Ancient History & Civilisation


The Wages of Battle

Mêlon’s head cleared a bit and the Thisbean music in it abruptly stopped—no more cedar scent in the air, no pond, no Nêto, no Chiôn, no family at work on the slopes of Helikon. The sun of the long day was speeding westward on its home leg toward the mountains. He blurted out to anyone nearby, “Good men. That is all that matters. We had them. Hoplites like Lophis, Chiôn, and Ainias and Epaminondas can do anything—good men, far better than anyone in the king’s army. Good men, that’s all that counts.”

Now Mêlon went on with his ramble, “I paid Lichas back in kind. I think you will find something of his ear, and maybe of the king’s spear as well.” Mêlon vaguely sensed that Ainias was treating his wounds. For an eye blink, he thought it was Lichas back to finish him off—since this Ainias spoke Doric and was a rough-looking sort, a frightful thing to see as well on the battlefield, nearly as ugly a hoplite as Lichas himself. “Thespian. Your spear fell from the dead Kleombrotos, but only after your sword went into his head bone. Few hit a Spartan king. None twice. That spear—it will hang in the temple of Herakles at Thebes. Or perhaps the ekklêsia will vote to send it to Proxenos’s new Boiotian altar at Delphi.”

Ainias was looking more carefully over Mêlon’s head wound, wondering whether the larger tear across his brow should be seared or stitched. “You are the only Boiotian who has ever drawn blood from Lichas. The prophetesses from the south say he is the favorite of their gods. These seers boast that even in his seventh decade that bald head cannot be killed by any Theban—or even perhaps any free man of Hellas. It is not easy to stand up to Spartan men in battle when they believe that the gods favor only the strong, and live and talk inside their chests.”

A growing circle of hoplites neared the dazed and bleeding Mêlon, wishing to walk over the very soil where he had just spilled the blood of the king Kleombrotos. The Thespian’s arms and neck were laced with gashes and scrapes. Ainias, who knew well the nature of mending torn skin and stopping oozing blood, put a cream of honey and animal fat in the deeper gashes. He rubbed olive oil on the bleeding shallow cuts, and wrapped them in linen to keep away the flies and gnats. He counted out loud eleven spear slices. Mêlon’s armor showed another batch of new dents. The blow from Kleonymos to Mêlon’s head had closed an eye. Half his face was unrecognizable. Where, he wondered, was his son?

Mêlon squinted back and at last weakly muttered, “Where is Lophis?” “Where is my Bora? At least go find the spear head at the trophê where the Spartans turned. The king’s guard of young Spartans nearly gored me. We fought from the left, Stymphalian. Just as you said. But their spears over that way were longer and sharper. Lichas was the better man. I know that now. He has a son as well—who is bigger yet. Antikrates is better still. And where is Lophis, where is our Chiôn to deal with these enemies.”

“Wait until we know more. We are sure only that your sword first went into the mouth of Kleombrotos. The king is chewing on it in Hades. His henchman Lichas can thank you for another cut. It made him look even more the dogface than he was. Though he won’t miss an ear since they say Lichas listens to none anyway. You and Chiôn have sent the royal house of Sparta across the Styx. Think of it—the king dead, and with a sword no less, a sword wielded by a farmer on Helikon. Machairion I should call you. But here is what is left of your Bora. We keep it and make a new shaft this spring.”

Ainias held up the huge iron tip with a broken shaft about an arm’s length left. A Tanagran had just found it near Chiôn. Mêlon was coming back for longer moments to his senses, “Where is my Lophis? Is he already at the gulf? Where Chiôn?” But there was no Chiôn to answer him. Mêlon finally began to fathom that his slave had toppled. “Chiôn? Did Lophis bring out his body?”

“Proxenos was near you all the time. That’s his nature. The hard stone in a crisis. He was there right behind you. To steady you; so much for your Nêto’s warnings to him that he too would go down.” Ainias had spied a crowd around Chiôn with shouts that he lived. He also had forgotten that Nêto had warned Proxenos not of Leuktra, but of crossing the Isthmos in its aftermath. “It was Proxenos who saved your brute. Chiôn is warm, but whether he will live, I’m not sure. Your son was with the horse, and our riders routed them easily. No doubt he is far off, in the shadows of Kithairon riding down those who bolted.” Mêlon nodded at news of his son and that Chiôn breathed, thinking that he must have been asleep as Ainias had searched the pile of the dead. He hadn’t really thought that any Spartan could kill Chiôn.

