Classical Texts Library >> Seneca the Younger, Phoenissae


SENECA THE YOUNGER was a Latin playwright and philosopher who flourished in Rome in the late C1st A.D. during 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 Hercules Oetaeus and Octavia is uncertain.

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 Amazon.com (see left below 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.



OEDIPUS, late king of Thebes.
ANTIGONE, daughter of Oedipus, constant to him in his misfortunes.
JOCASTA, wife and mother of Oedipus.
POLYNICES, son of Oedipus and rival for the throne.
ETEOCLES, son of Oedipus and rival 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 downfall 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 ahs 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.]

[To ANTIGONE, who ahs followed him into exile.]
[1] Thou guide of thy blind father’s steps, his weary side’s sole stay, daughter, whose getting, even so, was worth the cost to me, quit thou thy heaven-cursed sire. Why into right paths wouldst turn aside my wandering feet? Let me stumble on; better alone shall I find the way I seek, the way which from this life shall deliver me and free heaven and earth from sight of this impious head. How little did I accomplish with this hand! I do not see the light, witness of my crime, but I am seen. Therefore, now unclasp thy clinging hand and let my sightless feet wander where they will. I’ll go, I’ll go where my own Cithaeron lifts his rugged crags; where, speeding over the mountain’s rocky ways, Actaeon lay at last, strange quarry for his own hounds; where, through the dim grove and woods of the dusky glade, a mother2 led her sisters, by the god impelled, and, rejoicing in the crime, bore in advance the head3 fixed on a quivering thyrsus; or where Zethus’ bull rushed along, dragging a mangled corpse, while through the thorny brambles the mad creature’s flight was traceable in blood; or where Ino’s cliff juts out into the deep sea with towering peak, where, fleeting strange crime and yet strange crime committing, a mother leaped into the strait to sink both son and self. Oh, happy they whose better fortune has given such kindly mothers!

[27] There is another place within these woods, my own place, which calls for me; I would fain hasten to it; my steps will falter not; thither will I go bereft of every guide. Why keep my own place waiting? Death, O Cithaeron, give me back; restore me that resting-place of mine, that I may die in age where I should have died in infancy. Claim now that penalty of old. O ever bloody, savage, cruel, fierce, both when thou slayest and when thou sparest, this carcass of mine long since belonged to thee; fulfil my father’s behest – aye, and now my mother’s too. My soul yearns to suffer the penalty of long ago. Why, daughter, dost hold me bound by thy baleful love? Why dost thou hold me? My father calls. I come, I come; at last let me go4 – Laius rages yonder, wearing the blood-stained badge of his ravished kingdom; see! behold! there he assails and seeks to tear at my sightless countenance with his threatening hands. Daughter, dost see my father? I surely see him. [He soliloquizes.] At length spew out thy hateful breath, O traitor soul, brave ‘gainst but a portion of thyself. Away with the slow delays of thy long-due punishment; receive death wholly. Why do I sluggishly drag on this life? Now can I do no crime. I can, wretch that I am, this I forebode – away from thy father, away, while still a maid. After my mother I fear all happenings.

[51] No force, my father, shall loose my hold of thee; no one shall ever tear me from thy side. The sovereignty of Labdacus’ noble house and all its riches – let my brothers fight over these; the best part of my father’s mighty kingdom is my own, my father’s self. Him no brother shall take from me, not he5 who holds the Theban sceptre by stolen right, not he6 who is leading he Argive hosts; no, though Jove should rend the universe with his thunders, and his bolt fall ‘twixt our embrace, I will not let go my hands. Thou mayst forbid me, father; I’ll guide thee against thy will, I’ll direct thine unwilling feet. Wouldst go to the level plain? I go. Wouldst seek the craggy mountains? I oppose not, but I go before. Whither thou wilt, use me as guide; by two will all paths be chosen. Without me thou canst not perish; with me thou canst. Here rises a cliff, lofty, precipitous, and looks out upon the long reaches of the underlying sea; wouldst have us seek it? Here is a bare rock overhanging, here the riven earth yawns with gaping jaws; shall we go here? Here a raging torrent falls and rolls along worn fragments of fallen mountains; shall we plunge to this? Where’er thou wilt, I go, so it be first. I neither oppose nor urge. Art eager to be destroyed, and is death, father, thy highest wish? If thou diest, I go before thee; if thou livest, I follow. But change thy purpose; summon up thine old-time courage; conquer thy sorrows and with all thy might be master of them, resist them; amidst such woes, to be conquered is to die.

