It took us five days to change our camp.
Aristides convinced us to do it after Pausanias walked off, as arrogant on foot as a Persian on horseback.
Eumenes, one of the trierarchs, spat. ‘I say we pack up our oarsmen and leave,’ he said. ‘That impious bastard is an affront to the gods. Let’s just leave him.’
Cimon’s face was red with anger–possibly rage. His hands were shaking slightly, and his voice was very soft when he spoke, but his words were clear.
‘That’s what he wants,’ Cimon said. ‘He wants us to sail away.’
Aristides nodded. ‘I don’t know whether he intends to take Byzantium for Sparta, and cut Athens off from the Euxine,’ he said, ‘or whether he simply wants the glory of driving the Persians from Europe…’ he looked at me.
I looked around the circle of captains. ‘There’s an excellent beach on the north side of the thumb,’ I said. ‘It has a fresh spring that’s probably not enough water for all of us, but it’s a start. We send four ships upstream to cut wood for more palisades. We can have a new camp in three days.’
Cimon looked at the sky and the shadows. ‘Mid-summer is here,’ he said. ‘How long do you expect the siege to last?’
I shrugged. I had been on the receiving end of a siege at Miletus, but I wasn’t really an expert. ‘Most cities fall to starvation,’ I said. ‘So over the winter.’
‘Over the winter,’ Cimon said, as if spitting a curse.
Most Athenians–most Greeks, in fact, including the Peloponnesians–only serve for the summer. We’re all farmers, at some remove, even the richest men, and planting and harvest are sacrosanct. It’s very difficult to get Greeks to stay in the field over the winter, and I wondered if Athens was paying for a long siege.
‘The longest job is the one never started,’ Aristides said. ‘For whatever reason that Pausanias is playing the part of the tyrant, we want an alliance with the Ionians, and I’m willing to stay here to get it.’
‘And as long as we’re laying siege to this vital town,’ I said, ‘It’s unlikely that the Great King will make a stab at any of the Ionian cities.’
I won’t pretend there wasn’t grumbling when Aristides gave the order; worse than grumbling. And some outright refusal to work.
Despite our own anger, the captains tried to be forebearant. We aimed at patience and light discipline, because the oarsmen had every reason to feel ill-used.
But Aristides prevented them from leaving excrement in the streets, or flooding the stream with a salt-water canal, or any other slighting of the works or camp. We sailed away leaving it intact, and Cimon and I had chosen the new camp with repeated visits, and we’d already filled the round ships with palisades and begun our new fortifications.
Our new camp was four stades upstream on the northern arm of the water surrounding the ‘thumb,’ called the ‘Chrysokeras’ or Golden Horn from its shape and colour in the setting sun, like a sheet of burnished gold rolling out under the prow of your ship. Our new camp did have the advantage of allowing us to close the whole peninsula to a relief force, and our fleet was by far the largest in the local waters.
We build our new camp with less will and less effort, but it was well-laid-out and in some ways better fortified. I demanded that a watch be kept all day and all night and there was some spectacular grumbling, even from officers.
‘Let the Spartans keep watch!’ Eumenes said.
I forced a smile. ‘If the Spartans keep watch, you know that they will only warn other Spartans,’ I said.
Eumenes laughed, a good sign. ‘Too fucking true,’ he said.
On the second day after we moved, I was laying ropes and stakes to mark the position of the new works. It was late in the day, just after midsummer; really, late evening, but the light was good and I wanted to get finished. We needed the wall to protect the ships, and Ole Llurin, who clearly had a head for such things, was laying out a complex gate area, when the Persians attacked our work parties. It was the first sign of life from the garrison, and it caught us by surprise, but it did not catch us unprepared. We had our archers at the top of our new hill, secure behind our first palisade, and they covered our work lower on the hill and saw the Persians coming, shouting alarms.
The great King’s forces were both cavalry and infantry; almost twelve hundred men, at a guess. They came on quickly, driving in the oarsmen, who ran for the ships and their weapons.
Two hundred archers may not sound like a great many, but the moment their first ranging arrows struck into the Persian cavalry, the Persians stopped and deployed their great shields, the sparpabara barricade.
And then, before Aristides could even bring Thekles and the marines off the beach, the Persians were withdrawing. It was the right decision; the commander had risked his entire garrison on a raid, and Ka and his archers had been alert enough to stop them. He couldn’t afford a stand up fight, even with cavalry. He slipped away, his horsemen raising enough dust to cover his retreat, a deliberate tactic, I believe. Night fell before we could mount a pursuit and we had no cavalry. Our opponents knew their business; their timing had been precise.
Pausanias and his Peloponnesians were not in sight, as a low ridge runs down the peninsula like a spine. I determined on the spot to put an observation post at the top, or better yet, a fort.
The ships came back with another load of palisades, and we drove our works forward.
As I say, it took five days to move the camp and make the new place secure, but when we were done, we had more and better ground than our first camp, and some of the spirit had been restored. We still had to send ships away for water, because there wasn’t enough, and a week into the siege, we needed wine and oil.
I left that to others, because I was determined to place a fort at the top of the spine, where it could see the Spartan camp and the city walls. And I wanted to start pushing our people into the ground in front of the walls. There were farm fields there, and while we built our camp we saw people harvesting fodder and some grain, and we really couldn’t let them have the farms.
So, over the next week, Cimon burned the farms and I built a fort, my oarsmen sweating rivers into the parched ground while they carried heavy logs up the face of the ridge, with no cover, so that even the brownest man was burned red. The ridge top had a forest of scrubby wild olive trees and we used these to form an abatis, and laid up a dry stone wall, set our palisades and wove grave vines in among them to make them stronger. Then we cut the best lumber we’d taken and raised a tower, really just four sticks and a platform, so that we could see into the city’s acropolis, three stadia distant.
That night, the Medes tried us in the dark. They don’t like fighting in the darkness, but then, who does? And they came with the moon, moving silently.
But I’d played all these games at Miletus. I had pickets out in the darkness, well in front of my new walls. Unfortunately, the Medes overran Giorgos’ post, killing two oarsmen, but he raised the alarm and got away.
I had Styges and twenty marines inside the Palisade, and I led them out at the trot, and we spread out a little at the edge of our abatis, which is nothing but a line of felled trees with their branches entwined. It’s a very noisy barrier, and you leave a few trails through for moments like this.
I led the way down one little alley, clear in the moonlight, while Styges led the other file along to my right.
There was movement in front of me, right where the brow of the ridge fell away, and there were big rocks, and I turned that way in time to take an arrow on my aspis and get showered with cane-splinters to remind me of my own mortality.
Fighting in the dark is a game of odds. Armour helps; armour keeps you alive when you make a mistake, but a spear thrust will go right through bronze, and so will a well-directed arrow.
The man who came at me threw a javelin. I had very little warning, as I was facing the wrong way, and I can only guess that the head clipped the rim of my aspis instead of passing into my gut. But the shaft slammed into me, the butt clipped my chin, and I stumbled.
Leander threw his heavy dory, and it caught the man under his throwing arm and killed him instantly, and my marines surged forward. Remember that at this point, I didn’t know whether we faced ten men or five hundred; I wanted to be cautious, but darkness either robs you of volition or makes you foolhardy, and you can guess which of the two applies to me.
Ignorance goes both ways. We charged, scattering our opponents, who were too light armed to stand in close combat, and as the little knot of shadows in front of me broke, I saw movement across the whole hillside, like an ant’s nest disturbed. I couldn’t move fast; my various hip and leg wounds made a flat run untenable; but Styges group caught a dozen men, and Leander led the rest of my file, his loping run identifiable as he went down the hill, leaving me to watch.
The whole enemy force was running.
I raised my horn to my lips and blew the recall.
# # #
The next morning, Aristides met with Pausanias, who requested; well, indeed, demanded–that we turn over the prisoners, who were all light-armed Thracian mercenaries. I wasn’t there, but Aristides sent for the prisoners and handed them over. Later in the day, Pausanias released them.
He released them. I still shake my head.
Polycritus son of Crius, who commanded the Aeginian contingent and fought so well at Salamis, might have been accounted a Spartan ally. Ordinarily he hated Athens only slightly less than he hated the Medes. But that afternoon, he shook his head, spat in the sand, and looked at me. ‘Who’s side is he on?’ he said, and walked away.
He spoke for us all.
But I had other problems. In the aftermath of the fight on the hillside, I sent Hipponax and Hektor down to the main camp with the Thracian prisoners. And the next morning, while I felt the bruise under my beard where the spear had clipped my chin, Sekla came up the ridge and sat down in the fort, facing me.
‘Out with it,’ I said. I was expecting he would want to leave. Sekla liked to be at sea.
‘Your boys,’ hye said.
‘What of them?’ I asked.
‘Last night, they took the round ship,’ he said. ‘And set sail.’
He handed me a tablet. ‘Someone sly slipped this under my neck-rest,’ he said.
I opened the wax tablet. It was neatly printed in well-formed Greek letters, all in the Cretan style, so Hipponax’ work.
We’ve gone to rescue Herakleitus. We have a plan.’
I probably rolled my eyes. I know they filled with tears.
Of course they went after Herakleitus. And there had been signs.
‘How many men went with them?’
‘Just the sail crew,’ Sekla said. ‘Leontas and Kephalos. It’s an easy rig.’
I nodded, looking out to the sea of Marmora to my right. There were several sails.
‘You cannot leave,’ Sekla said. ‘I can. Give me this Apollo’s Raven’ and I will follow them, support them if I can.’
‘Take the Serpent,’ I said.
He nodded; even smiled. ‘You trust me in this?’ he asked.
‘You are like a brother to me,’ I said. ‘And what have I given you?’
‘Freedom? Wealth? The respect of men like Cimon?’ Sekla nodded. ‘This is nothing. Let me go.’
‘I should go myself,’ I said.
‘You are, in effect, directing the siege,’ Sekla said. ‘If you leave, many things may happen, none of them good.’
‘Aristides and Cimon can direct the siege,’ I said.
‘Aristides spends his day keeping the Allied contingents from rowing away. Cimon is leading the aggressive patrols.’ Sekla rolled his hand. ‘Perhaps they are fine without you, but they are most definitely fine without me. Send me.’ He looked out to sea. ‘I feel guilty, anyway. I let them go last night when I should have been suspicious.’
‘You have nothing to worry about,’ I said. ‘They are young and bold, and perhaps they are only doing what I should be doing.’
‘You are a commander,’ Sekla said mildly, but I heard the sting in the tail of his sentence. Behave like one.
# # #
So I did.
The next day, as much to cover my apprehension about my sons as for any other reason, I put an Aeginian garrison into my fort and pushed my own people forward towards the city, three stades distant. We linked up with Cimon; I had several mounted men and Cimon had almost a dozen, as he’d been purchasing horses, too. We’d armed our oarsmen and we had them out in front as psiloi, and we covered the ground thoroughly, right up to the walls.
A quarter of an hour at the walls taught us a great deal. We learned that the Medes were mostly Thracian mercenaries with a handful of professional Persian infantry; not enough bows to keep us off for long. But the Persian commander was bold; he threw a mounted sortie at us from a side gate, and Ameinias of Pallene took an arrow in the leg, right through his greave, from the very first shaft loosed. He was perhaps ten paces to my right, watching the walls, and that’s all the warning we had.
You imagine that horses can be loud, but they can be very quiet.
I was mounted on one of my steppe ponies, and I had no shield, just a pair of javelins tucked under my leg. We were well back from the wall, perhaps three hundred paces, having made one feint to see what they had for archery. I was at the back of my little phalanx, because, being mounted, I was more likely to draw arrows and could do less about them. I had Styges and Akilles mounted with me.
My pony was as calm as if he was nipping grass on the great plains. His ears were up, but he was otherwise undisturbed by the screams of the wounded man.
The Persians had worked around into a stand of trees to our right rear, and we’d missed them. I saw a flash there, as someone’s cap caught the sun, or perhaps a spearhead.
‘Thekles!’ I yelled. ‘Close order; then at them.’
I chanced it, and trotted across open ground to Poseidenos, who was naked as his namesake, standing with a pelte and a pair of javelins and a big ptasos hat and no more.
‘I need you to harass their cavalry,’ I said.
Arrows were falling around us, but the range was long.
‘They’ll eat us in the open ground, boss,’ he said.
‘Stay close to the hoplites, then,’ I said. ‘But push that way.’
He looked doubtful, but he called to them in his deep-sea voice, and they came.
Thekles roared for the hoplites to form close. When hoplites lap their great shields over one another in the closest order, there’s not much for an archer to shoot.
I turned my horse’s head and rode west, up the ridge and in among the wild olive trees. I saw Cimon off to my left and I knew I had Styges and Akilles right behind me.
I reasoned that if they saw the hoplites come at them and knew we had cavalry, however inept, sweeping the hillside, they’d run.
They should have run. Perhaps they were tired of running; perhaps, as the vaunted Persian cavalry, they were tired of running.
I used my knees to get my small mount to detour up a gully, and there, at the top, was a Mede. His horse was bigger than mine and he was above me, and throwing a javelin up from horseback is a miserable task.
He was watching someone else; Cimon, perhaps. His bow was up, an arrow laid to the string, the string tense but not at full draw.
He heard my horse a moment after I saw him; his head turned, and then his bow.
I threw. It was a terrible throw, and it tumbled, and smacked his horse’s rump, and his horse leapt forward, spoiling his arrow.
My game little pony got its forefeet up on the top of the gully and sprang, and for a moment I was in the air, fumbling under my left leg for my second javelin.
There was a second Persian behind the first, and I’d missed him because his dun coloured horse matched the sandy soil and the rocks. He came at me with a yip, and his arrow slammed deep into my pony’s neck, but I got his head around, leaned out, and stripped the Persian from the saddle with my left arm around his neck as he tried to ride by, and he hit hard, his head making a hollow melon sound on a rock that sent a chill down my spine.
I turned my pony, watching the first man; a third Persian burst from under an olive tree, and the tree’s intertwined branches caught his bowstring and stripped his bow from his hands even as he tried to loose.
He drew his short sword, an akanakes, and cut at me, but I was already two paces too far, and he went horse to horse with Styges. His horse one the fight, but Styges killed him with one precise spear thrust even as his poor pony was toppling from the assault of the larger horse.
Styges hit hard, and screamed.
I turned my pony again. He was still game, despite an arrow standing out of his neck. The first Persian was somewhere in the rocks behind me, and only the gods knew how many of their cavalry had come to contest the hillside with us.
Akilles shouted his warcry at the bottom of the gully, and I saw a flash of movement; a riderless horse came up the gully, and there was a scream, whether derision or pain I couldn’t tell.
I didn’t have the strength in my thighs, thanks to recent wounds, to lean down and pick up the bow or the javelins that the man I’d thrown from hsi saddle now had spilled all around him. I wanted them, but I wasn’t sure I could remount if I dismounted. I had one javelin, and no more.
