Ancient History & Civilisation




The Shadows of Mt. Taygetos

If Agesilaos won’t come out, and we can’t get in, then we will make the Spartans feel in just a few days what it is to be a helot forever.” With that warning of destruction, a defiant Epaminondas led the armies into the Lakonian plain to ravage even what they had gone over once before. Yet not all in the huge army wished any more to follow his lead, given the failure at the Eurotas and the death of Proxenos—and beyond that, the growing cold and the end of their tenure in Boiotia that made them all outlaws. Still, Ainias, Pelopidas, and Mêlon roused the troops, and for the next seven days the Boiotians, alongside the men of Argos, the Eleans, and the wild Arkadians, tore and burned their way through all the remaining houses and sheds of Lakonia.

It rained, and fog hugged the ground, with evening snow near the foothills. The ravagers found fuel from the fences and the woodwork of the windows and doors. Fires continued all over the farms in every direction to the mountain ranges east and west. Despite the cold, the men of Epaminondas sang and chanted as they kept at it, piling on the roof-beams and torching all the Spartan farms they had once passed over in cold mists and fogs, cutting down the smaller trees and hacking the limbs of the larger. To destroy centuries of what was once Sparta was no easy thing. The carnage spread from the Spartan port at Gytheion back up to the mountains near Sellasia where the ravagers had entered in the north, and then across the plain from the slopes of Parnon to Taygetos. Three hundred stadia east to west, and another three hundred from the north to south, the ravagers scoured the countryside.

It was not Boiotia, but Lakonia that was the new treeless and barren sheep walk of the Hellenes. That was what Epaminondas promised when he told his Boiotarchs that in a Lakonia denuded of its trees the grasshoppers of Sparta would soon all sing from the ground. If there were any alive next spring, they surely would. For the funeral of Proxenos, the Thebans piled carts and any wood they could find on the banks of the Eurotas—a pile ten times as tall as any tall man, with the dead builder of walls at the very top, looking out over the houses of Sparta across the river. Then Epaminondas lit it. “O king Agesilaos. Look at the campfires of your enemies. Look right before your faces. Not a Spartan man among you can stop it.”

All during the night Ainias stalked around the fire, adding logs as the Spartans looked back out from across the river at the coals of the pyre of Proxenos. Still, King Agesilaos would not come out to fight. The Boiotians had learned the enemy had horded months of food stores across the Eurotas and more than five thousand goats and sheep. The Thebans tried to incite the red-capes. Yet Agesilaos kept his men on the hills of the city, despite the shrieks of his women who saw their fathers’ orchards shamed. Elektra in her wild tresses ran berserk along the opposite bank, begging her grandfather to cross the river and with her husband Lichas drive Epaminondas out of their farms. She was met by a backhand from the king, “Go inside, mad woman, before you kill off what was left of us after Leuktra.”

Mêlon saw that the Boiotians could neither draw the Spartan across the Eurotas nor themselves wade through the river to torch the town—or stay much longer in the plundered countryside in the mid of winter. “There is a reason why he is king, that Agesilaos. He’s no Kleombrotos. We’re like the bloody-headed ram butting the shed walls when the she-goat won’t come out.” Mêlon finally warned Pelopidas about the ravaging of once-ravaged ground. “Put a stop to this madness of Epaminondas or soon we will destroy the land that must feed us. We either move on or go hungry or cross the river and take their food. But Epaminondas must do one of these and now, before the snows and the ice get worse.”

Ainias gave Pelopidas a cold stare of approval of Mêlon’s advice. “Yes, my general, leave this infernal place. Either head home or west over Taygetos. I will take the ashes of Proxenos either to new Messenê—or back home to Plataia.” When the invaders at last were done with fire and ax, the wagons and most of the herds of Sparta were stolen or burned. A few thousands of the stranded helots of Lakonia were run off or fettered by the Mantineians, against the orders of Epaminondas, who wanted them freed outright instead and sent to the new Messenê to come.

