Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 3

General Epaminondas

Mêlon was trying to pick up the soft sounds from the playing of Kopaic reeds as he and Chiôn neared the main tents of the Theban generals of Leuktra. The two were let inside by a few leather-clad sentries with felt caps, stoking the evening fires of Epaminondas.

At last here was the great Epaminondas. Their general, who would lead all the Boiotians tomorrow, did not look like much. Was this short fellow really the god who claimed he could chase a myriad of Spartans back home and turn Hellas into a single polis?

Epaminondas seemed to Mêlon dark and wiry, with shoulders almost too broad for his small frame. His beard was flecked with gray. Most of the head was without hair. But it was hard to tell since his scalp was leathery and dark from the wind and sun. Eyes, nose, mouth—they were all dark too, and blended in with beard and crusty face. He was neither old nor young, neither fair nor entirely foul—just burned and wrinkled. He was covered in something that looked more like hide or bark than real skin. No wonder, Mêlon thought, folk like this talk of freedom, and deathless souls and all the other code of the wild Pythagoras. Most ugly sorts on the wrong side of four decades usually do babble of god and the good they will do as their end nears—like the great rationalist Perikles himself, who wore an amulet around his neck and invited in the witches to chant in hopes that they might abate the boils and fevers from the great plague that ate his body away each hour.

The gear of this Iron Gut—sidêroun splangchon, his hoplites called Epaminondas—was cheap bronze, as dull as the panoply of Antikrates shone in the campfires across the way. The breastplate was cracked and dented. Cheap bronze patches were badly hammered on everywhere. Epaminondas wore no greaves. But he should have. His lower legs were scarred from ugly wounds. A tattered green cloak blew up over his shoulders. Mêlon’s eye fixed on his bare right spear arm. It was nearly as wide as Chiôn’s. A long scar went from his shoulder to his elbow. A worse oulê had reached his neck, right above the edge of his breastplate.

Mêlon looked for a general’s horsehair crest, a leader’s scarlet cloak, surely a gold sash of the usual Theban stratêgos. There was none—just an old round-topped Boiotian helmet and a cracked wooden shield without worn blazon. All those cuts and scars and he had still ended up a bald man with no money about to die fighting the Spartans. He was no peacock general. Or maybe one so marked by Ares that he more often suffered than gave blows in the mix-up. Whatever he believed in, he had believed in for a long time—and had fought for it, too. The nondescript, the poor and needy looking, these are far more dangerous revolutionaries than those with gold clasps and purple cloaks. Mêlon knew that, but he also sighed to Chiôn at his side, “Poor ugly Theban. He’s a walking wound. They must call him ho traumatias. And he is to lead us tomorrow?”

Five or six other stratêgoi of the Boiotian Confederation—the elected Boiotarchs of substance and repute—in new armor, were there to urge Epaminondas to start talking with King Kleombrotos. The generals chimed in that it was time to back out of the valley and beg Kleombrotos for peace. The army was outnumbered and out-positioned, the Boiotarchs protested. They offered talk and money as well to pay the Spartans to leave. The best of the Boiotarchs, Ladôn of seventy summers, who owned five hundred pomegranate trees near Anthedon on the coast and was too old to earn a fist for his slurs, threw his wadded-up cloak in the face of Epaminondas and spat out, “Blood will be on your hands, Pythagorean. I figure Lichas would gladly take in payment some cows and grain to leave. Then he might let us be until next year. Unlike you, he prefers to do business than kill us.”

Epaminondas ignored them. They all had white beards or big bellies, or wore purple cloaks or had hammered silver blazons to their shields, and so seemed to Epaminondas to think that their property mattered more than their honor. The generals were terrified that they would die en masse soon, given that they believed neither themselves nor any in the tent could stand up to the wall of Spartan shields and spears. And most liked the sun on their faces in the morning and were not about to give it up for the price of having Sparta ravage their grain each spring or some olive limbs in the fall, and install a few of their bothersome fixers on their acropoleis. Meanwhile the officers of the army looked only at their Epaminondas for a nod to fight or a sigh to go home. One look of hesitation, and seven thousand Boiotian hoplites would pack up their armor and head back to their fields. A fight broke out in back and knocked over two torches. Mêlon drew his curved knife—and wondered whether to unleash Chiôn, who cared little how many trees or years Ladôn claimed.

It now was almost dark, and the meeting was still little more than shouts and shoves. The Thebans of the Sacred Band, the three hundred elite hoplites who followed their general Pelopidas, were again playing their flutes in disdain, mocking the wavering generals and throwing the brawlers out into the latrine. Now they quietly put them away on the smile of Epaminondas. Mêlon saw again the blazon on the general’s shield propped up on a wooden stand, and could now make out that it was a crude picture of Orpheus—as if this Pythagorean would descend, like the flute player of myth, into the Hades of the Peloponnesos to bring the helots down south out of their serfdom, and thereby ensure their liberators that their souls, suddenly eternal, would be even happier in the hereafter once freed from their brief-lived bodies. Pelopidas and the rest of the Sacred Band, one hundred fifty pairs of warriors in green capes, had now ringed the camp. The uneasy crowd was mostly made up of the lesser officers of the merê from the outlying villages, the boroughs far from Thebes. Mêlon looked in vain for his son Lophis in the tent. But at least he heard horses outside, perhaps on the far hill, where the cavalry and his boy were camping. He noticed the snake eyes of Epaminondas watching to spot a shaking knee or a stained cloak of the trembling among his officers. Find that, Mêlon knew, and then get that man out, before his look swept over the entire group.

