Ancient History & Civilisation


The Battle Above

In the camp above the swale of Leuktra, not all were so scared or unhappy at the sight of their own shaking hoplites of Boiotia lining up for battle. “Loud and proud, my Spartans—big thing to see.” Gorgos winked in a manner Nêto had not quite seen before. He stood up on the wagon bed. He had a better view than any below and thought he could predict what those lining up for the collision could not. Gorgos scoffed at the idea that anyone in Boiotia would dare go up against such men of Lakedaimon. “Look, look, Nêto. At the hills beyond—how our rabble of Boiotia awaits slaughter below. They’re hoggies backing into the corners of their pens as their butcher enters. Ah, look. Even the blood-fanged Kêres will soon fly in the air. They will have their pork feast as they land on your Boiotians. You should have gone home as ordered last night, and been spared the sight of your bloodied Boiotians below.”

Gorgos was freed of Mêlon, freed of Proxenos, freed of all memories of his twenty seasons and more as a slave on Helikon, so sure he was of a grand Spartan victory below. He too was a Messenian, and, like Nêto, born a helot. But the old man cared not a whit for any of those serfs, and he liked their masters better than their slaves. There was no law that said Spartans must prove strong, and helots weak. Sly Gorgos knew that the weaker usually hide behind their race, their color, their homeland—refuges all for failure. So now for the first time Nêto talks of her helot birth. More than that still, a liberator of her people—this slave who can’t remember the look of Mt. Ithômê or even tell helot talk from the Spartan Doric. She was not like him, not like Gorgos, he thought, who chose his race, his people, his land as he saw fit and so trumped a mere accident of helot birth. Spartans were his because they, like him, were better than the helots. In contrast, his master was worse and only by silly laws kept the true master Gorgos his slave. How odd that these Boiotian liberators brought their slaves like Gorgos to battle. But then again, Gorgos still liked his master and was, after all, born a helot as well, whose people were underfoot from the Spartans that he now boasted about. He figured that he could hate helots and their masters, both Spartans and Thebans, praise Lichas and at times his master, too—mixed up at least for a while more before battle.

Gorgos climbed down from the wagon. “So much, Nêto, for your gods yesterday. Your omens will get Boiotian men killed. Close your mouth, and we all live—paying money, fair tribute to Spartan occupiers and their ruling harmosts, and as you know, keeping our masters alive. These are our betters—yes they are—from Sparta, who rule with the iron hand. We helots, you and me both, know they earn what they enjoy—and how the two of us can prosper with them. But bet me—will our Boiotians run like Thespians or die fighting as they do in Sparta?”

Nêto paid this two-shoe no heed in his dotage; traitor long ago to the cause of the helots, traitor he seemed now to her master Mêlon. She packed her bedroll and then moved farther away from the wagon where she had slept the previous night. Nêto led the ox Aias over to taller grass. The master and Chiôn were far below. Apparently, Nêto thought, Gorgos cared little who heard him as he yelled out at what he saw below. For the first time in their lives the two farm slaves, Nêto and Gorgos, were alone without Chiôn or Mêlon somewhere nearby in the vineyard. They kept eyeing each other as the sun rose and the armies below marched out to crash. Nêto gasped when she suddenly realized that Gorgos no longer limped. She was struck mute when he pulled off his ragged cloak to reveal the broad chest of a man more forty summers than seventy. Maybe he been faking his age to avoid plowing on the farm, secretly scything and pruning after dark to build such muscles. Or perhaps this brute was a demon god—maybe some foul half-animal from Hades that had taken over the body of the old slow-wit Gorgos.

Had he taken some drink from the fountain at Hippokrenê on Helikon that had smoothed his wrinkles and put muscle where his fat used to hang, and made him talk as if were a lord? Surely he was no Odysseus whom Athena made young and strong in moments of crisis. The voice of Pythagoras had taught Nêto to scoff at these child stories of the Olympians. But she thought she would soon see hooves as well on this new Gorgos, who might have been a foul offshoot of Pan all along. Then this fresher, taller helot stood erect and blared out in a stronger voice and a better way of speaking. His Doric seemed purer now and with all trace of Helikon twang gone.

“By the gods, I wish this day we were on the other side of that battle line. You see, my Nêto, I was a slave up here only by name, not by heart—not like you and Chiôn, who found your proper station as the property of Mêlon. In Sparta I was free—only to see my freedom end when reduced to a slave on Helikon. All this is the logic from the would-be liberators of serfs. Slavery is good if you and those servile like you obey their betters, bad only to the degree that a natural lord like Gorgos sometimes trips on the battlefield and finds himself reduced to your lot. But in Sparta they know all that and so keep down the Messenians as the serfs they are, and make free those like me who soon prove that they were born to the wrong parents. Perhaps Sparta needs me as her men run out and her serfs increase. Watch below—the king steps forward. Now the music starts, Nêto. The most beautiful sounds to ears of men. Come here—akouete. Hear the Spartan pipes with me.”

