Ancient History & Civilisation


The King of Sparta

Leuktra had ceased to be an ôthismos aspidôn, a push of shield against shield, since most of the enemy who were not trapped here were either dead or running. The Boiotians were battering with their shields the few stumbling Spartans who were left. Some fell and were stabbed by oncoming ranks, a few tried to join the shrinking circle around Kleombrotos. “Their king is trapped. Drag them away,” rippled out through the Boiotian ranks. Always they were answered with a chorus from the mob rushing forward, “On to Sparta. On to the Peloponnesos.”

For a moment only, both sides of the battlefield paused at the sight of the surrounded Spartan king and his huge Kleonymos barring the way forward. The king’s man was swinging fiercely with spear and shield as he hit Thebans foolish enough to charge alone such a man. A skilled bowman from Phokis tried to bring him down from a distance. His missiles bounced off Kleonymos’s shield and hit more of his own than of Sparta.

Four or five Spartan guardsmen rushed in behind Kleonymos. All raised shields to block the way to the king. In some places Spartans in the ring were nearly back-to-back. A tiny but solid mass was moving backward and for now was unbreakable. Maybe three hundred, maybe four were alive and had not fled, still killing all the Thebans who bounced off their spears. But this last circle was tightening, ever smaller, as it was pounded on all sides. Where was their Lichas? Where his son Antikrates?

It mattered little. Neither of those two talkers, Kleonymos swore to himself, had ever deserved their honor, their timê—not over himself, the best son of Sphodrias. Kleonymos turned and aimed his spear once more at Mêlon. He would spike this apple and finish off the faker for good if he dared to come on again. But a hoplite on his right blocked the Spartan’s lunge. In the blur of bodies, Mêlon, as he would recall in the months to come, was pushed aside by one of his own, and so was not hit again by his attacker Kleonymos. Instead the Spartan pressed forward past him, eager to spear this new bigger target. Only later would Mêlon learn that Kleonymos would have stabbed his thigh, had he not been struck down almost at once by Chiôn—his Chiôn along with at least three retainers of Epaminondas. All their spears hit Kleonymos in the neck and groin. This legend of Sparta had gone down three times already at Leuktra—but always had regained his feet. This time the blows were mortal. The son joined the father Sphodrias in the dirt at the feet of their king.

As Kleonymos tottered, the melee cleared for a bit. Mêlon stared directly at the face of King Kleombrotos. The tall king was not more than five cubits distant. For a blink, he was alone. The royal had the look of a young man—far younger than Mêlon had imagined—even in these glimpses through the nose guard and bronze on his faceplate. This Kleombrotos had not wanted to be king, though the honors and the big house on the acropolis were good enough. His brother Agesilaos had fallen sick at Olynthos. So by accident the lot of the Agiad royal house had fallen to him, the lesser sibling. He was no leader in battle. The partner Eurypontid king, crippled Agesilaos of the lesser line, had shunned him as womanly. Now in his ninth year of kingship, Kleombrotos right here at Leuktra would crush the Boiotians and restore the honor to his Agiads. Or so the reluctant king had thought.

Again, where was his Lichas, the king now fretted, where was young Antikrates to save him? Traitors. Nothing in Kleombrotos had warranted royal rank other than birth and the unlooked-for fall of his elder brother. He was hardly the caliber of Agesilaos, the other king now sitting at home, who was glad when spears came his way, and—so the priestesses of Artemis had promised him—who would live on in his dotage to block Epaminondas from the acropolis of Sparta itself.

The rheuma polemou, the surge of war, gave Mêlon strength for a final burst, strength he had not known even in his youth. His spear was gone, his sword now in his right hand. He aimed his blade right over the edge of the king’s shield with all the power of his good farming arm. His royal victim was frozen—in faith perhaps that his wood of Mt. Taygetos would save him for a bit longer, or that Kleonymos would rise up a fourth time to his defense. Or that Lichas was not dead, but would come down from the air to lift him away.

