Ancient History & Civilisation


The March Down Country


The Great Muster

With the vote to go south before the new year, and the breakup of the Theban winter assembly, Mêlon made his way through the noise and elbows to a small shrine on the Theban Kadmeia. Still in the high city he stopped by two laurel trees that grew out of a stone outcropping, a viewing place with benches and a fountain. For the first time as he gazed below he understood just how many thousands of winter fighters were camped outside the walls of Thebes. A myriad? Or were there two and more ten-thousands?

How could Menekleidas with his two-pointed shoes prance around the hall as if he could stop what already was started? As the rhetoricians had been warning that very morning, thousands below were sharpening their blades and oiling their shield blazons a stone’s throw from Iphikrates and his thugs in the assembly—and all this at the onset of winter. They looked more like mercenaries than liberationists, scarred with blade nicks, lame from spear jabs, clad in leather and bronze, eager for pay, more eager still for Spartan booty, with not a worry about their icy breath and sleeping on snow. These islanders and northerners cared little whether the Boiotarchs voted for their war, only whether Epaminondas was to be at their head with plunder promised. All had their grudges with Spartans. All could claim that a harmost or a Spartan admiral had ravaged their land or killed a cousin or friend in battle.

The law of Boiotia or the freedom of the helots meant not so much to them; the hatred and loot of Sparta everything. Mêlon saw tents and midday smoke rising all the way to Kithairon to the south and then even more camps northward up to the spurs of Parnassos and even toward the gap at Chaironeia. As he left his lookout point, the Thespian fought his way through the crowd. Then Melissos finally caught him on the back of his cloak. The boy had just tied Xiphos nearby to a plane tree. He was in high spirits due to the wild eyes of the delegates that had filed into the assembly—and what he had heard from the grove above the theater, where the poor and slaves listened in.

For all Melissos’s bad sight, the boy was counting tents below and already numbering loudly the size of the army to be. “Two myriads,” he gasped, “maybe more still if we could see all on the foothills to the south. Even our armies to the north are not this size.” Suddenly the two were called over by Pelopidas. The general had a bright green cloak on, and a heavy leather tunic beneath. He was allotting scrolls in leather pouches to a group of young ephebes. By prearranged signals, well before the actual voting, the Theban already had sent out runners throughout Boiotia. The general was ordering more messengers to the marshes to ensure that the tardy and stubborn Boiotians of Orchomenos and Helikon showed up in the morning as they had promised. The eleven districts had had less than two days to send in their allotted lochoi—five hundred hoplites each and as many light-armed were the orders. The tribes in all the districts were to fill their quotas by daybreak, as the army would be on the passes outward within two days.

Pelopidas turned to Mêlon. “If we can get even a half-myriad of those Boiotians who stood firm at Leuktra, we will be doing well enough. That would give us altogether on the morrow almost two ten-thousands, with these volunteers from Euboia, Thessaly, Lokris, the islands, and even the men of Phokis who are still trailing in. And, of course, there are mobs in the south that will join us. So your Thespiai will send troops this time, even if they are not like those of the Malgidai or Chiôn?”

“Yes, some Thespians may march in. I am a Thespian, and pledge I will go south with you, and then over to Messenia to find my servant girl, whether alone or once again at the van of the army of Epaminondas. The fame of Chiôn and the big talk after Leuktra count. But mostly they will be the hill folk on Helikon, those in the backcountry all the way to Parnassos. Together with all these foreigners, I reckon that we may set out from Boiotia with more than Kleombrotos had when he came up here, at least.”

Then Pelopidas continued. “You know that the larger the army is, the larger it will become. That’s why you see out there wagons pulling in from over the pass. The mob has decided it is a fine thing to march southward. But that’s not the half of it. We will need more than even these two myriads. If Proxenos and Ainias have done their work, if they keep that slippery Mantineian Lykomedes in line, maybe more than two ten-thousands are already mustering to the south at Arkadia.” He paused and spoke slowly, as if Pelopidas himself could not quite believe the numbers of Hellenes on the move toward Sparta. “Altogether I’d wager sixty thousand and more will pour into Lakedaimon, with us and them combined. Don’t forget the firebrand Epitêles and his Argives. There is no better friend of the dêmos. He will bring Dorian hoplites with him. These are the sorts that will continue over Taygetos into Messenia if they have to. King Agesilaos can’t thwart us. We know Alkidamas with his Nêto has stirred up the helots. So the Spartans will have enemies in every direction.”

Pelopidas waved at the throng below. “Ainias promised me that thousands of Arkadians will join us in the south, all with the club of our Herakles—the ropalon of Thebes—painted on their shields. I think before we’re through, all of Hellas will be on the road. Ten myriads, and from every polis in Hellas.”

Mêlon wondered how many Spartans would meet them. Maybe a myriad red-capes, from the allies and the Spartiates who had survived Leuktra, together with some more in the south and the home guard. Some Lakonian helots who wouldn’t bolt over—be sure to count on those. Then there were the loyal perioikoi and the other half-citizens of Lakedaimon. Put them all together and Agesilaos might have thirty thousand with spears to guard his acropolis. If Epaminondas and his invaders had twice that number, or three times the army, the odds still were with the Spartan defenders, who only need not lose, not ford the icy waters of the Eurotas and break into the city.

