Publius Papinius Statius


Book VII

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2013 All Rights Reserved

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BkVII:1-63 Mercury is sent to rouse the war-god Mars

While the Pelasgi thus delayed the onset of the Theban war,

Jupiter watched them, no kindness in his heart, and shook

His head, so that the stars on high trembled at the motion;

Atlas complaining: Earth weighed heavier on his shoulders.

Then Jove addressed Mercury, the swift Arcadian god: ‘Go,

Lad, and in one rapid leap glide to the north as far as those

Thracian dwellings, and the pole of the snowy constellation,

That Great Bear, where Callisto feeds her flames (forbidden

To sink into the Ocean) on wintry clouds and my own rain.

There, quickly, deliver his father’s urgent command to Mars,

Who perhaps lays his spear aside to breathe, though he hates

To rest or, more likely, plies weapons and insatiate trumpets,

Revelling in the courage of a race he loves. Spare nothing!

I thought he was ordered, long ago, to rouse Inachian troops,

And all the peoples the Isthmus separates or Malea’s angry

Waters thunder round: yet that host have scarcely passed

Beyond their walls, and halt to worship! They are so intent

On applause at the funeral rites of a slain innocent, you might

Think they were home from war. Is this your wrath, my Mars?

The discus spins in recoil, and makes earth resound; Spartan

Gloves meet in combat. If Mars owned to the frenzy, the wild

Delight in battle he’s so proud of, he’d be putting innocent cities

Ruthlessly to the sword then burning them, felling people who

Called on the Thunderer, while exhausting the wretched world.

But now he’s mild in warfare, and resigns himself to my anger.

Unless he hastens the war and hurls the Danaan host against

The Theban walls faster than I command let him (and yet

I threaten nothing cruel) let him become a kind and gentle god,

Let his savage ways transform to peaceful ones, let him return

The sword and horses, and end his power over life and death.

I’ll watch over the earth and order universal peace. Minerva

Will prove sufficient to deal with the Theban war. He spoke

While already Mercury was approaching the land of Thrace:

As he glided down from the Great Bear’s gateway to the pole,

He was tossed this way and that by the tempests ever-present

In that region, the lines of storm-clouds in the sky, the south

Wind’s first gasps. A dense hail rattled on his golden mantle,

While his shady broad-brimmed Arcadian hat gave little cover.

There he found barren woods, and Mars’ shrine, shuddering

As he gazed. There under far-off Haemus lies the god’s savage

Home, surrounded by a thousand Frenzies. Its walls are iron,

Iron-clad its trodden thresholds, its roof as well rests on iron

Columns. Apollo’s ray is daunted, light avoids the dwelling,

And a harsh glare dulls the stars. Its guards suit the place:

Mad Impulse leaps from the outer gate, blind Evil, red-hot

Anger, blood-stained Terror. Treachery lurks with hidden

Blade, and Strife grasping a double-edged sword. The court

Echoes with countless Threats, sombre Courage takes his

Stand in the centre, ecstatic Rage, and armed Death seated

There, with blood-filled countenance. On the altars flames

Snatched from burning cities, and blood derived from war,

Those alone. Trophies from many lands and captive races

Dot the temple heights and surrounds: fragments of iron

Gates, warships’ keels, empty chariots, skulls they crushed,

The very groans almost. Every relic truly of violent harm.

Mars was to be seen everywhere, but not with slack visage

As Vulcan with his divine art had displayed him; he had

Not yet been shown in the light of an adulterer, nor as yet

Been punished for his shameful union in that net of chains.

BkVII:64-104 Mars sets out to join the Argive host

The winged god had barely begun his search for the lord

Of the shrine when, behold, the ground quaked and horned

Hebrus bellowed as his waters were parted. Then the horses

Of war roaming the valley all foamed at the mouth, among

The quivering grasses, a sign of his arrival, and the closed

Gates of everlasting adamant flew open. He appeared now

In his chariot, adorned with Hyrcanian gore, transforming

The wide fields with a dire spray of blood: at his back were

The spoils, the weeping masses. The woods and deep snow

Gave passage. Dark Bellona controlled the team with her

Blood-stained hand; pricked them on with her long spear.

Mercury froze at the sight, and lowered his gaze. Jupiter

Himself would have been awed if he had been there, he

Would have withdrawn his threats, retracting his order.

The Lord of War spoke first: ‘What command is this you

Bring from Jove, out of the wide heavens? For you would

Not of your own free will come to this place, my brother,

To my wintry storms, you who live by dew-wet Maenalus,

And the mild mountain breezes of sun-drenched Lycaeus.’

Mercury gave out the Father’s decree. Mars in an instant

Had his horses whipped into flight, panting though they

Were from constant effort; he too filled with indignation

Over the battle-shy Greeks. Jove’s anger ebbed, on high,

At the sight, and slowly and weightily his looks altered,

As when an easterly fades, and vanishes, over the ocean,

Leaving it conquered, a calm swell and gently rolling sea

Replacing the exhausted tempest; though the vessels still

Lack their rigging, and the sailors still catch their breath.

The funeral games and their unarmed contests, had ended,

But the crowd had not yet dispersed. Silence fell while

Adrastus the hero poured wine on the ground to appease

Archemorus’ ashes, saying: ‘Little one, grant that we may

Celebrate this day with many a triennial renewal. Let not

Ivory-shouldered Pelops show more eagerness to visit

Olympus’ altars, the shrines of Elis; nor let the serpent

Glide more willingly to Castalia’s Pythian temple; nor

Palaemon’s shade swim, to Corinth’s pine-clad Isthmus.

We deny you to weeping Avernus, lad, and join our sad

Rite to the eternal stars. Now we are an army in haste.

