Publius Papinius Statius
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2013 All Rights Reserved
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- BkXII:1-59 The Thebans burn their dead
- BkXII:60-104 Creon leads the funeral rites for Menoeceus
- BkXII:105-172 The Argive wives set out for Thebes
- BkXII:173-227 Argia decides to defy Creon’s edict
- BkXII:228-290 She makes her way to the battlefield
- BkXII:291-348 She discovers Polynices’ corpse
- BkXII:349-408 Antigone meets her on the same mission
- BkXII:409-463 The brothers’ bodies are burned together
- BkXII:464-518 The Argive women reach Athens
- BkXII:519-586 Evadne petitions Theseus
- BkXII:587-676 Theseus sets out for Thebes
- BkXII:677-729 Creon accepts battle
- BkXII:730-796 Theseus slays Creon
- BkXII:797-819 Statius’ Envoi
BkXII:1-59 The Thebans burn their dead
Though the waking Sun had not yet driven the stars from the sky,
The moon, with fading horn, saw light looming as Dawn dispersed
The speeding clouds, and readied the vast ether for Phoebus’ return:
The sparse Theban forces wandered from their houses, complaining
Of the night’s delays. They had rested, at last, in their first slumber
After battle, yet uncertain peace banished sleep and victory brought
Memories of savage warfare. At first they scarcely dared to advance
And pull down the barriers at the ramparts, or unbar the gates fully.
Their old fear and horror at the now empty plain were still before
Their eyes. Confounded, as sailors, long tossed about the seas, feel
The ground heave at first, they wondered that nothing opposed them,
And imagined that the routed army might yet rise up against them.
So when Idalian doves see a yellow snake climb to the sill of their
Dovecote, they will drive their young inside, and defend their nest
With their claws, stirring their unwarlike wings to battle. Even if it
Retreats, the white flock still fear the open air and, launched at last
In flight, they will yet look back in terror from amidst the heavens.
The Thebans approached the remains of their fallen, a lifeless host,
Driven by grief and mourning their cruel guides. Here are weapons
And corpses but they see only the faces of their dead with the bodies
Of strangers beside them. Some grieve over the chariots and speak
To the masterless horses, since such is all that remains; others plant
Kisses in devastating wounds, and mourn for lost valour. The chill
Carnage is sifted: severed hands still grasping sword-hilt or spear
Are revealed, and arrows fixed in eyeballs. Some, rushing there with
Hands raised ready to lament find no trace of their loved one amongst
The slaughter; while elsewhere pitiful arguments begin over formless
Flesh as to who should render what is due and lead the funeral rites.
Often mistaken they wept for enemy dead (while Fortune mocked)
Nor could they know in their misery what flesh to respect and what
To trample. But those whom grief left unvisited, those with families
Unscathed, wandered the deserted Danaan camp, hurling firebrands,
Or (an after-battle solace) roamed about to find where Tydeus lay,
Or whether the lost augur’s gulf still yawned, or where Capaneus,
Enemy of the gods, might be and whether the ashes of the lightning
Bolt still glowed among his limbs. They consumed the whole day
With weeping, nor did the evening gloom drive them away. In their
Grief they found relief in lamentation and indulging their sorrow.
None went to their homes and, all night through, the host sat beside
Their dead, taking it in turns to mourn, or with fire and self-inflicted
Blows scare away wild creatures. Nor did they close their eyes,
Neither soothed by gentle starlight, nor wearied by endless tears.
Aurora was striving with Lucifer for a third time before they had
Gathered the glories of the forest, mighty timbers, from bereaved
Teumesos and Cithaeron, the mountain-trees most suited to pyres.
The corpses of those destroyed were burnt on high-built biers.
The Ogygian shades rejoiced at this final tribute, but the naked
Host of Argives moaned wretchedly and flew lamenting round
The flames they were denied. Even the spirit of savage Eteocles,
Received burial honours, though by no means royal ones, while
Polynices was still treated as an Argive, his exiled spirit scorned.
BkXII:60-104 Creon leads the funeral rites for Menoeceus
Neither Creon nor Thebes would allow Menoeceus to be burned
On a common fire, and instead of a pile of timber like the rest
His pyre was a warrior’s mound of chariots, shields and armour
Of the Argives. As a victor, the corpse’s hair was dressed with
Peace-giving laurel and ribbons, and among enemy spoils he lay,
Like Hercules rich amidst Oeta’s flames as the stars claimed him.
Creon sacrificed living things there, Pelasgian captives, bridled
Horses, to solace those brave in battle: the tall flames quivered,
And then the father’s lament burst forth: ‘O my son, who would
Have ruled Echion’s city with me and after me if too great a desire
For high glory had not possessed you, revered child, whose death
Embitters future honour and the thankless offices of kingship:
You dwell in the vaulted sky with the gods; immortal in valour
You attend their company (so I believe); yet for me you’ll be
Always one to grieve for as well as worship. Let Thebes build
Altars and dedicate high temples; let your father simply mourn.
Now alas what fitting rights, what obsequies shall I grant you?
No less, had I but the power, than to pull down deadly Argos
And Mycenae and mingle their ashes with yours and my own
Whose life (what horror!) and title have been won by my son’s
Death. Did not one single day of impious warfare, send you
My boy and those fatal brothers to Tartarus? Do Oedipus and I
Not bear an equal load of sorrow? How alike, good Jupiter, our
Mourning for those shades! My son, receive new offerings for
Your triumph. Receive this sceptre that guides the hand, this
Crown that sits proudly on the brow, gifts you have made your
Father, though scarcely to his joy. Let Eteocles’ sad shade see
You as king, yes, king.’ So saying, he loosed them from his
Head and hand and, his anger rising again, spoke once more
And violently: ‘Let them call me merciless and cruel because
I forbid Lerna’s dead to be burnt like you. Would I could grant
Endless feeling to their corpses, driving their wretched souls
From Erebus and heaven, and lead the wild beasts, myself,
The carrion birds with curved beaks, to those accursed kings!