Mêlon thought that even if they did not storm into the streets of Sparta, at least they could claim this horde might make it alive into the borders of Lakonia. That would make them the first invaders to have done so in nearly twenty generations of the Hellenes—not since the sons of Herakles of the myths and stories depicted on the pots and temple stones. Then Mêlon quit his dreaming and checked his pack. If the army were to leave in less than two days, he would have to send Melissos over to the farm for provisions. As an afterthought Mêlon had roped his own battle gear on Xiphos for the trip from the farm to Thebes, so it was just a question of food, not armor, and to let Damô know that he was marching south.

Melissos came up closer. “Master, I’ve already fetched Xiphos, fed from the stables. There’s food right now. On the back of our stallion I’ve got dried fish, cheese, and wine—and our bronze breastplates and helmets. Last night Alkidamas had me empty his house of provisions. He has already left.”

Mêlon laughed, “Our armor?”

“That’s right. I have my breastplate, and the shield of Kalliphon, that dead son of Alkidamas. I fetched that with the food from the house of Alkidamas. So we are ready to march? I’m eager to see what you Hellenes can do in a day.”

“So we will, boy, first to Sparta with Epaminondas and then on to Messenia, alone, if need be, to find my Nêto.” With that, Mêlon patted the northerner’s head, as he led Xiphos behind them.

The two of them walked the horse out through the gate to find the field camps of Epaminondas, a half-morning march to the south, where they would spend the first night. As they walked, Mêlon repeated what his father Malgis had once taught him before his own first outing at Haliartos. “There is an art, Melissos, to a muster. It’s not like a pack of dogs that snarl and sprint out after the first hare that crosses their paths. Epaminondas is already forming up the columns, right over there under the clouds of Kithairon. The first thousands will leave in the morning, over the pass with us at the van. Then the hamlets from the eleven districts drift into Thebes. Their officers will have these late-coming regiments fall into line by companies, six men wide along the road—all the baggage in the middle of their column. We at the head will be over the mountain and halfway to Megara by nightfall tomorrow.”

“Or by midday, master,” piped up Melissos. He went on as he gazed at the long columns behind. “We are a snake then, Master Mêlon. A long snake, always ahead as its coils unwind to the rear. We’re getting longer even as we get farther from Thebes?”

“Longer? I’d say when we head down the pass our tail will just be leaving Thebes, seventy stadia back. Who knows, Melissos, it may be snowing on us on the pass yet sunny on those behind in the plain—and all in this same winter army.” Later, near the foothills of Erithryrai, Mêlon got word that Epaminondas was waiting for him at the head of the column. The generals were already high on the Plataian road, camped outside the walls of the city that Proxenos had rebuilt years earlier. This was where Mêlon wished to go anyway, since Alkidamas had told him that one of his agents would be meeting him there by nightfall. Before sunset the two slipped into camp. They tethered Xiphos beside a fire. Maybe a half-myriad of northerners were busy around them, and at least that many Thebans all along the road back to the Kadmeia. Officers kept the road clear. The winter rains were late here. The road was free of the deep red winter mud of the valleys of northern Boiotia.

Mêlon grabbed Melissos by the shoulder. “Stay close. These northerners, folk like your own, can’t be trusted, especially the riders. The Lokrians would run us down for play. The Phokians, well, the Phokians, they’re worse than any Spartans I know. I’ve seen some outlaws from Thessaly, too. Temple robbers and shrine looters, all of them, neighbors of yours. Still, our Epaminondas can’t be choosy in his allies. And he wasn’t.” The two got directions. They were soon in among the tents of Epaminondas, on a rise with a view of the distant hills above the battlefield at Leuktra. Mêlon noted that from the slopes above the river Asopos they could see the last light of the short winter day flickering off the white marble monument where he had met Alkidamas only two days earlier, not far from where Lichas had taken Lophis down. To the west along a bank three stadia away they could see the majestic hilltop estate of Proxenos, son of Proxenos of Plataia. Its torches on the portico above the river were blazing before the sun even fell, perhaps the household’s eager beacon to guide their master home—as if he were not somewhere already far distant, wandering down in the Peloponnesos.

Mêlon helped Melissos unload their packs. “Sleep, Makedonian. Tomorrow we talk as we march. This twilight let the young bloods put our lochoi in their order. The peripoloi and the rangers rouse the countryside, as they search for the stay-in-beds and the hide-a-ways. Anyone is fair game that the muster officers can’t find on the first go-around. We strike out at dawn. They say we will be at the flatlands of Mantineia in five days or six. Then two more on to Sparta.”

Then from his back a familiar voice took over from Mêlon. “Maybe seven days for our tail end. The full muster won’t even pass out of Thebes until tomorrow night.” It was Epaminondas. He had no helmet but wore a leather broad-brimmed hat that nearly covered his face. “A bad habit of walking up behind you, Mêlon. No worry. You are no snoring sentry. So in peace sleep, Thespian. All is planned.” With that Epaminondas passed on by their camp with four or five hoplites. “Come to the head of the march at daybreak. We will be waiting for you.”

