Since I have written quite a bit about my book The Wandering King , thought I would share a small sliver. Below is the first half of the opening chapter. It is told from the perspective of Euryanax, a grandson of the Spartan King Anaxandridas, and the nephew of the famous Leonidas of ‘300’ fame. At this point in history, Leonidas is approximately 20 years old and won’t become a king of Sparta for another 25 years.
Greek words are italicized in the text and defined in a glossary at the back of the book. Most should be fairly self-explanatory. The ‘agoge’ was the name of the mandatory military training school that all Spartan boys attended from ages 7-20. The ‘Planistai’ was the name of a festival held annual at Sparta involving two teams of 12-year old boys and girls.
* * * * * * * * *
In union there is strength.
“You are a big boy,” said my cousin Gorgo, poking at the faint muscles in my arms and chest. It was true. I was a head taller than the boys in my herd, the twelve-year old pais from the Pitane Village called the crickets.
Gorgo and the girls of Amyklae Village our age called the sparrows had been teamed with us. In the agoge, the instructors loved teaming boys and girls of different villages. It was supposed to teach us how to fight together, instead of against one another, which we did constantly.
“I know our fathers hate each other,” she said, “but I like you. You don’t pick on the smaller boys like Pausanias does. I’ve watched you defend them.” She looked up at me. “I want you to stand by me today. You will, won’t you cousin?”
I could only shrug in response. Gorgo and her father, my uncle Cleomenes, had just returned home from a diplomatic trip overseas to Miletus with the Senator Chilon. Because our fathers were estranged, we rarely saw one another. To me she was a skinny kid with short brown hair that stuck out at odd angles, freckles and a sun burnt nose, but there was something regal about Gorgo. Perhaps it was the snobby way she said her father would be king one day, and whoever married her would inherit the Agiad throne.
Gorgo kept talking, but I paid her little attention. There was so much activity going on around us, I was a bit distracted. The crickets and the sparrows stood on the Bridge of Heracles that led to a small grassy island on the Eurotas River covered with ancient plane trees. On the other side of the river stood an identical stone bridge, dominated by a statute of the lawgiver Lycurgus. In his shadow stood a similar group of boys and girls our age. We were about to compete in an annual ritual called the Planistai, the Festival of the Plane Tree Grove. Men and women crowded both banks of the river talking, laughing and watching. Somewhere among them were my father Dorieus and my mother Phile.
My uncle Leonidas gathered us together around him at the base of the statue of Heracles. “Come here little ones.” Leonidas was beardless with long blonde braids dangling around his handsome face. He grinned merrily about the sizeable bet he’d placed on us to win the Planistai. “You know what to do. Push the other team into the Eurotas. And you win. It’s that easy. Now,” Leonidas said lowering his voice and dropping down on one knee. “Here’s how you achieve victory. The trees drop sticks and branches. Grab whatever you can and use it as a weapon. A good whack will drive those little brats from Mesoa into the water.”
As my uncle flashed us a winning smile, I couldn’t help but notice how his blue eyes and blonde hair were all very much like my father’s. But that’s where the similarities ended. While my father Dorieus reminded me of the hero Achilles, my uncle Leonidas took after the wily Odysseus. My father was a giant, the type of man that tackled problems head on, as if there wasn’t any obstacle in life he couldn’t batter down with his spear. Leonidas was not as large, nor did he go through life like a ram butting heads with everyone like Dorieus did. Instead Leonidas preferred to use clever, sometimes devious means, to get what he wanted.
Gorgo lifted her hand for permission to speak, and said. “Last year during the Planistai a boy lost an eye and two girls were killed. If you hurt anyone, you’ll be thrown out of the agoge.” Meaning, you would become one of the hypomeiones, the inferiors, a class of Spartans who had no rights.
“Well, you don’t have to crack their skull,” Leonidas said standing, “or poke their eyes out. Hit them on the legs…”
“No,” Gorgo said firmly. “We should fight fair. With just our hands and feet.”
Not one to be bested by a child, especially a little girl, Leonidas laughed. “All right, have it your way. I was just trying to help.” Wiping his hand across his face as if trying to wipe away his annoyance, my uncle left us. Along with the people gathered on the banks of the Eurotas, we waited for the signal from the flutists standing by the two kings, my grandfather Anaxandridas and his co-monarch, King Ariston.
Sparta was unique in that we had two royal houses, the Agiad House and the Eurypontid House, descended from twin grandsons of Heracles named Eurysthenes and Procles. Our match was of special interest to the kings because it pitted the grandchildren of the two houses against one another. Fighting for the Agiads were my cousins Pausanias, Gorgo and myself, while on the other side of the river representing the Eurypontids was a boy named Othrias, the grandson of King Ariston.
While we waited for the signal to begin, a chorus of 12-year old pais from the village of Kynosoura sang a song by Alkman …
“I am your servant, Artemis.
You draw your long bow at night,
clothed in the skins of wild beasts.
Now hear our beautiful singing…”
“Listen to me, all of you!” Gorgo said after Leonidas had left. “Everyone pick a partner. Team up. Hold hands. One boy and one girl. Together we go after them one at a time. Use the wrestling tricks Idmon taught you in the palestra. Trip them. Knock them down. And then together with your partner pick them up and throw them in the water. Do this, and we will win.”
“No girl is going to tell me what to do,” my cousin Pausanias snorted. Especially not the daughter of Cleomenes. Pausanias was a husky boy, with a thick neck, gloomy, deep-set dark eyes, a face full of pimples and a broad, pug nose that had always made me think of him as a wart hog. Like the rest of the crickets his head was shaven.
