Athenai! What barbaros is so ignorant as not to have heard of her fame? Renowned since the days of Theseus, it was to become home to the most famous of all Hellenes, the birthplace of drama and the center of philosophia: the school of Hellas – even the Rômaioi used to admit as much. It was the Athenians who first defeated the Medes when at Marathon they… But I am getting ahead of the story. All these things lay in the future when Megakles brought his bride home. At that time, the polis Athênaiôn was still divided by competing classes. The eupatridai had held the polis in their grasp ever since the last king died, and against an ever increasing discontent among citizens who fought for the polis but enjoyed little influence in how things were run. Solon the Wise tried to solve the crisis, and although his laws eventually brought stability and prosperity, their immediate result was a renewed outbreak of domestic strife and even anarkhia. Whatever her condition, however, Athenai was always a lively place populated by the cleverest and most industrious of all Hellenes, as well as the most ambitious.
Encumbered by four wagons of belongings, as well as their servants and chariot horses, the travelers decided to make the journey in three stages. They proceeded along the small valleys winding among the hills overlooking the gulf, and Agaristê gazed with great interest at the various landscapes and scenes of the passing road. She had never been more than a half-day’s journey from Sikyon and realized that she would probably never make such a journey again: at most she would occasionally travel between her husband’s estate in the country and his house in Athenai.
The road was dusty and the temperature high. Here in the Peloponnesos the bones of the earth lay lose to the surface. The dry ground sometimes seemed to stretch like a starving man’s skin over rocks which often poked out from the thin soil, often garlanded with thorny bushes. Summers in Hellas were dry and hot. Unlike the tall oak and pine forested valleys to the north, central and southern Hellas had few larger woods, and the trees along the way were of a tougher sort: mostly shorter acacias, stunted firs, wild olives and laurels. Shade was rare and Agaristê covered her head to protect her pale face from the direct sun. Except for the occasional lizard or snake most animals seemed to have the sense to seek what shelter there was, and the only sound besides thudding hooves and creaking axles were the persistent chirping of cicadas.
As they plodded along, Megakles rode beside the cart and spoke with his betrothed. At first they chatted about the fateful banquet. Agaristê wanted to know just what had happened before her father had announced his choice, and Megakles spared no detail. She insisted that he recite every poiêma each suitor had sung. Megakles smiled at her obvious vanity; she visibly enjoyed the efforts that so many men had made to win her. When he described Hippokleides’ behavior, her eyes grew large.
“But why did he behave so badly,” Agaristê lowered her voice, “when he enjoyed my father’s favor precisely on account of his noble bearing and composure?”
Megakles considered for a moment how he should respond. He did not want to tell her that Hippokleides had deliberately ruined his chances; he wanted to spare her pride. Finally he smiled and answered, “Do you remember the palê match you witnessed? When I beat Hippokleides? We had agreed to wrestle for you.” He paused briefly and then added, “It was the first time I ever beat him!”
The herald of Olympia could not have shouted more loudly or clearly the pride Agaristê’s shining eyes spoke. Just then Hippokleides appeared at the cart’s other side.
“I overheard you mention my name and the word palê. Are you bragging again, my friend?” he grinned.
Agaristê responded with innocent eyes, “He just told me that he had only beaten you that one time, son of Teisandros. Is it true?”
“Indeed,” Hippokleides hung his head, feigning embarrassment, “I can only think that some mischief-loving god had his hand in my defeat. I may never recover from the shame of it! I’m afraid it led me to behave rather imprudently afterwards. But be sure, Agaristê, your betrothed will never repeat the feat!” With a smile that betrayed his gruff words he rode forward and left the two alone again.
“And now, future wife, it’s my turn to question you!” Megakles raised an enquiring eyebrow. “What can you tell me about that rumor which caused so much worry and trouble? I know that it was false, but how did it start?”
Agaristê described the encounter with Diaktorides and his suspicion of Megakles. “It was Xanthippa’s idea to lead him down the wrong path. She visited him that evening and played her role perfectly! She demanded a bribe and then told him the rumor as if it were true.”
“It put Hippokleides in a very bad position, agapête!” Megakles remarked with a tinge of reproach, “and I’m afraid it’s made me a blood enemy of Diaktorides.
