Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 36

The Restoration

With that the teary-eyed boy was gone, although none on the pier could quite fathom the last boasts of Melissos that were lost on the gusts—something about a Philippos and kings and Persia but just a few words without sense. Mêlon would remember only that the last time they saw Melissos he was waving, the one arm of Gastêr still around his shoulder. Gastêr, no doubt, had not liked the end of his speech, but at least he was buoyed by the boy’s spirit and saw money ahead for both. As for this Melissos-Philippos, he really was seen again in the south and in about thirty seasons thence, when the grandsons of Mêlon and the men of Thespiai would fall before his phalanx of sarissas and Philippos’s eighteen-year-old son to be born, Alexandros, ho Megas Alexandros. The dream of Epaminondas would end in the narrow valley of Chaironeia, not more than a day’s walk from where they all stood, where a balding Philippos would build a great lion monument to the Thebans he had killed. There would lie the better men of the polis, the sort that decades earlier in Boiotia the hostage prince wished to become—and might have become, had he only stayed longer as Melissos at the side of Mêlon and Epaminondas.

Ainias and Ephoros were happy enough to see the odd northern boy leave, and on the ship of Gastêr, no less—though he had been handy on the road and had carried far more than they had thought he would from the look of his small arms. Mêlon told them, “He proved at the end as good as any of us, a mirror as he hinted that we too went from bad to good once we set foot at holy Leuktra and then crossed the Isthmos. The next big war, mark my words, will come from his Makedonians and by land from the north. I miss him already—though I should not, since we may have trained a cub that will return a lion. Still, with Nêto gone, and Lophis and Chiôn dead, there is not much left. And without the Spartans I wonder whether our children can stop anyone as the old ones once routed Xerxes and his Medes.”

Alkidamas turned to them and looked over at Mêlon. “Are we ready for our climb up to the sanctuary? Don’t worry about our Melissos or whatever his name was or shall be. I too believe that he may not quite be a killer, although he proved to be a killer enough still. We did our best to tame him so he wouldn’t learn just our warcraft but also the rule of law, our nomoi, as well and the voice of Pythagoras, which I think I heard in him beneath his strange speech. What he does with that knowledge rests on his soul, not ours. The One God sorts it all out in the end. Enough; each man fights the battles of his own day. Ours are mostly over, and his will begin soon.” The four laughed at that and spent their second day out from Naupaktos ascending through the valley of the orchards to Parnassos. They walked in shade up the hills amid the olive groves of the men of Amphissa, who waved at them from the tall pruning ladders as word had gone ahead that the slayers of the Spartans this day were climbing to Delphi.

At last they rested beneath the shiny Phaidriades cliffs, not far from the ravine at the spring of Kastalia, happy to spend their last night together in the nearby tavern beneath the upper sanctuary of Apollo. In the morning the four headed down the Boiotian road with an escort of Phokians who were eager to hear of the victories in the south as the wage of their escort—and who pressed them for news of booty and more to be had. Rumors had already reached them that the army of Epaminondas would come up from the Isthmos in a new moon with wagons of Spartan plunder and gold from the Messenians. Ephoros and Alkidamas were to go on to Athens. Ainias would accompany the two as far as the shadows of Kithairon and take the fork off to Plataia and the farm of Proxenos. So Mêlon would be the first to part in the evening at Helikon, whose looming silhouette brooded on their right. Finally at dusk the four came to the crossroad that led on to Askra and Thespiai. The wheat of the upper fields was about milk ripe, not quite in full ear—just as Epaminondas had promised the previous winter when he assured the men they would be home from Ithômê for high harvest in Boiotia. The other three said little at their parting, for Ainias wished to see Aretê of the yellow hair, the widow of Proxenos, by nightfall. He had at last bathed as promised in the icy Mornos above Naupaktos, and then shaved at the inn below Parnassos. Each in Boiotia and beyond would now talk up the virtues of Epaminondas and ready the countryside for his return.

