Ancient History & Civilisation


Between Peace and War


The Lizard’s Tail

Off in the distance a world away, far to the south in Messenia, maybe a thousand stadia away from Nêto on Helikon, at this very moment hawk-eyed Nikôn of the helots, would-be leader of the revolt, stared out fixed on the late summer moon. His helot rangers had backed off from their leader and let him scream in his drink on his rocky perch, as he did on occasion when they walked on the high mountain trails of Ithômê far above Messenia below. This Nikôn was a tanner and smelled of hides and lye, and he was unlettered. Yet he knew knife work and had led the fiercest of the helot rebels. Let the Messenian leaders parley with Lichas for a quarter, a half of Messenia. But he would free it all, and kill every Spartan caught on the wrong side of Taygetos. Now he was perched on a cleft on Mt. Ithômê in the land of the Messenians, and he kept repeating to the stars under the moonlight, “I am Nikôn of Messenia. Make way for me—or die.”

This same night Nikôn was on his second bag of sweet wine, and calling out to anyone under the same sky of Hellas. Did the men of Boiotia care that the heilôtai were whipped and killed and in the best of their moments pelted with rotten fruit, poked and lashed by the drunk Spartans at dinner in the syssitia? Did they know the Spartan overlords sang of “Messenê good to plow, good to plant” as if Ithômê were theirs, as if helots were but ants of their soil? Nikôn may have been the rabble-rouser of the helot rebels here on the upland. But the wine and the starry night on Mt. Ithômê had put him into a trance, as if his saviors in Boiotia, half the length of Hellas away in the north, might hear him—but only if he called out loud enough to their shared sky. He had heard voices of prophecy, of Epaminondas and Mêlon, of great armies to come, and of the Messenian woman to the north, Nêto of Helikon, who was promising a great reckoning this coming winter or next. Or so he told himself that there were real sounds and talk in his head, and not just gibberish brought on by two pouches of unmixed wine. He had no runners to send north for news, no money to visit the oracles at Delphi and Olympia for the gods’ plans. So the illiterate Nikôn yelled to the stars in hopes that an oracle, a priestess maybe in Boiotia far to the north might hear him.

“Who said who was to be free and slave? What god did this thing? The Spartans? Is their Lichas an all-powerful Zeus Sôter? Why for three hundred and fifty harvests have the Messenians been the asses of the men of Sparta, while all the rest of Hellas has been free?” But Nikôn was talking only to himself. Only his henchman Hêlos, who knew how to write the block letters and put his master’s thoughts onto scrolls, followed him on the high path on the cliffs of Ithômê. Loyal Hêlos had his own bladder bag, but one of icy spring water; and the good partner tried to get Nikôn to drink and dilute the raging heat in his head. It was also Hêlos, the finest scribe in the west of the Peloponnesos, who saw that the illiterate Nikôn alone of the rebel bands knew the mind of the Spartan, how to ambush him, how to goad the helots into killing their landlords.

The rest of the helots had taken the other path down after their nighttime patrolling. The rival Doreios yelled to them, “Join me—not this anvil-head Nikôn. His name spells defeat—not victory.” All this meant nothing to the mumbling Nikôn, who this night kept up his helot shouts at the moon. “I watched my daughters with horse tails, clipped to their butts, forced to neigh, poked by Spartans at the symposia. Or made to bellow like cows, mounted from the backside, to the strains of their bastard poet Tyrtaios. Or my son Aristomenes, flogged and kicked as he howled like a dog to the laughter of the Spartans, hit with their black olives and mushy apples and then dragged like a side of beef from his pony.”

Nikôn, in desperate appeal, thought he could plead to the female voice in his head from north in Boiotia. “Is there anything worse than for a man to pick his grapes, stomp them, filter the juice, store the amphora, and age the wine—only then to cart it over to the Spartan acropolis? To give them as apophorai—to be whipped for the service as the idle red-cape soldiers gulp down a year’s work, most of it ending up as piss and vomit on the floor?” Now Nikôn went on to the black night above, “Don’t forget the cleft of Kaiadas, the black abyss on Taygetos. Where we are thrown and then broken at the bottom, waiting at night for the wolves to eat our dying flesh as our tortured souls fly out from our ruined bodies.” Soon his dwindling band split off on the paths between the wild figs. They laughed at the wages of wine, for now they saw that their captain Nikôn, silhouetted on a rocky outcropping across the vale, was taken with one of his periodic manias, as he talked with voices that wafted in the air.