“Please, don’t be angry!” Agaristê feared having upset him and her eyes grew moist. “But what choice did we have? Had we done nothing he would have spread a rumor about you, or perhaps gone directly to my father and ruined your reputation instead. And then my father would have chosen Hippokleides, or worse, Diaktorides! Besides, if patêr was going to act on it, I was prepared to tell him what really happened. I never would have let you or Hippokleides come to harm!”
“You’re right, of course,” Megakles nodded. “I regret the pain it caused him, but it would have done no one any good if I had been rumor’s object instead of him.” And Hippokleides is not disappointed at the result, he added in thought. “The real villain is Diaktorides – a schemer and a man without honor, prepared to ruin reputations to achieve his desire! He’d better wish we do not meet again!”
The gods do not sleep, although they seldom intervene in men’s affairs. Yet one could be forgiven for believing that they had been watching very closely that day. Only moments after Megakles had spoken, the din of neighs and gallops burst onto the road in front of the company, followed an instant later by a group of six horsemen with Diaktorides at their head.
The ambush had been well laid: the travelers had just emerged from a narrow defile onto an open stretch of road where the horsemen could freely maneuver. And although Megakles, Hippokleides and Lysanias were excellent horseback fighters, their mobility was restricted by the need to protect Agaristê in the wagon.
“Well, son of Alkmaion! Your tricks won’t save you here,” Diaktorides grinned fiercely. “The rest of you can leave unharmed, even Hippokleides, if he has no stomach for a fight. But I’ll have Megakles’ life and his wife!”
“I’m not so faithless nor treacherous, you Thessalian dog!” Hippokleides shouted back. “You’ll get them only after I’m dead!” At that, Lysanias drew his sword and nodded in agreement.
Megakles drew his own sword and then leaned over to Agaristê. “There are a few spears in the back. Get them and toss them to our slaves behind the wagon, and then get down and stay out of sight!”
Megakles remained at the wagon’s side while Agaristê crawled into the back, and Lysanias took position on the side opposite. Hippokleides rode to the front and then spurred his horse directly at Diaktorides. When the other attackers withdrew in the face of his sudden charge, Agaristê seized three spears and tossed them to the slaves driving the other three wagons while her own driver reached back and grabbed one for himself.
As Hippokleides and Diaktorides dueled, the other horsemen surrounded the wagon, brandished javelins and made ready to throw. Things did not look good for the company. The attackers had come prepared for a fight, fully armed and armored, while Lysanias and Megakles had no shields to stave off the javelins. Unwilling to leave the initiative to their enemies, Megakles shouted for the slaves to protect the wagon and then charged the three horsemen nearest to him. Lysanias followed suit, attacking the remaining two. Both of them swerved before reaching the enemy and engaged their attention by maneuvering so as not to present them with an easy target. While Megakles and Lysanias distracted the horsemen, a slave, one of Hippokleides’, had time to aim and throw his spear. It hit one of the men facing Megakles in the shoulder and knocked him from his horse. Just as Megakles was trying to decide how to take advantage, one of horsemen attempted a throw of his own. It is, however, difficult to hurl a javelin from horseback: unless the horse is moving with speed, the rider cannot get any force behind the throw. Megakles easily parried the javelin with his sword.
All the while, Agaristê lay in the back of the wagon atop the supplies and peered over side where she could watch her betrothed fight for their lives. She could see that the company was in a desperate situation and trembled with fear for Megakles. His opponents now changed tactics. The horseman who had thrown his missile now moved to engage Megakles while the remaining attacker lurked at a distance waiting for an opportunity to catch him off guard. Suddenly, a javelin struck the wagon barely two hands-breadth from Agaristê’s head. She ducked back out of sight and raised a prayer to Hera, goddess of brides and wives. As if in answer, a shout rose at the back of the column of wagons.
Aiskhines exited the defile leading four cavalrymen, all fully armed. Their numbers reduced by one, and now outnumbered, the remaining attackers wheeled their horses and fled along the road. Diaktorides made one final lunge at Hippokleides, scoring a glancing blow on his rib cage, before galloping off himself. Pained by his wound, Hippokleides declined to pursue him and returned to the wagon where Agaristê was just emerging from hiding. She saw the blood where he was holding his side.
