Mytilene, Lesbos

310 BC

I begin with an introduction, my voice surprisingly strong and unfaltering, hoping that no one will notice that my heart is beating out of my chest.

I then continue with my message to the good citizens of Mytilene.

Epicurus: “We live preoccupied with the dread of death, always a shadow waiting for us at any time, which stops us from being fully alive in the present. Instead, we lead unhappy, fearful lives of pain and suffering. We hope in vain that the capricious gods will be merciful to us. We are told that we should accept the sacrifices of this life, since will find pleasure and tranquillity in an afterlife of which we know nothing.”

A rising babble of murmurings begins, lead by a pot-bellied, squat figure with a bald dome, turned-up nose and wide-spaced, narrow eyes, distinguished however, by having only one ear. Where the other ear should be, there lies a conical mound of discolored scar tissue and a small crater, as if a volcano in miniature has been mistakenly attached to the side of his head. I wonder distractedly as I talk, about the weight of the protuberance, as he habitually cants his head to the affected side.

I try not to look, out of politeness, when abruptly the recognition bursts upon me, like a clash of cymbals inside my brain. This man before now, ‘One-Ear, is that same accomplice who constrained me in the docklands alleyway, while ‘Red’ went about his weird sadomasochistic death rituals with myself as the sacrificial goat.

‘One-Ear’ raises his voice, throaty and guttural.

“How do you know there is no life after death when we have priests and temples and (he pauses)……even make blood sacrifices? Do they mean nothing to you?”

He winks at me knowingly, as if to emphasize the veiled threat embedded in his seemingly innocent question. He wants vengeance for the embarrassing debacle in the docklands.

As my impressions of ‘One-Ear’ coalesce into certainty, I struggle to maintain my composure. He had appeared abruptly as if a ghoulish apparition, an indistinguishable faceless crowd one minute and then his glaring disfigurement in the next, making it hard to believe that his spectral embodiment could be coincidence any more than it was an ethereal visitation. No god was ever so ugly and brutish!

“One-Ear” (Agesilaus)

The realization strikes me with a physical shudder, that I am debating mortality and the dread of death with the roughneck who recently assaulted me. On that sordid occasion, there was no ‘philosophic’ debate, only a prelude to what would have been my certain murder.

I have no time to examine the irony of the situation, nor should I betray my shiver of recognition. I scan the crowd furtively for a red tunic, relieved that my worse fears are happily disappointed. It seems that I am in no immediate danger. Regardless of my feelings of discomfort, if not panic, I must continue our exchange with gusto, as if all is well.

Epicurus: “ We have no material evidence of life after death, only what is passed down to us by these priests, priestesses, and oracles. We are fed these superstitions to keep us in check, to live in fear of punishment, since our true natures apparently can’t be trusted. Death is only non-existence, but if we don’t exist anymore, then how can we pine for a life that no longer exists, when we ourselves no longer exist? All we have is ‘Now’, this moment in time, not to be squandered in fear, but rather to be free, and seek out all the goodness and pleasure that this life has to offer….”

“You want to make satyrs and harlots out of us all!”, says One-Ear, interrupting with his cutting remark, “Then off to the woods we go, nymphs of Eros, and we can all be at it!”

A ripple of ribald laughter and guffaws spreads across the crowd, causing other shoppers on the promenade to join what they hope will be a lively spectacle of entertainment. I notice that the young man braces himself against an adjacent column, apart from the crowd, pensive and frowning.

One-Ear is emboldened, sensing that he has gained a following of like-minded hecklers. I get the impression that he is a regular feature on the promenade, well-known for his lewd antics. An agitator for hire, not least of all by ‘Red’. In keeping with his reputation, he continues his ribald satire, playing to the blood-lust of the mob:

“You tell us that we are all unhappy people, living in dread, and you are going to save us. All hail, our new god!”

At this, One-Ear bows before me theatrically, with his arms outstretched, as do several of his followers. While most of the mob are jeering, but still in good humor, there remains a disparate group, remote and serious, who are clearly offended, rather than entertained.

