Ancient History & Civilisation


The Anabasis

On this strangest of mornings, Mêlon once more led Xiphos toward the mountain on the road that Lophis had once ridden down to Leuktra. There would be no third group of riders. Still, he wished an Alkidamas and Melissos would roust him on the road, as they had at the monument to Leuktra, since these days he had only himself for company. Instead it was a mere breeze that snapped him out of his trance, as he noticed that he was almost home and had been walking in thought at a fast clip. Finally, off on the horizon he could see the roof-tiles of the tower of Malgis, and the shiny whitewash work of Myron. The tower from bottom to top glistened as the sun picked up its glaze. The lame veteran headed for that beacon, this lighthouse that drew him home. He limped hard to close the final distance to the farm, once again walking with the hobbled horse at his side. Mêlon thought he saw Damô. The boys—weren’t they waving in his direction out the window? Why, when he had more than two stadia to go to the first high vineyard of Malgis?

His eyes were getting as bad as those of Melissos. And everything he touched—horse or woman—seemed to end up as hobbled as he was. He was eager to tell them all of Pelopidas and the trial of Epaminondas and his meeting with the Thebans and that all was over for now and that he was free from punishment. That he was now a Panhellene, no mere farmer of Thespiai but a hoplitês of Thebes pledged to come down his mountain and follow his Epaminondas back into the labyrinth to the south.

In response to his sudden zeal came a good wind, stronger than the late spring breezes, but so unlike the cold northern blast that had once blown at the backs of the army as it started out over Kithairon. It nudged him up the long bend of the trail. Mêlon warmed with that late spring heat and blowing and the odd voices from the birds above, and the squirrels of the new season, and even the oaks and ferns below. They all had music and speech in them, as loud in their song as they had always been mute before. Now as a Pythagorean, he heard sounds, a symphony of a nature alive as he had never sensed before. In the very air itself Mêlon could pick up, amid the ferns, and elms, and squirrels of the road, the war cry of his dead Chiôn as he once dashed out from the hut of Gorgos after Antikrates. The shouts of his good son Lophis followed too as he had ridden Xiphos, head-to-head against Lichas at Leuktra.

Even the specter of rich Proxenos who overturned an aristocracy came upon him, laughing in the great theater at Mantineia about the massive gates hung awry. There was the soft chanting of what he thought must be Erinna, hiking up to the slope of Ithômê and her schoolhouse, singing of her hero Epaminondas, son of Polymnis—whom she had never met. Where did such women come from to give up their all to hike up into the cold of Ithômê to free the Messenians? Why would a branded slave on Helikon think he could kill, as if he were all-seeing Zeus who dispenses divine justice, all who needed killing? All these voices of the dead were just as he had been promised back in Messenê when the cult of the green-eaters warned him that he had already seen the one way of Pythagoras and heard the promise of the souls as they prepare to return among us whether as majestic oaks or tiny worms.

As Mêlon, son of Malgis, neared the farm of Malgis, he felt the power of the symmetry of the grain fields, of the vines and of the orchards especially, the grid of files and rows of Pythagoras’s perfect numbers, and knew he was back where it had all begun as planned. Now he could sense also the indomitable strength of the triangle’s golden ratios, as strong in their order even as the streets and blocks were of the grids of Mantineia, Megalopolis, and Messenê. He looked this way and then up; not a vine, not a tree was out of line. He saw squares and triangles and more still in the layout of the farm.

