Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 4

Helikon

Hold up, man.” Chiôn and Mêlon yelled to the approaching riders. The two Thespian hoplites had beaten the throng out of the assembly. Now both were looking for a place to sleep near the tent of Epaminondas. They had decided to let Gorgos stay back by himself at the wagon up on the hill. As they spread out their gear, four horsemen galloped up—Thespians like themselves. “Lophis is here.” Chiôn immediately yelled to his master.

Lophis pulled his reins and tossed his head up. “We rode out yesterday and camped on the water by White Creek across from the Spartans last night.” He teased his father, “I figured you three had gone back in your old men’s wagon to Helikon to hunker down in the farm tower and wait all this out.” He had his helmet off. Lophis liked riding bareheaded around the camp. His hair was braided Spartan-like for show. He was taller than his father, thinner as well, with fairer skin.

The hoplite grabbed the saddle cinch of his horse, Xiphos, as his son slid off to greet Chiôn. “Hoa, you! Well, here we all are in the Thebans’ cauldron, it seems.” Chiôn nodded and looked to see if the hooves were cracked. Mêlon did not wait for the slave’s answer but walked around Xiphos, his eye checking the leather flank guards that Nêto had stitched, worried that his son could afford no lapse if he were to survive the charge into the Spartans. “Your lance, son, does it go well with Xiphos?”

“Well enough,” and the three young longhairs at his side assented. Mêlon knew none of them. But he grabbed his son’s lance to test its balance. As Lophis watched his father jab with the huge shaft, he was reminded that none of us knows the whole past of even those we see each day. But arise a chance moment, a move, a word, perhaps just a gaze, and a keyhole opens to a hidden, larger life on the other side. It both frightens and excites us to see that one so dear to us has another, an unknown, perhaps a deadly side.

Lophis watched Mêlon take up his clumsy lance as if it were a light spear. As he stabbed about, even Lophis cowered a bit. His father’s round shield was larger than most, closer to four than three feet in width, with stains of Spartan blood and brains soaked deep within its grain. The breastplate was one of Malgis’s and had patches of tin and bronze and layers of paint that hid cracks and dents. Bora, his spear on the ground, had notches at its head, thirty and more, to mark all the Spartans who had fallen from it at the hands of Malgis and Mêlon. His father, Lophis could see now, handled a cornel spear as if it were not much more than a pruning hook.

Lophis then felt even smaller as he tried to stop his father’s shadow jousting. “Epaminondas has told us that he has about three hundred of the horsemen of Boiotia. We will hit the Spartans first. We will give you hoplites some summer dust for your surprise. No doubt Sparta will send its horse first out as well. We’ll have a real mix-up for all of you to see. The Spartans are not mounted folk. We will kill them for sport. All can watch. They will have no warning that you with fifty shields are on the left about to cut down their king.”

“If only it were so plumb and square,” his father replied, unsure what would happen when his son learned that battle was an awful thing, a deinon, nothing like the stabbing and romantic spearing of the stone Amazons and Lapiths far above on the friezes and pediments of the high temples. Still, it was good that young men like Lophis talked so—without fear and ready to go to blows for a bad look or less. Stout hoplites and daring horsemen were needed to face the Spartans. Who would otherwise if they knew such killers firsthand? Without the innocent Lophises of the world no one would fight for anything—but instead would count the risk, the gain and loss, worried more about the coins in the strongbox that might not be spent if he were gutted in the fields of Boiotia. Lophis had never seen the Spartans in battle, had only as a boy watched them cross Helikon to Koroneia from the mountain vineyard. He had never been in a melee with thousands of longhairs bearing down on him. When he got his down beard, he had stayed put during the killing at Tegyra to guard the farm while Mêlon took along Gorgos and Chiôn to the battle. He had been left behind to watch in case the Spartans sidestepped the patrols and raided the mountain. Now he resented that he had been the one son, the only son, to be saved at all costs—and thus had been deprived of just those ordeals that make fathers proud of their boys. Men with brothers have more freedom, since fathers know that a death in battle does not kill the entire line.

Still, Mêlon was trying to show his pride in Lophis when all the other mounted rich men of Thespiai either had hidden or had gone over to the Spartans. “Perhaps, Lophis, it will be as easy as you say, since you and Nêto first taught me of the thinking of Epaminondas. But we left orders for your wife Damô all the same to prepare for the worst, should we fall. Nêto came here to Leuktra as well. But after her oracle-mongering is done, she is to go home to guard the farm with our Sturax. They are supposed to go up into the tower and bar the door. The only Spartans who will reach Helikon are a bone or two of them that we bring back for the dogs.”

