1,000 Years of History on the Surface of a Shield

Friday, 21 March 2014

Virgil reading the Aenid

Vergil (70 B.C.–19 B.C.). Æneid.
Vol. 13, pp. 280-292 of The Harvard Classics

Venus, mother of Æneas and wife of Vulcan, obtained from her husband, by seductive witchery, a marvelous shield whose surface reflected a thousand years of future events. Venus describes the wonders of the magic armor.


The Eighth Book of the Æneis

THE ARGUMENT.—The war being now begun, both the generals make all possible preparations. Turnus sends to Diomedes. Æneas goes in person to beg succors from Evander and the Tuscans. Evander receives him kindly, furnishes him with men, and sends his son Pallas with him. Vulcan, at the request of Venus, makes arms for her son Æneas, and draws on his shield the most memorable actions of his posterity.

[...]

Then saw two heaps of ruins, (once they stood
Two stately towns, on either side the flood,)
Saturnia’s and Janicula’s remains;
And either place the founder’s name retains.
Discoursing thus together, they resort
Where poor Evander kept his country court.
They view’d the ground of Rome’s litigious hall;
(Once oxen low’d, where now the lawyers bawl;)
Then, stooping, thro’ the narrow gate they press’d,
When thus the king bespoke his Trojan guest:
“Mean as it is, this palace, and this door,
Receiv’d Alcides, then a conqueror.
Dare to be poor; accept our homely food,
Which feasted him, and emulate a god.”
Then underneath a lowly roof he led
The weary prince, and laid him on a bed;
The stuffing leaves, with hides of bears o’erspread.
Now Night had shed her silver dews around,
And with her sable wings embrac’d the ground,
When love’s fair goddess, anxious for her son,
(New tumults rising, and new wars begun,)
Couch’d with her husband in his golden bed,
With these alluring words invokes his aid;
And, that her pleasing speech his mind may move,
Inspires each accent with the charms of love:
“While cruel fate conspir’d with Grecian pow’rs,
To level with the ground the Trojan tow’rs,
I ask’d not aid th’ unhappy to restore,
Nor did the succor of thy skill implore;
Nor urg’d the labors of my lord in vain,
A sinking empire longer to sustain,
Tho’ much I ow’d to Priam’s house, and more
The dangers of Æneas did deplore.
But now, by Jove’s command, and fate’s decree,
His race is doom’d to reign in Italy:
With humble suit I beg thy needful art,
O still propitious pow’r, that rules my heart!
A mother kneels a suppliant for her son.
By Thetis and Aurora thou wert won
To forge impenetrable shields, and grace
With fated arms a less illustrious race.
Behold, what haughty nations are combin’d
Against the relics of the Phrygian kind,
With fire and sword my people to destroy,
And conquer Venus twice, in conqu’ring Troy.”
She said; and straight her arms, of snowy hue,
About her unresolving husband threw.
Her soft embraces soon infuse desire;
His bones and marrow sudden warmth inspire;
And all the godhead feels the wonted fire.
Not half so swift the rattling thunder flies,
Or forky lightnings flash along the skies.
The goddess, proud of her successful wiles,
And conscious of her form, in secret smiles.


  Then thus the pow’r, obnoxious to her charms,
Panting, and half dissolving in her arms:
“Why seek you reasons for a cause so just,
Or your own beauties or my love distrust?
Long since, had you requir’d my helpful hand,
Th’ artificer and art you might command,
To labor arms for Troy: nor Jove, nor fate,
Confin’d their empire to so short a date.
And, if you now desire new wars to wage,
My skill I promise, and my pains engage.
Whatever melting metals can conspire,
Or breathing bellows, or the forming fire,
Is freely yours: your anxious fears remove,
And think no task is difficult to love.”
Trembling he spoke; and, eager of her charms,
He snatch’d the willing goddess to his arms;
Till in her lap infus’d, he lay possess’d
Of full desire, and sunk to pleasing rest.
Now when the Night her middle race had rode,
And his first slumber had refresh’d the god—
The time when early housewives leave the bed;
When living embers on the hearth they spread,
Supply the lamp, and call the maids to rise—
With yawning mouths, and with half-open’d eyes,
They ply the distaff by the winking light,
And to their daily labor add the night:
Thus frugally they earn their children’s bread,
And uncorrupted keep the nuptial bed—
Not less concern’d, nor at a later hour,
Rose from his downy couch the forging pow’r.

