Ancient History & Civilisation


Ripples of Leuktra

Epaminondas fell in with Pelopidas and the Sacred Band as they trotted off in silence under the moonlight on the road back to Thebes. It was full night and Mêlon was alone. Proxenos and Ainias went south in the darkness in the opposite direction toward Plataia, promising to visit Helikon within the year. Proxenos had sent word to his wife, Aretê, that both had survived the melee and would be home on the Asopos before the sun came up over Kithairon. Neither wanted any plunder and never liked the look of an army as it breaks apart. Both, as the new partners they had become, were plotting the rebuilding of Mantineia to the south and the greater citadel of the Arkadians at Megalopolis, the new democratic fetters that would hem Sparta for good inside the Peloponnesos.

The sound of Lakonian reed pipes filled the air. A clamor rose of moving wood and bronze. Mêlon did not look back. What was left of the Spartan army would before dawn march out with torches from Boiotia. A huge fire roared, consuming what dead they had managed to carry out and what Spartan corpses they had been given by the Thebans. Mêlon was stumbling about. The blow by Kleonymos had done more than close his eye, and after this long day he was nearly done for. He heard a high note and feared there was a daughter of night flapping in the air—or at least a shrill Kêr perched on a low limb of an oak, waiting for him to fall. But the sound was a better strain and from the living, not from Hades and not a Spartan reed, either. As it entered his ear, he recognized the familiar soft piping of a Thisbê song—the strain of safety and health that always brought him home. It was Nêto’s old tune to him, the sign to come down to the house from the vineyard. He followed the sweet sound of pipe back to the wagon.

Nêto and Myron met him with the ox and the wounded Chiôn in the cart behind. She put her reed aulos down and recoiled in fright at her master’s swollen head, now half blue and covered in blood and shiny in the torchlight. His eye was completely closed. Still, she soon had the two resting in straw. Sturdy Aias would pull all four back to Helikon. The ox was eager to reach once more the hay and quiet of the stalls even after the tall stand of green grass by the stream on the parched hills above Leuktra. There would be no shaking off this runaway Myron. He feared his master’s wrath and begged only to sleep one night in the shed of Mêlon and a chance to care for Chiôn.

As the wagon rumbled home, Nêto sang softly and reflected that she, Chiôn, and even Myron now would be manumitted and claimed as heroes of Thespiai, who had helped break the Spartans—in Myron’s case for merely following her around the wreckage of the battlefield. This night she concluded that the Myrons of the world always survive war and peace. They are not scroll-smart and can’t recite a line of Homer. But they stay immune from the vanities of ambition, always knowing their own station in life and the narrow limits between which they must live. Earned pity is their currency. Even the hardest man would be hard put to lay a hand on Myron. His smile they said was from stupidity, but if so, it gave him more power than any shield, and came from a craftiness that even the wise could not match. Gorgos surely couldn’t. Yes, in this war to free the serfs of the Peloponnesos, a Myron would survive a Proxenos or Alkidamas—as he all along had known he easily would.

She was stitching verses as was her wont, lines about the Spartan enemies in her midst—Lichas of the one ear and Sphodrias and Kleonymos who supped together in Hades with Klearchos and all the other Spartans that her heroes this day had killed. Her master Mêlon, always her master Mêlon at the van, side-by-side with Chiôn, sire of Lophis, all her men of the soil. She felt an anguish over the death of Lophis, and not only because she regretted that Mêlon had learned of it from other lips. If Nêto were to list all the ways Lophis had kept the Malgidai together, her tally, she feared, might be small. Likewise, she could not point to the tower roof or the oil press beam and say “Lophis made that.” But she knew that without him there was no young heart left on the farm, no laughing, no energy from youth, just the void of his loss, and the wounded and old, and perhaps the end of the farm as they knew it, if she could not rouse the three boys to become men by first frost.

