Ancient History & Civilisation


The Healing of Mêlon

By mid-autumn, Phrynê was shooing strange customers from her house and angry even as her coin boxes filled with the new business. Their accents were not Boiotian, even in out-of-the-way Thespiai. These bounders were not mere northern pilgrims on their way to consult the Pythia at Delphi. They had no religious business with Apollo of Ptôon. Most were fighting men of scars and dirty leather. Now they camped outside the walls of Thespiai and said little to the natives, as they drilled and sparred in bronze. Thebes would be mustering soon, and thousands of foreign hoplites were spreading over the countryside of the Boiotians. Phrynê sent messengers to Lichas, in silly fashion thinking that after Leuktra there were still enough Spartans left to come north—when, in fact, those who had survived the battle still woke with the night terrors of seeing again Epaminondas, Mêlon, and Chiôn in their armor.

Some at the campfires danced the Pyrrhic with their shields and spears and bought women. They sang the enoplia war songs in Doric. Their tents and shacks surrounded the walls. Even when sleet showers of winter came, men camped in the cold in the last months of the year, as if the foreigners and xenoi knew more than the Thebans themselves what would happen next. Mêlon had no luck hiring any of these itinerants for the final end of the olive harvest. Many were not like hoplites of the polis, but had the look of hired killers. They talked of money to be made from plunder in the south. What were they doing here—when it was the coming of the cold solstice, and the season of arms long past? What rogue, Phrynê screamed in her halls, had summoned them here?

Then arrived more winter roadmen, at first all northerners, later from almost every region of Hellas, marching on the trails leading over the northern passes into Boiotia. Lokrians came. Horsemen too rode in from Thessaly on taller ponies. Then trudged in later islanders from across the strait of Euboia and beyond. All of these by the first frost walked in the streets of the Boeotian cities as if they owned the polis. Chiôn saw that his Aegean folk were rowing in ahead of the winter storms. Some came from as far as Lesbos and Samos with accents like the Aeolic Hellenes—maybe his kin from Chios as well, or so a stocky Melian down at Kreusis told him in town when Chiôn hiked over to watch some of these island sorts sail in (and to turn upside down Nêto’s prophecies that he should not view the waves and breakers).

Even Arkadians from Mantineia were marching northward to Boiotia in twos and threes. All heading now for Thebes, all going over the gulf road near Aigosthena along the water and up through Kreusis. Five hundred Messenians had come east along the coast from Naupaktos. These were the children of the helot refugees in the north freed at Pylos during the Athenian war. Thirty years later they swore to deliver their kin from the Spartan yoke. Most still had their Doric talk. Mêlon tried for a time to race against this great shaking up in Boiotia and finish the olive harvest in his own world on Helikon.

As the family team worked in the shortening days of late autumn during the month of Boukatios, Chiôn proved the natural father all along to Mêlon’s grandsons. The dead Lophis for all his spirit had had no heart in either the land or its sons. He too often swore when the deep mud caked inside his long fingernails, and the boys tried to mount his sleek charger Xiphos and pile on behind their father. “We are not all men of the soil,” Malgis once had warned his grandson Lophis. “You find keeping this farm for your sons hard, but keep it nonetheless you must. A farm is the stored work of a man’s life. Lose it, and the rope snaps, with you, the weak weave. Then the boys will not have what you were given. You inherit, and see to it that you add to it—so others get more than you did. We Malgidai, we will buy the soil of others, or cut out more from the mountain, but we will not sell, not now, not ever.”

Mêlon suddenly thought of all that now. How had the gods accomplished that the farm would be saved by a slave that his father had bought in Chios, land that otherwise might have been lost had his own son, who thought of town more than a hillside of olives, lived? Still, he missed his Lophis in the morning. No more did his son climb up bleary-eyed and full of talk from his nighttime rides at the marshes and beyond. When sons die before fathers, it is soon time for fathers to follow. Even if their hair is not all white and their joints are not yet frozen with the swelling and stiffness; and even if their son proved a worse sort than the father, himself a worse sort than his own father Malgis. Lophis had proved just the opposite; as good as Mêlon or better still. He had a year, or maybe two left, and that was perhaps all Mêlon deserved. No need to be greedy and take more than your son had—and so this thought too began to make the Thespian think Leuktra had not been enough and he might go down the mountain to talk to these growing hordes of hoplites who were camping in the orchards and vineyards of Boiotia and do yet one more big thing before the end. Slowly all thought of town soured him. And he felt shame that he had spent even a single afternoon in the Thespian agora rather than with a ladder in the orchard.

