PART II | Beginnings
Notium, port for Colophon, Ionia
With a lightness of spirit, and young heart beating with the prospect of adventure, assured of success, I bid farewell to the licentious city-state of Colophon with no regrets, save the teary wrenching apart from Servilia.
Plans have been laid, and promises duly made. Despite her tenderness and advocacy for my future plans, I feel guilty for leaving her. Parting is always more difficult for the one left behind.
Valerius of course, playing at the merchant businessman, has a quite different response.
“I’ve got a proprietorial investment in you, Epicurus,” he remarks, in mock severity, accompanied by his signature winking, “and look forward to a handsome return.”
I am startled, even amused, to find that both Valerius and my father are together, chatting away in animated discussion, on the dock at Notium. My father had come to accept the inevitable, still ambivalent at my departure, but without the opposition I had once dreaded. Valerius’ beneficent funding and patronage had clinched the arrangement, undercutting most objections.
In the end, my father is compelled to give me a furtive, parting hug, a vicarious admission that he will miss me, unstated, though appreciated all the same.
Now comes my first day dawning at sea, radiant and resplendent, portentous of the new, pristine life unfolding before me. As the arched prow of the Hector knifes through the crystalline waters of the North Aegean, the grey-green smudge of the Ionian coast in the distance, I look towards the stern of our stout vessel, gently heaving and yawing in a following sea.
Merchant Galley, “HECTOR”
The Hector is one of Valerius’ commodious merchant galleys, complete with a second bowsprit mast. It’s captain, Master Panyotis is nuggety and sun-wrinkled, with a memorable paunch and that jolly disposition that comes with an unimpeachable authority. The cargo manifest shows three hundred amphora below deck, mostly wine and olive-oil, the rest being grindstones serving the dual role of trading goods and ship’s ballast.
A small cabin, seemingly appended as an afterthought, rests disproportionately at the stern as shelter for the ship’s master and the few experienced freedmen, “old hands”. Otherwise, the linen awnings, flapping loudly as the ship rolls, provide the deck-crew’s only respite from the sun and fluky weather.
The billowing mainsail is the typical Attic square of coarse linen, with twin rudder-oars for steerage. When Aeolus, god of all winds, leaves us becalmed, then the crew turn to oars with leather skirting, set below the high gunnels. Mostly enslaved, but well-treated and ebullient, the crew are swarthy types, unshackled, barrel-chested Scythians, jowly Thracians, and a few North Africans, burnt to darkest ebony by the Mediterranean sun.
Such a glorious day, fresh, clear, with a blue, blue sea fading invisibly into a cerulean sky. It’s Spring, the prime season for voyaging, few storms, fair winds, and warming weather, making for a pleasant passage.
This is the Aegean at its finest, dolphins gamboling, tuna shoaling, flights of cormorants and kingfishers diving and feasting on the gathering pods of sardines. There’s even a semi-resident Pelican with the Homeric moniker of “Ulysses”, all affirming that I too am an integral member of Nature’s great Chain of Being.
My senses wholly absorbed in these glowing, wordless experiences, an old, ‘egregious’ habit imposes itself on the moment. Like the cormorants, I can’t resist the temptation of picking things apart.
“A Chain, being unilateral and predictable, is not really an apt description of Nature,” goes my thinking, relentlessly, “rather it is more truly like a Web, but in three dimensions, florid, unpredictable, and unexpected. Nature is Ecstatic, the antonym of Static, which is how the Aristotelians mistakenly describe it.”
Surrounded by the abundant, bursting natural world, I take my own thought to heart, yet another portent. Life should be lived, dynamic and organic, so that I welcome my thinking too as a personal augury from Nature. All my experiences, thinking included, are part of the whole, inseparably. I’ve heard that the immensity of the ocean does that to people. I fear that I’m already slipping into mysticism, or worse still, becoming a Platonist!
Even the ship has eyes, vividly painted on each side like all our vessels, so that the Hector can see its way around dangers, for safe guidance, or at least good-luck, if nothing else.
We will need this assurance when we enter the narrows of the Hellespont, encrusted with heroic legends and cyclopian myths, past the ancient remains of Troy, on route to our final destination, Lampsacus. Shipwrecks are not uncommon in the Hellespont, due to the fast-flowing waters, and swirling eddies, which unpredictably, may degenerate into roaring maelstroms.
Such tidal occurrences are far from being the only danger. Pirates also, with a reputation for cruelty, are an ever present scourge in the confines of the Hellespont narrows. Sluggish, heavily-laden trading vessels like the Hector, caught in tidal races, with little ability to maneuver, are especially at risk.
