During an age when Macedonians hold sway in ancient Greece and Rome is on the ascendancy, Agis, a king of Sparta, attempts to reform the city-state before it sinks into decline.
Unfortunately, helots that were conquered and kept in servitude to Spartan threaten to rebel just when improvement is at last on the horizon.
GENRE: Historical Fiction (Sparta) Word count: 68, 614
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Spears were being thrown at him like thunderbolts from the gods! Raising his shield to ward off the hurtling spears, Agis fell to the ground as helmeted, dark-faced soldiers rushed toward him wielding short swords. Only then, as the swords were about to pierce his body and certain that death had come, did Agis awake with a start, sweat streaming down his face. Agiatis, his wife, still slept peacefully at his side. Fitfully, he decided he must quickly learn the meaning of this terrible dream. Would he be a successful king? Would he be able to save Sparta?
Rising quickly and quietly so as not to disturb Agiatis, he left the house quickly to consult the priestess at the temple.
* * *
He was not a fool, Agis thought fitfully, striding purposefully away from the heavy-gabled temple at dusk. He knew quite well there would be resistance to his plan–and that enemies might seek his death–but Sparta must be restored to her former glory. And now that he, Agis, son of Eudamidas and a rightful descendent from the royal family of Eurypon, had become one of Sparta’s two kings, he would succeed. So he had taken a vow, a sacred oath taken at the Temple of Athens of the Brazen House.
He also knew he must be cautious. The omens at the temple were not auspicious, though what message was meant by the entrails of the sacrificed goat, the flight of the sacred doves, or the whispering of the wind through the fluttering leaves of the eucalyptus trees lining the banks of the soft-flowing Eurotas River were a mystery to him. The cold-eyed priestess, a hag of an oracle with her long white hair streaming wildly down her scrawny neck as if scrambling for roots upon the earth, looked through him as if lodged within his chest was another meaning, a truer and darker message. Though what it could be she did not relate, other than to say that his mission would be a troubled one.
Ha, he knew this already! Did not the oracles of old predict what had already taken place, that all this new-found love of gold and silver, of luxury and comforts, would weaken the Spartan character and bring on the city’s downfall? When oracles conflict, who should one listen to? Whom do the gods favor? Is it not better to listen to the dictates of one’s own mind? Or was one’s destiny already ordained?
The temple, with its fluted limestone columns, revealed much of what was wrong with Sparta. Small bronze busts of Zeus throwing a thunderbolt and Poseidon instructing a dolphin stood on polished lintels as he had passed through a gloomy hall above a black and blue tiled floor. Plates of fruits, cereals and cakes were placed at the altars of the gods with the sweet odor of fresh honey, spread over the offerings, wafting through the dark corridor. Rows of white boars’ teeth were painted at the edge of the stone walls.
Ushered through the black-curtained doorway into the lantern-lit antechamber of the seer, Agis stood near a large bronze sculpture of spear-holding Athena, gazing beneficently with her serene wisdom. Might she impart some of her wisdom to him? Agis thought nervously. He looked for a moment at a huge tapestry of noble Apollo watching Diana pursue a deer.
Then he stared suddenly at a less godly object: a device that delivered sacrificial water. No doubt this machine had been brought from Athens or perhaps Corinth. Why had not this device been invented here? Or at least made in Sparta after being invented elsewhere? Why must Sparta import everything, except some food and weapons?
To get the needed sacrificial water he had to produce a coin at the top of this jar. As far as he could tell, the coin fell onto a plate which set off a lever, somehow raising a lid to release the water. Not so remarkable or ingenious a contrivance that a Spartan could not have thought of it. Fervently, he again hoped that Athena would show him the right path.
Another device caught his attention, also one that he had never seen before. A small bronze bird sat impudently atop a slightly fluted silver-plated column connected to a set of parallel wheels. The column rested on a spoke-driven wheel at the base of the pedestal. A rod running through the wheels, linking it to a cog supporting a small rock that could drop into a small glass.
“What’s this?” he asked the temple attendant, a young lad of no more than twelve or thirteen who, presumably, studied the priestly arts, or perhaps just a helot serving the temple priests. No seminaries were available in Sparta for those aspiring to the priesthood. Other issues, however, had more weight in his mind.
