When the captains were seated, and the rank and file were standing, in a circle, around them, Ajax, master of the seven-layered shield, leapt up, and, fired with indignation, he looked back fiercely at the Sigean shore, and the ships beached on the shore, and, pointing to them, he said: ‘It is in front of these vessels I plead my cause, and Ulysses opposes me, by Jupiter! Yet he did not hesitate to give way before Hector’s blazing torches, which I resisted, which I drove away from the boats. But then, it is less risky to battle using lying words, than to fight with fists, and I am not prompt to speak, as he is not to act. I am as powerful in the fierce conflicts of the battle, as that man is in talk. I do not think however that I need to mention my deeds to you, Pelasgians, since you have seen them: let Ulysses tell you of his that are conducted without witness, in which night is the only sharer! I confess the prize I seek is great: but my rival detracts from the honour of it. There is nothing magnificent for Ajax in it, however great the thing is, if Ulysses has aspired to it. He has already won the prize in this contest, since when he is defeated he can say he fought it out with me.
As for me, if my courage were in doubt, my noble birth is a powerful argument, a son of Telamon, he who, under brave Hercules, captured the walls of Troy, and sailed in the ship from Pagasae, with the Argonauts, to Colchis. Telamon’s father was Aeacus, who judges there, among the silent dead, where Sisyphus, son of Aeolus rolls his heavy stone. Lofty Jupiter acknowledges Aeacus and confesses him to be his son: so Ajax is third in descent from Jove. Yet even this ancestry would not further my cause, if I did not share it with great Achilles. Our fathers, Peleus and Aeacus, were brothers: Achilles was my cousin, I ask for my cousin’s weapons! Why are you, Ulysses, the son of Sisyphus, and similar to him in your capability for fraud and trickery, involving an alien race in the affairs of the Aeacidae?
Are the arms denied me because I took up arms first, and without being rooted out, and shall he seem the better man who seized his weapons last, and shirked the fight with a pretence of madness, until Palamades, son of Nauplius, the shrewder man, uncovered this cowardly spirit’s deceit, and dragged him to the weapons he shunned? Shall he own all, who wanted none: shall I, who was the first to put myself at risk, be denied honour, and my cousin’s gifts? if only his madness had been real, or been believed, and this exhorter to crime had never been our companion against the Phrygian fortresses! Then Lemnos would not hold you, to our shame, Philoctetes, son of Poeas, of whom they say that, hidden in the woodland caves, you move the stones, now, with your laments, calling down on Laërtes’s son, the curses that he deserves, and, if there are gods, do not curse in vain! Now, alas, he who was sworn to the same conflict as ourselves, one of our captains, heir to Hercules’s arrows, weakened by sickness and hunger, clothed and fed by the birds, employs the arrows, that fate intended for Troy, in firing at birds! Still, he is alive, because he did not accompany Ulysses further: luckless Palamades would have preferred to be left behind also: he would have been alive, or at least have died an irreproachable death: that man there, remembering all too well the exposure of his own supposed madness, accused him of betraying the Greek cause, and uncovered gold, he had previously hidden, as evidence of the fabricated charge. So, by abandonment or death, he has drawn the strength of Achaea: that is how Ulysses fights, that is why he is to be feared!
Though he be greater than Nestor, the true, in eloquence, I will never believe that his desertion of Nestor in battle was anything but a crime. When Nestor implored Ulysses’s help, weary as he was with old age, and slowed by a wound to his horse, he was abandoned by his companion. Diomede, son of Tydeus, is well aware that I am not inventing the charge: he called Ulysses repeatedly, by name, and reproached his cowardly friend for running away.
The gods look down, with the eyes of the just, at human dealings! Look, he who gave no help needs it: and as he had abandoned Nestor, so he would have been abandoned: he himself had established his own precedent. He shouted to his companions. I approached, and saw him, trembling and pale, and shaking with fear of impending death. I thrust out the mass of my shield, and covered him as he lay there, and (small cause for praise in that) I saved his cowardly life. If you go through with this contest, let us revisit that spot: revisit the enemy, your wound, and your usual cowardice, hide behind my shield, and contend with me under it! Yet, after I had snatched him up, he who was granted no strength to stand, because of his wounds, ran for it, not slowed by his wounds at all.
Hector approaches, and, with him, leads the gods to battle, and brave men as well as you are terrified, Ulysses, when he rushes onwards, such is the fear he brings. I felled him to the ground with a huge rock hurled from a distance, as he was exulting in the success of his bloodthirsty slaughter. When he challenged one warrior to meet him, I withstood him. You wished the lot would fall to me, Achaeans, and your prayers were answered. If you ask what the outcome of that conflict was I was not beaten by Hector. See, the Trojans bring fire and sword, and Jupiter himself, against the Greek ships: where now is the eloquent Ulysses? Surely I, with my own breast, shielded the thousand ships, your hope of return: grant me the arms for all that fleet.
Yet, if I may speak the truth, the arms search for greater honour than I do, to be linked to my glory, and the arms seek out Ajax, not Ajax the arms. Let the Ithacan compare with these things his killing of Rhesus, and of cowardly Dolon, his taking captive Helenus, Priam’s son, and his theft of Pallas’s image, the Palladium: nothing performed in daylight, nothing without Diomede present. If ever you grant the armour for such worthless service, divide it, and let Diomede have the greater share of it. Nevertheless why give them to the Ithacan, who carries things out secretly, and always unarmed, deceiving the unsuspecting enemy with his tricks? The gleam of the helmet, radiant with shining gold, will reveal his scheming, and show where he hides. The Dulichian’s head beneath Achilles’s helmet, will not bear so great a weight, and the spear-shaft, from Pelion, cannot be anything but heavy and burdensome for his arm, unsuited to war, and the shield, with its engraved design of the vast world, will not be fit for that cowardly left hand born for stealing. Perverse man, why do you go after a prize that will cripple you, one that, if it is given you in error by the Achaean people, will be a reason for being despoiled by the enemy, not feared by them? And running away, in which you surpass everyone, you master-coward, will turn out to be a slow game for you, if you are carrying such a weight. Add to that your shield that is rarely used in battle, and uninjured, and mine split in a thousand places from fending off spear-thrusts, that needs a new successor.