Ainias the Stymphalian had enough of the noise and shoves and he shouted above the crowd with a mere point to Mêlon, “He’s here, here from Helikon.” Ainias was an Arkadian mercenary, born by the gloomy lake at Stymphalos, with rumors of slaughter and gore to his name from the south below the Isthmos. He had earlier left word for the command to watch for “the hoplite Mêlon of Thespiai, of prophecy fame.” It was he who had sent his newfound friend Proxenos out to the high ground to look for wagons from Helikon. At least some were relieved at Mêlon’s sudden appearance. Ainias paid heed to the seers who had promised victory should an “apple,” a mêlon, join the army, and he knew that was the only way to win back the ranks for war. Even the generals now quieted when they noted the arrival of two such killers from Thespiai for the front line, old as one seemed to be, and even though the other brute was a branded slave.

Mêlon was pushed into the center of the crowd. Retainers stepped aside in deference to the son of Malgis. They knew he had fought at the Nemea, and the same year at Koroneia, and then later at Tegyra—and, in fact, in all the battles of the last thirty summers, after he went out with Malgis at his first battle at Haliartos and beat the Spartans back. In the three-sided open tent were another twenty officers of the provinces, crowded together in a closed circle around the general. As Chiôn strode in with Mêlon, no Boiotian wished to ask of his business. Most knew of this slave from Chios. They remembered that a few years earlier Chiôn had bashed Spartan skulls at Tegyra as he left the baggage train and joined in the pursuit. His branded face and bull’s neck won him offers of seats, even from men of Anthedon under the rich Boiotarch Ladôn. He said that he was here at Leuktra for his master. But who knew—maybe also for their own farms as well, or even to restore the name of disgraced Thespiai, since he planned to kill a Spartan king and walk over the corpses of the royal guard to get to him—Lichas’s most of all.

This was at last his moment. Chiôn, the “Chian” who never knew the island of Chios of his birth; Chiôn the “snowy white one” who had no affinity with the whiter Thrakians; Chiôn the slave who hated the slaves he knew far more than he did any free man. Chiôn was of nothing to anyone, nor anyone to him—except in battle, where his killing of the Spartans, or so he thought, would do far more for Hellas than any philosopher Alkidamas or Platôn.

Epaminondas moved over to a small bench, sipping some light barley and pork soup out of a black clay bowl with a long handle. He looked back over at the misanthrôpos Mêlon. He had never met the hoplite, but he sensed a kindred outsider who likewise had earned the distrust of the mob. Both perhaps would know each other by creed and need no formal greeting. Epaminondas rose in silence and laid an arm on Mêlon’s shoulder. He sat him down gently. Then the general began to laugh as if all these bad things had in fact turned out as he wished—as if he enjoyed the ruckus and the brawling over his plans.

“Kleombrotos has come in from Kreusis by the sea—not where I thought by Chaironeia beneath Helikon. Now I reckon only seven thousand of our Boiotians bar his way from the agora of Thebes itself. They will have us as well for their relish.” Epaminondas paced in tiny circles, and pointed to a few stools at the front of the crowd. “Sit down in front of us over here, Mêlon of Helikon. The seers cry out that you, the lame one from Helikon, will not lose this battle. Yes, he—you—will cut down a Spartan king. Or so the mouths of the gods quietly sing in prophecy. Your name alone is worth a thousand hoplites. Most came here to join my army for you—not me—convinced a king would fall if you fight in the ranks beside them. But I knew you would come even without the prophecy, you alone of the Thespians, because you are the son of Malgis, the greatest hoplite that we Boiotians have yet put on the field of battle. You had no choice, you are of the Malgidai, and I wager you will prove tomorrow as good as or better than your father whom we knew well.”

“Well, Chiôn and I come as we are,” Mêlon softly replied. “The two of us fight in the ranks. Somewhere, my son Lophis, my only one, is with the horse. Take care of him. I wish only that we break their ranks tomorrow and kill their king or Lichas or both—then go home to Helikon without fear of Spartans in our vineyards.” Mêlon was suddenly restless. He got up and continued as he paced, pointing his black iron sword at Epaminondas. “Die or not, yes, we three will battle for the name of Malgidai. As for the rest of you—you, Lord Epaminondas—may say it is justice, for the equality of Pythagoras and for the freedom of helots to the south, and for democracy where men end up equal when they were not born that way, and for the promise that your souls will live on forever after your bodies rot—or for anything that you wish.”

Epaminondas smiled at that. But then he rose and raised his voice as he strode into the center of the throng with his arms extended at last to address the crowd of officers. He knew the men were scared, but at least they were not as terrified as they had been before the arrival of the Malgidai. “The men of Sparta will go nowhere until it is over. The king is here to stay and to fight. He cannot leave—even if he wished to—until he knocks us out of his way. Lichas the Ephor, they say, is with him—to force their poor king to spear us. No, this time they will not run back to their Lakonia. Tomorrow we will become Spartans or they Boiotians. There is no third way. Leuktra is not the end of things, but the beginning of the end of the Spartans. Our road from Leuktra leads on to their hearths beneath Mt. Taygetos a thousand stadia to the south.”

Epaminondas in a blink had silenced the crowd, as the Boiotarch drifted to the back of the tent in the shadows. The Boiotians whistled for their leader to go on, and had forgotten the old Ladôn and his five hundred pomegranate trees on the high ground above the Euripos. The general walked back over closer to Mêlon and changed his topic and voice. “The deserters from Sparta tonight claim as well that we will have quite a royal parade tomorrow. Their Deinon the polemarch, and Sphodrias, our friend who used to rule Thebes as Sparta’s harmost, their overlord, are here. The son of Sphodrias marched out as well, the big one, Kleonymos, the favorite of the royal blooded Archidamos. Kleonymos, I remind you, sent ten Thebans to Hades at Tegyra. The spies also say the Theban killer Antikrates, the son of Lichas, comes as well. They swear that he will kill most of us in this assembly. The worst of the Spartans are here at last. I know them all from my trip to the south last summer. If they die in Boiotia, there are none like them to bar the passes of the Sparta to the south. Pelopidas will show us how.”

