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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A Spartan in Athens

In the excerpts below, Leonidas is in Athens for the first time and finds himself trying to explain Sparta. In the first he is attending a symposium at the home of a wealthy Athenian and is approached by a hetaera.

Leonidas laughed but retorted, “It is a long story. Do your master’s bidding with someone else.” 

Several others at once started clamoring for her to come to them, and Therapne shrugged and turned to smile at them; but Kallixenos said for all to hear, “You are a fool or a coward, Leonidas. You could have enjoyed her first and then told her she was barking up the wrong tree. What true man turns away pleasure like that when it comes crawling to him!” 

“What is the pleasure in being another man’s pawn?” 

“Don’t be so puritanical! What pleasure is more basic or universal than sexual satisfaction?” Kallixenos challenged him. 

“Satisfaction of the loins is animal, while the joys of love cannot be purchased.” 

Kallixenos looked at him, uncomprehending; but Therapne spun around and, clapping her hands slowly, declared: “And the lion has claws! Well said, Leonidas!” She went toward him again, her hips swaying provocatively and her eyes fixed on him. “But tell me, if you scorn the pleasure I offer you, where do you take your pleasure? Have you a mistress to whom you have sworn fidelity? Or is there some boy who has turned your head?” Her lips curled in a sneer and her eyes fell contemptuously on the little boy, who sat naked on his lover’s couch, blushing bright red with natural shame. 

“Mine is the pleasure of the sun breaking over Taygetos after a long, chilly night on watch; the pleasure of diving into the cool waters of the Eurotas after a morning in the dust and sweat of the drill fields; the taste of my helot’s apple tarts; or the sight of my dog, bursting with pride, when she brings me a stolen duck.” 

Kallixenos broke out laughing. “You are going to give your countrymen a reputation for garrulousness with answers like that.” 

Leonidas looked down, embarrassed and ashamed of himself. He had indeed said too much. Therapne reached out and stroked his thigh, smiling at him. “Are you sure?” 

“You can see for yourself you have aroused me, but I still prefer Beggar with her stolen duck,” Leonidas retorted stubbornly, lifting his chin and staring her in the eye. His loins were full to bursting, and he was acutely aware of wasting his youth as a bachelor, but his obstinate streak had taken over. He was full of sexual energy and resented the fact that he had no place to expend it in his current lifestyle, but he hated even more the feeling of being manipulated. These Athenians wanted to see him turned into a mere animal, panting and gasping in his desperation to satisfy the hunger of his loins. 

The Athenians protested that he had no right to insult such a magnificent example of womanhood, while the hetaera stared down at Leonidas with narrowed eyes, now full of hatred because she felt insulted. “I came here to make a friend, but you have made an enemy. Are you so certain that was in your city’s interests?” 

“I am certain that my city cannot be bought any more than I can. If Sparta fights the Persians, it will be in her own interests and not those of Athens or your master.” 

In this second excerpt, Leonidas speaks with a Corinthian youth, whose life he saved from a wild boar a few years earlier. They are together in Athens and becoming friends.

"You see what a favor you did me that day by Acrocorinth?” Lychos pressed Leonidas. The latter shook his head. “I was on my way to becoming just like Kallixenos. Indeed, I admired him and tried to imitate him. I looked up to him so much that I allowed him to be my lover, when I was younger—a sporadic affair that lasted almost until I was sixteen. I was still under his spell when the boar got me.” Leonidas stirred uneasily, and Lychos looked over at him. “Did you never have a lover? A man you let use your body any way he pleased because you thought he was the most wonderful thing in the world?” 

Leonidas sensed it was almost rude to tell the truth, but he was poor at lying. “No. Sparta is different.” 

“So everyone says,” Lychos agreed, staring at the stars. “One day maybe I will be able to visit there.” 

“You are welcome any time. You can stay at my kleros, and although our cooking is not so sophisticated as here, my housekeeper is an excellent cook.” 

“I love simple food. When sailing, we usually catch fish during the day and grill it at night over an open fire. It is better that way than in any sauce or fancy crust.” They both reflected on this for a moment, and then Lychos continued, “You aren’t married yet, are you?” 

That was a sore subject, particularly since Brotus had married for a second time before heading for Olympia. Leonidas shrugged and answered, “No more than you.” 

“My father has arranged it,” Lychos admitted, not looking at Leonidas. “Most Corinthians don’t marry until they are in their thirties, but he is afraid I won’t live that long and is desperate for an heir. The wedding was to take place after the Games, but we postponed it when you accepted our invitation.” 

Leonidas at once felt guilty. “I’m sorry to have disrupted your plans. Why didn’t you say something? We could—” 

“I don’t mind the postponement,” Lychos assured him. “I wouldn’t mind waiting for years. I’d rather not marry at all.” 