Ainias knew that he always would be a mere day’s walk from the farm of Malgis and that he and Mêlon were yoked as the twin oxen team who, for all their grunts, would still once more, side-by-side, willingly pull the hard plow of Epaminondas. Ephoros and Alkidamas were anxious as well to get to Thebes by dark. Ephoros had to meet two Athenian scribes and was ready to dictate from his dirty scrolls all that he could remember and all that Alkidamas could relate of the great march to the south. He was soiled with mud on his chiton and his cloak was thick with burrs. The writer wanted a long bath to wash and pleat his hair and get the road stink off before he took a carriage over Kithairon to his salon at Athens, the lone brave voice to take on Platôn and his friends on behalf of Epaminondas. The great adventure that had begun so long ago with a marching into the spears of Kleombrotos at Leuktra ended quietly in the spring sunshine a few stadia away. Alkidamas told the Thespian, “I wish you would come to Athens to hear my speech on the liberation of the Messenians. I could use a strong arm since I have no friends at Athens and I hear a number of enemies would like this head off its shoulders. Their democracy is much more of a free-for-all than anything at our Thebes.”

“No, not Athens,” Mêlon laughed, “I would rather go back to Sparta than that. So good-bye to you three and farewell. I will see you at our trial. Don’t listen to the signs of your doom this year, Alkidama. I wager you will die in your sleep in your eighth decade.” Mêlon slowly made his way up the winding road to the flanks of Helikon. He was alone, just as he had begun on that cold day five months earlier when he had made the long detour to the monument of Epaminondas on his way to the great debate at Thebes. And Nêto? He had left her somewhere at Ithômê, lost in the forests above the schoolhouse of Erinna. He should have stayed, even if he had sensed that she could see him through the glens and glades and would not come out and not come home.

He recoiled at the thought of the disorder of the farm. Would it be worse than the mess that he left when he had loitered in town with Phrynê? Of course, it must. After his half-year of neglect, there would be chaos—the weeds choking the fields, mud clogging the great drain. Perhaps the stones of Chiôn’s walls fallen to the ground. The worst of it? There would not be even a one-armed Chiôn to make right what would take other lesser men years to finish. The three boys of his dead Lophis had only the half-wit Myron to guide them. Damô was twice-widowed now with a young son. She would be locked in the tower as before, now with two husbands to mourn—and, with her young Chiônikos, now four children to raise. The tower’s roof probably leaked and its whiteness had probably long since peeled off. In her frenzy, Damô would blurt out the cold voice of reason: Why die for helots far to the south? Still, Mêlon remembered that there was at least no more Dirkê. No more Thrattos or Medios, or Hippias or maybe others like Hipponichos, who had coveted the farm of the Malgidai or even plotted it harm. The final rage from the outlaw Chiôn had settled those accounts. He had played Zeus on Olympos—as Mêlon had feared both Chiôn and Gorgos might have if they had been freed—meting out final justice to any of those he thought had lived far too long.

Mêlon felt how hard the great ideas of Epaminondas, noble as they were, had fallen on the household of Malgis. He wondered what he would do as he aged, with the bad leg and without the arms of Chiôn, or even the bitter obedience of Gorgos—and with the pipe-playing of his Nêto a distant memory. A wretched farmer without son or a wife finally grows decrepit by the tiny fire and alone ends in hunger on the floor, without the energy to fetch even a light twig for the last flame. Mêlon half-expected to meet around the next turn of the road the Spartan Antikrates in his armor and tall crest to take a life for the life of Lichas. Or maybe Dirkê’s satyrs and centaurs had come down from the high slopes of Helikon and overrun his vineyard, as it went back to the wild savagery of the strawberry trees in his absence, as in the days before Malgis had cut it out from Helikon. Or would the ghost of the hag herself float up with tears and rents on her chest and arms, howling at the night for the knife work of Chiôn? Nothing is worse for a wayfaring farmer than that last day before home when the mind conjures up thoughts of ruin and mayhem of the long absence.

But none of this proved so. One hundred fifty days and more had it been since the army had left Sparta to march into Ithômê. On each, it was Myron, freed at Leuktra, who had stomped about with manure between his toes, and earned the scars and cuts from the slapping canes as he tied the pruned vines back onto the trellises and lifted the stones back onto the walls after the hard rains. In the evenings as soon as the winter freezes ceased, Myron had begun whitewashing the tower, perched on a long ladder, but bending his neck often backward, always toward the south and east to catch at least a glimpse of the homeward trek of the Boiotians. So in the last months the farm, it turned out, had improved with the absence of Mêlon. That so often happens when those of the land, the petty tyrants of our ground, think they are irreplaceable and learn on return that the truth is even far worse than that for them. Things often prove better with their departure, as liberated dependents learn to fend for themselves without the overbearing hand of the worried overseer. Or perhaps it was the work of Pythagoras all along that made the farm thrive as it did—as its symmetry entranced all who worked in it, and for their toil gave them calm in return. Myron at last found that farm work suited him, and that he was not as dull as his long arms and stooped back made him appear.