Lykomedes now boasted that his Mantineians alone had the glutton’s share of the loot, some four hundred wagons of oil and grain, and most of the windowsills and doors torn from the houses of Lakonia. His new city of Mantineia could be finished out with the ornaments of the Spartans. Ten more carts were loaded with iron ingots and chests of hidden gold that his men had pulled out of the wells of the Spartan peers who supposedly owned no gold. After unleashing his helot captives, Lykomedes bristled even more when Pelopidas and the Sacred Band confiscated half of his booty to pay for their march west over the pass into Messenia. So yes, Lykomedes thought, let us talk of war with Lord Epaminondas.

At first dark around the big campfires south of the city, the allied council met about the next march. The choice was either to head back with a half victory to their homes or west to Messenia. The weather was even colder and damper. The green olive limbs that were thrown into the fire sent smoke into the eyes of everyone and wrapped the speakers in a cloud of haze. Men coughed and sneezed and swore at each other over the allotment of booty. Some had the chest rattles and the leg aches, others the winter nose runs. Their leaders grumbled that too many slept on the winter ground. It was long past time to sit by the hearth in victory, not camp out in the fields and court defeat. Didn’t the Spartans have it right to stay warm in their houses across the Eurotas, fed and rubbed by their women?

Lykomedes stood surrounded by his archons of Mantineia. As arranged, he spoke first, and wished only to play up to his hoplite kinsmen who were eager to report back all he said to the assembly of the Mantineians. “After our twenty days of hard work we have gone past the new year. Then all our tenures expire as the assemblies demand. That is the custom in our democratic cities here in the south.” Then Lykomedes walked toward Epaminondas to shout at him directly in front of the camp crowd and for all to hear. “We have won. The war is over. No reason to stay. We are on their land, they are hiding with their women. Their Messenia is lost. Time to leave as victors before we get sick and piss it away.” Little Aristôn was at the side of Lykomedes, clapping as his master’s voice rose. “We have eaten ourselves out of our new winter home despite the generosity of the Spartans. But it is the time of the sick cold that grows much worse after the winter solstice, at the time you know of as Boiotian Boukatios. We Mantineians are leaving at sunrise back home to Arkadia, so that we won’t find ourselves the besieged when you northerners leave us exposed and are safe far away. We wish you Boiotians well. It’s your throw of the knucklebones—whether you take our good advice to go home, or as fools venture farther to the west to start yet another war in the dead of winter. Either way, tomorrow you will no longer see your friends here from Mantineia.”

More than half the men who had descended into Lakonia earlier were to leave, maybe three or even four myriads packing for home—all the hoplites from Mantineia, Elis, the cities of Arkadia, and the northern tribes other than the Boiotians. They had sacks of bronze pots and tools. The flatlanders of Mantineia even had Spartan roof-tiles stacked high in their pilfered carts. It mattered little that it was Epaminondas and his Thebans who had sent architects—and that their Proxenos had fallen—to plan their cities Mantineia and Megalopolis. Or that the ingrates of the new Mantineia could be safe to finish such high stone walls only because Thebans had come south to keep the Spartans at bay or even that a free and fortified Messenê would keep the Spartans worried and away from the Arkadians.

Lykomedes finished. “So to stay friends we will part. Many of us supported this war against Sparta to end her rule over others. That is now over and won. But we are not so sure that we need press on in the snow to Messenia for this winter madness.” In his cockiness he walked and stared at Pelopidas and Epaminondas and he tossed his head up and down, like the morning chicken free of the dog, who struts about the courtyard. Now he laughed in the generals’ faces. “Yes, we can kill all the Spartans. But what, pray tell, would we do with thousands of their helots over the mountain in Messenia, all free? Who by Zeus would govern them? Who is to feed and house them all? Who wants to own fragile pots that will surely break and then become the burden of the owner to mend them, ugly though they will always thereby be.” Lykomedes was speaking to hard hoplites in arms, not back home to Mantineians on the three-obol dole or with the young boys of the palestrai, so he was careful to blame only the Messenian helots and not Epaminondas and his generals. There were twenty thousand tough Boiotians and worse-looking Argives, with long spears upright in their gloved right hands and the club of Thebes painted on their shields. And this Argive general Epitêles? Why, he looked more a Thrakian cutthroat than a man of the polis.

