Ancient History & Civilisation


Nêto Unbound

During these dog days on the farm in the calm year after Leuktra, when the midday sleeps were the longest, Nêto moved out of the estate and prepared to head south on the scent of an autumn war and upheaval. She was, of course, her own person after the emancipation decree of the Thespians for all those who had gone to Leuktra—even those slaves in the camp who had not put on armor and joined the ranks. Nêto had known no other home but Helikon, since her sale ten and more years earlier. Nêto was now renowned in Thespiai as the conduit to the voice of divine Pasiphai. She was acclaimed as the one seer of the north who rightly had seen in her sleep that her master Mêlon, the apple, would kill Kleombrotos. She had promised that the Thebans would prove mightier in war at Leuktra. That too had happened. That she knew even more about the fates of Proxenos, Chiôn, and Gorgos, perhaps even Mêlon and Epaminondas, she now kept quiet.

The new freedman Myron was about town as Nêto once had been, talking up the Malgidai and soon to reopen the family fruit stall that Nêto had begun. Myron talked with much more zeal, since for a collector of dung it was quite a rise in life to sell cucumbers and raisins as a free man, in the shade of a stone stoa no less. Of course, his master Hippias had been murdered and could not sue to reclaim his property, and he had no agenda about helots and Spartans and such things in the south. Few on Helikon cared that Nêto had found and hired Myron—only that he was the new Nêto without the babble. Soon she was now as irrelevant when freed as she had been valued when a slave despite her fame in town. Eudoros and Neander needed no guide, either. She even faulted herself for the dead Sturax, who had gone with Gorgos to the camp of the Spartans, but never returned. Worse still, she had lost the other Molossian hound Porpax as well. All these thoughts, both trivial and fundamental, piled high in her mind. Each was like the stones on Chiôn’s terraces, and together they pressed her down to a sort of mania—that she was now the enemy of her own people, now the exile in her own land. Be careful, she remembered her Pythagoras, of getting too much of what you dream for.

Added to these constant second thoughts and regrets was the growing paradox of her long harangues about the freedom of the Messenians delivered from her safe perch on Helikon. Was it not more honest, as Damô had lectured her, to agitate when actually on Mt. Ithômê with Nikôn and his helots, where such talk meant often death? After Leuktra, with her freedom and the fame of her master, she thought at last Mêlon might wed her. He was a recluse, a duskolos anyway and would care little of what the Thespians might say about taking a freedwoman as wife. With Chiôn and Damô and the three boys of Lophis, and her boys to come, the farm would enter its greatest phase and would no doubt carve even more new fields from Helikon. Instead Mêlon had ignored her and talked more of the rumor-monger Phrynê’s salon than the high pond where they used to gaze out at the hillsides below when she put him to sleep with her Thisbean strains. Nêto had tried to purge herself to cleanse out the black bile. A doctor in Thespiai had bled her as well. Still the cloud surrounded her. Night became more welcome than day.

With her pupil Proxenos gone often to the south, Nêto had also met a strange new teacher, this Alkidamas, who kept his hands out of her chiton and instead encouraged her visions. On the day before she decided to leave Helikon, she saw him coming out of the house of Phrynê, outside of which she had developed a habit of lingering and watching when she finished peddling the farm’s harvests. His admonitions had helped to convince her to leave, although that was not necessarily his intent. “You are our bridge to the Olympians. As their superstitions fade with the bright sun of logos, they impart shadows of things to come to you as their final gifts. Use them for us, Nêto. Leuktra was not the end of things as they say. But as the Olympians whisper, the beginning of them all. Things are on the move to the south, though we cannot sense that yet in the quiet up here.”

Be careful of surrendering completely to geometry and measures and numbers, Alkidamas had also taught her—lest she build her house on false reason, one weak foundation supporting ever more mud bricks of logic before collapsing altogether. Logos is a cold god. It could not explain all that he promised to explain. Reason might tell us why and how black and yellow bile differ, or how to measure the distance to the moon. But logos cannot say why one farmer suffered so from the bad air and fevers and another didn’t. Or why one man was run over by a wild cart and another veteran of five battles lived to eighty. No, she needed faith in a moral god as well, not just pure reason and not just the deathless ones on Olympos who were worse than men. On the afternoon after listening to Alkidamas, Nêto passed Mêlon on her way down the trail and sealed the parting. “Whoa master, it is too hot to hike up in the sun. Look at you without your broad hat. Fetch it from the shed.”