Only out on Helikon did his head clear and could he think again. Wars were not just won by hands like himself and Chiôn, the killers and gray-heads that hold firm in the spear crossing and don’t flinch when iron tips rattle off their nose. There is need of young zealots such as Lophis who could ride head-on into the Spartan horse, with no foreknowledge of the gore of battle and no fear of Hades. Without young men who know it not, there could be no war brought to the land of others. So war is a sort of madness. It requires young men in their pride and recklessness who have no wisdom about how thin the threads of all of us hang—and so are willing to confront evil. Hoplites not yet much beyond their twentieth year believe their fate is a hardened iron chain that can’t be cut by anyone or anything. So they fight even to get into the first bloody rank of the phalanx.

In the long nights in the shed behind the farmhouse Mêlon grasped how sorely he missed Nêto, whom he now regretted having driven off the mountain—though of course he really had not driven her off. Indeed, only by deluding himself that his words had banished her could he accept that he feared she had tired of him and the farm and the neglect which he had shown for both her and the crops after Leuktra. He was afraid this Nikôn or Doreios—or worse still, the wealthy and landed Proxenos—had stolen his Nêto. Alkidamas had “taught” Nêto, but Mêlon scarcely knew what had been the nature of his lessons. That she had left for her helots, he knew; that she had left to raise her own station, and in that way at last to win her Mêlon, he had not even a small sign.

Almost as a revelation during the olive harvest, Mêlon now saw the broken terraces, cracked clay pipes, and trellises that had gone unrepaired in the vineyard in his absences down the mountain in the long months since Leuktra. How mad to have played the hero in Phrynê’s house and left his own to decay. Just a year of neglect and nature gets the upper hand. Nature never rests as man sleeps or dawdles in town. Nature gives us mold, rust, and wrinkles as occasional evidence of her silent, ceaseless work—the poisonous mushrooms that sprout out of nowhere after the rain. The farm fights the wild daily, but without man to stem the tide, feral nature reclaims its own in one season of weeds, and insects, and floods. Mêlon rediscovered himself as the land slowly began to heal him and bring him back to what he had once been. Yes, he was a geôrgos of Helikon, a farmer of civilization. He was no wild bacchant on Kithairon. His were not the maenads who danced on Mt. Ida in worship with her cymbals to Kybele. Those fools liked nature in the raw and laughed at the hard work of bringing culture out of savagery. Instead, his gods were the sober makers of things, divine Athena and the bitter Hephaistos. They were not wild and untamed Dionysos of Asia. They were not the Spartans’ huntress Artemis. Yet he was not a townsman either, who in softness had forgotten how to read the south breeze and the storm warning of birds and hoppers in the air. He was not to be a gawker or lay about in the halls of Phrynê, the seductress who had taught him so well that it was the land, not his own character, that kept him at work and away from the idle and slothful.

No, Mêlon son of Malgis was a mesos, a middle-man, neither feral nor tamed. From now on in these last days before the muster of the army, he would stay up on Helikon and tend to what he had neglected. He would go back to farming, and grow food from scrub and wait for a call from Epaminondas. The way to be ready for another battle was to ignore the talk of it in town, and instead ensure that his right arm was hard from pruning and he was once more used to sleeping on boards rather than reclining on the couches of Phrynê. Yes, that was the key, to be ready for the moment when it arrives even if that rendezvous be distant and unsure. If he wished to see beauty, it would have been far wiser to have gazed at Nêto for a blink between olive pickings than to have stared at Phrynê all day in her house of sloth.