He was drunk. Dionysus had sneaked into his head. Or worse, he had chewed some of the wild weed with the bitter white flowers that made the horses and cattle bellow and fall over. Alone of all the leaders of the helots, Nikôn could see that an army would come, and that some men in Greece were for justice and not just plunder and their own pride when they marched to battle. He looked more to the gods above, as the late-night fog lifted, and he saw the yellow moon of the coming Dog Days, smiling at the very thought of the liberation to come.

“I am Nikôn. A Messenian. No helot. A free man. Born here in Messenia. Citizen of its Messenê to be. Messeeeniiiaaa. On free Ithooomêee.” Like the gray night wolf he yelled. He wanted his howl to reach the Spartans in their drink below and in dance behind their walls.

“Quiet, Nikôn.” From a distance across the ravine the rival helots of Doreios on their way to the villages called back. “Shut up, drunken fool. No more wine boasting—unless you want to bring back Lichas from the north and his helot henchmen to string us up. Hush, mad dog. Siga. Go home. Hêlos! Hit him, Hêlos, won’t you? Some leader—this fool who wobbles down a tiny path. Chew your bone alone, far off this holy mountain. Dry your gut out.” The helots sang and laughed, far away, at the fading cries of their would-be leader.

Let the others talk of revolt while only Nikôn’s men freed helots. Now Nikôn bayed at the moon all into the night. He clung to the ledge that pointed north to far-away Boiotia—as if in his sudden fit his godly Boiotians could hear him a thousand stadia away. “Eimi Nikôn. Eleutherios gignomai.” I am Nikôn … I am born free.

Yet for all the prophecies of Nêto and the drunken calls of Nikôn on his ledge, Epaminondas did no more marching this summer after Leuktra. Nor the next spring did he call out the Boiotians to descend on Sparta and free Nikôn’s helots. Most Boiotians instead thought that the great, the seemingly final victory at Leuktra had proved war to be the parenthesis and peace the natural, more common order of things. So in the hamlets around Thebes the yeomen hoplites went right on after the victory into their cycles of the farming year. The timeless soil cared little what its temporary human tenants thought or did. The ground mute beneath the farmers just endured and went on whether Leuktra was won or lost. War or no war, for free men or slaves, the tasks of the season—sow, weed, reap, cut, and thresh—continued day in, day out. For most of the other vineyard men on Helikon, the battle was no more to be remembered than the severed tail of the stone lizard who proudly wags his growing stub without a thought of the old one, rotting in the dirt.

After finishing the later vintages of summer, the three boys got to work on the autumn harvest of the olive trees. For all the visual splendor of the estate, there was a well-thought-out economy to it as well, as in its irrigation ditches from the pond above that meant less carrying of the water with the donkeys. The three threshing floors spaced near the grain and barley fields made the harvests far easier. The eighty plethra could produce twice the food of the neighbor Dirkê’s similarly sized place with about half her labor and expense. That gift—only vaguely appreciated in the past—was sensed by all in these days of loss. Mêlon had tried to let Myron go. But the awkward slave stayed on. Soon he followed Chiôn on the farm and even into the woods, like and not like him—both enormous, but Chiôn’s maimed arm impairing his stride far less than did Myron’s natural clumsiness. Myron had been freed by his presence at Leuktra according to the decree of the Thespians, and now earned his wages from the Malgidai.

