If history is the biography of extraordinary men, the life of Alcibiades (451—404 B.C.) comprises an indispensable chapter in the chronicle of the Western world. Kinsman of Pericles, protégé of Socrates, Alcibiades was acknowledged the most brilliant and charismatic personality of his day. Plutarch, Plato, and Thucydides have all immortalized him. As the pride of Achilles drove the course of the Trojan War, so Alcibiades’ will and ambition set their stamp upon the Peloponnesian War—the twenty-seven-year civil conflagration between the Athenian empire and Sparta and the Peloponnesian league.
As a commander on land and sea, Alcibiades was never defeated. The destinies of Athens and her favored son were inextricably intertwined. Man and city mirrored each other in boldness, ambition, and vulnerability. Allied, they swept from victory to victory. Apart, he guided her foes to glory. Of the spell Alcibiades cast over his contemporaries, Aristophanes wrote that Athens “loves, and hates, and cannot do without him.” To the end, their renown and ruin were indissoluble.
Recounted by Alcibiades’ captain of marines in a mesmerizing death-row confession, Tides of War is historical fiction at its finest—a multidimensional, flesh-and-blood narration of one of history’s pivotal conflicts.
[This excerpt comes about a fifth of the way through the book. Our narrator Polemides (“Child of War,” in Greek) is an Athenian soldier, not yet thirty, who, at the time he speaks this piece, has been fighting without letup since his late teens. The Peloponnesian War, which would last twenty-seven years, is at a momentary hiatus known as the Peace of Nicias:]
X. THE JOYS OF SOLDIERING
Under the peace, states favored mercenaries over popularly-drafted troops.
Such lives lost did not haunt the politician; their acts could be disavowed
when inconvenient; if mercenaries rebelled, you held their pay; and if they
were killed you didn’t pay them at all.
You have observed the mercenary’s life, Jason. Of a year’s campaign there totals what, ten days of actual fighting? Boil it down to moments when one stands within hazard’s jaws and the tally condenses to minutes. All a man need do is survive that and he’s earned another season. Indeed the mercenary holds more in common with the foe, to preserve their lives and livelihoods, than with his own officers, seeking glory. What is glory to the soldier for hire? He prefers survival.
The mercenary never calls himself by that name. If he owns armor and hires out as a heavy infantryman he is a “shield.” Javelineers are “darts,” archers “bows.” A broker, called a pilophoros after his felt cap, will say, “I need 100 shields and 30 bows.”
No shield for hire tramps alone. Peril of robbery makes him seek a mate; it’s easier to hire on as a pair or even a tetras [four]. There are sites in each city where soldiers congregate seeking employment. In Argos a taverna named The Anthem, in Astacos a brothel called Knucklebones. In Heracleion are two hiring plazas; one beside the dry spring called Opountis, the other on the rise east of the Shrine of the Amazons, called by the locals hyssacopolis, Pussy Town.
The countryside holds sites of custom as well. A chain of bivouacs called “coops” runs from Sounium to Pella. Coop serves as noun and verb. “I need a dozen shields.” “Try the Asopus, I saw a mob cooping there.” Some sites are little more than dry slopes beside streams; others–one called Tritaeia near Cleonae, another along the Peneus near Elis simply Potamou Campsis, Where The River Bends–are quite commodious, shaded copses with part-time markets, even the rude linen shelters called hourlies, where a soldier packing a woman may obtain an interval of privacy before vacating for the next pair.
Abandoned hunting lodges are favored sites for shields overnighting on the road. One recognizes these haunts from the surrounding slopes, logged down for firewood. An informal but remarkably efficient postal service covered the country then. Soldiers packed letters among their kit, parcels and “sticks” thrust into their fists by wives and lovers or the odd mate encountered on the tramp. Each arrival at a coop would be encircled eagerly while he ran through his packet. If a man heard an absent mate’s name called, he took the letter for him, often packing it half a year before at last completing delivery.
