The Wooden Walls of Thermopylae

BOOK: The Wooden Walls of Thermopylae
9.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Praise for Nick Brown’s books

Luck Bringer

“This is a fascinating and entertaining book and makes the reader feel as if he were present together with Mandrocles, the Luck Bringer.” Antonis Mistriotis, author of
507-450 BC- The 57 Years Which Gave Birth to Democracy

“Fleshes out the life of the true historical figure, Miltiades, and brings the ructions of the Arab Spring crashing into life.”
Cheshire Life

“Fast paced and based on meticulous research it tells it like it most probably was, stripped of the hype, but none the less moving for that.”
Indie Author land


“Something creepy afoot.”
Big Issue

“Gripping and genuinely creepy.”
New Edition

“Echoes of the ghost story master, M.R. James.”
I Like Horror

“A heartily recommended read for all thriller and horror fans.”
Horror Cult Films

“I wish the book had been longer.”
Sexy Archaeology

The Dead Travel Fast

“Sent chills down my spine; a thrilling read from start to finish.” Jessica Ward, author of
The Path of Destruction

“It’s crying out to be made into a movie!”
Spectral Times

“A fantastic genre bending experience.”
Web weaver

“An imaginative chiller mixing horror and thriller fiction with a twist of quantum strangeness.”
Indie Author Land

The Wooden Walls
of Thermopylae

Nick Brown

For my lovely sister, Liz Spence

Map by Gaius Brown

Greek for market place. In Athens it was the main square and centre of city life

Room for entertaining in the male section of a Greek house

Ancient criminal court with powers to supervise entire public administration. Regarded as too conservative by democrats and had its power reduced in 462 BC.

Group of aristocrats with authority for power over the state. At the time of Marathon open only to the wealthiest class and serving for one year with a president called the named Archon

Council for Athens representing the Athenian tribes

District of Athens originally of potters’ workshops. At the time of Marathon seedy, drinking, red light district

Wealthy citizen who finances a play

Performers of the plays at religious festivals

Measure of liquid used for ordering wine

Administrative district

Greek word meaning the people. Democracy means sovereignty of the people

Spring drama festival in honour of the god Dionysus

A board of five elders elected to supervise all activities in Sparta  including the actions of the two kings.

Hoplites serving as marines on board a trireme

Representation of the goddess Hekate, found at crossroads

A temple in honour of the goddess Hera

Landmark monument to legendary hero

Courtesan or up-market sex worker

Heavily armed foot soldier

Jug for mixing wine

Drinking game involving flicking dregs and wine from a wine cup

Greek goddess of victory

Sacred place for Ionian Greeks at Mycale

City state

Sex worker

A General. In Athens there was a board of ten generals who were elected

Greek drinking party

Bottom tier of rowers on a trireme

Top tier of rowers on a trireme who rowed through an outrigger and were the rowing élite

Captain of a Trireme

A fighting ship with three banks of oars Tyrant: A ruler with full power of a city state or territory. The term did not have quite the modern day pejorative implications and some tyrants were regarded as benign

Middle tier rowers on a trireme

First great Athenian dramatist and poet. Fought at Marathon and probably Salamis

Aristocrat of the Alkmaionid faction known as “The Just” rival of Themistocles

Intellectual and controversial mistress of Pericles.

Phythia of Delphi in 480 BC

Wealthy Athenian and suitor of Elpinice

Athenian general killed at Marathon

Aristocratic Athenian politician, father of Alcibiades

Son of Miltiades

King of Sparta until deposed on the charge of mental instability

Great King of the Persians at the time of Marathon

Strong willed daughter of Miltiades

Athenian dramatist

Reluctant Spartan Admiral

Daughter of Cleomenes and wife of Leonidas, a striking, ambiguous character.

Athenian aristocrat who defected to Persia in the wars

Aristocratic Athenian, opponent of democracy

King of Sparta who commanded at Thermopylae.

