Ancient History & Civilisation


The Great Debate

The three had taken most of a day of steady walking to reach the high ground of the Kadmeia from the monument at Leuktra. The Thespian had been to Thebes only once before, in the year of the twin musters before the battles at Nemea and Koroneia. But that was more than twenty seasons prior. Mêlon now was bewildered by the unfamiliar sights in the capital of the Boiotians. The Thebans, with the sales from the spoils of Leuktra, were rebuilding the great temple of Apollo Ismenios. Twelve new columns rose along the temple’s long side. Forty men, with scaffolds and block and tackle, levered a huge marble capital on the nearest, a scroll of the Ionian type. This was the great gated city of Kadmos and Oidipous and Kreon, now to be remade as the democratic capital of a new Theban hegemony of equal poleis. Mêlon stared like a country ephebe at the seven arches and hills, as the travelers went over the bridge and through the Onkan Gate and on past the walls.

They made their way to a hut that Alkidamas owned near the Borean Gate. There they spread out three cots. Melissos led Xiphos down to the public stalls on the nearby hill of Ampheion, then went quickly back to join the two in this hovel near the tomb of Herakles. The place was more a sty than a house. It was not long until early dusk. The room was already cold and damp and offered little shelter from the winter sleet that was pelting the city. Shouts rose amid the storm. Outside the shuttered window, Thebes was in a frenzy. Strange-sounding foreigners from all over Hellas were yelling and scuffling in their drink. What had Epaminondas wrought? Thousands of hoplites were sleeping in the cold sheds and icy stalls of the agora. More were perched on the turrets and walkways on the city walls. How many were camped beyond the walls all the way to the coast? All boasted they were ready to march against the men of Sparta in midwinter for plunder. As Mêlon fell into sleep, he could almost hear the voices in the assembly.

Mêlon guessed that the Boiotians had no stomach for any more war, despite the cutthroats who were flocking into Boiotia and the muster in progress, and despite the victory at Leuktra. At the debate tomorrow, there would be more of the same rabble-rousing as there had been the previous year on the eve of Leuktra—the usual shouting mess of democracy. That was both the beauty and horror of dêmokratia: No one gave the wealthy or sober or educated his due, but the crowd in a moment could judge what seemed best to most of them and then act on it without pause, even if a scoundrel had proposed the measure. Did Epaminondas hate Sparta and wish it gone? Or was he a more practical sort who wanted to ring in Lakonia, surround the Spartans with the walled cities of Arkadia and Messenia? How better to cut off the murderous lords of Sparta from their helot servants? Isn’t that what the new cities of Proxenos were for?

Of course, if he marched in winter, he might spare his men the heat of the hard summer in the month of Panamos. It was smart, too, to leave right at the end of his tenure. That way the Boiotian high-talkers could not call the army back. And Epaminondas surely knew that should he not preempt now, King Agesilaos next spring would come northward back into Boiotia anyway, as he had so many times before, and make the Boiotians once again the subjects of Sparta. Then again, it was possible that the wild stories of Nêto and Lophis—and Damô’s warnings—were all true: that this Pythagorean Epaminondas really did believe in a wild idea of the “freedom of the Hellenes”; that he wished all of Messenia to be liberated, the very idea of helots—or even slaves as well—to be a thing of the past, for the security of Boiotia and the justice of Hellas and the salvation of their souls.

The hovel was not far from the assembly on the Kadmeia. The next morning Mêlon got up before the snoring Alkidamas and went on ahead to beat the crowd to the assembly hall. But on his way to the ekklêsia, a tall, broad-shouldered stranger greeted Mêlon in the street, a stadium from the assembly seats below. He was somewhere past his fifth decade, with a gray beard, a strange stiff one that tapered into a cone, and he addressed Mêlon in a High Attic that the farmer could scarcely follow. An Athenian no less, he was followed by four ephebes, no more than twenty years each, rich ones, with rabbit-fur collars, bright green wool cloaks, and hob-nailed tall boots, and soft faces with eyes darting side to side. They had all come over the pass with their master to warn the Boiotians of the idiocy of Epaminondas.