  Sacred to Vulcan’s name, an isle there lay,
Betwixt Sicilia’s coasts and Lipare,
Rais’d high on smoking rocks; and, deep below,
In hollow caves the fires of Ætna glow.
The Cyclops here their heavy hammers deal;
Loud strokes, and hissings of tormented steel,
Are heard around; the boiling waters roar,
And smoky flames thro’ fuming tunnels soar.
Hether the Father of the Fire, by night,
Thro’ the brown air precipitates his flight.
On their eternal anvils here he found
The brethren beating, and the blows go round.
A load of pointless thunder now there lies
Before their hands, to ripen for the skies:
These darts, for angry Jove, they daily cast;
Consum’d on mortals with prodigious waste.
Three rays of writhen rain, of fire three more,
Of winged southern winds and cloudy store
As many parts, the dreadful mixture frame;
And fears are added, and avenging flame.
Inferior ministers, for Mars, repair
His broken axletrees and blunted war,
And send him forth again with furbish’d arms,
To wake the lazy war with trumpets’ loud alarms.
The rest refresh the scaly snakes that fold
The shield of Pallas, and renew their gold.
Full on the crest the Gorgon’s head they place,
With eyes that roll in death, and with distorted face.

  “My sons,” said Vulcan, “set your tasks aside;
Your strength and master-skill must now be tried.
Arms for a hero forge; arms that require
Your force, your speed, and all your forming fire.”
He said. They set their former work aside,
And their new toils with eager haste divide.
A flood of molten silver, brass, and gold,
And deadly steel, in the large furnace roll’d;
Of this, their artful hands a shield prepare,
Alone sufficient to sustain the war.
Sev’n orbs within a spacious round they close:
One stirs the fire, and one the bellows blows.
The hissing steel is in the smithy drown’d;
The grot with beaten anvils groans around.
By turns their arms advance, in equal time;
By turns their hands descend, and hammers chime.
They turn the glowing mass with crooked tongs;
The fiery work proceeds, with rustic songs.

