via Wikimedia Commons

Mantegna, 1460

Sophoniba, straight and proud,
stands beautiful, but stern and cold,
outside the army-tent to watch
her husband’s headless body home.
Her noble Carthaginian blood
clear in her profile as one tear
slides down her cheek, as Syphax’s corpse
slides from the bier before her feet.

The soldiers laugh, and turn away,
uncaring, tramp off through the camp,
and she ignores them, staring at
this sprawling corpse who was her lord.

A three-months bride, her price the pact
that bought her father troops and time,
to gather allies, turn the flank
and keep the southern cities safe.
This child of war just nodded once
to Hasdrubal, and turned to greet
this stranger, Syphax, allied king,
of twice her age and twice her girth
a full head shorter than her height,
clad in war-armour, grinning broad
his dark face eager at her side
she gave a pale hand, dutiful.

There by the sea she married him
in Carthage, queen of cities, proud
as Sophoniba too was proud.
Barefoot she walked the colonnade
to join her husband by the priest
still seeing troops, and men, and arms,
seeing the Romans driven back
from Africa, back to the sea,
the sea for which this war was fought
that lapped beside them quietly.

As marriage vows she gave and took,
swearing to Ashtar to be true
until the first of them should die,
recalled her uncle, Hannibal,
who even now could ravage Rome
whose armies, still in Italy,
menaced that city even as
Scipio’s troops raged outside hers.
Ten summers long had Hannibal
not ventured home, he called for troops,
for money, which came scarce and slow
although her father raged and swore
that those who stinted him would pay
in blood, not gold, before the end.
The senate cared for profit first
and little profit saw in war
only a drain in gold and lives
to little they perceived as gain.
For Rome, they said, was far away,
they wanted peace and trade, fair winds
and honest bartering and Rome
was nothing but a distant threat.

Then Scipio had crossed from Spain,
victorious, a general who
knew how to fight and cared to win
with men and troops he brought the war
too close to home, and fought too well.
Now frightened men would pay, too late,
or just in time – she kissed the king
of allied land, of many troops.

This is her way to help her land
she has no sword, but can bring men
to fight instead, this thought is good,
this is her duty, this her fight,
what she was reared for. She endures
at Syphax’s side throughout the nights
as men in battle must endure
the din, the wounds, the slaughter.

Her headless lord lies at her feet
and Roman soldiers prowl the camp
and at the sight of greaves and helms
a sudden rush of horror tales
her nurse had told her to behave,
comes back to mind, with “See my girl,
they’ll come and drag you off to Rome
and make you walk behind the troops
a captive bound, a spoil of war,
be marched in Triumph through the streets
a noble prize, disgraced, your kin
will weep to hear you were so used.”
For nights the child had lain awake
she dared not ask her father if
this tale were true, and Hannibal,
who’d know for sure, was far away.
She sought her grandsire, near the ships.

In pillared house lived Hamilcar
with terraces to catch the breeze
and trees for shade where peacocks roost
and colonnades and fountains fair
mosaiced in golds and blues and greens
but scarce was this old man at home
in his great age, his strength long gone,
for still his eyes would watch the boats
the city’s strength, the merchant fleet
ply ever outward from the port.
He knew their names and whence they went
and when a warship came he walked
with old slow steps to greet the crew
and all revered him, fighting men,
and merchants too, for he had fought
at Mylae, very long ago.

Hamilcar leaned upon a buoy
brought out for painting, streaked with rust,
he glanced, surprised, and rather pleased
to see his grandchild seek him here
young Sophoniba, clad in white,
come dainty stepping through the boats.
But when she asked of Triumphs, then
his wrinkled face grew sad, he sighed,
“Oh true enough, that those they catch
of noble blood are treated thus,
they jeer and drag them through the streets
then sacrifice them, so I’ve heard
to their dark Jove, who craves men’s blood.
I taught my sons the ways of war
they serve their city, keep it strong,
so do not fear, I grant that you
shall know this not, we have our troops,
and you are safe within these walls,
our wooden walls that guard the seas.”
He died soon after and his pyre
a Roman ship his first son sent
from Spain to take his father home
beyond the skies where heroes go.

Swifter than swallows streak across
the morning sky this runs across
her aching mind, that knows at last
her battle lost. She kneels at once
and draws the knife, still clean and sharp,
that hangs on her dead husband’s belt.
She stands again, the knife blade drawn.
So many times she played at swords
and dreamed brave dreams of battlefields
and noble death, when she was young.
It broke her heart to learn that she
could never fight nor bear a sword
for Carthage, just a woman’s role
to marry swords and bring them home.

