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From The Silvae of Statius translated with Introduction and Notes, by D. A. Slater; Oxford: The Clarendon Press; 1908; pp. 170-181.



I    Si manus aut similis

Statius consoles Abascantus for the loss of his wife Priscilla.

IF my hands had aptitude to mould effigies in wax, or upon ivory or gold to stamp a living likeness, — from such a work, Priscilla, I had imagined some welcome solace for thy lord: since surely his matchless loyalty deserves that thy features should be portrayed by the tints of an Apelles, or that the hand of a Pheidias should give thee fresh birth, and restore thee to him in his sorrow. So yearningly does he strive to rescue thy shade from the grave, so fiercely struggle against Death, wearying the efforts of artists and seeking to have thy presentment in all metals to cherish. But the beauty which dexterous hands fashion with toil, must pass away: the homage that in deathless numbers my lyre would pay to thee, O peerless lady of honoured lord, will live and never know the oblivion of decay, if but Apollo be gracious and Caesar refuse not who at Apollo’s side comes ever to aid me: — no monument of thee shall be more precious.

Late is the leechcraft set on foot to help that agony of grief, for already in his gliding course another Sun is speeding on yet another year. But when the blow was fresh, and the wound raw, when the house was 171 darkened with lamentation, say,1 what avenue was there, then, to the widowed husband’s grief-stricken ears? Then tears and rendering of robes were his only solace: then but to weary the hireling crowd, to out-sorrow sorrow, and with passionate laments to assail Fate and the gods for their injustice. Though Orpheus, whom stream and forest followed, had come to ease his sorrow, though all the Muses had attended upon their sister Calliope’s son and all the prophets of Apollo and of Bacchus had surrounded the melodist, naught had strain or string, to which the gods of wan Avernus and the snake-tressed Furies hearkened, availed to soothe: so overmastering was the anguish that held sway in his stricken heart. Can it be that even now while I sing, the wound, though scarred over, still shrinks at the dirge, and the big tears of nuptial love rise and oppress his eyes? Are those lashes still wet with drops of loyal sorrow? ’Tis wondrous and yet true! Sooner (so runs the tale) did that bereaved mother on Sipylus drain dry her eyes: sooner will the dews of anguish fail Tithonis: sooner will the mother of Achilles be sated and weary with dashing her storms in sorrow upon his tomb. Honour to thy heart! Not unmarked is thy love by the god who, nigher unto us than Jove, holds the reins of the whole world and orders our going; he sees thy tears: yes, and even draws therefrom secret testimony to his chosen vice-gerent, inasmuch as thou art true to her shade, and dost honour her obsequies. Where could there be chaster passion? 172 Where a love that our lord and censor could more approve?

What wonder that a lifelong Harmony knit together your hearts and coupled you fast with an unbroken tie? For though she had known an earlier bridal and espousals to another lord, yet, as if she had come to thee a maiden, with all her heart and soul she slung to thee and cherished thee: even as a lusty vine is wedded with the elm in his prime: see, the elm caresses her and intertwines his leafage with hers, and prays for a rich autumn, and rejoices when he is wreathed with the beloved clusters. Those wives are praised for lineage or for dower of loveliness who have never had the treasure of loyalty; whose dignities lack sterling honour; for thee, though thy stock was stainless and thine the grace of happy beauty for which all lovers needs must long, yet in thine own self was greater lustre, that thou knewest one love only, and in thine inmost marrow didst maintain one flame alone. Love such as thine no Phrygian marauder e’er had debauched, nor Ithacensian suitors, nor that adulterer who used his Mycenaean gold to bring dishonour on his brother’s wedded wife. Though the tempter made proffer to Priscilla of Babylon’s wealth, or of Lydia’s massy treasure, of the royal store of Cathay or of India and Arabia, she had chosen rather in chaste penury to die unsullied and barter life for honour. Yet never puritan frown clouded her brown, nor was excess of sternness in her heart: she was simple and gay in her loyalty, and mingled modesty with grace. 173 But had ever doubting fear for thee beckoned her to some great hazard, blithely, to save her lord, she would have faced even an armed host or lightning bolt or jeopardy of mid-ocean. Better, that adversity never proved, Priscilla, how thou couldst turn pale for thy husband, how thou cherishedst thy troth. By a happier path, night and day a suppliant of the gods, bending the knee in entreaty at every shrine and worshipping our mighty Ruler’s gentle presence, thou didst with thy vows win heaven’s favour for thy lord.

