Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 17

On the Road to Thebes

The next day Mêlon put a stouter lever on the machine for the one shattered the evening before. He was careful to tell Myron to keep Chiôn from it. His three grandsons were gleaning the trees for the last remnants of the olive harvest in the upper orchard. At last he made ready to ride over to Thebes—just for a day or so—to learn of the great march to the south. Perhaps if they could get to the south and kill Lichas, then would come real peace? Not likely, since Lichas was symptom of the Spartan malady, not its cause. Mêlon shrugged as he reflected that the iron laws on the farm are the same that govern men. Pride and honor are deathless and deep within the hearts of all men, who always find those to convince them that the taking of what is not theirs seems easy. Those who would stop them are few and weak. Even when Epaminondas freed the Mantineians, these friendly Arkadians would turn on their liberators in new worries that Thebes was too strong, and Sparta too frail. So often do good deeds earn bad ones. So often is magnanimity seen as weakness that earns contempt, rather than appreciation and gratitude.

Once again this moment marked another of Mêlon’s great changes in his heart. Indeed, this desire to go to Thebes—and beyond to the south if that were to be the decision of the assembly and if he heard word of Nêto—was his third turn of mind and heart since Leuktra, from the recluse to the new Thespian busybody to now something in between. He worried whether that blow by Lichas had addled his wits and made him wander off the path of wise counsels of to meson—the constant, sober way of farming. Still, the worst thing for any man, the new Mêlon figured, was not dying at Leuktra or being spurred to the south in Lakonia with Epaminondas to burn out the nest of the Spartan wasps, but letting weaker others try what he could do far better.

No, he feared most to live idly, like the horse lords of Thespiai—risking nothing, enjoying their wine, bending over their flute girls and slave boys, watching their bellies fatten and their arms shrink as they aged and passed into oblivion, mere shadows of men that were forgotten by their sons. Instead, most good demanded risk; most bad was always without it. He wanted nothing of such a soft peace that wrecks as often as war the cities of men. After having talked with Ainias and Proxenos on their way southward, Mêlon was once again reminded that he could stomach the Pythagoreans and their talk of helot freedom—if they at least acted, and risked their all for some great thing. Mêlon cared not so much for what this great thing Epaminondas planned was in the south, even if it were as wild as freedom for the helots. Although a sort of Pythagorean himself, he had no real philosophical interest in freeing the Messenians—only that it should be great and big and lasting, something on a grand scale that Malgis had once attempted with the farm on the slopes of Helikon. Of course, he would now follow Epaminondas mostly because he wanted vengeance for the death of Lophis and the maiming of Chiôn. And Mêlon was convinced that he somehow alone could bring back—or save—Nêto when others would not. All that urged him to leave the farm a second time and in hopes of going southward to Sparta and to Nêto in Messenia. He would go to Thebes, not to enjoy the city, but only to endure the evil as a means to his end of finding Nêto and settling up with those in the south.

All this Mêlon mused over, as he led Xiphos down the hill to Thebes. He left at midmorning for the ride of eighty stadia. If he pressed, he would be at the hill of the Kadmeia in Thebes not long after noon. But Mêlon did not take the main road to the capital. Instead he went south on a detour for a while on the Thisbê way, the same wagon path he and the two slaves had taken to Leuktra. He didn’t like passing on the busy path by the sanctuary of the Kabeirioi anyway—those eerie priestesses who floated about the roadway and sometimes shook down offerings from the lone wayfarers. Shrieking women with masks they were who came out of the brush and pointed their bony fingers in the face of the traveler. He had hit two before and didn’t wish to strike a third when time was short. On the main road he used to shout as they came into the middle of the path. “Leave the road, foul harpies. Make way before I put fire to your masks and shrouds and ride you down.” They parted, feebly throwing pebbles in his wake, screaming “You will all die with Epaminondas, you who forsake the old gods.” No, he would miss the Kabeirioi and gaze instead at holy Leuktra.

After a bit, Mêlon took the next fork and the narrower trail south and eastward to the field of Leuktra. He trotted Xiphos over a low rise, where he could see the battlefield among the rolling hills. There he stopped at the new marble monolith of the Boiotians—planned by Proxenos of Plataia. Scaffolding and a winch stood alongside it. So did piles of pig bones and ash from the masons who had camped out by the battle trophy. The column was almost finished save for the moldings. A bronze statue of Epaminondas was planted on the plinth high above, sculpted by Xenon, the apprentice of Aristides himself.

