A myth, I guessed: Stymphalian swamp fowl

that scatter darts and deal out wounds mid-flight.

I scoffed at word of feathers made of iron,

but now I’ve seen the proof: the porcupine

vouches for Herculean birds. His snout

mimics a pigs, and hornish hackles fringe

his brow, his ruddy eyes as fierce as embers,

belly hairy, with legs like a pups stubs.

But nature has endowed the runty beast

with first-rate weaponry. His body grows

a thicket of threat, a harvest of bright spears

that bristle for battle, each pale quill rooted

firmly beneath his pelt and in the skin,

the tips all parti-coloured with black bands,

strong, tapering to a point, sleek and sharp.


Unlike the woods urchin, his quills are not

fixed. He attacks, relentlessly flings spears

to defend himself from far, and pierces air

with the flung missile he launches off his back.  

Sometimes, retreating in the Parthian way,

he wounds pursuers, or, like a rank of soldiers,

he turns outward a dense wave of dire pikes,

as his shoulders bristle with homegrown spears.

His whole body enters the fray, his back

rustles, resounds with clashing, as if armies

were being urged to close by blaring trumpets:

such din rages in a small space. Craft aids

his battle, and thrift: his rage will never waste

a weapon, but, wary, he relies on threats,

only spending his missiles to save his life.

He never misses; skill makes his aim certain,

unerring despite the range, his skins motion

imparting precision to the flying point.


What reasoned work of human craft can match

the porcupine? Men plunder horns of wild,

Gortynian goats to soften over fires,

then stretch bowstrings from the guts of bulls and fit

an arrow out with feathers and an iron head.

But this small beast grows his own armory

and needs no outside help. He is self-sufficient,

himself the quiver, himself both arrow and bow.

This animal owns all the arts of war.


And if the varied ways we live have grown

by natures guidance, here is the original

for hitting a distant foe. The Cretans learned

to shoot, and the warlike, crafty Parthians,

from the lessons of an arrow-bearing beast.

Audieram memoranda, tuas, Stymphale, uolucres 

spicula uulnifico quondam sparsisse uolatu, 

nec mihi credibilis ferratae fabula pinnae 

uisa diu. datur ecce fides et cognitus hystrix 

Herculeas adfirmat aues. Os longius illi 

adsimulat porcum. mentitae cornua saetae 

summa fronte rigent. oculis rubet igneus ardor. 

parua sub hirsuto catuli uestigia uentre. 

hanc tamen exiguam miro natura tueri 

praesidio dignata feram: stat corpore toto 

silua minax, iaculisque rigens in proelia crescit 

picturata seges; corium cute fixa tenaci 

alba subit radix alternantesque colorum 

tincta uices spatiis internigrantibus exit 

in solidae speciem pinnae tenuataque furtim 

leuis in extremum sese producit acumen. 


Sed non haec acies ritu siluestris echini 

fixa manet. crebris propugnat iactibus ultro 

et longe sua membra tegit, tortumque per auras 

euolat excusso natiuum missile tergo. 

interdum fugiens Parthorum more sequentem 

uulnerat; interdum positis uelut ordine castris 

terrificum densa mucronem uerterat unda 

et consanguineis hastilibus asperat armos: 

militat omne ferae corpus uibrataque rauco 

terga fragore sonant. stimulis accensa tubarum 

agmina conlatis credas confligere signis: 

tantus in angusto strepitus furit. additur armis 

calliditas parcusque sui tumor iraque numquam 

prodiga telorum, caute contenta minari 

nec nisi seruandae iactus inpendere uitae. 

error abest: certum sollertia destinat ictum 

nil spatio fallente modum, seruatque tenorem 

mota cutis doctique regit conamina nisus. 


Quid labor humanus tantum ratione sagaci 

proficit? eripiunt trucibus Gortynia capris 

cornua; subiectis eadem lentescere cogunt 

ignibus; intendant taurino uiscere neruos; 

instruitur pinnis ferroque armatur harundo. 

ecce breuis propriis munitur bestia telis 

externam nec quaerit opem fert omnia secum: 

se pharetra, sese iaculo, sese utitur arcu. 

unum animal cunctas bellorum possidet artes. 


Quod si omnis nostrae paulatim industria uitae 

fluxit ab exemplis, quidquid procul adpetit hostem, 

hinc reor inuentum, morem hinc traxisse Cydonas 

bellandi Parthosque retro didicisse ferire 

prima sagittiferae pecudis documenta secutos.

Translator's Note

Whenever he took a break from his day job of professionally praising politicians and generals, the poet Claudian exhibited an active mind with a serious interest in science and nature. He wrote poems about such subjects as magnetism and the electric eel and, here, the porcupine, a strange creature the Romans encountered as the empire expanded north. We shouldn’t blame Claudian too harshly for thinking that porcupines throw their quills—it is an ancient and persistent idea. (When I moved from the southern United States to northern Ontario and reported to family and friends on my encounters with porcupines, some of them asked, seriously, about quill-throwing. No, porcupines do not launch their quills into the air like arrows, though Claudian makes good use of the belief that they do.)

Claudians poems are, generally speaking, didactic in the tradition of classical Roman poets. That is, they attempt to impart useful information, in addition to exploiting the aesthetic potentials of poetry—as did Lucretius—or they pretend to do so, as an excuse for creating an aesthetic object—as did Vergil in the Georgics. When I was first coming into consciousness as a reader and writer of poetry, during the last gutterings of the dominance of so-called New Criticism, “didactic” served mostly as a term of condemnation, frostily blighting any new composition that strayed beyond certain narrow artistic bounds. The Romans (and, indeed, most poets before the late nineteenth century) had fewer qualms about writing poems that would also teach. In the case of this poem, in addition to providing a helpful physical description of the porcupine, Claudian implies that a rather sophisticated philosophical and anthropological argument is available in the encounter: culture is rooted in nature, since the human arts have developed by imitation of natural processes. Furthermore, while the arts of nature, like the porcupines defences, are perfect, human imitations are inevitably less perfect.

My process as a translator is, I suppose, conservative and even a little naive. I begin by making as straightforward a prose translation as I can (though I realize that even a “straightforward” translation is full of  interpretive choices) and then attempt to form this into an English poem with some resemblance to the formal qualities of the original, hoping to represent the original sense, be clear, and find some pleasure in the language of the translation—while knowing that this pleasure is likely to be of a different sort than that of the source. The (sometimes approximate) blank verse of my version of “The Porcupine” is a traditional, though not uncontested, solution for representing Latin hexameters in English. I am particularly pleased with what seems to me the Teutonic gravitas of phrases like “hornish hackles fringe / his brow” or “belly hairy, with legs like a pups stubs,” appropriate for describing an animal that came to the Romans notice as they pressed northward into the forests of Germany.  

Note on line 1, “Stymphalian swamp fowl”: According to mythology, the swamp at Stymphalia was infested with deadly, man-eating birds that had beaks of bronze, poison dung, and sharp iron feathers that they could throw at adversaries. Hercules defeated them and drove them away as his sixth labour.

James Owens


In the Classroom