Publius Papinius Statius
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. Conditions and Exceptions apply.
- BkIV:1-31 The Argives set out for war
- BkIV:32-73 The leaders depart: Adrastus
- BkIV:74-115 The leaders depart: Polynices and Tydeus
- BkIV:116-164 The leaders depart: Hippomedon
- BkIV:165-186 The leaders depart: Capaneus
- BkIV:187-245 The leaders depart: Amphiaraus
- BkIV:246-308 The leaders depart: Parthenopaeus
- BkIV:309-344 Atalanta resists Parthenopaeus’ departure
- BkIV:345-405 The Queen of the Theban Bacchantes complains
- BkIV:406-487 Tiresias summons the shades
- BkIV:488-535 The ghosts gather
- BkIV:536-578 Manto summons Argive and Theban spirits
- BkIV:579-645 The ghost of Laius prophesies
- BkIV:646-696 Bacchus perceives the Argive threat
- BkIV:697-738 Bacchus causes drought in Argos
- BkIV:739-796 Hypsipyle guides the Argives
- BkIV:797-843 The Argives drink at Langia’s stream
BkIV:1-31 The Argives set out for war
Phoebus had thrice eased harsh winter with his breezes,
Forcing the passing days to increase their narrow bounds,
Before wise counsel had been overturned by demanding
Fate, and these wretches given at last the licence for war.
First Bellona waved her red torch from Larisa’s summit,
And with her right hand sent her massive spear whirling;
It flew, whistling, through the clear sky and so landed
On the high rampart of Aonian Thebes. Then entering
The camp and mingling with the warriors clad in steel
And gold, she cried out, loud as a squadron, handed
Swords to departing men; drove on the horses; called
Troops to the gates: the brave not needing to be urged,
And even the cowards gaining a brief access of courage.
The appointed day arrived. Whole flocks were ritually
Sacrificed to Gradivus and the Thunderer; the priest,
Finding nothing favourable in the entrails, feigning
Good omens for the soldiers. Now their fathers, wives
And children, flowed among them blocking their path
To the outer gates. The weeping was unrestrained.
Helms and shields were wet with tears as they spoke
Their sad farewells, and a family to be sighed for hung
About every warrior. They tried to grant kisses through
Closed visors, while crests nodded to their embraces.
Those who had called a moment past for their swords,
For death itself, now groaned, anger quenched, giving
Way to tears. So, when voyagers are ready to set sail
On some long journey, and the fluked anchor is hauled
From the deep, and a breeze fills the sails, the dear ones
Cling to them, vying to twine their arms about their neck;
Sea-mist and kisses blur their weeping eyes; left behind,
They stand there yet, waving to the vessel from the cliff,
And still gaze from the heights, for sweet it is to follow
The flying canvas, saddened by the rising offshore wind.
BkIV:32-73 The leaders depart: Adrastus
Now, ancient Fame, and you, past Ages of the world,
You that remember leaders, and celebrate their lives,
Set out the names. And you, Calliope, raise your lyre,
O queen of the sounding groves, and tell of the armies
And the weapons Mars conjured, the cities he emptied
Of their people, since no deeper wisdom comes to any
Mind than that which flows from your fount. Adrastus,
The king, full of years, sad and weighed down by care
Walked barely unaided among cries of encouragement,
Glad to feel the steel at his side, attendants bearing his
Shield behind him. His charioteer held the swift horses
There at the gate, Arion already neighing for the yoke.
Larisa arms her men, for the king, and high Prosymna;
Medea better for grazing; sheep-rich Philius; and Neris,
Fearing the Charadros as it foams down its long valley;
Cleonae of the massive tower, and Thyrea fated to reap
Spartan dead. With them march the men who till rocky
Drepanum, and tend the fields of olive-bearing Sicyon,
Mindful of this king whom they once drove elsewhere;
And those whom the slow Langia passes in silent flow,
And the Elisson that curves sinuously between shores,
Owning to grim honour since its harsh waters are said
To bathe the Stygian Furies: fresh from the destruction
Of Thracian palace, or the impious roofs of Mycenae,
Or Cadmus’ dwelling, they’ll plunge their faces deep,
Their snaky tresses panting for Phlegethon’s streams;
And the river flees from them as they swim, its pools
Darkening endlessly with venom. There too are men
From Corinth, that solaced Ino’s cries; and the host
From Cenchreae, where a fountain known to the poets
Sprang from under Pegasus’ hoof, where the Isthmus
Thwarts the seas, and separates their breaking waves.
A host three thousand strong follows Adrastus, proudly,
Some bearing pikes, some stakes hardened in the fire
(There is no one race and so no single kind of weapon)
Some whirling curved slings, making a circle in thin air.
Adrastus, revered for his power and his years, joins
Them, moving like a great bull among pastures he
Has long possessed; his neck droops, his shoulders
Are hollow, yet he is still leader; the other steers lack
Courage to try him in battle, seeing his horns splintered
By many a blow; the great scars of wounds on his chest.
BkIV:74-115 The leaders depart: Polynices and Tydeus
Beside Adrastus, Polynices, his Theban son-in-law lifted
His banner, in whose cause they fought, to whom the whole
Army lent its anger: and volunteers rallied to him from his
Native land. Some championed the exile, their loyalty made
Firmer by misfortune, some mainly wished a change of ruler,
While many were won to the rightness of his superior cause.
Moreover Adrastus granted him rule of Aegion and Arene;
And power over Theseus’ Troezen, lest he lack glory leading
Too mean a force, and feel the lost honours of his homeland.
His clothes and weapons were those he had worn as a fated
Guest that winter’s night. A Teumesian lion-skin adorned his
Back, the blades of twin javelins gleamed, while on the sharp
Sword at his side a menacing Sphinx, embossed, firmly sat.
Already in his hopes and prayers, his realm regained, he sees
His mother’s form, his loyal sisters; yet he looks backward far
Towards Argia where she leans distraught from a high turret.