The wheat was already drooping with the weight of the ripening grains. The olive pressing that Mêlon had left before the new year was long finished, the oil safe in the vats with another even heavier new crop on the trees. The sons of Lophis would meet their grandfather in the courtyard—since they wagered Mêlon at least for now had survived the Peloponnesos and come home safely. They would be eager to boast that Myron had laid out the new pressing room on the slope near the first threshing floor as Chiôn had once envisioned.

After his first night back on Helikon, Mêlon said little in the morning to the boys, who were accustomed to rise with the sun if they were to eat one more day. Myron, it seemed, was more himself on a level with the boys. He worked alongside them rather than, like Chiôn, leading the sons of Lophis to the fields. He knew far better the lore of the neighbors and was liable to go off the farm to listen and stop the rumors that had grown up with the death of Lophis and the flight of Chiôn.

Mêlon only now grasped that folk like Chiôn and he are the worn hobnails that finally ruin the boot and hurt the wearer from the inside. In the end they must be either pulled out or hammered down, however much they have once softened the cruel wear of the hard road for others. These two were the goads of war that are useful only to stop men like Kleonymos or Lichas when such brutes threaten to run amok and hurt the weaker sort. But in peace? They must be watched or better yet kept at a distance, until bloody Ares crashes in and the more civilized and frightened call them back to bar the gate. So Mêlon noticed the worried glances of his own kin at his scars and grim look that had not yet left him. On the second night back in his bed in the shed behind Damô’s tower, Mêlon finally pulled off his old cloak, and then saw the tiny scroll that fell to the dirt—the proof of sale of the Theôris that Gastêr had quickly handed to Alkidamas on the quay below holy Delphi.

Mêlon got ready to put it in the flame of the lamp, but for some reason unrolled it to see how much that scoundrel Nikôn had made off the exchange of Alkidamas’s ship, if there were even a bill of sale rather than a blank scroll. Yet there was writing, but it was no receipt at all.

Nikôn salutes the men of Boiotia.

The secretary Hêlos, grammateus of the Boulê writes this. You are home safe if that one-armed Gastêr gives you this papyrus. Rejoice. We are free now. In a free Messenê, under a free Ithômê—with gratitude only to grandfather Alkidamas, and our father Epaminondas, and you, our apple, Mêlon, and dark-eyed Ainias and the souls of Chiôn and Proxenos, and wandering lame Nêto, and all you others from the north. Don’t be cross with us. The polis Messenê is better. This month looting stopped. The helots will soon be Messenians. We were worthy of your blood sacrifice. Free men elected me first citizen of the Messenians, archon Basileus, friend of the Boiotians, friendlier still to the men of Helikon. Know that we Messenians, as long as I am archon, are the first and last friends of the Boiotians.

Nikôn, son of Nikostratos, archon of the Messenians.

And Hêlos wrote this too.

Mêlon rolled back the tiny paper, tied it carefully, and put it in his small wooden box on the three-legged table next to the bed, where he could find it in his evenings by his lamp and so reread the letter from the archon of the greatest city of Hellas—who could neither read nor write. In half a month’s time as the summer solstice came on, Mêlon wondered whether he had ever been south at all, so well the farm looked as the grain harvest was continuing in the lower fields and the goats were ready to eat the stubs bare. No one came to disturb him from town. None asked who was free and who not. Mêlon’s fame from Leuktra had passed on in his absence. That Chiôn was dead was lamented, and then almost immediately forgotten. The memory of Chiôn rested only in the hearts of a few kindred great-hearted souls, the megalopsychoi who must remain the strong links in the otherwise weak chain of civilization. All Mêlon could do was frown when the agora lounger and wall-borers harangued at the smithy and butcher shop: “Old Chiôn had some run-in, a falling out with that runaway Gorgos, his helot slave, and went down there to fetch him, I gather. Got more than he asked for, he did. Both ended up butchered, as the slaves usually are when they have no business being freed.”