But if you ensure we conquer the Theban cities with our

Swords, then a great altar we’ll build to proclaim your

Worth, then you shall be a god, worshipped not only

In the Inachian cities, but a divinity invoked in captive

Thebes.’ So the king prayed, for all; and each himself.

BkVII:105-144 Mars causes panic

Now Mars’ thrusting steeds were treading Ephyre’s shore,

Where Acrocorinthus lifts its head into the upper skies,

And casts its shadow alternately on the Isthmus’ twin seas.

There the god commanded Panic, one of his crew of dire

Companions, to advance before the team: none better at

Instilling breathless fear, at hiding reality from the mind.

The monster has countless voices and hands, and whatever

Face he chooses; all things are believed if he’s their author,

And he drives whole cities mad with his terrible onslaughts.

If he persuades the wretched of twin suns, or that the stars

Are falling, the ground is shaking, ancient forests sinking,

They are sure to see it. Now he invented something new

And sly. He raised the illusion of dust on the Nemean

Plain. The generals gazed astounded at the fog overhead.

He added tumultuous noise, a clamour that seemed like

Weapons clashing, galloping cavalry, fearsome shouts

On the wandering breeze. The leaders’ hearts pounded,

The men murmured, confused: ‘What noise is this, or

Are we deceived? Why are the stars concealed by dust?

Are the Ismenians upon us? That’s it, they’re approaching.

Would Thebes dare? Well do you think they’ll wait till

We’ve finished with funeral rites and tombs?’ So Panic

Bewilders them, and changes his appearance as he makes

His way through the ranks; now one of Pisa’s thousands,

Now a Pylian, now a Spartan by his looks, and he swears

The enemy are close, troubling the men with false alarms.

To the fearful nothing is false. So, when Mars appeared

Himself among the maddened army, and in swift circuit

Was borne round the heights of the sacred valley, thrice

Raising his spear, thrice lashing his steeds, thrice beating

His shield against his chest, each man ran for his arms,

For his arms or another’s, in wild disorder; snatching

Helms, and harnessing horses not theirs. A savage lust

For death and slaughter, raged in every breast, nothing

Stood in their passion’s way, and they plunged forward

As if compensating for delay. The shores resounded as

The wind from the land rose and vessels fled harbour;

Everywhere sails were flying, loose tackle thrown about,

Oars floated and every anchor dragged free, until from

Mid-ocean they viewed sweet land, comrades left behind.

BkVII:145-226 Bacchus complains to Jove

Bacchus had seen the Inachian cohorts swiftly gathering

For the march: sad at heart, his shining face distraught,

He turned to the city of Thebes and groaned, recalling

The palace that nursed him, and his father’s lightning.

His hair and garlands disordered, the thyrsus fell from

His hand, the grape-vines slid untouched from his horns.

Dishevelled, inglorious, in tears as he was, he appeared

Before Jove who happened to be alone in his heavenly

Halls. Bacchus, in a guise never seen before (though his

Father understood why), spoke as a suppliant: ‘Almighty

Sire of the gods, will you raze Thebes? Is your consort

So cruel? Have you no pity for the dear land, the house

You deceived, and my mother’s ashes? Enough that you

Once hurled fire from the clouds; we think, unwillingly.

Now a second time you bring dark flames to the earth,

Though not on oath to the Styx, nor asked to by a lover.

What next, my father, angry but just: a lightning-bolt

For me? Yet you do not visit Danae’s house so, nor

Parrhasian Callisto’s forest, nor yet Leda’s Amyclae.

It seems of all your sons I am the most disregarded.

Yet I was the sweet burden you sewed into your thigh,

To grant me a new threshold on life, and a lost womb,

Completing my mother’s term. And my unwarlike

Followers, unpractised in war, know only my ranks,

My struggles, how to garland their hair with leaves,

And whirl to the sound of the pipes: they fear only

The thyrsi of brides, the revels of married women.

How can they withstand Mars and his war-trumpets?

Behold what work he is preparing, that fervid one!

What if it were your Curetes he had armed, ordering

Them to defend themselves with their useless shields?

And now you favour Argos (was there no one else

To choose?) Oh, Father, your decisions are worse

Than the danger itself. Must we be ruined to enrich

My stepmother’s Mycenae? For my part, I’ll yield,

But what will become of my slaughtered people’s

Rites and sacraments, and the ashes of my mother,

Who conceived me to her sorrow? Must I flee too,

To Thrace, to Lycurgus’ forests, or to India where

I triumphed, to be their captive? Give the fugitive

A sanctuary. My brother Apollo (I begrudge him

Not) fixed Latona’s island, Delos, fast in the deep;

Minerva banished Neptune’s fount from her citadel;

I myself have seen Io’s son, Epaphus, rule the East,

Nor are Mercury’s Cyllene nor Minos’ Mount Ida

Troubled by war-horns. Why am I your only son

Whose altars offend? Thebes (since my influence

Counts for little) is where you had your long night

With Alcmene, and gave her Hercules; and there

You chose to love Antiope, daughter of Nycteus;

And there live the race of Tyre, scions of that bull

Kinder than the lightning; at least protect Agenor’s

Progeny.’ The Father smiled at these reproaches.

Calmly he raised him as he knelt with outstretched

Arms and, kissing him, gave this tranquil answer:

‘My boy, it’s not my wife’s doing, as you suppose,

Nor am I so obedient to her fierce demands. We

Are led by the immutable spinning of the Fates;

Ancient, long delayed, are the causes of this war.

Whose anger ebbs so readily, who is more sparing

Of human blood than I? Heaven and these halls,

Eternal as myself throughout the ages, are witness

To the whirling lightning bolts I have often stilled,

How seldom their fire determines events on earth.