No point in waiting, then.
I let my pony pick his way north. His ears were pricked and so were mine; I could hear Cimon’s riders, not so far away but a little higher on the hill; I could hear two sets of bubbling moans from injured men.
Somewhere close was my Persian.
Behidn the big rock was a large stand of fennel stalks. Fennel grows wild all over Greece, but in Thrake it grows in dense patches and then dried out in the summer to become almost impentrable, like a wall. More important, anyone riding through it woudl break the stalks and make noise.
So my opponent was not in the fennel. He must have ridden around the fennel.
He was waiting for me to ride out from the shadow of the rock.
Time was on my side. Cimon’s skirmish line was closing in, and all I had to do was wait.
But I’m not good at waiting.
Despite my earlier hesitation, I slipped from the animal’s back and readied my javelin. Then I gave a slap to my pony’s hindquarters and he leaped away in a burst of wounded vanity.
I screeched for good measure, and then forced my way into the fennel stalks.
My Persian had been crouched over the neck of his horse, waiting. He rose, arrow to bow, and drew.
I threw my javelin.
He turned his head, warned at the last moment, and his horse bolted; perhaps frightened by mine, perhaps by my javelin.
I missed, and he missed.
The ground underfoot was treachorous; small rocks in sand, with larger rocks just the right size to turn an ankle, hidden under the fennel stalks. But I couldn’t stay where I was, so I charged him.
He pulled his reins, intending, I think, to ride away, but my pony was close to his horse, biting at it, and my Persian was unable to control his mount and manage his bow at the same time. It only lasted an instant, but in that instant I’d crossed the Fennel and I was on him, my sword cutting at his unarmoured thigh.
He cursed and got at his own sword. I cut at his horse, the only target I had, and tried to throw him from the horse’s back by his leg. He kciked at me but the kick was weak,a nd there was blood everywhere; my cut to his thigh had opened something.
He looked down, clearly apalled at the blood, and then he slumped, the last look in his eyes a sort of calm acceptance; the realization that he was no longer in the fight.
Then he was dead, bled out in less time than a prayer takes, and I had his horse, who did not like the smell of the blood or the death of her rider.
By the time I collected his weapons, laid him out on the rocks, and calmed his horse, the fight was over; the Persian cavalry finally ran, having lost more men than they had any business losing. We’d lost four hoplites wounded and one dead, as well. By some miracle, or the whim of Hermes, we didn’t loose an oarsmen, although they prowled almost to arm’s length of the enemy cavalry.
We had one prisoner; the man I’d thrown from the saddle, and Styges laid up with a broken hip where his horse fell on him. We had four good Persian horses, the most valuable loot we’d taken so far, bigger and faster than our steppe ponies, although not as tough.
But my steppe pony was the king of tough. He’d taken an arrow in the neck, and later that afternoon, a horse leach from among Cimon’s oarsmen came and pushed the shaft through, and in an hour he was cropping grass.
My hips hurt, and my leg hurt, and my shoulder hurt. Everything hurt.
And before I could question my prisoner, Pausanias had released him.
# # #
The next morning, after a poor night’s sleep in heavy heat with too many insects and not enough air, I mounted my new Persian gelding and rode out to check our lines. We had the camp’s headquarters in the little fort where all the archers were camped, on the hill above our ships. There were two limp bundles on the packed earth, and all the archers gave them a wide berth; corpses, I assumed.
They had two men in the tower and most of them were up and about, and I noticed with pleasure that all of them had their bows strung and their quivers to hand.
‘Anything to report?’ I asked Ka.
Ka was drinking something hot; closer up, it smelled like mint tea. He sent a boy to get some, and showed me the days tablets; we only kept a wax copy, showing what ships had what duty.
He pointed at one line. ‘Two Thracians. Slaves, I think.’ He shrugged. ‘Vasilios heard them, and Phorbas and Myron ran them down.’
Vasilos was our old archer. It was really quite unfair to call him old; he seemed to be made of rawhide and steel, and he pulled a heavy bow. But he had a long white beard and most of the archers called him ‘Grandfather,’ with some respect.
Myron was a small, wiry many, made of the same rawhide. He was a former Spartan Helot, who’d run off with his friends and been taken aboard by Moire and Ka some seasons before. Phorbas was another; taller and wider. He had long legs and was known as a runner.
‘We need prisoners,’ I said.
Myron smiled. He had the slave’s habit of offering a pleasant smile to any comment. ‘Yes, boss,’ he said.
Phorbas looked at me. ‘Never a word of praise, eh?’ he snapped. ‘Why take prisoners? Our former masters just hand them back to the Persians.’
I sat down on my haunches and sipped my mint tea. ‘You’re right, Phorbas; right twice. Thanks for catching these bastards. You did well. Now, next time, get us some alive.’
I laid two gold darics on the packed earth.
Phorbas raised an eyebrow.
Myron laughed. ‘He won’t know what to say for days,’ Myron said.
I shrugged. ‘Just take the money,’ I said, looking at Phorbas.
I made him smile. He was a hard man; he’d been ill-used, and the ship-wide rumour was that his father was an important Spartan, and his mother had been a slave, and he’d been beaten with extraordinary frequency.
I looked at Myron. ‘Do you two hear things? From the Spartan camp?’
Myron didn’t even blink, nor did his pleasant smile change.
‘Boss,’ he said. He met my eye, and held it a long time. ‘You’ve been good to us. No troubles.’
I took a sip of my mint and handed it to him, and he took a sip and handed it to Phorbas.
‘Better with honey,’ he said. He handed it back.
‘I’ll try it that way, next time,’ I said.
Myron looked up the ridge. In the direction of the Spartan camp.
‘There’s friends over there,’ he said.
‘Kin,’ Phorbas said.
‘And deadly enemies,’ Myron added. ‘Men who’d gut us because we ran, and never a word about how we fought at Plataea, or Mycale.’
We looked at each other.
‘I don’t need your secrets,’ I said. ‘I just want to know if you’d know if something… went wrong. There’s a lot here that could go wrong.’
‘We hear things,’ Myron admitted.
Phorbas met my eye boldly; maybe with some anger. ‘Listen,’ he said. ‘Let us talk to the others.’
It occurred to me, as it often does, that every man is the hero in his own tale, and that these escaped helots had their own tales of heroism, murder, oppression, and perhaps revenge. I really only knew them as competent archers; as Ka’s archers. But of course they had their own lives, their own troubles.
‘That’s all I ask,’ I said, rising. I left the gold darics. ‘The money of for catching the Thracians. Not for informing on your friends. I don’t want your friends harmed. I just need to know what in the name of all the Gods is happening in the Peloponnesian camp.’
Myron nodded pleasantly. ‘Thanks boss,’ he said, in a tone that might have meant anything.
I rose, cursing the pain in my groin and hips as I got up; cursing age and wounds and war and the disunity of Greece.
‘Got any more tea?’ I asked Ka, and he fetched me more and then went back to the tablets.
Cimon came in while I was talking to the archers, and he looked over my shoulder while I reviewed the duty roster.
‘We need a hospital,’ he said. ‘More than twenty wounded, and we’re a week in.’
I nodded. ‘The little stand of pines by the beach, ‘I said. ‘It’s coolest there.’
He nodded. ‘We need more water.’
‘I agree. Let’s send a few ships to fill their holds. We ought to have the amphorae to get it done.’
He nodded again. ‘I want to try an assault,’ he said. ‘I know we’ll probably fail, but I’d like to pin their ears back.’
‘I agree,’ I said. ‘But…’
‘Here it comes.’ He smiled, but there was annoyance in his tone.
‘Every day we fight them in the middle ground, we’re bleeding them and sapping their morale. Every time we assault and fail, we take the casualties and bolster their confidence.’
He fingered his beard thoughtfully. ‘Put against that, we’re still fresh now. We might just do it.’
‘You just want to blacken Pausanias’ eye,’ I said.
‘Zeus, don’t you?’
I sat back. ‘I think we can take a leaf from the Persians and take the town in a month,’ I said.
Cimon brightened. ‘How?’
I looked over the water, and wondered how my sons were fairing, and why I was not with them. But Sekla had a point. I was not a young hero. I was an old commander.
‘I propose we visit Pausanias,’ I said. ‘I’m guessing you were planning to do so, as well.’
He smiled a hard smile. ‘You have got me there,’ he said.
‘Depending on that interview,’ I said, ‘We’ll try my plan.’ I pointed at the corpse-bundles. ‘Thracians,’ I said. ‘My archers say they were probably slaves.’
Cimon narrowed his eyes.
‘What does that tell you?’ I asked.
‘That our Melinditae friends are trying to get a message into the town,’ Cimon said. He scratched his shoulder, where the weight of his cuirass crossed his neck muscles. We all had sores there.
I thought of Katisa of the Melinditae. ‘I’m not sure,’ I said.
Cimon shook his head. ‘Neither am I. There’s dozens, if not hundreds, of Thracian tribes, with ever-shifting alliances and hatreds. Katisa may be willing to back us; there could be another. My family has held this region for fifty years. My mother was Thracian… she’d have known who was who, around here.’
I looked west, towards the distant hills. ‘I suspect we need to know,’ I said.
‘Let’s go see Pausanias,’ I said.
# # #
Pausanias was sitting in a grove of sea-pine, on a plain camp stool, and nonetheless contrived to look like a king. He was doing a commander’s usual work, holding a meeting of his officers to give out daily duties, no more tyrannical in that moment than I had been earlier.
I could see friends in that command circle; Lykon of Corinth, Medon of Hermione, who’d given all the Plataeans shelter in the year of Salamis, and Sparthius, with whom I’d traveled to the Great King’s court. But there were also men with whom I had real trouble, like Adeimantus of Corinth, and others, like Amompharetus, with whom I’d certainly had my differences.
On the other hand, Cimon was the closest thing the Spartans had to a good friend, in Athens, and I had certainly done Sparta several services. Let me put it this way; imagine what it is like to have a close friend, some of whose behaviour appals you, and with whom you sometimes have hearty disagreements. I have several such friends.
One of them is Sparta.
We dismounted a fair distance from the command meeting, and helots took our horses, and I looked at them more carefully than was my want. The taint of slavery and servitude is on all of us; although I disapprove of the way the Spartans treat their helots, I fully confess that in my many trips among the Lacedaemonians, I never learned the name of a single one, and had not, until then, spend much time even looking at them. It is too easy to not see what you’d rather didn’t exist.
So I said, ‘Thanks you,’ to the four helots who took our horses.
And they all gave me the false smiles and theatrical inferiority that they assumed I craved, bobbing their heads and cringing away.
Cimon glanced at me.
We waited on the fingers of the meeting, leaning on our spears for some time, until Pausanias finished with his assignments.
He glanced up, saw us, and then smiled thinly at his officers.
‘Dismissed, gentlemen,’ he said.
They nodded, and walked away. I caught Lykon’s eye and mouthed ‘later,’ and he nodded.
Sparthius waved, as if that were the most natural thing in the world.
And then we were alone with Pausanias. Truly alone; not even a helot was within earshot.
‘Cimon,’ Pausanias said. ‘Greetings. And the Plataean.’ He nodded.
‘The blessings of Zeus, god of kings and commanders, be with you,’ Cimon said, formally.
Pausanias nodded. he put his chin in his hand. ‘I will discuss whatever you wish, Cimon, but let me say that I negotiate with all of you through Aristides, and I cannot be expected to regulate each and every one of you.’
‘Negotiate?’ I asked.
‘Are you not in rebellion against my authority?’ he asked.
Cimon shook his head. ‘Not that I know of, Strategos.’
‘Then why are you not in my former camp, as I ordered?’ he asked.
I shrugged, and cut Cimon off. ‘Never heard that you made such a ridiculous demand,’ I said. ‘Please stop giving orders that will not be obeyed. It’s bad for the alliance.’
‘Let me understand. You, as the commander of a city that can field perhaps six hundred men, are going to tell the Regent of Sparta how to issue orders?’
‘Only if I must,’ I said.
He looked at me under his heavy brows. He had a thick head of curly hair which he wore long, like a younger man, and which was nonetheless bald at the top; invisible until he put his head in his hand and leaned forward. He was well-built and had the air of authority that is essential in a commander, until he lost his temper. Most of us seem like fools when we lose our tempers. i know what I’m saying, here.
He didn’t explode at me. Instead, he looked, first at Cimon, and then at me, and said, mildly enough, ‘You have no idea what it is like to command this force,’ he said.
‘That may be true,’ Cimon began, but then he halted and looked at me. We’d discussed how to approach Pausanias on the ride over, but not exactly who would play what part. Now he hesitated, perhaps from respect.
I’m aware that I have characterized Pausanias as tyrannical and petty. And he was. But remember that he led us to victory at Plataea; there was more there than the inferiority that great events had revealed.
Remember too what Briseis said. We Greeks tend to devour our heroes.
I leaned on my spear. ‘I think I do,’ I said. ‘I think I know that you have orders from your Ephors that are utterly at variance with your own inclinations…’
‘If you know such things,’ he snapped, ‘then you should keep them between the gates of your teeth.’
Cimon glanced at me again; this time, I guessed, to take the bit in his teeth. I nodded.
‘We know that you have an ambassador going to the Great King,’ he said.
Pausanias writhed like a serpent. ‘Not I,’ he spat. ‘Not I, you prying interlopers.’
I won’t say it hit me like a thunderbolt, because I’d lain awake considering the various scenarios that might have brought us here. So the Ephors had sent the embassy to the Great King. And because Leonidas was dead and Gorgo could not hold power, there was no representative of the policy of supporting the alliance in the murky world of Spartan politics.
Pausanias had always been a leader of the faction that wanted Sparta to rule alone; but he had once been open to other ideas. I had to try.
‘Pausanias,’ I said, raising my hand, as if in supplication. ‘We are not prying interlopers. We are Greeks, like you. With you; behind you, if you like, we faced the Medes at Salamis and Plataea. You are not here as a Spartan commander, or as Regent. You are here as the commander of the forces of the Alliance, and your first duty is not to your Ephors and their machinations. Your first duty is to us. To all of the Free Greeks.’
For a moment, I thought I had him.
Then he looked away.
‘Thanks you for sharing your thoughts, gentlemen,’ he said. ‘Did you have something more concrete to discuss?’
‘I want to assault the town,’ Cimon said.
‘If there’s any fighting to be done, I will see to it,’ Pausanias said dismissively. ‘That’s why I am here. I defeated the Persians at Plataea. I will defeat them here.’
Cimon’s eyes narrowed. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘you know, Pausanias, when my father defeated the Medes on the field of Marathon, he requested the right to wear a wreath of laurel on public occasions, like an Olympic victor.’