Thy prayer was heard; and with favouring steps Fortune drew near. For he marked his loyal soldier’s industrious retirement and stainless truth, the heart girt up for hardship, the watchful mind, the temperate strength fit to unravel high questions of state, — he saw, who knows all the secrets of his people and posts well-tried servants to keep watch over every quarter. And no wonder. He marks East and West, the doings of the South and of the wintry North, reviewing counsels of war and of peace, and searching the very hearts of men. He set his yoke upon those shoulders, and laid on Abascantus a heavy burden, a charge wellnigh past handling, — for in his majesty’s house is none more manifold, — even to send far and wide over the great globe the hests of Rome’s Ruler; to have in hand and to control all the strength of the Empire; to unfold the tale of Northern triumph, the tribute of Rhenish hosts, of the roving Euphrates and of Ister’s banks of the double name; and how the ends of the earth have yielded, and Thule, round whose shores moans the 174 refluent wave; whether all our halberts are crowned with blithe laurels, and not a lance darkened with the pennon of disgrace; to tell, too, — if the Master divide his trusty swordsmen, — who is the man to lead a company, — a knight among the foot, — who to command a cohort; who is fit for the high rank of distinguished tribune, and who is worthier to be general of the squadrons of horse; aye, and to forecast a thousand chances; — Has the Nile flooded his fields? or Libya sweated beneath the rainy South-wind? Should I recount the full tale, not Tegea’s winged lord with herald wand reports message more manifold from the stars on high, nor Juno’s handmaid who swoops through the lucent air and whips her arc of gay colours round the sky; nor Fame, that, freighted with the laurels of Germanicus, outstrips the day and leaves the Arcadian lagging behind beneath the stars, and Thaumantis outpaced in mid-heaven.

What joy, Priscilla, gods and men read on thy countenance that happy day, when first thy husband was preferred to his high employ! What bliss attended that feast of thine,2 whereat with overflowing heart thou madest eager obeisance, prostrate at the knees of the hallowed Lord himself3 who had deserved of thee so well! Not with such rapture does the priestess exult upon the Aonian hill, to whom our father of 175 Delos has given power over the chasms of his mysterious cave: nor he on whom Bacchus bestows the honourable right to wield his chief wand and to bear the standard of his inspired hand. Yet not even then did thy repose suffer change, nor was thy true heart puffed up by prosperity. Thy soul held on the same path: the heyday of fortune took not away thy meekness. Still did Priscilla anxiously cherish her careworn lord, now heartening and now guiding his labours. With her own hands she ministered the modest feast, the temperate cup, counselling him to follow in his Ruler’s steps: she was like some thrifty farmer’s Apulian helpmate tanned by Sabine suns, who, as the stars peep forth, sees that it is the hour for her tired husband’s home-coming, and in haste makes ready board and bed and listens for the sound of his returning plough. Nay, that is but meagre praise: why, she would have borne thee company through the frozen North, on Danube bank and in wintry Sarmatia; and by the pale frosts of Rhine; no clime so sultry but she had hardened her heart to endure it with thee. If camp-law allowed, her will had been to bear the quiver and fence her flank with the shield of an Amazon, so might she but see thee in the dust-storm of battle, pressing hard upon Caesar’s lightning charger, brandishing thy godlike weapons4, sprinkled 176 with sweat from the great lance. Enough of gracious song! Now must I lay aside the bays of Phoebus and to sad cypress doom my brow.

