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Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Wife at Risk - An Excerpt from "A Peerless Peer"

The wives of Spartiates had the responsibility for running their husband’s households and some estates were comparatively far from Sparta. As a result, women might be away from Sparta on their own for weeks or even months at a time. It was an independence unknown in the rest of the Greek world, and entailed freedom of movement and a high degree of control over their own lives.

In this excerpt from “A Peerless Peer” Leonidas’ wife* is trapped on an estate threatened by wild-fires. The fires have spread across the west side of the Tygetos range and the Spartan army has been deployed (division by division) to try to fight the fires.

“The wind’s backed around to the south,” someone exclaimed in alarm.

Leonidas raised his head, unable—unwilling—to believe it. But staring at the fire, his eyes confirmed the report. The flames were blowing away from them. They struggled to their feet even before an order was given, their smoke-filled brains and exhausted bodies slowly grasping the significance of the shift. There was no danger that this firebreak would fail, but to the north there was nothing whatever to stop the fire.

Orders were passed down the line to return down to the coastal road. They obeyed, still dazed and exhausted. The Amyclaeon Lochos had already moved out, heading north. They were ordered to follow at once. It was, however, impossible to see how dangerous the situation was, because smoke obscured the entire slope of the mountains.

Just before daybreak they came upon a completely incinerated wagon, with the charred corpses of the horses still in the traces and the black lumps of former humans in the box of the wagon. The fire had swept over them with such intensity and speed that they had not even had time to disembark and run to the sea, only a hundred paces away. Everything was burned right down to the beach. The paving stones they were marching on were hot.

Leonidas felt ill. Eirana and his children were on a farm in the line of the fire, and there was nothing he could do for them but pray. He prayed that the Amyclaeon Lochos had managed to get ahead of the line of fire and that someone had sent messengers warning the inhabitants to evacuate.

When they finally caught up with the support train of the Amyclaeon Lochos and the ragtag collection of volunteer firemen from the surrounding countryside, they were informed that Arkines had been lost—everyone in the village had burned to death in their own homes or while trying to escape the conflagration. The firefighters were again trying to create a firebreak, this time about eight miles north of Arkines; but the speed of the fire was as fast as a man could walk, and the erratic wind sent it now northward, now westward in unpredictable gusts.

Climbing up from the coast onto the slope, Leonidas and his men were gasping for breath long before they even reached the fighting line. On arrival, they found that at least half the men they were relieving had already collapsed, unable to stand any longer. No one spoke. The Amyclaeons dragged themselves off, and the Pitanates took over with a sense of desperation tinged with helplessness. They were exhausted and thirsty before they even started. If the wind didn’t veer again or let up, it was obvious that they would not be able to contain the fire here.

Still, they tried. They widened and lengthened the firebreak for over three hours, and Leonidas was on the brink of thinking they would succeed, when a sudden gust of wind sent a flurry of burning twigs and branches over their heads. Trees exploded into flame more than a hundred yards behind them. The auxiliaries panicked instantly, flinging down their heavy tools and running straight down the slope in sheer terror. The orders for the Spartiates to pull out came almost at the same time, the salpinx wailing withdrawal and senior officers shouting and pointing furiously. They had to move fast to avoid being trapped. Already the flames were on three sides of them. The heat started to blister their skin. Leonidas didn’t know where they suddenly found the strength to jog out of the trap.

Leonidas’ first duty was to his enomotia. Twenty-odd years of discipline kept him from losing his head. He had to get his men to safety, and every one of them needed water and rest. But mentally he envisaged the flames, which were now encircling the stretch of mountain on which his estate stood. No matter which way the wind blew, it was endangered. But surely Eirana had already left. For all he knew, she had left days ago. She might have returned to Laconia as soon as the fires broke out, he told himself. But another part of his brain whispered, “Why should she have done that while the wind blew from the north?” He wanted to think she would come “home” for safety as soon as any danger loomed; but the truth was, she didn’t seem to view him—much less his kleros—as home or safety.

They collapsed on the shore of the sea, and Oliantus went in search of fresh water and food, while Leonidas went in search of someone who could tell him the evacuation status of the villages and farms on the endangered mountainside. The Amyclaeon lochagos didn’t have the foggiest idea of the status of the civilians, but the perioikoi head councilman of Kardamyle said that refugees had been passing through the village all night. He wasn’t sure where they had come from, but many had surely gotten through, heading along the coastal road, which was still open.

Leonidas returned to his men. Eirana was an intelligent woman, and she was very protective of her children. She would not take unnecessary risks. She was also a good driver and had several carts and strong draft horses on the farm. The helots on this farm were sullen but not rebellious, and it was in their own interest to get off the farm if it were endangered. Leonidas told himself he had every reason to assume that Eirana and the children had made it to safety. He dropped down beside his platoon, and Oliantus handed him a jug full of warm water. “Drink it slowly!” he ordered his superior. “One sip at a time.”

