SENECA THE YOUNGER was a Latin playwright and philosopher who flourished in Rome in the late C1st AD durings the reigns of the Emperors Claudius and Nero. His surviving work includes ten tragedy plays, nine of which are based on mythological themes. His authorship of the Hercules Oetaeus and Octavia, however, is not definitive.

Seneca. Tragedies . Translated by Miller, Frank Justus. Loeb Classical Library Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1917.

The Miller translations of Seneca's tragedies are no longer in print, having been replaced in the Loeb Classical Library series by those of John Finch. These are available new from (click on image right for details). In addition to the translation of the plays, the two volumes contain the source Latin texts, Miller's introduction and footnotes and an index of proper names.















HERCULES, son of Jupiter and Alcmena, but the reputed son of Amphitryon.
JUNO, sister and wife of Jupiter, and queen of Heaven.
AMPHITRYON, husband of Alcmena.
THESEUS, king of Athens and friend of Hercules.
LYCUS, the usurping king of Thebes, who has, prior to the opening of the play, slain King Creon in battle.
MEGARA, wife of Hercules and daughter of Creon.
CHORUS of Thebans.


The jealous wrath of Juno, working through Eurystheus, has imposed twelve mighty and destructive tasks on Hercules, her hated stepson. But these, even to the last and worst, the bringing of Cerberus to the upper world, he has triumphantly accomplished. Abandoning her plan of crushing him by toils like these, she will turn his hand against himself, and so accomplish his destruction. Upon the day of his return from hell she brings a madness on him, and so precipitates the tragedy which forms the action of the play.

[1] The sister of the Thunderer (for this name only is left to me), I have abandoned Jove, always another’s lover; widowed, have left the spaces of high heaven and, banished from the sky, have given up my place to harlots; I must dwell on earth, for harlots hold the sky.1 Yonder the Bear, high up in the icy North, a lofty constellation, guides the Argive ships; yonder, where in the warm springtime the days grow long, he2 shines who bore the Tyrian Europa across the waves; there the Atlantides,3 far wandering, put forth their band dreadful to ships and sea alike. Here Orion with threatening sword terrifies the gods, and golden Perseus has his stars; the bright constellation of the twin Tyndaridae shines yonder, and they at whose birth the unsteady land stood firm.4 And not alone has Bacchus himself or the mother of Bacchus attained the skies; that no place might be free from outrage, the heavens wear the crown of the Cretan maid.5

[19] But I lament ancient wrongs; one land, the baneful and savage land of Thebes, scattered thick with shameless mistresses, how oft has it made me stepdame! Yet, though Alcmena be exalted and in triumph hold my place; though her son, likewise, obtain his promised star (for whose begetting the world lost a day, and Phoebus with tardy light shone forth from the Eastern sea, bidden to keep his bright car sunk beneath Ocean’s waves), not in such fashion shall my hatred have its end; my angry soul shall keep up a long-living wrath, and my raging smart, banishing peace, shall wage unending wars.

[30] What wars? Whatever fearsome creature the hostile earth produces, whatever the sea or the air has borne, terrific, dreadful, noxious, savage, wild, has been broken and subdued. He rises anew and has thrives on trouble; he enjoys my wrath; to his own credit he turns my hate; imposing too cruel tasks, I have but proved his sire, but give room for glory. Where the Sun, as he brings back, and where, as he dismisses day, colours both Ethiop races with neighbouring torch, his unconquered valour is adored, and in all the world he is storied as a god. Now I have no monsters left, and ‘tis less labour for Hercules to fulfil my orders than for me to order; with joy he welcomes my commands. What cruel biddings of his tyrant could harm this impetuous youth? Why, he bears as weapons what he once fought and overcame; he goes armed by lion and by hydra.6

