by Thomas Brown
AN HONEST MAN
One may make eunuchs out of men,
but no one can make a man out of a eunuch.
– Diogenes, 4th Century B.C.E.
Plataea, Greece, 479 BC
The battle had exhausted them both. They sat around a fire stoked by a flaming arrow lodged in the chest of a fallen hoplite, now under a pile of corpses popping and squirming unnaturally in the blaze. Pyres like this burned all around them, littering the now quiet field. Olorus reclined on the ground against the body of his dead horse, absentmindedly stroking the mane. Aitiais unfastened a water bladder clasped against another slain Greek soldier recently thrown onto the fire. He drank heavily and tossed the bag to his Greek brother-in-arms, startling Olorus out of his reverie.
“Brother,” Olorus asked after a long drink, “have you no wine?”
“We are drunk already, Olorus, on wrath and reckless death. Should we keep this pace, the victor – whoever the gods decree that to be – shall have few celebrants to praise his victory.” He poked the fire with his sword, turning over a charred torso. “Alien as these Persian barbarians may be, they burn well. Perhaps we are too hasty in driving them out. With sufficient numbers we could provoke a greater conflagration than even old Hephaestus had seen in his forge. Save our lumber for much needed battlements and ships.”
“Truly, I have never been so thankful for the inattentiveness of the gods. Barbarians burning beside good Greeks—Aeschylus’ shame would burn brighter than these pyres.”
“Times like these consume and test our souls. Charlatans abound in the guise of generals, philosophers, commanders, and politicians, all deceiving themselves into an illusory belief in their own wisdom and moral integrity. Perhaps the gods withhold their attention until they see a participant worthy of it.” Aitiais spat into the fire; a glob of phlegm disappeared among the sizzling fat and blood.
“Are we not worthy?” Olorus asked.
Aitiais thought a moment, removing the greaves from his shins before the bronze armor became too hot. “The only thing I am worthy of this day, friend, is the assistance of a woman in unbridling my loins.” He set the greaves on the ground beside the bladder and exaggeratedly adjusted himself beneath his skirt. “I am tired of swords, and welcome a feminine sheath for my arsenal.”
“Aye, if I do not see my wife soon, I might just take temporary vows with a sheep from the supply train. I may not be particular either—it could be shorn, butchered and seasoned and still relieve my urges.”
Aitiais groaned. “Do not mention food. I am tired of these meager provisions. Men need more than stale bread and barely seasoned goat for sustenance.”
“Indeed. I’m unsure what I will open first, the pantry or my wife’s legs.”
“You have a touch of the poet about you.” Aitiais laughed. “What is your occupation in the real world?”
“Droving in Halimous and mining in Thrace. My wife and brother tend the family businesses in my absence. And you, do you have family awaiting your return?”
“My family and my life is Athens.” He stared deeply into the fire. “The gods took my wife and denied me a son all at once. Since then, my comfort and task has been instruction in rhetoric, logic, and grammar. My students, such as remain, will be too eager to ply stories from me with bribes of wine and women.”
“Such as remain? Surely, not all of them will have been involved in this noble misadventure.” Olorus gestured to the field around them.
“Two seasons ago, one of the battles at Thessaly saw no less than a dozen of my students, nearly a third of the total, fall to Persian swords. War has a method of interminable heartbreak. So I maintain doubt as to how many of my charges will still be such on my return.”
They passed the bladder back and forth, drinking in silence, ignoring the crackle of human flesh that kept them warm. Three soldiers strode past, offering an exhausted salute. Olorus dragged the point of his sword across the burnt ground, drawing crude goats and phalluses in the dirt.
Aitiais asked, “When did you come to the defense of Greece?”
“When I heard of Darius’ burning of the fields around Epidamnus, I felt a kinship with those nobles who sweat and bled for their animals. I tend the herds, I enjoy it. Most of my family’s income is derived from the Thracian properties but the herd is what I love. I feel like a man in the fields. ” Olorus stroked the stiff neck of the dead horse.
“The fight came close to Thrace, are you not worried?”
“Always. However, my brother has mastered the mine operations and long ago proved himself a good steward. There is little more that could be done to assuage my fear. I had to practically beg him to remain with the family and keep watch over our holdings. No easy task. Being the younger son, his veins boiled for the battlefields since covered in our blood and piss.”
“Were you not once so riled by the thought of glory?”
“What Greek wasn’t?”
“Boys dream of manhood, men dream of godhood. In between we have the last vestige of innocent, dangerous ignorance. You convinced him to stay, then?”
“I did. With no small amount of guilt and fear on my part. My wife was unhappy with my decision. ‘Mines be damned,’ she said, ‘your brother fighting beside you, keeping you safe is more valuable than gold.’”