[80]Whence this rare type in a house so impious? Whence this maid so unlike her race? Is it fortune, thinkst thou? Has any dutiful child sprung from me? Never would it be so, for well I know my fate, save for harmful ends. Nature herself has reversed her laws; now will the river turn and bear its swift waters backward to their source, Phoebus’ torch will bring in the night, and Hesperus herald the day; and, that something be added to my woes, I, too, shall become holy. For Oedipus the only salvation is not to be saved. Let me avenge my father, till now unavenged; why, sluggish hand, dost thou hesitate to exact penalty? All thou hast as yet exacted, to my mother hast thou given. Let go thy father’s hand, courageous girl; thou dost but protract my burying, and prolong the funeral rites of a living sire. Bury in the earth at last this hateful body; thou wrongst me, though with kind intent, and thou deemst it piety to drag along an unburied father. ‘Tis all one – to force him who shrinks from death, and stay him who seeks to die; ‘tis the same as killing to forbid death to him who wants it; and yet ‘tis not all one; the second course I count the worse. Rather would I have death enforced that snatched from me. Desist, girl, from thine attempt; the right to live or die is in my own hands. The sovereignty over my realm have I yielded gladly; the sovereignty over myself I keep. If thou art true comrade, hand thy sire a sword, but be it the sword made famous by his father’s slaughter. Dost give it? or hold my sons that, too, together with my kingdom? Wherever is need of crime, there let it be – I relinquish it; let my son have it – nay, both my sons.

[110] Flames, if thou prefer, and a huge mound prepare; myself, will I fling me on the lofty pyre, embrace the flames, and hide in the funeral pile. There will I set free this stubborn soul and give up to ashes this – all that is left of me alive. Where is the raging sea? Lead me where some beetling crag juts out with its high, rocky cliff, or where swift Ismenus rolls his wild waters. If thou art my guide, thither would I go to die where on a high cliff the Sphinx once sat and wove crafty speech with her half-bestial lips. Guide my feet thither, there set thy father. Let not that dreadful seat be empty, but place thereon a greater monster. On that dark rock will I sit and propound the dark riddle of my fate which none may answer. All ye who till the fields once ruled by the Assyrian king,7 who suppliant worship in the grove of Cadmus for the serpent famed, where sacred Dirce lies; all ye who drink of Eurotas, who dwell in Sparta for its twin brethren8 famous; yet farmers who reap Elis and Parnassus and Boeotia’s fertile fields, give ear. That dire pest of Thebes, who wrapped death-dealing words in puzzling measures, what riddle like this did she ever propound? What maze so bewildering? He was his grandfather’s son-in-law and his father’s rival, brother of his children and father of his brothers; at one birth the grandmother bore children to her husband and grandchildren to herself. Who can unfold a coil so monstrous? Even I, who gained spoils from the conquered Sphinx, shall prove but slow in unriddling mine own doom.

A speech of Antigone may have dropped out at this point, or Oedipus may hark back to the earlier speech of Antigone after a dramatic pause. Leo holds that the hiatus is, as Swoboda thinks, left by the poet himself.

[140] Why dost thou waste further words? Why dost try to soften my hard heart with prayers? My will is fixed to pour forth this life which has long been struggling with death ,and to seek the nether darkness; for this deep night is not deep enough for my crime; in Tartarus would I be buried, or if there be aught deeper than Tartarus; ‘tis pleasing to do at last what long ago I should have done. I cannot be kept from death. Wilt withhold the sword? Wilt bar paths where I might fall to death? Wilt keep my neck from the choking noose? Wilt remove death-bringing herbs? What, pray, will that care of thine accomplish? Death is everywhere. This hath God with wisdom excellent provided: of life anyone can rob a man, but of death no one; to this a thousand doors lie open. I ask for naught. This right hand, though bare, my soul hath practice to use well – O hand of mine, come now with all thy force, with all thy smarting rage, with all thy might. Not one spot only do I mark out for the wound – I am all sin; inflict death where thou wilt. Break through my breast and tear out my heart, which ahs room for so many crimes; lay bare my vitals, every nook; rain resounding blows upon my neck until it break, and let my veins flow, torn by my gouging fingers. Or aim thy mad attack at the accustomed place;9 these wounds reopen; bathe them in streams of blood and gore; through this passage drag out my stubborn life, impregnable. And do thou, my father, where’er thou standst as arbiter of my sufferings – I have never deemed that this grievous crime of mine was sufficiently atoned by any suffering, nor have I been content with such death as this, nor have I bought my pardon with a portion of myself; limb by limb have I desired to die for thee – at length exact the debt. Now am I paying my penalty; before, I did but offer sacrifices to thy ghost. Come to my aid, help me to plunge my nerveless hand deep down and deeper; timidly, aforetime, and with but a meagre outpouring did it sprinkle my head, when it scarce drew forth the eyes that yearned to follow. Even now this soul of mine halts, yes halts, when my face has bent downward to my shrinking hands. Thou shalt hear the truth, Oedipus: less boldly didst thou pluck out thine eyes than thou didst undertake to do. Thrust now thy hand e’en to the brain; through that door whereby I began to die fulfil my death.

