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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?