Byzantium stands in one of the strongest places in the world, on the European side of the Dardanelles, with a high acropolis for defence and two fine beaches as well as a separate deep bay where an entire fleet can anchor.
The location sticks out from the European shore like a left thumb at full stretch, if you turn your hand so that your palm is up and your fingers are pointing back towards your body. I agree that this posture might hurt your wrist, but now you can see the shape of Byzantium. The city is just where your thumbnail is.
Storms can work their way up the Sea of Marmora, but never into the spur of the sea that runs up the northern shore of the thumb, and that’s where we wanted to land, but that’s not how it came out, as you’ll hear. We didn’t come in one mighty fleet, either, for a variety of reasons, none of them pretty.
First, at the appointed hour, the fleet left its beaches at Mytilene. But the Peloponnesians, leaving the northern beach, caught the breeze from Asia immediately and sailed away, leaving the rest of us to row around the acropolis-citadel for an hour before we could raise our sails.
There was worse to come. At Artemesium and Salamis, we’d had days to practice leaving our beaches and forming in lines for fighting, and even with that, Salamis was a dreadful spectacle of broken oars and poor communications. Among the veterans, and by that I mostly mean Aeginians and Athenians, there were perhaps a dozen crude, shared signals, but the small states, the Ionians, and the Peloponnesians had no sort of signals. Back in Militiades time, we — and by we I mean the loose coalition of pirates and idealists who carried the flame of the Ionian revolt — became so used to operations at sea that we developed some formations that we employed… well, all the time. We sailed in double columns, and we rowed in double columns. We even practised deploying rapidly from those columns into fighting lines, Demetrios, who’s now living out his old age in Marsala with Doola and Giannis and other old friends, trained us hard in the months before Lades; so hard that many ships defected, or refused to train.
I was not a great friend of Demetrios, but I learned almost everything I know about sea-tactics from him.
Athens and the Ionians had been fighting at sea for forty years or more; not just in great fleet actions like Salamis, but in deadly hit and run raids, commerce raiding, and avoiding the tender attentions of Carian pirates, among others.
The Corinthians had kept up to date, and the ships from Hermione were at least aware of the new tactics and the notion of keeping a formation while cruising.
Pausanias apparently despised such tactics. It’s remarkable, when you consider that Spartans have a great reputation as tacticians, and when you consider that the other Spartan King, Leotychides, the Eurypontid king, was familiar with all of our columns and lines…
It really appears that Pausanias was a very petty man. Or worse.
‘Apollo’s Raven’ was off the beach and rowing, with the familiar voice of Onisandros coaching the oarsmen, Nicanor and Nestor steering, and all appeared right with the world. I was just settling down to enjoying the perfect blue of the sky and sea, the magnificent mountains rising in Asia just a few stadia away, and the spectacle of the Athenians coming off their beaches. I had the honour to be first in our line, with ‘Apollo’s Serpent’ tucking in nicely under our stern and Damon’s Winged Nike came third, with a dozen Athenians just coming off the beaches behind us and filling in. We were the left hand column, on the Island side; on the Asia side, a little farther out in the straight, Cimon’s mighty Ajax led.
Onisandros was watching the Ajax without any reference form me, making sure that we kept pace, and we rounded the promontory at Barbalios together, perhaps a stade apart, each of us with another twenty or so ships behind us. We could feel the wind change; on my deck, Giorgos already had the sails laid to the yards, and the oarsmen were taunting the sailors, as they usually did.
As we prepared to make the turn and raise our sails, we caught our first sight of the Peloponnesians. The Corinthians were all together in two short columns, but the rest of them were spread over twenty stadia of the channel, in no particular order; the fastest ships pulling ahead, the slower ships lagging.
I tried not to think of what a dozen well handled ships–Carians or Aegyptians, perhaps — would make of that tangle. Even as I watched, one of them went aboard another, her ram smashing into the oar-frame, and even five stadia away we could hear the shouting and the curses.
It was already late in the morning when we launched, and as I watched the Allied fleet straggle across the ocean, I wondered if we were likely to make Lemnos in one leg. I closed to shouting distance with Cimon.
‘Mythymna?’ I shouted.
He flashed an aspis twice, meaning yes.
