Ancient History & Civilisation


Lord Kuniskos of the Helots

Gorgos had not done too badly for himself this past year in the valley between the mountains of Taygetos and Parnon, back home near his gloomy Eurotas. There, as a young man and a freed helot, more than fifty summers earlier, he had once mustered in with the Spartan general Brasidas to join the long marches against the Athenians. He remembered the farmhouses of the Spartan clans of his childhood. Lichas even had given him back his name “Puppy Dog”—Kuniskos. The helot came faster at the sound of it.

Lichas feared that his Sparta suffered the curse of oliganthrôpeia, an insidious depopulation that was the wage of sending boys into the agôgê, separated from women until they were thirty, and deploying the army out on patrol for months at a time—his red-capes training and fighting when they should be sowing the seeds of the Spartan state. That the peers were defined by pure Spartan blood from both parents only made the hoplites shrink farther, as those of mixed and foreign blood began to act as if they were Spartiates themselves. The army had been large at Leuktra, but only because those left at home to defend Sparta itself were now few. So here in a shrinking Sparta a talented freedman like Gorgos found opportunity to reclaim his lost status, not just because he was gifted in the arts of guile and double-cross, but also because there were now few Spartiates in a state desperate for men of his caliber.

At Leuktra Gorgos had not really meant to take the wounded Lophis to Lichas at all—at least not at first. Or so he swore to himself and to others later. Instead, he had wanted to risk his bones to carry the broken body of the son of his master from the fray—back up, as promised, to Nêto and their wagon on the hill above the battle. Yet when he found himself near the red-capes and saw Lichas trapped amid a sea of dead hoplites, his Spartan blood warmed and drew him to the lochos of the old guard. Just as it had fifty seasons earlier and more when he had stormed Amphipolis with Brasidas. Most leave a losing cause; Gorgos had just joined one.

After Leuktra, and a third of the way home, the Megarians, as a sign of goodwill, had offered the royal wagon some honey to pack the dead Kleombrotos for the way across the Isthmos and then over the Argive passes back home. Gorgos poured it into the cask and smeared his king, just in the manner he had seen it done as a youth. It was Kuniskos alone who drove the fallen royal home. Kuniskos tended with wool, oil, and honey to the torn ear and bloody thigh of the lame Lichas, as he took back his proper place once again in the service of the high Lakedaimonians. It was as if for the past twenty years and more he had lived in a bad trance, trapped on Mêlon’s Helikon with rustics, when he should have been serving his betters in Lakonia. As the army made its way back, Lichas in his wounds bellowed from his wagon for help. “Where is my Kuniskos? Kuniskos, how many stadia have we to home?”

After Leuktra, had Lichas not lived, the young regent Archidamos, who met the retreating Spartans with a relief force of old men and the young, would have lost both armies—if not at the Isthmos, then on the road through Mantineia on the way to the slopes before Lakonia. News of Spartan blood at Leuktra was then in the air. But it was Lichas who kept what was left of the army together, sending out patrols, bullying townsmen to offer up food and water, and promising the Argives an invasion should they attack his bloodied rearguard. Hellas needed a man such as that, a copy of Leônidas, a Lichas who had fought the Athenian hegemons and fought the Persians with Xenophon and fought them with Agesilaos; who had fought any who threatened the freedom of the city-states; the true Hellene, the only one left alive who would die for and save Hellas—a far better man to serve than the bent-leg Mêlon and the rustics on Helikon. Name a battle of the past fifty summers and Lichas had been there, fighting always for Hellas. Or thus now Kuniskos justified his treason.

As the disheartened and stunned men of Lakonia trudged home those long days of retreat, it was also the lowly Kuniskos who assured all that another Spartan army, born from the ashes of defeat, would soon rise. This was not to be a beaten force, but a victorious one with revenge and destruction its creed. “I marched with your fathers. You are the better men, my Spartans. After your Thermopylai will come another Plataia. I know the Theban pig. You will stick him next season.” In these days, Gorgos was more Spartan than the Spartans. He put the wounded Lichas on his back and shoulders and marched through the retreating army, the two chanting as they went.

Kuniskos wrapped his master’s festering wounds and gave him soup and bread when they returned to the wagon to rest. In turn, as the slow-moving army of the defeated reached Sellasia, the wounded Lichas limped out among the demoralized and hit their backsides with his cleaver and slapped the faces of the slackers. At dusk Lichas poked the slow with his spear, sitting in the cart of Kuniskos with the dead king as it wheeled into camp. When most slept, the wounded Lichas stumbled about the camp checking on the sentries, putting the fires out, and always calling out, “Kuniskos, Kuniskos, where is my Kuniskos?”