“A waste of time, that assembly of yours.” The stranger laughed as if he knew Mêlon well and could start in with him in mid-sentence. He now stopped and pointed his finger. “I came north to learn of these Pythagoreans, to see whether their logos would set them apart from the mob. But from my talks with these Epaminondians, as I call them, Pythagoras has only made them worse. Imagine: our One God of numbers and good Pythagoras twisted up here to serve the Boiotian rabble. Enough, enough of them all. I am on my way home. Why wait for the assembly, when not one of these Theban rustics would even be allowed on the bêma at Sparta?”

Mêlon laughed. He had a sense of who this odd squeak-voiced fellow was. “You’re going to miss a good speech from General Epaminondas, who will rip and chew your Athenians to pieces.”

Now this fellow closed in and put his finger on the nose of Mêlon. “Most know me as broad shoulders, Platôn as they call me at Athens. I have no stomach to see the big fight between my Athenians and your Alkidamas. This is what it is all about anyway, isn’t it—a war of the philosophers, as each plots to get the farmers to march for his idea of a new Hellas? None of that for me.” So this Platôn railed. “Far better to get back over the pass at Kithairon anyway and to civilization at Athens again, before these cutthroats in the hills sidetrack an Athenian. Stranger, your ochlos up here is as bad as ours. Your cobblers and tanners are doing to your good Pythagoreans what ours once did to our Sokrates. That Epaminondas of yours, he demagogues to march southward and destroy a great polis—a city of heroes, one far greater than any of the Hellenes, yours and mine included.”

Then he stopped and looked down on Mêlon, for Platôn was taller and broader than most, for all his scroll reading. “Be careful what you tear down, hero of Leuktra, when you would promote the helots and such rabble. You think that you are torching the limp-wristed aristocrats at Athens or maybe the Spartan lords, with their scarlet cloaks and oiled locks. But you are not doing just that. Turn Hellas upside down, and you scatter to the winds all the good that oligarchy ensures—from the table manners of the refined who don’t soil their hands as they eat their greasy pork, to the Orestia of our dear Aeschylus or the hymns of Dorian Alkman—all that is the cultivation of refinement that the poor have no taste for. Do not imagine your Epaminondas can make the potter in the Kerameikos the equal to the sculptor of the Panathenaic stones on our temple to Athena Parthenos, or that there are thousands of singing Hesiods plodding behind the plows, their geniuses undiscovered only because there is not enough democracy for them.”

Mêlon was no philosopher, but he had these worries as well, and so wanted no word-fight with Platôn of Athens. “Farewell, Athenian. We mean you no evil, none at all—unless of course you block the passes on the way south.”

Platôn laughed at that and muttered as he left, “Oh, they all say that as the tanners and tile-makers take over the assemblies and kill their betters. Pray for some elite guardians to guide you. Put the no-goods to work stacking stones, or mixing clay, anything but letting them loose to vote in an assembly against their betters. The Spartans do us a favor—those good guardians who watch over the helot animals below the Isthmos. So just remember, Thespian, that Platôn, son of Aristôn, an Athenian, and lover of wisdom like his master Sokrates, warns you about turning the Peloponnesos upside down and making the bad good, and the good bad. I hope I’m not here to see the mess that will follow from your march southward.”

With this, the philosopher Platôn turned toward the southern gate and the road to Athens shouting without looking back. “Mêlon, son of Malgis,” he called out, “guardians of hoi polloi you need. Laws in stone. Phulakes and Nomoi.” Then he and his attendants were gone around the corner.

Mêlon soon arrived at the assembly and elbowed his way to the front. The meeting was already filling. Guards were roping off hundreds of attendants, those milling about, eager for a silver coin in pay to attend the voting. Epaminondas had heard of Mêlon’s coming. So his men now, just as on the night before Leuktra, escorted the Thespian through the mob to the front row of the stone theater, open and cold under the gray, wet winter sky.