Mêlon and Melissos were drifting off to sleep even before full darkness and the Great Bear had yet taken over the sky. How had he ended up here on the ground at Plataia? Just three days earlier, he had been at work at his olive press, promising Proxenos only that he might ride over to see things at Thebes. From that sudden urge, he had fallen in with the stranger Alkidamas, taken on a new servant, watched the great debate in the council hall of the Boiotians, and been called to the head of an army on its way into the frontier of Sparta. Suddenly Mêlon jolted up. Someone had kicked him. The voice was Boiotian. He recognized the tongue as well. “Sleeping so soon? But it is not even full dark—the moon is still in hiding.”

Chiôn was standing over him.

“This sapling next to you, what is it? A slave boy? A helot? You were never a boy-lover, Mêlon. How did this mushroom clamp onto your trunk?”

“Careful to kick the sleeping dog, Chiôn, he may bite yet.”

Mêlon rose to greet Chiôn. “This Melissos comes as the hostage servant of Alkidamas. That man’s own son Kalliphon was cut down near us on the left at Leuktra. So he lent me a spare Makedonian hostage that General Pammenes brought back to the men of Boiotia. He is a truce pledge from the Makedonians of the north. If the peace holds, he goes back to the north after the barley harvest. Then we get our own captives back in the bargain. He claims he’s royal. But he won’t tell us more. In the north there every tribe boasts they have queens and kings. He watches more than he talks.”

Chiôn nodded. “I know, I know of those two. I met both in Thespiai and sent them after you. But so they found you. I had Eudoros and Neander show them the road, and where to find you at the trophy of Leuktra.”

Mêlon was puzzled. “Chiôn, are you here from Alkidamas? He was supposed to send me a messenger. Why you? Why leave Damô, even if she’s with the dogs and the boys? She’s with your child. The country is swarming with bad sorts.”

“But Master, forgive me. I come for a reason you won’t like. Your coins in the well are yours. I’ve never drawn the boxes up without you. You know that.” Now Chiôn looked up and talked bolder to his former master. “But a strange helot from the south met me when I was pruning in the red grape vines two days ago. A Nikôn, he said his name was, as he ran up. A proud label for a slave, this man called “Victory.” But Nikôn could hardly stand. His sandals were worn to the soles, and he was about through and shaking. Even if he had been fresh, he was a scarred and leathery sort, an ugly one with whip scars on his neck and back, and with a stink of hides on him. Begging for money, he claimed, so that he could ransom our Nêto. In chains to the south, he swears, she was. A prisoner in the log fort of Lord Kuniskos, he swears. He hands me a note, with the block letters scratched on bark from a woman who wrote the Attic way—why in the south I don’t know. At least that’s what he said. He looked like he’d run the whole way. But he was at least a Pheidippes, an iron legs.”

Mêlon grabbed his forearm as Chiôn continued. “I needed a thousand good silver pieces, Master. I only skimmed the top of the iron boxes, and didn’t touch the gold below. So I told this Nikôn the ransom money would follow in five days. I will take it myself to free our Nêto to keep her alive. I promised Nikôn the helot that. We gave pledges. I sent word to Alkidamas, who is on the side of Kithairon by the sea waiting for a ship. But Nikôn took off back southward out to the harbor town Kirrha on the gulf like he was running the race in armor at Olympia. Here is the letter that Damô read better than I. I memorized what she said was scratched on the bark:

Erinna tês Ithômês tô Mêloni. O Mêlon Malgidos. Pempe nun chrêmata pros tên Erinnan en tê gê tê tôn Messêniôn. Autên apoagorazein dei tina Nêtona apo tôn Spartiatôn. Pempete auta meta toude Nikonos, andros men agathou, agrammatou de.

“Erinna of Ithômê to Mêlon, son of Malgis: Send money to Erinna in the land of the Messenians. She must buy back Nêto from the Spartans. Send it with this here Nikôn, a good man, but an illiterate.”

Chiôn remembered more or less the way Damô had read it, but half the words on the bark were unclear to him. So he handed it over to Mêlon and kept talking. “What do these scratches mean? That stringy helot Nikôn went to his knees in begging, an odd thing for a tanner by his smell who says he will set all of Messenia on fire. So our Damô had me pull up the coin box. I had no wish to trust this helot, even if Nêto had long said that she spoke to him while asleep. But Nikôn told Damô well enough what our Nêto looks like. So he does not lie, at least not completely. But who is this Erinna? When I asked Nikon, he said, ‘Ask Alkidamas.’ ”

Mêlon at least knew as much as Chiôn. “I am sworn to march with Epaminondas, but it is southward all the same, and I will be over Taygetos perhaps before any of you. I see that you know that Alkidamas is not here. He left the assembly for the bay at Aigosthena and has some grand plan to sail into the port of Messenia with helot rowers, no less, that he rounded up at Athens. He was supposed to send me word when he was to leave and where we were to meet in the south. Maybe he had wind of your Nikôn last night. But I see you planned to row with him all along or at least the two of you cobbled together some sort of plan on your chance meeting when I had set out with Xiphos to Thebes. Chiôn, you did well enough. Don’t worry about the silver. But now there is no need to go yourself. We can send the pay-off with Alkidamas, who as it works out is going south anyway, even if you were his agent after all. I see that now. Trust this Erinna. I’ve heard from Alkidamas at Thebes she is with Nêto. Stay on the farm. I am marching at sunrise. As I said, I hope to beat all of you to Messenia and still keep my vow to march with Epaminondas into the vale of Lakonia. I may get there first anyway.”

