Ancient History & Civilisation


The Plains Afire

Epaminondas followed. As they neared the besieged farm, Ainias called over the Elean lords Talos and Philoxenos and the captains of their mounted rangers who had trapped the orphaned band of Spartans out in the plain of Lakonia. Talos broke in, “We’ve cornered something over here on this estate. Something big. A phantasma, a ghost from their Zeus is holed up there. My Eleans have plundered the field vats. But there is a hoplite bunch still in the house. And another hundred or more Spartans milling about in the courtyard. There is a big man with them that brings piss to our boys’ legs who won’t go near the tower. We were too busy with the booty in the sheds to notice this enemy island. Now we discover that we’ve surrounded a whole company of killers. They say it is the clan of Lichas—or even worse—inside.”

“Hold up. Stop your men. I know this place,” Epaminondas yelled. “I know this foul farm.” The general then sent a runner to Pelopidas and ordered after him, “Send in the Sacred Band. Send for another lochos or more if you can. Get Philliadas and his hard men from Tanagra over here. All of them before midnight.” Then he turned to Mêlon and pointed to the tower, still looming white as darkness fell. “Lichas may be here, or at least some of his own. This is the farm of his dead brother Leôn. His klêros is somewhere close by. I passed right by here on the embassy last year to the taunts of Antikrates and his kryptes. I wager that either Lichas or his son, or maybe both are in there, or at least nearby. So maybe we have torched the grand estate of Leôn.”

But it was far more than that. For the Boiotians had, in their ignorance, stumbled onto the compound of all the Lichades, all five farms, a thousand plethra of orchard and vineyard altogether near the Eurotas, with six tall towers, all built by their own hands, without the labor of slaves or helots, five of them by the grandfathers of Lichas—Xanthos and Prytanis—whitewashed purgoi all in shouting distance of each other. Little did they guess that Gorgos on his arrival from Leuktra had spent a half-year here himself, although Mêlon looked out among the bonfires and thought that one of the towers seemed strangely new with its fresh whitewash and a red border—and in the fashion of his own back on Helikon. Its roof and stones might easily have been built by the Malgidai.

Now Mêlon and Proxenos leveled their spears and advanced toward the fires and the hoplites who ringed the estate. Ainias headed to the outer field wall. It ran about twenty palms high around all the farms and had various gates, as paths from each farm led out of the family grounds. As they neared the path to the southernmost farm, maybe two hundred Eleans under their general, Talos, were throwing stones and javelins at Spartans behind the tower’s courtyard wall—a man’s height, its gate closed fast. A few were torching the door jambs of one of the abandoned towers. Talos was waving them forward. “They’re in there. No worry about that. Lichas must have an iron gut to dare to be on our side of the river.”

“Lichas has no gut, Talos. He feels nothing, but won’t give up his own estates without blood—our blood he thinks,” Mêlon said grimly.

“So let’s storm it and get the killing over.” Ainias pulled out his blade and put down his spear. “It will be too crowded for spear work in there, only sword killing. Man-to-man, hand-to-hand, a real blood feast for your night-loving Kêres, Mêlon, that you so often warn us about.”

“No, no,” Proxenos broke in. “Better to let them die on the vine. They’re like a rotten grape cluster with the gnats once its stem has been nicked. Why go in there? It’s too dark. We have thousands in this plain. They are a good stade or two from the safety of the Eurotas. We have them trapped on the wrong side of the water. They’ll starve while we tighten the nets. All of them are not worth one of our dead. Let them be.”

Mêlon agreed. “Proxenos is right, Ainias. Talos—you back step a bit. Well before morning we’ll have enough men to surround the entire farm five deep. We can throw embers through the windows. So for now let the Spartans be.” Mêlon planned to keep his shield all night on his arm, as he sat against a plane tree that had grown into the stones. He watched the shadows of hoplites run up as the call went out that Lichas or at least his kin was trapped. “But don’t think they’ll starve. Hardly. They’ll charge a little after daybreak. We need more guards here, but the army is scattered for thirty miles plundering and burning. Our men are looking for cattle and sheep, not the spears of Spartan hoplites.”