“Is that where it is?”

“Yes. Put it on.”

“Nêto, Nêto, always the slave. Though you are freer than any politês in Boiotia and all that you saw came to pass. So well did the gods—or at least Pasiphai in the south—breathe into you the ways of the future. But remember, Hellas is wild. You are weak and a woman and going where such kind do not venture—even if you claim to be a priestess and a freedwoman at that, and under the protect of Chiôn and Mêlon of Leuktra. I gave you freedom, and you trumped it, but that does not mean others see that way. If I was foolish enough to come up bareheaded in the heat, why are you so silly coming down alone and without a hat as well?”

“Let me worry about the heat, man of the city.”

“Well, you alone on Helikon have a fountain pipe to bring you cold water. Here are five silver shields I got for the bag of dried pears I carried down today to peddle in town, though I hear I did not do as well as you did yesterday.”

“Pay me nothing, Mêlon. I eat more on your farm alone than I earn these days. I am going to see Theanô, the widow of Staphis, to help her with the vintage. It is not safe anymore with even tough Thrakians murdered in the wild—and Hippias, master of Myron, killed like a dog. Yes, this man-bear that killed Hippias and maybe Dirkê’s two men, he is out there above the timber line. They say that Hipponichos, son of Hippias, bars himself in fear in his tower—although I figure he may already be rotting up there hung from the rafters, and can’t answer the door. Theanô is a Messenian—again like me, a helot at birth.”

“Theanô is good and poor, you mean, Nêto,” Mêlon went on, “But you have chores here. Neander wants to learn your block letters. Damô says you must nurse Chiôn’s new one. It comes with the spring. Your shovel-head Myron needs help. He is a dull one, an empty skull to begin with. The vintage is good. But only because you clipped off the excess bunches. We—I most of all—have more need for you than ever. I miss your tune of Thisbê to call me down from the high orchard.”

“Not at all.”


“Never. I am needed only to keep the farm so you may not, to stay in the orchard, so you can go into town.”

Mêlon ignored this final chance to show her proof of his devotion and instead offered only lame small talk. “Who will hear my tales of spear play at Koroneia? Now I’m boasting only to the ox Aias and the pigs of Leuktra.”

Nêto blushed and then laughed, “Even they forgot you. The only pigs you know are the fat men in the halls of Phrynê. Damô runs the agora. When she prances in, they either leave or keep quiet if they know what is good for them. The agora is your home now. Or so Dirkê whom you love so well tells me of this Phrynê. Oh yes, and her soft pipes and full table and more still. Beware of such a woman who will roast you even without fire, who wishes to be mistress on Helikon to the hero of Leuktra and lord over our widow Damô. Each word you utter is known to Lichas in the south. She might as well brand a lambda on her forehead. Peace used to bore you. Beware that victory ruins us as much as defeat.”

Such a strange thing, Mêlon knew, that those who have no formal bond, and no history of physical love between them, nevertheless expect each other not to taste the flesh of others. Stranger yet that they both understand and honor such a pact though no words are ever spoken and they themselves are resigned to wait for each other—without worry that the wait may prove endless and outlast the flesh. He had half-expected that Nêto knew that he wanted her as his wife, without ever asking her—or even making her his wife. Wasn’t the idle wish of his enough? Did she not know that he had risked his all to stop the Spartans, the oppressors of her dear helots? And had he not accepted Pythagoras on her prompt, and then let her roam over Boiotia, flirting with Alkidamas and Proxenos as they recruited for Epaminondas?

He grabbed her shoulder and made Nêto look him square in the eye, despite the glare from the stones. Mêlon felt a sort of pity for Nêto. Her ambition put her hopes into something greater than the greatest battle of the age that had just passed—as if to be alive during Leuktra was not enough for any mortal, much less a helot girl on Helikon. Did she know how small her world really was? Or how those far greater than her determined whether she and her kind lived or died?