I was even unwilling to let Mars destroy the Lapiths,

And Diana to ravage ancient Calydon, though they

Had suffered wrongs that cried out for vengeance,

There is too much slaughter, it irks me to transform

Spirits, and return so many to life in new bodies.

Yet it is time I extirpated the scions of Labdacus

And Pelops; you know yourself how prompt Thebes

Is to attack the gods (to say nothing of Dorian crime);

You too (regarding Pentheus) – yet since that ancient

Wrath is forgot, I should be silent. Though Pentheus

Who was neither stained with his father’s blood, nor

Guilty of sullying his mother’s bed and begetting his

Own brothers, was torn and scattered across the wilds.

Where were your tears then and these heartfelt cries?

It is not to my own anger I sacrifice these fell sons

Of Oedipus. Earth and heaven and piety, and violated

Trust; Nature, and the Furies themselves, demand it.

Be not over-concerned for your city. I have not yet

Decreed an end to Theban history, a more menacing

Time shall come, and another generation’s vengeance.

Let Juno complain for now.’ At this, Bacchus regained

His calm and his demeanour. So the ranks of roses fade,

Scorched by a burning sun and a harmful southerly, but

If the day clears, and Zephyr’s breeze revives the air,

Fresh buds open and gleam, all the lost beauty returns,

And the unadorned twigs are dressed in a new glory.

BkVII:227-289 Antigone asks about the Theban allies

Meanwhile a messenger had brought sure news to Eteocles’

Astonished ears, that the Grecian generals were marching

In lengthy column and would soon be no great distance

From the Aonian fields; at their approach all men trembled

And felt apprehension for Thebes. The messenger reported

Who they were, by their name and lineage and coat of arms.

The king, concealing all fear, demanded to be told, yet hated

The informant: he decided to rouse his allies with a speech,

And so determine his own strength. Mars had awakened all

Aonia, Euboea and the neighbouring land of Phocis, such

Was Jupiter’s desire. The signals flew swiftly in sequence,

And the allies marched from afar, showing their armed might.

They filed into the plain close to the city, doomed, awaiting

War’s madness. There was no enemy in sight as yet, though

Mothers mounted the battlements, an anxious throng, to show

The children their fathers’ in shining armour, figures of terror

To them under their helms. High on a lonely tower, Antigone

Whom the people were not yet allowed to see, concealed her

Tender face with a black veil. In attendance was Laius’ former

Armour-bearer, an old man, but revered by the royal maiden.

She spoke first: ‘Is there hope that these troops can withstand

The Pelasgi, my father? We hear that all of Pelops’ scions are

Descending on us. Tell me, I pray, of the allied kings and their

Armies: since I already see which standards our Menoeceus

Commands, which soldiers are Creon’s, how noble Haemon

Exits the tall Homoloid Gate, under the sign of his bronze

Sphinx.’ So Antigone, in her ignorance, to whom old Phorbas

Replied: ‘Behold, Dryas has brought a thousand archers from

Tanagra’s cold hill: his snow white shield displays a trident,

And a fierce lightning-bolt in gold. He is the grandson, his

Courage attests it, of tall Orion: I pray such ancestral omens

Stay far from here, and virgin Diana forgets the old offence.

Ocalee, Medeon, dense-wooded Nisa, and Thisbe echoing

With Dione’s doves have joined his force, to serve our king.

Next is Eurymedon, a woodland terror, with the arms of his

Rural father, Faunus, and a crest of pine instead of horsehair:

And a terror I think he’ll prove in mortal combat. Erythrae

Rich in flocks bears him company, and the men of Scolos

And Eteonos, dense with rugged ridges, Hyle’s brief shore,

And the proud folk of Atalanta’s Schoenos, who cultivate

The famous site of her running; they brandish ashen pikes

In the Macedonian manner, and shields scarcely capable

Of defending against cruel wounds. Behold, the Neptunian

Folk of Onchestus rush forward shouting; those Mycalesos

Nurtures on her pine-covered acres; and Palladian Melas;

And Hecate’s watery Gargaphie; and those whose young

Ears of corn Haliartos begrudges, smothering the growing

Crops with over-abundant weeds. Their weapons are rough,

Boles of trees, their helms are hollow lion masks, and bark

Furnishes their shields. Since they lack a king, see there,

Our Amphion leads them (he is easy to recognise, girl)

His helmet showing a lyre, and also the ancestral bull.

Bravo, young man! He is ready to chance the swords,

And defend the walls dear to him with his naked chest.

You too, Heliconian throng, are come to aid our effort,

And you, Permessus and Olmius, happy in the Muses’

Streams, have armed your wards though they hang back

From war. You can hear the troops exult in their native

Chorus, like the swans along bright Strymon when pale

Winter yields. Go happily, and never shall your praises

Die, and the Sisters shall sing your wars in endless song.’

BkVII:290-373 Laius’ armour-bearer details the troops

He spoke then the girl briefly interposed a question. ‘Those

Two now, what line unites them, brothers surely by their

Matching coats of arms, and tall matching helmet crests?

Would that my brothers were so agreed!’ The old man smiled:

‘You are not the first to be deceived by the sight, Antigone.

Many (since their ages are deceptive) have called them so.

But they are father and son, and have confounded the laws

Of aging. The nymph Dercetis in burning desire for union,

Shamelessly violated Lapithaon before his maturity, a lad

Ignorant of the marriage bed, unripe for conjugal flames.

Fair Alatreus was born not long after, and overtook his

Father still in the flower of youth, adopting his insignia,

Mingling ages. They rejoice now, wrongly, in the name

Of brothers, the father more so; since he takes pleasure

In the thought of one day being the younger. The father

Brings three hundred cavalry to the war, his son the same.