So the Peloponnesians sailed off into the evening, and we landed on the beaches of Mythymna. I slept alone in my own bed, and started a wax tablet with a long letter for Briseis, mostly because I already missed her.
So you can imagine my pleasure, an hour later, when she came in, accompanied by her women, and Alysia.
She smiled. ‘I hoped you’d be here,’ she said.
It appeared that Archilogos, as well as Parmenio and Herakles and Helikaon, had followed us from Mytilene. They were going to make Mythymna the base for the Ionian squadron. Thanks to our efforts and the good merchants of Lesvos and Chios, they had a small treasury and five good ships. Neoptolymos would join them with two more ships from Chios after he’d run his cargo into Athens.
So we had one more pleasant evening, and Alysia told me everything she’d gathered about Byzantium.
‘I have a good friend in the city,’ she said. ‘Someone I trust absolutely.’
‘Someone I could meet with?’
‘Absolutely not. But if I receive anything useful, I’ll pass it along.’ Alysia smiled, and when she smiled, she really could melt your heart. it was a smile of such surpassing innocence that even knowing her as the most effective spy in the Ionian revolt, I almost trusted her.
Regardless, we got off Mythymna’s beaches in good order the next day, and we rowed all morning, until the ‘Point of Asia’ and turned out into the open ocean. From there, we started seeing Peloponnesian ships immediately; some had landed on islets and some on the coast of Asia itself. They were putting to sea with no order at all, and we bore on, our two long columns raising sail in order. In the evening we landed on Tenedos, and we purchased food and oil. By then we had most of the ships of Hermione with us.
The next day started with rain, but Cimon and Aristides got us off the beaches just after dawn, and the clouds were breaking as we dropped our sails and turned north and east into the Dardanelles. There’s a current coming out, although even that is tricky; oarsmen say it’s a long, bitter pull, like walking uphill, to row a big ship all the way to the Euxine.
We landed at Troy, and made sacrifices to the shades of the Greek heroes; the triremes lowered and stowed their main masts. But it was still mid-day and we were in hostile waters.
We rowed in two long columns up the Dardanelles. We were a stirring sight, and the straits themselves were beautiful. I was in the middle of the European-side column that day, with Aristides in the lead; Cimon was somewhere on the Asian side, because Eumenes of Anagyrus, one of the heroes of Salamis, was leading the Asia side column. We camped on an island in the Sea of Marmora. The whole trip up the gut of the straits, Cimon and I rowed along, side by side, shouting recollections to one another; our youths had been spent here, fighting Carians.
The Sea of Marmora has its storms, as I well remember, but it is for the most part as calm as a pond, a huge salt lake between Asia and Europe, surrounded by little fishing villages, and with the town of Byzantium on the north shore, where the inlet from the Euxine comes in. We hadn’t seen Pausanias for days, and I’d begun to hope that perhaps he’d sailed home.
The evening of the third day out from Mythymna, we raised Byzantium at mid-afternoon. We had the breeze, and we were sailing in, and there was the town, and there, the acropolis.
‘Tough nut to crack,’ Onisandros said, and Nestor spat thoughtfully over the side.
‘An’ this from a bunch that couldn’t take a soft city on Cyprus,’ he said.
We lowered our sails and beached along the coast of the Sea of Marmora, south of the town and in relatively open country. Styges led the marines ashore at last light and occupied the headland above us, and we felt secure enough to beach stern first. We put all of our marines ashore under Cimon’s captain, and we cooked dinner, looking at the citadel of Byzantium a few stadia east, down the coast.
# # #
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No one attacked us in the night, although when morning came, Thekles, the captain of Cimon’s marines, sent runners to wake us.
Off to the west, making no effort to hide themselves, were Thracians. There were at least fifty of them, all mounted on steppe ponies.
‘Double the guard,’ Cimon said.
‘Let’s see if they’ll talk,’ I said.
Cimon blinked slowly, and then narrowed his eyes. ‘My father held a large portion of these straits for years,’ he said. ‘Thracians don’t talk. They fight.’ He shrugged. ‘And they’re all Medizers, anyway.’
I was watching the Thracians. Several of them flashed with gold; Thracian aristocrats wear a lot of gold. There were at least two women, and several young people, or very small warriors.