Mêlon lay numb next to the bleeding Chiôn, who took most of the cart’s space. The slave murmured in his forced breath that his good right arm had already been pledged to avenge Lophis’s ghost. He tried to lie on his side to give his master the greater straw, mumbling in the evening, “No worry, no worry. Lichas dies next time. It is written. Gorgos with him, even if he hides in the mountains to the south. I will hunt him down—and string him up.”

Mêlon grumbled only, “If he fights next time like today, we’ll both be dead. I liked the wagon ride over here far better than the return.” Flat in the bloody straw, the heroes of Thespiai—the killers of Deinon, and Sphodrias and tall Kleonymos, and the king Kleombrotos as well—returned on their backs to Helikon from their day at Leuktra—and on into the myths of the Boiotians.

When Nêto finally drove the wagon up to the farm, it was still half a night before dawn, although the massif of Helikon blocked all light. She hailed Damô, wife of the dead Lophis. The farm woman had seen the torches of thousands plundering in the plain below but had not known whether they were Spartans coming her way or her own men soon to be rich from the loot of the Peloponnesos. Now Damô saw the wagon’s torch moving along the winding road up the low spurs of Helikon. So she was waiting in the courtyard. The three boys helped Myron carry the two wounded hoplites onto oak benches in the stone hall. “Xiphos.” Damô looked to Nêto. “The wretched horse of ours. He galloped in at dusk, and with blood on his flanks—without his bit or Lophis’s reins. Dried blood. I smelled our own. Saw the light on pyres to the south. I thought Lophis must lie on one.”

Her hair was torn, her face was gouged with grief—and her sorrow was made worse when she saw the proof in the limp arm of Chiôn and the swollen face of Mêlon—and no Lophis. No battle that had maimed the brute slave could have spared her husband. “These are the wages of your Pythagoras,” she hissed at Nêto and then let out a loud uluh-uluh-uluh before returning to human speech. “Why us on Helikon, why us? Where were the blowhards of the assembly? Is there a son of Epaminondas among the dead? Is there a boy of Pelopidas without an arm? Did the big talkers like Backwash lead the charge?”

Damô finally sat down on a small bark chair, muttering to the hound Porpax on his dung heap. “Even your Sturax is gone. Everything’s gone from this farm. Just as if the Earthshaker had knocked us to the ground.”

Nêto spoke quietly. “We all knew what we were doing. We should have no second thought. Today is a great moment for the Boiotians. Though a sad one for the Malgidai.”

Damô glared. “Try saying that when you’ve buried sons or a husband, but don’t you dare in your virgin purity. You, barren womb, and your childless Epaminondas get too many killed. Too many rot for your visions and high words. Leave me be—parthenos, no-child, no-husband, no-mind, busy-body. No, the nice like you get too many killed who do their bidding.”

Mêlon was half-awake. But when he tried to get up, he saw darkness and nearly fell over. Nêto—Nêto, he thought, would set things right, if Damô were to see her grief turn to madness. Then he saw no more of the torches of the courtyard. As he fell into the whirl, Mêlon also heard the voice of Malgis reminding him that in all great crises, but in matters of death especially, there are a few who come forward to do what no one should be asked to do: close the eyes of the dead, wash the corpses, and prepare the funeral for the departed. Then when their hard work is done in the worst moments of shock, they fade. They retreat into the shadows before the ensuing ritual and staged talk of weaker others that follow, when the public crying and group lamentation by a new, a lesser cast begins. Mêlon, as he went back into the dreams of sleep, knew it would be so with Nêto. She alone would keep the farm in the time after Lophis’s death when he and Chiôn lay in the netherworld spread out in the hall of the big house. Nêto, freed from the anchor of Eros, or the goads of money and of pride, would do the right, the necessary thing as she always had. So Mêlon fell back asleep muttering to her that the Spartans had told him that Lophis would be found on the sea road to the south.

