Ancient History & Civilisation


Epaminondas Returns

Then before the summer came on, all gossip stopped. At last the grand army of the tired Boiotians trudged in from the south—a thousand stadia and more of tramping from Ithômê to the hike down Kithairon, a month and more after Mêlon himself had reached Thespiai. Tired and dirty, the Boiotians had pushed their way through the Athenians at the Isthmos and marched proudly over the Megarid on the heels of Iphikrates as he scampered in fright back with his army to Attika.

Epaminondas had smashed Iphikrates at the Isthmos, like a farmer’s boot flattens the dung beetle. So the army came into Boiotia dirty and ragged, but with another triumph still and in perfect order. The long snake wound through the pass just as it had left nearly half a year earlier, but with Pelopidas and Epaminondas singing Erinna’s songs at the head and worrying little about what their war had been for. The Boiotians came down over the crest of Kithairon at precisely the time the rhêtôres in Thebes were swearing their sons had been lost in the land of Pelops and the harvests would rot in the fields for want of men. Menekleidas of Aulis, in the middle of his peroration to confiscate the property of Epaminondas and Pelopidas, ran from the bêma. All the Athenian silver and gold of Kallistratos did him no good. Backwash was unsure whether the rumors were true that the veterans were about to storm the ekklêsia and hang the seers of doom like himself from the plane trees in the central courtyard. So he fled over to Euboia, always in fear the island was too close to Epaminondas.

In the plain below the Kadmeia, smoke arose off to the east above Plataia as the army broke up and spilled over the plain. The Thebans in the agora cheered as they saw the morning campfires of the horde that was already nearing and filling the roads of Boiotia in the thousands. A long line of creaking wagons came down the pass, full of pots and tools, and Peloponnesian herds behind to enrich the villages of the flatlands. Immediately upon his formal report of the army’s return to the Boiotarchs, Epaminondas was ordered by the council of the Boiotians to be tried within thirty days. First, the stay-at-home Boiotarchs had in their fear immediately ordered his army to disband, to scatter to their harvests and homes. Perhaps they could try him in the night, and stone him at the Kadmos Gate, before the thousands who followed him even knew he was in the jail on the order of the rhêtôres.

On these first days of the army’s return, Mêlon figured that Epaminondas had no retainers to bar his arrest. Bluster and boast had not yet filtered through the countryside about the size and beauty of the not finished new cities of Mantineia, Megalopolis, and Messenê. No one knew of the terrified Agesilaos trapped on his acropolis, with Lichas and the others of Sparta’s worst all dead, with twenty-five myriads of helots free and full of hatred for Lakonia. Yet, Mêlon guessed, once the truth of free Messenia was out, and the extent of the plunder from Lakonia seen, tempers would soften. The truth would spread that thousands of Boiotian hoplites were wealthy, with good pay from the Peloponnesians and plenty of plunder in their sacks and gifts from the Messenians. Yet in these initial days after the arrival of the army, few had any love for the generals who had marched their men south to help others when their own fields needed tending.

So it is with all wars, that both supporters and critics weave and warp until the final story is known—and alike then go back with their plumb strings to line up their past principles with the final verdict of the last battlefield. This Epaminondas knew and shrugged off as the price of leading rather than watching events go by. While he feared he had not yet ruined Sparta as he wanted, he also accepted that his men thought he had, and so would always follow a leader who gave them victory, and whose own sense of achieving less than he hoped was more than they had dared imagine. At last, the day of the trial of Epaminondas came. He was standing in the dock alone; if he were found guilty, the other generals would follow. If he were freed, the others would never need to come before the popular courts. Six hundred jurymen chosen by lot and eager for the drachma daily wage poured into the jury hall. Mêlon was determined to ride the lame Xiphos over from Helikon to Thebes to speak out at this twisting of justice. On the Kadmeia, he was to meet Alkidamas and Ainias, who swore that they would not have the Boiotians do to Pelopidas and Epaminondas what the Spartans had not been able to do.