That didn’t have to mean anything. Thracians took the very young on raids, and there were women among their warriors. But they weren’t alarming us with wild yells, or beating drums, or riding about raising dust to hide their movements; I’d seen all of these things. They were sitting quietly on a low, wooded hill, in full sight of our outposts.
‘Aten, get Styges and three marines,’ I said.
Lucky Aten got to climb back down the low bluff to the beach and fetch sleeping men who’d stood a night watch. But show is important, and I wanted to look important.
‘If they kill me,’ I said, ‘I recommend that you murder Pausanias and have Aristides take command.’
‘That’s good advice,’ he said. ‘But don’t die. I’d miss you, and anyway, Styges won’t take orders from me.’
He smiled, but he didn’t volunteer to come along.
Half an hour later, the Thracians were still there, and Styges came up the low cliff at a jog, with Leander, Kassandros, and Zephyrides at his back.
I pointed my spear at the Thracians. ‘We’re going to walk towards them,’ I said. ‘If they charge us or shoot arrows, we stand our ground and die. Otherwise we walk right up to them as if we haven’t a care in the world.’
Leander glanced out over the sunlit hillside. Then he smiled. ‘Sure,’ he said. His tone conveyed a little disappointment, as if he’d expected either a better plan or more adventure.
Cimon smiled. ‘He’s almost as Laconic as Brasidas,’ he said.
We set out. It was only two stadia or a little more, but there was a valley with a little water-course in the bottom, and we had to jump from rock to rock before climbing the far side. The last three hundred paces were across grassy, open ground; perfect for horses.
I was looking around. I knew Thrake pretty well; most of it is better pasture and farmland than anything mainland Greece has to offer. The trees are bigger and the grass is greener. The winters are colder, too.
The Thracians sat on their ponies and watched us climb, as still as statues or Spartans. The horse moved a little; nipped grass, tossed their heads because of flies; but even they were very still.
We kept walking.
There was a big, red-faced man with grey-shot black hair and a long beard, who had not one but two big gold armbands and a fine helmet. He and I locked eyes early on, and I walked towards him, my spear back on my shoulder except when I needed it as a walking stick.
He sat his horse, impassive.
When we were within fifty paces, another Thracian pushed in front of him. She had the same jet-black hair, but she was younger. Not much younger; perhaps my age, with tanned skin and lines around her eyes and a long scar across her face. Her eyes were a lurid green, and she had tattoos over most of the skin that showed, but she also had a beautiful scale corselet and a scarlet kaftan.
I halted perhaps five paces from her, trying not to breath hard.
‘I’m Arimnestos of Plataea,’ I said in Greek.
‘I’m Katisa of the Melinditae,’ she said. Her accent was not too barbarous, and she managed a slight smile. ‘This is my land.’
‘Do you claim Byzantium?’ I asked.
‘Are you hear for Byzantium?’ she asked.
Here we go, I thought.
‘We are at war with the Great King,’ I said.
‘Everyone knows this,’ she said. ‘The birds in the trees and the bears in the hills know that the Great King was beaten by the Greeks, and now you pursue his ships.’
Right. Important advice here; never assume that barbarians are stupid or ignorant just because they wear trousers and speak badly.
‘We intend to take Byzantium,’ I said.
She looked at the distant town, which, from her hill, could be seen quite clearly. ‘You took a walk,’ she said, indicating the beach from which I’d come.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I don’t have any horses here.’
She nodded. ‘You can ride?’
‘I can,’ I said.
She nodded again. ‘My people have not held the town in two hundreds of years,’ she said. ‘But that changes nothing. Seasons change. Wind changes. The Melinditae do not change.’
The big man with the black and grey beard grunted an affirmative, and a younger man gave a yip of agreement.
‘Our enemies are in that town,’ I said.
‘Will you hand it to us when you take it?’ she asked.
I shrugged. ‘Probably not,’ I said agreeably.
She looked at me, one eyebrow slightly lifted. In that moment, she looked just a little like Briseis, when I say something untoward.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘That no doubt counts for honesty, among Greeks.’
‘I don’t suppose you’d like to sell me some horses?’ I asked.
‘I’d like nothing better,’ she said. ‘How many do you want?’