Alas, that the kindly earth and time itself will dissolve them
Where they lie! Once more I command this, once more: let
None dare solace the Pelasgi with helping flame! Or he will
Expiate his crime with death, and replace the bodies he has
Consumed with his own. I swear this by the gods and mighty
Menoeceus.’ He spoke, and his attendants led him to the palace.
BkXII:105-172 The Argive wives set out for Thebes
Meanwhile the widowed and bereaved Inachian women left
Empty Argos, hurriedly (Rumour drove the wretched souls)
And like a crowd of captives each bore her own wounds too:
All were in a similar state, hair hanging down to their bared
Breasts, faces bloodied from the lacerating nails, their soft
Arms swollen from blows. Argia, first among the mourners,
Queen of that black-clothed host, helplessly sought the way,
Now sinking against her sorrowing maids, now rising again.
Caring nothing now for palace or father, she had one loyalty;
And one name, that of her beloved Polynices, was on her lips.
She would leave Mycenae now and live by Dirce in Cadmus’
Ill-omened city. Next, Deipyle, yielding nothing to her sister,
Led the Calydonian women, and those of Lerna, to Tydeus’
Death-bed. She, poor woman, heard of her husband’s crime,
The vile gnawing, but grieving love forgives all to the fallen.
After her came Nealce, harsh of visage and yet pitiable; she
Called to Hippomedon in fitting lament. Then Amphiaraus’
Impious wife, Eriphyle, doomed to raise a vacant pyre. Last,
Maenalian Diana’s bereaved companion, Atalanta, leads on
The dignified Evadne, and a host of mourners; the former
Grieves and laments her darling boy’s ordeal; as the other
Remembering Capaneus her mighty husband, goes weeping
Grimly, in anger at the highest stars. Hecate watched them
From the Lycaean groves and followed groaning, while Ino
The Theban mother wailed for them from her Isthmian tomb,
As they approached the Isthmus; and Ceres though mourning
Her own wept for the night-bound flock, showing her secret
Fires for the wanderers. Juno herself led them on by-roads
And hid their trail lest their own people forbade the journey,
And the glory of the great enterprise was lost. Moreover Iris
Was charged with preserving the dead bodies of the leaders.
She bathed the decomposing limbs with arcane juices, and
Ambrosial dew, to maintain the corpses longer for the pyre,
And prevent their flesh rotting before they met the flames.
Behold, Ornytus (an Argive abandoned by his comrades,
And hampered by a recent blow) with dust-streaked face
And bloodless wound was making his feeble way, timidly
And stealthily, over remote un-trodden ground, leaning on
His shattered spear. He was amazed to find the lonely spot
Troubled by sudden commotion, seeing the flock of women,
Now the sole remainder of Lerna’s army, he had no need
To ask the reason for their journey, which was obvious, but
Was the first to speak, in sadness: ‘Which path do you take,
Poor souls, which path? Do you hope for burial for a lost
Husbands’ ashes? A guard stands vigil over the dead, and
Keeps count of the unburied bodies for the king. There are
No tears, all human access is forbidden: only wild beasts
And carrion birds may approach. Will Creon respect your
Mourning justly? Sooner could the pitiless altars of Busiris
Be appeased, the hunger of Diomedes’ horses, the Sicilian
Divinities. Perhaps he will seize you, as suppliants, if I
Know his mind, and have you killed, not by your husbands’
Bodies but far from their beloved shades. Why not flee while
The path is safe, return to Lerna and grant names, all that is
Left to you, to empty tenantless sepulchres, and then summon
Their absent spirits to the vacant tombs? Or why not implore
Aid from Athens, since it is nearby, and it is rumoured that
Theseus has returned joyful in victory from the Thermidon?
Creon must be driven by weapons and war to observe our
Human customs.’ So he spoke, their tears ceased, and their
Deep impetus for the journey was lost, their faces frozen
As one, in pallor. So when the roar of a hungry Hyrcanian
Tigress reaches the gentle heifers, the very fields troubled
At the sound, a great fear seizes them all: which of them
Will the predator take, whose shoulders will she cling to?
BkXII:173-227 Argia decides to defy Creon’s edict
Immediately dissent arose, opinion was variously divided.
Some were for appeasing Thebes and proud Creon; others
Thought the folk of Athens in their clemency might grant
Them grace. Shameful return was far from their thoughts.
Now it was that Argia, with unfeminine power, conceived
An impassioned plan, and despite her gender set out on
A dreadful task. She resolved (a stubborn hope born of
Noble peril) to directly oppose the king’s impious decree,
As not even a bride of Rhodope or foster-child of snowy
Phasis, flanked by the virgin Amazons, would dare to do.
Then she carried out an artful stratagem so as to detach
Herself from the loyal host and, made daring by the depth
Of her grief and despising life, to challenge the merciless
Gods and the blood-stained king. Piety and chaste love
Urged her on. Polynices was there before her eyes, with
Every action, now as guest in distress, now her betrothed,
Before the marriage altar, now gentle husband, now in his
Grim helmet, sad in her embrace, then looking back often
From the outer threshold; yet no image came to her mind
More frequently than that of his naked ghost, in the mire
Of the Theban battlefield, demanding burial. Troubled in
Mind she was pained by her maddened thoughts, in love
With the dead, that most chaste of passions. So she turned
To her Pelasgian companions, saying: ‘You must summon
Up the hosts of Athens and Marathon, and may Fortune
Smile on your pious efforts. But I, who was the sole cause
Of such disaster, must penetrate the Theban palace, suffer
The first lightning-bolts of his reign. The gate of that fierce
City will not prove deaf to my knock. My husband’s parents
Are there, his sisters: I shall not enter Thebes as a stranger.
