Silius Italicus

Punica (The Second Carthaginian War)

Book XIV

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2018 All Rights Reserved

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Book XIV:1-32 The island of Sicily

Now, Muses of Helicon, turn, in song, to the sea

of Ortygia, and those cities of the Sicilian shore.

Such is the task within your gift, now to attend

the realm of Roman Italy, now Sicily’s harbours,

traverse Macedonian lands, the fields of Greece,

to dip your wandering feet in Sardinian waters,

or behold the reed-huts that Carthage once ruled,

or Spain’s western bounds where the sun vanishes.

Such, war waged in diverse lands demands of us.

So up, and follow where battle and trumpets call!

Sicily, Trinacria, the isle of three capes, is a large

fragment of Italy, divided from it and battered by

southerly winds, desolate waves, since the straits

were formed by the thrusts of Neptune’s trident.

For the sea, with the hidden force of a hurricane,

dashed itself blindly against the land, tearing its

heart apart and, rushing over the fields in flood,

uprooted cities and peoples, carrying them away.

Since then the swift tide maintains the separation,

as its fierce surge prevents those parted re-joining.

Yet the space between the neighbouring shores

is so slight that they say the barking of dogs and

the cockerels’ dawn crowing can be heard over

the water (so narrow are the intervening straits).

The soil has many virtues: in one place the island

grants the plough a rich return, in another the hills

are shady with olive-trees. Its vintages are notable,

it breeds swift horses tolerant of the trumpet blare,

nor does Hybla’s nectar yield to the honeycombs

of Hymettus. Here one may admire its medicinal

springs whose sulphurous waters possess hidden

virtues, and the utterances of excellent poets, men

worthy of Apollo and the Muses, who made those

sacred groves re-echo with their song, and Helicon

with the Muse of Syracuse. The people are ready

of tongue, and when they waged war they adorned

their harbours with the spoils of their naval battles.

Book XIV:33-78 The island’s history and features

The Cyclopes and that King of the Laestrygonians,

cruel Antiphates, were the isle’s first rulers; later

the virgin soil was ploughed by the Sicani, a tribe

from the Pyrenees, who named the island after a

river of their native land. Then Siculus led a band

of Ligurians there, conquered it, and once again

changed its name. Then the land was honoured by

Cretan settlers, whom Minos, attempting to punish

Daedalus, had led from his hundred cities, to defeat.

When Minos, slain by the vile treachery of Cocalus’

daughters, went down to perpetual darkness, to sit

in judgement there, his war-weary warriors settled

in Sicily. Then two Trojans, Acestes and Helymus,

introduced Phrygian stock, their followers naming

the cities they built after them, the names enduring.

Then the walls of Zancle (Messina) are not unknown

to fame, since Saturn laid down his sickle there. Yet

Enna’s island boasts nothing lovelier than Syracuse,

a city founded from the Isthmus and Sisyphus’ city,

outshining others by reason of its Corinthian roots.

Here Arethusa welcomes her dear Alpheus, he bearing

trophies from the sacred games to her fish-rich waters. 

But unfriendly Vulcan delights in the Sicilian caverns;

thus Lipari’s isle, eaten within by vast flames, vomits

sulphurous fumes from its hollow summits; while Etna

emits the rumbling of inner fires through unstable cliffs,

raging day and night like an angry sea with thunderous

tremors and a muffled roaring. A torrent of flame pours

out, as if from Phlegethon’s dark stream, hurling pitch,

with showers of red-hot stones, from its molten depths.

Yet though Etna boils within, in vast whirlpools of fire,

and fresh fires, born unceasingly, flare out, the summit

wondrous to tell, is white; ice and flame co-exist there.

The fiery cliffs are harsh with perpetual frost, the high

summit gripped by winter, and melting snow is hidden

by dark ash. What need to mention the realm of Aeolus,

home of the winds and prison of the storms? Pachino’s

promontory stretches southwards like the Peloponnese,

while its rocks echo to the force of the Ionian waves;

to the west Lilybaeum (Marsala), facing Libya and its

fierce westerlies, sees the constellation Scorpius set.

Finally, Pelorus, Sicily’s third cape, turns north-east,

extends its ridge to the sea, heaping up shores of sand.

Book XIV:79-109 Hiero and Hieronymus

A beneficent ruler, Hiero, had governed the island

peacefully throughout his lifetime, dealing with his

people with calm authority, without exciting fear

of any kind in his subjects. He was not inclined to

violate treaties sworn on oath, and had for many

a year maintained intact an alignment with Rome.