Yet, he knew that eventually he would face opposition as well from the oracles, some of whom he suspected were both self-appointed and anointed. He was not an opponent of the priests, believing in the gods and fearful of their wrath. Still, he was a man and a king, and he must act as he saw fit. Did not Socrates, the Athenian teacher, advise all the Hellenes to consider their own thoughts more carefully? Sad, and also true, was the lamentable fact that Sparta had failed to produce any great philosophers or artists. If allowed to lead, there would still be time.
“Sire, it shows acceptance of your sacrifice,” the youth replied respectfully, glancing down at his worn sandals. “If the gods favor you, they send a current of air which turns the wheels. This makes the rock fall against the glass, making a sound like a bird singing. If the bird is silent, another message has been sent.”
Usually the priestess interprets every sound, Agis thought, but now the crone has help of a sort. Even each entrance to the temple had been accompanied by the ringing of a bell. Changes were many, yet none produced by Sparta.
The priestess entered as if Agis were not there, yet he felt the stare of many eyes, as if the spirits of the gods were considering his plight. A boar skin lay over the rich cypress wood. To the side stood the sacred altar of Athena, with holy vessels resting on narrow lintels. Deep wrinkles sank into the priestess’ sallow skin, and her back was bent. Though her voice was sharp for a woman who might be nearing a hundred years of age, if rumor were to be believed. Her fingernails were as long as a baby’s fingers, and dark-stained from the laurel leaves she doubtless chewed as a narcotic.
“King you may be, but it is the gods that rule our destinies.”
“Yes, I know,” Agis said. “But what do your divinations say of my future?”
The priestess stared fiercely at Agis. Seen more closely, her thinning white hair ran down her scalp like strands of unruly silver. More blotchy red gum than yellowed teeth showed when her mouth opened. “There is light, much presence of light, and then a darkness. A long darkness.”
“What creates this darkness?”
“That I do not know,” the priestess said. “It is there nonetheless. Be so advised.”
Darkness, Agis thought glumly, recalling the episode again and again as if he could himself divine a true meaning. He stood outside for a moment as if the breeze springing up from across the river could revive his spirits. The darkness, he told himself, could spring from the way Spartans lived now and the resistance his proposed reforms would initially produce. Or it could mean the darkness would overcome his reforms. The priestess said the darkness will come after the light. What did this signal mean, or had the fearful hag invented this mysterious prediction?
With or without the support of the gods, Agis felt compelled to enlist as much backing as possible before making a formal proposal to the ephors, the powerful quintet who really controlled Sparta, though he would also be heard by the senate and general assembly. Once the ephors were assistants to the kings, but now their power had grown. Intrigues ran rampant at court, especially now that Leonidas, Sparta’s other king from the royal house of the Agidae, so recently returned from exile in Persia, had come back to court from his survey of state land. What a strange system for Sparta to have two kings, so ordained by the city’s noble founder, Lycurgus, as a means to prevent tyranny and battle between two royal houses. Yet, Lycurgus was said to have been advised by the oracle at Delphi. It was he who dictated, as if by command of the gods, that Sparta not use or import silver or gold and only use iron as currency as a means to reduce greed. It was Lycurgus who wanted citizens and landowners left free for governing and war. If only he could too present his proposals as commands from the gods!
Despite Lycurgus’ legacy, tyranny was the city’s history and probable fate unless reforms were made. Sparta’s founder would fill the deep and dark sea with tears if he could see Sparta today, fallen so far in her own eyes and in all of Hellas, mocked by all who once feared the Spartan spear. If, indeed, Spartans were descended from the loins of Hercules, the mighty one sitting with the gods on Mount Olympus, he would also be saddened by the spectacle of Sparta’s decline.
Now in the year of 244 it was over 100 years since Sparta defeated the Athenians in the great war and yet the city’s situation had worsened every year, with the worst stroke the disaster at Leuctra in 371 only fifteen years later when Epinamondas and his Thebans broke the Spartan ranks, and the flower of Spartan manhood had been wiped out. The city’s spirit was destroyed as the reputation of its military prowess sank immediately throughout Hellas.