Finally (what is the use of words?) let us be seen together in action! Send out the brave hero’s arms into the middle of the enemy ranks: order them to be recovered from there, and let the retriever be equipped with what he retrieves.’
The son of Telamon finished, and the crowd’s applause followed his closing words. Until the hero, son of Laërtes, stood. He gazed at the ground for a while and then raised his eyes to look at the captains, and opened his lips for the speech they anticipated: his eloquent words did not lack grace in their delivery.
‘If my wishes and yours, Pelasgians, had been worth anything, there would be no question as to who should inherit the arms in this great contest: you, Achilles, would have your armour, and we would have you. But since unequal fate has denied his presence to me and to you, (and he made as if to wipe a tear from his eye), who better to take Achilles’s place than the man through whom mighty Achilles took his place among the Greeks? Only do not let it help him that he is slow-witted, as he seems to be, nor harm my case that my ability has always profited you Greeks. And let this eloquence of mine, if it exists, that often spoke for you, and now speaks for its master, escape envy: no man should refuse to employ his talents.
Now, as to race, and ancestry, and whatever we have not personally achieved; I hardly call those things ours. But since Ajax has recalled that he is Jove’s great grandson, Jupiter is the founder of my bloodline also, and I am the same distance from him. Laërtes is my father, Arcesius was Laërtes’s father, and he was the son of Jupiter: and there are no exiled criminals, like Peleus and Telamon, amongst them. Also there is the addition to my nobility of Cyllenian Mercury through my mother, Anticleia. The gods are in both my parents. But I do not claim the arms lying there, because I am nobler on my mother’s side, nor because my father is innocent of a brother’s blood. Judge the case on its merits. Provided that it is not regarded as Ajax’s merit that Telamon and Peleus were brothers, and that what is considered in this award is respect for ability not the claims of blood! Or, if you are asking who is the next of kin, and the lawful heir, well Peleus is Achilles’s father, and Pyrrhus is Achilles’s son: where is Ajax’s claim? Take the arms to Peleus’s Phthia, or Pyrrhus’s Scyros! Teucer is no less Achilles’s cousin than Ajax, yet does he ask for the arms, and if he did, would he gain them? So, since it is a contest about naked achievements, I have done more than I can recount in glib words, but I will take things in their proper order.
Thetis, Achilles’s Nereid mother, foreseeing her son’s death, disguised his appearance, and wearing women’s clothes he deceived everyone, including Ajax. But, among the things women buy, I placed arms to stir a man’s spirit. Before the hero had abandoned the clothes of a girl, while he held the shield and spear, I said: ‘Pergama the citadel doomed to be destroyed, waits for you, son of the goddess! Why do you hesitate to overthrow mighty Troy?’ And I took him in hand, and sent the brave out to do brave things. So his deeds are mine: I overcame warring Telephus with my spear, and healed him with it, when he was defeated and begging for help. It is down to me that Mysian Thebes fell: credit the capture of Lesbos to me, Tenedos to me, Chryse and Cilla the cities of Apollo, and Phrygian Scyros as well. Imagine that my right hand razed Lyrnesus’s walls to the ground. I gave you the man who could destroy fierce Hector, not to speak of those other Trojans: through me glorious Hector lies low! I seek these arms for the arms that revealed Achilles: I gave to the living, I claim from the dead.
When one man’s sorrow fell on all the Greeks, and a thousand ships gathered at Euboean Aulis, though they waited for a long time, there were adverse winds or no wind. Then a cruel oracle ordered Agamemnon to sacrifice his innocent daughter, Iphigenia, to pitiless Diana. The father said no, angered with the gods themselves: and there is still a father even in a king. I with my skill in words turned him away from a parent’s fondness and towards the common good. I had a difficult case indeed to plead, before (I confess, and may Atrides pardon the confession) a prejudiced judge, but given the needs of his brother and the expedition, and the high command vested in him, he balanced glory against blood. Then I was sent to the mother, Clytaemnestra, who was not to be persuaded, but deceived by cunning. If Telamon’s son had gone, our sails would still be waiting for the winds.
Also, as an ambassador, I was sent to Troy’s citadel, and saw and entered the senate house of lofty Ilium, still full of heroes. As I was charged to do by Greece, for the common good, undaunted, I accused Paris, demanded the return of Helen and what Paris had plundered, and stirred Priam, and Antenor, at one with Priam. But Paris, and his brothers, and those who plundered with him, could scarcely keep their sinful hands off me (you know it, Menelaüs) and that first day of danger to me was shared with you.
It would take a long time to tell what I have achieved that has been useful, by stratagem and deed, in the long space of this conflict. After the first onslaught the enemy kept inside the city walls for a long time, and there was no chance for open warfare. Finally in the tenth year we fought it out. What were you doing meanwhile, Ajax, you who only know about battles? What use were you then? If you ask what I was doing, I laid ambushes for the enemy; surrounded the defences with a ditch; encouraged our allies so that they might bear the weariness of a long campaign with patience of mind; advised on how we should be fed and armed; was sent wherever benefit required it.
See, deceived by a dream in sleep, Agamemnon, the king, commanded by Jupiter, orders us to give up all concern with the war we have begun. He can justify his words by this dream’s authority. Let Ajax prevent it, and demand that the citadel, Pergama, be destroyed, let him do what he can do, fight! Why does he not restrain those who are for returning home? Why does he not take up arms, and give a lead for the fickle mob to follow?
That was not too much to ask of one who never speaks without boasting: but what of the fact that he fled as well?
I saw you, Ajax, and was ashamed to see it, when, turning your back, you readied your dishonourable sails. Instantly I shouted: ‘What are you doing? What madness is urging you to abandon captured Troy? What are you taking home with you, except disgrace? With these words, and others, in which my anguish made me eloquent, I turned men from their flight, and led them back. Atrides assembled the allies who were quaking with fear: even then the son of Telamon did not dare utter a thing, but even Thersites dared to attack the kings with insolent words, though not without punishment from me! I rose to my feet and urged on my frightened countrymen against the enemy, and by my voice restored their lost courage. From that time on, whatever bravery this man can be seen to have shown, is mine, who dragged him back when he was given to flight.
