PHOENISSAE by Seneca the Younger

January 1, 0001


Translated into English Verse, to Which Have Been Appended Comparative Analyses of the Corresponding Greek and Roman Plays, and a Mythological Index



Oedipus Late king of Thebes.

Antigone Daughter of Oedipus, constant to him in his misfortunes.

Jocasta Wife and mother of Oedipus.

Polynices } Eteocles } Sons of Oedipus and rivals for the throne.


THE SCENE is laid, first in the wild country to which Oedipus,

accompanied by Antigone, has betaken himself; then in Thebes, and

lastly in the plain before Thebes.

THE TIME is three years after the great tragedy of Oedipus.

*The stroke of fate, that has been threatening Oedipus since long

before his birth, has fallen at last, and he has done the thing he

feared to do. And now, self-blinded and self-exiled from his land, he

has for three years wandered in rough and trackless places, attended by

Antigone, his daughter, who, alone of all his friends, has condoned his

fated sins and remained attached to him.*

*Meanwhile his sons, though they agreed to reign alternate years, are

soon to meet in deadly strife; for Eteocles, although his year of royal

power is at an end, refuses to give up the throne; and now Polynices,

who has in exile wed the daughter of Adrastus, king of Argos, is

marching against the gates of Thebes, with seven great armies, to

enforce his rights.*

[*By a different version from the “Oedipus,” Jocasta did not slay

herself at once as in that tale, but still is living on in grief and

shame, and strives to reconcile her sons.*]


Oedipus [to Antigone, who has followed him into exile]: O thou,

who guid’st thy blinded father’s steps,

Sole comfort of my weary heart, my child,

Begotten at such heavy cost to me,

Leave thou the unpropitious way I tread.

Why shouldst thou seek to lead my feet aright

Which fain would wander? Let me stumble on. 5

Far better shall I find my way, alone,

The path that from the miseries of life

Shall take me, and the face of heaven and earth

Free from the sight of this ill-omened head.

O hand of mine, how little hast thou done!

For, though I do not see the light of day

Which looked upon my crime, still am I seen.

Unclasp thy clinging hand from mine; permit 10

My sightless feet to wander where they will.

I go, I go where my Cithaeron lifts

His rugged crags on high; where to his dogs

Actaeon, speeding through the rocky ways,

Became a booty strange and pitiful;

Where through the dim old woods and dusky glades, 15

By Bacchic frenzy fired, the mother wild

Her sisters led, rejoicing in the crime,

When on the waving thyrsus' point she bore

The gory head of Pentheus; where the bull

Of Zethus rushed along, the mangled corpse

Of Dirce dragging (through the thorny briars 20

The mad beast’s flight was traceable in blood);

Or where the cliff of Ino lifts its head

High o’er the heaving sea, into whose depths

The mother leaped, fleeing an unknown crime,

Yet daring other crime, by terror driven

To sink her son with her beneath the waves. 25

Oh, happy they whose better fortune gave

Mothers like these! There is another place

Within these woods–my place, which calls to me,

To which I fain would haste; my eager feet

Will not delay, and thither will I go,

Unguided, all alone. Why hesitate 30

To seek the place that most belongs to me?

Give back that death, Cithaeron, give again

That spot where once I lay upon thy breast,

That, where I should in infancy have died,

In age I may expire. Now let me pay

The debt I long have owed. O mountain, fell

And bloody, cruel, savage in thy rage,

Both when thou spar’st and when thou dost destroy, 35

This body long ago was given to thee:

Obey my father’s and my mother’s will.

My soul is eager to receive at last

Its punishment. Why, daughter, why dost thou

With baleful love restrain me? Hold me not.

My father calls, and I will follow, yea,

Will follow him. Then cease to hold me back. 40

See where the royal Laius comes in rage,

The blood-stained scepter of his ravished realm

Within his grasp. See, with his angry hands

He seeks to tear again my empty eyes.

O daughter, dost thou see my father, too?

I surely see him.

[To himself:] Now, O coward soul,

Brave but to mar a helpless part of thee, 45

At length spew out that hateful life of thine.

Delay no more upon thy punishment,

And give thyself entirely unto death.

Why do I, sluggish, linger on in life?

There is no further crime that I can do.

Oh, my foreboding, wretched soul, there is!

[To Antigone.]

Flee from thy father, flee, while still a maid;

My mother’s fate makes me of all afraid. 50

Antigone: No power, my father, shall unloose my hold

Of thee; no one shall force me from thy side.

The illustrious, rich house of Labdacus,

Let my two brothers seek with strife to gain:

The greatest part of all my father’s realm 55

Is mine–my father’s self. Nor shall this share

Be reft away from me by him who holds

By stolen right the scepter over Thebes,

Nor by that other brother who leads on

Against his native land th' Argolic hosts;

Though Jove himself should thunder out of heaven,

And hurl his bolt against my clinging hands, 60

I would not let thee go. Though thou forbid,

I’ll guide thee, O my father, ‘gainst thy will,

And thy reluctant feet will I direct.

