Herodotus tells us that not all of the three hundred Spartan warriors died at the hands of Xerxes, King of the Persians, in the battle of the Thermopylae: two were saved bringing a life-saving message back to the city... This is the saga of a Spartan family, torn apart by a cruel law that forces them to abandon one of their two sons - born lame - to the elements. The elder son, Brithos, is raised in the caste of the warriors, while the other, Talos, is spared a cruel death and is raised by a Helot shepherd, among the peasants. They live out their story in a world dominated by the clash between the Persian empire and the city-states of Greece - a ferocious, relentless conflict - until the voice of their blood and of human solidarity unites them in a thrilling, singular enterprise.
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Valerio Massimo Manfredi is professor of classical archaeology at Luigi Bocconi University in Milan. He has published nine works of fiction, including the bestselling Spartan and The Last Legion. The Alexander trilogy has been translated into 24 languages in 38 countries. He has written and hosted documentaries on the ancient world, and has written screenplays for cinema and television.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
CHAPTER 1: Mount Taygetus
His heart full of bitterness, the great Aristarkhos sat watching his son Kleidemos sleep quietly within the paternal shield that served as his cradle. Close by, in a little bed suspended by four ropes from the ceiling beam, slept his older brother, Brithos. The silence that enveloped the ancient house of the Kleomenids was suddenly broken by the rustling of the oaks in the nearby forest. A long, deep sigh of the wind.
Sparta, the invincible, was shrouded in darkness; only the fire that burned on the acropolis shot red flares into the black clouds of the sky. Aristarkhos shivered and pushed aside the cloth covering on the window, staring into the sleeping countryside beyond.
It was time to do what had to be done; the gods had hidden the moon and darkened the earth. The clouds in the sky were swollen with tears.
He took his cloak from the hook on the wall and threw it onto his shoulders, then bent over his tiny son. He lifted him up and slowly drew him close to his chest as the little one's wet nurse suddenly stirred in her sleep.
Aristarkhos stood uncertainly for a moment, hoping for something that would force him to put off this tremendous act. Then, reassured by the woman's deep breathing, he braced himself and left the room by the atrium, dimly lit by an earthenware oil lamp. A gust of cold wind invaded the courtyard, nearly extinguishing the weak flame. As he turned to close the heavy oaken door behind him, he saw his wife Ismene standing there like a mysterious divinity evoked by the night, pale, her eyes shining. A mortal anguish was painted on her face; her mouth, taut as a wound, seemed to contain an inhuman suffering. Aristarkhos felt his blood freeze within his veins, and his legs, sturdy as pillars, turned to straw.
"It was not for us..." he murmured with a cracked voice, "it wasn't for us that we generated him. It has to be tonight. I'll never find the courage again."
Ismene's hand reached toward the bundled child and her feverish eyes sought her husband's. The little one woke up and began to cry. Aristarkhos lunged out of the door, escaping into the countryside. Ismene, poised on the threshold, watched the man flee into the night, listened to the faint wail of her child...tiny Kleidemos, stricken by the gods while still in her womb. Born a cripple and condemned to death by the terrible laws of Sparta.
She closed the door and slowly walked to the center of the atrium, pausing to consider the images of the gods to whom she had always brought generous offerings before the child was born and to whom she had continued to pray, over these long months, to instill strength into that stiff little foot. In vain.
She sat at the hearth in the center of the huge, bare room and unwound her long, black braids, pulling her flowing tresses over her shoulders and breasts. Gathering up the ashes at the base of the great copper tripod, she spread them over her head. By the tremulous light of the oil lamp, the statues of the gods and the Kleomenid heroes stared at her, their immutable smiles carved into cypress wood. Ismene soiled her beautiful hair with ashes and slowly gouged her face with her fingernails as her heart turned to ice.
Aristarkhos fled across the wind-battered fields, his arms clutching the small bundle close to his chest. His cape whipped around him, animated by Boreas's powerful breath. He trudged up the mountain, struggling to open a path through the thick undergrowth of blackberry bushes and shrubs. Sudden flashes of lightning cast frightening shapes onto the ground. The gods of Sparta were far away in that bitter moment; Aristarkhos had to proceed alone among the dark specters of the night, among the evil creatures of the forest who lie in wait for the traveler and drag up nightmares from the bowels of the earth.
Freeing himself from the grasp of a large bush, Aristarkhos found the trail and stopped for a moment to catch his breath. The little one cried no longer, hoarse from his long wailing. Aristarkhos felt only the convulsive movements of tiny limbs within the bundle, like those of a puppy enclosed in a sack, waiting to be thrown into the river.