Leonidas didn’t understand. “Why?”

Lychos shrugged, clutched his knees, and looked at the stars. “Don’t you like your bride?” Leonidas ventured. 

Lychos shrugged again. “I’ve only met her once. At the betrothal. She seems nice … It must have been terrible for her when she learned her father was giving her to a cripple.” 

Leonidas thought about that a moment, impressed that Lychos could see things from the girl’s perspective, but he still couldn’t understand Lychos’ reluctance to marry. “But?” 

“It seems like a lot of responsibility,” Lychos admitted. “I’ll be responsible not just for her well-being but for her reputation and her happiness.” 

“I don’t think Kallixenos sees marriage that way,” Leonidas remarked dryly, his disapproval obvious. 

“No,” Lychos agreed. “But I don’t want to be like him. Why aren’t you married?” Lychos asked. 

“I’m still on active service and have to live in barracks,” Leonidas answered, hoping Lychos had not heard that many Spartiates married anyway. 

“That sounds horrible,” Lychos admitted candidly. 

Leonidas thought about it. “You’ll laugh, but in a way it makes me enjoy the rest of life more.” 

Lychos laughed, but remarked, “Now, perhaps, you understand about my pain! It is horrible, but it reminds me that I am alive. And without it, if I were dead, I would not be sitting on this warm deck with a cooling breeze and my first real friend beside me.”

... they were comfortably silent together until Lychos remarked, “When Kallixenos was my lover, he often hurt me. He knew he was doing it, yet he did it intentionally—just to see how far he could go, to test just how great my love for him was.” 

“Then Kallixenos is more than an ass, he is a bastard.” 

“He will be a very powerful bastard,” Lychos reflected. “He is the kind of man who would be a tyrant if he could be.” 

“You know that the sexual misuse of a child, male or female, is against our laws, don’t you?” Leonidas asked. 

“And do all Spartans live by your laws?” 

“Of course not. There are as many cruel and selfish men in Sparta as anywhere; but at least they have to do it in secret and fear the scorn of their neighbors and officers if they are discovered. If a child’s parents find out, for example, they can demand terrible punishment.” 

Lychos thought about that and nodded. “You know, it sometimes seems as if you Spartans live your whole lives in fear of your neighbors and officers. You have so little chance to be yourselves, for better or for worse. You must all wear the same clothes. You even have to wear your hair and beards the same way! And you must behave in set ways and follow the same profession.” 

Leonidas thought about this carefully, because there had been times when he had resented all these things; but he asked back, “Is it really all that different in Corinth and Athens? Don’t potters’ sons become potters and tickers’ sons tinkers? And it seems to me the dictates of fashion are as stringent as our traditions.

“On the whole, yes, but there is no compulsion about it. I think what horrifies outsiders about Sparta is that it is all enforced by law and custom and is so, well, brutal.” 

But it was Kallixenos who hurt you,” Leonidas pointed out. “And Spartans aren’t really all the same. In fact, the reasoning behind us all having a kleros of the same size and all dressing in the same manner is that then the real differences—those of character rather than mere wealth or station—are more evident. On the surface, Kallixenos is a well-educated, well-mannered young man. I imagine that his good clothes and good looks deceive many about his true nature.”

“Yes,” Lychos admitted; “but so do your clothes and looks deceive, Leonidas. When we see you, muscular and tanned and standing straight as a spear, we see only a stupid Spartan hoplite, but you are far more subtle and complex than you appear to be.” 

“I suppose we all are,” Leonidas concluded. They left it at that and drifted off to sleep

The Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:


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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

A Spartan Arranged Marriage?

 In my last entry I discussed Spartan sexuality and its impact on sexual relations and marriage. One of the most famous marriages in Spartan history was the marriage of King Leonidas to his niece Gorgo.  She was the daughter of his half-brother Cleomenes and it is usually assumed that the marriage was purely political and dynastic. Yet given what we know about Sparta -- and Gorgo -- I think we can assume she had something to say about it. In A Peerless Peer I speculated a little. Join me in eavesdropping on a conversation between Leonidas and Gorgo.

Leonidas looked over at [Gorgo], but she was looking down self-consciously at her hands. “Just when did you come up with this idea that I should marry you?”

She shrugged a little awkwardly. “It just sort of evolved … You know, when girls reach a certain age, they start looking at boys and speculating about which ones might make good husbands. We’re expected and encouraged to do that. And, well, I looked just like the others did, but the boys all seemed so …” she shrugged and then admitted, “scrawny and silly and oversexed. I realized I wanted someone like you, so I looked at the older men. But most of them were already married, and there was none I liked as much as you. It dawned on me that I didn’t want someone like you, I wanted you.” 