Seek’st thou the level plain? There will I go.

The rugged mountain heights? I’ll not oppose,

But will precede thy way. Use me as guide

Wherever thou wouldst go; since for us both 65

Is every path selected that thou tread’st.

With me, but not without me, canst thou die.

There springs a lofty cliff, precipitous,

And looks far out upon the sea below:

Shall we seek this? There hangs a naked rock,

There yawns the riven earth with gaping jaws: 70

Wouldst thou to these? And there a mountain stream

In roaring torrent falls, and ‘neath its waves

Worn fragments of the mountain roll along:

Shall we rush headlong in? Where thou wouldst go,

I go, but always first. I’ll not oppose

Nor urge. Dost thou desire to be destroyed?

Is death thy highest wish? If thou dost die, 75

I go before thee; if thou liv’st, I follow.

But change thy mind, call up thine old-time strength,

And with a mighty will thy sorrows curb.

Resist, since in such ills defeat is death.

Oedipus: Whence springs so rare a spirit in a house 80

So impious? Whence comes this noble maid,

Unlike her race? Can it be true indeed?

Has any pious thing been born of me?

Ne’er would it be, for well I know my fates,

Except for harmful ends. Nature herself

Has changed her laws: now shall the stream, reversed, 85

Bear back its whirling waters to their source;

The torch of Phoebus shall bring in the night,

And day be heralded by Hesperus;

And, that I may but add unto my woe,

I, too, shall pious be. Not to be saved–

This is for Oedipus the only cure.

Let me avenge my father, unavenged 90

Till now. My hand, why dost thou hesitate

To exact the penalty I owe to him?

Whatever I have suffered hitherto

Was for my mother’s sake. Release my hand,

Undaunted girl; thou but delay’st my death,

And thy living father’s funeral prolong’st. 95

Let earth conceal at last this hated form.

Thou wrongest me, though with a kind intent,

And deem’st it piety to keep thy sire

From burial. But they are one in guilt,

Both he who forces death upon a man

Who fain would live, and he who holds him back

Who longs to die. And yet they are not one;

For surely is the last the worser sin. 100

To be condemned to death were better far

For me than to be saved from death. Then cease,

My child, from this attempt. I have reserved

For my own will the right to live or die.

Right gladly did I yield the sovereignty

O’er all my realm; yet o’er myself alone

I still am king. If thou in very truth 105

Art loyal to me, give me back my sword,

That sword already with my father’s blood

Defiled. Wilt give it back? Or do my sons

Retain my sword together with my throne?

‘Tis well. Wherever there is need of crime,

There let it be; I gladly give it up.

Let both my sons possess the sword. But thou,

Flames, rather, and a heap of wood prepare; 110

Then will I fling myself upon the pyre,

Cling in its hot embrace, and hide myself

Within its deadly hold. There will I loose

This stubborn soul, and give to mortal dust

Whatever lives in me. Where is the sea?

Come, lead me where some beetling crag juts out, 115

Or where Ismenus rolls his savage waves;

Or thither would I go and end my life,

Where once upon a jutting rock abode

The hybrid Sphinx and wove her crafty speech. 120

Direct me thither, set thy father there.

Let not that dreadful seat be empty long,

But place me there, a greater monster still.

There will I sit and of my fate propose

A riddle dark which no man will resolve.

Come listen, ye, who plow the Theban fields;

Whoever worships in the sacred grove 125

Of Cadmus, for the deadly serpent famed,

Where hallowed Dirce lies; whoever drinks

Eurotas’ stream; ye who in Sparta dwell,

Illustrious for its heavenly brothers twain;

And ye who reap Boeotia’s fertile fields,

The plains of Elis and Parnassus’ slopes: 130

What riddle like to this could she propose,

That curse of Thebes, who wove destructive words

In puzzling measures? What so dark as this? *He was his grandsire’s son-in-law, and yet

His father’s rival; brother of his sons, 135

And father of his brothers; at one birth

The granddame bore unto her husband sons,

And grandson’s to herself.* Who can unwind

A tangle such as this? E’en I myself,

Who bore the spoils of triumph o’er the Sphinx,

Stand mute before the riddle of my fate.

[Has a speech of Antigone dropped out at this point, or does

Oedipus hark back to a previous thought after a dramatic pause?]

But why waste further words? Why dost thou try 140

To soften my determined heart with prayers?

My will is fixed to pour this spirit forth

Which now for long has struggled sore with death,

And seek the world of shades; for blackest night

Is still not black enough for this my crime.

‘Tis sweet in deepest Tartarus to hide;

Or, if there yet is deeper pit than this, 145

There would I go. ‘Tis well to do at last

The thing which long ago should have been done.

I cannot be prevented from my death.

Wilt take away my sword? Wilt bar all paths

That lead unto the fatal precipice?

Wilt keep my neck free from the choking noose?

Remove all poisonous herbs from me? Yet what, 150

Think’st thou, will all that care of thine avail?