Now at the last she holds a blade
that’s fought in war, she lifts it up
and would have drawn it cross her throat
save for a hand that grasps her wrist.
She looks – a giant, so it seems,
coal black, kink-haired, in Roman clothes,
speaking her language: “Noble queen,
restrain yourself, though he is slain
life yet continues, see, the sun,
is shining on this battlefield
and you yet breathe, and fortune knows
that change may come for everyone.”

“Who art thou?” Sophoniba asks,
the fingers of her nerveless hand
unclench before his mighty grip
the knife falls loudly to the ground
but still the giant clasps her hand,
stares down upon her, as so few
have ever done, and those her kin.
He smiles, and she, despite herself,
feels her heart leap, an answering smile.
“My name is Masinissa, I,
am of Numidia rightful king
which this usurper claimed to be.
Syphax is fallen, all of his
is mine this day, and thou,
I think, need have no fear
I shall not harm thee, do not weep.”

She wipes away her single tear
for Syphax, ally, lying dead,
and stares in Masinissa’s eyes.
She knows his story with his name,
her father’d cursed him loud and clear
he’d fought with Hannibal in Spain
and then betrayed his former lord.
Nephew of one Numidian king
he claimed the throne that Syphax held.
Traitor to Africa, he was,
who wore the Roman mail and helm
and held her gentle hand in his
sword safely sheathed, and smiling.

Sudden as sunlight came a thought,
once men betray, what keeps them whole?
When once their honour’s stained and gone
who turns their coat may turn again
she could win back this man and troops
and take him to her father’s side
escape the Triumph, bear him home
to Hasdrubal, a victory.

She smiles at him “My noble lord,
I know your name and thus your worth,
you fought beside my uncle once,
this makes us friends, for ever as
a child, before I knew how weak
a woman is, I longed to go
to fight in Spain and win the day.
Yours was a name that stirred my soul,
with Hannibal’s, so long ago,
it does me good to hear it now
upon this battlefield, today,
here in defeat, it warms me.”

His broad grin widens, and his hand
holds her hand firm, “Your father then
is Hasdrubal? I know him well.”
She nods agreement, smiles again,
into his eyes, then looks away
and sees the Romans standing round,
no Roman chief, but many eyes
upon this woman, straight as sword
and pale as dawn and clasping hands
with this dark king, their warrior.

She stares, then turns her face away,
“Am I your prisoner?” Looking down.
“Or have these Romans captured me?
Syphax lies lifeless here, the man,
who took me from my father’s house
and I am helpless here, alone,
with enemies all round my tent.
What would you have of me, my lord?”

“I am of all Numidia king,
and too, I am a well made man,
in shape and form, as I’ve been told,
I think – ” but then his words break off.
He looks at her and does not speak
until she looks and meets his gaze
and still they stand and silent there
their thoughts their own, their words unvoiced,
their hands still joined, he draws a breath
and lets it go and silent stands.
At last he laughs a strangled laugh,
“Daughter of Hasdrubal,” he says,
“I thought to take you as my own,
with Syphax dead, and you his queen,
to hold you as a prize by right
to help my claim, or so I thought
until I saw you standing there.

I’ve heard the tale of Syphax’ wife,
a pretty Carthaginian girl
is all they said, and that you are,
but no-one told me you were tall,
and no tale knows how brave you are,
to take that knife, to meet my eyes,
to dream of winning fame in Spain.
I thought to claim you here today
and claim with you Numidia’s soil
and then tomorrow hand you on
for Scipio to send to Rome.
I cannot do it. Go. Farewell,
I may not harm you, so it is.”

Sophoniba brushes back
her long dark hair, then stretches out
her one free hand, and keeps it out.
“My lord,” she says, “What folly this?
You wanted me until you saw
you wanted me? Or so you say.
I do not know the ways of men —
would I were one to serve my land
and fight in war in clear-marked paths
if Carthage ask of me, to die!
But you will send me far away
from Africa, from both our homes,
to walk degraded through the streets,
be sacrificed to heathen gods?
I said, my lord, I’m helpless here.
I cast myself upon thy will.
Thou art a strong and valiant king
whose name and deeds have reached my ears
if, as thou sayst, thou carest for me,
is there no way to keep me from
these hateful Romans? Let me go
to join my father – come thyself,
and find a welcome, thou hast fought
with Hannibal, come fight again
for Carthage, as Numidia’s king.
Or if thou wilt not, let me die
before they mock and slaughter me
my blood a stain upon their hills,
my body left for dogs and birds.”

His hand is shaking and a tear
runs down his cheek, he hesitates,
then draws her close and holds her tight.
“I’ll not betray the Romans now,
don’t ask it of me, but I shall,
I swear it to thee, keep thee safe.
If thou shoudst marry me their claim
is worthless, wilt thou be my queen?
You’ll stand beside me, give me sons,
who will be tall and brave as thou,
and who will rule when I am gone.”

