Ancient History & Civilisation


Lichas the Spartan

Across the way, the Spartans were working, not thinking—stacking brush as a wall on their backside. They had the dry streambed and now a ditch as rampart at their front. Unlike the Boiotian camps, there was order here in their huge circle—a taxis, a plan of marching hoplites in drill and to pipe music. On this night before the battle, the stewards on cue brought kettles of black barley soup and spits of roasted goat. Over there, Gorgos knew, stalked bald Lichas, son of Lichas, the best of the old Spartan breed. Lichas had fought the Athenians forty summers earlier. He knew enough of Epaminondas that if the fool had his way in making everyone equal who were not, then there would be no place for the better ones like Lichas himself in the new softer Hellas. Only Lichas and a few of his Spartan henchmen stood in the way between the old and better ways of the Hellenes and this polis-wrecker Epaminondas.

Now in confidence Lichas went from campfire to campfire rousing his men on. “Comb your hair who have it, men. Shave your upper lips clean. Look like the better men you are when we face these pigs. We are no different from the tall men who once broke the Persians at Plataia. Why, we could still sail into Athens, as our grandfathers did, and tear down its walls. So chant your Tyrtaios. Tomorrow, right at mealtime we eat on their acropolis, atop their Kadmeia. The Boiotian pigs? Why, they will soon sup in Hades. Listen to your king. Our Kleombrotos, king of Sparta, speaks at torchlight.”

His hulking son Antikrates followed. He was a giant of a man outfitted like a battling Ajax or Achilles depicted on the red clay pots from Athens. The panoply was all Spartan style, but heavier and thicker and better than most armor of the peers, his scarlet cloak a deeper hue and with a silver trim. Few others could carry the weight of such bronze. His willow shield was ten palms wide, as round as the best turned cartwheel, hewn from the copses on the low slopes of Taygetos. Bull leather padded the inside, and on the outside was hammered a tin lambda for Lakedaimon, the home of Sparta. His thick left forearm alone could hold it chest high. Two dented bronze greaves covered his shins with an olive oil sheen—and each with two intertwined serpent bosses, no less, hissing and biting as they wound around each other down to his feet. More oily leather sheets were stitched to the greaves’s insides. Antikrates wore the old-style chest plate, all cast and hammered bronze, with silver clasps joining the back sheet to the front. Small finger-length silver running stags with six-pointed horns were hammered about, all with eyes of gold, of intricate design, patches that covered the holes and cracks from twenty spear thrusts from Arkadians, Athenians, and Boiotians, fool hoplites all who died thinking they could reach the flesh of Antikrates through the bronze scales of his armor.

His pteruges—wide leather straps weighted with iron square rivets—hung down from his breastplate, flapping about to protect his lower parts, should the long leather apron on the bottom of his shield fail. The helmet crest of Antikrates—black stallion hair, mixed in with a white mare’s tail—bobbed a foot higher than his head, making him seem taller, more savage still. A bit of beard and two narrow eyes were all that peeked out from his bronze helmet, as if there were some beaded lizard behind the horrific metal mask. Or perhaps there was, since few had seen Antikrates without his helmet. Haima—“blood”—he called his spear of cornel wood with a black iron head that went nine feet from its bronze butt spike up to the sharpened point. The shaft was a thumb or more thick, too heavy for any but his father Lichas to stab with. All this was worth more than five oxen, or a field slave of thirty years. The panoply had once been worn by Lichas in his flower until he passed it on to Antikrates, lest one day the old man fall in battle and have Haima carried off by an Athenian or Theban lord.

The Spartan even with the weight of his armor was as straight as his father Lichas was stooped. Antikrates scowled and slapped any helot servant who was slow to get out of his way: “Shield against shield—crest against crest we fight. Ares is our god. Artemis and Pan are our henchmen.” While the Boiotian generals across the gully parleyed and bickered and voted, these invaders were united, all eager to raise their spears. They were worried only that the Boiotians might run rather than fight them. The enemy camp told this story of Spartan order well enough. Shields, thousands of them, were arranged in neat concentric circles. Most rested on wooden tripods. A lean-to of twenty spears—not one out of kilter—stood next to every fire. Helots ran from campfire to campfire with pots of oil and jugs of wine. Order governed the camp, so too order on the battlefield—Spartan eunomia.

As the hoplites prepared their mess, dutiful Messenian slaves had taken out their sheepskin rags. They dipped them in olive oil, polishing their masters’ breastplates and greaves. Others brushed their horsehair crests. Still more braided the long tails of their masters’ hair. Amid them all, Antikrates now left the side of his father. He marched through the camp after an older and toothless red-cape Sphodrias, who liked to sneak into the enemy camp and slit the throats of the snoring. The two kept bellowing out as they stalked past the fires, “Get out your whetstones. Sharpen your cleavers. Our blades will go through these pigs as spits do fat pork. Sharper still. Always file your iron, men. Ready your iron for your king.”

