In 480 B.C., an invading Persian army, two-million strong, came to the mountain pass of Thermopylae in eastern Greece. Led by King Xerxes, they were met by the finest three hundred Spartan warriors where the rocky confines were so narrow that the Persian multitudes and their cavalry would be at least partially neutralized. Here, the Greek loyalists hoped, the elite force could hold off, at least for a short while, the invading millions.
[This excerpt comes about a third of the way through the book. Its time is five or six years before the battle at Thermopylae, before anyone had any idea such a fight was coming. The Spartans are engaged in their regular training–in this case an eight-day field exercise.]
The seventh day had come and gone now, and the army had reached that stage of exhaustion and short-temperedness that the eight-nighter was contrived to produce. It was late afternoon; the men were just rousing themselves from some pitifully inadequate catnap, parched and filthy and stink-begrimed, in anticipation of the final night’s drill. Everyone was hungry and tired and drained utterly of fluid. A hundred variations were spun out on the same joke, each man’s wish for a real war so he could finally get more than a half-hour’s snooze and a bellyful of hot chow. The men were dressing their long sweat-matted hair, griping and bitching, while their squires and helots, as miserable and dehydrated as they, handed them the last dry fig cake, without wine or water, and readied them for the sunset sacrifice, while their stacked arms and panoplia [full armor] waited in perfect order for the night’s work to begin.
Alexandros’ training platoon was already awake and in formation, with eight others of the fourth age-class, boys thirteen and fourteen under their 20-year-old drill instructors, on the lower slopes below the army’s camp. These agoge [military school] platoons were regularly exposed to the sight of their elders and the rigors they endured, as a means of rousing their emulative instincts to even greater levels of exertion. I had been dispatched to the upper camp with a message stick, when the commotion came from back down across the plain.
I turned and saw Alexandros singled out at the edge of his platoon, with Polynikes, the Knight and Olympic champion, standing before him, raging. Alexandros was fourteen, Polynikes twenty-three; even at a range of a hundred yards you could see the boy was terrified.
This warrior Polynikes was no man to be trifled with. He was a nephew of king Leonidas, with a prize of valor already to his name, and utterly pitiless. Apparently he had come down from the upper camp on some errand, had passed the boys of the agoge in their lineup and spotted some breach of discipline.
Now the Peers on the slope above could see what it was.
Alexandros had neglected his shield, or to use the Doric term, etimasen, “defamed” it. Somehow he had allowed it to lie outside his grasp, face-down, untended on the ground with its big concave bowl pointing at the sky.
Polynikes stood in front of him. “What is this I see in the dirt before me?” he roared. The Spartiates [Spartans of the officer class] uphill could hear every syllable. “It must be a chamberpot, with its bowl peeking up so daintily.”
Is it a chamberpot, he demanded of Alexandros. The boy answered no.
Then what is it?
It is a shield, lord.
Polynikes declared this impossible.
“It can’t be a shield, I’m certain of that,” his voice carried powerfully up the amphitheater of the valley. “Because not even the dumbest bumfucked shitworm of a paidos [boy] would leave a shield lying face-down where he couldn’t snatch it up in an instant when the enemy came upon him.” He towered above the mortified boy.
“It is a chamberpot,” Polynikes declared. “Fill it.”
The torture began.
Alexandros was ordered to piss into his shield. It was a training shield, yes. But Dienekes [Alexandros’ warrior mentor] knew as he looked down with the other Peers from the slope above that this particular aspis [shield], patched and re-patched over decades, had belonged to Alexandros’ father and grandfather before him.
Alexandros was so scared and so dehydrated, he couldn’t raise a drop.
Now a second factor entered the equation. This was the tendency among the youths in training, those who were not for the moment the object of their superiors’ rage, to convulse with perverse glee at the misery of whatever luckless mate now found himself spitted above the coals. Up and down the line of boys, teeth sunk into tongues seeking to suppress this fear-inspired hilarity. One lad named Ariston, who was extremely handsome and the fastest sprinter of the fourth class, something of a younger version of Polynikes himself, could not contain himself. A snort escaped his clamped jaws.