So Mêlon was no longer hero of Leuktra, big man of Thespiai, but now cured once more and back to bald, lame Mêlon of Helikon, shorn of his slaves, and a mere tiller of the soil. As he stayed up on Helikon one evening about dusk the new dogs of Damô, Phylax and Hormê, began yapping at noises. But theirs was a different sort of bark. It was the rarer sort of yelp on lonely Helikon that most always foretold the scent of man, and strangers at that. Mêlon stopped the pressing to walk a bit out of the back room of the shed. What would the dog noise augur this time? Dirkê’s new Thrakians, or those left-handed conspirators of Pythagoras? Was the man-bear lurking near? And were the old myths even true, that man-bears still roamed like the half-gods Agrios and Oreios, whose mothers had mated with wild beasts in the high mountains? Were they again sweeping down from the north—now human in appearance, now in their fits assuming the shapes of half-bears with the cunning of men but the claws, fangs, strength, and savagery of animals?

From the crossbeam of the shed Mêlon grabbed his new Bora, the replacement spear that he had turned out from a log of cornel, with its iron head resharpened. He made ready outside the pressing room to stand his ground. Then to his surprise he met both Proxenos the Plataian and Ainias of Stymphalos—the first he had seen recently in town, the second not so often since the long day at Leuktra. The dogs ceased their barks as they saw the master put away his weapon. The one was well-groomed with his ink-black beard, combed hair, and clean tunic. But Ainias not so. The mercenary’s face was of stubble, and he had stitches and patches all over his leather jerkin.

Mêlon himself was covered with oil and pith. The king-killer was worn out at his twentieth straight day in the pressroom, having often worked the evenings alone to catch up to the picking of one-armed Chiôn and the boys. The two visitors came through the shed to the backside in the flickering torchlight. Both were shifting baskets of overripe olives to find room to sit on the slippery stone floor. Proxenos the builder stared in amazement at the elaborate machine that Mêlon had built. With the help of Chiôn and the tutelage of the peddler Eurybiades, Mêlon had spent years improving it—finally perfecting the original design of Malgis.

Murmex, the dog peddler and henchman of Eurybiades, had brought in parts for the press from Athens as well. The peddler knew more about such levers and stones than he let on, since he spent time boating along the islands off Argolis where his own folk proved clever with such machines. There was nothing quite like this press in all of Boiotia, the entire floor of the room finished in shiny hydraulic plaster. The surface was waterproofed like the fountain bottom in the square in Thespiai—as well done, Eurybiades claimed, as the famous public pools of Megara. Mêlon had cut channels that led to giant pithoi. Receptacles were set into the floor at the corners of the room. These cuttings seemed to run slightly downhill from the center, where rested a large round polished limestone drum. It was a smasher of sorts. It was set atop a stone casing, where crushed half-black olives were piled. A fifteen-foot oaken beam held the stone. On one end it was attached to the wall on a heavy axle, resting on bricks of the building.

The other end of the beam near the opposite wall was anchored by heavy ropes on a pulley to the ceiling and cranked further by a windlass. That machine forced the beam downward. With it, the attached stone smasher in its middle pressed the olives. It had taken Mêlon three seasons to build, and a lot of talk with the peddlers to learn of the strange design. Proxenos, the architect of walls and gates, gazed at the ingenuity of the press. He would have liked to stay here on the farm, and have built one like it, only better, since he already saw ways to improve it. “Mêlon, you should be in charge of the walls of Thespiai and those rising to the south. I have not seen anything like this. Well, once maybe at Haleis. There a fellow I know on the coast of the Argolis, a Diôn, son of Diophanes, has built such things—before in jealousy his neighbors broke it up with mallets. The envious were slave-dealers, of course, who wanted no such machines.”

Before Mêlon could reply, an impatient Ainias got up and probed the press. He stroked his stubble beard, and wondered whether it were not salvaged from one of the belly-bows, or maybe parts of a catapult frame that killed men from two stadia. He hit the beam with his shoulder. He pulled at the lever a bit. “Show us how this thing of your gods works. I have no notion of it. It looks like the funny machines they play with at Athens that keep our time and chart the heavens. Is it a toy? A weapon perhaps? One of Homer’s automatons? Clearly it works. How else would your jars be overflowing with oil?”