But when time had rendered him weak with age,

the sceptre passed, fatefully, to his young grandson,

and the peaceful realm received this Hieronymus,

a prince unbridled in action. Not yet sixteen, this

youth, once crowned, dizzied by high elevation,

could not support the burden of power, trusting

too much to passing fortune, so that, sanctioning

his crimes with the sword, evils were everywhere,

and justice unknown; shame proving an anathema

to this young monarch. His headstrong passions

were stimulated by his mother Nereis’ descent,

she being daughter to King Pyrrhus, and by his

noble line, scion of that Achilles immortalised

in verse, and thus of Peleus. And with sudden

ardour he began to favour Carthage’s designs,

perversely, without delay, forging a new treaty,

it being agreed that Hannibal, once Rome was

conquered, would then depart Sicily’s shores.

But retribution was nigh, and the Fury denied

him burial in the very soil from which by pact

his ally was to be excluded. Gripped by fear

and anger, a group of conspirators who could

no longer bear his arrogance and barbarities;

the excesses; the thirst for blood, contempt

for decency and vile cruelty; murdered their

young king. Nor did the violence end there:

they went on to slaughter women, with his

innocent sisters being seized and executed.

New-found liberty raged, fully-armed, and

threw off the yoke: some favoured Carthage,

others the Romans, the more familiar allies;

nor was there any lack of wild spirits who

preferred to sign treaties with neither side.

Book XIV:110-147 Marcellus lands in Sicily (214BC)

Such was the alarm and disturbance which

Hieronymus’ death had prompted in Sicily,

when Marcellus, highly honoured (since

he had now been thrice returned as consul)

had brought his fleet to anchor off Messina.

When he had heard all: the tyrant’s murder,

the division of opinion, the Carthaginians’

numbers and location, what cities remained

allied to Rome, and how arrogant Syracuse

point blank refused to open her gates to him,

he turned in indignation to warfare, swiftly

visiting on the surrounding countryside, all

the horrors of conflict. So, the north wind,

rushing headlong from Rhodope’s heights,

hurls every tenth breaker hardest on shore,

follows the rising mass of water, and rages

on furious wings. Marcellus first laid waste

Lentini’s plains, once ruled by Antiphates,

the savage Laestrygonian king. The general

pressed home his campaign, believing that

delay in defeating Greeks was as shameful

as being defeated. He flew about the scene

(it seemed like waging war on a crowd of

women) fertilising Ceres’ beloved fields

with blood. The enemy fell all about him,

as the intensity of the fighting prevented

their escape; for whenever a fugitive hoped

to save his life, the general barred his way

with his sword. ‘On,’ he cried; ‘mow and

reap these cowards with your blades!’ as

he drove laggards on with his shield-boss.

‘They stand there all reluctantly, men who

have only learnt to withstand tame bouts

of wrestling in the shade, oiling their limbs

till they glisten: little credit in conquering

them! The only glory you shall win is by

beating the enemy on sight!’ Thus exhorted

by their general, the whole army advanced.

All that was left was a rivalry among them

as to who excelled in seizing the finest spoils.

The Euripus Strait, separating Euboea from

Boeotia, rages no less fiercely, as its current

drives down through that rocky channel to

strike the Caphareus promontory, nor does

the Propontis despatch its sounding waves

more violently from the narrow Hellespont,    

nor do Gibraltar’s Straits, whose waters beat

on the Pillars of Hercules where the sun sets,

seethe and rush on with any greater a tumult.

Book XIV:148-177 Asilus and Beryas: a gift repaid

Yet a noble act of mercy which was performed

in the heat of that great battle won lasting fame.

A Tuscan soldier, named Asilus, taken captive

earlier at Lake Trasimene, had found a gentle

master and easy conditions under Beryas his

captor, and had returned to his native country

with Beryas’ willing consent. Once free he had

returned to active service and was atoning for

his previous misfortune by fighting in Sicily.

Now in the midst of that fierce conflict, he

encountered Beryas, sent by Carthage to forge

a pact with Syracuse, now warring alongside

them, his face hidden by his bronze helmet.

Asilus attacked with the sword, and threw

him to the ground as he toppled backward.

Yet on hearing Asilus’ voice, Beryas, as if

summoning his hesitant and fearful spirit

back from the threshold of the Stygian dark,

tore from his chin the straps that bound his

concealing helm, about to launch a torrent

of words and prayers. Startled now on seeing

a familiar face, Asilus withdrawing his blade,

before Beryas could speak, addressed him

with sighs and tears: ‘Do not beg for life,

I pray, in anxious supplication! It is right

for me to save my enemy now. The finest

warrior is he who, first and last, repays

his debt of honour, even in war. You first

granted me escape from death, rescuing

me before I was able to rescue you from

your enemies. If my right arm refused to

clear a path for you through fire and sword,

I would merit all the trouble I have known,

and deserve to meet with greater suffering.’