Joint king of Sparta with Leonidas

Persian general

Alkmaionid opponent of democracy

Son of Miltiades, linked to the Persians during the wars

Deposed Athenian tyrant of the Chersonese who commanded the Athenians at Marathon

Son of Xanthippus who later became leader of Athens

Athenian dramatist; only fragments of his work survive

Athenian dramatist and contemporary of Pericles

Athenian politician, promoter of democracy and sea power

Athenian politician of the Alkmaionid faction

Great king of the Persians following the death of Darius

“Most hateful name of all-

Athens! Who can forget

Our Persian women’s debt-

Innocent tears that fall

For husband lost, or son,

Long since at Marathon?”

    Aeschylus: “The Persians”


Clytemnestra: “You speak as to some thoughtless woman:

You are wrong.”

    Aeschylus: “Agamemnon”

“Now watch as it falls apart.”

He leant back on the bench miming a gesture of resignation, or maybe disgust, and spat the fruit stone onto the beaten earth floor. Both the gesture and the denunciation were aimed at me. I couldn’t reply, because a part of me agreed with him, so I just sat silent watching the dark juice from the fruit trickle down into his beard. We were in the bar Cynegeiros had built out of driftwood in the Piraeus; except of course he wasn’t there, his remains were under the mound at Marathon while his shade lamented over the spot where his blood soaked the sand.

The bar now belonged to Aeschylus but his heart wasn’t in it despite the fact that Cynegeiros had been right to speculate on the new port. Below us on the water we could see the rapid expansion of Themistocles’s project but also the cause of his anger. Bobbing on the water by the short stretch of new harbour wall was the Athenian war fleet, its polished bronze rams flashing in the sunlight. Within the hour I’d be boarding its flagship: The Athene Nike.

“You can’t be such a fool that you don’t understand what I’m saying, boy.”

I’d seen Themistocles take apart the most senior aristocrats
in the city, seen him reduce their arguments to shreds so there wasn’t any point in contesting it.

“I thought you had more sense, thought you could be useful. But look at you, dressed up and ready to go and play at pirates.”

I sat in front of my friends, wanting to be out of there, feeling sick and ashamed, even though I knew I was only a proxy for his anger: the real recipient was making his triumphal procession down to the harbour. We could hear faint cheering in the distance. Aeschylus opened his mouth to speak in my defence but at the last minute thought better of it. It would have been futile: you can’t stop Themistocles.

“At Marathon we changed the world because we agreed to unite. That’s what saved the city. You were there, Mandrocles, you saw it. Because of that, because of that decision which no other city could take, we beat Darius. Beat him and forced him to flee with his fleet. We were part of it, the three of us; we were there when those up themselves Alkmaionid buggers stood in the line next to honest tradesmen from the Ceramicus. Stood and fought for each other. Look.”

He pulled the tunic down off his shoulder exposing a livid and barely healed scar running from just below the neck round under his left armpit.

“Look, see this? I took this sheltering Aristides with my shield; I saved his life that day, we fought shoulder to shoulder. Days before he was my enemy and would have done me down same as I would him.”

He replaced the tunic, muttering,

“To be fair, he saved me too.”

I knew what was coming next; it wasn’t the first time I’d heard this speech.

“The finest men in the city died that day. Died for our freedom, the freedom of all Greece. Callimachus, the most
honourable man amongst us, Stesileos, both generals, both in the front line. Cynegeiros, your brother in whose bar we’re drinking, Aeschylus. Killed at the sea’s edge trying to take the Persian ships; a hero like Hector.”

There was a period of silence, deliberate silence. You could take the man out of the city but you couldn’t take the politician out of the man and Themistocles was the best politician we ever had. Once satisfied that the silence had created its dramatic effect, he moved to the point he made many times each and every day.

“And what was all that sacrifice for?”

Like all his other questions this was rhetorical; he had no intention of giving his friends, never mind opponents, a space to speak.

“If Callimachus were here today he’d place a curse on the city. He understood that Marathon was only the first race in the games. He knew the Persians would be back and with a much bigger army. He knew that our only chance was to use the time we bought with our blood at Marathon to prepare. To prepare for a war at sea, not on land. He knew we needed a fleet of three hundred triremes and a safe harbour to protect them.”

He gestured with his empty cup towards the stalled work on the new harbour and then refilled it. Both Aeschylus and I knew that in all probability Callimachus would have vetoed any such projects. He had been a man of honour but also a man of conservative principles and it had taken Themistocles a great deal of effort to get him to Marathon. But there was no point in saying so.

