Fire from the East.

English: Marble statue of a helmed hoplite (5t...
Marble statue of a helmed hoplite (5th century BC), Sparta, Archæological Museum of Sparta, Greece.

My name is Philippedes, I am the greatest Olympian in Athens and I have run 250 miles in four days.

My task was simple; I was to go to Sparta and beg for their aid. We, the citizens of Athens, would have made concessions; we would have offered tribute to their kings and priests, hewn our alliance in stone and forever joined together the sons of Hercules and the demokratia in exchange for the arms of the most formidable army in Greece… but they will not come.

I had run for two days, I had run through the cities of Eleusis and Megara, across the Isthmus and through Corinth, Mycenae, Argos, Tegea and Caryae. I had run past hidden shrines, through farmland teeming with singing slaves tilling the soil, through groves sacred to Apollo and Artemis, in my exhaustion I had seen galloping figures glimpsed through the trees as a herd of centaurs passed by just out of my sight and always, always, thought of the inferno gathering in the East. When finally I crested the hill and caught sight of the unwalled city beneath the tomb of Helen my heart skipped a beat, their field tents were up! I had assumed that they were readying themselves for war, that they were to march to our aid and help us in our time of most desperate need. And I couldn’t have been more wrong.

So it was that I found myself entering Sparta with a burst of hope which must have appeared as cocksure superiority. As far as I knew it was a done deal, perhaps Athena had shimmered across the night sky and arrived before me, perhaps she had asked for protection for her chosen city? Perhaps some omen had told them to prepare for imminent war? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps… It is Leonidas’ face that I shall not forget, ashen as it was, when I was granted an audience with their kings. Leotychides is a strutting fool, may Hercules forgive me for saying so, he values the judgement of the Ephors, their priests, far too much and cannot look to the future. But Leonidas, his partner king, understood. So did many of the Ephors, for that matter, they understood that they were rolling the stone over the tomb of Athens when they refused to help.

The Carneia, their most holy festival, was at its peak and they were feasting in their tents. It was a time of peace, even the Helots, the tribe of Greek slaves who served the Spartans, were safe from the casual murder games young Spartan men would play. They would not break that tradition, the Ephors would not sanction marching to war, the kings and their men would not set off for days, if at all.

I begged them then, I gathered all the rhetoric I could, I tried to take inspiration from the most eloquent speakers I had heard at the Agora, where the men of Athens gather to vote and any citizen may speak:

“Kings!” I said, “the Athenians beg for your assistance, they beg you not to stand by idly while the most venerable city in the whole of Greece is crushed, they beg you not to let it be enslaved by gibberish-speaking invaders. The king of the east has stretched out his hand and pointed to Athens, his black ships have landed at Marathon and vomited hordes of barbarians onto Greek sands, he intends to lay waste to us, to sack the city, to castrate our sons and to tear down the temple of Zeus; we beg you, help us.”

The raging argument which followed is one of the most fearsome I have witnessed. They are the descended from Hercules, the men of Sparta are giants, every one, the small and the weak do not survive their savage passage to manhood and the Ephors are no different. Leonidas urged an immediate march, to gather their hoplon shields and iron spears and set off for Athens at once, Leotychides argued for honouring the Carneia as they always had and the assembled Ephors erupted into infuriated debate. Finally, once the dust had settled and order was restored it was decided; Sparta would not march until the Carneia was over. The army of Persia was a hair’s breadth from my home and they would not come for ten full days.

We are alone.

As I began my journey home I found myself trying not to think of the manifold horrors the king of the east sought to unleash on my city. I thought of our history; I considered the violent feuding which ruled us before we had hurled out the tyrants and adopted demokratia, I thought about the exiled Alcmaeonids and the blessing it was for them to be outside the ire of the barbarians, I thought about Achilles, speaking to Odysseus in Hades and revealing the desolate misery of death. I thought about Troy, its vast walls built with the aid of Apollo himself and how an army had still taken it. It had taken ten years and the deaths of demigods before the city fell but still it had fallen. The walls of Athens are not the walls of Troy, they are mortal creations, could the city hold out for long enough? Are there traitors in my home, bought with coins bearing the image of Darius the Great, the king of kings? Shall we surrender and throw ourselves on their mercy?

The terror of annihilation drove me on as I ran. I ran through the agony of my blisters, I chanted prayers to Hermes to grant me the strength to carry on, I thought of nothing but haste and the route ahead, I leaped over shrubs and dung, through farmland, through cities, along well trod paths made by centuries of travel, I ran until I could run no more and, near collapse, I found shelter and slept, and dreamed of violence.