They have abandoned meagre Glisas, and its vineyards,

They say, and the crops in the fields of fertile Coronia.

Now see Hypseus there overshadowing his tall steeds,

His left side defended by the seven layered bull’s-hide

Of his shield, his chest by triple-meshed steel, while he

Never fears for his back. His spear is a marvel of ancient

Timber, released it ever pierces armour and flesh, and his

Hand never fails of its aim. Asopus the river-god is named

As his father, and worthy to be so regarded when he surges

In spate, sweeping bridges away as, roaring, he churned

His waters against Jupiter, his son-in-law, in vengeance

For Aegina his virgin daughter, snatched away, they say,

From her father’s stream clasped in Jupiter’s embrace.

The river-god rose with furious courage and gave battle

With none to call on for aid, until finally triple-lightning

And thunder dislodged him and he gave way. Even now

The valiant flow’s gasping shores delight in breathing out

Ash and Aetnean steam into the sky, signs of the struggle.

So shall we marvel at Hypseus on the plains of Cadmus,

If only fortunate Aegina has succeeded in placating Jove.

Hypseus leads the men of Itone, and Minerva’s squadrons

From Alalcomenae, that Midea and vine-rich Arne supply;

And the farmers of Aulis and Graea, and green Plataeae;

And those who plough Peteon’s furrows, and hold our

Stretch of Euripus’ flowing course; and you sited there,

Anthedon, where Glaucus plunged from the grassy shore

Into the beckoning sea, cerulean then in beard and hair,

And shocked at the fish’s tail merging with his thighs.

They seek to slice the breeze with twisted sling and shot,

While their javelins will out-soar the Cydonian arrows.

And you Cephisus would have given us fair Narcissus

Too, but already the hard-hearted lad shows his pallor

In Thespiae’s fields, and his father’s desolate wave

Bathes the flower. Who shall name for you, the men

From Phoebus and ancient Phobis; from Panope, Daulis,

Cyparissos and the vales of Lebadia and Hyampolis

Under the jagged cliffs; or those whose oxen plough

Twin Parnassus, Cirrha and Anemoria, the Corycian

Glades, and Lilaea sending out your icy fount, where

Python would quench his gasping thirst and deflect

Your stream from the sea. Behold the laurels twined

About every helmet, and the shields showing Tityos

Slain by Apollo; Delos; the quiver the god emptied

Here by Thebes, laying low Niobe’s children. Fierce

Iphitus leads them who lost, of late, Naubolus, his

Father, the son of Hippasus, once your host most

Gentle Laius: I still drove, still gripped the reins,

With no thought of danger, while you already lay

Under the horses’ hooves, your neck maimed by

Cruel blows (O, would my blood too had flowed!)’

As he spoke tears ran down, pallor seized his face,

And a sudden sob stifled the passage of his voice;

His ward’s presence warmed the old man’s loving

Heart and, reviving, he spoke in a trembling voice:

‘Antigone, my cause of anxious care, my last joy,

For you I have fended off the death long overdue,

(Fated perhaps to see more crime, the same familial

Bloodshed) lingering here to see you safely married.

Such would realise my hopes: oh, then discharge me,

You Fates, from wearisome life. Yet while I struggle

Helplessly, see again now what mighty leaders pass:

I have not named Clonis or the long-haired sons

Of Abas, nor you rocky Carystos, nor low-lying

Aegae nor high Caphereus. Now my sight is dim,

And they are still, your father commands silence.’

BkVII:374-423 Eteocles’ speech; Argive portents

Scarcely had the old man on the tower spoken, than

Eteocles, from his platform, began: ‘Brave kings,

Whom I, your leader, would not hesitate to obey,

Fighting as a common soldier to defend Thebes,

I do not seek to rouse you, since you freely take

Up arms, and of your own will swear to battle

For my just cause. Nor can I praise you enough

Or thank you as you deserve; the gods will repay,

And your spoils, when the enemy is conquered:

You have come here to defend a city, your ally.

No warlike colonists from alien shores, no sons

Of a foreign soil, but a native enemy attacks her,

One that commands a hostile army though his

Father and mother were Theban, as his sisters,

Are and I. Behold, villain, from wherever it is

You now plan your own race’s destruction,

The peoples of Aonia are here, willingly: and I

Have not been abandoned to you, you savage!

Even you should recognise what these cohorts

Wish: they forbid me to restore you the throne.’

So he spoke, and duly gave his orders: who

Should prepare to fight, who guard the walls,

The strength of the vanguard and the centre.

So, when the light shines through the wattle

Fence, the shepherd opens the gates while

The dew is fresh, and sends out the leaders

Of the flock, the ewes following in a pack;

He himself raises the pregnant ones and those

Whose udders trail the ground, and carries

The stumbling lambs to their mothers’ feet.

Meanwhile the Argives spent a night and day

Under arms, then another night and day, so

Their wrath drove them, despising rest, barely

Pausing for sleep or food. They flew towards

The enemy, ignoring portents, though Chance,

The harbinger of certain Fate, contrived many

As if in prophecy. For birds and beasts offered

Dire warning, as did the stars, rivers opposed

Their flow, the Father thundered, evil lightning

Flashed; terrifying voices rose from sanctuaries,

While the temple doors closed, spontaneously;

Now it rained blood, now stones; now ghosts

Appeared, ancestors confronting them weeping.

Then even the oracles of Apollo’s Cirrha fell

Silent, an unaccustomed howling filled Eleusis,

And prophetic Sparta saw the Twin Brothers

Fight (what horror!) inside their opened shrine.