Lichas no longer called for his son Antikrates. Instead, it was Kuniskos who, Lichas boasted, had saved the army and the body of the king as the helot traitor now charmed the mind of the Spartan’s father. Once the army reached home, Lichas kept this aged servant close by his side, for Kuniskos had proved his fealty on that bitter retreat after Leuktra. Lichas was reminded as never before that few Spartans were as loyal as this Messenian—and none, for all their woven braids or bobbing horsehair crests, as clever. Lichas gave Kuniskos a plot of ground and helpers to build a tower for himself on the many-towered estates of the Lichades. Soon Lichas made the Gorgos overseer of the flocks and buildings of the Lichades. Lichas himself, the regent of Messenia, knew that it was a lie that Messenians were natural slaves, by birth inferior man-footed beasts. They were as good as Spartans, or—as his Kuniskos proved—often better. Lichas knew all this better than any Pythagorean, better than any Theban liberator, but he was not concerned that it meant anything at all. So what does it matter that some good men are slaves, some free men are bad? That men who were by nature equal, yet were slave and master, spoke nothing to him more than the clever fox who was eaten by the savage wolf, or the cowardly knight who rode atop the brave horse. “Nature’s unfair way is sometimes nature’s way.”

If Kuniskos, Lichas thought, was a better man than any in the krypteia, why should that mean he must be free? All the Hellenes were all a day from slavery. That’s what Herakleitos had sung: War makes us free or slaves. War is our father. What was unfair about that? Who cared whether the slave were smart, the master stupid? It meant nothing that the unlucky man inside the citadel ended in chains, and the lucky attacker outsider the walls led him away. That was man’s lot and a good one at that—that we are all a blink from having a chain around our necks. Why, that made us honest and eager not to fail. For all the talk of Spartan oppression, Lichas nightly reminded his Kuniskos, the men of Sparta in the barracks looked alike, talked alike, and were equal—far more equal than the slave Gorgos’s old rich masters on Helikon. Most in Sparta were judged only by their spear arms, not by their Doric or fathers’ names. If for the outsiders it was the most unequal of the poleis, Sparta was also the most equal for those inside. Gorgos agreed with his new master and was treated as he deserved, or so the helot thought. And so he relearned the Spartan ways on his way home to Sparta after Leuktra. Did the Thebans, did the Athenians, ensure their citizens were equal at the end, not just in the beginning? Did any of them have kings, ephors, an assembly and an upper-body Gerousia—the eunomia the good order of the Spartan state that stopped the power of the demagogues and ensured the rabble-rouser was checked in his infancy? In Sparta, a fat-belly tanner could hardly shout down a hoplite in the assembly, and yet the man with one hundred plethra of black soil fought alongside the spearmen with five plethra of rocks.

Lichas and his ilk were as good as their word and judged a man on what he did, not by how many olive trees he inherited. Lichas, not Epaminondas, was the true democrat of the Hellenes—or so Kuniskos told all—the sole Hellene who let the merit of the battlefield decide a man’s worth, his real timê. That’s why Lichas always asked of Kuniskos about this Chiôn, the killer of Kleonymos at Leuktra, whom he admired above all of his enemies, and peers as well. A mere slave had wiped out his own royal guard? Had a slave proved better than free Boiotians on the battlefield? Yes, this Chiôn of Helikon was a spirit of Lichas’s taste. Lichas told Kuniskos to fetch him there to Sparta and give the freed slave a red cape. Chiôn was an enemy better than most friends.

For the next spring after the battle, Kuniskos ran the household of the estate of Lichas near the banks of the Eurotas, beside the orchards of both Antikrates his son, and his dead brother Leôn. Kuniskos was a new son to take the place of the dead son Thôrax, and a better bargain in the trade as Lichas himself admitted to folk. It was Kuniskos who bossed a few young helot girls about how to cook and had his way with them. He kept the animals fed, and taught the helots of Lakonia how to manage the farms—mostly what Mêlon had taught him on Helikon. The new farm tower kept rising, under Kuniskos’s orders, wider, taller than the one of Malgis on Helikon.