Pelopidas, wearing his shiny breastplate and flanked by the officers of the Sacred Band, spoke first. Despite his pride, he proved sober in advice, without ever raising his voice. Indeed he talked in near whispers in a deep Boiotian manner, on the cue of Alkidamas, quieting the roar with his hands upraised. His men went among the front rows and smacked down the hecklers. Pelopidas then gave the delegates of the Confederation the story of the events since Leuktra. The mob stopped for a moment throwing crusts and pine cones. Most in the crowd grew still to hear of the long work of Epaminondas to the north in Lokris and Thessaly that had brought allies down into Boiotia on promises of pay and plunder to the south at Sparta. Pelopidas warned—and his voice grew a bit louder—that King Agesilaos had sent his Spartans into the new city of Mantineia. The lame king wanted to stop the fortifications of the Arkadians, who wished to live in grand cities of stone rather than be terrorized and picked off one by one in their many hamlets by the marauding Spartans.

“We, the victors of Leuktra,” Pelopidas then continued, “are worrying whether we can march a mere five days to protect the new polis of Mantineia. Meanwhile, the king of the defeated, why, the aged Agesilaos himself, marches as we speak, wherever he pleases. Winners of Leuktra cower—while losers boast.” Pelopidas had other news of the south as well. The same zeal for this new democracy at Mantineia had spread also in other Arkadian towns. The friends of Ainias had sent word that there was already a friendly rivalry in the south between Mantineia and the western Arkadians laying the stones of an even bigger city, the Megalê Polis—sixty, maybe seventy stadia to the west in hills along the river Helisson. They were to be the twin pillars of a free Arkadia. “They ask,” Pelopidas reported of the leaders of the new democratic Confederation, “only that we join them to keep the Spartan thieves busy until they raise their walls head-high to keep them out.” But grumbles followed him from the crowd. There was already snow on Parnassos. The Megarid was muddy. No crops in the field anywhere along the route. How were they to get through the Athenian guards at the Isthmos? How were they to eat?

Pelopidas waved down the hissing and batted away some hard dried apricots—the mob was unruly, just as Platôn had warned. He was soon reminding his audience that there were already ten thousand foreigners, a myriad of xenoi, outside their gates. Another seven thousand Boiotians would march if the dêmos so voted. All could be ready in a day, maybe two, to break camp. They’d be back home in twenty-five days—with a good ten or fifteen days to crush the Spartans and break their power in Lakonia. If they quit throwing their food at him, the Boiotians would have enough road rations for five days. Pelopidas reminded them that winter granaries near Megara were already secured for the army. Who knew how many friendly Peloponnesians would join in, once they saw a proud horde of twenty thousand marching across the Isthmos to Sparta?

The Boiotian crowd finally calmed, eager to learn whether there was money or fame to be had in all this. Pelopidas raised his voice and provided newer bits that left most stunned: “Yesterday, ambassadors from Elis arrived from the south. These are the oak men, with roots in stone from the coastal villages around Olympia, and they have an offer. Should we Boiotians muster to help Mantineia, should we lift the Spartan boot off their own necks, then they pledge us ten talents—sixty thousand drachmas—or enough to pay the army of the Boiotians for ten days of campaigning. The sacks of silver are under guard on the Kadmeia as I speak.”

“This coin,” Pelopidas finished, as he pointed to the temples and lowered his arms once again to calm the noise, “is in addition to what our Mantineian and Arkadian friends have promised. Of course it comes on top of our funds that the council last summer had allotted. Who will object when war is right—and profitable? I say nothing about the booty. But no one has plundered Lakonia in twenty generations, and it is ripe for the picking.” The crowd roared its readiness to march. They were drowning out the few gossips and whinings of the knights and rich long-hairs, who were saying that Pelopidas had no intention of marching five days down and five days back and then staying a mere twenty in the Peloponnesos. It sounded instead to these few rich men as if the army of the Boiotians would not be back until threshing time the next year. Still, the general of the Sacred Band strutted off the bêma to wide applause—such an astute diplomat, this Pelopidas, to have managed to grab ten talents from the wily Eleans for the farmers of Boiotia.

As Alkidamas had warned, the Athenian visitors were present in force. Perhaps twenty or so in their delegation had come over Kithairon two days earlier, in their long cloaks and costly leather boots, even if their Platôn in disgust had gone home to Athens. Mêlon noticed that the allies were all sitting by a stone column of the arch that led into the theater. Now and then they hid or came out in full view, depending on how they judged the pulse of the mob. The Athenians had already spent a day working the symposia and gymnasia among the Theban rich soft-hands, lobbying for neutrality.