Arcadians say Lycaon’s maddened shade barked

In the silence of the night, Pisa reported Oenomaus

Racing over his cruel plain, while a wandering

Acarnanian slanderously reported that Achelous

Was now maimed in both his horns. Mycenae

Sought to propitiate Perseus’ gloomy image,

And Juno’s troubled ivory statue. Countrymen

Told of Inachus bellowing powerfully, while

A dweller by the Isthmus claimed that Theban

Palaemon gave out a lament over the twin seas.

The Argive phalanx heard all this, but eagerness

For war was deaf to the gods, and forbade fear.

BkVII:424-469 The Argives reach Thebes

Now they had reached the streams of Boeotia,

And your banks, Asopos. The squadrons did not

Dare to ford the hostile river yet, since it poured

In spate over the terrified countryside. Was it

A mountain storm, a rain-cloud, that roused it,

Or the river’s own will and Jupiter interposing

The river’s waters denying their armed passage?

Yet fierce Hippomedon forced his nervous mount

Into the flood, a great section of earth following,

And leaving the generals behind cried out from

Mid-stream, holding weapons and harness aloft:

‘Onwards soldiers, thus do I vow to be the first

To lead you against the walls and enter Thebes.’

Ashamed to linger they all plunged into the flow.

So when a herdsman is driving cattle on through

An unknown ford, the herd stand dismayed: far

Off the distant shore seems and fearful the space,

But when the leader forges a passage, the water

Seems kinder, the depth less, the far shore closer.

Not far away they saw a ridge, with ground fit

For a safe encampment, from which they could

Even view the Theban city’s Sidonian towers.

The site delighted them, offering them security,

A hill with broad summit, with an open sloping

Field below, not overlooked by other heights.

Nor was hard labour needed to fortify the spot,

Nature had favoured the place, wonderfully:

Rocks rose to form a rampart, shelves plunged to

Fair ditches, four chance mounds made parapets.

The rest of what was needed they soon supplied,

Till the sun left the hills and sleep brought rest.

Who could describe the shock to the Thebans?

Facing a war likely to destroy them, black night

Terrified the sleepless city with threatened dawn.

They scurried about the battlements, in their fear

Nothing seemed to be truly defensible or secure.

Amphion’s towers were fragile, endless rumours

Circulated, terror announcing other greater foes.

They saw the Inachian tents opposite, and alien

Campfires in the hills. Some called on the gods

In prayer and complaint, or talked to their horses

And their weapons; while others in tears clasped

Their loved ones in their arms, and sorrowfully

Detailed their funeral rites against an ill morrow.

If a light sleep closed their eyes, they seemed in

Battle; dazed the delay seemed now a gain, now

Wearied them; they feared the light and prayed

For light to come. Tisiphone shook her twin

Serpents and ran through both armies, thrusting

Each brother before the other’s eyes, their father

Before both, while he far off in the palace depths,

Is roused, invokes the Furies, reclaims his sight.

BkVII:470-533 Jocasta seeks to end the war

Now the dawn had swallowed the chill Moon

With the misted stars, and Ocean was swollen

With impending light, while the wide waters

Open to the new day grew calm with the rays

Of his labouring chariot, when behold, Jocasta

Exited the gate, in all the majesty of her sorrow,

Her fierce gaze veiled by her loose white hair,

Her cheeks bloodless, arms bruised by the fury

Of her grieving. She bore an olive branch twined

With black wool, like to the eldest of the Furies.

On either side, her daughters, the stronger sex

For now, supported her, as she worked aged limbs,

Moving quicker than seemed possible. Reaching

The enemy camp she pressed her naked breasts

Against the barriers, begging for admittance, with

Tremulous cries: ‘Unbar the way! The impious

Mother of such enemies requests it. This womb

Has the right, the execrable right, to enter here.’

The warriors trembled with terror at the sight

And still more the sound of her. A messenger

Was despatched to Adrastus and soon returned.

At his command they let her enter, granting

Her passage between the swords. At her first

Sight of the Achaean leaders, maddened with

Grief she let loose a dreadful cry: ‘Argive princes,

Will you lead me to the enemy that I bore. Under

Which helmet, say, shall I find my son?’ Polynices

The Cadmean hero ran to the distracted woman

And embraced her, comforting her as he held her,

Filling her with tears of joy and, between pressing

Her and his dear sisters to his breast, murmuring:

‘Mother, mother.’ But the aged woman revealed

A bitter anger behind her tears: ‘O, Argive prince,

Why feign tender tears and reverence towards me?

Why clasp me about the neck, why hold your hated

Mother to your armoured breast? Are you not then

The wandering exile, and the pitied guest? Whose

Compassion would you not rouse? Long columns

Of men await your orders, and many swords glitter

Beside you. Oh, wretched woman! Is this the child

I wept for day and night? If you respect yet the words

And wisdom of your people, I, who bore you, beg,

If not command, while the armies are silent as yet,

And piety shudders expectantly at war, that you

Come with me, and look a moment on your city’s

Gods, its homes that you are about to burn, speak

To your brother (why do you look askance?) speak

To him and claim the throne, while I play arbiter.

Either he will grant it, or you will at least take up

The sword again with better reason. Do you fear

Some trick, that I your own mother may be here

To deceive you? Morality has not so fled our ill

House. Were it even Oedipus himself who led you,

You’d have scant need of fear. But if persist you

Must, we bring you, cruel son, an unsought gain,

Take your sisters hostage, bind their hands behind

Them, and fetter me in chains. Your father who

Offends you, he too shall be brought here somehow.

Now, you Inachians, I address my sorrow to your

Sense of right. For each of you has left little ones,

And aged parents with tears like mine behind you.

