Monday, June 15, 2020
"For Leonidas!" - An Excerpt from "A Heroic King"
At the start of the month I reflected on Leonidas' reign -- and the possibility under Leonidas the helots had enjoyed a period of increasing prosperity and rising expectations. One of the ways in which helots may have been able to improve their status was by serving in Sparta's small but by no means insignificant fleet. Here's what it might have looked like.
When word reached the Spartan fleet at its home base of Gytheon that King Leonidas required a trireme in Corinth, the duty vessel was launched at once. Although this was not the sailing season and merchant vessels kept to the safety of their harbors (if they weren’t pulled up on the beach for repairs and maintenance), triremes were built to take any weather, and the trip along the coastline to Corinth entailed little danger. Because of a heavy east-northeast wind, however, the trireme turned west and set all sail, with the obvious intention of sailing westward around the Peloponnese.
Eurybiades watched it until it was out of sight, and then called his crew together. His crew now numbered two hundred men; for taking Sperchias and Bulis safely to Persia and back, Eurybiades had been rewarded with command of Sparta’s newest trireme, the Minotaur. In fact, he had been charged with overseeing the construction and with recruiting the crew, at Leonidas’ personal orders and expense. Eurybiades had chosen to use the shipyard at Skandia, and the keel had been laid down only six months earlier. The launch had taken place barely a fortnight ago, and the Minotaur had not yet completed her sea trials.
But Eurybiades was an ambitious and impatient man. He had already hired the bulk of his penteconter crew, and many of the other oarsmen were local men from Kythera. He was willing to take a chance. With the wind whipping his long black braids and trying to drag his himation right out of his hands, he put his proposal to the crew collected in a curious group around him.
“King Leonidas requires a trireme in Corinth. The duty vessel has departed, heading west. It will take two days by that route. If we can row through the Malean Straits, we can beat them by as much as a day and be the first ship to respond to the king’s summons.” Eurybiades did not need to say that rowing against the northeasterly gale would be exhausting; even the least experienced among them knew that. He chose not to stress that it would also be extremely dangerous. They would have a mountainous lee shore licking its chops the whole voyage north, and they would also be crossing the Gulf of Argos, the lair of Sparta’s most tenacious foe. While it was not likely that Argive warships would be prowling around at this time of year, they could not exclude the possibility. A prudent man would not suggest this voyage, not with an untried ship and crew.
Eurybiades was not prudent; he was driven by the desire to prove what he could do. It was the kind of competitive instinct that drove other men to athletic feats or to climb mountains or explore the unknown. But Eurybiades also knew that he could achieve nothing with an unwilling or frightened crew. He knew that he had to sweep them up in his own enthusiasm. With his old crew, that would have been no problem. Even now, his helmsman of nearly a decade was asking rhetorically with a deep growl, “Why are we wasting time? Let’s launch the bloody boat.”
But Eurybiades wasn’t worried about the men from his penteconter, nor about the perioikoi deck hands and marines. They would not bear the brunt of the hardships. It was the 170 men who manned the oars who had to be willing to fight a running gale. And more than half these men were helots.
Eurybiades had initially concentrated his recruiting on Kythera, talking to the sons of fishermen, men often too poor (after surrendering half their catch to their masters) to support a family. But he had not found nearly enough men to man a trireme, so the remaining oar-banks had been filled with country lads who streamed down to Boiai, where he put in with a ship still smelling like a lumberyard and nearly one hundred vacancies at the oars.
Eurybiades focused on Hierox, his bosun or rowing master, the keleustes. Hierox was a burly man with a full black beard that looked permanently salt-soaked. He too was a Kytheran, a perioikoi who had kicked around on foreign ships for half a lifetime before attaching himself to Eurybiades like a barnacle. They had been inseparable ever since, a team that could make even a half-rotten penteconter a dangerous pirate with the help of marines like Prokles.
To this man had fallen the main responsibility for sorting the wheat from the chaff as the country bumpkins, still stinking of the barnyard and literally unable to tell stem from stern, streamed in looking for a berth. To him had fallen the even more difficult task of trying to make seamen of these farm lads. Eurybiades knew that this man would sail into Hades itself with him―but only if he thought the crew was up to it. Eurybiades found himself regretting his own impulsiveness. He should have consulted Hierox first.
Hierox seemed to be thinking the proposition through carefully. He looked up, sniffed the wind, and squinted at the breakers, which were rolling into the bay in stately rows to dissolve with a roar and hiss on the long beach. Then at last he asked dubiously, “What happens once we reach Corinth?”
Eurybiades understood his concerns. Taking such a green crew on this voyage was only half the danger. The other risk was that these eager farm lads, who had never before set foot outside their villages, would find themselves overwhelmed by the charms of a city like Corinth. They might desert (or get kidnapped by unscrupulous foreign captains) and leave the Minotaur short-handed in a foreign port.
“King Leonidas will board almost straight away and we will take him to his next destination, wherever that might be,” Eurybiades answered. He opened his mouth to add that there would be no shore leave, but he didn’t get the words out.
From the crowd of men standing in the blustering wind, a young voice asked, “The king himself will sail with us? King Leonidas?”
“Yes,” Eurybiades confirmed, “so there’ll be no―”
“Then let’s go!” the voice called eagerly.
To Eurybiades’ and Hierox’s surprise, this suggestion was met with a cheer and the shout, “For Leonidas!”