The warrior lifted his glance to the threatening clouds that filled the sky. He murmured an ancient oath under his breath, and then started off along the steep path as the first heavy drops of rain fell with dull thuds against the dust. Past the clearing, the bushes surrounded him again, the branches and the thorns clawing at his defenseless face as he held the bundle against his chest.
The rain, dense and heavy now, penetrated even the blackberry bushes, and the ground became spongy and slippery. Aristarkhos fell onto his knees. He was soiled by the mud and the dead, rotten leaves and cut by the sharp stones that jutted up along the steep and narrow footpath. Calling up the last of his strength, he reached the first of the great mountain's wooded summits, and entered an oak grove that rose in the middle of a clearing of thick, low cornel and broom.
The rain pelted Aristarkhos, but he continued his slow, unfaltering walk on the soaked, pungent moss, his hair pasted to his forehead and his clothing drenched. He stopped before a gigantic holm oak, older than the ages. Aristarkhos fell to his knees between the roots and deposited the small bundle within the huge hollow trunk. He paused a moment, grimly biting his lower lip, watching the small flailing arms of his son.
Water streamed down Aristarkhos's back, but his mouth was dry, his tongue stuck to his palate like a piece of leather. That which he had come to do was done. His son's destiny was now in the lap of the gods. The time had come to silence forever the voice of his blood. Rising to his feet slowly, with immense effort, as if carrying the mountain upon his shoulders, he returned the way he had come.
The fury of the elements seemed to have spent itself as Aristarkhos descended among Mount Taygetus's abrupt crags. A light fog rose, spreading between the trees, covering the dripping bushes, skimming the footpaths and the clearings. The wind continued in stiff breezes, shaking the water from the foliage. Aristarkhos shuddered with every breath; his muscles cramped violently in the cold. Stumbling down the mountain, he left the forest behind him and reached the plain. He stopped again, for just a moment, and directed a last somber glance at the mountain peak.
The glimmering waters of the Eurotas River ran through the damp fields before him, illuminated by the moon, whose frigid rays cut a broad gash between the clouds. As he began to cross the river's wooden bridge he heard a sudden noise on his left. Aristarkhos turned sharply; the faint moonlight revealed a horseman, his face hidden by a helmet, sitting erect on his steaming mount. The emblem of the royal guard flashed for an instant on his burnished shield.
Sparta...Sparta already knew! At a sharp blow of the rider's heels, the horse reared and began its gallop, disappearing with the wind, far off in the fields.
"Krios, Krios! In the name of the gods, won't you stop for a moment? Come back here, you rascal!" The small mutt paid no heed; trotting decisively down the footpath, he splashed through the puddles as the old shepherd followed him, swearing, with his uncertain step. The little dog headed resolutely toward the trunk of a colossal holm oak, howling and wagging his tail.
"Damn you!" grumbled the old man. "You'll never be a shepherd's dog...what is it this time? A porcupine, that's what it'll be, or a baby blackbird...no, it's too early in the season for the blackbirds. By Zeus and Hercules, could it be a bear cub? Krios, are you set on my ruin, you little beast? His mother will show up and kill us both." The old man finally reached the point where Krios had stopped. He stooped to pick up the dog and turn back, but suddenly stopped still, bent double. "It's no bear cub, Krios," he muttered, calming the dog with a rough caress, "it's a cub born of man. He is not even a year old!"
"Let's see," he continued, unwrapping the bundle, but when he saw the little one, numb from the cold, barely moving, a dark, grave expression passed over his face. "They've abandoned you. Yes, you were left to die...with that leg you'd never have become a warrior. And now...what shall we do now, Krios?" he said, scratching his beard. "Shall we abandon him, too? No. No, Krios, the Helots don't behave this way, we Helots do not abandon children. We'll take him with us," he decided, gathering up the bundle from the hollow of the tree. "And you'll see that we can save him. If he hasn't died yet, it means that he is strong. Let's go back now; we've left the flock unguarded."
The old man set off toward the house as the dog joined a flock of sheep at pasture nearby. He pushed open the door of the cottage and entered. "Look what I've found for you, daughter," he said, turning to a woman past her youth who was intent on curdling a great vessel of milk. The woman, with expert movements, lifted the curd with a cloth and hung it from a hook on the ceiling beam. Drying her hands in her apron, she curiously drew closer to the old man, who had laid the bundle on a bench and was carefully unwrapping it. "Look, I've just found him in the hollow of a big holm oak...it's one of them. They must have abandoned him last night. Look at his little foot, see? He's not moving it. That's why they did it. You know, when one of them is born with some defect, they just leave him to the wolves! But Krios found him and I want to keep him."