[46] Nor is earth vast enough for him; behold, he has broken down the doors of infernal Jove, and brings back to the upper world the spoils7 of a conquered king. I myself saw, yes, saw him, the shadows of nether night dispersed and Dis overthrown, proudly displaying to his father a brother’s spoils. Why does he not drag forth, bound and loaded down with fetters, Pluto himself, who drew a lot equal to Jove’s? Why does he not lord it over conquered Erebus and lay bare the Styx? It is not enough merely to return; the law of the shades has been annulled, a way back has been opened from the lowest ghosts, and the mysteries of dread Death lie bared. But he, exultant at having burst the prison of the shades, triumphs over me, and with arrogant hand leads through the cities of Greece that dusky hound. I saw the daylight shrink at sight of Cerberus, and the sun pale with fear; upon me, too, terror came, and as I gazed upon the three necks of the conquered monster I trembled at my own command.

[63] But I lament too much o’er trivial wrongs. ‘Tis for heaven we must fear, lest he seize the highest realms who has overcome the lowest – he will snatch the sceptre from his father. Nor will he come to the stars by a peaceful journey as Bacchus did; he will seek a path through ruin, and will desire to rule in an empty universe. He swells with pride of tested might, and has learned by bearing them that the heavens can be conquered by his strength; he set his head beneath the sky, nor did the burden of that immeasurable mass bend his shoulders, and the firmament rested better on the neck of Hercules.8 Unshaken, his back upbore the stars and the sky and me down-pressing. He seeks a way to the gods above.

[75] Then on, my wrath, on, and crush this plotter of big things; close with him, thyself rend him in pieces with thine own hands. Why to another entrust such hate? Let the wild beasts go their ways, let Eurystheus rest, himself weary with imposing tasks. Set free the Titans who dared to invade the majesty of Jove; unbar Sicily’s mountain cave, and let the Dorian land,9 which trembles whenever the giant struggles, set free the buried frame of that dread monster; let Luna10 in the sky produce still other monstrous creatures. But he has conquered such as these. Dost then seek Alcides’ match? None is there save himself; now with himself let him war. Rouse the Eumenides from the lowest abyss of Tartarus; let them be here, let their flaming locks drop fire, and let their savage hands brandish snaky whips.

[89] Go now, proud one, seek the abodes of the immortals and despise man’s estate. Dost think that now thou hast escaped the Styx and the cruel ghosts? Here will I show thee infernal shapes. One in deep darkness buried, far down below the place of banishment of guilty souls, will I call up – the goddess Discord, whom a huge cavern, barred by a mountain, guards; I will bring her forth, and drag out from the deepest realm of Dis whatever thou hast left; hateful Crime shall come and reckless Impiety, stained with kindred blood, Error, and Madness, armed ever against itself – this, this be the minister of my smarting wrath!

[100] Begin, handmaids of Dis, make haste to brandish the burning pine; let Megaera lead on her band bristling with serpents and with baleful hand snatch a huge faggot from the blazing pyre. To work! claim vengeance for outraged Styx. Shatter his heart; let a fiercer flame scorch his spirit than rages in Aetna’s furnaces. That Alcides may be driven on, robbed of all sense, by mighty fury smitten, mine must be the frenzy first – Juno, why rav’st thou not? Me, ye sisters, me first, bereft of reason, drive to madness, if I am to plan some deed worthy a stepdame’s doing. Let my request be changed; may he come back and find his sons unharmed, that is my prayer, and strong of hand may he return. I have found the day when Hercules’ hated valour is to be my joy. Me has he overcome; now may he overcome himself and long to die, though late returned from the world of death. Herein may it profit me that he is the son of Jove, I will stand by him and, that his shafts may fly from string unerring, I’ll poise them with my hand, guide the madman’s weapons, and so at last be on the side of Hercules in the fray. When he has done this crime, then let his father admit those hands to heaven!

[123] Now must my war be set in motion; the sky is brightening and the shining sun steals up in saffron dawn.