Mêlon was surprised at his own confidence. But he was feeling better with this plan of fifty shields, left wing, and attack at the slant—except for a final thought as he looked over his son. “One last thing, Lophis. Trade breastplates. Trade now. Mine is the heavier. Its flared bottom stops the downward jabs. You won’t mind its heavier weight on Xiphos. It is dull and patched, but it can turn any blade made by the Spartans and covers the shoulders far better. Let me wear my father’s gaudy inlaid plate. On you I fear it will be the magnet stone for any who think they can kill one of the Malgidai. It’s bright with too much gold inlay. Remember Malgis stole it at the battle near Haliartos. It is Spartan and foul. He should never have brought it home, though the metal is worth five hundred olive trees if not more. Did I tell you that the plate was once worn by the demon Lysander? Lichas and his folk miss it dearly. All that will only make you a bigger target, when the sun soon breaks through and the shine draws Spartan eyes to your chest.”

Lophis laughed. “Wars are not won by worries, old man, you know that better than I. The bigger the target, the better, Father! I will ride right into their ranks. I will break them like Malgis did. Those around Kleombrotos will fear these men that wear without shame the armor of their dear Lysander.” With that final exchange, Lophis climbed on Xiphos, tipped the end of his spear to his father, and galloped down the hill to battle. He was a man with everything to lose. Damô, his wife, was known on Helikon as Helen for her beauty. He had three boys and would inherit the finest farm in Boiotia. And he rode off to be among the first of the Boiotians to collide with the Spartans—galloping to ensure he was at the fore of the cavalry attack. Mêlon turned to Chiôn and sighed. “My dull plate would save him. His shine may well kill him. He is brave—but I fear that it is the bravery of the noble ignorant. My boy forgot that Malgis never broke the Spartans at all. I wish he were here beside me in the ranks, between my right arm and your left. No Spartan, not even Lichas there, could touch my son. And I wish I had never heard the name Leuktra.”

Chiôn said nothing. He assumed that he would kill enough Spartans on their right wing himself to keep both his masters safe, even if Lophis were mounted and in front of the phalanx. As Lophis disappeared, the two lay down beneath a mountain oak and soon were asleep for the few hours left before the sunrise draw-up of the phalanx. Chiôn and Mêlon, as if by consent, were alike dreaming of the farm back on Helikon. Both were pruning and talking in these dreams before battle—as if they would soon have no more chance to meet again in this life.

Where was this high farm of Mêlon and Chiôn that drew them home in their last sleep before battle? Mêlon’s ground was not far from Leuktra, high up the eastern side of the massif of Mt. Helikon, two stadia above the floor of the valley. The farm was right below the hard frost line, at an elevation at which olives can thrive. It was a good, safe place to grow things, to keep away from the Thespians and all the other Boiotian villagers below—mostly hidden as it was from the invaders from the north or south, and too hard a hike up for the raiders on the coast. The slopes of Helikon itself were a divine place, the center of Hellas—a place where the Muses could speak directly to a man. Helikon was south and to the east a little of snowy Mt. Parnassos. Along these mountains the clouds piled up to hide Apollo when he visited his oracle Pythia beneath at Delphi, navel of the world.

For his part this night at Leuktra, Chiôn could see the land almost as if he were floating above it, like Ikaros with waxen wings. From the farm it was an easy gaze at the mountain passes of Parnon to Attika and Athens. To the south were the high woody crests of ill-omened Mt. Kithairon, on whose backside the Spartans this morning, if they lost, were going to sneak away along the cliffs above the sea. Farther in the distance rose peaks of Pentelikos and Akonthion, the ridges that kept out of Boiotia the bad Athenians, the false democrats whom the Boiotians hated more than any of the Hellenes. Chiôn for his part could see craggy Ptôon and the green island of Euboia lying far off into the west. The farm of Mêlon was right above the great plain of Boiotia—“cow-land,” those arrogant Athenians called it. Few went up to Helikon. Even fewer on Helikon wished to go down.