“If Gorgos is this Kuniskos,” Mêlon went on, “then he will not kill her, at least not yet. He knows us, that we will send ransom money. You or I will even up with him. The man Alkidamas, I saw just these last two days in the assembly at Thebes. He is on his way. He must know this Nikôn and is close with Nêto and what she was up to. She never said anything much of her plans to me before she left.” Mêlon finished slowly. “So take the money from the farm to him at the port. Do it this day. Then it will go by sea to Ithômê, while I try to get south first. Yes, go to the port and find your Alkidamas.”

Chiôn looked troubled. So Mêlon warned him a last time. “Chiôn. This is not your fight. Your one arm, wife, your son to come, and the farm, too—all that means you stay on Helikon. You give the money to Alkidamas at the port, and then go home. That is enough. I’ll race the old man by land to Messenia, and see if I can beat his ship to deal with Gorgos wherever and whatever he is. That way one of us at least will get to Messenia, by land or sea.”

Chiôn paused. “Maybe. But I fear I can do far better in hunting Nêto down than you, Master. Besides, I’ve only seen the Spartans twice. At Tegyra and Leuktra. Not in their home. I can even up with Lichas for my arm. I’ll make him bow to Lophis in Hades—or worse still. No one knows Gorgos better than his fellow farm slave. I can figure out where he is before either you or Alkidamas. And we hear still of the boast of that Antikrates. We missed him at Leuktra. The tongues of your Olympians say he will do harm to our Epaminondas. So I will give the money to Alkidamas and come back and march with you to the Isthmos.”

“No. No. All in good time, Chiôn. I let Nêto go off, and it is my debt to bring her back safely. I have waited far too long this autumn in my anger at her leaving. These other debts are on my ledger as well, along with seeking Nemesis for Lophis and Malgis. The reckoning is soon. Lichas, or so my daimôn tells me, is not long for this earth. Not with all of Boiotia heading south in the morning. But remember the words of Nêto,” Mêlon ended with a laugh. “You are not to see the sea. So again head home, and keep our farm safe. Take our Xiphos here. You need him on the farm, and you can save me from having a Plataian ride him back over there. Either Alkidamas or I will find Nêto.”

Chiôn frowned at that. “How silly. Proxenos was not to cross the Isthmos, and yet he is now a hero down there in the south. I will swim in the sea anyway if I give the silver to Alkidamas at Aigosthena late this night. But, yes, I go to the sea and then home to Helikon.” With that he nodded, took the reins of their Xiphos, and led the horse away. Then he was gone as abruptly as he had appeared. Mêlon almost thought he saw Myron, or some brute, in torchlight waiting for his friend on a crest not far from camp.

As Chiôn headed toward Helikon, he seemed to see visions again in the starry night, as if, amid the stars and moon, there were bright outlines of a timber stockade. Then he paused and the trance was clearer and right before his eyes. Inside this fort he saw through the lamplight the head of Nêto shaved—was it on a pole? Nêto was either dead or close to it. Gorgos was near or at the center of this crime, though he seemed to go by different names and had altered his look, or so they said of the helot lord with the shaved head and fine cloaks. So Nêto spoke all this to him for a moment from across the Isthmos far to the south. His dreams had stayed with him in the waking hours, and now were even stronger enough to stop him in mid-stride. Myron shook him and the visions ended as the two picked up their pace.

After Chiôn left, Mêlon and Melissos slept for only half the night, and then arose well before sunrise. Mêlon was eager to press ahead to find Nêto, but he was still not sure whether this Nikôn was a scoundrel who had heard Nêto’s master had coin, or was an agent of Alkidamas, or was a lover of Nêto. In any case, for now all Mêlon could do was send Chiôn with his money for Alkidamas at Aigosthena. He would march with the army into the Peloponnesos, and then hope by burning Lakonia that the helots on the other side of Taygetos would rise up and so free Nêto wherever she was—though he thought he would slip away at some point and arrive at Messenia before the army.

Others this morning were stirring even before Mêlon and Melissos. Soon they were waiting impatiently at the head of the column, nervous to move out. There was a growing noise of horse and leather and wood and bronze, with plenty of clatter and cursing in almost every dialect of the Hellenes. Everywhere arose the din of the heavy tread of thousands of feet milling about as they readied to march out. “Look back toward Thebes,” Melissos yelled. “The torches, a myriad of them. Even more, below.” Then they heard the voice of Epaminondas. “March out!”