Leonidas looked at her skeptically. “You carried me home on your shoulders when I was lost, remember? You let me ride your colts so I could win races. You put your arm around me and made me feel wanted when everyone else ignored me. And best of all, you never seemed to notice that I wasn’t pretty.” She looked down as she said this, ashamed to meet his eyes, because tears were forming. 

“Because you are pretty, Gorgo. You are one of the prettiest girls in Lacedaemon. Who told you otherwise?” 

“My mirror, for a start!” Gorgo told him sharply, looking up to see if he was mocking or pitying her. He met her gaze and she found herself adding practically, “No one ever picks me to welcome home returning heroes or Olympic victors!” 

“Weren’t you waiting for me when I came back from Corinth?” 

“I cheated and rode ahead of the official welcoming event. Surely you noticed?” 

Leonidas laughed and put his arm over her shoulder, drawing her to him. “At the time, I thought nothing of it. You were always a bit wild and self-willed.” 

“Is that very bad?” 

“No,” Leonidas told her simply. “When did you decide to force the issue by going to the ephors?” 

Gorgo looked up at him uncertainly. His arm felt wonderful around her, and he seemed anything but hostile, and yet he was hardly acting like a lover, either. Just like her favorite uncle. “Well, my father started teasing me about who he was going to marry me to. One day it would be one tyrant, and the next day another. It was just a game to him. He liked to see me get angry and indignant. He liked to frighten me.”

“I had no idea.” Leonidas sounded upset—and that suggested a depth of sympathy Gorgo had not expected from any man. 

“Grandma says I provoked it. She says I shouldn’t have humiliated him in front of Aristagoras the way I did. Our relationship hasn’t been the same since. In the last few years we fought a lot, and I often accused him of being fickle and ineffective. He drives me crazy with his cynicism and plotting.” Leonidas snorted, because he agreed entirely. Gorgo continued, “But I suppose I shouldn’t tell him what I think of him as bluntly as I do. If I were him, I wouldn’t want me as a daughter, either,” she concluded honestly, making Leonidas laugh and hold her more firmly. She looked up at him uncertainly. 

“Go on. When did you decide to go to the ephors?” 

“After a particularly ugly scene with my father, when he said he had already sent word to Aristagoras offering me to him. Oh, Leo! If you knew the way that man looked at me! With hate in his eyes! He hated me just for being a girl and for hearing him plead with my father and then for speaking out. The thought of being married to him was unbearable! “Of course,” Gorgo admitted in a calmer tone, “I should have known Aristagoras would never agree to the marriage, since he despised me; but at the time, I was so upset I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned all night, trying to think what I could do. I knew I had to tell someone who could stop my father. But who had that power? My father doesn’t listen to anyone anymore, not even Grandma or Nikostratos. Then I thought of the ephors, and I realized they were the only people in all Lacedaemon who had the power to prevent my father from doing anything. I thought if they could force your father to have two wives, surely they could stop mine from giving me away to a foreigner. 

“But I foresaw that they might ask who I wanted instead. And I thought, why not tell them the truth? Why not name you, since you were free to marry? Uncle Leo! Don’t be angry with me anymore. Please! I know now that it was stupid of me. Grandma explained to me how stupid it was—how I put you in an impossible situation by naming you. But I didn’t mean to pressure you. Please don’t be angry.” She looked up at him and tears spilled out of her eyes, the emotional strain of the whole situation too much for her. 

Leonidas reached up his free hand and wiped her tears away. “How can I be angry at you for using your brains to serve your heart?” He paused to reflect on what he had just said, and then added, “As I said to Hilaira not so long ago, you are by far the cleverer of the two of us; and if you honestly think that being married to me would be a good thing, then who am I to disagree?” She swallowed and waited for the “but.” Instead, Leonidas continued, “So I’ve decided we should get married.” 

Gorgo started. “Just like that? But what do you want? I mean, why have you refused for the last month?” 

“Stubbornness. Ask anyone. It is my greatest weakness.” 

Gorgo frowned. Leonidas was infamous for being stubborn—or tenacious, if one wanted to word it more positively. “But what do you want?” Gorgo insisted. 

“That’s just it, Gorgo. I want to be married and start a family; and when I started thinking about all the young maidens down there,” he nodded in the vague direction of the city, “the bold ones flirting and preening and the shy ones blushing and awkward, I just couldn’t imagine being married to any of them. Hilaira has tried to interest me in one or another of them often enough, poor thing. But when I thought about being married to you, I realized it would be the simplest thing in the world.”

Gorgo looked at him, unsure if that was a compliment or not. “But you know that in addition to being stubborn to a fault, I am notorious for being law-abiding. I will not break the law, even for you.” 

“But what law? Your father married his niece—” Gorgo started to protest at once, and Leonidas held up his hand to silence her. 