Myron’s skill in the collection and spreading of dung hardly meant he knew pruning and tilling. But he met rebuke for his poorly cut spurs and his crooked furrows with a shrug. Like the Korinthian mirror glass in town, he turned the harshness back on his master. Chiôn was freed, but as a one-arm he was more unfree than he had been as a slave of two hands. He saw that a man’s body is his only master after all. Thoughts are nothing without the leg and arm, which alone turn word into deed. Yet he bore the hale newcomer Myron no grudge, praising his new henchman as he climbed high into the olives with his tree saw. “Myron is my left arm I lost at Leuktra,” Chiôn laughed to Mêlon. “This freed slave is not so bad, once his dung stink wore off and he picked up rocks in the field and quit collecting the mess of the public toilets. I wager no master ever will pry him off Helikon.”

“Yes, he’s our Sturax and Porpax come back alive,” Mêlon offered, “the new watchdog of the farm. Our lost tail has grown back longer, and the farm is as good now as can be without our Lophis.” Myron winked or twitched at that, since he knew them better than they knew themselves. So he let praise roll off his back, and looked down as they lauded him to the skies. Myron was working for different, better sorts now, and on a wage, no less—and so he no longer bore pots of dung from the city stalls to his master’s vineyard, in fear of the lash of his owner Hippias, who each summer morning galloped on his pony down the rows of the vines, hitting the backs of his slaves with his mule-tail whip. This Hippias often came by Helikon on his black horse to take back or sell off his Myron. But Mêlon’s spear and the dark look of Chiôn shooed him off, and reminded the mounted grandee that the assembly of the Thespians had freed all the slaves who had flocked to Leuktra to fight—a fact known to Hippias, who now wanted to keep the silver buyout from the polis and yet get his slave back for a double profit. No concern. Soon Hippias was no longer seen near Helikon—nor seen at all.

On a late summer morning, a year after Leuktra, it was Myron who found the rotting Medios, the Thrakian slave of Dirkê, the neighbor, hung up by his heels on a short pine tree far above the farm on Helikon—dead half a month or longer. Dirkê, Mêlon, and Chiôn soon followed Medios’s trail—he had been cutting oak for plowshares above the farm of the Malgidai, so Dirkê said—but uncovered no others tracks of his killer. Now in fear of a demon-like man-bear on Helikon, Dirkê for a while came less to the farm of the Malgidai. She certainly said no more about Medios. Dirkê told no magistrate, and wanted no talk of where Medios had been—or how he’d been hung up and sliced, and how there was a man-beast killer loose on Helikon. Otherwise, despite the warnings of endless war against the Spartans by Epaminondas, the long months after Leuktra proved among the most peaceful in recent memory in Thespiai. Soon no one missed Medios.

Meanwhile, the Spartan booty—helmets, breastplates, mess kits, swords, and even a few coins—from the battle turned up from the Attic border all the way up to Phokis. Farmers hiked often over Kithairon to Attika to buy stock and more slaves with their newfound money from the sale of plunder. The Thespian trader Eurybiades grew rich beyond his wildest boasting. His wagon full of pots and bronze creaked for days over the roads beneath Helikon to garner some of the captured Peloponnesian armor and coin in trade. At least ten thousand Spartans from the Peloponnesos, Eurybiades figured, had left most of what they had brought up. His practiced eye would find the final remnants of what they had cached in stone crevices and in cusps of trees.

“Not since my beardless days, all this money. Then I used to loot both sides of Kithairon. I’d strip the high border farms below Panakton of their roof tiles. Yes, and even the woodwork in the great war. But not like this. Never such a full cart like this. At this rate, I will buy another wagon. Maybe I’ll hire this new Myron of yours, to follow me in my dust with another ox for my wares. Why, there are even Athenians who pay to ride back over the pass with me, just to look at the soil of Leuktra, to boast that they have walked on its holy ground. I’ve got my boy over there peddling clay toy Boiotian shields to the fool gawkers, with the sides notched out just like yours in the shed, and stamped on the front side with EPAMINONDAS.”

“Oh, no, you won’t take our Myron, king peddler. I’ve taken a liking to his empty head and wide shoulders. He stays here with Chiôn.” Mêlon grabbed Eurybiades by the arm, “He’s worth more than any three of them. Even his master, the whipper Hippias, won’t get him back with a chain around his ankle.”