So saying, he raised Beryas from the ground,

granting life as his own life had been granted.

Book XIV:178-191 Marcellus lays siege to Syracuse (214-212BC)

Having won his first battle on Sicilian soil,

Marcellus calmly advanced and, turning his

victorious standards against Syracuse, laid

siege to its walls, surrounding the city with

his army. But, his desire for battle ebbing,

he hoped by threats to quench the citizens’

blind ardour, and quell their anger. Yet, if

they chose to defy him, and to regard his

forbearance as due to fear, he forbade any

relaxation of the siege; indeed maintained

a closer watch than ever and, with a tranquil

brow, he secretly contrived sudden surprises

for the unwary, just as a white swan, floating

on the surface of Eridanus or by Cayster’s

shores, lets the current take its motionless

body, feet paddling beneath the calm flow.

Book XIV:192-231 The Sicilian allies of Rome: I


Meanwhile, while opinion wavered in Syracuse,

Marcellus summoned the cities and their peoples

to aid him: Messina, noted for its Oscan founders,

which lies on the coast nearest to Italy; Catania,

too close to Etna, but famous for two dutiful sons

who bore their parents from its eruption long ago;

Camarina, which the oracle warned must never be

re-sited; Hybla  whose honey challenges that of

Hymettus for sweetness; Selinus with its palm

groves; and Mylae, once a decent harbour, yet

now a lonely shore offering an insecure refuge

from the sea. Lofty Eryx was loyal, Centuripe

on its hilltop, and Entella, its slopes green with

vines, its name dear to Trojan Acestes; nor was

Thapsus lacking, nor Acrae, on its chilly heights.

Men flocked from Agira, and from Tindari that

reveres the Spartan twins. Hilly Agrigento also

sent a troop of a thousand horse whose neighing

heated the air, rolling a cloud of dust to the sky.

Their leader was Grophus, a fierce bull carved

on his shield in memory of an ancient torment:

when men were roasted over a fire in a brazen

bull, the cries emerged as the bull’s bellowing,

so that one might think they were the sounds

of real animals, emitted from their stalls. Not

with impunity was this done; for the inventor

of that fatal engine died, bellowing pitifully,

in the creature he contrived. Now Gela came,

named for its river; Halaesa too, and Palaeca,

its sulphur springs punish perjury with death.

Men of Trojan Segesta were there, and those

from the banks of Acis, which flows down

to the sea through Etna’s region, and bathes

the Nereid, beloved Galatea, with its sweet

waters. Acis, once her lover, and a rival to

Polyphemus, was turned by her to a flowing

stream, as he fled from the violent rage of

that wild giant, escaping his enemy, mixing

his flow, triumphantly, with Galatea’s flood.

And those who drink of the sonorous rivers

Hypsa and Alabis, and the pellucid waters

of the gleaming Achates (the Dirillo), were

there; those from the winding river Chrysas

(the Dittiano), the meagre Hipparis (Ippari),

the Pantagias, whose slender stream is easy

to cross, and the shores of the fast-flowing

yellow waters of the Symaethus (the Simeto).

Book XIV:232-257 The Sicilian allies of Rome: II

Thermae, rich in its possession of Stesichorus,

the ancient poet, sent men from its shore where

the Himera (the Grande) finds the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Another Himera (the Salso), fed from the Nebrodi

range also, hills as rich in shade as any in Sicily,

flows southward, while the former flows north.

Enna on its height sent holy warriors from Ceres’

sacred grove; there a cavern reveals a vast fissure

in the earth, a shadowy threshold, the blind path

to the shades, by which a strange bridal car rose

to a land unknown, when Dis, the Stygian king,

stung by Cupid’s arrow, dared to quit mournful

Acheron and seek the world above, driving his

chariot through the void to forbidden daylight.

There he swiftly seized the virgin Proserpine,

the maid of Enna, then wheeled his team, now

stunned, terrified by the sight of sun and sky,

away again to the Styx, so as to hide his bride

in the darkness. Loyal to the Roman alliance

and Rome’s generals, were Petraea, Callipolis,

and Engyon with its stony fields; Adrano and

Ergetium too; Melita (Malta), proud of her

woollen yarns; and Caronia, its waters rich in

fish; and Cefalu whose stormy beach shudders

to whales that graze the blue fields of the deep;

and Taormina whose citizens watch Charybdis

snatch ships, swallowing them in her whirlpool

then hurling them from the depths to the stars.

These all favoured Rome and the arms of Italy.

Book XIV:258-291 The Sicilian allies of Carthage

The other Sicilian cities adhered to Carthage.