“Lycurgus’ laws say it is illegal to marry a girl too young to enjoy sex.” Leonidas looked her straight in the eye. 

Although she blushed slightly, she met his gaze and said very steadily and deliberately, “You will not be breaking the law if you take me to wife.”

An Excerpt from:

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Danger of Messenian Myths

We cannot know when the legends about the Messenian hero Aristomenes started. Many may have be invented only after the restoration of Messenian independence. Yet it is also quite probable that at least some myths dated back to the Messenian War(s) themselves and circulated as folk history among the Messenian helots. These stories of a glorious past and an immortal hero could well have contributed to simmering Messenian resentment of Spartan rule.
Based on this speculation, I included the following scene in "A Heroic King." In this scene, on the feast of the Dioskouria (honoring Castor and Polydeukes) the sons of a Spartan citizen and his helot mistress are sitting together.

Pelops sat astride one of the benches his uncle's men had made earlier in the day and explained to his wide-eyed younger brother Kinadon, "...and it was on a night just like this that Aristomenes and a companion slipped across Taygetos from Messenia. They were dressed all in white with golden headbands with bright stars on them, and they rode pure white horses!" Pelops narrated. "It was getting dark, just like this, but a moon was rising," he continued, pointing unnecessarily to the far side of the Eurotas. "And the light of the moond made Aristomenes and his companion on their white horses stand out in the darkenss. Aristomenes was tall with long, golden hair," Peplos explained to his awestruck younger brother. "And his companion looked just the same -- like twins, you see?"

"Leonidas doesn't look like Brotus," Kinadon protested.

"That's different!" Peplos retorted, dismissing the annoying interruption. "The Divine Twins looked so much alike that mortals couldn't tell them apart. And from a distance, Aristomenes and his friend looked just the same. When the Spartans saw these two beautiful youths on white horses riding along the side of Taygetos, they thought they were the Divine Twins come back to life!" Pelops started giggling. "The Spartans threw themselves down on their knees, and started worshiping Aristomenes of Messenia as if he were  god! And so he and his companion rode closer and closer, and the Spartans were so dumb they still didn't see through his disguise. So he rode right in among them and then jumped down and started---"

Pelops was cuffed so hard on the back of his head that he nearly fell off the bench. Reeling, he turned to see who had delivered the blow, and came face to face with his father.

"Since when do you tell tales of Aristomenes of Messenia?" Temenos demanded. Then, without giving his son a chance to answer, he added, "Aristomenes was a coward! A man who preferred to attack unarmed women and children. A man who attacked by night and in disguise. A man who impersonated Gods and raped priestesses! Where did you learn to admire such a creature? If Pelopidas has been telling such tales--"

"Temenous!" Chryse hissed, coming up beside him. "Not so loud! You're attracting attention. Of course my father didn't tell him about Aristomenes. They hear it from their friends."
"What friends? Laconian helots don't idolize Aristomenes."

"There are plenty of Messenians here -- working as attendants, or in the workshops and stores and factories. Aristomenes appeals to some Laconian helots too --"

"You mean because he fought us?"

"Yes, it's only natural--"

"Natural? Natural to admire a man who kidnapped girls, raped priestesses, and impersonated the Dioskouroi? Why do you think he lost the war despite all his tricks?" he demanded of his sons, but he did not give them a chance to answer. Instead, he declared himself, "Because the God were offended by his impious behavior!"

"Yes, Temenos, " Chryse tried to calm him. "Of course. Come along, boys. It's time to go home."

The boys had long since gotten to their feet, expecting this, and yet something got into Kinadon and he burst out angrily. "Why can't we stay? Why do we have to hide? Everybody knows about us! What more can they do after making you walk around naked with a dead ---" It was his mother who him him to shut him up, but his father's face was enough to make him wish she had killed him. His father hadn't known they knew....

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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Understanding Gorgo - "...only Spartan women give birth to sons."

If "with it or upon it" is the most famous quote attributed to Spartan women, the claim that only Spartan women "gave birth to men" is the second most famous. It is also materially different from the anonymous and vague versions of the "with-it-or-upon-it" quote.  First, it is specifically attributed to a real historical character (Queen Gorgo, the wife of King Leonidas of Thermopylae fame). Second, the context is explicit. According Plutarch, who recorded the sayings, Gorgo was asked by a woman from Athens "why it was that only Spartan women ruled their men." The greater detail and the fact that the exchange almost certainly took place in Athens (since Athenian women could rarely leave their homes much less their cities), increases the credibility of the quote and the probability that it was said -- if not by Gorgo -- by a real Spartan woman.

