Ancient History & Civilisation


A Free Messenia

The two women had better sense than to board a winter trireme when Alkidamas had talked grandly of one day taking a boatload of free helots into Messenia to craft a constitution. Instead, months earlier, when Gastêr was still mending the Theôris, Erinna and Nêto had crossed the Isthmos as easily as the philosopher and the historian had later not even made it out of the gulf.

But once inside Spartan-held Messenia, Nêto saw that she should have listened to her hide-clad Erinna, who had known the woods and the mind of those like Kuniskos. For all Nêto’s talk of helots and Messenia and the visions of Nikôn, it turned out she understood very little about life in the south, or indeed life outside the protection of the farm of the Malgidai—and nothing about how to live in the wilds of Ithômê. The priestesses of Artemis had offered their precinct to Nêto; but she too often was forced to sleep in the light rains and snow of the forests, given the constant Spartan patrols that crisscrossed Messenia on orders of Lord Kuniskos. It seemed odd to Nêto that the Athenian Erinna, with no trace of Messenian in her speech, might have turned out to be the better friend to the revolt. Or not so odd, since the poetess had lived up on the mountains of Parnes and Hymettos and knew more of the wilds, how to live on the red berries, skin the rabbit, and drink the cleaner brook water, than did even the helots themselves—and how to put an arrow in a mountain thief and yet be five stadia away in the brush by the time his gang found the dying corpse.

When Nikôn’s party finally had climbed over the summit of Taygetos and crossed the borders in the late summer, Erinna went straight up to the highlands along the long spine of Ithômê. Her new spot was not far from the holy ground of wild Artemis Laphria and its priestesses of the sanctuary in their hunting garb. Erinna sang out to Nêto that the two were finally in holy Messenia and at last insurgents in the war against the Spartans that they so long had advocated from a distance. “Stay here where you are safe, Nêto. We are not like foolish men. They blindly walk by the food that can feed us—greens and herbs and berries under their noses. They stalk the bear and deer and are blind as bats to the rabbits and birds that fall into my snares. Up here learn to eat meat again. Pythagoras will forgive the eating of meat for the greater good of Messenia. Take in the peaks around Ithômê. Relearn your Doric tongue. Then, and only then, go down to raid the Spartans below. We cannot yet meet their hoplites in battle, and must kill them at night or through ambushes in the woods—where a stealthy woman can fare better than these loud helot men.”

But Nêto was driven and would have none of it. “I walked a thousand stadia to fight, Erinna. Not paw the backsides and fondle the titthoi of your girls. There’s not a krypt that can outrun me. Ask Nikôn who knows these helot-killing Spartan patrols. We will go in packs and swarm the Spartans, even on the daylight roads if need be.”

“But Spartan hoplites, Nêto, still control the lowlands, far better men than your friend’s ragtag tribe of insurgents. Better to organize up here until all the Messenians have armor and a good general to storm the fort of Kuniskos—otherwise you will end up either tossed into the Kaiadas or nailed up on one of Kuniskos’s poles.” With that Erinna turned and headed to the far side of Ithômê with Nikôn, while Nêto descended to the sanctuary of Artemis below to meet the priestesses.

At the small hamlet of Aitos, there in the woods Erinna set to organizing her school—to teach the orphaned helot girls the rhetoric of Isokrates and the way of Pythagoras, and for relish the poetry of her dear Sappho and the Boiotian Korinna, and as a treat Pindar as well. She would take her rhapsodists up to Olympia and then down to Pylos and thereby learn the news of Antikrates and his new henchman Kuniskos. If Alkidamas were to bring in his Athenian-raised helots to teach the liberated Messenians of good government, she would do better still and ensure that they had tragedy and lyric and epic poetry as well. Erinna’s new Messenê would not merely be Proxenos’s walled citadel forever safe from Sparta, but a polis of the Muses as well—a new Athens that would ascend in the Peloponnesos as the old one in Attika faded away.

On a rocky face on the backside of the ridges behind Ithômê above a deep gorge, she pitched at first an oiled leather tent. Then word got out that the strange Athenian had silver owls. Soon the rustics were on their way up to sell her pans and shovels and anything bronze or iron they could steal from the Spartans. After Nikôn had left her to return to camp on the saddle of Ithômê, Erinna had set about with ten or so women, mixing clays and drying them into bricks in the late-summer sun. Then with a donkey and cart they carried in stones for the floor and built the school as a fortified compound. At night they were taught by Erinna to sing and memorize the words of the lyric and melic poets—before going on to Homer, in reverse fashion of the way the rhapsodists did it at Athens. By the end of the fourth month, their baked tiles were on the roof, held up by stout mud-brick walls whitewashed inside and out, with a good stone floor within. The girls were singing the new war song of Epaminondas on wooden benches in her schoolhouse—still more worship of the man she had seen only once. Erinna had put targets—old Spartan helmets that the helots brought her for barter—on rock outcroppings outside the courtyard, so that her helot girls could learn the bow, and how to put an arrow in an eye-slit at fifty paces. She had them wrestling and lifting small stones, so that their arms were as hard as Erinna’s. Most wore small daggers in scabbards that were cinched over their breasts, and their teacher showed them how to seduce a Spartan as they put a blade in his backside. Erinna gave them all felt piloi, cone-shaped hats, with long red feathers tucked at the sides.