Master Panyotis and the freemen crew are armed of course, but inexperienced. On the other hand, I am a hoplite, the only one trained in heavy infantry shock combat in full armor, or hoplomachia, now a ‘marine’ by circumstance. By Valerius’ insistence, I am carrying on board, my javelin, sling, short-sword, and aspis, a large dish-shaped wooden shield.
Carefully oiled and stored below, is that most precious of military belongings, my bronze breastplate, shin armor, and vivid crested helmet. In case of pirates, it seems that I, a fresh-faced philosopher of the tranquil life, have been designated to lead the phalanx in our defense. I’m chuffed by the honor bestowed on me, but even more so, am I tickled by the exquisite irony of a philosopher heading the charge! Then I remember that Socrates was a hoplite also, and veteran of many savage battles, even a hero on at least one occasion.
Aeolus remains benign however, giving us a fair wind and a following sea, with the redoubtable Hector gently rolling and pitching, full-speed ahead for a gallant old tub! Pirates, be damned!
By mid-afternoon of the second day, an ominous line of black storm clouds, with dense, towering thunderheads has appeared on the horizon, accompanied by lightning and booming thunder. The once luminous blue sky has now turned slate-grey, ugly and foreboding, with heavy rain squalls hissing across the white-crested seas of the oft-treacherous North Aegean. I’m impressed to see my first waterspout, ahead of the storm line, a spiral column of air and water, funneling upwards. The Master is less impressed.
“We’re in for it now,” Master Panyotis growls instructions, above the howling of the wind.
“Lash and stow everything loose on deck, starting with the hatches. We don’t want to end up on our beam-ends.”
The crew have followed the same storm protocol countless times, and know it well, anticipating the master’s orders. They spring into lively action, each knowing his place, hard-reefing the mainsail, and tightly furling the small mizzen-sail. I try to help where I can, though I feel like useless cargo.
The master continues with his litany, as an act of general reassurance, but I suspect, more for my benefit as a pacifier.
The heavily-laden vessel is now wallowing comfortably between blue-green combers, her sails reefed, with an occasional white-capping sea wave breaking over the deck. Master Panyotis tells me calmly that the Hector has weathered a hundred such gales and is purposely built to withstand these conditions, and much worse. I hope not, mercifully, since my stomach is already roiling.
“Play out the hawser,” he orders, “a sea-anchor will reduce our yawing and risk of broaching.”
I note that the hawser has already been run out to its full length, as a sea-anchor, so that the bow is pointed in the direction of the swells.
Then matters take a turn for the worse, much worse.
“Sail Ho,” comes the cry from a crewman, “Pirate off the stern, port quarter, one league distance.”
Master Panyotis curses, very florid and imaginative, the mark of an experienced seaman, though it does little to abate the waves or ward off the pirate.
“It’s the Sea Wolf,” he says, in a deadpan voice, “a regular predator in these waters. The worst of the worst”
“These vermin take advantage of the storm. With our hawser out, loaded down with cargo, we’re like a big fat cow stuck in a bog. They’ll be on us shortly. No time for your fancy armor, m’boy, just grab what weapons you can.”
I go below, and return with my spear, sword, aspis, and sling, as well as a pouch of lead shot. Passenger no more, I am eager at finally been assigned a role. The crew are all grim-faced however, armed with makhairae, the short stabbing-swords favored by sailors. I see the pitch-black hull of the rakish pirate vessel, lightly-constructed for speed and maneuvering, treble-reefed, with little cargo, riding high and fast over the cresting waves, bearing down upon us.
The pirate crew, a misshapen, ghoulish lot, have grappling-hooks at the ready, as they prepare themselves to come alongside for boarding. I ready my sling, and hope that I give a good account of myself. I had been trained by a Balearic slinger, the very best, renowned for his deadly accuracy.
Master Panyotis now takes the helm. Much to my surprise, for a man of such restrained authority, he immediately screams into the wind, defiantly, deafeningly.
With that, one of the ebony crewmen wields a heavyweight ship’s axe, severing the hawser, so that the Hector instantly leaps forward, becoming more maneuverable. At the very same time, the Master swings the helm hard over. The Hector veers sharply to starboard, unexpectedly, broadside to the waves, directly into the path of the Sea Wolf, making boarding impossible. A collision amidships however, is inevitable. I look at the master with concern: I’m no sailor, but what is he doing?
I brace myself for the collision ….. and keep my sling handy with lead shot.
The Hector is a deep-draft, wide beam, high freeboard vessel with a frame and outer hull of sturdy oak, designed to transport heavy cargos in all weathers. Slow, but robust, and very seaworthy. Conversely, the Sea Wolf is purposely built for speed and pursuit, which only becomes possible when the hull displaces less water.