This was foul country for Mêlon. Lophis must have fallen not far from where Mêlon sat at the base of the tropê. Yes, it was near the spot perhaps where the Spartans had first been turned. His body had been dumped not far away at Kreusis, where the road led on down the cliffs to the gulf and the shrine of foul Kallista. Mêlon walked over the ground where he had killed Kleombrotos and picked up relics that had been missed by plunderers well more than a year after the battle. Here was the butt-spike of a broken shaft, Spartan from the look of it. Had it gone into Chiôn, Lophis, or Staphis? Mêlon sat for a bit. He drank some vinegar water, with sharp garlic and white cheese that Damô had packed. Then, feeling sleepy, he lay down near the monument’s base and drew his fleece cloak over him for a brief nap out of the winter wind. Closing his eyes, the farmer immediately was on that mountain again, in that now familiar stone cottage. More dreams came of bowls of hot food on the table. But the diners with him were huddling by the wall or in the corner and the soups were foul to the smell. All were ready with raised weapons as shadows came to the door. He never seemed to find out what followed from all that. Then suddenly a voice, one he should know, jeered him.

Euia, euia, there.”

A jolt or something loud woke him. But it was a shrill, raspy, and unfamiliar voice in the world of sun, not dreams, “Wake up, sleepy man. We hear you snoring even from here.”

Mêlon jumped up at the sound of what he took to be Lichas. He had his hand on his spear, grabbing his sword scabbard with his left hand on his shoulder should he need to throw first and then close with the blade. He would hit the first of them, then stab the second in the hand-to-hand.

But the two figures that approached him could not have been sadder to the eye. They halted as they saw the Thespian hoplite plant his feet for battle. The caller proved to be an older man, far more wrinkled than Mêlon. He hobbled up on a walking stick. He was helped by a young boy. If the elder one had once been broad at the shoulders and showed that in his youth he might have been a stalwart fighter in the first rank, the younger other gave no sign that he ever could do such a thing, so thin he appeared as he neared. And he was a bit audacious as he spoke first: “We found you at last, the hero of Leuktra. You must tell us how the Thebans won here at Leuktra. They say the Stymphalian Ainias fooled the Spartans with his loksên attack and left wing and fifty shields and all that. And did Epaminondas really spare the allies of Kleombrotos so that they would join him in the south? Is it true that the Pythagoreans always attack from the left, or was that again the smart work of Ainias, the drill master from Stymphalos? Tell us, please. We are all ears now. But first, how can Epaminondas plan a march this last month when his tenure ends at the first of the year? Is he a renegade? An outlaw? How will he come back in time or does he not fear the noose? Oh, and how many bushels of grain will it take his army to get to Sparta, and how fast do you Hellenes march, and do the Boiotians spear as well as the men of Arkadia? And do …”

He would have continued, had not his old master slapped him twice to silence him. “Keep still, my little barbarian, before strangers. Quiet unless you want three welts on your cheek. We have not yet introduced ourselves to our sleeping lord. And down here in the civilized south we do not speak so rudely without a warning first of who we are.” Then the old man continued. “Stranger, he tries, this Melissos does. But be careful. As I now warn, and as you just heard, he may not be as dull as he seems; his bad eyes dart about even if his mouth stays shut, and see more than mine or perhaps yours as well.” Then the man finally extended his arm, “But my apologies. I am Alkidamas, student of Gorgias, born in Elaia, a man of Asia. I need no introduction to you or to your clan. I hear that you are to stay in Thebes during your trip, which I don’t think is as sudden as you thought.” He paused, as if he had said too much, but then went on, far more slowly. “I am often a Theban, it seems. Though Athens is now my home, and, as I said, I claim Ionia as my birthplace as you can tell from my speech—so I am an itinerant.”