Agathyrna sent a thousand men, and Trogilus,

breathed on by the southerlies, and Phacelina

with its shrine of Taurian Diana. Three times

that number came from Palermo, rich in

prey whether you hunt woodland creatures,

or fish the sea with nets, or prefer to down

wild birds from the sky. Neither Herbeso

nor Naulocha were idle, ignoring the crisis,

nor did Morgentina’s leafy plains abstain

from a war fuelled by disloyalty. Mistretta

sent men, and Mineo; little-known Tissa,

and Noto, and Modica, and the Achaetus.

Carthage had help from Trapani, and from

the banks of the noisy Helorus, and from

Caltabellotta, laid waste later in the Second

Servile War. And Carthage was helped by

bold Arbela, hilly Jato, warlike Leonforte,

while Pantelleria’s little island fought side

by side with Megara, no larger. There were

also men of Gozo’s isle, famed for the sound

of the halcyon’s song, when its floating nest

rides the calm sea’s smooth surface. Famous

Syracuse herself lined spacious battlements

with her muster, armed in every manner, as

the boastful speeches of their leaders roused

its people, soon stirred, and fond of tumult,

to fiercer rage: never, they said, had any foe

set foot within Syracuse’ walls, or those of

her four fortresses; their ancestors had seen

how their city, all impregnable, by virtue

of her harbour, defeated the Athenians and

eclipsed those laurels won from Xerxes at

Salamis; for three hundred triremes were

wrecked before their eyes, whilst Athens,

which had thwarted the Persians and their

archery, sank to naval disaster unavenged.

Two brothers, Hippocrates and Epicydes,

born in Carthage of a Carthaginian mother

though their father was a Sicilian expelled

from Syracuse as a criminal, thus inflamed

the populace. Raised in North Africa they

revealed a mixture, due to their origin, of

Sicilian fickleness and Carthaginian guile.

Book XIV:292-315 Archimedes’ Tower

Once Marcellus had realised the defection

was irremediable and that the enemy were

initiating war, he called the gods of Sicily,

the rivers, and lakes, and Arethusa’s spring

to witness that he was forced by the foe to

take up arms, unwillingly, though he had

long refused to do so; and attacked the city

with a hailstorm of missiles that thundered

against its walls. The same ardour gripped

his men; they vied swiftly with one another.

There was a tower there, constructed with

multiple levels, that rose to the sky, built

by Archimedes the Greek, ten stories high,

requiring many a solid tree-trunk; and from

this the besieged threw blazing wood and

stones, filling the air with menacing pitch.

One Cimber, a Roman, hurled a fire-brand

the weapon lodging, fatally, in the flank of

the tower, and flames, fed and strengthened

by the wind, extended the growing threat to

the inner fabric, ascending the tall structure,

in triumph, to the tenth storey, and swiftly

consuming the burning timbers, till those

all-conquering tongues of fire now licked at

the tottering summit, while a vast cloud of

smoke poured to the sky. Filled with that

black fog, the interior veiled in darkness,

not a single man escaped, for, as if struck

by a bolt of lightning, the whole structure

instantly fell, collapsing in a pile of ashes.    

Book XIV:316-340 Archimedes’ Claw


In return though, the Roman ships met with

a comparable disaster at sea, since as they

neared the city, at a point where the water

gently lapped the walls, they encountered

an unexpected weapon, cleverly contrived;

a rounded spar, its knots planed away, like

the mast of a ship, and a grapnel at its tip

with iron claws. When this arm was tilted

downwards from the wall, it caught those

attacking in its metal maw, swinging up

to land them in the city. Nor did it only

trap men, this war-engine, it even snared

whole warships, striking the vessel with

the descending force of those unyielding

jaws; fixing its iron points in the timber

of the closest ship before lifting the craft

in the air, when a pitiful sight was seen;

the cables of the engine suddenly being

released, it lowered its prey with such

speed and impetus that the ship and its

men were swallowed whole by the sea.

In addition, narrow loopholes had been

skilfully cut in the walls, through which

missiles could be fired unexpectedly, in

safety, the marksmen remaining hidden,

through their task held its dangers since

weapons hurled vengefully by the foe

could enter through the same openings.

Thus Greek ingenuity and Archimedes’

intellect, more powerful than mere force, 

kept the threat offered by Marcellus, on

sea and land, at bay, while that mighty

show of arms stalled before the walls.

