Ancient History & Civilisation


The Circle Closes

Shattered islands of Spartan hoplites—all that was left of the king’s proud phalanx—were completely surrounded by the Boiotians. Most of these attackers held their shields high and unbroken, so sure that this pathway behind the farmers of Helikon led straight to the threshing of the king and, with his fall, to glory. A few more hotheads, Boiotian rustics from the backside of Ptôon, kept pushing past Mêlon. Even when defeated and trapped, the Spartans were still deadly. They drove their spears deeply into the Thebans who rushed too far in the front of their lines. These southerners welcomed the final moments to ensure their king matched the fame of Leônidas at Thermopylai, who had gone down and into legend with all his guard. The king’s hoplites knew all retreat was forbidden—and by now futile anyway. Only within a final ring of spearmen was there any chance to kill more of these Theban pigs, to take as many with them into Hades as they could, to end the nonsense of freeing helots, and to bring renown to their wives and boys at home. The phalanx of the Spartans was broken. But a smaller force made a crescent moon, five or six men deep, around Kleombrotos to ward off any foolish enough to leap in after their king.

Mêlon began to hear a little—and, if only for a bit, to sort out the cries of the living and the groans of the wounded. Then he sensed a louder voice on his left cut the air, with the refrain, “One more step—O give me one more step, my men, and we can break these southerners!” Epaminondas. Or was this an apparition of a hero with his spear and shield in each hand, raised for a moment to the skies, as he rallied the ranks forward? Later Mêlon swore that this strutting hoplite was something more than Epaminondas—huge, twenty feet and more tall, and his shield the size of three normal men, a towering ghost striding ahead into the mist, his step worth six of others. Then this Megas Epaminondas, or whatever it was, vanished in a sort of smoke wafting toward the Spartan ring, pointing out the pathway to Kleombrotos.

In the open-rank fighting, the slave Chiôn was at least ten cubits ahead of his master, battering the wall of the Spartans. What was left of his spear had long since been thrown away. His shield was cracked and had finally been abandoned, its foil blazon shredded. Greaves were gone as well. Only his helmet and breastplate kept away the Spartan iron. With his lone sword and in the free-for-all attack on the shrinking Spartan circle, Chiôn, like an unshielded hillman from Akarnania, finally made his way up toward Sphodrias himself, the leader of the royal guard and tent-mate of the king. Sphodrias had once boasted to his peers that he had cut down a hundred Thebans and Athenians in his thirty years of work on the Spartan front line. The killer saw an easy target in this onrushing slave without either a spear or shield, but in glee he let down his guard, and so ensured his own destruction.

Sphodrias paused, thinking he knew the stride of his attacker. He did not, even though the Spartan had once been harmost at Thespiai under the rule of Agesilaos and should have recognized the slave coming his way. In his swagger as occupying lord of those Boiotian rustics, Sphodrias had once promised two Athenian silver owls to the young sandy-haired slave in the food stall with Nêto in exchange for fetching him grapes and apples from the farm of the Malgidai on Helikon. But when he got his fruit, Lord Sphodrias had given the unarmed young Chiôn a kick and had ordered that his henchmen run Chiôn out under the town arch. Ten summers earlier was that, but Chiôn—now the jury and executioner in his own capital court—remembered the slight far better than did Sphodrias. He had planned to kill this man for all those hundred months. To find Sphodrias out in front of his kin was just what Chiôn had hoped.

As Sphodrias hesitated, trying to place the Boiotian who faced him, another Theban had bolted in front of Mêlon from the left side. It was the tall loudmouth, Antitheos, eager to make good on his boast that he would be first to cut down Kleombrotos. And now the Theban raced at the Spartan off balance and with his neck and groin wide open—worried too much for his own glory, his kudos to come in the agora of the Thebans, and not for the advance of the men at his side. Antitheos got nowhere near the enemy before being hit by two spears. Both points caught him on a downward arc in the lower stomach. Blood spurted out right beneath the breastplate.

