Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 23

Chiôn Goes South

Meanwhile, halfway to the farm, Chiôn had stopped. He grabbed the wrist of Myron. He spoke slowly, and then Chiôn began to make the freedman repeat what he said, so that Myron could say it all to Damô when he got back to Helikon—just as Chiôn ordered. At the fork, Chiôn took from Myron’s pack the sack of silver that they had promised Nikôn and sent Myron back to Helikon on the horse. He alone headed south and east over the spurs of Kithairon, running to the port at Aigosthena and the windy winter gulf. He prayed to the One God to forgive his lie to Mêlon that he would stay on Helikon; in truth, he had already promised Alkidamas that he would meet him at the dock. If Chiôn went all the way back to the farm, he would surely miss the ship of Alkidamas and his promise to Alkidamas to go southward with him and keep him safe. He had promised the old man to be on the shore by midnight and to come armed to guard them should the captain—and their money—need watching. Perhaps if he brought news of Nêto, Mêlon would grant him a pardon when they met again. Swinging the silver across his shoulder, Chiôn continued across the hills. The day gave way to dusk, then to black night, as Chiôn’s shadow moved among the trees, like a night-hunting creature in the forest, whose byways he had long ago mastered on his solitary hikes.

Down at the shore, the dockers on the quays at the port of Aigosthena were calling out at the lights that were visible on the waves—Thauma! Lampades, ide lampadas. Lampades en thallassê—A wonder! Lights, look, lights. Lights on the sea. Soon even the eyes of Alkidamas saw them, the twinkling flames over the water. Well after midnight at last the torches bobbed over the swells, without a sound of the approach. The clouds parted, and in the cold moonlight they could see the far peaks of Arkadia across the gulf, but nothing else. Then, late but safe, the long-expected ship quietly swished into port, oars up.

Alkidamas could smell it, as the wind swirled near shore, before he made out the trireme’s silhouette. All that was missing was his bodyguard Chiôn and the ransom money for Nêto, and he hoped either the crew was honest or Chiôn would be soon here to ensure they were. He had plans—all at the mercy of the winter seas, a leaky boat, and a brawling captain—to take these helot-born Athenians to Messenia to organize the people before the arrival of Epaminondas. If he left now on the water, he would be in Messenia before the army would even reach Sparta—and so have a precious month or so to rid Messenia of its Spartans. The unlettered helots would need a few of their more polished about who knew the ways of democracy. He had received word of Nikôn and his news of Nêto, so Alkidamas was glad not only to have Chiôn watch the captain Gastêr, but also to have his bodyguard when the two would search for Nêto in Messenia.

Quickly the shivering, wet stewards roped the long boat into the dock house. Porters in wool cloaks and hoods tramped off for food and water. It looked like a trireme, but one of the older brands—smaller than most, with the paint faded and the timber warped. The sea-snake’s eye painted on the side was half peeled away by the brine. Usually these warships came out of the water like serpents, with their sleek lines and bright colors. But this old thing was more like a smashed jellyfish washed up on the shoreline.

Once the creaky ship touched shore, a one-armed captain stood balancing himself with his good left arm on the outrigging in torchlight. Someone yelled, “There’s Gastêr, our fat friend. Hey Alkidama. He’s here.”

The dark figure of the captain himself called back from his bobbing boat. “Hoa, Alkidama. I’m late. Fighting the damned crosswind out of the Piraeus all the way to the Isthmos. But this water is nothing compared to the straits off Asia, or the high waves off Rhodos. But then you’re no Alkibiades either, not by far. Why that master, he knew more in his thumb than you folks today. Hey. Your crew of land boys you hired me can’t row, and instead think that talking will push the ship along. I spent too much silver at the diolkos, getting this boat dragged across the Isthmos. But don’t worry, I’ll have all of us at your Messenia well before your friends by land.”