Book XIV:341-380 The naval battle

Archimedes, then living in Syracuse,

has shed immortal glory on that city,

he whose genius exceeded that of any

man on earth. Lacking in possessions,

the secrets of heaven and earth were

nevertheless revealed to him; he read

the weather, for example the rising

sun portending rain when its rays are

dim and shrouded; he knew whether

the earth is fixed or hovers in space;

why the seething waters of the Ocean

encircle the world, by an unalterable

law; and he understood the moon’s

influence on the sea, and those laws

that govern the ebb and flow of tides.

Not without reason did men believe

he had counted the sand-grains this

world holds. They even say he had

moved ships and enabled buildings

of stone to be drawn up a slope, by

deploying women’s strength only. 

Now, while Archimedes frustrated

the Roman general and his soldiers,

a Carthaginian fleet of one hundred

vessels had sailed to Syracuse’ aid,

beaked prows cleaving the blue sea.

The citizens’ hopes now running high,

boats sailed from the harbour to join

the fleet. For their part, the Romans

swiftly took to the water, ploughing

the waves, churning the sea with their

oar-blades, until the surface foamed

to their lusty strokes and a pale wake

spread wide over the whitened waters.

Both fleets floated proudly on a sea

echoing to the sound of voices, their

shouts re-echoing from the cliffs. Now

the Roman warships, claiming empty

water, enclosing the space between

their two wings, prepared for battle,

the ships like a circle of huntsmen

shutting in that watery plain. Then

the enemy vessels, also in crescent

formation, sailing on to meet them

closed the circle between their wings.

Immediately, the trumpets blared,

a cruel and fearful braying of brass

echoing far over the sounding deep,

bringing Triton up from the depths,

alarmed by a noise rivalling that of

his twisted conch-shell. The men

scarcely gave a thought to the sea,

straining forward to come to blows,

planting their feet on the gunwales

of their vessels, leaning out to hurl

their missiles. The stretch of water

between the fleets was strewn with

floating weapons while, raised high

by the panting oarsmen’s strokes,

the vessels ploughed that foaming

surface into ever-changing furrows.

Book XIV:381-407 Himilco’s flagship

While some of the vessels saw their

oars swept away by the impact of

collision; others, having rammed an

enemy using the beak at their prow,

were themselves trapped by the harm

they had inflicted. In the centre, one

formidable vessel, Himilco’s flagship,

towered over the rest: no huger craft

had ever been launched from the naval

yards of Carthage. Four hundred oars

struck the water, and when she caught

the wind with her spread of sail, and

gathered the breeze to her yard-ends,

she moved as slowly as if she were

still propelled by oars alone; while

the vessels that carried the Romans

proved light and agile to manoeuvre,

answering readily to the pilot’s hand.

Himilco, the Carthaginian admiral,

finding his starboard side attacked

by the rams of the Roman ships,

offering a prayer to the sea-gods,

laid a feathered arrow, carefully,

to his bow-string and, measuring

the distance to the enemy, directed

the shaft, then relaxed his stance

and watched it fly through the air

to its mark, a Roman pilot seated

at the stern, who found his hand

had been pinned to the helm, such

that it lacked the power to swing

the tiller, and so steer the vessel. 

The crew ran to help, as if their

ship were already taken, when,

behold, a second arrow, shot from

the same bow with equal success,

pierced the crew and transfixed

Taurus, who was about to take

command of the masterless helm.

Book XIV:408-443 Corbulo fires the vessel

A Cumaean ship, Corbulo its captain,

manned by a select crew from Stabiae’s

shore, now closed with the flagship;

An image of Venus of the Lucrine

Lake guarded this ship’s high stern,

but, veering too near, beneath a hail

of missiles from above, it foundered

in mid-sea, cleaving the waves apart.

The foaming water stifled the sailors’

cries and, as they were dragged into

the depths, their arms broke surface

in vain, though they tried to swim.

Emboldened by anger, Corbulo, in

one great leap sprang across to a

wooden tower alongside, clamped

with iron between two triremes. He

clambered up the tall tower’s flights,

and once at the summit brandished

a blazing torch of split pine. From

there, he rained down burning pitch

on the ornaments at the Carthaginian

vessel’s stern, to fatal effect, the wind

adding potency to the fiery substance.

The lethal flames spread everywhere,

consuming the deck planks widely.

Seeing the situation, the upper bank

of oars ceased rowing, but, in that

confusion, the news of their danger

had not yet reached the lower banks.

The blaze, spread by further brands

oozing resin, was soon crackling in

the ship’s bowels. Yet where those

Roman missiles had not penetrated

as yet, the heat being less, Himilco

defied the foe with a hail of stones,

delaying the fate of his ship. Here,

the unlucky Cydnus, while hurling

a fire-brand was struck by a mighty

stone flung by Lycchaeus. His body,

rolling across benches slippery with

blood, plunged to the water, the brand

hissing as it glowed under the waves,

and the stench filling the air around.