“Callimachus’s bones must be turning under the mound because of what we’ve done. Because of the way we’ve let vested interest come before our duty to the city. The way we’ve forgotten about the Persians and the lessons of Marathon.
Now the great families are attempting to restore things to the way they were: the way they were before the Demos showed us how to be great.”

The cheering outside was now much louder; the procession must have been close, but Themistocles wasn’t talked out.

“And now your master, the man I pardoned and supported in his rightful policy of fighting the Persians, is throwing it all away. And we know who’s supporting him, don’t we? Aristides, the man whose life I saved at Marathon.”

There’d always been bad blood between Themistocles and Aristides. Some of it was to do with politics but according to gossip most of the animosity dated from before and stemmed from the fact that they were both rivals for the affection of the same youth.

However now there was another rival who Themistocles hated and feared more than Aristides and his clique. Hated with such intensity it was rumoured he was no longer able to sleep at night. This man was Miltiades, hero of Marathon and my master. The man who would lead the expedition against the island state of Paros, and whose procession towards the ships was being loudly cheered. So loudly that Themistocles had to raise his voice to be heard.

“So now, instead of preparing to defend our homeland against the greatest power on earth, our aristocratic masters are wasting our men and resources on a pointless act of piracy for reasons which no one understands. And we don’t understand them because the great Miltiades refuses to explain himself other than to say that the city must give him a fleet and money and in return he’ll make us rich.”

He paused again on the verge of the climax of this peroration, milking the moment for the greatest effect. I’d heard it before so knew where it was going and was numbering the deliberate bits of misinformation that he’d included in his
argument. But that’s the way with politicians, isn’t it? The ones today are much worse: Pericles the onion head regards it clever to dissimulate and he’s a pillar of rectitude when compared with some of the demagogues; Cleon for instance.

Sorry, reader, I’ve started to ramble. Anyway I got no further time for reflection and Themistocles never reached his climax. He’d just said, “Well Miltiades had better be careful,” when two things happened almost at once. First, there was a burst of cheering loud as a thunderclap from right outside and second, the door opened.

“And of what had I better be careful, son of Neocles?”

Miltiades in full armour walked in looking like the god of war. His success at Marathon seemed to have made him taller. He was at ease with himself and brimming with confidence that flowed out towards anyone near. How much the tables had turned since we’d been chased to Athens by the Persian navy. Then, Miltiades had been forced to beg and wheedle to survive. Now it was Themistocles who looked the supplicant.

“Perhaps you can enlighten me. But you’ll have to be quick because I have an appointment with the fleet to carry out the City of the Goddess Athena’s business.”

Themistocles must have been surprised by Miltiades’s entrance but he was too much the politician to show it.

“I could enlighten you if you chose to divulge the nature of the enterprise, son of Cimon.”

I wondered what could have happened so quickly to change the relationship between these men. The two who had worked so closely to deliver us the victory at Marathon. I should have been thinking about what was going to happen as I was witnessing, without knowing it, the prologue of a tragedy. Aeschylus watched: he said nothing but he missed nothing either. Those of you who love his plays will recognise the content if not the context of what followed.

“And why should I divulge the nature of the enterprise to
you, son of Neocles, when there is no need for you to know it? For you, it should be sufficient to be told only that it is in the city’s interests. But because of the work we have done together I will indulge you more than I choose to indulge others of your rank. I am prepared to tell you that the enterprise is essential because I consider it to be so.”

I still often wonder what causes great men like Miltiades to behave the way they do. At that moment in his burnished armour with his hair and beard freshly dressed he looked like a god. Perhaps he even considered himself to be one. But it was tempting fate: the gods hate hubris and punish it accordingly. Themistocles, a much better manipulator of men and certainly a far more accomplished dissembler, kept his self-control, replying quietly.

“That is most gracious, son of Cimon, and I am sure it is the best of reasons. However I still fail to understand the threat that Paros presents us with. If it were Aegina, that nest of pirates, then I could see the reason but not Paros.”

He paused a second favouring Miltiades with his most ingratiating, yet irritating, smile – a smile I’d seen provoke even moderate men to wrath – then added,

“Unless of course there is some private agenda between you and the citizens of Paros. Is that the case perhaps?”