“Have you got a better idea?” Gorgo asked. “If so, let’s hear it.”
Of course he didn’t. Even though Gorgo was too skinny to be attractive and there was something pushy about her, I decided her plan was better than no plan. “Do as she says,” I urged the crickets. They looked at me unhappily. The boys my age respected me, if only because I was the tallest, but I wasn’t sure if they would listen this time. Holding hands with a girl was asking a lot. Some glum, some smiling, some complied, some edged away looking nervous.
Pausanias sneered at me, “What kind of sissies hold hands with girls?”
“Just do it!” Gorgo yelled grabbing my hand.
I had to control the urge to shake her off, but I did it to oppose Pausanias, then felt my cheeks turning bright red as he laughed at me. Gorgo continued to encourage the crickets and sparrows to pair up. They looked at Gorgo and I holding hands, then looked at one another bashfully as they found a partner. As they did, the chorus finished their song and King Ariston started a prayer to Zeus Ouranios. While we waited, I noticed Gorgo was trembling beside me.
“Are you all right?”
She looked at me wide-eyed. “I am so excited!”
Suddenly the air filled with the sound of flutes as a dozen auletes piped the start of the contest.
As we started to run across the bridge toward the island Gorgo squeezed my hand. “Hold hands with your partner!” Gorgo yelled, her eyes bright with anticipation. “Work together!”
Gorgo’s little fingers felt as puny as a puppy’s paw in my grasp. My age-mates looked at one another uncertainly. No boy wanted to run out in front of the whole city holding hands with a girl.
Shouting eagerly, most of the crickets let go of their partner’s hands as boys and girls from both sides of the Eurotas ran across the bridges onto the narrow island. Wearing the pelt of the Nemean lion over his brawny shoulders, the statue of Heracles looked down at me as I ran past. I offered up a quick prayer to my ancestor, asking him to breathe his strength into me, if only for a little while.
As we spilled onto the small, grassy island of a dozen ancient plane trees, the men on both banks clapped their hands to show their approval, while the women laughed and sang. Without pause, like two opposing phalanx’s on the battlefield, the crickets and sparrows charged the frogs and the wrens.
Because I was holding onto Gorgo’s hand, a strange thing happened. We ran at a 12-year old boy of average height. Without even speaking—Gorgo and I bore down on him, gathered him up between our joined arms and used our combined momentum to force him backwards through the trees and right into the water.
The crowd applauded and cheered. We had made the first score.
The scene beneath the ancient plane trees was bedlam. The majority of our teammates had let go of their hands and were busy punching, kicking, and biting our opponents as both sides grappled and tackled one another.
With Gorgo screaming in my ear, the two of us ran back across the grass, still holding hands. We singled out a lone wren from Limnai, a blonde-haired girl with blood seeping from her nose. This time the force of our joint attack bowled the little girl over. She went sprawling on the ground.
“Get her leg!” Gorgo shouted. We each grabbed one of the fallen girl’s kicking feet and dragged her into the water. “That was fun!” my cousin laughed gaily. “Let’s get another one!”
And so it went. Our teammates took note of what Gorgo and I were doing, found their partner and began to mimic our actions. While King Ariston’s grandson Othrias did manage to overpower a cricket and a sparrow, pick them up and throw them into the water, Gorgo’s strategy worked. Pausanias and Othrias met and began wrestling on the ground, while pairs of boys and girls from Pitane and Amyklae grabbed Mesoa’s frogs and Limnai’s wrens and pulled them one at a time into the Eurotas. Once they landed in the chill water they were out of the contest and waded glumly up the far banks to join their friends.
Some of our opponents tried to adopt what we were doing, but because they had not paired up previously, confusion reigned among them, to the point that some of their members struck one another when a boy or girl tried to grab their hand. Not that it mattered. Once we had gained numerical superiority, the outcome was inevitable. Groups of crickets and sparrows grabbed the frogs and wrens’ flailing arms and legs and tossed them into the shallow water that usually ran clear, but today ran muddy.
Gorgo shrieked with delight as four of us threw a bellowing boy named Kleitos high into the air. He landed with a loud splash in the center of the stream. Looking around, I realized there were no more frogs or wrens left, except Othrias, who rolled around on the grass wrestling with Pausanias. They were both cut and bleeding, and I saw a bruise made from Pausanias’ teeth on Othrias’s shoulder.
Grabbing one of Othrias’s ankles, I would have helped Pausanias defeat the grandson of King Ariston, but my cousin would have none of it. “No,” Pausanias rasped. He’d been fighting the Eurypontid for much longer than a wrestling match in the palestra and he was exhausted. “He’s mine.”
While Pausanias was squat, strong and determined, Othrias was tall like myself, wiry and just as bull-headed. The two punched and beat on one another till they were both so weary they could hardly lift their arms.
As Pausanias rolled around on the ground, I saw his hand close around a sturdy stick. Before he could raise his arm to strike the royal frog, I stepped on my cousin’s wrist, pinning it down.
“Enough of this! Let’s finish it.” Gorgo cried. “Throw him in!” Having established herself as a leader among us, we listened to her. The crickets parted the two combatants. Pausanias struck blindly at his own teammates, while fair-haired Callicrates, whose name meant ‘most handsome,’ and identical twins named Alpheus and Maron helped me pick up the weary Othrias. Each of us taking an arm or a leg, we lifted King Ariston’s grandson off the ground, carried him through the grove, and owing to his position within the Eurypontid royal house, we dropped him gently into the water.
More than half of the crickets and wrens still stood on the grass of the plane tree grove, while the Lacedaemonians on both sides of the Eurotas River applauded. For a single day in our young lives, we understood what it felt like to be heroes.