Do not try to prevent me. A mighty impulse urges me on,
And my spirit’s augury.’ She spoke no more, but chose
Menoetes (once guide and guardian of her maiden modesty)
Alone; and though new to the place, ignorant of it, hurried
Off, in the direction from which Ornytus came. When she
Thought she had left the companions of her grief far behind,
She cried: ‘Am I to wait (ah, painful!) for a tardy decision of
Theseus while you rot on enemy soil? Will his nobles, will
A favourable soothsayer assent to war? Meanwhile your body
Is assailed, and I would rather expose my own limbs to those
Carrion birds than yours. Most faithful one, if you have any
Feeling among the shades, you are complaining to the gods
Of Styx that I am slow and callous. Oh, if you are naked yet,
If by chance you are already consumed: either way the crime
Is mine. Must violence indeed mean nothing to the mourner?
Must death and savage Creon mean nothing? Your warnings
Spur me on, Ornytus!’ So saying, with headlong haste, she
Devoured the Megarian fields. Each person she met pointed
Out the way, shuddering at her appearance, respecting her
Wretchedness. On she went, grim of face, dreading nothing
In her heart or of what she heard, trusting in her extreme
Woe, and more formidable than fearful, like the leader of that
Band of Phrygian worshippers, on the night when Dindymus
Echoes with lament, one whirled away to pine-bearing Simois’
Stream, and chosen by the goddess for self-mutilation, herself
Gifting the knife, decking the victim with wool-twined wreath.
BkXII:228-290 She makes her way to the battlefield
Already the sun had hidden his burning chariot in the Hesperian
Flood, to return from other deeps, but Argia was indifferent
To day’s departure, absorbed by grief in her heavy task. Nor
Was she afraid of the dark landscape, nor checked her passage
Over pathless rocks, among boughs about to fall, through secret
Glades of the forest, dark even under a cloudless sky, through
Plough-land bordered by hidden ditches, through rivers careless
Of their fords, past slumbering creatures and the perilous lairs
Of dreadful monsters; such is the power of courage and grief.
Menoetes was ashamed of his slower pace, and wondered at
The strength of his weak foster-child. How many dwellings
For man and beast did she not disturb with her pained lament?
How frequently she lost her way; how frequently the solace
Of her accompanying torch failed her as the cold darkness
Overcame its flame! Now, before the travellers, Pentheus’
Ridge sloped downwards into a wide declivity, and there,
With panting breath, his strength almost gone, Menoetes
Began to speak: ‘I believe, Argia, that if the hope our toil
Has nourished does not deceive me Theban houses are close,
And bodies too, in need of burial: the air around is seething,
Heavy and unclean; great birds fly there through the void.
Here is that cruel ground, the city nearby. See how the vast
Shadows of the walls extend over the plain, and dying fires
Flicker from the watchtowers. The city it is. A moment ago
The dark itself held deeper silence, and only stars relieved
The blackness of the night.’ Argia shuddered, and stretched
Her right hand towards the walls: ‘City of Thebes, once my
Desire, now a hostile place, yet dear to me even so if you
Were to return me my husband’s corpse unharmed, see you
What magnificence attends me; what company surrounds me,
As I near your gates for the first time, I, the daughter-in-law
Of your great Oedipus? My prayer is not excessive: for as
A stranger I ask but a body, a lament, a pyre. I ask for one
Who was exiled from his realm and defeated in war, one
Whom you judged unworthy of his father’s throne. Give
Him back to me. And if the dead take form, and spirits
Wander free when the flesh is gone, I beg that you may
Come to me, Polynices, and you yourself show the way,
And lead me to your corpse, if I so deserve.’ She spoke,
Then entered a shepherd’s hut nearby, relit the flame
Of her dying torch, and ran wildly onto the fatal field.
Thus Ceres, in her bereavement, lighting her brand at
Aetna’s lava, cast the light of her mighty flame over
The shores of Ausonia and Sicily, following the tracks
Of that dark rapist, vast furrows in the dust; Enceladus
Himself echoed her wild outcry, and his fires erupted
To light her path: the rivers, woods, waves and clouds
Cried out: ‘Persephone’, only the palace of the Stygian
Lord was silent: it breathed not a word of Persephone.
Now Argia’s loyal foster-father warned her to remember
Creon, in her distraction, and to lower her torch and go
Secretly in stealth. The queen, lately feared through all
The cities of Argos, the wildest dream of her admirers,
The august hope of her nation, in hostile night, without
A guide, and with the enemy nearby, stumbling alone
Over weapons and grass slippery with blood, fearing
Neither the darkness nor the crowd of shades gathered
About her, spirits lamenting their lost flesh, trampling
On blade and spear in blind passage, seemed unaware;
Her sole concern to spare the corpses, thinking every
Dead man her own, and scanning them keenly where
They lay, turning them onto their backs then bending
Over them complaining at the dim light from the stars.
BkXII:291-348 She discovers Polynices’ corpse
It chanced that Juno had stolen from her mighty spouse’s
Embrace and was making her way through the sleep-laden
Darkness of the skies, to the walls of Theseus’ Athens,
To sway Minerva and prepare the city to receive the pious
Suppliants. She grieved on seeing from heaven’s heights
That innocent Argia was wandering vainly and wearily
Over the field. Meeting with the lunar chariot she turned
Her gaze towards it and spoke in a gentle voice: ‘Cynthia,
Grant me a small favour if you have any regard for Juno.
You did indeed triply lengthen Hercules’ single night at
Jupiter’s bidding, shameless one – but let me leave aside
Old complaints. See, here is an opportunity to serve me.