[125] Now stars shine few and faint in the sinking sky; vanquished night draws in her wandering fires as the new day is born, and Phosphor brings up the rear of the shining host; the icy sign high in the north, the Bears of Arcas, with their seven stars, with wheeling pole11 summons the dawn. Now, upborne by his azure steeds, Titan peeps forth from Oeta’s crest; now the rough brakes, made famous by Theban Bacchants, touched by the dawn, flush red, and Phoebus’ sister12 flees away, to return again. Hard toil arises, sets all cares astir, opens all doors.

[139] The shepherd, turning out his flock, plucks pasturage still white with frosty rime. In the open mead the young bullock sports at will, his forehead not yet broken with young horns; the kine at leisure fill again their udders; the sportive kid with unsteady, aimless course wanders on the soft turf; perched on the topmost bough, shrill-voiced, amid her complaining young, the Thracian paramour13 is eager to spread her wings to the morning sun; and all around a mingled throng sounds forth, proclaiming the dawn of day with varied notes. The sailor, life ever at risk, commits his canvas to the winds, while the breeze fills its flapping folds. Here the fisher, perched on the wave-worn rocks, either rebaits his cheated hooks or, with firm grip, watches anxiously for his prize; meantime, his line feels the quivering fish.

[159] Such are the tasks of those whose is the peaceful calm of harmless lives, whose home rejoices in the tiny store that is its own; overweening hopes stalk abroad in cities, and trembling fears. One, sleepless, haunts the haughty vestibules and unfeeling doors of his rich patrons; another endlessly heaps up abundant wealth, gloats over his treasures, and is still poor amid piled-up bold. Yonder dazed wretch, with empty wind puffed up, popular applause and the mob more shifting than the sea uplift; this, trafficking in the mad wrangles of the noisy court, shamelessly lets out for hire his passions and his speech. Known to but few is untroubled calm, and they, mindful of time’s swift flight, hold fast the days that never will return. While the fates permit, live happily; life speeds on with hurried step, and with winged days the wheel of the headlong year is turned. The harsh sisters14 ply their tasks, yet do they not spin backward the threads of life. But men are driven, each one uncertain of his own, to meet the speeding fates; we seek the Stygian waves of our own accord. With heart too brave, Alcides, thou dost haste to visit the grieving ghosts; at the appointed time the Parcae come. No one may linger when they command, no one may postpone the allotted day; the urn receives the nations hurried to their doom.

[192] Let glory laud another to many lands, and let babbling fame sing his praise through every city and lift him to a level with the stars of heaven; let another fare towering in his car; but me let my own land, beside my lonely, sheltered hearth, protect. The inactive reach hoary age, and in a lowly estate but secure stands the mean lot of a humble home; from a lofty height ambitious courage falls.

[202] But sad Megara comes hither with streaming hair, her flock of children round her, and, slow with age, the father of Alcides moves.

[Enter from the palace MEGARA with her children, and AMPHITRYON. They take their stand at the altar.]

[204] O mighty ruler of Olympus, judge of all the world, set now at length a limit to our crushing cares, an end to our disasters. No day has ever dawned for me untroubled; no reward from my son’s toil is ever given; the end of one ill is but the step to one beyond. Straightway on his return a new foe is ready for him; before he can reach his happy home, bidden to another struggle he sets forth; there is no chance to rest, no time left free, save while fresh commands are being given. From his very birth relentless Juno has pursued him; was even his infancy exempt? He conquered monsters before he could know that they were monsters. Serpents twain with crested heads advanced their fangs against him; the infant crawled to meet them, gazing at the snakes’ fiery eyes with mild and gentle look; with serene face he raised their close-coiled folds and, crushing their swollen throats with his baby hands, he practised for the hydra.

