Ancient History & Civilisation


Holy Leuktra


Mêlon Comes to Leuktra

A cart approached raising a high dust trail. A few more hoplite soldiers for the outmanned army?

Atop the hill, in the center of the plain of Leuktra, a lookout man of Epaminondas was already yelling out the news. Proxenos, the Plataian, had spotted the wagon in the distance—but only one, a single-ox cart maybe, making its way up the switchbacks from the town of Thespiai. That surely meant Mêlon from Mt. Helikon had come to battle at Leuktra as he had promised. He was late, but here nonetheless for the final reckoning with the Spartans. And it looked as if he came with two other men as well.

“He’s here. Mêlon of Thespiai is here with Epaminondas, or least almost here.” Proxenos did not wait for the wagon to near. He ran down to the camp of Epaminondas to tell his generals that the apple, the mêlon of the Spartans’ dreaded prophecy had at last come to battle—as if the awaited man were now worth a thousand, if not five thousand at least. The presence of Mêlon, the apple, would win over the hesitant horsemen and the scared farmers and the ignorant tanners and potters as well. Could not the council start this very night and muster the army for battle? Oh yes, Proxenos thought, all the silly superstitious Boiotians would at last fight now. They would battle not for right or even their land, but buoyed by the idea they would destroy the Spartan army with this aging cripple of prophecy, Mêlon, son of Malgis, at their side and General Epaminondas at their front.

Mêlon saw ahead the lookout running down the hill, but made no point of it. He was in the back of the cart and stretched his legs out. The Thespian also ignored the singing of one of his slaves, Gorgos, beside him. Instead, he pointed to the other with the reins, Chiôn, to find the good ground and let old loud Gorgos be. Mêlon’s feet without sandals were now dangling from the open backside. His old, twisted leg was wrapped. He had bound it with leather straps for battle. Mêlon had wedged himself among the food and arms, propped up in the back of the deep cart—and had just woken up again, when a wheel jolted out of the stone ruts and slammed back in.

The groans of the ox Aias, as the wagon kept uphill a bit longer, had helped to rouse Mêlon from his dark returning dreams of a high mountain hut. The shack was not the one on his own farm on the uplands of Mt. Helikon. Not at all.

Instead, it was alien and had something to do with this impending war, and seemed to be shared somehow with Gorgos. But it was far away, cold—and, he sensed, to the dreaded south. How he wished the dream interpreter Hypnarchos were here, with his red-lettered scrolls that made sense of the nonsense of the night visions, and taught which dreams were false and which could prove true. In these apparitions, this shed was also shrouded in rain and winter fog, high in spruce trees somewhere amid the clouds. The hazy peaks around it were foreign, and not those of his Helikon. His Gorgos was there too, just as he was here now, still singing his Tyrtaios, but different looking and sounding as well. His other two slaves, Nêto and Chiôn, they were also in this far-away vision. He remembered that much and accepted that the dreams became more frequent as the war loomed closer.

But Mêlon was now fully awake and he sensed Gorgos was, too—likewise rousted from the same dream. Mêlon looked about Boiotia again as the wagon slowly creaked past the hill’s summit to a flat meadow. He saw no shed of his dreams anywhere, but he heard his name shouted by some guards off to the right. Otherwise, the cut grain fields were quiet and empty. Not a Spartan yet to be seen. A brief lull had taken hold of the countryside. The early summer threshing was long over. The grapes had their first color on the greener hillsides.

So all was quiet for tomorrow’s battle. For all the summer heat, his Boiotia was not nearly as dry, not so barren as he feared it might be. Towering Mt. Parnassos was at his rear. A peak higher than Helikon, with a touch of the undying snow even in summer. To his left rose rocky Ptôon by the sea. Up there was the temple of Apollo. He had hiked the pathway with Malgis—even after his father had stopped seeing the older Olympian gods, and had turned instead toward worship of the Pythagoreans, whose god was Lord Logos, and whose priests were philosophers, claiming that the divine was not just more powerful than men, but more moral as well. On behalf of this god, long ago his father Malgis had died at the battle at Koroneia. For all this land, long ago Mêlon had ruined his leg against the Spartans. And for all the Boiotians, his only son, the best of the three of the Malgidai, was tomorrow willing to ride into the spears of the Spartan horse.