With that the mob at the back of the hoplites let out, “On to Sparta. To Sparta.” Then a roar of just “Sparta, Sparta …” The columns at the van moved out toward the mountain passes, in the gloom as the winter sun was behind the mountains. In quiet the army knew it was late in the year for war, on this the shortest day of the year—the great brooding solstice when all shuddered that the colder times were ahead. This northern horde was perhaps three or four times larger than the one mustered at Leuktra. All Hellas north of the Isthmos seemed to be on the move, either to fight or follow the throng peddling food and drink and women. Even more would join up in the south. Northerners had never marched in mass before, much less had they joined with islanders and the men of the Euboia to the west, soon to be alongside hoplites mustering at Elis, Argos, and Arkadia to the south. In the early darkness most appeared strange folk. Some had open-faced piloi without nose guards in the new style. Others wore cheap armor on their chests from the foundries of Euboia that were scarcely tempered or hammered. Most had painted the club of Thebes over their shield blazons—as if for the next few days they were Epaminondas’s own Boiotians. A few had the heavy sheet-bronze breastplates of their grandfathers, but far more wore glued fabric with small metal plates. Freedmen and the poor had neither the thôrax nor even greaves. Many, Mêlon noticed, were the hide men from the mountains on the north shore of the gulf. These carried small Thrakian leather crescent-shaped shields and long javelins or bows across their shoulders—the tribes of Aitolians, Akarnanians, and Ambrakions for whom ambush and outlawry in the hills alone won honor. Thessalonians and Lokrians rode on past atop shaggy ponies, with long fur capes and quivers and javelins strapped to their saddles. The looters of Delphi, the Phokians, came with good bronze armor—no doubt lifted at night from the votive racks in the temples.

“No worry, Master, about how they look. The uglier the better, yes?” Melissos stammered. He went on. “As for us, up in the north, we pay any who will fight. And Master, when they fall, we burn their corpses, without charge for the timber to their families, as promised. That’s enough. These are men who have strong right arms; why worry why they fight? For now, aren’t they on our side?” He went on with an eye on Mêlon to see whether his new master was ready with a slap to quiet down. “Who cares any more whether spear-men own land or meet your census? Our poor men from the hills, why, they can kill a lord with his five hundred plethra of wheat land just as easily as they can a snake. Watch when this army pours into Lakonia. One of our landless robbers from Ambrakia will jump on the back of a Spartan ephor. Cut his throat without any music or two-step or any of those other things the Spartans drill at. These are the wages of dêmokratia of your new Hellas, a real equality—in killing. Why dye your cape scarlet when it keeps you no warmer?”

Mêlon laughed at his new talkbox servant. For a blurry-eyed boy he knew too much about the darker nature of men—and how much better it is to use than be disappointed by it. Yes, this Melissos was hardly the gangly servant that he had dismissed in his mind just three days earlier. He had grown up royal in the rough north, it seemed. There the Makedonians grunted rather than spoke the Hellenic tongue. They poked or killed anything that they wished to in their wine halls after battle. They fought for women, or gold, or land, not for ideas, and much less for helots. So how odd, Mêlon mused: These northerners like Melissos and his brood flocked to civilization to enjoy the finer life that the law and justice would bring, even though, like the flat worm in the gut, they would eat enough holes to starve and kill their life-giving host. Odder still, the more the Hellenes adorned their cities in marble and wore gold clasps and purple cloaks, the more they lost their stomach to get into the muck and fight those like Melissos who thrived here in the mess and would storm their gates. No wonder Epaminondas dressed in rags and drank gruel and had no children—no concerns for the safety of kin that so blinds men, no worry whether he would tire of ice baths in the river. To keep his soft Hellas free, Epaminondas would shun its softness. When a man gives up gold and land and family, he’s halfway living in the other world anyway. But then so were men like Proxenos, and Ainias—and Mêlon himself. Was not that why they followed Epaminondas in the first place? Mêlon thought of all that—and how this Melissos might be a good servant to have in the days ahead.

The sun rose just as they trudged up the mountain, and they soon passed through the forests of spruce and pine of Kithairon and the high plains among the woods. The army was already moving at a brisk walk, along the road that would lead them out of Boiotia through the mountains down into the Megarid and onto the Isthmos. Without the usual August heat, a winter march was far easier on the men—at least if the weather held and the ground stayed firm. Mêlon and Melissos were at the van during the ascent to Kithairon’s summit. So they fell in with Pelopidas and Epaminondas at the head. Both at intervals already were sending out runners ahead to watch for Athenian archers and horse who might try to waylay and whittle down the army in hopes that the war between Thebes and Sparta might be more evenly matched and more lethal for both. Some had already spotted the red stakes—the ones that Proxenos and Ainias had set out a few days earlier to mark the way where the Megarian tribes of the mountains had supplied food. The idea of the Boiotarchs was to skirt the Athenian border. The army would take the mountain fork and avoid the Eleusis road. That way they could get to the Megarid along the Oinoi path between the watchtowers to the plain across Salamis, with the summit of Mt. Pateras on their right. They could sleep up on the pass on this first night and be tented around Megara and its market on the afternoon of the second day.