Just over a year earlier, when the black clouds of Sparta hung over Helikon, all in town had listened to her prophecies and begged her to repeat her strange promise that the Thebans would be mightier in war. But now? Those were her great days lost. Then Lophis was riding about and Mêlon let her run the farm. Then Chiôn and the dogs were at her side. Gorgos was lusting after her blush, in the long afternoons of the spring and summer of the previous year, before everything had changed at Leuktra. The rich man Proxenos thought he would free and marry her, or so he boasted. She alone was the ear for Mêlon. He was the recluse eager for the news of the world below. She had once been his only conduit to the polis people beneath. Mêlon thought how foolish men lament that the long days are always the same. They are not, he knew. We change even as we speak. So in his folly he judged that the world had passed young Nêto by. In his new fame from Leuktra, and life in town, he felt sorry for her. Or was it that he feared that she might well not need the farm and tower anymore—and that she talked in confidence rather than hurt? Or that she might be as wary of wedding as he? Mêlon’s last words of lament surprised him. “Nêto, come back with us. Theanô can hire Thrattos. She is better off for Leuktra and is no helot, but the widowed hero of a great man Staphis and with coins for his death no less. Come back and let us both avoid town and work the vineyard, side-by-side.”

He took his hand off her and looked down, “You are the one that all the men of Thespiai talk of—some with many vines and six hundred plethra of the bottomland at their call. They would all yoke you this very summer. Come back to us. Stay.”

Nêto flashed. “I earn my keep as all free women do: with work. I have no need of the men of Thespiai. Like women they stayed in the theater when we all marched to Leuktra. They watched you and Chiôn and Lophis and Staphis carry the yoke of Thespians. Believe me, I have no love of the Thespians, men or women. Some are like Backwash, the others Phrynê. Their backsides from sitting are wider than the shoulders they never use. They would as soon kill as free a helot. Nêto as you knew her is gone and for good. And so is the old Mêlon of Helikon.”

Mêlon was drawn to her even more by her defiance. But he saw finally that she was already gone from the farm. She would not come back. Not unless perhaps he would offer her what he would not yet give. He liked the idea that some day they might run the farm as two, but he saw too late that for too long he had liked even more the notion that she would wait for that moment without really thinking it would ever quite come. “Go then. Be the helot you are. Scrub the floor of Theanô. Forget the needs of the boys of Lophis. Go play the Thisbean strain to Lord Proxenos. Sit at the foot of Alkidamas.”

Siga, calm, master. You speak only in anger and hurt. What I see and hear of the army to come is not really of my doing,” Nêto quietly countered, “but only what the goddess warned me long ago. I don’t believe in these Olympians. I know only their anger at my treason, and my loyalty to the One God of Pythagoras. So they have put voices, wild ones, in my head. Because of them, I am not leaving you as much as beginning the trip south, where I think we two will see each other a last time and perhaps for good.”

She continued more slowly. “There is a Nikôn to the south. He is a tanner, a poor man but one who fights. His better helots just talk. But Nikôn kills Spartans. I hear his voice in my head. He says he needs me soon, needs a prophet of things to come as guide for his gangs, needs a voice to counter the lies about us that Phrynê up here sends down there. And Alkidamas says there is a poetess as well that will go south with me before this summer ends. She’s a great charmer who can help stir up the Messenians as well. Helots should help helots free themselves. And you, master? Some day you will stop thinking you, in your quiet arrogance, are not quite part of the world and join us who are in it up to our necks.”

With that, Nêto passed him by as she made her way down. Mêlon noticed that she had a short double-edged blade, a Spartan xiphos that she had probably taken from one of the corpses the previous summer at Leuktra, to go along with her jagged single-edged chopper. Mêlon left her with, “It is hot today, girl. But your wits were long ago cooked. Be happy with a free Boiotia. Let the Spartans be—unless you must dress up your desire for Alkidamas with talk of trumpets and banners. Unless you have your eye on some helot lord, some tanner Nikôn to the south if it has not been Proxenos already.”

Nêto kept her head down and moved down the path alone, chattering away, her words heard by no one as Mêlon was already up the trail. She was chanting, stitching together words of a song that came into her head, between Thisbean strains on her reed pipe. “Farewell—until the winter, until the winter when we will meet far away on Ithômê.” But he was already long gone and well around the turn, with only a stade left to the tower and home.

She missed him at the first bend; and Mêlon for his part began to miss her the very moment she turned away.

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