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Tibullus: War is a crime perpetrated by hearts hardened like weapons

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace

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Tibullus: Elegies
Book I, Number XI
Translated by Theodore C. Williams

War is a Crime

Whoe’er first forged the terror-striking sword,
His own fierce heart had tempered like its blade.
What slaughter followed! Ah! what conflict wild!
What swifter journeys unto darksome death!
But blame not him! Ourselves have madly turned
On one another’s breasts that cunning edge
Wherewith he meant mere blood of beast to spill.

Gold makes our crime. No need for plundering war,
When bowls of beech-wood held the frugal feast.
No citadel was seen nor moated wall;
The shepherd chief led home his motley flock,
And slumbered free from care. Would I had lived
In that good, golden time; nor e’er had known
A mob in arms arrayed; nor felt my heart
Throb to the trumpet’s call! Now to the wars
I must away, where haply some chance foe
Bears now the blade my naked side shall feel.
Save me, dear Lares of my hearth and home!
Ye oft my childish steps did guard and bless,
As timidly beneath your seat they strayed.

Deem it no shame that hewn of ancient oak
Your simple emblems in my dwelling stand!
For so the pious generations gone
Revered your powers, and with offerings rude
To rough-hewn gods in narrow-built abodes,
Lived beautiful and honorable lives.
Did they not bring to crown your hallowed brows
Garlands of ripest corn, or pour new wine
In pure libation on the thirsty ground?
Oft on some votive day the father brought
The consecrated loaf, and close behind
His little daughter in her virgin palm
Bore honey bright as gold. O powers benign!
To ye once more a faithful servant prays
For safety! Let the deadly brazen spear
Pass harmless o’er my head! and I will slay
For sacrifice, with many a thankful song,
A swine and all her brood, while I, the priest,
Bearing the votive basket myrtle-bound,
Walk clothed in white, with myrtle in my hair.

Grant me but this! and he who can may prove
Mighty in arms and by the grace of Mars
Lay chieftains low; and let him tell the tale
To me who drink his health, while on the board
His wine-dipped finger draws, line after line,
Just how his trenches ranged! What madness dire
Bids men go foraging for death in war?
Our death is always near, and hour by hour,
With soundless step a little nearer draws.

What harvest down below, or vineyard green?
There Cerberus howls, and o’er the Stygian flood
The dark ship goes; while on the clouded shore
With hollow cheek and tresses lustreless,
Wanders the ghostly throng. O happier far
Some white-haired sire, among his children dear,
Beneath a lowly thatch! His sturdy son
Shepherds the young rams; he, his gentle ewes;
And oft at eve, his willing labor done,
His careful wife his weary limbs will bathe
From a full, steaming bowl. Such lot be mine!
So let this head grow gray, while I shall tell,
Repeating oft, the deeds of long ago!
Then may long Peace my country’s harvests bless!
Till then, let Peace on all our fields abide!
Bright-vestured Peace, who first beneath their yoke
Led oxen in the plough, who first the vine
Did nourish tenderly, and chose good grapes,
That rare old wine may pass from sire to son!
Peace! who doth keep the plow and harrow bright,
While rust on some forgotten shelf devours
The cruel soldier’s useless sword and shield.
From peaceful holiday with mirth and wine
The rustic, not half sober, driveth home
With wife and weans upon the lumbering wain.

But wars by Venus kindled ne’er have done;
The vanquished lass, with tresses rudely torn,
Of doors broke down, and smitten cheek complains;
And he, her victor-lover, weeps to see
How strong were his wild hands. But mocking Love
Teaches more angry words, and while they rave,
Sits with a smile between! O heart of stone!
O iron heart! that could thy sweetheart strike!
Ye gods avenge her! Is it not enough
To tear her soft robe from her limbs away,
And loose her knotted hair?—Enough, indeed,
To move her tears! Thrice happy is the wight
Whose frown some lovely mistress weeps to see!
But he who gives her blows!—Go, let him bear
A sword and spear! In exile let him be
From Venus’ mild domain! Come blessed Peace!
Come, holding forth thy blade of ripened corn!
Fill thy large lap with mellow fruits and fair!

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Translated by A.S. Kline as Book I, Number X

Make Peace Not War

Who was he, who first forged the fearful sword?
How iron-willed and truly made of iron he was!
Then slaughter was created, war was born to men.
then a quicker road was opened to dread death.
But perhaps it’s not the wretch’s fault we turn to evil
what he gave us to use on savage beasts?

That’s the curse of rich gold: there were no wars
when the beech-wood cup stood beside men’s plates.
There were no fortresses or fences, and the flock’s leader
sought sleep securely among the diverse sheep.
I might have lived then, Valgius, and not known
sad arms, or heard the trumpet with beating heart.
Now I’m dragged to war, and perhaps some enemy
already carries the spear that will pierce my side.
Lares of my fathers, save me: you are the same
that reared me, a little child running before your feet.
Don’t be ashamed that you’re made from ancient wood:
so you were when you lived in my grandfather’s house.
Then faith was better kept, when a wooden god
poorly dressed, stood in a narrow shrine.
He was placated, if someone offered the first grapes
or placed the garland of wheat-ears on his sacred head:
and whoever gained his wish brought the honey-cakes
himself, his little daughter behind, with the pure comb.
Turn the bronze spears away from me, Lares,
and (accept) a sacrifice of a hog from the full sty.
I will follow in pure clothing, carrying the basket
bound with myrtle, myrtle binding my own head.
So I may please you: let another be brave in war,
and topple hostile generals with Mars’ help,
then he can tell me his military deeds while I drink,
and draw his camp on the table with wine.
What madness to summon up dark Death by war!
It menaces us, and comes secretly on silent feet.
There are no cornfields down there, no trim vineyards,
only bold Cerberus, and the foul ferryman of Styx’s stream.
There, with eyeless sockets and scorched hair,
a pallid crowd wanders by the lakes of darkness.
No he’s more to be praised whom, blessed with children,
a long old age keeps occupied in his humble cottage.
He tends the sheep, and his son the lambs,
and his wife provides hot water for weary limbs.
So let me be, and may my head whiten with snowy temples,
and recall old things from ancient deeds.
Meanwhile let peace tend the fields. Bright peace first
bowed the oxen for ploughing under the curved yoke.
Peace nurtured the vines and laid up the juice of the grape
so the son’s wine might pour from the father’s jar.
Hoe and ploughshare gleam in peace, but rust seizes
the grim weapons of the cruel soldier in darkness.
The countryman drives home from the wood,
himself half-sober, with wife and children in his cart,
but then they summon love’s war, and the woman
bewails her torn hair and the broken doors.
The bruised girl weeps for her tender cheeks, but the victor
weeps himself that his hands were so strong in his madness.
And impudent Love supplies evil words to the quarrel,
and sits indifferent between the angry pair.
Ah, he’s stone and iron, whoever would strike his girl:
that action draws down the gods from the heavens.
let it be enough to have torn the thin cloth from her limbs,
enough to have disordered the arrangement of her hair,
enough to have caused her tears: he’s four times blessed
whose anger can make a tender girl weep.
But he whose hands are cruel, should carry shield and pike,
and stay far away from gentle Venus.
Then come, kindly Peace, hold the wheat-ear in your hand,
and let your radiant breast pour out fruits before us.

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