Ancient History & Civilisation


The Fall of Mêlon

The dizziness and head shakes Mêlon had suffered after Leuktra had finally stopped by the new year. His skull cleared from the blow of Kleonymos. He was alive; Kleonymos was not. So the pain had meant nothing. Mêlon’s slaves were free. But still, he found that he missed the sharp tongue of Gorgos and the goat the two used to roast in the evening in the shed. Myron did his best at the shed talk, but he was a dense head. Even the dogs were gone. Sturax had gone into the belly of Lichas, as the Spartan had boasted, though dog-eating was usually the work of barbarians, both north and across the water. Nêto had lost Porpax along the coast. Perhaps the dog had gone wild with the wolves on Kithairon once he had tasted man-flesh, feeding among the corpses of the wounded Spartans. No doubt he too was gone for good.

The recovery of Damô, Mêlon saw, had mostly to do with Chiôn—just as the gossips said (and the slurs were spoon-fed by the neighbor hag Dirkê and her surviving Thrakian, Thrattos, who was finishing the oak cutting of the dead Medios). Damô hunted Chiôn down in the high fields and tamed him with soup and bread, and soon they talked of Pythagoras and how the spirit of Lophis was among them, awaiting both of them in the vortex, or perhaps even now in a new body—walking among the believers in Thebes with one or two more lives yet needed until perfection.

During the first winter after Leuktra, all during the month of Prostatêrios, it had been the neighbor gossip-monger Dirkê who reminded Mêlon of how much he had lost—hinting he might want to sell the worry of his farm to her. She went up too often as the new year approached. The shrew wanted to see whether stories were true that the harvest of Malgidai was slow and would be lost. Were the terraces of Mêlon’s crumbling and overgrown with weeds? Surely the path up there was eroded and needed gravel? Was it true there was a great march to the south in the works—and perhaps the farm of Malgis might be sold for want of upkeep? Would not the hero of Thespiai know best the mind of Epaminondas? “Eleutheria is not so sweet, eh, hero of Thespiai and giver of freedom? Or at least for those who are foolish enough to be tricked into doing the dirty work of your helot-loving Epaminondas?”

“Sweet enough, and sweeter to come still,” he answered.

“Boast like that when you’re spear-gutted on black Ithômê—while some helot woman, with a Spartan rope around her ankle, slits your throat. Then you’ll lie in the dirt on a hill of thistles, and with a toothless smile, no less. I know you’ll die with a spear in you in the south. It will be far from home, far in the Peloponnesos. Or so it is written.” Dirkê then trudged farther up to the vineyard and the shed, as far as her bad hips could take the climb. There was always money to be made in the aftermath of battle. She wanted to rent out her slave Thrattos as a wage-hand to help her crippled neighbors with the olive pressing—and also through him hear the gossip of the Malgidai and get someone planted on the farm of Malgis. “Even your big oil stone press is not good when you don’t have men to run it. The best oil is long past. Your fruit is black. Too long on the trees. Prance in armor all you want. It won’t get your olives picked.”

Dirkê seemed quite unconcerned about the past killing of Medios (she had even let his Thrakian corpse stay out there to rot where it was found). So she poked her head into the shed and kept on jawing. “With your Lophis gone, and Chiôn no good and free to boot, you might give us down the hill one of your second thoughts. That Myron slave, if he is even that, is a dung gatherer. He’s no field hand. I’ve been told you will hear soon from the son of his dead master Hippias. Yes, you know him, new Lord Hipponichos, will go to the courts to get him back from you soon, as his father tried. They called me to come in as juror. So Mêlon—give me two obols a day. Add in some food. Yes, yes, for the belly of my big Thrattos and a bought vote or two to keep your Myron free up here. Thrattos will be yours for the winter. At least until your oil is pressed. Or are you short of coin? They tell me at the fountain that even your gold-inlaid breastplate is gone. Godlike Lichas the killer wears it down south, or so they tell.” She kicked a few clods and then leaned on her stick. Then she spat out the seeds of a dried gourd, smiling with her one tooth over the lower lip. How had all that felt to the Malgidai? she wondered.