Now Sabratha, in rage, hurled a swift

spear, praying to the god at the stern,

Ammon, Libya’s native divinity, who

guarded the vessel, his image, horns

at its brow, gazing out over the sea:

‘Help us, O Father, aid us, the afflicted;

O prophet of the Garamantes, grant my

spear may find a mark in some Roman!’

As he spoke, his quivering shaft pierced

the face of Telon, worshipper of Neptune.

Book XIV:444-461 Himilco abandons ship

Those at death’s door fought no less fiercely,

gathering, in precipitous flight, into the sole

region of the ship free of the fire; but, with

lightning speed, relentless heat consumed

everything in its path, wreathing the vessel

in triumphant flames. Himilco was the first

to quit the scene at a point where, Vulcan’s

infernal conflagration not yet at its height,

he could descend with the help of a rope

to the water, though half-scorched, and be

rowed away by friendly oars. But Bato’s

wretched fate deprived the abandoned ship

of her pilot. He had ever shown great skill

in battling wild seas, out-running tempests.

He could anticipate how the north-wind or

south might blow on the morrow; nor did

Ursa Minor, though its circling might be

obscured, escape his vigilance. Seeing no

relief from disaster, he called to his god:

‘Accept this blood-offering, Ammon,

O spectator of our unfortunate defeat.’

And, driving his sword deep in his flesh,

he caught the flow in his right hand, his

blood pouring out over the sacred horns.

Book XIV:462-491 Carthaginian deaths

Daphnis, a Sicilian, one of the crew, his

name famed in ancient times, now proved

unlucky in relinquishing his woodland

glades and exchanging his native scene

for the fickle sea. How much greater the

fame his ancestor gained, content to live

the shepherd’s life! For the Sicilian Muses

loved Daphnis, and Apollo favoured him,

gifting him the Castalian pipes, bidding

the streams flow silently, and the joyful

flocks to hasten over field and meadow

to hear him, as he lay in the grass and

sang. When he played on his seven-reed

pipes, and charmed the trees, the Siren

would never, in that moment, float her

accustomed song over the waves; then

Scylla’s dogs fell silent, dark Charybdis

was at rest, and even the Cyclops on his

rocky heights loved to hear the happy

strain. Yet now, Daphnis, who bore so

beloved a name, the flames consumed.

See how Ornytus swims on resiliently

above the burning benches and inflicts

a lingering watery death upon himself,

as once Ajax the lesser, son of Oileus,

struck by Athene’s lightning, died in

the waves, his body burnt and scorched.

Here, Sciron, a Marmarid, lifted by the

sea, was pierced by a ship’s sharp prow;

part of his body was above, part below

surface, and rigid in death was dragged

through the waves, pitiful sight, by that

metal beak. Both fleets now raised their

speed, and the oarsmen’s faces, as they

drove onwards, were spattered with a

bloody dew from their splashing oars.

The Roman admiral’s flagship itself

was propelled by six banks of blades,

and those sturdy rowers drove it faster

than the wind, such that when Lilaeus

caught hold to slow the craft, his hands,

severed at the wrist by a merciless axe,

still clung to the side as the ship flew on.

Book XIV:492-515 The death of Podaetus

A native of the Aeolian Isles, Podaetus

was born aboard a Sicilian boat. He had

not yet reached manhood and was as yet

unready for glorious deeds, but driven by

burning courage or an ill-starred destiny,

the lad loved to cut the waves in his tall

ship, the Chimaera, while his snowy arm

wielded a painted shield. On he sailed,

rejoicing, outstripping Carthaginian and

Roman ships alike, with his finer oarsmen

and better archers; and had already sunk

the turreted vessel, Nessus; but the lad

was tempted to ruin by his first taste of

glory! While he prayed wildly to heaven

that he might strip Marcellus of his proud

helmet crest and armour, a deadly wound

from a spear was the sole, violent, response.

Alas, for that loss! For whether he hurled

the shining discus through the air, or sent

a javelin among the clouds, or skimmed

the race-track with flying feet, or with a

single mighty leap covered the stretch of

measured ground, his efforts became him.

Was there not glory enough, not praise

enough to win in bloodless competition;

why seek greater deeds, lad, to perform?

When he fell, when that fatal spear sank

him in the waves, cheating his sea-tossed

bones of a grave in Syracuse, the straits

and cliffs of the Cyclopes, and Cyane

the nymph and her river-god Anapus,

with Ortygian Arethusa, wept for him.

