My Grandfather Jason
My grandfather, Jason the son of Alexicles of the district of Alopece, died just before sunset on the fourteenth day of Boedromion, one year past, two months prior to his ninety-second birthday. He was the last of that informal but fiercely devoted circle of comrades and friends who attended the philosopher Socrates.
The span of my grandfather’s years ran from the imperial days of Pericles, the construction of the Parthenon and Erechtheum, through the Great Plague, the rise and fall of Alcibiades, and the full tenure of that calamitous twenty-seven-year conflagration called in our city the Spartan War and known throughout greater Greece, as recorded by the historian Thucydides, as the Peloponnesian War.
As a young man my grandfather served as a sail lieutenant at Sybota, Potidaea, and Scione and later in the East as a trierarch and squadron commander at the battles of Bitch’s Tomb, Abydos (for which he was awarded the prize of valor and incidentally lost an eye and the use of his right leg), and the Arginousai Islands. As a private citizen he spoke out in the Assembly, alone save Euryptolemus and Axiochus, against the mob in defense of the Ten Generals. In his years he buried two wives and eleven children. He served his city from her peak of preeminence, mistress of two hundred tributary states, to the hour of her vanquishment at the hands of her most inclement foes. In short he was a man who not only witnessed but participated in most of the significant events of the modern era and who knew personally many of its principal actors.
In the waning seasons of my grandfather’s life, when his vigor began to fail and he could move about only with the aid of a companion’s arm, I took to visiting him daily. There appears ever one among a family, the physicians testify, whose disposition invites and upon whom falls the duty to succor its elderly and infirm members.
To me this was never a chore. Not only did I hold my grandfather in the loftiest esteem, but I delighted in his society with an intensity that frequently bordered upon the ecstatic. I could listen to him talk for hours and, I fear, tired him more severely than charity served with my inquiries and importunities.
To me he was like one of our hardy Attic vines, assaulted season after season by the invader’s torch and ax, blistered by summer sun, frost-jacketed in winter, yet unkillable, ever-enduring, drawing strength from deep within the earth to yield up despite all privations or perhaps because of them the sweetest and most mellifluent of wines. I felt keenly that with his passing an era would close, not alone of Athens’ greatness but of a caliber of man with whom we contemporary specimens stood no longer familiar, nor to whose standard of virtue we could hope to obtain.
The loss to typhus of my own dear son, aged two and a half, earlier in that season, had altered every aspect of my being. Nowhere could I discover consolation save in the company of my grandfather. That fragile purchase we mortals hold upon existence, the fleeting nature of our hours beneath the sun, stood vividly upon my heart; only with him could I find footing upon some stony but stabler soil.
My regimen upon those mornings was to rise before dawn and, summoning my dog Sentinel (or, more accurately, responding to his summons), ride down to the port along the Carriage Road, returning through the foothills to our family’s mains at Holm Oak Hill. The early hours were a balm to me. From the high road one could see the naval crews already at drill in the harbor. We passed other gentlemen upon the track to their estates, saluted athletes training along the roads, and greeted the young cavalrymen at their exercises in the hills. Upon completion of the morning’s business of the farm, I stabled my mount and proceeded on foot, alone save Sentinel, up the sere olive-dotted slope to my grandfather’s cottage.
I brought him his lunch. We would talk in the shade of the overlook porch, or sometimes simply sit, side by side, with Sentinel reclining on the cool stones between us, saying nothing.
“Memory is a queer goddess, whose gifts metamorphose with the passage of the years,” my grandfather observed upon one such afternoon. “One cannot call to mind that which occurred an hour past, yet summon events seventy years gone, as if they were unfolding here and now.”
I interrogated him, often ruthlessly I fear, upon these distant holdings of his heart. Perhaps for his part he welcomed the eager ear of youth, for once launched upon a tale he would pursue its passage, like the tireless campaigner he was, in detail to its close. In his day the scribe’s art had not yet triumphed; the faculty of memory stood unatrophied. Men could recite extended passages from the Iliad
quote stanzas of a hundred hymns, and relate passage and verse of the tragedy attended days previous.
More vivid still stood my grandfather’s recollection of men. He remembered not alone friends and heroes but slaves and horses and dogs, even trees and vines which had graven impress upon his heart. He could summon the memory of some antique sweetheart, seventy-five years gone, and resurrect her mirage in colors so immediate that one seemed to behold her before him, yet youthful and lovely, in the flesh.
I inquired of my grandfather once, whom of all the men he had known he adjudged most exceptional.
“Noblest,” he replied without hesitation, “Socrates. Boldest and most brilliant, Alcibiades. Bravest, Thrasybulus, the Brick. Wickedest, Anytus.”