Deinon, next in line to Sphodrias, was one of the pair who tore the guts from Antitheos with his spear. Now as he yanked out the shaft from the dying Theban, Chiôn was on him, too. He could do that much for dead Antitheos. So he hit the Spartan stabber on the neck with his sharp blade. It cut through halfway to the bone. Deinon yelled to warn Sphodrias at his side for help, but got no more out than “erchete” before falling. Without a pause, the slave swung his sword back and stabbed into the face of the frozen Sphodrias. He tried to cry out, but all that came out of his mouth was a gurgle of blood.

Now at his end, Sphodrias remembered that he knew this Thespian Chiôn. Then he knew no more. A sword plunge for an old kick, and the ledger for Chiôn was at last even. Nor did the slave care that he was bathed in the blood of the two Spartan lords, that with ease he had just ended Deinon and Sphodrias—heroes both, who claimed Lysander and Gylippos as their uncles. Hardly, Chiôn thought; I curse only that these dead men shower me with their own gore. I care that a third of my blade slid inside beside the nose guard of Sphodrias and was rammed between his eyes. Yes, I care only for that.

Chiôn thought to himself this war has no balance scales, nothing quite fair at all in it. The phalanx looked as if all were equal, but the man with the best right arm, and quickest feet, and stoutest heart, he was king of the faceless mass. Let these Spartan invaders fear a slave on Helikon, not talk in their drunken boast of long-dead Leônidas. The Thespian looked for more who barred his way to the king, in fear the Spartans would be called off and flee to camp, as the battle ended. He ignored the weak spear-jabs that either missed or now and then glanced off his cheek plates, as the Spartans targeted this lone raging slave without spear or shield. “For Helikon and Malgis, for Thespiai,” Chiôn yelled. He ducked, lurched, and jumped ahead after Kleombrotos through the gap of the circle left by the dying, thinking always, “Freer than any man on this battlefield.”

Mêlon tried to keep up with Chiôn. But what mortal could? His slave was unrecognizable, his face, arms, and breastplate all scarlet with gore, almost indistinguishable from the red-shirts under the armor of the Spartans. In this free-for-all, once the Thebans had broken inside these last Spartan ranks, it was a pankration of sorts, tooth against nail, finger in the eye, stomping the man who fell. Kleonymos, the king’s best surviving man, tried to blurt out from the Spartan island, “We live for this, for this we live! Where is that damn mêlon? Pick the apple. Kill that Thespian and we win. Kill him and our king lives.” Some Spartans kicked. Others slapped and clawed. Spears, swords were for most long lost. The enemy flute players were dead or silent. Chiôn saw two of them at his feet—one youth without a beard, but with a cracked reed stuck like a dart right through his cheek.

Still another crazed Spartan threw himself at Mêlon. He no longer held a shield or spear. This brave Eurypon was trying to tear off a Theban helmet or an arm maybe. Or maybe he wanted a bite out of Mêlon’s wrist. He was a Spartan of the past age who thought his sacrifice might save his king or at least the name of Spartan prowess. But Mêlon had put both hands on his sword, pointed it upright, waited, and caught the Spartan in the lower belly as he had come on, lifting him a palm or so high, as his blade went through the groin and nearly hit the backplate. It took all his strength to yank it out and then kick the shrieking Spartan off with his good knee. Then he stepped on this Eurypon’s shoulder and lumbered ahead. Eurypon had a high farm above the Lakonian gulf, near Aigeiai and the lakeside temple of Poseidon. His cross-eyed wife Kuniska, toothless father Eurysthenes, and tiny girl Chloê—they were all this summer safe in the tower and on watch for pirates while the men of Sparta were far to the north fighting Epaminondas. But all Eurypon did this day was ensure that no one would be there next year to protect his father’s olives and vines when the mob of ravagers under Lykomedes of Mantineia swept down to the port at Gytheion—tearing down his tower and dragging his now orphaned Chloê in ropes to the slave-sellers. But what Spartan here at Leuktra ever might imagine that his family would soon be unsafe, far to the south in the stronghold of their tribe?