Agis also had some ideas on how to improve Sparta’s moribund military strategy and outflank the Theban phalanx. The foot soldiers, or hoplites, needed lighter shields for more maneuverability; and greater use had to be made of cavalry. With some ingenuity and better use of resources, Agis felt reasonably certain that Sparta could now cope with the barbaric–though well trained–Macedonians who lorded over all of Hellas with their wild hordes and demanded tribute. He had to convince the entrenched Spartans to forego their drive for wealth and join in his reforms.
The first step, Agis reasoned, would be to restore discipline without the excessive training of Spartan youth as in the past. Sparta, so long a land power, also needed a strong navy. Though not even a navy can insure power and stability. Athens had a great navy, and yet Sparta remained the victor. In truth, Agis admired Athens, believing Sparta had much to learn from her major rival.
Yet, there was a corruption of Athens that Sparta must avoid. Too much freedom, like too much control, warps the people. The state must still come first; but the state must also understand as well as lead the people. Sparta had bred mindless followers; however, more independence of thought had to be allowed or the city would sink into oblivion.
Walking along the banks of the river, Agis felt a sudden surge of pride in his desire to create the changes that would, he was sure, save Sparta. Yet, he must also be cautious at excessive pride or the gods would surely strike him down. Perhaps, he stopped suddenly, this was the priestess’ hidden meaning….
Still, his plan–untold to any but Agiatis, his fair wife, and Amphares, his most loyal and cherished confidant–went against going back to a huge standing army, to forcing all boys at the age of seven to leave home and live in communal barracks, to only iron coins and with no trade or commerce to swell the city’s coffers. As soon as he revealed his plans to expand Sparta’s citizenship there would be an uproar. He would be assailed by the old guard as a would-be tyrant trying to curry favor with the masses. But Sparta had to look to the future, while carefully using what had made it powerful in the past. Rome was growing, already the Macedonia of the future, and perhaps Sparta could use the Romans to counter the greedy Macedonians.
The helots, the conquered ones, were another hurdle. Sparta must free them from their peculiar bondage and let them earn citizenship. No other part of his plan was likely to bring more opposition. He had studied Sparta’s history carefully. Conquering the Messenians had given his ancestors land, but he wondered if these victories had not become a cancer in their midst. While his former peers had received equal allotments of land, and the Messenians turned into helots and creatures of state servitude, Sparta from that time on had a discontented class of people who were always a threat to rebel. Would it not be better to let the helots be tested for citizenship, swear their loyalty, and be rewarded with the blessings the state can bestow?
The system of mortgages of the land also needed revision. More land had to be opened up to more people. Yet, Agis knew, such a move would brand him as a traitor to his own class–the 700-old families who owned most of the land. Still, for his plan to ultimately work, an end or moratorium on the ruinous debts on these lands must be approved.
True, the city’s location in their rock-filled Laconian valley ringed by mountains was far from fertile. But the Eurotas River enabled Sparta to move goods by water, and while the city lacked its own iron and copper there were good quarries of stone, marble and lime. Silver and lead mines continued to produce, but the state had to produce more food as well as other goods.
So many difficult changes to enact. How could he ever win the ephors over? Agis threw some pebbles into the dark water, listening for the slight sound of impact. While the ephors were only elected for one year periods, they wielded great power during this time. The senate, with its select twenty-eight leaders for life, did little more than agree with the ephors. And the general assembly of all Spartan citizens did even less, Agis thought dourly. If he could rouse their support, though, the ephors and the senate might have to cooperate.
And Leonidas, his co-king? Agis realized he had no idea of how Leonidas might react to his plans. The fact that Leonidas had lived at the Persian court, in great luxury according to many reports, led Agis to suspect that his noble peer would be unlikely to join with him in creating a stronger Sparta, less addicted to gold-purchased comforts. He must go to court and present himself to the ephors, pretending to be only a warrior king. Since he was barely nineteen, his youth and inexperience in statecraft would surely be held against him.
Striding away from the river and back toward court, Agis knew his mission to be clear and that he would persevere. Sparta had been great once; so, he vowed, it would be again.