He jumped down off the planks to the draw board. “Those Korinthian draggers are worse than Thrakians, always with one begging hand out as they work. The buggers will doze off right in the middle of their rope pull, unless we throw more silver into their general’s chest—and a pithos of unmixed red wine for their tug work. But here we are, pulling hard the oars, hard all the way from the port at Korinthos. With a boat full of your helot captains with splinters in their butts—just as ordered, ready to get things ready for your Epaminondas. They hit each other with their wood as much as they did the water.”

Gastêr then stalked back up along the top planks, swinging a torch in the dark like a sword, ordering the lower oarsmen to get out, to stretch their legs, to empty their bowels and be back before dawn. He had a long beard, but the ugly kind that was scraggly and showed his chin beneath, and caught food and worse in its thin folds. Once his cap came off, he was all bald and might have taken a razor to his head, since his dome was shiny in the torchlight. Unlucky he was that his only arm was his left arm. He looked all belly. But he had thick blubber on his arm and his shoulders, blubber everywhere, so that he was more a mountain than even were stronger men. His legs were sturdy. It would take a hard blow, maybe two for him even to feel the hit.

“No one pissing in my dirty ship and no slopping. I won’t have stink on my water. We won’t stop till well out of the mouth of the gulf. Not until we get an out wind with ice from Epiros. Then we turn to the left and my what a breeze will push us to Messenia. So eat and crap now, Alkidama. What a nice night—cold, and black and windy—what more could we ask of Lord Poseidon? Get on board, get out to my sea.”

When one of the thalamians lingered and began to vomit, Gastêr grabbed his hair and pulled him on up. “Out now, my pretty helot boy. Puke on the beach, not my ship—or you’ll row in chains to the gulf.” With that he broke off a half-loaf of stale bread. In the torchlight he seemed an older sort, without any age, given that his fat filled out his wrinkles. But Gastêr was a scarred veteran of the fighting in Asia; his left arm was a road map of tears and healed wounds. A seashell, hard and crusty, Gastêr was, but his insides? They were long eaten away with drink and stab wounds, and bad food from Asia. He cared little when he crossed the Styx, since four or five times he should have already been across. So he was ready to stab or torch anything he wished on the shore, and pay whatever price he must. Near-dead men who come back to life think everything after is dessert. Gastêrs of the world live blink-to-blink only—always eager to test what kind of man can put them on the other side where there is only relief from the present ordeal. Such rough and loud sorts do well, until they meet a Chiôn, a like but stronger and more desperate kind still.

Alkidamas had met Gastêr twice before hiring him—and so had heard all the stories of his missing arm. How Gastêr and Alkibiades had warned the Athenians not to beach their ships on the sands at Aigospotami. How Gastêr alone saw the warships of the Spartan admiral Lysander on the horizon. How Gastêr was the first to get his trireme, the Parrhêsia, into the surf. How Gastêr took down five Spartan hoplites in the knee-high surf of the channel, until they swarmed him, spearing and stomping on his arm, and left him for dead in the tides. Finally how he had crawled in the water all the way to the tower of Alkibiades, who gave him shelter and whose doctor cut off his worthless stinky and green right limb and seared his stump with hot iron. None of these stories was of interest to Alkidamas, since Gastêr was hardly a Spartan spy, and in any case soon Chiôn would be here to ensure their money was safe.

Alkidamas finally found the writer whom he had sent for, the young Ephoros, alone and quiet on the outrigging of the trireme. He was silhouetted in the moonlight and under a torch, the only one sitting still on an empty ship, oblivious and cross-legged. The frail historian had made it from his home in Athens with his cloak and papers untouched. The entire way from Athens to the Isthmos, Ephoros had sat there mute—and now still in the gulf, well after the mob of rowers had cursed and shoved and elbowed each other off the smelly boat. This other Athenian at last in a soft voice tried to speak over the tumult, but without looking up from his scrolls that he was busy writing on. He talked too softly to be heard clearly. “Don’t worry. We’re here. About one hundred thirty of us, my Alkidama, if that. One or two died or fell overboard in the tempest off Megaris, or maybe they were pushed. All in all, a short crew by many tens at least. Yes, short some rowers, but foul all the same. I don’t know how you are going to use these Messenians for much other than stone masons. I wouldn’t turn anything over to these thugs, much less an entire city. Compared to them, Gastêr is an Athenian lord.”