A few of the older ones were murmuring now, following the words of Pelopidas and perhaps worried that the crowd was beginning to eye them and mutter its threats. No wonder Platôn had left before all this started—just as he had once conveniently said he was sick during Sokrates’s trial, and then disappeared after his teacher’s death. The smiling Athenian general Iphikrates, no friend to the Thebans, came out from behind the column wearing his breastplate. He paraded in with his guard of light-armed skirmishers and peltast, javelin men. Iphikrates was clean-shaven and was as bald on top as his face was hairless. A wrinkled vulture with his long chin and beak nose, he began squawking as if he’d found his dinner in some half-eaten rotting carcass on the byway. Iphikrates yelled out to the crowd, “Siga. Sigate. Let our Kallistratos speak; it is his right as a guest. He’ll set right the lies of your Pelopidas. Listen to your friends from Athens. Give us our due as guest-friends. We are envoys—protected by the nomima of the Hellenes.”

Alkidamas was sitting behind Mêlon. He leaned forward to whisper in his ear as he identified the Athenian strangers. “There is Kallias. With the bun of hair tied on top, the money chest next to Iphikrates. He has more coins in his mouth than even you do in your strongbox.” Alkidamas went on. “Kallistratos is a follower of Isokrates. He loves the Spartans dearly. His name may imply “a fine army,” but he is a weaver of intrigue, not a fighter. Even at Athens these two know more about us and our Epaminondas than we do ourselves—thanks to the nighttime visits north and south by Phrynê and her agents, that spy whom you dub Sphêx. Even I have not fleshed out all her plots, both with Lichas and with the Korinthians who so often bar the Isthmos.”

It was just this Kallistratos who finally mounted the bêma. He began the Athenian attack. “Men of Boiotia and friends of Athens. What is all this fiery air that this lackey of Pythagoras has breathed into this hallowed assembly of yours?” With that start, he bore down on the friends of Epaminondas in the front row in their broad-rimmed leather hats. “Do you have the noble dragons of old on your Kadmeia? If so, who let in this serpent Pelopidas who for no reason would scorch Hellas with his sparks and embers of hate, trading in peace for hateful war?” Kallistratos was pointing back at Pelopidas and Epaminondas. “Bloody Ares has left us. Peace with all her gifts is at hand. Yes, beautiful Eirênê has flown in; peace sits atop us all. Yet these men alone spurn her soft, feathered wings and downy breast, and instead yearn for the black-taloned Kêres, whose beaks drip with the meat of corpses rotting in our fields. By the gods, man, at least give this peace a moment. You Boiotians, the summer before last, won a great victory. All Hellas acknowledges the achievement of Leuktra. This turnabout was not unwelcome in my own city of Athens. But do not spoil the triumph with greed. Why would you drop the firm shiny apple in your hand by now grasping for the rotting one on the limb so far above your reach?”

Jeers followed from the crowd with a hail of flying nuts and raisins. Nonetheless, the Athenian pressed on, still striving to undo the work of Pelopidas. “We men of Athens have no love for the Spartan. Indeed, for thirty years we fought him.” Kallistratos spoke carefully now. “Then your own grandfathers were not so friendly and indeed as enemies were heartened by our grief. Thebans, not Spartans, stripped our houses on the border. Thebans sent men to Sikily to spear our Athenian sons. Thebans clamored to tear down Athena’s city when Lysander sailed into the Piraeus in his pride. All this we paid you back not with invasion. No, we gave safe haven for your radical exiles—when the Spartan occupiers then turned their attention to you and sat atop the Kadmeia right over there.”

Kallistratos once again lowered his voice, and he extended his arms with his palms open to the audience, now and then grabbing the folds of his outer cloak. It was easy for the crowd to say they hated Athenians, but more difficult to jeer at such mellifluous Attic speakers who sounded far better than their own, and were offering peace rather than war. A few Thebans now rose and cheered him on. “He makes more sense than our own warmongers. Give him more time, tell us more.”