Mêlon was confused as Ainias finished, “Lichas’s spear cut into Chiôn well enough. But his bronze plate warded most of that hard blow away from his heart. The Plataian is sewing on him now, at least the smaller tear he cannot burn. They say he can patch flesh as well as build stones. Though I have healed more than he and I’ll go back there to check on the wound to make sure he has put in enough honey and wool. I don’t like thread. The hot poker is the only way to close a real tear. I brought my doctor box. I’ll need to take the bronze prong and scissors and cut away the bad skin, and pull out the splinters before we melt the wound closed. I may want to bleed him—and purge him too while I’m at it. Or maybe a leech or worm to eat away the rot to come.”

By now, as Mêlon alternately slept and awoke, it was almost dark and the torches were lit. Epaminondas had himself re-formed a tiny phalanx a few hundred yards ahead and his men right in the dark were squared off against Lichas and the Spartan survivors on a nearby hill. But Mêlon’s head seemed caved in. The pounding of the waves roared in his ear. Bodies—he could see them in the twilight—were dragged and piled in heaps. The battlefield was becoming an agora as thousands of Boiotians crisscrossed the carnage. Who was that strange man in the long cloak over there? he thought. He stares here too long. An aged white-haired fellow crossed by, with a lanky, bleary-eyed attendant carrying off a corpse, a mess of a hoplite of forty or so from Thebes. There was a severed arm tied flat to his chest with twine, at least something like that under the flies. Are they afraid the dogs will get it? That must be the work of that Kleonymos, or maybe Antikrates, or so Mêlon thought.

Ainias’s voice now kept Mêlon awake, as he muttered of this trio off in the distance, “There goes dead young Kalliphon, the orator and son of Alkidamas, the greatest speaker of the Hellenes, and the godhead behind the freedom of Messenia, tutor to Epaminondas himself. They all had no business out here. The man was no fighter. You can see from the sad look of the father and their thin slave from the north. That son Kalliphon’s first day in bronze was his last. His father and that sorry shield-carrier of his, they must burn him as they can. Though one is wrinkled and stiff and that other servant of his, a northerner with a half-Hellene tongue, thin and green.”

Was this Alkidamas again? Why did he hear always of the mythical Alkidamas somewhere? Mêlon heard a familiar voice at his back, “You breathe still, my master. But you look dead to me.”


The Messenian girl put a cloak over the cold Mêlon. Now she poured him more warm water from her own pouch and swatted away the blue-black flies. But hadn’t he left her with Proxenos, just last dusk before the battle, with orders to start for home on the morning of the battle? He knew that he was not on the wrong side of the Styx. Or maybe this was Helikon, and he was working in the hot vineyard as his Nêto brought them his afternoon water from the spring above.

But none of this was so. Nêto cried out again, “Lophis is gone. Gone across—do you know?”

Let her babble. His son was safe and on Xiphos. The bright crackling torchlights were leaving Mêlon’s head. The failed agents of death winged away for good now, still screeching as they quit their hovering above. Mêlon fully reentered the world of the living. Or at least he thought he had. But his hearing and sight for a time were no more than half of what they had been, and he was swarmed by these strange shapes and sounds.

More than a thousand enemy dead were piled in heaps on the ground. Four hundred, it would turn out later, were elite Spartan Homoioi. Thousands of Boiotians were walking the fields, more curious to see what Spartan hoplites looked like, when safe and dead, than just eager for booty. Mêlon remembered the Theban cries during battle, “A dead army. A dead poliso.”—Apethane to strateuma, hê polis apethanen. Now he saw that it was no lie. In the torchlight, he made better sense of the mob about him. Some mounted longhairs scoured the battlefield for stragglers. Farmers tended the wounded. Their women were breaking out packs of rations and shooing off a new mob of looters and sightseers who were swarming over even the Boiotian corpses. Yet another heap of helmets, breastplates, shields, greaves, and spears was growing not far away beneath an old oak tree. Near it arose an even larger heap of capes, sandals, and cloaks. Silver coins were piled in the hollow shields.