Over fifty crops before this morning’s battle, the founder Malgis, father of Mêlon, had staked out his plot on Helikon. He cleared virgin ground from the mountain. Hyacinth, amaryllis, and wild Attic orchids followed. Once the sun hit the land shorn of thousands of strawberry trees, dense beech, and poplar copses, tulips sprouted. “I did it,” the hoplite Malgis used to yell to the skies. When he patched broken tiles on the farm’s high tower roof, he could take in the view of his thirty years’ worth of work. “All this—it came off of my back, with help from the prophets of the One God, all led by Pythagoras who set me right on my course.” Farming, Malgis the founder said, was a lot like war. It needed the same order and discipline if you were to survive it. He came to worship Pythagoras, the god of order and reason, rather than the overgrown child-gods on Olympos. All they wanted were libations and burnt offerings, just like babies in diapers who cry when the teat slips out of their mouth.

Mêlon had been told all this by Malgis, his father, and how the old man had once planned their farm on the number principles of his god, who explained how the perfect world beyond is revealed to us through the eternal laws of the arithmoi. On a rocky expanse of about a hundred plethra, the farm’s 720 olive trees and 5,040 vines spread across the terraced ground in a careful grid. He had dug in all the cuttings and rootings himself. The holes of the pattern he marked out with chalked rope. The farm spread all the way up the slope—terraced grain fields on the rich black soil, the wine vines higher up to catch the cooler breezes, olives on the poor rocky soils atop, each crop suited for each step higher up the mountain, no soil idle, no change in temperature or wind wasted. The harvests were serial, as the clan moved through the year from grain to vines to olives—the Malgidai busy always, slack in their labor never. No ice storm could kill their triad, as the harvests of the diverse crops and their leaf-break dates were never the same. A spring frost hurt the grapes, but not the barley—in the way a fall rain cracked open the grapes, but did nothing to the unripe olives. And the farm was the goddess Amalthea’s horn of plenty, as Malgis called it: olive oil for the light in the clan’s lamps and for cooking on the stoves, or even to lubricate the wagon’s axle; grapes for raisins all winter, for fresh fruit in summer, for wine all year round; barley and wheat for their bread and gruel. Who needed anything more? Only war could stop the farm—by sending in Spartans to burn their wheat or trample their vines, or, worse yet, letting the foul Kêres harvest the farm’s harvesters.

Walk into the orchards and vineyards anywhere on the slope, and the symmetry brought forth the voice of Pythagoras. On the farms of others, chaos reigned as three vines encircled a crooked row of four olives, or goat pens were plopped down amid apples. No order in the farms of others—and no reminders of the perfect world that we all must strive to glimpse and at some point enter. Malgis, the creator, told his son that in matters of great things, such as this carving out of an entire estate from the flank of Helikon, men tend to look only at the finish. The envious never remember the hard beginning or even the worse middle of doubt and remorse. Instead, without shame onlookers come to covet what they used to mock. “I can see them below from here, and that’s close enough for me. Soon the Spartans will turn on them, and they will climb up here looking for our spear arms.” Malgis taught the household to distrust the superstitious majority and to join it only when it acted in according to the precepts of Pythagoras—in other words, rarely at all. Even though the son Mêlon doubted that creed, he kept to his father’s admonitions to shun the crowd and keep it away—and earned both the advantages from the ensuing tranquility of solitude and the dark moods that resulted from thoughts and suppositions untested and unquestioned that grow unchecked by others.

Freedom—Malgis added in his daily sermons to his son Mêlon—wars with equality. Always. The fathers of the polis had once marked out the grid of bottomland farms. Originally they were all equally sized and portioned out to the hoplite farmer citizens of equal wealth. Within a generation those belonging to the luckier, or better, farmers were larger, while some of the poorer or unfortunate farmers lost their portions altogether. Mêlon still dreamed on this early morning before Leuktra that his father had warned him of those who demand equal slots in both the end and the beginning: Beware of the phalanx, the agrarian grid, and the assembly hall, where all are declared to be equal who in fact are not. So beware of those in the phalanx who look equal but do not protect their position as do others. They can kill you.

