Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 14

The House of the Goddess

In these autumn months, between Pamboiôtios and Boukatios, well after the first celebration of the Leuktra with its hekatombs and feasts, and the union of Damô and Chiôn, Mêlon found he could still not keep away from town, and he praised those on his farm as much as he sought to avoid them. The Spartans were defeated—and yet not quite defeated, given that thousands had escaped under Lichas. No doubt the surviving king, lame Agesilaos, was raising an army to stop the democracy madness, which like the black spills from the ink bottle was staining the entire Peloponnesos.

In the great uncertainty over quitting while ahead, or marching southward, some daimôn had turned Mêlon’s thoughts back and forth, to solitude and then company, to being alone and to following the tug of the mob, and all in a blink. From relief that he had survived Leuktra to restlessness that something else was promised, something far bigger in the south that remained a rumor. So in his mix-up Mêlon began seeing Phrynê, the newly arrived courtesan from Athens—though she claimed she had been born at Thespiai and worked hard to sound Boiotian. For his part, Mêlon claimed he only needed news in his calm after the battle, though, as Chiôn worried, his master liked too much the back pats of town when it would have been better to join his former slave on his treks across the mountaintops of Helikon or Parnassos. Nonetheless, Phrynê knew the whispers of thousands—knew them and whipped them up or put them down depending on whether or not they favored Epaminondas, whom she hated more than any man north of the Isthmos. She did not quite know why she hated him, and she gave differing accounts to her friends about the wifeless, childless Epaminondas and his reluctance to visit her salon. To her clients, she cooed about the Theban at first, praised the general for his philosophy, and then only slowly showed her doubts about democracy, helots, new cities to the south, and all the dreams of Epaminondas.

Mêlon heard Phrynê’s stories from both the peddlers of fruit and her own clients. Famous she was at Athens for having posed for the stone-artist Praxiteles himself. At ten and six years she had killed another prostitute, Lalagê, who claimed the tighter flesh. Phrynê had slashed her with nails and teeth, before finishing her off with a sharp mirror handle. Once when the young rhêtôr Hyperides, her lover, could not win an acquittal from the Athenian court for her profaning of the mysteries, she tore off her cloak in the dikastêrion and showed the Athenians her divine chest. She won the not-guilty verdict with her mastoi that the green orator could not. Then her titthoi pointed always upward. Her backside was hard as marble, curved, wide and full. Her tiny waist went in like the yellow-wasp’s middle, and then out again. “Crescent moon,” Hyperides had called her, for the bulge of her backside.

The Athenian sculptor Praxiteles was known to visit Thespiai to call on her girls to sit for all his stone goddesses—though he rarely asked Phrynê any more to model. In this great year of Epaminondas he saw the little pockets and rolls on her thighs, and the flesh that hung too much from the back of her upper arms. As she sagged—and she did so only a little, but still enough for the sculptor’s falcon eye to notice—she bore him no ill will. Instead she turned her hate of aging to men in general, and men with power in particular. Phrynê fought the cruel law of her lord Erôs. The belly and bald head of an old man—just like the Satyrs’ on the pots from Athens—did not mean he could not taste young flesh if his money and his vineyards grew with his years.

But for women? When the flesh spotted and its glow faded, when the hair thinned and the breasts drooped, then so did Erôs, the cruel god who saw only the wrinkled skin of the raisin, never the sweetness inside. To bear a child after lovemaking—and Phrynê had borne more than one—was a different sort of thing than a man’s single poke. If she would no longer be seen in stone, and tired of men, Phrynê turned her head to counting coins, and what it cost and what it brought in to please the citizens of Thespiai. She grew rich from her shop of love in a house built into the corner wall, and added tall talk and Theban pipers to her business of pleasure, piling up more silver than she ever had as a poser and seller of love. For dessert she sold the Spartan agents secret plans, ideas, and agendas, and all the things the powerful blurted out as she mastered their passions.