[222] The nimble hind of Maenalus, raising her head bounteously adorned with gold, was caught by his long pursuit15; the lion, mightiest dread of Nemea, crushed by the arms of Hercules roared his last. Why should I tell of the horrid stalls of the Bistonian herd and the king16 given as food to his own herds? of the shaggy boar of Maenalus, whose wont it was on the thick-wooded heights of Erymanthus to harry the groves of Arcady? or of the bull, the crushing terror of a hundred towns?17 Among his herds in the distant land of Spain the three-shaped shepherd18 of the Tartesian shore was killed and his cattle driven as spoil from the farthest west; Cithaeron has fed the herd once to Ocean known. When bidden19 to enter the regions of the summer sun, those scorched realms which midday burns, he clove the mountains on either hand and, rending the barrier, made a wide path20 for Ocean’s rushing stream. Next he essayed the rich grove’s dwellings and bore off the watchful dragon’s golden spoil.21 Lerna’s fell monster, pest manifold, did he not quell at last by fire and teach to die? And the Stymphalian birds, wont to hide the day with veiling wings, did he not bring down from the very clouds? Thermodon’s unwed queen22 of ever virgin couch could not prevail against him, nor did his hands, bold to attempt all glorious deeds, shirk the foul labour of the Augean stalls.

[249] But what avails all this? He is banished from the world which he defended. All the earth has felt that the giver of its peace is lost to it. Once again prosperous and successful crime goes by the name of virtue; good men obey the bad, might is right and fear oppresses law. Before my eyes I saw the sons, defenders of their father’s23 kingdom, fall dead by the murderer’s24 hand, and the king himself fall, last scion of Cadmus’ famous line; I saw the royal crown that decked his head torn from him, head and all. Who could lament Thebes enough? O land, fertile in gods, before what lord dost thou tremble now? The city from whose fields and fecund bosom a band of youth25 stood forth with swords ready drawn, whose walls Jove’s son, Amphion, built, drawing its stones by his tuneful melodies – to which not once alone came the father of the gods, quitting the sky – this city, which has welcomed gods and has created gods and (may the word be lawful) perchance will yet create them, is oppressed by a shameful yoke. O seed of Cadmus and Ophion’s race, to what depths have you fallen! You tremble before a dastard exile, of his own land deprived, to ours a burden. But he who avenges crime on land and sea, who with righteous hand breaks cruel sceptres, now far away endures a master26 and brooks what he elsewhere forbids – and Lycus, the exile, rules the Thebes of Hercules! But not for long; he will be present with us and exact punishment, and suddenly to the sight of the stars will he come forth. He will find a way – or make one. Oh, be present and return in safety, I pray, and come at last victorious to thy vanquished home!

[279] Come forth, my husband, burst through the darkness shivered by thy hand; if there is no backward way, and the road is closed, rend earth asunder and return; and whatever lies hid in the hold of murky night, let forth with thee. Even as once, rending the hills asunder, seeking for the rushing stream27 a headlong path, thou stoodst, what time Tempe, cleft by that mighty shock, opened wide – before the thrust of thy breast, this way and that the mountain yielded and through the broken mass the Thessalian torrent raced in its new bed – even so, seeking thy parents, children, fatherland, burst through, bearing away with thee the bounds of things; and all that greedy time through all the march of years has hidden away, restore; and drive out before thee the self-forgetting dead, peoples that fear the light. Unworthy of thee is the spoil, if thou bringst back only what was commanded. But I speak too frowardly, all ignorant of the fate in store for us. Oh, whence shall come that day for me when I shall clasp thee and thy right hand and lament thy long-delayed returns that have no though of me? To thee, O leader of the gods, a hundred bulls never broken to the yoke shall yield their necks; to thee, goddess of fruits,28 will I perform thy secret rites; to thee in speechless faith silent Eleusis shall toss long trains of torches. Then shall I deem their lives restored unto my brothers, my father himself governing his own realm and flourishing. But if some greater power is holding thee in durance, we follow thee. Either defend us all by thy safe return, or drag us all with thee – thou wilt drag us down, nor will any god lift up our broken house.

[309] O ally of my blood, preserving with chaste faith the couch and children of the great-souled Hercules, have better thought and rouse thy courage. Surely he will come home, as is his wont from every task the greater.