The farm craft of Malgis gave the vines’ canes, high up and long in the air, the full sun for the entire day. That was why his grapes made the sweetest wine on Helikon. Malgis got the idea of the arbors from a farmer outside Syracuse he met who read and wrote block letters on long scrolls. “The sun makes the grapes, and the grapes the wine,” this Sikilian Lysis told Malgis. He showed him charts and graphs, and when he returned home to Thespiai, Malgis translated all those lines and letters into plethra of arbors and pergolas, roofed with grape canes twenty feet long and more. But then Lysis also had lectured on the right dirt, the perfect elevation, the type of water, and so Malgis thought it wasn’t just the arbors that made his vintage. Good wine needed sparse soil. Grapes liked just a little water. Crisp mornings were good for color. A cold nip at night gave taste, as did the hot sun on the leaves of the vine. Vineyards would be planted above the wheat and below the olives.

The Malgidai themselves produced the bounty, not just prayers to Dionysos or cries of the Bakkhai that the ignorant shout who are without the reason of Pythagoras. When a man fails in body or soul or wisdom, he always prays to the Olympians. Or so as Mêlon kept dreaming before battle he remembered all that Malgis once had said. For fifty and more harvests before Leuktra, the Malgidai rarely came off Helikon except to fight for the Boiotians. They had enough coins and enough grapes, wheat, and oil to need none of those below—and no more desire to die in the phalanx of the Boiotians on the doomed left wing in the battles against the Spartans. So they were a confident bunch, and came to forget that the wages of hubris are nemesis.

Finally in the year before Leuktra, Mêlon had opened his ears a little to Pythagoras. For he tired of meat, and found his left arm as strong as his right, and no longer felt himself better by birth than his slaves, all in the manner of Pythagoras. He wanted to believe that he had an eternal soul that would be judged in the hereafter by its brief entrapment and struggle within an all too human body; or so he also told the believer Chiôn, who was determined not to return as a sparrow or snake, but to free his soul forever with deeds he deemed good. And yet Mêlon had hesitated until now, worried by the rumors that Epaminondas might make the worse better and so replace the tyranny of Sparta with the chaos of freedmen.

For all their farming expertise, the Malgidai’s strongboxes were heavy with coins that had not come entirely from the soil. No one ever quite makes a living on farming alone, although all always insist that they do. Instead the money had come from Malgis’s campaigning when he once sailed for fifteen days to Sikily to join a Spartan attack on Athens. He came back a rich man with the loot of the dead at the Assinaros River. His new strongbox, with the lumps of gold beneath the coins, proved so heavy that he finally sent young Mêlon for a chain at the town forge to haul it up out of the well. No mere hemp rope would bear all the weight of his profits. War, it turned out, was a good way to make or lose money. But profit depended on what side of a war you ended up on. Always it was the wiser choice to fight on the side of the Spartans—even if that meant halfway across the ocean in Sikily or Asia. The Spartans would enrich Malgis for most of his life. At his end, they would kill him when he broke his own rule.

Mêlon remembered how Malgis, in the days after Athens had lost its great war with Sparta, liked to talk deep into the night with the big men from Thebes. Years before Mêlon came of age, the Theban friends used to walk on his farm’s paths, talking of spurning earth’s pleasures. Most of these city-folk were like Alkidamas, all self-acclaimed peripatetics who thought they were the true children and stewards of Pythagoras keeping the master’s teaching alive in the backwaters of Boiotia, as they lectured amid trees and shrubs.

The dream of Helikon continued as the sleeping Mêlon tried to make sense of this night at Leuktra. Like all who renounce wealth and the tawdry pursuit of it, the philosophers who trudged up to the farm often came to enjoy its fruits all the more. Affluence adds a veneer of authority to knowledge—if it can be displayed without the ugly scars of its acquisition. Mêlon knew that as well, and how someone else’s money had allowed him to think he could keep himself away from the mob below. He was at Leuktra this morning for yet one more reason as well: not just because of the prophecy of the apple, or to keep Spartans off his ground, or to replay the battle of Koroneia with a different ending, but also to prove, as he had at Nemea and Koroneia, that money gave him no exemption from the ordeal of the phalanx, and that he at last did believe men, even his Boiotians, could in a season or two set right the wrongs of ages.

The hoplite had thought that his senses, which had saved him so many times in the melee, had been dulled by age. They had not. Smell, hearing, even touch were all heightened this summer before Leuktra as never before. The light off Helikon had been much clearer, the hot wind of late afternoon through the shiny leaves of the olives stronger. Ever since word of Epaminondas and the failed peace at Sparta had spread and war had neared, everything had turned crisp. Nothing was as before. War was in the air. In this lull before the spearing, his touch, nose, ears, and eyes were burning and told him he alone was standing still as the world moved beneath his feet.

