I love to read Latin, but I seldom write out a translation. It occurred to me, however, that readers today may be unfamiliar with Statius, a stunning Roman poet of the first century A.D. and the author of Silvae, an innovative collection of “occasional poems” that celebrate or describe many subjects: sleep, a party thrown by the emperor Domitian, a statuette, the anniversary of the death of the poet Lucan, even the construction of a highway.
The following poem is addressed to a lion who died fighting in the arena. I love this lion so much. Domitian mourns. Even the tame lions in cages growl their grief over his death.
I have not attempted to turn this poem into verse, first, because I am not a poet, and second, because the meter in Latin poetry is determined by the quantity of the vowels (long and short) rather than the stress on syllables. This is a prose version arranged in lines that follow the lines of the Latin more or less—less than more—but I attempt nothing but to show the character of the lion.
“A Lion Tamed” (Silvae II.5)
What good did it do you to be tamed, you who had shown your rage?
What good did it do to forget crime and human killings
and endure command and obey a lesser master?
What good, the fact that you were accustomed to leave your den
and return to a cage and withdraw freely from captured prey
and let go the trainer’s hands from a lax bite?
You die, expert killer of giant beasts,
not encircled by the Massylians of Numidia with their curved net,
not goaded in a dreaded jump over hunting spears,
nor deceived by the blind gaping of a pit,
but conquered by a fleeing animal. Your unlucky cage
stands open, and around the locked doors on all sides, the tame lions swelled with rage that this disgrace had been allowed.
All their manes fell and they were ashamed to see your body brought back, and they brought their foreheads
down to their eyes in a frown.
But that new shame did not destroy your character as
your life poured out with the first blow:
valor remained and courage returned to you
from the middle of death as you fell.
Just as a dying soldier conscious of a deep wound
charges the enemy and threatens and raises his hands with the sword falling: so the lion, slow in step and stripped of dignity.
stares, panting, and looks for his breath and the enemy.
And yet you, conquered lion, will bear the solace of sudden death, because the sorrowful people and senators
have mourned you as if you were a well-known gladiator
falling in the sad sand of the arena; and because the loss of one lion has touched Domitian—one lion among so many insignificant wild beasts from Scythia, Libya, Germany, and Egypt.