For death is everywhere. A kindly God

Hath this great law with wisest care ordained:

That anyone can take man’s life away,

But none can stay his death; for countless ways

Are open unto him who seeks to die.

I ask no aid of thine. Well am I used

To employ this naked hand. Then come, my hand, 155

With all thy force, with all thy passion, come.

And not one wound alone would I endure,

For I have sinned in every part of me.

Come, strike the mortal blow where’er thou wilt:

Break through my breast and tear my heart away,

So full of sin; lay bear my vitals all; 160

Rain blows upon my neck until it break,

Or let thy gouging fingers tear my veins

Until they flow with blood. Or, if thou wilt,

Direct thine anger whither thou art wont:

These healing wounds reopen; let them flow

With streams of blood and loathsome gore again;

And through this passage drag my life away,

So stubborn in defeat, so hard to storm. 165

And thou, O father, wheresoe’er thou art,

Who stand’st as judge upon my just deserts,

I ne’er have thought that such a crime as mine

Could ever be sufficiently atoned,

Nor has this living death contented me;

I have not bought my pardon with my eyes,

But fain would perish for thee, limit by limb. 170

Exact at last the penalty I owe.

Now I atone; then I but sacrificed

Unto thy manes. Be thou here to aid,

And my reluctant hand help me to plunge

Deep down and deeper in my sightless eyes.

A scant and timid offering I made,

When first I plucked my eager eyeballs out. 175

And even now my trembling spirit halts,

Yea, halts, though downward to my shrinking hands

My face inclines. Now shalt thou hear the truth,

O Oedipus: less boldly than thou plan’dst

Did’st thou pluck out thine eyes. Let now thy brain 180

Feel those avenging fingers; through this door

Complete the death which has begun in me.

Antigone: O father, great of soul, I pray thee hear

With quiet mind thy wretched daughter’s words:

I do not seek to lead thee back again

Into the presence of thy former home,

Nor to the illustrious splendor of thy realm; 185

I ask thee not with calm and peaceful soul

To bear again that fearful shock of woe

Which even yet the soothing hand of time

Has not assuaged. And yet it is not meet

That one so stout of heart should be o’ercome

And to misfortune weakly turn his back.

It is not valor, father, as thou think’st, 190

To shrink from life; but ‘gainst the mightiest ills

To stand opposed, and not to flinch or budge,

That is the truest test of manly worth.

Who tramples under foot his destiny,

Who disregards and scorns the goods of life,

And aggravates the evils of his lot, 195

Who has no further need of Providence:

Wherefore should such a man desire to die,

Or seek for death? Each is the coward’s act.

No one holds death in scorn who seeks to die.

The man whose evils can no farther go

Is safely lodged. Who of the gods, think’st thou, 200

Grant that he wills it so, can add one jot

Unto thy sum of trouble? Nor canst thou,

Save that thou deem’st thyself unfit to live.

But thou art not unfit, for in thy breast

No taint of sin has come. And all the more,

My father, art thou free from taint of sin,

Because, though heaven willed it otherwise, 205

Thou still art innocent. What is there now

Which has so maddened thee, which goads thy heart

To fresh outbursts of grief? What forces thee

To seek the abodes of hell, and fly from these?

Is’t that thou wouldst avoid the light of day?

Thou dost avoid the light. Or wouldst thou flee

This noble palace and thy native land?

Thy native land, although thou livest still,

Is dead to thee. Wouldst from thy sons escape, 210

And from thy mother? From the sight of all

Has fate removed thee; and whatever death

From any man can take, thy life has taken.

Art weary of the kingdom’s press and stir?

At thy command thy former courtier throng

Has vanished.–Whom, O father, dost thou flee? 215

Oedipus: Myself I flee, I flee this heart of mine,

Full of all crimes; I flee this hand, this sky,

These gods; I flee those dreadful sins which I,

Though innocent, have done. And can it be

That this fair world, whence bounteous harvests spring,

Is trod by such as I? This wholesome air

Do I with pestilential lips inhale, 220

With water quench my thirst, or any gift

Of kindly earth enjoy? And do I dare,

This impious, incestuous, curséd wretch,

To touch thy maiden hand? Have I still ears

To hear the name of parent or of son? 225

Oh, that with rending hands I might destroy

These narrow ways of sound by which I hear

The words of men. My child, all sense of thee,

Who art a parcel of my impious deeds,

In my unhappiness I would have fled. 230

But now my crime sticks fast within my heart,

And threatens ever to break out afresh;

For what my blinded eyes have spared to me,

Is through my ears poured in upon my soul.

Oh, why do I not plunge this darkened life

Into the eternal shadow-world of Dis?

Why do I longer hold my spirit here? 235

Why be a burden to the upper world,

And wander still among the living men?

What evil yet remains? My fatherland,

My parents, children, valor–all are lost,

And that illustrious glory of the mind;

Yea, evil chance hath stripped me of my all.

Tears yet remained, but these with my own hand 240

Have I destroyed. Then go thy ways, my child.