At noon on the third day from Thebes, the army would cross the Isthmos—Korinthians and Athenian guards not withstanding. Then by noon on the fourth or fifth, Epaminondas would market outside the aspis of Argos. In two more days from there they would be coming down from the hills of Parthenion and spreading over Tripolis. On the seventh or maybe the eighth morning, when they joined the Argives, fifty thousand of them would be camped at new Mantineia. Or so was the plan that Epaminondas and Alkidamas had worked out when they sent Proxenos and Ainias ahead.

Lykomedes had promised good stocks in his new city, and they had pledges of twenty thousand to join them from Elis and Arkadia, all to meet at Mantineia. Ainias and Proxenos along the way had bought in advance a thousand goats, five hundred cattle, and two thousand sheep to be picked up by the army as it moved, some of them paid in Elean silver in advance to the Megarians and Nemeans. The two already had purchased five hundred medimnoi of barley and five hundred of wheat in measures of a hundred stored in dry cisterns every other day past the Isthmos. Ainias had posted a warning to the plainsmen of the Megarid and those beyond the Isthmos that Epaminondas would take what he had paid for, should the towns not produce what was bought, especially since Ainias had agreed to the high winter prices and put down two talents for the grain stores.

Before the high noon of this first day of the march, the generals parleyed over the food and route—snow in the shady ravines, with some ice in the low spots under gray skies. Even with the sun out, the morning was windy and cold, and the oncoming low clouds from the north made Mêlon worry that this huge muster was star-crossed or cursed by barren winter. He had marched for thirty years but never in winter, and never under stratêgoi with less than a month left on their tenure. Yet his farming sense told him the wind would let up and they would see the sun before they crossed the Isthmos. Epaminondas noticed the Thespian’s silence. “Worried about becoming an outlaw, son of Malgis—a hungry phugas or an adikôn even? Don’t. Don’t give in to your fears. The army will march at the pace of your limp. If we don’t make it by the new season but decide there are other things to clean up in the Peloponnesos, well then I will gladly stand trial, not the men who follow. But I doubt the talkers in the agora wish to execute ten thousand of their own Boiotians in armor for the crime of humiliating Agesilaos.”

Suddenly, at the summit, the sky in the distance became blue and clear, and the storm clouds blew on by out to the Aegean. Looking back they had a clear view of the horde following them. Epaminondas resumed his own talk. “Take in all these men tramping in the cold of winter. Think of it all, Mêlon.” Even on this eve of winter the land looked lush with month-old green barley and some sprouting wheat stands. It all prompted a gasp from Epaminondas as they headed into a dark bend in the pines. “Farmland like no other, ours is. No wonder Kleombrotos tried to take all he could of it from us. I would too, if I were from parched Lakonia.”

Without warning Mêlon grabbed his arm as they marched, worried that his general did not know war for all of his years of bleeding in it. “Did he really only want that, my general? Doesn’t the king have green land enough from the water that runs down from the ridges of Taygetos? Or do you think Spartans starve and are without the twenty thousand plethra of bottomland in Lakonia and Messenia?” The farmer, who knew something about land and the fight over it, wanted to let these generals know what they were about to march into. “Is this what we are marching about? Who will own the great plain of Boiotia? Is that all you think wars are about? Taking what you are in need of from someone else? This greed, real or imagined—this pleonexia?” Suddenly Mêlon felt a daimôn had infused his thoughts. He could not stop. His tongue ran on. He even forgot where his feet took him over the pass. Now his stiff leg eased, and the words poured out. It was as if for those last ten years of thought in his vineyard alone, he could claim his due to speak with a hundred captains about him as recompense.

“But why do the Athenians fight us over the salty marsh at Oropia or the scrub oak of Panakton when they had a vast rich empire in the Aegean? Why do men die for such trifles?” He was warming in the winter midmorning sun. For the first time in his life he thought he felt a larger truth coming out of his mouth that powerful men knew less than he and would listen to his logic—if only he talked even more. Mêlon was in the world of leaders now, not alone in his orchards, so his ideas grew sharper as they met frowns and nods among those who heard him. “O yes, tell me, my general, why do the Spartans mow down the Argives over that worthless methoria of high rocks and thistle? Why, when all the black soil of Messenia is already theirs? Or do you really think we Hellenes—or for that matter the Persians or Skythians up north—go to war only when hungry for food or land or for such good or bad reasons?”

Pelopidas stepped up and sighed, amused that a farmer of vines was lecturing generals on the subject they knew best. “Well, then, tell us what else, our Thespian wise man, causes war.”

“How about our pride? Isn’t there our honor—and our fears?” Mêlon pressed on. “Of course a sort of greed of the Spartans—the sheer desire of taking something from the Boiotians to add to what they already don’t need in the Peloponnesos.” Mêlon took Pelopidas’s silence as a goad to go on, as Epaminondas marched a bit quicker on ahead. “Maybe we insulted Kleombrotos and the king Agesilaos, we rustics, the agrikoi of Hellas, marching when and where we pleased. Remember, Epaminondas stared the king down at Sparta. They needed the farms of Boiotia like they needed our eels or ducks—relish, dip, a side dish, no more. No, the thistle in their sandals was the very idea that we thought we were better than they—and most of Hellas was beginning to agree.”