You observe the darkness through which Argia, a scion
Of Inachus, and my favourite worshipper sadly wanders,
Unable to find her husband’s body in the intense gloom,
While your rays languish behind cloud. Reveal your
Horns, I pray, and pass nearer to earth in your orbit than
Is your habit. And send Sleep, who nods here from your
Chariot as he handles the dewy reins, to those Theban
Sentries.’ She was scarce done before the moon goddess
Displayed her full orb, cleaving the cloud. The shadows
Took fright, the stars lost their lustre; and even Saturnia
Herself could barely endure the brightness. Now light
Flooded the plain, Argia recognised her husband’s cloak,
Her own handiwork, although the fabric was obscured,
The purple cloth dimmed by blood. Invoking the gods,
Believing this to be all that was left of his beloved body,
She found his corpse well nigh trampled into the dust.
Mind, sight and voice fled, and grief stilled her tears.
Then she pressed her whole body to him, kissed his face,
Seeking the absent spirit there, then squeezing the blood
From his hair and clothes to treasure. Presently her power
Of speech returned: ‘Is it thus I find you, my husband,
A leader in war who set out for a kingdom rightfully his,
The son-in-law of mighty Adrastus? Is this the triumph
I hoped to see? Lift your eyes to me that see no longer.
Argia has come to your Thebes. Come then, lead me
To your city, show me your father’s house, return our
Hospitality? Ah, what am I saying? Thrown on the bare
Earth, here is your portion of your native land. Why is
There conflict still? Truly, your brother rules no more.
Are none of your kind moved to weep for you? Where
Is your mother, where is the renowned Antigone? Your
Death grieves me alone, in defeat I alone remember you.
I thought: “Why go? Why demand a sceptre denied you?
You hold Argos, and will reign in your father-in-law’s
Palace; here you shall have long-lasting honour, here
An undivided rule.” But how should I complain? It was
I who sent you to war, I who pleaded with my sorrowful
Father, only that I might now embrace you thus. But it is
Well, you gods; I thank you, Fortune. The long-held hope
Of my journey is fulfilled, and I have found his body yet
Whole. Oh, but how deep is this gaping wound! Did a
Brother do this? Where, I ask, does that foul thief lie?
I should outdo the carrion birds if I had the power to
Approach him, and take precedent over the wild beasts.
Is there truly a pyre for the murderer? But you too, my
Husband, your country shall not see you robbed of fire.
You too shall burn, and win tears not to be won by kings.
Bereaved loyalty shall endure forever, serving your tomb.
Our son shall be witness to my sorrow, and Thessander,
My little ‘Polynices’, must warm my bed in your place.
BkXII:349-408 Antigone meets her on the same mission
Behold, the wretched Antigone endures like grief and bears
Another torch for the dead. She had barely won the freedom
She sought to leave the city, as the king declared he feared
Her intentions, so that guards accompanied her constantly:
The watches had been shortened, more numerous fires lit.
So, excusing herself before her brother and the gods for her
Delay, she waited till the grim sentries yielded to sleep for
A while, and then rushed from the city with an angry cry,
Like the roar of a virgin lioness, that terrifies the country
Round about, free of its mother now, raging at last in fury.
She went quickly, knowing the cruel field and the place
Where her brother lay in the dust. Menoetes, unoccupied,
Saw her come towards them, and checked his dear foster
Child’s lament, but the sound reached the maiden’s ears
And, by the light of their torches and the stars, she saw
Argia clothed all in black, her hair trailing and her face
Stained with clots of blood. ‘Whose body do you seek’
She cried, ‘and who are you that dare this in my night?’
Argia was silent and veiled her own face and the corpse,
Seized by sudden fear, for a moment forgetting her sorrow.
All the more did Antigone persist, rebuking her for her
Suspicious silence, urging either of them to speak, but
Both remained mute. At last Argia, still clasping the body
In her arms, unveiled her face and spoke: ‘If you too come
To seek a corpse as I did in the stale blood of battle, if you
Too go in fear of Creon’s harsh decree then I can trust you
And explain myself. If you grieve (and I see the signs there
Indeed of tears and lament) join with me in faith, yes, join
With me. I am the daughter of King Adrastus (oh, alas,
Is anyone by?) here though kingdoms forbid it, to raise
A pyre to my dear Polynices.’ The Theban girl, amazed,
Trembled, interrupting the speaker: ‘Can you then fear me
The sharer (oh, blind fortune!) in your sorrows, fear me?
Mine too are the limbs you clasp, the corpse you weep for.
I yield place to you, hold him. Ah, for shame, a sister’s piety
Is but a poor thing! Yours has prior claim.’ And here both
Collapsed in a mutual embrace of the corpse, both readily
Mingling hair and tears, dividing his limbs between them;
Then returning to his face, they lamented in turn, hanging
Alternately on his beloved neck. Now as one recalled her
Brother, and the other her husband, and each began again
To speak of Thebes and Argos, Argia recalled at length
The whole sad story: ‘I swear to you by our private sacred
And mutual sorrow, by the dead we share, and by the stars
That witness, that though a wandering exile it was not his
Lost power that he craved, nor his native soil, nor his dear
Mother’s breast, but you alone, and night and day he spoke
Of Antigone. I was less to him and easier to leave behind.
But you, perhaps from some high tower, saw him before
The duel, handing out standards to the Argive companies,
And he looked up at you from the very heart of that array,
Saluted you with his sword, the crest of his nodding helm:
I was far away. But what god drove him to such extremity
Of madness? Did his family beg him in vain? Did he deny
You when you pleaded?’ Antigone began to explain those
Workings of sad fate, but the loyal companion admonished
Both: ‘Come, better to finish what you have begun! Now
The stars grow pale, troubled by approaching day: complete
Your labours. There will be time for tears when the pyre is lit.’