Pausanias nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said, as if utterly uninterested.
‘A man named Sokares of Dekarea rose in the assembly. He’d fought as a hoplite at Marathon and he was no enemy of my father’s. You know what he said?’
Cimon stepped forward until he was very close to Pausanias. ‘He said, ‘Miltiades, when you have gained a victory against the Medes alone, instead of having ten thousand of us at your back, then we’ll vote you the sole right to a wreath of laurel.’
Pausanias flushed with rage. What a typically Athenian insult,’ he spat. ‘Get you gone,’ he added, his voice thick with rage, spittle flying.
‘I accuse you of not acting in the common interest,’ Cimon said. ‘I accuse you of putting the petty politics of your state above the needs of the Allies.’
‘I accuse you of wasting my morning,’ Pausanias said. ‘And I accuse you of crass hypocrisy, Cimon son of Miltiades! Perhaps you fool the Plataean, who seems in many ways to be an honest man. Indeed, the men of the little states require allies; they favour these associations, and honestly expect them to function. But you and I know better, do we not, Cimon? You accuse me of putting forward the interests of my state; of Sparta. But only Sparta has protected Greece. Only Sparta has the armed might to stop the Great King. And yet, who brought the Persians down on us like wolves on unprotected sheep folds? Your father and a dozen other Athenian pirates, supporting and provoking the useless Ionians into revolt. Who endangered all of Greece by rising above their station? Athens. Always Athens. Always fucking Athens, where worthless little men scheme and pretend to politics and rattle their ineffectual spears at their betters. And when we Spartans had defeated your foes, Athens, at Salamis and at Plataea, what did you do to thank us? You prepared for war against Sparta and built new walls to protect you, so that you could go back to stirring the troubled waters of the Great King’s empire. You want Ionia, Athens. And you will happily sacrifice the rest of Greece for it. You pretend to love for the Ionians, but all you want is hegemony and empire. Your Long Walls told us everything we needed to know about the future. So don’t prate to me about Greece. If I choose to put first the will of my ephors and my king, if I choose to place Lacedaemon above all, how dare you task me with it? You are Cimon, of the ‘Athens First’ faction of Athens. Except that Athens, which lacks all the great-heartedness of Sparta, has no other faction!’
By the time Pausanias was done, he was shouting his face a hand’s breadth from Cimon’s and Cimon didn’t withdraw, so that he was spitting in the Athenian’s face with every word.
They glared at each other like rival lions over a corpse.
But the corpse was going to be Greece.
I took Cimon by the shoulders and dragged him back a step.
‘Gentlemen,’ I said.
They both looked at me.
‘Athens is not without guilt in this matter,’ I said. ‘But you know yourself that your tale is full of hubris and breezy assertions as hollow as old trees, Pausanias. The Athenians defeated the Medes without you, some years ago, at Marathon; at Salamis, you didn’t provide one ship in ten, and Themistokles did most of the commanding. At Plataea, you had the noblest part, and both of us honour you for it; but Sparta alone would never have triumphed, and Cimon and I, as ambassadors, know how close Sparta came to refusing to come at all.’
Both of them were breathing hard, like men locked in a fight.
‘In this much you are perfectly accurate,’ I said. ‘We men of little cities, we need allies. And perhaps because we always need them, we see them with clear eyes, no matter what they say. When Athens sent Miltiades to us, in my youth… Myron, our archon, was not fooled by the fine promises made. We knew that Athens was using us in a larger game. That is who you all are, frankly. Any state with the strength to imagine empire, reaches for it.’ I shrugged. ‘So. Perhaps there is some justice in your accusations, Pausanias, but we know more than you think about the politics of Lacedaemon. We know what your ambassadors are saying to the Great King. We know why you are returning the prisoners. You are playing a dangerous game.’
Pausanias sat for a moment.
Again, for a moment, I had swayed him. He opened his mouth to speak. I think the fact of the ambassadors angered him and gave my leverage, even while I lied about knowing what they were sent to say.
He looked at me…
‘It’s not a game,’ Cimon spat. ‘It’s treason.’
Pausanias’s face closed.
‘Go, before I lose my temper,’ he said.
That close. Or not. To this day, Cimon says that we were never close to changing his mind.
But I say, poor Pausanias, trapped between his duty to his useless, craven old ephors and his own ambitions and vanity.
# # #
I went to Lykon’s ship, and there he was, in his armour, eating a bowl of oats with cheese grated into it.
‘Having fun yet?’ he asked me.
We embraced; he offered me a bowl of his gruel, and I started eating it. Cimon paced.
‘Do you have your friend Philip son of Sophokles aboard?’ I asked.
He smiled. ‘Captain of marines,’ he said. He turned to one of his oarsmen and said, ‘fetch the taxiarchos.’
Philip was a handsome man by any account, with his mother and grandfather’s blonde hair, and sea-green eyes. He was Lykon’s best friend, and permanent war companion, and one of my sister’s favourite men; actually, they both were.
‘Philip,’ I called. ‘How’s your Thracian?’
He shrugged. ‘Tolerable,’ he said. ‘My mother and my nurse spoke it. I’m not bad.’
I told them the story of the Thracian slaves who’d tried to infiltrate our lines, and Philip understood the politics immediately.
‘Care to come and be my translator?’ I asked.
Lykon glanced at me. ‘Is Pausanias going to burst into flame when he hears of this?’ he asked.
I nodded. ‘Almost certainly. I’m about to make an embassy to the local Thracians without consulting him.’
‘Excellent,’ Lykon said. ‘Even Adeimantus is sick of him.’
‘Gods, the sun must be turning green,’ I said.
Cimon glanced at me. ‘He has other problems than this siege,’ he said. I think that some of what Pausanias spat at him hit home. He was very thoughtful.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘But I don’t have to care. I want to take this place and get back to Plataea. I’m building a new house; I’ve invited a great many guests for the autumn. You, for example. I don’t fancy a winter siege in Thrake.’
Cimon nodded. ‘Nor do I. I assume you don’t want the assault to go in until you speak to your Thracians.’
‘If I can find them,’ I said.
# # #
Greeks are good at fighting, but not particularly good at war. It’s actually something of which we can be proud; most of us think we have better things to do that fight wars, and so we’ve pushed war around until it’s something agonistic, like a competition at the Panathenaic games, or the Olympics. We dedicate a few weeks to our campaigns, march out to a place chosen by heralds, put our aspides on our shoulders, get it done, and go back to farming, or making sculpture, or enjoying fine wine.
It’s really not that hard to be a Strategos under those circumstances. Assuming basic competence, which is sometimes too much to assume, a man has only to see that his neighbours and members of his tribes and phraeteries are in their ranks, formed correctly. Sometimes there are little complications, like cavalry and psiloi, but for the most part, you line up your phalanx and go at it. Most campaigns, at least in my father’s time, we resettled in the time it took a man to eat the rations he brought from home. No need for markets or baggage wagons or latrines.
Cyrus, one of my Persian friends from boyhood, once told me that all Greeks are amateurs at the art of war, and being a snippy adolescent, I replied that war was a stupid thing to make a profession.
Now, the Great King and his empire have made thousands of Greeks into professionals; my whole generation has known little but war. Yet the traditions of our fathers linger, and our amateurish efforts at logistics are based on the practices of the past.
Sieges are the antithesis of everything my father’s generation believed about war. They last a whole summer, and sometimes through the winter. Most of them are settled by disease and starvation. And leadership, in a siege, is the constant response to events over which you have no control; disease and enemy action, but also boredom and its close friend, mutiny. And the daily grind of a siege has just enough military risk that under the boredom, around, it, shot through it like the veins in a oak leaf, is fear. Toss in hunger and fatigue, and both soldier and commander become locked in a grapple with themselves and each other.
Very few strategoi excel at these extended conditions. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard men, good men, tell me that they are ‘good in a crisis,’ as if that excused all the other days of the year where they were indolent or impatient or incompetent. But the siege shows up every fault, because it rolls on and on, tempers fraying, impatience peaking, indolence leading to work-stoppage, abuse leading to mutiny. Nothing in the commander’s personality can be hidden; not the girl in his tent, not the extra cup of wine before bed, or the smell of his farts. The sort of magical charisma that makes a capable young man into a new Achilles won’t last two weeks in the shit-choked trenches of a siege.
As I said the other night, the Athenians are much better at sieges than the Spartans. That’s odd; let’s face it, Spartan discipline is much better than Athenians, and you’d expect them to excel at a long staring contest, which is what my old friend and helmsman Paramanos used to call a siege.
But there’s one form of Greek warfare that does prepare you for laying siege to a city, and that war at sea.
Sea warfare is all about food and water, campsites, landing places, leadership in storm and calm, good weather and bad. Leadership at sea is always, not occasional, and naval campaigns go one for months, or even years.
If you have followed along this whole story, you know that even the Athenians and the Aeginians, masters of naval warfare, had lots to learn about the conduct of large-scale fleet operations. The Allied fleets at Artemesium and Salamis barely held together. Food was short, and latrines were terrible.
But all things being equal, by the high summer of the third year of the seventy-fifth Olympiad, the year after Plataea, if anyone was going to crack a nut like Byzantium, it was Cimon son of Miltiades, Aristides, and me.
I’ve wandered off my road here to explain this, because while I was burning to talk to the Thracians, and to start the Allies on my little plan to take the city, none of that happened for days, and it might never have happened except for a crisis in our logistics brought on, at least in part, by my sons taking one of our precious round ships.
My initial trouble was that we couldn’t find the Thracians. That is, scouting found Thracians, north and west of the city; they weren’t hard to find, as there were a fair number of them. But they weren’t our Melinditae. They were, as Philip hastened to tell me, Odrysae. We lost half our mounted men in one skirmish, ten stades from our camp, and we spent the next three days making certain that we were covered from our landward approaches as well as from the city.
Styges was recovering, and the irony that he had been too badly hurt to go and get killed scouting was not lost on either of us.
Regardless, spirits tumbled and the men assigned to picket duty grew unruly, and I chose to lead three days worth of patrols myself, from the back of my spear-won Persian gelding. Aside from some blue-blood Athenian cavalrymen who were serving as marines or officers, we had very few men who were really good at riding, but I knew that Ka could ride, and a little investigation found three Scythians or half-Scythians serving as archers on other ships, as well as two coastal Thracians, and all of them could ride. With our captured Persian horses we could mount a patrol of ten men, most of them archers, from five races.
I offered them a gold daric for every patrol. That was very good for morale. I led them myself. Also good for morale.
My ten men had, among them, three hundred years of mixed-culture cattle-thieving experience, and a leaned on them heavily. We didn’t accomplish much, but then, we didn’t die.
After three days, during which Cimon took the aggressive patrols right up tot he city walls every day and Aristides took four ships and harassed the seaward defenders to keep them in, I had learned enough about the Odrysae to report to Aristides.
‘There’s thousands of them,’ I said. I was out of shape for horseback riding, and three days of tension and exercise left me exhausted. Riding isn’t restful. It’s slightly better than running everywhere yourself, but only slightly. And a spring at sea had not prepared me for a summer on horseback.
Aristides nodded, motioning for more water in his wine. ‘How many thousands?’
I shrugged. ‘Based on horse herd and contacts and guesswork, five thousand,’ I said.
‘Or ten?’ Cimon asked.
‘Or twenty?’ Aristides asked.
I nodded. ‘They have a thousand mounted men and we have ten,’ I said.
Aristides smiled. ‘No one doubts you, Arimnestos.’
Cimon stroked his beard. ‘You think they’ll try to break the siege?’ he asked.
‘I think they’re trying to make a deal with the Persian governor, in return for which, if a deal is made, they’ll try to break the siege,’ I said. ‘We have one advantage; I don’t think we were even supposed to know they were there.’
‘What does your friend Philip think?’ Aristides asked.
Philip had been wounded in the initial cavalry disaster and was trying to recover from a tri-lobate arrowhead through his calf.
‘Philip thinks that the Odrysae are here to reclaim this territory from the Melinditae,’ I said. ‘That’s pure guesswork…’
Cimon nodded. ‘Sounds right. I grew up here. I don’t remember the Melinditae here; but Pater might have dealt with them. There’s always been a lot of conflict over the straits on both sides. And the Odrysae have been coming up with bigger and bigger confederations for as long as we’ve been around.’
‘Maybe you should go meet the Melinditae,’ I said.
Cimon shook his head. ‘Thracians are all about personal contact. You met the chief; you go parley with her.’
It was all very well to say that, but we couldn’t find the Melinditae, and that was a bad sign.
We were also running low on grain. We’d built a long line of ovens from the clay near the beach, and we could bake bread and barley rolls; I’ve mentioned before that a trireme is an endless source of skilled manpower, and we found more than a dozen competent bakers in the fleet, and just the smell of their bread was heartening. And bake-ovens burn brush, which proved providential, because the men assigned to cut brush to clear our new, landward facing fortifications worked harder when Cimon let it be known that they’d get first place in the bread line and their work was directly supporting the bake ovens.
We also had a few veteran charcoal burners, and they began to produce charcoal for cooking from smoking mounds like artificial hills. Trees are abundant in Thrake, and the charcoal burners were essential, because most of our cooks cooked on charcoal, not wood; we used clay braziers.
Aristides’ crew was building a small wooden temple to Athena. The mid-summer festivals were past, but the Panathenaia Megala, the great festival of Athena, was due in both the Athenian calendar and the Plataean and Aeginian calendar, beginning on 23 Hekatombaion, a week after the full moon of the new year, at least the way the Athenians counted years. It reminded me that I was Archon of Plataea, and the Daedala would be celebrated without me; not a great Daedala, but a small one that might have been my own.
My point is that we were building a small city with temples and industry; in truth, with the Peloponnesians, the besiegers probably had more people in their camp than the citizens had in their town.
I’ve digressed far enough. We needed grain to feed the ovens. The production of good bread was essential for morale. We’d lost a round ship when my sons took mine; two of them were permanently engaged in shipping amphorae of water from the springs up the coast, and we guarded them with a pair of triremes just in case.
But my triemiola had more cargo space than most military triremes and she could sail closer to the wind. And it was my sons who’d taken our other merchant ship.
‘Lesvos will have grain to sell,’ Aristides said.
‘That’s five days, at least,’ I said. ‘Two there, a day to load, and two back, and that’s if everything goes well.’
It was the morning of the fifth day since we’d harangued Pausanias in his camp. The night of the full moon. A week until the great festival of Athena was to begin.
‘Go tomorrow and we’ll have bread for the feast days,’ Aristides said. ‘Better to fast now and feast then. I can explain that to the people.’
‘And he will,’ Cimon said, with his amused smile. It was an expression that had been missing all too often; the three of us were growing worn. I snapped at Aten too often when a kind word would have sufficed, a process made worse by my knowledge that he was getting old enough to be a soldier and not a servant. Two years of constant warfare had worn away his voluntary cowardice; he was as interested in fighting as any other young man.
