The End of Sparta: An Excerpt

by Victor Davis Hanson

As the Thebans help the freed helots build their new city of Messenê, the Argive general Epitêles decides his men are no longer needed and will head home to Argos, leaving the Thebans and Messenians to their work:

Epitêles did not back down. “I and my Argives, we feel no better or worse from freeing them, and hardly think their freedom is a gift. Sparta is weak. Finished as we know it. She has no farmers to feed her phalanx, and won’t march out of Lakonia, at least for a while. That is good enough for me and mine. These helots can do what they like.” Epitêles laughed and for the next few days kept patrolling with his guard to hunt down more thieves who were stealing from the bread carts next to the scaffolds. He knew men by nature to be bad. They would kill and worse if they were not tired from work or scared of punishment. It was not in his nature to build, so he did what he knew best, he punished and hoped he killed more guilty than innocent — and worried little when he did not. “These Thebans can free anyone they please. But then who can’t do that? But they have no idea how to knock heads and keep these half-tamed on their leashes. Zeus in heaven, I think these Boiotians want to be liked rather than feared.”

That the helots slacked off from the walls was of no real concern to Epitêles, other than as reason enough to kill those who were probably stealing rather working. When enough were executed to discourage the no-goods, Epitêles would head home to Argos and the hard life among the murderous factions there. And so he did soon, and passed out of the history of the Hellenes.

Epaminondas thought he had Epitêles right when he had said of him, “Don’t wonder that he will leave us soon, but instead ask why this man in fur has even come. He is a warrior, one who wakes up in the morning promising to cut down Spartans and goes to bed each night in lamentation that he has not killed enough of them. We won’t see his like again in Hellas. He’s the good coin side to Lichas, though both are at home killing and so more alike than we think. Maybe our Chiôn if he lives, is a third who could join this cabal of Aiases. But for now thank our One God that Epitêles was on our side.”

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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