Three of the Sacred Band stepped forward on cue to pour two baskets of sand over the ground and rearrange the torches in a circle. Then they sprinkled water over the surface to make it hard. They smoothed it all out with straw brooms and a long board, and let Pelopidas with a spear butt mark out the armies. But for some reason, the foreigner Ainias, the Arkadian from the lake at Stymphalos, south of the Isthmos, now stepped up with his own shaft. To murmurs he stood right at the side of Pelopidas. Was this outsider to have his own hand in the battle planning of the Boiotians—a bought Peloponnesian advising them how to kill Peloponnesians? Mêlon muttered to himself, “We have come to fight. Not to draw lines and boxes with Spartan-lovers.” But the more he watched this mercenary, noticed his wide shoulders and big hands, heard his measured speech, the more he liked what he saw—especially his shredded right ear. He looked as dangerous as Chiôn and had the same stare as the slave as well. Before Ainias began talking, Pelopidas had been able to put the scouting reports of his own Sacred Band into some sort of larger sense. Now he quickly marked out two rectangles, faced off against each other. The Spartan phalanx in his drawing was nearly twice as broad. Both its flanks went well beyond those of the Thebans.

Pelopidas and Ainias huddled and were whispering a bit. Those around Ainias had welcomed this killer and knew that he would cut down untold Spartans—and yet might cause themselves even greater grief. Now Pelopidas began poking the sand in places as his voice went up and he pointed with the spear end. “There is a king there, Kleombrotos, along with his royal guards; we at least know that much. They will all be on their right wing as usual—the Spartan Right that scares so many of us. Maybe two thousand or three thousand of Sparta’s finest, I reckon. All on the right wing. At least three, maybe four lochoi. The gods alone know how deep they will stack. Most likely at least eight. But I also reckon this time maybe even twelve shields in mass.” Pelopidas went on. “You know the Spartans. The middle of their long line will be riffraff. Those are always the half-helots or the freedmen from Lakonia. Some of these northern scavengers from Herakleia and Phlios will drift in. But on the left, these are the good allies from the Peloponnesos. They are the tough farming lot. Mêlon over there knows these southerners well from the fight at the Nemea.” He repeated himself for a moment, “I said these are allies, not enemies. The hoplites of the left wing of the Peloponnesians that the king counts on to hit our best on our right.”

“That is not the worst of it, Pelopidas. We must fight in the morning.” Epaminondas calmed him and strolled to the middle of the map because he knew the reaction to what would follow next. He began to add in the sand some lines of retreat very slowly and carefully with his own spear. “We cannot hold this army together for over a day or two ourselves—not outnumbered as we are and with even more cracks in our alliance than the king’s army. Too many Boiotians and northern tribes are wagering that the Spartans will march over us when the flutes begin to play. Or that we will crack as we did at Nemea. They always wait to praise us should we win, and join the Spartans if we lose. Their only creed is to be the winners—whether with us or not.”

The Stymphalian Ainias still stayed silent, but edgy, at his side. Next Epaminondas turned around quickly and addressed the assembled officers directly. “We must fight these invaders by tomorrow or there will be no dêmokratia anywhere north of Athens. Otherwise we won’t even have seven thousand of this army left. The traitors promise that our farms will be spared. They boast at least everyone would be better off with the dynasteia of Spartans back in control.” Epaminondas glared at Ladôn, and then backed up a bit. “But Pelopidas—step out of the way for a moment. Ainias of Stymphalos over here and I have been talking. We’ve worked something up a little different from what our enemies—or you generals here—expect. Let our southern guest speak.”

Ainias took off his cape and stepped forward again. His helmet was on the floor at his feet. His gloves and arm bands were off. His pockmarks were shadowed in the torchlight. Long matted oily hair covered his shoulders, his half-ear now and then hidden. His black beard stubble highlighted rather than covered the furrows and creases on his face. From what cave in Arkadia had Epaminondas dragged this wolf-beast out? He made Epaminondas look soft. The captains whispered he’d worked for that rogue archon down south, Lykomedes of Mantineia. Still, few in Boiotia apparently had ever seen him, much less knew of any Ainias of Stymphalos—that wild Arkadian place where the birds of Ares once flung their iron feathers at Herakles by the vast and gloomy lake.

Ainias eyed Pelopidas’s sand map. He pushed away others who stood in his light. For all his gaze at the sand below, Ainias looked as if he’d been out in the byways the night before, robbing and throat-slitting for his pleasure along the taverns on marshy Kopais. The Thebans listened in fear that he might draw his long sword and take off a nose or ear, Persian-style—the way his own ear had been lost.

Instead he startled them by talking, much louder than the voice of either Epaminondas or Pelopidas. “Your wars of trumpets and boasts are over. Over. We live in the age of logos, of science. I kill by an art, a skill, a technê. Not by the livers of goats. Not your prayers to Artemis. Not even numbers and muscles win battles. Battle is as much of the mind as the heart.” Few wanted to argue with this man’s blasphemy—but what a voice, what long words came out of the mouth of an uncouth killer. “Listen up to the new war. We all know what Kleombrotos and his royal guard will do tomorrow: what they always do whenever they fight. A suckling child without teeth could tell us in advance.”