She draws her husband’s thoughts and gaze from sweet Thebes.
Behold Tydeus like a lightning-bolt in their midst has roused
A host of his countrymen, strong again in body, overjoyed
At hearing the first trumpets sound. He was like a snake that
Slithers from his deep den at the mild breath of spring sunlight,
Free of moulted skin, shedding the scaly years, a green threat
Among rich grasses, marking trouble for the labourer who finds
Him gaping from the turf, and feels the first venom of his fangs.
Rumours of war brought Tydeus allies too, from Aetolia’s cities.
Stony Pylene heard the call; and Pleuron where Meleager’s
Sisters wept for him, and were turned to birds; steep Calydon,
And Olenos that challenges Mount Ida with its tale of Jupiter;
And Aetolian Chalcis whose haven hosts the Ionian waves;
And Achelous, whose river-god’s horn was broken by Hercules,
So that even now he scarcely dares to raise his mutilated brow
From the liquid depths and mourns, head sunk in his green cave,
While his shores breathe dust and parch. These warriors’ chests
Were protected by shields of bronze-covered wicker, they bore
Cruel pikes, and Mars their ancestral god adorned their helmets.
A chosen band of men surrounded the brave son of Oeneus,
Ready for war, and marked with the scars of that evil night.
He equals Polynices in his menace and his anger, such that
It seems in doubt for which of them the fight will be waged.
BkIV:116-164 The leaders depart: Hippomedon
Vaster than these, the Doric ranks appeared, newly armed,
Men that plough your banks, and with many a ploughshare
Lyrceus; and your shores, Inachus, chief of Achaean streams,
(Since no fiercer river flows over Persean soil, when Taurus
And the watery Pleiades shine, foaming, swollen with the rain
From Jove his son-in-law); and men swift Asterion encircles,
And Erasinus bearing Dryopian harvests; and those who till
The Epidaurian fields (the hills are kind to Bacchus’ vines,
But not to Sicilian Ceres’ corn). Distant Dyme sent warriors,
Neleian Pylos dense squadrons (Pylos was not yet famous,
Nestor was still young, in his second span of life, but he
Refused to join the doomed army). Hippomedon led them
All, teaching them the love of glorious valour. On his head
A bronze helmet swayed, with its triple snowy plume erect,
Chain mail chafed his sides beneath his shield, a golden arc
Covered his shoulders and chest, all Danaus’ night-work
Engraved in the metal; fifty marriage chambers all ablaze
With crime, with the black torches of the Furies; the father
Himself in the bloodstained doorway praising the guilty,
Examining the swords. A Nemean steed bore Hippomedon
Down from the citadel of Argos and, fearing his weapons,
Filled the fields with a vast flying shadow, raising a long trail
Of dust over the plain. Hylaeus the Centaur hurtled like that
From his mountain cave, shattering the undergrowth with his
Shoulders and bi-formed breast; Ossa dreading his passing;
Cattle and wild beasts crouching in terror; even his brothers
Not without fear, till with one vast leap he reached the pools
Of Peneus, damming the mighty river with his opposing mass.
What mortal voice could describe the weight of steel, the ranks,
The power. Ancient Tiryns too was stirred to action, by her god
Hercules, not lacking brave men, or degenerated from the days
Of her great son, but her wealth sunk in decay, no riches adding
To her strength; only a rare dweller in the fallow fields marking
Her towers raised by the Cyclopes’ sweat. Yet still she yields
Three hundred courageous hearts to the countless ranks of war.
They’ve no throwing spears or baleful flashing swords: on their
Backs are tawny lion skins, their national garb; their pine staves
In their hands; with inexhaustible quivers crammed with arrows.
They sing their praise of Hercules and a world rid of monsters;
And far beyond leafy Oeta the god hears. Nemea too gives men;
And the sacred vineyards of Cleonaean Molorchus, all they have
Gathered for the battle: far famed is the glory of his poor cottage,
The arms of the god, his guest, are depicted on its doors of willow,
And in his tiny field are shown the oak on which the god leaned
His club and unstrung bow; the marks of his elbow in the ground.
BkIV:165-186 The leaders depart: Capaneus
And Capaneus marched out, head and shoulders taller than the rest.
His shield was made from the hides of four untamed steers, topped
With a rigid mass of heavy bronze, embossed with the vile Hydra,
Newly slain, branched and triple-crowned: part, embossed in silver,
Shone with savage living heads, part was treated, a new technique,
Darkened in tawny gold as if in death; round it flowed the sluggish
River-marshes of Lerna, dark blue in steel. While his broad chest
And wide flanks were protected by closely-woven iron mail, no
Women’s work, a thing of awe. From his helmet’s glittering crest
A Giant arose. A cypress stripped of branches with point attached,
Was his spear, that none but he could hurl. Under his command fall
Those nurtured by fertile Amphigenia, flat Messene, mountainous
Ithome, Thyron and Aepy piled on its hilltop, Helos, and Pteleon,
And Dorion mourning for Thamyris, its Getic bard, who thought
To surpass the Aonian Muses in song, and was condemned to a life
Of silence, voice and lyre instantly mute (who can slight the deities
Face to face?) He had forgotten Celaenae, the home of the satyr,
Marsyas hung and flayed for daring to try his skill against Apollo.
BkIV:187-245 The leaders depart: Amphiaraus
Now even the will of Amphiaraus, the far-seeing augur, grew faint,
And yielded: he indeed knew the outcome, and the fatal omens,
But Atropos herself placed weapons in his uncertain hand, her power
Outweighed the god of prophecy’s. Nor was his own wife’s treachery
Lacking, his house glittered already with forbidden ore, the golden
Necklace the Fates had warned would bring destruction to the seer.
His faithless spouse knew (ah, the guilt!) but chose to barter her
Husband for a gift, coveting the spoils of powerful Argia, wishing
To glow with stolen adornment. Argia, happily placed the fatal
Necklace in the hands of her beloved Polynices, and without a tear
Said: ‘To me, bright ornaments do not suit these times, I would
Take no pleasure in making myself beautiful in your sad absence.