But what on earth does it mean? I've had many people dismiss the quip as "sheer nonsense." Yet the answer was far more than a witty retort; it was a profound commentary on the differences between Athenian and Spartan society. 
Readers need to keep in mind that at no time in Spartan history was Sparta “ruled” by women. Spartan women were hardly Amazons who scorned men and took to the battlefield themselves.  Spartan women could not vote in the Spartan Assembly, and they could not be elected to office, not the Gerousia, the ephorate, or other lesser positions. Every contemporary of Gorgo knew this, so the question was never meant to suggest Spartan women had political power, but rather that they had influence over their menfolk to an exceptional, indeed “unnatural,” degree.

As Gorgo’s answer likewise illuminates, Spartan women did not live separate, lesbian lives, disconnected and divorced from their male relations and focused on themselves.  The image of Spartan women living apart and satisfying their sexuality among themselves is a modern myth, based on the patently false misconception that Spartan males were “far away” “most” of the time.  In fact, ancient wars were short affairs and only conducted during the campaign season, so that Spartan husbands were never gone more than a few months of the year and that very rarely. (Not until the Peloponnesian war did Sparta campaign year after year; throughout the archaic period Sparta was at war only sporadically with many years of peace in between.) Furthermore, the barracks and messes at which Spartan men ate were much closer to the temples, markets and public buildings at which the women congregated than the work-places of most modern (commuting) husbands.

On the contrary, Spartan women viewed their role as completely integral and indeed traditional.  As Gorgo’s reply underscores, a Spartan woman’s principal contribution to society – like that of her Athenian counterpart – was to produce the next generation of (male) citizens.  There was nothing odd, offensive or sinister about respectable women in the ancient world identifying with the role of mother.  The idea that women might have other societal functions other than wives and mothers is a relatively new historical phenomenon and far from accepted in many parts of the world from Afghanistan to Africa.

As Gorgo so brilliantly summarizes the situation, the difference between Spartan women and the women in the rest of the ancient world was not one of a fundamentally different role, but rather a difference in the way men viewed that role.  

Athens was a virulently misogynous society. Its greatest philosophers viewed women as “permanent children” and the doctors attributed everything from stomach illness to asthma in women to a “wandering womb,” for which the best cure was sex (with the woman’s owner/husband of course.) Women could not inherit property, nor indeed control more money than was needed to purchase a bushel of grain. They were largely uneducated and almost all were illiterate, so it is hardly surprising that their educated, usually significantly older husbands considered them congenitally stupid. The discrepancy between the education and maturity of husbands and illiteracy and tender age of wives was aggravated by the fact that female children were fed less nutritious food in smaller quantities than their brothers.  They were also denied fresh air and any kind of exercise. The result was females stunted both physically and mentally, married as soon as they became sexually mature, and usually dead by the age of 30 or 35. In short, Athens' laws and customs condemned women to ignorance, stunted grown and an early grave – assuming they were allowed to live at all.

There is little doubt that in Athens far more female infants were exposed than males. As it was aptly put in an Athenian law case, even a poor man would raise a son, while even a rich man would expose a daughter. The archaeological evidence supports the historical record; Athens suffered from a severe demographic imbalance in favor of males, something that is most similar to sex ratios in China and India where the systematic murder of female infants (either as embryos through abortion or after birth through exposure or neglect) is still widespread.

Sparta did not suffer either from the misogyny that created the imbalance in the population or from the consequences. Furthermore, Spartan girls received the same food as their brothers, attended the same school as their brothers until puberty, receiving thereby not only the same level of education but the opportunity to exercise in the fresh air. Spartan law also prohibited the marriage of girls "before they were old enough to enjoy sex," yet encouraged men to marry before the age of thirty ensuring that there was a far smaller age difference between the partners in Spartan marriage than in Athenian ones.

Returning to Gorgo's retort, her wit was razor sharp in noting that it was Spartan society as a whole, but particularly the men who had created the Spartan constitution, that had enabled women to enjoy the freedoms they did. This is how I put this exchange n context in Book III of the Leonidas Trilogy, Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King:

Eukoline shoved her veil off her head and turned on Gorgo to ask in a tone that mixed disapproval with amazement, “Why are you Spartan women the only ones who rule your men?” She did not mean it as a compliment.

“Because we are the only women who give birth to men!” Gorgo snapped back.

“As if I hadn’t given birth to two sons?” Eukoline retorted indignantly. “Athens has five times the number of citizens Sparta has!” she added proudly.

“Athens has 40,000 males who think that making clever speeches is the pinnacle of manliness.” All Gorgo’s pent-up anger at what she had seen since her arrival [in Athens] boiled over. “That’s why they are afraid to educate their daughters and keep their women in the dark ― physically and mentally!” Gorgo could not resist adding, “Sparta’s men prove their manhood with their spears and need not dismiss good advice just because it comes from the mouths of women!”

