“Ship dashed against ship its bronze-sheathed beak…” Aeschylos, “Persians”
Immediately, ships strike one another with their bronze beaks. And a roar spreads throughout the fleet. We now hear the coarse cries of the barbarians who are charging with unbelievable savagery.
I call on my gods, call on the spirits of Klytoneos and Megistias, and fire my first arrow. Their triremes are tall and as they toss, they are not an easy target.
I glance quickly at the sight of the huge front that is angrily advancing toward us, and I shudder. I try to remember the words of Aristodemos: “When you throw yourself into battle, think that the enemy is foolish, otherwise he would not have come to fight on your land…” and the words of Aeschylos, which he spoke on the way to the wine-shop, come again into my mind: “for this land is our ally…”
I approach Menoitos. “Our war-hymn startled them, at the moment when they expected to see us fleeing in terror, and they are charging with fury…,” I whisper to him, and he wonders, “why would they expect us to flee in terror?” he does not know about the incident with Sikkinos, I reflect quickly, no one knows about the “unruly flight” that Themistocles had promised them, except for Dexileos and the two trusted bodyguards, and I try to rectify my words, “just as at Marathon, when they saw the Greeks charging and singing, they thought that they were running to surrender…” He stifles a laugh in his beard. “They were also startled by the breeze that came up, tossing their high ships, you see? Their arrows and their spears are missing their target… all falling into the sea…”
The moments are spacious; contain a thousand images at the same time, a thousand thoughts. And before one image or thought can succeed another, our arrows are whistling through the air, finding their targets, with motions both rapid and precise. The double strings of our bows give off sparks.
“What disconcerted them most of all was Ameinias’ trireme, which charged like a specter and rammed the tall Sidonian vessel…”
“Instead of them surprising us, we surprised them…”
The sea is foaming. And their triremes, as they charge all together with incredible force, and tall as they are—most of them roofed, resemble a moving, wooden Hades that has released all its grandeur to terrify us.
We hear the orders shouted by our helmsmen, “charge”…or, “in single file”… or, even, “drag oars…” and in the tumult we see our triremes attacking with the same, unrestrained fury, like sea monsters roaring and churning the water—the beat of the boatswain striking the disk of elm-wood, the sound of the flute-player quickening the rhythm of the oars, the one hundred seventy oars that strike furiously and deep in the water, to open a passage.
We see them charging, through the rain of arrows and spears, stately and disciplined, with the two hundred men in the crew ready to give their lives to the struggle. A scene of grandeur before me. Our three hundred eighty triremes along a front more than fifteen stades long, and the wheeling lines that are charging in single file, seven or eight of them, determined to break the front line of the enemy.
At the same moment, on the other, right, wing, a trireme has moved beyond the front line and with great force, similar to that of Ameinias’ trireme, charges an Ionian trireme and smashes her oars and stern, shatters the bronze bow and maneuvering swiftly with precise movements, turns and rams the Ionian vessel squarely, piercing it below the water-line with her bronze beak, that lightning-like trident. The Ionian trireme was unlucky, for the sea breeze and the wave, after the smashing of her oars, turned her sideways, and the ramming was immediate and direct on her keel.
We too are cheering now, because we recognize the trireme that moved in front of the right wing.
It is the Aeginetan trireme that brought the Aeacidae this morning.
Time moves so slowly—at least that is my sense—that it allows my vision to function with incredible speed, separately from my mind, separately from my hands on the bow, to seize the images, both fragmented and whole, and to retain them. It is the slowness of the moments, I reflect, or the energy that my body develops, the tension that brings out all of my hidden powers. And I can even read the names of the Ionian triremes that are in from of us, at a distance of less than two stades, Iolkia, Artemis, Gygia, Miletos.
Miletos…and her ensign is a bronze griffon, I reflect.