Ainias nodded and looked over at the Spartan enclave. “Remember Leuktra. They’ll fight their way out through our circle. Break out with Antikrates or someone like him at the front. They’ll march out to the sound of pipes, with torches blazing. Maybe Lichas, maybe his son will lead. But they’ll come out that gate before dawn and head for the river. These men won’t die without killing some of our own. Still, there is enough of us to slaughter the whole herd.”

The hoplites and their generals were crouched behind the long low field and cross walls, as sentries slung lead bullets and cast javelins over the high courtyard into the Spartans, sure they could wear down Lichas and his men. For the present there were at least stout walls between the red-capes and the Boiotians. Proxenos was sitting quietly. Some around him were sleeping by the campfires; others were drowsy but waiting for the men of Tanagra to come up, half-convinced these Spartans were already dead or would give up. Then Proxenos himself dozed off only to awake to the sounds of Doric shouting.

“To me. Spartans to me. Rally to me.” It was not even dawn light yet. The Spartans had surprised them in their breakout by beating the sunrise. The waking Boiotians jumped up just as the Elean guards ran past them in terror. Ainias, who was on the front watch at the courtyard, flew frantically behind the Eleans. Then he ducked behind the road wall when he saw his Boiotians. “We were wrong. There’s not fifty there, not by a long way, but three hundred hoplites, maybe even more—peers all by the look of their armor. Maybe even five hundred coming down the lane, keeping the walls on each side, and nothing to stop them in front, like a bull with his horns lowered trapped in town. All royal guard I reckon. They march in their capes as on parade. Here they come in a phalanx. They broke right through our ring. Get out from this road, up over the field wall, before they roll us over.”

No sooner had the Stymphalian yelled than he saw that even the Boiotian guards had fled as well. So Ainias looked at Mêlon as they struggled to get over the waist-high wall and hide behind the stones, whispering, “They’re passing right beside us, over there. Now. Stay down. Flat on our bellies, even in our armor under the wall where they can’t see us. Quiet.” Just as Ainias finished, the Spartan Antikrates strode through the courtyard gate into the narrow walled lane. He led more than three hundred men behind him, four abreast, the front three ranks with spears out, more than eighty men deep, all in perfect column. His nephew, the piper Dôron, was hitting the war notes as they kept in time. Twice-widowed Elektra, the daughter of the daughter of Agesilaos himself, marched in the front rank. She wore no helmet but let her black hair wave over her breastplate. It was thick and wavy although Elektra herself looked like a skull with wrinkled skin pulled over. She was shaking a spear like a Harpy to her third husband, bald Lichas himself, beside her, laughing and chanting to her mate, “To the river and the city across. Kill the pigs in our way. My Lichas, lead us, my Lichas, lead us to Epaminondas.”

The front three ranks also had their shields out. The Spartans behind them put theirs above their heads, as bolts and stones rained on the little army from the flanks as it headed for the Eurotas. The fleeing Thebans had raised the shout and called for help. In reply, hundreds of Boiotians who had drifted off to ravage the nearby farms now answered back and in small bands headed for the sounds of the Spartan pipers. Some of the allies who had not fled ran alongside the road, on the other side of the field wall, parallel to the slow-marching army of Antikrates. They hoped at some point to leap over its walls, form a line, and block the passage of this two-stepping Spartan phalanx. But still they had no idea of the size or fury of the breakout, or that it was led by the entire savage clan of Lichas.

Most of these northerners did not know they were inside the compound of the Lichades, with the tower of Elektra herself opening to the walled lane, and that of slain Thôrax, the son of Lichas, close by, beyond the apple orchard. This is where Lichas had raised his four boys. He had sent all of them to the agôgê at seven. With his new wife, the widow Elektra, he had sired another three. All of this second litter was alive—Charillos, Thibrachos, and Polydektes. At thirty each had returned and built higher their towers and taken their farms as inheritance from their mothers. Here Lichas worked bare-chested and with a wide hat in summer, drilling his boys and sending them up to Taygetos to bring back a deer, protecting his later brood of royal sons from his first-born Antikrates, who shield-bashed his half-brothers for sport.