[182] Father, great-souled, I beseech thee that with calm mind thou listen to some few words of thy wretched daughter. I seek not to lead thee back again to the splendours of thine ancient home, and to thy royal estate, flourishing in power and fame; nor do I ask that thou bear with calm and peaceful soul that tempest of passion which ahs not been allayed even by lapse of time; and yet ‘twere fitting that one so stalwart should not yield to pain nor turn in flight, by disaster overcome. It is not manhood, father, as thou deemst it, to shrink from life, but to make stand against mighty ills and neither turn nor yield. He who has trodden destiny under foot, who has torn off and thrown away life’s blessings, and himself piled up the burden of his woes, who ahs no need of God, wherefore should he desire death, or wherefore seek it? Each is a coward’s act; no one despises death who yet yearns for it. He whose misfortunes can no further go, is safely lodged.

[200] Who now of the gods, granting he wills it so, can add aught to thy misfortunes? Now not even canst thou add aught save this, to deem thyself worthy of death. thou art not worthy, nor had any taint of guilt touched thy heart. And for this all the more, father, call thyself guiltless; for thou art guiltless, though even the gods willed otherwise. What is it which has so maddened thee, which has goaded thy grief afresh? What drives thee to the infernal regions? What forces thee out of these? That thou mayst avoid the light of day? Thou dost avoid it. That thou mayst flee thy noble palace with its high walls, and thy native land? Thy native land, though thou still livest, is dead to thee. Dost flee from thy sons and mother? From the sight of all men fate has removed thee, and whatever death can take away from any man, this had life taken from thee. Wouldst avoid the tumult around a throne? They who once in prosperity thronged around thee, at thy command have left thee. Whom dost thou flee, my father?

[216] Myself I flee; I flee my heart conscious of all crimes; I flee this hand, this sky, the gods; I flee the dread crimes which I committed, though in innocence. Do I tread this earth from which wholesome grain springs up? This air do I inhale with pestilential lips? Does water quench my thirst, or do I enjoy any gift of kindly mother earth? Do I, impious, incestuous, accursed, touch thy pure hand? Do my ears take in sound by which I may still hear the name of parent or of son? I would indeed that I might destroy these paths and might with my hands driven deep pluck out every part where voices enter and where a narrow passage gives access to the words of men; then, daughter, thy wretched father would have escaped all consciousness of thee, who art part and parcel of my crimes.

[231] My guilt sticks fast within me, threatens each moment to break out afresh, and my ears pour in upon me all that you, my eyes, have bestowed.10 Why do I not plunge this life, weighted with gloom, down to the everlasting shades of Dis? Why here do I detain my ghost? Why do I burden the earth and wander amongst the living? What evil is left for me? My kingdom, parents, children, my manhood, too, and the illustrious fame of my cunning wit – all these have perished, all have been stripped from me by hostile chance. Tears were still left me – of these, too, have I robbed myself.