Impulse prompted a corollary query. “Was there one whom memory has driven deepest? One to whom you find your thoughts returning?”
At this my grandfather drew up. How odd that I should ask, he replied, for yes, there was one man who had, for cause to which he could not give name, been of late much upon his mind. This individual, my grandfather declared, stood not among the ranks of the celebrated or the renowned; he was neither admiral nor archon, nor would his name be found memorialized among the archives, save as a dark and self-condemned footnote.
“Of all I knew, this man could not but be called the most haunted. He was an aristocrat of the district of Acharnae. I helped to defend him once, on trial for his life.”
I was intrigued at once and pressed my grandfather to elaborate. He smiled, declaring that to launch upon this enterprise may take many hours, for the events of the man’s tale transpired over decades and covered on land and sea most of the known world. Such prospect, far from daunting me, made me the more eager to hear. Please, I entreated; the day is well spent, but let us at least make a beginning.
“You’re a greedy whelp, aren’t you?”
“To hear you speak, Grandfather, the greediest.”
He smiled. Let us start, then, and see where the tale takes us.
“In those days,” my grandfather began, “that class of professional rhetorician and specialist in affairs of the courts had not yet arisen. On trial a man spoke in his own defense. If he wished, however, he might appoint an associate — a father or uncle, perhaps a friend or gentleman of influence — to assist in preparing his case.
“By letter from prison this man solicited me. This was odd, as I shared no personal acquaintance with the fellow. He and I had served simultaneously in several theaters of war and had held positions of responsibility in conjunction with the younger Pericles, son of the great Pericles and Aspasia, whom both of us were privileged to call friend; this, however, was far from uncommon in those days and could in nowise be construed as constituting a bond. Further this individual was, to say the least, notorious. Though an officer of acknowledged valor and long and distinguished service to the state, he had entered Athens at her hour of capitulation not only beneath the banner of the Spartan foe but clad in her mantle of scarlet. I believed, and told him so, that one guilty of such infamy must suffer the supreme penalty, nor could I contribute in any way to such a criminal’s exoneration.
“The man persisted nonetheless. I visited him in his cell and listened to his story. Though at that time Socrates himself had been convicted and sentenced to death, and in fact resided awaiting execution within the walls of the same prison, and to his aid I must before all attend, not to mention the affairs of my own family, I agreed to assist the man in the preparation of his defense. I did so not because I believed he could be acquitted or deserved to be (he himself readily ratified his own inculpation), but because I felt the publication of his history must be accomplished, if only before a jury, to hold the mirror up to the democracy which, by its conviction of the noblest citizen it had ever produced, my master Socrates, had evinced such wickedness as to crown and consummate its own self-immolation.”
My grandfather held silent for long moments. One could see his eye turn inward and his heart summon the memory of this individual and the tone and tenor of that time.
“What was the man’s name, Grandfather?”
“Polemides the son of Nicolaus.”
I recalled the name vaguely but could not place it in quarter or context.
“He was the man,” my grandfather prompted, “who assassinated Alcibiades.”II
Murder in Melissa
The assassination party [my grandfather continued] was led by two nobles of Persia acting under orders of the Great King’s governor of Phrygia. They proceeded by ship from Abydos on the Hellespont to the stronghold in Thrace to which Alcibiades had repaired in his final exile, whence, discovering their prey absconded, the party pursued him back across the straits to Asia. The Persians were accompanied by three Peers of Sparta whose chief, Endius, had been Alcibiades’ guest-friend and intimate since boyhood. These had been appointed by the home government, not to participate in the murder, but to serve as witnesses, to confirm with their own eyes the extinction of this man, the last left alive whom they still feared. Such was Alcibiades’ renown for escape and resurrection that many believed he could cheat even that final magistrate, Death.
A professional assassin, Telamon of Arcadia, accompanied the party, along with some half dozen henchmen of his selection, to plan and execute the action. His confederate was the Athenian Polemides.
Polemides had been a friend of Alcibiades. He had served as captain of marines throughout Alcibiades’ spectacular sequence of victories in the Hellespontine War, had acted as his bodyguard when the conqueror returned in glory to Athens, and had stood upon his right hand when Alcibiades restored the procession by land in celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries. I recall vividly his appearance, at Samos, upon Alcibiades’ recall from exile to the fleet. The moment was incendiary, with twenty thousand sailors, marines, and heavy infantry, distraught for their own fate and the survival of their country, enveloping the mole they called Little Choma as the longboat touched and Polemides stepped off, shielding his charge from the mob which seemed as ripe to stone as salute him. I studied Alcibiades’ expression; nothing could have been clearer than that he trusted the man at his shoulder absolutely with his life.