Polynikes turned upon him in fury. Ariston had three sisters, all what the Lakedaemonians [Spartans] call “two-lookers,” meaning they were so pretty that one look was not enough, you had to look twice to appreciate them.
Polynikes asked Ariston if he thought this was funny.
No, lord, the boy replied.
“If you think this is funny, wait till you get into combat. You’ll think that’s hysterical.”
“Oh yes you will. You’ll be giggling like your goddam sisters.” He advanced a pace nearer.
“Is that what you think war is, you fucking come-spot?”
Polynikes pressed his face inches from the boy’s, glowering into his eyes with a look of blistering malice. “Tell me. Which do you think will be the bigger laugh: when you take an enemy spear eighteen inches up the dogblossom, or when your psalm-singing mate Alexandros takes one?”
“Neither, lord.” Ariston’s face was stone.
“You’re afraid of me, aren’t you? That’s the real reason you’re laughing. You’re so fucking happy it wasn’t you I singled out.”
“What? You’re not afraid of me?”
Polynikes demanded to know which it was. Because if Ariston was afraid of him, then he was a coward. And if he wasn’t, he was reckless and ignorant which was even worse.
“Which is it, you miserable mound of shit? Cause you’d better fucking well be afraid of me, I’ll put my dick in your right ear, pull it out your left, and fill that chamberpot myself.”
Polynikes ordered the other boys to take up Alexandros’ slack. While their pathetic dribbles of urine splotched onto over the wood and leather-padded frame, over the good-luck talismans that Alexandros’ mother and sisters had made and that hung from the inner frame, Polynikes returned his attention to Alexandros, querying him on the protocol of the shield, which the boy knew and had known since he was three.
The shield must stand upright at all times, Alexandros declaimed at the top of his voice, with its forearm sleeve and handgrip at the ready. If a warrior stand at the rest, his shield must lean against his thigh. If he sit or lie, it must be supported upright by the tripous basis, a light three-legged stand which all bore inside the bowl of the concave hoplon [shield], in a carrying nest made for that purpose.
The other youths under Polynikes’ orders had now finished urinating as best they could into the hollow of Alexandros’ shield. I glanced at Dienekes. His features betrayed no emotion, though I knew he loved Alexandros and wished for nothing more than to dash down the slope and murder Polynikes.
But Polynikes was right. Alexandros was wrong. The boy must be taught a lesson.
Polynikes now had Alexandros’ tripous basis in his hand. The little tripod was comprised of three dowels joined at one end by a leather thong. The dowels were the thickness of a man’s finger and about eighteen inches long. “Line of battle!” Polynikes bellowed. The platoon of boys formed up. He had them all lay their shields, defamed, face-down in the dirt, exactly as Alexandros had done.
By now twelve hundred Spartiates up the hill were observing the spectacle, along with an equal number of squires and helot [serf] attendants.
The boys lunged for their heavy, grounded hopla [shields]. As they did, Polynikes lashed at Alexandros’ face with the tripod. Blood sprung. He swatted the next boy and the next until the fifth at last wrestled his twenty-pound, unwieldy shield off the ground and up into place to defend himself.
He made them do it again and again and again.
Starting at one end of the line, then the other, then the middle. Polynikes, as I have said, was an Agiad [member of the royal house], one of the Three Hundred Knights and an Olympic victor besides. He could do anything he liked. The drill instructor, who was just an eirene [youth-leader still in training], had been brushed aside, and could do nothing but look on in mortification.
“This is hilarious, isn’t it?” Polynikes demanded of the boys. “I’m beside myself, aren’t you? I can hardly wait to see combat, which will be even more fun.”
The youths knew what was coming next.
When Polynikes tired of torturing them here, he would have their drill instructor march them over to the edge of the plain, to some particularly stout oak, and order them, in formation, to push the tree down with their shields, just the way they would assault an enemy in battle.
The boys would take station in ranks, eight deep, the shield of each pressed into the hollow of the boy’s back before him, with the leading boy’s shield mashed by their combined weight and pressure against the oak. Then they would do othismos [scrum-like push in battle] drill.
They would push.
They would strain.
They would fuck that tree for all they were worth.