Fool. Nothing of the sort followed. Mêlon’s thrust just cleared the top curved edge of the shield above the rivets. The sword’s point found Kleombrotos’s mouth. The tip entered between the cheek guards and beneath the bronze bridge over the nose. Mêlon’s arm rammed the blade a good way into the Spartan king’s head, snapping it back. Instinctively he raised his shield to prepare for the swarm of spears from the onrushing guard to follow. It came with no delay. Four or five blows knocked him back into shields of the Thebans to his rear. Too late. Mêlon had killed their king.

“King down. The king is down—Basileus epesen, peptôken hameteros basileus,” the guard called out. “Rally to us, men of Sparta, rally to us!” But there were few men of Sparta now to rally to anyone. Most of the guard were dead or wounded. A few even of the boldest had backed away looking to flee. Now others were trying to draw out of the circle to re-form the army or to prepare some rearguard to save the body of Kleombrotos. Losing their dead king would be worse even than losing this battle. Spartan hoplites such as these could not see their wives or boys again, even if they returned alive to Lakonia, if they did not save the body of Kleombrotos. They would be forever forced to live as spat-upon beggars, the tresantes—the tremblers who had lost their courage and their war and their king and their state.

The dark goddess Mania took hold of Epaminondas, the father of the Spartans’ disaster, and goaded him on toward Kleombrotos. The Boiotian general was enthused with the divine as he now cut in on Mêlon’s left. Boiotians from every direction reached at an arm or a leg of Kleombrotos, who had fallen to one knee and was about to keel over. “To the Kadmeia with him. Drag this dog to Thebes,” they yelled. Chiôn was at the fore. He was dodging spear thrusts to his chest, trying to join his general and help drag Kleombrotos out. In the confusion, the patched armor of Ainias caught Mêlon’s eye. Proxenos also was with Epaminondas, as the best men of Boiotia swarmed the body.

But just then from the retreating Spartans a spear thrust flew right under Mêlon’s jaw. Swoosh. It slammed instead into Chiôn, squarely inside the left upper arm at the shoulder. The blow knocked him off his feet—Chiôn, who thought he had killed nine of the red-capes so far without receiving even a scrape. The slave shuddered and struggled to rise, for the hit had come from someone as strong as himself. For a moment those to his rear froze as the white flame that had blazed a path for them flickered and went out. Then their Chiôn got halfway up, tottered, and fell again, not far from the dead Kleombrotos.

Mêlon tried to make out the blurry figures in the jumbled mass of fighters. Here came a shadow out of the Spartan past, one of the breed left of the type that once had broken the Persian Mardonios at Plataia, and smashed the Argives at Mantineia. The Spartan was splashed with blood, his helmet long since torn off. He cared little whether he wore any armor or none. Bald on top with a forked beard, he looked like a besotted Satyr, but with blood, not wine, his drink. This was Lichas. And he now stalked from the shadows to the fore. He had ranged across the battlefield to find twenty Spartan hoplites in isolated pockets, rallying them to march over to the last stand of the Spartans and save their king. Two braids of his side hair were swinging wildly in the air. As his mouth opened there was not more than a tooth or two in his ugly head. Mêlon thought he was not grimacing—but smiling. Yes, this was Lichas of legend, who had killed his father at Koroneia and ruined his own leg.

Wrinkled almost beyond recognition of being a Spartan hoplite, scarred, and bald, this monster stormed into the final killing, scoffed at the spears tips bobbing in his face, and tried to save his dying lord whom he had ridiculed the last nine years. His huge son Antikrates followed him, eager to outdo the father, and himself prepared to carry out both their corpses, if need be—father and king one on each shoulder. Lichas and his son were frantic. “Save the king! To the camp! All alive back to the camp! Eis to stratopedon. To me, rally to me!” Neither cared anything for the collapse of the Spartan ranks, much less the truth that the day of his parochial state was over. No, it was enough this day that they were Spartans—now in the joy of battle, with their grip on shield and spear, whether that be here in the north or far to the east. Lichas’s last son was with him. Good men lived—even if his other boy, Thôrax, was gasping now for breath, after Chiôn’s spear had torn apart the sinews of his neck behind the ear.

