Hekaba 218-295

Lady, I expect that you know the will of the army,
and the ballot brought to pass; but I shall nevertheless declare it.
It is resolved by the Achaians that your child Polyxena
be slaughtered upon the raised mound of the tomb of Achilleus.
And me, as guide and conductor of the maiden
they do appoint me to be; and as overseer of the sacrifice
and priest, the son of Achilleus himself is set over.
Do you know, then, what to do? Do not be torn from her by force,
nor enter a contest of arms with me;
understand your strength and the presence of your
troubles. The prudent, you know, even amidst evils must be sensible.
Alas! A great contest, it seems, has drawn near
full of sighs and not empty of tears.
And I—I did not die where I should have died;
Zeus did not destroy me, but nourishes me, that I might see
another evil greater than the evils before, oh wretched me.
If it is allowed for slaves to inquire
not distress nor tortures of the heart
from the free, then you ought to answer,
the questions I ask, and I to listen.
It is allowed, so ask: for I do not begrudge the time.
Do you know when you came as a spy of Ilios,
unsightly in mean clothing, from your eyes,
drips of blood wetted your cheek?
I know it: for it did not merely touch the surface of my heart.
And that Helena recognized you and told me alone?
I remember; I had taken a great risk.
And when you were humbled, did you not clasp my knees?
Such that my hand went numb in your garments.
And, to be sure, did I not save you and send you out of the land?
So that I might look upon the light of the sun today.
And, to be sure, what did you say when you were my slave?
I spoke with much artifice, so as not to die.
At any rate, are you not acting basely in these designs?
You who at my hand suffered just what you say you suffered,
yet are you are not treating us well, but as badly as you can.
You ungrateful seed, as many of you who with people-pleasers
vie for honour: would that you were unknown to me,
you who harm allies and pay no heed,
if to so many you would say anything for favour.
But in any case, believing what clever trick
did they cast a ballot of murder for this child?
Which was it? Did some necessity lead them on to slay human
before a tomb, where animal sacrifice is more fitting?
Or, wishing to kill in turn those who killed him,
did Achilles, by his right, aim at slaughter for this girl?
But she has done no-one a wrong.
He ought to demand Helena as offering for his funeral:
for that one destroyed him, she led him to Troia.
If one of the captives must be chosen to die
who surpasses in beauty, this is not one of us:
for the daughter Tyndareus has form most distinguished of all,
And not one of us was found to do any more wrong.
I contend this argument against his righteous demand:
what you must pay back for my recompense
do hear: you did grasp my hands, as you say,
supplicating yourself before this old woman1:
Now I engage in these same things with you
I here demand favour and I beseech you,
do not tear my child from my hands,
nor kill her: there are enough dead.
In her I have delighted, and I forget my troubles.
This girl is my consolation against so much.
She is my city, my nurse, my cudgel, my guide on this path.
It is not necessary for conquerors to conquer what is not necessary,
nor for the fortunate to expect always to fare well:
for I too was once so, but now I am no longer,
but one day all happiness was taken away from me.
But, dear man2, have some regard for me,
have some pity: go to the Achaian army,
advise them that to kill women is
hateful, whom you did not kill when first
you dragged them from the altar, but felt pity for.
And custom among you for the free is equally
established as for the enslaved concerning blood.
And your reputation, even if you speak badly,
will persuade: for an argument coming from those of no esteem
as that from those of some regard has not the same strength.

1. I’ve changed the literal meaning of this line quite a bit to preserve the sense. The original Greek, καὶ τῆσδε γραίας προσπίτνων παρηίδος, means literally, “and falling down before the cheek of this old woman”.
2. The Greek is ὦ φίλον γένειον, “oh dear beard”. Supplicants clutched at the beard of whom they begged. Hekaba may not have literally done this; it may have been an idiom of speech.

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