Ainias then waved his hands as he went through the Spartan way of war bit by bit. The entire crowd was hypnotized; those who had just before been punching each other were now pushing to get nearer this curious sand map. “The flutes will start up. The army will walk out on their heavy feet. They stare. They do their slow two-step. The king and his wing slant. They swerve to the right. We will be blinded by the sun at their backs. Or scared by the glare of their polished shields—a thousand and more of the Spartan Similars, all shuffling in the king’s charge. Flute music all the while. These shaved lips come on. On always—like the crab we see on the seashore that can only walk sideways and at an angle. They hope, they expect to break you rustics from the provinces. Their strong right wing faces off against our weak left. Then they get to your rear. Then stab you in the back. Then turn. And they come up behind your best Thebans on your right. Then you all die. And we are burned and float away as ash. I know this. I did just this as an ally alongside them for twenty seasons. I killed many of your fathers at the Nemea and Koroneia.”

He calmed and with almost a murmur finished, “But this they will not do. Not tomorrow. Not ever. I swear to you all that Leuktra will be no Nemea.” Ainias, bathed in sweat under the summer torchlight, tore off his leather tunic and was focused on the captains. Epaminondas then stepped up and yelled to his men, “Watch and learn.”

“Says who, Arkadian?” a loudmouth interrupted the trance of the crowd, and yelled in a high pitch. They nicknamed the barker Backwash. He was some sort of low official of the Confederation, who had borrowed his father’s breastplate and agreed to a safe slot in the back of the phalanx for the price of haranguing the officers before battle and upping the hoplite pay to a full silver drachma. But if he could not talk the army out of battle, then he had some lamb’s blood in his pouch that he would smear on his helmet as he peeled out at the back of the column before the first collisions with the Spartans. His real name was Menekleidas. He was from Aulis, on the narrow strait between Boiotia and Euboia, and thought he could steal the crowd back from the Arkadian. “Tell us something we do not already know, foreigner. My lads from the Euripos can stay put and hide well enough from the Spartans over on the big island of Euboia. Tell us why we need to fight and how we can win. Does this foul bird of Stymphalos think he can wing in here and squawk to us, scratching up a fantasy victory from his fancy drawings in the dirt?”

Laughs and growls arose from behind. “You tell them, Backwash.” Menekleidas turned around to bask in them. Mêlon had had enough. He pushed away two or three rustics to grab Backwash by the neck, then bent him down and kicked his rear so hard with his good right leg that the would-be orator flew out like an arrow into the goat carcasses outside the tent—and to greater laughs than he had just earned with his smart talk. Backwash was lucky Mêlon had struck first; Chiôn had been about to use iron, not a fist or kick. The council was again almost reduced to a brawl. The Stymphalian hadn’t even begun his attack plans. Across the ravine the Spartans were ready to follow Lichas. Here the Boiotians were fighting each other.

Mêlon raised his voice, “Shut up, all of you. Especially this slimy eel from the Euripos. I know my Homer and this here man is an ugly Thersites. Remember the poet’s words: ‘I swear there is no worse man than you are.’ Yes, this Thersites, this Backwash, knows well enough to charge us jacked-up tolls for those who pass over to Euboia. Like the double current, his men know how to collect coming and going. But so far he won’t fight for his fellow Boiotians.” Then Mêlon, son of Malgis, gave his own brief speech in the way he did to his pruners on Helikon. “I’ve heard all this before. It leads nowhere—except to a few fistfights and a Spartan army over there at Leuktra already chopping down our olives. They’re trampling our vines while we bicker and moan. You decide, all of you, whether you wish to be the dragon-sown men of Old Thebes, the bronze giants of our grandfathers’ age—or the connivers and trimmers of this new low era of Backwash.” Mêlon then put his arm around Ainias and raised his voice even louder. “Let this stranger from Stymphalos speak and finish his work in the sand—unless you know the Spartan better than he. But I recognize none of you from the battle at Haliartos. Is there any more than a handful here from the fights at Koroneia? See whether the Stymphalian bird has talons or not. I have fought him and his kind from Pellene before at the river Nemea. I would not wish to again. If you know spear work like he does, go on; if not keep still.”

The crowd grew quiet along with Backwash. Murmurs went around that this fellow was the son of Malgis of myth. Here was Mêlon of prophecy of the falling apple—and here no less with his brand-faced slave.

Ainias resumed drawing in the sand. “As I said, this they will not do. No, no—tomorrow the best of our army on the right will not kill their worst on their left. Our lesser folk won’t be harvested by the king across the field on his right. Instead Epaminondas and Pelopidas with his Sacred Band will take the harder path. They will veer toward the royal Spartan spears. They and the veterans of Thebes muster on our left, facing Kleombrotos and his royal right. Chiôn and I, with Mêlon here, go helmet to helmet with Lichas from Pythagoras’s noble left.”

A louder rustling began at mention of the strange trick. Ainias once again raised both hands to warn them all he would finish. “I said on our left. I promise to you this: The Thebans and their generals will fight on the unlucky side of our battle line, head-to-head against King Kleombrotos to the death. We few will end everything once and for all tomorrow spear-to-spear. Let their royal right hit our choice left—best against best. Let your gods on Olympos at that very spot decide who wins Boiotia. We live or die with one blow.”

A wave of silence struck the crowd, as if the apoplexy of the sight of the lame Mêlon had not been enough. How could a man with a scarred face and stubble talk like he was a sage of hand-to-hand spearing, the eloquent master of hoplomachia? Officers far better than Backwash pushed and squirmed for a better view of his crazed battle plan in the sand at their feet. The Theban elite was now to be on the bad-omened left side? The dirty side. Spear-to-spear, shield-to-shield set against King Kleombrotos. Mêlon scanned the tent. The provincials in the past always used to face directly the enemy king and his guard, while their own city grandees of Thebes stationed far to their right were untouched—slaughtering the allies of the Peloponnesos and calling it their victory.