[241] Stand off! My soul will not listen to any prayers and seeks some new punishment to match its crimes. And what match can there be? Even in my infancy I was doomed to death. Who ever drew lot so sad? I had not yet seen the light, was still imprisoned in the womb, and already I was held in fear. Some there are whom straightway at birth night hath seized upon and snatched from their first dawn; but on me death came ere birth. Some, while still within the mother’s womb, have suffered untimely death; but have they sinned also? Hidden away, confined, my very being in doubt, the god made me guilty of a charge unspeakable. On that charge my sire condemned me, spitted my slender ankles on hot iron, and sent me to he deep forest as prey for wild beasts and savage birds which baleful Cithaeron, oft stained with royal blood, doth breed. Yet him whom God condemned, whom his sire cast away, hath death also shunned. I kept faith with Delphi; I assailed my father and with impious death-stroke slew him. For this another act of piety will atone; I killed my father, true, but my mother – I loved. Oh, ‘tis shame to speak of wedlock and my marriage torches. But this punishment also force thyself to bear through against thy will; proclaim thy crime, unheard of, bestial, unexampled, at which nations would shudder, which no age would believe ever befell, which would put even a parricide to shame: into my father’s bed I bore hands smeared with my father’s blood, and there, as the reward of my crime, I did worse crime.

[270] A trivial sin is my father’s murder; my mother, brought to my marriage chamber, that my guilt might be complete, conceived – no greater crime than this can nature brook. And yet, if there is even now worse crime, we have given the world those who can commit it. I have flung away the sceptre, price of my father’s murder, and this, again, has armed other hands. I myself best know my kingdom’s destiny; no one unstained by sacred blood shall bear sway there. Dire misfortunes my father-soul presages. Already are sown the seeds of calamity to come; the plighted pact11 is scorned. The one will not retire from the throne he has usurped; the other proclaims his right, calls on the gods to witness the broken bond, and, wandering in exile, is rousing Argos and the cities of Greece to arms. ‘Tis no light destruction that is coming on weary Thebes; weapons, flames, wounds press round her and a greater ill than these, if greater there be, – that all may know I have begotten sons.

[288] If, my father, thou hast no other cause for living, this one is more than enough, that as father thou mayst restrain thy sons from their fatal frenzy. Thou alone canst avert the threats of impious war, canst check these mad youths, give peace to our citizens, rest to our land, faith to the broken pact. If life to thyself thou dost deny, to many dost thou deny it.

[295] Have they any love for father or for right, they who lust for blood, power, arms, treachery, they the cruel, the accursed, – in brief, my sons? They vie one with the other in every crime, and have no scruple where passion drives them headlong; impiously born, they count nothing impious. No feeling for their stricken father, none for their fatherland, moves them; their hearts are mad with lust of empire. I know well whither they tend, what monstrous deeds they are planning, and for this cause I seek an early path to destruction, rush on my death, while still there is none in my house more guilty than myself. Daughter, why dost thou fall weeping at my knees? Why seekst with prayer to conquer my unconquerable resolve? This is the one means by which fortune can take me captive, invincible in all else; thou only canst soften my hard heart, thou only canst teach piety in our house. Nothing is heavy or grievous to me which I know thou hast desired. Do thou but command; I, Oedipus, at thy bidding will swim the Aegean sea, will drink the flames which earth from the Sicilian mountains belches forth, pouring down falls of fire, will beard the dragon still savagely raging in the grove at the theft of Hercules; at thy bidding will offer my liver to the birds – at thy bidding e’en will live.

The first episode 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 episode. Although some editors would assign it to ANTIGONE, it seems more properly to belong to a messenger who has just arrived, for the double reason that it gives fresher information from Thebes than ANTIGONE would naturally posses; and that OEDIPUS, after the speech to his daughter with which the previous episode ended, would hardly address to her as rough a reply as he uses in his next speech.

[320] Thee, sprung from regal ancestry to be our great exemplar, Thebes calls to her aid, trembling at fratricidal strife, and prays that thou fend off from thy country’s homes the brands of war. These are no mere threats; already is destruction at our gates; for the brother12 demands his turn to rule according to the bond, and is marshalling to war all the peoples of Greece. Seven bands are encamped against the walls of Thebes. Haste to our aid; prevent in one act both war and crime.

[328] Am I one to forbid crime and teach hands to refrain from the blood of loved ones? Am I a teacher of righteousness and love of kin? ‘Tis from my crimes they seek their pattern, ‘tis my example they follow now. I praise them and gladly acknowledge them as sons; I urge them on to do something worthy of such a father. Go on, dear offspring, prove your noble breeding by your deeds; surpass my fame and praises and do some deed whereat your father may rejoice that he has lived till now. You will do it, I know: of such mind were you born; no trivial, no common crime can such high birth perform. Forward your arms! With torches have at your household gods; reap with fire the ripened grain of your native land; confound all things, hurry all to destruction; on all sides throw down the walls, raze them to the ground; bury the gods beneath their own temples; the defiled deities of your hearths melt in the fire, and let our whole house from its foundations fall; let the city be consumed – and be my marriage chamber the first to feel the flames.

