The Plague, from Book Three of the Georgics

The Plague, from Book Three of the Georgics

A hellish season: out of a sickly sky,
That blazed with all of Harvest’s heat, it stirred.
It sent all creatures to their deaths, each herd,
All beasts both tame and wild, and in its wake
A pasture of pestilence, a poisoned lake.
There was no simple path to death: at first
All through the veins, there raged a blazing thirst
That shriveled the aching limbs; little by little,
A flood of watery dropsy dissolved the brittle
Bones away. Often a victim, who stands
At the altar for sacred rites, just as the bands
Of snow-white wool are placed about their head,
Among the sluggish acolytes, drops dead.
Or if the priest slays it in time, in turn
Entrails placed on the altars will not burn.
The seer, consulted, cannot make a reading:
The knife beneath is scarcely stained with bleeding,
Scant gore just blushes the sand’s surface. En masse,
Now young bulls perish in the luscious grass,
Or hard by full barns, surrender their sweet life.
Distemper falls on waggish dogs; run rife,
Cough shakes the swine; they choke on swollen throats.
The steed, prize racehorse, founders. Off his oats,
He won’t go through his paces, turns around
When brought to drink, and paws and paws the ground.
His ears droop, and break out in a clammy sweat
That comes and goes, such as the dying get.
His hide, parched stiff, resists the probing touch.
In the early days before death signs are such,
But if the illness gathers strength, their eyes
Go fiery, and the breath’s drawn in deep sighs,
Sometimes with a heavy moan, or in their throes,
Their flanks labor with long sobs. From the nose
Now drips black blood, the rough tongue blocks the throat.
Sometimes a wine-draught proved an antidote
Funneled down an inserted horn: what seemed
The last hope for the dying, was soon deemed
To speed them to their doom. The patients burned,
Though deathly ill, as hectic strength returned—
(May gods protect the pious and instead
So torture our enemies): they began to shred
Their own limbs with their naked teeth. Look how
The bull that steams beneath the stubborn plough
Collapses with a death moan; from his nose,
A froth of blood and foam. The ploughman goes,
Sorrowing, to unyoke the ox that grieves
A brother; stopping his work mid-way, he leaves
The share, stuck fast. No more will shady groves
Soothe that bovine soul, soft fields he loves,
Nor river, clear as amber in its banks,
Rolling over stones to seek the plain. His flanks
Grow flaccid, his dull eyes are darkness-drowned;
Beneath its weight, his neck droops to the ground.
What profit now his good works and his toil,
Dragging the plough to turn the heavy soil,
For him, who never injured his own health
With frequent banqueting, and Bacchus’ wealth
Of Massic wine:[1] they dine on simple fare,
His kind, on leaves and grass, for drink, they care
Only for fresh springs, swift streams, their sleep,
Untroubled by worry, is wholesome, sound and deep.

That was the only time when cows were scarce
For Juno’s rites; so men yoked mismatched pairs
Of wild ox to her chariot, to draw
It to her towering treasury. Left to claw
The earth with mattocks, men bury the grain
With their own fingernails, their own necks strain
Dragging the creaking carts; the hills are steep.
The wolf attempts no ambuscades of sheep
Close to the fold, nor prowls about the flocks
By night. He has been tamed by sharper shocks.
The skittish stags, the timid fallow deer
Now roam near dogs and houses without fear.
Now fishes, children of the deep, are found
Washed up on shore, like shipwrecked sailors, drowned.
To streams, unwontedly, the seals repair.
Death finds the viper, holed up in her lair
And the startled water snake, his scales on end.
To the very birds, the air is not a friend:
They drop headlong, leaving their life behind
Under the lofty clouds. Further, men find
A change of food no longer works its charm,
Doctors give up; the healing arts do harm—
The Chirons, the Melampuses, all fail.[2]
Tisiphone[3] is on the rampage, pale
From Stygian shade, released into the light,
Driving ahead of her Disease and Fright.
She lifts her ravening head, she’s on the rise
Day after day. The bleats, moos, crowded cries
Of flocks and herds go echoing through the rills,
The thirsty banks of rivers, gentle hills.
Now she deals death wholesale, the corpses pile
High in the stalls themselves, rotting with vile
Putrefaction, until the men discover
They need to dig pits for mass graves, and cover
The bodies with earth; the hides were useless, the meat
No boiling or roasting could make fit to eat.
They couldn’t even shear the filthy fleeces
Riddled with sores, the putrid warp fell to pieces
At a touch; should anyone wear the cloth, he met
With a burning rash, his limbs ran with sour sweat.
Not long to wait now till his afflicted frame
Was eaten up by the accursed flame.
[Translated from the Latin by A. E. Stallings]
[1] A prized vintage, grown on the slopes of Monte Massico.

[2] Chiron and Melampus are legendary healers from myth, here standing for doctors and veterinarians in general. Chiron was the centaur who taught Achilles among other heroes. His being half horse/half human perhaps makes him especially suitable as healer of both animals and people. Melampus was a seer, who introduced the worship of Dionysus, and a healer, including of madness. He also had the ability to understand the language of animals.

[3] Tisiphone (“She Who Avenges Murder”), is one of the Furies. Her normal haunt is the “Stygian” underworld.