My soul will not give ear to any prayers,

And only seeks new punishment for crime,

And equal to my sin–if that can be.

While yet an infant was I doomed to death.

What mortal ever drew so hard a fate?

Ere I had seen the light, while still confined 245

Within the darksome prison of the womb,

I was a thing of dread. The night of death

Lays hold on many at the hour of birth,

And snatches them away from dawning life;

But death anticipated birth in me.

Some are o’ertaken by untimely fate

While still within the womb, yet without sin. 250

But I, yet hid within the hold of life,

While yet my very being was in doubt,

Was by the heavenly oracle compelled

To answer to a charge unspeakable.

My sire condemned me at Apollo’s word,

And through my tender ankles thrust a rod

Still glowing from the forge; then sent his child

Into the forest deep, a prey for beasts 255

And all the savage birds Cithaeron breeds,

Accustomed to be stained with royal blood.

Yet him, whom God condemned, who by his sire

Was cast away to die, death also fled.

And Delphi’s oracle have I fulfilled:

For I with impious hand assailed my sire, 260

And slew him.

[With bitter irony] Yet, for this impiety,

Perchance another act of piety

Will make amends: I killed my father; true,

But still I loved my mother.–Oh, ‘tis shame

To mention such a wedlock; yet I will,

And force myself to bear this punishment,

To tell abroad my more than bestial crime,

So strange, that nations stand in dumb amaze, 265

So shameful, that no age will credit it,

That e’en the shameless parricide is shocked:

Into my father’s bed I bore my hands

Smeared with my father’s blood, and there received

The wages of my crime–a greater crime.

My father’s murder was a trivial thing; 270

But, that my sum of crime might be complete,

My mother, to my marriage chamber led,

Conceived–Oh, how could nature e’er endure

A greater crime? And yet, if aught remains,

I have begotten children vile enough

To do this also. I have cast away

The scepter which I won by parricide, 275

And with it other hands are armed for war.

Full well do I my kingdom’s fortune know,

That never more shall any gain the throne

Without the sacrifice of kindred blood.

Dire evils doth my father-soul presage,

For even now are sown the baleful seeds

Of future strife; the plighted pact is spurned; 280

One will not yield the throne he hath usurped,

The other claims his right, calls on the gods

To witness of his bond, and, driven from home,

Moves Argos and the towns of Greece to arms.

No light destruction comes to weary Thebes;

For weapons, flames, and wounds press hard on her, 285

And greater woes than these, if such there be,

That all may know I have begotten sons.

Antigone: If thou no other cause for living hast,

My father, this one reason is enough,

That thou as father mayst restrain thy sons

From deadly strife. Thou only canst avert 290

Their threats of impious war, curb their mad hearts,

Give peace to citizens, to country rest,

And to their broken treaty honest faith.

To many men art thou refusing life,

If for thyself thou dost refuse to live.

Oedipus: Think’st thou that such as they have aught of love 295

For father or for right, whose hearts are filled

With lust for blood and power and impious arms,

Profane and cruel sons–in brief, my own?

Toward every form of evil deed they strive,

And have no scruples where their wrath impels.

In shame begot, they have no sense of shame. 300

They have no feeling for their wretched sire,

None for their country. Naught but lust of power

Rules in their maddened breasts. I know full well

To what dire ends they tend, what monstrous deeds

They are prepared to do; and for this cause

I seek to find destruction’s shortest path,

And haste to die, while yet within my house 305

There is no soul more steeped in guilt than I.

O child, why dost thou weep about my knees,

Why seek with prayer to soften my hard heart?

This means alone my fortune has reserved

By which I may be led, unconquered else;

For thou alone canst soothe my stubborn soul, 310

Canst teach me piety. For naught is hard

Or grievous in my sight, if I perceive

That thou dost wish it. Do thou but command:

Then will I swim the broad Aegean straits,

Will drink the flames which from Sicilia’s mount

Earth belches forth in whirling, molten streams, 315

Will beard the savage dragon in his den,

Still raging at the theft of Hercules;

At thy command, to birds of prey will give

My bleeding heart–at thy command will live.

[*The first act seems to be complete here, except for the commenting

chorus which would naturally follow.* Oedipus *has temporarily yielded

to his daughter’s will.*]


[*The following passage fittingly opens the second act or episode.

Although some editors would assign it to* Antigone, *it seems more

fittingly to belong to a messenger who has just arrived, for the double

reason that it gives fresher information from Thebes than* Antigone *would naturally possess; and that* Oedipus, *after the speech to his

daughter with which the previous scene ended, would hardly address to

her as rough a reply as he uses in his next speech.*]

Messenger: Thee, sprung from regal stock to be our guide, 320

In fear of civil strife our Thebes invokes,

And prays that thou wouldst save thy father’s house

From the flaming torch of war. No mere threats, these;

For ever nearer does destruction come.

One brother claims his share of royal power,

His turn to rule according to the bond,

And now is rousing all the tribes of Greece 325

To bloody war. Against the walls of Thebes

Seven camps have set them down. Haste to our aid,

And war and crime prohibit equally.

