Astyages's Weblog

November 4, 2011

Virgil’s Aeneid, Part 30

Filed under: Virgil's Aeneid 30 — astyages @ 11:26 pm
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Virgil’s Aeneid

by

DL Rowlands

(Part 30)

Now came the desired day! The skies were bright with the rosy luster of the rising sun: the neighboring people, roused by the local gossip of Trojan feasts and the name of the great Acestes, fill the crowded shore with their acclamations, partly to behold, and partly to prove their skill. First they place their gifts on public display: green laurel wreaths and palms to grace the victors. Within the circle lie arms and tripods, ingots of gold and silver, piled in heaps and vests embroidered with Tyrian dye. The trumpets’ clangor then proclaims the feast and all prepare for their appointed games. First four galleys carrying an equal number of rowers appear, advancing in the watery lists. The speedy Dolphin, that outstrips the wind, bore Mnestheus, father of the Memnian line. Gyas commands the vast bulk of the Chimaera, which stands like a floating city with its rising towers, with three Trojans tugging at every oar, in three degrees and three banks the sailors bore the roar of the billows beneath the sturdy strokes of their oars.

Sergesthus, who began the Sergian race took the leading place in the great Centaur, while Cloanthus, who draws his Trojan blood from Cluentius, stood on the sea-green Scylla. Standing out to see, against the foaming shore, there stands a rock; covered by the waves in storms, but when it is clear even its lower parts are visible. In peace below the gentle waters flow, while the cormorants above lie basking in the sun. On this the hero fixed an oak in his sight, as a landmark to guide his mariners while to bear with this the seamen stretch their oars. Then they steer round the rock to return to their starting-point. The places among the crew were decided by lot. Resplendent above all the others were the leaders of each ship, in his Tyrian vestments. The common crew crowned their temples with wreaths made from poplar branches to shade their sweaty brows: Their naked shoulders shine, besmeared with oil. All take their seats and await the starting signal. They grip their oars and every panting breast is alternately raised by hopes and depressed with fears.

The clangor of the trumpet gives the signal and at once they start, advancing in a line: the sailors rend the starry skies with their shouts; lashed by their oars the smoky billows rise as the briny main sparkles and the vexed ocean fries. Exactly in time they row, with equal strokes; at once the brushing oars and the brazen prow dash up the sandy waves and open the depths below. No fiery courser in any chariot race invaded the field with half so swift a speed; no fierce driver lends the lash with more fury, and before the blow descends, bends his pliant body low to the wheels.

The crowd choose their pick from among the contestants and noisily discuss their hopes and fears; aiding their favored side with their eager shouts as their cries, murmurs and clamors mixed into a noisy hum which resounded from the woods to the hills. Amist the loud applause from the shore the race started: Gyas, outstripping the rest, gained an early lead, while Cloanthus, better manned, pursued him fast, but the size of the galley, with its numerous masts, checked his haste. The Centaur and the Dolphin advance in a line abreast as their sailors brush the sea with equal oars; now the mighty Centaur seems to lead and now the speedy Dolphin gets ahead; now, board to board the rival vessels row as the billows wash the skies and the ocean groans beneath. They reach the mark! Proud Gyas and his team ride in triumph; the victors of the main; but, steering round, he orders his pilot to stand more close to shore, skimming along the beach.

Menoetes heard the order, “Let others bear to sea!” but he feared this shore’s secret rocky shelves, and in his caution he sought the deep and still steered aloof. With louder cries the captain calls once more: “Bear to the rocky shore and shun the main!” As he spoke he saw the bold Cloanthus astern, draw near the shelvings. Betwixt the mark and him stood the Scylla, plowing the flood in a tighter turn as he passed the mark and, wheeling hard about, gained the lead. Gyas blasphemed the gods, devoutly swore, cried out for anger and tore his hair. Mindless of others’ lives, such was his rising rage, and careless of his own, he threw the trembling dotard to the deck, then he hoisted him up and threw him overboard as he seized the helm while his fellows cheered as he turned short, madly steering upon the shelves. With only his head visible above the waves, the plunging pilot, clogged with his clothes and cumbered with his years swims ashore and, now dripping wet, painfully climbs the cliff as the crowd that saw him fall and float again shout from the distant shore and laugh aloud to see his heaving breast disgorge the briny draught.

The crews of the following Centaur and Dolphin renew their vanished hopes of victory; while Gyas lags, they rekindle the race to reach the mark. Sergestheus takes the place as Mnestheus pursues, and as they turn around the mark, comes up not half his galley’s length behind. Then on deck he appears amidst his mates, cheering their drooping courage: “My friends, and before that, Hector’s followers, exert your vigor; tug the laboring oar; stretch to your strokes, my still unconquered crew, whom I drew from the flaming walls of Troy. Let me find in this, our common interest, that same strength of hand, that same courage of mind as when you stemmed the strong Malean flood and rowed over the Syrtes’ broken billows! I seek not to gain the foremost palm… Ah! No! That is hopeless; let those whom the gods ordain enjoy it! But to be last… the lags of all the race! At least you can redeem yourselves and me from that disgrace.”