Alas, what god hath knit together Greatness and Envy in unpeaceable brotherhood? By whose hest is it that these twin powers wage truceless war? Is there no house whereon Greatness hath set her mark but straightway Envy must eye it askance and with fell stroke rout its joy? Blithe and secure your home prospered. No sadness there: for, fickle though Fortune be and wanton, how could you fear her, with Caesar your staunch friend? The jealous Fates found out a way; a deadly force pierced to the loyal hearth. Even so the full vineyards are scourged by the blighting sirocco; even so bows the deep cornfield beneath the overwhelming rain; even so the jealous breeze meets the hurrying bark and breaks in storm-clouds over her swelling sails. Priscilla felt her matchless beauty wasting away by Fate’s decree, as the leaves of some tall pine-tree fade, — a forest’s pride, — whether Jove’s deadly lightning hath touched it, or its roots are loosened, and now stripped bare it whispers not in answer to the whispering wind. Upright heart and stainless loyalty, and worship of the gods, — all were in vain. Alas! the dark snares of death compassed her about on every side: the merciless warp of the Sisters strained taut: scant threads of her span remained to run. Neither troops of slaves nor careful skill of the physicians availed to heal the sickness. Yet her attendants round about counterfeited looks of hope: 177 only in her husband’s eyes did she remark tears. He would not vainly entreat the incorruptible waters of Lethe in the underworld; and now shed anxious tears before the altars of all the gods, anon imprint kisses on their gates and fling himself upon their thresholds; and now he would call unto great Caesar’s merciful godhead. Fie upon the stern bent of Fate! Is there then aught that is forbidden unto Caesar? Ah, if thou, Father, wert all-powerful, how had the years of men’s lives been prolonged! Death would be moaning, a prisoner in the blind abyss, and the idle Fates had laid far aside their threads.

And now her face fell, her eyes wavered in death’s extremity: her ears were dulled, save to her husband’s well-known voice. Him alone her spirit returned from the midst of death to greet: him with weak arms she straitly clasped, her poor glazed eyes turned upon him, fain to feast her sight with his dear face, rather than gaze her last upon the sun. Then, dying, to her heart’s true love she spoke these words of comfort: ‘Husband, in whom half my heart shall live, — and would God I might leave thee the years of which cruel Atropos is robbing me, — weep not, I pray thee: deal not harsh blows upon thy breast; torture not my shade at its passing. Though I leave my bower to sorrow inasmuch as I go first, yet is the due order kept: greater bliss has my life known than a long old age: I have seen thee now for a long while radiant with all honour: have seen thee draw nearer and nearer to the right hand of majesty. Neither the Fates, nor any of the Heavenly ones can touch thee now: 178 their spite I take with me. Do thou joyfully pursue the path thou hast entered; worship still with untiring adoration that hallowed presence, that mighty power. Now I bid thee (and welcome to thee the bidding), vow to the Capitoline temple a golden statue, — in weight a full hundred, — to wear for all time the bright presentment of the Emperor’s majesty, and to be a token of my true worship. So shall I not see the Furies nor evil Tartarus, but be suffered to pass, a favoured shade, into the confines of Elysium.

So spake she, sinking, and clasped her husband, and to his lips cheerfully resigned her lingering breath and pressed his hand upon her eyes.

But his heart was fevered with passionate sorrow. He filled the widowed home with frantic cries: now he would unsheathe the sword: nor hurry to a high place (scarce could his men hold him back), and now would bend him over the dead with lips pressed to hers, and fiercely give play to the passion hidden in his heart; even as that Odrysian bard, palsied to see his wife snatched from him,5 laid down his lute dumb-struck by Strymon and, with never a song, wept over her sad grave. Yes, and he would have broken the thread of his maimed6 life, that thou mightest not7 pass 179 companionless to the gloom below, but a loyalty to Rule, that claimed the wonder of our holy Emperor, and a yet greater love forbade.