“Women are often full of illogic but do you consider her position to be ill-conceived?”
Olorus sat quiet, bladder in hand. “Initially, I was angry. In tandem with my brother she sought to undermine my familial authority. I refused to hear her. I argued with my brother.”
“May I ask, how did you justify your decision? Many would say that it is the duty of a man to defend his polis, you denied your brother that opportunity.”
“Just as many would suggest that the first duty is to family and deme; one’s land and neighbors provide comfort and sustenance and should be properly defended as well. However, I had no stomach to consider returning to a home that no longer bore the characteristics that made it so. For many nights, Morpheus haunted me with images of ravaged fields, slaughtered herds and murdered family. A homestead empty of love was not worth contemplating.”
“You made your decision out of fear?”
“And make no apologies for it,” Orolus said.
“I meant no offense, merely indulging my curiosity,” Aitiais replied.
“Of course. You are an educated man and educated men tend towards such habits.”
“All men are educated, all men are moral, it is the limits of each which define our character. For my part, the first duty is to oneself. Any man with designs on my life will be met with the sword.”
“Is there not something greater for which to offer your life and effort?”
“There is no doubt. But it would be my choice to do so. I would have given my life and every other man’s to keep my wife beside me. Just as you would do for yours, gods and duty be damned. And should I have my next meal in Hades, I will meet my son there and he will be proud of my example.” Aitiais fell on his back with a sigh, the warm ground moist beneath him. “I yearned to give my own son the benefits of my learning. Life can be cruel, and often so. Have you a son?”
“As yet, he exists only in my heart.” Olorus sat up, facing his comrade. “However, when my seed eventually blossoms, he will be named after a distant cousin. Thucydides. A strong man of royal descent in Athens. I believe he fights with the Spartans at Samos, although I do not know. When I have a son of age and he is old enough, would you be willing to educate him in the arts and the gods as your student?”
“It would be an honor and a pleasure. Though I spare little time for the gods these days.” Aitiais spat the words into the fire. “With as little as they have done for me, I feel no compunction to tell others of their existence.”
“You would not teach men to know their gods?” Olorus asked warily.
“I prefer to teach men to know themselves,” Aitiais replied. “Morality and knowledge may be the property of the gods but they benefit only men. My curriculum is one of constant inquiry, reflection and self-awareness.”
“Know thyself.” Olorus nodded in recognition. “You visited Delphi, then?”
“I did. That wisdom, plus the horror of these past years in bloody service to besieged Greece, has perhaps lent me insights which will alter my teaching. In truth, this is the first in many months that I have considered it.”
Troops moved in around them, men from Corinth, Megara, and Athens. Weary soldiers, muddy and blood-caked, sat down around the other fires. Metal clanked and banged as they divested themselves of shields, swords, helmets and greaves, dropping them onto the ground. They warmed themselves, passing bladders of water and wine, and rebuked the silence with the low murmur of talk. Before long, deep snores, punctuated by the occasional burst of raucous laughter, filled the air.
Olorus joined a group of Athenians, returning with a wine-bladder that he handed to Aitiais. “So you have not forsaken the gods then, Aitiais?”
With a grateful hand, he drank the wine. “No more than they have forsaken me. Forgive my sacrilege, Olorus. My tongue has been loosened by carnage and disappointment, what passes my lips may be recanted once my calm is restored.”
“No apologies are necessary. War makes a mess of the minds of men as much as it does their bodies.”
“All I can promise you right now, brother, is honesty. And the search for it. I have decided that my curriculum shall be concerned with the creation of honest men. A truly honest man, aware of himself, of his limitations, of his advantages, and of his obligations. I will provide instruction in logic, grammar, and rhetoric so that my students may recognize themselves and others honestly. That they make a discussion amongst themselves, putting truth to trial. Fulfillment of one’s personal potential is a moral duty, the earnest achievement of such should be the goal of education. The promises of the world given to us by the gods supply many examples of righteous behavior, belief in those gods is not requisite.”
“What do you believe in, then?” Olorus asked as he nestled back against the fur of his horse-corpse pillow.
“I believe in you, brother.” His hands swept over the fire, encompassing the entire field and all the men in it. “As I believe in all my fellow Greeks standing beside me. I fight for myself and for you and for them. Whether or not the gods exist, it is not in their hands that I place my life. It is in yours. And the other soldiers around us. I have witnessed more bravery in these past years than I have read or considered in all the legends, all the philosophies, and all the prophecies created by man. I follow the example of brave Greeks, like you, not that of the gods.”
Olorus was asleep. Aitiais sighed, pulled his cloak over himself, and closed his eyes. His wife and son waited for him in his dreams and he thanked the gods for allowing even such a fleeting vision of his beloveds.