He holds her to him, lets her go,
she takes a step and looks, he waits.
She knows she should agree at once,
for safety lies within his arms
and this tall man is short of spine
and she can bend him to her will
to aid of Carthage in good time
and this is all she hoped and sought
in all her wily words before.
And yet the tears pour down her cheeks
for he has touched upon a dream
of equal love, of strength, a king
to be her partner, share her life
strong by her side as she is strong.

This dream was safe from Syphax’s touch
but Masinissa, tall and bold,
with arms so firm and warm and kind,
and speaking words of love, of sons,
set it aflame, and yet is weak,
she knows it, turned by easy words.
But she is strong, and could be strong
for both of them, and if he loved
(and love, she sees, burns in his eyes,)
then she could take an equal’s place.
All guile is gone, and in its place
her heart knows what she never hoped
to know in life that duty bound.

She boldly offers him her hand
“My lord,” she says, “My king, I say,
I, Sophoniba, choose thee now,
to be my husband and my lord.
Call thou a priest to hear our vows.
A priest of Ashtar was there here
within this camp, she should be near
and hear our witness, bless us both
for all thou sayst is in my heart
and I would join myself to thee.”

That night they lie within the tent,
the hurried wedding done, alone,
a night of peace, of honest joy
the like of which she’d never known.
Too deep for words, and silently
two people built the body’s bridge
to understanding, caring, hope,
that leads towards the road of love
that heads off winding, up and down
through good and bad but is one road
the length of which is quite unknown
but each step taken is that road
for its own sake and not a goal.
Her heart quite melted, child of war,
fumbling her way towards a peace.
No calculation now, she lies
awake at Masinissa’s side
curled in his arms in quiet content
beneath a heavy purple spread
and feels him breathing in the dark.
What dreams, what hopes, what doom may come,
only the moment, only now,
safe with the man she calls her lord.

At break of day the message comes
from Scipio, to send her out
to take her off to distant Rome.
She lifts each piece of armour for
her own heart’s lord and he goes forth
to tell the Romans things have changed
that he is hers and she is his,
his bride, and not their prisoner.

For many hours she waits inside,
pacing the tent in happy thought
in dreams of sons, of kingdoms bound
in peaceful calm, of cities grown.
Then back the curtain’s drawn, he comes,
she starts up with a cry of joy
he bites his lip and looks away
his face is ash, he wrings his hands
and sighs a long and sorry sigh.

He will not meet her eyes, he groans,
“Laelius and Scipio will not
believe me that you won’t seduce
me and my troops to Carthage’s side.
They still demand you, they will not
accept my pledge you are my wife
and they will have you sent to Rome.
I won’t betray them, do not ask
I am no traitor, never more,
Rome has been good to me and I
owe much to her, I won’t betray
I will not break my word again.
I said I would not send you off,
and I shall not, but they are strong
and will not let you stay with me.
I did not mean to let you down,
but though I cannot give you what
you asked at first, to be my queen
I will not let them march you off.
I’ll grant instead your other wish
to let you die. So take this vial
I bought in Utica, it’s clear
and tasteless, so she promised me
brings easy death and very quick.”

What words, what hopes, what has she now?
She cares too much and cannot speak
he has deceived her, all is gone.
She cannot bring the words to mouth,
she gave her heart, she trusted him,
and all in vain, he saw her not.
What words for sons and cities now
that will not flourish in her care?
And twice betrayed, he holds a vial,
a poison, woman’s easy death,
and not the sword which had he seen
her plain, as she had dreamed he had,
if she must die would be her choice.

She takes the philtre, for no worth
has life to Sophoniba now
once he has uttered these weak words
and proved his love was all a lie
that vanished in the morning light
the road too hard to build, it ends
so very soon, so very near
as that first bridge leads to the pit.
She holds it in a steady hand
that does not touch him, who is swayed
at every turn by every word.
She opens it, she stands, she turns,
she leaves the tent, he follows her,
stands weeping helpless at her side
and she ignores him, breathing deep.

Beneath the ever changing sky
where sea-clouds gather grey and black
and winds move freely, up she stares
then in one moment quaffs the draught.
“Farewell,” she says, “Oh fairest world,
Oh Mother Ashtar, Oh bright sky,
worse things there are than death like this
but all the same, I think I should
prefer it had my marriage bed
not stood so very near my grave.”

Spring 1997, Lancaster.

(From Livy XXX. She often seems to be called Sophinisba by later writers. The Punic form of her name would be Saphanbal, more reminiscent of her father Hasdrubal and her uncle Hannibal.)