Better than Naïs, the courtesan of legend, she wanted to be. With her money, she would find a man of action to whisper to, to taunt, to flatter, to play an Aspasia to a Perikles, and through him to defeat age and the laws of the Hellenes that say women alone must be trapped in their cages of aging flesh while stupider men were not. So Phrynê charged the estate owner ten silver Boiotian shields, but the philosopher or general sometimes nothing. Perhaps this bias came out of love of wisdom, but more likely she was careful to win high friends—all except Epaminondas—who could keep her exempt from both the fickle mob in the assembly and the angry wives of Thespiai.

She had come to Thespiai to stop the town from fighting the Spartans; it was said that she had a box of Agesilaos’s gold. But, again, why did she hate Epaminondas more than did any Spartan? Perhaps she had lost business to the war, when the Boiotians invested in bandages and canes and not myrrh and frankincense. She worshiped at the altar of order and oligarchy; she knew clients by wealth, land, training, birth, accent, and parentage. Give this great leveler Epaminondas a cubit and soon he would take a stade and turn Hellas into a mixed-up rabble, where Phrynê would have to peddle her refined wares like the cheap harlots that lurked in the cemetery or the pottery kilns and took on all customers. Only hoi aristoi had the refinement to enjoy her houses of pleasure. In the world of Epaminondas to come, her slaves would be masters, her house frequented by smelly tanners and stained butchers who would choose always the younger flesh, never the smarter and more seasoned.

Phrynê claimed that she was not near thirty seasons (in truth, it was more). She had twenty strongboxes of coin to Mêlon’s two. The farmer’s visits to her house had all started when one of her girls had sent a message for “the hero of Leuktra” to visit the new symposia—a world away from Helikon’s vineyards suffering under Seirios, the Dog Star’s heat. Phrynê thought having the hero of Leuktra in her halls would be good business, as she reviewed the ways to praise the coming invasion of the south in a manner that might stop it.

Not happy just with the foreigners’ money, Phrynê had refurbished the Thespians’ temple to Erôs off the town square with a new fluted column and a hundred fresh roof-tiles. She even had paid for a new statue of Aphrodite near the south gate. Then she repainted the roaring marble lion at the city gate, added blue crystals for his eyes. “We get travelers from the islands, and from Thessaly way. They all hear of my house of Phrynê, and my statues. If I live another season, I will hire more potters from Athens. They’ll paint what my girls do on clay, and we will last forever.” With her silver, Phrynê stocked the back rooms with four looms and hired the widows in black to weave rugs and to sell to all her men what they could. That way the fools could go back home to their wives with gifts, and not just the scent of younger women on their cloaks. Always she sent them off with a word to stay home and forget the mad plans of Epaminondas. Phrynê still had beauty for most, and she knew it trumped all the philosophers’ pretensions and the dour reserve of the generals. Phrynê had reduced both to no more than street-corner beggars, eager to touch her hair, even a toe or finger—at least for a year or two more before her beauty faded altogether.

The woman’s given name was Mnesaretê. The Thespians had dubbed her Phrynê, “Toad,” on rumors that at Athens she had hopped on the couches from one prone lover to another with her long thighs. Despite her beauty, the foul name stuck. In any case she was tall for a woman—maybe as tall as Nêto and half a head higher than some men. Mêlon at first liked her because alone of the ripe women in Thespiai she had no eyes on his farm—nor on him, or so he thought. “I am the scarlet grape at harvest,” this Phrynê laughed to Mêlon, “plump and sweet. Yes, full of juice in the shade of my tendrils here in Thespiai. Why go up to thrashing the wheat stalks as Helios dries you out? I live for our god Love. Not for a man’s ox or even always for a coin or two. Better for you to come down here. I can teach you the ways of the polis. Perhaps with my teaching, within the year you will be Boiotarch or stratêgos. Think of it—General Mêlon, lord of the federation. Yes, side-by-side with our noble Epaminondas. That’s what wars are for—to winnow out the smart and brave and give them the fame to make them rich or powerful.”