Next, which of the Greeks praises you or seeks you out, Ajax? Yet Diomede shares what he does with me, supports me, and always trusts Ulysses as his companion. That is something, to be singled out by Diomede from so many thousand Greeks! No drawing of lots forced me to go: yet, disregarding the dangers of night and the enemy, I killed Dolon, the Phrygian, out on the same errand as we were, but not before I had forced him to tell what he knew, and had learned what perfidious Troy was planning. I had discovered everything, and had no need to spy further, and could now return with the glory I sought: yet not content with that, I searched out Rhesus’s tents, and I killed him and his comrades in their camp. And so, a victor, with what I prayed for achieved, as if it were a triumph, I rode his captured chariot. Deny me the arms of Achilles, whose horses my enemy, Dolon, asked of Hector, for his night’s work, and let Ajax be more generous than you.
Why should I have to mention the ranks of Sarpedon of Lycia cut to pieces by my sword? With bloody slaughter I killed Coeranos, Iphitus’s son; Alastor and Chromius; Alcander, Halius, Noëmon and Prytanis; and I dealt destruction to Thoön, Chersidamas, Charopes, and Ennomos driven by inexorable fate; and others less well known fell to my hand under the walls of the city. I have wounds, friends, honourable ones, as their position shows: do not believe empty words, look!’ and he pulled his tunic open with his hand, ‘here is my breast that has always been employed in your actions! But the son of Telamon has shed no blood for his companions, in all these years, and his flesh is unwounded!
What relevance is it that he declares he took up arms against the Trojans and against Jove? I agree, he did (since I do not maliciously disparage beneficial actions) but do not let him seize the honour that is shared, and let him grant you some respect also. It was Patroclus, son of Actor, protected by being disguised in Achilles’s armour, who pushed back the Trojans from the ships that would have gone up in flames, with Ajax, their defender. He thinks that he is the only one who dared to face Hector’s spear, forgetting the captains and the king, and myself: he was the ninth to volunteer, and selected by the luck of the draw. But what was the result of your struggle, strongest of men? Hector retreated without receiving a single wound.
Alas, with what sadness I am forced to recall that time when Achilles, the defence of Achaia, fell! Yet tears, grief, fear did not prevent my lifting his body from the earth: I carried the body of Achilles over these shoulders, these very shoulders, along with the weapons, that now also I am anxious to carry. I have strength enough for such a burden, and a mind that can surely appreciate the honour. Was it for this that his mother, the sea-goddess, was so ambitious for her son, that the gifts of heaven, the works of such artistry, should adorn an ignorant and thoughtless soldier? He understands nothing of the shield’s engraving, Ocean, or earth, or high starry sky; the Pleiades and the Hyades, the Bear that is always clear of the waters, and opposite, beyond the Milky Way, Orion, with his glittering sword. He demands to bear armour that he does not comprehend!
What of the fact that he accuses me of shirking the harsh duties of war, and of coming late to a labour already begun? Does he not see that he is speaking ill of great Achilles? If you call it a crime to dissimulate, we both dissimulated: if delay is a fault, I was the earlier to arrive. A loving wife detained me, a loving mother Achilles. Our priority was given to them, the rest to you. I hardly fear an accusation, even if I cannot defend myself against it, shared with such a man: he was revealed by Ulysses’s cunning, but not Ulysses by Ajax’s.
Let us not be astonished that he pours out against me the invective from his foolish tongue, since he reproaches you shamefully. Was it a disgrace for me to accuse Palamades on an erroneous charge, but proper for you to condemn him? But then the son of Nauplias could not defend himself against so great a crime, and one so clearly proven: nor did you merely hear of the crime: you saw it, revealed by the gold I exposed.
Nor do I merit being called a criminal because Lemnos, Vulcan’s isle, holds the son of Poeas, Philoctetes, (defend your own actions, since you agreed to it!) but I will not deny that I persuaded him to withdraw from the hardships of war and the journey, and to try and relieve his terrible agonies in rest. He agreed – and he still lives! Not only was my opinion offered in good faith, though it is enough that it was in good faith, but it turned out well. Now since our seers demand his presence for the destruction of Troy, do not commission me! Telamon’s son, with his eloquence, had better go and soothe that man, maddened by pain and fury, or bring him by some cunning trick! If my mind were idle on your behalf, the River Simoïs would flow backwards, and Mount Ida stand there leafless, and Achaia help Pergama, before the skill, of foolish Ajax, would benefit the Greeks.
I would go to you, harsh Philoctetes, and try to bring you back with me, though you are aggressive towards king and countrymen, and myself; though you execrate me, and pour curses endlessly on my head; and, in your pain, long for me to be given into your power, to drink my blood, and to have your chance at me, as I did at you. And I would gain possession of your arrows (by Fortune’s favour), as I took possession of the Dardanian seer, Helenus, whom I captured; as I revealed the gods’ oracles and the fate of Troy; as I stole the image of Phrygian Minerva from the inner sanctuary, from the midst of the enemy. Does Ajax compare himself to me? The fates surely denied our capturing Troy without it.
Where is brave Ajax now? Where are the great hero’s mighty words? What do you fear then? Why does Ulysses dare to go through the sentries and commit himself to night; to enter not only the walls of Troy but also the heights of the citadel, past the sharp swords; and to snatch the goddess from her temple, and carry her captive through the enemy ranks? If I had not done it, the son of Telamon would have carried the seven-layered bull’s-hide shield on his left arm in vain. That night the victory over Troy was established: I defeated Pergama then, when I secured the possibility of her defeat.