Mêlon kept quiet. He leaned back and cranked the windlass on the beam’s end two more notches. Then he put a foot-long wooden peg in the holes of the gear. That held taut the ropes. The beam could not spring back up from the resistance of the pile of olives. A thud followed. The heavy ropes had pulled down the end of the beam. In turn, it forced the stone press weight at its middle farther down on the pile of olives in the receptacle. As Mêlon relaxed, the two observers clapped as a fresh stream of oil spurted out through a small cutting beneath the stone and into the channels on their way to the jars. “Before Malgis died,” Mêlon spoke as he rose back up, “he had brighter ideas still. We were to put this entire business on a high foundation, with three steps up to the floor of our new room. That way we would not have to ladle out the oil from the storage jars. The ducts instead would lead to pipes that would go through the wall. All onto a cart with jars outside. Clever?”

Proxenos frowned. “Perhaps. But you are the smarter one. You work with what you have rather than dream and idle about something you haven’t. Why, you can turn out more oil with this beam than four or five of the old-style rollers and hand-pressers in town. Still, your neighbors will gossip. They hiss that you’ll have no need of slaves with this machine. Without work, what will slaves do—set up a democracy with Epaminondas and walk as free as us?”

Ainias likewise teased his host. “You are no longer our friend—but instead act like some god who lives here on your Olympos with his henchman Chiôn. First a recluse, then a town-monger, and now what are you, my Proteus?”

Mêlon laughed. “A little of both. At least I know you are not another muster officer here to take us down to battle. Every time some stranger from the flatlands hikes up, one of the Malgidai dies.”

“Or goes into song.”

“Or rather you mean into Hades.”

Ainias turned from the fire, got up, and kicked the press, “We come to say good-bye. Our year after Leuktra here in Thespiai is over. The archons of the city are glad we are finished with their tiny walls—and the townsfolk won’t carry the stones any longer. Phrynê bade us hike up here. She never sees you in town as before—and wondered whether you had taken sick with the fever of the highland swamps, or had grown tired of her yapping. Or was it that you thought this toad’s big breasts had sagged to near her belly and were no longer worth the hike down?”

“Oh no, it’s the olives. Even this short crop proved too much. Now that Chiôn has one arm only, I have to pull the lever as I used to. I must finish before the muster.” He ignored the question of Phrynê below in Thespiai, whose breasts hardly sagged and which he, in fact, had never felt. Instead, she had turned foul in his eyes not because of her looks, which never dulled, but because of her slurs and her boasts and her hatred of helots and Epaminondas—and his suspicions that she was plotting against Epaminondas. Besides, she asked only about the missing Gorgos and talked only of Lichas, and seemed to praise Sparta more than Thebes.

“As I meant to say, we are heading south—to killing and to war, before Epaminondas,” Ainias offered. “Or at least as far as my lake at Stymphalos and then maybe down to the plain of Mantineia. The archon of the city, Lykomedes, promises to deal with the Spartans there. They are just sorting out Leuktra down there, and eager to get something back of what they lost up here.”

“Both of you?” Mêlon was puzzled, especially by the mention of Mantineia, the great killing-field of the Hellenes where the Spartans had once crushed Argos and her democratic friends. “What’s a Plataian doing heading across the Isthmos to Mantineia? Are you tired of the low wages of the Boiotians? Has it come to that already—an invasion into the south and in midwinter no less?”

“The whole countryside is not afire just up here. So it is too down there,” Proxenos said. “We know it. Hear it. See it. The end of Sparta is near. The men of Mantineia barred entry on the borders to King Agesilaos. He and Lichas are hobbling about the countryside trying to spear enough rural folk to settle them all down. The empire of the Spartans to the south is unraveling as we speak. It is for us to rip it finally apart.”

Ainias broke in with his thick Doric, tapping the broad beam of the press. “Proxenos goes south to build cities of my Arkadia—to oversee their rising. To finish two citadels that he has designed. They are not small. Not circuits like Plataia or Thespiai. No—vast and new, at Mantineia, with all the villages of the plains and hills inside. The first is done, or almost. Hellas has seen nothing like it since the days of the Cyclopes that stacked up the stones of Mykenai. He weaves the stones, emplekton they are. The walls in turn weave over the ground.” The Stymphalian pointed to Proxenos, who on that prompt pulled out of his leather bag a long papyrus roll. He spread it carefully out along the floor of the shed. But first Proxenos scattered straw beneath to keep the oil away. On the map there was a circle with carefully drawn small boxes and lines. A plan of sorts, of a round city of stone, but topped off with mud brick. Proxenos promised that this citadel was to have walls twenty-five stadia in circumference, with more than a hundred towers.