In these months after Leuktra, the town’s timê erotos, its reputation for lovemaking, was as powerful as it had once been for war in the long-past age of its grandfathers. “No Spartans, no Thebans to worry about anymore, just love. We can turn our noses to what matters—and what we know too little about.” Soon Phrynê was a philosopher of war as well, and lectured her customers that Herakleitos and that young Platôn from Athens were all wrong. There really was an end to war for all time. This was the age of the end of war, to telos polemou. The previous year had been the season of Epaminondas’s war, and this year was to be the season of Phrynê’s peace.

Better men of this new age ate well, and they read and wrote on papyrus, and they made machines to keep time, and track the heavens, and lift stone, the polla ta deina of Sophokles. They were no longer like the savage warmaking Thrakians or Makedonians—bushy-haired primitive folk in hides who believed in killing for killing’s sake. Polis man, the new sophist Phrynê proclaimed, well, he was simply not as he had been in the past, and so no longer need a hoplite be. Lovemaking was stronger than the urge of pride, and honor, and fear and self-interest. Phrynê told anyone who listened, “It takes two phalanxes to fight. When we won’t, there won’t be war. I will rebuild the walls of Thespiai some day taller than those of Thebes, taller even than the new cities of Proxenos to the south, and then we will have no more need of spears. Why not have an erôpolis here in Thespiai? At my temple, here where our men can at last enjoy their own spear work? You stiff-legged Mêlon, don’t you know that song of your love-poet Mimnermos—“The crippled man pokes best of all”?

He nodded at that. The tall statue of her nude—carved as Aphrodite—always stood in the courtyard, shiny with a fresh sheen of olive oil. She had paid Eurybiades to have it carted off from Athens and the studio of Praxiteles. That brought as many into her house as did her ripe girls. Mêlon found himself wondering who was more alive, the stone or Phrynê herself. Soon she had the statue brought into a special antechamber and charged an Athenian drachma a look. Many from Athens and beyond trudged over Kithairon to gaze at the godly marble work. Yet the statue and her courtyard of pots were only a foretaste of what Phrynê had prepared inside her tall halls. There were torches around a large common room. A shallow splash pool in the middle was usually full. When Mêlon entered, there were often naked fat men whose slaves tilled all their fields, with two heavy-set girls each, all entwined in the water. Though from the look of it, Mêlon scoffed to himself, the bald-heads looked more in pain than in the thrall of Erôs. Did any of these shield-bellies, men or women, ever plow or prune?

Stone couches with pillows lined the room. Carved arms and legs served as arm rests. A mural ran around all four walls above the heads of the dozen or so who were drinking wine. A flock of airborne phalloi, erect with feathered wings, were painted above, like harpies attacking naked girls in flight. One had eyes wide and was spitting out from its fanged mouth at a targeted woman below with legs wide open. About half of these figures had penetrated the fleeing in every way imaginable. In two scenes, six or seven of the winged shafts had cornered a smiling yellow-headed Amazon and were hovering over her erect nipples as she fought them back with a club. Instead of the gnarly bark of the olive and the rocks of the barley field, this was now the afternoon view of Mêlon, son of Malgis, whose hands became more polished than cut.

