Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction
Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.
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 25, 2016
The Youngest Brother - An Excerpt from "Boy of the Agoge"
Leonidas, the hero of Thermopylae, was not raised like a prince. Because he was born long after two elder brothers, he was not the heir to the throne and was subjected to the harsh upbringing of ordinary Spartan youth -- the agoge. The first book in my Leonidas trilogy, A Boy of the Agoge, describes what Leonidas' life as a Spartan schoolboy might have been like. In this scene, having failed to be elected leader of his "herd," he is confronted by both of his elder brothers.
At the sound of his name, Leonidas jumped guiltily and turned around to face his older brother. Dorieus was beautiful. In fact, he seemed to embody manly beauty in the abstract, as if he were a throwback to Herakles himself. He was tall for his age. His shoulders were as broad as a grown man's. His arms and legs were a melody of entwined muscle. His belly was flat and hard as if it were made of bronze. He was now an awesome 18 years of age, and so Leonidas had to stand with his hands at his side and his eyes at his feet and call him "sir."
"Yes, sir," he said dutifully.
Dorieus came to stand directly before him. His head was shaved too, of course, but he was wearing training armor, carried a shield slung on his back, and a real sword hung from his baldric -- something Leonidas couldn't dream about for another ten years.
"Is it true what I hear? That you were not elected herd leader?" Dorieus had been herd leader of his unit ever since he had enrolled in the agoge. He had won the contest of Artemis Orthia at 16. He had innumerable prizes for running, wrestling, javelin and discus. Dorieus was quite simply the most splendid of all the young men still in the agoge -- not excepting even those youths in the age cohorts ahead of him.
"Yes, sir," Leonidas answered the question.
"And why not?"
"Ask the others, sir. They were the ones who voted." Even as he answered, Leonidas stiffened his stomach muscles and braced for the blow Brotus would have given him for such an impudent retort.
Dorieus was made of different stuff. "That was a very facile answer, boy, and you know it. Try again."
"Ephorus is faster and stronger than I am, sir."
"Then why aren't you in the gymnasium improving your strength rather than loitering around the agora looking for handouts like a mongrel dog?"
Everyone in the whole agora (it seemed like the whole city to Leonidas) was listening to them.
"Because, sir, if I get that meat pasty over there, I will have far more strength than if I try to exercise in the gym when I'm half starved to death."
The pastry vendor laughed outright, but Dorieus was unimpressed. "You are either a fool or you are trying to provoke me. The leanest dogs run fastest, and the hungriest lion makes the kill."
"How do you know the hungriest lion makes the kill, sir? Have you talked to one?"
"Now I know you are just trying to provoke me, little brother, but I won't play your silly game. You disgrace our house and our mother, just as Brotus told me you did." Dorieus turned on his heel and departed, everyone in the agora making way for him as if before a reigning king. Leonidas stood in his wake, feeling very small and silly and worthless.
Someone jostled his arm. He looked over alarmed, but it was only the pasty vendor. "Here you go, lad." He offered him one of the good pasties -- not the one picked at by the birds. "Eat up and enjoy it. Don't let that pompous ass get you down."
The vendor was a helot, of course. Leonidas knew that his brother would be appalled if he turned around and saw what Leonidas did next, but he didn't care. He took the pasty and smiled up at the vendor. "Thank you! I won't forget this. When I grow up and have money, I'll buy only from you."
The vendor laughed. His front teeth were missing. "Is that a promise, little Leonidas? Will you make me a purveyor of the Agiad royal house one day?"
"Well, I can't do that," Leonidas admitted with evident regret, "I'm never going to be king. But I'll buy all my own pasties from you, " Leonidas assured him solemnly. He was serious, even if the helot seemed to think it was a joke.
By the time the third of his brothers, Cleomenes, took notice of his failure to win election from the other seven-year-olds in his "herd," Leonidas was rather tired of the whole thing. Besides, he had been raised to look down on this half-brother as something distinctly "inferior" and "distasteful."