Below it, farther down the roll, Mêlon recognized sketches that looked like the new towers of Thespiai. But they were drawn to such a size that they were more like the ruins of Troy. Or maybe they were the old parts around the Kadmeia of Thebes that the Titans had built. As he looked at these charts of Proxenos, Mêlon scoffed, “These walls of your southern cities look Boiotian. Your corner drafts, and gates and towers, all are like ours. You’re building a Thespiai all over again, bigger, and many of them, to my eye—all for the southerners to keep out the Spartans?”

Ainias pointed to the towers. “Why else would he stay here for months in your one-whore town, Mêlon?” Then he looked at Mêlon again. “No, we can finish this new city in Mantineia in months, not years—and then head on for even more.”

“More? And finish what else?”

Proxenos ignored him. “For a man so smart you have become so dense. The Peloponnesos is on fire, in open revolt against Sparta now that its hoplites were crushed at Leuktra and Boiotia is filling up with hoplites. Just as Epaminondas knew it would be after the victory. Do you ever think why we are up here at all? Ainias and I are wall-builders—or rather fencers who are encircling Sparta with fortified free cities.”

“To keep them in or out?” Mêlon was puzzled since he had only crossed the Isthmos once to fight at Nemea, and even then knew nothing of what was really down south.

“To keep them inside their own land and out of everyone else’s. The days of the Spartan kings coming northward up here are over. Leuktra proved that. What happened in Boiotia will eddy into the Peloponnesos. Once more, we will crush the head of the serpent and leave free people to surround Sparta. There will be Leuktras all over the south.” He was almost childlike in his ramblings, a real nêpios—and sounded suspiciously like Nêto in her zeal. But Proxenos went on still. “We didn’t start all this. A free city in new Messenia and a free Mantineia and a free Megalopolis would be the locks that keep Sparta chained—forever.”

Ainias broke in, “You see, Arkadians have plans for something even more grand still. They will build a second ‘big city,’ a megalê polis that will rise with walls higher than even those at Mantineia. Proxenos promises me he has drawings on those other newer scrolls wound tight in his pack.” Ainias went on. “Mantineia is not more than five days, maybe six with the winter mud and rains, from this farm. We have no fear to get there. The Korinthians let us through at night. We started the tenth course of the city circuit last month. The people are also waiting all the days for news of Epaminondas, waiting for him to lead all these new men into Sparta itself. Mantineia will be the great way station for the armies of Epaminondas before they make the final descent into Sparta itself, the gateway to our new Hellas.”

Proxenos interjected. “Mêlon, Mêlon. I don’t understand it all myself. We are caught in a divine madness to mount ladders and hammer in the iron clamps. Thousands of free men, maybe fifty thousand and more, are at work south of the Isthmos. They bring their towns into one fortress, a walled circle in the plain, the greatest synoikêsis of our age. We are living in the great age of stone. Build a city on a grid and the people will at last think like right angles.”

But Mêlon asked the two, “How can you bring your goddess Dêmokratia by force, if men there won’t do it themselves as we did? And I doubt most of these bounders outside our walls here are following Epaminondas for democracy.”

“Who cares what they think, only that they will march and they will free the unfree. And when has democracy not come from force, and with help from others? At Athens? At Thebes? Please. My friend, name one polis.” The shed grew quiet as Proxenos finally calmed. Ainias took a quick glance to see if anyone was about, since the dogs had started up again. It was only Chiôn. He had seen the light and come down with his big knobbed stick in his good hand. He said nothing as he walked in and sat down. The two seemed to have feared his presence and worried that he had been listening outside to their talk of maps. Both ignored the blood that spattered his cloak and was smeared on his stick.

Chiôn murmured, but bolder now as the free man and lord of Helikon that he had become, “Was hunting. Go on. I came here to press. But don’t you two waste our time. Not with your big cities and freedom and all that in the south. Just kill the Spartans. Then leave. Build nothing. Put away your maps. Kill the bad before they kill the good. Then go home. If southerners are worth being free, let the Peloponnesians get their eleutheria themselves.”