In practical terms, this means a shallow draft, narrower beam, lighter frame, and lower freeboard, to reduce displacement weight. Like many things in life, enhanced speed is a trade-off, at the cost of sturdiness. Master Panyotis of course, knows all this instinctively, and now uses this knowledge to his advantage.
Matters then play out, in rapid succession. With a gruesome crunch, propelled forwards on the crest of a wave, the pirate’s bow smashes into our vessel. The chilling, sickening sounds of splintering beams is unforgettable. The Hector heels over, absorbing the massive impact, though with its high freeboard, the leeward port gunnels remain safely above the waterline.
At the same time, our starboard gunnels hold firm as the the pirate vessel rides up and over them, lifting its bow and keel. Listing to port, waves break over its aft quarters and gunnels, risking capsize. I can plainly see the pirate crew, most of whom have been thrown off their feet by the impact, and at least one is washed overboard.
Bringing my slinger into action, their confusion gives me a brief opportunity to pummel them at short range, with several slinger shots finding their mark, much to the jeering satisfaction of the Hector’s crew.
Later, I found that their view of me, formerly one of quiet forbearance and condescension appropriate to a landlubber, has now become one of comradeship, even deference.
Master Panyotis performed an astonishing act of seamanship, based on the ridiculously simple premise of doing that which was least expected —— turning towards the incoming pirate vessel, rather than away from it.
Setting the two vessels on a deliberate collision course, he wagered the sturdiness of his solid galley against the light-framed pirate vessel. With the capping waves of the storm driving them forwards, the pirates had the weather against them, with no time to maneuver. Master Panyotis’ timing was impeccable.
The pirate vessel was first bludgeoned at the bow by the high-speed collision, losing several of its crew to the sea, then a few more to my slinger. Soon after, came the second blow of the Master’s entrapment! He had smashed the bow, and the stern was next. Immediately upon collision, the Master swung the helm hard to port, so that as the pirate vessel slid back into the sea, once more on an even keel, the heavy stern of the Hector rammed the aft quarters of the other vessel. Incredible.
The Hector is now to windward of the Sea Wolf, so that with each capping wave, its huge displacement weight pounds down on the stern and upperworks of the lightly-constructed pirate vessel, shattering gunnels, spars, deck beams, and finally, the mast itself falls. Again, I bring my versatile slinger into action, cracking heads.
The pirate chief stands sword in hand, glaring in disbelief, at the toppled mast. He turns, and we lock eyes. He makes for an inimitable profile, with a moonlike, tattooed face, piercing black eyes, and square-shaped deformed earlobes protruding out from his head. What is most unforgettable however is his scarlet red tunic, unusual but also very conspicuous, as if to say, invincibly, omnipotently: ‘Here I am, a bright target for all to see, and you can’t touch me’. Completing the exotic image, tufts of wild red hair are scattered across his otherwise bald scalp.
I take up the challenge with my slinger, aiming at ‘Red’. He watches my swing as it builds momentum, waiting for the telltale finger movement that signals an imminent release. Standing stalwart beside the toppled mask, he dodges the projectile, with calculated disinterest. Not a total miss however, it grazes his right cheek, blood running down the nape of his neck. ‘Red’ continues his gaze unflinching, fierce and defiant, as we both register the other as deadly adversaries, imprinting the respective images in memory’s grand storehouse. I try again —- a close miss! It’s as if he is playing a deadly game with me, so that all my best efforts only serve to demonstrate his own omnipotence.
Much to their astonishment, the pirates find that their easy prey, apparently defenseless, turns out to be a tactically-managed armed merchantman.
The Sea Wolf limps away, driven by the wind and waves, dragging flotsam behind it, still attached to the mast rigging. Not mortally wounded, it’s certainly badly damaged, decks awash, with several crew injured or dead. I see ‘Red’ scrambling about, frantically issuing orders.
The Hector sustained only superficial damage, with no injuries to the crew. The sea battle is over: the breaking seas ensuring that it finished as quickly as it started. This stirring feat of seamanship will now pass into legend, entered into the annals, from one generation to the next.
The proud Hector’s crew raise a loud cheer for their audacious master, who used his otherwise defenseless, lumbering vessel as an unlikely weapon, to cudgel the Sea Wolf into submission. It would seem that ‘the big fat cow, stuck in the bog’, has a lethal wallop.
Mytilene is our next destination, the principal city on the island of Lesbos, with a two day berthing to offload cargo, our only detour, then onwards to Lampsacus. Our proud Hector will be considerably lighter by the time we enter the treacherous Hellespont.