Then Ephoros slowly got up. He was careful not to trip in the dark or rock the deck and began to stretch his slight frame and toss his golden hair back down his neck. Alkidamas saw why this thin wisp had won fame for his writing on Kretan boy-love. He had argued in his books that the rite had supposedly made the islanders more virtuous, but those pampered boys in his books were a different sort from the crew now of the Theôris. “Some of these scum rowers tried to pull my locks and pat my backside, as if I were some street whore. But the Messenian hoplites, the bigger sorts up here on top, have their armor and gave me a hand. You now give me a hand, man. We have till dawn to plot and plan. But I warn you that Gastêr may well jump the starting blocks. He is a restless sort. He hates having his feet on land, where any can see his one arm, his woman’s thin beard, and his big belly. No wonder he likes the sea, where fish and gulls think he’s Adonis. He’s a sly fart, who stares into the water like a made-up woman with her mirror.”

Alkidamas waved him to stay put. He walked up the springy board to the outrigging. Ephoros was, as he remembered him from the previous year, of an age that was hard to gauge, with his baby face that wrinkled slowly. He was pale from his long nights with the stylus. But at least he had a strong nose and everything seemed to fit on him, except his floppy ears, which looked like the monkey’s saucers on the pots from Egypt. But why not the tall ears, when the writer must listen and sift the wind for gossip and rumor, for the purposes of Alkidamas’s war were in fact twofold: one to free the helots, and quite another to ensure that the truth of what they did reached the Hellenes. At least, that is what Alkidamas told Ephoros, who knew that Platôn and Xenophon, older, wealthier, and aristocrats both, would either damn Epaminondas or ignore him—and that far more of the literate would read their scrolls than his own. But he was here nonetheless and would have come even without the urging of Alkidamas, who feared greatly the fame—and influence—of Xenophon in particular. For Ephoros knew this march would be a great thing and he thought he could write the truth of what would unfold, and that in itself would finally win the day against his better-connected and wealthier rivals. And he was pledged to follow these Athenians of helot birth all the way to Ithômê and with Alkidamas teach them the ways of democracy. He had been writing furiously since the moment the Theôris had left the Piraeus. Ephoros had finished the battle of Leuktra, and now was working on the anabasis of Epaminondas as it unfolded.

This warship Theôris that Gastêr had bought was leaky. Mice scurried in the hold, feeding on crumbs and excrement. For all Gastêr’s talk, it was a foul mix down there, a bilge mess of moss and stink, as the sea seeped into bad planks of the hull. “Help us, Pythagoras,” Alkidamas yelled. “I said bring me a small trireme, not a floating sewer. Good Messenian rowers, not thugs and freed slaves. We’ll be lucky to make it halfway to the mouth of the gulf. I’d rather face Lichas than try my luck in this raft.”

“Maybe, old man,” Gastêr barked in reply. “You’ll get your chance with Lichas soon enough. But when you drown it won’t be the fault of my ship. I’ve captained far worse and never lost a hull. These Messenian cutthroats row hard, even if they don’t quite know what they’re doing with their oars. All of them would give me a golden Zeus to get a chance to get back home to their Ithômê. Next time you want me to row up in a new cruiser, pay with a pile of Athenian gold, not a few silver Theban shields. This Theôris of yours, or whatever it was once called, was ramming Korinthian triremes under Phormio before we were born.”