Book XIV:516-538 The Perseus fights the Io

Elsewhere, the warship Perseus, captained

by Tiberinus, fought the Io, commanded by

Crantor a Carthaginian, the vessels clawing

together with their grappling hooks in battle,

the men fighting not with arrows as on land,

or javelins hurled from a distance, but with

the sword at close quarters. The Romans

boarded their enemy, over the dead killed

by the first encounter, but then Polyphemus

roused his mates to set loose the grappling

irons and weighty chains, intending, once

the Io was freed, to separate the boarders

from their vessel, with a stretch of empty

water. Polyphemus had been reared in a

cave on Etna, and delighted in his name

recalling the savagery of earlier times;

a she-wolf suckled him in infancy; he was

of mighty frame, of awesome size, cruel

minded with an ever-angry visage, while

a lust for blood, worthy of the Cyclopes,

filled his heart. He loosed the chains and

freed the ship by main force, dipped the

oars in the sea, and would have driven

the vessel on, had not a spear, hurled by

Laronius, pinned him to the thwarts as

he plied the oar with all his might. Yet

death itself failed to arrest his actions

once begun, since his failing arms still

performed all their customary motion,

scraping the oar over the water in vain.

Book XIV:539-561 Himilco flees

The defeated Carthaginians were wedged

in those corners of the Io free of the enemy

but, the ship tilting with the sudden weight,

sea rushed in, and she sank beneath the wave.

Shields, helmets, images of guardian gods,

and shattered javelins floated on the water.

One man, his sword lost, employed a piece

of broken wood for weapon, arming himself

with a fragment of the wreck; a second with

misguided energy hurried to rob the vessel

of its oars, while others tore at the benches,

hurling them towards the enemy. Neither

prow nor helm were spared, but split apart

to act as weapons, while floating javelins

were caught up and re-used. Water found

its way into gaping wounds, only to be

expelled, freed to the sea by the victims

with sobbing breath. Lacking weapons,

men grappled their enemies tightly so as

to drown them, giving their own lives to

kill the foe. Those who re-emerged from

the water grew ever-more savage, ready

to use the very sea itself as their weapon;

A bloody vortex swallowed the tangled

bodies. Here a clamour, there groans and

death, or flight, a snapping of oars and

the noise of clashing prows. The waters

seethed with the storm of war; and now

Himilco, worn down by renewed attacks,

turned tail, and stole away in a little boat

making swiftly for the coast of Africa.

Book XIV:562-579 The fate of various ships

At last, the Corsicans and the Carthaginians

conceded defeat; those ships captured intact

were towed to shore in long procession, while

the rest, still alight, stood out to sea. Flames

gleamed over the shining deep, as the rippling

surface quivered with reflections. The Cyane

burned, a vessel well known to those waters,

and the winged Siren. The Europa also burned,

named for her who rode Jove’s back, grasping

a horn, carried through the sea which he swam

disguised as a snow-white bull; and the watery

Nereid too, named for those sea-nymphs with

floating hair who, with dripping reins, guide

curve-backed dolphins over the deep; and then

there was the Python, ubiquitous on the seas,

the horned Ammon, and the Dido, propelled

by six banks of oars, that carried an image of

the Tyrian queen. But the Anapus was towed

to her native shore; with the Pegasus, named

for the winged horse once born of the Gorgon;

the Libya, bearing a signification of that land;

the Triton; the Etna, named for the pyre, above

high cliffs, beneath which Enceladus breathes;

and the Sidon, named for that city of Cadmus.

Book XIV:580-617 The plague

Now, Marcellus, may well have been able,

to penetrate the walls of a Syracuse whose

citizens were terrified, and to lead his eagles,

with scant delay, against their temple-gods,

had the air not been suddenly infected with

vile pestilence, a fatal plague, due to divine

ill-will and the sea’s pollution by the dead,

that robbed the poor Romans of their triumph.

The golden-haired sun, with its fervent heat,

filled Cyane’s waters and those wide-spread

marshes with the Stygian stench of Cocytus;

it marred the fruits, the kind gifts of autumn,

scorching them with quick lightning-flame.

The dull air fumed with dark vapours; the soil

was dry, dusty, its surface spoiled by the heat,

providing no sustenance, no shade for the sick,

while a gloomy mist filled the pitch-dark sky.

The dogs were the first to feel its effects, then

the birds dropped from the black clouds, their

wings flagging; next the woodland creatures

were laid low. Now, the deadly plague spread

further, killing soldiers, depopulating the camp.

It parched their tongues; a cold sweat flowed

over their bodies, poured from their shivering

frames; their dry throats refusing a passage to

the food given. Their lungs were racked with

coughing, and the thirsting victims’ breaths

emerged heated and fiery from their mouths.