What was this mystery of Epaminondas, Mêlon asked in his dream? Whence came his zeal to face down the king of Sparta and then march south, down one thousand stadia into the heart of the Peloponnesos to build new cities of freedom for others finer than their own? These Pythagoreans, with no doubt, no second ideas, thought they had ushered in the new age of Hellas. All the city-states would become one state, one community of equals. All would worship the god Logos, and would teach that there are no masters, no slaves, no right hand better than left. No man would be better than woman—but all with free will to play the fool or the good man—and suffer the consequences at the blink of death. That was the power of Epaminondas to save the souls of the would-be saviors of others for the judgment to come. So these Pythagoreans had become the godfathers of Epaminondas, well before Leuktra. When Mêlon came down to fight in the year of Leuktra, he knew well enough where the fight of these men would finally lead.

This was also the arrogance of the Pythagoreans, Mêlon saw in these pre-battle visions. They thought they alone knew the good and alone could implement it among the Hellenes. They taught that everything we do—eat, sleep, crap, talk—must be in measure, according to meson, the golden mean. Once a man knew the rhythm of living—and he could not without the help of Pythagoras—then work was not work. Money was only for independence from the mob, never to be used for indulgence. Women and slaves were to be as free men; and dumb animals, who had inside them the souls of the departed, were to be untouched. Maybe even the olives and grapes were the stopping stations of the souls seeking to reform this time around.

For most who improve their grandfather’s house or ancestral vineyard, this temptation is never distant—to destroy and start over from the beginning rather than to correct the wrongs and burdens of the long dead. Malgis the killer was given a great gift not to farm the plot of his father Antander, but to start on the wild Helikon anew. This was the creed of creation of the Pythagoreans. The restlessness was also the danger residing in an impatient Epaminondas—to tear down all the ancient good along with the old bad and start over afresh. Sparta was a tired city of crooked streets and cobbled-together plots. But Messenê, the capital of free Messenia to come? This dream of Epaminondas’s new city would be a grid. All new streets and blocks as perfect as the new vines and trees to be planted around it, their city to practice on with the newly freed helots—like the famous farm of the Malgidai, but for thousands.

After his father Malgis had terraced the hillsides, fashioned the big courtyard with a view of Boiotia below, planted the vines and trees, leveled and smoothed the wheat fields, built the pens and threshing floor, got the big press working, lined the farm’s paths with flat stones, and worshiped his god of Pythagoras—after all that, three things that no seer imagined had followed. First, he ended up not with a man’s refuge, but with the finest-looking farm in Boiotia. The orchard and vineyards proved better even than those on Sikily that he had copied so well. Malgis the founder became not just an idiotês—not just a recluse—but a wealthy one at that, whose wine and oil brought in gawkers and buyers alike. Then he buried his young wife, Kephesia. She died ten springs after the battle of Delion, from the stiff-jaw right after giving him a single son up in their new house on the mountain. Last of all, at sixty years still hale, Malgis himself fell.

Fell? Hardly. Malgis was gutted by the Spartans—knocked down by no less than Lord Lichas himself, at the spear clash at Koroneia, ten seasons after the great war with the Athenians—caught in the final mad Theban crash against the king Agesilaos. There the Boiotians in folly threw away the fight they had earlier almost won, losing thirty years after they and Malgis’s Thespians had won at Delion. But, of course, they were now fighting Spartans, not Athenians any longer. This last muster at his age was Malgis’s death sentence. But still at Koroneia, Malgis did all that the Theban generals wanted, as a lochagos leading his son Mêlon and six hundred Thespians head-on against the Spartan king Agesilaos in the battle’s bitter finale—on the Boiotians’ weak left against the choice Spartan royals on the enemy right wing. At first he was blocked from nearing the king, but he soon found a way over them, as the men from Thespiai behind pushed their front files through. These images came more quickly now to the dreaming Mêlon as sunlight neared and with it the approach of battle.

Malgis had hit the royal guard under Lichas, who stabbed better with the spear than any on either side of the battlefield. Malgis had first wounded Sphodrias. Then he took on Deinon as well, and got close to King Agesilaos, almost through the last circle of the king’s guard under Lichas. Finally, with the king’s crest in sight, Malgis in desperation had thrown his thrusting spear—and it had hit the royal thigh itself. The wound would cripple Agesilaos, but not kill him. Malgis could not withstand the fury of a stunned Lichas. No man could. The Spartan caught Malgis without his spear and stabbed him right under the chin, above his breastplate. Then Lichas called in vain for his henchmen to strip the Thespian and take the gleaming armor that had once belonged to the Spartan general Lysander.