The soles of their bare feet would churn the dirt, heaving and straining until a rut had been excavated ankle-deep, while they crushed each other’s guts humping and hurling, grinding into that immovable trunk. When the front-rank boy could stand no more, he would assume the position of the rearmost and the second boy would move up.
Two hours later Polynikes would casually return, perhaps with several other young warriors, who had themselves been through this hell more than once during their own agoge years. These would observe with shock and disbelief that the tree was still standing. “By God, these dog-strokers have been at it half the watch and that pitiful little sapling is still right where it was!”
Now effeminacy would be added to the list of the lads’ crimes. It was unthinkable that they be allowed to return to the city while this tree yet defied them; such failure would disgrace their fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins, all the gods and heroes of their line, not to mention their hounds, cats, sheep and goats and even the rats in their helots’ barns, who would hang their heads and have to slink off to Athens or some other rump-split polis [city-state] where men were men and knew how to put out a respectable fucking.
That tree is the enemy!
Fuck the enemy!
On it would go, into all-night shield drill which by mid-second-watch would have reduced the boys to involuntary regurgitation and defecation; they would be puking and shitting themselves, their bodies shattered utterly from exhaustion, and then, when the dawn sacrifices at last brought clemency and reprieve, the boys would fall in for another full day of training without a minute’s sleep.
This torment, the boys knew now as they stood under Polynikes face-lashing, was yet to come. This was what they had to look forward to.
By this point every nose in the formation had been broken. Each boy’s face was a sheet of blood. Polynikes was just taking a breath (he had tired his arm with all that swatting) when Alexandros thoughtlessly reached with a hand to the side of his blood-begrimed face.
“What do you think you’re doing, buttfuck?” Polynikes turned instantly upon him.
“Wiping the blood, lord.”
“What are you doing that for?”
“So I can see, lord.”
“Who the fuck told you you had a right to see?”
Polynikes continued his blistering mockery. Why did Alexandros think the division was out here, training at night? Was it not to learn to fight when they couldn’t see? Did Alexandros think that in combat he would be allowed to pause to wipe his face? That must be it. Alexandros would call out to the enemy and they would halt politely for a moment, so the boy could pluck a nosenugget from his nostril or wipe a turdberry from his crease. “I ask you again, is this a chamberpot?”
“No, lord. It is my shield.”
Again Polynikes’ dowels blasted the boy across the face. “‘My?'” he demanded furiously, “‘My’?”
Dienekes looked on, mortified, from where he stood at the edge of the upper camp. Alexandros was excruciatingly aware that his mentor was watching; he seemed to summon his composure, rally all his senses. The boy stepped forward, shield at high port. He straightened to attention before Polynikes and enunciated in his loudest, clearest voice:
This is my shield.
I bear it before me into battle,
but it is not mine alone.
It protects my brother on my left.
It protects my city.
I will never let my brother
out of its shadow
nor my city out of its shelter.
I will die with my shield before me
facing the enemy.
The boy finished. The last of his words, shouted at the top of his voice, echoed for a long moment around the valley walls. Twenty-five hundred men stood listening and watching.
They could see Polynikes nod, satisfied. He barked an order. The boys resumed formation, each now with his shield in proper place, upright against its owner’s thigh.
The boys lunged for their hopla.
Polynikes swung the tripod.
With a crack that could be heard across the valley, the slashing sticks struck the bronze of Alexandros’ shield.
Polynikes swung again, at the next boy and next. All shields were in place. The line protected.
He did it again from the right and from the left. Now all shields leapt into the boys’ grips, all swiftly into place before them.
With a nod to the platoon’s eirene, Polynikes stepped back. The boys held fast at attention, shields at high port, with the blood beginning to cake dry on their empurpled cheekbones and shattered noses.
Polynikes repeated his order to the drill instructor, that these sheep-stroking sons of whores would do tree-fucking till the end of the second watch, then shield drill till dawn.
He walked once down the line, meeting each boy’s eye. Before Alexandros, he halted.
“Your nose was too pretty, son of Olympieus. It was a girl’s nose.” He tossed the boy’s tripod into the dirt at his feet. “I like it better now.”