“So, Mêlon, do you really believe our Epaminondas should have settled up with the king? Do you think his harsh words caused a war?”

Mêlon frowned and went on, though he sensed his general was not serious, was teasing rather than learning from him. “Of course not, my general. Name a war, Pelopidas, that was an accident—just one that broke out over a wrong word.” He was soon stammering, worried that a big man like Pelopidas, leading an army to war, had little idea why they were at war at all. So Mêlon pressed him further. “Listen, my commander. The men of the Peloponnesos invaded our land because they thought they could. And, by the gods, we had done nothing to persuade them otherwise. Why not? We lost Koroneia. We stumbled at Nemea. Tegyra was only a small victory. For years when you build women’s barricades rather than raise shields chest-high, you send a message: that lesser men either cannot or will not keep the Spartans out.” Mêlon found his words were clearing his own head, putting into some sort of order what he knew in his breast. He could not have stopped if he had wished to. “So for our part, why do you think Boiotians march this morning? Only because Leuktra taught us that we could—and these red-capes to the south cannot keep their enemies out like they have the past seven hundred years. Had we lost at Leuktra, not a northerner would be in the ranks with us this day.”

Mêlon, the lone vine pruner on Helikon, had an audience and so he lectured the general on why his army was following him. He thought states were like people, and knew people well enough up on Helikon—both how to keep the bad off his land and to enlist the good to help him. “Most men have no belief, either for good or bad. They follow only the winners. So they claim we are liberators and follow you, Pelopidas, because they think you can do what you promise. If you cannot make them rich, then at least make them proud to lord it over the losers. But stumble and most will damn you not just as weak, but as bad also. Remember Backwash in the assembly. Just like at Leuktra, if we win, he’ll claim us as disciples. Lose—and he will put the nooses around our necks. Back home, right now he’s waiting and tapping his foot as we march here. Most men are like that: They pass on risks to be safe and liked.”

Mêlon forgot that they were making good progress toward the junction to the road through the watchtowers of Megara, along the very trail where Erinna and Nêto had first met so many months earlier. Melissos was right behind him, listening as Mêlon talked nonstop as if he were a Theban general leading the ranks. Mêlon at last noticed his tall ears. “So are you listening to this, Makedonian? Or do you tire from the banter of Hellenes?”

“Master, I live and sleep war. I may be a hostage. But for four months longer, I am pledged as proof of the truce to the Boiotarchs with the Makedonians—and with Alkidamas and now you, Mêlon, son of Malgis. Please tell us more; the march is no march when you talk.”

Meanwhile Epaminondas gave orders to his scouts and messengers to go back up the pass and hurry up the tail of the column. “But my Pelopidas,” Epaminondas for a blink turned and took over from Mêlon. “If we all agree wars make no sense, if they start out over pretexts, these prophases as the philosophers call them, what exactly allows them come to pass? Why do these shoves end up with spears and shields? What is the aitia, the real cause of what we are doing this day?”

“Mêlon just told us,” Pelopidas laughed, but he then paused before going on. They were climbing and he needed a deeper breath. The general was light-headed, but finished up his thought. “Aren’t we trying to restore our pride, the reputation we lost when we let the Spartans prance through our fields each spring?”

Mêlon nodded and was almost finished with his lesson. “We must with a state like Sparta. When I saw you Thebans below me hide every time Agesilaos came into Boiotia with his army, I had no stomach to go down from Helikon and join you. We are going into Sparta because we have to, because in the past you let them come to you too many times. Yes, some of you want democracy for the helots, but you march now only because Leuktra gave you honor and pride, and took both from the defeated brood of Lichas.”

The army began slowly to go downhill, bypassing the high plain of Skourta. It was veering right at the crossroads, over the road of the high watchtowers that would wind down east and south to sea and along the coast to Megara. Epaminondas hurried forward and left them with an order: “Tell me how this all ends at camp tonight.” With that he was gone, happy to be back alone out in front of the column.

Pelopidas was nearly as old as Mêlon of the one good leg, but was not used to the hard climbing in armor, since he rarely dug vines or scythed grain and his belly hung down at the bottom rim of his breastplate. He was wheezing. “Well, if Spartan fear and pride brought them northward, and the hunch they would walk over us at little cost, what will make them quit? We won at Leuktra. So why does this unending war go on?”

“Don’t play with me, Pelopidas,” Mêlon warned as they too made the turn onto the Megara road and by its first tower of many to come. He noticed that thirty or so of the Sacred Band were still marching bunched next to them, eager to hear the exchange. “Wasn’t it you, Pelopidas, in the moments after Leuktra, who called to bring the war home to the Lakedaimonians?”

Pelopidas frowned. “Yes, but I confess I like to fight—anyone and all the time. Just like your Chiôn or our Ainias, a bloody Ares that gets fat on the gore of war. So I am not a good touchstone of what others do. Much less our poleis. So how do you think wars, especially ours, will end? When we are all in Hades, a peace of the dead?”