  While, at the Lemnian god’s command, they urge
Their labors thus, and ply th’ Æolian forge,
The cheerful morn salutes Evander’s eyes,
And songs of chirping birds invite to rise.
He leaves his lowly bed: his buskins meet
Above his ankles; sandals sheathe his feet:
He sets his trusty sword upon his side,
And o’er his shoulder throws a panther’s hide.
Two menial dogs before their master press’d.
Thus clad, and guarded thus, he seeks his kingly guest.
Mindful of promis’d aid, he mends his pace,
But meets Æneas in the middle space.
Young Pallas did his father’s steps attend,
And true Achates waited on his friend.
They join their hands; a secret seat they choose;
Th’ Arcadian first their former talk renews:
“Undaunted prince, I never can believe
The Trojan empire lost, while you survive.
Command th’ assistance of a faithful friend;
But feeble are the succors I can send.
Our narrow kingdom here the Tiber bounds;
That other side the Latian state surrounds,
Insults our walls, and wastes our fruitful grounds.
But mighty nations I prepare, to join
Their arms with yours, and aid your just design.
You come, as by your better genius sent,
And fortune seems to favor your intent.
Not far from hence there stands a hilly town,
Of ancient building, and of high renown,
Torn from the Tuscans by the Lydian race,
Who gave the name of Cære to the place,
Once Agyllina call’d. It flourish’d long,
In pride of wealth and warlike people strong,
Till curs’d Mezentius, in a fatal hour,
Assum’d the crown, with arbitrary pow’r.
What words can paint those execrable times,
The subjects’ suff’rings, and the tyrant’s crimes!
That blood, those murthers, O ye gods, replace
On his own head, and on his impious race!
The living and the dead at his command
Were coupled, face to face, and hand to hand,
Till, chok’d with stench, in loath’d embraces tied,
The ling’ring wretches pin’d away and died.
Thus plung’d in ills, and meditating more—
The people’s patience, tir’d, no longer bore
The raging monster; but with arms beset
His house, and vengeance and destruction threat.
They fire his palace: while the flame ascends,
They force his guards, and execute his friends.
He cleaves the crowd, and, favor’d by the night,
To Turnus’ friendly court directs his flight.
By just revenge the Tuscans set on fire,
With arms, their king to punishment require:
Their num’rous troops, now muster’d on the strand,
My counsel shall submit to your command.
Their navy swarms upon the coasts; they cry
To hoist their anchors, but the gods deny.
An ancient augur, skill’d in future fate,
With these foreboding words restrains their hate:
‘Ye brave in arms, ye Lydian blood, the flow’r
Of Tuscan youth, and choice of all their pow’r,
Whom just revenge against Mezentius arms,
To seek your tyrant’s death by lawful arms;
Know this: no native of our land may lead
This pow’rful people; seek a foreign head.’
Aw’d with these words, in camps they still abide,
And wait with longing looks their promis’d guide.
Tarchon, the Tuscan chief, to me has sent
Their crown, and ev’ry regal ornament:
The people join their own with his desire;
And all my conduct, as their king, require.
But the chill blood that creeps within my veins,
And age, and listless limbs unfit for pains,
And a soul conscious of its own decay,
Have forc’d me to refuse imperial sway.
My Pallas were more fit to mount the throne,
And should, but he’s a Sabine mother’s son,
And half a native; but, in you, combine
A manly vigor, and a foreign line.
Where Fate and smiling Fortune shew the way,
Pursue the ready path to sov’reign sway.
The staff of my declining days, my son,
Shall make your good or ill success his own;
In fighting fields from you shall learn to dare,
And serve the hard apprenticeship of war;
Your matchless courage and your conduct view,
And early shall begin t’ admire and copy you.
Besides, two hundred horse he shall command;
Tho’ few, a warlike and well-chosen band.
These in my name are listed; and my son
As many more has added in his own.”

  Scarce had he said; Achates and his guest,
With downcast eyes, their silent grief express’d;
Who, short of succors, and in deep despair,
Shook at the dismal prospect of the war.
But his bright mother, from a breaking cloud,
To cheer her issue, thunder’d thrice aloud;
Thrice forky lightning flash’d along the sky,
And Tyrrhene trumpets thrice were heard on high.
Then, gazing up, repeated peals they hear;
And, in a heav’n serene, refulgent arms appear:
Redd’ning the skies, and glitt’ring all around,
The temper’d metals clash, and yield a silver sound.
The rest stood trembling, struck with awe divine;
Æneas only, conscious to the sign,
Presag’d th’ event, and joyful view’d, above,
Th’ accomplish’d promise of the Queen of Love.
Then, to th’ Arcadian king: “This prodigy
(Dismiss your fear) belongs alone to me.
Heav’n calls me to the war: th’ expected sign
Is giv’n of promis’d aid, and arms divine.
My goddess mother, whose indulgent care
Foresaw the dangers of the growing war,
This omen gave, when bright Vulcanian arms,
Fated from force of steel by Stygian charms,
Suspended, shone on high: she then foreshow’d
Approaching fights, and fields to float in blood.
Turnus shall dearly pay for faith forsworn;
And corps, and swords, and shields, on Tiber borne,
Shall choke his flood: now sound the loud alarms;
And, Latian troops, prepare your perjur’d arms.”

