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Passage in the Punica

But now the Roman Senate was harassed by a fresh anxiety. Who was to undertake the war in Spain and protect the natives discouraged by defeat? Both the Scipios, both the brothers who had waged war with martial spirit, had been slain by the triumphant enemy. Thus there was a risk that the land of Tartessus would now yield to the supremacy of Carthage, through dread of an enemy nearer home. Meeting in anxiety and sorrow, the Senate sought for some remedy to heal the tottering state, and prayed to Heaven for a general who would dare to take over the decimated army.

The young Scipio was eager to appease the spirits of his father and uncle; but all his kinsmen, dismayed by their grievous loss and mindful of his youth, sought to dissuade him. If he went to that land of ill omen, he must stand on the graves of his dear ones to fight against a foe who had baffled the dispositions and beaten the armies of them both, and was now flushed with victory. Nor was it a simple task to take the burden of a mighty war on young shoulders, nor easy for a beardless youth to ask the command of an army.

These anxious thoughts filled the young man’s mind, as he sat beneath the green shadow of a bay-tree that grew behind the dwelling; and suddenly two figures, far exceeding mortal stature, flew down from the sky and stood to right and left of him: Virtue was on one side, and Pleasure, the enemy of Virtue, on the other. Pleasure’s head breathed Persian odours, and her ambrosial tresses flowed free; in her shining robe Tyrian purple was embroidered with ruddy gold; the pin in her hair gave studied beauty to her brow; and her roving wanton eyes shot forth flame upon flame. The appearance of the other was far different: her hair, seeking no borrowed charm from ordered locks, grew freely above her forehead; her eyes were steady; in face and gait she was more like a man; she showed a cheerful modesty; and her tall stature was set off by the snow-white robe she wore.

Then, Pleasure spoke first, confident in what she could promise: “This is madness, my son, to use up all the flower of your age in war. You deserve better things. Have you forgotten Cannae and the river Po, and the Lydian lake, more terrible than the Stygian swamp? How long will you persist in defying fortune on the battle-field? Do you intend to attack the realm of Atlas also and the city of Carthage? Take my advice, and cease to fight against danger and expose your life to the storm of clashing weapons. Unless you abandon the worship of her, stern Virtue will bid you dash right through battle and flame. She it was who sent your father and uncle down to the Stygian waters of Erebus, she who threw away the lives of Paulus and the Decii, while holding out a glorious epitaph on the tomb that covers his ashes to the ghost that cannot even be conscious of the great deeds he did on earth. But if you follow me, my son, then your allotted term of life will move along no rugged path.

Never will the trumpet break your troubled sleep; you will not feel the northern cold nor the fierce heat of Cancer nor the pangs of thirst, nor take your meal many a time on the bloodstained turf, nor gulp down the dust behind your helmet, suffering fearful hardship. No: you will pass happy days and unclouded hours, and a life of ease will warrant you in hoping for length of days. What great things the gods themselves have created for the use and enjoyment of man! How many harmless pleasures they have supplied with bountiful hand! And they themselves set an example of peaceful existence to men; for they live at ease, and their peace of mind is never broken. I am she who wedded Venus to Anchises by the waters of Simoïs, and from them was born the founder of your nation.

I am she who turned the Father of the gods into many different shapes: at one time he became a bird, at another a bull with threatening horns. Attend to me. The life of man fleets fast away, and no man can be born a second time; time flies, and the stream of death carries us away and forbids us to carry to the lower world the things that gave us pleasure in life. Who, when his last hour comes, does not regret too late that he let slip the seasons of Pleasure?”

When Pleasure had ceased speaking and was silent, Virtue began: “How,” she asked, “can you mislead this young man in the flower of his age and tempt him to a life of obscurity? The goodness of the gods has granted him reason and germs of the divine intelligence from heaven. Man stands as high above all other animals as the gods above mortals. For Nature herself assigned man to earth as a lesser god; but her fixed law has condemned degenerate souls to dwell in the darkness of Avernus. On the other hand the gate of heaven stands open to those who have preserved the divine element born with them. Need I speak of Amphitryon’s son who destroyed all monsters? or of Liber, whose chariot was drawn trough the cities by Caucasian tigers when he came back in triumph from the conquered East, after subduing the Chinese and Indians? or of Quirinus, the hero of Rome, or the Brethren whom Leda bore, to whom sailors cry in their sore distress?

See you not, how the Creator raised the faces of mankind towards heaven and gave them countenances that look upwards, though he had caused all herds and flocks, all birds and beasts, to creep on their belly, inactive and unsightly? But man is born for glory, if he can appreciate heaven’s gift, and in pursuit of glory he is happy. Listen to me for a moment – I shall not go far for an example. Rome was once no match for the attacks of Fidena and was content with the growth that the Asylum gave her: but see to what a height she has been raised by the valour of her citizens.

Consider too the cities which once spread and flourished but were overthrown by luxury. For neither the wrath of heaven nor the attacks of foemen are as fatal as Pleasure alone when she infects the mind. She brings with her an ugly train, Drunkenness and Luxury; and dark-winged Disgrace ever hovers round her. My attendants are Honour and Praise, Renown and Glory with joyful countenance, and Victory with snow-white wings like mine. And Triumph, crowned with laurel, raises me at last to heaven. My household is pure; my dwelling is set on a lofty hill, and a steep track leads there by a rocky ascent. Hard at first – it is not my way to hold out false hopes – is the toil you must endure. If you seek to enter you must exert yourself; and you must not reckon as good those things which fickle Fortune can give and can also take away. Soon you will gain the height and look down upon mankind below you.

Pleasure makes you smooth promises; from me you will experience the opposite in all respects. Lying on a hard bed of straw, you will endure sleepless nights under the stars, and you will master cold and hunger. Also you will worship justice in all your doings and believe that the gods stand and witness your every action. Then, whenever your country and the danger of the state demand it, you will be the first to take up arms and the first to enter the breach in the enemy’s walls; neither steel nor gold will ever master your mind. Therefore I will give you, not garments stained with Tyrian purple nor fragrant perfumes that a man should blush to use, but victory – victory over the fierce foe who is now harassing the empire of Rome; you shall destroy the Carthaginians and place your proud laurel upon the knees of Jove.”

When Virtue had uttered these prophecies from the shrine of her heart, she gained Scipio to her side; he rejoiced in the examples set before him, and his face showed his approval. But Pleasure was wroth and could not refrain from speech. “I will detain the pair of you no longer,” she cried; “but my time will yet come, when Rome will learn my lessons and be eager to obey my commands; and then I alone shall be honoured.” Then, shaking her head with anger, she soared into the dark clouds. Now Scipio, with a heart full of Virtue’s counsel, conceived mighty designs and was fired with love for the high task imposed upon him. Though all men shrank from war, he climbed the high Rostrum and claimed for himself the heavy burden of a doubtful contest. There was universal excitement: some thought they saw his father’s face, and others that the stern features of his uncle had grown young again. But, though men were encouraged, yet an unspoken fear of the hazard crept into their doubting hearts; they measured with fear the huge burden of the war; and Scipio’s supporters were uneasy when they reckoned up his years. […]