Whether in the heyday of Spartan power or amid its twilight also counted for nothing. He was stalking proudly upright despite his age. If the Spartans were to lose, they would lose in the way of Leônidas and Lysander—and Lichas—killing as they protected their king with all blows to their front. The stabbing in this last battle grew fiercer still. But Lichas laughed as he heard the dying around him in vain begging the Kêres to pass them by, the vultures of death back above Mêlon and Chiôn. The black deities kept their wide distance from Lichas—lest such a man strike even these deathless ones a fatal blow. No, Lichas laughed, even Nyx, queen of her dark brood, fears my smell.

Then, without missing a step, Lichas stepped toward the downed Chiôn’s chest and tried to spear his throat. The wounded slave rolled away as Theban spears covered him. Lichas moved on to finish off others less dangerous. But in that moment the slave stumbled somehow to his feet, bellowing, “Kill the king. Where is Kleombrotos?” Then he fell a third time to the ground, muttering as the battle raged past him.

Lichas whirled to meet a challenger: He slammed his freed spear shaft with an upward flat stroke against the helmet of the onrushing Epaminondas himself. Before Epaminondas could recover from the blow and with his men swarm this killer, Lichas stooped down. With one fluid motion, more a god than human, he picked up his limp king, slung him over his back, and used his body as a shield to batter himself a way out back through what was left of the guard. Antikrates backed away, face to the enemy, as his father headed to camp. He was trying to warn all those Spartans alive to follow his father’s path. “We and our king are the way out. We are the way back. To camp. To the ditch. Eis taphron, phugete pros taphron.” They were aiming at an escape, perhaps back through the shattered circle and on right through the Sacred Band to the open country—slashing as they went. “Turn, Spartans. Turn back. Draw back from these stinking pigs. Apostrepesthe tôn suôn. They will not have our Kleombrotos. No Spartan king for their slop. Not today—not ever.”

There were only two hundred Spartans alive in the circle who broke out with Lichas, as their bald hoplite god roared on, “Not today. Not ever. Not today, not ever—ou sêmera, oupote, ou sêmera, oupote.” They had been abandoned by their allies and were surrounded by the Boiotians. But the Spartan remnants were buoyed by the late appearance of their bloody Ares Lichas. He had always found a path out for them. Now his indomitable son Antikrates was his rearguard. The two would outdo each other for the laurels of battle. Both would clear a way for the rest to get out and home, or so the last of the Spartan hoplites thought.

With Lichas leading, the Spartans remembered their training of the agôgê, and as if awakened from a trance they backpedaled in column. With Lichas, almost magically they wheeled around and plunged ahead through Pelopidas’s men to their rear—who had thought the battle long over. One man, a single god-like Lichas, was worth a lochos, or maybe more still than six hundred mere hoplites, and now he intended to save the best of those still alive for wars yet to come.

Many of the Theban Band in the rear had already begun stripping the bodies. Fools again. Ten or so of them, the best hoplites in Thebes, were impaled by Lichas’s charge. Their ashes would soon send the big houses of the city into mourning for the year to come. Where this foul apparition came from, no one afterward knew. Perhaps some fissure in the earth had spat him back out from Hades below? Survivors claimed he had been on all sides of the battlefield, on and off his horse. That his neck and forearms were a bloody mess made him yell in delight, “The pigs bite us like children. Like children. They sting like wasps, no more.”

Lichas stalked his way through the raining blows of the Thebans to the front of the retreating column. In disgust, with a quick overhand slam he sent his spear into the throat of Saugenes, the high officer of Pelopidas’s Sacred Band who stepped forward to block his passage. Like his dead father at Delion, Saugenes only earned himself another black marble grave stele on the road to Thebes for his trouble. Lichas, even under the weight of his king, was making headway with level Spartan spears at his front and side. Mêlon had bolted back up after ducking his blow, followed the retreating band, and picked up the fallen spear of the king. He tried to cast it in anger for the stabbing of Chiôn, but it was a heavy thing not meant for throwing. Mêlon was aiming at the body of the king, since he thought the limp Kleombrotos might have survived his head wound.