[347] Give o’er this raging storm of grief; let the public calamities prevail with thee; go to thy sons as the adviser of calm peace.

[350] Seest thou an old man given to gentle thoughts? dost summon me as lover of calm peace to take her part? My heart swells with rage, my smarting grief burns measureless, and I long for some crime more dreadful than what the casual madness of young men attempts. Not enough for me is war that as yet is between citizens; let brother rush on brother. Nor is that enough; that, as is due, a horror may be wrought after my fashion, one that may befit my marriage-couch, arm ye your mother. Let no one drag me from the woods! I’ll lurk in the cliffs’ wave-worn caves or hide away in the thick underbrush. Here will I catch at vague rumour’s words and the dire strife of brothers, as I can, will hear.

It is possible that the following fragments belong to another play. The presence of ANTIGONE in Thebes, notwithstanding her resolve to remain with her father, would strengthen this view.

[363] Fortunate Agave! she carried her ghastly crime in the hand that wrought it, and as a bloody maenad bore spoil of her dismembered son. She wrought a crime, but not wantonly did the wretched woman god to meet her crime. ‘Tis but a trivial thing that I am guilty; I have made others guilty. This, too, bad as it is, is trivial; I have borne guilty sons. ‘Twas as yet lacking to my woes that I should love even my enemy.13 Thrice have the snows of winter fallen, three harvests now have yielded to the sickle, while my son in exile wanders, expatriate, and as an outcast begs aid from the Greek kings. And now he is son-in-law of Adrastus, whose sway is over the waters which Isthmus cleaves, and who brings with him his own tribes and seven kingdoms to the aid of his son-in-law. What I should pray for, or which side espouse, I know not. He demands back the kingdom; to reseek it is an honest plea, but ill to seek it thus. What should be a mother’s prayer? On either side I see a son; I can do nothing piously that is not impious. Whatever blessing I shall ask for one, to the other will prove a curse. But, though I love both equally, whither the better cause and the worse fortune draw, my heart inclines, which always takes the weaker side. Misfortune knits the wretched closer to their kin.

[Enter MESSENGER in haste.]

[387] O queen, whilst thou art uttering tearful complaints and wasting time, the fierce battle-line with bared swords is at hand; the trumpets’ blare sounds to war, the standard-bearer with eagle advanced signals for contest; the kings, each in his place, are setting their sevenfold battle in array, while with equal courage Cadmus’ race advances; at the double-quick the soldiers on either side rush on. Dost see them? A dark cloud of dust hides the day; the plain lifts heavenward dense, smoke-like billows which the earth, beaten by horses’ hoofs, sends up; and, if terror-stricken eyes see aught aright, hostile standards are gleaming there; the front rank, with lifted spears, is close at hand, and the battle-flags have the leaders’ names clearly limned in golden characters. Go, restore love to brothers, peace to us all, and let a mother be the barrier to stay unholy arms.

[403] Hasten, mother, hasten on flying feet! hold back their weapons, strike the steel from my brothers’ hands, set thy bared breast between their hostile swords! Either stop the war, mother, or be the first to feel it.

[407] I go, I go, and my own life will I set against their arms; I’ll stand between their arms; and he who shall wish to attack his brother must attack his mother first. Let the more filial lay down his arms at a mother’s prayer; let the unfilial begin with me. These fiery youths, old though I be, will I restrain; there shall be no impious crime committed in my sight; or, if e’en in my sight one crime can be committed, it shall not be only one.

[414] The opposing standards gleam face to face, the hostile battle-cry is sounding, the crime is near at hand; forestall it, mother, with thy prayers! And see, you might deem them moved by tears of mine, so sluggishly moves the line with weapons held at rest.

[419] The line advances slowly, but the leaders haste.

[420] What swift wind with the storm-blast’s mad whirl will carry me though the air of heaven? What Sphinx, what Stymphalian bird, with its dark cloud veiling day, will speed me headlong on eager wings? Or what Harpy, hovering over the barbarian king’s14 famished board, will hurry me along the highways of the air, hurry and fling me ‘twixt the two battlelines? [Exit.]