From my earlier survey of booths, I recognize several Aristotelians. They speak in subdued voices, conspiratorially, not to me, but among themselves. There is much pointing of fingers at me, as if they are in the midst of deciding what to do with such an errant intruder. It would seem that I have enemies in all directions.

A Scythian Astynomoi, whom by dint of the deference shown to him, I took to be the market police, now joins the agitated group. I remain silent, refusing to open any further debate with One-Ear, since the exchange has ceased to be a cool philosophical banter, guided by reason and respect. Rather, it has regressed to the status of a cheap sideshow, a mere stage for his scurrilous antics. Even derision has its limits. There is really no appropriate reply that I can make to a roughhouse mockery that makes a false god of me, other than ignoring him totally —- which comes with its own special risk.

Is he alone, still acting as a mercenary for ‘Red’, or as seems more likely, an agent in the service of the Aristotelians? My lack of response is clearly disappointing for him, if his misshapen sneers are any indication. The turmoil, an admixture of hilarity and agitation, gradually subsides, at which time I pick up the discussion again as calmly as I can muster.

Epicurus: “ Yes, we should seek out the good things in our lives that give us pleasure, without doing harm to others, in balance with our natures. We should do nothing to excess, whether it be wine, gluttony, greed, lust, or any other appetite. Our own natures, our better selves, will surely regulate us, moderating our appetites, since excess inevitably leads to unhappiness and rancor.”

‘One-Ear’ tones down his sarcasm now, at least to a tolerable level, proving that sometimes no response is the best response.

“So we all should just do whatever we want, whenever we feel like it? Elysium Fields already, and we don’t even have to die first to get our reward?”

I pause briefly as a wave of raucous laughter crests, then falters, ignoring the spurious meaning which ‘One-Ear’ has assigned to my words.

Epicurus: “As for the gods, they surely exist, but reside within our own minds, operating through us, which is yet another reason that we should trust our own better selves. This is why we don’t see them visually, other than in the effigies we make of them, which images spring naturally from within us.”

As I pause to finish, an apple smashes on the column behind me, only a little splatter reaching my linen tunic. I suspect ‘One-Ear’, frustrated that his performance is curtailed, but I can’t be sure. Neither ‘One-Ear’ nor the Aristotelians are anywhere to be seen now, further arousing my earlier suspicions of collusion between them.

I’m actually gratified by this ‘harmless’ association, as compared with my initial panic that I was been targeted again by ‘Red’. Agora-phobia, be damned. I am struck by the twisted irony: to be deeply relieved that it was the Aristotelians who commissioned One-Ear to disrupt my inaugural teaching! Furthermore, I should be flattered that I was considered important enough to elicit such a punitive reaction from the Aristotelians!

I keep to myself the newfound knowledge that ‘One-Ear’ is a local mercenary, a possible misstep by ‘Red’, since the Mytilenian authorities can apprehend ‘One-Ear’ anytime. This could enable them in turn, to set a trap for ‘Red’. Knowledge is power, and I may need this leverage at some time.

Meanwhile, I need to be vigilant.

All manner of thoughts tumble through my anxious mind in the wake of my first philosophic soliloquy. My debut has ended prematurely, in an apple-missile: an inauspicious start to one’s career. So much has happened, in such a short time, since my arrival in Mytilene.

Following my traumatic encounter with ‘Red’, his murderous games of eliciting sheer terror have put an end to my days of breezy innocence and wide-eyed goodwill. It is troubling for me to admit that my confrontation with imminent death has irreparably changed me.

I feel that almost overnight, I have grown shrewder, probably more candid, even irreverent, which perhaps was inevitable, though it’s also a loss. The world is no longer a benign place, a childish pretension that I had always taken for granted. I had stared into the chilling face of unmitigated evil, and as with the fabled Medusa, a part of myself has turned as hard as stone. ‘Red’ didn’t kill me, in spite of his sadistic intentions, though some part of me surely died that day. In this sense, he has won!

Yet in other ways, my mind is clearer, less cluttered with naïve delusions of humankind: I had wanted people to be as I wished them to be, passive objects of my projections. This rose-colored prism had blinded me to the checkered reality of other peoples’ covetous, sometimes devious self-interest.

