Ancient History & Civilisation



Mêlon and Chiôn roused themselves right before daylight.

Chiôn woke up pondering all the grand talk of fifty men deep. True, fifty pushers should have more power than twenty-five. If they did, why not a hundred or a thousand? Better, Chiôn thought, to mass four or even eight deep, and then outflank the Spartans. That way each man could fight his way into the enemy rather than be pushed through. Better to forget all this taktika and instead remember that spirit, arête, alone would get him to Kleombrotos. “Kill him,” he muttered, “and then nothing else much matters.”

Mêlon heard the waking Chiôn at his side mumbling. He too had his own fears about this ragtag army of Boiotians. Some had cloaks, some did not. The men on his line were supposed to have the club of Herakles on their shields, but some had betas for the Boiotians, others their own family and tribal blazons—poorly painted crabs, and flies, and birds and the like. Sloppy men fought sloppily. They feared all the more those who looked like real hoplites, the Spartans most of all. There were dozens of different helmets in the army of Epaminondas—crest, no crest, cone shaped or flat on top, open, or close-faced. His peers should have the old-style bronze on their chests—but most had only linen with some metal woven inside. Those in the middle and some at the back had little at all. Only the officers of the lochoi wore greaves. Not all from the outlying towns had a sword on their shoulders, and their spears were of all lengths and types. Could such a rabble—little more than a people’s army—stand up to the red mass of Spartans across the battlefield, where every man was outfitted identically to thousands of others?

This day of battle had begun oddly dark for the summer. Now it was humid as well. A few gray clouds even drifted over the battlefield. Now and then the gray cut off the early sun entirely. Beneath the clouds there were only brief flashes from the bronze of the Spartan phalanx, a twinkling from the shields and helmets of the Similars, all shined to a high gloss with oil. Suddenly, thunder rumbled in the hills.

A chestnut filly galloped across the Theban line out between the two armies—only to be roped by five hoplites of the Sacred Band. Pelopidas ran out. He cut the horse’s neck. Then for the army he offered a prayer to the Olympians. He called out that Poseidon had sent the equine gift to the Thebans to show them the way of victory. At that, the Thebans began to regain their senses and yelled in approval to this other general bathed in horse blood.

The Spartans as expected marched out first. Lichas put on a show for thousands of rural folk who had flocked to the nearby hills to gaze on the spectacle. Each man filed into neat rows to the sounds of pipes and the signals of flags. The teeming crowd of their camp was slowly unfurling into a red line that grew ever deeper across the gentle rolling plain of Leuktra. One by one, files of twelve deep walked out—and halted on the crest of the low rise to the blare of trumpets. Slowly, side-by-side, these columns filled out the phalanx. Hoplites in long lines raised their bronze-coated shields, with even their red lambdas, the insignia of Lakedaimon, visible in the distance. The army was stretching fifteen stadia along the crest above the streambed.

Suddenly on a trumpet blast, helots of Sparta ran among the ranks and stripped off their masters’ cloaks. The bronze fronts twinkled now and then in the darting sunlight—outlined at the shoulders, and arms and waists, by their red chitons beneath. Mêlon focused on the battle line where the enemies’ tall black-and-white crests bobbed. Now they lowered their spears and jostled shields just a stade away. Spartans had no pause in their walk. They seem to have emptied their whole damn city.

Then, for a blink only—the first and final time at Leuktra—Mêlon lost his nerve, as he thought about their spear work to come. Dying was no dread, he thought, not even losing Chiôn or Nêto, or even his son Lophis with the horse. No, the rub was the sound, and especially the look, of the death-bringing Spartans across the way. The bristles of their phalanx and the pitch of the music made all afraid, if just for that moment, about how they were to die, the pain and cutting to take them into the final sleep. Are these killers even human as other hoplites? he wondered. His bowels rumbled and his bladder felt full. The men from the south across the way looked like hemi-gods on the high stone altars who did not tremble, drink, or tire as other men did. No living thing could get between their solid line of shields. There was no reprieve from their spears. These men did not lag or slow. It would take a god, he feared, to stop their onset. No, they came on at a steady pace—always to the tune of pipes, never too fast, but never slow, either. They stopped only when cut down.