Since the time of Kreon, the nobodies of Hellas in the battles between the city-states had been the fodder to die on the ill-fated left wing. Mêlon was always told by the Boiotarchs not to lose the battle before their good men could win it over on the easy right. Malgis his father used to joke, “A funny sort of war it is, when the weak fall to the strong—on both sides of the battlefield.” Then Ainias called out some more. He would either convince the Thebans or enjoy bashing the heads of the shouters. “Yes, on the left. It’s been done before in the south and maybe elsewhere as well. Do you hear me, the left—the good-omened Left Hand, the divine Left of Pythagoras, where our strong hits their strong. There it will be for most of us in this council tomorrow. I and this Mêlon and Epaminondas and Pelopidas over there.”

Ainias went on. “But that is not all the Spartans will see at noon.” The raspy voice of the torn ear had three cups of wine behind it, so he was louder even than before. “We will not stack sixteen men deep. Not like your fathers did at Nemea. We will not crowd even up to twenty-five shields—as your grandfathers fought at Delion. No, no, no. Epaminondas will lead a column of fifty deep. To push over the king from our left. Fifty shields deep, I say.”

Fifty? Fifty shields on the left. How? Why? Now at more of these crazy taktika, the throng began pushing to see this map of Ainias in the sand, to find out whether he was mad or drunk or both. In the midst of the crowd’s chattering, a tough Boiotarch of wide shoulders from Tanagra came forward, with cratered face, a burn scar down his chin, and a smashed nose. He was no trembler like the whiny wide-butt Backwash or lord of pomegranates, Ladôn. No, this veteran scowled and he forced his way to the fore in a well-earned swagger. Hoplites parted since they had seen him cut a similar wide swath in the mess of battle. Ainias himself was not sure whether to hit this man—or, better yet, pull his sword out. For now the Stymphalian kept his blade in his scabbard on his shoulder.

“Enough of this sophistry. Philliadas, I claim to be. Son of Philostratos. You all know me,” he yelled as he turned back to the crowd. The coarse farmer had cleared his barley ground near the battlefield of Tanagra. He was covered with ugly welts and healed-over rips, from both spears and goat horns. Grime and splinters were under his nails. Worse was on his hob-nailed sandals. This Philliadas also knew his numbers. In the past he had earned an Athenian drachma a day settling fights as a surveyor on the borders at Panakton near Attika. Philliadas could measure boundaries in his head—and box any who questioned his number reckoning. He would have done the judging free, just for the chance to kill a man without the charge of blood guilt.

He stared down Ainias. “I wouldn’t try to slap me, sophist. Keep that shield still, or we’ll settle it here.” He stuck his finger almost into the chest of Ainias. “But listen, Arkadian, all you big fellows over there on the left will be only sixty men wide in your square—if even three thousand of you show up tomorrow and I can square my numbers. I figure Kleombrotos and his Spartans on the right wing will add up to twenty-five hundred, if not three thousand—at least as much as the men of Thebes. They may be eight shields to the rear. Or they may be twelve deep at most. Either way, with your sixty shields wide in the front row, you men on the left will be facing two or three hundred of them. I say you will be swallowed up in an eye blink one against four or maybe five. You Pythagoreans talk big about numbers and the good left hand. But these you don’t have a clue about.”

This Philliadas had the crowd’s attention, even though most could not add or subtract, much less multiply his numbers. But they grasped well enough his point: The king’s wing of the far bigger army would be broader and quickly outflank the narrow deep column of the outnumbered Epaminondas on the left. It was madness to put your small head into a wide Spartan noose. Philliadas was chewing on the stem of a dried fig as he growled. “With that wider bunch, the king’s Spartans will go around you in no time. They’ll be at your rear and in the baggage in eye blinks. Even if my boys of Tanagra are out of the storm, soon they will be left naked in the center. We’ll be cut and spliced from our backsides. You Thebans will spear nothing but shadows way over on the naked left.”

Voices of agreement followed. This torn-nose Philliadas had seen his share of crashing shields. “Maybe this will happen,” Ainias nodded, “if our mass charges straight ahead or to our right, dear Philliadas, as you seem to think. But why in your Apollo’s name should we when fifty deep?” Ainias then threw out the rest of his wine on the dirt. “Instead Epaminondas and Pelopidas with the mass will veer left from the left. They lead their Thebans leftward to the king himself—at an angle, or loksên as you say. The rest of the line must follow them. The whole army will go out double-time at an angle leftward. Boiotians too can be crabs in their walk—although left-clawed crabs at that.”

As he talked, Ainias clapped his hands to signal the collision of the armies, and then hit the dirt with his spear. Most in the crowd could not see his lines in the sand. But the hoplites felt that he seemed to know what he talked about to be able to draw and talk numbers at the same time—and not get a stab from Philliadas for his efforts. “No, our left mass will angle left for the king. It will kill him. Kill his flank guard, too. Our strong against their strong. We’ll hit them fifty shield deep from their open sides before they encircle us. The red-capes have not a clue of our ship’s ram that will smash them tomorrow with full oars.” Ainias finished, “If the Thebans do as we say, the Spartans will carry off their dead king in defeat packed in honey, back to the River Eurotas before Sparta itself—and the rest will flee.”

Philliadas was left mumbling something about himself and his men filling in gaps when the left wing went on its slanted march. Then he headed back to the rear of the crowd, which hooted in approbation that one of their own had at least stood up to the Arkadian high talker.

Epaminondas had quietly translated Ainias’s talk into even more crude lines and arrows in the sand. Then he paused to add a few twists of his own. To the hipparchs, about ten or so of the cavalry commanders of Thebes, he pointed. “You ride better than the Spartans. They scoff at horse battle. Why not move away from the flanks and ride out at our front? Why not begin the killing at the fore, as the better men you are—shielding with your dust our new moves from the king?” When he saw the light in the cavalry commanders’ eyes, Epaminondas went on. “Kleombrotos will not expect our horsemen in his face. Even he will not think that fifty shields are coming his way behind our cavalry. Their king will see something different at Leuktra—something that no Hellenic general has ever witnessed. I plan to hit him right after his midmorning meal. Then his men are full of food and wine—slow on their feet, and dizzy in their ranks.”