It will be enough to solace my doubts and fears with the consolation
Of friends, and sweep the surface of the altars with my unkempt hair.
Should I (shameful thought!) wear rich Harmonia’s golden dower,
While you are encased in threatening helm, and sounding steel?
Fortune will grant me ornaments more fitting, my garb outshine
Argos’ brides, when I am the consort of the king, when you return
To me, and the temples are filled with votive choirs. For now, let
Her who wishes, and is happy at her husband’s absence, wear it.’
Thus the fatal gold entered Eriphyle’s house and set in motion
The mighty antecedents of her crime. Tisiphone smiled grimly,
Rejoicing in things to come. Meanwhile Amphiaraus stood behind
His Taenarian steeds, bred out of Castor’s Cyllarus in an unknown
Unequal union, as they pawed the ground. Parnassian wool threads,
Denoting the seer, adorned him; his helm was wreathed with olive
Leaves, and a white ribbon twined round its scarlet plume. Now,
He handled the taut reins and, at the same instant, those weapons
In his hand. His chariot quivering with a forest of iron, had slots
For javelins on either side. He himself, with weighty spear, seen
From afar, shone with light from the conquered Python graved
On his shield. Men from Apollo’s Amyclae followed his chariot;
From Pylos, and Malea shunned by nervous mariners; Caryae
Skilled in music in Diana’s honour; Pharis, and Cytherean Messe,
Mother of doves; and a phalanx out of Taygetus; and hardened
Warriors from the banks of the swan-filled Eurotas; Mercury,
Himself, the Arcadian god, nurtured these men in the naked
Dust, and imbued them with the power and fury of raw valour;
Minds, filled with vigour thus, lead them on to sweet rituals
Of death with honour, while parents applaud their children’s
Fate, urging them on to die, while a multitude sheds tears for
Their youth, and mothers rest content with a wreathed corpse.
These warriors gripped the reins and flourished twin javelins,
Clasped together; their massive shoulders were bare, a rough
Cloak hung down their back, and Leda’s swan-crest adorned
Their helmets. They were not the only ones to follow the seer:
Sloping Elis added to the force, and the men of low-lying Pisa
Who swim the yellow Alpheus, which reaches Sicily untainted
By its long sea-journey. They churn their crumbling fields far
And wide with chariots beyond count, and tame steeds for war;
A glory that endures among a race known for King Oenomaus’
Broken axles and vile deeds. The horses gnaw at the foaming
Bits, and a white rain showers down, to fleck the furrowed sand.
BkIV:246-308 The leaders depart: Parthenopaeus
You too, Parthenopaeus (a novice in war, alas, but such is the urge
For new glory!), led out the Parrhasian squadrons unbeknown
To your mother. His stern parent, Atalanta, chanced to be hunting,
With her bow, in far glades beyond chill Mount Lycaeus (or else
The youth would not have gone). No more handsome a face would
Go into that grave danger, no peerless form more favoured; nor
Did he lack courage but simply years of a more mature strength.
What spirits of the groves and rivers, what nymphs of the woodland
Dells did he not fill with burning passion? They say Diana herself,
Seeing the lad, with gentle steps, treading the grass in Maenalus’
Shade, forgave her companion Atalanta, and set the Amyclaean
Quiver with its Dictaean arrows on his shoulder. He charged out,
Filled with Mars’ audacious zeal, afire with the sound of trumpets
And weapons, ready to mar his yellow hair with the dust of battle,
And return on a captured enemy mount. He was tired of the woods,
Ashamed his arrows had not tasted the dubious glory of taking
Human life. Shining with gold he flamed ahead now, clothed
In purple, clasps of Iberian metal creasing the folds of his robe.
On his virgin shield his mother was depicted in the Calydonian
Hunt. At his left side his brave bow rattled, while his Cydonian
Arrows jostled in a quiver pale with electrum bright with jasper
From the east, arrows whose feathers rasped his back. He rode
Astride a charger swifter than a frightened deer, clothed in two
Lynx hides, that wondered at the weapons of a greater master.
His handsome colour and the freshness of youth in his cheeks
Drew all eyes. The Arcadians, an ancient race, old as the moon
And stars, sent him loyal troops. The race was born, so legend
Tells from tall forest trees, when Earth, astonished, felt the first
Tread of feet. There were no houses, cities, fields or marriage
Laws as yet. Oaks and laurels bore new offspring; the shadowy
Ash created a nation; a vigorous lad came from a fertile rowan.
They say the alternation of light and dark night amazed them,
And that following the setting sun at a distance they despaired
Of day. High Maenalus also was thinned of farmers; deserted,
The Parthenian forest; while Rhipe, Stratie and windy Enispe
Gave troops for war. Nor was Tegea idle; nor Cyllene, happy in
Her winged god, Mercury; nor Aleae, forest shrine of Minerva;
Nor swift Clitor; and the River Ladon, father of Daphne, she
Almost Apollo’s bride; nor Lampia, white on its snowy ridge;
Nor Pheneos, named the source of Styx, flowing to dusky Dis.
The Arcadian Azanes came, emulating the cries on Cybele’s Ida;
The Parrhasian chiefs; the men of Nonacria’s land which delights
The quiver-bearing Thunderer (love laughed at his disguise as
Diana); Orchemnos, too, rich in cattle, Cynosura in wild beasts.
The same ardour emptied Aepytus’ fields and high Psophis,
And the mountains known for Hercules’ exploits with his club
Against Erymanthus’ monstrous boar, and Stymphalos’ birds.
All are Arcadians, one race divided only in their ways of life.
Some bend Paphian myrtles back from the root, and practise
Fighting with shepherds’ staves, some are armed with bows,
Some with stakes. One has a helmet, one wears his customary
Arcadian hat, while another masks his head with the savage
Gaping jaws of a Lycaonian bear. The warlike crowd, those
Hearts sworn to do battle, were not joined by the warriors
From neighbouring Mycenae, since the fatal banquet was
Occurring there, when the sun turned backwards at midday;
There, those other brothers were locked together in conflict.