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Monday, October 15, 2018

Scorned Honors - An Excerpt from "The Olympic Charioteer"

In this excerpt from The Olympic Charioteer, the Tegean aristocrat and horse-breeder, Antyllus, announces to his slave Philip that the latter is to have the honor of driving his team at the next Olympics. Philip is a comparatively new purchase, a quarry slave who was in very poor condition when Antyllus acquired him.  He has displayed an astonishing aptitude for handling horses, however, due to his barbarian background -- or so Antyllus thinks.


“You don’t expect me to drive this team in competition, do you?” Philip asked.

“Of course. What do you think we’ve been training for?”

Philip did not have a ready answer to that, but after a moment he said, “We’re training your team for the Olympics, but you’ll hire a driver for the competition.”

“Why should I have a hired driver, when I can have you?”

“Because I won’t drive your team at Olympia.” The insolence was back in his voice for the first time in months ― for the first time since he’d started training.

“What’s the matter with you?” Antyllus stared at Philip, flabbergasted. It was not his tone of voice alone that astonished Antyllus, but that the gifted driver would refuse the most coveted athletic prize ― a chance to compete at Olympia.

“I won’t drive your team at Olympia or in any competition,” Philip insisted stubbornly.

“I’m offering you an honor that no Greek would dream of turning down! Do you know how many young men throughout Hellas dream of nothing else but an opportunity like this? It is an honor, Philip!”

“I know it’s an honor.”

“Then what is it?” Antyllus was getting exasperated.

“I can’t.” Philip declared definitively.

“Of course you can!” Antyllus countered. He had never imagined that this insolent, self-assured young man would have self-doubts. It seemed utterly out of character, and he tried to reassure him. “We have a good eight months to strain still. By the time you go to Olympia, you’ll be the finest driver in all Hellas!”

Philip’s lips twitched. “Maybe, but that doesn’t change things.”

“Have you gone mad? I’m offering you the chance to drive in an Olympic event! By all the Gods, I’m offering you more than that! I’m offering you the chance to win an Olympic event. Not even the Gods would turn down such a chance!”

“The victory in equestrian events goes to the owner, not the rider or driver,” Philip observed dryly.

“So what? You’re the one who’ll have the thrill of the race itself.” Antyllus told him, suddenly aware of how much he envied the young man. “You’re the one who will see the finish line ahead of you ― and no other chariot between you and it. You’re the one they’ll cheer.” Antyllus spoke with open envy. “You have no idea what an ecstatic sensation that is ― galloping down the home stretch past thousands of shouting, waving, cheering men with an Olympic victory coming nearer with each thundering hoofbeat!”

“YES I DO!” Philip shouted at him.

Stunned silence. They stared at each other.

Philip was so flushed, he looked as if he’d just run the course on foot. “You were there,” he whispered.


“At the last Olympics.”

“Yes. So what? I lost.”

“Don’t you remember who won?”

“How could I forget! Teleklos, son of Apollonides.”

“Who was driving his team?”

“His son, Ly ― Ly ― Lysander.”


“Yes, that’s right, Lysandridas, who was killed just afterward. That’s why Teleklos lost at the Pythian Games. He had a different driver, I think it was his nephew―”

“Teleklos was at the Pythian Games?” Philip asked, and his face was now drained of blood. The anger and arrogance of just a moment ago were gone so abruptly that Antyllus was beginning to think he had imagined it.

“Yes, as I said, with the same team but a different driver. Lysandridas had got his wish and been selected for the Spartan Guard. He was killed defending his King against our cavalry.”

Philip was shaking his head, his eyes opaque and blind, the color of molten lead under the livid scar.

“What is it?” Antyllus demanded, vaguely alarmed. Things were happening too fast. First, the slave was stubborn and arrogant, then he was angry, now he looked as if he would be sick any second.

“Not killed ― wounded, captured, enslaved.”

Antyllus stared at him. “But ― Sparta ransomed all the captives.”

“No. The families ransomed the captives. My family didn’t.”

“That can’t be.” Antyllus stared at the slave but felt dizzy. He turned and stumbled back toward the house. He could picture the end of that Olympic race all too clearly: his own team trailing by two lengths despite the whip cracking over their heads.  His heart had fallen gently but steadily, with each thundering stride, as he realized it was absolutely hopeless. They were defeated. Fairly and soundly. And then he had been utterly alone as he stood among the cheering crowds gone wild for a charioteer who had scorned 1,000 drachmae for this moment. He remembered, too, the victory celebration: Teleklos pulling his son into the circle of revelers, placing his arm over his shoulders, crowning him with the victor’s wreath, saying, again and again, it was his son’s victory, Lysandridas’ victory, not his own. He remembered Polycritus sneering at the young man with a contemptuous wave at his crown of olives and his ribbons. “They won’t buy you even a pair of sandals when you’re old and crippled. What good is an Olympic victory to the likes of you?”