These were to be her peripoloi, her own rangers in brown felt and green cloaks who chanted their songs and yet could still kill as they sang. Her rangers would come down to lead the Messenians both to victory and to the Muses. No one got within ten stadia of her outpost without the entire school up in the trees and amid the rocks with their bows. But soon this upland sanctuary of Erinna—there was a spring here as well as terraced fields of barley and grain—was doubling as a camp, housing helots of the highlands on their way to Nêto and the sacred precinct of the other lowland Artemis below. Some nights a hundred and more helots came in through the thickets for the water and food and shelter in winter. Poor Nêto. Erinna knew more of her danger up here through these spies than Nêto herself knew down below.

She wrote just that and often in letters like this.

Erinna to Nêto. Listen. You learn from me.

They know you, Nêto. Spartans do. Antikrates and Kuniskos himself. They follow you. You and the priestesses at the low temple in the marshes are easy game. Targets for that helot traitor. His packs of Spartan killers hunt you. He knows the paths of your helots. So come up here for a spell, out of sight. Here you will be in school, safe with my girls. The Spartans fear to come up our slopes, fear the wild and the wolves. Be in good spirits. Erinna of Ithômê.

From this new mud-brick school Erinna sent down agents to Nêto, who returned each evening from her to the safety of the sanctuary. Always Erinna’s helots went back up to her with stories of the revolt, of Spartan killing, and of a countryside in rebellion—waiting for news of the great army of Epaminondas and the Boiotians’ promised turn to the west, as had been ordained for the first month of the year, Theban Boukatios. The helots sang that this Boiotian first month would see the Thebans finally on Ithômê and their Spartan taskmasters gone. Meanwhile in the days of waiting from the first of the year, they kept killing Spartans in ambushes. They hid their wine and grain from the food collectors of Sparta and in threes and fours left the farms to hide in the highlands.

These helot marauders—maybe five thousand were loose, a thousand or more with Nêto and Nikôn—were fed and kept safe by the temple priestesses, in the shrines and sanctuaries from Pylos up to the falls of the Alpheios. Each night the holy women sheltered the helot Spartan hunters, ever hot after Antikrates and his killer henchman known as Puppy Dog. Meanwhile Erinna far above had taught the girls at her school that the prophecy was nearly fulfilled—the apple would fall again, and seven myriads of hoplites would sweep down from the mountains of Taygetos, all led by her Epaminondas, and Mêlon, and the blood-crazed Chiôn, all taught by Alkidamas and the deadly Ainias and the great-hearted Proxenos. Soon these names were in songs and chanted by the girls as they went back down to the markets of the Messenians.

Below, Nêto was seeing visions almost nightly of Epaminondas on the pass in Sparta. There he was addressing his men, staring down at Lakonia with seventy thousand soldiers at his back. Eight or ten days after the winter solstice, runaways from Lakonia came over Taygetos with more stories like Nêto’s dream warning that a tide of grasshoppers would some winter day sweep over the passes north of Sparta, stripping everything in its path, and on the way south growing larger still. So Nêto, convinced that Mêlon and the army would be in Messenia within the month, took more risks, attacking with Nikôn’s men the Spartans in broad day, and closer always to the Spartan base at the foot of Ithômê.

Finally as the days neared to the middle of Theban Boukatios more rumors spread over Taygetos with the high shepherds that the Thebans had already left Boiotia, determined to reach Lakonia before the new year. They might even have reached Mantineia. There they would join Lykomedes to burn all the farms and towers of the Spartans, turning their whitewashed homes black with soot. Soon Spartans, either in fear of the Boiotians to come or answering the call of King Agesilaos to hurry home to defend the city from Epaminondas, began leaving Messenia, swarming the short high road atop Taygetos. A few Spartans left behind in Messenia stayed in their compound under orders from Antikrates; otherwise they would be ambushed by the growing mob of helot fighters who fought at night and from thickets, and with missiles and arrows, rather than lining up in the phalanx. The Spartan rearguard under Antikrates had built a final redoubt, a log stockade on the spur of Eva on a lower hill beside Ithômê. It had a timber wall, two men high, with half a thousand Spartan hoplites trapped inside who could not stomach the notion that helots had driven them out of their Messenia.