BkXII:409-463 The brothers’ bodies are burned together
Not far away a roar proclaimed the shores of the Ismenos,
Still flowing turbidly, discoloured with blood. There, though
Lacking strength, the two women carried the mangled body,
Sharing the effort, to which their companion, little stronger,
Joined his aid. Thus the still-smoking corpse of Phaethon,
Hyperion’s son, was bathed by his sisters in the warm waters
Of the River Po; and he was scarce entombed when, turned
To poplar-trees, their sad grove stood weeping by its shore.
After the two had cleansed away the blood in the waves,
And the limbs in death had returned to beauty, after their
Last kisses, the sorrowing women sought the means of fire.
But the pyres around were quenched and the ashes cold,
Extinguished in the muddy trenches. Yet whether by chance
Or by the will of the gods, that to which fierce Eteocles’ limbs
Had been consigned still stood. Was Fortune preparing one
More place of portent, or had the Fury preserved this fire
For mischief? Here, equally zealous, they observed a single
Thin flame still flickering among the blackened logs, both
Rejoicing despite their tears. They had no knowledge yet
Of whose pyre it was, but they prayed that whoever it might
Might be would admit another, in peace and mercy, to share
The final fire and, as shades, let their ashes mingle together.
Behold the brothers, joined once more! As soon as those
Consuming flames touched their limbs, the pile of timber
Quaked, the newcomer was almost banished from the pyre.
The fire, divided at the summit flared in alternating tips
Of broken light. Each mass of flame menaced, and tried
To out-leap, the other. The logs themselves shifted weight
And rolled apart. Antigone, terrified, cried: ‘We are lost,
We have stirred the wrath of the dead. It was his brother’s
Pyre. Who else would be so savage as to repel the advent
Of another shade? See, I recognise this piece of his shield,
And this charred belt. It is his brother’s. See how the flame
Withdraws from, yet rushes at, the other? It lives, their
Monstrous hate, it lives! War has done nothing. Ah, you
Wretches, you fight, but has not Creon already conquered?
Eteocles, your kingdom is lost. Why then this fury? Cease
Your menaces! And you Polynices, an exile everywhere,
Ever denied justice, yield now. This your wife, your sister
Beg, or must we plunge into the savage flames to part you?’
She had barely finished when a sudden tremor shook
The plain and the high city towers, and widened the cleft
In the discordant fire. The sentries slumber was disturbed;
Sleep himself sent troubled images. At once the soldiers
Ran in, ringing the place with their encircling weapons.
The old man was afraid, but the two women beside the pyre
Openly admitted to the act, to flouting Creon’s cruel decree,
Lamenting loudly, but free of care, seeing that Polynices’
Corpse had been totally consumed. Now they were eager
For harsh self-sacrifice, and their desire for death seethed
Bravely within them. They contested who had stolen his
Body, a brother’s, a husband’s, and each won credence
In turn. ‘I stole the corpse’. ‘I dragged him to the fire.’
‘Affection made me do so.’ ‘It was love.’ Both demanded
Savage punishment and rejoiced to be bound in chains.
Gone was the mutual respect in those alternating cries.
You might have thought all anger and hatred, so loudly
Did they shout, urging their captors towards the king.
BkXII:464-518 The Argive women reach Athens
Meanwhile far away at the walls of Athens Juno led
Forward the distraught Argive women (Pallas being
Now benign) and, distraught herself, sought the city’s
Favour towards the sorrowing troop, lending dignity
To their tears. She herself gave them olive branches
And the ribbons of suppliants, and told them to lower
Their eyes and veil them with their mantles, holding
Up the urns of their dead, empty of ashes. Athenians
Poured from their homes filling the streets, or climbed
To the rooftops, asking where this swarm of grieving
Women, all clustered together, had appeared from.
Though not yet knowing the cause of their distress,
The people already groaned in sympathy. Now Juno
Mingled with both groups, saying whence they came
And whose deaths they mourned and their request,
And the women themselves spoke denouncing Thebes
And Creon’s cruel decree to all and sundry. Those
Nightingales of Thrace with Philomela’s mutilated
Call complain no more loudly as they sing out from
Their foreign perches against the dual marriage bed
And Tereus’ injustice. In the midst of the city was
An altar, but not one dedicated to any deity of power;
Gentle Mercy had her shrine there and misery made it
Sacred. She never lacked fresh suppliants, and never
Denigrated requests with refusal, all who asked were
Heard. They were allowed to visit by day and night,
And propitiated the goddess solely with their troubles.
Her rites were frugal; no burnt incense or deep measure
Of blood was allowed: the altar was moist with tears,
And above it hung sad offerings of shorn tresses, or
Clothing left there when luck changed. A gentle grove
Surrounded it, with revered emblems of worship, laurels
And branches of suppliant olive both twined with wool.
There was no effigy, no divine form there cast in bronze;
For Mercy delights to live in minds and hearts. The place
Was always full of the fearful, ever bristling with crowds
Of the needy, only to the fortunate was her altar unknown.
They say the children of Hercules founded the shrine,
Being saved in battle after their father’s death. The tale
Falls short of the truth: we may rightly believe the gods
Themselves, to whom Athens always proved hospitable,
Hallowed the place, and just as they established the rule
Of law, and granted us fresh humanity, and sacred rites,
And those seeds that descended hence into empty lands,
So they sanctified a common refuge for troubled souls,
Far from all rage and threat and monarchy, a righteous
Altar, from which the vicissitudes of Fortune receded.
All those defeated in war, or exiled from their country,
Deposed from their thrones, or charged with crimes in
Error, gathered there and sued for peace. Later that
Hospitable place was to overcome Oedipus’ Furies,
And conceal the Theban’s relics, and remove the guilt
For his mother’s death from the unfortunate Orestes.