Proxenos ignored him and backed out, facing Mêlon. “We are leaving tonight on the big road over the pass of Kithairon and then down to Eleusis. We came to part, not to drag you off again.” Ainias interrupted Proxenos. “We have not seen Epaminondas in days. He was up in the north, where good men boast of a great march. For the better souls, the promise of this new attack is to free those from Sparta in the south. For the worse you already see them in the fields drifting in hopes of profit and plunder.”

Ainias finished with, “Mêlon, send one of your boys to Thebes with our message to Epaminondas. Tell him as promised we are marking a winter trail for his army with tall stakes with red paint on the tops, all the way to Isthmos—among the friendly towns that set aside food and more when the army comes.”

Mêlon turned to his guests. “Be careful as you hike out from Helikon, since there is some man-beast out there that took Dirkê’s Thrakians, and maybe Hippias as well, the master who wanted back my Myron. Though at least this forest bear strangely kills the right men.” Then he raised his voice in further warning. “Remember as you dream in this shed of cities and battles, the king, the better of the two kings, Agesilaos, is on the acropolis of Sparta. He remembers his dead weak partner Kleombrotos. He stalks. He limps. He knows who killed his favorite Kleonymos. And cut down Deinon. And ended Sphodrias. He plots to tear the work of Proxenos down, of outsmarting the next plans of Ainias. Always the hated Epaminondas must be on his lips—our Epaminondas that he must kill if he himself is to survive. To win a war you must always imagine how your enemy thinks to win it.” Mêlon went back over to the press before the two left. “Remember the good warnings of Nêto. But enough—farewell and go safely.”

“Farewell, hero of Leuktra. You are on the lips of Hellas—and yet sit in the wilds of Helikon, in filth at the press. But not for long, not for long.” The two left down the trail with torches that Chiôn had provided. They trampled out heading to the south, despite the warnings of Mêlon and the prophecies of Nêto.

Chiôn looked at Mêlon. “I was a better hoplite than I am a husband—and a better killer than I will be a father. The fury of revenge Elektô flies above my head. She won’t let me alone—ever. I saw one of the Kêres as well. The hag was perched up in the high orchard, waiting, waiting.”

Mêlon caught the flash in his eye. “You cannot even hold your shield chest high—and you talk of walking to the end of Hellas to kill yet more Spartans and our Gorgos? No, stay here with your son to come and the boys of Lophis to finish the harvest. But I’ll take your Xiphos if you will spare him for a few days. Tomorrow I ride to Thebes to learn news of this muster, and when these strangers will leave Thespiai and head south. I have half a mind that our crazy Epaminondas really does plan to march in the winter.” Then Mêlon pressed on, “In the meantime, you hike over to the farm of dead Staphis. Learn from his Theanô when or even if Nêto left.”

“I saw Theanô this morning,” Chiôn sheepishly offered. “She says in two days there will be a word fight, a real ôthismos logôn, at Thebes. Bigger than we saw before Leuktra.” Then he spoke more softly. “One last thing—did you know that months ago our Nêto left Boiotia? Not long after she left our farm. Gone to that city on the map of Proxenos. That new Mantineia. At least if it’s really there. Theanô promised to keep silent about her leave. Now all word of her is lost.”

“I feared as much,” Mêlon said. He did not add that he had already decided to go southward to find her. “Don’t pull so hard, Chiôn, it is a press, not a trireme.” Mêlon shuddered as his friend with one hand yanked back ever farther on the lever of the windlass, in worry that either the lever or the stone itself would shatter before the strong arm of his friend gave out.

Chiôn stepped back. He had two long scars from Leuktra on his jaw to match the brand mark on his cheek. His forearms were all torn and creased. His good right arm was malformed from overwork, though stronger than ever from its stacking and terracing. His scars and wounds appeared more a storybook of the Boiotians’ fate, both good and bad, past—and future. And now Chiôn pulled harder on the lever still to remind Mêlon that his one arm was stronger than two of most hoplites, and that he could break man or machine as he pleased.

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