BkIV:309-344 Atalanta resists Parthenopaeus’ departure
The news her son was leaving as the leader of the Arcadians
In the war now reached Atalanta. Her step faltered, her bow
Fell by her side. Swifter than the wings of the wind she fled
The forest; rocks and rivers with brimming banks obstructing
Her path; she ran with her robe all gathered up, as she was,
Her yellow hair blowing in the breeze, as a tigress robbed
Of her cubs angrily tracks her enemy’s course. Reaching
The camp, she pressed herself against the bridle (he, pale
And downcast): ‘Why this furious longing, my son, where
Does this cruel courage in your youthful heart arise from?
Are you fit to rule men in war? Can you bear the weight
Of fighting, and lead squadrons of warriors with swords?
What strength do you have for that? I turned pale but now
Seeing you thrusting a hunting spear against a fierce boar,
Forced back, knee bent, in that close combat, near collapse;
And if I’d not fired an arrow from my curved bow, where
Would your war be? My arrows will not help you there,
Nor my polished bow, nor your piebald horse in which
You put your faith, with its black markings. A boy scarce
Ripe for Dryads’ chambers, the passions of Erymanthian
Nymphs, you set out on a great enterprise. The omens are
Valid. I wondered why Diana’s temple seemed to shudder
Of late, and she was seen in her infernal guise, as spoils
Of war fell from the sacred dome; it slacked my bowstring,
And made my hands falter, uncertain of every arrow shot.
Wait till your honours increase, and your years are greater,
Your rosy cheeks shadowed, and my looks no longer yours.
Then I will lead you to war myself, and the steel you long
For, and I’ll shed no mother’s tears to summon you back.
Take your weapons home, for now. You Arcadians, born
Of rocks and trees, will you stop him?’ She would have
Spoken longer, but the leaders surrounded her and her son,
And crowding near they comforted her and tried to calm
Her fears. Now the harsh trumpets bray. She clasps her
Son still in her fond embrace, commending him to Adrastus.
BkIV:345-405 The Queen of the Theban Bacchantes complains
Elsewhere the people of Mars and Cadmus, dismayed by
The king’s madness, and alarmed at the grievous news,
(Since it was rumoured the Argives were descending on
Them in strength) slowly, shamed by their ruler and his
Cause, and yet surely nonetheless, prepared for conflict.
None were eager to unsheathe their swords, nor protect
Their shoulders with their father’s shields, nor groom
Their teams of horses, these the delights of war. Rather,
They worked dejectedly, without anger or commitment,
With fearful gestures. One was grieved at the thought
Of the illness of a loving parent, another at the thought
Of his sweet young wife, and of the luckless offspring
Swelling her womb. None were on fire for the war-god.
The walls themselves were crumbling with long neglect.
The flanks of Amphion’s great towers were now fragile
And decayed. Brute toil, in silence, repaired the ramparts
That the song of a sacred lyre had once raised to heaven.
And yet a lust for vengeance in battle did inspire the cities
Of Boeotia, stirred not so much though by the wish to aid
An unjust king as by wanting to assist an allied nation.
The monarch indeed was just like a wolf that has raided
A packed sheepfold; his chest still dripping with vile gore,
His bristling jaws foul with bloodstained strands, he quits
The pen gazing uneasily, this way and that, to discover
Whether the sturdy shepherds have witnessed the deed
And pursue him; till, aware of his own audacity, he flees.
Busy Rumour added fear on fear: one alarm had Lernaean
Cavalry already wandering along the banks of Asopus.
Another had Cithaeron taken, the haunt of Bacchantes,
And Teumesos another, while Plataeae, her watch fires
Alight in the darkness, was said to be aflame. For who
Had not freely known and witnessed Tyrian house gods
Dripping sweat, Dirce’s water flowing red, strange births,
And the Sphinx giving utterance from her cliff? And then
Fresh terror troubled their anxious hearts: their woodland
Queen of Bacchantes was suddenly possessed; scattering
The sacred baskets, she flew down from the Ogygian peak
To the plain, waving her triple pine torch to and fro, wildly,
With bloodshot eyes, her frenzied cries filling the startled
City, in her passion, shouting: ‘Nysaean father, mighty
Bacchus, you have longed since ceased to love your own
People. Now you run with your iron-tipped wand shaking
Warlike Thracian Ismara, command Lycurgus to imagine
A forest of vines; or you rave in flagrant triumph beside
The swollen Ganges, or the furthest shores of the Red Sea
And the lands of sunrise, or emerge golden from the waters
Of the Hermus. Yet we, your children, who have cast aside
The thyrsi, the wands of our nation used in holy worship,
Endure war, and terror, and the crimes of kin, the gifts
Of an unjust reign. Raise me Bacchus: set me down where
Amazonian armies, in eternal frost, howl beyond the peaks
Of Caucusus, rather than hear me tell of monstrous deeds,
And a brood of unhallowed rulers. Lo! You possess me,
(Not such was the madness, I dedicated to you, Bacchus.)
Now I see a pair of mighty bulls, of one breed, that clash.
They lock long horns, butting head on head, and then die
Savagely, in mutual wrath. And he the worst, that sinner:
Yield, you who seek to fight alone for the ancient pasture,
Communal hill slopes. Woe to you! Such bloody conflict
When another holds rights to the meadow!’ So she cried,
Then as Bacchus left her, her face grew still, in icy repose.
BkIV:406-487 Tiresias summons the shades
Alarmed now by the omen, and unequal to a host of fears,
The king, sick at heart, sought aid and counsel of the blind
Old seer, wise Tiresias; so men did, fearful of the unknown.