Mêlon liked the idea of an extra hand, but not a Thrakian. Dirkê had noticed that Chiôn was in the grove also striking the short limbs with a long reed stick from Kopais. Deftly he hit with his good right hand. She saw Zeus’s black cloud over her Thrakian whenever he got near. “No worry, master,” Chiôn yelled from the nearest olive, “I handle all of them as easily as before. Myron promises he will stay until the winter solstice to finish the picking. No need of her Thrakian; less of Dirkê. Send the no-goods away.” With that he put down his pole and started his way over.

“ ‘Master’ is it still? Small talk for such a big man—Chiôn the new lord of Hellas, hero of Thespiai.” Dirkê sneered at him and went on, since she knew it was futile to get a pass from a man like that, and she might as well play out the hand to the end. “A conniver, your quiet cripple Chiôn is. He gets the farm without a silver owl or a Boiotian gold shield upfront? Dirkê works hard to buy it—but he stumbles into it? But I’d say instead maybe that tall tower of Mêlon’s, and Damô’s big melons along with it, is what he’s got his eye on. So here we have a branded slave from Chios, with the scar on his poxy forehead. He ends up as lord and master of the estate of Malgis, swimming in the billows of a dead man’s wife. You won’t help your Dirkîkon a bit by hiring my Thrattos?” With that she hustled off down the trail in fear of a stone or kick for her venom. Being old and ugly and bent over is a better guard than a breastplate and shield.

“She is an Hekuba all right, Chiôn,” Mêlon grumbled as his slave approached, “But the hag sorts out the chaos nonetheless.” He stopped and put his lame leg on a stone and parted a few strands left back over his bald spot. They were outside the shed, around a smoky fire of green olive prunings. “Look, Chiôn, she believes in nothing, nothing at all—no love, no hate, no future, no past. Her memory is washed always by the waters of Lethe. She gets up each morning fresh without baggage or learning. She is guided only by that long nose for money and the bitterness that comes from feeling she is of lesser stock. Envy and spite, these are the twin oxen that pull men and women like her along. The logos of profit alone pilots her thoughts. I listen to her far more than I do to your Pythagoras.”

How strange, Mêlon went on to lecture his Chiôn, that the odious among us can teach us the most—if we only can endure their cuts and jibes and then learn from their very mouths how not to view the world about us, and yet how with just a slight shove we might become as they are. Then he paused and thought to himself that had he not inherited the paradeisos from Malgis, had the gods not blessed him with Lophis, had he not been the mêlon of prophecy, perhaps he too might have become a Dirkê—or even a Lichas had he been raised in the agôgê of the Spartans.

Nevertheless, after Leuktra, Mêlon explored all these forbidden ideas further, and he now started up again to Chiôn. “Dirkê was as bad and yet right as much as our Lophis was so good and so wrong—about how the oligarchs at Sparta would come even to accept Pythagoras. But thank the gods for these Dirkai. She is the voice of all the dark thoughts in the world. Chiôn, Dirkê has been a great gift to me these years, sounding out and exposing the bad that is in me. She gives me a chance to hear my dark thoughts spoken, hear it all said by another, not me. Then I redeem myself by sneering at it, and claim the high ground from it, when she turns everything so foul and has no shame to voice the evil in us that we too feel.”

Chiôn ignored his high talking and started to return to the olives—until Mêlon grabbed his rough wool cloak. “But Chiôn, she has reminded me that you were the better man at Leuktra, and one freed by the town fathers of Thespiai. So you marry Damô. Raise my son’s boys to take this farm. More if you carve out another slice of the mountain with your one arm. Damô is still not three tens. She has three or four boys more in her yet. I can’t pay you to stay on the farm. But stay you will. All that Malgis gave me will be your own to care for—at least until the boys of Lophis and your own to come are of age.”

Chiôn and Eudoros, with Neander, Lophis’s second born, were a small phalanx now. Chiôn was right. There was no need to hire slaves of others. Not when Chiôn and the boys had handled this olive crop, late but well enough in the absence of Lophis, and crippled as Chiôn was. Myron in his dung boots was strong and loyal, so he might work out as well. The wheel of luck would turn yet again for the farm. The upswing would be as good as before. The battle was over. Calm had arrived. Even the gossips of Thespiai would say little about the marriage. Chiôn was becoming the big talk of the forge loungers, jawed to the skies to the sound of hammer and anvil. They would all say the union of Damô and Chiôn was good farming—to keep the land safe and the free slave on the farm without paying wages, and the widow Damô from begging coins in the agora.