Nêto prepared to go fetch Lophis, certain that the word of Lichas, at least as her master related it, was good and that her young master’s body was safe in some lean-to shrine. She unhitched the wagon and led Aias into the shed, where she soaked his back with a wet sponge and rubbed some olive oil into his wounds. She spent what little was left of the night taking off the armor of the two men, tending to the bandages and poultices of Chiôn, and putting oil and honey on the face of Mêlon. She even readied a stew of greens, beets, and wild cucumbers for the three boys to eat in the morning when they woke.

The three now had no father, only a crippled henchman in Chiôn. Gorgos was gone. There was not a hale man on the farm. Mêlon, the grandfather, was dazed and wounded—and already mumbling in vain about rising to harvest fifty baskets of red grapes before they rotted on the vine. The crops would not wait for Mêlon and Chiôn to heal. In a blink at Leuktra, the three sons of Lophis had gone from being boys to being farmers.

Care of the farm of the Malgidai now rested with Eudoros, Neander, and Historis, in the manner in which long ago a crippled Mêlon had inherited responsibility for the grape and olive crops from his dead father after Koroneia. If the three boys could scramble up the olive ladders, together hold the plow firmly behind the ox, and pack the grape baskets into the press, the family might keep the land; if not, even its coin box could not for long keep nature at bay, and soon Dirkê the neighbor would steal what she could at the first sign that there was not a man of the Malgidai with a long knife in his belt overseeing the orchard. The olives, the grapes, the wheat and barley, they all cared nothing for the health of the farm, but simply grew, ripened, and decayed in a natural cycle of oblivion without the human overseer to intervene to weed, fertilize, and harvest. Wound and illness matter nothing to a rotting olive or weedy field—or so the small orphaned boys of Lophis would learn this autumn after Leuktra.

The house slept the next day until the sun was high. Then finally Nêto took the boys out to pick strippings from the vineyards, the final red clusters of the dying year that they would put on the trays to dry into the sweetest raisins. When all else failed the household returned to what it knew best. But as dusk neared of this first day after Leuktra, Nêto took a rough wool blanket and some rope. She hid her jagged long knife in her tunic as well. No sleep, she shrugged, not a blink since the night before the battle, near the wagon on the hill with the long arms of Gorgos. At dusk then Nêto mounted the rested but lame Xiphos. His hoof was sore, but Nêto had filled its crack with lard and axle grease. They went slowly down the mountain and off to the east. Porpax, as best the dog could, followed her down the trail, in the direction of the stale scent of his Sturax, or maybe to find a hobbled deer on the lower folds of Kithairon. Damô would notice her absence not at all. For most of the next day the widow of Lophis would yell out to the shed below, “Nêto, come up here, my Nêtikon.”

But Nêto was far away, headed for the coastal road to Kreusis by the sea and its junction with the main Theban way along the sycamores and ash trees, on the spurs of Kithairon and the rough pass up and over to Aigosthena by the sea. There Lichas and the Spartans would have earlier turned south for the trek home to Lakedaimon along the cliffs above the gulf. They were hugging the mountain, along the goat path above the surf. The survivors of Leuktra had been marching since before sunup and already had left Boiotia via the shore.

Mêlon had said only to find Lophis on the “sea road.” Yet the trail along the gulf was long, and Nêto did not know exactly where it started and ended. The best way was just to head to the cliffs and surely she would intersect it. Almost as soon as Nêto found the pathway southward along the sea, she noticed even in this second night after the battle that the countryside was alive with Boiotians. Thousands of them in all directions were streaming back to their demes to the north. Most had packed up armor and spears, with carts full of wounded and dead, victims and heroes and gawkers to be sure, but brigands and throat-cutters as well. Some of those who appeared to Nêto to be the worst were fresh over the pass from Attika—Athenian rabble with the scent in their noses of booty and stories of unarmed Boiotian folk in the night countryside. Once the euphoria was gone, those waiting in the shadows came out to claim their due. Phokians, she could make out, too. These tribal kind, without cities and the ways of the polis, were riding and spearing stragglers still. They were after men with armor and coin—whether Boiotian or Spartan, it mattered little.