Finally King Kleombrotos himself appeared and yelled out to his Spartan subjects. He was standing on the back of a wagon surrounded by a throng of his royal hoplites. The lord was a young sort, maybe no more than forty years. As the king of the Agiad line, he had already held his office for the past nine. Kleombrotos had not wanted to fight this day. He had headed north for Thebes only because he feared the wrath of Lichas and the ephors—overseers who audited the king’s campaign—should he slink and file out of the plain without battle. Although he knew his Spartans would win, Kleombrotos did not expect to survive the battle. Even back in the south he had heard of the helot Nêto’s prophecies of his own doom at White Creek where he would meet her master Mêlon. Kleombrotos feared Epaminondas as much as he did Zeus. Now the eye blinks he had suffered since childhood, and his bad head tilt of the past year, made him talk more in the fashion of a slave or half-helot than a king of Sparta.

“Men of Sparta. Another spring in Boiotia, so another victory over the pigs. Nothing ever changes for us, the better men of Sparta—unchanged since the days of the founder Lykourgos. Right after our breakfast and wine, we go out. You know the Spartan way: We fight each other for targets and enemy hoplites. Pray there will be enough of them for our spears. We go always to the right across the field—rightward all the way to their rear without a break in our stride. Tomorrow we mass twelve deep—not our eight shields of the past. All the better to crush the Theban pigs at the first spear thrust. No worry about our flanks. Men of Sparta, Homoioi tôn Lakaidaimoniôn, we have more good men there than we need. Our army has wide horns, more men than we need on the flanks.”

But the voice sounded too high, too shrill for a Spartan king. The king spoke as if battle with Epaminondas were to be avoided rather than sought. He finished weakly, “If every Spartan peer, if every ephor, if even a Spartan king should fall tomorrow, so be it. It would be worth that great price to kill Epaminondas and stop his democratic madness. Follow me to victory. Follow me up their Kadmeia.”

His army murmured. Only a few raised their fists at their king’s notion that any Spartan would need die at all against these pigs. Most of the companions in disgust turned to finish off their wine. Then the pipes took up and the king’s guard took the frightened royal into his tent. Before the men laid out their reed bedrolls, and smothered their cook fires, Lichas the ancient ephor climbed back up on the wagon bed. He bounded up as if he were no more than twenty. The brute Kleonymos, captain of the king’s guard, stood on one side, Lichas’s son Antikrates on the other, his shield still on his forearm. Both were a quarter royal and, better yet, claimed bloodlines from Brasidas himself. The two always had fought side-by-side and argued only over the number of their kills. Yet the sly night-killer Sphodrias came too and towered behind them all, even if he usually sought to hide rather than strut his size as he crawled about the campfires of the enemy. He planned this very night to go behind the lines and bring back a Theban shield—or, better, a hand or foot.

Lichas was becoming tired of his reluctant king. He could care not a whit whether the odds, or the omens, or the weather, or the battleground favored either Spartans or Boiotians. He was of the old ones, a Spartan like Leônidas. An ephor. In defeat or victory, Lichas, son of Lichas, of the greatest polis of Hellas, in its greatest age. He would fight like his grandfathers at Thermopylai. He would kill Boiotians and he would bring untold misery to them and endless glory to his own. If their own king was fated to die, better to rid them of a royal not fit for the Spartan office. The women of Sparta claimed Lichas was even uglier than Kleombrotos, and they boasted it was due to the scars of battle, not the bad draw at birth.

“My peers, my equals. We muster before dawn. This time the pigs claim they will go over us tomorrow and on into Sparta. The fools claim they will not slink back into their sties as in the past but will fight for all sorts of silliness under the silliest of all, Epaminondas. They want us to be all the same, to ruin Hellas and to call it democracy—to end our beloved Sparta as we know it. We say the best men are best to keep the weaker ones secure. That’s why we come into pig land to collect our rent for keeping the swine penned up and safe.”

He liked the sound of his roaring voice. Lichas could not stop. “Whether we have to fight the Titans or Olympians, the verdict is the same, always the same. You Spartans are born, raised for the fight against anyone, at any moment we please. We all will die without it. I ask our seers here—will it be young Kleonymos, the tower of the phalanx, or my boy Antikrates, who breaks the guard of Epaminondas and sends him and his fools to Hades? Which one? Tell us now. Place your bets before sunrise when we throw the knucklebones. As for me, your Lichas here—Lichas, ephor son of the ephor Lichas? I vote for none of them. Only for me. I’m the one, the best killer of them all.”

