Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer -- Chapter 1, Scene 3

King Cleomenes was happy that Demaratus had accepted the invitation to dine with the Corinthian polemarch. As a result, he was the only king present in the royal mess. This gave him undivided precedence in everything, and enabled him to dictate what wine was poured and in what proportion it was mixed with water, to choose what songs (if any) were sung, and to dominate the conversation.

Cleomenes was thirty-three. Like his co-monarch, he was not a handsome man, though it was harder to say why. Cleomenes was tall, with no obvious blemish, and yet neither his features nor his limbs seemed to fit together gracefully. His forehead was too high, his chin too short, his shoulders too narrow, and his arms too long. He had huge knees over weak calves. But the worst of his features was the way his eyes wandered, never settling on anything for long and rarely looking another man in the eye—as if he wanted to avoid the disapproval, shock, or anger he so often saw reflected back at him in the faces of others.

Tonight was no exception. He either did not notice, or did not care, that the faces of the men around him were grim or disapproving as he drank more and more. Before too long the others had ceased drinking altogether, and shortly thereafter the five regimental commanders, the lochagoi, excused themselves one after the other.

This left only two priests. Yet even as Cleomenes addressed Asteropus, the younger of the two priests, Cleomenes did not actually look at him. Instead he gazed at the tent wall over his head. “So what’s this I hear about the Corinthians having an omen foretelling Corinthian triumph?”

Asteropus had a long, acne-scarred face, and he stroked his short beard as he considered his king. Truth to tell, he did not like Cleomenes. He thought the king impious, arrogant, and excessively temperamental—although there was no doubt about his raw intelligence or his high level of education. Cleomenes could cut through superfluous discourse like a knife through butter, and he hated illogical argument. Asteropus had learned to admire that, because he was an ambitious young man and Cleomenes had offered him a rare opportunity—to be the Agiad representative to Delphi.

Asteropus had snatched at the opportunity not only because it was a fascinating job, but because he had not had many successes in his short life. He had been one of those boys and youths who, no matter how hard he tried, inevitably lost at contests of strength and speed and dexterity. He was short-sighted and had spent most of his years in the agoge slogging miserably behind the leaders. It had not helped that he could not sing or dance, either, as those were skills the Spartans admired at least as much as skill at sports. Only his wits had sometimes won him praise and respect; but once he had joined the army at age twenty-one, even that no longer mattered so much. In the army, skill at arms and physical courage eclipsed all other virtues. Asteropus hated army life.

Cleomenes had rescued him from it. He had reached out his bountiful hand and appointed Asteropus his representative to Apollo, and from that day forward Asteropus was exempt from military service.

Asteropus knew he had attracted the king’s attention because, despite his mere twenty-five years of age, he had demonstrated an uncanny ability to read the omens of the Gods—as if his physical short-sightedness had been replaced with divine insight. When still in the agoge, for example, he had predicted a disastrous thunderstorm that killed five boys during the Phouxir. And just this spring he had foreseen the disaster that would strike Cleomenes’ half-brother, Dorieus. The latter in particular brought him Cleomenes’ favor, because the Agiad king hated his brother Dorieus—even more than he hated his co-regent King Demaratus.

Dorieus had been born to Cleomenes’ father, King Anaxandridas, by his first wife—but only after the ephors had made Anaxandridas take Cleomenes’ mother, Chilonis, as his second wife. Although Cleomenes had been born a year before Dorieus, Dorieus had been such a paragon of manly virtue while growing up that there had been a faction that supported his claim to the throne, saying he had precedence since he was son to the first (and implicitly only legal) wife of their father. At Anaxandridas’ death, the ephors and Council had ruled in Cleomenes’ favor and the Assembly had ratified the decision—albeit by a small (and some said dubious) majority. Outraged by the slight, Dorieus left Sparta in a rage, unwilling to accept Cleomenes as his king. He first tried to set up a colony in Africa, but was expelled by the Carthaginians. The oracle at Delphi then advised him to go to Sicily and found a city in honor of Herakles, promising him success if he did so. With only a handful of Spartiates but many perioikoi, he departed. Cleomenes had been glad to see him go; but he also feared that Dorieus, if successful abroad, might return to challenge Cleomenes at home—this time with an army at his back.

Cleomenes’ worries increased incrementally as news of Dorieus’ successes filtered back to Sparta. Dorieus appeared to be growing richer and more powerful by the month. Soon alarming news arrived: Dorieus’ Spartan colony was considered so powerful that he had been asked to assist in local wars—just as Sparta did at home. Cleomenes could picture the fleet that would land on the western shore of the Peloponnese and sweep through Messenia, rallying his subjects to revolt against him. His nightmares became so dreadful that Cleomenes consulted Sparta’s senior seer, Hekataios, but the answer was ambiguous and unsatisfying. He had then, almost as an insult to the older man, asked Hekataios’ barely mature son, Asteropus, what he thought Dorieus would do next.

In a flash of inspiration from his “second sight,” Asteropus had replied without hesitation. “You have nothing to fear from Dorieus, for he will pay for transgressing the instructions of the oracle. He will leave his body on the field of honor and be in Hades as soon as he tries to use his arms for a purpose other than that assigned him by Apollo.” Within just two months a ship from Sicily put in with the news that Dorieus was indeed dead, and Asteropus had secured the job of Cleomenes’ personal representative at Delphi.

Unfortunately, he had no flash of inspiration now. The Gods were fickle, after all, and he did not have an answer that would calm Cleomenes’ unease.

“Well?” the king prodded impatiently, reaching again for his wine. “What is all this nonsense about? Our allies share our victories and defeats. The Corinthians cannot win a victory without us. Surely they can see that?”

“Undoubtedly—if only the signs we had were not so adverse.”

“So why are they adverse?” Cleomenes demanded.

Asteropus was relieved by the arrival of a helot messenger. The man entered the tent and respectfully came to a halt before Cleomenes, his eyes down and his hands by his side.

“What is it?” Cleomenes demanded irritably.

“The surgeon sent me to inform you that your brother has been injured by a wild boar, sir.”

“Which brother?” Cleomenes wanted to know. Even with Dorieus dead, he still had two younger half brothers, likewise sons of his father’s first wife, and so from Cleomenes’ point of view untrustworthy.

“Leonidas,” the helot answered.

“Oh. Will he live?”

The helot glanced up, startled. “He has only a broken arm, sir.”

“So why the fuss?”

The helot treated the question as rhetorical, and withdrew.

“Fool!” Cleomenes commented to Asteropus with contempt. “He shouldn’t be out hunting boar if he doesn’t know how to keep out of their way.” Cleomenes reached again for his wine.

But in that moment Asteropus had one of his flashes of inspiration, and he warned Cleomenes, “Do not underestimate Leonidas. He may prove far more dangerous to you than Dorieus ever was.”

“Little Leo? Nonsense. Cleombrotus is the one to watch. He covets my throne. Leonidas is as docile as a lamb. Lambonidas would be a better name for him!” Cleomenes liked his own joke and laughed at it.

Asteropus let it go. He did not feel it was his job to contradict the king. He had done his duty by warning him.

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