So Lykomedes chose his words one by one and went slowly on. “Such helots over there below Ithômê are just tribes. They will go at each other with iron once their Spartan muzzle is ripped off. Yes, yes, I supported this war to end Sparta. But the second thoughts always run the wiser. Second thoughts I have plenty as I see my friends in their pride call for endless war and far-fetched ideas about democracy for savages, fueled by the theorems of my former master Pythagoras and a perennial war that allies cannot agree on.”

Most hoplites from Arkadia backed off when they saw some of the Argives push forward, and went back to haggling over booty as they prepared to go home. But Lykomedes was oblivious to the growing throng of the Argive killers who shoved their way forward to the campfires, as if they were pushing their way in the phalanx to get at a Spartan king. The general of the Argive Epitêles had nodded to the well-born in his midst to press ahead, the aristocratic killers that were the sword’s edge of his phalanx. They were the professional hoplites of the One Thousand of Argos, who were in armor in the front row of the crowd and began to jeer and spit as Lykomedes went on.

Lykomedes continued his shouting to the assembled captains of the alliance. “So do not let Epaminondas spoil our work in Sparta by turning our thoughts to Messenia. Just because he cannot storm the acropolis of the Spartans, that is no reason to try to regain our reputation in an accursed land—one that would soon be our graveyard.”

Ainias sat in gloom among the hopla as Lykomedes droned on. He was leaning on a pile of shields and breastplates, murmuring to Mêlon—tiring of this war after the death of Proxenos. Not one dead Spartan, not one live helot was worth the life of his friend—even though he had long feared his aristocratic Proxenos was not quite up to the bloodletting, to what a Chiôn or Epitêles had to do to break the backs of the Spartans. Ainias had not washed or cut his hair or trimmed his beard or changed his clothes since the death of Proxenos. He promised that he would not until he neared his widow’s estate on the Asopos far home to the north. But he stood by his Theban friends. He leaned over to Mêlon. “Our boar-tooth Lykomedes is the perfect balance weight, neither with us nor against us. See how he charts out his distance, seven measures from Sparta and five from us.” He had never liked Lykomedes, but Ainias had never wanted to go all the way to Messenia, either.

Mêlon nodded. His bad leg hurt, not surprisingly, for he had not marched this much since the time of his wound at Koroneia well more than twenty summers earlier. He got up nonetheless and tossed an empty scabbard over at the feet of Ainias in disgust. “I wish Lykomedes were such a clever sort. But yes, it is only about gold. His belly rules his head. His table costs more than his silver tongue can feed. I hear he has eaten himself the hindquarters of many a goat in the halls of his new Mantineia.” But then Mêlon cheered up and pointed to the thousand Argives who had swarmed forward to the speakers silhouetted by the campfires. “Look, Ainias. I’d rather have one of those spearmen than ten Mantineians. We have a thousand by their look, and another myriad behind them, every one a match for a Spartan and nearly as good as ourselves.”

The Theban Sacred Band joined the Argive Thousand. In fear, a groan rose among the elders of the Arkadians and Mantineians that the northerners would kill their Lykomedes this very night, as he slunk off into the shadows. Nonetheless, Sinon, the olive picker and demagogue of Mantineia, nodded at his master Lykomedes. He was the right fist after the left jab of Lykomedes and pointed at Pelopidas and also swung at Epaminondas. “Your work is done, Theban. Declare victory. Set up another trophy with another horse and rider in bronze. The great city of Megalopolis is about done. With Mantineia you have your two democratic fetters of Hellas to keep chained the defeated Spartan beast. After all, it is we the neighbor, not you the distant foreigner, who must keep the Spartan animal in our nets.”

“I need three fetters, Sinon, not two,” Epaminondas yelled out to the throng. “With chains, not webbing, for a monster like Agesilaos.”

Sinon stood up again. It was clearer in the firelight that he was a plump sort, with soft hands and a shape like some shadow-tail squirrel whose back legs were twice the girth of his tiny claws in the front. He gestured nervously to the audience, as if he were gnawing on a winter nut. He was not as good a speaker as Backwash of Aulis but he was a braver sort who wished to humiliate Epaminondas, not just to abandon him. “Lords of Boiotia, you can vote as well, either to face a stoning in Thebes, since the new year will be upon you in three days—or to face death with the helots when the Spartans break out of the blockade and go on to hit your backsides as you march to your west.” A roar followed. But heads were already turned back from Sinon—who had six large bags of Spartan gold from the agents of Agesilaos in the bottom of his wagon beneath the tiles. The sudden noise was not approval for Lykomedes from the Mantineians or the Eleans on news of their departure in the morning but rather wonder at the shaggy man who entered the arena and stood next to Epaminondas.