The sea is no longer roiling and breaking with white combers, as it had been yesterday, but come morning, has settled down now into that long, rhythmic heaving familiar to all mariners. The crew talk of little else other than the recent encounter, that they were ‘witnesses’ to something momentous, ‘history in the making’, and so on. With the conflict over, I retreat into the anticlimax of weariness. Exciting, yes, but also fatiguing.
With little to do now, lying slumberous in the sun, cushioned on a coil of camel-hair rope, I have ample time to review the rapid-moving events and choices that have placed me on this unexpected trajectory.
The amniotic warmth of the sun, the lap-lapping of the bow-wake against the gunnels, and the steady rise-and-fall of the deck on which I’m sprawled, all induce a dreamy torpor. Thoughts float along with the waves, forming associations of childhood memories mixed with recent happenings. I struggle to keep myself in this half-awake state, fighting back against Hypnos, god of dreams, but instead, give myself over to my own private train of associations.
According to Valerius, he is shoring me up as an egalitarian act of goodwill, so that I can enter Athens as a fully credentialed teacher. It’s a plan that I must reluctantly admit, makes a great deal of sense. Can his motives be that simple, so transparent?
On the other hand, I’m no longer a credulous child, so I know that self-interest drives much of human behavior. I ask myself then, what does Valerius have to gain by becoming my self-appointed patron? Is philanthropy really the reason for his generosity? A debt of honor, so he says, to be settled in my mother’s name?
Yet my mother and I were close and she never once made mention of him! I obviously can’t check this with her, so corroboration is impossible. What if he has misrepresented her? If true, then I resent his use of my mother’s name as an honorific to manipulate me and bolster his own covert designs. In fact, this dishonors her!
If the so-called ‘debt of honor’ is indeed a contrived artifice, then I need to consider other reasons underlying his extraordinary patronage. The question then becomes: ‘Why me?’.There are plenty of ambitious young men in Colophon with more talent than I. It’s not as if I came to him unbidden with a proposal. Instead, he sought me out!
I know him to be an adroit businessman if nothing else, and I wonder if his designs on me may be more utilitarian and self-serving than he presents. Experience has taught me that usually the most obvious, straightforward reason is the correct one. The immediate assumption that comes to mind is Servilia.
Valerius is a possessive parent, which makes it plausible, even compelling, that his ‘patronage’ is a cleverly veiled attempt to separate Servilia and I! He may be hoping that my prolonged absence will put an end to the romance: as time naturally dulls my memories of Servilia, the nubile young maidens of Lampsacus can only gain in their seductive charms.
Yet Servilia insisted that I take this lifetime opportunity, to fulfill what I presumptuously called ‘my destiny’. She vowed to continue loving me in my absence rather than feeling forever guilty if she held me back. As she put it in her own words,
“I already have my fill of guilt, and if you remain here, you will end up resenting me, no matter what you say. It would kill our love, and that would be the greater loss. This way, I keep you alive in my heart, always, until you come back to me.”
Valerius’ obsequious devotion to Servilia presents as a comic mix of operatic care, paternal protection, and overripe affection. It’s all too much at times, as if she is the reincarnation of his departed wife. I get it that he may want to split us up as a couple. Is he offering me the fulfillment of my deepest wish under the auspices of a favor, or is it really a bribe in disguise? While my subservience may further my life’s goal, the cost of losing Servilia is a very high price to pay.
If the simplest explanations are always the best, then Valerius’ goodwill is nothing other than a baited trap, in which case I owe him nothing. My dander is up!
Time for me to reclaim my own self-interest, ex-Valerius. A plan, just an idle thought at first, begins to gather momentum and substance. My very own plan! If not Athens, then let the alternative be of my own choosing, rather than Lampsacus, where I will be hemmed in by Valerius’ cronies, reporting on me. My balmy days as a hoplite marine are regrettably ended!
I will ‘jump ship’ and begin my public teaching at Mytilene, much closer to Colophon, quickly get established, then call for Servilia. The Mytileneans include several important philosophical schools, which suggests a ready-made level of acceptance. Surely, there is room for one more teacher in philosophy, offering fresh and original doctrines, with the prospect of opening my own school in the near future.
Aristotle himself taught there, before becoming tutor to the great world conqueror, Alexander of Macedon. Aristotle used Mytilene as a ‘bridge’ to gain greater recognition, thence used this reputation to establish his school at the Lyceum in Athens. If Aristotle used Mytilene as a steppingstone to Athens, then so can I. This makes Mytilene a better option than Lampsacus.