My thoughts go to Protolaos of Miletos, whom I met at the port of Ephesos, when I went there with the legation of Aristodemos. His trireme was called Miletos and had the same bronze griffon—that mythical beast with the body of a lion and the wings of a bird—between the eyes on the bow. I wonder whether it was the same man who had deserted during the battle of Marathon and informed Miltiades that the enemy cavalry had withdrawn. My thoughts soar. Could it be the same trireme? With Protolaos as helmsman?
The tumult of the clash widens now across the entire front. The sea is covered with moving wooden beasts vomiting thousands of arrows and spears; their bronze prows drawing closer and closer. Blood has not yet started to flow, to color the sea red. What is visible of the water is blue. Nor are there any drowning men yet, no arms calling for help, no cries of pain. Only a few men fall now and then, struck by arrows and spears.
Suddenly we hear shouts from the left wing of Themistocles.
We try to comprehend what has happened and see Ameinias’ trireme unable to withdraw its ram from the Sidonian vessel; other triremes are rushing to help her.
With swift maneuvers, discipline, and most of all with naval skill, the withdrawal of Ameinas’ trireme was effected, between two heartbeats, while at the same moment the well-made Sidonian trireme was sinking, filling with water through the huge hole that the bronze trident had opened in its side.
My glance is there, on the high Sidonian trireme that is sinking with all her crew. I am here, on the deck of the Spartan, beside Menoitos and Lysippos, and am hurriedly shooting my arrows at the enemy ships that are approaching. But out of the corner of my eye, I try to watch the Sidonian vessel that is disappearing slowly below the water with its entire crew, oarsmen and auxiliary troops, archers, naval hoplites all drowning at this moment, struggling a little with the waves, calling the name of their god, Ahura Mazda, others calling on the spirit of evil, Ariman, sinking into the wet silence of the deep.
“So it’s true then that they don’t know how to swim—see? I am surprised that they were selected to fight a naval battle…,” I hear Menoitos, who is also watching the sinking trireme. “Xerxes leaped up from his throne, he saw them…,” Lysippos says; he too was watching what had happened. It is the first vessel to sink. The sea is suddenly filled with drowned men. It becomes the Acheron River for the two hundred hapless men who find a gruesome death. And at the same moment we hear similar cries from the Ionian trireme, the one rammed by the Aeginetan trireme Aiakis. She, too, sinks quickly, because the water she took on through the hole made by the ram draws her into the depths. In vain, the crews try to leap onto adjoining triremes to save themselves, or to swim. It is clear that some of the Ionians know how to swim, but they do not escape. The whirlpool drags them into the depths. Nothing is visible now; they are lost. Two triremes, with their entire crews, lost in the dark water.
The event upsets me. It awakens nightmarish images within me of other triremes that were sinking with their crews off Mount Athos, thirteen winters ago. When rough seas were dashing them against the cliffs. That thirteen-year-old boy is here, I tell myself, as I draw my bow; here—and he has not forgotten.
The daylight of this slow-moving day is here now. Gold and bronze flash under the sun. Thousands of armed men are watching us from the opposite hillsides. An endless flood of bronze and moving flesh behind the throne of Xerxes, on the slopes of Mount Aigaleo and in Attica, down to the shore of Phaleron. Their panoplies shine and the breeze that is blowing brings us the noise of the endless human sea. Xerxes is standing now, watching the two triremes that are sinking. Watching them panic-stricken, perhaps. The scarlet-clothed men of his bodyguard stand around him, saying something to him. He stands tall among them. The king dressed in gold. He awaits the next movement of his ships; the great clash is imminent, the prows of the two lines are only a few breaths apart.
But something has happened. The columns of our fleet—those triremes in single file that slip through the enemy line—have broken through the enemy’s front line, wreaking as much damage as they can; they are smashing oars and sterns and with skillful maneuvers driving their rams below the water line. Crashing sounds and shouts are heard now, clashing of bronze that gives way and of splintering wood, iron-tipped spears that land with force; tumult.