As he scanned the plains and hills around Leuktra, Mêlon saw now how the farmer creates his own better world of trees and vines. He gets lost in it, and needs someone to bring him out of his refuge. His son had now done that for him and so brought him to the grand vision of Epaminondas, but then, again, Lophis had never fought the Spartans. Any who did, as Mêlon had, might wish to never again, and so would remember why the world of the orchard and vineyard was far safer than the chaos of what men produce in town. Yet then again, no man can be the good citizen alone on his ground, although Mêlon had tried that for thirty years and more, in between his service for the Boiotians. A farm may hide failure, be a salve to hurt and sorrow, even disguise fear and timidity, but it cannot be a barricade of peace when there is mayhem outside its walls. And there was now plenty of that at Leuktra.

As he neared the creek of Leuktra, Mêlon saw again from the jostling wagon that his Boiotia was a holy place. It was no pigsty of marshes and dullards the way the Spartans slandered it. If it were, why would they be here this day to take it? It was time anyway for this settling up tomorrow, Mêlon thought, even if it meant that the Malgidai would have to mortgage their all—himself, Chiôn, Gorgos, and Lophis, maybe even the farm itself. The fight was not yet about Epaminondas freeing the slaves of the south, he assured himself. Not entirely tomorrow. Nor about the Pythagorean dream of “we’re all equal” that would take the gods to enforce. Nor about the promises of oracles and seers that Mêlon was the apple who had to fight at Leuktra for Epaminondas to win—and for a Spartan king to die.

Apart from all that, Mêlon and his son Lophis would battle just this once more to push the invaders off his soil. Or at least he thought he would, since he had not yet met this Epaminondas—this huge jar into which everyone seems to throw their dreams, fears, and hopes. The seers said the men of his age were not like the grandfathers of their grandfathers, who had saved the Hellenes from the Persians at Marathon. Mêlon’s debased generation was said not even to have been the equal of their grandfathers, who had helped the Spartans stop Athens from gobbling down Hellas. But now the Boiotians—right here, tomorrow—they could at least end Sparta? That would prove that the polis was not through yet, that the blood of the old heroes of Hellas, of Miltiades, of Lysander and of Pagondas, still ran in the veins of the Boiotian farmers at Leuktra.

So a sense of contentment, of eudaimonia had come over Mêlon, son of Malgis, as they had left his farm this past morning. For its vines and trees, and tall grass—and for fear of being found wanting in the eyes of the dead—he would pick up his spear. For his son Lophis, and his son’s young wife Damô and their boys and their neighbor Staphis who had braved the hoots of the Thespians in the assembly—and for the simple folk of his Thespiai who never had harmed Sparta—he would fight Sparta and seek to end Sparta. Staphis with the smelly single cloak and a bleary eye and his stick arms was the least likely hoplite in Thespiai—and the only one who had joined the Malgidai for battle. Even now Mêlon recalled the rabble in the assembly back home, who had hooted the vine man Staphis down when he alone had called for the town to muster with Epaminondas.

“We know,” Staphis had screamed back at them, “that the Pythagoreans will join Epaminondas, whoever this general is.” Vine growers rarely had the ear of the assembly and he was not about to lose his moment as he bellowed out more. “And we know his fellow Thebans will as well. And those who could use plunder from the dead on the battlefield may wish to go to Leuktra. Others who hate Sparta will line up in the front rank. But why should we farmers on the high ground of Helikon care whether these Spartan invaders torched the wheat land of the lowlanders below or trample our vines? Why would I, with two daughters and a gout-footed wife, risk a spear in my gut, when my grapes are overripe and rot on the vine for want of pickers? Why? Well, I will tell you: for the name of Helikon, of course. And for the pride of our Thespiai, and for holy Boiotia that bore and raised us. Yes, for the idea that no Spartan will ever again barge into the ground of their betters, and that on the morrow, we shall end Sparta for good as we knew it. For all that, I, Staphis, will walk alone to find a slot in the front line of my general Epaminondas.”