Like Aristotle, I want to be more than a provincial teacher, and Mytilene is an auspicious place to start. Moreover, Mytilene is now governed by a Macedonian general, whose Asian domain also includes Colophon, enabling an easy transition between the two cities. Master Panyotis will object of course, as Valerius had appointed him to personally ensure that I reach Lampsacus safely. However, the master is good-natured and will understand the ambitions and adventures of a young man, especially one who has given honorable service as a maritime slinger.
At the age of thirty, my time has arrived. I sense that Mytilene, whatever may come, is a turning point in my life, something that I must reach out and grab while I can. No second chances.
For me, life is an adventure to be lived fully. Yet every life-adventure involves some risk, albeit a calculated risk, otherwise it’s not an adventure. Furthermore, the outcome of a life-adventure, as it is very often the case, might not be what I expect. No matter. Better an adventure, even one driven by a headstrong impulse, than stuck in a helpless rut! Otherwise, a puppet for a devious Roman master, pulling the strings.
Playing life too safe. Not for me. I want to live life contagiously, spreading the contagion. Otherwise, life remains secure, though vapid and stagnant, overflowing with possibilities never taken. I don’t want to die with regrets, in life or love. ‘Where Love Lies’, where indeed?
My mind wanders to Servilia: a high-spirited, quirky, intelligent, vivacious, loving, yet contrarian young woman, with a distinctive fragility about her. Her infectious sense of mischief is bewitching! I keep thinking of her compulsively, naked in my bed, very fetching, or else furiously debating my thinking, challenging me, but profoundly sexy in either case. She is my muse, the personification of femininity. While my yearning for Servilia is palpable, there can be no turning back now.
The pulse of life beckons, onwards to Mytilene.
Mytilene, Aegean Island of Lesbos
My first impressions are imposing, formidable, even terrifying if I am to be truly honest with myself.
Shoved and elbowed, carried along inexorably by the crowd, I find myself entering a covered colonnade. I am dazzled by its length, exceeding two hundred cubits, with ornate barrel vault ceilings, and a promenade of fluted Doric columns on one side.
A seemingly infinite jumble of shops jostle together noisily on the other side, separated by partitions. I wander along dreamily, hustled by lame and misshapen beggars, amid what seems like a gauntlet of colors, cries, and the babble of furious trading. It seems that anything can be purchased, bartered, or else, deftly stolen from the unwary vendor, if one is willing to risk the loss of a right arm.
This is the famous Stoa of Mytilene on the mythic island of Lesbos, a cornucopia of riches: the staples of corn, olive oil, honey, wine, wool, and papyrus but also hemp for rope, pitch for sealing decks. Then come the goats with their strident cries, cattle mewing, game-cocks scratching and crowing. All manner of gemstones catch my eye as I wander along, especially the intense deep-blue of lapis-lazuli, the cinnamon-red of garnets, or lustrous amber from the frozen northlands. Most precious of all, beyond gold and silver, are the fine silks from China, following the ancient trade routes, over deserts, skirting bandits, by caravans of camels.
Stoa of Mytilene (entrance), Lesbos
Remorseless slave traders parade their finest Scythian specimens, the wretched batch of recent raids in the Pontic steppes: cowered maidens whose once long, beaded hair is now close-cropped, the telltale mark of slavery. Defiant paragons of masculinity still struggle in their chains, all to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, in batches, or singular if the specimen is exceptional.
Dye and cloth merchants are here aplenty, as well as fish-mongers, farmers, weavers, and leather workers. There are artisanal foundries in bronze, iron, and glass with sculptures of favorite gods in abundance. Potters too, with bright red-glazed pottery, or Aeolic grey wares in all sizes.
Sleazy charlatans offer the ubiquitous electrum coins and figurines, dip-coated, not pure of course, at ‘unbelievable’ bargain prices. There is no shortage of gullible foreigners with deep pockets, and poor judgement. Such ersatz wares also seem to have a special attraction for the self-proclaimed ‘great negotiators’, who believe something for nothing is just a question of glib trading. The errant merchants love them, artfully playing the game of bickering over inflated prices. It’s entertaining to watch.
This is the beating heart of the city, the bustling, cacophonous agora, complete with a public address platform, even boasting its own lending library. It was here that the celebrated Sappho recited her lyric poetry of love and sexual longing. I follow in the footsteps of the young Aristotle who loitered down the same agora promenade, only a generation before me, wondering what life may have in store for him. Now it’s my turn!
It is also here, with considerable trepidation, that I enter alone, knowing not a soul, the commercial, political, and spiritual center of the boisterous city-state of Mytilene.