Their captain was the renegade Kuniskos. Even in the twilight of Spartan power, he sallied out at night with two hundred horsemen to burn and level the helot hamlets on the northern borders, before riding in at dawn to hunker down at his compound. Finally even Antikrates had fled back to Sparta to join his king. He had left Messenia to his helot Kuniskos because the black soil, he knew, was lost, and his Spartans were to be better used defending their women in Lakonia in the battle to come. “Leave Antikrates,” Kuniskos told him, “leave and let the real lord of Messenia at last be the better Spartan that he always was. For you, Messenia has fallen and so is better abandoned; but for me it is rising—at last in the hands of a child of its soil, a man better than both the whipped helots and the Spartans who lashed them.”

Then Erinna heard no more about Nêto and her band of raiders. Had she disappeared? Even Nikôn had lost her. The temple of Artemis of the lowlands was razed and the priestesses scattered or killed—or sent to the gorge on Taygetos. Nêto might be dead or worse. Kuniskos had warned the helots that he would never flee like Antikrates had. Not he, the last good helot, who would kill all on sight who were not in the fields weeding the barley and wheat—would kill and kill before his stockade was overwhelmed. Even on Ithômê, Erinna heard reports of these final boasts from the last of the helots, all the bolder as his last band shrank and his enemies increased.

A phoinix, that was what Kuniskos proclaimed he would be, the war bird that would rise up on the ashes of Sparta to rule over Messenia himself, with his die-hard last lochos of Spartans, as lord of the Helots. If his compound were stormed, Kuniskos boasted, he would flee, but not to Sparta. No, if he must leave for a time, Kuniskos would go up to high Taygetos. “I, Lord Kuniskos,” he would rail in his drunken fits to his retainers, “I will ride back down in triumph once these Messenians one day beg me to rule them again. Who else would put an end to this looting and raping—this mad idea that unlettered serfs could ever be democrats?”

It was Nikôn who brought word that Nêto was now five days a captive with Kuniskos—with an offer of a ransom. “No surprise that these Spartan gold-lovers wish to be bought off. He knows there is silver on Helikon, so he won’t kill her just yet. He wants ransom and perhaps more. Klôpis his henchman left a scroll at the first column of the ruined Artemision, and my Hêlos read it and told me the threat of Kuniskos:

“You robbers of Messenia—listen! The rebel Nêto, she remains inside the fort of Lord Kuniskos, first man of Spartan Messenia. He says to the rebels and to the Malgidai in the north to fetch her with their silver. A talent wins her freedom, but only before the northerners come over Taygetos. If no silver, no Nêto and she dines in the Kaiadas.”

Nikôn was desperate now, trying to get Erinna to bring her girls down the hill. “Get all these holdouts under Ithômê to collect silver to keep her alive. But better still, tell me, woman—how goes the road to Helikon in the far north? Which way? How many days away is this farm of Mêlon, the home of our Nêtikê? Those she left behind have money. So I run, Erinna, to the north and to this Helikon across the gulf. Maybe in ten days I am on this Helikon and then back on Ithômê with money for Nêto—if she lives, if she lives. Ten days, no more. I run hundred stadia, maybe more, each day. Maybe I’ll know the way, at least from the dreams that come at night.”

Erinna now told the helot how best to go north to the farm of the Malgidai. “No, no, Nikôn—don’t go north in the way of the army. That is the long way.” Erinna with a long knife drew a map in the dirt at their feet. “We are already far to the west, far closer from here to Helikon. Run up the Alpheios road, up to the long walls of Patrai, and across the gulf—not the way Nêto and I came to Mantineia. Cross the gulf here in the west. Then the helots of Naupaktos will show you the sea-cliff path to Parnassos and then over by Sphinx Hill to the backside of Helikon. Go now. See me here in your ten days. By then I’ll know where our Nêto is, and where Kuniskos is to pay—again, if she lives.” Then she wrote on tree bark more directions with lines and arrows for the letterless helot once he arrived on Helikon.

So it was that Nikôn, the nimble-foot, found Chiôn just before he was to leave by sea with Alkidamas, and in time for him to warn Mêlon. Both were on their way southward, by both land and sea, and with heavy sacks of silver, to free their Nêto if she lived. Nikôn was back to Ithômê in seven days with the news that the army of the Boiotians had already left. Nikôn had wanted the money, to take it back with himself, the swifter runner. But Chiôn reminded the stranger that the coin was his master’s and that he himself must find Mêlon at Plataia, before Epaminondas and Mêlon got over Kithairon. Better yet, the Spartan-killer Chiôn promised Nikôn that he himself would be coming with his sack of silver by sea to ransom his Nêto and settle up with Kuniskos, and he would be there well before the army of Epaminondas.

But now where were any of them? No army yet. No Alkidamas and his boat. No Chiôn—who sat on the Theôris, beached with the Phokians. The Korinthian warships circled offshore watch after watch. Meanwhile, Nikôn had a long run ahead of him—to spread the word that Chiôn, along with the silver for Nêto, was not far behind him. But Chiôn was not—not for a while.

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