[313] What the wretched overmuch desire, they easily believe.

[314] Nay, what they fear overmuch they think can never be set aside or done away. Fear’s trust inclineth ever to the worse.

[317] Submerged, deep-buried, crushed beneath all the world, what way has he to upper air?

[319] The same he had when across the parched desert and the sands, billowing like the stormy sea, he made his way, and across the strait with twice-receding, twice-returning waves; and when, his barque abandoned, he was stranded, a prisoner on Syrtes’ shoals, and, though his vessel was held fast, he crossed o’er seas on foot.29

[325] Unrighteous fortune seldom spares the highest worth; no one with safety can long front so frequent perils. Whom calamity oft passes by she finds at last.

[Enter LYCUS.]

[329] But see, ferocious and with threats upon his brow, the same in gait and spirit, Lycus comes, brandishing another’s sceptre in his hand.

[332] Ruling the rich domains of Thebes and all that sloping Phocis encompasses with its rich soil, whatever Ismenus waters, whatever Cithaeron views from his high peak, and slender Isthmus, keeping asunder its twin straits, no ancient rights of an ancestral home do I possess, a slothful heir; not mine are noble ancestors, nor a race illustrious with lofty titles, but valour glorious. Who vaunts his race, lauds what belongs to others. But usurped sceptres are held in anxious hand; all safety is in arms; what thou knowest thou holdest against the will of citizens, the drawn sword must guard. One alien soil kingship stands not sure; but one there is who can get my power on firm foundations, if joined to me in royal wedlock by torch and couch – Megara. From her noble line my newness shall gain richer hue. Nor do I think she will refuse and scorn my bed; but if stubbornly and with headstrong will she shall decline, it is my resolve to give to utter ruin the whole house of Hercules. Shall hatred and the common people’s talk restrain my hand? ‘Tis the first art of kings, the power to suffer hate. Let us make trial, therefore; chance has given us occasion; for Megara herself, her head close-veiled in mourning vestments, stands by the altar of her protecting gods, and close by her side keeps the true sire of Hercules.

[358] What new thing plans that fellow, that destruction and pestilence of our race? What does he attempt?

[359] O thou whose illustrious name is drawn from royal stock, graciously listen to my words a little while with patient ear. If mortals should cherish everlasting hate and if mad rage, once felt, should never drop from our hearts, but if the victor should keep and the vanquished prepare arms, nothing will wars leave us; then on the wasted farms the fields will lie untilled, the torch will be set to homes, and deep ashes will overwhelm the buried nations. ‘Tis expedient for the victor to with for peace restored; for the vanquished ‘tis necessity. – Come, share my throne; let us be joined in purpose; accept this pledge of faith – touch hands with me. Why in grim-faced silence dost thou stand?

[372] I touch a hand stained with my father’s blood and with my brothers’ double murder? Sooner shall the East extinguish, the West bring back, the day; sooner shall snow and flame be in lasting harmony and Scylla join the Sicilian and Ausonian shores; and sooner far shall swift Euripus with his alternating tides rest sluggish upon Euboea’s strand! My father hast thou taken from me, my kingdom, brothers, my ancestral home – what is there else? There is one thing left to me, dearer than brother and father, kingdom and home – my hate of thee, which it is my grief that I must share with all the populace. How small a part of it is mine! Rule on, swollen with pride, lift thy spirits high; an avenging god pursues the proud. I know the Theban realm; why mention the crimes which mothers have endured and dared? Why speak of the double infamy and the confused names of husband, son and sire?30 Why speak of the brothers’31 twofold camps? the two funeral-pyres? The daughter of Tantalus, presumptuous mother,32 stiffens with grief and, mournful on Phrygian Sipylus, drips tears – a stone. Nay, Cadmus himself reared a head fierce with its crest and, traversing Illyria’s realm in flight, left the long trail of his dragging body.33 Thee do such precedents of doom await. Lord it as thou wilt, only the accustomed destinies of our realm summon thee.