The good ship Hector has already discharged her cargo, sooner than expected, and will slip out of harbor early tomorrow, gauging a flood tide for the Hellespont narrows. While their stay in Mytilene is brief, the master and crew are justly feted as conquering heroes. The warring exploits of the gallant Hector, embroidered with each telling, has fast become ‘the talk’ of this garrulous population.
Most importantly, Master Panyotis has shattered the myth of the pirates’ invincibility and opened the sea-lanes around Mytilene. The local traders are fulsome in their praise! In the hands of a few, well-chosen seamen, the master had demonstrated that the pirates could be soundly beaten. Beaten no less, by a defenseless, old hulk, straight out of Homer, Hector by name, Hector by deed. It is a moment to savor, in which the whole community can share.
I have purposely dodged the wild celebrations: noble speeches by self-important dignitaries in honor of the heroes; staged dancing in the agora, spilling over into the raucous crowds; heavy drinking, back-slapping, and carousing in the docklands. The city is consumed by this spontaneous festival of goodwill. The Hector and her crew are awarded the perpetual ‘Freedom of the City’, by which all meals, wine, accommodation, or any other ‘personal services’, present and future, will be paid by the city-state. My own status however, is an awkward one: any acclaim will necessarily ‘position’ me as a seafaring hoplite in the public perception, which is not the reputation I am seeking in my newfound home. If I am to gain renown, I want it to be on my merits as a philosopher, not as an erstwhile slinger and pirate-hunter.
I needn’t worry as the Fates intervene once again.
While attempting to laboriously shuffle my way through the jubilant crowd, I catch a brief, tantalizing glimpse of a bright, red tunic and clumps of red hair. Whoever owns the tunic is situated on the far periphery of the crowd, lost amidst the merrymaking on the opposite side of the dock, furthermost from me. So fleeting is the glimpse, I can’t be sure about what I have seen.
Has my imagination conjured up a ghostly apparition from last week’s dramatic events? I am still finding my ‘land-legs’ after a week on a rolling deck. As with my legs, my vision may also be a little wobbly? Could it really be ‘Red’? Would he be that bold? Even wearing his signature tunic? Is he scouting the enemy for information, looking for a second round?
Repairs to the heavily damaged ‘Sea Wolf’ will take at least several months, according to Master Panyotis. Thoughts flash across my mind: should I give chase to some innocuous Mytilenian who by happenstance, has an unusual penchant for red tunics? Moreover, the city is a busy crossroads port, and there are any number of celts here with red hair!
It is now or never. I instantly change direction, cutting across, as quickly as I can, even pushing people aside, heading towards my last sighting. I concluded that I could spend my time in vacillation, or just simply find out! As I draw closer, I note that the outer fringes of the crowd melt into a particular alleyway, one of many. I can see the figure clearly now. It is ‘Red’, no doubt, trotting away, at the far end of the narrowing alley. He breaks into a run, even as I watch, past the stone ramparts of the old city wall, into the squalid docklands on the outskirts of the agora. Has he seen me? I need to be careful.
I am the one eyewitness who could take him to the gallows, or else, an impromptu lynching by the present vengeful mob. I had been warned of his infamous reputation, and his capacity for unspeakable violence. He had even garnered a local alias, ‘The Red Devil’, though it seems no one had actually seen him, and lived to tell about it. Weighing up the risk, I stay back, following him from a discrete distance, just sufficiently to keep him in sight, and with luck, avoid detection.
The opportunity would be lost if I stopped and called for assistance. I have no plan, other than the vague idea that I can possibly track him to some erstwhile underworld hovel where he could later be apprehended. The hunter has become the hunted, but alas, only momentarily. I struggle to keep ‘Red’ in sight, while not been seen myself. I follow him doggedly up the empty, dank alleyways, deeper into the irksome ghetto, running as I go. Staying in the shadows as much as possible, I turn a blind corner…… straight into an ambush! Tripped by an unseen leg, I’m sent sprawling heavily on the cobblestones, with all the attendant scratches and bruises.
Cunning as ever, Red had purposefully increased his pace, forcing me to choose between losing him completely, or else, relaxing my guard as I run headlong after him, luring me into a trap. I find myself immobile and disoriented in the sweaty clutches of two hardball muscular types, who drag me upright, holding me tightly by the arm on each side. Dazed as I am, I see the ‘The Red Devil’ leering at me, waving the gleaming, curved blade of a formidable kopis dagger before my eyes.