Mêlon and Chiôn then saw something not Antander nor Malgis nor Mêlon himself had ever before witnessed. Not more than a few feet behind the shredded king’s guard, straight ahead of them were the crests of their own Boiotians, who had rushed out from their left wing, outflanked the king, and gotten to the Spartan rear. This final pocket around King Kleombrotos was sealed and surrounded. The Sacred Band of Pelopidas now headed toward Chiôn and Mêlon, slicing in two what was left of the final Spartan circle. Mêlon slowed at the sight of these last efforts of the king’s hoplites and their Spartan empire. For a moment only, he lowered his sword and looked sideways and back for his Boiotians. Not since the Persians had cut off the head of Leônidas at Thermopylai had any man seen a Spartan king go down in battle.

To pause was a mistake even for a moment, since in that one stop Mêlon forgot that Spartans never do. Kleonymos, favorite of the Agiads, the son of the dead Sphodrias—who hated Lichas and his Antikrates for their claims of preeminence—came from his side and bashed Mêlon with his shield. It was a blow with the boss to the side of the head, hard enough to brain most men. Mêlon’s horsehair crest flew off. The concussion sent Mêlon’s helmet rattling against his temple and cheek and nearly knocked him off his feet. His skull’s insides crackled deep from within.

He could no longer quite make out all the blurred shapes of battle. In this new netherworld of the wounded and dead, Mêlon strained to hear the garbled cries of Epaminondas, “One step more. Give me one more.” But then Mêlon heard something else: the screeching of one of the stinking Kêres he had seen before battle, but no more than ten feet above the fray, circling and diving into the melee—and headed for him? Suddenly he was given proof by this blow that the vulture women did live and kill and were no myth after all. For the first time this day, Mêlon in his dizziness, swaying on the threshold of death, could easily make out these hazy women birds that must have been hovering all along above the battlefield. Two of them, Nyx and Melainê, flew with talons outstretched, just as the wounded veterans had warned—the winged and deep-breasted daughters of Night, who swooped down over the heroes to pull them skyward by their ankles.

For now the son of Malgis managed to stay on his feet. He beat these harpies off and sent his sword right through the mouth of Melainê fluttering above him. She without flesh let out a shrill laugh nonetheless at the effort, veering away in anger at her lost meal. Swinging his sword in frenzy, the Thespian kept both these carrion daimones and the hoplites around off him as he regained his senses. Not quite yet was his thread cut, even after taking the last and best blow of the fading Spartan elite. His head had stopped ringing. The greedy Nyx knew that when she alighted instead on the nearby groaning Eurypon, who was far closer to death, and picked him up by the heels. Chiôn later swore that his master for an eye blink or two had been stabbing at shadows, as had Aias in his madness. But Mêlon saw them as clear as crows nonetheless. After the winged Nyx flew off with Eurypon, Melainê lighted on Boiotian Mantô of Oinoi way, the tile-baker whom Eurypon had stabbed before he went down. Then Nyx returned and the two hags were flapping their stinky wings, shrieking at each other in the air to let go of their prize, each with a foot of the dead Boiotian, trying to fly off in different directions.

Drops of blood ran out Mêlon’s mouth. He knew that what he had done to ten or so Spartans that day, Kleonymos had nearly done to him, with far greater strength and youth. After these brief moments of daze he discovered that five Boiotians or more had fallen while he had spun and thrashed at the Kêres. There was nothing of the enemy now but the towering Kleonymos, stabbing and swinging his shield wildly in the air, like the crazed she-bear that bellows and paws the very air between her cubs and the oncoming hunter. As Mêlon stumbled to regain his balance, he had enough sense to raise his shield to eye level. He saw that he had been pushed almost to the king himself. For now he heard no more cries of the Kêres, just the final pleas of the Spartan Kleonymos, calling out to keep his King Kleombrotos alive.

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