“Are you seriously injured, son of Teisandros?” she asked, with her hand to her mouth.
Hippokleides smiled, “it’s only a scratch, really. Don’t let all the blood fool you, it will heal quickly.”
Aiskhines dismounted and walked over to the wagon. “And you, sister? Are you alright?”
Agaristê jumped down, ran to her brother and the siblings embraced. Seeing that all was in order, Megakles concentrated his attention on the unhorsed attacker. Despite the wound, he had been able to get to his feet, but he was bleeding heavily and had not gone far. Megakles quickly brought him to a stop and drove him back to the lead wagon at sword point. One of the slaves then stood guard over him with a spear as the captive sank, panting, to the ground.
“So, what are we to do with this one?” Lysanias asked as he dismounted his own horse. The others gathered around and gazed upon the prisoner.
“Tell us where you are from, dog!” Aiskhines asked in a hard voice.
“Why should I tell you anything?” the man spat weakly, “you’ll kill me, no matter what I say!”
“He has the look of a Korinthos, I’d say,” Aiskhines turned to his fellows. “What should we do with him?”
“We’ll get nothing useful out of him,” Hippokleides snorted. He then called to his slave, the one who had wounded the captive, and handed him a long knife.
“Wait until we pass by,” Hippokeides spoke in a low voice, “then finish the job. There is no need for the lady to see what you do.”
The company now remounted horses and wagons and continued down the road. As they passed, they could see that their erstwhile attacker had collapsed from weakness onto one side. Within a few moments, the slave rejoined the caravan.
“What’s his name?” Megakles asked Hippokleides.
“You mean my slave? He is called Themistos, an Athenian. His father sold him into slavery to satisfy creditors – despite the laws of our country which forbid this. My father named him for the goddess, since he was a victim of divine justice.”
“Ma Dia, he deserves his freedom for his bravery!” Megakles stated. “In thanks to him, and to you, I’ll buy him from you and free him.”
“Well said, my friend!” Lysanias affirmed, “I may even bid for him.”
“And I as well,” added Aiskhines.
Hippokleides laughed. “I see he could make me rich, if I consented to sell him! But there’s no need to hold an auction, I’ll free him myself and train him to fight. He has the makings of a good bailiff.”
Megakles slowed his mount and fell back besides Agaristê.
“And how are you, agapêtê?
“I am well, dearest,” Agaristê smiled. “I’m relieved that you are unhurt! I was so worried for you! I had never known what a great warrior you are!”
Now Megakles smiled. “Well, I would not count myself among Athenai’s best, but my father trained me well. Besides, our attackers were not very well schooled. If they had really known their business, we should not have been so fortunate.”
“What happened to the prisoner?” Agaristê asked. “You didn’t…?”
“My dear,” Megakles answered gently, “that man meant to murder us – including you – undoubtedly for pay. What else would you have had us do with him? Besides, he expected no less.”
Agaristê fell silent for a long time.
As they had started their journey late in the morning, they had already considered making a stop in Korinthos. The fight now made their decision certain. Hippokleides was still bleeding and needed it dressed by a competent physician; the wound might even have to be sewn. Aiskhines, moreover, insisted in escorting them as far as Korinthos just in case Diaktorides might plan another attack.
“Besides, there’ll still be enough time for me to gaze upon the city and return home before nightfall.”
Korinthos was a polis so famed for commerce and riches that one typically called it “wealthy Korinthos”. There they paused long enough to make a short tour of the astu where they saw the elegant temple of Apollon and the famed spring of Peirenê, a woman who became a spring because of tears she shed in sorrow for her son Kenkhrias who was unintentionally killed by the virgin goddess Artemis. The spring was said to be blessed by the Mousai and had been the favorite watering hole of winged Pegasos. Poiêtai came to here to drink from it and receive inspiration for their verses. As the travelers made their way along its streets Agaristê wondered at Korinthos’ manifest prosperity.
“I had always heard of its wealth, but I never imagined that any city could be so much more impressive than Sikyon!” Agaristê asked in awe as she looked up at the city’s lofty citadel, the akrokorinthos. The fortress stood high above the city atop a cone which seemed to thrust out of the ground. “Is Athenai also as mighty?”