Since the Boiotians were far better farmers than any Spartan, by spring Lichas’s new estate was to be the best in Sparta. “You are to be free in Sparta as in the glory days of our Brasidas and Lysander, my Boiotian-lover Kuniskos,” Lichas had laughed when he saw the crews of the helot terracing the slopes in the manner learned from the terraces of Mêlon’s farm. “For all the talk of the democrats of Boiotia, you never were such a free man on the farm of the Malgidai. What you see with your own eyes in Sparta, you receive. We don’t talk of setting helots free in the south—while they send their chattels scurrying about cooking their meals and emptying their slop jars. Like us or not,” Lichas bellowed, “we are what we are.”

Gorgos agreed. In this year after Leuktra, before the arrival of Epaminondas in the south, Kuniskos was not just the manager of the estate of Lichas, but was sent on errands all over Lakonia—to the sea at Gytheion, to the foothills at Parnon and Taygetos, and back north to the border forts at Sellasia. Always he was given rein as the emissary of Lichas the ephor. He was seen on a wagon no less, standing tall at the reins of a bright red cart with yellow wheels, up and down the valley of the Eurotas, with messages and instructions from Lord Lichas. Gorgos went about mustering a helot army against the Mantineians and preparing to purge Messenia once more of the agents of Epaminondas—especially the band of wild priestesses above Ithômê said to be stirring up the helots from their precinct to Artemis. Others in Sparta, who had no memory that went back to when Kuniskos had marched with the Spartans under Brasidas, treated the man less well. Most had heard little how he had packed Kleombrotos in honey. They had no word that Gorgos had driven the king’s caisson all the way to the Peloponnesos.

Instead the wives of the Spartan peers remembered well that his Theban masters in Boiotia, the hated Malgidai, had once stripped the grand armor of the dead Lysander at Haliartos. Did not this traitor Kuniskos in the past wait on that foul Mêlon and work alongside that man-killer Chiôn—the branded slave of the north, who with his master had taken a half-dozen of Sparta’s best at Leuktra? Treachery of any sort, disloyalty, always was looked down upon by the good Spartiates. Many rumors had also reached the women of Sparta of the wounded Thespian Lophis, who had been dumped into the camp of Kleombrotos by his own manservant.

“Look at the wretch strut,” the sister of Lichas, Lampito, would say of Kuniskos as he bustled about the acropolis to buy a lamb or goat for his master. “This mangy dog of ours paid his Thespian owner back by dragging him into our camp half-dead. A helot is always a helot, a man-footed beast. I can smell it on him. Shaving his upper lip can’t hide it. This turnabout helot did not even have the good sense to leave the losers for the winners. No, the fool came over to us as we stumbled, and left his own on the eve of their victory.” In the Spartan mind, perfidy was especially to be despised when it was coupled with folly.

But Lichas would have none of Lampito’s talk and soon his wife Elektra sent his sister out of his house. This Lichas was no simple Spartan who followed the code of Lykos or let the tribe trump talent. No, his creed was his own, of the spear and the muster, where men must earn their equality. He had once been for Lysander, another rogue who cared nothing for birth and nothing for the old ways of Lykos. The upstart bastard half-aristocrat Brasidas of old was his hero too, the outlaw who had freed the helots and made them killers of the Athenians. So when a resourceful man, even if in rags, appeared, then Lichas gave him what he pleased.

Besides, he was happy with his new tower that Kuniskos had built, round and taller even than those to the north. Now with his third wife, Elektra, Lichas at last had killers as both his servant and spouse. Elektra soon came to adore old Kuniskos and would not hear a slur against her husband’s helot. In the courtyard the two fought with wooden swords, and soon Kuniskos showed her how to swing her father’s battle-ax like the heroes of old. In this house of Lichas, Kuniskos also spent most of his time mentoring the young Antikrates, whose own nearby estate had a walled pathway to his father’s vineyard. The bald helot from Helikon grew his white side braids long and forked his beard—in the style of his master Lichas. He scraped his skull’s top completely bare, and assured the son of Lichas that he was as loyal to him as he was to his father.

Antikrates and Kuniskos soon proved inseparable, as the young man needed tutelage in the ways of the helots, and the older one an ally in the house of Lichas. Because they were alike wily sorts and equally hated Epaminondas, they both were drawn toward and distrusted each other. “No need of your whimpers and dog rollovers to me, Kuniskos,” Antikrates laughed. “When this is all over, my new old brother, Kuniskos, I will kill you in some way,” the son went on. “For you lived when your betters at Leuktra did not. That’s all that matters. So you too will die. But not yet, not just yet—or so my father and his wrinkly wife protect you. But I warn you that I am a different sort than he. I have no helot love. I say instead we are what we are born into. The priestess of Pasiphai tells me I will see you lying dead, with your bald head off on the ground. So I suppose she means I will kill you. Or maybe you will die with me, but first. But I know this, that you will not live beyond me.”