He declared that the gods themselves reveal less of truth in
The rich slaughter of cattle, the flight of birds, in quivering
Entrails, the tripod’s riddles, or the movements of the stars,
Or in the flow of smoke over the incense-bearing altars, as
They do through spirits summoned from the shores of death.
He then enacted the sacred rites of Lethe, plunging the king
Below the surface of the Ismenos, where it meets the sea,
And purging all about him with the ragged entrails of sheep,
Wafts of odorous sulphur, fresh herbs, and lengthy prayers.
There stood a grove, rich in years, bent by robust old age,
Its boughs un-lopped; where sunlight never penetrated.
Winter could not touch it, and over it neither southerlies,
Nor northerlies, blowing from the Getic Bear, had power.
Beneath lay a hidden quiet; terror kept a void of silence,
There; and echoes of excluded light cast an eerie pallor.
The shade was not lacking a deity: Diana frequented it,
As guardian of the wood; her image carved from cedar
And pine was hid in sacred shadow beneath its boughs.
Her darts whistled unseen among the trees, the howling
Of her hounds was heard by night, when she crossed
Her uncle Dis’s threshold, exchanging Hecate’s form
For one new and better; or weary of the mountains, as
The sun at zenith counselled sweet sleep, she planted
Her arrows all around her, and rested, her head leaning
On her quiver. Beyond is a vast stretch of plain, fields
Of Mars, the furrows that yielded warriors to Cadmos:
Daring, the man, who after the fighting among brothers,
Among the deep-drenched furrows, first turned the soil
Again with ploughshare, tilling the blood-stained earth!
Even now at noon, or in the black solitudes of night,
The fateful soil breathes out dense tumultuous vapours,
And the dark sons of earth rise up in phantom conflict;
Then the farmer runs in fear from the field he was set
To plough, the oxen rush homewards in mad frenzy.
There, the aged prophet ordered dark-fleeced sheep
And black cattle to be tethered, the finest of the herds
(Since the ground was suited to Stygian rites, the soil,
Drenched once by the blood of warriors, to his liking).
Dirce and sad Cithaeron groaned, then valley-echoes
Died to a stunned silence. There, with his own hands,
He twined dark garlands round the curved horns, then
At the edge of the wood, as times before, he poured
Draughts of rich wine on the ground, into the hollows,
In nine places; offerings of fresh milk and Attic honey;
And blood, seductive to the shades. He offered as much
As the dry earth would drink. Then tree trunks, rolled
To the spot, were used to make triple fires for Hecate
At his command, and as many for the Furies, the virgin
Daughters of accursed Acheron. Then a ditch was dug,
And pines heaped in the air, for you, lord of Avernus,
And beside it a lesser altar piled for Ceres’ Persephone.
Mourning cypresses were twined, in front and all around,
And now the beasts collapsed to the blows of an axe
On their bowed heads, while pure meal was scattered.
Then his daughter Manto, with blood caught in bowls,
Made a first libation, and circling all the pyres thrice,
In her revered father’s manner, offered still-quivering
Entrails, livers and lungs, swiftly set light to the dark
Branches with blazing torches. When Tiresias heard
Boughs crackling in the flames, and then the roaring
Of the gloomy piles (fierce heat breathed on his face,
And the fiery vapour heated his hollow eye-sockets)
He cried out (the pyres trembling at his mighty voice):
‘Dread realms of Tartarus, you, kingdom of insatiable
Death, and you Hades, cruellest of the three brothers,
You, to whom are given the shades that serve you,
And the guilty for eternal punishment, you whom
The palace of the lower world obeys, open the silent
Places, and stern Proserpine’s abyss, to my summons.
Call out the host hidden in hollow night, and so allow
The ferryman, his vessel filled, to re-pass the Styx.
Let all cross together, but grant the shades more ways
Than one of rising to the light. Daughter of Perses,
Separate the pious spirits of Elysium from the rest,
Let airy Mercury with his wand of power lead them;
But Tisisphone, do you show the guilty dead the path,
The most of Erebus, and the most of Cadmus’ race,
To the wide shore of day, flailing your snaky tresses
Three times, racing ahead of them with burning yew;
And let not Cerberus’ triple jaws obstruct them there,
Or turn aside the shades that rise, longing for the light.’
BkIV:488-535 The ghosts gather
He spoke, then the aged seer and the virgin of Apollo
Waited expectantly; they felt no fear, since the god
Was in their hearts: but Oedipus’s son was overcome
By deep dread. In his anxiety he gripped now the hand,
Now the shoulder, now the sacred fillets of the prophet
In his dread chant, and wished now the rites would end.
He felt like the huntsman waiting the approach of a lion,
Roused from its lair, in the undergrowth of a Gaetulian
Forest, by the shouting, who steadies his nerves, clasps
The weapon, sweat-drenched, in his grip, as fear freezes
His face, and his legs tremble; as he imagines the beast
Nearing, its size – hearing the fatal omen of its roaring,
And gauging, with blind trepidation, the sound it makes.
Then Tiresias, as the phantoms still failed to advance,
Called out: ‘Goddesses, for whom we have sprinkled
Libations on the flames, and poured wine with our left
Hands on the hollowed earth, I summon you to witness,
I can endure no more delay. Am I, as priest, to be heard
In vain? Shall you come to the command of a Thessalian
Witch’s rabid chant? Or, if a Colchian cries, drugged
With Scythian potions, shall Tartarus turn pale, shudder
In fright? Do you care less for me? Though I choose not
To raise corpses from tombs, or scatter the ancient ash
From brimming urns, or profane the assembled gods
Of heaven and Erebus, or chase after bloodless faces
With a blade, and snatch the sickly innards of the dead,
Do not, I warn you, do not scorn my fading years, or
The shadow on my darkened brow. I too can be cruel:
I know what you fear may be uttered, may be heard.
I could trouble Hecate (did I not revere you, Apollo,
Lord of Thymbra) and the greatest of the triple world,
Whom it is blasphemy to know. He – but I am silent:
The peace old age seeks forbids it. I summon you, now –’
But, eagerly, Manto, devotee of Phoebus, intervened:’
Father, you are heard: the bloodless crowd approaches.