So this slave-turned-philosopher dropped all pretense and raised his voice in delight at the sight of thousands of Sparta’s best below. A mania was in him at the sight of Spartans after twenty years and more. Nêto hoped those below might hear his loud treason, his high traitor talk, as if the dirty helot farmhand could have spoken like a Spartan lord all along. He went on without fear. “The killing begins as the sun warms. It peeps through the clouds, peeps through to show its face, Nêto. Look, sassy helot, at Spartans in their pride. Look at me. Look what Spartan men can do. Their fine steps, their shields chest-high, not a crest, not a spear tip out of order. That is the real eunomia, the real law. Tough and hard. It gives obedience and order. Not your freedom. They’ve had their late-morning wine. Hot they are for battle. Hot and ready, all up with the desire for warcraft—with their erôs polemou.” Then this new Gorgos turned directly to face Nêto and at twenty feet distant beckoned with his right hand, as he hummed and danced to a Spartan war tune. “Come nearer, woman. Sit next to your Gorgos as we watch our men from our Peloponnesos, our shared birthplace. You too may come to see the power of Sparta and how we can help the winners take care of their children, we two who still speak with the Messenian accent. Your Gorgikos will tell you a long story of Spartan lore. Sit here. Learn of the Spartan way. Let me sing the Spartan poets, Alkman especially, to his Nêtikon, or some more Tyrtaios.”

The maddened Gorgos had moved downhill and left Nêto back near the wagon, so intent was he on getting an even better view of the great slaughter below. He hiked down to yet another hillock of scrub cedars and tamarisks, wanting to get far closer to the battle than even the rise below the camp. From his early years with Brasidas, he had a sharp eye for terrain and the pulse of fighting. The son of Mêlon had ridden right out at the head of a column of cavalry, the first of the Boiotians to hit the Spartan horse. In a moment, the reckless Lophis at the point had been swallowed in dust and horseflesh. But before Lophis was lost to the mob, Gorgos determined that he had been knocked off and disappeared into the melee—unhorsed but perhaps alive.

“Don’t wait. Save our master,” a voice yelled at him from his rear. It was Nêto again, who had crept down with blade in hand. In her own wildness, she too had thoughts, but of killing Gorgos, cutting his throat from the rear. She believed in her visions at night that Gorgos could still, even at his age, even if the Spartans lost today, do great evil; and she thought some far better than he might live if he bled first. Nêto was worried too that he saw the false in her, that the more she had forgotten the distant helots of Messenia, the more she made up stories about them, the less she sounded like one, the more she tried to. But upon observing the cavalry charge below, she decided that she needed Gorgos to save her master’s son, and put away her knife.

Gorgos barked back, “Leave woman. You deserted our farm. Go. It’s man-killing here. In the raw. Look. Your Lophis fallen. Slaughtered. Or will be.”

Nêto replied, “He is your master, too, or have you forgotten who saved you so often from the lash of Mêlon? If you won’t go down, I’ll go. Lophis is buried in men, not yet deep in dirt. No Spartan can beat him in the one-on-one, not our Lophis. The phalanx is on them now. If we can get down there, if he survives the trample, we can save him from the locusts that will strip and kill him on the field. If your mania leaves you, the two of us can drag him to the wagons.”

As the two helots looked out, they saw that Lophis’s charge had sent the Spartans reeling. His horsemen had stunned their hoplite advance. Before the reds had recovered, the Theban phalanx was upon them, killing all those who had not been trampled by their own horse. The Theban left wing seemed as one iron hammer, its head battering and flattening a sheet of bronze. Suddenly Gorgos cowered a bit. “Fire burns Spartans and enflames the king.” The two had no hint that they in fact were watching the acme of Epaminondas himself and the Sacred Band under Pelopidas—in concert with the furious onslaught of Chiôn. After their cavalry charge, the Theban hoplites on the left had rammed obliquely into the Spartans. They tore apart the slow Spartan march, as if order and music meant nothing to the mass of farmers who split that red line in two. Then the defeated Spartan horsemen galloped back into the ranks and only fouled the king’s reply.

Nêto could see that almost immediately a lochos or so of Thebans, maybe six hundred, were well inside the Spartan ranks and were burning their way through to within a few paces of the king himself. For a moment only she stopped begging Gorgos to rescue Lophis. Instead she yelled to the sky, “Chiôn’s swell”—to oidma Chionos—and it would be named just that for the big slave who first cut the Boiotians’ way in. From here above, it looked as if the entire right wing of the Spartan line was like some pitiful mole caught in the jaws of a huge fanged hound, being shaken and torn apart, as the forest of spears was thinned out, ten or twelve at a time.