There the anguished throng of Lerna gathered, crowds
Of Athenians showing them the way, and all the mass
Of former unfortunates yielded their places to them.
They were scarcely there before their cares were eased,
And their hearts had rest; like those cranes driven to flight
From their native land by the northerly winds who cross
The sea to Pharos, filling the sky more widely with their
Glad sound, happy, beneath cloudless skies, to have left
The snows they scorn, and ease their chill along the Nile.
BkXII:519-586 Evadne petitions Theseus
Now the joyful cheers and shouts of the crowd, raised
To the sky above, and the glad sound of the trumpets
Announced the return of Theseus to his native city,
In his laurelled chariot after fierce battles with Scythian
Amazons, his warfare done. Before their leader were led
The spoils, chariot-loads of virgins the image of harsh Mars,
Wagons piled with helms, horses bereaved of their riders,
Shattered axes with which those women felled the forests
And pierced the frozen Sea of Azov; they bore light quivers,
Belts glittering with gems, shields stained with the blood
Of their owners. The women themselves showed no fear,
Nor acknowledged their gender, and nor did they lament in
The common manner, scorning to plead only seeking out
The shrine of virgin Minerva. The populace’s first desire
Was to view the victor, drawn by four snow-white horses.
Hippolyte too attracted their eyes, now charming in aspect,
And ready to accept the marriage bond. The Athenian
Women muttered among themselves, wondering that she
Had broken with the austere custom of her country, in that
Her hair was groomed and her breast covered by her mantle;
That she would mingle her own barbarian blood with that
Of mighty Athens, and bear children to a man once her foe.
The sad daughters of Pelops walked from the altar, where
They had been sitting, to admire the passage of the triumph.
They thought of their defeated men folk, and when Theseus
Slowed his chariot and from its proud height enquired as to
Their petition, and invited their plea with kindly attention,
Evadne, the wife of Capaneus, chose to speak before the rest:
‘Warrior son of Aegeus, to whom Fortune offers opportunity
Of great and unexpected glory from our disaster, we are of
No foreign stock, nor guilty of heinous crime: Argos is our
Home, where our husbands were brave kings – would it had
Been otherwise! For what point was there in sending seven
Battalions to set Agenor’s Thebes to rights? But we are not
Here to complain of those men’s deaths. Such are the chances
Of battle, and the fortunes of war. They fell in fight, but they
Were no Cyclopes raised in Sicilian caves or by the bi-formed
Centaurs of Mount Ossa. I shall not speak of race or famous
Ancestry. They were of human blood, great Theseus, men
Created beneath the same stars, to the same manner of life,
The same nurture, as you yourselves. Creon denies them their
Funeral pyres, and bars them from the threshold of the Stygian
Gate, as though he had fathered the Furies or Charon, ferryman
Of the Lethe, leaving them poised between heaven and Erebus.
Ah, primal Nature! Where are the gods in this, where the hurler
Of that unjust lightning-bolt? Where will you stand, Athens?
Now a seventh dawn rises, steering her frightened horses far
From them where they lie. The light of every starry ray slants
Away from them in horror. The wild beasts and the very birds
Themselves loathe the foul flesh on their approach and that
Battlefield breathing corruption, tainting the breeze, the sky.
What remains of them might you suppose? Make him permit
Us to gather the naked bones, the blood-stained rotting flesh.
Hurry, honoured sons of Cecrops! You must be our champion
Before Thracians and Macedonians grieve as we do, or others
Elsewhere who hold funeral rites and immolate by burning.
Or what limit shall there be to savagery? True, we made war,
But those in hate are fallen; death has buried the bitterness
Of wrath. You too, or so the stories of your noble deeds relate,
Would not throw Sinis or the vile Cercyon to savage monsters,
And would rather have cremated and not drowned fierce Scyron.
Did not the Thracian River Don too, from whence you bring back
These spoils, see the smoke of Amazonian pyres? But be worthy
Of this triumph, grant earth and sky and Erebus a deed, if it was
Truly you who freed your native Marathon of the bull, and Crete
Of the Minotaur, if aged Hecale who sheltered you did not shed
Her tears in vain. So may you never fight a battle without Pallas
Aiding you nor divine Hercules envying your matching exploits,
And may your mother see you ever triumphant in your chariot,
And may unconquered Athens never need to make a plea like ours.’
BkXII:587-676 Theseus sets out for Thebes
She spoke and all echoed her words and stretched out their hands
In clamorous entreaty. The heroic son of Neptune, reddened, stirred
By righteous anger, moved by their tears, exclaiming: ‘What Fury
Has induced such strange behaviour in a king? The Greek hearts
I left behind, when I departed for Scythia and snowy Pontus, were
Not such: whence this new frenzy? Fell Creon, did you think Theseus
Defeated there? Well, I am here, and not weary of blood, believe me:
This spear still thirsts for that of the wicked. No delay. Loyal Phegeus,
Wheel your horse and ride for the Tyrian towers. Proclaim my words:
‘Flames for the Danai or war for Thebes.’ So saying, making little of
His recent battles and the journey, he urged on his men, reviving their
Flagging strength. So a bull when he has regained his brides and his
Pastures, and the fight is behind him, hearing the woods resound with
The bellowing of another contender, prepares himself again, though
His head and back rain streams of blood, and pawing the meadow
Conceals his pain, and hides his wounds with the dust. Minerva too
Shook her shield, stirring Libyan terror, making the Medusa guarding
Her breast quiver, its snakes immediately rearing up, their whole
Swarm gazing towards Thebes. The Athenian army was not yet ready
To march, but already Dircean Thebes trembled at the trumpets’ sound.