Oedipus: Do I seem one to stay the hand of crime,

And teach it to refrain from kindred blood?

Should I teach righteousness and filial love? 330

They take me as a model for their crimes,

And follow me. I gladly recognize

And praise them as my sons; I urge them on

To do some outrage worthy of their sire.

Then on, my worthy offspring; by your deeds

Approve your noble birth; do ye surpass 335

My glory and my praises; do some deed

Because of which your father will rejoice

That he has lived till now. And well I know

That you will do it; for to such an end

Were ye brought forth. Such noble birth as yours

Cannot be satisfied with common crime

Or slight. Then forward with your impious arms!

Attack your household gods with flaming brands; 340

With torches gather in the ripened grain

Upon your native fields; confuse all things,

And hurry all to ruin absolute;

O’erthrow the city’s walls, yea, lay them low,

E’en to the level of the plain; the gods

And temples in one common fall o’erwhelm;

Destroy our lares, now so foully stained,

And let our whole house perish utterly; 345

Let all the city be consumed with fire,

And be my impious marriage chamber first

To feel the flames.

Antigone: This raging storm of grief

Give o’er; and let the sorrows of the state

Prevail with thee to reconcile thy sons.

Oedipus: And dost thou think that thou dost see in me 350

A mild old man given o’er to peaceful thoughts?

And dost thou summon me unto thine aid,

As one who loves to ‘stablish peace? Not so:

For even now my spirit swells with rage,

My grief burns fiercely, and I long to see

Some greater deed than chance or youthful wrath

Would dare attempt. I am not satisfied

With civil war: let brother brother slay. 355

Nor yet would this suffice. I wait to see

Some evil done that shall be like my own,

That shall be worthy of my marriage bed.

Give deadly weapons to my mother’s hand–

But do not seek to drag me from these woods.

Here will I hide within the rocky caves,

Or hedge myself about with thickets dense. 360

Here will I catch at warlike rumor rife

And hear what news I may of brothers’ strife.


[*It is possible that the following fragments belong to still another

play. The presence of* Antigone *in Thebes, notwithstanding her resolve

to remain with her father, would strengthen this view*.]

Jocasta: Oh, fortunate Agave! for she bore,

Within the hand which did the deed, the spoil,

The horrid spoil of her dismembered son, 365

A raging Maenad. Yea, she did the deed;

But naught in all her sinfulness did she

Save that one crime.[7] It is my least of sins

That I am guilty; this my greater crime,

That I have made another sinful too.

But even this seems light when I reflect

That I have given birth to sinful sons.

Till now ‘twas wanting to my sum of woe

That I should love my country’s enemy. 370

Three times has winter put away his snows,

And thrice have Ceres’ golden harvests fall’n

Beneath the sickle, since my hapless son

In exile wanders, robbed of fatherland,

And craves assistance from the Grecian kings.

He has become Adrastus’ son-in-law,

Whose sway is o’er the waters of the sea

Which Isthmus cleaves. Adrastus even now 375

Is leading on his tribes, and with him march

Seven other royal hosts. Ah, woe is me,

I know not what I ought to wish or say.

My exiled son with justice claims his share

Of empire, but he seeks it wrongfully.

How shall I pray? I count them both my sons, 380

And yet, alas, without impiety,

Can I for neither pray. If for one son

I call a blessing down, ‘tis but a curse

Upon the other’s head. Yet this I know:

Although I love them both with equal love,

My heart inclines toward the better cause, 385

The worser fortune, ever favoring him

Who suffers more; for this is fortune’s way

To win the wretched to their own again.

[Enter Messenger in haste.]

Messenger: O queen, while thou dost utter these complaints,

And spend’st the precious time in useless tears,

With weapons drawn the battle lines approach.

The trumpet’s blare incites to bloody war,

And even now the eagles are advanced. 390

The kings in seven-fold battle are arrayed,

While the sons of Thebes with equal spirit go

To meet the enemy. With hurrying tread,

Now here, now there, advance the soldiery.

Behold, dark clouds of dust obscure the day,

And from the plain dense, smokelike billows rise, 395

Which earth, beneath the tread of countless hoofs,

Sends rolling heavenward. And through the dust,

If terror-stricken eyes can see aright,

The hostile standards shine; with lifted spears

The foremost ranks advance; while banners gleam,

Bearing the names of famous generals wrought 400

In golden characters.

Then haste, O queen:

Unto the warring brothers love restore,

Give peace to all, and by a mother’s hands

Prevent the conflict of these impious bands.

Antigone: O mother, haste thee, haste on flying feet;

Hold back their weapons, from my brothers’ hands

Strike down the swords, and ‘twixt their deadly points

Thy bared breast interpose. Then, mother, haste; 405

Or stop the war, or be thou first to fall.

Jocasta: I go, I go, and ‘twixt their swords will stand,

And there unto their points expose my life.