Nêto felt for her knife. She whistled for Porpax to come close. Then Nêto patted the neck of the tired Xiphos to prepare for a hard go should these foul riders turn to her. Some farmers had nooses around the necks of a few captive Peloponnesians, the allies that had run from the battle at the first crash and might be put to work or ransomed. She had some idea that it was the will of Epaminondas that these southern prisoners be spared. The ideal of the left wing, at least in the mind of Epaminondas, had been to leave the allies of both sides out of the fray—with good intent for the next act of the war. In the new Hellas of Epaminondas to come there would be no Hellene slave to any other, no ally to die for the hegemon.

But all that had been before the death of Lophis, and of Kalliphon, son of Alkidamas, and before the wounding of Chiôn. Nêto thought of these captives hardly as kindred souls. She thought to herself out here alone, “These Peloponnesians are like slaves after all. Now they are learning that every Hellene is always a day away from waking up a servant.” She trotted past one miserable fellow on the road. He was a tall southerner without sandals. The captive was led by a fleshy farmer from way up on Skourta who had noosed him around the neck. Nêto showed no pity to the Dorian, though the Peloponnesian captive asked for water that she had plenty of to spare. As she passed him by, she put out of her mind the thoughts of Pythagoras and again thought that slavery was not so bad for those who enslave others. “These lost Spartans are helots now. In their pride these invaders gave no thought to helots, to those who were always as they will be now. Herakleitos says ‘War, the father of us all, makes some free and others slaves.’ So it is for this captive—slavery for him, freedom for me.”

She soon arrived at the edge of the steep cliffs by the glistening water—the waves catching the early rising morning fingers of dawn. Far off in the distance Nêto could see the occasional fading glint from the spear tips of the army of Lichas. His Spartan army was marching on its second day without sleep, winding the way home over the high trail above the sea and back toward the Isthmos—beaten men, all of them. All eager to get back into the safe folds of the Peloponnesos, but fearing more the cursing of their Spartan women on their return.

Porpax had a few scrapes with some mangy dogs as he kept close to the heels of the slow-moving Xiphos. It was all Nêto could do to keep awake on the pony. Then she remembered that it was not just the previous night, but for the past three days and two nights that she had not slept, whether in fear of Gorgos above Leuktra, or in her long talk with Proxenos about their One God of Pythagoras. Then Nêto stopped. After some wild riding in circles, at about a stade beyond the road junction she smelled something foul. Nêto found the body of someone, not far from the sea, near a small mud-brick shrine to Kreusian Dionysos, about where Mêlon had told her to look. An old widow who tended the shanty temple said that she was standing guard over a corpse to keep the dogs and birds away.

“He yours, slave girl? A red-cape from the south—he told me, he said a Thespian would come here. You her? But I need another owl to give him up, though he stinks and is hard as a plank. Took you long enough. Name is Kallista—‘the best of all.’ Me Kallista—and I need an Athenian coin.” She shrieked more, but had two teeth, so the howl came out as only whistling gibberish. This Kallista was covered in a black cloak, head to toe, and had only a scrawny hand out to catch her silver.

Nêto looked her up and down, to make sure it wasn’t some demon. No, she was human, a hag with rump back. Kallista spoke Boiotian coast, that much was clear, and seemed a near twin to her neighbor on Helikon, Dirkê—if not the shrew herself in disguise. Nêto jumped down. She followed the woman’s point to the shanty shrine. There was the body of Lophis. Kallista had already washed much of the gore from him, dead a day and a half now. The Spartans Teleklos and Lykos, for all their gruff, had given her a coin to keep the Thespian whole for his kin, a better gesture, Nêto thought, than what she herself would have done to the dead of Sparta. Lophis lay on the bench in front of the stone statue, the broken body that had been ridden over by the cavalry of the Spartans. Her master’s throat was cut. It was caked with dry blood as the Spartans had said. But there were enough ugly wounds below the armor line that made Lichas’s final slice no matter. These spear jabs to the lower stomach had finished Lophis anyway. Nêto finally looked away. How hideous Lophis had become—stiff, swollen, and blue-black and ghastly in expression like Medusa’s face.