Now the warriors assembled eager for the fight, not only those soldiers
From the Caucasian triumph but untrained recruits from every region
Roused to arms. They gathered willingly to their leader’s standard,
These were the men that fought for chill Brauron, Monychian fields,
Piraeus, unfailing harbour for anxious sailors, and Marathon not yet
Famed for victory over the Persians. The homes of Icarius and Celeus,
Hosts to their country’s gods, Bacchus and Ceres, sent men to fight,
Green Melaenae, and Aegaleos dense with forests, and Parnes kind
To the vine, and Lycabessos, more generous still to the oil-rich olive.
Fierce warriors from Alae were there, and the ploughboys of fragrant
Hymettus, and those of Acharnae who first twined bare wands with ivy.
They left Sunium behind, visible afar to vessels from the east, where
Theseus’ Cretan ship with its black sail deceived Aegeus, whose fall
Gave a name to the shifting waves. Salamis saw one race of farmers
Hang up their ploughs and seek grim battle; Ceres’ Eleusis another;
And Callirhoe those whom she entwined nine times in her meandering
Streams; and the Ilissos too, that witnessed the rape of Orithyia and hid
Boreas, her Getic lover, along his banks. The Acropolis itself, where
The deities held their great dispute, resolved when a new species of
Tree, the olive, sprang from the contested plateau and cast its long
Shadow on the sea; that rocky hill too was emptied for the warfare.
Hippolyte wished to go, so as to lead her Thracian squadrons against
Cadmus’ walls, but the promise of her pregnant womb now certain
Held her back, and her husband asked her to forgo thoughts of war,
And hang her quiver, its service complete, in the marriage chamber.
When Theseus saw the troops, eager for battle and glittering with
Shining steel, giving brief embraces and hasty kisses to their loving
Children, he spoke to them from his high chariot: ‘Soldiers, you who
Shall with me defend the laws of the lands and the earth’s covenants,
Consider the justice of our enterprise. It is clear that the judgement
Of gods and men, Nature, our ruler, and the hosts of silent Avernus
Are on our side; on the other are the ranks of the avenging Furies.
Active for Thebes, the snake-haired Sisters lead out their standards.
March quickly now, and trust in our great cause.’ He spoke, then
Hurled his spear to initiate their swift passage. So, when Jupiter
At the Hyperborean pole high among the clouds shakes the skies
At the start of winter, Aeolia’s cave is opened, the chill tempest
Restless from long idleness take heart, and the windswept Bear
Whistles: then sea and mountains roar, there is conflict amongst
The viewless clouds, and thunder and wild lightning hold revel.
Now the trampled earth groaned, a weight of hooves transmuted
The green fields, and the soil pulverised by countless squadrons
Of cavalry and foot, blew outwards. Yet the glitter of arms still
Shone through the smothering dust, and cleft the air far off,
As spears flashed through the thick cloud. They recruited night’s
Silent darkness to their cause too. There was fierce competition
Among the warriors as to who might first announce, from some
Low hill, that Thebes, the objective of their swift columns, was
In sight, and whose lance might be the first to lodge in its wall.
Nearing the place, Neptunian Theseus grasped his vast shield
Depicting armies. On his boss it reveals the origins of his own
Glory, the hundred cities and hundred winding walls of Crete,
Himself in the depths of the monstrous labyrinth grasping
The shaggy neck of the struggling Minotaur, alternately binding
Hands and knotty arms about him, his head averted to escape
The horns. Men are terrified when he goes to war defended
By that savage scene; they see Theseus twice, his hands twice
Bloody with destruction, and he himself recalls his past deeds,
Viewing his band of comrades again, the once dreaded entrance,
And the maid of Cnossos, Ariadne, pale, as the thread gives out.
BkXII:677-729 Creon accepts battle
Meanwhile Savage Creon was arranging the death of Adrastus’
Widowed daughter Argia and that of Antigone. Their wrists were
Manacled behind their backs but, being proud and eager to die,
Disappointing the bloodthirsty king, they were both stretching
Their necks out towards the swords, when Phegeus arrived there
Carrying Theseus’ message. He came in peace, bearing innocuous
Olive branches but loud and angry, over-mindful of his commander,
Emphasising that Theseus was already nearby, his troops spread
Over the intervening country, he threatened war, and stirred war.
Creon stood there in perplexity, anxiety rising within him: thus he
Wavered, and his earlier threats and anger ebbed. Then he braced
Himself and with a false and sorrowful smile said: ‘Was that no
Small lesson we taught defeated Mycenae? Yet see, here others
Come to assault our walls. Well then, let them come: but let them
Not complain after the battle: there is one law for the vanquished.’
He spoke, but could see that the horizon was dark with clouds
Of dust and the Theban mountains losing their outline. Turning
Pale, he nevertheless ordered the people to arms, and demanded
His own weapons. Then to his dismay he thought he saw the Furies
Appear, suddenly, in the heart of the palace; Menoeceus weeping;
And the Argive corpses set on pyres while all rejoiced. What a day
Of battle now came, when the victory won by Thebes, at such cost
In blood, was lost! The Thebans grasped the spoils hung so recently
In their ancestral shrines, defending themselves with broken shields,
Dinted helmets, and spears still caked with blood. None, brave to
See, rode his steed, or marched gallantly with sword or quiver. Faith
In the fortifications fled, and the walls were exposed on every side.
The gates required new defences, their former enemy had destroyed
Them, and the battlements were shattered where Capaneus toppled
Them, and while the soldiers, wounded, weak, planted no last kisses
On wives’ and children’s cheeks; the old were dazed and prayer-less.