So it was that I awakened this morning, the rays of the sun shining through the leaves of an olive tree, dancing in the sea breeze. I felt tears in my eyes and, unbidden, the hopelessness of it all seemed to overwhelm me. I curled up into a ball and surrendered to heaving, nauseating, miserable weeping. Images of my life flashed in my mind, how much I would lose; my wife, as dutiful as she was modest, adding the water to my wine and adjusting her veil in the firelight. The cheering crowds hailing me, a hero, as I crossed the finishing line, triumphant and naked ahead of my competitors. The holy rock of the Acropolis and the primal olive tree gifted to us by Athena when the city was young, and the divine serpent under it living off the honey and cakes fed to it by the priestesses. I stumbled to my feet with the cold certainty that today I must reach home, I must urge capitulation, surrender, and humiliation. I have never felt such agony as my aching joints this morning, the pain of the first half hour of running was indescribable; first the Spartans, now my body is failing me. I began to run again, forcing the pain behind me and finding my stride, distracting myself with ordering my day.

First I would have to find Callimachus, he has been elected as war archon and is in charge of all our warriors. His is the task of strategy, he will be the one to oversee the terms of surrender. There again it may be best to find the other generals first, there are ten of them and securing their votes for surrender first may be advisable. Only two will stand against me come what may; Miltiades is a hero and the most famous fighter of eastern barbarians in all of Greece, his reputation would be destroyed by siding with me. Then there is Themistocles… I am terrified of Themistocles. He is touched by Poseidon and the fates, the gods have some purpose for him and his obsession with the sea is absolute. One day the earth will shake at his passing. Perhaps Callimachus first.

It was too much. I could not run any longer, every step I took was shaking my body and compounding the hunger growing in my belly. Heat, exhaustion and distress… no man could stand this for so long. I had to stop.

I found a stream running across the path near a copse of trees. Small offerings of food rotted gently in the heat, their decay sending a sickly sweet aroma into the balmy air. I sat down, my legs buckling beneath me, and reached a leathery, sun-cooked hand into the cooling water. A calm was coming over me, like the moments before sleep, and I listened to the rustling leaves in the gentle breeze with that sense of contentment which comes with accepting the inevitable. When the breeze calmed and the trees ceased their murmuring I felt I could live here, I could stay away from Athens and the coming horror, abandon my city… my city…

It was then, at that moment, when I felt the oncoming decent into whimpering grief, that the tide turned. A voice like a footfall on a forest floor in perfect harmony with birdsong calling my name.

“Philippedes.”

I jumped to my feet, all thoughts of my pain vanishing in my excitement. I had feared banditry, for a moment, but how could they know my name? And what sort of man carried a voice like that?

“Philippedes,” it called again, “calm yourself. Sit. Drink of my stream.”

The trees parted, and forest creatures, bereft of their usual cowardice, ran openly before the goat-legged, goat-horned man who stood before me. The sun dimmed as the trees bowed before him, offering shade as they bent to their lord. I was too exhausted to even feel the terror which should have paralysed me in the presence of a god, especially the capricious, mischievous, dangerous god of the forest.

“P… Pa…” was all I could wheeze as I collapsed, unable to support myself.

His hooves carried him with terrible grace toward me and he caught me before I hit the ground. I could smell the sweetness on his breath, the scent of ambrosia, and see the sunlight glinting from his horns as he spoke to me; “Shush, mortal, don’t trouble yourself to speak. You fear for your city, you fear for your friends and your loved ones, you fear the barbarians at your threshold. You wish to urge them to surrender, to become subjects of the Great King? Do not.”

  He paused and stared into the sun, the primal scent of his sweat filled my senses.

“My brothers and sisters are united for the first time in an age, and I have nothing but fondness for Athens and its people. Tomorrow shall be the day, a day of glory and legend, a day of iron and bronze and blood. I can guarantee nothing, but I shall aid you. The gods of this land are on your side, the gods of the barbarians are far from here. You are weary, I shall eat your weariness.”

And with that he was gone, and my weariness with him. I had only a short way left to go before Athens and, after that, the army. I can see them now, all the citizens of my city, ten thousand hoplite warriors ready to stand before the might of the king of the east. His domain is so rich, so enormous, so packed with teeming hordes of barbarians that a subjugated Athens would mean nothing to him. He has sent a tiny fraction of his armies and means to crush us from afar, waving a hand in our direction and, in his arrogance, assuming his will be done. I do not know how what will happen, I do not know whether Athens will be a blasted ruin confined to history and demokratia forever scorned as the hubristic dream of forgotten madmen, I can see the rising pillars of smoke from the multitude facing us across the plains and know that we are massively outnumbered and no help is coming. But I shall urge battle, not surrender, because now there is hope.

With thanks to Tom Holland and his book ‘Persian Fire,’ all references from there (with the exception of one, and thanking Homer seems pretentious).  Ancient Athens, for all its faults (and they were legion; extreme xenophobia, a misogynistic streak a mile wide and a long tradition of slavery were some of the worst) was probably the first government we might recognise as being in any way democratic, a stark contrast to the invading army of the absolute monarchy of Persia. The day after Philippedes returned the battle of Marathon took place and the Athenian army, hugely outnumbered, triumphed. Philippedes was  a real historical figure, and his staggering feat of endurance in running from Athens to Sparta and back in four days is, astonishingly, true.  He did claim to have met with Pan, in an evidently unusually charitable mood, on his way home though this was probably the result of heat-stroke and exhaustion. Probably.

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