Most of the dead Boiotians were being carried home by their folk. Pelopidas had posted guards over these piles of loot. Eurybiades the booty-seller and a small army of helpers were already buying plundered armor—paying for it with the very coins his slaves had scavenged from the battlefield. A dead Spartan stared at Mêlon not more than five cubits distant. He was naked, just stripped, and already stiffening. His legs were covered with flies and worse. A spear had gone up under the jaw. Or at least something like that had crushed in half the man’s face. “Cover him,” Mêlon yelled. He had no desire to see any more of the dead. The mangling of the face gave the corpse an eerie frozen look about him, almost a grotesque smile. One hand was extended in the dirt with all of its fingers cut off, except the index, which was pointing right at Mêlon. For a moment he thought the dead man was whispering that he had killed Lophis. But then Mêlon shook himself out of another trance, just as two slaves ran up, grabbed the nude body by the heels, and dragged it over to a long line of Spartan corpses.

Soon most of the plunder would be sold off by the states to pay for an annual festival to the victory goddess Nikê—and for a trophê of their victory at the spot where Kleombrotos had fallen and the enemy had at last turned. Mêlon was finally clear enough to understand that Nêto had, as ordered the previous night, hiked back up to the camp with Proxenos and joined Gorgos. But then somehow she had not gone home to the farm in the morning. Everything after that was a blur.

On her way down the hill, only with luck had she fought off the Boiotians who wanted her wagon for their own wounded. She finished her story to Mêlon with news that they had seen Lophis in the first charge fall—and then nothing more. She was uncomfortable with the crowd that had drawn around Mêlon. They pointed to him as a hemi-god and murmured, “He, that one, killed the king. There he is, the lame Thespian of the prophecy. Right there, the killer of Kleombrotos. The gods do not lie about the mêlon.” Yet even amid the mob, Nêto thought it better that her master hear the end of his son.

She threw back her hood and stumbled on, “I saw Lophis from the hill yonder. He charged at the first trumpet blast, out too far from the rest. A Spartan knocked him off. I saw that much, and then dust rose and there was nothing more. Then Gorgos, our Gorgos ran off below into the field. He said he would fetch him. But no, it seems? He too vanished into the dust and never came back—dead or captured by our enemies or perhaps even turn traitor, I don’t know. It was chaos by then.”

She was weeping and then clear for moments, as she tried to tell her master that either his son was dead or his slave Gorgos was a traitor or martyr—or neither. “More of Lophis I heard than saw, since when I hit the flatland just now, I grabbed two bloody horsemen, wounded men from Orchomenos, one a with broken spear stuck in his mount. They told me that our Lophis had been knocked off with a huge spear, a lance larger than any on the battlefield. Lichas had targeted Lophis, the riders said. In the melee Lichas went after him. They heard Lichas yell: ‘Fetch the armor, Spartans, drag the kill with us. Bring home the armor of Lysander.’ So they told me before they too were beaten back. Right then I went farther with the wagon to pick up Lophis. Instead I found myself here with you and Chiôn. Master, I was swarmed by a mob. They tried to tear me off the wagon. I sliced a few arms and hands to keep Aias free. My new friend, this slave Myron, saved me from the mob. But no Lophis. He’s dead, I fear. But I tried to find him. I tried.”

Mêlon knew no slave named Myron. But the more he told Nêto that Lophis lived, that the Boiotian horse had broken the Spartan cavalry, that Gorgos would carry him out alive as he had once brought the wounded Malgis from Koroneia, the more he suspected that his son was dead—too far ahead of the horsemen, the strange role of Gorgos and his current absence, the glitter of the armor of Lysander, and Lichas, always Lichas. Too many of Nêto’s details proved too true. He sat back down and kept mute. Lichas was alive. Lophis was dead. So the good die and the bad live on.

“I just saw Chiôn!” It was Proxenos who had walked up. As always the architect kept his head while others lost theirs. “First, listen. Chiôn talks. He lies back in the camp of Epaminondas. His left arm will never lift a shield—at least if that wound heals like others I have treated. Nêto, go to Aias. Drive your wagon a bit closer. We will put these two in and then you can get them back up to the farm.”

