Spartan Helmet





















Spartan helmet left


Singing in sparta title


        Turning away from the direction of the royal palace and the acropolis, he started deeper into the town.  Instead of the nubile maidens, however, he encountered his first gaggle of shaved and near-naked boys of the agoge.  They came running down the street at him, and he tripped and nearly fell as he tried to get out of their way.  The boys, who he judged to be somewhere between 10 and 12, squealed in laughter at his ineptitude.  "What's the matter, old fart?  Can't you see where you're going?" one of the boys mocked.

        "Maybe you should shave off the rest of your hair to clear your eyes!" Another suggested.

        "No! Look!" Another corrected. "His right leg's shorter than his left!"

        "Is that a war-wound?"  For the first time there was a trace of respect, but when Tyrtaios shook his head, the respect vanished.

        "Naw!  Look at him!  He's just a cripple!"  Suddenly they were closing in like a pack of wild dogs.  "Come on! Let us see your leg!"

        Tyrtaios tried to back away, shaking his head, but there were seven of them and they had him hedged in.  His backward step hit the side of something solid and he could feel the wall behind him.  He tried to retreat in another direction, but they had him surrounded.  He sidled along the face of the house, hoping the wall would give way to an alley into which he could flee. Abruptly he slipped on something.  They were upon him at once.  He pleaded with them, "Please, leave me alone.  I'm just an old cripple-"

        "We know that.  We want to see your leg.  Come on!"  The boy, who appeared to be the ring-leader, grabbed roughly at his chiton while two other boys grasped Tyrtaios and held him still.

        "WOW! Look at that!"  They exposed his leg.

        At the same instant there was a crack and then another and before Tyrtaios realised what had happened, the boys were flung apart roughly.  Two men in leather training armour were dealing blows to the boys that made Tyrtaios wince just watching.  They back-handed and punched one boy after another, with hard unsparing blows.  Only after they were finished did one of the men reach down and offer Tyrtaios a hand.  "Are you alright, my lord?"

        Tyrtaios, more dazed than ever, tried to assure his rescuers that no harm had been done, but - as usual - no one really listened to him.  "Your chiton's filthy, my lord.  Are you sure you aren't hurt?  Let me take you back to the palace.  You can be assured these boys will be flogged."

The boys meanwhile had lined up and were standing with bleeding noses, burst lips and scraped knees at rough attention, while the second of the two citizens prowled up and down the line pouring abuse at them.  Never had Sparta been so disgraced by the behaviour of her boys.  Their fathers would disown them, their sisters deny them and their mothers would wish they had been killed at birth.


        "And you lot all go to the pits this afternoon!"  His companion told the boys in a rougher tone.  "Every one of you!"

        Whatever "the pits" were, the boys swallowed and squirmed and darted unhappy looks at one another.

        The elder of the two citizens was again at Tyrtaios' side.  "Let me see you back to the royal palace, my lord.  I will have to report this to the Paidonomos, the Head Master, in any case."

        Behind them the other citizen was enlightening the already chastised boys on the magnitude of their misdemeanour.  "That so-called cripple that you shoved into the gutter, you stupid shit-heads, is Apollo's own representative and Supreme Polemarch of this City."

        Tyrtaios wished he could have turned around and seen their faces.  The silence behind him seemed laden with horror - not just at what they'd done, but at what a horrid joke Apollo (and Athens) had played upon their City.


        "Lycurgus knew he had won men's minds, but not their hearts.  That, he said, was my mission."  Terpander smiled, his eyes blind to the balding man opposite him as they focused on memories of his own days of glory.

        "To win Spartan hearts?"  Tyrtaios asked, unable to keep the scepticism out of his voice.

        Terpander laughed and brought his attention back to the present.  "You think that is a difficult task?"

        "To be honest, I haven't seen any evidence that they have hearts.  They are so polite, so disciplined, so restrained and distant.  They even turn their own children out at the age of seven, making them run about in wild packs!  And when they behave like normal boys, they beat them unconscious - or at least bloody!" Tyrtaios felt guilty for insulting his hosts, but Terpander wasn't one of them.  He came from Lesbos, an island renowned for its love of music and love of love itself - and he was still shaken by what he had witnessed this afternoon.

        "Oh that.  I heard there was some incident.  Some of the younger boys insulted you?"

        "They were just being normal.  Seeing a cripple, hobbling about, they ringed me in and taunted me.  I suppose I'm even more of an oddity here than in Attica, since the Spartiates kill all their own cripples."

        "Ah."  Terpander held his hands with the finger tips touching as he considered Tyrtaios.  "You don't think the boys should have been punished?"

        "Not like that!  There was one of them - a delicate little boy who was only tagging along - and they beat him until he wept and wet himself!"

        Terpander raised his eyebrows.  "That is very bad for him.  He will be an outcast - if he doesn't do something very soon and very impressive to regain the respect of his peers and the Peers."

        "But it's barbaric!"  Tyrtaios insisted, his outrage at the floggings returning with renewed intensity.  "Those boys are just children!  Why should they stand and take a beating on their naked backs until they break down?"