Was this the war she sang about—and urged others to risk their all for? All Lophis’s grand dreams had been reduced to this contorted mess of flesh, to be thrown across the back of his tired horse by a slave girl? This—not Epaminondas’s “one step more”—was the face of war. Perhaps she herself, if freed, would not vote for Epaminondas as Boiotarch, since he would only lead his people into more Leuktras south of the Isthmos. She flicked a maggot off his neck and poured some wine over his hair to flesh out more crawlers. The broad nose of the Malgidai was bent flat on his face, his strong jaw smashed and mangled apart from its joints. This certainly was not the battle that she’d seen from the camp above Leuktra, not the grand prelude to the march south to free her helots. How many Boiotians—she should ask the grand planners like Epaminondas or Alkidamas—was a new Messenê on Ithômê worth? Surely her One God must give her a number. A thousand? Five thousand were worth it?

Meanwhile, the dog Sturax was nowhere to be found. Yet Porpax soon smelled the hound’s death scent on the blood of Lophis. Then another odor hit the hound, and he was off toward Kithairon. Nêto thought he’d be back after the smell of a dappled fawn proved false. She gave the woman of the shrine a bag of raisins and figs—and another silver Athenian owl for good measure. Then Kallista helped her douse and scrub off Lophis with oil and sprinkle him with wine, and wrap his stiff corpse in Nêto’s blanket. They tied it into a bundle and then slung him gently over the back of Xiphos. The horse jumped at that, raw as he was with cuts from the battle. Nêto shuddered; she had seen this picture in night visions before of her strapping a dead body on a horse in front of a shed, but was it this one now, or was there another corpse in yet another bad night in the future?

A bony hand grabbed her shoulder. “Stay here the night, pretty one? Don’t go off in the dark with killers on the road. I hear the wild man-bear is out tonight, come down from Helikon out your way to harvest some Spartans. For another three silver pieces, I can lead you to my hut up the draw over there.” But Nêto pushed Kallista away, flashed her knife, and decided to wait no longer for the marauding dog Porpax to return. She turned Xiphos around and slowly led the horse by the reins, careful that the body remained balanced on his back.

On the way back, an Athenian—or at least he sounded like one in his loud Attic—ran up to her in the darkness and grabbed the tail of Xiphos. The pony kicked hard. Nêto waved her blade in the air. She glanced back at the robber in the dirt, a boy, with two or maybe three more friends, out for easy steals in this blur between peace and war. During the trip back there were small parties of Spartans to watch for, trailing the army that by now was well past the Megarid. She remembered the warnings of her master, Mêlon, who had told her everyone has a choice in this life—a way to either live in fear or to give fear to others. So don’t be a slave to your terrors, Nêto spoke to herself. Let those robbers worry what Megalê Nêto, the Amazon warrior, will do to them with this sharp knife, not what they might do to me. At that she pulled out her blade and pointed it ahead as she rode.

She went faster on her way north, and by midmorning Nêto could see the farm’s tower in the distance on the slopes of Helikon. The Dog Star sun was warming up. She wanted to get Lophis inside the cool air of the bottom floor of the farmhouse where the water from Helikon was piped in, and she knew Mêlon would be waiting. Then she heard loud voices far in the distance, but thought at first it was only the Athenian robbers, accosting some fool without a horse and knife. It was nothing but sounds on the wind, as a hard breeze came up from south of the Isthmos.

She yelled out anyway in the direction of the noise: “I am Nêto of Helikon. Make way—or die.”

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