Hundreds were pressing toward the center as the mob contracted and then surged around Lykomedes, who desperately tried to break out. This new intruder looked more like a wild Epiriot than a man of civilized Argos, with unkempt beard and hair—and a long, dirty leather under-jerkin beneath his bronze that fell beneath his knees. The Argive Thousand in the front yelled out, “Kill him, Epitêles. Kill them all, Epitêles. Epitêles.” He pushed aside Sinon as he entered and sent the wide-butt onto his backside. Lykomedes stepped back, but the wild man hit him, too, harder than he had Sinon. A black cape covered the heavy bronze armor of Epitêles, with full greaves, shoulder and arm guards, and a Korinthian helmet of the masters with a black sideways crest, officer style, slung back on his head. The brute, with a crossed eye, appeared a near twin to the Tanagran Philliadas. He was as ugly as Lichas himself, though evil was not quite in his look. No wonder the Argives called him “Torn Dog.” Yet he spoke like a rhêtôr, not a brawler, and he was as careful in speech as he was rough in look.

“I am Epitêles of Argos. I claim myself polemarchos of the Argives for the year to come. We Argives, seven thousand strong and more, we have voted ourselves last night. We march west to finish the war. Go home in peace, you men of the middle Peloponnesos. We were never folk like you Arkadians or Eleans. We have always fought the Spartan, Dorians though we are. So, yes, we march tomorrow ourselves—with Epaminondas over the mountain to free the helots and finish Sparta. The fewer of us, the better the army. Let it be said that both Epaminondas and Epitêles have a final task under the slopes of Ithômê. The only problem I see is that there is no enemy to kill, none that wish to try us.” Yes, this Epitêles sounded like even a better orator than Alkidamas himself. “Well, then, let us all part in friendship, the men of the Peloponnesos except for the Argives. It is decided they return home to the walls that our Proxenos built, with the booty we earned for them, and without the hoplites who protected them.”

Small groups were scuffling even, until Epaminondas abruptly ended the council. “It is decided. We go west, Epitêles and I. You others go home. Friends we all remain who hate the men of Sparta, Lykomedes—at least for the year to come.” At daybreak twenty thousand Boiotians and Argives headed up on their side of the Eurôtas northward. They were eager to sweep into Messenia from the topside as the pestle that would hammer the Spartans there against the mortar of Taygetos, and end what was started far to the north at Leuktra. The freed helots among them ran fast to the west to warn their own of the final approach of the men of the north, to ready food and to kill any Spartan on sight still under Ithômê.

As for this stranger Epitêles, Mêlon smiled that sometimes a single good man comes from the shadows for a single task for his own motives. He may have had no stomach for storming the Eurotas or building a city of stone for the Messenians, or for giving democracy to the mob. But for a few days of chaos, marching in the cold to free the helots and killing Spartans on the pathway up Mt. Taygetos? The very gods could not do it better themselves. Mêlon was now at the van, with Ainias and Melissos, marching once more with Pelopidas and the Sacred Band. All were happy to be on the move and out of the fog and mist of Lakonia, following Epaminondas across the barren orchards to the foot of Taygetos. The sounds of the chafing of wood and metal from thousands were deafening as the army headed for the ice of the high passes. But not a yell, not even a voice was raised, as the men shuddered at the black clouds on the mountain and met a growing hard wind with sleet from the north. Mêlon had had no word of Chiôn despite the mob of helots that was coming east from Messenia. He could only hope Chiôn had settled up by now with Gorgos and freed Nêto. Yet, he was not sure whether the freedman was making his way to Ithômê down the Alpheios, or had he been killed by kryptes along the way. And Alkidamas—was the old man shivering on the gulf, waiting for a ship to the south? Nor was there any report of Nêto after her imprisonment by Kuniskos, but at least Mêlon at last was heading west to find her and settle with Gorgos. No mention either of the reception ahead in Messenia. The fate of Erinna? Erinna herself was not even much known to Mêlon. Was his silver at the bottom of the gulf? Mêlon wondered; since Chiôn had left Plataia with plans to hand the money over to the trireme at Aigosthena, there had been only silence.