Now remembering all the lofty words of the defiant Staphis, as he neared the enemy encamped at Leuktra, Mêlon sensed, like Staphis, that decay was not fated. Decline was a choice, a wish even, to idle and to lounge and willingly to become lesser folk, rust that appeared to feed on the hard iron of what their parents had wrought. If Boiotia were to fall, it would not be because of Lichas and his Spartans, or Persians from across the sea, or the wild tribes who swept from Makedon, but because lesser Boiotians simply let them in, preferring wine and flute-girls to blood and iron.

The farmers of Helikon had the good on their side. They had never yet marched down into Lakonia to bother the Spartans. Mêlon had never sung war songs like the war-loving Spartans did. But now, today, they were burning his homeland of Boiotia, and nearing his polis Thespiai. Until now, for much of his life, he certainly had not had much feeling one way or another about their helot slaves—at least not until this summer. But the Spartans had provoked Epaminondas, and now the general in fury would risk thousands of Boiotian farmers killed for the freedom of the Messenian serfs and to end Sparta for good. Is that the nemesis that the hubris of Sparta has earned—and their ruin that was to come at last? But was there another way to stop them? Surely not, at least not for good. A wall of stone, a mountain perhaps could block a line of advancing Spartan hoplites, but not other mere men, at least as he had known them until now. A man, Mêlon now smiled at his wild thoughts, could think of a lot as he rested in the back of a cart on the way to war.

Each spring, the tall men of Sparta from the south came to torch when the grain of Boiotia grew heavy and dry. This summer, almost on a town crier’s schedule, King Agesilaos had ordered the other king, his royal partner, Kleombrotos, to bring in another army. The two promised that Boiotia would be theirs before the rumors of war and promises of revolution spread to the south and took flesh—before the rest of Hellas got drunk, they also said, on the mad idea that the poor man with nothing could vote in the assembly right alongside the noble with everything and put the worse in charge of the better. All that would ruin what was once good in Hellas. Or so they also said.

Boiotia knew that Kleombrotos, if his army won at Leuktra tomorrow, would then unleash his henchman Lichas to kill the Pythagoreans of Thebes. Lichas would round them all up, since their talk about equality was at the root of this democracy—and their notion that their one god judged men on their merit rather than, like the Olympians, by their power and nobility. The Spartans warred not just against the Boiotians, but against the notion of democracy itself.

Mêlon knew Epaminondas was right to face the Spartans down, even though he did not believe he was fated to kill a Spartan king or that any such silly prophecy was needed in the ranks to win. He was here instead to do some big thing. He would accomplish something different from the last years, to end his quiet and plunge into the roaring storm’s surf rather than hear it crash from a safe distance. Perhaps the muscles of his Chiôn and his own skill with the spear would put an end to it all. Who better than these two veterans could stop the Spartans? Tomorrow was as good a day as any to start, here at this fight beside Leuktra creek.

Then a strong breeze blew across his face from the south, and Melôn was back out of his dreams of the day and fully awake again, once again the lame farmer from Helikon and no longer the would-be savior of Hellas. The wagon had pulled up well beyond the outer edge of the Theban camps, almost alone on the upland plateau. A thousand tents spread down the slopes to the gully at Leuktra. The “white” creek of Leuktra was mostly a trickle by summer, more fouled and black with moss than white with running foam. Finally the three neared the flat top of the hillock most distant from the center of the Theban camp. Some oaks and a laurel tree there shaded a small spring that fed a clean stony pool. Only a few Theban tents were this far up, across the way on the neighboring rise above their army below.

Gorgos was still singing his most peculiar Spartan tune—“It is a noble thing for a good man to die, falling among the front-fighters, fighting on behalf of his fatherland.” The harsh beat sounded like some nonsense from an ancient Spartan war song of the poet Tyrtaios—even though the three in the wagon were supposed to be Boiotians, pledged to fight for General Epaminondas, the final arrivals from Mt. Helikon to the Boiotian camp.

Gorgos had kept on with his song even as the wagon passed by the Boiotian campfires—all the louder, the more numerous the enemy tents appeared on the hills across the gully. In his defense, he often claimed that before the Malgidai had captured him he too had been a helot, a noble of Messenia born far to the south, but one Spartan freed and Spartan trained. Now with seventy summers and maybe more behind him, his gravelly voice kept croaking out Doric song lines like, “fighting on behalf of his fatherland.” But whose fatherland did he mean?