Then there is naked evil, maliciousness for its own sake, replaced with a coldness that is devoid of all feeling. This is something I had never previously encountered, or even considered to be humanly possible: the total absence of a conscience. No guilt, shame, pity, or empathy of any kind. Truly a shocking revelation, from which I am still recovering.

I ask myself whence this monstrous thing comes? Does it lie dormant, lurking in all of us, myself included?

By this time, the mob is roiling, loud and incoherent, with many discordant voices all speaking at once. While jumbled and chaotic, the overall effect is that of a single entity, like the Gorgon-headed Medusa, projecting a collective sense of venom. They move forward towards me, cautious but threatening, the rear members pushing those in front, compacting together, many-legged, reinforcing my first impression of a malevolent creature closing in on its prey.

I stand my ground, anxious but resolute, since to back away would be inviting further harassment, even pursuit. At this last moment, the Astynomoi, a burly, rugged figure with the distinct deep facial scars of a slashing sword, pushes to the front of the mob, which opens up before him, snapping out a few sharp commands as he goes.

The many-legged ‘creature’ disassembles, breaking up into small groups and singles, reluctantly but obediently. There is much grumbling and cursing, leaving me chastened, yet also oddly triumphant, as if I had held the line in a great battle. It must be the Athenian hoplite in me, old training that comes in useful.

The Scythian then turns to me, taciturn but surprisingly diplomatic, recommending that the crowd ‘is not ready for my doctrines’. I am welcome to visit the agora anytime ‘of course’, but ‘it would be in the interest of everyone’ that I should refrain from further presentations ‘at this time’. While his concerns are framed as advisory only, there is no mistaking their categorical nature, or from whence such commands have come.

Having no choice in the matter, I readily agree, thanking him for his timely action, curtesy, and of course, his ‘recommendations’. Then, a peculiar thing: he nods to me, and departs, but not before pausing briefly to hand-wave a salute at the enigmatic young man, still standing by the adjacent column, who returns the cryptic acknowledgement.

The young man now introduces himself as Hermarchus, son of Archicus of Lampsacus. He explains that he is visiting relatives and friends in Mytilene as his father’s family have ancient ties with Lesbos. Some of his friends include the agora Scythians, who in turn dislike the arrogance and aggressive polemics of many of the ‘booth’ philosophers. He singles out the Aristotelians in particular, who consider themselves to be the elite, often fomenting trouble surreptitiously in the marketplace.

Since he was educated and trained as a rhetorician, he expresses a keen interest in my presentation, truncated as it was by the unruly mob. He invites me to a communal dinner, a meeting of like-minded young people, and would like to hear more about my ideas.

“Take care,” warns Hermarchus, “To many Mytilenians, your unconventional views on life and death seem dangerously sacrilegious. Even a great teacher like Socrates was put to death unjustly for displaying a similar lack of piety.”

Fending our way anonymously through the crowd, I’m glad to depart the promenade and agora after today’s upheaval. We then tread in the general direction of the famous theatre, towards the hill on the western side of the city, absorbed in animated conversation.

Hermarchus: “I like it that you emphasize personal responsibility, and ask us all to be reflective and examine the outcomes of our behavior and choices. But that’s not for everyone. Saying that men should be guided by their own moral code, rather than fear of the gods, will condemn you as lascivious, perverting the morals of young people, with which Socrates was also accused.”

Epicurus: “I protest. That’s not my intention.”

Hermarchus: “I’m sure it isn’t, but you had a taste of mob violence today, even though it was contrived. It would not be in your interest, or those to come who may follow your wise teachings, if you were to be convicted as a heretic, or found guilty of sedition against society.”

Epicurus: “What do you mean by contrived?”

Hermarchus: “You have not heard the last from the Aristotelians, who use One-Ear’s thuggery to drive away newcomers. One-Ear threw the apple at you, then retreated to avoid the Scythian.”

Epicurus: “Why can’t the Scythians stop it?”

Hermarchus: “They can only do so much, since the Aristotelians have political pull with their Macedonian masters. Remember that Aristotle himself lived here for a while, and was teacher to Alexander. The Aristotelians believe that gives them a special tenure.”