Then the terror vanished as quickly as it had come. The madness of the war god Pan had no more hold over him, a god that left the glens at the sound of bronze and the chance to confuse thousands. In hopes the madness would not infect his men, Mêlon stared back at the ghost of the hoofed god in front of him in anger. “Be gone, foul god. Back to the herds and flocks!” Mêlon took in the Spartan line opposite him, ever nearing and now little more than two hundred paces away. He imagined that he could see these brutes smiling, even in their helmets, stomping their stiff legs on the ground in unison, in their eagerness. He looked at them with reason rather than fright. Spartan targets offered little open flesh. Maybe a spot beneath the shield in the upper groin, maybe some skin of the neck between the breastplate and the chinstrap. Always there was a peep of bare flesh or an open fold of their chitons when they turned, on their sides between the front and back plates.

For all his efforts, Mêlon could not calm all the men at his side. Too many other young Boiotians at his side shuddered at such killers. They had let the shade of clever Pan into their ranks as the ghost god galloped toward the front lines. They trembled at the shrieking of the horned spirit, of the wild goat god in their ears who struck men dumb before the crash with his screeches—oooha, oooohaa, ooooohaaa. And they for a moment ignored their officers who went among them answering the god. “No fear,” bellowed Pelopidas. “No fear of these red-shirts. Forget the mad goat-horned ghost of Pan who gallops across the field and strikes your shield with his back kicks. Forget him and watch him vanish back into the woods where he belongs. There is no panika, no panic here. Forget the Spartans. It is show—all show, their pipes and shine. Herakles the strong is our god, always the stronger god. Herakles of Thebes. A better god by far. He fights in our ranks. Hold your shields high. Take up your spears. We file up and go out now.”

Across the way Lichas, waiting for just this moment, trotted on a black stallion in and out of the wings. Kleombrotos was king, but all looked to Lichas to form up the phalanx. For a moment he reared his horse on its back legs and waved his helmet in his right hand, motioning for the Boiotians to come and take it from him. “They’re already upon us. The pigs are here at last. Wait until the horsemen are through before marching out. Let me and my cavalry fight first, you later.”

For all his bellowing, Lichas worried that the Boiotian army had formed up too quickly and had caught his red-capes unawares. The Spartans had wine in their mouths from the late breakfast, and a few were unsteady from too much. The ranks were not as tight as usual, and already enemy horsemen were charging from across the way. Too much drink, too much hubris this time. How could these pigs be more ready to charge than his own taskmasters of war? No, this was not the Spartan way, Lichas knew—and with a coward like Kleombrotos at the head of his army and drunken Dionysos, not Ares, their god this morning. Nonetheless, his hoplites raised their shields high and hit their spear shafts against the bronze shield blazons. The clash bellowed across the vale of Leuktra.

Mêlon across the field could smell the stench, as if in reply to the Spartan spectacle too many Thebans in the line had soiled their legs in terror. He noticed piss too in the dirt. Even some of the older ones emptied their bladders in the ranks. Their ground was becoming a sewer. Mêlon hit Chiôn on his broad shoulder as they found their slots on the left wing. “Our time, islander. You and I, we will stand firm—always the lead geese who break the wind for the weaker flyers behind.” He was talking as if he were Epaminondas.

Chiôn paid his master no mind—even though he heard well with his helmet up on his forehead. He tapped his spear on Mêlon’s shield. He was full of the good spirits, the daimones of courage and audacity. The slave was entheos, a god was inside him. As for Spartans over there preening to the mounted Lichas, he would kill plenty and rout the rest—happy to teach the Hellenes that there were men at Thespiai still. If he were killed? Well, nothing—he knew that well enough—nothing bad, no kakon. Nêto had promised him that: nothing bad would come to the souls of the good. He would return in his own fashion, fly back out of the whirl to his haunt on Helikon in a shape and with a voice he could hardly imagine—a free soul as an ant or leaf with no memories of who or what it had been as the slave Chiôn of Helikon.

Mêlon was not quite free yet from that vision of neighing Pan—and so once again he grasped Chiôn’s arm and finally, in these last moments before the charge, he spoke to him as the equal Chiôn had always really been. “It matters nothing whether we are eight or fifty deep. We care little about how long Kleombrotos’s line over there ends up. Men alone count on the battle line.” Then he turned to his slave. “If it is the will of Zeus that every Boiotian die this morning, still you and I at least will not fall beneath the spears of Kleombrotos. Never. There is not a hoplite nor a god yet born that will break us, Chiôn. Not this day. Not on this plain of Leuktra.”