Who could in worthy verse recount thy burial, the costly pomp, the grim array! There in long procession was gathered all the streaming fragrance of Arabian and Cilician spring; blossoms of Sheba, increase of India to burn on the grave; incense seized ere the temples of Palestine could claim it; Hebrew balsam and Corycian saffron and the myrrh of the daughter of Cinyras. High upon a silken bier she lay, underneath canopy of Tyrian purple. But in all that long array her husband alone drew men’s eyes; on him was bent the gaze of mighty Rome, as though he was bearing his sons to burial in their prime: such sorrow was upon his brow, such a gloom in his eyes and on his dishevelled hair. ‘Happy is she,’ men said, ‘and by a peaceful ending freed.’ It was for her husband that they let their tears flow.

Before the gates, at the place where the mighty Appia first takes her origin, and where Cybebe for Italian Almo’s sake abandons her grief and learns to forget the rivers of Ida, — this was the spot where thy peerless husband softly swathed thee in Sidonian purple and laid thee to rest, Priscilla, in a blissful grave. — Smoke of pyre and cries of farewell at the flames he could not endure. — There the long years cannot mar thee, nor the work of time waste thee; so carefully hath he guarded thy frame, such the wealth of fragrance that breathes from the worshipful marble. Anon thou art trans-fashioned 180 anew into divers shapes. Here thou standest a Ceres in bronze, there a radiant Ariadne, under yon cupola a Maia, and here in stone an unwanton Venus. The goddesses disdain not to wear thy comeliness. Around thee are troups of slaves, wont to obey; and duly couch and board are made ready without ceasing. Who could call this a gloomy grave? A home, a home is thine! Well may one cry forthwith at sight of thy husband’s loyalty: ‘This, this is he, — I know it, — the vice-gerent of him who even now has consecrated a holy dwelling for his eternal house, and in a fresh firmament set the stars of his kindred.’ Even so, — when from the Pharian shore some great ship shakes her steps free, and now, see! she has stretched out to starboard and to larboard her countless ropes and the broad arms of her sail-clad mast, and is already full under weigh, — over the same sea fares a tiny skiff and claims for itself a share of the illimitable South-wind.

Why dost thou still, O matchless friend, hug sorrow to thy heart without ceasing, and suffer not thy long-drawn grief to pass away? Canst thou fear that Priscilla will tremble at barking Cerberus? Nay, he has no menace for the good. Or that the Ferryman will be slow to approach, or else drive her from the ferry? Nay, he makes haste to take deserving souls across and gently places them in his hospitable skiff. Aye, and whensoever a ghost draws near that hath a true husband’s blessing, Proserpine bids festal torches forth, and from their hallowed grottos calls the Heroines of old to open a path through the grim gloom 181 with vermeil light, and strew before that shade the blossoms of Elysium. Such was the passing of Priscilla to the underworld. There with hands of entreaty she beseeches the Fates for thee, and wins for thee grace from the Lords of dark Avernus, that thou mayst fulfil the span of mortal life, and then, an old man, leave thy Master still young, still bringing peace to the world. So prays she, and the Sisters, who cannot lie, swear to grant her vow.


1  Line 19.  ‘miseram qui’ (Macnaghten).

2  Line 110.  ‘quaeque isti gaudia cenae.’*

3  Line 111 sqq.   ‘ipsius’ (as Imhof points out) belongs to ‘domini’. ‘Tendre épouse, ou flatteuse effontée, Priscilla s’est roulée aux pieds de Domitien, pour le remercier d’avoir fait son mari ministre de l’intérieur.’ — Nisard.

4  Line 133.  Professor Hardie explains the difficult expression divina tela thus: ‘The weapons of Caesar’s bodyguard are his; it shares his divinity.’ There seems to be an echo here of Thebaid, v. 441 sq.

5  Line 202.  Barth’s emendation is tempting but hardly necessary. For the use of ‘segnis’ Prof. Phillimore compares V. iii. 26.

6  Line 205.  ‘ille etiam fractae’ (Imhof).

7  Line 206 may conceivably have inspired the fine couplet quoted by Edgar Allen Poe from Bishop Ken’s verses to his dead wife: —

Stay for me there, I will not fail
To meet thee in that narrow vale!

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