Hiring notices, called show rags, were posted at coops and brothels, even upon landmark shade trees or beside favored springs. Learning of work, an entire coop will tramp off, electing their officers on the march. Mercenary rank is less formal than that of a state army. A captain is called by the number of men he brings. He is an “eight” or a “sixteen.” Officers are “grade-men” or “pennants,” after the service sashes they mount upon their spearpoints, as guidons in assembly and dressing the line. A good officer never lacks for men eager to serve under him, nor a good man for commanders keen to sign him on. You find a crew you can count on and stick with them.
One sees the same faces again and again in the profession. They all make the rounds. I ran into Telamon twice, on a ferry out of Patrae and at a coop on the Alpheus, before signing on with him the first fight at Tanagra. Few use their real names. Nicknames and eponyma, war names, abound. Macedonians, “macks,” make up the main of the soldiery, hazel-eyed and orange-haired. I never served with a unit that didn’t have a “Big Red,” a “Little Red” and a gang in between.
No man unblooded or unvouched for is taken on for pay. He must serve free, and none shares food or fire till he has held his ground in a fight. Later on the rallying square, the grade-man approaches. “When did you last draw wages?” “Never yet, sir.” The officer takes his name and slips him a coin or two. “Start tomorrow.” That’s it. He’s in.
Discipline too is less ceremonious among the breed for hire. In Boeotia, the first scrape under Telamon, one of our number deserted in the assault. Astonishingly this rogue was waiting in camp when we returned, wearing a shit-eater and crossing toward Telamon, spooling an alibi. Without breaking stride our captain ran him through with his nine-footer, with such force that the iron shot forth, two hands’ worth, from between the man’s shoulder blades. In the instant the fellow lingered, impaled upon Telamon’s shaft, our chief aired his edge and hacked him off at the neck. Still without a word he stripped corpse and kit, casting its contents to the whores and sutlers’ boys, leaving nothing but a naked and dishonored carcass. I chanced to be standing next to an Athenian shield we called Rabbit. He turned to me deadpan: “Point taken.”
The rhythm of the mercenary’s life is a narcotic, as the passion of the whoremonger or gambler, which careers the shield for hire, if he answers truly to that name, collaterally pursues. Its currents efface all that went before and all that will come after. First, and beyond all, fatigue. The infantrymen breathes exhaustion night and day. It has set up housekeeping in his bones. Even in a gale at sea the soldier, returned from retching over the rail, drops to the planks and corks off with ease, beard buried in the bilges.
Second stands boredom and third hunger. The soldier is footweary. He treks, ever upon the march, advancing toward some object which draws near only to be superseded by another, equally bereft of merit or meaning. The earth endures beneath his tread, and he himself stands ready to drop upon it, if not in death then exhaustion. The soldier never sees the landscape, only the burthened back of the man trudging in column before him.
Fluids dominate the soldier’s life. Water, which he must have or die. Sweat which drips from his brow and drains in runnels down his ribcage. Wine which he requires at march’s end and battle’s commencement. Vomit and piss. Semen. He never runs out of that. The penultimate, blood, and beyond that, tears.
The soldier lives on dreams and never tires of reciting them. He yearns for sweetheart and home, yet returns to the front with joy and never narrates his time apart.
Spear and sword, the manuals tell us, are the weapons of the infantryman. This is erroneous. Pick and shovel are his province, hoe and mattock, lever and crowbar; these and the mortarman’s hod, the forester’s axe and, beyond all, the quarryman’s basket, that ubiquitous artifact the rookie learns to cobble on site of reeds or faggots. And get her to set aright, my fellow, tumpline upon the brow, bowl across the shoulders with no knot to gouge the flesh, for when she is laden with rubble and stone to the measure of half your weight, you must hump her. Up that ladder, see? To where the forms of timber await to receive the fill that will become the wall that will encircle the city, whose battlements we will scale and tear down and set up all over again.