You can stop pointing out with your murmurs and looks, Ajax, that Diomede was my partner: he has his share of praise in this! Nor were you alone, when you held your shield in defence of the allied ships: you had a crowd of companions: I had only one. If he did not know that a fighter is worth less than a thinker, and that the prize is not owed merely because of an indomitable right hand, he would also claim it; so would the lesser Ajax, fierce Eurypylus, and Thoas, the son of famous Andraemon, and no less surely would Idomeneus, and Meriones born of the same nation, and Menelaüs, the brother of Agamemnon.
In fact, they accept my counsel, these strong right hands, not second to me in battle. Your right hand, useful in war, needs the guidance of my intellect. You have power without mind, mine is the care for the future. You can fight, but Atrides, with me, chooses the time to fight. You only display the flesh, I the spirit. By as much as he who steers the ship is superior to him who rows, by as much as the general exceeds the soldier, by that much I surpass you. No less is the head more powerful than the hand, in our body: the energy of the whole is within it.
O princes, grant the prize to your sentry, for the many years I have spent in anxious care, grant me the judgement, this honour for my services. Now my labour is done: I have removed fate’s obstacles, and by making it possible to take high Pergama, have taken her. Now, by our common expectation; by Troy’s doomed walls; by the gods I recently took from the enemy; by whatever else remains that needs to be done wisely; I pray, that if there is still some bold and dangerous thing to attempt, if you think that anything is yet in store involving Troy’s fate, remember me! And if you do not give me the arms, give them to her!’ and he pointed towards Minerva’s fatal statue.
The council of princes was swayed, and it shows what eloquence can do: the gifted speaker carried away the arms of the brave hero. But Ajax, who had so often stood alone against Hector, against sword and flame, against Jove himself, could not stand against mere passion, and indignation conquered the unconquerable hero. Drawing his sword he shouted: ‘This is mine, at least! Or does Ulysses demand it for himself? This I will use myself, on myself, and the iron so often drenched in Phrygian blood, will now be drenched in its master’s, so that none can defeat Ajax but himself.’ He spoke, and drove the lethal weapon to its full extent into his chest, that, till then, had never felt a wound. No hand was strong enough to draw out the implanted weapon: it was the blood itself expelled it, and the bloodstained ground bore a purple flower from the green turf, that had first sprung from the wound of the Spartan, Hyacinthus. In the centre of the petals letters are inscribed, shared by the hero and the boy, one reading of them being a name, ΑΙΑΣ, and the other one, ΑΙ ΑΙ, a cry of woe.
Ulysses, the winner, set sail for Lemnos, the island of Queen Hypsipyle and her father the famous Thoas, a country notorious in ancient times for the murder by its women of their men, to bring back the arrows of Tyrinthian Hercules. When he had brought them back to the Greeks, with Philoctetes their master, the last hand was dealt in the long drawn-out war. Troy fell, and Priam also. Hecuba, Priam’s unhappy wife, when all else was lost, lost her human form, and filled the air of an alien country, where the long Hellespont narrows to a strait, with strange barking.
Ilium burned; the flames had not yet died down; Jove’s altar was soaking up old Priam’s meagre stream of blood; and Cassandra, the head priestess of Apollo, dragged along by her hair, stretched out her arms uselessly to the heavens. The Dardanian women, embracing the statues of their nation’s gods while they still could, and thronging the burning temples, were snatched away by the victorious Greeks as enviable prizes. Astyanax, was thrown down from that tower, from which he used to see his father, Hector, whom Andromache his mother pointed out to him, as Hector fought for him, and protected the ancestral kingdom. Now Boreas, the north wind, urged the Greeks on their way, and the sails flapped in a favourable breeze.
The sailers are ordered to take advantage of the wind. The Trojan women wail, kissing their native earth, abandoning the burning houses: ‘Troy, farewell! We are taken against our will.’
The last to embark – pitiable sight! – was Hecuba, found among the tombs of her sons. There as she clung to their graves, trying to kiss their relics, the hands of Dulichian Ulysses dragged her away. Yet she emptied one sepulchre, and carried away with her, at her breast, Hector’s ashes from the emptied urn. And on Hector’s grave she left a scant offering to the dead, shreds of her grey hair, hair and tears.
There is a country opposite Phrygia, where Troy stood, that the Bistones inhabit: Polymestor’s wealthy court was there, to whom Priam your father secretly sent you, Polydorus, to be reared away from the Phrygian war: a wise plan if he had not sent great riches with you, a reward for the criminal, a temptation to the greedy spirit. When Phrygia’s fortunes waned, the impious king of Thrace took his sword and stabbed his young foster child in the throat, and threw the body from a cliff into the sea, as if murder could be eliminated with the corpse.
Agamemnon had moored his fleet on a Thracian beach until the sea calmed, and the winds were kinder. Here, suddenly the ghost of Achilles appeared from a broad fissure in the earth, as large as he used to be in life. He appeared as on the day when, with threatening face, and sword in hand, he fiercely challenged Agamemnon’s injustice. ‘You depart, then, Achaeans, forgetting me, and gratitude for my courage is buried with me!’ he cried, ‘Do not let it be so! Let Polyxena be sacrificed, so that my tomb is not without its honours. Appease Achilles’s shade!’
He spoke, and, his countrymen obeyed the pitiless ghost. Now, she was torn from her mother’s arms, and the girl, almost Hecuba’s only comfort, ill-fated, but with more than a woman’s courage, was led to the burial mound and became a victim of the dread grave. She remembered who she was, set before the brutal altar, knowing the savage rite was readied for her, and when she saw Neoptolemus standing, gripping his sword, his eyes gazing at her face, she said: ‘Now, shed noble blood, nothing prevents you: but sheathe your sword in my throat or in my breast,’ and she uncovered both her throat and her breast, ‘Polyxena, for certain, has no desire to be slave to any man! No god will be appeased by such a rite as this! I only wish my death could be unknown to my mother: my mother weakens and lessens my joy in death, though it is not my dying but her living that is terrible. Now, move away, you, so that if my request is lawful, I may not be hindered in going to the Stygian shades: and take the hands of man from virgin flesh! My free blood will be more acceptable to him, whoever he is, whom you are trying to appease with my murder. If my last words still move any of you (The daughter of Priam asks it, not a prisoner) return my body to my mother without ransom: let her pay for the sad privilege of burying me, not with gold, but with tears! When she could, then she paid in gold as well’
She spoke, and the crowd could not restrain its tears, that she restrained. Then the priest, also weeping, and against his will, driving his sword home, pierced the breast she offered up. Her knees gave way, and she sank to the ground, keeping her look of fearless courage to the end. Even then, as she fell, she was careful to hide the parts that should be hidden, and to protect the honour of her chaste modesty.