“The Red Devil,…his guttural Phoenician accent”
I struggle to put together his words, made more difficult by his guttural Phoenician accent: he comes from a nation of sailors and traders —- also, infamous pirates. This explains his seafaring expertise, notwithstanding his recent debacle with the Hector. He won’t make that impetuous mistake a second time.
“The gods have decreed that we should meet again. A big red target, and you couldn’t get me with your puny little slingshot. Just a little scar on my cheek is the best you could do. Now it’s I, who have you at my mercy. But sadly, after the damage to my poor ship, there is no longer any mercy left over for you.”
He runs the blade gently across my throat, scratching the skin. I feel a small trickle of fresh blood.
“No. No mercy is left for you, my little slinger.” He is laughing now in my face, crazed with malice and vengeance, shaking his matted red head vigorously from side to side.
His stench and spittle fill my senses in nauseating waves.
I stop breathing, surreal, as if none of this is really happening. He wants me to beg for my life, or at least, a quick death. His varieties of torture, so detailed and cruel, stay with me to this day. Every word is indelibly engraved in my memory.
“Should I just cut you now, you know, from ear to ear, and make it quick and easy for you? Otherwise, I could slice you down the middle, but you will still be alive……..then, I can send you off, with your intestines trailing behind you in the dust —- the dogs and rats nibbling away at what’s left. That way, you can watch yourself slowly dying in agony from the inside out.”
He is cackling with amusement, enthralled by his own monstrous game of death.
“Hmm….What will it be for my little slinger? Cut out your tongue first, then your ears, nose, and then we go lower, whatever you have hidden between your legs? I wonder where to start?”
I snap back to reality. What follows is a blur. A burst of action, no more than it takes for a few snaps of the fingers, yet it seems as if time stood still.
‘Red’ withdraws the kopis temporarily from my throat, waving it before me absentmindedly, as he becomes engrossed in the gory minutiae of my impending death, a grisly subject that absorbs his full attention.
He begins gabbling to himself about the aesthetic virtues of a knife thrust under the armpit, to partially sever an aorta, leaving no visible injury! He is happily playing a deadly game with me, intending to prolong my despair as long as possible, or until he tires of it, like a cat with a mouse.. Instead, his self-absorbed distraction gives me all the opportunity I need.
Whether driven by a desperate preservation instinct, or a dim reflex from my hoplite training, I lash out deftly with both feet, using the elbows of his henchmen as a fulcrum to pivot my weight. I score a direct hit on his gonads (no missed target, this time around!). ‘Red’ recoils in excruciating pain, falling to his knees, screaming piteously. Much to my surprise, the two assailants promptly drop me hard on my hindquarters, a ‘none-too-bright’ reflex action, and rush to assist their downed pirate master. Better than I could have hoped.
Ignoring my buttocks pain, I leap up and run for my life, helter-skelter, back down the alleyway. I don’t dare take the time to look back, though I can’t hear any footsteps. I plunge into the crowd, pushing and shoving as I go, people screaming and cursing behind me. I don’t stop, until panting, bloodied, and inarticulate, I reach the custody of Master Panyotis.
I stay aboard that night, where I feel safe, my last respite on the Hector before we both part ways. I have grown attached to the old tub that despite appearances, repulsed the racy ‘Sea Wolf’. Strange are the ways in which one develops affectionate feelings towards an inanimate object, personifying it, magnified perhaps, by my recent proximity to death.
In his workmanlike manner, Master Panyotis peppers me with a barrage of questions, a frustrating ordeal for both of us. I’m jittery and embarrassed, and the trauma still feels so real for me. I wince at the thought of it all, and how very close I came to a gruesome death. Try as I may, I have great difficulty recollecting any useful detail. He gives up, and notifies the city authorities.
Only much later, do I recall any useful details, long after the Hector had departed. Oddly enough, as so often happens in such out-of-body situations, the mind fixates on one particular item that for some reason captures its wholehearted attention; in this case, one of the gruesome henchmen possessed only one ear.
I think to myself interestingly, that my mind fixated on the missing ear as a way of retaining some sense of personal control in what was otherwise a powerless situation. Attention becomes restricted to a single object that’s present, or in this case, conspicuously absent when it should be present, so that everything else is relegated to the distant background. The philosopher in me takes over relentlessly, teasing out the metaphysics of my own near-death experience!
Nevertheless, I can still feel that razor sharp blade on my throat, which remains to this very day, my closest experience of imminent death.
I had made friends aboard the Hector, as we became comrades in arms. Our victory over the ‘Sea Wolf’ bound us closely together, so that when the time came, we parted with sad farewells.