By the time the Spartans had passed out of the tower compound and headed down the lane toward the Eurotas, they found a mob of ravagers and archers waiting right at the start of the public road, with torches and iron bars, behind a barricade of a cart and some goats. Fools. The Spartans went through all of them in laughter. Behind Lichas and Antikrates, they tore through the Elean plunderers like the fisherman’s blade tears up the soft belly of the bluefish. Most of the ravagers blocking the way weren’t hoplites but light-armed thieves who hoped their numbers would turn aside Antikrates, or that the herd of goats might break through the red-capes better than they. Elektra herself cleaved the hand of an Elean who ran alongside and tried to pull her down.

“Proxenos, where’s Proxenos”? Mêlon looked along the lane wall where he thought the Plataian had hugged the dirt next to Ainias. Then the Stymphalian leapt up, “Look. He went after Antikrates’s flank.” Proxenos had run down alongside the lane. He jumped over the cross walls ahead to hit them at an angle. “Look, the madman charged them, way over there, by himself, as they passed by.” Ainias ran after the rear of the Spartan phalanx, which was at least four hundred paces ahead, spearing its way through the Elean ravagers—who threw their torches into the middle of Antikrates’s small company and fled in terror back into the orchards.

“No worry. No worry. Mêlon, there he is, down by that plane tree.” Mêlon saw something by the side of Ainias ahead, as he was limping at a wild pace toward another large bay tree, also grown into the farm’s wall, at the main crossroad to the Eurotas. Mêlon stopped when he saw the two of them, Proxenos with his hand on his belly. He yelled back to the others. “Over here for Proxenos.” The Spartans had passed by and were spearing their way onward to the Eurotas, still to the beat of their pipers.

Proxenos had a smile on his face, as he staggered up and leaned on the bay trunk, with his hand on his side. “I’m fine, Mêlon. Just pushed aside by that brute Antikrates with his spear. He swatted me without even a look. I gave him a stab and he turned and laughed at my sting. He nicked me as he marched on, and I managed to fall over this low wall as they passed by. No doubt he went away boasting that a tiny swat from Antikrates has killed a Boiotian hoplite.” They could hear the shrieks of Elektra echoing in the distance as the Spartans neared the last open bridge over the river. Proxenos fell back under the tree. Ainias grabbed at his tunic and tried to look at the wound. “More than a nick, Proxenos, you’ve got blood on your chitôn, red and thick. I wager it flows from deep inside—all the way down your shin. Some of it has a black look to it. Bile is in it. Let me have a look at the skin.”

Proxenos pushed him away and leaned against the wall. “No, no, it’s only red. Keep away. The breastplate stays on. Maybe a slice, but it is already drying, and two of those Eleans went to get wool, and if they can find it, some oil and honey. I’m fine. The blood stopped as soon as it ran. A hoplite keeps his armor on. Go look after that other fellow that the Spartan woman cut. He’s lying somewhere back along the wall, without a hand.”

Ainias was relieved as Proxenos kept talking, and wondered at what he had done. “Antikrates. Did you see him? You charged Antikrates as he marched at the head of the royal guard? Did you learn nothing from their final breakout at Leuktra? Look at their torches over there by the Eurotas—they are plowing a furrow through that mob of thieves. You thought one hoplite from Plataia could take down the son of Lichas? As they head over the Eurotas, they’ll kill a hundred of our own for their ticket across, and before the sun is even fully up.”

“But I almost did stop him,” Proxenos sighed. “At least I stabbed someone before he slapped his spear across my belly and gave me this scratch. Nêto was right: There is a foul smell about this Antikrates. I caught it as he nicked me. Either we kill him or he’ll spear more of our own before this is all over. He’s a daimôn, more evil even than his father Lichas. That Spartan has some secret hole he crawls out of each morning, a cave right out of Hades, and then back at night. None of us here can kill him, not even you, Ainias, or Mêlon. But no mind. Let’s go inside this farm that it is daylight and see how Lichas and his kin lived. Ah, Lichas has a tower now, in our style. Look at this, Mêlon, from here it looks better than any in Boiotia. Fresh and with new plaster. It’s a copy of your own on Helikon, only taller.” He was now walking about as he talked and proving to them that his cut was not too deep after all.

