Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Friday, November 15, 2019

"Athens discards her heroes..."

Great as the victory at Marathon had been, it was not decisive. The Persian capacity to launch a new campaign was undiminished and the Persian determination to do so increased. The Spartans knew what was coming, and in this excerpt from A Heroic King, Leonidas is in Athens trying to assess the willingness and ability of Athens to withstand a new assault.


Rain, driven by a strong wind, swept in from the east. The sky darkened dramatically and the clouds hung low, reaching out ephemeral yet ominous hands toward the rooftops. The temperature dropped abruptly and men clutched capes and cloaks more tightly around their shoulders, even before the first heavy drops of rain fell from the hostile sky. The torrent that followed pelted the open squares so violently that the drops jumped up again like millions of tiny fountains, while the rooftops reverberated. The rush of water overwhelmed the gutters and fell in sheets from the roofs, to join the rivulets cascading over the paving stones and sweeping refuse down the alleyways.

Leonidas and his companions dived for cover under the nearest roof and found themselves in the shopfront of a shoemaker. Belts hung from hooks hammered into the plaster wall, and pairs of sandals were lined up in neat rows. The man and his two apprentice sons looked up astonished from their workbenches as four armored men suddenly burst into the humble shop.

One of the boys gaped with an open mouth, but the older man, sitting astride his workbench and pushing a thick needle with thread through the sole of a sandal, got to his feet and came forward, bobbing his head. “My lord, what an honor!” His words were directed not to the Spartan king, whom he did not recognize, but to young Kimon, who had offered to help Leonidas negotiate with the outraged landlord about the damages allegedly done by the Minotaur’s crew.

“Ah―” Kimon took a moment to remember the name, and then it came to him. “Demeas! What a surprise! How are you?” Before the man could answer, he added, “This is King Leonidas of Sparta.” The shoemaker dutifully bobbed his head to Leonidas, while Kimon continued with the introductions. “Demeas fought with my father at Marathon.”

“Indeed! What a day that was! Look!” the shoemaker ordered the Spartan king, “I got this wound there!” He turned slightly sideways and lifted his short, rough chiton to reveal an ugly scar that ran down the side of his thigh. “And there hangs my hoplon!” He pointed deeper into the darkness of the shop, where a battered hoplon hung beside a sword in its baldric.

“Are you well, Demeas?” Kimon asked the shoemaker with apparent interest. “I heard you were ill.”

“No, not really, but business is bad.” He shook his head. “Too many cheap wares fl flooding the market from Thessaly these days. They have cheap leather up there because they have room for huge herds of cattle. The workmanship is crap, but people aren’t willing to pay for quality anymore. All they care about is the price! If it’s cheap, they’ll buy it even if the straps break in a fortnight. Then they run back and buy another pair of cheap sandals, rather than investing in good wares like these!” He grabbed a pair and held them out to Kimon as if he expected him to inspect them.

Kimon nodded politely and remarked, “I’m sorry I have not sent my steward around to buy for the household as my father used to do. I just can’t afford it.”

“I know, my lord―not after the fines the Assembly leveled on your good father. I voted against it! You can be sure many of us did.”

“I know, Demeas,” Kimon assured him. “I was there, even if I wasn’t old enough to vote.”

“They drove your father to his grave, they did―Xanthippos and the others.”

Kimon drew a deep breath but answered with restraint, sad rather than angry: “My father was seriously wounded, Demeas. There was little hope for his recovery.”

“But these ungrateful wretches! If you’d but seen him at Marathon. No one fought better than he did―but they would not even let him put up a monument to himself!”

“But it is true, Demeas, that he could not have won the battle without the others―without you.”

“Well said,” Leonidas remarked, prompting Kimon to add, “In Sparta, no living man is allowed a monument―isn’t that right, Leonidas?”

“Yes. Not even Olympic victors,” Leonidas agreed.

Demeas looked surprised, but not particularly taken with the idea. “But why not? If a man has done something noteworthy, why should he have to die before it is commemorated?”

“Perhaps because too much praise can go to a man’s head―and a man who is top-heavy tends to fall down,” Leonidas explained.

Demeas liked that and laughed heartily, but then he turned to Kimon again and asked, “Is it true, my lord, that we’re all to get ten drachma apiece from the silver mines?” 

“That’s the proposal of the Council,” Kimon assured him. 

“I could use ten drachma!” Demeas admitted. “There’s a break somewhere in the drainage pipe from our latrine, and I need to have the whole thing dug up and replaced. Besides, my daughter’s almost twelve, and I’ll need a dowry for her soon.”