  He said, and, rising from his homely throne,
The solemn rites of Hercules begun,
And on his altars wak’d the sleeping fires;
Then cheerful to his household gods retires;
There offers chosen sheep. Th’ Arcadian king
And Trojan youth the same oblations bring.
Next, of his men and ships he makes review;
Draws out the best and ablest of the crew.
Down with the falling stream the refuse run,
To raise with joyful news his drooping son.
Steeds are prepar’d to mount the Trojan band,
Who wait their leader to the Tyrrhene land.
A sprightly courser, fairer than the rest,
The king himself presents his royal guest:
A lion’s hide his back and limbs infold,
Precious with studded work, and paws of gold.
Fame thro’ the little city spreads aloud
Th’ intended march, amid the fearful crowd:
The matrons beat their breasts, dissolve in tears,
And double their devotion in their fears.
The war at hand appears with more affright,
And rises ev’ry moment to the sight.

  Then old Evander, with a close embrace,
Strain’d his departing friend; and tears o’erflow his face.
“Would Heav’n,” said he, “my strength and youth recall,
Such as I was beneath Præneste’s wall;
Then when I made the foremost foes retire,
And set whole heaps of conquer’d shields on fire;
When Herilus in single fight I slew,
Whom with three lives Feronia did endue;
And thrice I sent him to the Stygian shore,
Till the last ebbing soul return’d no more—
Such if I stood renew’d, not these alarms,
Nor death, should rend me from my Pallas’ arms;
Nor proud Mezentius, thus unpunish’d, boast
His rapes and murthers on the Tuscan coast.
Ye gods, and mighty Jove, in pity bring
Relief, and hear a father and a king!
If fate and you reserve these eyes, to see
My son return with peace and victory;
If the lov’d boy shall bless his father’s sight;
If we shall meet again with more delight;
Then draw my life in length; let me sustain,
In hopes of his embrace, the worst of pain.
But if your hard decrees—which, O! I dread—
Have doom’d to death his undeserving head;
This, O this very moment, let me die!
While hopes and fears in equal balance lie;
While, yet possess’d of all his youthful charms,
I strain him close within these aged arms;
Before that fatal news my soul shall wound!”
He said, and, swooning, sunk upon the ground.
His servants bore him off, and softly laid
His languish’d limbs upon his homely bed.

  The horsemen march; the gates are open’d wide;
Æneas at their head, Achates by his side.
Next these, the Trojan leaders rode along;
Last follows in the rear th’ Arcadian throng.
Young Pallas shone conspicuous o’er the rest;
Gilded his arms, embroider’d was his vest.
So, from the seas, exerts his radiant head
The star by whom the lights of heav’n are led;
Shakes from his rosy locks the pearly dews,
Dispels the darkness, and the day renews.
The trembling wives the walls and turrets crowd,
And follow, with their eyes, the dusty cloud,
Which winds disperse by fits, and shew from far
The blaze of arms, and shields, and shining war.
The troops, drawn up in beautiful array,
O’er heathy plains pursue the ready way.
Repeated peals of shouts are heard around;
The neighing coursers answer to the sound,
And shake with horny hoofs the solid ground.

  A greenwood shade, for long religion known,
Stands by the streams that wash the Tuscan town,
Incompass’d round with gloomy hills above,
Which add a holy horror to the grove.
The first inhabitants of Grecian blood,
That sacred forest to Silvanus vow’d,
The guardian of their flocks and fields; and pay
Their due devotions on his annual day.
Not far from hence, along the river’s side,
In tents secure, the Tuscan troops abide,
By Tarchon led. Now, from a rising ground,
Æneas cast his wond’ring eyes around,
And all the Tyrrhene army had in sight,
Stretch’d on the spacious plain from left to right.
Thether his warlike train the Trojan led,
Refresh’d his men, and wearied horses fed.