Miltiades, despite the strength of his position, began to colour up; I could see the veins on his forehead swelling. Never a good sign. But Themistocles continued in honeyed tones.

“And why the considerable sum of money granted you by your erstwhile enemies but now close friends, the Alkmaionid clan?”

Miltiades rasped out,

“That again is something you don’t need to know.”

“But it’s something I do know and something that the whole city will know once you’ve sailed.”

Miltiades, angry as he was becoming, realised he was being bated and there was nothing he could gain from the exchange. He turned away from Themistocles with a glance intended to convey lofty disdain, saying to me,

“Mandrocles, there’s no time to waste so unless you intend to drink away your life in the company of agitators and scribblers, get yourself moving.”

He swept out of the tavern and I stumbled to my feet and began to say my goodbyes, but Themistocles cut across me, speaking cold and controlled.

“That man who marches under the shadow of nemesis better be warned: it’s time to make your choice, Luck Bringer. Last chance, so you’d better think clearly.”

I remember shuffling from one foot to the other in indecision for what seemed an age. Then, with a brief nod towards Aeschylus I turned and followed the General out of the door.

Back then the Piraeus was nothing like the great port and hub of empire that you know today. Then it was little more than a ragged bay, patches of sand interspersed with rock pools and headlands. A few scattered fishermen’s shacks, grazing goats and that was it.

The building had only just started: a few cubits of wall but you could see the future. Some bars and dwellings were springing up and those with the aptitude for it understood there was money to be made. I caught a glimpse of the future that day looking down at the fleet preparing to set sail. Small compared with our modern fleet, reader, but exciting all the same.

So I was caught up in the noise and bustle of embarkation and any worries about Themistocles’s words dispersed. It was a great adventure; but then that’s both the advantage and the drawback of youth, isn’t it? You go from one thing to another and embrace change like a lover.

Cimon and Elpinice were on the harbour wall by the Athene Nike. He was wheedling Ariston into letting him stow away onboard and she was somewhere between woman and girl. A woman in appearance and dignity but still a girl in that her reaction to her father’s departure was so transparent. The sailors made a great fuss over Cimon, who had always been their favourite, but stayed well clear of Elpinice out of respect.

So we grabbed a shared moment. Even back then she was wise way beyond her years and if she’d been born with the rights of a man, she’d have given Themistocles a run for his money like she did Pericles all those years later. Now looking back on the conversation, what obviously escaped me then seems clear: her analysis of the expedition was as clinical as Themistocles had been.

“Do you find anything strange about this expedition, Mandrocles?”

I was about to reply but there was another similarity between her and Themistocles: she didn’t want an answer either, merely a listener.

“Because the men who he had to fight with to persuade them to fight the Persians are falling over themselves to see him off; look.”

I followed where she pointed and saw them in a group clustered round the General: Megacles, Aristides, even Kallixenos, friend of the Persians who was lucky not to have been exiled after Marathon.

She turned her gaze back towards me and muttered,

“And yet his own brother Stesagoras who counselled against this has chosen not to be here I see.”

She was right; there was no sign of him, which struck me as odd. But how could a girl like her, excluded from the affairs of men, know what was counselled when I didn’t?

Miltiades broke away from the group of well-wishers
come to see him off and, ignoring the helping hands, leapt with the grace of a young warrior onto the deck. The crew erupted into a loud cheer. He turned and acknowledged it as his right as leader and I saw on his face that same expression of command and confidence that he wore at Marathon when he ordered the charge. Theodorus shouted to me from the deck.

“Better jump too, Mandrocles, if you don’t want to be left behind.”

I was about to but I felt a cool hand grip my arm and Elpinice said,

“Keep your eyes on him, Mandrocles; I think he will need your luck. Now go well.”

I turned and jumped down to the deck just in time to see the General lead the singing of the Paean and pour the libation. Then the Athene Nike was moving, pulling smoothly away from the harbour wall. Moving to the heartbeat of the stroke that Theodorus called. And I was truly alive in a way that only those of you who have served with the fleet can understand.

BOOK: The Wooden Walls of Thermopylae
9.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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