Now, one and all, they tug against the sea; they row at the full stretch and shake the brazen prow. The sea beneath them sinks; their laboring sides are swelled, and sweat runs guttering down in tides. Chance aids their daring with an unhoped-for success; Sergesthus, eager to push his beak between the rival galley and the rock, locks in the unwieldy Centaur. The vessel struck and with the dreadful shock shivered her oars and broke her head. The trembling rowers arise from their banks and, anxious for themselves, renounce the prize. With iron poles they heave her off the shores and gather their floating oars from the sea. The crew of Mnestheus, with elated minds urge their success and call the willing winds as they ply their oars and cut their liquid way in larger compass on the roomy sea. As when the dove, roused in fright, forsakes her rocky hold and shakes her sounding wings, the cavern rings with clattering as she flies out, leaving her troubles behind her as she cleaves the skies: At first she flutters but at length she springs to smoother flight and shoots upon her wings: So Mnestheus cuts the sea in the Dolphin; and, flying with a momentum that assists his way, they soon pass Sergesthus in the Centaur, wedged in the rocky shoals and stuck fast, vainly imploring the victor’s aid as he tries to row with shattered oars.

Then Mnestheus bears down on Gyas and outstrips him; the ship, without a pilot, yields the prize. Unvanquished, Scylla now remains alone ahead of him and her he pursues, straining with all his strength as shouts arise from the favoring multitude to which applauding Echo replies. Shouts, wishes and applause run rattling through the skies. These clamors the Scylla hears with disdain, for they begrudge their competitors’ this praise and even more so the possibility of being robbed of their reward: Resolved to hold their own, they mend their pace; all obstinate to win the race or die in the attempt. Its morale lifted with their success, the Dolphin ran swiftly, for they can conquer, who believe they can. Both urge their oars and fortune supplies them both; and perhaps both would have shared an equal prize, but then Cloanthus stretches his hands out over the sea and demands succor from the watery powers: “Gods of the liquid realms on which I row! If you grant me the victor’s laurels I shall sacrifice a snow-white bull on your shore and his entrails, cast as an offering into the sea along with ruddy wine, thrown from golden goblets, shall return my gratitude for your gift.” The choir of nymphs, and Phorcus, with the virgin Panopea, heard his vow from below; and old Portunus, with his broad hand, gave the galley a mighty push which sped it, swift as a shaft or a winged wind, towards the land and, darting to the port, obtains the prize.

The herald summons all and then declares Cloanthus the winner of the naval games. The prince crowns the victor’s head with laurel and three fat steers are led to his vessel; the ship’s reward, with generous wine besides, along with sums of silver, which the crew divide amongst themselves. The leaders are distinguished from the crew; the victor is honored with a noble vestment, in which gold and purple each strive to outdo the other in the costliness of its needlework; there Ganymede is wrought with living art, chasing a trembling deer through Ida’s groves; breathless he seems, yet eager for the hunt, when in open view, the bird of Jove, diving on his prey, carries the boy off in his crooked talons. In vain, with gazing eyes and uplifted hands, his guards behold him soaring through the skies as barking dogs vainly pursue his flight.

Mnestheus was declared the second victor and shared the second prize: A coat of mail, once worn by the brave Demoleus, until the braver Aeneas tore it from his shoulders in single combat on the Trojan shore. This was ordained for Mnestheus to possess, for his defense in war and for ornament in peace. The gift was rich and glorious to behold, but it was so heavy due to the weight of its golden plates that two servants could scarce sustain the weight between them. Yet, even thus loaded, Demoleus had pursued and lightly seized the Trojan train. The third reward consisted of two goodly bowls of massy silver, richly wrought with prominent figures; and two brass caldrons brought from Dodona.

Thus rewarded by the hero, they all bind their conquering temples with purple bands. And now Sergesthus, clearing from the rock, brings back his shock-shattered galley. Forlorn she looked, without oars as, with encouragement shouted by the crowd, she made to shore; as when a snake, surprised upon the road has her body crushed by the load of the heavy wheels; or with a mortal wound, her belly is bruised and trodden into the ground, she crawls along in vain, with loosened coils; still fierce above, she brandishes her tongue; glares with her eyes and bristles with her scales, but trails her unsound parts grovelling behind her in the dust: So the Centaur tends slowly towards the port. But what she lacks in oars is amended by sails. Yet the prince, happy that his galley has been saved, rewards the unhappy chief with the beautiful Cretan slave, Pholoe, and her equally lovely twins.

***** ******* *******

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