The wagon was just over a gentle rise, just where Nêto had left it with Myron. The runaway slave had accompanied her from Thespiai in hopes of freedom, and was waiting on the battlefield. Proxenos stammered, but went on, “But I have other bad reports, Mêlon, now that you are back among the living. Your Gorgos is gone, at least if he is the old slave that hoplites saw head to the camp of the Spartans with a body over his shoulder. Worse still it is. Pelopidas reckons that this old man, if it is your Gorgos, probably went willingly to the Spartans. Many in the Sacred Band had seen him cross over to their camp. There is word among the horsemen that he carried off Lophis, and a pathway opened for him amid the rearguard of the Spartans.”

Nêto had walked away and returned with Myron, who had stayed behind with the wagon. He had collected some helmets and breastplates off the dead Spartans, along with a sword or two that was probably Boiotian. What better way to find a new household than to offer himself along with presents? The slave was a rich man’s runaway and worried that he would be flogged, though he had followed Nêto in hopes that any who walked at Holy Leuktra would be freed back home at Thespiai. Nêto bent over to the sitting Mêlon. In front of the small crowd, Nêto nodded to Proxenos. She likewise blurted out that there was more to her story than she first had admitted.

“So I feared what came to pass. I think now we know where Gorgos is. He is the servant of Lichas his true master. They will know him as Kuniskos—‘Puppy’ in the south. Nikôn, the leader of the helot firebrands, sends word to me from the Messenians who once knew of his trickery. And he talked such nonsense on the hill above the fight, as I said. A loyal man-footed helot—so he will serve Sparta once more, if he has not all these years.”

Mêlon was tired of all these speeches. Nêto ignored Mêlon. She went on with more in a shrill voice that replaced her tears. “He didn’t save Lophis. I see that now. And you see, too, that he joined Lichas. I speak true things, always t’alêthê. Over the fire before the battle, he was talking of the good days with Brasidas. The best helot killers were always helots. I can smell his stink, even from here.”

Mêlon stopped her. “Leave it be. Tomorrow, tomorrow. This is all a dream. All a nightmare. I will hear all this when the sun rises. Not now, not any more.”

Ainias grabbed Mêlon’s arms. “Look, your head rings. But don’t listen to your wounds. Gorgos is over there. Maybe it was his work that Lichas has your dead son. Or at least he found his way or wanted to. Maybe Gorgos is dead or maybe breathing, we don’t know. Lophis I fear is gone or will be after they dragged them to their camp. The Spartans, what is left of them, stand at their camp, and with spears ready. There’s at least a thousand or two left ready to march home. The son of Agesilaos, the young Eurypontid Archidamos is almost here with another Spartan army on the coast road. The dregs of Lakonia are on the way here. We must decide tonight to let them all go home or kill them all.”

Mêlon was glad to change the talk. “Then we can kill two royals this season. Finish off the rest who will never see their Eurotas. And then we will rescue Lophis.”

Proxenos looked over at Ainias. “That’s my wish as well. No doubt Epaminondas will soon tell us as much himself. But look at us, Thespian. The Boiotians have gone mad in their victory. The allies are plundering the field. Our army is going home. The battlefield is nothing but shit and flies now. We stopped Sparta today, but we did not end it.”

As they argued, Epaminondas walked up. Before he reached them he threw down his shield. “Ainias and Proxenos. Where is my Thespian? Stand up. All of you. The war goes on.” With that Epaminondas pointed at them in the torchlight. “Our friend Lichas is in command over there. He’s sent us a herald for parley. He wants out of Boiotia. Pelopidas is over there, meeting with his henchmen. All their other big men are dead.”

Proxenos, as always, thought more clearly than most. “Lichas will want free passage for his hoplites to the coast. So the rub is whether we want to lose five hundred hoplites to kill Lichas and maybe a thousand that are alive or not scattered. He has enough men to get across the Isthmos. Or maybe he hopes the young royal Archidamos can do the same coming up from the south to save him. Those Spartan allies who ran away—well, they are scattered in the hills and will rejoin him tomorrow. They have nowhere else to go. If they can all meet up with Agesilaos’s son, the red-capes will easily make it out of here. So let them skulk home instead right now and in shame. Let them go.”

“No, no,” Mêlon pleaded as he got to his feet a third time, limped around, and then slowly sat down again, as the dizziness returned and his head throbbed. If he once had been reluctant to march out to fight, now he was adamant to finish what Epaminondas had started, even though he was in no shape to pick up a shield. Lophis was all that mattered now. But he would have to break through the Spartan camp this very night, and, as a half-dead hoplite, take back his son, dead or alive—or perhaps kill Lichas at parley or go back into battle this evening.