Kuniskos laughed. “I hope not, toddler. For I have already thirty and more summers more than you, and grandfathers rarely outlast their sons’ sons. Still, let it be. I am old and in years have outlived you, and probably all who hate me, whether on Helikon or here. But I know this priestess as well as you. I have put up with her stink and vapors on the altar of Pasiphai for nights on end as the goddess came into my dreams, all the while the greedy woman was chanting as she took a gold coin from my palm. She tells me dreams and swears that the greatest warrior of the Boiotians will die in my house. So I, not you, must be his killer. The fame goes to me, young blood, so what does it matter if I die old but famous?”

Antikrates had followed his father out of the mess at Leuktra. On the flight from the battlefield he had killed two Boiotians from Kithairon, both stabbed in the throat for sport as the mountain men tried to block the passes. Then Antikrates had topped that boast by reminding all that he had sliced off the arm of Kalliphon, the son of the rhêtôr Alkidamas. “I would have gnawed on it if it had tasted any good,” he laughed. Antikrates added, “The Boiotian fool was a softie. I’ll kill the father to keep company with his son in Hades. Yes, that blowhard sophist I’ll gulp down as dessert the next time around.”

Before Leuktra, Antikrates had just finished with his barracks life. Now at three tens, at his acme, he was given a full lochos of kryptes and told to cross the high pass and patrol Mt. Ithômê out in Messenia to rein in the helots. Yet still over there rumors of war and killing grew: A firebrand helot named Nikôn was murdering red-capes at night, some as they slept in camp. With him the priestesses of Artemis were harboring the insurgents to hammer weapons in new forges on Ithômê—killers and cutthroats who were afraid to face the tall men of Sparta in phalanx battle. “I need a helot I trust,” King Agesilaos told Lichas. “Send that helot man of yours with your Antikrates. Plug this leak before it takes the dam itself.”

“Kuniskos,” Antikrates said in turn, “you better than I know the Spartan way—how our grandfathers put a lid on the helot kettle during the great war with the Athenians. So we do the same. Come with me across Taygetos to put down these thieves and murderers.” So it was almost a year to the day before the great muster of the Thebans to come that Kuniskos set out over the high pass of Taygetos in the snow. He followed Antikrates and the young kryptes all on their way to Messenia to patrol the mountain of Ithômê where the word was that a free Messenia was first to sprout.

In two days the new partners and their cadre were over Taygetos, descending through olive orchards near the coast en route to the dark Ithômê, the volcano mountain that loomed off in the distance. This peak was the holy silhouette of song that every helot looked to in his moments of hope—and so beneath it was the best place to build a new Spartan camp that would put down the growing insurrection. There all could see the looming peak. Gorgos planned well. He wanted walls of all timber, with sharp stakes at the top. Antikrates talked at length with the helot who had already told him much of the landscape of Taygetos and where the best black soil of Messenia lay and the richest helots, and where the precincts of Artemis were, and the nature of this Nikôn and his brigands—and later rumors of a Nêto and a poet Erinna who were hiding in some tall mountain pass. The Spartan pressed Kuniskos for knowledge of the hard methods of Brasidas. He wanted to know just how in the great war of fifty years past the legend of the Spartans had armed the helots to fight the Athenians and thereby gone northward in victory nearly to Makedonia on his wild marches of liberation. The lash? Women? Gold? Freedom and more? “How did a Spartan get its helots to fight, to beat back and then nearly destroy the democracy? Speak to your Antikrates, helot. How can we do that again?”

“We helots believed,” Gorgos grunted, as he watched carefully the knife hand of Antikrates. Indeed Kuniskos had all sorts of ideas that the young Antikrates was all ears for—drawn from the wise ways of his youth, fifty years and more earlier when all those now dead had held their shields high for Sparta. In fact, Kuniskos walked straighter than he had ever in the vineyards of Helikon. Gone entirely was his stiff gait. Old sprains had already begun to fade on the hill above Leuktra. He spoke his old Doric again, the grunts and cadences that only the elder few had remembered hearing, but in long tirades and with words only the sophists knew. Rule, he knew, rather than service suited him—even though in the house of Mêlon he had worked far less than he did in traversing the countryside of the helots. Epaminondas once talked of how freedom could cure anything. Now Kuniskos agreed.