“It means I’ll stand in front of my king in battle,” Lysandridas had tossed back.

Antyllus walked blindly across the slaves’ courtyard, tripping on the cobbles, stumbling over his own feet. The images were clear ― so clear that he could not grasp how he had failed to recognize him despite his scars.  Then again, Antyllus pictured the slave he had purchased, his head shaved, his body wasted away to practically nothing. He had nothing in common with the Olympic charioteer in peak physical condition. He had been magnificent. There had not been a scar on his body anywhere. Certainly not the ugly scars marring his forehead or mutilating his thigh.

Trampled! He had been trampled! When the Tegean cavalry broke the Spartan phalanx, they had trampled down half the Spartan Guard. The Guard had flung themselves forward against the horses to give their King a chance to escape! They had killed Phaedolos. They had stabbed him eight times.

And Lysandridas’ father had not ransomed him.  No wonder Lysandridas had tried to kill himself! But how could his father have left the son who had given him an Olympic victory in slavery? Antyllus couldn’t grasp it. He couldn’t imagine it. How could any father let a son ― no matter how disobedient or apparently worthless ― languish in slavery?

Saturday, September 15, 2018

A Fateful Assembly – An Excerpt from “A Heroic King”

As I noted at the start of this month, the Spartan Assembly was far from docile or powerless. Here’s a fictional account of what a Spartan Assembly might have been like.

Polymedes called for order. The paean was sung, the sacrifice made, a priest read the entrails and declared all was in order: the Assembly could proceed.

Polymedes cleared his throat. “King Cleomenes died without a direct male heir. Since women cannot inherit, the Agiad throne passes by right to Cleomenes’ closest male relative, his eldest half-brother on his father’s side ―”

A cheer went up from Brotus’ faction, dissolving into a chant of “Brotus!”

Brotus, with a look of triumph in Leonidas’ direction, started toward to join the Council.

Polymedes raised his hand and shouted, “Wait!”

Although Polymedes could hardly be heard above the enthusiastic cheers of Brotus’ friends, his gesture was unmistakable.  Meanwhile, from the back of the Assembly, a counter-chant of “Vote! Vote! We demand a Vote!” went up.

Brotus turned to his followers and gestured for them to calm down. “We will, of course, await the vote of this sacred Assembly. According to the law, the Assembly has the final say!” He said this pointedly to Leonidas.

“Of course,” Leonidas agreed, speaking to be heard even to the outer fringes of the crowd. “The Assembly’s vote is final ― which is why the proposal needs to be debated. The Council has ruled that no woman can be king of Sparta and that my brother Cleomenes should be followed by his closest male relative. The question is who that is.”

“The Council ruled that it was his eldest half-brother,” Brotus corrected smugly.

“But who is that?” Alkander asked, looking ― to Leonidas’ bafflement ― no less smug than Brotus.

“I demand to hear the testimony of the wet nurse!” Euryleon shouted.

“Wet nurse?” Brotus looked around, bewildered.

“Your wet nurse.” Euryleon faced Brotus, looking him straight in the eye, confronting him defiantly with obvious pleasure.

“If you’ve dredged up Dido out of a slum someplace to lie on Leo’s behalf, don’t think it will work!” Brotus flung his remark at Leo to show his utter contempt for Euryleon. To the rest of the Assembly, he announced. “Dido was Leonidas’ wet nurse. Of course, she’ll lie for him. Her word is worthless.”

“And Polyxo?” Euryleon asked with obvious amusement.

“She nursed me. She knows the truth!” Brotus confirmed.

Euryleon turned and beckoned to Aristodemos and Eurytus. The two meleirenes had been standing in the doorway to the Temple of Athena of Counsel as if on guard duty. Now, however, they disappeared inside the temple to re-emerge on either side of a fat, frightened helot woman.  Leonidas would not have recognized her as Brotus’ nurse.  Her round face was flabby, her white hair thin. Her eyes, half lost in the folds of skin around them, darted nervously without fixing on anything, while her shallow, gasping breath was audible.

The woman was brought to the front of the Canopy, while the men at the back craned their necks to get a look at her and one asked another what was going on.  Polymedes asked her name, her patronymic, her profession, and then if she had anything to say that was relevant to the debate. “I ― I ―” she started in a breathy voice no one could hear and Polymede ordered her to speak up.

“I was there ― at the birth of the twins!” she squealed in a high-pitched voice that now reached the back of the crowd.

“Tell us what happened,” Polymedes urged.