The whispers grew stronger in his head. They reminded him of the one way that had made the farm grow and sent them all south and would keep Mêlon safe until the end without fear. The voices with assurance told him that there were no shades in Elysion. There was no mythical Sisyphos, or Tantalos of children’s song in the rungs of Hades. No silly Hades even. No marble Zeus throned on snowy Olympos. Nothing like that at all. Instead those fables and bogeymen could do no harm to the good man on this earth or his soul on the next. His own choices and his faith in the One God, they alone determined the one life to come. Now one voice, everywhere at once, prophesied to him that there would be no peace for five or even ten years in Messenê as the ripples of three hundred and fifty years of servitude battered the helots still, and those of Lakonia who had done such evil would not quit with a trip or two. So confess it, you Mêlon. Epaminondas and his Thebans would have to go back to the south this very summer, and then twice more before the helot democracy was safe from others—and from itself. It seemed as stupid a thing to have marched south to liberate such wild childish folk as ten years hence it would seem wise to have done so. Men really are not, as Lichas boasted, born as slaves. The helotage of Sparta had to cease, if by the most unlikely tool of the farmers of Boiotia and their one-cloak childless general Epaminondas.

As Mêlon made the last bend to the big house, he let lame Xiphos go with a slap to his flanks. The murmuring of his own friends and lost son in the air and in his head and in the trees and bushes about and the parables of Epaminondas in the wind at last ceased. Silence and quiet everywhere—but for a moment only.

Now in their place, as if on some eerie cue, he heard sweeter music or something faint like the distant chords of a single aulos that always came to strengthen him when things to come seemed most forbidding. Mêlon shuddered at the familiar strains from Thisbê that so often went into his ear as healing sounds. He took a second glance back, half-thinking it was Epaminondas who had dismounted and followed him up with his reed—as before when the general had played the same tune of the Thisbeans in his wild talks about cutting the head off the Spartan snake. Or perhaps the melody was the sound of the ghost initiates, who, in the upper aithêr, were celebrating that Epaminondas had brought such fame to the way of Pythagoras and had saved the soul of Mêlon, son of Malgis, of the line of Antander on Helikon. Or was it the dirge of the dead?

But the sound marked nothing at all like that. Epaminondas was even now far away. The general was racing out the narrows of Chaironeia, hoping to raise the countryside to free the serfs of Thessaly ahead—and so to offer the poor penestai of the north what he had bequeathed to the heilôtai of the south. Instead, the sound came from a faint figure below on the edge of the plain, though off in a different direction to his right. Mêlon turned to make out this solitary shape behind him, who was ascending with an unsteady gait the same southwest road up to his Helikon.

Perhaps if the sound were real, the phantom—was it the shade of an avenging Dirkê?—would prove only some slow-moving woman playing a pipe to calm her goats. The shadow moved more slowly than he did, with a walking stick. Or was it more likely that after the voices, and the disguise of Pelopidas and the riders of Epaminondas, he was completely in the grip of a god, enthusiastikos—and so now he saw and heard divine things from Pythagoras that others did not?

He wanted to awake from all this. Yet he already was awake in the sun and climbing and almost home. As he neared the courtyard gate of the lower fields and headed for the gravestones of Malgis and Lophis and the marker stone of the farm with the new high cenotaph of Chiôn, Mêlon could see into the big window of the tower with the shutters thrown wide open. No dream this. Damô and the children above were looking east beyond him, staring off with hands on their brows in the direction of the bright sun and the music, waving to that something well below him—not far to the south where Epaminondas and Pelopidas had raised the dust below as they had joined and galloped off together in the distance to hard battle with the horse-lords of Thessaly.

Then all was lucid. Once again the Thisbean melody and the breeze kicked up. All those cobwebs of the past, the dusts of bitter memory of loss and regrets of choices not followed were blown away with the late spring wind on Helikon. With that, lame Mêlon, without needing to turn around, raised his right arm high and kept it there, opening all five fingers to catch the warm wind, slowing at last and entering the courtyard.

As if on cue, a familiar keen-scented dog yelped in answer off in the distance, below and down the hill path. With that greeting, not far behind, Nêto of Messenia—now more beautiful even than before, as she would say too of the lame and bald Mêlon now made whole—took her fingers from the pipe, smiled, and then she too hobbled ahead as her Thisbean strain ceased. And with stiff Kerberos back as old Porpax at her heels, Nêto in her hood and shawl made it up to that final well-known turn, and onto the farm of the Malgidai.

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