[397] Come, mad woman, have done with this wild talk, and learn from Alcides to endure the commands of kings. Although I wield a sceptre seized by my victorious hand, though I rule all things without fear of laws which arms o’ermaster, still will I say a few words in mine own cause. ‘Twas in a cruel war thy father fell, sayest thou? thy brothers, too? Arms observe no bounds; nor can the wrath of the sword, once drawn, be easily checked or stayed; war delights in blood. But he fought for his realm, sayest thou; we, impelled by insatiable ambition? Of war men ask the outcome, not the cause. But now let all the past be forgotten; when the victor has laid down his arms, it is meet that the vanquished, too, lay down his hate. That thou on bended knee shouldst pray to me as thy sovereign I do not ask; this of itself is pleasing to me, that thou dost take thy overthrow with a high spirit. Worthy art thou to be a king’s mate; then let us wed.

[414] Cold horror creeps through my bloodless limbs. What outrage has struck my ears? No terror felt I when peace was broken and war’s loud crash rang around our walls; dauntlessly I bore it all; but marriage – I shudder at it; now do I indeed seem captive. Let chains load down my body, and let me die a lingering death by slow starvation; still shall no power o’ercome my loyalty. Alcides, I shall die thine own.

[422] Does a husband buried in the depths produce such spirit?

[423] He reached the depths that he might gain the heights.

[424] The weight of the boundless earth crushes him.

[425] By no weight will he be crushed who upbore the heavens.

[426] Thou shalt be forced.

[426] Who can be forced has not learned how to die.

[427] Say rather, what royal gift I shall prepare for my new bride.

[428] Thy death or mine.

[429] Fool, thou shalt die.

[429] So shall I meet my husband.

[430] Is a slave more to thee than I, a king?

[431] How many kings has that slave given to death!

[432] Why, then, does he serve a king and endure the yoke?

[433] Do away with harsh commands – what then will valour be?

[434] To oppose oneself to beast and monsters think’st thou valour?

[435] ‘Tis valour’s part to subdue what all men fear.

[436] The shades of Tartarus bury the braggart deep.

[437] There is no easy way to the stars from earth.

[438] Who is his father that he hopes for a home in heaven?

[439] Unhappy wife of great Hercules, be still; ‘tis my place to restore to Alcides his father and true lineage. [To LYCUS.] After all the great hero’s memorable deeds, after peace has been gained by his hand for all that he sun, rising and setting, sees, after so many monsters tamed, after Phlegra34 stained with impious blood, after his protection of the gods, is not his fathering yet clear? Claim we Jove falsely? Then believe Juno’s hate.

[447] Why blaspheme Jove? The race of mortals cannot mate with heaven.

[449] That is the common origin of many gods.

[450] But were they slaves35 ere they became divine?

[451] The Delian as a shepherd tended flocks at Pherae – 36

[452] But he did not in exile roam o’er all the world.

[452] What? He whom an exiled mother brought forth on a roaming isle?

[453] Did Phoebus encounter savage monsters or wild beasts?

[454] A dragon was the first to stain Phoebus’ shafts.

[455] Knowest thou not what heavy ills he bore in infancy?

[456] Ripped by a thunderbolt from his mother’s womb, a boy37 in after-time stood next his sire, the Thunderer. What? he who rules the stars, who shakes the clouds, did he not lie hid in infancy in a cave of rocky Ida? Such lofty birth must pay its price of care, and ever has its cost dear to be born a god.

[463] Whome’er thou shalt see wretched, known him man

[464] Whome’er thou shalt see brave, call him not wretched.

[465] Are we to call him brave from whose shoulders fell the lion’s skin and club, made present for a girl,38 and whose side shone resplendent, decked out in Tyrian robes? Call him brave, whose bristling locks dripped with nard, who busied those famous hands with unmanly strummings on the tambourine, whose warlike brow a barbaric turban crowned?

