Mars and the Carthaginians (Doctor Faustus, Prologue, line 2)

[First published in Cahiers Élizabéthains: études sur la pré-renaissance et la renaissance anglaises 38 (October 1990): 61-64. Several typographical errors have been corrected, but the text has not otherwise been altered.]


The word mate in the second line of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus“Not marching now in fields of Thracimene, / Where Mars did mate the Carthaginians” (A: 2-3)1—has been a source of continuing embarrassment to commentators on the text. One obvious sense of the word was recognized in 1850 by Alexander Dyce when he glossed it in his edition as meaning “confound, defeat.”2 The Oxford English Dictionary, similarly, cites these lines as an instance of the common though long obsolete usage of “mate” in the sense of “overcome, defeat, subdue.” Yet whatever Mars may have done to the Carthaginians at Lake Trasummenus in 217 B.C., he did not prevent them from crushing the Roman army led by Caius Flaminius and killing its general. Could a poet who had himself graced “the fruitfull plot of Scholerisme” (A: 17) have forgotten the elementary fact that this battle was one of Hannibal's most resounding victories?

To evade this awkward possibility, Francis Cunningham proposed, in his edition of 1870, that the word must mean “to marry”: Mars mated the Carthaginians in the sense of espousing their cause.3 But A. H. Bullen in 1885, followed by A. W. Ward in the second, third, and fourth revisions of his edition of the play, dismissed Cunningham's conjecture as implausible. As Ward wrote in 1901, “so paradoxical a use of the word is extremely doubtful, and ... it is safer to suppose the poet's memory to have been at fault.” He himself glossed “mate” as “match, pit himself against,” and quoted Henry VIII, III. 2. 272-74 (“That in the way of loyalty and truth / Toward the king, my ever royal master, / Dare mate a sounder man than Surrey can be”) in support of this interpretation.4

The view that Marlowe somehow confused victors with victims in the first two lines of Doctor Faustus reappears in the Complete Plays and Poems edited in 1976 by E. D. Pendry and J. C. Maxwell: “mate” is there glossed, though hesitantly, as “abash” or “defeat.”5 Most twentieth-century editors, however, have preferred to follow Cunningham in rescuing Marlowe from the imputation of forgetfulness. F. S. Boas wrote in 1932 that “If the reading is right, 'mate' appears to mean 'enter into alliance with'.”6 This opinion, adopted by John D. Jump (1962), by Roma Gill (1971), and most recently by David Ormerod and Christopher Wortham (1985), was ingeniously expanded in 1969 by J. B. Steane: “Mars 'mated' the Carthaginians ... in the sense that he entered into them: he was on their side and with his spirit in them they won (cf. Lady Constance on Fortune: “Sh'adulterates hourly with thine uncle John,” King John, III. 1. 56).”7

In the mean time, W. W. Greg had in 1950 suggested another possibility. Rejecting both Cunningham's proposal and Boas's paraphrase of it with the remark that “there seems no close parallel for such a use,” he returned to the lines cited by Ward from Henry VIII, where, in Greg's view, the word in question “has the sense of 'rival' or 'cope with'. This would involve taking Mars as equivalent to the military power of Rome, and such an interpretation seems, indeed, reasonable.”8

The argument is clumsy, however, since in this instance the military power of Rome failed utterly to cope with the Carthaginians, and could only in an ironic sense be said to have rivalled the army by which it was nearly annihilated. Greg's conjecture may thus seem to be a roundabout way of admitting the Marlovian ignorance or forgetfulness which it attempts to mask. But the interpretation seems to have been more convincing than the argument in its support: the gloss of “cope with” was adopted by Leo Kirschbaum in 1962, though with a question mark, and that of “rival (in military prowess)” by Irving Ribner in 1963.9

Arguments based upon the widely varying uses of the word “mate” by Marlowe's contemporaries—most of these are represented in the conjectures of modern editors surveyed above—cannot lead us to dismiss any of these interpretations as wholly unlikely. One might wish then to believe that even here, in his opening lines, Marlowe is announcing the irreducible ambiguity of a play in which, not solely because of its textual instability, modern critics have found widely divergent and even mutually contradictory patterns of meaning. But it seems just as likely that Marlowe either knew or did not know that the battle to which he was alluding was a stunning Carthaginian victory, and that the allusion reflects either his knowledge or his ignorance.

Nowhere, oddly enough, in all the glossarial activity traced above, is there evidence of anyone's having stopped to ask why in the first place Mars should feature in an allusion to the battle of Lake Trasummenus. Yet if one considers where Marlowe would have read about this battle, the answer is obvious: in Livy (as also in Plutarch's derivative and shortened account), the battle is said to have been preceded by terrifying portents, such as that Roman soldiers had been struck by lightning, or that their weapons had spontaneously caught fire;

... that glowing stones had fallen from the sky at Praeneste; that at Arpi bucklers had appeared in the sky and the sun had seemed to be fighting with the moon...; that the waters of Caere had flowed mixed with blood, and that bloodstains had appeared in the water that trickled from the spring of Hercules itself...; that at Falerii the sky had seemed to be rent as it were with a great fissure, and through the opening a bright light had shone; and that lots had shrunk and that one had fallen out without being touched, on which was written, “Mavors [an archaic form of 'Mars'] brandishes his spear;” that in Rome, about the same time, the statue of Mars on the Appian way and the images of the wolves had sweated; that at Capua there had been the appearance of a sky on fire and of a moon that fell in the midst of a shower of rain.10

Livy writes that the fears prompted by Hannibal's rapid descent into Etruria after the battle at Trebia were augmented by these prodigies. Given the prominence of Mars among them, it would be easy to interpret the whole sequence of portents as an expression of the war-god's collaboration with the Carthaginians, and to conclude (in the B-text variant of Marlowe's words) that “Mars did mate the warlicke Carthagens,” either in the sense of matching or allying his power with theirs (OED, v.2, 2), or in that of equalling or rivalling them (OED, v.2, 1) in their destruction of the Roman army.