Mêlon was relieved they were not robbers. He found the old man a good sort and was struck by the boy’s spirit, even as he kept noticing that the boy’s dark arms and legs were like the thin reeds of the lowlands by the Euripos. His long nose was sharp and bony even without much flesh. All that was made even funnier by being stuck between squinting eyes that were not so much crossed as half-closed and bleary. This boy seemed to have suffered from the blurs. That was the curse of Zeus that made men squint with their weak eyes that could see little more than the palm before their face. He had some fuzz on his chin as sign of his age. But it gave no sign that it would ever be any more than that. He didn’t look quite Hellene at all. Instead the youth had a darker, barbarian look to him, with low bushy brows, like a northerner, maybe Epiriot or even a Makedonian with the short forehead. Before he replied to this strange boy, Mêlon paused in his approach. For a bit he was thinking how the gods sometimes bedevil men. They put into one Thersites like this, Homer’s ugliest man at Troy, all the physical lapses that others abhor. Only with difficulty are these eyesores to be endured if such ugliness can be trumped by cunning, or at least by spirit. The more Mêlon stared at him, the more it seemed that a strong wind off Helikon would have blown this boy into the marshes. His hair was like chaff in the wind, sticking in all directions and not to be combed. How could such a fellow ever amount to a man of any worth? Through audacity? Luck? Cruelty?

The older man Alkidamas had seen Mêlon smile at Melissos. So he now saw an opening and continued nonstop, “As I said, please excuse the boy, you won’t see northerners like him here in the south. He is young and not one of us, and knows too much for his own good. But now I will tell you more about him—a barbarian, as you have guessed. Maybe ten and three. Or at least between fourteen and fifteen years, though he claims he knows less about how old he is than we do.” The man went on still more, as Mêlon listened to his word-flood dumbfounded. “Our Pammenes got him as a hostage for Thebes to ensure those lying kings of Makedon up above Tempê keep their oaths about the peace. This boy Melissos is a pledge: If they invade, he dies; if they keep north, then after his year he goes back untouched. They say he is of royal blood. But who knows? Even if he is as important as they think, he still looks more like a Thrakian beggar than a Makedonian royal to me. He has a name I suppose. But I forgot it long ago and so call him Melissos—a honey gift from the general Pammenes to carry my bags, at least for the rest of his year. Those sticks he has for legs and arms, I’ve also learned, are of solid oak. Stronger than yours, old man, I wager. But then he is not quite what he stutters he is. I’ll be sad to give him back when the hostages are returned in the spring. Yes, he says little, watches everything, cares for nothing. I’d say he was a spy, but the blockhead has nothing to spy for. But enough of me. I know you are Mêlon, son of Malgis, of the line of Antander on Helikon, killer of King Kleombrotos. How fine finally to catch you here at the scene of your aristeia of last year.”

Mêlon at first did not like the sophist in him, and thought, rhêtôr. Another wind bladder. He earns his silver by not working. Then he made plans to leave them both, or so he thought. “Old man. I was just leaving this ghost field. I have another half-day or so on the road. I’ve decided for the rest of the way to lead my Xiphos. The pony has not been off my farm on the hard stone for a year or more. So forgive me for leaving now, but I don’t go in with strangers on the road, whether old men or the infernal Kabeirioi.”

“No bother at all,” the sage cast back with his wide smile as he pointed to Melissos to follow. “We are going your way to Thebes. No doubt Thebes you head for—even by your roundabout way? Your Zeus on Olympos apparently guides us where we should go, since we saw your servant Chiôn this morning in Thespiai, not far from the house of Phrynê. We were going to walk up to your farm until he told us to head you off on this detour.” Mêlon had not yet said a word in answer, and the man continued. “I’ve wanted a word with you for some time. But some such thing always bars my path to your vineyards—whether that cold wind on Helikon or these bony legs that tire from the hike. The battlefield is so much nicer for talking than catching you on the main road to Thebes by those dreadful Kabeirioi that even we Pythagoreans fear. And with all these bounders in the countryside it will be safer for three of us than one.”

Mêlon paused and at last said his first word of greeting. “Did my Chiôn talk to you now? But he—like my Nêto—was freed by decree of the people of Thespiai, and so can say what he pleases. After Leuktra I have no slaves. But you, our architect of liberation, apparently do? Your boy here has a pack on his back large enough for the two of you.”