Around him his men lay as if dead—sprawled on their backs, their sides, their stomachs, their arms and legs flung any which way. They were filthy, stinking, and done in. But the sun was blotted out by the smoke, and even the air around them was thick with heat and falling ash. Oliantus handed Leonidas a chunk of bread. He took a bite, started chewing, and then fell back and lost consciousness.

Someone shook him awake. Nothing had changed. He might have been asleep for only a few moments—except that he was very stiff. The Mesoan Lochos had just arrived. The Argolid was also aflame, and the ephors had decided they no longer needed to defend the border. Kyranios had already taken overall command of the firefighting efforts. He ordered the two already exhausted lochagoi to get to work cutting a firebreak around Kardamyle itself, with its precious warehouses and port facilities, while he took his comparatively fresh lochos farther up the slope to protect the springs above Kardamyle.

Leonidas just managed to speak to Kyranios before the lochagos set off with his men. “The last I knew, Eirana was on my farm up there,” he told his father-in-law. To his own ears, his strained voice betrayed his fears.

Kyranios nodded and replied calmly, “She’s not a child or a fool. She will have had the sense to get out while she could.” Then, seeing the look in Leonidas’ eyes, he laid a hand on his arm and reminded him, “We’re doing all we can.”

They got to work on the firebreak. There wasn’t one of them without some injury, and their muscles were so stiff they couldn’t respond more than woodenly. At least they had relatively easy access to water here, and Oliantus had their attendants working in relays to bring them water every half-hour. He had organized bread, cheese, and sausage, too. Although the air was bad, the heat was more endurable, now that they weren’t working in the direct proximity of the flames.

By mid=afternoon the flames had reached the upper firebreak, but the break appeared to be holding. The two lochoi near Kardamyle were given a hot meal and then sent to reinforce the Mesoan Lochos at the upper firebreak. The fire was raging across the face of the mountain, nipping already at the last trees on the far edge of the tree line. Beyond that, it would burn itself out on the limestone. But Leonidas’ estate was obliterated. He couldn’t even locate the buildings in the charred, still smoking devastation left behind. If Eirana hadn’t made it to safety …

They stayed by the firebreak through the night, watching the flames slowly starve for lack of anything left to consume. The wind had died down, too, helping to stabilize the situation. At least here. The night sky was still marked by lurid light coming from other fires to the north and east. Weary beyond caring, Leonidas wondered who was fighting those fires. Then his watch was over and he fell asleep.

He awoke, disoriented. The sun was bright for the first time in days, and bizarrely, Alkander was bending over him. “Leo,” he woke him gently. “Leo.”

Leonidas sat up. His whole enomotia was on their feet, already awake but doing nothing, just standing around looking strange. Apparently Oliantus had woken them, but not him. Oliantus’ ugly face was deformed even further by an expression of deep worry, while Mantiklos hovered beside him anxiously as if he’d been sick. And where did Alkander come from? He was with the Conouran Lochos. Were they back? Apparently.

“Leo, I’ve been sent to tell you we found them.”

“Found who?” Leonidas still wasn’t fully awake. Then he remembered. “Eirana and the twins? Are they in Kardamyle?” He dragged himself to his feet, his aching muscles protesting painfully.

“They didn’t make it out, Leo.”

They stared at one another. Leonidas wanted to deny it, say it couldn’t be true—but obviously they wouldn’t have sent Alkander otherwise.

“Where are they? Where were they found?”

“Search parties went in at first light. Kyranios sent men to your estate straight away. All that is left of the house and outbuildings are the cellars.”

“What do I care about the house? Are you sure she was there? Are you sure she didn’t get away in time?”

“She wasn’t in the house, Leo. We found her and the twins about two hundred yards from the house—and her daughter by Asteropus another hundred yards away. It looked as if the elder girl had run away, and Eirana went after her, but we can’t be sure what happened. Only that they are dead.”

“I want to see them,” Leonidas told him.

“No. Not really. It would be better if you didn’t,” Alkander told him honestly; but he did not expect to be heeded.

Leonidas roared at him that he had a right to see his wife and children, no matter what state they were in; and Alkander dutifully led him away with a last look at Oliantus, who nodded understanding.

* Leonidas famously married his niece Gorgo, but Gorgo was much younger than Leonidas and they apparently married after Leonidas was more than 30 -- which was against Spartan law. In my biographical novel I therefore hypothesized that Leonidas was married and widowed before his famous marriage to his niece Gorgo.