Mêlon saw his father collapse in the dust. Now he battled his way forward to keep the murderous Spartans from desecrating the body of Malgis; somehow he carried the body away from the fray. Lichas stabbed him above the knee and almost took him down, too, but the royal guard fell back and circled Agesilaos. They carried their king out rather than go after the Theban vanguard under Mêlon. The next day Gorgos, the captured helot, packed dead Malgis back to the farm, and he wrapped the leg of Mêlon as he drove the cart to Helikon with his dead and wounded masters. The Thebans set up a small black stone hidden away on a corner of the Kadmeia in the center of town, reading just as the Boiotarchs promised: Tode mnêma Malgidi, Antandros huiô, tô Thespiaô, hon Spartiai eidon kalon en Koroneia. Eis Hadas elthe makairpistos tôn Helikonidôn hina Boiotia pasa ê eleuthera. (This memorial is for Malgis, son of Antander, the Thespian, whom the Spartans knew well at Koroneia. He went down to Hades, most blessed of those Helikon way, so that all of Boiotia might be free.)

The Spartan iron had bored in a palm’s width above the back of Mêlon’s knee. To the bone and deeper Lichas had driven his spear tip to roll up his tendon. If he were to meet Lichas this coming day at Leuktra, then the reckoning had been yet another reason to follow Nêto’s prophecy and come down at last from Helikon. But Lophis had filled him with talk of Epaminondas, and freedom from Sparta, and something greater still. The result was that he thought himself not so old and crippled as much as wise and experienced—and needing to settle with Lichas. But even before that for twenty years and more, he picked up his spear Bora, put on his panoply every other evening behind the shed—bronze breast- and backplate, concave round willow shield, banged-up greaves, slashing sword, and heavy helmet—and then did his ten or so jabs and set moves. Right foot forward with the spear thrust; right back to bring the enemy in off balance; the shield bash with the left foot leading; the underhand stab to the groin; the overhand thrust down into the enemy’s neck; the wild right hand cross slash with the cleaver; the sword chop down on the helmet; the crouch to one knee behind the shield; the right-wing drift; the steady walk ahead; the double-time trot. These were all the moves, the hoplomachia, that his Theban drill masters had once taught him before the battles at the Nemea and at Koroneia, and that he had repeated three thousand times and more these years so that perhaps one day he would come down his mountain and kill Spartans without end.

At fifty Mêlon was on the downhill course without a rock or stump in his way, with a better farm for his boy Lophis than what Malgis had given him—and with a better son in Lophis than he himself had been. Lophis riled Mêlon with new talk of helots and Epaminondas and grand marches and Lichas and how he must come down to fight the Spartans if he were to claim he was a citizen and a man of the polis. But shortly after making his decision to fight, Mêlon had begun to see black visions sent from the gods—the dream changing on alternating sleeps. He always saw two cities to the south, far beyond the Isthmos, and now at Leuktra those old dreams came back and turned his mind from Helikon.

The first one was a rising city of tall stones, with ladders of men at work, and black cut rock stacked everywhere amid the growing ramparts. Two big levers with pulleys and hooks lifted squared blocks on a temple wall. A theater was half-finished. Workers swarmed on the embrasures, singing with the oxen-team drivers in a thick Doric. An agora was crowded. Farmers in peace flocked in to sell their wares. Squabbles were settled in a large dikastêrion by swift-mouthed rhêtôrs and voting jurors. Women brought their men apples in baskets. They sang to them as they hauled stones. On a bêma, a tall orator lectured to his listeners, who jeered and clapped—but then voted in peace and praised their freedom as their walls always rose higher. Calm and order reigned.