Mêlon’s leg was sore and his foot blistered. This latest escape of Antikrates was the second time the killer had eluded the Boiotians. Was there a god’s reason for it? Who, what could kill this man? The life of Antikrates and his father, Mêlon understood, hung by a thick rope, not a thin thread. Even the Fates couldn’t cut through them with a sword. “Go ahead, you two. Burn the house of Leôn. Or maybe it is that of the woman Elektra, the wife of Lichas. But set foot in it without sulfur and flame? No, I Mêlon, son of Malgis, will not. I have too many dreams of farmhouses to come with the brood of Lichas, and flames in them as well.”

So the Spartans under Antikrates and Elektra made their way at dawn from their compound and escaped across the Eurotas into the city of Sparta proper. Nevertheless in the next five days the invaders’ ravaging continued right on into the new year and past the end of the tenure of general Epaminondas. The Thebans mostly kept apart from their allies, especially the men of Mantineia, the self-proclaimed liberators who were busy rounding up Spartan helots and perioikoi for their own slaves. Gangs from the potters’ quarters of Mantineia had already foolishly crossed spears with Philliadas and his men of Tanagra. The Boiotian plunderers had killed their rival allies for sport—and warned Lykomedes they would as easily butcher all the Mantineians just as if they were Spartans. With the Spartans safe beyond the river, the three armies without a common enemy would soon battle each other for the plunder. Finally Epaminondas headed the Thebans out in the phalanx for the river and sought a way to cross it and enter the unwalled city of the Spartans. Thousands of plunderers began to follow behind the columns of Boiotians who had assembled under Epaminondas at last for this final assault on the citadel of Sparta. Even the looters figured that should the mad general get across, then the city would be theirs for the robbing. But the Peloponnesian allies in arms—except the Argives—were already scattering over the countryside as snow came in from the north. True, the Spartans were trapped inside their city. But the charge of Antikrates and Elektra from his farm had frightened the Mantineians. Few had any stomach to face him again.

Among the allies chaos reigned. Plunder, not the freedom of the helots, was what most of the allied armies had joined up for—cattle, and weapons, and bronze pots, even the oak doors and pine sills of the houses of the Spartans. Now in the icy wind, thousands of the Arkadians had already moved into the abandoned farmhouses of the Spartans and were camping in their barns and sheds as well, burning their fences and pens to keep warm. “Boiotian folly” and worse they called the plan of Epaminondas to storm the citadel of Sparta in the dead of winter. The green plain was smoky from thousands of campfires and burned towers. But amid the haze, all could see the acropolis opposite and the untouched roofs of the Spartan homes. All around Sparta was burning, but so far the city itself across the river was untouched.

Mêlon had just armed again. He formed up in the columns of Epaminondas with Ainias and Proxenos, and made sure that Melissos stayed clear of the looting. As the Boiotians broke camp for the final reckoning with King Agesilaos, their ranks passed some Mantineians swarming another grand estate that must have belonged to an ephor. Its tower and long whitewashed wall were as grand as those of the Lichades. “Here, over here,” a Peloponnesian lord on a horse yelled out at the passing column. “You Thebans, here, right here, they say, this is the farm of lame Agesilaos, the king no less. Not Leôn’s, but the king’s himself. You know Agesilaos, the lame killer? The place is full of plunder from your Boiotia—even the man’s clay pots are Theban. We even found the gold and silver from your temples. He stripped your land for years. Here, take your share.”

Melissos and Mêlon paused to look at the estate of King Agesilaos. But this was all, just some simple stones and a few wooden columns? In this new Hellas upside down, a hoplite just walked into the house of the great king of the Spartans and did what he pleased? Was this the power of Epaminondas to make the make-believe ordinary? But then, Mêlon thought further, how small an estate for a king? This was all they were to burn? Were there still leaders enough in Hellas like Agesilaos who lived as simply as did their hoplites? Mêlon knew Agesilaos fought alongside his men, but now he saw that he lived like them as well.