And then I’d have to train another slave.
Aristides looked at me. ‘Someone has to explain,’ he said.
‘Cimon meant no insult,’ I said. ‘Are you two certain you can be at peace with one another while I’m gone?’
Cimon shrugged. ‘Two more weeks of this and I’ll hate you, him, and the Great King with equal intensity,’ he admitted.
‘We need the feast of Athena,’ Aristides said.
That gave me an idea. I put it with my other idea about the siege and left it there to rattle around.
‘I’ll sail tomorrow,’ I said.
Cimon followed me out of Aristides’ awning. ‘We should double the guards tonight,’ he said. ‘Full moon. If the Thracians intend to have a go at our lines, this would be their ideal night.’
And then we had some good fortune.
At sunset, Cimon and I mounted our horses and made the rounds of all the pickets; the sentries on our new walls and the men stationed in the dangerous places, well out from camp. We were both veterans of this kind of war; we left our horses and crept into our forward pickets so as not to give their position away to watchers in the far hillsides.
At every post, we explained that the night would have bright moonlight and that we expected a Thracian attack.
In the very last light, Styges, mostly recovered, led our little mounted band all the way along our landward defences and then out onto the plain where we’d cut all the brush and along the far tree line. Dawn and evening patrols let us know if there was a build-up of troops preparing an attack.
Styges found nothing.
I was awakened in total darkness by Aten.
‘Spartan camp is under attack,’ he said.
I was up immediately and moving in the darkness, and Aten put me in my panoply. I mounted more by touch than sight, curing the pain in my hips and groin, and Aten got up on my steppe pony, now fully healed like the tough beast he was.
We collected Cimon, Styges, and the horse archers at the gate of the camp, as well as fifty marines under Thekles.
I wished I had Brasidas. ‘I need you to run all the way,’ I said.
Thekles tilted his helmet back on his head. ‘Yes,’ he said.
We went up the stony ridge behind the camp, up towards the fort, where there was a signal torch burning. We got a report there from Phorbas, that there were ‘hundreds’ of Thracians in the valley on the Peloponnesian side of the peninsula.
I didn’t take any of the archers form the fort’s garrison. Archers aren’t that useful in a night fight, even in a full moon.
The full moon was very bright, and when we went over the crest and down the other side, we could see the Thracians were carrying torches, at least some of them.
Cimon tapped my armoured shoulder. ‘I’ll take the cavalry to the left, towards the walls,’ he said. ‘You bounce their center and I’ll come up from the left like a thousand men, and they’ll run.’
‘Do it,’ I said, and we were off. I stayed with Thekles, who didn’t need me to tell him what to do.
I could see that the Thracians had broken into one of the Peloponnesian palisades that we’d started; they were putting fire into a warehouse or a wooden temple.
Or a ship. That would be a bad sign.
We went down that ridge, making what I thought of as far too much noise, but the Thracians were bury fighting and looting. How they failed to watch their backs when they knew there was another Greek camp, I have no idea.
You may remember that we’d fortified a low hill separate from the ridge, and the Thracians were trying to take it. Pausanias had his own camp there, and the Thracians were not a match, even in the dark, for the forty Spartiates Pausanias had by him, and the fighting had become desperate and personal; a clump at the gate, and another where the first attack had apparently axed through the palisade.
We crossed the little gully with the fresh-water stream at the bottom, and started up the other side, undetected. We were coming up on the rearmost Thracians, who were pushing at the men in the axe-cut breach.
The Thracians were betrayed by their own arrogance. I know that at least one of them heard me and my horse picking our way up the trail that helots used to get water, but even in moonlight, a mounted Greek and a mounted Thracian have a lot in common.
My Persian gelding made the top, and I put my first javelin into the man who’d glanced down and then ignored me. I had a little bucket of fine javelins, five of them, from the man I’d captured, and I threw the second at an officer, by his armour and sheer amount of gold he had on him. My spear but through his bronze and into his back, and his choked scream was terrible.
I answered it with my war cry. I wanted panic. I wanted them to run. And I wanted the Peloponnesians to know we were coming to help them.
At my cry, all of Thekles marines belted out theirs, screaming like gulls, eleueleueleuelue! and the Thracians turned, caught between a rock and a hard place. I put another down with a javelin, and it never left my hand, and the Spartans inside the breach struck hard.
The marines flowed past me; I saw Polymarchos killing his way through a crowd like the consummate professional he was, and Akilles, happier on foot than on horseback, and Arius and Leander, Kassandros and Zephyrides, and they flowed around the Thracians, no formation, yet fighting like team mates in a game, or hunters in at the kill.
The men who’d been trying to force the gate and the men already overrunning the lower camp, what proved to be the Corinthian camp, heard the fighting and the war cries, and that might have proven our undoing; someone rallied them in the darkness and they came at us, just as I was clasping sword hands with Sparthius at the breach.
But a fifty Athenian marines and forty Spartiates and a dozen desperate helots made a difficult foe, and we held our ground. I remember none of it, except the deadly sparkle of the steel in the moonlight, the glitter as an arrow flashed through the vision allowed by my helmet, the thrown spear’s appearance in my vision, the flash of a sword, colourless, sudden as the thunderbolt of the god.
You can only take so much of it. That’s why the lines come together and then fall back; and the dark is even more shot through with terror.
It seemed as if we fought all night; I know it was not much longer than it would take to plough a furrow on my farm.
And then there was no foul breath in my face, no pressure against my horse.
Cimon had come out of the darkness from the direction of the city, our little cavalry screaming like savages, and they’d broken the Thracians before they hit home; one last deadly surprise in the darkness, just as Lykon brought the Corinthian oarsmen en masse against the other flank.
When the sun rose, we saw that we’d killed a hundred or more of them, and Pausanias directed that they be stripped and the gold shared. But he didn’t stop to thank us.
I think I hated him most that morning, because I was off my horse, sitting in the bloody dirt, Aten’s head in my lap as he breathed his last, a Thracian’s spear all the way through his guts and another long cut on his thigh above his greave that, mercifully, killed him by bleeding out. For a boy born to slavery in Aegypt, I think he had a lot of love at his death; hed proved himself worthy fifty times, and now I sat with him and wept, as much for all the mornings I’d snapped at his perfect service as for his death. We always weep first for ourselves; Herakleitus told me that.
Cimon was there, and Styges, and Leander.
‘I didn’t like him at first,’ Leander said.
Styges blinked away tears. ‘I did,’ he said.
Cimon didn’t say anything.
The sun rose in the East, the first bright rays breaking over Asia across the straits and turning the calm water to a rosy gold.
‘Oh, how beautiful,’ Aten said.
# # #
Aten’s death didn’t leave me with a desire for revenge. Instead, it put into me that traditional Greek idea about war.
The desire to get the Gods’ damned thing over.
We had a dozen prisoners, men too badly wounded to run. Thracians don’t usually surrender, otherwise. From them, Cimon and Sparthius learned that the Melinditae had lost a battle to the Odrysae and retreated towards Doriscus and further west, and that the point of the raid had been to distract us while a messenger got into the town.
‘We’re fucked,’ Cimon said. ‘Damn.’
It was full morning, and the weight of Aten’s death was on me as if I was carrying his rotting corpse around in the sunlight.
‘No,’ I said. ‘No. We’re going to win this, because the price of losing just got too high. Listen. I’m going for grain. Aristides is correct; the promise of a proper feast will keep the laggards at the plough for another week or two.’
‘I’m not at all sure we can win a stand up fight with the Thracians,’ Cimon allowed.
Lykon answered him. ‘We beat them last night,’ he said. ‘Now Adeimantus is going to insist to fucking Pausanias that we complete our fortifications and link a palisade to yours on the hill top.’
‘That’d be nice,’ Cimon muttered.
I pointed at Lykon. ‘If we all pull together, the Thracians are no threat,’ I said. ‘Five, six thousand peltasts? We have a thousand veteran hoplites and ten thousand oarsmen.’
Cimon made a face. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘But we have to stand together.’ He looked over at me. ‘I’ll take the cavalry patrols. I used to be a cavalryman.’
‘I know,’ I said.
# # #
Before I left with the Raven, I met with Cimon and Aristides up at our fort on the ridge.
‘I have a plan to take the place,’ I said.
I laid it out. It was basically the pan we’d made the first day, with one or two little wrinkles.
Aristides nodded slowly, frowning over the complex, hard working wrinkle. ‘Maybe,’ he said.
‘Everyone will work harder in the expectation of a feast,’ I said. ‘Or… that’s what you said.’
Aristides nodded. ‘Perhaps,’ he admitted.
But Cimon was smiling broadly. ‘I like this,’ he said. ‘I suppose I’m a deceptive bastard, because I really like doing this.’
‘And the Corinthians already started extending their palisade to meet up with our fort,’ I said. ‘Look!’
Sure enough, below us, like purposeful ants, we could see long lines of oarsmen carrying stone and cut wood up the slope. You could actually wacth the line of entrenchment grow.
‘The Thracians will see it, too,’ I said.
Aristides nodded. ‘It might work,’ he agreed.
# # #
We rowed down the Golden Horn and turned into the current of the Bosporus, and then we got our sails up, because the yearly North-Easter was blowing right down the coast of the sea of Marmora. We had to row down the gullet of the strait, but then we ran before it, keeping Nestor and Nicanor busy with the steering oars all the way and resting the oarsmen.
We left at dawn on the day after the full moon, and we arrived in the harbour of Mythymna the evening of the next day, a fast passage by any count. Athena was with us. And Philip improved miraculously, as if a day at sea was all he needed to complete the healing of his wound. I’ve noted before that wounds at sea seldom sicken as they do on land.
Briseis met me on the shore with her women, and we enacted our ceremony only after I tasked Eugenios with finding me a full cargo of barley and wheat.
As these were the primary exports of Lesvos besides olive oil, he didn’t expect too much trouble.
‘I prayed you were not coming with news of a defeat,’ Briseis said quietly. ‘I saw you sister’s friend…’
‘Philip, and I thought, Oh, by Artemis, a ship full of wounded men, we’ve had a disaster.’ She shook her head.
‘You might now pray for a wind-change,’ I said. ‘I need a zephyr from the south and east.’
She was big with child, and I rubbed her feet and heard the gossip of Ionia; Archilogos was at sea, cruising the channel off Mytilene and paying visits to Chios and other Ionian cities.
‘I need to send a messenger,’ I said. But before I could organize one, Morning Star and Helikaon came around the point from the channel and I sent him back to the Ionians with a message; really, a little more like a plea.
Too many balls in the air.
I told Briseis that I need to talk to Alysia.
And then, that my two boys had gone to rescue hers.
She shook her head. ‘I’ve already sent a ransom offer,’ she said. ‘I think you should call them off.’
‘I can’t,’ I said.
We sat together on a long summer evening. I told her about Aten’s death, and she told me about the comings and goings of Ionia.
‘Will it ever end?’ she asked. ‘I’m tired of being afraid.’
‘Not in our lifetimes,’ I said.
She made a face. ‘When people like my first husband prate about freedom, I wonder if they think of how many generations of suffering it takes to win a war like this?’
‘Your first husband was an arsehat of the first dimension,’ I said, or something even more to the point.
She laughed. ‘You were a red-handed killer of men,’ she said. ‘Girls’ just don’t find that as attractive as boys seem to think.’
‘You seemed to find a use for me when I was around,’ I said.
She smiled. ‘One does not discard something beautiful just because it has a little blood on it,’ she said.
I spent some time trying to puzzle that one out.
# # #
In the morning, as we put the grain into Raven, Alysia came on Archilogos’ trireme.
‘I’m coming with you,’ she said. ‘I have…’
‘An army camp is not the place for a…’ I paused, considering. ‘A woman not used to an army camp.’
‘I’ll be perfectly safe,’ she said.
‘Will you, then?’ I asked.
‘Yes. I have a famous bodyguard.’ She indicated the cloaked figure standing at ease near the helm.
It was Brasidas.
‘Later,’ he said, with a wave of his hand.
I embarrassed him with a long embrace anyway.
Perhaps my sister will forgive me,’ I said.
He smiled. ‘Perhaps,’ he agreed.
Alysia brought me the last link in my plan. And let’s face it. It was never ‘my’ plan. It was the plan I made with Aristides and Cimon, and then altered and altered and altered as circumstances went for or against us.
Because that’s how you win a war. Or a siege.
The presence of Brasidas banished the ghost of Aten. Perhaps that sounds terrible, but what I mean is that the sense of loss and failure that came with Aten’s death evaporated in the face of the Laconic strength of my Taxiarchos, and the relentless and somewhat matronly strength of Alysia. And I saw, in the return of Brasidas and the providential arrival of Alysia, a change in our fortunes, or perhaps the hand of the Goddess that had been on us since the first victory at sea.
And when the wind changed, first to southerly, and then a touch of south and west, I knew it was the wrong wind for the Dardanelles. But the right wind for another plan altogether. It was the right wind for the estuary of the Evros. where the Persian squadron was based at Doriscus. And where, according to a dying Thracian, I might find the Melinditae.
So I prayed to Athena and the winds and Poseidon, and took the Raven to sea; another flight, as if all the furies were behind us. We had a full load of grain and enough oil and salt fish to keep the crew for a week, and I didn’t intend to touch land until I could see the sea birds over the Evros delta.
It was mid-day before we put our oars in the water, but we were in with Samothrake when the sun rose, and we landed a little north and west of the estuary, where the open plains come all the way down to a sandy beach, and there are hot springs just inland from the beach.
I was preparing to send Brasidas ashore with some sailors; all my marines were serving in the siege; but I needn’t have bothered. The first Thracians came down, curious, perhaps looking to trade, while a dozen of my sailors were taking on a little more fresh water from a stream that emptied into the bay across the sand, as clean as clean.
But as predicted, Philip found them to be Melinditae. And before the sun was far down in the sky, Alysia was sitting under my boat sail with Katisa of the Melinditae. We shared wine; Alysia gave Katisa a necklace of lapis. Katisa gave her a fine steel knife in a hammered bronze sheath.
We all drank a little too much.
I had no time for niceties beyond the exchange of gifts. But Philip smoothed over my gaffes and I cannot pretend that Alysia’s smiles didn’t help the process. Thracians make less difference between men and women than Greeks, and they find our rigid demarcations alien, as we find their fluidity, I suppose, but with Scythians or Thracians, having a woman along is more than useful. It might be said to be essential.
The gist of what I said, through Philip’s mouth and Alysia’s eyes, was this.
‘You have problems with the Odrysae. They are preparing to attack us. If you’ll support us, we’ll support you against them. We won’t promise you the city; that’s not on the table. But with an ally in the city, you can hold the Dardanelles.’