Soon he pranced in his fine robe, with a scarlet stripe and a rabbit-fur collar, and messed with the red-capes in his compound, spurning Spartan vinegar water and demanding unmixed wine as he passed on the black bread and barley gruel of the hoplites, for finer wheat fare and red-blooded lamb. Kuniskos kept barking promises and lies to the helots out on his travels from the coast near Pylos to the border with Arkadia far to the east. “Spartans freed the few deserving it,” Kuniskos assured all. “We—and I a helot like you—fear no Dorians, our brother Dorians.” Then he used his learning from Helikon to lecture to the assembled helots about how men born into Messenia all have a place in the empire of Sparta. Helots must feel that they are in debt to those who can guide them best—however unhappy they are to be told that they are not all by birth deserving of equal portion. If Nêto and Nikôn could lie to the Messenians about freedom, Lord Kuniskos would counter-talk to the helot unfree about why and how they were already free under Sparta.

Kuniskos reassured himself that an upstart of little talent like the empty-headed Nêto, who could wiggle her high-rigged ass in front of Mêlon and the hungry Chiôn, would never survive down there where men earned rather than whined about freedom. To hide her dullness, Nêto talked the high empty talk. But men of the stuff of Kuniskos put their lives into the service of the Spartan order. His was the natural way of men, the phusis, that let them find their station by will and talent and not mere nomos and convention and long speeches. But Nêto again, why did he always wander back to Nêto? Did he wish to kill her or take her for pleasure or both or neither? Why Nêto everywhere, always? Kuniskos was troubled that he saw the revolt caused by Nêto alone, although he knew a single woman could no more stir up twenty myriads in a half-year than could Zeus himself on Olympos.

Kuniskos would stamp out wild helot stories of a liberation to come, hunting down this Nikôn and Nêto and rooting out their prophecies of a philosopher in arms invading from Thebes. All this prattle and more after Leuktra, Kuniskos soon discovered, the Messenians had gathered, exaggerated, and spread. Epaminondas had caused this revolt, after decades of obedience and tranquility in Messenia. Women were said to have sown these lies about liberation. The priestesses of Artemis of the lowlands had given seers and poetesses the power to see the minds of the Spartans. Or so they said, as the insurrectionists went from precinct to precinct, begging bread and sanctuary in exchange for wild tales of a new Pythagoras to come down from the north, with freedom and money for all. By late summer, Kuniskos discovered that the enemy was not just helots, but also xenoi, strangers like the new priestesses of Artemis, and another even higher up in the hills—this Erinna and her Amazons who spread lies that Spartans were fleeing even before the arrival of Epaminondas.

Kuniskos often instructed Antikrates at night that he, the young son of Lichas, could be killed by no free man. Yes, Kuniskos had gotten that out of Nêto long ago back on Helikon and he knew it to be true. Once spoken, it would give this indomitable Antikrates even more strength to make it true. Kuniskos patted Antikrates on the side of the head and went on, “None of the Lichadai has the nod of the gods like you do, Master. That is worth all that they had and more still. No free man, no helot, no slave can fell you. Not one.”

At first Kuniskos had limped into the hamlets disguised as an old Argive traveler. He walked about with a walking stick and heavy wool hood, asking for shelter and news of robbers and the safety of the roads. Sometimes he wanted a meeting of the elders, as if he were a runaway helot in his thick Doric speech. A few claimed Kuniskos was also a farmhand, stripped to the waist, with wide shoulders hoeing the olives and learning of the strongest of the helots. But once he learned the nature of the towns and farms, Kuniskos came back on a horse with a phalanx of mounted spearmen behind him. “Kuniskos eimi, akouete pantes, akouete ê apothanete. I am Kuniskos. You listen up or die.” Two hundred young kryptes rode fifty steps behind him. On his ululation, they galloped to cut down any he pointed out. “Join me or die. Epaminondas and his murderers, his rapists, and his thieves will soon shear you. Your Spartans alone can save you. Join me or die—proschôrêite moi ê apothanete.”