Then all Boiotia was on fire with word that thousands of hoplites would march into the dikastêrion. The armed would file in who had known the Spartan on the Eurotas and had lifted stone for the Messenians. Few of them had been lost despite the ordeal. Most were rich from their victories in the south, but, like all good soldiers, were already bored with the luxury of peace in their hamlets. Had Epaminondas nodded, these hoplites in their torn cloaks and battered shields would have gladly crossed the pass into Attika for him and taken down the Athenian temples of Perikles if only for sport and to fulfill his boast. So for now, fickle war had proven sweet to all the Boiotians, even for those who had stayed home—as they counted all the plunder and noted that their fathers and sons came back with eyes that blinked and arms that had all five fingers. Even marching in dead winter at Boukatios had proved wise, since all came home just in time to cut their barley and scythe the wheat.

The courtroom of Thebes was an armed camp pitted against the slackers and men left behind. On this day of the trial Mêlon had gotten off his tired and lame Xiphos about halfway to Thebes. The once sleek warhorse’s hooves were cracked, and Mêlon was leading him the rest of the way, worried that he would miss the opening indictment. Then, just as he passed the fork to Leuktra, a hooded horseman, with a cloak of green frayed wool that the old men of Thebes wore, galloped his way. “Mêlon, son of Malgis, one of the renegades, aren’t you?” the covered traveler yelled out. “You are late—and you soon to be a defendant as well.”

Mêlon halted and led the pony to the orchard on the side of the road. “Why, I guess I am. Say your thing. Be careful what your tongue may earn, stranger. I know my way around iron.”

Then the horseman, as if Mêlon were no stranger, started right in, “So I hear you do. Your master has been freed. No trial, man—for him or you. Hear the story.” The hooded rider had his pony’s nose at Mêlon’s chest. “Epaminondas walks up to the jurymen, all six hundred, Epaminondas does. A thousand hoplites roar to his rear. He pleads guilty. Yes, guilty to the charge of holding his command beyond the new year. He says to the jurymen of Boiotia to punish him as they please. As his dog, little Eurotas, barked a second for him, they voted to pardon this Epaminondas and all the stalwarts who went with him to the south. You too. How? All the accused did was to recite a poem of sorts. The funny song was in the poet’s six-foot and said to be the work of the fallen Amazon Erinna, whose ashes they scattered amid the winds below Ithômê.

By my plans Sparta was shorn of her glory.

And holy Messenê at last received back her children.

By the arms of Thebes Megalopolis was girded with walls—and all Hellas was independent and free.

Then the rider laughed and finished, “Our Epaminondas offered the jurymen a final warning: ‘Put that song on my statue at Leuktra should you kill me this day.’ Then he was carried out on the shoulders of the army, guilty of nothing other than freeing the helots, burning Lakonia, and building three great fetters of Sparta in the south.”

With that story, Mêlon smiled at the rider’s bold familiar voice. “I like that line—‘and all Hellas was independent and free.’ I thought I would be arriving too late at Thebes to do much, wasting my days away at the long trial before watching the stoning of the man who freed the Hellenes of the Peloponnesos—and waiting all the time for the tug on my own sleeve for my own moment to face the stones.” Mêlon laughed louder now. “I can turn around and lead tired Xiphos home by dark. Still, you false man, throw off your hood. I have heard this voice and words of yours before. They are not of an old man, a gerôn who needs wool in the heat. After all, there is no reason for your cover. We are now in the hot season.”

“Always the clever man.” The horseman laughed, stuck out his hand, gave Mêlon a firm grasp, and then reined in his horse to gallop on by. Mêlon smiled, since Pelopidas was a poor actor and a worse jokester. But Mêlon was pleased that this good general had left the court and headed his way to break the good news first to the Malgidai. The rider galloped out and yelled, “Until the late summer, in the late summer …” as he quickly left Mêlon far behind.

As Mêlon had set out to Thebes at dawn, he already had gone a good forty stadia toward the city when Pelopidas had stopped him. He turned Xiphos around on the road to head home to the farm, trying to make sense of the acquittal of Epaminondas. The vote meant not just that the liberators were not hanged or stoned, but perhaps that the people even wanted them to do again what they had just finished. Yet as Mêlon left the Theban behind, he turned back for a moment one last time, and far off he spied yet another man galloping his way—as it was now an apparent rule that when one of the Malgidai set out to Thebes he was to be accosted on the road by strangers. This time the horseman came more quickly and with maybe ten or so riders at his side. He thought he should not press his luck with strange riders twice. Were these not robbers or worse? The army was back and thousands were thick in the countryside and had, as Pelopidas warned, become used to the easier life of plunder and assault. Or so Mêlon thought as he got off his hobble-footed horse.

