The End of Sparta was released this week. Here is an excerpt: The Boiotians vote to invade Sparta. But before the assembly breaks up the old philosopher Alkidamas speaks to the crowd:
The applause quieted down, as if the crowd itself had been stunned by their own spontaneous roaring. But what now? Did they know where the ripples of their wild assent would lap? Would harsh Reason goad them back to quiet? Then Mêlon for the first time noticed that the sophist Alkidamas, of all people, not the other Boiotarchs or once again Pelopidas, or the Athenians, was approaching the bêma, both arms upraised with his big open palms to calm the crowd — as if this were his plan, as if it had been his army all along.
The Athenians were murmuring and starting to become nervous; they were surrounded by now frenzied Boiotians. Then Alkidamas spoke: “I take this thunder as a voice vote that we are to march under General Epaminondas in the morning before the frost melts. Pelopidas as his habit will be in charge of the marching order. Look out in the plain below; the muster is nearly complete and only awaits our nod. Let the Boiotarchs sort out the details. The seven generals who had doubts have already ceded their command over to our two leaders. I have nothing to add to the promises of Epaminondas — other than this.” Now Alkidamas himself also grew quiet, not quite sure what he would say next.
But speak he did. For the great sophist of the Hellenes was possessed, he would say later, by an inexplicable fire, one from the mouth of Pythagoras himself. So the words came out not entirely his own. “No man is born by nature a slave — this curse that so often makes the strong and wise unfree and the weak and dull their master.”
The crowd was bewildered at these lofty thoughts so out of place in a sermon to march to war, but stayed quiet for more. “Beware of those who say the Messenian helots know nothing of letters as if they were man-footed beasts of dim wits and animal grunts. They are unfree because they live next to the Spartans. So we the Boiotians, and Kallistratos and his fancy Athenians, might well have been as well, had our borders butted such a race of granite as those who wear the red capes. The Messenians will be free thanks to the strong right arms of the Boiotians.”
Now Alkidamas waved his arms and yelled to the crowd in far louder fashion than had Epaminondas. “Yes, they will have their free city of Messenê.” With that, Alkidamas stepped down and abandoned the politics of Boiotia for good, for this man of action also had business himself in the Peloponnesos. As the assembly of the Boiotians broke up, the white-haired sophist lumbered over to Mêlon, who put his hands on the shoulders of the old man and raised his voice over the din, “I hope to be alive to hear all that again, your defense of the Messenians, this no man a slave. I think you have the beginning of a real speech some day from these embers that flared up in your chest as if the One God of ours was working your bellows.”
Then he pointed where the general had stalked out of the assembly. “This winter Epaminondas will go beyond his tenure that expires at the new year. Then I wager that we will all be renegades. It will be our choice to be right and dead with Epaminondas or wrong, alive— and growing old— with Backwash. We all go out under the command of Epaminondas who soon will find himself an outlaw general. There will be a death sentence when — or if — we return, earned for the freedom of distant slaves.”
Alkidamas then barked to Mêlon over the noise, “When the law is in service to servitude, and its violation means freedom, then the choice for a good man is not hard. If the helots are freed and we tramp back alive, then our faces will be chiseled in marble on the high temples at Delphi. But if we trip, well, then you know the fate of Epaminondas and all of us who follow. There won’t be a gorge — not even the Apothetai of the Spartans — big enough to hide all our corpses.”
©2011 Victor Davis Hanson