Lopsided Gastêr then turned from Alkidamas and was strutting along the beach, calling at his porters in the black of night. “Where’s my fish sauce? Where’s my water? Three hundred hard loaves I paid for from these thieves at Aigosthena. Where are the bread baskets? Hurry now—or you’ll get none of Alkidamas’s silver from me. I want the ship stocked now. Get to it, lazy boys; this winter night won’t last forever.” Gastêr with his one claw pulled his wool fleece tighter over his shoulders as the wind picked up. The captain waved a torch over his head that nearly went out against the icy blasts. He was proud that he had picked up this ancient trires among the wrecks at the Piraeus. He put in a few ribs and planks, and caulked the leaks. He bought oars cheaply and then resold them at a profit to the crew as they boarded. And he had no problem rounding up men, once Alkidamas spread stories to the Messenians of Athens who lived outside the Dipylon Gate of a new and free Messenia to the south. They were to get passage to Ithômê for rowing and listening to Alkidamas prep them on the new constitution of the free polis of Messenê. But on the sly Gastêr had charged the helots another ten owls fare once they climbed aboard—and had knocked one into the harbor who had no coin. He hoped to make a quarter talent in fare and bribes on the voyage charging helots for what Alkidamas had already purchased. His Theôris was an Athenian brand, a small one, rumored to have been towed in after Conon’s victory, then beached when the shipwrights thought it too leaky and broken to fix.

Despite the crusty surface, Gastêr had painted over the faded colors its new name, meaning “Sacred Mission,” on its bow in a fancy block script. Now he and Ephoros sat onboard while the crew foraged, waiting until their bodyguard Chiôn appeared from Plataia with Mêlon’s money for Nêto and some bonus coins for Gastêr. Finally before sunrise, the porters brought in bread and water. Gastêr barked out orders. The crew lined up and began counting off. He sent the bottom rowers, thalamians, to the lower benches first. Maybe forty or so climbed in. Then another forty of the zygians. These were the middle rowers squeezed in on top of the lower set. Much later the elite thranites sat up on top, thirty at most who had some oaring in their past, or who had paid Gastêr the most coin. Ten hoplites, swearing in their Messenian Doric, carried on their gear and were sitting flat on the outrigging, arms out to roll with the swells that came in, even at dock. Most below were soon pushing each other. They fell on the slippery planks and fought over their rowing pads, blaming each other for the farting and smell.

Gastêr yelled as he balanced on the top deck. “Alkidama, it’s a small ship, not a fleet trireme. With you fatties up here and these heavy breastplate boys, we’ll have a slow go out against the wind this morning. Can’t any of you slobber-mouths row, or is it to be talk all the way out the gulf? Cold, are you? I’m sweating and need a breeze.” Alkidamas had never been on a trireme, and only once on a rolling ferry boat to Aegina. When he and Ephoros lumbered on top with the epibatai, the entire boat nearly keeled over.

“Careful, clumsy fools.” Gastêr came up and slapped them down. “Sit with your knees crossed and don’t move. Do you want to beach us before we leave the dock? A ship’s not a dance floor. Hoa. Look over there at who’s coming. He’s late. If that’s your big man, O Alkidama. We have to put that slave—or is he a freedman now?—somewhere. I was hoping we’d swish out before he came.”

No one had heard the bellowing of the approaching stranger. Now Chiôn was upon them, at the beach waving a torch with his good right hand, and then running up the plank out of breath. He seemed clumsy without two good arms, more so than Gastêr, and he stumbled as he approached, but he had a huge iron sword strapped to his back and a travel sack hanging from the leather belt. Finally he coughed out his story on deck—and more than his usual word or two. “I came, Alkidama. On the third day as promised from last we met at Thespiai. I made my Marathon, running the whole way. All the way, from the army camp on Kithairon, all the way and with Mêlon’s money. But Nêto—she’s been taken from the helots in the south, or so that Nikôn says. Into the hands of the Spartans, into the jail of Kuniskos with a ransom on her head. For Nêto, I ran. I saw Mêlon, outside Plataia. He let me take his money I pulled out of his well. Here, take it.” Chiôn threw down the sack of silver and collapsed on the deck, his cloak wet and his breathing heavy. “Oar. Where’s an oar? Give me a butt pad. I’ll row. Where’s the captain? I will watch him as promised.”