Katisa considered what we’d said along time, and drank two cups of unwatered Chian wine.
‘I don’t have enough spears to lose another battle,’ she said. ‘I might just have enough spears to win one.’
‘Are you saying you will join us?’ I asked, cautiously.
‘I’m asking what guarantee you will give me that you will win,’ she said. ‘I will take a big risk, going back into the Chersonese with my tribe. If the Odrysae catch us before we join you, we’ll be beaten badly.’
I knew in my heart that all I needed was for the Odrysae to look the other way, her way, for two or three days. But I believe in allies. Perhaps what Pausanias said is true; we men of the little cities know that we depend on others. ‘Can you come up on Byzantium on the fourth day from today?’
‘The Athenians will all be feasting,’ she said.
Perhaps we all looked surprised, but she laughed, her tattooed eyes dancing. ‘You think that we’re so barbarous we don’t have eyes and ears?’ she asked. ‘You build ovens and a temple. I have spies among the Odrysae. You will have a great feast.’
‘You can be our guests for that feast,’ I said.
She smiled slyly. ‘I see now. You want us to cover your feast. When we come out of the hills, the Odrysae will look to us and not to the sleeping, drunk Athenians.’
‘Perhaps,’ I admitted. ‘But they won’t be able to concentrate on you. That I promise.’
She looked at me a long time, and then at Alysia.
‘These two men and this woman,’ she said, pointing at Philip, Brasidas, and Alysia. ‘Your brothers and your wife?’
I shook my head. ‘My sister’s husband, my sister’s friend, and my wife’s friend.’
‘Oh, sure,’ the barbarian said with a knowing smile. ‘And this is a picnic, eh?’ She got up and looked at me. ‘I see how close you are, all of you. So leave them with me. If all is as you say, well and good. If not, I sacrifice them to my gods on my own funeral pyre, and you learn not to lie to Thracians.’
Alysia stood up. ‘I accept,’ she said, before I could say anything, and then gave me a withering stare.
I looked at Philip, who shrugged. ‘I’m game,’ Philip said. ‘It’s only a two day ride.’
Then I looked at Brasidas, who already knew the whole plan.
The real plan. Not the plan I’d just mentioned to the barbarian queen.
He smiled. ‘Delighted,’ he said.
He sounded as if he meant it.
# # #
Just north of the beach where Raven rested, stern first, her bow moving slightly with the ripple of the waves, there is a long ridge, crowned with a hill like the acropolis of a city, and just below that crown is a hollow, perhaps thrice the size of my father’s farm.
I had time, while I waited for Katisa’s final answer, to walk up the ridge, and into the hollow, and to imagine…
Well, you all know what I imagined. But I felt then, and I still feel, the hand of Artemis, or perhaps Athena, at my shoulder, guiding my steps, pointing. When I stood at the edge of the hollow, I felt as if I was at the edge of a curtain between worlds… have you ever had this feeling? For a moment, I thought I could see Aten, aye, and Idomeneaus and Harpagos and Euphonia.
It’s a beautiful place in a perfect location. There’s arable land almost as far as the eye can see, and easy access to the Aegean which lies at your feet, where you can see your friends — and your foes — coming, a long way off. The Dardanelles are less than a day’s sail to the east; Samothrake, Lemnos, Lesvos and Chios lie almost literally at your feet.
I walked back and forth, and thought of Briseis, worried about my sons, and considered Aten, the life I’d given him and perhaps taken away.
It was a thoughtful time; a few hours snatched from a long war. But in that hollow and on that hillside, I felt a sense of peace and a sense of… fitness, perhaps, or belonging.
I’ll never know why; there’s nothing of Boeotia or Green Plataea in those rolling hills and oak-capped ridges. Thrake is colder and even the stones are different. But, on the other hand, I’ve been stomping back and forth across Thrake since i was a boy; I lived in the Chersonese for almost three years, fighting for Miltiades.
We were perhaps two days ride from Byzantium; we were less than a day’s ride from the Persian fortification and palace at Doriscus.
So when the armoured riders appeared in late afternoon, and we gathered to swear oaths, I clasped hands with the Thracian queen.
I pointed at the hill and the hollow. ‘I could live hear,’ I said.
She frowned, then smiled. ‘Perhaps, if we are alive, and victorious, some days hence, I would have you as a neighbour,’ she said.
To Brasidas I said, ‘I could live here.’
Brasidas looked around. ‘We’re founding a city?’ he asked. ‘Excellent.’
I walked over to Alysia, where she stood by a horse. She and the horse were looking at each other with a certain mutual curiosity.
‘You are sure you are willing to do this?’
She smiled. ‘Actually, I’m terrified. I’ve never ridden, and I know the odds.’ She shrugged. ‘But I came to have an adventure, and I’ll be damned if I’m turning back now.’
‘Your husband must be a very good man indeed,’ I said.
She smiled, then. ‘He is,’ she said. ‘Sadly, at the moment he has no idea I’m here, and thinks I’m with my sister in Eresos.’
‘I’d best get you home alive,’ I said.
‘I’ll certainly be in less trouble if I get home alive,’ she said.
‘If it is any reassurance,’ I said, ‘you are the key to a plan that has been made by Aristides of Athens and Cimon son of Miltiades, the wiliest fox on the seas,’ I said.
She nodded. ‘I’d be happier with a plan made by Briseis,’ she admitted.
‘She, too, played a part,’ I said.
# # #
We got off the beach at eventide, after a good meal of fish with the Thracians. I intended to sail at night; my crew had had a spring and most of a summer to grow used to my ways, and we rowed a few stades and then raised the sail and went across the wind, our worst point of sailing, and one that frequently required me to order all the sailors and some of the oarsmen to the leeward side to stiffen the ship lest we be knocked down, even in a light wind.
I thought the risk worthwhile.
Due south all night. Dawn of the twenty first day of Hekatombaion; two days until the great Feast of Athena, and we were running into the Dardanelles against the current, but with a fine light breeze filling the sails from the west, a proper zephyr that brought fine weather, and was the visible grace of the gods.
When I looked south, I could see a line of warships, low against the horizon, visible only by the flash of their oars in the morning sun.
We were heavily laden with grain and a deck-load of Thracian sheep, but I didn’t think that the warships would catch us, for a variety of reasons. Still, as we completed the sharp turn into the mouth of the Dardanelles, I breathed a sigh of relief.
All day, we ran up the channel; before darkness, the narrow straits widened into the Sea of Marmora, and we were almost alone, the siege having the emptied the seas the way news of a crime can empty the streets of a town.
We were on time–just. And it is remarkable how, when one has tried very hard to accomplish something complicated, the mind dwells on the tiny details that could still go wrong. What if we hit a submerged rock? What if the Thracians were discovered in the hills west of Byzantium? What if there was a traitor in our ranks?
What if the bake ovens had failed?
What if the garrison had stormed the fort on the ridge top?
What if Pausanias had discovered our conspiracy to do what we’d said we would do?
What if Archilogos disobeyed his sister?
Never, I think, had I been so dependent on my friends; never had I been part of a plan wherein every person had a role to play like an actor in the Great Dionysium. Interlocking wheels, as complicated as the movement of stars.
I had plenty about which I could worry, and I did. I’m aware that we had a day of beautiful sailing, and then a night with the gods, the stars wheeling above us in a magnificent procession, the lights of the little towns on either side twinkling where a few matrons, perhaps, sat late over their wine. I envied them.
Eventually, I slept, with Nicanor at the oars, whistling to himself.
Nestor woke me with an ungentle toe in my midriff, and I rose, cursed, and tried to enjoy the dawn around the protests of aging fibers whose rest on the hard boards of the starboard helmsman’s bench had not been of the best. Already then, my hands hurt every morning, as if every man I’d killed had come to haunt the bones that did the deed.
I hobbled around the deck until I felt better, and looked at the rising sun, and thought of my hillside in Thrake.
Before me, in the pale pink light of dawn, the city of Byzantium rose atop her acropolis, perhaps twenty stades away. It was dawn on the eve of the Magna Panatheneum, the Great Feast of Athena in the third year of the seventy-fifth Olympiad, and I was almost home. And with my friends at my side, and many pairs of hands, a shipload of grain, some sheep, and some Thracians, we were about to take one of the greatest cities in the Greek world.
# # #
The preparations for the first day of the festival were probably visible to everyone in the town; we landed our grain at the improvised jetty that the Athenians had constructed in our absence and every one of the twenty-four bake ovens that had been laboriously laid up and dried and slowly fired was brought into action again, and the mountains of cut brush continued to dwindle as the bakers made the cakes and breads for the long-awaited feast.
The sheep came off our ship and went into pens behind the wooden temple, and the wine went into a guarded area. I was probably more popular that morning than I’d ever been as a mere war-hero; probably a hundred men came to congratulate me on finding the supplies for the feast.
A really observant man might have noticed that some of the sacks of grain were far too heavy, as if they were full of iron. Of course, he’d have had to be where he could see the ships unload. And he’d have had to be very observant indeed, as Ole Llurin and his men unloaded those sacks and were careful not to appear to struggle with them.
Athenians take the feast of Athena very seriously. And they were already tired of the siege, and it was only a month old. Evenings were already a little cooler; autumn was coming. But the siege had many months left in it, and everyone wanted a few cups of wine and a little oblivion.
I made a great show of checking the sentries and ensuring that the smaller contingents had the long line of palisades running up the hill to the fort, where our combined archers held the pinnacle of the central ridge.
We held a muster of every man in the camp, preparatory to the feast. We counted noses for food and wine distribution, but while Cimon and Aristides reviewed the troops and harangued the oarsmen, Styges and Leander and I went through every tent, every shelter, every pile of brush, making sure that we knew the whereabouts of every man.
I slept a little, and at dusk, Cimon took the cavalry out on a long sweep about a bowshot from our palisade. His efforts were perfunctory; his men rode too fast and the whole patrol had the look of men in a hurry to get to their dinners. But they raised a lot of dust out there in the open ground we’d created by cutting all that brush for our ovens, and the dust hung there until the sun set over the hills to the west.
I tried not to pace.
I drank a cup of my own wine in the fort, watching the stars come out, and Orion rising. Far out on the sea of Marmora, a ship lit her stern lantern.
I tried to sleep again, and failed.
Everything kept me awake; the barking of the dogs–how do armies attract so many dogs?– and the lowing of the sheep in their pen and the sound of our horses cropping the remnants of the grass on the hillside; the night birds, the shouts of nervous sentries, the crackle of the watch fire in the middle of the fort, the endless sound of the rigging of the ships slapping against the wooden masts below me, a constant tap-tap-tap like the pitter-patter of rain on your roof.
Why do men remember war as anything but anxiety and torment?
I lay there, thinking of all the things that could have gone wrong, and all the hostages I had given to the fates, and how ludicrously elaborate our so-called ‘plan’ was. How one spy, one deserter, would wreck it.
Sometime deep in the darkness of early morning, there was a scrabble at the fort gate, and I was instantly out of my cloak, walking across the packed-earth of the fort’s ground to where a sentry was quietly and professionally exchanging the complex passwords of the night with someone outside.
‘Come ahead,’ the sentry said, very quietly.
Kassandros and four marines waited inside, knuckles white in the moonlight on their spear shafts.
Ka came through the gate with four archers at his heels, all covered in mud, smeared with the stuff.
His grin was as wide as wide as a sickle moon.
‘I saw Brasidas,’ he said. ‘And the Thracian woman sends her greetings.’
I didn’t need to ask any more. The former Helots were tired, done in, and Ka’s smile had a limp to it. They’d been out almost twenty four hours; they’d moved out in the darkness the morning before, shortly after our arrival, and then, while Cimon ‘performed’ his patrol to cover them, they’d slipped off to the west.
There were still too many things that could go wrong. But I could breathe, and as soon as I lay down, with Ka a few feet away, I was asleep.
# # #
The morning of the great feast.
Twenty-four bake ovens throw a great deal of heat, and it was still summer in Thrake. And with the heat is smoke, the bitter, clinging smoke from burning brush, must of which was still green. Come, friends, you know me; I’d love to pause here and explain to you why it is brush and not solid wood that makes the best bread, but take my word for it, eh?
And because Athena’s bread must be fresh, the very men who’d lagged the last ten days at building entrenchments now fed the ovens with a will, and the smoke rose over the camp in a choking cloud, especially in the early morning.
As the sun rose, sharp and brilliant over Asia, Aristides began the sacrifices. He was, by right, a priest of Athena. I remembered the first woman I’d ever seen with an army, the priestess of Athena who’d prayed for my brother after my first battle, and I rather wished we had one of the great priestesses with us. I believe that women have a tie to the gods that men often lack; somehow, in my own life, it is priestesses who have shaped my belief more than priests. But that’s another story. Here, on the day, we were an army without even a prostitute, much less a great lady from one of the priestess families. So Aristides led the first ceremonies.
In Athens, the PanAthenaea goes on for a week, and is perhaps the most important celebration of the year. There is a magnificent procession up the Acropolis; women and girls participate in a way that they seldom do the rest of the year. If you’ve never been, you should go; it is one of the most uplifting things I’ve ever experienced, but then, I admit, I have the honour to be a citizen.
One of the most important aspects of the PanAthenaea is the games. They are not as famous, perhaps, as the Olympics or the Nemean Games, but they do get the very best competitors. They have a slightly more military flavour than the Olympics, too, as befits a more military goddess.
We began the day with a procession. It was vastly scaled down, but it had many of the elements of the greater Athenian version. The captured, magnificent cloak of my Persian officer had been cleaned and rigorously repaired by the two professional embroiderers we found in the fleet–I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how a fleet of warships seems to have every profession under the sun–and the cloak was magnificent in vermillion and gold, carried by no less than young Perikles, Aristides’ young friend and follower. After the procession, led by every marines and officer in polished panoply, and followed by all the Athenian oarsmen, we went to the temple and the magnificent cloak was placed on a wooden statue of the goddess that had been made by two ship’s carpenters with a talent for such things.
I confess that she was the most buxom and sensual Athena I’ve ever seen, and her grey eyes were a little less keen and a little more inviting than one typically encounters in a statue of Athena, but she was the brilliant goddess nonetheless, and the cloak and the aegis became her wonderfully.
We sang some hymns, and went out into the early morning air to celebrate the games in her honour.
Here’s an odd aspect of my own hubris. I think it is hubris, although it is not really treating another person as a slave. But, here we were, praising my favourite of the Gods on her own day, and behind that festival I was playing a very dangerous game…
…And yet, I wanted, more than anything, in that hour, to be running with the athletes, fighting with my shield in hand, competing against the best that Athens and Aegina had to offer.
And instead, I sat in a himation, unarmed, unarmoured, and judged contests like an old man.
And I hated it.