And he who shall his brother seek to slay

Must slay his mother first. At my command

The son whose heart is moved by piety

Will lay aside his arms; the impious son 410

Must first make war on me. These fiery youths

Will I, although a woman, old, restrain.

Within my sight shall be no impious deed;

Or, if within my sight one impious deed

Can be committed–then shall two be done.

[Exit toward the scene of conflict.]

Antigone: Now gleam the advancing standards, near at hand;

And loud the hostile battle-cry resounds. 415

A moment, and the impious deed is done.

O mother, speed thee with thy prayers. But see!

You would suppose them by my weeping moved,

So slowly do the arméd lines advance.

Messenger: The lines move slowly, but the leaders haste.

Jocasta [hurrying onward]: What wingéd wind will speed me through

the air, 420

Bearing me onward with the storm’s mad whirl?

What monstrous Sphinx or dark Stymphalian bird,

Whose spreading wings blot out the light of day,

Will bear me on its space-consuming wings?

What Harpy, hovering o’er the royal board

Of that stern Thracian king, will catch me up

Along the lofty highways of the air, 425

And cast me headlong ‘twixt th’ opposing lines?

Messenger [looking after her]: Like some wild creature reft of

sense she goes.

Swift as an arrow shot by Parthian hand,

Or as a ship which boisterous winds impel,

Or as the flight of falling star from heaven, 430

Which in unswerving course athwart the sky

Darts on its fiery way: with maddened haste

The queen has sped her flight, and even now

Has ta’en her stand between th’ opposing lines.

The battle pauses yet a little while,

O’ercome at sight of those maternal tears.

And now the hosts, on mutual slaughter bent, 435

Stand with their weapons balanced in their hands:

Peace wins the day; the threat’ning points are lowered;

The swords are sheathed. But in the brothers’ hands

They still are poised. The frantic mother now,

Her white hair torn with grieving, speaks to them, 440

Beseaches their reluctant, stubborn wills,

And wets their knees with tears. Too long they bide:

Such halting bodes the mother’s prayers denied.


[7] Reading, ultra suum scelus hoc cucurrit.


[On the field before Thebes, between the battle lines.]

Jocasta [kneeling between her two hostile sons]:

‘Gainst me your arms and blazing torches turn;

‘Gainst me alone let every warrior rush,

Who comes from Argos thirsting for the fray,

And they who from the citadel of Thebes 445

Come down to battle. Friend and foe, alike,

Attack this womb of mine which brothers bore

Unto my husband. Rend me limb from limb,

And scatter me abroad upon the plain.

I bore you both–will you lay down your arms?

Or shall I say from whom I bore you, too?

Give me your hands while still they are unstained. 450

‘Till now ‘twas all unwittingly you sinned;

‘Twas fortune’s crime, who ever ‘gainst our peace

Delights to plot. But this impiety

Is done with fullest knowledge of your sin.

Within your power lies whichsoe’er you will: 455

If filial love, then grant your mother peace;

If crime, then must you do a greater crime.

Your mother stands between you, blocks your way;

Have done with war or with the war’s delay.

To which of you in fond anxiety

Shall I address my prayers? Whom first embrace? 460

My heart with equal love is drawn to both.

[Turning to Polynices.]

This son has wandered far away from me;

But if the compact of the brothers holds,

This other son must wander too. Alas,

And shall I never see you both again,

Except in enmity? Do thou come first

Into thy mother’s arms, who hast endured

So many toils, so many miseries, 465

And, worn with weary exile, see’st at last

Thy mother’s face. Come nearer to me here.

Now sheathe thine impious sword; and this thy spear,

Which even now is quivering with hate

And eager to be thrown, thrust in the ground.

Put by thy shield as well; it keeps me off 470

From folding thee unto my mother-breast.

Unbind thy brow, and from thy warlike head

Thy helm remove and let me see thy face.

Why dost thou turn away, and fix thine eyes

With timid gaze upon thy brother’s band?

I’ll throw my arms about thee for a shield, 475

That through my body only may the sword

Find passage to thy blood. Why hesitate?

Can it be that thou dost fear thy mother’s pledge?

Polynices: I fear; for nature’s laws no longer hold.

Since I have known a brother’s faithlessness,

I scarce can trust my mother’s plighted word. 480

Jocasta: Then lay thy hand upon the sword again,

Bind on thy helmet, take again thy shield;

And while thy brother doth his arms remove,

Remain thou armed.

[To Eteocles.]

Do thou lay by thy sword,

Who first didst cause the weapon to be drawn.

If peace is hateful to thee, if in war

Thou dost prefer to rage, a moment’s truce 485

Thy mother begs of thee, that on her sons,

Returned but now from exile, she may print

A kiss of love, the first–perchance the last.

While I seek peace, attend ye both, unarmed.

Dost thou fear him, and he fear thee, in turn?

But I do fear you both, and for you both.

Why dost refuse to sheathe thy naked sword?

Rejoice in this delay. You wage a war, 490

Of which the best end is to be o’ercome.

And dost thou fear thy hostile brother’s wiles?