Suddenly about ten or so Mantineians with iron bars pried the roof off, sending it down between the mud brick walls. Others were gathering the roof-beams and throwing any of the debris they didn’t burn into wagons. Few knew that they had destroyed a royal house of the Spartans—built ten generations of men earlier and never a footprint of the enemy in its courtyard. Fewer cared. One cart was full of pithoi of oil, another of spades, rakes, and scythes. There were even some breastplates—the bell types that the Spartan elders wore a hundred years earlier and more when they had stopped the Medes at Plataia. Some Mantineians in their drink danced on top of the field wall. They were tossing like balls the light bronze helmets of the Persians, taken as booty long ago in the great days by the Spartan breed who broke the Persian general Mardonios. The livestock of the king’s farm, cows and goats, had been driven off. Any that had been left behind had been butchered. Their carcasses had been piled before the entrance that was covered in smoke as the looters torched rafters and poured a vat of olive oil over some loose wood to light the mess. A few were already cooking rotten meat on spits over a bonfire in the courtyard.

Mêlon had thought he would never tire of the flames devouring all things Spartan, especially that of the royals. But now? The burning sheds and dead cattle were not so much Spartan, but the works and efforts of farmers like him—and the destruction was therefore senseless. His own strongbox in the well at home was full of silver that Malgis had earned doing just what these Mantineians were busy with. Yet Mêlon, son on Malgis, wanted no more of any of it. These were farms, not farmers, that they were destroying. He cared little who worked them, only that it was wrong to burn the holy olive, to cut the gnarly vine, to torch the well-oiled roof-beams that exist beyond the owner.

Meanwhile, Mêlon stared at some loud Arkadians holding a rope. On it a helot boy was lowered down a well. Already drunk on their wine, they were scuffling over a treasure not yet found and cursing each other for slacking—as the dangling youth below banged against the stone sides of the well. The more hardy beyond the house were trying to ax down a few olive trees. But most had given up after lopping off the low-lying limbs, and were content with scrounging moldy nuts from a nearby ancient almond. Lykomedes himself rode up and pointed to the passing Boiotians. He was happy enough, since his wagons were already full of plunder, he had met few Spartans, and his Mantineians saw no need either to cross the Eurotas or the spine of Taygetos. “Tell your madman Epaminondas to forget Agesilaos. Forget his acropolis across the river. Forget battle and fighting Spartans. There’s sport enough with us. First the house of Elektra. Then Lichas’s, and now the king’s.” He shook a fine silver pitcher at them. “The closer we get to the river, the richer the plunder. Every now and then we find a Lakonian holdout with a scythe—a wild one who thinks he can keep Arkadians out of his garden. But why go get yourself killed when there is more profit in plunder here? We can do the Spartan just as much bad, worse even, by carrying off everything he has. Get near the river to give us cover. But no need to cross, no need for battle, no need to get us killed when we can get rich.” So Lykomedes laughed and rode by. A Lakonian wagon creaked behind him, filled with Spartan red tunics, plumed helmets, a set of armor, three helots shackled, and a horse and mule tethered to the back. The Arkadian driver yelled out, “For a Dorian race that has no money, these Spartan thieves have more than we do.”

It was to be mostly a Boiotian army that Mêlon and Melissos rejoined, one prepared to cross the Eurotas and face Agesilaos in the streets of Sparta to try to end the king’s power. Only the hoplites with Epaminondas were willing to head for the citadel and battle the Spartans beyond the river. Over there the eye of Agesilaos was everywhere. Spartans ran back and forth at each planned ford. As the army of Epaminondas pressed on, Proxenos and Ainias fell farther back in the ranks with Mêlon, at a slower pace than even the fat and lame hoplites. Ainias knew that if he questioned his friend about his stab wound, he would once again be met with furor at the thought of stopping, or even of touching his armor.

Proxenos finally himself grabbed his flank near his wound and whispered to the Arkadian, “Then it is to be crossing the river for us, after all?”

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