Lichas turned and saw something out of the corner of his eye. He bobbed his head a little. The iron point of Mêlon’s throw only cut through the ear of the Spartan’s bare head before hitting the thigh of the king draped over the shoulders. Lichas’s shredded ear on the side of his unhelmeted head spurted blood. He ignored the scratch. “To the hill, to the hill and form up. A thousand in camp await us there. A thousand others and more live. Across the ditch and on home,” he roared. Kleombrotos was dead, having breathed his last even before Mêlon had thrown his spear. Now it fell from the king’s limp thigh. The bodyguards pressed even closer to Lichas and their slain lord. In moments the Spartans were through the crowd of Thebans. Now they were marching across the bridge over the ditch under a hail of missiles. The Boiotian light-armed ran up to get in their blows, once they had a clear fleeing target.

Antikrates was last. With his massive shield, the son of Lichas brought up the rear. He was pushing the Spartans ahead. He waved his spear this way and that before throwing it at the Boiotians who had slowed in their pursuit. He took up a cleaver now. As his father rushed ahead into the camp, Antikrates turned about and paused, eager to kill one more Boiotian before he too was across the ditch—a sight to encourage his men who watched him cross.

Ismenias, son of Ismenias, the firebrand of the Theban dêmos, had ordered his men not to let them away. “At them. Follow me across.” But Chiôn was now wounded and down. Mêlon, Epaminondas, and Pelopidas were wobbly and stunned. So Ismenias found himself far out in front of the pursuers, riffraff who waited for archers and javelin throwers to come up to pelt the retreating Spartans. Antikrates didn’t wait for the fool Ismenias to reach the bridge over the gully. Now he charged back out to give his swing more power. With a clean cut, Antikrates sent the head of Ismenias flying off and up, his helmet strapped tight, a half yell already out of his mouth: “No escape! Ou phugê!” Antikrates turned once again in scorn and lumbered toward the camp. He crossed. Then the Spartan knocked away the two boards across the ditch and joined his father.

Lichas was already up on the rise of the Spartan camp where more than a thousand Spartan stragglers had found safety. They were forming up the phalanx to greet their rearguard. Lichas laid down his dead king carefully, strutting back and forth, smiling to the defeated Spartans. He was already making order among the mess and confusion of camp. It was better, he thought, that the king was dead, and now the better man, ephor Lichas, could take command and lead home what Kleombrotos had nearly ruined. Lichas commanded rank after rank of his survivors to kneel, shields down on the ground and spears resting on their knees. “Stay fast, my sons of Herakles. Stay fast. By our spear arms we get home. I bring you all home. There are no tresantes here. Not one. Not one of us is a trembler.”

The battle of Leuktra was over. It became legend for the widows at the looms in Thebes and the blind bards in the halls to work over. The larger war to end Sparta itself now began. Hundreds of Boiotian onlookers swarmed the battlefield and began to tear at the bodies of Kleonymos and the corpses of the royal guard. Then back on the killing field Mêlon himself stumbled to the ground, in exhaustion, right where he had toppled Kleombrotos, amid a pile of corpses, bloody capes, sandals, helmets, and entrails. He drifted off, and his eyes closed. He was once again under a better blue sky on his vineyard beneath Helikon, where he saw the good Gorgos of old, and two-armed Chiôn in the vineyard driving in stakes in the rocky ground, calling to him to bring the iron bar to make more holes down the row. Lophis was the overseer of all, barking orders to get the planting done before the great ice storm came from off Helikon. He was happy to linger with Nêto at a pond by the vines, gazing at the dark images of storm clouds piling on Helikon in the growing ripples of the water as Nêto bent over for an icy drink. Wind rustled in the oaks and the scent of cedar came with the breeze from the storm. In the air always was that pipe music, the playing of that goat tune of Epaminondas, or was it Nêto with the reed at her lips and her strain from Thisbê that loosened his limbs, that strain that always came to drive worry and care away?

“Wake up, Thespian, you cannot cross over. Not yet.”

It was the Stymphalian Ainias, the planner of Leuktra, who had sat down next to the son of Malgis. Throughout the entire battle the Arkadian had never been more than two files away in battle, always with Proxenos at his side batting away any thrusts aimed at Mêlon. Now from his wine sack Ainias poured some water into his bloody helmet. Then he beat away the flies that had covered Mêlon’s head and cleaned the wound.

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