“Right here, one arm, right here. So you decided to come after all.” Gastêr laughed at the idea of a clumsy crippled freedman pulling, and instead turned to his drummer and pointed to the sea. “Hey you, Keleuste, hit your drum. A beat, one not too fast. I’ll take us right up the middle of the gulf and then out westward.” Then Gastêr broke off a half-loaf and handed it to Chiôn. “How do you like your one arm, brand face?”

“Like this.” Chiôn jumped up, grabbed Gastêr’s chin beard, and pulled the enormous man down to the deck. He would have torn off his scraggly whiskers had not Alkidamas waved him off. Chiôn had already tired of Gastēr’s brag and let him up slowly with a warning, “I came to watch you, fat man. Trick us, or talk like tricking us, and I’ll throw your head overboard. I would rather run to Messenia, so if I have to bleed you, it’s better for me anyway.”

Gastêr gave Chiôn ten feet of room for the rest of the voyage and turned his back to him when he yelled. And with that, the Theôris at last went out into the black gulf to the sound of beating and fell heavy into the surf, bound due west out of the great gulf of Korinthos toward the sea of Sikily five hundred stadia away. For all the weight of the hoplites and the short crew and the leaky hull, this Sacred Mission made good headway over the black waves as the rowers began to chant and sing, happy returnees now on their last leg to Holy Messenia. Like the wings of some old bird of the sea that limbers up when it leaves the shore, the oars of the Theôris dipped and swung outward as the boat picked up speed through the gulf.

Gastêr was calling out over the sea’s roar to Alkidamas. “I like this ship, Alkidama, like it a lot. Built with good seasoned fir from Makedon. Better than what they slap together these days. It has Phormio’s smell all over it. Let’s sell it in Koronê and split the coins. Or don’t you want to give me a little extra for getting it here in one piece?”

Alkidamas ignored him, deep in thinking how best to find Nêto and deal with Gorgos, if Nikôn were right that he was the kidnapper.

All the oars were the same length, but only half the helots hit the waves in unison—even though they pulled from different banks. Too many of these beginners fouled their wood. The oars echoed as they hit each other. “So we row, Chiôn,” Alkidamas patted the freedman as the two sat up. Then he went himself to a top bench below the outrigging and began to pull in front of the slave. “You came as promised, as you always do, Chiôn. As for this new report, don’t worry, we will save our Nêto yet—if as you think your Nikôn is true in his messages, and Nêto still lives and if she can be bartered for in the house of our Kuniskos at Ithômê, wherever that is. A helot like Nikôn does not run a thousand stadia into Boiotia for nothing.”

Chiôn nodded. He had not told Mêlon at the camp the prior night that he had met Alkidamas in Thespiai on the day Mêlon left for Thebes, and had been promised passage on his ship. That this Nikôn showed up on Helikon just before Chiôn’s planned meet-up with Alkidamas made it even easier to go south. Indeed, Damô had told him to rescue Nêto and to hurry with money to Aigosthena, and to draw on the wisdom of Alkidamas. Chiôn fell into his new pulling. He had given the horse to Myron, and covered a hundred stadia on foot over the mountain from Plataia to the shore, all that late day and night, and reached the ship well before dawn as promised. But he could not sleep. Not yet, not with the chance that Nikôn spoke truly, and that Nêto was caught in the hands of Gorgos. So he was still yanking on the oar with his good right arm until the sun came out, when all could see Helikon on their right and off in the distance Parnassos and the waters not far from Kirrha, as the Theôris continued westward out of the gulf. He pulled for Nêto.

This rowing was far easier than pressing the lever of the olive-crushing stone on Helikon. These waves gave way to his strength in a way the stone smasher never did. Even with the sunrise, the hoplites were asleep on the outrigging, but just one or two were waking to the gentle surge of the ship. Chiôn could see tall forests close by on the northern shore of the gulf—good places for a man to live in the wild over there, with plenty to kill to eat. Soon the winter morning sun finally came out full, cold and bright. The sea calmed. Gastêr turned into the light wind a little more and in caution began to hug the coast of Boiotia. “A good night and a calmer morning, and already halfway out. We soon make a sharp turn out of the gulf at the mouth and catch the tail wind to Messenia.”

