The Seven Against Thebes

Though greatness drape the man of state, yet none
Can see the wishes of the gods undone.
Apollo swore that any son would kill
King Laius: such did Oedipus fulfill.
His sons each sought to steer the ship of state,
But could not countermand the will of Fate.
When Eteocles sat in Thebes as king,
A host against him did his brother bring.
He knew that if the city fell, he would
Deserve the blame, but if their cause was good,
It came from Zeus, the ruling God, whose sign
Is Good in all its form, the true divine;
By him they held the siege until the day
When they no longer could the battle stay.
Without a fire, the prophet of the birds
Brought warning, urging them with honest words:
Foresaw he well assault was planned that night:
The time had come for them to stand and fight.
So, Eteocles called the men to arms,
And sounded out through all the town alarms;
He bid them take up shield and spear and sword,
And urged them not to fear the foreign horde.
A messenger brought word to Eteocles
Of seven men who took oaths to Ares,
To Enyo, and to bloody, dreadful Fear
Against the city all their might to rear,
To lay it level with the dust, in haste,
Or make of all a barren, bloody waste.
Beseeching all the gods, the women wailed,
Whose hearts were weak, whose hope had quickly failed.
“Be silent!” Eteocles commanded,
But they could not be calmed or reprimanded;
They chattered shrilly, languishing in fear,
Unable even their own selves to steer.
The king commanded, yet went up their cries:
Such balefulness did Eteocles despise.
The messenger returned and said the host
Had chosen champions and each did boast;
He told their arms, for each one bore a shield;
Each countenance was fierce, and all were steeled,
And every one was set against a gate,
And sought to vent on Thebes their wrath and hate.
Like thunder did Tydeus shout with rage,
His foe with eagerness seeking to engage:
He chafed because the prophet bid him wait,
And so, he struck him to his anger sate.
He wore a helmet decked with plumes, and took
His shield in hand, and this with fury shook.
Upon the shield rang brazen bells of fear,
And on it did the sky with stars appear;
The center bore the Moon as though an eye
Looked out, beholding all from up on high.
But Eteocles stood firm and replied:
“No arms shall make me shake, and nothing spied
Upon a shield can wound, and if he die,
Then justly shall he lie under the sky.
And so I charge the son of Astacus,
That he, as champion, face Tydeus;
For he is not a coward, but he sprung
From Sown Men who shot up when earth was young.
“The gods grant him luck”, the herald replied,
Then told how by Electra’s gates was spied
Capaneus, a giant in his height,
Who breathes out monstrous threats in pride and spite.
He scorns the gods, declaring that he’ll sack
The city, even if God’s help should lack;
The bolt of Zeus he likens to the rays
Of sun at noontime; and his shield displays
A naked man, who bears a flaming torch,
All ready to burn down, destroy, and scorch;
‘I’ll burn the city’ does the shield declare,
Promising that there’s nothing he will spare.”
Eteocles declared the boast was vain,
And that to them it’d prove to be a gain;
For he declared his trust to be in Zeus,
Who that, no doubt, would let his bolt fly loose
And strike the man who boasted ‘gainst the king:
To face this one, a champion they’d bring;
Polyphontes, who was greatly favoured by
Artemis, and all of the gods on high.
Of Eteoclus, next the herald spoke,
Who did the fury of his horses stoke;
He wheeled them round, while bridle pipes did play,
And sounded out their breath; and his array
Was fearsome; for he also bore a shield,
Which he brandished and did with fury wield;
A man in armour on the shield appeared,
And climbed a ladder, which ‘gainst the walls was reared;
And he cried, “Ares shall not cast me down”,
Certain was he that he would take the town.
Before the herald ceased, already sent
By Eteocles, Megareus went;
Of the seed of Sown Men, and Creon’s son,
To face the champion he’d quickly run.
“He will not yield the gate, nor fear the horse,
But hold unto the end the rightful course.
He’ll do the deed his shield proclaims and take
Two men and too the city; for his stake
He’ll have their riches, and with them he’ll crown
His father’s house, when he has thrown him down.
Tell me now the next one who boasts in vain,
For we shall live to see all of them slain.”
The messenger declared “The fourth does hold
The gate near Onka Athena, where bold
And full of fury, he gives a mighty shout,
Hippomedon, of giant frame, and stout.
He twirls his shield as though it were a disk,
Confident in all, daring any risk;
Upon its face a sight so dreadful shows:
Typhon, from whose mouth a dark smoke bellows;
Around the rim, a mass of coiling snakes,
While he cries loudly and with bloodlust shakes.
Like Ares does he glory in the war;
He’ll raise a panic boasts he with a roar.”
But still the king was calm, and so, declared
That by Athena’s favour, they’d be spared.
“She will not suffer violence thus to reign;
She’ll hate the fiend and will his life disdain.”
He set Hyperbius to face in fight
This one; so it seemed wise in Hermes’ sight.
Hyperbius would bear Zeus on his shield,
That Hippomedon’s doom be surely sealed.
Each would face the other as mortal foes,
While the warring gods would clash in their blows.
For Zeus shall never fall, so he that waits
On Typhon shall be cast down by the Fates.
“The fifth, now, at the Northern gate, with spear,
He stands and swears, unchecked by any fear,
That he shall sack the town, though Zeus should try
To stop him, yet he shall the god defy.