The Trojan women lift her body, counting over the lamented children of Priam, and recounting how much blood one house has surrendered. They weep for you, girl, and for you, Hecuba, who were lately called the royal wife, the royal parent, the image of bright Asia, now in evil circumstances, even for a prisoner, whom victorious Ulysses would not have wanted, except for the fact that you had given birth to Hector: a partner for his mother that Hector would scarcely have imagined!
Embracing the body of Polyxena, now empty of that brave spirit, she sheds the tears for her that she has shed so often for her husband, sons and country. She pours her tears over her daughter’s wound, covers her lips with kisses, and beats at her own bruised breast.
Then, tearing at her white hair caked with blood, and plucking at her breast, she said this amongst other things: ‘Child – since, what else is left me? – your mother’s last grief, Child, you lie there, and I see your wound, that is my wound. Look, you also have your wound, so that I might lose none of my children without bloodshed. Because you were a woman, I thought you safe from the sword: yet, a woman, you have died by the sword: and that same Achilles who has ruined Troy and made me childless, who has destroyed so many of your brothers, has killed you in the same way.
Yet when he fell to the arrow of Paris, and Phoebus, I said: “Now surely, Achilles is no longer to be feared.” Yet even then I still needed to fear him. His very ashes in the tomb are hostile to our race: even in the grave we feel his enmity: I gave birth for the Aeacidae! Mighty Ilium is in the dust, and, in a grievous outcome, our ruined State is ended. But still, it ended: in me, only, Pergama remains. My grief still takes it course. A moment ago I was endowed with the greatest things, so many sons and daughters, sons-in-law, and daughters-in-law, and my husband. Now, exiled, destitute, torn from the tombs of my loved ones, I am dragged off as a prize, to serve Penelope. She will point me out to the women of Ithaca, as I spin the wool she gives me, and say: “This is the famous mother of Hector, this is Priam’s queen.” Now you, Polyxena, after so many have been lost, you, who were the only one left to comfort your mother’s grief, have been sacrificed on an enemy tomb! I have borne offerings for the enemy dead!
Why do I remain, unyielding? Why do I linger here? Why do you preserve me, wrinkled old age? Why prolong an old woman’s life, cruel gods, unless it is for me to view more funerals? Who would have thought Priam could be happy when Pergama has fallen? Yet he is happy, in death! He did not see you killed, daughter, but left his kingdom and his life together. Do I imagine you will be endowed with funereal splendour, and your body laid to rest in the ancestral tomb? That is not our house’s fate! Your mother’s tears will be your funeral gift, and the wastes of foreign sand. I have lost everything: now an only child is left, once the youngest son of my family, his mother’s dearest, a reason to endure life for a brief space of time, Polydorus, sent to these shores, to the Ismarian king.
But why do I delay, meanwhile, the cleansing of your cruel wound with water, your face spattered with drops of blood?’
She spoke, and went to the shore, with the stumbling steps of an old woman, tearing at her white hair. ‘Give me an urn, women of Troy!’ said the unhappy mother, wanting to draw water from the sea. There, she saw Polydorus’s body, thrown on the beach, covered with open wounds made by Thracian spears. The Trojan women cried out, but she was dumb with grief. The grief itself obliterated both her powers of speech and the tears welling inside, and she stood unmoving like solid rock, at one moment with her gaze fixed on the ground, the next lifting her face grimly towards the sky. Now she looked at her dead son’s face, now at his wounds, mostly at his wounds, awakening a growing anger in herself. Then it blazed out, and she, as if she were still a queen, determined on vengeance, her whole mind filled with thoughts of punishment.
Hecuba, her grief mixed with anger, forgetting her age, but not forgetting her rage, like a lioness maddened by the theft of her unweaned cub, that, though she cannot see her enemy, follows the traces she finds of his footsteps, found her way to the author of the dreadful crime, Polymestor. She made out that she wanted to show him a secret hoard of gold, to be given to her son. The Thracian believed her, and with his usual desire for gain, came with her secretly. Then with smooth and cunning words, he said: ‘Do not delay, Hecuba: give me your gift to your son! It will all be for him, both what you give and what was given before, I swear by the gods.’
She gazed at him, grimly, as he spoke and swore his lying oath, until, her seething anger boiling over, she called on her train of captive women to attack the man, and drove her nails into his deceitful eyes, and (made strong by anger) tore the eyeballs from their sockets, and dipped her hand, and drank, stained with his sinful blood, not from his eyes (nothing of them remained) but from the holes that were his eyes.
The Thracians, enraged by the murder of their king, attacked the Trojan woman, hurling stones and missiles, but she chased the stones they threw, snapping at them with a harsh growling, and, readying her jaws for words, barked when she tried to speak. The place is still there, and takes its name, Cynossema, the Monument of the Bitch, from this, and she still howls mournfully amongst the Sithonian fields, remembering endlessly her ancient suffering.
But Aurora had no time for being moved by the fall and ruin of Hecuba and Troy, though she had aided its defence. A closer sorrow, and a private grief tormented her, the loss of her son Memnon, whom she, his bright mother, had seen wasted by Achilles’s spear on the Phrygian plain. She saw it, and that colour, that reddens the dawn, paled, and the sky was covered with cloud. His mother could not bear to look at his body laid on the summit of the funeral pyre, but with dishevelled hair, just as she was, she did not scorn to fall at the feet of mighty Jove, adding tears to these words: ‘I am the least of all, whom the golden heavens hold (since temples to me are the rarest in all the world), yet I come as a goddess: though not that you might give me sanctuaries, or sacred days, or altars to flame with sacrificial fires. Yet if you considered what I, as a woman, do for you, when each new dawn I keep the borders of night, you would think to give me some reward. But that is not my care, nor Aurora’s errand, to ask for well-merited honours.