[427] [Looking after her.] She goes like a mad thing, or is mad indeed. Swift as a dart hurled by some Parthian’s hand, or as a vessel driven on by wild, raging winds, or as a star, dislodged from the firmament, when, sweeping o’er the heavens, with swift fire it cleaves its unswerving way, so has the frenzied queen sped on and at once has parted the two battle-lines. Stayed by a mother’s prayer the battle hangs; and now the bands, eager to join from both sides in mutual slaughter, hold their swords poised in lifted hands. They incline to peace, the swords of all are lowered, or idly sheathed; but they still quiver in the brothers’ hands. The mother shows them her hoary hair, tearing it, beseeching them as they stubbornly refuse, and floods her cheeks with weeping. Who wavers long may say his mother “No!”

[The scene shifts to the field before Thebes, between the battle-lines.]

[Kneeling between her two hostile sons.]
[443] Against me turn your arms and torches; against me only let every warrior charge, both those who come with high courage from the city of Inachus,15 and those who from the Theban citadel descend thirsting for the fray. Townsman and enemy, together attack this womb which bore my husband brothers. Rend these limbs asunder and scatter them everywhere. I bore you both – lay you not down your arms with speed? Or shall I tell from what father, too? Your right hands – to your mother give them, give while they are still filial. Ignorance till now against our will hath made us16 guilty; the whole crime was Fortune’s, who sinned against us; this is the first crime wrought between those who know. It is yours to choose which thing you will: if holy affection please you, grant to your mother peace; if crime has pleased, a greater is to hand – your mother sets herself between you. Therefore rid ye of strife or of this stay of strife.17

[459] To which of you now shall your anxious mother with alternate prayers address her words? Whom shall I in my wretchedness first embrace? To both sides am I drawn with equal love. This son has been absent from me; but if the brothers keep their pact, now will the other be away. And shall I never see you both, save thus?18

[464] [Turning to POLYNICES.] Come thou first to thy mother’s arms, thou who hast endured so many toils, so many misfortunes, and, worn with long exile, sees thy mother at last. Come nearer, sheathe thine impious sword, and thy spear, which is even now quivering and eager to be thrown, thrust it in the ground. Thy shield keeps thee from coming close to thy mother, breast to breast; put that by, too. Unbind thy brow, take the grim helmet from thy warlike head, and let thy mother see thy face. Why dost thou look away, and with fearful glance watch thy brother’s hand? I will cover thy whole body with my protecting embrace and allow way to thy blood only through my own. Why dost thou still halt in doubt? Dost fear thy mother’s pledge?

[478] I am in fear; no longer do nature’s laws avail. Since this example of a brother’s faithlessness, even a mother’s pledge may not be trusted.

[480] Put now hand to hilt again, bind on thy helmet, let thy left hand clasp its shield; and while thy brother unarms, remain thou armed.

[483] [She turns to ETEOCLES.] Do thou put by the sword, who art the sword’s first cause. If thou hatest peace, if ‘tis thy pleasure to rage in war, thy mother begs brief truce of thee, that to her son returned from exile she may give a kiss – the first, perchance the last. While I beg for peace, hearken ye, unarmed. Doth he fear thee; thou, him? I fear you both, but for the sake of both. Why dost refuse to sheathe thy drawn sword? Be glad of any delay; ye both seek to wage a war wherein ‘twere best to be o’ercome. Dost thou fear thy hostile brother’s wiles? When one must either cheat or be cheated by one’s own, do thou thyself suffer rather than commit the crime. But do not fear; thy mother will shield thee from snares on either hand. Do I prevail? or must I envy19 your father? Have I come to prevent crime? or to see it done before my eyes? [ETEOCLES yields to her.] He has sheathed his sword, his spear droops, his arms are laid aside.

[500] [She turns back to POLYNICES.] Now to thee, son, thy mother will bring her prayers, but her tears first. After a weary time I hold the face I prayed to see. Thee, an outcast from thy native soil, the gods of a foreign king protect; thee many seas far distant, many fates have driven wandering. Thy mother, at thy side, did not lead thee to thy first bridal chamber, nor with her own hand deck the festal hall, nor with sacred fillets wreathe the glad torches. As wedding gifts no rich golden treasure, no fields, no cities did thy father-in-law bestow: war is thy bridal gift. Thou hast become thine enemy’s son, far from thy land, guest of an alien house, seeking another’s, driven from thine own, exiled for no fault. That thou mightst lack nothing of thy father’s fates, this also thou hast of them. That thou hast erred in marriage.