Epaminondas paused again. Too much battle talk, and now he could see the eyes of his hoplites wander. But he pressed a bit more. “Allies on the right—give us a little time tomorrow to hold fast. Do not move against the spears of the Peloponnesos. Don’t cross the battle line. Watch us first kill their idle Spartan overlords. Stay put. Hold. These allied farmers of Sparta need not die. Our business is only with the braid-hairs and smooth-lips. We have no killing lust for the allied yeomen of the Peloponnesos. They plow their own ground. Do not kill today who will be a friend tomorrow.”

He finished with a warning. “Today we talk about killing Spartans on our ground, but that I fear will not be the end of it. Better to ask how we let Kleombrotos in here in the first place. Or why he comes with praise from the Athenians and most others who do not so much hate us as fear and worship him. But there will come a day soon that Hellas, as we know it, ends—and ends, I hope, for the better. There shall be no more unfree in Messenia—and beyond that no slaveholders anywhere even among us, the liberators who free serfs. This is a war not just to free us from Sparta, or even to free the helots from Sparta, but to free us all in Hellas from what makes some masters and others slaves. We fight to free ourselves from ourselves.”

Mêlon murmured to Chiôn, “This man is either crazy or himself a god, and I suppose we will find out by daybreak. He seems as worried about keeping us alive as he is about killing Spartans. Does he know that most Boiotians here are scared, so scared that they would bolt at the sight of a Lichas or Sphodrias, even with all the war lore of Ainias and Epaminondas?”

The slave answered only, “That is why we are here, master—to make sure none runs.” But the assembly was not quite over. On some sort of cue, Proxenos, the Plataian aristocrat, strutted to the center like the oligarch that he was. It was fine and good to have new ideas like a deepened phalanx, a slanted march, and the left wing stacked to fifty shields deep. But most of the ignorant and superstitious could not follow the logic of the tactics. That is why Nêto and Proxenos, long ago on his estate above the Asopos, had figured a far better way to rally the Boiotians: to remind them that the gods, the Olympian gods of the ignorant and superstitious, had promised victory to them should the Thespian Mêlon join the ranks.

Now Proxenos began to walk and point. He wore a white cloak and heavy gold around his neck and on his fingers. He trampled over the sand without a care, as he did his polished marble halls at home over the Asopos—and the chart of Ainias disappeared beneath his boots. His newfound protector and friend Ainias did nothing. If the ragged Epaminondas was willing to crash into the red-capes for ideas and helots and freedom, well, then, it was likely because he was poor, and old and without wife or child. But why so, the hoplites wondered, was this rich man, with a deep-breasted wife and sons, and plow land above the Asopos? Why would a Plataian with a big gold ring fight for Thebes or, worse still, for things beyond Thebes? He knew well enough the answer if others did not. He had come to leave the idle rich estate owners of his Plataia, to build entire new cities rather than hang a city-gate in a backwater polis of Boiotia.

Nêto, the slave girl of Mêlon, had drifted into the council this evening, and said she had joined the circle of Epaminondas to free her kindred helots. But she told herself that she was here to free her master Mêlon as well, and bring him down the mountain to fulfill the prophecy of the apple—and turn his mind from the mountain back to the world of the polis below, where men marry women if they proved to be their equals. Nêto trusted that her master cared not for any women except for herself, a lowly slave from Messenia. When off Helikon, she rarely saw any need to talk of him to others, to stand near him, to worry even that slaves are more often beaten than yoked by their masters. So she would do her part for him: She would be freed by the Thespians for joining the Boiotians at Leuktra when most of the craven of the small towns would not, and the two could then be one on Helikon. Because of all that, Nêto also reasoned that there was not much need even to talk to Mêlon, given they were as fated to be one as the Pleiades to rise or the magnet stone to find iron. After all, he was Mêlon, she Nêto, and that was all that the two or any others needed to know. It was just that simple.

Proxenos was an architect, a wall builder, known in Thebes for his good sense and for his devotion to the logic of walls and gates. There was none more believable to deliver the oracles and signs of the gods. His father had taught him about Pythagoras, but then his father had also died seeking gold with Xenophon and the Ten Thousand in Asia. The Pythagoras of the son Proxenos taught the Hellenes that their souls were not one with their bodies, but can live on after death, in the next world where they suffer or prosper on the records that they compile here. Fail, Proxenos lectured his new friend Ainias, mar the soul with the lust for gold, women, or power, and the need to find yet another body—of an eel or snail, perhaps—to house an errant soul becomes endless.

The meeting was about over, when even this man of Pythagoras reported the wild things he had just seen that morning. If the sober Proxenos saw omens, surely most had as well. “Boiotarchs and you other leaders of the files: Listen. Today the doors of the temple of Herakles in Thebes flew open. The statue of Herakles himself stands without his armor. It has vanished. The god himself is in the field. He is calling us to follow him against his impious kin from the Peloponnesos. The virgin daughters of Skedasos are to be avenged. Yes—those who were raped long ago on the rolling hills of Leuktra by men from the south. Listen to the wails of their ghostly spirits. They will fly out to help us kill Spartans.”

Proxenos left the center and walked amid the crowd, to and fro, patting the heads and backs of the Boiotian commanders. “The spirits of these maids of Boiotia, once molested here at Leuktra by men from Sparta ten generations ago, have guided us here for revenge against their attackers from the Peloponnesos. Their ghosts hover over us tonight. Their shades shriek for our vengeance against the Spartans. Smoke of the offerings drifts in black patterns into the wind. The seers tell us the livers of their victims lack their full lobes as the gods demand vengeance. The insides of the animals are night-black with a foul stench. A few goats are without any organs at all. Some lungs stink and shrivel in the air when touched by flames.”