Oh, they were all gallant. Young Perikles, who thought far too much of himself, was nonetheless a brilliant fighter; nor was he alone in his brilliance, and there on the sandy hillside I saw a dozen feat of arms and athleticism that were more than worthy of the goddess.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that Cimon and Aristides had opened all of the events to any participant from the fleet, so that many oarsmen ran in the stadia and two stadia races. Remember that it is an honour to participate, and that it also gives honour to the goddess; in Athens, those games had been the prerogative of the aristocrats, but on a beach at the edge of Asia, any man could run.
Behind us, towards the palisades, the line of bake ovens continued to belch smoke, and the smell of baking bread was everywhere. Some of the runners complained that the smoke slowed them down, and there was coughing.
But at the PanAthenaea, every man was supposed to make a sacrifice at Athena’s altar; every free man. And by tradition, instead of a mass slaughter of animals, there would be enough animals killed to feed everyone and please the gods, and the rest of the sacrifices would be symbolic offerings of bread.
The baking went on.
So did the sports.
A particularly observant man might have noted that there were more chimneys then bake ovens; chimneys that ran on charcoal and not brush. And he might have noted that there was activity on both sides of our palisade wall running up the hill, but he’d have had to be able to see through all the smoke.
But I digress.
I was just judging the Pankration, and a big oarsman from Sounion was coasting toward victory, vigorously applauded by Polymachos who was suddenly his coach, when Ka appeared at my side.
‘The wood edge is full of Thracians,’ he said. ‘They’re trying to hide, but we can see them from the hill top.’
I nodded. ‘Watch them,’ I said, uselessly.
Ka smiled, and was gone. There was no archery contest to captivate him, at least where other men could see. Later I learned that Vasilos sponsored a contest in the fort for a golden coin and the right to be first to make sacrifice at sunset, and then won it himself.
In the full heat of the day, we went back to the temple and sang, and in mid-afternoon, we prepared for the feast. I climbed the hill, having changed into a chitoniskos and a good hat, and borrowed a marine’s aspis. From the top of the ridge, I climbed the tower, carrying the aspis like a snail with his shell on his back, just so that, having reached the top I could wave it a few times and climb back down.
Late afternoon. trestle tables and tough shelters had sprung up across the whole of our camp, and men waiting by the temple to make their sacrifices. The priests, Aristides and Cimon and I among them, began to kill the sheep, sacrificing them as fast as we were able and sending the meat to be cooked on the long trenches of open fire. There were neat piles of bread shaped like animals on tables by the temple, and volunteers were laying out bread and oil and cooked meat from the sacrifices on the improvised tables in the camp and others were keeping the dogs off.
As soon as the last sheep went to its just reward, the first marine came forward with his bread-sheep and tossed it on the fire, and the veneration began, and man by man, the crews of every Aeginian and Athenian warship made their sacrifices and then went to their tables, where slaves and volunteers poured them wine, and the feast began. At last the bake ovens had ceased belching smoke, but for the moment, the roasting of meat and the massive smoke of the altars to the gods seemed to replace them. The smell of roast meat was everywhere, and my stomach grumbled.
The first cup of wine hit the stomachs of the feasters, and they grew so loud you could have heard them in Asia. One more time, they sang the hymn to Athena.
I begin to sing of Pallas Athena, the glorious goddess, bright-eyed, inventive, unbending of heart, pure virgin, saviour of cities, courageous, tritogeneia! Wise Zeus himself bore her from his awful head, arrayed in the warlike arms of flashing gold…
They sang, and they drank, as the sun climbed down the sky.
At full dark, Cimon stood next to me, sober as a man who feared a major attack.
‘You said dusk,’ he said.
I shrugged. ‘Now I say dawn,’ I said. ‘I can’t force them to dance to my tune.’
Cimon made a face. ‘I want to get this over with,’ he said.
I shrugged, looking out over the ocean and trying to will a fleet into existence. ‘Maybe it was all for nothing,’ I said.
‘Aristides will kill us. He’s already worried that the whole ruse is an impiety.’
I glanced out to sea again. ‘I’m a Plataean,’ I said. ‘Our Athena is a lot more understanding.’
The men feasting drank the night away, and the wine flowed. I had two cups myself, and sang a few hymns and a couple of frankly obscene doggerels, moving from table to table, checking on the oarsmen and the sailors. Again, a particularly observant man might have noted that there really weren’t enough men sitting and drinking. Except that is was dark, and they were loud.
Oarsmen are loud, when they drink.
Men wandered off into the darkness to vomit up their devotions, and we steered them towards the city and away from our palisade. Another thing that observant man might have noted, if he could see in the smoky darkness.
Around midnight, I went to sleep. I slept the sleep of the just. No idea why; I just lay down, slept four hours, and awoke to Ka’s hand on my shoulder.
‘I think we should light the beacon,’ he said. ‘Here they come.’
I got up on the fort’s wall, and looked out, where ant-like Thracians moved across the open ground.
I gave him a sleepy nod.
He put an arrow into the fire that burned in the middle of the fort, and shot it up into the tower, where a bale of resin-impregnated brush stood. It burst into flame; a roaring flame twice the height of a man, visible, I suspect as far as Asia.
Off to the east, over Asia, the sky was just getting pink.
The Thracians had finally decided that we’d had enough to drink, and I could see them more clearly now, coming over the open ground we’d cleared days ago, getting brush for the ovens.
It was now too late to worry about my plan. Our plan. Any plan.
The beacon was lit.
# # #
When the beacon burst into flame, it was visible for fifty stadia in every direction, and it was most certainly visible to the Thracians. Someone waved and shield, and they gave a deep throated roar that echoed up and down their line, flowing and crashing like waves on a sea.
And then they charged.
From far above them, as they began to come up our part of the ridge, they appeared at first to be ants, and then foxes, colourful and low to the ground in the early morning pinkish light, and then…
…And then men, men with big half-moon shields, and glittering spears, colourful tunics, armour of scales or leather, glittering bronze and iron helmets, their faces shadowy at first until the shadows were revealed as tattoos that appeared the very essence of barbarity. They came at us in what had started as a line, perhaps four deep, but by the time they neared the palisade, they ran in clumps, or packs, like wolves pacing a wounded deer.
About three hundred paces from the palisade, men began to fall, screaming.
From my vantage point, I could see the guard being turned out in the Peloponnesian camp. Their palisade ran all the way to our camp and even had a tower in the middle, and they had guards out all night, and now the Peloponnesian marines and the Spartan hoplites began to emerge from their camp to man their wall sections, but the Thracians ignored them. It looked to me as if the Thracians had thrown three or four thousand men at our camp in the first light of dawn. There was cavalry and more infantry back there in the wood line, the rising sun catching their armour and their spear points.
The running men began to slow, and the little packs were shredding, and a surprising number of them were down, and their screams were terrible, even to a man who has heard as many screams as I have.
About one hundred paces from the walls, the charging Thracians hit the first pit traps. The men who went into them died spectacularly, cruelly, and the whole mass…
…stopped. They’d crossed a hundred paces of ground strewn with all the caltrops that Ole llurin and his iron-smithing apprentices could make, their smoke covered by our bake fires. Sharpened stakes, twigs, and iron against barefoot Thracians.
The pit traps were not elaborate. Nor were they deep. But they had stakes in the bottom, and the first runner died, and the mass slowed, as men, even brave men, will do. It is one thing to face fire, or enemies. Another to face traps.
Ka slapped my shoulder and pointed back, towards Byzantium, where we could see the garrison deploying from two gates, moving with the smooth precision of long practice and good drill.
‘Stop the Thracians,’ I said. ‘Leave the rest to me and Cimon.’
Ka nodded, and went to the other wall, and the archers began to deploy themselves, moving out of the fort and onto the high ground in front of our entrenchments. In the time it had taken us to sing the hymn, they’d formed a line, two hundred archers long, no depth at all.
They began to loose arrows into the Thracians who’d come to a stop just seventy or eighty paces away.
I leapt onto the back of my steppe pony. Very well, I confess that I climbed up on a mound of dirt and wriggled onto his back, because mornings are not the best time for middle-aged men to do anything dramatic. But I got aboard, so to speak, and we rode down the hill even as the Thracians bellowed and came on, thrusting before them with their spears, trying to find our traps. And truth to tell, the traps were hastily made and not so very effective, once the Thracians weren’t running flat out. On the other hand, the slow-moving Thracians were a fat target for archery.
None of that was my problem anymore.
At the bottom of the hill, there were some drunken men being shepherded aboard their ships. We’d had plenty of volunteers to be the feasters.
I dismounted and picketed my pony carefully, because we still had time.
My marines were waiting with all of the other marines, and Cimon at their head; almost four hundred men in panoply. Added in were the well-armoured sailors from the more piratical, or let us say, experienced, Athenian ships. Altogether, our ‘phalanx’ had almost a thousand men, and not a hangover among them.
What do you think all that smoke was for?
We had a thousand hoplites, give or take, against twelve hundred of the Great King’s provincial regulars and perhaps fifty of his professional cavalrymen.
Of course, we also had several thousand oarsmen. The better -equipped were proper peltasts, with small shields and a pair of javelins; many were merely naked men with rocks.
The thing is, that the Athenians remembered Marathon, and the days before Marathon. And they remembered Salamis, and they remembered Plataea and the fight on the left flank, and the olive grove. The little men, the kind of thetis class citizens who served as oarsmen and psiloi, they knew better than most light infantry how much damage they could do.
Here’s a military secret for you younger men bent on glory. If you must have a field battle, it’s best to have far more men than your opponent, if you possibly can. The whole reputation of Sparta is based on their ability to bring their Peloponnesian League into the filed and outnumber everyone else’s hoplites two or three to one. It works.
We had four thousand oarsmen.
Behind us, the Thracians were coming to a long line of palisades, and finding more pits, more traps, and a constant rain of arrows.
When their axe men cut through the palisades, they found out why we hadn’t allowed drunks to go that way in the dark. The pits continued on our side…
And then they were finally in our camp. It took them far too long, and by the time they were there…
# # #
We were out on the plain between the city walls and our camp. We didn’t hesitate, as this had always been one of the possible outcomes of the plan; indeed, we jogged across the plain at the Great King’s regulars like men running to a prize.
One of the most difficult things about being a commander is making a decision in a hurry that will have consequence. One of the whole points of surprising an opponent is to force the enemy commander to make decisions quickly, because that’s when men make mistakes.
The Persian commander saw us coming and deployed.
His satrapal regulars, probably Carians and Lydians, formed line from their column and immediately began to deploy their big shields, huge wicker and hide things that would protect them from arrows.
We had no arrows.
About three hundred paces from the rapidly congealing Persian line, we halted and formed our phalanx. We formed from the center to the flanks, if you’ve ever done that, and it was the only manoeuvre we’d practiced the last three weeks because we hadn’t wanted to look too competent to our opponents on the city walls, who could see everything we did, and frankly, even with practice, it was a little chaotic, and if the Persian commander had released his cavalry right there, they might have made hay.
But he’d decided to form his battle line and prepare to receive us, and he held his cavalry back.
Cimon trotted up, magnificent is his panoply, like Achilles and Hector rolled into one. He was grinning form ear to ear. ‘Poor Spartans,’ he said. ‘They’ll miss the fun.’
I could see Styges, and my cousin Akilles, and Leander and Zephyrides and Kassandros and Arius and Diodoros. In fact, there behind them were Nestor and Nicanor and Damon and all the sailors with a good panoply.
I glanced at Cimon. ‘There’s no need to fight at all,’ I said. ‘The Persian commander’s made the wrong decision, and he’s already lost.’
Indeed, out in the brush, thousands of oarsmen were loping along like the Thracians, closing in on the flanks of the small Persian force.
‘No one needs to die at all,’ I said. ‘If we charge them, some of us die, and then they all die, pretty much.’
Cimon frowned. ‘Fuck,’ he said. ‘Of course.’
Unfortunately, the Persian commander had finally woken up to the danger our oarsmen posed to him. He had a volley of arrows loosed and his little cavalry force burst from the cover of the sparpabara line and went at our left wing.
Cimon smiled grimly. ‘He made his choice,’ he said, and we went forward.
At Marathon, we ran at the Persians and they shot at us, and we bested them. We didn’t know we could do it, but we did.
At Plataea, the Spartans stood for volley after volley from the Persian Immortals, and then charged them, and beat them.
By the time we stood on the sun-drenched ridge at Byzantium, with the walls of the city towering above our left flank, we had the measure of facing a Persian line. It was painful, and Greeks would die, but we were sure we could take them.
And we did.
We marched in good order for the first hundred paces of their archery range, and they lofted arrows and hit us hard. They probably dropped more than fifty men in that first hundred paces.
But when we were about one hundred paces from the line of wicker shields, Cimon’s spear came down sharply, and our whole front moved to a run. I was at the left end of the phalanx, with Kassandros to my right, and he ran much better than I; I was virtually hobbling, and by the time we were on them, I was well back, as deep as the middle of the phalanx, and many men had passed me.
The front crashed into the line of wicker shields and pushed them along the ground, in some cases flattening the Medes behind them. Enemy spear popped through the wicker as the enemy tried to kill us through the shields, but our push was unstoppable. Their line couldn’t hold us, and they began to give way; the big shields fell, and we could see them. A few braze men stopped to loose a deadly shaft at point blank range; Akilles took a shaft in the foot, almost in front of me, deliberately aimed by a Saka archer.
But the Saka died on a dozen spears, and the Lydians were swept back, flayed when they rallied.
All that while, I began to work my way back to the front of the line. Men tripped and fell, or stopped to loot, or stopped to fight or kill, and I caught up; I was not fast, but I was relentless, We’d pushed them back a hundred paces or more, and I assumed the Persian commander was going for his gates, and I had no intention of letting him back into his city.
I was also on the left side of our phalanx, and I kept moving to my left. Phalanxes, like mobs, take on lives of their own; they are that monster with one hundred heads and two hundred legs, or more. We’d drifted to the right, not because of our shields, but because of our position on the ridge; the ground was not flat, and their were olive trees and the burned remnants of farm houses and byres and stone walls, and the result…
The result was that we’d struck the right center of their much longer line, because they were not as deep as we were. So to my left, there were still lots of the Great King’s men, and suddenly, instead of running, they all wanted to kill me.
The positive aspect, although I can’t pretend that we stopped and thought this out, of a drift to the right, is that the enemy is closing in on your shielded flank, and when you carry a giant round shield as big as a woman’s sewing table on your arm, it’s reassuring that your enemies have to come at that and not at your open side. And I had my Plataeans around me and behind me, and without much in the way of orders, we’d formed a tight mass of perhaps a hundred men facing to the left.
All of us would like to be heroes, but the sad fact is that Lydian satrapal levies are not a match for hoplites, on open ground. They weren’t much better armed than our oarsmen. They had almost no armour and besides their bows they had a long dagger, and a few of them had spears.