‘Ten?’ I asked. Why not ten? I had in mind the ability to ride around the town and scout it, every day. And also to get away from Pausanias when I wanted to.
She nodded, and then we were dithering away, like two farmers on the high road from Plataea to Thebes working out the price of a lamb. It wasn’t unpleasant, for all that I suspected that she thought she could steal my horses back whenever she felt the urge.
We settled on some minae of silver, and I sent Kassandros back to camp for a roll of drachma.
‘The horses will be here before the sun is a hand higher,’ she said. ‘How much would it cost me to buy the town from you?’
I shrugged. ‘I’m not in command. I would be selling something that isn’t mine.’
‘Hah,’ she said. ‘Of course it isn’t yours. It’s mine!’
She seemed to think that was quite funny, and she was still barking her barbarian laugh as she rode away.
But that’s how, an hour later, I came to be riding along the out-walls of the city of Byzantium. It was already two hundred years old; older, if the Thracian tale that they’d had a town there was true. The walls, as I could observe, were mud brick atop a socle of good stonework that rose about the height of a man above the rolling ground, and the mud brick went up another two-man heights, slightly slanted back. The base of the wall was thick with brush for most of its length, and the towers were too infrequent to protect it all. In places, ivy or some other creeper had overgrown the whole wall; in two places the mud-brick had eroded or collapsed in the spring rains.
The walls ran across the ‘thumb,’ the whole peninsula, right at the ‘nail.’ There were warehouses and small farmsteads outside the walls, and there were lower walls along the waterfront. Cimon took Ajax to sea and coasted the whole town, looking for landing sites, while I rode abroad.
We met again in early afternoon, in the shade of his stern. Aristides was there, and a dozen other captains. So far, the Peloponnesians had landed further east and had their own beaches.
‘Pausanias landed while I was scouting,’ Cimon said.
No one had much to say to that.
‘I like the little hill where we met the Thracians,’ I said. ‘There’s water in the stream, and the hill is just steep enough to be held.’
Cimon nodded. ‘I thought that too.’
‘I think we should take our palisades and fortify the hill, and make our camp there. Then run two lines of palisades, or at least felled trees, all the way to the ships.’
‘Like the long walls in miniature,’ Aristides said.
‘Exactly. Then we have water, forage, and access to retreat.’
‘And Pausanias?’ Cimon asked. ‘I say we take a tip from Themistokles. We built it all today and tomorrow, before he can stop us, and then we decline to move our camp.’
Aristides nodded his assent.
‘Do you think we can take the place?’ Cimon asked.
I shrugged. ‘It’s strong,’ I said. ‘the towers are badly spaced and I see a couple of places for an escalade, but we won’t have surprise and they have a garrison of Persian regulars.’ I shrugged. ‘Starvation or a traitor.’
Aristides nodded again. ‘Athens has some friend in the city,’ he said. ‘Half our grain comes past here. I’ll see what I can do.’
Cimon nodded. ‘I can’t see a really good landing place,’ he said. ‘But I see three or four that are too small for a main landing, but could cause lots of confusion.’
‘So our first try is as escalade on the outside wall, after you start a diversion by landing on the sea wall,’ I said.
Aristides pointed with his cornel-wood stick. ‘First, we build our camp,’ he said.
So we did.
Remember, we’d cut hundreds of palisades. We emptied the round ship first, and then cleared all our decks and holds, and at the top of our little cliff, crews of oarsmen and marines dug postholes and drove them in. Other groups cut brush from the wood line, covered by archers in case the Thracians got ideas. When the palisades were up and dug in, the brush would be woven in among the uprights for stability and a little more protection.
The work moved with astounding speed once we got it organized; almost eight thousand men can do an incredible amount of work in just a few hours, and by my second trip up the hill, the palisades reached the base of the hill and had started up the slope. Cimon was laying out a camp, assigning each ship the space to set their mainsail and boat sail as huge tents, and Aristides, always the thoughtful man, was laying out latrines which oarsmen were digging in the fertile soil.
Thekles and Styges and I laid out the little fort at the top, encompassing the camp but not the latrines. We laid out a main gate, facing the town, and a second gate to the latrines and a third so we could deploy to face a Thracian threat. On the beach, they were emptying the round ships and piling up the grain and wine and olive oil. I wondered if my new friend Katisa would sell me cattle or sheep.