Melissos backed off out of slapping distance, and then interjected, “His son fell at Leuktra, not far from the Spartan king. Lichas killed him. Where is this Lichas? Will we ever meet him? I have no fear of this man. We in Makedon have no fear of the Spartans.”

“Enough, Melissos, before you become too familiar with my right arm.” Alkidamas was encouraged by all the free talk, and pointed his finger at Mêlon’s chest. “Ignore his babble. Just three days ago we came through the Oropia from Athens. The boy and I sat on the Pnyx beneath Athena’s temple. The Athenians sent an embassy that should be in Thebes ahead of us—to stop Epaminondas from marching south any way they can, to save their dear Sparta. Old silver-bags Kallias will come. I know these Athenian folk. Some of them are my pupils. I had better be there with you to counter their lies. I saw windy Platôn himself and his longhairs as they went out on the Panathenaic Way toward Thebes. In any case, a word-fight will come tomorrow in the assembly of the Boiotians. Remember, Mêlon, that the Athenians are a tired folk. They have no belly to fight Sparta, much less to worry about Persia and Makedonia. They are exhausted from their long war of the past with Sparta, and simply wish to curry favor with whoever they believe is strongest. Athens is a dead city that believes in nothing other than finding the foe of its foe useful. Do not believe they are now a democracy, if they ever were. They are a mob, an ochlocracy that votes themselves free this and free that that they have not earned. As the orators dress up their greed with purple words once again, they seek to shake down their allies abroad to pay for their sloth at home. They damn the Spartans for their helots, but once in the days of empire had far more helots of their own that they called ‘allies.’ And the beauty of it all is that they still call themselves ‘the school of Hellas,’ as if wiping out the Melians or the men of Skionê, or trying to enslave the polis of Syracuse, is a fine and noble deed because it was done on a vote of the ‘people.’ No wonder they drove out the good men like Euripides and Sokrates and welcomed back the bad like Alkibiades.”

Mêlon had begun to like this rant, for he hated the Athenians as much as did any Boiotian, and Alkidamas put all that venom in much better speech than he ever could. So, Mêlon thought, at last, here was the great speaker Alkidamas in the flesh. The clever teacher of his Nêto, who had put thoughts enough into her chest for her to leave Helikon altogether. The more he examined the rhêtôr, the more Mêlon had no bile at this man. The stranger, by a second look at his hands and shoulders and the wear on his frame, seemed that he’d been behind the ox perhaps, or maybe stood his time in battle as well. When the winter sun hit Alkidamas’s worn face at odd angles, Mêlon could see beneath the wrinkles and creases a fighting man of stout nose and broad chin. And best of all, this man of Asia hated both Athenians and Spartans as if he had been born on Helikon.

So as the probing eye had seen, this Alkidamas had once been a grand man of action. That he said nothing to Mêlon about his own high station made their first meeting seem even more remarkable. For indeed this was Alkidamas, the most eloquent of the sophists of Hellas and a man known in Thebes as the student also of Lysis and Philolaios, the inheritor of the rhetorical style of Pythagoras himself, whom the best men at Thebes and Athens asked for advice, the sole philosopher of Hellas who had called for the serfs of Messenia to be freed and all men of Hellas to be judged on their talents rather than their birth. Mêlon was speaking to the greatest persuader in all the city-states, right here on the road to Thebes. Yet he did not quite fathom that this meeting was by design rather than chance, and that it could prove to be of more consequence than it now seemed.

Alkidamas had won a companion for the short journey to Thebes. “Well, can we join you then, Mêlon, on our way back to the main road? We have some things to talk about. Boiotia is a free country for wayfarers. Or so they say of our new democracy of hoplites, so unlike the mob who votes in Athens. The three of us will find the walk quicker with company.” Mêlon was surprised by his own new friendliness to strangers, but he seemed to be at home with both. Better to hear news than the snorting of Xiphos. He grabbed the reins and led Xiphos on. The three made their way back onto the road and headed to the hills of high Thebes in the distance. “I know your Nêto as well. She told me much of you, Mêlon. Or I should say much of your doubts. This day I don’t find you the legendary misanthrôpos at all. But they say after Leuktra you began to revisit the world of men, or rather so Phrynê has told me.”