One can thus believe, without strain, that Marlowe knew very well who triumphed “in the fields of Thrasimen” (B: 2)—and that, unlike his modern interpreters, he drew this knowledge from primary sources. It may be added that the notion of divine collaboration with human actions to a destructive end seems to recur in the outline of “the forme of Faustus fortunes” (A: 9) which immediately follows:

So soone hee profites in Divinitie, 
The fruitfull plot of Scholerisme grac't, 
That shortly he was grac't with Doctors name, 
Excelling all, whose sweete delight disputes
In heavenly matters of Theologie, 
Till swolne with cunning of a selfe conceit, 
His waxen wings did mount above his reach, 
And melting heavens conspirde his overthrow. (A: 16-23)

Divine grace, though unmentioned, is slantingly implied by the jingle of “grac't ... grac't”—and then cancelled by the heavens' conspiracy. Of course, this re-imagined fall of Icarus, which to some readers may seem a direct insinuation of divine intervention, can also be interpreted as a purely conventional locution.11

But conventions are not without meaning: the word conspirde cannot be wholly stripped of its powers of insinuation. And thus before Faustus commits apostasy in his turn to magic, and long before he mates, and is mated by, the “heavenly Helen” (A: 1351), the suggestion has been implanted that his destructive “selfe conceit” somehow supplements, or is seconded by, or mated with, a divine impulse tending towards his final destruction.

What might otherwise seem a sterile quibble over the meaning of a single word in the opening lines of the prologue may thus be dignified by the likelihood that this word offers us a first intimation of one of the central structures of meaning in Doctor Faustus.




1  Quotations from this play are taken from W.W. Greg, ed., Marlowe's “Doctor Faustus 1604-1616: Parallel Texts (1950; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), and are identified by Greg's line numbers; in my quotations u/v and i/j are silently modernized. I have quoted here from the 1604 or A-text of the play. The 1616 or B-text reads: “Not marching in the fields of Thracimen, / Where Mars did mate the warlicke Carthagens” (B: 2-3).

2  Alexander Dyce, ed., The Works of Christopher Marlowe (1850; rpt. London: Routledge, c. 1858), p. 79.

3  Francis Cunningham, ed. The Works of Christopher Marlowe (1870; rpt. London: Chatto & Windus, 1889), p. 139.

4  A. W. Ward, ed., Marlowe: Tragical History of Dr. Faustus; Greene: Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (4th ed.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901), p. 124. Ward identifies the passage from Henry VIII as III. 2. 2-4 and prints royalty for loyalty; I have quoted from R.A. Foakes, ed., King Henry VIII (Arden Shakespeare; London: Methuen, 1968), p. 115.

5  E. D. Pendry and J. C. Maxwell, eds., Christopher Marlowe: Complete Plays and Poems (1976; rpt. London: Dent, 1983), p. 530.

6  F. S. Boas, ed., The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1932; rpt. London: Methuen, 1949), p. 55.

7  John D. Jump. ed., The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (The Revels Plays, 1962; rpt. London: Methuen, 1974), p. 4; Roma Gill, ed., The Plays of Christopher Marlowe (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 335; David Ormerod and Christopher Wortham, eds., Dr Faustus: The A-Text (Nedlands, W.A.: University of Western Australia Press, 1985), p. 2; J. B. Steane, ed., Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), pp. 590-91.

8  Greg, ed., Parallel Texts, pp. 295-96.

9  Leo Kirschbaum, ed., The Plays of Christopher Marlowe (Cleveland and New York: Meridian Books, 1962), p. 483; Irving Ribner, ed., The Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe (New York: Odyssey, 1963), p. 357.

10  Livy, Historiae, ed. B.O. Foster (Loeb Classical Library; 13 vols., vol. 5 (London and New York: Heinemann and G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1929), XXII. i. 8-12: “Augebant metum prodigia ex pluribus simul locis nuntiata: in Sicilia militibus aliquot spicula, in Sardinia autem in muro circumeunti vigilias equiti scipionem quem manu tenuerat arsisse, et litora crebris ignibus fulsisse, et scuta duo sanguine sudasse, et milites quosdam ictos fulminibus, et solis orbem minui visum, et Praeneste ardentes lapides caelo cecidisse, at Arpis parmas in caelo visas pugnantemque cum luna solem, et Capenae duas interdiu lunas ortas, et aquas Caeretes sanguine mixtas fluxisse fontemque ipsum Herculis cruentis manasse respersum maculis, et Antii metentibus cruentas in corbem spicas cecidisse, et Faleriis caelum findi velut magno hiatu visum, quaque patuerit ingens lumen effulsisse; sortes adtenuatas unamque sua sponte excidisse ita scriptam: 'Mavors telum suum concutit;' et per idem tempus Romae signum Martis Appia via ac simulacra luporum sudasse, et Capuae speciem caeli ardentis fuisse lunaeque inter imbrem cadentis.” Plutarch's version of these events appears in his "Life of Fabius Maximus"; cf. Plutarchi Vitae, ed. T. Doehner (2 vols.; Paris, 1846-47), vol. 1, pp. 208-09.

11  The punctuation of the B-text encourages such an interpretation: “His waxen wings did mount above his reach, / And melting, heavens conspir'd his over-throw” (B: 21-22). But there is no reason to prefer this reading to that of the A-text.