But Chiôn was already eyeing the king across the way. He pulled his helmet down and heard not a word. Then a Thespian trotted up to the front out of breath. “Son of Malgis. I came late with the slaves.” Staphis? It was the farmer the Thespians all knew as Dried Grape. Here was the lowly vine owner from Helikon who ran up from the back of the phalanx. Too old, with bad armor, thin arms, and knock knees and his empty head with no notion of the spears to come, only that he wanted to do some great thing on the front line before he fell to the earth beside his ox in aged weariness—the sort of idea that so often gets the best of us killed.

Staphis had marched from Helikon along with Nêto the evening before. Then Staphis had spent the early morning looking for the tent of Epaminondas to learn where were the files of Mêlon and Chiôn of Thespiai. Staphis had little skill with the spear. But he would prove the braver man if genuine courage is, as the philosophers said, not the raging of the desperate, but the risking of all when all in life is most dear and most to be hoarded. For this Staphis, his tiny vineyard on the rises below Helikon was his Elysion, paradise on earth for many seasons to come and a rather valuable thing not to be thrown rashly away in a morning in the muck at Leuktra, when the presence of a vine grower would not change the verdict of the battle either way.

Being ungainly and aged can suit a good man, when a spirit looms larger than what it is trapped in—and a certain rare beauty follows from the very contrast. On this morning facing the old guard of Sparta, the ugliest farmer from Helikon was not ugly at all. So Mêlon saw for the first time on the front line of the army of the Boiotians. Staphis was, in fact, the most beautiful of the Hellenes in Thespiai. He was at Mêlon’s side ignoring a death sentence in hopes to fight head-on against the king of Sparta and his guard. The tiny teeth of the field mouse would have had a better chance against a green field viper. “Staphis,” Mêlon called, “fight here. Head with us into death. Right through the swinging doors to the other side.”

The line was set and about ready to charge out. The tanner Antitheos, on the other side of Staphis, kept his gaze fixed ahead. He held his shield too high, to show all the power of his strong left arm. Now he was raging out of the side of his mouth to Mêlon. “If you limp to the king first, Mêlon Chôlopous, all is forgotten. But I think we Thebans over here on your left, we will be the ones to cut off Kleombrotos’s beard.” Every man in the phalanx was boasting something like that. But not more than one or two in their immediate midst could hear a thing. Staphis muttered to himself, “Here we go into the storm. Pray Herakles and any gods who roam Helikon that I prove worthy of these better ones at my side.” Staphis had cut the throat of a young goat the night before. He had offered it up to Zeus Eleutheros who frees those on the eve of battle shackled in fear. But the blood had not flowed. The victim had a half-liver. The spongy lungs had put the sacrificial flame out as well. Now the vine man wasn’t sure that even if the god listened, and gave them victory, he would shield Staphis of Helikon. Then the grape grower stepped out even as he trembled. Mêlon felt his shaking and so he moved his shield a few more palms to cover more of the farmer’s right flank. “Don’t worry, my neighbor. We will laugh at all this, at harvest next, in the victory halls of Malgis on Helikon, my Staphis. These are the days that will bring us joy to recall back on Helikon.”

On the other side, Antikrates frowned as he focused on the Boiotians across the field under the banner of Epaminondas—just out of bow shot, no more now than three hundred paces away. Like his father Lichas, he saw for the first time the Boiotian weight: too many spears there facing the royal right. The young Spartan thought, “Here is trouble right at the beginning, right in our path.” His boys had drunk too much of their red wine as rumors swept the camp that the Boiotians would run and there would be only women across the way, and no need for a fight after all. His father, Lichas, had been circling on his pony, too far out in front of the phalanx, eager to charge the Boiotians and be the first to kill on either side, before he dismounted and joined the king’s guard. “Still, our best may die, but if so, they are not our best. We follow no rules, no nomima of the Hellenes for us. We know no heralds. We pull back no spears from the wounded. No shaking of hands when we beat them. We ask for no quarter. Nothing but death now, death to them. We pray to no gods but Thanatos.” With such pride, Antikrates lowered his gray spear Haima. He aimed its tip at a big hoplite opposite, with the tallest crest on the line. He had spotted a big one from Thespiai, not far, not far across the way.