I come bereft of my Memnon, who bore arms bravely, but in vain, for his uncle Priam, and in his youth has fallen to mighty Achilles (so you willed). I beg you to grant him some honour, as a solace for his death, great king of the gods, and lessen a mother’s wound!’ Jupiter nodded, while Memnon’s steep pyre collapsed in leaping flames, and the daylight was stained with columns of black smoke, like the river-fog the naiad breathes out, that does not admit the light beneath it. Dark ashes flew upwards, and gathering into a ball and solidifying, they formed a shape, and it drew life and heat from the fire (its own lightness giving it wings). At first resembling a bird, then a true bird, it clapped its wings, and innumerable sisters, sprung from the same natal source, sounded too. Three times they circled the pyre, and three times their clamour rose in the air in consonance, on the fourth flight the flock divided. Then in two separate fierce bands they made war, wielding beaks and hooked talons in rage, wearying wing and breast in the struggle.
Remembering they were sprung from a brave hero, they fell as offerings to the buried ashes of their kinsman’s body. The source of these suddenly created birds gave them his name: from him they were called the Memnonides: and when the sun has transited his twelve signs, they war and die again in ritual festival.
And so, while others wept to witness Hecuba’s baying, Aurora was intent on her own grief, and even now she sheds tears, and wets the whole world with dew.
Yet the fates did not allow Troy’s destiny, also, to be overthrown with her walls. Aeneas, Cytherean Venus’s heroic son, carried away on his shoulders her sacred icons, and bore his father, another sacred and venerable burden. He dutifully chose that prize from all his riches, and his son Ascanius, and carried over the sea in his exiled fleet, he left Antandros’s harbour, and the sinful thresholds of Thrace, and the soil drenched in Polydorus’s blood, and riding the favourable winds and tides, he came with his company of friends, to the city of Apollo on Delos.
Anius, who ruled the people, and worshipped Phoebus, with the proper ritual, as high priest, received him in palace and temple. He showed him the city, the famous sanctuary, and the two trees to which Latona clung when she gave birth. They gave incense to the flames, poured wine onto the incense, and, in accord with custom, burned the entrails of slaughtered oxen, and then sought out the royal palace, where reclining on high couches, they ate the gifts of Ceres, and drank the wine of Bacchus.
Then virtuous Anchises said: ‘O chosen priest of Phoebus, am I wrong, or do I not remember that you had a son and four daughters, when I first saw your city?’ Shaking his head, bound with its white sacrificial fillets, Anius replied sadly: ‘Mightiest of heroes, you are not wrong: you saw me the father of five children, whom now you see almost bereft. What is the use of my absent son, who holds the island of Andros, that takes its name from him, and rules it in his father’s place? Delian Apollo gave him the power of prophecy. Bacchus Liber gave my female offspring other gifts, greater than those they hoped or prayed for. All that my daughter’s touched turned into corn or wine or the grey-green olives of Minerva, and employing them was profitable.
When Agamemnon, son of Atreus, ravager of Troy, learned of this (so that you do not think we escaped all knowledge of your destructive storm) he used armed force to snatch my unwilling daughters from a father’s arms, and ordered them to feed the Greek fleet, using their gift from heaven. Each escaped where they could. Two made for Euboea, and two for their brother’s island of Andros. The army landed and threatened war unless they were given up. Fear overcame brotherly affection, and he surrendered his blood-kin. It is possible to forgive the cowardly brother, since Aeneas and Hector, thanks to whom you held out till the tenth year, were not here to defend Andros.
Now they were readying the chains for the prisoners’ arms. They, while their arms were free, stretched them out to the sky, saying: “Bacchus, father, bring your aid!” and he, who granted their gifts, helped them – if you call it help for them to lose in some strange way their human form, for I could not discover by what process they lost it, nor can I describe it. The end of this misfortune I did observe: they took wing, and became snow-white doves, the birds of your goddess-wife Anchises, Venus.’
After they had filled the time with these and other matters, they left the table and retired to sleep, and rising with the dawn, they went to the oracle of Phoebus, who ordered them to seek their ancient mother, and their ancestral shores.
The king gave them parting gifts and escorted them on their way: a sceptre for Anchises, a cloak and quiver for his grandson, Ascanius, and a drinking-bowl for Aeneas, that Therses of Thebes, a friend, had sent, from the Aonian coast, to the king: Therses had given it, but it was made by Alcon of Hyle, who had engraved it with a complete story.
There was a city, and you could see its seven gates: these served to name it, and tell you that it was Thebes. In front of the city funeral rites, sepulchres, funeral pyres, and fires, and women with naked breasts and streaming hair, depicted mourning. Nymphs, also, appeared weeping, and lamenting their dried-up fountains: the trees stood bare and leafless: goats nibbled the dry gravel.
See here, in the midst of Thebes he portrays Orion’s daughters, the one, more than a woman, slashing her unprotected throat, the other stabbing a weapon into her valiant breast, falling on behalf of their people, then carried in glorious funeral procession through the city, and burned among crowds of mourners. Then two youths, famous as the Coroni, spring from the virgin ashes, so that the race will not die, and lead the cortège containing their mother’s remains.
Such was the ancient bronze with its gleaming designs: round the rim gilded acanthus leaves were embossed. The Trojans gave gifts in return, worth no less: an incense-box for the priest, a libation-saucer, and a crown shining with gold and jewels.
From there, remembering that they, the Teucrians, came originally from the blood of Teucer, they made for his Crete. But, unable to endure Jove’s plague, they left Crete with its hundred cities, hoping to reach the harbours of Ausonian Italy. Tempests raged, and tossed the heroes on stormy seas, and taking refuge in the treacherous harbour of the Strophades, they were terrified by the harpy, Aëllo.