On the other gloomier nights when there was no moon, Mêlon saw these same towers and walls, but unfinished, with many more black blocks ready to be stacked. This other vision of the city was longer, darker and louder. There were rotting Hellenes hanging in nooses from the gates. Dogs and birds fought over even more corpses in ditches and refuse piles, pulling on their putrid ankles. There were more bodies half-eaten outside the towers, clubbed and knifed, with their purses and packs stolen. Men were killing and raping at will, and packs of cutthroats in the chaos of the city’s license roamed over the unfinished city that was full of trash and worse, as slaves dumped their slop jars into open pits. Always upon waking Mêlon asked himself how could this same city be two different cities, and which dream was the real, which the false. Somehow he put himself in the answer: His presence in the south could ensure the good city of this Epaminondas, holy Messenê to come—while his absence would mean its failure and descent into chaos. But, he asked himself, would Gorgos, would Chiôn stay or go with him, and if they went, who would keep the farm and the family of his son Lophis safe?

A spear’s length away, Chiôn on this hard-baked ground this night now saw these same images, but he had more of his own dreams and memories before Leuktra that would not easily give way. Malgis, he knew, had roped the slow-moving pursuing helot Gorgos in the free-for-all after the Theban phalanx had broken at the Nemea and the battle lines had been crossed. The prisoner Gorgos had squirmed on the ground and whimpered that he was the prized shield carrier of a Spartan noble. Maybe the manservant to the big ephor, to Lichas himself he was. Now the Messenian slave was somewhere around six tens, maybe more, or so he claimed, though his arms seemed too hard for a man that old. On feast nights for the two meat-eaters, Chiôn saw Gorgos crush a piglet’s head like he did a squash. Gorgos said he was nearly blind—though the helot saw more than others the bad spots and crooks of the farm. Most days he shuffled about and was just worth the food to keep him going, although Gorgos talked as if he owned the estate itself. Chiôn’s dreams now stayed on Helikon.

Nêto did more work than the Messenian. But she never stayed put as she wandered throughout the hamlets of Boiotia. Years earlier Mêlon had bought her as a twelve-year-old; he’d put down twenty good Boiotian silver coins, the new minted ones of the Confederation with the stamped shields. Down at the harbor at Kreusis some Spartan renegade had sneaked in at night in a leaky boat, eager to barter her away along with four other helots and a bronze breastplate. The trader had charged more for her than for the others, and had spun stories that she was the aborted daughter of a fallen virgin Messenian priestess. Artemis, he said, had struck her mother when she had found her pregnant. Then the goddess had cut out Nêtikon alive from the shaking womb and had bellowed, “You live and are cursed to be damned when you reveal today what will happen tomorrow.” Mêlon told Chiôn he had bought her to help Gorgos; but he told also the tale of her birth, because, he reasoned, if she thought she was a priestess, well, then that was better than a slave after all, was it not?

The girl was more than twenty seasons now. Gorgos had tried to poke her twice. But Mêlon had beat him hard with his stick both times. A third time was even worse when Mêlon slapped him with the shaft of his spear, the heavy one of ash—even though the helot had fancied his Nêtikon would not fight back once she had had a taste of his horn. The last time his back bled from the hit so much that Gorgos dared to snap back at his master that he was beating the saddle rather than the willing mount. Yes, he’d try to settle up soon enough, Chiôn suspected, and with all of them if he could. Chiôn had heard Gorgos boast that Nêto needed a brand on her soft face to take her down two pegs—just like the one on Chiôn’s own cheek.

Nêto had whispered to Chiôn, “For all his singing of lions, Gorgos has no thought of what floor he will end up on—or that he will die one day at the hand of another helot. But that is what the divine whispers say.” She warned Chiôn to either kill or free him. The bit of freedom that the master Mêlon gave him, she knew, made the slave hate them all the more that it came late and in such small measure. At least that was how Nêto accounted for what she saw as the unaccountable, since the petulant Gorgos was treated as if he were free, and fared far better than any down in the Peloponnesos. Always Chiôn watched them from the high grain fields, as he pried up an oak stump with an iron bar and ax. Kill this broke-back now, Chiôn had thought. Or later, as Nêto foretold? For sport here—or soon in battle, no difference. Why just him? Why not even the score, since one killing makes the murderer as much as five or so. The neighbor below, Dirkê, and her slaves, the Spartan-lovers, would those traitors be good relish too? All this Chiôn went over in these dreams, just as if each choice were a different stone to be stacked and fitted into his grand terrace on the upper five plethra, or another notch on the windlass of the new olive press. When you live to kill the bad, you can do more good than the good, or thus Chiôn claimed his own ideas had the sanction of Pythagoras and called his plans to kill the god’s wisdom to save his own soul.