  Meantime the mother goddess, crown’d with charms,
Breaks thro’ the clouds, and brings the fated arms.
Within a winding vale she finds her son,
On the cool river’s banks, retir’d alone.
She shews her heav’nly form without disguise,
And gives herself to his desiring eyes.
“Behold,” she said, “perform’d in ev’ry part,
My promise made, and Vulcan’s labor’d art.
Now seek, secure, the Latian enemy,
And haughty Turnus to the field defy.”
She said; and, having first her son embrac’d,
The radiant arms beneath an oak she plac’d,
Proud of the gift, he roll’d his greedy sight
Around the work, and gaz’d with vast delight.
He lifts, he turns, he poises, and admires
The crested helm, that vomits radiant fires:
His hands the fatal sword and corslet hold,
One keen with temper’d steel, one stiff with gold:
Both ample, flaming both, and beamy bright;
So shines a cloud, when edg’d with adverse light.
He shakes the pointed spear, and longs to try
The plated cuishes on his manly thigh;
But most admires the shield’s mysterious mold,
And Roman triumphs rising on the gold:
For these, emboss’d, the heav’nly smith had wrought
(Not in the rolls of future fate untaught)
The wars in order, and the race divine
Of warriors issuing from the Julian line.
The cave of Mars was dress’d with mossy greens:
There, by the wolf, were laid the martial twins.
Intrepid on her swelling dugs they hung;
The foster dam loll’d out her fawning tongue:
They suck’d secure, while, bending back her head,
She lick’d their tender limbs, and form’d them as they fed.
Not far from thence new Rome appears, with games
Projected for the rape of Sabine dames.
The pit resounds with shrieks; a war succeeds,
For breach of public faith, and unexampled deeds.
Here for revenge the Sabine troops contend;
The Romans there with arms the prey defend.
Wearied with tedious war, at length they cease;
And both the kings and kingdoms plight the peace.
The friendly chiefs before Jove’s altar stand,
Both arm’d, with each a charger in his hand:
A fatted sow for sacrifice is led,
With imprecations on the perjur’d head.
Near this, the traitor Metius, stretch’d between
Four fiery steeds, is dragg’d along the green,
By Tullus’ doom: the brambles drink his blood,
And his torn limbs are left the vulture’s food.
There, Porsena to Rome proud Tarquin brings,
And would by force restore the banish’d kings.
One tyrant for his fellow-tyrant fights;
The Roman youth assert their native rights.
Before the town the Tuscan army lies,
To win by famine, or by fraud surprise.
Their king, half-threat’ning, half-disdaining stood,
While Cocles broke the bridge, and stemm’d the flood.
The captive maids there tempt the raging tide,
Scap’d from their chains, with Cloelia for their guide.
High on a rock heroic Manlius stood,
To guard the temple, and the temple’s god.
Then Rome was poor; and there you might behold
The palace thatch’d with straw, now roof’d with gold.
The silver goose before the shining gate
There flew, and, by her cackle, sav’d the state.
She told the Gauls’ approach; th’ approaching Gauls,
Obscure in night, ascend, and seize the walls.
The gold dissembled well their yellow hair,
And golden chains on their white necks they wear.
Gold are their vests; long Alpine spears they wield,
And their left arm sustains a length of shield.
Hard by, the leaping Salian priests advance;
And naked thro’ the streets the mad Luperci dance,
In caps of wool; the targets dropp’d from heav’n.
Here modest matrons, in soft litters driv’n,
To pay their vows in solemn pomp appear,
And odorous gums in their chaste hands they bear.
Far hence remov’d, the Stygian seats are seen;
Pains of the damn’d, and punish’d Catiline
Hung on a rock—the traitor; and, around,
The Furies hissing from the nether ground.
Apart from these, the happy souls he draws,
And Cato’s holy ghost dispensing laws.