Now they were carried past Dulichium’s anchorage; past Same, and the houses of Neritos; and Ithaca, cunning Ulysses’s kingdom. They saw Ambracia, famous now for its Apollo of Actium, once contended over by quarreling gods; and saw the image of the judge who was turned to stone; Dodona’s land with its oracular oaks; and Chaonia’s bay, where the sons of Munichus, the Molossian king, escaped the impious flames on new-found wings.
Next they headed for the country of the Phaeacians, set with rich orchards, and touched at Buthrotus in Epirus, a miniature Troy, ruled by Helenus, the Trojan seer. From there, certain of their future, all of which Helenus, Priam’s son predicted, with reliable warnings, they entered Sicilian waters. Three tongues of this land run down into the sea. Of these Pachynos faces the rainy south, Lilybaeon fronts the soft western breeze, and Peloros looks to the northern Bears that never touch the waves. Here the Teucrians came, and rowing, with a favourable tide, their fleet reached the sandy beach of Zancle, as night fell.
Scylla attacks from the right-hand coast, restless Charybdis from the left. The latter sucks down and spits out ships she has caught: the former has a girdle of savage dogs round her dark belly. She has a girl’s face, and if the tales of poets are not all false, she was once a girl also. Many suitors wooed her, whom she rejected, and she would go and tell the ocean nymphs, being well loved by the ocean nymphs, of the thwarted desires of young men.
Once while Galatea let Scylla comb her hair, she addressed these words to her, sighing often: ‘At least, O virgin Scylla, you are not wooed by a relentless breed of men: and you can reject them without fear, as you do. But I, whose father is Nereus, and whose mother is sea-green Doris, I, though protected by a crowd of sisters, was not allowed to flee the love of Polyphemus, the Cyclops, except through sorrow’, and tears stopped the sound of her voice. When the girl had wiped away the tears with her white fingers, and the goddess was comforted, she said: ‘Tell me, O dearest one: do not hide the cause of your sadness (I can be so trusted)’ The Nereid answered Crateis’s daughter in these words: ‘Acis was the son of Faunus and the nymph Symaethis, a great delight to his father and mother, but more so even to me, since he and I alone were united. He was handsome, and having marked his sixteenth birthday, a faint down covered his tender cheeks. I sought him, the Cyclops sought me, endlessly. If you asked, I could not say which was stronger in me, hatred of Cyclops, or love of Acis, both of them were equally strong.
Oh! Gentle Venus, how powerful your rule is over us! How that ruthless creature, terrifying even to the woods themselves, whom no stranger has ever seen with impunity, who scorns mighty Olympus and its gods, how he feels what love is, and, on fire, captured by powerful desire, forgets his flocks and caves. Now Polyphemus, you care for your appearance, and are anxious to please, now you comb your bristling hair with a rake, and are pleased to cut your shaggy beard with a reaping hook, and to gaze at your savage face in the water and compose its expression. Your love of killing, your fierceness, and your huge thirst for blood, end, and the ships come and go in safety.
Meanwhile, Telemus the augur, Telemus, the son of Eurymus, whom no flight of birds could deceive, came to Sicilian Mount Aetna, addressed grim Polyphemus, and said: “Ulysses will take from you, that single eye in the middle of your forehead.” He laughed, and answered: “O most foolish of seers, you are wrong, another, a girl, has already taken it.” So he scorned the true warning, given in vain, and weighed the coast down, walking with giant tread, or returned weary to his dark cave.
A wedge-shaped hillside, ending in a long spur, projects into the sea (the waves of the ocean wash round it on both sides). The fierce Cyclops climbed to it, and sat at its apex, and his woolly flocks, shepherd-less, followed. Then laying at his feet the pine trunk he used as a staff, fit to carry a ship’s rigging, he lifted his panpipes made of a hundred reeds. The whole mountain felt the pastoral notes, and the waves felt them too. Hidden by a rock, I was lying in my Acis’s arms, and my ears caught these words, and, having heard them, I remembered:’
‘Galatea, whiter than the snowy privet petals,
taller than slim alder, more flowery than the meadows,
friskier than a tender kid, more radiant than crystal,
smoother than shells, polished, by the endless tides;
more welcome than the summer shade, or the sun in winter,
showier than the tall plane-tree, fleeter than the hind;
more than ice sparkling, sweeter than grapes ripening,
softer than the swan’s-down, or the milk when curdled,
lovelier, if you did not flee, than a watered garden.
Galatea, likewise, wilder than an untamed heifer,
harder than an ancient oak, trickier than the sea;
tougher than the willow-twigs, or the white vine branches,
firmer than these cliffs, more turbulent than a river,
vainer than the vaunted peacock, fiercer than the fire;
more truculent than a pregnant bear, pricklier than thistles,
deafer than the waters, crueller than a trodden snake;
and, what I wish I could alter in you, most of all, is this:
that you are swifter than the deer, driven by loud barking,
swifter even than the winds, and the passing breeze.
But if you knew me well, you would regret your flight, and you would condemn your own efforts yourself, and hold to me: half of the mountain is mine, and the deep caves in the natural rock, where winter is not felt nor the midsummer sun. There are apples that weigh down the branches, golden and purple grapes on the trailing vines. Those, and these, I keep for you. You will pick ripe strawberries born in the woodland shadows, in autumn cherries and plums, not just the juicy blue-purples, but also the large yellow ones, the colour of fresh bees’-wax. There will be no lack of fruit from the wild strawberry trees, nor from the tall chestnuts: every tree will be there to serve you.
This whole flock is mine, and many are wandering the valleys as well, many hidden by the woods, many penned in the caves. If you asked me I could not tell you how many there are: a poor man counts his flocks. You can see, you need not merely believe me, how they can hardly move their legs with their full udders. There are newborn lambs in the warn sheepfolds, and kids too, of the same age, in other pens, and I always have snow-white milk: some of it kept for drinking, and some with rennet added to curdle it.
You will not have vulgar gifts or easily found pleasures, such as leverets, or does, or kids, or paired doves, or a nest from the treetops. I came upon twin cubs of a shaggy bear that you can play with: so alike you can hardly separate them. I came upon them and I said: “I shall keep these for my mistress.”