[515] O son, returned to me after so many years, son, fear and hope of thy anxious mother, for sight of whom I have ever prayed the gods, though thy return was destined to take as much from me as by thy coming it could give: “When shall I cease to fear for thee?” I cried; and the god, mocking me, answered: “’Tis himself thou shalt fear.” Surely if there were no war, I should be without thee; surely if thou wert not here, I should be free from war. Oh, bitter price and hard, to pay for a sight of thee; but thy mother pays it willingly. Only let thy hostile hosts fall back while as yet savage Mars dares no impious crime. Even this is an outrageous crime, that they have come so near. I am appalled; pale am I and I tremble to see two brothers stand, one here, one there, ‘neath guilt’s o’erhanging stroke. My limbs quake with fear: how near did I, thy mother, come to seeing greater infamy than that which thy wretched father could not bear to see. Though I am free from fear of so great a crime, and now see no such thing, still I am unhappy because I almost saw it.

[535] By the womb that bore thee for ten weary months, by the devotion of thy noble sister, by thy self-hating father’s eyes which he, though innocent, yet, seeking to inflict on himself dire punishment for his mistake, tore from their sockets – save thy country’s walls from eh accursed torch; turn back again the standards of this warring host. Though thou shouldst retire, still is the great part of your sin already done; thy country has seen its plains o’errun by hostile hordes, has seen armed squadrons gleaming from afar, the Cadmean meadows trampled by flying hoofs, princes in their chariots careering high, the smoke and flames of blazing torches which seek to burn our homes, and brothers (a crime new even to Thebes) rushing upon each other. This crime the whole army say, this, all the people, this, both thy sisters saw and I, thy mother, saw – for thy father owest it to his own act that he beheld not such deeds. Let Oedipus stand before thee now, in whose judgment even for error is penalty demanded.

[555] Do not, I beg of thee, with the sword destroy thy country and thy household gods, nor overthrow Thebes, which thou seekst to rule. What madness holds thee? By seeking thy land wouldst wreck it? to make it thine, wouldst have it no land at all? Nay, thou harmst thine own cause in this very act of harrying the land with hostile arms, trampling the full-grown crops, and spreading terror through the whole country-side. No one works such havoc on his own; what thou bidst be plundered with fire and reaped with sword thou deemst another’s. Question whether of you be king, but let the kingdom stand. These homes dost thou seek with sword and fire? Wilt have the heart to batter these walls which Amphion built, whose stones no hand set in place, moving the slow weight with creaking crane, but, marshalled by sound of singing and of lyre, each stone of its own accord came to the turrets’ top – wilt batter down these stones? Wilt thou bear spoils hence as victor, and shall conquered chieftains, thy father’s friends, and matrons torn from their husbands’ very arms, be led off in chains by thy rough soldiery? Shall Thebes’ grown maidens, mingled with the captive herd, go as gifts to the dames of Argos? Or shall I myself, with hands bound behind my back, thy mother, be borne as prize in thy triumph o’er a brother? Canst thou bear to see thy countrymen given to death and destruction on every hand? Against these dear walls canst thou lead the enemy, canst fill Thebes with blood and fire? Art thou so wild, is thy heart so hard, so full of savage rage? And thou art not yet a king – what will the sceptre do? Oh, I beseech thee, allay the mad ferment of thy soul, and come back to duty’s ways.

[586] That I may wander outcast? That I may be for ever shut out from my country and as a stranger look to the bounty of an alien race? What worse should I suffer if I had broken faith, if I had forsworn myself? Am I to pay the penalty of another’s sin, while he enjoys the profit of his crimes? Thou bidst me go; I bend to my mother’s will. Show me whither I shall get me back. Let my haughty brother dwell in my palace, let a little hut hide me away; this grant to the banished brother, let it be mine to match a kingdom with a paltry hearth. A wife’s mere chattel, shall I bear the harsh sway of a rich bride and, like a humble camp-follower, attend upon her domineering father? To fall from a king’s estate to slavery is hard.

