets too were foul with traces of gouged matter.

Antigone’s shoulder bore the weight of his left hand, his right

Rested on his stave. It was as if Charon, ferryman of sluggish

Avernus, wearying of the dead, were to leave his boat and rise

To the upper world, to trouble the sun and the fading stars, he

Neither strong or patient enough to bear the air above for long;

Leaving his task to grow as the generations wait on the shore

For the tardy boatman. So Oedipus in the light, saying to his

Companion as she wept deeply: ‘Lead me to my sons, I pray,

Place a father beside their fresh corpses!’ The girl hesitated,

Unsure of his intent. Bodies, weapons, chariots hampered them,

Entangling and delaying their passage, and the old man’s steps

Faltered amidst the carnage while his pitiable guide laboured.

At last the girls’ cry proclaimed the long sought-for bodies.

And he threw himself across the cold forms, unable to utter;

He lay groaning over their bloody wounds but his words,

Though repeatedly attempted, failed to sound. Finally, as he

Caressed the helms, seeking their obscured visages, his

Long wordless sighs resolved into speech: ‘Piety, so tardy,

Do you now strike my spirit, after so long a time? Can

Human sympathy still exist in this heart of mine? Nature,

Behold you conquer this unhappy father, yes, you conquer!

Behold I groan and tears flow from these arid sockets, while

My impious hand obeys, and womanlike it beats my breast.

Cruel warriors, only too truly sons of mine, receive these

Obsequies due a monstrous fate. I cannot even see which

One is which, to sound appropriate words. Antigone, tell me,

I beg, which am I holding? How then can your savage father

Accompany your funeral? Oh, if my sight might return to me

That I might gouge those eyes again, and lacerate my face!

Oh, sorrow, Oh, parental vows and sinful prayers heard all

Too clearly! Which deity, standing beside me while I prayed,

Took up my words and relayed them to the Fates? Madness

Caused this, a Fury, my father, mother, kingdom, my ruined

Eyes, not I, I swear it by Dis, by blessed darkness, and by

My innocent guide; so may I die worthy to enter Tartarus,

So may the angry shade of Laius not shun me! Alas, what

Fraternal knot, what wounds I touch! Let me seek to loose

These hands, and unchain these hostile fetters at the last.

Now, at least, may your father come between you!’ Thus,

Lamenting, little by little he assumed the angry mantle

Of the dead, and sought a weapon, though covertly lest

His daughter denied him. But the cautious Antigone had

Removed all such from his reach. The old man cried out

In wrath: ‘Where are the guilty swords? Ah, Furies, is

Every inch of iron sunk in their flesh?’ As he spoke, his

Sorrowful companion raised him, suppressing her own

Grief in silence, happy only in that her fierce sire mourned.

Earlier, the queen, alarmed by the noise of incipient combat,

Had retrieved Laius’ sword from its store, that lamentable

And ill-famed relic of a sceptred king. She railed against

The gods, her accursed marriage bed, her son’s madness

And her first husband’s shade; struggled with the sword,

And at last leaning forward drove the blade into her breast.

The wound opened her aged veins and her unhappy couch

Was cleansed in blood. Ismene collapsed on that withered

Chest that grated at the blow, and weeping dried it with her

Hair as she lamented. So, sad Erigone wept beside the body

Of her murdered father in the Marathonian wood, and then

Her tears exhausted, intent on death, unloosed the fatal rope,

And chose the firmest branch from which to hang herself.

BkXI:648-707 Creon threatens Oedipus with exile

Now Fortune, in her malice, glad to have destroyed the two

Leaders’ hopes, passed Amphion’s kingdom and his sceptre

To another, and Creon inherited Cadmus’ power. Alas, a sad

End to war! On his behalf had the brothers died. The seed

Of Mars rendered him illustrious, and Menoeceus’ sacrifice

Of himself for his country gained Creon, the father, favour

With the people. He mounts Thebes’ mournful throne, fatal

To tyrants. Alas the seductiveness of power, the ill-advised

Love of the sceptre! When does the coming man ever learn

From his predecessor’s fate? Behold, Creon, happy to stand

In that accursed place, and handle the blood-stained helm.

What can good fortune not do! Now his paternal heart began

To turn to other matters: as the king, forgetting Menoeceus.

Imbued with the cruel practices of that palace, he gave orders

(Evidence and proof of his own ways) that the Danai be denied

Funeral pyres, that their ill-fated army of sad homeless shades

Be abandoned to the naked sky. Then, beside the Ogygian Gate

He met Oedipus returning; for a moment he was afraid, silently

Confessing himself the lesser man, and checked his ready anger.

But soon he was a king once more and boldly reproached his

Sightless enemy. ‘Omen hateful to the victor, be gone: and take

Yourself far off. Divert your Furies from us, purge the very walls

Of Thebes by your departure. Your fond prayers are answered;

What more remains for you to ask? Your sons are dead: now, go.’