The woman, without speaking, went to fill a bladder with milk, tying one side to create a swelling and pricking it with a pin. She brought it to the lips of the little one, who began to suck slowly at the warm liquid, and then more avidly.
"Ah, I said he was strong," exclaimed the old man with satisfaction. "We'll make a good shepherd out of him. He'll live longer than if he'd remained among them. Doesn't great Achilles tell Odysseus in the Underworld that it is better to be a humble shepherd in the land of sun and life than a king among the shadows of the dead?"
The woman stared at him, her gray eyes veiled with a deep sadness. "Even if the gods have stricken his leg, he will always remain a Spartan. He is the son and the grandson of warriors. He will never be one of us. But if you wish, I will feed him and help him grow."
"Of course I want you to! We are poor and fate has made us servants, but we can give him the life that was taken from him. And he will help us in our work; I'm getting old and you have to do almost everything yourself. You were denied the pleasure of marrying and having children, my daughter. This little one needs you, and he can bring you the joy of being a mother."
"But look at his leg!" said the woman, shaking her head. "Perhaps he'll never be able to walk, and our masters will have given us only another burden to bear. Is this what you want?"
"By Hercules! The little one will walk and he will be stronger and more clever than the other boys. Don't you know that misfortune makes men's limbs more vigorous, their eyes more piercing, their minds quicker? You know what must be done, my daughter; you take care of him and never let him want for fresh milk. Steal the master's honey if you can, without letting him know. Old Krathippos is further gone than I am, and all his son thinks about is the young wife he sees once a week when he can leave the barracks. None of the family cares anymore about the fields or the flocks. They'll never notice another mouth to feed."
The woman took a large hamper and arranged some sheepskins and a woolen blanket inside. On these she rested the child, exhausted and full from his meal, already nodding with sleep.
The old man stood for a moment to watch him and then returned to the flock. Krios greeted him joyously, barking and jumping at his feet.
"The sheep! You're to stay with the flock, not with me! You dumb little mutt...do I look like a sheep? No, I'm no sheep; old Kritolaos, that's who I am, foolish old man. Away from here, I said! That's it, bring back those lambs headed for the ravine. A deranged goat would do a better job than you!"
Thus muttering, the old man reached the field where his flock was grazing. The valley opened wide before his gaze, divided by the silver ribbon of the Eurotas River. At the center of the plain glittered the city of Sparta: an expanse of low houses covered by small terraces. On one side rose the massive acropolis; on the other, the red-tiled roofs of the temple of Artemis Orthia. On the right, one could make out the dusty road that led toward the sea.
Kritolaos contemplated the beautiful countryside, resplendent with the dazzling colors of early springtime. His heart was elsewhere; his thoughts went back to the ancient times when his people, free and powerful, occupied the fertile plain: the old times, preserved in the stories passed down by old men, when the arrogant Spartans had not yet succeeded in taming his proud and unfortunate people.
The sea breeze ruffled the old man's white hair. His eyes seemed to search for distant images: the dead city of the Helots on Mount Ithome, the lost tombs of the great kings of his people, their trampled pride. Now the gods sat in the imposing city of their oppressors. When would the time for honor and revenge return? Would his tired eyes be allowed to see it?
Only the bleating of the sheep, the sound of servitude, reached his ears. His thoughts returned to the little one that he had just snatched from a sure death: Who was his family? The mother with the womb of bronze who had torn him away from her own breast? The father who had delivered him to the wild beasts of the forest? Was this the power of the Spartans? The pity that had moved him: Was it only the weakness of a servant, of a defeated race?
Perhaps, he thought, the gods mark out a destiny for each people, as they do for each man, and we must walk down that pathway, without ever turning back. What it is to be a man! Poor mortals, prey to sickness, to misfortune, as leaves are prey to the wind. But yearning to know, to judge, to listen to the voice of our hearts and our minds, yes...The tiny cripple would become a man: to suffer, perhaps, to die, certainly, but not at the very dawn of his life.
The old man knew in that moment that he had changed the course of an already marked destiny. The little one would become an adult and he, Kritolaos, would teach him all that a man needs to know to step along the pathway of life, and more! He would teach him what a man must do to change the course of the destiny that has been assigned him...the destiny of a servant.
A name. The little one needed a name. Certainly his parents must have prepared a name for him, the name of a warrior, son and grandson of warriors, the name of an exterminator. What name could one servant give to another? An ancient name of his own people? A name to remind him of the dignity of an age long past? No, the child was not a Helot, and the brand of Spartan blood could not be canceled. Yet he was no longer a son of Sparta. The city had disowned him.
Kritolaos thought of one of the old stories that the children would beg him to tell on many...
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Book Description Pan Books, 2003. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0330491024