“Ten drachma won’t last for long, though, will it?” a deep voice growled as another man entered the little shop. The newcomer was stocky with a burly chest and a thick, short neck. His short-cropped curly beard and short hair were wet with rain. His chiton came to mid-calf, an awkward length that had neither the elegance of the long robes worn by the rich nor the practicality of the knee-length clothes of workmen and slaves. His nose was rather flat in his broad face, but his eyes were sharp and seemed to glint even in the poor light. They focused directly and pointedly on Leonidas. “King Leonidas, if I’m not mistaken?”
“You are not mistaken, and with whom do I have the honor?”
“Themistocles, son of Neocles.”

“Ah!” Leonidas recognized the name. He had heard much about this man already. But to be sure he was not mistaken, he added, “The man who wanted to build a wall around Piraeus?”

“Yes, that’s me,” Themistocles agreed, his eyes still inspecting Leonidas intently. Abruptly he broke eye contact with Leonidas and turned on the poor shoemaker. “So, Master Shoemaker, you could use ten drachma, but what happens after the ten drachma are used up?”

Demeas shrugged, “At least I’ll have a fixed drainage pipe.”

The others laughed, but not unkindly. Themistocles clapped him on the shoulder and declared, “Indeed, so you would. But what would you say to money that comes in year after year? Not just once, but with every summer?”

“Is there that much silver in the mines?”

“No. That’s the point. The silver won’t go on forever. But if we invest the silver in something that makes Athens strong―really strong―we could multiply the benefits many-fold and keep the money coming in for years into the future.”

“How?” the shoemaker wanted to know.

“You’ll hear about it at the Assembly tomorrow,” Themistocles promised. “But remember what I said. My proposal will put money in the hands of Athens’ poor for generations to come.” Then, without even drawing a new breath, he pointed to a pair of sandals and declared, “Those look about my size.”

Demeas hastened to hand them to him. Themistocles inspected the sandals closely, pulling expertly at the places where they were most likely to come apart, then sat down on the nearest bench, removed the muddy sandals from his feet, and tried on the new pair.

Meanwhile, Kimon, noting that the rain had let up, suggested to Leonidas that they continue….[Outside, Kimon explained Themistocles plan to build 100 triremes, adding] “Themistocles is a brilliant man. My father mistrusted him yet warned me never to underestimate him. Themistocles seems to have an uncanny ability to anticipate developments. Certainly, if Themistocles’ walls had been finished in time, we would have had no need to fear the Persians during the last invasion. Can a navy replace walls? Can it defeat an enemy like Persia before it lands? I don’t know. But I certainly doubt whether even Themistocles can convince the Athenian Assembly―men like Demeas―to give up their ten drachma for the sake of a navy.”
“But the navy would put money in their pockets, too. That was his point,” Eurybiades entered the conversation. “He’s trusting that men much poorer than Demeas will see the advantages of a standing fleet that needs more than seventeen thousand oarsmen―year after year.”

“Yes, that’s what he’s counting on,” Kimon agreed. “But triremes don’t last forever. They ream from beaching too often or grow barnacles from being too long at sea. And once they start taking on water or can’t keep up with the others, they will be discarded like a pair of old shoes. Who will pay then for the new ships? Go down to Piraeus and count the number of hulks rotting on the shore―all once-proud triremes.”

“Athens discards her heroes when they no longer serve her,” Leonidas reflected sadly, adding softly, “Like your father.” Kimon sighed and looked away, not meeting Leonidas’ eyes. “Why do you stay? With the money you paid to an ungrateful Assembly, you could have founded a colony somewhere else. My brother did.”

“I can’t leave,” Kimon admitted, helplessly gesturing to the city around him. “Athens isn’t Aristides and Xanthippos―much less Kallixenos or Pheidon! It’s not even Themistocles or my father. It’s Demeas and all the men like him: men without any particular politics or vision, yet a dogged determination to be themselves. Demeas can’t afford his panoply, and he is certainly no trained soldier like you Spartans, but when the Persians landed at Marathon, he was there with that battered hoplon and his cheap sword, and he stood for six hours with blood gushing from his thigh against the onslaught of an army twice our size.” Kimon shrugged. “I can’t explain it, but it has to do with something in the air here. Freedom―despite the stink of broken latrines.” He paused and turned to look at Leonidas. “And, I promise you, they will fi ght for it as they did at Marathon. They will fight when the Persians come, by land or by sea. They will die fighting rather than surrender their freedom. You can count on that, Leonidas. On us.”




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