On one table was an array of leather dildos, olisboi of various sizes and shapes soaking in olive oil. If that weren’t enough, the bottoms of all the wine cups of Phrynê were decorated with even worse, Satyrs and centaurs mounting men and women who themselves were mounting each other—the painted scenes all visible to the guests each time a man put wine to his lips. Yet Phrynê’s actual guests seemed far older than those frolicking on the walls and pots. Still, all this was of no concern for Mêlon, or so he said to himself, since it was usually enough for him to lie down, drink some wine, and listen to the gossip of the Thespians—especially the mention of the growing war circle of Epaminondas. He often met the roustabout Murmex and his master trader Eurybiades in the house of Phrynê as well. They had three wagons, as he once boasted, and they made the trip over Kithairon every ten days. Each month the two also went northward to the hot gates and the great plains of Thessaly and the vale of Tempê. “Democracy in Thebes and Athens at the same time?” Eurybiades laughed. “So border peddling is good for us. It will stay that way—unless that philosopher Epaminondas objects. That faker with Orpheus on his shield may get one of his war ideas again. He thinks he’s god and so starts up the war and heads into the morass down south.” The profits of Eurybiades from love piled higher even than those from the loot after Leuktra, so he now praised Erôs and damned the war gods Artemis and Ares.

Phrynê had claimed friendship with the sophists in Thebes. When she first opened her salon, she had courted the famous Alkidamas—who few saw, but whose words many heard. In the days before Leuktra, he had told Phrynê (so she said), “I say you are as firm as Naïs, my Phrynê, and with a livelier tongue. I knew her at twenty-five, but not at your thirty.” Phrynê wanted even more from the man. “Did she sing her Simonides and Alkman? Did she dance on her toes, or swing from a limb, or have breasts as these? How many of the Spartan bibases can she do? Can she jump up and hit her buttocks with her heels, hit them five hundred times as I do? Did she speak with Platôn in Attic, and dally in the bow and arrow with an Iphikrates?”

“No, no to all that,” conceded Alkidamas. “She bore me a son, the one Lichas or his foul son cut down at Leuktra. As handsome as I am ugly, Kalliphon was, though his shoulders were narrow and bottom too wide—like his mother’s. Now the earth of Leuktra covers his ashes. His name is carved in black marble with the others on the road to Tanagra, since he died for the dream of Epaminondas.”

“Our beloved general,” Phrynê spoke softly of Epaminondas to Alkidamas, “is some idol that we worship as if he were gold and ivory. And why not, given his strong right arm and his honey tongue and simple dress? For your Mêlon of the prophecies, Epaminondas promises that the lame-leg’s genius is at last appreciated, that he has an ordeal only worthy of a few select like himself, at least enough to pleasure us with his godhead as he now puffs himself up and struts down from his vineyard. For our dear Nêto, she thinks not just that she is a helot again, but has invented herself, of course, as a lord of the helots, our new Penesthelia, the Amazon general, at the head of some great serf horde that shall take down Sparta—quite something for a raisin seller just last year in the stalls weaving her webs to trap her rich master. And you, our brilliant Alkidamas, in your arrogance you believe your Epaminondas will make you first philosopher of Hellas, or maybe the new ruler of helot Messenia. Oh yes, then we have the gold-bags wall-builder Proxenos, who builds himself a castle and playhouse above the Asopos, and when that is not enough wants entire cities for his sport—as he frolics on his marble couches with that troublemaker Nêto. He too says he “is for Epaminondas,” without a clue that he is building these huge citadels for those who will turn on Sparta—and perhaps eventually on us. I’ve even had the great hoplite Ainias of Stymphalos in my halls, the best killer of all the circle of Epaminondas. He wants walls for his beaten-down Arkadians, and pledges his spear craft to Epaminondas in the exchange, the most honest thug of the lot. Touch a hair on the head of Lord Proxenos of the golden coins, the builder of Ainias’s fantasy walls, and you earn a spear in the gut from Ainias, who prides himself a “Tactician” after Leuktra. Oh, I forgot Chiôn. Chiôn always loose at night, even as he dares prance in here in day as first citizen of Thespiai, as if we must praise his killing of the far better men at Leuktra. Quite a crowd, this circle the childless, wifeless Epaminondas has conjured up. My, my, I must talk with him again some day.”