The closer the wagon had come to the army of the Boiotians, the wilder the mind of Gorgos became. He decided now that he did not like at all this idea of fighting against his old benefactors, the Spartans. Not even if they were here up north tramping on his master’s ground and he had not been with them for more than twenty years. Only with the threat of the lash had Mêlon dragged him with armor to the stream here at Leuktra. And Gorgos suspected that these Boiotian pigs were not fighting tomorrow just as defenders against the Spartans’ invasion, at least not entirely, or even that this bloodletting would be the end of it. Instead if they won tomorrow, if they beat their betters, they would promise endless battles to come in the south for Epaminondas. He was their ragged dreamer who got them drunk on notions that they were going to be liberators and freers of chattel slaves and so become better even than the slave-owning gods on Olympos themselves—notions far more dangerous than fighting for mere plunder, pride, or revenge. Could not a brave man kill that faker, slit his throat, cleave off his head—and so save untold men from dying tomorrow?

Yet Gorgos still kept arguing with himself as he chanted, not quite a Spartan lover, for he was also loyal to Mêlon in his way, and had also known as a young helot the hard stroke of a Spartan lash, one that cut far deeper than did the Thespian. His grudge was more with the madman Epaminondas who wanted endless war, not mere battle of an hour or two—a total war and not just to defeat Sparta but to end the Spartans. And not to free a helot or two, but to free all of them.

Even his recluse master Mêlon would no doubt listen to the firebrand Epaminondas. His entire clan on Helikon already talked of setting up democracy, such a fantasy where dogs and birds could vote alongside landowning citizens—of marching into his Sparta, of building vast free citadels in the Peloponnesos of towering stone, of liberating the helot serfs so that the Spartan lords would finally have to farm and could not fight, of turning Hellas upside down and putting the worse over their betters. And all this craziness for what, old Gorgos now asked himself on the eve of battle. If his master in the back of the wagon was mumbling in his dreams, why could not he as well? The Boiotians claimed a Pythagorean lie that all creatures who bleed are equal and all our souls become happy in the hereafter for lives well lived. If victory tomorrow led to that lotusland, well, then, better defeat and death for his master and himself in the noble Hellas rather than to live on in the new bastard one.

As Gorgos kept dreaming and chanting out his poet Tyrtaios on the ride to the battlefield, he forgot again they were already passing amid the army of Epaminondas. Soon he was back in his trance as his singing returned to his childhood in Lakonia. The slave closed his eyes. He could still dream, more so now than ever. Chiôn had the reins, not he. Here on this eve of the end, all the more he could feel thousands of Spartans were nearby in the hills across the plain. He thought he could see, even feel the front line of the enemy Spartans ahead, thousands of tall men in red capes and long black braids. They would be grim still—just like he remembered them as a boy the first time he saw hoplites under Brasidas. The Spartan Homoioi had all been marching to pipe music, just like they did when he was later captured at the Nemea battle. Their shields would be out chest-high, the spears all lowered. Breastplates, helmets, greaves all would be dazzling in shiny bronze—horsehair crests bobbing, scarlet cloaks flapping in the wind. All in perfect order. A porcupine, as deadly as it was beautiful—with quills out and ready for stabbing.

Gorgos thought he could almost see that death walk of his noble red-caped killers. Oh how he wished he were with them and not here with the soon to be losers at his side. Sparta was always short of men, and here he was untapped, unused, a Boiotian slave no less. The helot even began tapping his foot, even in the back of Mêlon’s wagon, alongside the dozing master. Who cared, since they would all die anyway in a few hours. Boiotians always fall when they meet the better men of Sparta. So it did not matter that an old helot in Boiotia sang the songs of the enemy or woke up his sleeping master.