Then something on the horizon caught his eye, and he turned to his tiller. “Hard to the coast! Turn full into Boreas. Take in the wind at our faces. Head right to Boiotia. Look at them, damned Korinthians. Six at least. Not pirates. But warships, faster than ours—and in Spartan pay. They’re pulling our way from all sides. Look, look at them, all good long ships with full crews. Right, right, we go right. Head for the north shore. Cut into the wind. Outrun them. To holy Delphi. Pray to Apollo. Row to the peaks of Parnassos. Ten hecatombs to Poseidon for our safety.”

The Theôris made a hard turn and had a lead of twenty lengths, and maybe five more. Ephoros in his trance about the great march kept on writing on the outrigging. But despite a sudden haze on the water and the morning glare, Chiôn already could see on the shore Phokians watching their race. The six triremes behind were closing the distance. Would they catch the Theôris before shore? Gastêr went up and down the top deck, grabbed the backs of the necks of the hoplites, and pushed them onto the top benches right below. He took their breastplates and shields and began tossing them over the side.

“Row, fools. You down there, hand them up spare oars. All of you row. Row you boy-butt Ephoros and white-head Alkidamas. Row proktoi or you won’t have any scrolls left to write on. Give me an oar and I’ll balance out your slave. Between Chiôn and me, we one-arms will have two arms still, a good left and right each.” The epibatai climbed down among the thranitai and pulled with the rest. Ever so slowly the Theôris surged toward land on the northern shore of the gulf. There was a mob already forming at Kirrha, the port of Delphi, all waving for the helot ship to speed up. About a hundred or so rushed into the surf. These were Phokians who hated the men of the Peloponnesos somewhat more than they hated the Thebans—and they had been paid to harbor Boiotian ships if they came to shore in need. Some bent on one knee with shields and spears, waiting for the Korinthians to beach. Bowmen took aim to pick off the Korinthians if they neared the Theôris. Suddenly the pursuers veered off, about three stadia from shore.

The crowd waved in the Theôris that slid onto the shore. The helots climbed out and dragged the boat out of the water. They stacked their oars against the keel. Gastêr had them carry their food up the path to the crowd that swarmed them, hawking dry cloaks and for a few drachmas offering them wood for campfires. “Look. Ide, philoi mou, ide,” Gastêr yelled as he turned back to the sea. Another four triremes were joining the six, even as the friendly shore crowd of gawkers swelled and more Phokians came up in arms. Ten enemy ships were circling well out of bowshot, crisscrossing the rising early-morning whitecaps to keep the Theôris beached and off the gulf, as they relayed in and out from the bay far away at Perachora.

Phrynê had sent Lichas the time and route of Alkidamas. And in turn Lichas had sent the Korinthians money. In return the Korinthian captains promised to keep ships from the northern shore from leaving the gulf. When the wind died, those on the shore could hear the taunts of the enemy rowers over the morning surf. “Cowards. Wide-butts, come out to fight. We’ll kill you for sport. We kill you still.” Gastêr laughed and yelled back to the trireme that darted parallel to the coast. “Whoa. Maybe so. But we’re dry and on ground. You Korinthians. You can stay out there until you freeze. Drink your bilge.”

Then he turned to Alkidamas. “Well, man, we made it halfway, almost. Though I bet we could have hiked as fast on land as we made by the oars. This may be the end of our voyage, if these damned Korinthians decide to patrol in turn, five or so at sea, five or so replaced by fresh ships from over there to the south on the Peloponnesos. For now, we stay put here. We eat—until our Poseidon gives us a winter storm that sinks them. Remember I get paid whether you walk or ride the waves the rest of the way.”

Alkidamas tried to reply over the roar of the surf. “Yes, safe for now—but trapped and still far from Ithômê.”

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