[472] But dainty Bacchus does not blush to sprinkle with perfume his flowing locks, nor in his soft hand to brandish the slender thrysus, when with mincing gait he trails his robe gay with barbaric gold. After much toil, valour still seeks relief.

[477] The fact the ruined house of Eurytus confesses, and the flocks of maidens harried like so many sheep; no Juno, no Eurystheus ordered this; these works are his very own.

[480] Thou knowest not all; his own work it is that Eryx was crushed by his own gauntlets and that Libyan Antaeus shared Eryx’ fate; that the altars which dripped the blood of strangers drank, and justly, too, Busiris’ blood; his own work is Cycnus, though proof against wound and sword, forced to suffer death untouched by wounds; and threefold Geryon by one hand overcome. Thou shalt share the fate of these – and yet they never defiled with lust the marriage-bed.

[489] What is Jove’s right is a king’s right, too. Thou gavest thy wife39 to Jove, to a king shall he give his40; and taught by thy example thy daughter shall learn this old-time lesson – when the husband also gives consent, to take the better man. But should she stubbornly refuse to wed me by the torches’ rite, even by force will I get me a noble stock from her.

[495] Ye shades of Creon, ye household gods of Labdacus, ye nuptial torches of incestuous Oedipus, now to our union grant its accustomed doom. Now, now, ye bloody daughters of King Aegyptus, be present here, your hands deep-stained in blood. One Danaïd is lacking from the tale – I will complete the crime.

[501] Since my suit thou dost stubbornly refuse and threatenest thy king, now shalt thou know what royal power can do. Embrace the altar – no god shall snatch thee from me, not though earth’s mass could be pushed aside and Alcides brought back in triumph to the upper world. [To attendants.] Heap high the logs; let the temple fall blazing on its suppliants; apply the torch and let one pyre consume the wife and all her brood.

[509] This boon as father of Alcides I ask of thee, which becomes me well to ask, that I be first to fall.

[511] He who inflicts on all the penalty of death knows not how to be a king. Impose contrasting penalties: forbid the wretched, command the happy man to die. Now while the pyre feeds on the burning beams, with promised gifts will I worship him who rules the sea.

[516] O mightiest of gods, O ruler and sire of the immortals, at whose hurtling bolts mortals tremble, check thou the impious hand of this mad king – why make vain prayers unto the gods? Where’er thou art, hear thou, my son. But why with sudden motion does the rocking temple totter? Why does earth rumble? Infernal crashing has sounded from the lowest pit. Our prayer is heard; it is, it is the resounding tread of Hercules!

[524] O Fortune, jealous of the brave, in allotting thy favours how unjust art thou unto the good! “Let Eurystheus lord it in untroubled ease; let Alcmena’s son in endless wars employ on monsters the hand that bore the heavens; let him cut off the hydra’s teeming necks; let him bring back the apples from the cheated sisters when the dragon, set to watch over the precious fruit, has given his ever-waking eyes to sleep.” 41

[533] He invaded the wandering homes of Scythia and nations strangers to their ancestral haunts42; he trod the sea’s frozen ridge, a still ocean with silent shores. There the frozen waters are without waves, and where but now ships had spread full sail, a path is worn by the long-haired Sarmatae. There lies the sea, changing as the seasons change, ready to hear now ship, now horseman. There she43 who rules o’er tribes unwed, with a golden girdle about her loins, stripped the glorious spoil from her body, her shield and the bands of her snow-white breast, on bended knee looking up to her victor.

[547] With what hope, driven headlong to the depths, bold to tread ways irretraceable, dist thou see Sicilian Proserpina’s realms? There beneath no southern, no western wind do the seas rise with swollen waves; there the stars of the twin Tyndaridae come not to the aid of timorous ships; sluggish stands the mere44 with black abyss, and, when Death, pale-visaged with greedy teeth, has brought countless tribes to the world of shades, one ferryman transports those many peoples.