So as soon as we turned and faced them and killed a few, they broke off. They had to. They couldn’t last in a fight. They turned to run, and our oarsmen fell on them from behind, which was…grim.
I went back to my original direction, pushing up the left flank, hobbling along as quickly as I could manage. Over to my right-front, I could see the enemy commander; a Persian in a high-crested helmet with a fine scale shirt, mounted on a beautiful white horse. I wanted that horse; he looked like the Pegasus. He had a guard of Carians armed very much as I was armed; perhaps a hundred men armed as hoplites.
Cimon and his marines with Thekles struck the Carians first, and drove them back a few paces.
I looked around, but we were in the Rage of Ares; the dust cloud was all around us, and I couldn’t see our psiloi, or the Persian cavalry, or signals, or even Leander.
So much for being a commander.
And once that was gone, I had no responsibility beyond getting home alive to Briseis.
My sword was undrawn, my spear unbloodied.
I led the twenty or so men who were following me around to the left, outflanking the Carians facing the best of the Athenian marines and aristocrats. Aristides was leading the defence of the ships; he had a thousand sober men, and we’d pushed most of the hulls out into the water to prevent them from being burned if the plan went wrong. But Aristides’ marines were with Cimon; and there were men there who’d been fighting since Marathon; who’d been at Salamis and Artemesium and Mycale, and few who’d been at Plataea, too.
The Carians were excellent. So they didn’t break. They held their ground, or gave it up, pace by pace, and they died, facing their foes.
Well, most of their foes.
We came at them suddenly, from our left, which was, of course, their right. The shield less side, if you’ve been paying attention.
We came out of the dust and we were on them, without a shout, without rage. I didn’t intend to lose a man. To me, the whole fight was pointless; the Persian governor had made his mistakes and should have surrendered.
I put down a man in a fancy double crest; he was well-armoured, but I rifled my heavy spear into his helmet and it went through his temple.
In the next few heartbeats, every one of my marines downed his man, and the Carians knew they were destroyed.
And they still fought on.
What a waste.
Their flank turned to face us and the Athenians flayed them; when they tried to fight the Athenians, we killed them, or pinned their spears back, or hampered their shields. It was close, for a moment, and a Carian tried to wrestle me, and my spear was broken; no idea when that happened, and all I could do was bludgeon him with the stump of my spear while Arius stabbed him from behind me. He got inside my shield and died, almost dragging me down.
And then I could see the Persian governor. He was a body length away, trying to get his big stallion out of the press.
I threw the stump of my spear at him and missed. Someone else threw a spear and got his beautiful horse; the spear went in deeply and the horse whirled, all legs and teeth. The haft of the spear hit my aspis with a heavy blow, and I had to writhe to avoid a hoof, but there were too many of us to fail; men went down, but more weapons bit into the magnificent, creamy-white of the horse, and he died, cut a hundred times, his hide all blood, and his master went down, trapped under him.
Styges rammed his spear into the ground by the Persian and covered him with his aspis; perhaps the calmest man in the phalanx.
I dragged my horn around from my back. stood over the Persian’s legs, and blew as hard as I could. I got a sort of squawking noise the first two times, like a sick cow, but the third time I got a nobler sound, and then I blew again, and again.
And the fighting died away. Men died before it could be stopped; Lydians and Carians and Athenians and Aeginians and Plataeans too.
But it stopped.
Men broke apart; men who’d hacked at each other with faces set in the killing glare of hate now stumbled back; looked away. The faces changed. A wounded Lydian was given water; a wounded Greek allowed back into his own lines by the Carians.
The man at my feet was unwounded. ‘Kill me,’ he said, in Persian. ‘I will never surrender the town.’
Brave words from a brave man.
I offered him my hand to pull him to his feet. ‘No need,’ I said. ‘Unless I miss my guess, it’s already ours.’
Then without explanation, we gathered our men and left some hundreds to watch the disarmed satrapal levy, and then, with all our psiloi, we went back towards the camp. Here and there, isolated Persian cavalrymen had ridden clear of the fighting and loosed arrows at us. A dozen or more rode free, slipped past Ka’s archers and tried to the join the Thracians.
But the Thracians were running.
Sometime in the last hour, while we’d fought the Medes under the walls of Byzantium, Katisa and Brasidas had crashed into the rear of the Odrysae. I gathered later from Brasidas that it wasn’t much of a fight; one thing a life of cattle raiding teaches you is when to run, and the moment that the hillside was full of Melinditae, the Odrysae vanished like Thracian snow in an Athenian summer.
I was almost too tired to keep going, but I managed to climb the hill to our fort, with Cimon, fifty marines, and the Persian governor, who was still trying to declare his courage.
Ka had brought his archers back inside. the Thracians had been too old in the ways of war to have a go at the walls, and Ka hadn’t lost a man.
I reassured the Governor that he had no need to give his life. I even jested to him, in Persian, that Pausanias would no doubt restore him to his office as soon as he could. No one found that funny.
We climbed up on the walls, and looked out over the low ridges and plain to the walls of the city.
There were hoplites on the walls, and a bronze aspis flashing from a tower.
I pointed at them men in bronze and motioned to the governor. ‘Somewhere over there,’ I said, ‘Is my brother in law, Archilogos of Ephesus.’
‘The traitor,’ he spat.
Archilogos and the Ionian squadron had landed out of the golden sheet of the rising sun, while the garrison fought us.
All along, it had all been a ruse for this; so that the Persians would attack the siege from the inside as the Thracians attacked from outside, while we appeared weak, drunk, with our guard down. All so that the Ionians could slip in from the sunrise, lost in the golden haze. I admit that both Briseis and I found it particularly sweet to have the Ionians take the town.
I shrugged. ‘I think he served the Great King bravely and well for some years,’ I said. ‘But I think you should, when released, go back to your lord, and tell him that Ionia is Greek.’
‘The Great King is invincible,’ he said loyally.
I waved my hand. From the height of our fort, you could see well down the Sea of Marmora, and across to Asia, and north, into the hills of Thrace.
‘Does it truly seem so, to you?’ I asked.
We stood there in companionable silence for as long as a man might pray to a favoured god.
Then Cimon slapped my shoulder.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I want to see the face on Pausanias.’
# # #
We went to the Peloponnesian camp with Aristides. We took no hoplites, as we suspected that Pausanias would react badly, and we saw no reason to make it public.
We might have saved our efforts. Pausanias refused to admit any of us; guards at the gate of his fort barred even Aristides from entering.
We trudged back to our own camp, and then began the process of occupying the town. The town had a population of ten thousand citizens and as many slaves, and rather more citizen women and children, and the Ionians had, thanks to the Gods, taken it without much violence, so that there had been no looting and no rape. In fact, as we heard later, Archilogos led his men onto the piers and in through open gates in the sea wall; gates that were opened, I suspect, by money and persuasion.
The Persian governor had, apparently, every reason for the desperation of his last attack with his entire garrison; the town council had in effect demanded his surrender, and he was in a difficult position, with insufficient food for a siege and a virtually hostile Greek population that was not going to stay silent for long. It made his behaviour more understandable.
Regardless, the town was ours. Archilogos allowed Aristides to take possession of the citadel, and we created a watch to patrol the walls and streets. We had a remarkable number of Persian and Persian-allied prisoners, from the governor himself and his entourage, captured intact in the citadel, to the dozens of Phoenician and other Syrian merchants, as well as toll collectors, tax men, scribes… the apparatus of governing a satrapy. We had captured the capital of the Satrapy of Skudra. We had dozens of high ranking Persian officers and nobles and their families.
They were rich men bent on growing richer. it was, after all, the rapaciousness of this very class that had sparked the Ionian revolts, and Persians didn’t come out to the barbarian fringe of their empire unless they were bent on improving the family fortunes.
Aristides and Cimon conferred about the prisoners while I was busy making sure that we had a strong garrison and patrols to prevent random looting, because Greeks are no better than other soldiers about other people’s property.
Cimon divided all of the loot taken, which constituted the Persian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Phoenician prisoners and all of their belongings, and he divided them into two symbolic groups; the purple robes and god ornaments of the Persians, and the prisoners, stripped of their possessions.
He offered the Ionians first choice, as they had taken the city.
Archilogos shook his head. ‘This is a ridiculous division,’ he said. He pointed at the chief scribe of the former Satrapy of Skudra. He was fat, jowly, and altogether a fairly ugly figure of a man. ‘What is he worth as a slave?’ he said. ‘An obol?’
Herophytus of Samos, who commanded the ships from Samos that Archilogos had recruited, shook his head in wonder. ‘Don’t argue, my friend,’ he said. ‘We’ll take the gold and the silver.’
Aristides smiled. ‘And you have earned it all,’ he said. ‘Use it well, not just to enrich ourselves, but to rebuild your cities.’
We cleared the temple precinct at the top of the acropolis and put all the prisoners into the Temple of Hera.
The next day, Pausanias sent for Aristides.
We discussed, the four of us; that is, Aristides, Cimon, Archilogos and me; we discussed going to Pausanias as a group. We sat in the courtyard of what had been the governor’s palace; even stripped of gold and silver and fine wall hangings, it was a pleasant place, and it had good folding stools, better than anything I’d seen in Greece; the statues and wall carvings were not as good as those in my own house in Plataea.
Anyway, we were served wine by our own people. We didn’t trust the Persian’s we’d taken; the Carians, brave men, had already tried twice to escape.
Aristides looked us all over. ‘Pausanias will make demands,’ he said. ‘I would expect that he’ll demand that we hand over the town, and all the prisoners.’
Cimon smiled at Archilogos. ‘Which is one of the reasons we gave you the loot.’
Archilogos swirled the wine in his silver cup and sat back. ‘Briseis has sent to Queen Gorgo,’ he said. ‘Demanding Pausanias recall. We are accusing him of Medizing, and of behaving dishonourably, of bringing discredit on the name of Sparta. Ask any of his hoplites how they feel about being held back from yesterdays battle.’
Cimon looked around, as if we might be overheard. And he lowered his voice. ‘Do you think that Gorgo has the power to unseat Pausanias?’
Aristides looked pained. ‘As for me, I pity Pausanias,’ he said.
‘Pity him,’ Cimon asked. ‘That despicable whelp has betrayed Greece!’
But I knew what Aristides knew. Our eyes met.
‘If the Ephors recall Pausanias,’ I said softly, ‘it will only be to make him the scapegoat for their own failed policy. Pausanias has spent the summer trying to follow the impossible orders of his government.’
‘My sister said much the same,’ Archilogos said. He nodded to me. ‘But she said, if Byzantium falls, so will Pausanias, because their whole strategy of containing or eliminating the Ionians will have failed.’
‘I think Pausanias imagined, when he came here, that if he lost, he’d serve Sparta, and if he took the city, the Ephors would accept a forward policy whereby Sparta could choke Athens grain supply,’ I said. ‘I don’t know that. I merely think it. But nothing has played into his hands all summer, and now we hold the city and there’s no Spartan relief fleet and nothin to suggest that the Ephors will back him in choking Athens of her grain.’
Aristides sighed. ‘Themistokles, who I mostly dislike, nonetheless called this correctly. He said in the winter that the Spartans would do everything they could to hamper Athens and the Allies, short of war. Pausanias was willing to provoke war, but I don’t think the Ephors will support him.’
‘And yet you pity him?’ Cimon asked.
‘Last year he was the saviour of Greece, and this year, because of the cowardly old men who have a vice-grip on power in Sparta, he is their tool, behaving basely. He is young, and malleable. Admit it; he has greatness in him, and instead, they will use him like a tool, and discard him.’
It was Cimon’s turn to stare into his wine cup. ‘You are taking all the fun out of this victory,’ he said.
I drank off my wine. ‘I believe that it is time to build an alliance against the Persians that will last,’ I said. ‘And that cannot be done with Sparta at the helm. At least. not the Sparta that we currently have.’
Even Archilogos looked stunned. You have to understand, you young people; in those days, Sparta was looked up to as the leader of the free Greek world. Sparta had the institutions to command a military and veteran leaders; better drills, better dances, the finest body of hoplites and for the most part, the best officers. It was the ‘immemorial custom’ of the Greeks to place the Spartan Kings in command of any alliance.
It was virtually a sacred trust.
To suggest that the alliance should change fundamentally; that the Spartans would have no place in the Pan-Hellenic war against the Persians, was heresy. It was almost unthinkable.
But Cimon looked at me across the table, and tugged on his beard. And nodded. ‘Yes,’ by Zeus,’ he said. ‘Let’s be rid of them.’
Aristides shook his head. ‘It won’t be that easy,’ he said. He looked at me. ‘And I fear it. I fear that pushing Sparta out of the Alliance is the first step on a path to…’ he looked away. ‘To an unthinkable war.’
Archilogos locked eyes with Aristides. ‘Sparta wants us to pack our belongings and go to the west,’ he said. ‘Sparta wants us to give up our fledgling democracies and have oligarchies. Sparta wants to destroy Ionia and replace it with new colonies in Italy, close to Sparta and under her thumb. We decline the ‘honour.’ As we have fleets as great as Athens and far greater than the Peloponnese, we are as good an ally as Sparta; perhaps a better ally.’
Aristides nodded. ‘I understand the logic,’ he said bitterly. ‘I’m merely far-sighted enough to see where it goes. Long walls, Ionian empire, war with Sparta.’
Cimon finished his wine and slapped the cup down on the table so it made a sharp noise. ‘The alternative is Athens under the constant threat of Sparta, a weak Ionia, and a strong Persia,’ he said.
Aristides nodded slowly. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’ll go meet with Pausanias and attempt to contain the immediate damage, so to speak. But we will give up the prisoners and town to him. Because the alliance with Sparta says that we must, and we are honourable men.’
Cimon smiled his father’s smile, and said nothing.
An hour later, he rowed away with all the Lydian and Phrygian prisoners on his deck, leaving the Persian governor and his immediate family as a sop to Pausanias, and Aristides could do nothing but shrug.
# # #
Two very nervous weeks passed. The Peloponnesians moved into the town and we returned to our camp. Pausanias dismissed the Ionians and ordered them home.
A nasty incident then occurred. Pausanias, for whatever reason, decided to move his ship around from the camp where it was beached to the harbour of Byzantium, a distance of eight or nine stadia by sea. After he’d got off the beach, two ships appeared anc came up on other side of his trireme and began to crowd it, something only very expert captains would dare to do; their oars thrusting in among his oarsmen. His timoneer ordered his oarsmen to stop rowing and pull in their oars, and Pausanias himself came to the rail and began shouting at the two triremes ranged up on either side of him.
They were Ionians, of course; Uliades of Samos, a veteran of twenty sea fights and the whole of the Ionian Revolt, and Antagoras, Neoptolymos’ cousin from Chios.