The soldier is a farmer. He knows how to shape the earth. He is a carpenter; he erects ramparts and palisades. A miner, he digs trenches and tunnels; a mason, he chisels a road from a sheer face of stone. The soldier is a physician who performs surgery without anesthetic, a priest who inters the dead without psalm. He is a philosopher who plumbs the mysteries of existence, a linguist who pronounces “pussy” in a dozen tongues. He is an architect and a demolition man, a fire brigadier and an incendiary. He is a beast who dwells in the dirt, a worm, owning a mouth and an anus and aught but appetite in between.
The soldier looks upon horrors and affects to stand indifferent to them. He steps, oblivious, over corpses in the road and flops to wolf his gruel upon stones painted black with blood. He imbibes tales that would bleach the mane of Hades and tops them with his own, laughing, then turns about and donates his last obol to a displaced dame or urchin he will never see again except cursing him from a wall or rooftop, hurling down tiles and stones to cleave his skull.
Half a dozen times with the macks of our coop we trekked through the pass at Thermopylae. Tourists, we trooped the Wall and dug for Persian bronzeheads on the hillock where the Three Hundred made their immortal stand. What would they think, these knights of yore, to behold war as we fought it? Not Hellene against barbarian in defense of sacred soil, but Greek against Greek out of partisanship and zealotry. Not army to army, man to man, but party against party, father against son, and bring the kids and Mom to sling a stone or slice a throat. What would these heroes of old think of civil conflagration in the streets of Corcyra, when the democrats surrounded four hundred aristoi [nobles] within the temple of Hera, lured them forth with sacred oaths, then slaughtered them before their infants’ eyes? Or the massacre of 600 in the same city, when the demos walled their foes within a hostelry, tore off the roof and rained death with brick and stone, that the immured wretches in despair slew themselves by driving into their throats the very arrows they were being shot down with and hanged themselves with the straps of the bedstands? What would they make of the fate of Melos or Scione, when the order came from Athens to slaughter all males and sell the women and children for slaves? How would they countenance their own countrymen’s massacre of the men of Hysiae, or their conduct in the siege of Plataea, when the sons of Leonidas put to their captives one query only–“What service have you performed for Sparta?”–then butchered them to the last man?
I had a woman in those years, of Troezen originally, though when she was drunk she claimed to be from Salamis. Her name was Eunice, Fair Victory. She had been the camp wife of my mate, a captain-of-eight named Automedon who died, not of wounds, but a tooth of all things, infected. Eunice came into my bed that same night. “You should not be with whores.” Quick as that she became my woman.
In what ways was she different from my bride Phoebe? Do you care, Jason? I’ll tell you anyway.
As my dear bride was a blossom grown within the cloistered court, this dame Eunice was a shoot sprung upon the storm. This flower grew wild. She was the kind of woman you could leave with a comrade and she wouldn’t fuck him behind your back. You’d return and they’d be laughing together, she cooking him something, and when he took his leave he’d tug you aside. “If you catch iron, I’ll look out for her.” The supreme compliment.
Eunice was wise. When she ploughed you, her ankles set alongside your ears and her fingers clamped you hard at the ribs. You felt her greed for you and your seed and even though you knew she’d move on to the next man with as little ceremony as she’d crossed to you, you couldn’t complain. There was an integrity to it.
We were in Thrace one year under contract to Athens, raiding villages to support the fleet. The enterprise was preposterous; forty men would trek three days into the hills and come back with a single starving sheep. The wild tribes defended their flocks on horseback, with painted faces and magic symbols plastered on the flanks of their runt ponies. It was like warfare from an era antecedent to bronze, a thousand generations before Troy. To stumble back alive to camp, without even a fly for shelter, and roll atop one’s woman on the steppe … this was not all bad.
The soldier’s life is primordial; surrendered to it he reverts to a state not just preliterate but prehistoric. That is its appeal.
I had slain my sister Meri.
My edge had opened her throat.
What remained for me but to wander, as far as war could bear me, to tramp upon the earth and bleed on it and dare it to enfold me beneath its mantle? Of course it didn’t. Why? Had I become so without worth that I would live forever?