Of a mountain mother has this one sprung,
His beard yet newly grown, still green and young.
A savage Gorgon look is on his face,
And forth he strides; with speed he sets his pace.
He also boasts and bears a shield of brass,
Which hurls an insult, bloody, gruesome, crass:
The Sphinx that ate men raw is carved thereon;
Her claws, they hold a Theban, and upon
The same shall most of all our arrows fall:
His shield shall serve him for a brazen wall.”
But Eteocles, unperturbed, replied
“May they themselves receive what they have cried;
The gods reward such an impious boast,
And overthrow their whole ungodly host!
We have one who boasts not, but does instead;
He will not stand for mischief to be bred
Within our gates, nor flow across our walls,
To tear down and destroy our hallowed halls.
He’ll suffer not the Sphinx to enter in,
Nor he that bears her to the battle win.
Actor will hammer her outside the gate:
On he who bears her, she will turn her hate.”
The herald, then, spoke of the sixth, whose state
Was warrior and prophet both, and great
He was. “His name is Amphiaraus,
Who stood shouting insults at Tydeus,
Reviling him, and saying ‘Murderer!
Of all the host, a dreadful destroyer!
A herald of the Furies, loving ill,
And evil, and delighting much to spill
The blood of men.’ And Polynices too,
He curses, saying he does evil brew;
To bring a foreign host to his native land,
To overthrow his gods with his own hand,
Is evil, so he calls your brother cursed;
And for his own life, he fears not the worst.
‘I shall make the soil fat with my own life’
Declares he, ready for the day of strife.
He brandishes his shield, but it is bare
Of all device, but yet you should beware:
For master not of the art of seeming
Is he, but rather of the art of being.
He worships the gods, and is therefore wise:
He’d be a fool who would this one despise.”
“What awful chance can join together they
Who are as different as night is from day!
The honest man with evil souls brings doom,
And only death within such fields can bloom.
How often has the just been caught and snared,
And when the city falls has not been spared,
Because he was with men of evil sort;
Or who was shipwrecked, never reaching port,
For he served aboard with an evil crew,
And died when God their vessel overthrew,”
Eteocles cried, then continued thus,
“So this prophet shall with the impious
Fall and perish, though he is wise and just;
For God shall bring them down into the dust.
I doubt that he shall even storm the gate,
Knowing that to fall fighting is his fate.
Apollo speaks what’s true or not at all:
They shall not prosper, but they’ll surely fall.
And yet, against him, we shall send a man,
Whose might shall best this foe, if any can.
Lasthenes has a young man’s strength; his eyes
Are sharp; his mind like old men, though, is wise.
But yet, from God comes failure or success;
Our cause, I trust, he shall see fit to bless.”
The herald then, with heavy heart, began
To tell Eteocles who was the man
That would assault the seventh gate; for black
Are the portents when blood does blood attack:
It was the brother of Eteocles,
Who stood to storm the gate, Polynices.
He cursed the city, all his former state,
For he was filled with unrelenting hate.
“He’s filled with rage and a most bitter spite;
He’s determined to face you in a fight.
He says he’ll meet, next to your corpse, his death,
And this he swears with every raging breath.
But if you live, then into banishment
He is determined will be your judgement.
He calls the gods of all his race, and prays
That they will judge his cause and be his stays.
He bears a newly fashioned shield in hand,
And all in gold on it does Justice stand;
She leads a warrior back to his home,
Where he no longer shall be forced to roam
In foreign lands. Now, choose you who to send
And from the fratricidal foe defend.”
Then, Eteocles sighed with deep despair
For how the gods had made his house to fare.
“O, how greatly cursed!” he, with sorrow, cried,
Though his countenance his despair belied;
He shed not a tear, but yet stood upright,
Stooping not beneath his sire’s curse and blight.
“We’ll soon know the truth of the golden letters
Written on his shield, or whether fetters
Shall be his end; for Justice never took
Him in hand before, nor gave him a look;
And I cannot believe she’ll take his cause,
In disregard of all established laws.
Who more than I has right to face this foe?
Bring me my arms, for I myself will go.”
The women, then, in anguish raised a cry,
Which no man could silence, though he might try,
And they besought the king to stay and let
Another go: on him the sword could wet
Itself with blood, but Eteocles refused:
He knew that after death he’d be abused
With evil words, if he forsook the good,
But fame he’d have if he did what he should.
Unmoved, he took the curse of Phoebus well,
Despite that his own doom it did foretell.
The women said that a bad victory
Was better than manslaying misery:
But from his purpose, he’d not be shaken,
Though by all the gods he was forsaken.
And, so he went, while they remained, forlorn,
While battle raged, and all the earth was torn;
The clash was fierce; the din discordant fell,
And those within knew not what it did spell.
In time, the messenger returned with news:
The town was safe, not one gate did they lose;
Their champions at six gates had prevailed
Against the enemies that had assailed,
But, at the final gate the brothers died;
For none could ever say that Phoebus lied:
Captain of Sevens at number seven,
He took all with all the might of heaven.
The ground had drunk its fill of that red flood
The warring brothers spilled, the royal blood.
Though Thebes had joy in this, her victory,
Yet, in their deaths, she reaped great misery.
The city had its rest from plague and war;
The curse of Oedipus vexed it no more;
The land did take her sons into its fold:
The brothers, dead, in graves, to ever hold.