Trust a mother with her flesh and blood, and if

This young man here is dear to you, as I pray,

After so short a time, think what is fitting to me,

To a mother’s breasts, you Pelasgi. Even Thracian,

Even Hyrcanian kings, would grant such a request,

Even those whose madness exceeds ours. Consent,

Or I will die clasping my son in my arms, and war

Shall outlive me.’ Her words moved those proud

Warriors. You might have seen helmets nodding

In acquiescence and weapons wet with pious tears.

Like raging lions, the solid impacts of whose chests

Have beaten armed huntsmen to the ground, whose

Anger then has swiftly waned, so that they become

Content to ignore their hunger, sure of sating it on

The captive foe, so the Pelasgi were stirred, hearts

Wavering, and their fierce ardour for war lessened.

BkVII:534-563 Tydeus argues against her counsel

Before their eyes Polynices was turning to kiss now

His mother, now innocent Ismene, now Antigone

Entreating him in floods of tears; his mind in turmoil,

And power forgotten: he wished to obey his mother,

And gentle Adrastus did not demur; but here Tydeus

Mindful of the justice of their wrath, forestalled him:

‘Send me, instead, who sampled Eteocles’ good faith

Not long ago (and I in no way his brother!) send me

To face a king the marks of whose notable propensity

To peace and honest dealing I still bear on my breast.

Where were you then, aged mother, broker of peace

And trust, when your people detained me, that night,

With their sweet hospitality? Are those the dealings

To which you’ll subject your son? Show him the field

Then, still rich in Theban blood and my own! And you,

Polynices, too mild, too little mindful of your kin, will

You follow her? When all around you unsheathe their

Swords, will the weapons be stayed because she weeps?

Do you think he’ll return you to the Argive camp, you

Fool, once you are behind his walls and in his power?

This lance will sooner be changed to wood, and grow

Leaves while Inachus and Achelous flow backwards.

If gentle speech and an end to savage warfare is what

They seek, well, this camp is open too, and has as yet

Offered no reason for their mistrust. Or am I suspect?

Well then I’ll absent myself, and my wounds with me.

Let him enter, with his mothers and sisters to mediate.

Suppose even that you prevail, he vacates the throne

Peacefully, will you not have to restore it once more?’

Now the army was again swayed, convinced by his

Counsel, as a southerly meets a northerly in the sky

And conquers the opposing waves. Once more war

And its madness were at hand; a wild Fury grasped

Her moment, sowing the seeds of the opening battle.

BkVII:564-627 A Fury sows the seeds of battle

Two tigresses were wandering by Dirce’s stream,

Once yoked to the savage chariot of Eastern warfare,

Now gentle, released of late by victorious Bacchus

From Erythraean shores, to retirement in Aonian fields.

An aged priest and a host of the god’s followers would

Adorn them, by custom (till they forgot past warfare

And the scent of Indian grasses) with ripened clusters

From varied vine-shoots, lacing their markings with

Streaks of purple, until the very hills and herds (who

Would have thought it?) loved them, and the heifers

Dared to low around them. For no pangs of hunger

Made them murderous; they were fed by hand, wine

Was poured and they bent back their fearsome heads.

They roamed the countryside in peace, and if they

Padded quietly into some town, houses and shrines

Were warm with offerings, believing that Bacchus

Himself had entered. Now the Fury touched them

Thrice with her snaky whip, forcing them to return

To their savage nature. They erupted in violence,

And that countryside no longer recognised them,

Like two lightning bolts bursting from the distant

Heavens, trailing fiery tresses through the clouds.

No differently, they with sudden charge and fearful

Roars, bounded over the plain and with mighty leap

Launched themselves at a charioteer, and it was yours

Amphiaraus (an omen for you, since it chanced to be

Your horses that were being led to the nearby pool)

Then they attacked Taenarian Idas (who followed)

And Aetolian Acamas: wild was the flight of horses

Through the meadows, till Aconteus who was brave

In the hunt (he was an Arcadian), fired by the sight

Of men being slaughtered, pursued the tigresses, as

They turned towards the trusted battlements, with

Showers of missiles and grasping spear after spear

Drove the weapons time and again through their

Flanks and back. Trailing a long stream of blood

The reached the gates half-dead, spears protruding

From their sides, giving out almost human groans

And rested their wounded chests against the walls

They had loved. You would have thought cities

And shrines were being sacked, Sidonian homes

Set alight by evil torches, such a clamour rose

From the open ramparts. The Thebans had rather

The cradle of mighty Hercules or Semele’s bower

Or Harmonia’s inner room had collapsed. Phegeus,

A worshipper of Bacchus, now attacked Aconteus

In turn; he, with no weapons left, still triumphing

At the creatures’ deaths. The men of Tegea rushed

To his rescue, but too late; already the young warrior

Lay dead, sprawled on the sacred corpses, avenging

Bacchus’ sorrow. So the council of the Argives was

Interrupted by a sudden tumult in the camp. Jocasta

No longer daring to address them, now fled, through

The manifestly hostile crowd. They, lately so gentle,

Now drove her and her daughters away, while Tydeus

Was quick to seize the opportunity: ‘Go then, trust

Now in your hopes of peace and good faith! Could

Eteocles not at least delay his wickedness until we

Had dismissed his mother, and she returned?’ Then

He drew his sword and called to his comrades. Fierce

The clamour now, and the anger red hot on both sides.

Battle came unplanned, officers confused with men,

Generals’ orders ignored, horses and chariots mingled

With infantry; an indiscriminate host presses on them

As they run, no time to identify themselves or the foe.