“We Athenians have not produced such buildings,” Megakles answered thoughtfully, “perhaps because we have not been ruled by a tyrannos. Here at Korinthos, Kypselos and his son Periandros have been able to order construction at their leisure and use public funds for them. The eupatris families at Athenai, however, are jealous of their rights and spend their wealth as they will. Unfortunately, they also use their freedom to fight each other. Solon the Lawgiver has tried to unite us, and our polis has grown wealthier as a result of his reforms. Yet we are rarely able to agree on the common good. Some Athenians think they would be better off with a tyrannos, but who would it be? I for one do not wish to submit to anyone.”
“But, if you were tyrannos…?” Agaristê suggested. Megakles did not respond immediately. His brow wrinkled in thought for a moment.
“I just don’t know,” Megakles sighed. “Many of the Athenai’s most powerful families distrust us, and for me to make the attempt would risk my family’s ruin. Nor am I anxious to live a life in fear as some tyrannoi must.”
But you could do so much good for your polis, Agaristê answered without speaking, and a great people need a strong hand.
There, near the foot of the akrokorinthos, they parted company with Aiskhines.
“Farewell, dear sister, and be happy,” he embraced Agaristê. “If I ever doubted father’s choice of husband, I do so no longer.”
“And you, take care of patêr,” she replied, her eyes wet. “And look after dear Xanthippa! She will be lonely without me, I fear.”
Aiskhines then took his leave of the erstwhile suitors. Each of them grasped him by the forearm and thanked him for his help. They remained where they were until Aiskhines and his company disappeared down the slope leading to the bay road while Agaristê silently wept.
Finally, they resumed their journey, passing through the city and continuing west. The sun hung low when they finally arrived at their host’s house above the city’s western harbor, Kenkhreai (named for Peirenê’s son). As they dismounted and the men unloaded the baggage, Agaristê looked down upon the town. The harbor was by far the largest she had ever seen and she could not hope to count the ships she saw drawn up on the beach or approaching it from the open water as the day approached its end. Lights were springing up along the shore and in the narrow streets leading away from it. A soft breeze coming off the Saronikos Bay bearing the smell of the sea and the faint sound of song caressed her face.
It had only been a few years since the death of the polis’ famed tyrannos, Periandros son of Kypselos. His successor Psammetikhos governed uneasily according to their host, a wealthy merchant named Sokles. He predicted that the young ruler would not last long and openly greeted the prospect that the wealthy families (including his own) would soon inherit the government Kypselos seized ages ago. Korinthos had prospered under the Kypselidai and had become the unrivalled mistress of trade and seamanship in Hellas. The merchant class now seemed eager to shake off their masters and take control for themselves.
The travelers spent a pleasant evening dining and talking. Although free-born women did not normally dine in mixed company (unless the men were all family), their host made an exception for Agaristê in deference to Megakles and to her parentage, and he openly showed admiration for the coolness she had displayed during the attack. All the company praised Hippokleides when he joined the diners after his wound had been sewn and bound. Although he was able to able to walk without much difficulty, riding would be hard on him and would threaten to tear out the stitches, despite the fact that bandages had been wrapped tightly around his ribs. In deference to his condition, the company decided to make the rest of the way in two easier stages, rather than try for Athenai in one long day’s journey.
The next day the company made a late start and traveled slowly along the eastern shore of the isthmus which connected the Peloponnesos with the rest of Hellas to the north. The isthmus was so narrow at one point that the travelers could clearly see the kolpos Korinthios on the left hand and the waters of Saronikos on the right. They made a short stop at the small village of Isthmia to view the sanctuary of Poseidon there. At Isthmia games were held every two years in honor of the Earth-Shaker, and its victors were honored almost as much as those of Olympia. Lysanias and Megakles raced the stadion, and Agaristê clapped with joy when her betrothed narrowly won. They continued on a short time later, and just as the sun began to touch the western hills, they rounded a line of hills near the shore of the Saronikos and approached Megara where, despite the long enmity between that polis and Athenai, they found a warm welcome with Lysanias’ guestfriend, the proxenos of his polis. From a porch set on the house’s eastern side, Megakles and Agaristê could see the outline of Salamis Island and the hills of Attika beyond, lit by stars in a cloudless sky. As the night drew on, and once host and company withdrew discreetly, they leaned against each other, gazed into the night and whispered of the day and years which lay ahead of them.
