In 36 B.C. Mark Antony set off with a grande armée, to overthrow Phraates IV of Parthia. He had some initial success – such as this unidentified encounter, at the end of which the Parthian ruler and his mounted archers left the field, tempting Antony further in. Meanwhile his supply train with a huge battering ram had to move slower, guarded by two legions. They were attacked, the supplies destroyed, and 10,000 men taken captive. The campaign was a very costly disaster, Antony’s first military failure. Back he went to Egypt with the remnant of his army, for reinforcements. He led these against the Armenian ruler, his erstwhile ally, who had melted away from the scene with all his troops as soon as he saw the disaster that lay in wait for Antony. It was no great matter to overcome the deserter, after which Antony awarded himself a (necessarily imitation) triumph in Alexandria, with impious additions including Cleopatra and her three children by Antony. This was a serious insult to sober, righteous Romans.
None of this is mentioned in the sonnet, Soir de Bataille, but it is useful to keep it in mind, for the poet surely knew it, if one is to savour to the full some otherwise unexpected details: an adjective, a statement, and the rather odd emphasis on how Antony appears to his surviving troops. (José-Maria de Heredia was a well-read man, even a learned one, yet he wrote “Phraortes” instead of “Phraates” though the two were quite separate rulers, almost six centuries apart. Either he made a mistake or he preferred to use a name with the two syllables he required – as pronounced in French, and trusted to the ignorance of readers in general.)
Le choc avait été très rude. Les tribuns
Et les centurions, ralliant les cohortes,
Humaient encor dans l'air où vibraient leurs voix fortes
La chaleur du carnage et ses âcres parfums.
A short sharp shock of a statement, not filling the line, and in the Past Pluperfect. The rest of the quatrain is a description of the field in the aftermath of battle, using “parfums” for the “âcres” (acrid) smells of carnage.
D'un oeil morne, comptant leurs compagnons défunts,
Les soldats regardaient, comme des feuilles mortes,
Au loin, tourbillonner les archers de Phraortes;
Et la sueur coulait de leurs visages bruns.
With “mournful eyes”, the survivors count up the dead. Is this a field of defeat? To whom does the next phrase apply, separated by commas and not by a semicolon: “like dead leaves”? It seems appropriate to the fallen comrades, but no, it applies to the Parthian archers already some distance away yet still ‘turbulent’ - “tourbillonner” (to whirl about), and perhaps that, along with the heat, makes sweat run down the Roman soldiers’ faces.
Now for something interesting which may have been in the poet’s mind. Parthian archers were famous for a deadly tactic. At full gallop, in retreat, they could turn about and shoot accurately. They were accustomed to using this tactic in a pretended retreat to demoralise the enemy. Turbulent archers, truly!
The whole is rather an ominous description, and Antony is not yet apparent.
C'est alors qu'apparut, tout hérissé de flèches,
Rouge du flux vermeil de ses blessures fraîches,
Sous la pourpre flottante et l'airain rutilant,
The first tercet brings on Antony – unnamed. Later he will be referred to as ‘Imperator’. This is a title with an ironic undertone in the sonnet because, blind again (by implication), he does not seem to doubt his actions, while the poet is at pains to undermine the effect of flying purple cloak and gleaming armour by stating that he is spiked all over with arrows, blood from his fresh wounds still flowing.
Au fracas des buccins qui sonnaient leur fanfare,
Superbe, maîtrisant son cheval qui s'effare,
Sur le ciel enflammé, l'Imperator sanglant.
Subtle irony is present again in the final tercet, for trumpets may bray and Antony may master his frightened horse, he may even look about him with the arrogance and pride of a victor (“Superbe” – the French retains some of the full meaning of the Latin “superbus” which in English is largely lost), but the sky behind him is flaming and he himself is covered in his own blood. Hardly a good omen. Under the Republic, a general victorious in the field might be acclaimed “Imperator” by his troops. If it was a significant victory, that acclamation entitled him to apply to the Senate for a triumph. If the Senate agreed, he could retain the title until the end of the triumph, after which he must relinquish it with his command, his “imperium”. Here the troops look on with mournful eyes, especially when they watch those turbulent archers ride away. Only an Antonius Superbus could presume to regard himself an Imperator, yet he did, as we know from his unauthorised triumph. Was the poet being ironic here? Very likely. The use he makes of the title once again, in the final sonnet, in which Antony is not named, is distinctly ambiguous.
In my verse translation I have not used ‘Imperator’, a word not easily retained if I was to achieve any sort of regularity in the rhythm while losing not a single detail in the original. But I had one delicious moment of justified self-indulgence. The noun “rout” is now generally taken to be a disorderly retreat but it first entered English from Old French (itself derived from the Latin) in the early 13th century, and then it meant, among other things, “a group, or a company of soldiers”. Traces of that archaic meaning survived in the use of the word for a large and formal evening party (where rout-cakes would be served). My use carries both meanings, the common and the archaic, leaving open the possibility of a far from disorderly, indeed a cunning tactical retreat. And that in no way goes against the meaning of Heredia’s sonnet.
Below are the prose translation, mine in verse, and one by Edward R. Taylor.
Prose translation (literal):
EVENING OF BATTLE
The clash had been very brutal. The tribunes And the centurions, were rallying their cohorts, Breathing still in air which was vibrating to their loud voices The heat of carnage and its acrid scents.
With a mournful eye, counting their dead companions, The soldiers were looking on, as like dead leaves, Far off, whirl the archers of Phraortes; And sweat was running down their brown/ tanned faces.
It was then that appeared, bristling/ stuck all over with arrows, Red with crimson efflux from his fresh wounds, Beneath the flying purple and the glowing brass,
Amid the riot/ uproar of [military] trumpets sounding their fanfare/ calls, Superb, mastering his frightened horse, Against the sky inflamed, the bloodied Imperator.
EVENING OF BATTLE (©2016 by Ruth Heredia)
The clash was stark. Centurions, tribunes proud,
Rally their cohorts, those still drawing breath
In air vibrating with their voices loud,
Hot with carnage and acrid scents of death.
With mournful eyes the soldiers look about,
Count dead comrades, see in Phraortes’ rout
Archers, like distant dead leaves, go whirling;
And down their tanned faces sweat is pouring.
Then he appeared, whom many arrows pierce,
Red with the blood from fresh wounds still flowing,
‘Neath the flying purple and brass glowing,
Amid uproar of trumpets braying fierce,
Prideful, superb, on frightened steed mastered,
Backed by flaming sky, the Chief blood-boltered.
EVENING OF BATTLE (Tr. by Edward R. Taylor, 1906)
Severe the battle's shock: Centurions
And tribunes, rallying their men, once more
Inhale from air that trembles with their roar
The scents and ardors of red slaughter's sons.
With gloomy eyes, computing their lost ones,
The soldiers see Phraortes' archer corps
Whirl like dead leaves afar, and quickly o'er
Their tawny cheeks the sweat all streaming runs.
And then appeared, with arrows bristling round,
Red from vermilion stream of many a wound,
'Neath floating purple and the brass's glare,
To sound of trumpet's flourish, grand of mien,
Quelling his plunging horse, and bathed in sheen
Of fiery sky, the Imperator there.
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