Mêlon had heard the same from Phrynê. He took solace in the knowledge that she, as the spurned lover, was now obsessed with the circle of Epaminondas, and that should the great man ever walk in, Phrynê herself, like some Kappadochian plaything out of the great king’s harem, would kowtow before the Theban. Mêlon still told himself he was here, he insisted, only on business and so saw Proxenos the Plataian on the fourth day of each new moon as he came into the halls of Phrynê covered with the dust of bricks and stone and the smell of lead and iron. Phrynê gave him free rein of her house, since Proxenos had promised that her salon would stay untouched amid his rework of the fortifications of Thespiai. His new walls would go out around her crumbling corner tower, built into what was left after the Thebans had dismantled the circuit. After Leuktra the frightened Thespians, who had abandoned the cause of the Boiotians, had hired Proxenos to raise their walls, lest Epaminondas pay them a visit. As for Proxenos, he wished to try out some of his circular towers on the town before he built a new one thirty cubits high down in the Peloponnesos. Proxenos and Ainias had been down in the south each month, busy with what they called “the big things,” ta megala pragma that were turning Hellas upside down in the land of the Spartans. So here in the house of Phrynê, Mêlon began putting together from the rumors of guests something more also about this Proxenos who appeared now to be committed to the plans of Epaminondas. And he assumed as well that anything he might tell Phrynê would up in about six days in the ears of Lichas himself—and on to the shadowy Lord Kuniskos of Messenia, the new master of the helots known even in the north.

As Mêlon pondered this Proxenos, more memories came to him. He knew of old talk of a a rich Proxenos, an oligarch who had lived on a farm with a high tower near the battlefield of Plataia, along the reedy banks of the Asopos River. The older Proxenos was a killer, with great chests of silver (and more still that Mêlon did not know of with gold), who foolishly went east to Babylon for pay under the Spartan Klearchos—the Spartan thug whose son had killed Staphis at Leuktra.

The shadow from his father’s past, he learned from Phrynê, was the father of this present Proxenos, this dusty man on the couch beside him. The older Proxenos, Mêlon remembered as well, had been murdered by the Persians while he parleyed for the Ten Thousand. Unlike the father, this aristocrat Proxenos spoke softly to Mêlon, in a careful Boiotian more like Attic as some did from the border town of Plataia. Watch these tame ones like Proxenos, Phrynê warned Mêlon later, these men who plan vast new cities that will only cause more war for the price of their craft—and their vanity and their sense of entitlement and their desire to be pure and loved and all the other fat fruit that the carrion Nemesis gorges on. In their cases, she hoped the furies would be Lichas and his son Antikrates, who got their prompts from tall-ears Phrynê up north.

Yes, the dreamers smile and keep their bile inside, or so Phrynê preached to her clients who followed Epaminondas. Give me your ugly Lichas at Leuktra any afternoon, who is what he is by his own scars. So Phrynê spoke to any who would listen and flirted when Proxenos entered, often with Ainias to discover the when and where of a winter march to the south: the one to found the great cities of the Arkadians, the new fetters of the Peloponnesos, the other to ensure that the Plataian would live to remake his fatherland in stone, and so at last keep it free from the hated Spartans.

Mêlon listened to her bile, but wondered perhaps if he, the hide-clad farmer on Helikon, might still match the aristocrat Proxenos, might earn Phrynê’s hatred as well with some great deed to trump even Leuktra. The delusions of the town now had him and squeezed him nightly. Yes, Mêlon, son of Malgis, might himself plan some big upheaval to the south, something of the sort his son Lophis had once boasted about. Yes, he might do even greater things to the south. He liked the rumor and big anger from Phrynê about Leuktra as he came in from Helikon and greeted the obsequious townspeople on his way to Toad’s house. No longer deemed crazy, he was no longer even mysterious, but was seen and trusted when the Thespians went to the assembly to vote for the blocks on the wall and to pay fair prices for the emancipated slaves that had earned their freedom when they went to Leuktra.

The road from eccentricity to respectability is not as long as one might think. Both rely first on being known. Mêlon’s name was certainly on the lips of most before, but especially after, Leuktra.

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