        "To teach them to endure hardship and pain, so they will be better soldiers?"

        "At 11?"

        "From the time they are born."

        "That's madness."

        "Not if you have spent the better part of the last 25 Olympiads at war."


        The light of the hearth spilled out onto the terrace from behind her and lit up the figure of his mother in silhouette.  She was bent over double and supported herself on a cane.  The sight of her filled Agesandros with rage.  His mother was barely 50 years old, no older than many of the Spartiate matrons and widows he saw daily on the running circuit or teaching the maidens of the agoge the use of javelin or bow.  But his mother hadn't had the benefit of Lycurgus' laws on nutrition, exercise and late marriage.  She had been born of disenfranchised parents and raised in poverty.  More damaging still, she had married at 14, suffered two miscarriages and been brought to childbed 6 times.  Only 3 of her children had survived the first weeks of infancy, and one of them had been murdered by her husband at eight months.  Thus only two of her children had survived into adulthood.  And even that had almost been too many for her.  To feed those two surviving children, she had been forced to do almost anything to earn the money her husband didn't - or wasted on wine.

        Seeing her bent double over her cane, Agesandros was reminded of the many times he'd seen her laden with river reeds strapped to her back.  She had carried these bent double for 15 or 20 miles up to the villages in the mountains where she could sell them for a scrawny hare or for goat's cheese and milk.  When they were very little, she had not risked going too often, because she had to be gone for two to three days at a time on these trips.  Only after his sister Eudora got to be about eight or nine, and so old enough to look after Agesandros, did she start making the trip once a week.  The older her children got, the further she travelled in her search for decent food, a thrown-off blanket, or a pair of discarded shoes for her growing children.

        It was a wonder he had grown as tall and strong as he had, Agesandros realised with a pang of guilt for visiting so seldom.  But this house always depressed him, and he had little in common with his mother except his hated past.  She was an illiterate, completely uneducated woman whose whole life had consisted of struggling to survive and help her children survive.  Only in the last nine years since her husband's death had she started to have a little "life" of her own.  Yet this consisted mainly of "providing for" her five grandchildren, Eudora's children.  This was another difficult subject for Agesandros.  Because of his father's domestic brutality, Eudora had fled into an early marriage.  Before her father had been enfranchised, she had married a helot by the name of Kolotes.  In consequence, she had not benefited from the Reforms - at least not in terms of her status.  She and her children were all legally helots.


        When he said no more, Eudora began to sense that something was wrong.  "Has something happened?  Something terrible?"

        Again he shrugged, "not as far as the City is concerned."

        "What is it then?"

        "They've taken it all away from me!"  His tone was so bitter it stung the inside of his mouth.

        "What?  What have they taken away?"

        "My command, my rank, even my freedom.  I'm under arrest."


        "For taking Phigalia."

        "But the City went wild with triumph!  The boys ran through the streets hooting and chanting victory songs.  The Elders made huge sacrifices to Athena, and -"

        Agesandros waved her silent, scowling furiously.  "That was yesterday!  Today I am in disgrace.  We have been ordered to restore Phigalia to its citizens by the Oracle at Delphi - and we will.  I -" Agesandros cut himself off, but with his fist he was pounding the earth beside him.

        "Oh, Aggie!  I'm so sorry."  Eudora leaned her head against his shoulder.  Just like when he was a little boy, she knew he was hurting, and the only way he knew to express pain was to hit at something.  He was, after all, still her little brother, despite all his scarlet and bronze and his good Doric.  They sat like that for a moment, and then Agesandros pulled away, shaking off the comfort, trying to repress the self-pity.  "Tell me your news."

        "You heard about the raids?  A bunch of kleros on the foot of Taygetos got sacked and burned this spring."

        Agesandros only nodded stiffly.  He'd heard.  The Army in Messenia had been shocked that Aristomenes had dared strike inside Laconia - behind their backs, so to speak.  They had at once renewed efforts to try to lure Aristomenes back into Messenia, out of Laconia.  That was when he'd led his battalion into the trap....

        "We could see the fires from here for several nights-"  She was interrupted by the appearance of her eldest son, Timon.  He had not been swimming, but came up behind them.  At the sight of his uncle, his eyes narrowed and his lips twisted.  Eudora turned to him smiling, "you remember your Uncle Agesandros, Timon."

        "Should I?"  The sixteen-year-old asked sullenly.  "I ain't hardly never seen him - certainly not 'round here!"

        "Timon!" Dora cried out in embarrassment.  "Mind your tongue!  Now welcome your uncle like a good boy."

        "Why the f*** should I?  I don't want him around here!  It's bad enough to have to grovel to that old fart Ainetos.  I don't want another Spartiate trying to lord it over me in my own home!"

        "Don't talk like that!  Agesandros is your uncle come to visit," Eudora argued.

        "Visit?  I wonder why?  He didn't give f*** about us before!  He wishes we weren't never born!"