The Elysian void lies open, the vast hidden darkness
Of earth splits apart, woods and black rivers appear;
Acheron spews livid sand; fiery Phlegethon rolls dark
Smoke over his waters; Styx between, bars the parted
Shades. I see Him, pale upon his throne, around Him
The Furies, servants of His deathly work, there I see
The grim marriage-chamber and the bed of Proserpine,
The Stygian Juno. Black Death is seated there, alert,
Counting the silent gathering, on his master’s behalf;
While yet greater crowds await their turn. The Cretan
Judge, Minos, shakes his harsh urn, demanding truth
With threats, forcing them to recount their lives from
Their inception, and confess at last their hidden crimes.
Shall I tell you of the monsters of Erebus; Scyllas there,
Centaurs vainly raging; the Giants’ twisted chains, solid
Steel; the cramped shade of hundred-handed Briareus?’
BkIV:536-578 Manto summons Argive and Theban spirits
‘No, guide and support to my old age,’ replied her father,
‘Do not tell me what all men know. Who has not heard
Of Sisyphus and his ever-returning stone, of Tantalus
And the deceptive pool, Tityus food for the vultures,
And Ixion dizzied on his eternal wheel? I too when my
Blood was swifter saw the hidden realms, while Hecate
Led me, before Hera destroyed my sight, before Jupiter
Drove all light inwards to my breast. Summon Argive
Spirits here and Theban rather, with your prayers, bid
All others, daughter, turn away, sprinkled four times
With milk, to quit the dismal grove. Tell me the look
And manner of the shades, you bring, their appetite
For the blood we spilled, and which of those nations
Seems more proud; point by point illuminate my night.’
She did as he commanded, casting a spell, like Medea
Without her guilty crimes, or Circe, changer of forms,
On Aea’s shore; a spell that scattered all the shades,
And recalled some. Then she addressed her revered
Father: ‘Cadmus lowers his feeble serpent’s mouth
To the pool of blood first, then Cytherea’s daughter
Harmonia succeeds her husband, the two snakes drink
From the eddies. Their followers, the warriors of Mars
Born from the earth, whose life-span was a single day
Surround them, all armed, hands on their sword-hilts.
They attack, feint and parry with the fury of the living,
Ignoring the sad pit, thirsting for each other’s blood.
Next a crowd of daughters and lamented grandchildren
Approach. There Autonoe, bereaved of her Actaeon,
And Ino fleeing Athamas’ bow, pressing her sweet lad
To her panting breast, and Semele arms outstretched to
Defend her womb. Cadmean Agave follows Pentheus
Her son, her Bacchic wand broken, grieving, free now
Of the god, her breasts bare and bleeding. He now flees
Through Lethe’s wilds, and beyond the Stygian Lake,
Where Echion his more kindly father weeps for him
And re-unites his dismembered body. I recognise sad
Lycus, and Athamas, the son of Aeolus, throwing now
The corpse of his son Learchus over his burdened
Shoulder. Nor has Actaeon lost the aspect or stigma
Of his changed form as yet: his brow still roughened
With antlers, sword in hand, he repels his hounds,
Jaws apart to tear him. And behold, Niobe, Tantalus’
Daughter, envied for her long train, appears; to count
Her dead children in proud mourning; not downcast
By grief, but joyful rather to escape the gods’ power,
And be free to grant her foolish tongue more scope.’
BkIV:579-645 The ghost of Laius prophesies
As the virgin priestess described all this for her father,
His white hair with its sacred ribbons stood on end,
And the blood was driven from his haggard visage.
He no longer leant on his supporting stave or looked
To the loyal girl, but standing erect and tall he cried:
‘Cease, your tale, my daughter. I have light enough
Now from beyond; the mist disperses; the darkness
Is stripped from my face. Inspiration fills me, sent
By Apollo above or the ghosts themselves. Behold,
I see what I just heard, but look, the Argive shades
Are mournful, their eyes are downcast. Grim Abas,
Guilty Proteus, gentle Phoroneus, maimed Pelops,
And Oenomaus, are soiled with dust, while streams
Of tears bedew their faces. From it I augur Thebes
Shall have the better of this war. But what of that
Gathering crowd? Warriors by their weapons, by
Their wounds; why do they show chests and faces
Drenched with blood, and with illusory clamour
Devoid of peace, raise high their arms towards us?
Am I wrong, majesty, or are those your fifty men?
See there Cthonius, Chromis, Phegeus; see, Maeon
Adorned with our prophetic laurel. Warriors, do not
Be angered, this was no mortal’s doing, believe it!
Steely Atropos wove the hour. You are free of life’s
Trials, while Tydeus and the horrors of war are ours.’
So saying, as they pressed forward he drove them back
With twigs tied by sacred ribbons, pointing to the blood.
The shade of Laius stood alone on Cocytus’ sad shore.
Mercury had already returned him to pitiless Avernus.
Now, breathing endless hatred, looking askance at his
Fell grandson (whose face he knew) he kept far from
The blood and offerings, yet still the Aonian seer drew
Him in: ‘Great king of Tyrian Thebes, where no kindly
Day has shone on Amphion’s citadel since your death,
Now sufficiently avenged for your blood-stained end,
Your shade appeased by the disasters of your progeny,
Whom, wretched one, do you avoid? Oedipus, whom
You curse, lies long in the grave, and knows the close
Confines of death, his exhausted visage sunk in blood
And filth, cast from the light of day: a fate worse than
Any death, believe me! What reason have you to shun
Your innocent grandson? Confer, face to face; sate
Yourself on sacrificial blood; and, with anger or pity
Towards your family’s fate, reveal events to come,
The war’s disasters. Then I’ll let you cross that Lethe
Forbidden you, in the boat you long for, and restore
You to pious ground, and entrust you to the deities
Of the Styx.’ Softened by the promise of such gifts,
Laius moistened his cheeks with blood, and replied:
‘My peer as prophet why, as you reviewed the host
Of spirits, did you choose me, from all this crowd,
As augur, to speak to you of the future? It is enough
To know the past. Does my noble grandson (shame
On him) ask counsel of me? Bring Oedipus, bring
Him to your wicked rites, who was happy to put
His father to the sword, and return to his source,
Thrusting himself on his innocent mother. Now,
His son must weary the gods and the dark councils
Of the Furies, and ask my shade for help in battle!