[558] Oh, that thou mayest o’ercome the laws of cruel Styx, and the relentless distaffs of the Fates. He45 who as king lords it o’er countless peoples, what time thou wast making war on Pylos, Nestor’s land, brought to combat with thee his plague-dealing hands, brandishing his three-forked spear, yet fled away, with but a slight wound smitten, and, though lord of death, feared he would die. Fate’s bars burst thou with thy hands; to the sad nether regions open a view of light, and let the trackless path46 now give easy passage to the upper world!

[569] Orpheus had power to bend the ruthless lords of the shades by song and suppliant prayer, when he sought back his Eurydice. The art which had drawn the trees and birds and rocks, which had stayed the course of rivers, at whose sound the beasts had stopped to listen, soothes the underworld with unaccustomed strains, and rings out clearer in those unhearing realms. Eurydice the Thracian brides bewail; even the gods, whom no tears can move, bewail her; and they who with awful brows investigate men’s crimes and sift out ancient wrongs, as they sit in judgment47 bewail Eurydice. At length death’s lord exclaims: “We own defeat; go forth to the upper world, yet by this appointed doom – fare thou as comrade behind thy husband, and thou, look not back upon thy wife until bright day shall have revealed the gods of heaven, and the opening of Spartan Taenarus shall be at hand.” True love hates delay and brooks it not; while he hastes to look upon his prize, ‘tis lost.

[590] The realm which could be overcome by song, that realm shall strength have power to overcome.


1. In Greek mythology the constellations which the poet names all have their place in the sky as the result of some amorous intrigue of Jupiter.
2. The Bull.
3. The reference would be more naturally to the Hyades as bringers of stormy weather; but nevertheless the Pleiades are evidently meant, since three of these had been beloved of Jove.
4. Delos.
5. Ariadne.
6. i.e. by the lion’s skin, which he used as a shield, and by the hydra’s poisonous gall in which he dipped his arrow-points.
7. In Roman custom spolia opima were gained when a king met an opposing king in battle, conquered, and despoiled him. In this case the “spoil” was Cerberus; the “king,” Pluto, brother of Jupiter.
8. i.e. than it had on Atlas’ shoulders.
9. Sicily.
10. The Nemean lion and other monsters were supposed to have fallen from the moon.

11. The poet has mixed two conceptions of the constellations: (1) the Great Bear and Arctophylax, the “bear-keeper”; (2) the “Wain” and the “Ox-driver” (Boötes).
12. Phoebe, the moon-goddess.
13. Philomela, the nightingale, forced to be the mistress of Thracian Tereus.
14. The Parcae.
15. Hercules chased the hind a year before he caught her.
16. Diomedes.
17. The hundred towns of Crete.
18. Geryon.
19. This was not one of the twelve labours ordered by Eurystheus.
20. The Straits of Gibraltar.

21. The golden apples of the Hesperides.
22. Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons.
23. Creon.
24. Lycus.
25. i.e. they who sprang from Cadmus’ sowing of the dragon’s teeth.
26. Eurystheus.
27. The Peneus river, a passage for which Hercules is said to have forced between Olympus and Ossa.
28. Ceres.
29. Hercules was once wrecked off the African coast and made his way on foot to the shore.
30. The reference is to Oedipus.

31. Eteocles and Polynices.
32. Niobe.
33. Cadmus was changed into a serpent.
34. The scene of the battle between the giants and the gods. Hercules fought on the side of the gods.
35. As was Hercules to Eurystheus.
36. The reference is to Apollo’s year of servitude to Admetus.
37. Bacchus.
38. Omphale.
39. Alcmena.
40. Megara.

41. A supposed quotation from Fortune’s decree.
42. These were nomadic tribes.
43. Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons.
44. The Styx.
45. Pluto. The reference is to the combat of Hercules against Pluto in defence of the Pylians.
46. i.e. between life and death.
47. It is impossible to reproduce in translation the obvious pun in Eurydicen iuridici.