Mêlon didn’t even look at him as he answered back, as the sun began to warm his face. “I’ll be blunter still: One side wins, the other loses. Only that way does the reason the troublemaker fights vanish, and do his big ideas get smaller. Talk never stopped any war for good; talk only passes it on to grandchildren not born.” Mêlon grimaced, thinking that all the spearing of Malgis at Nemea and Koroneia had only left it to Lophis to fall at Leuktra. Leuktra? The battle to end at last the war with Sparta? Hardly. As long as the Spartans had the serfs of Messenia feeding them, they would keep marching up here. He went on. “As for the truces of the Hellenes, they are not worth the stone they are cut on. The more some of the Hellenes swear to others before the gods that they will both have the same friends and enemies for fifty years, the more likely such a peace will not last for one.”

The two talked and were interrupted often by the Sacred Band, especially the younger of the three hundred. But they tired of the chatter and wanted to know only when they would arrive in Lakonia. Surely it must be over the next mountain as they looked down at the great plain of Megara before them and imagined they saw the Spartan Eurotas instead of a thousand stadia of walking ahead. Not a Boiotian in this army seemed to have been to the Peloponnesos. Mêlon ignored them all. “You see, we will change Sparta from what it was—take its claws away and cage it—if we can, that is. Do that, and it will never be able to make war north of the Isthmos. That is, I think, the plan of our general. So he preempts and starts this war to be the last.”

Pelopidas sighed. “I fear even with war in Lakonia, and even with the Messenians free, we will leave this war to our children unless we level Sparta and kill her kings. Our Epaminondas must make war so terrible that the Spartans can never fight us again.”

Mêlon slapped Pelopidas. “So this was a game all along, Pelopidas. You are no honest philosopher. No, you simply wished me to give back your own answers. I say that you are more the fire breather than iron-gut Epaminondas himself.”

“I suppose,” Pelopidas quietly offered, but then he stuck his head closer to Mêlon’s and in a softer voice went on. “But sometimes others can give voice to the dark truth we prefer ourselves not to utter or even hear, but wish to be aired all the same. Because you know war better even than I, and not so long ago no doubt had no appetite for this great march, Mêlon, you have taken a great worry off my heart.” Pelopidas stopped in the road to finish. “I know there is no other way. I am not just a war lover. There is really no other way to end this, but in the direction we are marching. Yes, we must cut off the head of the serpent and watch his slithering trunk die in pain.”

“No. No, there is no other way,” Mêlon answered.

“We will either end this war our way—or they will end it theirs.”

Now even Melissos echoed. “No other way, no other way—no other way than to head south and cut them all down—or have no war and no peace, as it is now.”

With that outburst, the talkers heard the trumpeters’ order to halt and pitch camp and to wait for the twenty thousand men at their backs. Mêlon could already see well the Megarid below. They figured that they had gone some one hundred twenty stadia while they had talked the first day’s march away. Still Mêlon thought on in silence. This new power of Thebes—would there come also in time the end of its own democracy? Of course it would. Sparta had once dethroned Athens. Now Thebes was doing the same to Sparta. He knew well an end-day would arrive in turn for these Boiotians. That was the nature of states. In their wealth and pride, they forgot the harder ways of earlier men who had given them plenty. Maybe the Boiotians would muster a year or even ten of such marches at his back. But even now as he looked around the front ranks of the column, he saw few such as Pelopidas and Epaminondas to lead such men again—and far too many men like Backwash to throw away what others had given them.

Victory, the wealth of peace, proves as deadly to states as does defeat. Is that man’s doom? That as we struggle to plane down the edges for the young, old men forget that their own blisters and cuts from these knots and burls made us the savvy carpenters we are? That smoothing the splintery grain for our own children only ends up smoothing them, so that they know nothing of the rough to come? That in our wish to be good we ruin those who we wish to help, because we cannot let them suffer as we did when we have the power or the wealth to stop it? That law of iron explains the fall of families and the poleis as well. Did their Pythagoras have any answers for all this, since—Mêlon knew—his vanishing Zeus did not?

Only Chiôn and Nêto and Gorgos, even—the slaves born poor and with the coarse edge of life sharp in them still—showed the stuff of the older breed, and only for a while until they would become soft lords of an aging Ithômê of soft citizens who forgot that they had been helots. That was Chiôn’s fear, Mêlon knew, and what made the freed slave stay feral and far from the appetites of the city. The key, he also saw, for polis man was to match word and deed, body and mind, the work of the hoe with the papyrus, avoid the lounge of Phrynê as much as did the shaggy hill men of Aitolia. Without the mean, to meson, the laborer becomes a thug, the sophist an effete. No, Chiôn would stay in the wild where he could do more for the tame in the town by almost alone of men not being tame. For his part, Mêlon consoled himself that at least for now the new Messenê to come, the city of the soon-to-be-freed helots, might yet remind Hellas, even in its dotage, of the original ways of the polis—once the low rough stones were placed on the polished top. Freeing the helots would end Sparta, Mêlon knew. But he guessed that Epaminondas thought their liberation would give Hellas itself a reprieve, both by the struggle needed to free them and the infusion of new blood into the city-states of Hellas.

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