Now Galatea, only lift your shining head from the dark blue sea: come, do not scorn my gifts. Lately, I examined myself, it’s true, and looked at my reflection in the clear water, and, seeing my self, it pleased me. Look how large I am: Jupiter, in the sky, since you are accustomed to saying some Jove or other rules there, has no bigger a body. Luxuriant hair hangs over my face, and shades my shoulders like a grove. And do not consider it ugly for my whole body to be bristling with thick prickly hair. A tree is ugly without its leaves: a horse is ugly unless a golden mane covers its neck: feathers hide the birds: their wool becomes the sheep: a beard and shaggy hair befits a man’s body. I only have one eye in the middle of my forehead, but it is as big as a large shield. Well? Does great Sol not see all this from the sky? Yet Sol’s orb is unique.
Added to that my father, Neptune, rules over your waters: I give you him as a father-in-law. Only have pity, and listen to my humble prayers! I, who scorn Jove and his heaven and his piercing lightning bolt, submit to you alone: I fear you, Nereid: your anger is fiercer than lightning. And I could bear this contempt of yours more patiently, if you fled from everyone. But why, rejecting Cyclops, love Acis, and prefer Acis’s embrace to mine? Though he is pleased with himself, and, what I dislike, pleases you too, Galatea, let me just have a chance at him. Then he will know I am as strong as I am big! I’ll tear out his entrails while he lives, rend his limbs and scatter them over the fields, and over your ocean, (so he can join you!) For I am on fire, and, wounded, I burn with a fiercer flame, and I seem to bear Aetna with all his violent powers sunk in my breast, yet you, Galatea, are unmoved.’
‘With such useless complaints he rose (for I saw it all) and as a bull that cannot stay still, furious when the cow is taken from it, he wanders through the woods and glades. Not anticipating such a thing, without my knowing, he saw me, and saw Acis. “I see you,” he cried, “and I’ll make this the last celebration of your love.” His voice was as loud as an angry Cyclops’s voice must be: Aetna shook with the noise. And I, terrified, plunged into the nearby waters. My hero, son of Symaethis, had turned his back, and ran, crying: “Help me, I beg you, Galatea! Forefathers, help me, admit me to your kingdom or I die!”
Cyclops followed him and hurled a rock wrenched from the mountain, and though only the farthest corner of the stone reached him, it still completely buried Acis. Then I, doing the only thing that fate allowed me, caused Acis to assume his ancestral powers. From the rock, crimson blood seeped out, and in a little while its redness began to fade, became the colour of a river at first swollen by rain, gradually clearing. Then the rock, that Polyphemus had hurled, cracked open, and a tall green reed sprang from the fissure, and the mouth of a chamber in the rock echoed with leaping waters, and (a marvel) suddenly a youth stood, waist-deep in the water, his fresh horns wreathed with rushes. It was Acis, except that he was larger, and his face dark blue: yet it was still Acis, changed to a river-god, and his waters still retain his former name.
Galatea finished speaking and the group of Nereids went away, swimming through the placid waves. Scylla returned to the beach, not daring to trust herself to mid-ocean, and either wandered naked along the parched sand, or, when she was tired, found a remote, sheltered pool, and cooled her limbs in its enclosed waters.
See, Glaucus comes, skimming the water, a new inhabitant of the sea, his form recently altered, at Anthedon opposite Euboea. Seeing the girl, he stood still, desiring her, and said whatever he thought might stop her running away. Nevertheless she ran, and, with the swiftness of fear, came to the top of a mountain standing near the shore. It faced the wide sea, rising to a single peak, its wooded summit leaning far out over the water. Here she stopped, and from a place of safety, marvelled at his colour; the hair that hid his shoulders and covered his back; and his groin below that merged into a winding fish’s tail; she not knowing whether he was god or monster.
He saw her, and, leaning on a rock that stood nearby, he said: ‘Girl, I am no freak or wild creature, but a god of the sea. Proteus, Triton, or Palaemon son of Athamas, have no greater power in the ocean. Mortal once, but no doubt destined for the deep, even then I worked the waves: now drawing in the drag nets full of fish, now sitting on a rock, casting, with rod and line.
There is a beach, bounded by a green field, one side bordered by sea, the other by grass, that horned cattle have not damaged by grazing, that placid sheep or shaggy goats have not cropped. No bees intent on gathering pollen plundered the flowers there; no garlands came from there for the heads of revellers; no one had ever mown it, scythe in hand. I was the first to sit there on the turf, drying my sea-soaked lines, and laying out in order the fish I had caught, to count them, that either chance or innocence had brought to my curved hook. This will sound like a tale, but what would I get from lying? Touching the grass, my catch began to stir, and shift about, and swim over land as if they were in the sea. While I hesitated and wondered, the complete shoal fled into their native waters, leaving behind their new master, their new land.
I stood dumbfounded, for a while not believing it, searching for the cause. Had some god done it, or the juice of some herb? “Yet what herb has such power?” I asked, and gathering some herbage in my hand, I bit what I had gathered with my teeth. My throat had scarcely swallowed the strange juice, when suddenly I felt my heart trembling inside me, my breast seized with yearning for that other element. Unable to hold out for long, crying out: “Land, I will never return to, goodbye!” I immersed my body in the sea.
The gods of the sea received me, thinking me worth the honour of their company, and asked Oceanus and Tethys to purge what was mortal in me. I was purified by them, and, cleansed of sin by an incantation nine times repeated, they ordered me to bathe my body in a hundred rivers. Immediately streams from every side poured their waters over my head. So much I can tell of you of those marvellous things, so much of them I remember: then my mind knew no more. When later I came to, my whole body was altered from what I was before, and my mind was not the same.
Then I saw, for the first time, this dark green beard, my hair that sweeps the wide sea, these giant shoulders and dusky arms, these legs that curve below into a fish’s fins. Yet what use is this shape, or that I was pleasing to the ocean gods? What use is it to be a god, if these things do not move you?’