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Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Boy Leonidas - An Excerpt from "A Boy of the Agoge"

At the start of the month, I described Leonidas childhood and its impact on the man he became. His childhood is the focus of the first book in my Leonidas Trilogy. Below is the opening scene.

The first seven years Leonidas rarely saw either of his parents. In fact, when he was still a toddler it had surprised him to learn that the exalted personages who occasionally swept in and out of his life, surrounded by an elaborate entourage, had anything particular to do with him. He and his twin brother Cleombrotus were fed, clothed, washed, and disciplined by their respective nannies, Dido and Polyxo. These were buxom, sturdy girls with black hair and eyes, and apparently sisters. 

Polyxo and Dido competed as fiercely as mothers with regard to their charges, each claiming to have the fi nest boy. Polyxo had all the obvious advantages because Cleombrotus weighed a pound more than Leonidas at birth and he grew faster. By the time the twins were two, Cleombrotus could knock Leonidas over with relative ease— which he frequently did. Dido, however, insisted that her little charge was nevertheless the better of the brothers because while Cleombrotus had brute force, Leonidas had tenacity and cunning. He might get knocked down, but he did not let that defeat him. Quite the contrary, he would at once seek to drag his brother down on top of him. He did not always succeed; but like a good hunting dog, once he had hold of his prey he could not be shaken off easily. 

Polyxo and Dido had once rushed after the sound of high-pitched screaming to find Cleombrotus trying to run down a long flight of stairs to escape Leonidas. But Leonidas clung to his leg so fi fiercely that he tripped his brother. They both fell all the way down the marble stairs, Leonidas still clinging grimly to Cleombrotus’ leg, to land at the scandalized feet of their mother, Taygete. 

Taygete was a regal personage. She was tall and slender, and despite her 50 years of age, she was as straight as a battle spear. Her hair, pulled back behind a diadem of ivory, was the color of iron. And so were her eyes. Leonidas never forgot the way she leveled those merciless grey eyes on him and then lifted her head to demand in an icy voice of Polyxo and Dido: “What in the name of the Dioscuri is going on here? Are these not princes of the Agiad house? I will not have them rolling about in the dirt like helot brats. If you cannot raise your charges in a befitting manner, I will find better nurses for them. The likes of you can be found in any marketplace of any perioikoi town all across Lacedaemon!” 

The girls were terrified—and so was Leonidas. He staggered to his feet, bruised and bleeding, and tried to grab hold of Dido. His mother reached out and yanked him free of the nurse with a single gesture. Taygete’s hands and arms were as hard as her eyes. She had trained at the bow and javelin all her life. Leonidas went flying halfway across the hall to land with an audible thump. Dido gasped in sympathy but did not dare move.

“Have I made myself clear?” Taygete asked the terrified helot girls. 

“Yes, ma’am,” they answered in unison. 

Taygete turned on her heel and departed, her magnifi cent purple silk peplos billowing out behind her. 

Dido came and collected Leonidas into her arms. She was weeping, and he soon found himself comforting her, rather than the other way around. It was then that she tried to explain things to him. 

Taygete, his mother, was the niece and wife of King Anaxandridas, Leonidas’ father. She had been barren for many years after her marriage, and she reached the age of 30 without her womb quickening once. By then King Anaxandridas was in his mid-forties and the ephors and Council of Elders became increasingly concerned. They searched the heavens for a sign, and the stars said that the Agiad King must marry another woman or the Agiad house would die out. So the ephors had demanded that King Anaxandridas put aside his barren wife and take a new bride. 

“Your father,” Dido explained, “being very fond of your mother, flatly refused to do so. He called the suggestion improper and pointed out that his wife was without blame. After much thought and discussion, the ephors and the Council of Elders agreed that the stars had advised only that King Anaxandridas need marry another woman, not that he must divorce his current wife. They decided to make an exception to the law to allow him to take a second wife. Although your father at first resisted this suggestion, after some time he gave in and submitted to the will of the Council and ephors. The ephors then selected a maiden descended directly from the wise Chilon himself. (When you get older and go to the agoge, you’ll hear all about him.) And to your mother’s great dismay, your father not only married her, but bedded her as well. 

“In fact, within a very short period of time, your father’s second wife, who is called Chilonis after her famous ancestor, became pregnant. One year after your father had taken her to wife, she produced a son, your half-brother Cleomenes.” Leonidas thought: oh, no, not another brother! 

Dido continued with the story, “but no sooner had Cleomenes been presented to the ephors and found sound and healthy, than your mother found herself pregnant, although she was nearer to 40 than 30 by this time. There were many people who did not believe her. They thought she was making it all up and would try to deceive the people by putting another woman’s child into her bed and presenting it as her own. So the ephors insisted on being present at the birth -- right in the birthing chamber! “But perhaps it was a good thing after all, because the ephors saw for themselves that there was no deceit, and your mother had indeed produced a fine son. In fact, she presented them with a bigger and healthier son than the boy of the other wife.” 

“What about me?” Leonidas asked, hurt and distressed that even his own Dido would speak only of his bigger, stronger brother. 

“Oh, this was more than ten years before you and Cleombrotus were born!” Dido explained with a little laugh and a hug. “I was speaking of your brother Dorieus.”

Yet another brother! Leonidas thought in despair. 

“After that, your mother felt she had been vindicated of all blame in the affair, and no one ever expected to her to have another child, but ten years after Dorieus was born, she became pregnant again. And at the end of her time, you and Cleombrotus came into the world.” 

“Why don’t I ever see my other brothers?” Leonidas asked, rather hoping that they lived on the far side of the Taygetos, or beyond the Pillars of Herakles, or anywhere where he would never have to encounter them. Cleombrotus was trouble enough. 

“Dorieus is already in the agoge, but he visits his parents on holidays. Cleomenes lives in his mother’s household on the far side of the Eurotas. Your mother will not let him or his mother cross the threshold of this house. When your father wishes to see them, he must go to them.”  

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