Hermarchus continues, with a short explanation of agora politics.

“The other philosophers who have been able to establish themselves pay the Aristotelians for ‘the right to be heard’. One-Ear collects the levy, otherwise they suffer your fate. Watch out for the Stoics also, who despite their philosophical differences, will ally themselves with the Aristotelians when it suits them. It’s all a big, sordid business. Only the Cynics are exempted, since they adhore money, and never draw large crowds anyhow, only scoffers.”

I cry out with self-righteous anger, “That’s extortion! These are philosophers whose ‘business’ is the study of morals and ethics, for the betterment of humankind. Instead, you tell they are hypocrites….and worse still, criminals!”

Hermarchus laughs heartily. I join him, amused at my own engrained naivety coming stridently to the foreground once again, at a time when my blithe acceptance of the human condition has already been deeply shocked.

Today’s experience completes my sole introduction, and lasting disavowal!…… of the often-vituperative world of evangelizing philosophers, so much at odds with my own values of simplicity, friendship, and equanimity.

I had longed for adventure, and my wish had been granted in manifold ways, not always to my liking, no less!

So ends the first day of my public life as a philosopher-teacher!

The Hector, a veteran of Valerius’ trading fleet, continued its passage though I was no longer aboard. Three days out of Mytilene, already past the Pharos, the good ship was under full sail, riding a following sea and clear skies.

With luck, the Hector would secure a berth at Lampsacus in record time. Luck is supposedly in the hands of the gods. The destinies of ships and men however, are subject to the oracles of fate…….

Preparing to enter the Hellespont narrows, with little room to maneuver, Master Panyotis was at the helm, skillfully navigating his vessel in the breaking seas. Then the situation changed in a heartbeat, or more precisely, many anxious heartbeats.

In the troughs between waves, a fast pirate galley abruptly appeared astern, gaining rapidly on the unwieldy old tub. The crew could hardly believe that the Hector was so unlucky, as to be twice intercepted on a single voyage. In this case, luck had nothing to do with it. The Hector was not a random target of opportunity, but the sole object of a carefully conceived plan.

‘Red’ had been among the congratulatory crowd at the Mytilene dockyard, as I had conjectured, spying on our good ship for its departure schedule and cargo. He had purloined the Artemis, a replacement vessel for the damaged Sea Wolf. Once again, he was after a rich prize, but moreover, seeking revenge for his wounded pride. There would be no mistakes this time.

‘Red’ probably expected that I was also aboard, which would be an added bonus for him. He had a score to settle with me, beginning with the Sea Wolf and my slinger-shot attempts. Moreover, the embarrassment of my escape, no less than the memory of his testicular pain, was very recent. It was also acutely tangible, in which case it was not only his pride that called for sanguinary retribution.

Master Panyotis considered the option of running his ship ashore, beaching it, in the hope that his crew may at least have some fighting chance. He calculated quickly, his practiced eye weighing up relative distances and speeds, and concluded that the situation was hopeless. They would be overtaken before they could beach.

Escape was impossible. The crew knew what nefarious fate had in store for them: fight, and while never a certainty, there was the likelihood of a quick, violent death; surrender, and face a lifetime of slavery, far away, probably in the slave markets of Assyria, or Phoenicia.

My Hoplite training eschewed any form of surrender, but as the fates would have it, for better or for worse, I wasn’t present. Master Panyotis called the crew to order, and addressed them, stating that he would not make a decision for them. Since they were sailors and not trained hoplites, every man’s life was his own to choose, whether to fight or surrender, so that the matter should be put to a vote. The vote was unanimous to surrender, with one exception, notable but not unexpected. Master Panyotis, of course.

In accordance with the crew’s decision, the master ordered the lowering of all sails, and unfurling of the sea-anchor. As the pirate vessel trimmed its sails to come alongside, Master Panyotis slipped below decks along with the ship’s robust double-bladed axe. He ordered the crew to remain clearly visible on deck, huddled in a group, so as to obscure the master’s actions. Next, they heard many heavy blows of the axe. Experienced seamen, they knew only too well the intention of their stalwart master, as well as the likely consequences.