Cleomenes was King Anaxandridas' son by "that other woman." Although the ephors had made a great show of setting aside Spartan marriage law and allowing King Anaxandridas to take a second wife, Leonidas had been raised in his mother's household, and she insisted that the ephors ("nothing but a rude coterie of jumped-up royal servants) had no such authority. How could five ordinary citizens (who were not even priests and without the sanction of Delphi!) simply set aside Spartan law? This question, when asked indignantly by the Agiad queen, was clearly rhetorical, and Leonidas had never heard anyone dare to answer her. Even his father, on the one occasion when Leonidas happened to hear her raise this beloved topic in his presence, had only shrugged. The ageing king had been too weary to fight with his queen over this bitter issue.
If the ephors had no right to set Spartan law aside, then "that other woman" was not King Anaxanadridas' wife, but his concubine. Ergo, the child this concubine bore was a bastard -- pure and simple. Queen Taygete never referred to Cleomenes by any other term than "that bastard" -- although the adjectives used to describe "the bastard" varied over time.
At first, on the basis of helot rumors, Taygete had been led to believe that Cleomenes was "sickly" and so he had been "that feeble bastard." Then it was rumored that he was rather wild and self-willed, so she called him that "unruly bastard." When as a little boy of about ten it was reported in the city that he had been caught telling some minor lie, he became "that deceitful bastard." And because, as heir apparent to the Agiad throne, he was exempt from flogging, she called him "that cowardly bastard" -- although obviously Cleomenes had no choice in the matter. Following an incident in which he allegedly showed disrepect for the gods, he became "that impious bastard." So it was this "feeble, unruly, deceitful, cowardly and impious bastard" that confronted Leonidas just outside the monument to Lycurgus one fine, summer morning of Leonidas' first year in the agoge.
Leonidas like most of his fellow "little boys" did his best to avoid interrogations from their elders about what they had (or had not) learned so far by avoiding his elders altogether. At the sight of someone older, most boys tried to dart out of the way without being noticed. Unfortunately, just when he thought he'd made his escape, a mocking voice called after him, "Well, if it isn't my littlest brother Leonidas! Trying to run away like a coward too. Come here, boy!"
With an inward sigh, Leonidas stopped, turned around, and when he stood a yard away from his tormentor, dutifully stopped and faced him. "Sir?"
Cleomenes was a year older than Dorieus and hence 19 years old and should have been a so-called meleirene. But Cleomenes, as the heir-apparent to the Agiad throne, was exempted from the agoge. He did not wear his hair shaved, nor was he barefoot. He was dressed in a simple but fine chiton. Although Leonidas was supposed to keep his eyes down, he couldn't resist one glance at the face of this feeble-unruly-deceitful-impious coward. To his embarrassment, he met his brother's eyes, where were examining him with discomfiting intensity.
Cleomenes could not be called beautiful by any means. He did not have Dorieus' even features or his broad shoulders and muscular arms and legs. He was tanned and by no means fat, but there was nevertheless a softness about him. Furthermore, his shoulders were narrow and the joints all seemed too large for his limbs, suggesting that his muscles were underdeveloped. His face, too, was somehow misshapen without being actually deformed. He had his father's too large nose, his teeth were too prominent, and his eyes set too close together.
But those eyes were very sharp, and they seemed to miss nothing as they drilled into Leonidas. "So you're the runt of the family, are you?"
Leonidas viewed this as a rhetorical question and said nothing, but Cleomenes snapped his fingers. "I asked you a question, boy."
"Yes, sir, what?"
"I'm the runt of the family, sir."
"Couldn't even get elected herd leader, I heard."
"I like that," Cleomenes answered with a smile that was anything but friendly. "At least you won't have any populist delusions like your elder brother."
Leonidas wasn't sure what he was talking about and held his tongue. Cleomenes' eyes narrowed. "I must say one thing for you, however. You don't look as dumb as your brothers." He paused as if expecting Leonidas to protest, but Leonidas had no intention of making that mistake. So Cleomenes continued with a mixture of provocation and satisfaction. "You're not so dumb, are you, little Leonidas."
Although this too seemed rhetorical, Leonidas did not want to risk another rebuke and answered dutifully, "I wouldn't know, sir."
"If you are half as clever as you look, you'll remember one thing: you are the product of incest, the product of a boneheaded sire crossbred with a dim-witted dam. I, in contrast, am descended through my mother from Chilon the Wise, honored throughtout the civilized world for his intelligence. You won't outwit me, little Leonidas."
Leonidas shook his head dutifully, noting that the "feeble-unruly-deceitful-impious-cowardly bastard" clearly had a long of unpleasant titles for his half-brothers as well.