The sun had also disappeared in Sikyon when a messenger called for Xanthippa: a good friend was in labor and needed her assistance. After gaining Kleisthenes’ permission, she left her master’s house and quickly made her way into the city. Just as she was nearing her friend’s house a tall man stepped out of the shadow of an alley, seized her by her hair and slapped his hand over her mouth.
“If you scream, I will cut your throat, wench!”
The threat took on the form of a long dagger held before her eyes. She allowed the man to pull her into the alley and slam her against a wall.
“You thought you were so clever! But I’ll teach you to make a fool of me!”
Xanthippa could only see the outline of a cloaked head and the faint glint of two eyes narrowed into slits. Although she could not recognize her attacker, she could guess by the voice even before the man unmasked his grinning face.
“Diaktorides!” she whispered. “What are you doing here?”
“You don’t know? Can’t you guess?” The Thessalian snorted in disgust. “What did you think I would do once I discovered your treachery: just slink away like a dog?”
“But, I swear by the…”
“Don’t bother to tell your lies, slave!” Diaktorides pressed the blade of his knife against her throat, cutting off her protest. “You told me that Hippokleides was going to win your mistress’ hand, that Megakles was just being used to divert attention… but it was me you two meant to make into a fool. Deny it if you wish to die now!”
“And if I do not deny it, you will kill me anyway,” Xanthippa’s voice quavered in fright.
“I admit, killing you would be gratifying!” Diaktorides whispered into her ear, “but I have an even worthier object for my revenge, and killing you could deprive me of it.”
“What do you want of me then?” Xanthippa asked.
“You will be the means of my revenge! You will help me kill your worthless master, Kleisthenes!”
“No!” Xanthippa breathed, “I cannot do that! He…”
“… is unworthy to live. He shamed me by choosing Megakles over me. And it is your punishment for deceiving me.”
“And if I don’t do it? What if I tell Kleisthenes of your plan?” Xanthippa felt a surge of confidence. She did not have to allow herself to made this man’s tool and was willing to die to keep her master safe. Her sudden determination crumbled just as quickly at Diaktorides’ next words.
“If your master does not die within a year, I will kill your precious Agaristê instead!”
Xanthippa’s knees gave way in her sudden despair and she began to sob. Diaktorides silenced her with a blow to her stomach which emptied her lungs of air.
“Quiet, slave!” he spat, “or I shall kill you, your master and her daughter before the month is gone, despite any danger to me!”
Xanthippa gasped for air and sank to the ground.
“Now listen carefully,” Diaktorides hissed at her and yanked her by the hair until she looked up at him.
“A man will come to you and give you a package. It will contain a deadly poison and instructions for using it. If you use it correctly, no one may suspect your hand in his death.”
“What does that matter,” Xanthippa sniffed. “I will kill myself once he’s dead anyway.”
“No, I will not permit that.” Diaktorides frowned, “I do not wish you to be caught or killed. I want you to live with the deed as punishment. And I warn you, I will know it if you kill yourself; and if you do, I will kill Agaristê and any bastard she might throw in the meantime!”
“But why kill Kleisthenes so? He will not know that it is by your hand.”
“That is not as important as my real object!” Diakorides grinned like a fiend. “Others will know my part in his death in due time. You see, like a fine bowl of Khios wine, we in Thessalia know how to savor our revenge slowly. First Kleisthenes, then Agaristê, then Megakes…”
“You will not kill Agaristê!” Xanthippa breathed, “or I will not do as you bid!”
“No, I will not kill her,” Diaktorides chuckled, “and I am even willing to swear it to you.”
“Swear it then!”
After he called upon the gods of the underworld to witness his oath, and Xanthippa seemed mollified, Diaktorides released her and disappeared down the alley.
“Who said I would kill Agaristê?” the Thessalian laughed to himself. “I do not want to kill her. I wish her to suffer.”