Ainias pointed out Epaminondas. He was riding a three-year-old black stallion, not his red pony, but one taken from the stables of Antikrates. Their general was again bridling it on its back legs in the wind, and waving them all to follow in the howling of ice rain—happy to be free of the Peloponnesians, and happier to have this shaggy Epitêles and his Argives at his side. The tiny Boiotian seemed to have a feel for the frisky horse. So he turned his mount around at the foot of Taygetos as they started to ascend the steep narrow road that wound to the west and northward toward the cloudy pass. Epaminondas called out to this army. It was icy and windy, but there were not yet the high snows blocking the pass, and so the shorter route over Taygetos was open to Messenia. “Follow your Epitêles. Follow Pelopidas. We lead you to the freedom of the Messenians and to freedom for us from Sparta forever. Make the strong weak, the weak strong—and a new Hellas like none other.”

Thousands of Argives and Boiotians heard his message and answered back, “Freedom. Freedom. Eleutheria. Eleutheria tôn Hellênôn.” Now they left for good the valley of Eurôtas as their voices bounced off the rock walls above. Smoke from the fires of the valley blew across as they climbed and even now the Spartans still dared not cross back over the Eurotas. Mêlon felt his leg loosen up, the pain vanish, just as it had during the battle at Leuktra. Pelopidas was calling out in unison with the Sacred Band. Runaway helots had cut out a path ahead. The Messenians had cleared the road of the black ice and some light snow as they went up the summit, peeking out of the fir and cedar in twos and threes as the army passed on.

Only Ainias kept quiet, with his bloody cape on and his patches of wild hair and his beard mangy. He was full of black bile that this army had forgotten his Proxenos, whose scrolls were about to come alive in stone at Messenê, the greatest of the three fetters, on the other side of this dark Taygetos. Helots, Ainias cursed, had brought Proxenos southward across the Isthmos—and helots were not worth his death. Few among us, Ainias snarled to himself, are prisoners of memory and loyal to the past. There are too few of these faithful ones who have a bond with the dead, the sleeping majority who came and went. So, yes, the good few resent mightily that none praise their ancestors, the better, now forgotten men who made their roads, tiled their roofs, and planted their orchards. Not a man among the thousands marching here, not one cared that these cities came from the hard work and thinking of Proxenos, son of Proxenos, forgotten even before the fires of his pyre had eaten away his flesh. Ainias muttered to himself that this was silly to climb a mountain in winter when there were clouds on its top and ice in the air. Better to go up the mountains in summer—or go to the north to the kinder passes around the mountain. That they were passing the Kaiadas, the pits of Sparta where the helots were thrown, meant nothing to the brooding Ainias.

Still, he always liked to fight, and he now was the sole Arkadian in this new army of Boiotians and Argives. So Ainias said nothing ill about fighting into the new year that would confirm Epaminondas a death sentence back at Thebes. Nonetheless, Ainias thought it useless when Spartans were alive at their rear—and the helots hardly worth any more death. Most in the columns left him alone now, since he stank and would not change his cape and jerkin with the blood of Proxenos on it. Rumors spread that the ashes of Proxenos were in his leather bag on his belt, which the Arkadian patted as he swore and slurred.

They marched up through the storm to the passes over the mountain. The army grew as more helots in furs and leather capes began to come out of the snowy pines, and followed along at the rear of the columns. A few Spartans spied down at them from the tallest heights, but quickly fled as some freed helots hiked up the cliffs after them. The red-capes in threes and fours were too late heading home on rumors of the enemies pouring into Messenia, and so gave Epaminondas and his army their road below—terrified of the Boiotians and more scared of the rumored man-bear loose the past month on Taygetos who hunted down Spartans alone and left others be.

Few of the liberators knew what to expect when they crossed the summit into Messenia and down to the Spartan fort beneath Ithômê. Would there be a helot version of Lykomedes, or a Messenian Backwash, to undermine their arrival?

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