So the men of Thebes and Argos clashed in sudden

Tangles. Banners and trumpets were left in the rear,

All the clarions followed in search of the front line.

So great a battle sprung from so small a cause! So

The wind builds strength within the clouds; gently

Stirs the leaves and the moving treetops; but then

It sweeps the forest and lays bare the shaded hills.

BkVII:628-687 The deaths of Pterelas and Eunaeus

Now, Pierian Sisters, we ask you not of far-off deeds,

Rather tell us of your battles, and your Aonians. For

You watched, close by the battle, while Helicon’s lyres

Shuddered at the Tyrrhenian braying. Theban Pterelas

Was betrayed by his horse, in the fray, the reins slack,

His hand weary so that, out of control, it carried him

Through the enemy’s scattered ranks. Tydeus’ spear

Ran the horse through the shoulders and transfixing

The young man’s left thigh, pinned him to his mount

As he slipped; the animal fled, his master nailed to

His back, and bore him onwards without shield or

Reins, like a Centaur yet possessed of his dual-life,

Bearing off his own dying self. The steel’s work

Went on; the warriors raging in turn; Hippomedon

Felled Sybaris, Menoeceus Pylian Periphas, Itys

Fell to Parthenopaeus: Sybaris the blood-stained

Sword took, Periphas the spear, Itys a treacherous

Arrow. Mavortian Haemon’s blade sweeps away

The head of Inachian Caeneus; the startled eyes

Seek the trunk across the body’s fresh division,

The heart seeks its head. Abas was seizing his

Armour as he lay there, but caught by an Achaean

Shaft, dying, lost his enemy’s shield and his own.

And who persuaded you, Eunaeus, to abandon

The worship of Bacchus and his sacred grove,

Which his priest must not leave even for a night,

Exchanging Bacchus’ madness for that of war?

What threat were you? Nysaean wreathes of pale

Ivy entwined the fragile substance of your shield,

And a white ribbon bound your vine-wood spear,

With shoulders hidden by your hair, downy cheeks,

An unwarlike corselet blushing with Tyrian weave,

Sleeves on your arms, embroidered sandals on your

Feet, you are swathed in linen, while a shining clasp

Of gold with tawny jasper jaws bites your Taenarian

Cloak, as behind it clatters a bow-case and bow,

Beside a gilded lynx-skin quiver of swift arrows.

Possessed by the god, he challenged a thousand foes

Calling loudly: ‘Away! Apollo’s Cirrhaean heifer

With fair omen first revealed the site of these walls.

Spare them: stones rose of themselves to build them.

We are a sacred race: Jupiter is son-in-law to our city,

Mars its father-in-law. Bacchus we call, without a lie,

Our foster-son, and mighty Hercules.’ As he boasted,

Savage Capaneus with his cloud-touching spear moved

To confront him. As a lion in his dark lair is roused

At dawn to anger, but sees from his rugged cave a stag

Or steer not yet equipped with horns for battle, so that

He rushes joyously through the band of hunters and

Hostile weapons, eyes his prey, ignores his wounds;

So Capaneus rejoicing in the unequal match balanced

The weight of his mighty cypress spear for its flight.

But before he threw it, he shouted: ‘Doomed man,

Why try to scare us with your womanish howling?

If only he whom your madness serves would come

Himself! Go, sing your song to the Theban women!’

With that he flung his spear. It flew as though no

Force opposed its passage, scarce striking the shield

Before it exited Eunaeus’ back. His arms fell, the gold

Shook to his drawn-out breaths, the blood poured out,

Redder than his corselet. Brave lad, you died there,

Aonian Bacchus’ second love, you died and Thracian

Mount Ismara mourned for you with broken thyrsi,

Tmolus and fertile Nysa too, and Ariadne’s Naxos,

And Ganges pledged by fear to Theban mysteries.

BkVII:688-722 Amphiaraus leads the fight

The Argive squadrons found Eteocles no sluggard,

Though Polynices’ made less use of his sword, loath

To use it against his countrymen. It was Amphiaraus

Who was foremost amongst the Argives, and yet his

Horses were already suspicious of the ground. They

Turned the indignant earth to clouds of dust. Apollo,

Saddened, granted his priest hollow glory, shedding

Splendour on his final passing, lighting his helmet

And shield with starry gleams. Nor were you, Mars,

Slow to yield a gift to your brother: that no hand

Or mortal weapon had power to harm the prophet

In that battle; his death hallowed, for Dis to revere.

So he was carried into the very midst of his foes,

Certain himself of his doom, that very knowledge

Bringing him strength. His limbs seemed mightier,

The day vaster, his sight of the heavens never so

Extensive, had there been but time! Now Courage,

Death’s near neighbour, distracted him. He burned

With insatiable lust for savage war, revelling in

The strength of his right hand; pride in his fiery

Spirit. Is this the man who eased human suffering,

And so often robbed the Fates of their power? How

Different now to the servant of tripod and laurel

Skilled at knowing Apollo in every bird’s flight!

Like an outbreak of plague, or the grievous rays

Of a hostile star, he sacrificed a countless host

With his sword, to his own shade. With a javelin

He killed Phlegyas, and proud Phyleus, while his

Scythed chariot felled Clonis and Chremetaon

(One standing to face him, the other severed at

The knee); then Chromis with a spear-thrust;

Long-haired Gyas; Lycoreus sacred to Phoebus

(Though unknowingly, for he had already struck

With the full thrust of his ash spear when the man’s

Helm fell, and the sacred ribbon came into view);

Alcathous, with a stone, he who had wife and home,

And shore-loving children by the pools of Carystos:

He had long been a searcher of waters, now the land

Deceived him, in dying he came to know the virtue

Of storm and wind and the gentler perils of the sea.