[599] If thou seekst a king’s estate, and the harsh sceptre thy hand cannot forego, any land in the whole world will offer many kingdoms to be won. Here Tmolus lifts his ridges, the Wine-god’s haunts, where stretch broad plains of grain-producing lands, and where Pactolus, rolling his rich waves, o’erflows the fields with gold; nor does Meander through meadows less joyful bend his wandering waters, and swift Hermus cleaves the fertile plains. Here is Gargara, beloved of Ceres, and the soil which rich Xanthus compasses, swollen by Ida’s snows; here the land where the Ionian sea gives up its name, and Sestos, over against Abydos, hugs the narrow strait;20 or where, now nearer to the east, it curves and sees Lycia secure with its many harbours. These kingdoms seek thou with the sword; against these peoples let thy brave father in-law bear arms; these tribes let him acquire and deliver to thy sway. As for this kingdom, deem that thy father still holds it fast. Better is exile for thee than such return as this. Through another’s sin thou livest in exile, through thine own wilt thou return. With yonder forces, ‘twere better to seek new realms, stained by now crime. Nay, thy brother’s self, accompanying thine arms, will fight for thee.

[622] Go thou, then, and wage such warfare that, as thou fightest, thy father and thy mother may pray for thy success. Kingdoms won by crime are heavier than any exile. Now picture to thyself war’s mishaps, the wavering chances of uncertain Mars: though thou bring with thee the whole strength of Greece, though thy armed soldiery spread far and wide, the fortune of war hangs ever in doubtful scale, according as Mars determines. The sword makes two warriors equal through they be ill-matched; both hope and fear are in blind Fortune’s hand. The prize thou seekst is uncertain; certain the crime. Grant that all the gods have been favourable to thy prayers; grant that the citizens have given way, that they have turned and fled, that soldiers, lying in bloody heaps, cover the fields – though thou shouldst triumph and as victor bear off the spoils of thy conquered brother, broken must be the victor’s palm. What manner of war deemst thou that, wherein the conqueror takes on him the curse of guilt if he rejoices? Him whom, unhappy man, thou art so eager to o’ercome, when thou hast o’ercome thou wilt lament. Oh, then, forgo this unhallowed strife, free thy country from fear, from agony thy parents.

[643] That my cursed brother may receive no penalty for his crime and treachery?

[645] Have no fear. Penalty, yes, heavy penalty shall he pay: he shall reign. That is the penalty. If thou dost doubt it, believe thy grandsire and thy sire; Cadmus will tell thee this, and the race of Cadmus. No Theban hath e’er borne sceptre without penalty, nor will any hold it who has broken faith. Now mayst thou count thy brother amongst these.

[651] So let him count me; ‘tis worth the price, methinks, to lie with kings. [To POLYNICES.] Thee I enrol amongst the exiled throng.

[653] Reign, then, but hated by thy people.

[654] To reign he hath no will who feareth to be hated; the god who made the world set those two things together, hatred and sovereignty. This is the part of a great sovereign, I think, to tread e’en hatred under foot. A people’s love forbids a ruler many things; against their rage he has more rights. Who would be loved reigns with a nerveless hand.

[660] But hated sovereignty is never long retrained.

[661] The rules for sovereignty kings will better give; do thou make rules for exiles. For sovereignty I would fain –

[663] Give country, home, wife to the flames?

[664] Sovereignty is well brought at any price.


1. In the corresponding Greek play a chorus of Phoenician maidens on their way to Delphi chanced to be at Thebes. This circumstance gives the play its name.
2. Agave, who with her sisters, in a frenzy inspired by Bacchus, slew her son, Pentheus.
3. i.e. of Pentheus.
4. i.e. (to his daughter) “spare me thy further opposition.”
5. Eteocles.
6. Polynices.
7. Cadmus.
8. Castor and Pollux.
9. His eyes.
10. Oedipus paradoxically deems that his eyes in their blindness bestow on him the boon of avoiding sight; but his ears still bring Antigone to his consciousness.

11. i.e. between Eteocles and Polynices.
12. Polynices.
13. i.e. Polynices, who has now become a public foe of Thebes.
14. Phineus.
15. Argos.
16. i.e. Oedipus and Jocasta especially.
17. i.e. or kill me who stand between you to stay your fighting.
18. i.e. in enmity.
19. i.e. his blindness, which would shield her from unhallowed sights.
20. The Hellespont.