As the weather grew hot in the next summer after Leuktra, Gorgos was looking for the troublemaker Erinna. He had reports of a she-man poetess who plotted with Nêto—always Nêto, always her—who had joined wild Nikôn and the other gang of Doreios in organizing the helots in tens and twenties. Yes, he must find Nikôn and this Erinna, who had borrowed his Nêto and never given her back, as the two helped expand the revolt. Two hundred and more Spartans under command of Antikrates were found every month rotting in the countryside. Most were gutted in the byways by these breakaways—many with black-feathered arrows in their necks, a red letter mu for Messenia swabbed on their backs with their own blood. Whole tribes of Messenians were living free in the mountains and had since abandoned their farms. They even had a forge and bellows to make blades of black iron and bronze breastplates. Nêto had taken Nikôn to her temple and had his scribe Hêlos draw on an enormous hide map of Messenia, showing where the Spartans had forts and guards. Then she parceled out regions to Nikôn’s helpers and he in turn had given them killing quotas each month. These helots rarely fought in daylight, but instead swarmed the Spartans at night, throwing pitch torches on their timber stockades and flinging arrows as they bolted out from the flames, or they hid in the forests and picked the red-capes off on the narrow paths. Or sometimes they would lie in ditches all night and cut the throats of drunken Spartans who in their wine sang their war songs as they stumbled back home from evenings with their helot women—most of them informers of Nêto’s circle.

Soon the Eleans were sending daily more copper and tin ingots and iron from down on the Alpheios, as the helots spread their forges and hammered out new swords and spearheads. Finally, most of the daylight Spartan patrols stopped altogether. As summer waned they were forced to stay mostly in Gorgos’s stockade at Ithômê. Antikrates had built a second outer wall, to surround the inner one, with more pointed stakes to keep the horde of throat-cutters out. But for all his warcraft, he began drinking more than commanding and had no stomach for fighting outside the phalanx in the ambushes where the helot renegades might kill their betters indiscriminately from afar with arrows, sling bullets, and javelins. Kuniskos soon ran the stockade, and the son of Lichas went back over Taygetos, ceding Messenia to Lord Kuniskos. Antikrates was hoping at the first of the year to fight as a spearman on the icy Eurotas, to cut down those Boiotians whom he had missed at Leuktra. Better all the way around this way. He would kill Mêlon and Epaminondas to fulfill his prophecy. The loss of Messenia—well, it would be due to Kuniskos, the old helot who would have proved unworthy as a Spartan overseer when his master had left him in charge—until Lichas and son would return to Messenia from their victory to reclaim what the treasonous helot had lost. Or so Antikrates figured as he rode home over Taygetos and left Messenia to Kuniskos.

As the last month of the year neared, just about the same time that Epaminondas was promising to tear down the Propylaia of Athens as he headed out over Kithairon, the Spartans under Kuniskos could neither leave the stockade at night nor lure any more helots inside its walls with promises of freedom. Kuniskos more often than not spent his days by the fire in drink, as his guards grew soft on the timber ramparts and fearful of the helots who no longer sent their wagons of food over Taygetos to Agesilaos. On these gray days, Gorgos prepared for the worst, and yet he often lamented to himself that life was far too short for a man of his genius, and how unfair it was that he had come into his own at the end of his sixth decade, with talents that had been unrecognized both when he served as the young lackey of Lichas and then for too many years on Helikon when he worked as a farmhand. He reflected that his life had started out well, a helot with Brasidas at ten and six. He had grown to be a man with children and freedom to his name when the great war against the Athenians had ended and been won. Then all had been lost later at the Nemea, when Malgis had caught him and made him a slave again—even as Lord Lichas before the battle at last had made him a king’s servant and with a green cape at that.

While enslaved on Helikon, Gorgos had lost all track of his wife Elaia and his son Nabis to the south. His family was banished—hungry and now dead, or so Lichas had told him. Lichas had said they all had perished when their papa Gorgos, well over forty seasons old, had not returned home to his freedman’s plot among the perioikoi near the Eurotas. Long-gone Gorgos was slandered among the half-helots as a runaway and a trembler, a dirty shield-carrier of the dirtier Boiotians. His family died in shame, or so he was told by Lichas, who often treated those he liked, and his own family as well, more harshly than he did his enemies.

Kuniskos thought, as he stretched out his long legs on his low table in his compound, that he could have created a new Messenia, had he just started at his first beard rather than in his near dotage, had he been given an indentured people at rest rather than being ordered to put down a rebellion. His dead son Nabis could have worn a red cape. He might have been a peer of Sparta, and had a hundred plethra of red grapes. Yes, if only Gorgos had not been captured at Nemea, if only the Spartans had not lied that he had not served his king. Life really was not fair when a man who was more Spartan than the Spartans had seen his genius marooned in the vineyard of Mêlon. These present triumphs, then, made Kuniskos even angrier. He was not so much grateful for his current renown as furious that it had come so late. He had been betrayed by his Nêto, by Antikrates who had left him with the growing revolt, by his master Mêlon who would soon come to settle up, no doubt to unleash on him the killer Chiôn. Only his own genius was left.