Mêlon had changed, into what he didn’t quite know—just that he was no more the same recluse he once had been on Helikon. If his son were captured, he would take him back. If he were dead, then his life as he knew it on the farm was over, and his vineyards would be a mere respite between the unending campaigning for Epaminondas against the Spartans. Either way he wished to find out this very evening—and do something about it.

“Do not be fooled by such men. The Spartans are hungry now, without food. Trapped here in our country. Surround them. They came here to destroy our democracy. Lichas will be back to finish us off soon. Winning a battle is not the same as winning a war—unless we destroy the army who started it. Remember, the Thessalonians will be here soon as well as our newfound friends. We will have even more spears to deal with them when the word gets out about the victory here at Leuktra. The Hellenes like to pile on the loser.”

“Mêlon is right. We beat them all day, Ainias. Didn’t they lose, or am I possessed?” Epaminondas was talking to tough folk of his own rank who had just killed the king of Sparta. But they were tired. They wanted to enjoy, not second-guess, their victory. Still the Theban went on, “Nothing in war is as dangerous as to wound but not to kill the enemy. Sparta is defeated, but not humiliated.”

“Enough of this idle talk.” Mêlon struggled a bit before Proxenos offered both his hands to pull him up. “They wish to kill Lophis, so be it. I will kill them. Ten for my boy, twenty if I can. Re-form the ranks, such as they are. Tonight all together, one more time, all of us on this long day. We will kill this Lichas, hang his Antikrates up by his feet. If the light is already gone, we can at least muster the troops by our torches. I did not ask to fight this battle. But now that I am here, I finish what we started.”

Proxenos cut in one last time. “With what? You were lame before the battle and are lamer still after. Count us. Most have gone home as we already said. We have no more than a thousand—if that still. Good men all. But not everyone is alive who was this morning. The best are dead or will be. I could build walls for us—but in one year, not one day. There are far more than Antitheos that lie over there. The flies are on them already. My Plataian Lakôn, of our city’s oldest family, has no throat and his nephew Archias with a bashed-in head won’t make it until dawn. The work of Lichas again. Sour Philliadas has done his hard work and taken his bunch back to Tanagra. The men near Kalamos are all gone or dead. No, our Ainias even without his charts and maps is right. Have words with this Lichas and we will let him run in shame out of Boiotia to spread the word of our warcraft.”

Mêlon then gave up as his head beat inside harder and in a quieter voice sighed, “But if the beast limps home, if it crawls away, well then like every wounded lion of your fables, it will lick its wounds to healing. It will come back right here and many of us will die in other battles—some far from Thebes. Lophis knows that, he would tell you the same.” Epaminondas and the rest picked up their arms. With a hundred or so Theban hoplites, the small band of bloodied veterans headed with torches for the nearby hill to parley with the Spartans. There under light Pelopidas and the rest of the phalanx—maybe a thousand or so in armor, it turned out—were squared off against Lichas’s formations.

Only the ditch and some rough thrown-up brush stockade separated the spears of what was left of the two bloodied armies. Mêlon looked around at his men in arms. Ainias and Proxenos were with him, dressed in their full armor. Dozens of guards followed around Epaminondas, all of them covered with the gore of battle. The Boiotarchs had already dismissed the ranks for the night. But Pelopidas’s men had cobbled together enough of an army to guard the Spartan camp through the moonlit darkness. Mêlon had left Nêto with this new fellow Myron, the ungainly slave whose wide neck at least rested on broad shoulders and could help her shoo looters away from the wagon. Myron watched over Chiôn and put him under blankets on straw in the wagon—since he knew this hoplite was not quite dead but might prove a fair sort with a good memory if he lived.

The hound Sturax that followed Gorgos was nowhere to be found. But some of the Thespian slaves who had tagged after Nêto from the assembly to the battlefield had trickled back. They were fighting over the wagon, pilfering food and the good red wine of the farm in between knife jabs from Nêto.

Pelopidas ran up. He had made sure the Spartans stayed on their side of the barrier, and that none of his own men tried to storm their ground until Epaminondas arrived. “This killer Lichas is over there.” Pelopidas pointed to two Spartan hoplites with torches and a raised spear. Both were now walking down from the camp and across the broad trench on a wobbly tree limb. “For a moment I saw his bald head.”