In late afternoon, I was riding across the open ground behind our little fort, hoping to meet a Thracian who wouldn’t kill me, and instead I found a dozen Peloponnesian officers walking along the cliff top path, headed for our ships.
I reined in. They’d just caught site of our camp.
Pausanias nodded to me. ‘Plataean,’ he said. ‘Why must Athenians always build walls? Is it part of their religion?’
I chose to act the Laconic part myself, and say nothing.
He nodded. ‘That is not where the camp will be,’ he said mildly enough.
‘I think that is where the Athenians have chosen to make their camp,’ I said.
He nodded, and kept walking.
I rode along, and Sparthius grinned at me. ‘Do you have a horse for me, Ari?’ he asked.
‘I do, if you want one,’ I said. Spartans are not, for the most part, great riders. Neither was I, but Sparthius and I spent weeks riding over western Asia with Persians, and we learned to ride in all countries in all weathers from masters.
Aten, on the other hand, was in a state very near revolt. He was not fond of horses.
I rode along, exchanging gossip with Sparthius, until Pausanias beckoned me.
‘Go tell those men to cease work,’ he said.
I shook my head. ‘No, sir,’ I said. ‘I think you’d best discuss that with Aristides and Cimon.’
He looked at me, eyebrows arched. ‘There is nothing to discuss,’ he said. ‘I am the commander, and this is not where we are placing our camp.’
Sparthius winked at me.
I had no idea what that was supposed to mean.
Soon enough, we were all under Aristides’ stern with wine in our hands.
Pausanias said, ‘This is not a council. Just obey. The camp must be where I landed.’
I smiled, because smiling usually works better than frowning. ‘Sir, your ships are seven stadia from the walls,’ I said. ‘Too far for daily raids. Do you have good fresh water?’
‘Don’t presume to question me!,’ he snapped.
Cimon said, ‘Pausanias, we are well-suited here. And we know how to take a city.’
‘And body of men too cowardly to come out and fight can scarcely be fearsome opponents,’ Pausanias said.
‘Cowardly?’ Cimon asked. ‘They are many times outnumbered. I think they have fewer than a thousand fighting men.’
Pausanias looked at him with unveiled contempt. ‘Even accepting your archers as soldiers, we have fewer than a thousand ourselves.’
‘We have fifteen thousand oarsmen,’ Cimon said. ‘And two thousand deck crew.’
‘Surely you can’t mean to arm that rabble and call them soldiers?’ Pausanias said. ‘That would be shameful, like putting helots in your battle line.’
I was very tempted to say, out loud, How on earth did you beat the Persians at Plataea?
Instead, I said, ‘Most of my deck crews are better armoured than most hoplites.’
Pausanias smiled dismissively. ‘Sailors,’ he said, as if to say ‘useless slaves.’
Cimon continued to be polite. ‘Regardless,’ he said, ‘no Persian garrison wil come out and fight when so hopelessly outnumbered.’
‘You burden me with all these useless oarsmen,’ Pausanias said. ‘If we win, people will say we had the numbers, and if we lose, why, we must have been fools.’
No one said anything.
‘From the hill we’ve taken,’ I said, ‘We can watch most of the walls. We have already cut the town off from any further supplies. And even if you have contempt for their fighting potential, you’ll find that the oarsmen are very useful in a siege. Digging, building…’
‘Are you planning to lesson me on the conduct of war, Plataean?’ Pausanias asked.
‘I’d prefer that we did a little better than we did at Amathus,’ I said.
Pausanias crossed his arms.
Aristides nodded. ‘Let us handle this,’ he said quietly. ‘We know how to take a town.’
Pausanias shrugged. ‘So you believe that this is the correct place for the camp?’ he asked.
Aristides was firm. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘The hill, the beach, and the fresh water.’
Helpfully, I said, ‘I’ve ridden the whole length of the city wall and all the nearby beaches on both shores,’ I said. ‘This is the best site.’
Pausanias managed a very slight smile. ‘Excellent,’ he said. ‘Please vacate it, then. I’ll put the Peloponnesians here.’