Then a hard slap. Gorgos almost fell off to the road. The song ended. The other slave, the driver Chiôn—“Snowy” most thought chiôn meant—had let loose of the reins, turned, and given Gorgos his backhand. He slapped Gorgos for no more than his bad verses, or so it at least seemed. Chiôn stayed silent, even as he stood tall again, always a head higher than any around him, now driving amid the rising dust. He was the young one, Gorgos the far older slave. In his years of his pout and isolation, their master Mêlon had let both of his two farm slaves run almost wild. They managed the vineyards on Mt. Helikon more than did their master. Now with this new notion of Epaminondas and talk of freeing of the helot serfs to the south, not much longer could a liberator own other Hellenes anyway.

Mêlon himself woke yet again to the sound of the slapping of Gorgos. In the back of the wagon, he had fought with his own visions. Maybe he should have long ago killed these two slaves, inasmuch as both were smarter and stronger—and far angrier—than their master, just as he thought he was to all others on Helikon. If Chiôn and Gorgos survived the battle, if they were freed, even in his dotage Gorgos would kill too many of the good, as if he were some whip of the Spartans; and Chiôn would kill too many of the bad, as if he thought he had the rights of some fury god. It was a dangerous thing to free slaves with good minds and longer memories. Who could guarantee that they would kill each other and so cancel themselves out, before the corpses of the guilty and innocent alike piled up?

War, Mêlon at least knew, is the great torch that brings such heat and light to everything and everyone. Nothing can hide from the god Polemos, not even the clever mind of Gorgos who now sang like a traitor. But then he saw Chiôn smiling; did the Spartans have any idea of how many of the red capes that one would kill? Mêlon went on and imagined that, like some high mountain bear, his Chiôn might take down all these southerners, drag them to the nearest oak, hang them up by their heels with their red tunics, and let the dogs and birds do the rest. Or so he remembered Chiôn mumbling, that and more still: that spearing was too good for them. Chiôn talked more like that because he was now close to the moment of battle, to being freed at last to make all things right, as he promised, for his master, for his slave Nêto, for the good son of Mêlon, Lophis, for freeing slaves of the artificial laws of the polis that said some are free, others not.

The cart stopped. Gorgos unhitched a sweaty Aias. He roped and hobbled the ox to the tongue. The helot gave enough slack so that the beast could drink from the creek water. Cagey Gorgos had guided Chiôn well here. He laughed out loud, as he thought how clever he was to have known the spot in advance—maybe as a back escape path down the hill should the slave Chiôn turn feral and try to kill him right here? Or was it a way to get out the backside, should the Boiotians lose—or even win? About four stadia away on an opposite gentle rise, the three could make out through the haze where King Kleombrotos and his horde of Spartans had settled down for the night. The ditch and brush ramparts of the invading Spartans were already finished—and all done in just the two days since the king’s arrival in Boiotia. The outline of shadowy Mt. Kithairon loomed to the enemy’s rear.

Mêlon knew how to compute numbers. He had long ago measured borders when the farm squabbles broke out on the upper plots on Helikon. Now he saw there was a far larger army of invaders than there was in the new Boiotian tent town of Epaminondas below them. What had his son Lophis talked him into—and into what had Epaminondas talked the Boiotians? The old man turned to Chiôn. “I gauge at least ten thousand of them, maybe twelve or even fifteen thousand more Spartans over there, who need killing. Three to two, against Epaminondas, maybe closer to two to one. For all his fine talk of freeing the unfree, that is all that is left. Either they keep ravaging Boiotia or we stop them. You stop them only by knocking down the royal Spartan bunch on the right wing where they need killing the most. Only the spear arm stops them. Nothing else. They won’t parley, won’t surrender, won’t stop—until killed. No need to count them. They aren’t going anywhere. Why should they when they outnumber us?”

Chiôn paid him no heed. Mêlon could smell the campfires of the Spartans as they roasted their sacrificial goats for their early meal. He kept talking to himself. For stadia well beyond their ditch and camp wall, early evening fires were flickering everywhere on the hills opposite, on the other side of the gully in the growing twilight. The whole world tonight seemed Spartan. How were they to beat men like that, said to be better and known to be more numerous? King Kleombrotos, Mêlon said to himself, if he wins, he will be supping inside the seven gates of Thebes. By tomorrow at dusk we will all speak Doric on our way down into Hades as well.

The two slaves still ignored their babbling master and kept unpiling their gear.

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