Epaminondas then gave orders. “Ainias and Proxenos and you, Mêlon, you who killed Kleombrotos, will all come with Pelopidas and me. We speak for Thebes and the Boiotian towns around it. Keep your chin straps on, hands on your spears. Lichas should know that a man like Ainias from the Peloponnesos is with us as well. I would have liked to have Chiôn, if he could walk, with us as well. So that these Spartans can look upon the slave that took down their best and sent Kleonymos into Hades.”

The five set out with torches about halfway between the two bands. Mêlon noticed in the glare that Ainias and Proxenos were even taller than Pelopidas. He in turn towered over Epaminondas. Yet the general was broader than any of the three and gave the look of one the Spartans would be most wise to avoid in battle. His arms were in constant motion, pointing, slapping Pelopidas on the back, waving others to follow—still dripping blood from a bandaged deep cut along the back of one arm.

A fierce-looking Spartan hoplite now came into view. His shield blazon was torn off, there was a crack in the concave willow planks. His right arm was also streaked with blood. Half his head was already shaven in mourning for the Spartan loss or in shame over defeat. “I am Teleklos. Royal blood. Regent now. I say Lichas talks for Sparta. You listen.”

Another man with him stepped up. He was a red-haired pale sort, Lykos, a Eurypontid bastard youth, who was the “eye” of the surviving King Agesilaos and an ephor who reined in Lichas when he could. They planted a torch pole in front of them. For a moment the Boiotians let out a gasp. The Empousa, the bogeyman of their baby stories, was a few cubits away as this last Spartan hoplite finally came out of the shadows. His finger was already pointing in their faces. He blurted out before he even reached them—and sounded as if he had sand in his throat. “Cow-lovers and eel-catchers. Who claims to be good enough to speak to Lichas? Speak. Where are their hoplites? Not these beggars, these vendors in rags? Where is this faker, the general of this ochlos?” Lichas appeared as large as he had earlier when Mêlon had faced him in the melee. Yet the darkness, flame, and shadows made him more foul-looking still.

So he was older, after all, than Mêlon, as old maybe as Gorgos. Lichas was like the Satyrs or foul father Selinos he had seen on the pots from Athens: high pock-marked forehead, snub broad nose and jutting jaw, completely bald on top, with two white horse tails braided that grew from around his ears and hung halfway down his chest and lay on the breastplate—his son’s bronze. The Spartan, then, had stripped the armor of Malgis from his son, and so was most likely his killer. Almost immediately Mêlon froze and looked down, careful not to betray his hatred. He then looked up carefully to see what sort of man he would have to kill and how.

In his shock, Mêlon noticed too that the Spartan’s forearms, encased in leather and rivets, were larger than those of any on his own side, as stout as Chiôn’s, or perhaps even more so. Lophis had had no chance against a spear jabbed by those. Lichas had done his own part to make what little nature had given him even worse, looking more like some ossified carcass that Mêlon had kicked up on the high cow pastures of bare Mt. Mesapion. One long scar ran from the bridge of his nose down his cheek across the jaw. Below his cratered forehead were plenty of holes and the marks of stitches and once-seared flesh.

If he had any teeth, they were invisible, or maybe black as his tongue itself. Then Mêlon caught another glimpse of the elaborate bronze under his dirty cloak—the aegis of Athena that Mêlon had kept in the tower of Malgis. This Lichas was by far the best man Sparta had on the battlefield that had escaped the death spears of both Chiôn and Mêlon. If Leuktra had been their best day—indeed, had gone beyond what either could ever again match—and this foul man had survived, surely no one in Boiotia could stop him.

Epaminondas glared at Mêlon, grabbed his shoulder, and took a step closer. Then the Stymphalian took hold of Mêlon’s other arm. They all saw that the stub of what was left of Lichas’s ear was oozing blood. A ball of wool had been stuck in the hole, and honey had been smeared on the side of his head. Lichas had another bad wound in his thigh, with a rope tied above it and a bloody cloth over it. He had walked up leaning on his spear—defiant, as if he were hale and forty, commanding at Koroneia perhaps, with ten thousand unbeaten Spartans or more at his back. Another four or five younger Spartans suddenly came out of the darkness to join Teleklos and Lykos. But on the sway of Lichas’s back hand they stopped at the edge of the shadows with spears and torches, and let their master speak.