If one must on his brother work deceit

Or suffer it himself, ‘tis better far

To be the victim of the treachery

Than to perform the crime. But fear thou not; 495

For I will shield thee from all sudden snares.

Do I prevail with thee? Or must I grudge

Thy father’s blindness? Have I hither come

To check an impious crime, or see it done

Before my very eyes?

[Eteocles yields to her.]

He sheathes his sword,

And on his peaceful, grounded spear he leans.

[She turns to Polynices.]

And now to thee, O son, thy mother turns 500

With prayers and tears. At last I see thy face

Which long have I desired and prayed to see.

Thee, as an exile from thy fatherland,

The household of a foreign king protects;

O’er many seas, by many chances driven,

Thou’rt still a wanderer. It was not mine

With stately train to lead thee to thy bride, 505

With my own hand to deck the festal halls,

And with sacred fillets wreathe thy wedding torch.

The father of thy bride no wedding gifts,

No wealth of gold, has given, no fields, no towns;

Thy only gift is war. A foeman’s son 510

Hast thou become, far from thy native land,

An alien household’s guest, driven from thine own,

Committed to another’s interests,

A sinless exile. That no element

Might fail thee of thy father’s hapless fate,

Thou too hast blundered in thy marriage choice.

O son, after so many years returned, 515

O son, thy anxious mother’s hope and fear,

For sight of whom I ever prayed the gods;

Though thy return was doomed to take from me

As much as at thy coming it could give:

“When shall I cease to fear for thee?” I said; 520

The mocking god replied: “Him shalt thou fear.”

I should not have thee near me now, indeed,

Were there no war; and there would be no war,

If thou wert not at hand. Oh, bitter price

And hard, that I must pay for sight of thee.

But still there’s pleasure in’t. These hostile hosts– 525

Let them withdraw a little space from here,

While yet stern Mars dares no impiety.

Yet this as well is great impiety,

That they have been so near. I am appalled,

And tremble when I see two brothers stand,

Each fronting each, upon the brink of crime. 530

My limbs do quake with fear. How near I came

To seeing greater infamy than that

Which thy poor father never could have seen!

Though I am freed from fear of such a crime,

Though I shall not behold such evil now,

Still am I most unhappy when I think

How nearly I beheld it. O my son,

By the womb that bore thee through ten weary months, 535

And by thy noble sister’s piety;

By thy unhappy father’s sightless eyes,

Which he, though innocent of any crime,

Tore out, his fatal error to avenge:

Turn from thy father’s walls these impious brands, 540

Send back the standards of this warring host.

Though thou shouldst yield, still is the greater part

Of thy impiety already done:

Thy fatherland has seen its fertile plains

By hordes of hostile soldiery o’errun,

The arméd legions gleaming from afar, 545

The broad Cadmean meadows trampled down

By flying hoofs, the princes, insolent,

High in their chariots dashing o’er the plain,

The blazing torches threatening our homes

With utter devastation, and, a crime

Which even Thebes till now has never seen,

A brother ‘gainst his brother waging war.

This crime was seen by all our Theban host; 550

The citizens and both thy sisters saw,

And I thy mother; to himself is due

That Oedipus, thy father, saw it not.

Oh, do thou but compare thyself with him,

By whose stern judgment fitting penalty

E’en error pays. Do not with impious sword 555

Destroy thy city and thy father’s house,

Nor overthrow the city thou wouldst rule.

What madness holds its sway within thy soul?

Wouldst thou, by seeking to obtain the land,

Destroy it? That it may become thine own,

Dost thou intend to spoil it utterly?

To thine own cause thou doest deadly wrong,

In harrying this very soil of thine 560

With hostile arms, in laying low the crops,

And spreading fear through all the country round.

No one such devastation ever works

Upon his own. What thou dost burn with fire,

And reap with sword, ‘tis plain that thou dost grant

To be another’s. Gain thou then the throne,

Whichever of you will; but gain it so

That ‘twill not be the kingdom’s overthrow. 565

Dost seek these homes with hostile sword and brand?

Wilt thou avail to batter down these walls

Which great Amphion built, these mighty walls,

Whose stones no human hand e’er set in place,

The huge weights moving by the creaking crane–

But, marshaled by the strains of song and harp,

The stones, e’en to the topmost turret’s round, 570

Moved of their own accord–wouldst shatter these?

As victor wilt thou bear away the spoils?

And shall rough soldiery lead off in chains

Thy father’s noble friends and stately dames

Torn from their grieving husbands’ very arms?

And, mingled with the wretched captive band, 575

Shall Theban maidens go as presents meet

For wives of Argos? And shall I myself,

My hands (disgraceful!) bound behind my back,

The mother, be the booty of the son,

In triumph borne? And canst thou bear to see

On every hand thy fellow-citizens

To dire destruction given? ‘Gainst these dear walls 580

Canst thou lead on the savage enemy,

And fill thy native Thebes with blood and flame?

Hast thou so wild a heart within thy breast,

So hard and savage–and not yet a king?