Yet if I am welcome so, as a prophet for sad times,
I will speak, so far as Lachesis and grim Magaera
Let me. War is upon you, war from every quarter
In innumerable numbers; Mars, at fate’s command,
Urges on Lerna’s children with his goad. Earth’s
Portents, and the weapons of the gods, await them;
Lovely death; sinful decree that delays the final fire:
Thebes victory is certain, but fear not! Your fierce
Brother shall not have the kingdom, only the Furies.
Through twin impieties and luckless weapons (alas!)
Your cruel father will prevail.’ With this, he sank back,
And left them troubled by his enigmatic prophecies.
BkIV:646-696 Bacchus perceives the Argive threat
Meanwhile the Argives, a host on the march, held to
Shady Nemea and the thickets that knew Hercules’
Glory. Already they burned with desire to gather
Theban plunder, to raze and ravage homesteads.
Phoebus, say now, who deflected their anger, what
Caused delay, what events intervened on the way.
Of its inception, a few elements of the tale remain.
Bacchus was returning with his exhausted army
From conquered Haemus. There beneath the stars
Of two winters he had taught the warlike Getae
To bear his emblems, with Othrys’ frosty ridge;
And Rhodope to grow green with Icarian vines.
Now he brought his leafy chariot to his mother’s
Argos. Wild lynxes followed him on either side,
While his tigers licked at the wine-damp bridles.
Victorious Macedonian Bacchantes in the rear
Carried the spoils; cattle, and half-dead wolves,
And wounded bears. His was no idle train: Anger
And Madness, and Fear, and Courage were there,
Ever-intoxicated Ardour, and wavering footsteps,
And a host with all the hallmarks of their leader.
Seeing Nemea in arms, beneath a cloud of dust,
And the daylight on fire with the glitter of steel,
Yet Thebes unprepared for war, he was stunned.
Though subdued in speech, and lacking vigour,
He commanded the cymbals, drums, twin pipes
That blared round his deafened ears to fall silent,
Then he spoke: ‘This army seeks to destroy me,
And my race. Their ancient rage finds new heat.
Savage Argos and my implacable stepmother’s
Wrath fuel this war against me. My mother turned
To ashes, the flames I was born in, the lightning
I myself saw flare, are not those enough? Now
The wicked goddess even attacks with steel what
Survives: a dead mistress’ tomb, unarmed Thebes.
I’ll weave delay by guile. Onward, my companions,
Onward to the plain!’ His Hyrcanian tigers bristled
At his signal; and before he ended, reached Argos.
It was the moment when breathless noon lifts the sun
To heaven’s high zenith, when heat stands sluggishly
In the gasping fields, and every grove admits the light.
He summoned the watery powers, and surrounded by
Their silent host, began: ‘Nymphs of the wild, deities
Of the streams, and you, the greater part of my army,
Perform this task I set you faithfully. Choke the Argive
Founts, and rivers, the marshes, and wandering brooks
With dust, for me, awhile. In Nemea, above all, where
War against my city is afoot let all the deeps run dry.
Phoebus is at the summit of his path as yet, only let
Your goodwill not fail. The stars grant power to my
Plan, and Erigone’s scorching dog-star Sirius foams.
Go with a will; enter the hidden places of the earth.
Later I shall see you in full flow, and the finest gifts
Offered in worship of me shall be yours in honour,
And I will ward off the licentious Satyrs’ nocturnal
Mischief, and those lustful approaches of the Fauns.’
BkIV:697-738 Bacchus causes drought in Argos
He spoke, and a thin film seemed to spread over their
Faces, and their moist emerald-green tresses grew dry.
At once a burning drought drained the fields of Argos.
The waters evaporated; founts, lakes were encrusted;
Riverbeds hardened to baking mud. The impoverished
Soil was sick, and the stalks of wheat folded at each
Tender base. The flocks stood helpless by the shores,
The herds sought in vain the rivers they once waded.
Thus when the ebbing Nile conceals himself in his
Vast cavern; holds at their source the liquid snows
Of an eastern winter; the valley steams abandoned
By the flood, and gasping Egypt waits for the sound
Of her watery patron, until he grants their prayers,
In bringing nourishment down to the Pharian fields,
Granting the precursor of a long year of harvests.
Guilty Lerna was dry; Lyrcus, and mighty Inachus,
And Charadros that rolled rocks in his flood; bold
Erasious that ever overflowed his banks; Asterion,
Boisterous as the sea, a familiar sound on pathless
Heights, keeping the shepherds from their slumber.
Langia alone, also by order of the god, nurtured her
Silent waters in secret shade. The death of Opheltes
Had not yet granted the goddess sad renown, fame
Was not yet hers. But she watched grove and stream
In the wilderness. Great glory awaited the Nymph,
For the Nemean games, of alternate years, at which
Achaea’s finest labour, and the funereal rites, would
Revive the tale of sad Hypsipyle and sacred Opheltes.
Now men no longer had the strength to lift hot shields,
Or endure the constraints of armour (such the savage
Thirst that parched them). Not only were their mouths
And dry throats afire, but an inner agony gripped them:
Their pulse beat raggedly, their veins congealed, sour
Blood clung to their parched organs. Then crumbling
Soil, the dusty earth, breathed out hot vapour. No foam
Flowed from the horses’ mouths, they champed dry bits,
Thrusting their tongues against the bridles. The riders’
Rule was scorned; inflamed, the creatures raged over
The land. Adrastus sent scouts in all directions. Were
The marshes of Tiryns still moist, did Amymone’s
Waters still remain? All stagnated, drained by hidden
Fire, nor was there hope of rain from the sky. They
Might as well have scoured sandy Libya, the pale
Deserts of African Syene that no cloud ever shades.
