Idyll XVII. The Praise of Ptolemy

by Theocritus


With Zeus begin, sweet sisters, end with Zeus,
When ye would sing the sovereign of the skies:
But first among mankind rank Ptolemy;
First, last, and midmost; being past compare.
Those mighty ones of old, half men half gods,
Wrought deeds that shine in many a subtle strain;
I, no unpractised minstrel, sing but him;
Divinest ears disdain not minstrelsy.
But as a woodman sees green Ida rise
Pine above pine, and ponders which to fell
First of those myriads; even so I pause
Where to begin the chapter of his praise:
For thousand and ten thousand are the gifts
Wherewith high heaven hath graced the kingliest king.
Was not he born to compass noblest ends,
Lagus' own son, so soon as he matured
Schemes such as ne'er had dawned on meaner minds?
Zeus doth esteem him as the blessed gods;
In the sire's courts his golden mansion stands.
And near him Alexander sits and smiles,
The turbaned Persian's dread; and, fronting both,
Rises the stedfast adamantine seat
Erst fashioned for the bull-slayer Heracles.
Who there holds revels with his heavenly mates,
And sees, with joy exceeding, children rise
On children; for that Zeus exempts from age
And death their frames who sprang from Heracles:
And Ptolemy, like Alexander, claims
From him; his gallant son their common sire.
And when, the banquet o'er, the Strong Man wends,
Cloyed with rich nectar, home unto his wife,
This kinsman hath in charge his cherished shafts
And bow; and that his gnarled and knotted club;
And both to white-limbed Hebe's bower of bliss
Convoy the bearded warrior and his arms.
Then how among wise ladies--blest the pair
That reared her!--peerless Berenice shone!
Dione's sacred child, the Cyprian queen,
O'er that sweet bosom passed her taper hands:
And hence, 'tis said, no man loved woman e'er
As Ptolemy loved her. She o'er-repaid
His love; so, nothing doubting, he could leave
His substance in his loyal children's care,
And rest with her, fond husband with fond wife.
She that loves not bears sons, but all unlike
Their father: for her heart was otherwhere.
O Aphrodite, matchless e'en in heaven
For beauty, thou didst love her; wouldst not let
Thy Berenice cross the wailful waves:
But thy hand snatched her--to the blue lake bound
Else, and the dead's grim ferryman--and enshrined
With thee, to share thy honours. There she sits,
To mortals ever kind, and passion soft
Inspires, and makes the lover's burden light.
The dark-browed Argive, linked with Tydeus, bare
Diomed the slayer, famed in Calydon:
And deep-veiled Thetis unto Peleus gave
The javelineer Achilles. Thou wast born
Of Berenice, Ptolemy by name
And by descent, a warrior's warrior child.
Cos from its mother's arms her babe received,
Its destined nursery, on its natal day:
'Twas there Antigone's daughter in her pangs
Cried to the goddess that could bid them cease:
Who soon was at her side, and lo! her limbs
Forgat their anguish, and a child was born
Fair, its sire's self. Cos saw, and shouted loud;
Handled the babe all tenderly, and spake:
"Wake, babe, to bliss: prize me, as Phoebus doth
His azure-sphered Delos: grace the hill
Of Triops, and the Dorians' sister shores,
As king Apollo his Rhenaea's isle."
So spake the isle. An eagle high overhead
Poised in the clouds screamed thrice, the prophet-bird
Of Zeus, and sent by him. For awful kings
All are his care, those chiefliest on whose birth
He smiled: exceeding glory waits on them:
Theirs is the sovereignty of land and sea.
But if a myriad realms spread far and wide
O'er earth, if myriad nations till the soil
To which heaven's rain gives increase: yet what land
Is green as low-lying Egypt, when the Nile
Wells forth and piecemeal breaks the sodden glebe?
Where are like cities, peopled by like men?
Lo he hath seen three hundred towns arise,
Three thousand, yea three myriad; and o'er all
He rules, the prince of heroes, Ptolemy.
Claims half Phoenicia, and half Araby,
Syria and Libya, and the AEthiops murk;
Sways the Pamphylian and Cilician braves,
The Lycian and the Carian trained to war,
And all the isles: for never fleet like his
Rode upon ocean: land and sea alike
And sounding rivers hail king Ptolemy.
Many are his horsemen, many his targeteers,
Whose burdened breast is bright with clashing steel:
Light are all royal treasuries, weighed with his.
For wealth from all climes travels day by day
To his rich realm, a hive of prosperous peace.
No foeman's tramp scares monster-peopled Nile,
Waking to war her far-off villages:
No armed robber from his war-ship leaps
To spoil the herds of Egypt. Such a prince
Sits throned in her broad plains, in whose right arm
Quivers the spear, the bright-haired Ptolemy.
Like a true king, he guards with might and main
The wealth his sires' arm won him and his own.
Nor strown all idly o'er his sumptuous halls
Lie piles that seem the work of labouring ants.
The holy homes of gods are rich therewith;
Theirs are the firstfruits, earnest aye of more.
And freely mighty kings thereof partake,
Freely great cities, freely honoured friends.
None entered e'er the sacred lists of song,
Whose lips could breathe sweet music, but he gained
Fair guerdon at the hand of Ptolemy.
And Ptolemy do music's votaries hymn
For his good gifts--hath man a fairer lot
Than to have earned much fame among mankind?
The Atridae's name abides, while all the wealth
Won from the sack of Priam's stately home
A mist closed o'er it, to be seen no more.
Ptolemy, he only, treads a path whose dust
Burns with the footprints of his ancestors,
And overlays those footprints with his own.
He raised rich shrines to mother and to sire,
There reared their forms in ivory and gold,
Passing in beauty, to befriend mankind.
Thighs of fat oxen oftentimes he burns
On crimsoning altars, as the months roll on,
Ay he and his staunch wife. No fairer bride
E'er clasped her lord in royal palaces:
And her heart's love her brother-husband won.
In such blest union joined the immortal pair
Whom queenly Rhea bore, and heaven obeys:
One couch the maiden of the rainbow decks
With myrrh-dipt hands for Hera and for Zeus.
Now farewell, prince! I rank thee aye with gods:
And read this lesson to the afterdays,
Mayhap they'll prize it: 'Honour is of Zeus.'

Last updated January 14, 2019