He let out an eerie high-pitched laugh, even as more Spartans drifted back from their campfires to hear him. The growing throng was calling out Lichas as loudly as they had been quiet listening to their stuttering king. The more he swaggered and talked, the more the men in their long capes cheered Lichas. Behind such a Spartan, they felt safe. They could boast they were no worse men than those Spartans of old who had followed King Leônidas against the Persians. If there were dikê still in the vale of Lakonia, any justice at all, this man Lichas, without birthright of a king, long ago rightly would have been their king. Or so they mumbled in admiration at the four tall men on the wagon.

Let the Boiotians talk of the faker god Pythagoras, who preached that all men were equal to the worm or sparrow. Let them shout for Epaminondas and the new fantasy cities to rise in the Peloponnesos. Let them do all that and more. The Spartans had Lichas, Lichas of the old gods and the ways of the south, and that would be proved more than enough tomorrow.

But even now Lichas was not quite done. He then roused them with a final taunt, as he seemed to know all the Theban generals and why they had begged Mêlon to come down from Helikon. “So who of us kills the counterfeit Epaminondas? Who then kills the other general Pelopidas and with them their Theban plague of dêmokratia? Who sends this Thespian would-be savior, the broken-down farmer Mêlon who, the hag priestesses say, will kill us all, if he dares to show up—the so-called apple of women’s fables that kills our king. Who sends him to the houses of the dead?”

“Who? Who?”

Egô Lichas. Egô. Not your Kleonymos. No, not my Antikrates. Not even sneaky Sphodrias here. No, I say it will be your Lichas. I am your Leônidas at Thermopylai reborn. The gods say no free man born of a free woman can kill me. Not tomorrow, not ever. You bet on others. I wager on Lichas—on myself. Sparta is as it was always before. We take the power we need and let others worry whether it’s fair. For all we care, these pigs are no better than Persians, and they will die as badly as well.” Then Lichas lumbered down. The other three followed him with a shout. The leaders of the lochoi rushed up to the wagon, pushing and shoving the crowd ahead to touch the old man. They wanted their Lichas as king—Lichas their man of hard oak, by his speech and zeal capturing the hearts of thousands that the green-stick king Kleombrotos had lost despite his birth.

As Lichas finished, back across the plain in the Thespian camp high across the creek bed, Mêlon and his slave Chiôn were almost finished digging their armor from the wagon, cursing at the frayed straps and patched clasps since they had not put the full bronze of Malgis on in more than seven summers—since the last spear crossing near Tegyra beneath Mt. Ptôon. Finally at late dusk the two began to make their way slowly toward Epaminondas. His tent was in the gully below.

Gorgos was left back alone with the ox. The helot slave was sitting on the ground against a wagon wheel, happy enough to be alive with Chiôn gone. In vain, he once more strained for even more Doric sounds from his godly poet Tyrtaios, as those sweet melodies wafted in from the Spartan campfires across the gully. The music of old brought dreams of his son Nabis, the beardless boy he had left as an orphan long ago in smoky Lakonia, when Malgis had captured him up here in pig land.

Gorgos had been more than a helot in the south. He had risen to leader of the helots in Messenia, renamed by his masters Kuniskos, or so he claimed to the slaves on Mêlon’s farm. In his youth he was freed by the house of Lichas for his battle courage and had once become known even as Lord Kuniskos—Lichas’s fixer, the eyes and ears of the Spartan ephor and hero. Gorgos now dreamed that after the victory of Lichas at Leuktra perhaps he would return to Lakonia and be known this time as Kuniskos the Terrible—no longer Gorgos the snake man. Once the two, side-by-side, had spear-charged the Thebans at the great battle at the Nemea River—only to have Gorgos fall stunned, brought down and dragged out by Malgis the Thespian, bound with a rope on his way to servitude on Helikon, land of the pigs. Gone forever from his beloved master Lichas. Now he was old and had ended up as no more than Gorgos the dung spreader, who for twenty and three winters had emptied the slop jars in the vineyard of Malgis.

With Chiôn gone, Gorgos was soon napping at the wagon amid the flies of Aias. As he dozed, he chuckled out loud, as he went deeply back into the old dreams of his highland hideout, on his beloved mountain of Spartan Taygetos, far to the south in the Peloponnesos, where he was once more Kuniskos meting out justice for his lost son Nabis. Now he was cooking in his own hut, and laughing in his slumber that Nêto, and Chiôn, and Mêlon had just walked into his house, his own house, where his dinner, quite a meal, was ready for them all. There on Taygetos, the slaves were masters, and masters were slaves—though not in the way that his fellow dreamer Mêlon had thought.

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