Oedipus quivered with mad rage, his cheeks trembled as though

He still had sight, his years receded. Then he thrust his daughter

Aside, cast away his staff, and supported only by his anger let

Words erupt from his swelling breast: ‘Are you bent on cruelty

Already, Creon? You wretch, you rose but now to treacherous

Royalty, my fortune’s place, and already you assume the right

To trample on the wreckage of kings. Already you deny tombs

To the vanquished, and banish your countryman from the walls.

Bravo, you are worthy to maintain the Theban sceptre, if such

Are your first deeds. But why restrict your new prerogatives,

Madman? Why interpret your powers so narrowly? You threaten

Exile. A timid kind of royal inclemency is this! Why not show

Your greed, and stain your savage blade at once? Believe me,

You can. Let some ambitious henchman appear and sever this

Unflinching head fearlessly. Begin! Or do you wait for me to fall

Prostrate, with beseeching hands, at the feet of my ungentle lord?

Would you let me if I tried? Do you threaten me with punishment,

And imagine any terrors remain? You demand I leave this palace?

I forsook the sky and earth of my own will, and turned my hand

In vengeance against my own face, no one forcing me so to do.

What does a hostile king command more? I will fly this accursed

Dwelling: what matter where I take my darkness or my long

Dying? Will any nation if asked not grant a wretch as much soil

As he can cover in his own country? Is Thebes so sweet, and is

The light brighter here, do such propitious stars soothe my face,

Have I a mother here, and sons! Rule Thebes, command it under

The same auspices as Cadmus ruled, and Laius, and I: may you

Wed so and get such loyal sons: and may you lack the courage

To evade Fortune with your own hand; but love the light when

She snares you. Enough of these omens I utter. Daughter, come,

Lead me away. Yet why should I link you to my sorrows? Grant

Me a guide, king!’ But sorrowing Antigone feared abandonment.

BkXI:708-760 Antigone pleads with Creon

She offered up a different entreaty: ‘Revered Creon, by Menoeceus’

Sacred shade I beg you (so may your reign be happy), pardon now

This afflicted man, and forgive his proud words. Misery has long

Granted him this manner of speech. It is not yourself alone that he

Shows fierceness towards; made harsh by sorrow he thus addresses

The Fates and the gods. He is often difficult even with me. In his

Ungovernable heart freedom in misery and the grim hope of cruel

Death have long existed. Behold even now he cleverly provoked

Your anger, and sought the punishment. But I beg you to employ

The greater wisdom of sovereignty and from your height overlook

The fallen, and respect the ruinous downfall of former greatness.

He too once sat high on the throne with men at arms around him,

Granting aid and justice to the wretched, and dealing fairly with

The powerful and the needy, he who of all that host has now but

A single woman to attend him, and he not exiled as yet. Is he an

Obstacle to the fortunate? Do you need to show hatred, exert

Royal power against him; and thus drive him from your house?

Perhaps you fear he will groan too loudly at your door, annoy

You with untimely prayer? Fear not, he will weep far away

From the palace. I will calm him when this mood arises, and

Teach him subservience. I will remove him from company,

And hide him in a solitary place: let that be his exile. For what

Foreign city would accept the wanderer? Would you have him

Try Argos; creep like a beggar into hostile Mycenae; take news

Of Aonian losses to the door of a vanquished Adrastus, and beg

For bare necessities: a king of Thebes? Why expose the crimes

Of our unhappy race, and display our shameful deeds? Hide,

What we are, I beg you. It will not be for long, Creon. Pity

The aged man, and let me bury my parents’ sad remains here,

For here Thebans, at least, may be interred.’ So she begged,

Humbly, until her father, with savage threats, scorning pardon,

Drew her away. He was like the lion beneath a lofty crag, at

Whom forest and mountain once trembled in his prime, but

Now lies motionless, disabled by long years; yet magnificent

Of mien, and best left undisturbed even in old age. If the noise

Of cattle meets his drooping ears, he rises, remembering how

He was, groaning at his decayed powers, that other lions now

Rule the plains. Creon was moved by her plea, but would not

Grant all she asked, denying them both part of his indulgence.

‘You shall not be banished beyond your country’s borders,

So long as you do not soil her homes and her sacred shrines

With your presence. Let the wilderness know you, and your

Own Cithaeron. Behold this ground, scarred by a war, where

Two nations lie in their own blood, shall be a dwelling-place

For your shade.’ So he spoke, and proudly returned to his

Royal palace, amid the feigned acclamation of his followers

And of the sorrowing people. Meanwhile the defeated Danai

Left those deadly ramparts furtively: none with their rightful

Standard or leader. They went silently, randomly, to shameful

Return, inglorious life rather than honourable death. Darkness

Favoured their going, welcome night shrouding the fugitives.


End of Book XI