The two helots above the battle had not forgotten Lophis. But for just a blink the scene below stunned even Nêto. It would have scattered the wits of any Hellene who saw the death throes of the Spartan army. When the Theban mass went left and plowed through the Spartans, the allies of Peloponnesos on the left wing fled to the hills of Kithairon. For all the Boiotians’ fear the night before, the grand battle of Leuktra ended up just as Epaminondas and Ainias of Stymphalos had always foreseen—a Spartan king with his head in a Boiotian noose and his Peloponnesian friends happy enough to see it. Then Nêto, who likewise had predicted this end of the Spartans at Leuktra from the livers and lungs of the sacrificial animals, turned to Gorgos. “Lophis lives. My—our—Mêlon is near, near him somewhere. You foul gorgon, go down there; wherever the killing is hottest, his spear will be there. Our Chiôn, too. This is a great day for the Malgidai and the farmers of Helikon. Go down. Your new friends have lost. This is your final chance to prove yourself and get back to Helikon without your head in a noose. Lophis was good, or so you used to swear.”

Gorgos nodded, for Lophis as a boy had ridden atop his shoulders in the high-trellised vineyard, spanking his back and calling the old slave his centaur. And when grown, he had cut off the flank of the goat and the tongue of the bull to take out to the shed of Gorgos and make sure the helot had his good share of meat from the sacrifices. But the head of Gorgos was now downcast, as the sound of the Spartan pipes faded and end of the king’s army was growing clear. Gone for now were his wild visions of his old masters marching into Thebes, perhaps with Gorgos as new retainer, maybe even the new Lord Kuniskos, Spartan harmost of Thespiai. Instead he muttered to Nêto, now back in his simple helot voice of Helikon, “Our kin, our Dorians, all in Hades. Dead. Go back to the ox. Go home as you were ordered. Else I take lash to you. But for the sake of the good Lophis, I hike down to find our master. I will carry him to Helikon, just as I did the dead Malgis. Our Sturax comes with me. He will find the scent of his Lophis. Yes, give me the dog of Lophis. Wait for us at the camp of Epaminondas.” For all his talk of Spartans, Gorgos would plunge into the din to find his master’s son. He at least believed that he would do so also for Mêlon, for all his Spartan boasting, still the loyal slave of the Malgidai.

Nêto went for the wagon, confident that mania had passed and Gorgos was at least divided between his Spartans and Thebans, and so would get down to the battlefield to find Lophis. But first she turned to watch the path of the helot down the hill. She clenched her blade as she grimaced, determined to ensure he descended to the battlefield to Lophis. Then without a word, Gorgos quickly hiked down to the battle, out of sight beneath the crest of the hill.

The entire plain below was thick with the dusty haze of the Dog Star days. A light drizzle up on the mountains had long ago stopped. The late-summer ground coughed up its dust under thousands of heavy feet. For all the swirling dirt, Nêto grasped better the true picture of the battlefield below, as the hordes of the Peloponnesian allies were beginning to throw down their gear and flee to the hills beneath Kithairon. Their dust trail wafted hundreds of feet up into sky. Perhaps Lophis had risen to his feet after all. He might have made his way through the advancing hoplites to find a new mount.

From this lookout, Nêto saw the Boiotian allied right wing stop its pursuit of the panicked Peloponnesians—also just as Epaminondas had ordered. Then these allied Boiotians below turned to their left, to help the advancing Thebans under Epaminondas surround and annihilate the final Spartan stand. The few alive of the vaunted Spartan royal wing were surrounded and trapped. No farmer, she sensed, wished to miss out on the bloodletting of a Spartan king. She didn’t either. “Oh, One God of us all, look.” Nêto turned to the dumb ox at her side. “They are broken. So ends Sparta. Here, right here, is the end of Sparta.” Now on the road downward Nêto climbed into the wagon, hitting Aias with a switch. She would drive the creaky wagon around the gentle slope of the hillside to find Lophis below and perhaps reach Mêlon and Chiôn as well. But as Nêto reached the trail that led to the camp of Epaminondas, a stream of rustics swarmed ahead of her, all unhinged in their bloodlust. Hundreds of Boiotians—wives, men, archers, horsemen, armed or not—were calling out in unison, “On to Sparta, on to Sparta.” Then a new chorus rose of “O Epaminondas. Crush the head of the snake.”

Another madness had taken hold as the mob of onlookers scrambled over the mess of the battlefield. Hundreds of the widows of Boiotia were on their knees, tearing off the jewelry of the dead Spartans, indeed fighting one another for their red tunics and clasps. Nêto thought from the bench of the wagon that the battle was over and won. All that had once been ridiculed was now accepted as dogma: “Like wheat stalks these Spartans—and mowed down by the scythes of our Pythagoras.”

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