Proxenos raised his hands to the top of the tent, and went on. “That is only the beginning; ribbons blow off our officers’ spears and then land on the tombs of the dead to warn of more to come. The snake god at Trophonios warns the Spartans of their death. The stone statue of Athena bent over and picked up the shield sculpted at her feet.” The crowd was rapt at the rich man’s words that offered far better promises of victory than all the complex sand drawings of Ainias and big talk of Epaminondas put together.

This Proxenos was as handsome as the foreigner Ainias was ugly—and one of their own Boiotian aristocrats for relish. Who cared for the logos of Epaminondas? Who needed Ainias’s technê? Listen to the prophecy of their own Mêlon, a Boiotian. There were gods on Olympos. They listened not to the numbers of Pythagoras—but spoke through the omens that Proxenos, another man of Boiotia, related. “Hear me out. All the prophets sing of our Mêlon the Thespian. This man the oracle of Pasiphai from far-off Thalamai warned. He is the lame one—come here tonight from his high farm on Helikon. He is the one the king was warned about. This I can prove. I have talked to the priestess of Apollo on Ptôon. She too has heard the gods’ voices: “Should Mêlon live till tomorrow and see the face of a Spartan king, then the sons of Leônidas, they will be no more.

Proxenos grew even quieter in speech. “Some of you have heard the rumors about the Thespian Nêto, near Askra. She’s the virgin helot, the slave on Mêlon’s farm. She has sworn that the priestess of Trophonios, the snake-goddess of Lebadeia, promised us victory—if only the son of Malgis would fight. Ah, she is here with us now.”

Then on cue a blood-curdling shriek filled the tent. “Alalalê. Alalalalalêêê …” The war cry of Helikon. Tall and thin, Nêto stood on a chair above the hoplites. She had sneaked off from the farm, once Mêlon had left with Chiôn and Gorgos, and had spent yet another day at Thebes with Proxenos studying the omens. Now with her hair in waves and her eyes rolling, she posed like those wild gorgons in stone, carved high on the big temples, with mouth and teeth wide open. Back on Mêlon’s farm, Nêto had learned to sound her war cry in Boiotian, when guiding the oak plow that Chiôn drew—always in fear that the snorting, sweating slave would break her plowshare on the half-hidden boulders ahead. She had been born a helot but had been bought here in the north by Mêlon. He claimed her seller had told him that the little girl was daughter of a disgraced priestess of Pasiphai to the south. Now she was the oracle of the Thespians in the woods of Helikon. She acted no more like Mêlon’s slave than did Gorgos or Chiôn.

Then this wild Kalypso went on again, louder in man speech, winking at her master as she began. “Here is Mêlon. Among you Mêlon, son of Malgis. Don’t you see? Mêlon. Listen to our one God. Mêlon of Thespiai is chosen. Yes, yes he is the one they fear to the south. Mêlon will kill a Spartan king. Why? Why? He is the mêlon of course, the “apple” the seers say will end the Spartans.”

Now she was quite out of her steamy breath. Shaking, swaying, almost tipping off the chair, near collapse, she offered gibberish all mixed up in clumsy hexameters. One hand went up and flailed the air. The other was stabbing the breeze with her reed pipe. The hoplites had never seen anything quite like this. The sudden shouts, followed by her eerie calm voice, kept them still. All this ranting in cadence came from what looked like a slave and a woman. In Boiotian with some Messenian strains—delivered with a high pitch that cut the ears. She appeared as odd as her verse. Nêto was as tall as most men, cloaked in the rough wool of a man. Her nose was a bit long. Her lips were too wide. Her ears were big enough that her long hair could never quite cover them. Yet she was pretty, perhaps even goddess-like—or so she seemed to the eyes of her master Mêlon, who let her roam all over Boiotia.

They could see all that right now, so at least she was humankind. Nêto’s face balanced out well enough, as if its parts could not do without each other. Her legs were long. She often ran up to the dam above the farm of Mêlon, with the fawns and does. “Deer Legs,” Chiôn called her. Yes, Nêto of the fast legs that outpaced the stags on Helikon. Some of the Thebans murmured that she was a wood nymph or worse than a naiad. But who could get her off that high chair? She must have jumped up with those panther thighs to get there. Without much prompting, Nêto threw off her cloak and hood. As if possessed by the Pythia’s vapors, she slowly sang out a few more phrases as she pointed to Mêlon. “Him. Him. The Spartans must kill or lose tomorrow morn. Keep him safe. Do that and the king will die. The Thebans are mightier in war.”

Even the glum ones such as Philliadas were stunned silent once they heard that the violated virgin ghosts of Leuktra were to be in the skies floating above them in battle, tearing at the red-capes. They would keep away the winged demons of death from the Thebans. These were the Kêres, the blood-sucking goddesses who appeared, at one time or another, at all the battles of the Hellenes, drawn from afar by the shouts of battle and the smell of gore—with their craws full of man-flesh and sharp claws plucking up any who were tottering—assured that the life-threads of these victims were already spun by Klôthô, measured by deathless Lachêsis, and then cut by their partner Atropos, and that all three of the divine Moirai had nodded to their flying henchwomen that the doomed could now be stripped, their carcasses feasted upon, their souls whisked off to Hades.