Chiôn had been told that Malgis, the slave collector, had picked him up cheap—for almost nothing—at age three, when Malgis was on the way home from the wars in Asia. Malgis had once marched with the Ten Thousand and then stayed on to fight for better pay with the lords of the Spartans. Before Derkyllidas and the Spartan fleet sailed west, the Egyptian plague swept the islanders. Most island clans were selling off their scarred orphans—those few survivors who were free for life from the boils—for an owl coin or two from Athens to the ships as they passed to the Peloponnesos.

Chiôn also had been told that Malgis had paid only three obols—a half Athenian owl—for the pox boy with the ugly Spartan brand. It was a lambda burned into his cheek. Scars covered most of his face and arms from the nosos. “This sick worm, not much to be sure,” the Spartan pilot had offered when he sold him to Malgis. “He’s an ugly white toddler, too, maybe a snowy Thrakian. But then three obols is not much of a gamble either, is it, for a raggedy thing splashing about the currents of death?” Malgis had made the exchange. Only then the Spartan had grumbled, “No buyer’s second anger for poxy boy—but the priestess of Artemis on Chios told me to kill this half-dead thing, since the pox and the hungry belly couldn’t. She says he is a killer of Spartan royalty, Lichas’s bane. Beware—or be happy—over that.”

The words of the island trader had been forgotten, even if Chiôn had heard them enough. What was pock-marked and yellow soon grew on Malgis’s farm into a near giant. Six-cubit Chiôn he was, with the stone shoulders of the Titans of old. Just like the vines on the high trellises that got stronger with the more sunlight, Chiôn had taken off on the mountain, and his remedy for a day behind the ox was “More work.” He chanted no Tyrtaios as did Gorgos, but strains from Helikon’s native Hesiod as he pulled Nêto’s plow: “Ergon epi ergô, ergon epi ergô—work on top of work.” As the great year of settling up with invading Spartans approached, Chiôn often went out alone to the sycamores on the crests of Helikon. He stalked the wilds, eating berries and killing game for the poor for days at a time—as if he were a hunter, perhaps a hunter of men with no need of the polis or even the meat for his own belly. “The Panther Chiôn,” Nêto called him, the all-beast panthêr. With that, the dreams of Chîon ceased and black sleep held him a while longer.

But not so Mêlon, whose mind still saw visions as he snored. For all the tranquility of the farm, rumors of a new war had bored deeply into Mêlon. He knew that. They never really left him in peace again. It was not a mere battle anymore to showcase courage but something quite different—a struggle to overturn the ancient order itself that needed a hoplite like himself who could put his lore to good use for thousands of democrats. That bothered—but intrigued—him. Worried him that a man who promised to change the world would enlist a broken-down man like himself, and yet goaded him on that Epaminondas might see in Mêlon, sore back, and a deaf ear, and a locked knee, something he sensed untapped in himself as well. Now Mêlon joined Chiôn in a final slumber, blank and without memory, as if both were ordered by the One God to banish both dark and light dreams and rest for Leuktra and the sunup.

Up on the hill above, Nêto was not dreaming of Helikon, but still awake. Proxenos, the Plataian, was sleeping under the wagon nearby, sent there by Mêlon after the meeting to guard against Gorgos, who grew reckless as he neared his Spartans. The One God had this night sent to her the dreams of Chiôn and Mêlon, and now at last she too would sleep, relieved that they would fight and battle well, as the images of those on Helikon reminded them both of who they were on this eve of battle. What a strange clan, these men of the soil of Helikon, Nêto thought. Richer than the rich who despised them—and yet rich from Malgis’s killing in Sikily rather than from the great bounty of his vineyards on Helikon. Gorgos and Chiôn were as free as their master—two forgotten slaves out on the uplands of mountain Helikon with no need of town who yet boasted to themselves that they were gods who would shake the very cities of Hellas. Damô, the wife of Lophis, and Nêto more like men of action than wives or servants. Mêlon, the center of it all, the savior of the Boiotians, said to be the apple of the prophecy about to fall on the Spartans who knew not how to farm, the master whose slaves acted as his master, the great farmer with but a single son, neither all Pythagorean nor Olympian—and with his bad leg and bald head somehow pledged to Epaminondas, although why or how he hardly knew. All this, Malgis had wrought from the word of Pythagoras and booty from Sikily, even as Nêto assured them all that they had been chosen to be carried along according to the order and plan of Pythagoras.

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