Mêlon walked Xiphos off the road. He sat hidden under an oak with green, early summer leaf to let the band pass by. He had come without a spear, much less his heavy breastplate. For all his bluster to the hooded Pelopidas, he carried only a knife. Mêlon had no wish to try the lame Xiphos against this new horde of horsemen. The riders halted right where Mêlon had left the road. This time there were no hoods and Mêlon saw bare-headed Epaminondas with the throng, sitting proud back on his Boiotian red pony. Mêlon called out to them from his seat beneath the shade tree. “You are not even back for long, and your riders dash up to Helikon to tear folks from their farms and fill their heads with talk of three-day-rations and campfires. I hear that jurymen of Boiotia have decided not to cut your throat or crush your head with rocks, Theban. No, you will end your days by the fire with your dog Eurotas as you sing to the Thebans of freedom and the helots.”

“Hardly. You know how all this ends as well as I do, Mêlon of the afterthought. I leave to Thessaly in the north. Those folk up there would invade us the moment we go to the south in late summer.” He may have been on his horse and in a hurry, but the general kept smiling not at his reprieve, but at the cure of the once-lost Mêlon. Now he wanted to talk more than to leave. “They jabber up north of our sinister plots of Pythagoras, and of their sadness at the end of Sparta. They threaten us with Nemesis. They cry that their own serfs, the penestai, have been stirred up by the evil Epaminondas. They say up in Thessaly that I favor the sheep and dogs and other unfree folk to walk with heads higher than the freemen of Hellas.”

What was all this “they say”? Mêlon wondered why Epaminondas cared, Epaminondas who had raised whole new cities out of the very mud. The general went on. “They say that we have left a democracy with children and we opened the chest of Pandora and then went home as all the foul things belched forth. So no. I will not sit by the fire in Thebes and spin the tall tales about our past glory. Why would I, when I have unfinished affairs at summer’s end back down in the Peloponnesos? Or have you forgotten that Agesilaos and the son of Lichas, that Antikrates, have lived too long and that oily ingrate Lykomedes bears us a grudge for too many good turns? He will soon join his new Mantineia with Sparta. Remember as well that they say that there are still some serfs in Lakonia on the Eurotas.”

Mêlon laughed, “Who are ‘they?’—your ‘they’ that are always saying something? Folks like you always have a half-meal uneaten somewhere. You won’t let yourself—or anyone else—relax and enjoy the leisure of peace. So after the serfs are freed, north and south, no doubt it will be all the slaves, and then, as they charge, our goats and sheep as well to be liberated.”

At that Epaminondas laughed, reined around his horse, and turned it to ride on past Helikon and out through the narrows at Chaironeia. He paused as he passed by. “So we will see you Mêlon, after all, next time? On our late summer’s march back, our second one this year to the south to finish things up in the vale of Lakonia? I halted that cold day on the Eurotas and won’t make that same mistake twice. I need good men, just a few is all it takes, but there are not too many of them left.”

Even more to his own surprise, Mêlon did not pause, but even louder answered back, as the cured patient to his doctor: “When the red is on the grapes, then I come down to meet you. Or maybe even earlier to the marching yard of Thebes. We will have a far better descent than the first, my general, though in the heat rather than the dead of winter when cruel Boukatios is upon us. So yes, I follow you. Maybe to Hades and back if need be. It seems you’re my Orpheus.”

Mêlon laughed at his own words. He would march that summer, and for years more, the once most reluctant now the most zealous of the liberators. His general Epaminondas was not surprised at all by that final outburst from the quiet Thespian, but still finished, “That we will, Mêlon, first citizen of Hellas, that we will.”

Epaminondas bent over a little from his horse. The two men clasped arms and then the riders were gone.

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