Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Captain from Kythera - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"

Eurybiades was the Spartiate elected admiral of the combined Greek fleet that faced the Persians in 480. We know almost nothing about him, but I knew he had to be a character in my biographical novel about Leonidas -- and I couldn't resist associating him with my own home: Kythera.

In this scene, an Aegian penteconter has been terrorizing Athenian shipping in Lacedaemonian waters, and Leonidas has joined his fledgling navy to try to intercept her. After successfully forcing her to surrender, the officers of the penteconter are brought aboard the Lacedaemonian trireme.



"The crew of the penteconter is first rate," the [Perioikoi] captain continued, "but then, that's what you'd expect of the Aeginans. It's no wonder their symbol is the sea turtle. No sooner is an Aeginan born that he waddles down to the sea and starts to swim. They can row and sail before they can talk."

Leonidas glanced back at their prize, and then forward to where two perioikoi marines were escorting the Aeginan officers to him. "But they failed to capture their prize," Leonidas pointed out.

"Pah! They never intended to capture her. They drove her on the rocks intentionally."

"Why would they do that?" Leonidas wanted to know. "There's no booty from a wrecked grain carrier."

The captain shrugged. "We'll have to ask them." He nodded toward the two prisoners. One was a grizzled veteran with shoulder-length hair, more grey than brown, and wearing the breastplate, greaves, and helmet of a marine. His face and arms were burned a dark brown from decades on decks in the blaze of the Mediterranean sun, and the lines around his eyes were cut deep into his skin. The other man looked much younger by contrast, although he was no youth. His almost-black hair was cut short at the back and his beard was neatly trimmed.

Leonidas started violently. The elder man was none other than his childhood friend Prokles, who had been exiled for dereliction of duty just before reaching citizenship. Almost as astonishing, he was accompanied by a young Spartiate, whose name escaped Leonidas at the moment.

"Prokles! What are you doing preying on innocent ships -- and under the turtle of Aegina?"

Prokles, who had been fussing at the guard and not focused on the men on the afterdeck, broke into a grin. "Well, I'll be damned! I never expected a landlubber like you to catch me off guard like that." He glanced at the perioikoi captain and nodded once in respect, giving credit where he thought it was due.

"You didn't answer my question," Leonidas pointed out and turned to the younger man, who at least had the decency to look worried, to add, "and you need to explain yourself, young man!"

"I went off active service at the winter solstice, my lord," he spoke up at once, "and I'm on leave from my syssitia."

"With what possible excuse?" Leonidas wanted to know.

"To look after my affairs, my lord. My estates are on Kythera."

"Since when did looking after your affairs include attacking innocent merchant ships?"

"That's the second time you've used the adjective 'innocent,'" Prokles pointed out. "But you are using the term inadvisably. The Aeginans provided our ship and are paying us. The Aeginans do not view Athenian ships as 'innocent,' while Eurybiades here has a grudge against the Argives, whose ships have been our principal target."

"The Argives burned my kleros to the ground and murdered every man, woman, and child on it," Eurybiades explained at once.

Leonidas well remembered the damage wrought by the Argives on Kythera, but he still did not approve of someone taking the law into his own hands. "In my waters, I'll decide who can be attacked and who can go free," Leonidas countered. 

"Your waters be damned!" Prokles spat in the direction of the side of the ship, and the perioikoi marines stiffened in alarm, looking to Leonidas for orders to put the impudent man in his place. Leonidas signaled for them to relax, even as Prokles continued. "Power has gone to your head, Leo. We didn't break any law. Can we help it if an Athenian captain puts his own ship on the rocks?"

Leonidas addressed himself to the baffled perioikoi marines, who appeared ready to slit Prokles' throat for his impudence. "Untie them. They will do us no harm." The perioikoi obeyed with obvious reluctance, and then moved a short distance away, both curious and suspicious.

Prokles demonstratively stretched and wriggled his shoulders, while Leonidas asked, "Just what are the terms of your commission with Aegina?"

Prokles shrugged. "Ask Eurybiades. He's the captain. I'm just the commander of marines."

Leonidas looked at the younger Spartiate, even more amazed. "How did you come by an Aeginan commission? And where did you learn seamanship?"

Eurybiades, his hands now free, gestured vaguely around them. "Here, my lord. I spent my holidays here, not just on Kythera, but on the waters around it."

"Who is your father?"

"Eurykleides, my lord."

The name was familiar. Eurykleides had a distinguished career behind him and had served once as ephor. He stood a good chance of election to the Gerousia when the next vacancy came up. Generally seen as conservative, he had nevertheless, Leonidas now remembered, spoken forcefully in favor of the building of a fleet, and he also supported the law to allow helots to improve their status through service on Lacedaemonian ships. 

"My mother killed herself when she realized the Argives had breached the wall of the courtyard," Eurybiades continued, breaking in on his thoughts. "My father remarried and has two younger sons by his second wife. I inherited my mother's property here."

"Where did you recruit the crew of the penteconter?" Leonidas asked next.

"Oh, mostly in Skandia."

"They're Kytheran, not Aeginan?" the perioikoi captain asked astonished.

"For the most part," Eurybiades agreed, "maybe a third are Aeginan."


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