BkVII:723-770 Apollo takes the reins

Meanwhile Asopian Hypseus had viewed the massacre

Of his comrades from afar, eager to change the course

Of the battle, though already routing the Tirynthians

With his chariot in like measure. Seeing the augur, he

Thought little of present bloodshed and desired to meet

Him with sword and will. A varied wedge of enemy

Warriors barred his way; proudly he raised a spear

Cut on his father’s banks, crying: ‘Father, Asopos,

Rich distributor of Aonian streams, famous still

For the ashes of Jove’s lightning bolts, grant power

To my right hand. Your son asks it, and this oak-spear,

Foster child of your stream. I can scorn Phoebus now,

Since you opposed the father of the gods. I shall give

The augur’s weapons to your waters, and his ribbons

Mournful without him.’ His father heard, and sought

To grant his wish, but Apollo denied him, deflecting

The spear instead to strike Amphiaraus’ charioteer,

Herses, who fell from the chariot as the god himself

Grasped the loose reins, disguised as the Lernaean,

Haliacmon. Then no banners tried to oppose his fiery

Passage, their trembling bearers fell from mere fright

And a coward’s death overtook them. An onlooker

Might have wondered whether the onrushing horses

Were more slowed by their burden or urged on. As

A cloud-covered mountainside, undermined by storms

Of a new winter, its ancient mass ruined by erosion

No longer supporting its weight, slides to the plain,

A fearful horror, sweeping off men, fields, swathes

Of mature timber, until at last, its plunge exhausted,

It wearily hollows out a valley, blocks flowing rivers;

So the chariot, weighed down by the mighty warrior

And the great god, raged here and there hot with blood.

Apollo himself sat there controlling reins and weapons,

Directing the spear-thrusts and deflecting enemy darts,

Robbing impending missiles of their power to strike.

Melaneus, on foot, was beaten to the ground; Antiphus

Unaided by his horse’s height; Aetion born of Heliconis

The nymph; Polites, notorious for slaying his brother;

Lampus who tried to sleep with Manto the prophetess;

Against him Phoebus himself shot his sacred arrows.

Now the horses, smelling the blood, snorted in alarm

At dying men; the wheel-tracks reddened with gore

From severed limbs, warriors crushed in their furrows.

Some, already unconscious, the impious axle grinds,

Others, half-dead from their wounds, see it approach

Their faces, powerless to escape. Now the harness was

Wet with blood, and the pole too slippery to step on,

The wheels were clogged, and the horses’ hooves

Slowed by trampled entrails. Apollo himself madly

Plucks arrows from the corpses, or spears left jutting

From the bones; the ghosts shriek, and follow after.

BkVII:771-823 Amphiaraus is swallowed by the earth

Now Apollo acknowledged his servant for the last time:

‘Use the light you possess, and achieve immortal renown

While irrevocable Death still fears our combined presence.

We are outdone. You know the merciless Fates can never

Rewind the thread. Go, delight, long promised to the hosts

Of Elysium; at least you’ll not have to suffer from Creon’s

Command, and lie there nakedly, with burial denied you.’

Amphiaraus then replied, taking breath from the fighting:

‘Long have I sensed you in the swaying chariot, seated

Beside this fatal yoke, Cirrhaean father (why such honour

To the doomed?) how can you ward off present death?

Already I hear the flow of the rushing Styx, and the black

Rivers of Dis, and the triple jaws of the baleful guardian.

Receive the laurels brought to adorn my head, which it

Were sacrilege to take down to Erebus, receive them.

Now, Phoebus, if any grace is owed to your departing

Prophet, with my final words I commit to you a hearth

Betrayed, the punishment of an evil wife, and the noble

Madness of a son,’ Apollo leapt down in tears, grieving

He averted his face: then the chariot and the soon to be

Masterless horses groaned. No differently does a vessel

At night, in the blind turmoil of a north-westerly wind,

Realise she must perish, when the Twins flee the rigging,

Quit hull and sails their sister Helen’s fire has doomed.

Now the earth began to shudder, collapsing; the surface

Quaked, and a thicker dust was stirred; now the plain

Bellowed with subterranean noise. Warriors, alarmed,

Thought this the stir of battle; these were battle-sounds;

And quickened their steps; but a different tremor bows

Men and weapons and wondering horses. Now leafy

Crowns nod, now battlements, and the Ismenos flows

Through broken banks; anger forgotten, they fix their

Trembling weapons in the ground, or shaken, lean on

Their wavering spears, as meeting face to face both

Sides draw back and witness there each other’s pallor.

As when Bellona joins navies in battle on the waves,

Contemptuous of the ocean, and a more benign storm

Rises, then each looks to himself; threat of death in other

Guise sheathes their swords; shared fear makes for peace.

Such was the uncertain state of the battle over the plain.

Was the earth in labour trying to expel a raging blast

Of storm-wind from her womb, an imprisoned fury?

Or had some hidden flow of water gnawed crumbling

Soil and undermined it by erosion? Or was the fabric

Of the rolling sky bearing down on them somehow?

Or had Neptune’s spear stirred the ocean, and hurled

A heavier weight of sea on the neighbouring coast?

Was it a commotion for the seer, or did earth threaten

The two brothers? Behold, the ground splits; a mighty

Cavern reveals its precipice; the stars, the spirits fear

In turn. A huge void swallowed him, taking the horses

As they sought to cross; neither weapons nor the reins

Fell from his hand. Thus he drove the upright chariot

Down to Tartarus, looking upwards at the sky as he fell,

Groaning to see the earth re-close, till a fainter tremor

Closed the riven plain again, sealing light from Avernus.

End of Book VIII