To the crowd at the agora of Thespiai, Lichas and Antikrates might as well have been cold stone hoplites, nameless on the temples at Thebes. None knew that a stone lion known as Chiôn now guarded the Arkadian Gate at holy Messenê. The farmers of the bottomland around Kopais up until the plain of Chaironeia, had they even known of tall Messenê, would have only yawned at the business of folk far to the south and of no import for the Boiotians. Yet they would never again fight men from the south on the slopes of their Ptôon or Messapian. That there would never be Spartans in their fields—never Spartans in anyone’s fields in all of Hellas—they just by rote and habit assumed, as if it were their birthright and not a gift paid for with the lives of Lophis, Staphis, Proxenos, and Chiôn.

Mêlon was through with the world of petty repute, the town’s whispers of the larger coin chest in the well, and the rolling gossip of the agora; and yet in these first ten days of his return he was restless too on his mountain. Damô and Myron asked him little about the fighting to the south, as he returned to the chores of the farm. He heard even Phrynê was to flee to Attika, in disgust at Epaminondas who had emptied the countryside of her customers and ruined her colony of erôs, and whose army might torch her salon of gossip and treason should they catch her still in Boiotia. At that thought Mêlon at last hiked down to pay her a final visit. She had received word of his visit, and so his Sphêx was sitting under the plane tree by the lion-head fountain in a bright white chiton, with her breasts tucked high, and her hem hiked to the upper thigh.

She had come out to watch her carts go with her load of love gear, both her girls and the rich baggage of the porneiai that headed back under the guidance of Eurybiades to Athens. In the past at Athens, when Phrynê was in trouble in the courts, she simply bared her breasts and won her freedom. Now? If she had stripped naked, it would have done no good in winning a pass to stay at her palace in Thespiai, as both her breasts and her audience were not as they once had been. “You could have stayed the hero of Leuktra, my Mêlon,” she sighed. “I would have had all thoughts of that know-nothing virgin girl Nêto out of your breast the moment my cloak dropped. Instead you were helot-crazy. Too eager to kill your fellow Hellenes. All for man-footed slaves like that Nêto of yours, whom I hear didn’t come out so well after all. I could have used her, it seems, but not now, I hear at any rate, unless it is for some depraved sport among the bad ones. So you took away my clients on the long march south and soon the city here will turn against me. Yes, the army will return with no goodness in their heart for those of us who opposed bitterly your Epaminondas. They say I gave silver to Backwash to stop this madness. They claimed I offered free erôs at Athens to Kallias and Iphikrates for their words and weapons to save Hellas from your bloodlust. They say I sent runners to Lichas to ready the Spartans for Epaminondas, and they say your Gorgos was in my pay.”

Mêlon turned away, happy that he had never mounted this woman. Do that, he thought, and he would have been thinking of his terraces and vines, and the need to get home before he was even done. Only now he knew why men called her “Toad.” Still, as he turned away, he spoke to her. “They say? No, no, so I say. I say that the Boiotians who come back will not have patience with any of you. None of you traitors they like. As for helot-crazy, I suppose I was. Yes, I found out that I was, both for the freedom of the Messenians and for the company of Nêto.” He then got up and ended, “Not you, not me—not any of us have ever been helots. Have we, Phrynê? Cutting down the wheat stalks, only to give flour to masters on the other side of Taygetos—as thanks each year that they might kill only a few hundred not thousands of our kin?” Now Mêlon turned wild and raised his hand to slap her hard if she even squeaked back a slur. “No, you go from here. Go. Leave from out Thespiai. Your lust, your sway is nothing. It leaves your customers hating you as much after their pleasure as they flatter you for it before. So, no, I have no apologies. Maybe only one: We should have battled the ice of the Eurotas and killed Agesilaos when we could have. Or stayed on Taygetos and hunted down that Antikrates. Or stayed in the high country until I carried my Nêto back kicking on my shoulder.”

“My, my, even face-to-face with my beauty, you still miss your helot girl, Mêlon, I can see that well enough.” And with that, the Toad left Thespiai—at least until the town’s zeal for the Pythagoreans and democracy for helots might pass.

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