The Boiotian hoplites across from Antikrates jostled to keep rank. Then Epaminondas stepped out without his own shield or helmet. Seven thousand spears were shaking. The general trotted down the front line of the Thebans beneath their raised spears. He was hitting the wooden shafts lightly with a large cleaver, an iron klôpis of the type the Spartans favored. “For Thebes, for Boiotia, and for Hellas!” he repeated as he made his way across the front rank to the clattering of struck wood. A few enemy arrows from the strong bows landed harmlessly ten paces from his feet.

Then he stopped in the middle of the Boiotian front line. Here Epaminondas yelled out a final time, “We are better men than the Spartans, better in peace and far better men in war. I swear a great oath to every man here: We will kill their king today. It is fated. I will not live after today if we lose. I will not breathe the air of Boiotia in shame and laughed at by all. We shall not lose this Holy Leuktra. Follow me into their spears. Follow Herakles who roams above us. Avenge the daughters of Skedasos. Follow me into song and story. Give me one more step forward still. The Thebans are mightier in war.”

The army behind him shook their spears and clapped them against their shields. They let out a thunderous roar with their own paean to death, “Death, death, death—thanatos, thanatos, thanatos—the Thebans are mightier in war. The Boiotians are better than Spartans.” They were immediately cut short by the ping of metal against wood and flesh as a thousand Spartan horsemen galloped out and hit the Theban cavalrymen head-on. Lichas led them, with a spear in his right hand and a cleaver in his left, reins in his mouth, his own men behind likewise chanting “Thanatonde, thanatonde—deathward, to death.” To no avail. His horsemen were outnumbered, and they soon proved to be mere boys compared to the skilled riders of the plains around Kopais. The Boiotians had hit them in a massive rhomboid and then sliced through the thin line of Spartan horse, forcing them all back into their own ranks. Then the Boiotians threw javelins at the confused jumble of foot and horse, as they split off and rode back to the wings—even as the Boiotian phalanx now bore down on the men of Sparta. Dust engulfed the wine-soaked Spartans, and the oncoming hoplites of Boiotia could see only the raised spear of Lichas, as he shouted in vain, “Rally to me, my riders, rally to me!”

Pray God that Lophis my son was ready for that hippomachia, thought Mêlon. But then without warning almost everything in the ranks began to move, as the pushing from behind started up. Dust rose again. A cloud of it was already hanging in front. The phalanx of the Boiotians was on the move as the horsemen parted ways and yelled to them to finish their own against the jumble of Spartan riders and hoplites. More summer dirt blew into Mêlon’s face. Staphis—or was it the pressure itself pushing Staphis?—crowded him and knocked him off balance into Chiôn. The men at his side were all moving at a double-step, with their spears held underhand. He could feel that much. The butt of Mêlon’s Bora caught on something to the rear. The men behind were that close, their shields battering the back of his own shoulders. Even though the hoplites of the Peloponnesos were a few cubits distant across the rolling field, an enemy horseman broke through on his right. He was a Spartan hippeus and he had got turned around after the cavalry collision. The fool, with his flying braids, had galloped back into the wrong army. The Spartan rider was quickly stabbed on all sides—but not before taking a few hoplites down with him as his horse crashed over onto the men of Tanagra.

Next Mêlon heard an even worse sound than the neighing horses, worse even than the straps and shields bustling, and wood hitting iron as spears and shields bounced together: the sickly sweet music of Dorian flutes. Or was it women’s shrieks in the air above them? No, it was enemy flutes, as the Spartan infantry were upon them and at last slanting into the leftward march of the Theban massed wing, each side now desperate to outflank the other. Mêlon could not even hear Epaminondas in the ranks a few feet away. His ears were instead full of Nêto’s Thisbean flute, as if she were playing it inside his head to drown the death music of the enemy. He chanted to himself to blot out the enemy tune. His general was pleading with the men at his immediate side. “The sound of the Spartan dirge. Ignore it. The music is coming for them. Not for us. You hear the pipes of a dead city. A dead people. The enemy is lost. They are fleeing. Their flutes are sweet music to our ears.”

Epaminondas might as well have been on Olympos. His men were charging ahead. They were already running in the dromô. Their heads were encased in bronze, tucked behind their shields, ready for the crash.

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