Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.95-114: dum spatium victor victi considerat hostis

by Tom Gardner

Dum spatium victor victi considerat hostis,
vox subito audita est; neque erat cognoscere promptum
unde, sed audita est: “Quid, Agenore nate, peremptum
serpentem spectas? et tu spectabere serpens.”
Ille diu pavidus pariter cum mente colorem
perdiderat, gelidoque comae terrore rigebant.
Ecce viri fautrix, superas delapsa per auras,
Pallas adest motaeque iubet supponere terrae
vipereos dentes, populi incrementa futuri.
Paret et, ut presso sulcum patefecit aratro,
spargit humi iussos, mortalia semina, dentes.

Inde (fide maius) glaebae coepere moveri,
primaque de sulcis acies apparuit hastae,
tegmina mox capitum picto nutantia cono,
mox umeri pectusque onerataque bracchia telis
exsistunt, crescitque seges clipeata virorum.
Sic ubi tolluntur festis aulaea theatris,
surgere signa solent primumque ostendere vultus,
cetera paulatim, placidoque educta tenore
tota patent imoque pedes in margine ponunt.

While the conqueror gazed upon the immensity of his conquered enemy, a voice was heard. And he does not know whence it comes, but it is heard: “Why do you look upon the slain serpent, Cadmus? You too will be a serpent to be looked upon.” For a long while he stood there, having lost his colour as much as his composure, and his hairs stand up, frozen with fear. But behold his protector, Pallas, gliding down through the high air; she stands beside him and orders him to sow the serpent’s teeth into the ploughed earth, which would one day grow into a nation. He obeys and, as he opens up the furrows with his sunken plough, he sows in the ground the bidden teeth, a human seed.

Then, unbelievably, the earth begins to move, and first, the points of spears appear from the furrows, and then helmets with coloured plumes and then emerge shoulders and chests and arms laden with weapons, and the crop grows with shield-bearing men. So when the curtain is raised at the theatre on festival days, figures rise up: they show first their faces, and then, little by little, all the rest, and with a gentle pace they are wholly brought forth, and lie open, and they place their feet on the very edge.