“Chiôn,” Mêlon spoke slowly as the two made their way up to the high vineyard again. “You are my son now. The father of my son’s sons. I claim my right as her legal guardian to pick who Damô marries. Those in Askra, and Koroneia and even Thespiai, too, will live with it—if for no other reason than all of Boiotia fears our two right arms.” Chiôn said little. But his master was pushing him hard, to make him lord of the estate, father and husband and free man, citizen of the high property qualification, a rich hippeusshould he wish to fight from a horse—all the honors Mêlon himself was tiring of as he waited for the call to go south. If Mêlon wanted a yoking on this farm, why not then he and the freedwoman Nêto? Were not they the better pair to stay home and guard the vineyards and pass the farm on to the boys of Lophis?

Yet Chiôn said to himself that he would try all this, at least for a while. Who would not wish the pleasures of Damô? Still, the wild, the high land of Helikon called, the better place—or maybe the strange piney, wilder mountain to the south, the slopes of gloomy Taygetos, where his mind went in his sleep to a highland hot on its slopes. He would try this plan of Mêlon, for they were all still in peace, and his master was the killer of Kleombrotos and so to be obeyed, even if Chiôn was no longer a slave. He would try. But he had his doubts. He and his master after Leuktra were each trying to make the other the custodian of the farm. Yet neither of them any more wanted to stay the man rooted to the soil, not with the scent of the south in their noses. “It is as you say master, as you say, at least for now.”

Mêlon was coming off his mountain every other day, far more even than Damô. No longer was he the misanthrôpos and erêmos of old. The famous king-killer walked proudly on the narrow winding streets of Thespiai. He nodded to the admiring looks of the town folk from their balconies, those who had all voted to stay put, to keep themselves safe rebuilding their walls. He had been cured by Epaminondas and his fame of Leuktra from the disease of solitude, but the medicine had done far more than end the malady. His visits, he said, were meant to keep gossip about Damô and Chiôn within reason, and to learn what Dirkê was up to. Mêlon wanted to shame any he heard talking the dark stories about the heroes of Helikon. Or so he said of his time in town. But to Chiôn and Nêto, this new busybody was not their Mêlon, and they feared he was falling into something worse even than his years as the recluse before Leuktra.

As Mêlon strolled into town, sometimes he stopped at the potters’ quarters to teach the idlers about Chiôn. They must know of the prostatês of the phalanx who had yelled “For Thespiai, for Helikon,” as he slew Deinon, and Sphodrias, and cut down terrible Kleonymos in his proud youth. Chiôn, Mêlon lectured the craftsmen, gave his arm for these here, for the idea that they could idle in town. Mêlon went on and slapped the faces of the pot turners and kicked the kiln feeders. “It was your Chiôn, Chiôn of Thespiai. He killed the kings’ best, when my Bora was shattered. He took on Kleonymos. He took that blow from Lichas so that I could spear Kleombrotos.” Praise in town for his own clan—and for himself—was now as dear to him as the Thespian’s disdain had once been to him out on the farm before he had heard the name Epaminondas.

A year and more after Leuktra, Damô and Chiôn were yoked. As a pair they had often driven Aias down from the farm, with Eudoros riding on Xiphos and the other two boys in the wagon, always just as the sun came up over the spurs of Kithairon to the east. They drove through the rubble walls into Thespiai to buy a litter of Lakonian hounds that the new henchman of Eurybiades had hauled over from Kithairon. Murmex was his name. He bought and sold dogs, blacks and spotted browns, with clipped tails and upright flat-topped ears—Lakonians not as large as the lost Molossians, Sturax and Porpax.

When the small caravan of the Malgidai made its way through the main gate and the roaring stone lions, and on by the theater, those at the forge yelled out to Chiôn, “For Thespiai.” The hoplite stood up, turned, and roared back, “For Thespiai. Always for Thespiai.” The widows at the looms shook their heads wondering how it had happened that Chiôn—the islander branded at birth by the Spartan hoplites of Lysander and sold to Malgis for two obols—had become his son and keeper of the name of the Malgidai. For all her three boys, the townsmen remarked that Damô was the real Aphrodite of Boiotia—and that Mêlon’s rich soil grew goddesses as well as heroes.

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