Melissos was squinting and followed the two as they kept talking. Mêlon had slung their packs over the horse and passed the reins to the boy, who was chewing some dried figs in bliss at being relieved of the weight. The three were moving at a brisk walk. The road was quick after they had hiked across some green barley fields on a shortcut back to the main Theban way. They had about fifty or so stadia to go. The winter clouds parted over Parnassos and the sun shone through. For all the good winter weather, Mêlon had at first frowned at mention of Nêto. He had remembered back on Helikon that Nêto had talked of meeting with this great rhêtôr. It had pained him, her devotion to a stranger, and a sophist at that. But now that he had met this Alkidamas it no longer quite did, since he seemed a different sort from most of the sophists at Thebes. He certainly was not young nor rich nor handsome, like Proxenos.

Alkidamas turned to his new friend. “Well, Mêlon, master of Nêto who learned much from you before she left us—from the look of your pack and the shield on top, you are preparing for a longer march than today’s hike to Thebes.”

“Perhaps, but I am ready for robbers all the same, and strange folk who accost me on the road,” he replied.

Melissos quickened his pace. With a shrill accent, he broke in, “Oh, no, Mêlon of Helikon. We are not to hurt you, but to learn from you. Or at least my master says we are. We are not robbers at all—we are students, watchers. No one more than I.”

His northern speech grated on the ear. Mêlon immediately had been uneasy that the servant with them was a Makedonian. Behind all this Boiotian talk of helots and Sparta and Lichas, he had heard rumblings of far worse tribes to the north. He used to talk with his Gorgos of this Theban folly, this silliness of Epaminondas of fighting Spartans when they were needed to unite to stop the horse-lords from the north who were half-Hellenes at best and wanted to enslave all those to the south of Thermopylai. Yes, the boy was a Makedonian. Still, Mêlon laughed back, “Learn? But I am going to Thebes to listen. Strange people like you come in from the islands and the north. What this is all about, I suspect. For in battle I have sized up this Epaminondas well enough. I have heard his plans for his own katabasis to the south.”

“If he can march,” Alkidamas sighed, “if he can march. For three of the seven Boiotarchs want no part of it, no part of dying outside Boiotia for the freedom of others, especially the helots of Messenia. They cannot see that they are safer when Messenia is freed and Spartans are reduced to being farmers rather than warriors. Boiotians like the foul rhêtôr Backwash are not the sort to be taken lightly. I reckon the Athenians may bar the way as well. Who knows what the Korinthians will do at the Isthmos? I can conjure up all sorts of problems that Epaminondas must overcome. So I do my tiny part in trying to ease his burdens. That’s why I sought you out today, since your name alone will be worth a muster of one thousand for the way south.”

The man continued nonstop in a funny sort of Ionic speech and now and then with high Attic mixed, along with the wayfarer talk of Boiotia. “We will see tomorrow whether a council is held.” Alkidamas was turning to Mêlon and shaking his finger in his face. “I don’t wish to leave these folk for our boys up here to clean up. Not now when we are so close to finishing the business for good. But I wished to see you for another reason as well, Mêlon—a small one beside the great one of seeing Mêlon, son of Malgis, hero of Leuktra, blessed of prophecy and fate, once more at the side of Epaminondas as he sweeps into Lakonia and on over to Messenia.”

Alkidamas then quite surprised Mêlon and stopped for a moment in the road. “You have no slaves now, and that is altogether fine and good that you do not after your servants at Leuktra proved themselves better than the free men of Thespiai. But all that does not change the fact you are old, without hair on your head, and with a stagger in your walk—and in need of a servant to carry your bags, a boy like my Melissos here. For all his wild look, he has an air about him of loyalty and duty and could serve you well. And we will call him a hostage rather than your slave if some think liberators should not own others. You would, of course, give him back in the spring, as we promised the Makedonians.”