  Betwixt the quarters flows a golden sea;
But foaming surges there in silver play.
The dancing dolphins with their tails divide
The glitt’ring waves, and cut the precious tide.
Amid the main, two mighty fleets engage
Their brazen beaks, oppos’d with equal rage.
Actium surveys the well-disputed prize;
Leucate’s wat’ry plain with foamy billows fries.
Young Cæsar, on the stern, in armor bright,
Here leads the Romans and their gods to fight:
His beamy temples shoot their flames afar,
And o’er his head is hung the Julian star.
Agrippa seconds him, with prosp’rous gales,
And, with propitious gods, his foes assails:
A naval crown, that binds his manly brows,
The happy fortune of the fight foreshows.
Rang’d on the line oppos’d, Antonius brings
Barbarian aids, and troops of Eastern kings;
Th’ Arabians near, and Bactrians from afar,
Of tongues discordant, and a mingled war:
And, rich in gaudy robes, amidst the strife,
His ill fate follows him—th’ Egyptian wife.
Moving they fight; with oars and forky prows
The froth is gather’d, and the water glows.
It seems, as if the Cyclades again
Were rooted up, and justled in the main;
Or floating mountains floating mountains meet;
Such is the fierce encounter of the fleet.
Fireballs are thrown, and pointed jav’lins fly;
The fields of Neptune take a purple dye.
The queen herself, amidst the loud alarms,
With cymbals toss’d her fainting soldiers warms—
Fool as she was! who had not yet divin’d
Her cruel fate, nor saw the snakes behind.
Her country gods, the monsters of the sky,
Great Neptune, Pallas, and Love’s Queen defy:
The dog Anubis barks, but barks in vain,
Nor longer dares oppose th’ ethereal train.
Mars in the middle of the shining shield
Is grav’d, and strides along the liquid field.
The Diræ souse from heav’n with swift descent;
And Discord, dyed in blood, with garments rent,
Divides the prease: her steps Bellona treads,
And shakes her iron rod above their heads.
This seen, Apollo, from his Actian height,
Pours down his arrows; at whose winged flight
The trembling Indians and Egyptians yield,
And soft Sabæans quit the wat’ry field.
The fatal mistress hoists her silken sails,
And, shrinking from the fight, invokes the gales.
Aghast she looks, and heaves her breast for breath,
Panting, and pale with fear of future death.
The god had figur’d her as driv’n along
By winds and waves, and scudding thro’ the throng.
Just opposite, sad Nilus opens wide
His arms and ample bosom to the tide,
And spreads his mantle o’er the winding coast,
In which he wraps his queen, and hides the flying host.
The victor to the gods his thanks express’d,
And Rome, triumphant, with his presence bless’d.
Three hundred temples in the town he plac’d;
With spoils and altars ev’ry temple grac’d.
Three shining nights, and three succeeding days,
The fields resound with shouts, the streets with praise,
The domes with songs, the theaters with plays.
All altars flame: before each altar lies,
Drench’d in his gore, the destin’d sacrifice.
Great Cæsar sits sublime upon his throne,
Before Apollo’s porch of Parian stone;
Accepts the presents vow’d for victory,
And hangs the monumental crowns on high.
Vast crowds of vanquish’d nations march along,
Various in arms, in habit, and in tongue.
Here, Mulciber assigns the proper place
For Carians, and th’ ungirt Numidian race;
Then ranks the Thracians in the second row,
With Scythians, expert in the dart and bow.
And here the tam’d Euphrates humbly glides,
And there the Rhine submits her swelling tides,
And proud Araxes, whom no bridge could bind;
The Danes’ unconquer’d offspring march behind,
And Morini, the last of humankind.

  These figures, on the shield divinely wrought,
By Vulcan labor’d, and by Venus brought,
With joy and wonder fill the hero’s thought.
Unknown the names, he yet admires the grace,

And bears aloft the fame and fortune of his race.
 

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