Meanwhile Theseus, seeing a brilliant sun burst through the clouds,
Its rays glittering on the armour, leapt onto that plain whose corpses
Lay unburied below the walls. Breathing air tainted by foul vapours
Beneath his dust-stained helm, he groaned, and righteous battle-anger
Flared. Now either the Theban king chose not to fight a second battle
Over the very bodies of the dead, or else in his wickedness he sought
Virgin soil to drink the blood, lest he fail to grant earth full measure
Of the cruel slaughter. Now, Bellona roused two peoples to one-sided
Battle: the shouting and the trumpets’ clamour unequal. The Thebans
Stood slackly, their swords languishing, and their spear-straps loose
In their hands. They gave ground, withdrew their squadrons, their old
Wounds still bleeding. The Athenian generals too doused their ardour,
Their threat receding, their courage ebbing, with clear victory assured,
Just as the roar of the winds diminishes when no forest obstructs their
Fury or the wild breakers sink to silence far from the sounding shore.
BkXII:730-796 Theseus slays Creon
Now Neptunian Theseus brandished his spear of Marathonian oak
On high, its cruel shadow falling on the foe, the flame of its point
Filling the grim battlefield, as though Mars whipped on his Thracian
Chariot bearing death and rout on swift wheels from Haemus’ peak,
Such that pale terror drove the panicked scions of Agenor in retreat.
Theseus wearied of slaying fugitives, his hand scorned easy prey,
While his men’s courage exhausted itself in furious ignoble carnage.
Anger feeds mighty lions, but only wolves and degenerate dogs love
Lifeless flesh flung at their feet. Nevertheless Theseus slew Olenius
And Lamyrus, the one as he snatched arrows from his quiver, while
The other savagely grasped a heavy rock; and killed Alcetus’ three
Sons who trusted in their ancestral triple strength. Theseus slew
Them each in turn from a distance with as many spears: Phyleus
Took the blade in his chest; Helops bit down on it with his teeth;
While Iapyx felt it pass through his shoulder. Now Theseus headed
For Haemon high in his four-horse chariot, and whirled his deadly
Weapon. Haemon swerved his frightened team. Reaching its mark,
After its long flight, the spear pierced two of the horses, and would
Have transfixed a third if the point had not struck the pole between.
Yet amidst the squadrons it was Creon, only Creon that he sought
With fearful shouts and oaths: his is the name that Theseus called.
Then he caught sight of him on the other flank urging on his men
With cries, threatening them with the worst, in vain. His troops
Melted away, while Theseus’ men let him be, as ordered, trusting
In the gods and their general’s weapons. Creon grasping his, now
Recalled them. Feeling their equal hatred, he roused himself in
Fatal anger, and with a final fury, driven by thoughts of death,
Cried out: ‘You are not fighting now with shield-bearing women,
Here are no virginal arms. This is the raw conflict of men. It was
We who put mighty Tydeus and ravening Hippomedon to death,
And dispatched Capaneus to the shades. What mad foolishness
Counselled you to war, oh perverse man? See you not where they
Lie, those you would avenge?’ So saying he planted a javelin
In the rim of Theseus’ shield, all in vain. That grim son of Aegeus
Mocked speech and throw alike, and readied a mighty launch of
His steel-tripped oaken spear, first with proud words thundering:
‘You Argive ghosts, to whom I dedicate this offering, open wide
The gates of Tartarus: make ready you vengeful Furies, for behold
Creon comes!’ With that, the quivering shaft cleft the air, to strike
Where delicate links of chain with their complex weave formed
The close-knit mail. Creon’s impious blood spurted from their
Thousand openings: he fell, his eyes already wandering in death.
A grim-faced Theseus stood beside him and grasping the armour
Cried: ‘Now will you grant the flames due your dead foes? Now
Will you bury the vanquished? Go! Dark is your punishment, but
You at least are sure of a tomb at last.’ In a now-friendly confusion
The standard-bearers met, and the warriors clasped hands. A truce
Was struck in the midst of the battlefield; Theseus became a guest.
They begged him to enter the walls and honour their houses. He
Without demur entered the enemy city as victor. Ogygian brides
And mothers rejoiced, as Bacchus’ worshippers beside the Ganges,
Won to his warlike wand, intoxicated, celebrate unwarlike revels.
See, in the shadow of Dirce’s heights, the Pelasgian women shouted
Fit to shake the stars, hastening like those wild Thyiads summoned
To Bacchic wars; you would think they were calling for some vast
Crime, or had committed one. Mourning now rejoiced and fresh
Tears exulted. Emotion drove them here and there; should they first
Seek out magnanimous Theseus, or Creon’s corpse, or their loved
Ones? The sadness of the bereaved led them towards the bodies.
BkXII:797-819 Statius’ Envoi
Even though some god were to free my breath in a thousand voices,
There is no worthy effort of mine that could do justice to such a host
Of pyres for generals and common folk alike, nor such a chorus of
Lament; nor could I relate with what bravery Evadne threw herself
Into the flames consuming her beloved, seeking to touch the lightning
In that mighty breast; nor how Deipyle, Tydeus’ luckless wife, excused
His savage deed as she bent to kiss the corpse; nor how Argia told her
Sister of the cruel guards; nor with what grief Atalanta the Erymanthian
Mother of Arcadian Parthenopaeus mourned for her son, whose beauty
Remained though the life was fled, he for whom both armies wept alike.
Scarcely could Apollo’s presence, bringing fresh inspiration, complete
The task, while my barque, on the wide ocean, has earned harbour now.
My Thebaid on whom for twelve years I’ve spent all my waking effort,
Will you survive, and be read when your author is long gone? Already,
In truth, your fame has spread a generous path before you, and begun
To reveal you, a new arrival, to those to come. Already magnanimous
Domitian, our Caesar, has deigned to acknowledge you, and the learned
Youth of Italy memorise you and recite you. Live on, I pray; but do not
Try to compete with the divine Aeneid, rather follow always in its steps
And adore it from afar. Soon every envy spreading mist before you will
Vanish and, when I am gone, you’ll receive such honour as is deserved.
End of Book XII and the Thebaid