For a bit longer Kuniskos, fired by wine, about every tenth day tried to go out with his horsemen for a few stadia, to at least make a show of force with his mounted spearmen. In his wake the Messenians later would see an occasional helot with throat slit and arms tied to a post along the road. The few who could read the block letters told others that the placards read—in high Hellenic, no less—“I killed a Spartan and so am dead myself—on orders of helot Kuniskos, lord of the Helots.” Tina Spartiatên apekteina, kai ôs apothnêskô autos. Touto keluei ho helotês helotetôn despotês ho Kuniskos.” Kuniskos was after the girl helot seer who was said to be promising a day of freedom for the helots—and who was arming them to fight. Kuniskos was sure that Nêto led the helot ambushers from her sanctuary in the temple of Artemis; but he found few who would confirm his suspicions, and he was now as often as not befuddled with drink. So perhaps the chief troublemaker might be this Sapphic Erinna, who, his spies related, was causing rebellion in her supposed school on the high cliff. Kuniskos decided to make his own night raids to catch them both. With his last hundred horsemen, all the cavalry he had there beneath Ithômê, he targeted the shrines and rural temples of Messenia and all the farmlands that belonged to the gods, sweeping down on moonless nights to plunder and burn them, and riding off with the priestesses back to his compound by dawn.

Inside the stockade, Kuniskos would have their heads shaved. Then they would be given fur caps and dressed in skins and hides, with leather ropes and long fox tails dangling from their naked waists to their bare buttocks. The guards would chain the captives to serve meals for the kryptes. Kuniskos would keep twenty or so of his “animals,” then when he tired of them, he would send the batch over Taygetos to Lichas and seek more replacements. At banquets, Kuniskos and his peers soon were throwing raisins at the helot servant girls while they danced and sang bare-breasted under coercion. Then, full of wine, Kuniskos and his thugs took whoever they pleased, the more virgins, the better. Life could be good in the twilight of Spartan Messenia.

As the new year approached, all of Messenia was in open revolt, with helots even armored and marching about equipped as hoplites with heavy armor. Theban scouts were rumored to be in the hills around Ithômê. Kuniskos’s final batch of captives was small, not more than a few Messenian girls that had hid out near the Alpheios. They were all from the precincts of Artemis of the lowlands, all would-be diviners in training, they said. In their final late-night sweep, the handful of kryptes in service of Kuniskos had brought in seven temple women, to be stripped and to be asked—as they were hung by their toes from the rafters of the great hall—when and where Epaminondas would arrive, and who among them had prepared his way.

Kuniskos did what he pleased with Antikrates gone. If he were to perish in Messenia, then he would do so in a way that lived on in song—and in the terrified hearts of the Messenians. So his men whittled down his stock of prisoners. They sent most over to Taygetos to be thrown into the gorge. A few they roped to the fence post outside the stockade for the crows and buzzards that circled in wait over the house of Kuniskos. Korakôn oikos, they began to call the compound of Kuniskos, “House of Crows.” The ugly ones they lopped, sticking their heads on stakes and throwing their bodies in the fire pit.

Soon there were almost no captives left inside the compound and there was no way to bring any more from the outside. Among the last haul of the prisoners from the Alpheios was a woman taller than the rest, who covered her head and kept apart. Kuniskos had told his guards to bring this one in last, and claimed she spoke a half-helot tongue, as if she had learned her speech from others beside helots. His henchman Klôpis wanted her, but he drew back when Kuniskos stepped in between him and the helot. She had caught the eye of the drunken Kuniskos, who poked with his walking stick at her thick winter cloak; he wanted some sort of sport with her.

Beneath the folds and tucks of her inner chiton, the old man could see firm flesh and firmer breasts, or so he fancied in his drink. A body it seemed as perfect as he had seen and without scars of torture or the brands of slavery, much less the tears and sags of childbirth—and a priestess unspoiled for his lust. As was his custom with the women, he reminded his men that it was his right to first order anyone into his chambers before they were noosed and dangled on the trusses. There she would first talk and then endure the passion of Puppy Dog. If she gave the name of a rebel or the location of a house of resistance, she would be given back her life, but only after the fire of Kuniskos had been quenched and a hot brand had been burned into her cheek—and if her tales had proved true and had led to the killing of those she had betrayed. But now there were no more fresh captives, and this woman, as ordered, was the last to be brought to Kuniskos.