Then what will’t be when thou the scepter wield’st?

Oh, put aside thy spirit’s swelling rage,

And give thyself once more to piety. 585

Polynices: That I may wander still a fugitive?

That ever, banished from my native land,

Upon a stranger’s bounty I may live?

What, think’st thou, could I suffer more than this,

If I had broken faith or falsely sworn?

Shall I be punished for another’s sin,

While he enjoys the profits of his crime? 590

Thou bid’st me go; and gladly would I yield

Unto my mother’s will. But whither, then,

Shall I depart? “Let my proud brother dwell

Within my royal halls, and some poor hut

Be my abode”: let such a boon be given

Unto the exile; give him in exchange

A hovel for a throne. And shall I, then, 595

A pensioner upon my wealthy bride,

Be forced to yield to her unbending will,

And to her father’s domineering ways

Submit like any slave? ‘Tis hard, indeed,

To fall from royalty to servitude.

Jocasta: If thou art eager for a royal throne,

And if, without the scepter in thy hand,

Thou canst not live, whatever land thou wilt 600

Will offer many kingdoms to thy hand.

On this side Tmolus lifts his ridgy heights,

Well known to Bacchus, where wide-spreading plains

Stretch out upon the grain-producing earth;

And where Pactolus’ all-enriching stream

O’erflows the country with its sands of gold.

And there Maeander through the joyful fields 605

Directs his wandering waves; swift Hermus, too,

Cleaves meadows rich. And there is Gargara,

Beloved of Ceres, and the fertile plains

Which Xanthus waters, fed by Ida’s snows.

And here, where ends the long Ionian sea,[8] 610

Across the narrows from Abydos stands

The Thracian Sestos. Farther to the east,

With safe and numerous harbors, lies the land

Of Lycia. There realms seek with thy sword;

Against these peoples let Adrastus fight,

And to thy sceptered hand deliver them. 615

Consider that thy father still is king

Within this realm of Thebes. Far better, then,

Than such returns as this will exile seem.

Thou liv’st in exile through another’s sin;

But thy return must be through thine alone.

With those brave troops of thine ‘twere better far

To seek thee out new realms unstained by crime. 620

Nay, e’en thy brother’s self will be thy aid,

And fight for thee. Go, wage such warfare, then,

That, as thou fight’st, thy mother and thy sire

May pray for thy success. For, be assured,

That kingdoms won by crime are heavier far

Than any exile. 625

Now consider well

The woes of war and war’s uncertainties:

Though thou dost bring with thee the flower of Greece,

Though far and near thy arméd soldiery

Is spread, still ever in the balance hangs

The fate of war. ‘Tis all as Mars decides.

Though two may seem to be unmatched in strength, 630

The sword will make them equal; hope and fear

Are subject to the blind caprice of fate.

Uncertain is the prize of war thou seek’st,

But sure the crime. Suppose that all the gods

Have heard thy prayers; suppose the citizens,

In panic fear, have turned their backs and fled;

The soldiers’ bloody corpses hide the plain: 635

Though in such victory thou shouldst exalt

And bear thy murdered brother’s spoils away,

Thy victory is but a broken thing.

What sort of warfare, think’st thou, that would be,

In which the victor wins by curséd crime,

And glories in it? Nay, thy brother’s self,

Whom thou, unhappy man, dost seek to slay, 640

When thou hast gained thy wish, thou wilt lament.

Oh, then, forego this most unhallowed strife,

And free at last thy fatherland from fear,

Thy parents from their grief.

Polynices: Shall I do this,

That so for all his treachery and crime

My curséd brother be not recompensed?

Jocasta: Fear not. He shall indeed be recompensed, 645

For he shall reign.

Polynices: Is that a punishment?

Jocasta: If thou believe me not, believe thy sire,

Believe thy grandsire too. This truth to thee

Will Cadmus and the house of Cadmus tell.

Without disaster has no Theban king

E’er held the scepter, nor will anyone

Who wins the kingly power by broken faith

Retain it long. And ‘mongst those faithless ones 650

Count now thy brother.

Eteocles: Be it even so:

If I must die, I count it worthy death,

To die with kings.

[To Polynices.]

Thee to the exiled band

I doom.

Jocasta: Reign then, but hated by thy friends.

Eteocles: Who shrinks from hatred does not wish to reign.

That great divinity who made the world 655

Made of one substance royalty and hate.

For me, I count it worthy of a king

To overcome this hate. By love of friends

Too oft is royal power circumscribed.

O’er those who hate him is the king more free

To lord it as he will. Who would be loved,

With but a weak and languid scepter reigns.

Jocasta: But hated empire never long endures. 660

Eteocles: ‘Tis for the king to speak of empire’s rules.

Do thou give laws for exiles. For the throne–

Jocasta: Wouldst burn thy native land, thy home and all?

Eteocles: A kingdom is well bought at any price.


[8] The text is corrupt here. The Ionian Sea, situated to the west of

Greece, can have no possible connection with the region here described,

i. e., the Hellespont.



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