Publius Papinius Statius
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
- BkVII:64-104 Mars sets out to join the Argive host
- BkVII:105-144 Mars causes panic
- BkVII:145-226 Bacchus complains to Jove
- BkVII:227-289 Antigone asks about the Theban allies
- BkVII:290-373 Laius’ armour-bearer details the troops
- BkVII:374-423 Eteocles’ speech; Argive portents
- BkVII:424-469 The Argives reach Thebes
- BkVII:470-533 Jocasta seeks to end the war
- BkVII:534-563 Tydeus argues against her counsel
- BkVII:564-627 A Fury sows the seeds of battle
- BkVII:628-687 The deaths of Pterelas and Eunaeus
- BkVII:688-722 Amphiaraus leads the fight
- BkVII:723-770 Apollo takes the reins
- BkVII:771-823 Amphiaraus is swallowed by the earth
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