“I said hear your Lichas. You won a battle. A big one. But not this war. A bigger war—megas kindunos. That you will have in days. Then my men from the coast get here with our other king’s son. Or now we march out home. Then go home. Or will we stay here? And kill you all?”

Whether he smiled or grimaced, few could tell. So far his talk was nonsense. “We go in the night. It is written by the gods that Sparta survives Leuktra. You do the second thinking; Lichas does the first killing of the enemies of Hellas. No, you won’t kill me, the last true Hellene. You’d miss, need me too much. Kill me? Then you would kill Sparta. Then who would protect you weaker ones from the wild men from the north and east?”

Pelopidas came up and raised his spear, but he was checked by the hand of Epaminondas. Still, Pelopidas thought it better to kill this man now. Ainias nodded to him and grasped his hilt. Never again would such men as their own be together to get this close to the Spartan. If it was not done now, both sensed that this man would bring them and their own catastrophe upon catastrophe in the year ahead. But it was the softer Proxenos who already had his spear out. He was lowering it in the shadows for a groin stab, for a foul black mood had come over him as Lichas and his brood neared. He was a man of vast lands and black soil and halls with marble columns, while these lords of Sparta lived in hovels and knew not a plum from an apricot. Proxenos did not believe Nêto’s prophecies about a bad end across the Isthmos, but he did sense that one day he would march safer in the Peloponnesos without the evil of Lichas and his tribe.

Epaminondas stepped even closer, to within five palms’ width of the Spartan’s face. “You claim to be Lichas? You carried the dead king out. I apologize—for not killing you myself. But we had others of the royal blood today to deal with first. You yourself have lived too long, old man.”

Lichas blustered at that. “None of us ever explain what we do. We do all for Hellas—make her free. I keep the good on top to take care of the weak like you on the bottom. You only talk of making the bad equal to the good so that we all end up bad. Yes, what you cannot be, you would tear down. But we are the Hellenes, you its polis destroyers. Sparta is Hellas, Hellas Sparta, nothing more, nothing less.” Lichas spat out some of the dried goat meat he was gumming on. Then he continued, looking at Mêlon. “Is it to be more war? Or do my Spartans march out under truce? No difference to me. I killed ten of you today, and got back Spartan armor from the babe in diapers who thought he could wear it.” Then he laughed at all that and stepped a pace closer.

Mêlon hobbled up closer to the side of Ainias. In his own wounds, old and new, he looked as torn as Lichas himself; a knot on the side of his temple was as large as the egg of a hawk. Its blue sheen better reflected the torchlight. From the eyebrow to his jaw the side of his head was black with swabs of dirt and dried blood. Some cuts were wet and seeping, around the massive bruise to his face. His arms were bloody and his skin beneath his shoulders everywhere was torn like latticework. Every man, however small his stature and reasonable his nature, has his limits. Mêlon cared little whether he lived or slept for good, as he eyed the man who had killed his son. He had just woken from his trip to Hades, and did not find the change so much of a relief, this living without a son on his Helikon. Suddenly the fear of Lichas left him, and he quit scanning his enemy in worry about how to kill him. He knew he would kill the Spartan, and it mattered little whether it was here or next year in the south. Going to the house of the dead was a small coin to hand over—and would save the lives of others later on. This Lichas talked grandly of killing, but he had not killed either Mêlon or Chiôn. They had in turn sent most of his own to Hades.

Lichas first grunted as Mêlon came into his torchlight. “Hold up. I thought I killed you, yes, peasant boy of Helikon? So remind me. Did I hit you today? I am sure I killed you, cripple-leg. Is not this Mêlon, son of Malgis of the old women’s tales? I remember you, Thespian. You’re not the mêlon to fall, but the sheep to be slaughtered. I know our tongue and your mêlon—mâlon to me—means sheep, not apple. So bray for us.”

Mêlon laughed. Any small fear of the Spartan had vanished. Only hatred for the killer of his son remained. “Not yet, Lichas. You are old, only good for carrying away dead kings, not for protecting live ones. We meet again, not for the last time yet. The voices of Nêto’s seers ring in my head as well. This time you gave me an ear. Now give me back my helot Gorgos and my son he carried in.”