Alas their sunken eyes could scarcely endure

the light; the nostrils collapsed, they vomited

blood and matter, their wasted bodies mere

skin and bone. Alas for the warrior, famous

in battle, carried off by so ignoble a death!

Proud trophies, won in many a fight, were

hurled on the funeral pyre. Medicine itself

yielded to disease. The dead were piled high,

their ashes formed a vast heap, yet all round

lay unattended and unburied bodies, as all

feared to touch an infectious corpse. That

fatal plague, nourished by what it fed on,

spread further until the walls of Syracuse

themselves shook with cries of grief, while

the Carthaginians experienced a suffering

as great as that of the Romans. Heaven’s

wrath fell on both with equal force, a like

image of death proved present everywhere. 

Book XIV:618-640 Marcellus renews the attack

Yet, as long as Marcellus lived, the cruel

weight of misfortune could never break

the Romans’ spirit, and the survival of

that one life, despite a mound of corpses,

compensated for their sufferings. Thus, as

soon as the plague-inducing heat of Sirius,

the fierce Dog-star, had cooled, and there

was less incidence of infection, Marcellus,

(just as a fisherman will wait for the wind

to slacken, and a calm sea, before rowing

his boat out into the deep) armed soldiers

snatched from the grasp of disease, while

purifying their ranks with due sacrifice.

They gathered eagerly to the standards,

and drew a joyful breath, on once again

hearing the sound of trumpets. Marching

to the attack, they were glad of the chance

to die in battle, if fate so ordained it and

battle was not refused, pitying their friends

who had died like sheep, finding a sad end

drawing a last breath on dark barrack-beds.

Looking back at the grave-mounds of their

inglorious dead, they felt it better to remain

unburied on the battlefield than be consumed

by disease. Marcellus led, hastening the proud

standards toward the walls. His men hid faces

emaciated by sickness behind their helmets,

concealing their pallid hue, so that the enemy

gained no succour from it. Swiftly that host

passed over the shattered walls, and ran on

in close order; all those impregnable forts

and defences being taken in the one assault.

Book XIV:641-675 The city of Syracuse

No city on earth, on which the sunlight falls,

could then rival Syracuse. So many temples

of the gods, so many strong-walled harbours,

market-squares, theatres on tall pillars, piers

that confronted the waves, with a countless

succession of great houses, as spacious as

country mansions. Then there were spaces

dedicated to athletic contests, enclosed by

long lines of colonnades running to the far

distance. What a plethora of tall buildings

adorned with the prows of captured ships,

what a wealth of arms on the temple walls,

spoils of the Athenian foe, or brought back

from conquered Libya abroad! Here was

the site adorned with Agathocles’ trophies,

there Hiero’s riches amassed in peacetime;

and there again the work of famous artists

consecrated by the ancients. Nowhere in

those days was the painter’s artistry finer;

Syracuse needed no Corinthian bronzes;

her tapestry was awash with shining gold,

and displayed living human likenesses

in the weave, to rival things wrought on

Babylonian looms, or by a Tyre priding

herself on her purple-dyed embroideries;

work that might equal patterns created

by the needle on Attalus’ tapestries, or

those of Egypt. Then there were goblets

of gleaming silver, beautified by gems,

and by forms of the gods whose divinity

was portrayed by genius; pearls from

the Red Sea; and silk, its threads those

women comb from cocoons that hang

from tree-branches. Such was the city,

and the riches of which Marcellus was

now the master, as he stood on a lofty

height gazing down at the place where

the blare of the trumpets would inspire

terror. At his nod, the walls would be

left standing or, by tomorrow’s light,

demolished utterly. He sighed at his

boundless power, shrinking from such

licence, swiftly restraining the soldiers’

violence, ordering the houses to be left

intact, sparing the temples of the gods

for them to be worshipped in as of old.

So mercy to the defeated replaced acts

of plunder, while Victory, content with

no more than herself – the victory won,

wafted her wings, unstained by blood.

Book XIV:676-688 Archimedes’ death: Marcellus spares the city

And Archimedes, memorable defender

of your native city, you also drew tears

from the conqueror; your own sad death

occurred as you pored calmly over some

diagram traced in the sand. Yet the rest of

the people, delighted to survive, vied in

joy, despite their defeat, with the victors.

Marcellus himself, emulating the mercy

shown by gods, in saving the city proved

its second founder. Hence it yet remains,

to stand throughout all the ages, a true

witness to the character of generals past.

Happy the nations, if peace would spare

our cities from plunder now, as war was

once accustomed to do! As it is, if that

prince, our emperor, Domitian, who has

brought world peace, had not checked

our unbridled passion for despoiling all

and sundry, the land and sea would have

been stripped bare by robbery and greed.

End of Book XIV of the Punica