To convince Mêlon further, Alkidamas finished the story of his own son Kalliphon, who had fallen at Leuktra. “I saw you at Leuktra, Mêlon, as I bore my Kalliphon out. Lichas chopped off his arm. But my Kalliphon was a talker, not a killer. At Leuktra he learned that difference well enough. Lichas and Antikrates cut him down not far from you at the moment the Spartans broke, took his arm right off. So you see we had our own reasons to come to the monument this morning besides the chance of meeting up with you.” Alkidamas lifted his voice a little after he had recalled the ordeal of the Boiotians at Leuktra. “I kept Kalliphon in the symposia and schoolhouse. Kept him away from the muster yard. For that, later he paid quite a price. His hands were polished with scrolls, without the blisters of the plow and spear—learning to counter slurs, never iron. This here Melissos, for all his squinty eyes, knows how to wield a spear in his hands, although I coach him how to master hyperbaton and asyndeton. He is not my flesh. But I want to do him right and make him the man that my son was not, barbarian though he is. I am training him this year to argue some, but to watch more than talk. And if he goes back to Makedon and tells those wild folk that he apprenticed with Mêlon, son of Malgis of Helikon, and was well treated for his work, then all the better will the Makedonians be pleased with the cities of Hellas.”

Mêlon answered back, “I raised my son Lophis to plow and prune, but Lichas killed him as well—and my father Malgis, and nearly me twice. So I think, Alkidamas, the problem was not in our sons or in us, but in Lichas, whom few who breathe and walk can kill. As for the education of your Melissos, perhaps let him ape the Sacred Band. They drill, they say, and take kindly to boys in their midst. Though, to be frank, your spindly barbarian Melissos with his bony nose and foreign tongue might not stir up Erôs in those boy-lovers.”

“The note of contempt in your voice I share, Mêlon, for such folk. I grant Melissos has not yet a look of a hoplite. He is not the horseman that we expect from such northern tribes. But in the year I’ve had him, I wanted his muscles to grow behind the plow in a way Kalliphon’s did not. You, like me, have no son now, you the far better father than I ever was. Why not a young boy to teach as your own, at least until the next grain harvest comes and these northern hostages go back to Pella? I wager as you watch this sapling grow up—for I can see it myself—you too will grow in a sense.”

Mêlon laughed at that prophecy, but warmed even more to this man—a sophist to be sure of smooth talk, but one who, like himself, had already given his only son to Boiotia. But there was something also about this Melissos that gave him a second stare: He had a hard look for all his ugliness and listened more than he should to each word spoken. On occasion the gawky boy blurted out ’s in his half Hellenic: “What’s that, what’s that? Tell me what that means.” Yes, he was a spy of some sort—but for whom and for what, Mêlon could not guess.

Alkidamas with a wink added, “But of course, as I said, he can carry armor as well as haul out olive limbs. Melissos might prove as good a groom to you and make you into something else as you do the same to him.”

Mêlon laughed. “My manservant Gorgos is gone. But I don’t miss him since there are only vine props in my hands, and I don’t need a shield carrier. Your Melissos will learn all that well enough if he works with me high above Thespiai on Helikon—or if the Boiotians decide to march to the south and I join them to find my Nêto in the south. It is already cold and the season of battle is over. The new year is upon us. Orion and the Pleiades and the Hyades have all long ago set and hid from the sky. I doubt anyone will vote to march anywhere in the coming winter. There is not a stalk of wheat in the fields.”

“Listen, as I said, you may learn as well, old Mêlon, from young Melissos—though in ways you’d rather not.”

Mêlon sensed what Alkidamas meant and now knew not merely that he would take in this Melissos but that something good would come of it as well. For a second Mêlon saw all this in the thistle Melissos, who looked and took in everything and boldly poked his nose into the talk of his masters—this young weed in the field that might just keep growing despite the Spartan scythes to come in the days ahead. He was sharp, as thistles sometimes are. Sometimes the young, the ugly, the outsider—they can see through the smoke and dust far better than those who make it, and so teach their would-be teacher the lessons that the masters had mouthed but forgotten. Besides, even if the army stayed home Mêlon would go on alone and be entering enemy ground soon, in search of his Nêto and without his Chiôn, and so he could not be choosy in his helpers.

Meanwhile Melissos fell about a stade behind the two, looking at the terrain of Boiotia as if he were forty and a general on a horse, scouting a camp outside Thebes for his army of thousands. After the two ahead ceased speaking, Melissos caught up, muttering that the Thebans’ walls did not look so high after all.

The great polis was now before them. At last, all of them quieted as they turned the final corner of the rising road. They passed through the gate of Kadmos and entered the seven-gated city of Oidipous and the heroes of legend.

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