“Your Gorgos? You mean my Kuniskos? Our long-lost puppy? That creaky helot would not fetch more than an Athenian drachma or two on the auction block in Delos.” Unlike the other Spartans, Lichas had been a harmost and had traveled all over the Aegean. If he wished, he could talk more like an Athenian than any Boiotian. “But Gorgos was—is—mine again. I missed his service these long years. I needed my puppy’s little teeth. He could have had better things to do for me than prune vines for you and drink in his stupor. He wagged his way back home to me. Of his own will. Like any good little dog that has lost his master and, when at last he picks up the scent, comes yelping back to his kennel, with a crushed hare in his mouth, a gift for good will.”

Lichas went on. “The body that Gorgos lugged into our camp just now I keep safe in good faith—or what is left of him. Ah. I see now, he is your son. I thought until now it was you I had killed, you who had taken to riding horses with your bad leg that I gave you at Koroneia. I see that I have these years killed both the father and son of yours, Mêlon.” Lichas smiled as he saw the Boiotians edging toward him. “Men like us sire plenty of boys to fight and die—at least if they are to be good men at all. I have another son you saw today, megas Antikrates. He killed Boiotians, better even than Kleonymos. Neither of you can escape, not from him. My big son, this one, is a sort even we fear at Sparta. You’re already dead—so’s your general and that branded slave we cut down this day.” Lichas stayed fixed on Mêlon. “But, Mêlon, why was your young upstart on a black pony with armor not earned or worn well? One thing for your son to wear Lysander’s plate, another to fight like a Spartan—a lesson your dead father learned at Koroneia.”

Mêlon replied, “Lysander was a thief himself. Like all you Spartans who make nothing, but steal all from others. You neither farm nor build yourselves. You live in a city of wood, not stone. You have no money, no iron, nothing except what you steal. You are the true polis destroyers. Without your helots, you can’t tell an oar from a winnowing fan. If we bind you, Lichas, perhaps your folk will hand over my Lophis in exchange.”

Epaminondas now stepped up. “Go, Lichas, before Mêlon puts a spear in your face. It is written that with you goes the last Spartan who will ever walk under arms in Boiotia,” He saw the logic of letting the enemy regroup his army for the long march to come. “It is better this way, Lichas, to settle it down south in your courtyard anyway. Some day when there is new snow on Parnon and Taygetos, look for me when you least expect a winter horde from the north. On the banks of your Eurotas, we will meet you when its waters roar in winter.”

With that the parley broke up and the two sides went back to their lines. Left unsaid was that the Spartans before light would be given passage to the mountains, and that the body of Lophis would be returned. As the two Spartans lumbered away to their awaiting guard, Mêlon kept silent, knowing now that his Lophis would not rot among dogs and birds, and that Lichas would not live long in the south.

The trailing Lykos turned around before the shadows swallowed him and faced the Boiotian. Lichas had already disappeared into the night. “Bother us no more, cripple of Helikon. Your time is past, Chôlopous. The dreams of Pasiphai warned us that you would kill our king. So our king you have killed—the worse one. But we have another. The gods tell us that by tonight you have no more power over us.” Then Lykos, a peer of royal blood, gripped his sharp sword with his left and lowered his spear with his right, and backed off a few feet as he ended his lecture. For all his bristling, he was a Spartan man of his word, who did not break oaths or lie. “Gorgos leaves your son—or what is left of him—at the coast road tomorrow before night, with a hag at the seaside shrine. Lichas keeps his armor. It belonged to our big man Lysander. You keep the mess that was once your son. Lichas knocked him off his black horse. He was thinking it was you. Be proud, for he was a hard kill like your father, or so Lichas said. Four or five stabs and his eyes would not stay closed. And proud he was this day that he was the first of the Boiotians to die. He spat that in our faces when Gorgos laid him down. Lichas cut his throat to ease the pain of his spear wounds. Gorgos then turned to go home to Helikon, but we convinced him that he wanted to stay with us. And then he nodded he did.”

With that Mêlon fell silent as the five walked back to the phalanx of Thebans. Pelopidas in his melancholy quickly sent all the Boiotians on home who were sated with plundered armor and the coin pouches of the dead. Mêlon turned darkly to Epaminondas. “Not quite over. You and I will see this Lichas again, and it will not be in Boiotia.”

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!