Supposedly, Pausanias threatened them, saying that he would flatten their cities.
Supposedly, the Ionians answered that they’d had enough of his crap, and next time they wouldn’t be so gentle. Then they rowed away.
Aristides sent me to Pausanias to try and smooth this over. I have never thought of myself as a diplomat, but I agreed that whatever bumps we had, Pausanias and I generally respected each other.
I was wrong.
I stood before Pausanias where he sat on the satrapal throne with two winged lions in the palace of the former governor.
‘Why are you here, Plataean?’ Pausanias asked.
‘I’m here to speak for the Ionians,’ I said.
‘The Ionians are womanish fools who deserve what will come to them; the disestablishment of their cities. They will receive no more support from the Allies. I have spoken.’
I nodded. ‘But you are wrong, Pausanias, and you also lack the power to make good your threat.’
Sparthius, who stood in armour to the left of the throne, winced.
‘Pausanias,’ I said, ‘I know what orders you received from the ephors. I know how difficult this has been…’
‘Be gone,’ he said. ‘No one speaks so in my hall. You have always been an arrogant upstart from an upstart state of no account, Plataean, but to imagine that you can speak familiarly to the regent of Sparta…’
‘I’ve spoken so to the Great King himself,’ I said. ‘At the request of the Kings of Sparta, I might add. Your time here is short, Pausanias. Rule wisely, or be remembered as a man too young to maintain his reputation.’
‘Seize him,’ he ordered.
I was seized. And thrown into a stone cell.
# # #
Sparthius came to visit me on the first day, brining good wine and tough bread and some unremarkable cheese. We exercised together, and talked about the weather, and he left.
The second day wasn’t very different. He came to visit, brought good food, and we ran around the citadel together, struck shields with sticks, and lifted stones. The only thing I remember him saying, that day or the next, was, ‘I’ll bring you a bow.’
Bows, especially Scythian bows, being better for exercise than just lifting stones.
And so it went.
I didn’t need a soothsayer or the Oracle of Delphi to tell me that the presence of a Spartan officer visiting my cell was all the comment the man would ever make.
I was bored, though. I had lots of time to think about my life, about the Spartans and the Athenians, about the Alliance, about the Persians. About my wife, my sons, and women. About cause, and consequence. Don’t imagine I was not worried by the absence of my sons. I accepted the risks of war, but I wished them turned away. I’m human, like that.
I thought about war, and death, and the effect of the population of Helots on the best, or what might have been the best, men in Greece.
After perhaps a week; I cannot be sure, but I remember a feast of Artemis in there somewhere; anyway, after a few more days, there were three Spartans visiting me. They all came together, and Sparthius introduced them; Labotas and Charylaus. Both were young; too young to have died at Thermopylae. Labotas had been at Plataea, and Charylaus was so young that this was his first military expedition.
Both of them were very angry, under their Laconic facade. They were angry at being robbed of glory by Pausanias, who had held them back from every action, every battle. It didn’t take me three exercise sessions to see how angry they were.
I held my tongue.
I was two full weeks into my captivity when Sparthius came in beaming with goodwill.
‘I am to tell you that your sons are in the camp,’ he said.
We did our exercises with joy.
‘How many sons?’ I asked.
‘Two,’ he said. ‘Or three. I really am not sure. Aristides sent a note and said you’d want to know.’
‘I’d like to know if I have all three back,’ I said.
‘Three sons,’ Sparthius said. ‘What joy!’
‘And a daughter,’ I said. ‘I have a lovely daughter.’ And then I smiled. “My wife is very pregnant,’ I said. ‘Perhaps I’ll have another.’
Sparthius smiled. ‘Ah, daughters,’ he said.
The next day, he told me that all three were in camp.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Labotas admitted that the Athenians were demanding my release every day, and that Pausanias almost never left his rooms in the palace, and the Spartiates, the officers of the Peloponnesians, were feeling humiliated by his actions.
I didn’t know what to make of that. Pausanias was behaving badly, and that worried me; and the longer I sat in that prison cell, the more likely it seemed to me that he’d have me killed. In retrospect, I see that as an irrational fear, but you sit in captivity for a few weeks watching the ships come and go out your tiny window and tell me that you don’t begin to fear for you life.
And the ships were leaving. The Ionians were already gone, back to protect their own cities and their shipping, but now I could see that the Athenians were leaving as well. It was late in Metageitnion, as the Athenians reckon it, past the feast of the Heroines, and while the sailing season had months left in it, autumn was knocking at our door. Farmers would be thinking of the wheat and barley crops at home; merchants would want to get at least one voyage in before winter. War is not just expensive to states, it is disruptive to citizens.
I wondered if Aristides would really just sail away and leave me.
And then Sparthius came without his two young friends.
‘It is very bad,’ he said.
I couldn’t imagine how bad it actually might be. ‘What is bad?’ I asked.
He looked away. We didn’t exercise, and he left hurriedly, and I began to fear that all my fears were justified.
The next day, I was taken by guards to a room prepared for me to bathe. This happened from time to time, but on that day, I contemplated making a run for it. I confess that it seemed unlikely that I could take two armed Spartiates with my bare hands, but I was beginning to imagine that I might be quietly stabbed or choked in my cell…
I didn’t. I’m just trying to give you an idea of what was passing in my mind. So the next day, when Sparthius came, I finally gave voice to my fears.
‘I am afraid that I am to be killed,’ I said.
Sparthius looked at me a moment. ‘No one here would kill you,’ he said, choosing his words deliberately.
The guard on the door nodded silently.
Mutinous Spartans? Was that even possible?
‘It is very bad,’ Sparthius said.
And more time passed.
And then one day, when it was cool enough that I wanted a thicker cloak under which I could sleep, because nights were longer and cooler, Sparthius came to my door in his panoply.
‘Go free,’ he said.
I was taken to the baths, washed, massaged, and shaved.
I as given a fine chiton. I hate to think where it had come from. And a chlamys with a pin of silver, and my sword and staff were returned to me.
And I was escorted to the palace hall.
Pausanias was nowhere to be seen. The throne was empty.
Instead, an old man sat at the foot of the throne, alone. He had no guards, no suporters, no Spartiates. Not even a slave.
‘Arimnestos of Plataea,’ he said. ‘I am Zeuxidamus son of Anaxilas.’
I nodded. ‘You are an Ephor,’ I said. ‘Of the Lacedaemonians.’
He nodded back. ‘Correct,’ he said. ‘I have ordered you released. But I wanted you to know that of all the acts of Pausanias, you arrest is one of which I approve whole heartedly. He struck at you blindly, perhaps, but you are our foe, and we know it. You and your wife are enemies of Sparta.’
‘No,’ I said. I think it’ is Spartans who bring out the Laconic answers in me.
‘You deny it, but you act against us at every turn.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘May I go now?’
‘You would do well to restrain your wife,’ he said.
‘I have definitely heard that before,’ I said.
‘Let me tell you,’ he began in that tone that patronizing old men get when they know all the answers and you are required to listen to them.
I turned and began to walk out.
‘Arimnestos!’ he said. ‘I can have you put back in your cell.’
‘No,’ I said, and continued out the door. I picked up my staff and walked out of the palace, saluted Sparthius and his two young friends, of whom you’ll hear again, and started for the gate.
Sparthius put a hand on my shoulder. ‘I’ll walk with you,’ he said.
# # #
Aristides was there, and Herakleitus, and Hektor, and Hipponax, and my ‘Raven’ was one of only fifteen ships still resting on the sands the whole camp stank of urine and feces; men can only camp in one place for so long. The bake ovens were cold; the little temple had been pulled down.
I hugged Hektor and Hipponax, and then, after a brief and embarrassing pause, I forced Herakleitus to accept an embrace as well.
Hektor flushed a deep red. ‘We rescued him,’ he said, ‘but…’
Hipponax was blonder, which made his flush redder. ‘But Briseis had already paid his ransom.’
Herakleitus just stared out to sea. But in the end, he smiled.
‘I… I am glad they rescued me,’ he said.
Well, so was I, but that little adventure is for another time; a whole night’s story by itself.
After the boys had gone to their ships, I sat with Aristides.
‘I’m sorry,’ Aristides said.
I sat looking out over the Golden Horn for a long time. ‘I’m sorry too,’ I said. But I wasn’t really sorry. ‘I’m sorry for Sparta.’
Aristides nodded. ‘Briseis sent me an invitation to your dinner in Plataea,’ he said, as if that was the most important thing to happen just then. ‘Pausanias has been recalled.’
‘So I guessed.’
‘He murdered a girl,’ Aristides said. ‘A terrible business. A local girl he’d taken as a bed-warmer.’
‘You mean, after we prevented our troops from raping…’
‘Don’t imagine that thought hasn’t made the rounds of our camp-fires. Anyway, he thought she was an assassin coming into his bed, and he put his sword through her. And in the morning, one of his Spartans said, ‘First blood to the Strategos.’
I nodded. Black Spartan humour. Meaning that the Spartans had gone the whole summer without bloodying their swords, and their leader had killed a girl in his bed. Spartans are very well-versed in summing up complex thoughts in simple sentences.
‘So,’ I said. ‘We’re done here?’
‘Yes,’ Aristides said.
# # #
I was home in Plataea before the second harvest was in. Those of you who were present for my daughter’s wedding have heard all this before; how it was Plataea’s golden summer; how my second daughter was born, and my house was built, and I managed ot preside over a few ceremonies as Archon.
And as I said that night, I gave thanks to the gods every day, and I prayed, made my sacrifices, changed my daughter’s diapers, and in general, was the happiest I had ever been. And perhaps will ever be. That autumn will always be golden; the smell of fresh-baked bread, the jasmine and mint of Briseis’ head by me on the pillow; my spear only a decoration at last; the heady smell of new wine and new babies, and the glorious carpet of the land of Boeotia alive with new growth.
But in my head, I was in Thrake, imagining a colony. And in as much as I was a political man, with a political wife, we plotted a new alliance for Ionia even as she recovered fromt he birth.
I sent my invitations over the mountains. We laid Persian rugs from the tents of Xerxes, Mardonius, and Artibazos on our floors against the cold. I spent my loot, and I was not ashamed to receive my share of Cimon’s take; he hadn’t sold the Lydians and Phoenicians as slaves, but ransomed them back to their families, and he divided the money fairly, and promised that he’d bring it to our dinner.
And a new year came into the world; the fourth year of the Seventy fifth Olympiad, at least by Boeotian calendars. As the snow melted, it was difficult to even find the scars of war; already Plataea was built anew. A small, but rich city, nestled at the foot of Kithaeron. We held a muster of our spears, and we had almost two thousand hoplites, because we had freed virtually every slave and replaced them with our Persians and Medes and Cilicians and Thracians.
War. Some men made kings, and others slaves.
We celebrated the Amphesterion and feast of my ancestor Herakles. There were thirty men and women in my house, and we were nymphs and satyrs, and the laughter drove out the darkness, as it should.
And the date of my dinner drew closer.
When the first flowers blossomed, I took a handful of my friends and rode over the mountains to Attika, and fetched Leukas and my father-in-law, and Aristides and Jocasta, Phrynicus and his wife, and Aeschylus and Archilogos and his new bride Anthea, and Briseis two sons, as well as Cimon and his insipid Thracian wife, and young Perikles, and Herakeitus, who’d spent most of the winter with Cimon, and we rode like a procession of kings back to Boeotia, and there was Lykon from Corinth, waiting for us on the road with a veiled lady and Sparthius, from far off Sparta, and Megakles and Doola from farther still, and Gaius, who wept when we embraced.
And from Ionia came Archilogos, and Neoptolymos, and Dionysus of Mytilene with greetings from his father and further words about Thrasybulus of Samos, with whom we were not yet finished. But that is also another story.
And there were plenty of guests from Plataea itself; Styges, of course, and Leander, and Alexanor and their wives, and many new friends from both sides of Kitheron; Damon and Nestor, Ole Llurin and Rigura and Mera and Kassandros and Zephyrides and Arius and Diodoros and Phillipos, still bouncing up and down, and Sebastos. But there was no shortage of hands to lay tables or set them, either.
I’ve told you all this before. But I repeat myself, as old men do, because really, of all my battles and wars, this was the high point of my life.
And as we rode down the pass into Boeotia, we gathered friends like the triumphal procession that in fact we were; Penelope from her farm, and Styges, as I said, from his forge and Tiraeus and Sekla and Alexandros and his wife, Gelon and Hipponax and Heliodora and Hector and Iris, Ka and Sitalkes and Polymarchos and Moire and Giannis, who had his own ships now, and we went to the new Temple of Hera, where the statue of Mater Hera was my mother almost to the life, sober, one hopes. And there stood Brasidas to receive his bride, and Niome to receive her groom, and Leukas and Brasidas were married, side by side, in fulfillment of promises made.
And that night, in the courtyard of our house, we lay on every kline from every house in Plataea. And wine flowed like the blood of heroes; we ate a whole tuna that took eight men to carry, and enough bread to have fed our phalanx at Plataea.
And the sober Spartan lady was Gorgo, and she lay between Jocasta and Briseis while they plotted the end of the dominion of the ephors, and Brasidas and Sparthius both looked shocked and went outside; and shrieked with laughter, and played with you, dear thugater.
I will leave them all there. In victory. In happiness. A little drunk, and beautiful; Brasidas with his crown of ivy askew; my sister gazing into his eyes; when he made the libation to begin the dinner, Brasidas mentioned that Antigonus lay with Leonidas.
Yes. I told it all to you before.
But what I didn’t say was why we’d all come together; why Aristides and Cimon had come from Athens in the midst of a political crisis, and Gorgo, the very Queen of Sparta and the leader of her Pan-Hellenic faction, from Lacedaemon. I told the story as if we were gathering to have a party.
But what we gathered to do was create the League. Nowadays we call it the Delian League, but it was made at Plataea, by Aristides and Cimon and Archilogos, according to the historians. But what I remember is a roomful of women, their spindles rising and falling like children’s toys and they made wool thread, Gorgo as precise as Jocasta. And as the drop spindles turned, they talked about the world, and in my memory they settled as many things as Archilogos and Cimon.
And when they were done, Cimon rose, and we toasted the alliance, and the war with Persia. And Briseis and I announced that we would found a colony in Thrake.
And Doola and Sigura discussed a voyage to Africa.
Leave us there, in the hour of bliss.
But no story is ever over, and if you come hunting again with me when the stags rut, why, perhaps I’ll tell you what happened in the fourth year of the seventy fifth Olympiad, when Cimon took the war to Persia, and we launched our colony, and began to build our ships for the Red Sea.
Here ends ‘The Flight of the Raven’
which is part one of the ‘Pentekontaetia’ series, continuing the ‘Long War.’