My only safe home (and bunk) is now gone! Homeless. Exciting, and scary. So begins my public life as a philosopher-teacher at the stoa, come what may. If ‘Red’ wants me, then I won’t be hard to find. I can’t live my life in fear, hiding out as if I am some sniveling coward. I won’t allow his presence to alter my plans, thereby controlling my life. The agora is mine. If I fail, or am murdered in the process, let it be on my terms!
Mytilene is impressive enough, somewhat rough and coarse, but vibrant and exciting, like any frontier city. While prosperous now, it has suffered many invasions in the past, notably Persians and Athenians. What’s left is the uprooted legacy of an unruly and volatile population, now under the aegis of a tyrannical Macedonian general. An attraction also, for unsavory piratical types. I wonder if Master Panyotis’ suspicions are true, and the pirates are tolerated covertly by the Macedonians in return for a share of the booty?
What I find most disturbing however, is the throng of teachers vying competitively for the attention of shoppers coming and going between merchants. The eclectic mixture of Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics, Sophists, Cynics and several nondescript others, including a singular Epicurus, establish themselves, as conspicuously as possible, between the massive columns of the stoa.
Whether it be the concatenation of these columns that establish a natural pattern, or in compliance with some unwritten etiquette, these philosophic competitors space themselves equally apart. I can’t help making the comparison that they resemble nothing so much as booths of motley hawkers, selling their ephemeral trinkets and baubles. I am quickly relegated to the only remaining space, on the periphery of the stoa.
One side of the promenade is mostly concerned with material objects, of one kind or another, utilitarian things like hoes, jewelry, or cornbread. While across the way, the learned philosophers, each in their allocated ‘booth’, usually a swatch of carpet and small platform, aspire to ethereal matters of profundity, or so they tell themselves. Not however, without a disturbing lack of civility.
The Aristotelians, for example, condone slavery as natural and inevitable. Meanwhile at the adjacent ‘booth’, the Stoics, in strident provocation, condemn slavery as barbaric and morally corrupt. Each teacher has a coterie of devotees, though most people just stop and listen momentarily, then move on. Others chose to heckle the teacher, in a kind of ritual diatribe that seems to be an accepted part of the spectacle.
What begins as reasoned argumentation soon regresses to a heated contest of wits, one shouting over the over. I observe again, what I have long noted, that when reasonable people gather together, the loudest rabble-rouser often prevails, transforming a diverse group into the unified voice of a ranting mob.
Finally, the crowd disperses, tired of the theatre, at which time each party, finding no appreciative audience, cease the pantomime without any show of bad feeling. Whatever the message, on the nature of Being, the transience of all Truth, or even the impossibility of Knowledge, it is surely undermined by the comedic process of delivering that message.
Others take a different tack, less debate and more populist demagogy, pandering to the mob in what they want to hear. These ‘truth-tellers’ are keening for donations, more bent on selling their omnibus message, ‘one size fits all’, than seeking to discriminate truth from falsity.
Then there are the hair-splitting pedants, who befuddle their rustic listeners with artfulness and quackery. Sophistry for sale as legalese rhetoric, packaged under the noble banner of ‘Philosophy’.
A few listeners however, always remain detached, outsiders for various reasons. Some of these are totally self-absorbed in a world of their own construction, half-crazy and witless. Others are cerebrally impaired, due to glaring head-wounds, the gruesome work of a battle-axe, war-hammer, or slinger. Sadly, there are many of the latter, just as the wars and invasions are many, the Macedonians being only the most recent.
There are also listeners, a diminutive few, that I deem to call ‘mindful individuals’, who have a singular consciousness of their own, rather than the collectivity of the mob. These few, precious few, are the seekers that I in turn, seek to find. One in particular stands out, a solid, young man of quiet demeanor, moving between ‘booths’, listening attentively, nodding occasionally, or shaking his head distastefully. Now he arrives at my station.
After carefully watching the boisterous antics of my rival ‘competitors’, I have resolved to speak out unflinchingly, but in muted tones, only sufficient to be heard above the chattering crowd. I am determined to avoid any ranting debate, other than that governed by reason and mutual respect. Instead, my message of tranquillity and equanimity should be consistent with my presentation. In that way, the manner of my presentation reflects my message, reinforcing it. At least, that is my earnest hope.
A small crowd coalesces around me, no doubt taken by the presence of a new face in town, waiting for the show to begin. They are sure to notice that I have no ‘old guard’ of established supporters, who if the need arises, will act as ‘peace-makers’. Too late for me to back out now!
I am the latest recruit, fresh blood, for the metaphysical circus.
As I wait for the crowd to grow, my thoughts go back to Servilia —- back to Colophon where it all started, and the beginnings of this adventure.