There were to be more battle monuments for Leuktra, and victory decrees and temples from the booty. Thebes for most of the winter after Leuktra and following spring had sent its best monument builders and stone-cutters up to the sanctuary at Delphi. Of course, the architect Proxenos was hired to accompany the first party to survey the site. He would barter with the holy shrine keepers over the fees for buying a spot. The Boiotians were to build their own treasury on the Sacred Way, right in front of the Athenians’ Parian marble eyesore.

Proxenos had become a court builder for the Boiotians. He traveled with scrolls stuffed with charts and lines drawn to make sense from the wild rantings of Epaminondas. Why he left his estates and horses on the Asopos, none were too sure, only that he came up to Thespiai more even than to Thebes, and to his home Plataia not at all. He was at work redesigning the walls, building clay models of vast new cities and for weeks taking trips south of the Isthmos with his packs of scrolls. Perhaps he wanted to build anew entire shrines and cities even, without the bother of old temples and the burden of poorly placed stones to hamper him—straight streets and right corners of fresh cities to rise, and not the hard work of straightening winding pathways of their fathers’ cramped and dark poleis. Maybe too Proxenos wished to bring the mind of Epaminondas to stone, so that when his words were forgotten the ramparts of Megalopolis or Messenê would not be.

Soon Proxenos designed a white marble monolith right at Leuktra itself, on the spot where King Kleombrotos had fallen. The polished stone trophê was shaped like a cucumber of sorts. At its base the trademark notched Theban shields ran continuously around the circumference. Mêlon visited the builders at the big monument at Leuktra four times over the winter and spring. The tall column was as high as the new pyramids outside Argos on the Tripolis road, but of better stone than the plastered Herakleion at Thebes. For all the talk of Leuktra as the beginning of a new Hellas, it now appeared to have been the end of that idea, especially since nothing much had happened after the battle. If the tenure of Epaminondas were not renewed at the winter solstice, the new Boiotarchs would end all talk of a grand march into the Peloponnesos.

Widowed Damô was slowly regaining her looks. With her glow came back her power that had once reduced Lophis to teary entreaties to win her from the other nine suitors in Thebes, who had as much land and money, but also the coveted flat black earth around Kopais. Beauty is the great leveler among men, Damô remembered after Leuktra. She knew that folk didn’t like some men because they were short, or dark, or had the barbarians’ blue eyes and red hair, or could not speak the language of Hellas or owned only a cloak, rather than bottomland along Kopais. But the unspoken prejudice was really against their ugliness. In turn, the favor and advantage went not so much to the well-born, or the male, or even the moneyed, but to the beautiful. Children had suited Damô’s look, and had widened her hips a bit only, but had added a sheen on her skin and a sway to her walk. This new Damô, hair black and skin without a blemish, with the high mountain narkissos of spring in her hair, went quickly through to the agora and the stalls, lest the women pelt her with roof-tiles and flower pots as she called them out.

Had she wanted, she could have robbed the mesmerized peddlers’ stalls to their own applause. In this way each six days as she went into Thespiai, Damô shamed and confused and laughed and swore at those down the hill in the town of Thespiai below the farm on the spur of Helikon. She spat at them that they had sent no hoplites to help Lophis and their fellow Boiotians at Leuktra. “Gaze out at our monument to Leuktra, built by our Proxenos, a hero of Leuktra. See it from the acropolis of Thespiai, and feel shame,” Damô barked at the Thespians as she shook her head and her black hair flew in the breeze. Without a husband, but with plenty of silver, she was bolder than ever now. All that only gave her sensible words even more credence, but it hardly stopped the rumors that Chiôn was up in her tower when the torches went out. Would that be so bad after all, the older one-toothed widows countered and hissed?

Despite the unexplained murder of Medios, the winter and spring after Leuktra on Helikon were ending in quiet—almost. After the summer solstice, Hippias, the former master of Myron, was found dragged by his horse on the mountain road to Aigosthena. His hand had strangely been caught and wound up in his reins, or so they also said, even as he boasted he was on his way with a decree from the city archon to get back his Myron from the Malgidai. No doubt, the horse bucked and bolted with Hippias trailing for a stade or two on the ground, his skull battered on the rocks. A freak accident, it was.

Or so they said.

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