In response, Kallistratos now threw out his enormous belly. He cared little that he was already bathed in sweat in midwinter. He wanted these enraptured Boiotian pigs to see just how rich was his table, and how much high-priced food from Attika went into his gut that alone could fuel such deep cadences. “There are many faces in this crowd—not the least this tame Pelopidas himself—that I recognize from their sanctuary in Athens. We the men of Athens once took them in, all so hungry and all on the run. Then no one else would—we did so at great danger to ourselves from our newfound Spartan friends. But these renegades would turn their flames on their benefactors by scorching friend and enemy alike. Gratitude and—magnanimity—xenia, I would have thought, are attributes not lightly thrown away by the Hellenes.”

To scattered applause, Kallistratos now frowned and took on a melancholy tone. “We Athenians are magnanimous folk. From the time of Theseus the men of Athens have come to the aid of you Thebans. Learn from us. War, after all, has proven a great leveler. We have had our fall. So has Sparta its own ptôsis. Beware that you of Boiotia do not trip up as well.” Slowly the sadness began to leave Kallistratos, and then with an increasingly contorted look, as if he had a bone in his throat, or had a stinky tooth, he began to raise his voice a notch. “We should patch our tears, and pull up over our heads our shared stitched Hellenic cloak to fend off the harsh wind from Persia. A new order has emerged after the war: No one city of Hellas, in this balanced world, dictates to another. My Theban friends, stay within your borders. Do not put the democracy at Athens in the unenviable position of having to censure its cousins across the mountain.” Kallistratos felt the crowd hush. Only one Theban, no more, yelled out, “When did Athens ever stay within its borders—or is our Delion in your Attika now?”

Kallistratos ignored him, but began to worry that the fickle farmers five rows back were tiring of his Athenian oration, as they groaned, then clapped, then hissed, then laughed, depending on the skill of his performance. “Now I address men of substance and prudence and dispense with you of the mob. My dear Boiotarchs, men of moderation and sobriety, ponder this wise counsel and put off action until after the new year. Then once more when the weather warms and the buds break can we bring matters to the council of all the Hellenes in peace, without the disruption of firebrands who as infants soil their diapers and crawl out of councils when they do not get their way.” At the end, Kallistratos’s voice had once again turned soft, as soft as Pelopidas’s, but by far the more polished. Had he not been an Athenian, the Boiotians would have perhaps preferred his mellifluous speech to that of any of their own. As Kallistratos began to slowly walk away, he stopped in the aisle amid the shouting. “A final warning. You are not talking of war thrust on you, as happened on that dark day of Leuktra when a red-caped king crossed your borders.” He pointed his finger at the front row where sat the long-haired estate owners who owned the horses of Boiotia. “No, lordly men of Boiotia, you are pondering a war of choice. This is a preemptive act. Why an optional war? Why lose the goodwill of the victim to earn the antipathy of the aggressor?”

Kallistratos went on even louder, eager to win back the crowd. “Epaminondas will just say he wants to go to Arkadia. When he gets there, he will just say he wishes to go on to Sparta. Then once there, that he wishes yet again just to cross Taygetos into Messenia—and there he gets killed any still alive. We supported your first good war at Leuktra. But not this second, unprovoked, bad war against the Spartans, this we cannot stomach. Preemption and unilateral aggression—these provocations are not in our Athenian natures.”

The assembly grew silent at that, after having laughed at his girth and been entranced by his oratory. Now they were simply confused by his warning that they might die in an unnecessary war that would have no end. Mêlon, however, saw that the real message, the only constant, from this rogue was whatever the men of Thebes did, the Athenians were against. The former was a young, a fresh democracy of farmers, the latter an old democracy of the jobless and those who looked to the dole. The one was as confident as the other was fearful. Perhaps what wily Kallistratos really had meant to say—or so Mêlon barked to Alkidamas above the shouting—was that Sparta once in the great war had beaten Athens badly. Now Athens feared that Thebes might do the same to Sparta. After all, it would be a bitter blow indeed to Athens, the self-proclaimed school of Hellas, if Epaminondas could do to Sparta in a single season what Athens had not been able to in twenty-seven.

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