It was this Polemides’ duty now, some seven years subsequent, to draw the victim out and with his cohort, the assassin Telamon, perform the slaughter. For this his fee was a talent of silver from the treasury of Persia.
Of all this the man informed me, concealing nothing, within the first minutes of our initial interview. He did so, he stated, to ensure that I — whose family shared bonds of marriage with the Alcmaeonids, Alcibiades’ family on his mother’s side, and myself through my devotion to Socrates, whose link to Alcibiades was well known — would know the worst at once and could pull out, if I wished.
The actual indictment against the man made no citation of Alcibiades.
Polemides was charged in the death of a boatswain of the fleet named Philemon, who had been murdered some few years prior in a brothel brawl at Samos. A second impeachment was preferred against him, that of treason. It was under this rubric, clearly, that the jurors would read that more consequential slaying. Such obliquity was not uncommon in those days; yet its indirection was compounded by the specific statute under which his accusers had brought him to trial.
Polemides had been arraigned neither under a writ of eisangelia,
the standard indictment for treason, nor a dike phonou,
a straight charge of homicide, both of which would have permitted him to elect voluntary exile, sparing his life. Rather he had been denounced (by a pair of known rogues, brothers and stooges of acknowledged foes of the democracy) under an endeixis kakourgias,
a far more general category of “wrongdoing.” This struck one at first as preposterous, the issue of prosecutors ignorant of the law. Further reflection, however, revealed its cunning. Under this category of indictment, the accused may not only be imprisoned before and throughout trial, without option of voluntary exile, but denied bail as well. The death penalty still obtained, and the trial would take place, not before the Council or Areopagus, but a common people’s court, where such terms as “traitor” and “friend of Sparta” could be counted upon to inflame the jurors’ ire. Clearly Polemides’ accusers wanted him dead, by the right hand or the left. As far as one could predict, they would get their wish. For all those who hated Alcibiades and blamed him for the fall of our nation, yet many still loved him. These would raise no remonstrance to the execution of the man who had betrayed and slain their champion. Still, Polemides observed, his accusers were, he was certain, of the opposite party — those who had conspired with their country’s enemies, seeking to purchase their own preservation at the price of their nation’s ruin.
As to the man Polemides himself, his appearance was both striking and singular, dark-eyed, of slightly less than average height, extremely thick-muscled, and, though well past forty years, as lean through the middle as a schoolboy. His beard was the color of iron, and his skin despite imprisonment retained the dark copper of one who has spent much of his life at sea. Scars of fire, spear, and sword crisscrossed the flesh of his arms, legs, and back. Upon his brow, though bleached by exposure to the elements, stood vivid the koppa
slave brand of the Syracusans, token of that captivity endured by survivors of the Sicilian calamity and emblematic of unspeakable suffering.
Did I abhor him? I was prepared to. Yet in the flesh his clarity of thought and expression, his candor and utter want of self-exoneration, disarmed my prejudice. His crimes notwithstanding, the man appeared to my imagination much as might have Odysseus, stepping forth from the songs of Homer. Nor did he comport himself in the brutish or insolent manner of the soldier for hire; on the contrary his demeanor and self-presentation were those of a gentleman. What wine he had, he proffered at once and insisted upon vacating for his guest the solitary stool his cell possessed, pillowing it for my comfort with the fleece he used to bundle the chamber’s single bare pallet.
Throughout that initial interview he performed as we spoke various calisthenics intended to maintain fitness despite confinement. He could place his heel upon the wall above his head and, standing flat on the other sole, set his forehead with ease upon his elevated shin. Once when I brought him some eggs, he placed one within the cage of his fist and, extending his arm, challenged me either to prize his fingers apart or crush the egg. I tried, employing all my strength, and failed, as he grinned at me mischievously the while.
I never felt afraid with the man or of him. In fact as the days progressed I came to embrace a profound sympathy for the fellow, despite his numerous criminal deeds and lack of repentance therefor. His name, Polemides, as you know, means “child of war.” But he was not a child of just any war, rather one unprecedented in scale and duration and distinguished beyond all previous conflicts by its debasement of that code of honor, justice, and voluntary restraint by whose tenets all prior strife among Hellenes had been conducted. It was indeed this war, the first modern war, which forged our narrator’s destiny and directed it to its end. He began as a soldier and ended as an assassin. How was I any different? Who may disaffirm that I or any other did not enact in the shadows of our private hearts, by commission or omission, that same dark history played out in daylight by our countryman Polemides?
He was, like me, a product of our time. As to the harbor, high road and low follow their several courses along the shore, so his path had paralleled my own and that of the main of our contemporaries, only passing through different country.
Excerpted from Tides of War by Steven Pressfield. Copyright © 2000 by Steven Pressfield. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.