        His mother turned her attention back to Agesandros, "Now are you going to explain yourself, young man?"  Her tone was sharply reprimanding, majestic and absolutely cool.  Behind her, her son's mouth dropped.

        "I have three seriously wounded men, and a storm is about to break.  I thought to provide them with shelter here--"

        "It is customary to request the permission of the landlord and not just barge in on people in the middle of the night."

        "Ma'am, I've said once already that we assumed this kleros was abandoned - like the others that were attacked in the spring.  There was no light visible from outside, and the ruins of the mill indicated that there would be no one here."

        The barking of the dogs was getting wilder and louder.  As if they were now just outside the door.

        "Well, you were very much mistaken, but since you have wounded --"

        "Look what I found, sir!"  One of Agesandros' men, Episthenes, came in by the far door, shoving a terrified Leon in front of him with a knife held at the slave's throat.  Two furious dogs flanked him barking but apparently did not dare attack.  "It's that bath slave, who ran away last spring.  Shall I kill him--?"


        The command was so imperative, so uncompromising, and so furious, that Episthenes sprang back, releasing his prisoner instantly.  Leon dropped to the floor like a sack of grain.  Episthenes next looked with confused eyes at his commander, who had a sour expression on his face, and then raised his eyebrows at the lady, who had given that imperative command.  He pointed contemptuously at Leon, still collapsed on the floor, unable to get his legs under him from sheer terror.  "That is a runaway slave!"

        "He is not!  He came here with my son and he has been helping me ever since.  I've only got four men on this kleros, and three of them were wounded in the raid, and one of them is 60 years old and I have a fifteen-year-old daughter.  And I don't need anyone barging in here and trying to kill one of the only healthy, young helots I do have!  Do you understand?!  Now, get your wounded men in here.  I'll make up beds for them and do everything I can to help them, but keep your hands and knives away from my helots!"

        "Yes, ma'am!"  Both soldiers withdrew at once.

        Behind him Agesandros heard the youth exclaim, "By all the Gods, Mom!  Don't you realise who that is?!"  There was no mistaking the awe in his voice, and for a moment it did Agesandros good.

        In the next instant came the withering retort, "No, the young man was too rude to introduce himself."

        Agesandros felt like a school-boy again, and it was only a small comfort that the woman's son insisted, evidently still awe-struck, "But, Mom, that's Agesandros!  The Captor of Phigalia!"

        Apparently the youths of the agoge still remembered his short moment of glory, he told himself, but the tone of absolute hero-worship failed to impress his mother.  She answered regally, "That may well be, but it does not give him the right to come in here without asking permission first.  Now would you get the dogs back into the kennels!"


        A shout went up, and Alethea rushed back out into the courtyard.  One of Agesandros' men, who had gone into the city during the night, was standing there.  He had evidently seen some fighting.  There was blood on his shield and arm, but not in the same way as the men who had brought Euryanax's body.  And yet his face was grey and he stared at her.  "Ma'am."

        "What happened?  Where did they strike?"

        "Ma'am.  They - "  One of the helots brought him water, which he gulped down gratefully, but it did not restore him.  When he had stilled his thirst, he faced her again.  "The agoge, ma'am.  They struck the agoge."

         "What?  But how?  In the centre of the city-- Were there casualties?"  It was a stupid question.  One look at the man was enough.  Alethea felt her stomach start to twist up.  "The children?"

        The man nodded.

        "My sons--"

        "I don't know, ma'am.  It was impossible to look for individuals.  We - we're just starting to collect the dead.  The Messenians, they must have crept silently into the city after curfew and struck all across the city.  Like foxes in a chicken-coop, ma'am.  They - they got into the agoge barracks and many of the children never knew what happened.  The Messenians slit their throats in the dark while they slept.  Before the alarm even sounded, whole classes had been slaughtered in their beds.  Some of the children fled into the corners or tried to climb out the windows.  We found heaps of little corpses like piles of discarded dolls."  The man was in shock.  Alethea could see that now.  He kept talking with his eyes staring at nothing.  "Many of the boys still had their little training swords - wooden swords and straw shields - in their hands!  One little boy had made it to the window-sill and they gored him there with a flung spear - pinioning him in place with his lifeless limbs hanging down on the wall."

        Alethea closed her eyes and turned away - but only to fetch her himation and sandals.  When she came out again, Sybil and Kassia were at her heels.


        The decision had taken so long, Leobotas told him confidentially, because the Kings had been deadlocked.  They had had to seek the opinion of the Supreme Polemarch himself.  Tyrtaios had backed Agesandros.

        "Tyrtaios?  He must want me dead."

        "Why do you say that?"

        "Why else would he back me?"

        "Maybe because he thought it was a good idea and that you had a chance of success?"  Leobotas suggested patiently.

        "Tyrtaios wouldn't know what military success looked like, if it leapt up and bit him!  He's on Athens' side anyway, and that means on Aristomenes' side.  If he approves of me going through the caves, it's probably a trap.  Can we be sure he hasn't sent word--"


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