“I was standing beside the midwife. The queen was having a terrible time and the first baby, when it came, seemed lifeless. The midwife cut the cord in haste and handed it to me because she could see the second baby was already on the way. I thought the first baby was dead, so I handed it off to my cousin Dido in order to help with the second baby. The second baby was much bigger and stronger than the first, and he screamed lustily when we cut the cord. I put him to my breast at once and cherished him like he was my own little boy.” Tears were by now streaming down her face. Although her account was by no means audible at the back, it was very audible to the Council, the ephors, and those in the front rows, including Brotus and Leonidas.

Brotus leaped forward as if he would strike the old woman, roaring out: “Traitor! Liar! Filthy helot slut!”

Leonidas only stared at the woman, stunned. Then he looked from Alkander to Euryleon and back to Polyxo. The old woman was blubbering, holding out her hands to Brotus, and calling him by his baby names. “My little puppy! My baby bull! I loved you! I loved you!” she wailed.

“I'll kill you!” Brotus screamed and had to be held back by his own supporters.

Polymedes was calling for order, while the gist of Polyxo’s message was relayed to the back of the Assembly from those in front. When the citizens at the back realized what Polyxo had said, the commotion in the Canopy grew louder and louder. Leonidas couldn’t hear what was being said by everyone, but the exclamations sounded more amazed than outraged. Here and there someone whooped as if in triumph. That would be one of the young men, most likely one of last year’s eirenes; they had become his staunchest admirers.

Meanwhile, the smooth Talthybiades was asking for the floor. Polymedes demanded order, and eventually, an uneasy, anticipatory silence spread across the floor of the Canopy. He nodded to Talthybiades.

“The testimony of this woman, who claims to be Cleombrotus’ wet nurse, is very dramatic. My compliments to my fellow citizens,” Talthybiades bowed to Alkander and Euryleon with a supercilious smile on his thin lips, “for dredging her up and for ― shall we say? ― persuading her to tell such a ― how should I word it? ― plausible but transparently partisan tale.”

There were grunts and nods of assent from Brotus’ faction, but farther away a young man shouted: “Just because it doesn’t suit you, Talthybiades, doesn’t make it false!” This remark also won an audible share of approving comments.

Talthybiades ignored them and continued in his precise, magistrate's voice, “Has Leonidas no credible witness to bring forward? Does no one other than a Kytheran whore and a blubbering helot woman speak on his behalf?”

“Do you consider me a credible witness, Talthybiads?” The question came from Epidydes, the youngest councilman and former headmaster.

Talthybiades was genuinely astonished by the question. He agreed instantly, “No one could doubt your credibility and integrity, Epidydes ― but with all due respect, you were not in the birthing chamber when the Agiad twins were born.”

“No, but I was present when King Anaxandridas brought his twin sons to the agoge for enrollment.” Epidydes got to his feet and moved front and center. Polymedes instantly and instinctively took a step back to make way for him.

Epidydes raised his voice and his eyes swept the crowd.  He had been headmaster of the agoge for more than thirty years, and in that time most of the citizens now assembled had passed through his upbringing. Some, like Leonidas and Brotus, had known no other headmaster and would never be entirely free of their awe of him.  The elder men, in contrast, respected him precisely because they had known his infamous predecessor, while the younger citizens had suffered under his successor and remembered Epidydes with nostalgia.  There could be no question that if one man had influence in this Assembly it was Epidydes.

The silence that gripped the Assembly was correspondingly profound. The sound of some helot workman hammering in the distance could be heard distinctly. A light breeze from the invisible Eurotas was a breath of sweetness among the sweating men. No one dared move or even breathe as they waited for Epidydes to continue.

“King Anaxandridas came to me, flanked by his boys,” Epidydes continued. “Brotus was noticeably bigger and stronger, making him look a year older than Leonidas.” Leonidas remembered that, too, and Brotus was grinning again ― or rather, leering at Leonidas with malicious satisfaction. But the old headmaster wasn’t finished. He added, “Leonidas was on the king’s right.”

The Assembly erupted. Bortus was shouting again, first “Liar!” and then, after Orthryades rebuked him, “It was just chance. Chance! It meant nothing!” Meanwhile, from the back, other men started cheering, calling, and chanting, “Leonidas! Leonidas! Leonidas!”

For the second time this morning, Leonidas was stunned. He could picture the scene from more than thirty years ago as if it were yesterday; his own anxiety, the way the instructors had fawned over Brotus because he was so big and strong, and then the way Epidydes came around his desk to approach him, saying, “Then you must be Leonidas.” But because, at the time, he did not know the significance of standing on the right, he had taken no notice of the fact ― until now.

With a sense of amazement, he realized he had indeed been on his father’s right. And no Spartan king was unaware of the significance of such a position; his father had given him the place of honor.

Polymedes moved for a vote. Brotus was furiously protesting, denying that Leonidas was the firstborn, but the roar of “ayes” for the motion was deafening, and the “nays” came out like embarrassed whimpers form men too tied to Brotus to risk abandoning him despite the evidence.