“Why have you come across the Alpheios?” Kuniskos laughed. “You seem to have the look of the huntress, with your long arms and legs. Are you a Sapphic? There are travelers, they say, from Arkadia, or is it that a few lost Boiotians came your way? Surely you can tell Grandfather Kuniskos something of their talk?” He stuck his hand into her hood and pinched lightly her covered neck. “Where is this foul Proxenos? I hear he has a plan for a new city on top of my house, right here on my mountain. Stranger, do you know a Nêto? Or this Amazon Erinna whom you must have heard is in the highlands? Or maybe you’ve mixed it up with this Doreios? Or are you the woman of Nikôn?”

The cloaked figure muttered only a word or two about “a horde from the north.”

“A horde, now? Of Boiotians maybe? You know the Messenian prophecy?”

“And some Arkadians. I know no more news.”

Kuniskos laughed again. “What does this horde want with this Kuniskos? To throw down Sparta and raise up Messenia?”

“Perhaps—though the god has not told me all that. They act only as fate wills. It’s too late. Neither you nor your Spartans can ward off the great reckoning.”

“Reckoning, is it? Come nearer, priestess, sit on your granddaddy’s lap. Either you be a talker of the gods’ minds, or some faker in the robes of a holy woman sent here to stir up our kind. But I say, come near, scoot over, cast off that hood. Do you remember who I am?”

The hooded girl spat back. “They know you as Kuniskos. The new killer of the helots, or so the travelers say Lichas mined you out of Taygetos, hammering you from stone to smash down your own kind. You kill the Messenians sometimes as the farmer, sometimes the mounted man, sometimes their friend and recruiter. They say you are alone and a drunkard and even your lord Antikrates has left you to swing on a Messenian gallows.”

Kuniskos liked her sauciness and even more his own playacting. In his wine-craze he was close to confessing to her his charade, but wished the drama to play out a little longer. Kuniskos tugged a bit on a thick cord that was wrapped tight around her left foot. “What a nice little bitch on a leash to visit her Kuniskos. But when Klôpis brings me virgins from the helot temples, I send them back soiled and stamped—the lucky ones that do not go over Taygetos to the pits. With the seed and the brand of Kuniskos—my own kappa burned right into their cheeks and a puppy in their belly, if I’m lucky.”

He yanked on her leg chain a bit more. “They learn to serve men’s lust on the street corners. Or maybe they play flutes at the fine houses for a few coppers. For the goddess has nothing to do with them stained and polluting her sacred ground, especially if with child, the new litters of my puppies to come.” Gorgos was pulling the chain ever harder, as he went on. “So Virgin, talk—unless you wish to feel the spike of Kuniskos inside you. Then the pictures and whispers in your head will disappear for good. An ugly gamma will mark your cheek just as your own Messenian killers smear their bloody letter mus on my innocent dead. You alone earn the gamma—for the sake of the ancient days on Helikon.” With that end to his drama, Kuniskos, drunk and stumbling, with haze in his eyes and dizziness in his head, threw off the young woman’s long cloak and veil. Then he tore her chiton. But then even he, lord of the Helots, froze for a moment in his delight as the wine no longer clouded his vision.

His eyes flashed, and he yelled to Klôpis, “Bar the door, bar it and for the night!” Kuniskos calmed and laughed. “You now. We are a long way from that hill above Leuktra, are we not, my Nêtikê? Nêtikê. Oh, my lovely Nêtikê at last. So lovely after all, in your nakedness, as I dreamed. So much the better for all my waiting. Now in service to the lord of the helots, of your own kind. Now you leave the virgin world of Artemis and will join that of Erôs.”

She spat at him. “Kuniskos, a new name for an old monster. You were never drunk. You knew me even in your feigned stupor, liar, dogface.”

“And no doubt, you knew that I did, at first sight when they brought you in, for all your denials of your old lust. You enjoyed our little game as much as I did. No matter. Past is past. For you alone, my Nêtikê, it is Gorgos. Only you can call me that, my old name, in your erôs as you groan for your Gorgikos. As I promised, I will brand you not with a kappa for Kuniskos, but you alone with a little gamma no less—a gammikon for the Gorgikos of old and for the sake of the Helikon days and on that soft unspoiled cheek.”

She let out a shriek as the toothless satyr dropped his bright robe. It was the alalê, alalalê of Helikon, the war cry of Nêto of the Malgidai—the paean to Alalê, daughter of Polemos. Nêto was caught in the lair of Gorgos—no longer the loyal servant of Mêlon but Kuniskos, the fading lord of the helots. He pulled hard on her roped leg and sent her sprawling to the floor, as he had wanted to for twenty summers on Helikon even under the deathless eye of Mêlon, who was now far away on the road to Mantineia.

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