In battle, the untouched hoplites saw none of the Kêres of this netherworld. Only the blood-spattered and dying were given the sudden vision of these feathered vultures, who grew fat from the carnage. When sated, the women of the night landed in weariness among the flies and dung to walk off their meal, and vomit and crap out tooth and bone, and then fly up for more. They flapped off cackling and farted out the fumes of human blood. Yes, on oaks around the battlefield the Kêres perched and fouled the ground with their red pus dung. They stank, as they always dove back, eye-level over the battlefield, with their pale breasts, bloody tunics, and long white fangs—eyeing any falling hoplites that could be grabbed and torn apart before the souls went down into Hades. The foolish among the dying saw their female full-white breasts and long red nipples, and paused—only to find fangs in their necks and talons under their arms as they were snatched up. All these would fly above the battle tomorrow—and yet the hoplites were encouraged that perhaps the good ghosts of the virgins of Leuktra might keep the black daughters of night away from them.

Nêto quickly covered up and looked around for Mêlon. Then she jumped down and took her place with the servant girls who scurried about the tent to clean up the mess of eating and loud men. Finally she went over to Proxenos, and amid the commanders, Nêto whispered despite the din of the tent. “I had a shudder. The Olympians speak through me, even if I damn them and instead worship Pythagoras. Yes, you and I claim we understood these signs, but not all of them. If there is truth to the prophecy of the mêlon—there is also truth to another warning that Proxenos, son of Proxenos, lord of Plataia, shall not cross south of the Isthmos.”

He laughed. But she only grabbed harder on the arm of the Plataian. “The gods on Olympos hate our arrogant Pythagoras, who has stopped so many of their sacrifices and the burnt meats men offer up to their greedy tastes. I hear these old ones, petty, spiteful, and full of envy, at night. Yet they do not always lie to me, especially when I sleep. They hate him and his logos.” She was weeping in this, the moment of her joy that the army was about to fight and would win, she knew—and then would go south and free her Messenian kin after all, even if thousands of helots down south as yet knew nothing of Thebes, of Pythagoras, or the idea of democracy.

But then Nêto frowned and grabbed the cloak of Proxenos. “Listen, again. Do not go south after our victory tomorrow. We will win. But you lose if you do not stay north of the Isthmos. You are no Mêlon, who even in his age is stronger than you, and is the god-loved. Nor are you an Ainias who can oversee your walls to the south. There are no black clouds above that man, either, and yet he cannot keep you safe. I see only corpses of enemies at his feet, never his own. He will die with a white beard and a walking stick at his own choosing.”

Proxenos the architect laughed, this time even louder. He was young and tanned more than he needed to be from his days fixing the walls of Plataia. Birth and money, and his white teeth and black beard, gave him a certain arrogance that comes when a man feels bigger and stronger and richer than those around him. He had been born into wealth and bred to think less of slower wits. Women, he knew, he could always persuade. Nêto would be no different: No doubt she was entranced by his vigor, looks, and silver, and now worried that she might lose the chance to enjoy them all the more when the war ended.

Proxenos had met this Nêto the previous year at the shrine of Eurynomê on the Asopos River below his red grape vineyards. A chance occurrence, he had thought, to see a naiad alone in the wilds of Boiotia. But now he was not so sure of that long-ago accident, as Nêto had come often for most of the past spring. She had taught him of Pythagoras, and soon no longer was he the bored aristocrat lamenting that the capitals of his atrium were Doric rather than new Ionic. Instead the new Proxenos became a devotee of her Pythagoras when she told him that his genius could raise walls of new cities to the south taller than those of Troy—his work for thousands rather than for a few aristocrats who wanted a new portico on their mansions. He could draw the plans in the north, and let others follow them to the south.

Now, in reply to her warning, Proxenos’s soft words flew out as pained concession, or more condescension from lord to master. “Nêto, Nêto, my Nêto. We go to all the trouble to consult these fat priests. If that is not enough, we give heavy silver to the virgins of the temple to tell us of their signs and visions. And now you tell me to go home to the Asopos? Some day, if the One God wills, we will march into shadowy Messenia and at last live up to our divine logos that says no one is born a slave—and just as we start, you tell me all that reason, that faith in numbers is but a lie?”

Nêto grabbed the arm of Proxenos. “But my Proxenos, reason or not, don’t press too hard the dying gods who like to give short lives to those too certain of themselves. Run from Nemesis.” She was almost ranting again. “Because we ignore some of the omens does not mean we are smarter than the old gods—or the duller mortals who believe in them, much less that they no longer exist and cannot hear us right now. They grew old, yes, but they were here before the wisdom of Pythagoras dethroned them. That is why the reason of our god Pythagoras may explain what exactly saves our souls and what not, maybe nine tenths of what we do each day, but not always the last tenth part of our lives. Only faith and belief do that. The other voices tell me. I warn you, if you cross the Isthmos this year or next, it will go badly for you, Proxenos—as badly here as it will be square and good for your soul with the One God later on. The others, they can or cannot come back. Their fates are their own. But not so Proxenos, son of Proxenos, of youth, and riches and bottomland on the Asopos, who has the most to lose of us all. Epaminondas can win here and in the south without you. You were to build the ramparts, and you have drawn up such plans, but you were not to cross spears—or so said Pasiphai to me.”

Proxenos felt a sharp pain across his flank. It burned right below his navel on the lower left, as if cut by iron. She had the powers of a witch. But the aristocrat and the rationalist forced a second laugh. “Why ruin tonight with words of gloom and darkness? If you believe in our One God, if you really do, then you know nothing bad ever happens to the good man who lives his life according to reason. Did you not see, woman, that I was dead when I was idling on my farm, wondering whether I had the good number five thousand forty or the bad number five thousand forty-one of olive trees after all? I am not here to save Epaminondas. I am here to be saved by him, just like you persuaded me once.”

Nêto turned and headed out of the tent before Chiôn and Mêlon could scold her for having snuck to the battlefield.

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