BkIV:739-796 Hypsipyle guides the Argives
Then suddenly (for Bacchus himself had planned it),
As they wandered the woodlands they saw Hypsipyle,
Lovely in her sorrow. Opheltes was clasped to her breast,
The ill-fortuned child of Inachian Lycurgus, not her own;
Her hair was dishevelled, her clothes in rags, yet her face
Had the marks of royalty, and her dignity was clearly
Not eclipsed by misfortune. Adrastus, amazed, now spoke
To her: ‘Divine lady of the forest (for your fair visage
And your modesty show you are no mortal) blessed
In not needing to seek for water under this blazing sky,
Give succour to your neighbours. Whether Diana, Leto’s
Daughter, the bow-bearer, sent you to some marriage
Chamber from her chaste company, or some lover of no
Common order descended from the stars to beget a child
(For the ruler of the gods is himself no stranger to Argive
Nuptial beds) behold our wretched ranks. Our mission is
To put guilty Thebes to the sword, but savage thirst now
Robs us of courage, an unwarlike fate consumes our idle
Powers. Help us in our trouble, lead us to some turbid
River or muddy swamp; nothing is too shaming, nothing
Too vile, for our plight. You now we ask in lieu of winds
And rainy sky; restore our ebbing strength and sinking
Courage for war; and let your child then prosper beneath
Favourable stars. Let Jupiter grant us merely to retrace our
Steps, and what war-spoils will we gift you! I’ll repay you,
Goddess, with Theban flocks and copious blood, and here
A mighty altar will mark the grove.’ He gasped out these
Words, panting with the heat, his parched tongue impeded
By his rasping breath. His men were subject to like pallor,
Their mouths gaping helplessly. The Lemnian, her eyes
Downcast replied: ‘Would that I had not suffered sorrows
Beyond the mortal! Though I am descended from celestial
Race, how should I be your goddess? You witness a mother
Bereaved, fostering a child entrusted to her care. The gods
Alone know whether mine are nurtured at the breast; yet I
Owned to a kingdom and a mighty father. But why speak,
Why keep you, weary, from the water you crave? Come
With me, and let us see if Langia’s channel still holds her
Perennial stream. She it is that ever flows; under the zenith
Of raging Cancer and when Sirius shakes his blazing crest.’
The poor child, alas, clung to her, and lest she proved too
Slow a guide to the Pelasgi, she set him down on the ground
Nearby (so the Fates ordained) and when he would not be
Left behind consoled his sweet tears with knots of flowers
Loving murmurs: as Mount Ida re-echoes to mighty wails,
When Cybele, the Great Berecyntian Mother, commands
The quivering Curetes to dance round the tiny Thunderer,
And they strike their sacred drums in emulation; so now
The child, on the breast of the vernal earth, in dense grass,
Cries for his dear nurse, calling for milk, and then smiles
And attempts words that his tender lips struggle to sound.
He wonders at the forest noises or plucks at what comes
His way, or with open mouth breathes in the day. Thus he
Wanders through the woods unaware of danger, careless
Of life. Such was tender Mars in the Thracian snow, such
The winged boy Mercury on the Arcadian peak, such was
Mischievous Apollo, crawling on the shore, swaying Delos.
BkIV:797-843 The Argives drink at Langia’s stream
Now the Argives made their way through the undergrowth,
The wilds dimmed with green shade, Some surrounded their
Guide, others followed en masse or pushed ahead. Hypsipyle,
Dignified and swift, pressed onwards in the midst of them.
Now they approached the stream, the sounding valley echoed,
And the splashing of water on stone struck their ears. Argus
Was in the lead; showing his standard to the prompt platoons
He raised the joyful call of ‘Water! Then from mouth to mouth
The cry ran: ‘Water!’ So run the shouts of sailors at the oars
On the shores of the Ambracian sea (loud the land returns
The echo) when the helmsman points, in salute to Apollo,
At Actium’s looming promontory. Now officers and ranks
Plunge indiscriminately in the flow, a shared thirst uniting
The mingled throng. Bridled teams enter with their chariots,
And horses, carrying their armed riders, are borne along.
Some are deceived by whirling currents, slippery rocks.
They have no scruples in trampling kings caught in the flow,
Or swamping the upturned faces of yelling comrades. Waves
Break and the waters are torn apart all along their course.
Once a gentle lucent green in a liquid track, now its channel
Is muddied, churned to the depths, and the tumbled banks,
The uprooted turf, darken it. Yet they drink it regardless,
As it flows, thick with mud and debris, even if their thirst
Is slaked, like armies fighting a pitched battle in the flood,
Or conquerors sacking a city they have captured. But now,
One of the kings surrounded in the midst by water cried:
‘Nemea, long queen of the green glades, Jove’s chosen one,
When will your opposition end? You were not crueller even
To Hercules when he throttled the raging lion, and drove
Its breath back into its swollen chest. Let it to be enough,
That you counter your people’s actions thus far. And you,
Horned source of everlasting streams, you who never yield
To any sun, flow freely from whatever source your cool
Mouth lets loose its immortal torrent. For you do not rely
On frosty winter granting you unknown snows, the rains
Returning you water snatched from some other fount, nor
Some favour from the pregnant clouds of the northerlies;
You are self-reliant and no star counteracts your course.
Not Apollo’s Ladon, nor Xanthus, menacing Spercheus,
Nor Nessus the Centaur’s Lycormas, will surpass you.
You I shall celebrate (honoured next to Jove), in peace
Beneath a host of gleaming spoils, at the festive table:
Only welcome us joyfully in triumph, once more yield
Your streams to our weariness, in generous hospitality,
And graciously then receive this army you have saved.’
End of Book IV