The crew of the Artemis threw grappling irons, tethering alongside the Hector, ready for boarding, in the triumph of finally winning such a rich prize after so much disappointment. Just as they thought they had secured such a bounty, a wretched, chilling cry arose from the pirate ranks. The Hector had began to settle deeply, unnaturally, wallowing between the troughs. As if there was any remaining doubt, waves began to break over the stern.

In a salutary action, becoming of a brave Athenian, good Master Panyotis had scuttled his ship in workmanlike fashion, punching through the hull in a few, well-chosen places along the keel. He would deny the pirates their prize of the vessel and more so, its valuable cargo.

At once distraught and enraged, ‘Red’ leapt aboard the Hector in a single bound. Scimitar in hand, he raced below decks, cursing and slashing senselessly at the cargo as he went. Soon after, realizing that the ship was doomed, he shoved and dragged Master Panyotis back to the upper deck of the Hector, now awash at the stern.

The crew were promptly herded together as witnesses. Still howling and crazed with unbridled anger, in one swift and tremendous sweep of his scimitar, ‘Red’ decapitated Master Panyotis. The master’s valorous act of scuttling his own ship had cost him his life, as he knew it would.

The crew, cowered into submission by their master’s fate, were then transferred to the Artemis. A beating followed, painful but superficial, more as a warning, yet not so much as to affect their auction price at the slave market, the pirates only remaining gain in this ruthless action. Grappling irons retracted, the veteran old Hector was cast off on its final voyage. The hungry sea washed over the gunnels of the sinking ship, and swirling in the white froth of its breaking waves, was the sightless head of Master Panyotis.

‘Red’ had retained the Hector’s pinnace and sail however, and now pulled one of the bedraggled crew aside. Expecting to be next in line for a grisly death, the intended victim began shaking and crying uncontrollably, collapsing prostrate on the pitching deck. At Red’s command, the hapless seaman felt himself lifted and with his struggles to no avail, callously thrown overboard.

Instead of a watery grave, he landed heavily, painfully on one of the cross-beams of the Hector’s pinnace. With a few provisions and sail rigging, he was promptly cast adrift, quickly carried away by the following sea.

Rather than an act of clemency, the seaman would continue to serve the pirates’ cause in a different role, as an erstwhile messenger of terror. Since Master Panyotis was widely respected in the maritime community, his unconscionable fate would serve as a dire warning to others that the scuttling of captured ships would be summarily punished.

With its heavy cargo, buffered by breaking waves, the Hector reared up by its bow, where air pockets had became trapped below decks. Stern first, with much hissing, gurgling, and bubbling, proud Hector that had sailed the length of the Mediterranean for eighty years, weathering tempests and shoals, slid beneath the surface of the sea that had finally claimed back its own. Forever gone from the world of man, the world of sun and light, the Hector plummeted downwards in its death throes, into the cold, dark depths.

Where there had once been a noble vessel, no marker remained other than a pitiful flotsam of ropes, a few barrels, a small linen sail, and the master’s severed head, still bobbing eerily amid the swirling after-wash.

Whence comes the common expression that bad news travels swiftly? Is Hermès, messenger of the gods, partial to ill tidings? What is the bias that drives the bad news, and not the good?

Do we like to hear the tribulations of others, much like gossip, the latest tattle, out of shameless curiosity? Like the carnival crowd at a public execution. Does the trouble of others capture our readily baited attention because we are so relieved that it doesn’t involve ourselves? The wish-fulfillment fantasy we are happy to promulgate, that tragedy always doggedly follows the other person, never me…..always.

Could it even be the humanitarian salve that we care for the unknown others, having a common empathy for the recipients of such unwanted, but speedy tidings? Certitude carries its own peculiar anodyne. Better to know the truth expeditiously, they say, rather than fret and ruminate with endless speculation. Sooner is better than later.

Is it even true, that misfortune has wings, and good news travels by slow wagon? Truism it may be, glib and colorful, though I have grave doubts about its practical truth.

It’s certainly not my present experience.


(To be continued next week)