The battle becomes savage. One Aeginetan trireme has been rammed, and another of Eurybiades’ triremes, is about to overturn. From the little I can make out, I see the crews swimming quickly to avoid the stray arrows, to reach land, where the Athenian hoplites await them, along with the priests and those skilled in the medical arts and the knowledge of herbs, who have gathered from all our allied fleets and have set up a makeshift operating room, because the wounded are many in number. Others are being picked up by the six rescue boats, which are stationed at the rear to transport the wounded to shore.
We have nowhere to stand. The hoplites from the enemy triremes, the archers, our spear-men are firing repeatedly. A few men jump onto our ships; the battle is man to man. A harsh, rabid battle.
I no longer see anything around me. A dark cloud has covered everything. A dense, impenetrable cloud. Arrows and spears are raining from the sky; broken sterns, fragments of bodies on the water, bronze striking bronze, shouts, moans.
The sea is red. The Acherousian sea. Bloated, shining pitiable corpses floating.
“I didn’t expect the Ionians to strike us with such hatred…,” Menoitos shouts beside me, above the din. “They are our brothers, of the same blood…,” I shout back. “I am afraid they may break through our lines, he continues; they have sunk two of our ships…”
I, too, am afraid. Because here, on the right wing, the sea is more open, about seven stades, and that is to their advantage, as they are more numerous. “We’re holding, I say to him; our line is holding well for the moment…”
I see Phrygias and Nikomedes who are fighting like beasts; I see Damon and Pytheas, Damaratos, the charioteer Apellaios. Tall and fierce, muscles tense and eyes flashing. All the hoplites aboard the Spartan are fighting fiercely, striking however they can. They quickly disposed of a few men who jumped onto our deck from an enemy trireme, cut them to pieces. Telemachos and Iolaidas, huge Spartans both, are covering the port-side outrigger, while Rhexibios and Milo, equally tall and strong, cover the starboard outrigger. We run from one end of the ship to the other, helping where needed.
“Keep up the defense…” I hear Eurybiades’ hoarse voice.
“Defense…,” shouts Phrygias, as well, as he strikes three Ionians who dared to leap onto the flagship.
At one moment, I see Nikomedes, who is fighting alone with superhuman strength to stop an Egyptian trireme that is charging our ship, to ram us.
Cold fear seizes me. The question of whether our line is bending, here on the right wing, flashes through my mind, where the triremes of Sparta and Aegina are positioned, because the attack of the Ionian ships, coming from more open water and with a deeper front line backed by the Carian vessels, are falling on us like a cloudburst. Also, the Egyptian ships, which were at the center of the enemy’s front line, are now moving eastward, toward us, and we do not know yet why that is; we do not know what is happening on the left wing, where Themistocles is. Eurybiades frantically shouts to his helmsmen to maintain discipline, not to lose control of the ships.
Polycritos, commander of the Aeginetan fleet, who is on our left, shouts the same orders, “follow the battle strategy…maintain discipline…do not lost control of the battle…”
I become more frantic, angrier. I shout along with them and strike, you, you want to make me a slave… you, you, my blood brother, the Ionian…you burned our temples… you would make a slave of my son… Twice my bow broke and I took a replacement from our spare weapons.
Suddenly, in the din, I see Nikomedes positioning his body to stop the approaching black Egyptian ship from ramming the Spartan, and my heart is in my throat. One more moment, half a moment, and our flagship will be hit; the bronze ram of the Egyptian vessel is already taking aim. I quickly grab my quiver with the poisoned arrows. Klytoneos had told me that Artemis coated her arrows with the sap of amarangos, which is also called hemlock, and of [ITAMOS?], which country people call taxos, when she wanted to slay someone. And from as much sap as I could find, I coated thirteen arrows for use in moments of great need. This is one. I quickly place the poisoned arrow in my bow and aim at the helmsman of the enemy trireme that is charging us. The sea is still choppy and the tossing makes aiming difficult.
I move as close as I can to Nikomedes, who is hanging from the Spartan, to be crushed by the enemy ship, so that its ram will not be able to penetrate deep into our vessel.
“What are you doing…move back…” he calls out to me.
“Wait and see what I am doing…” I reply and release four arrows one after the other. I release them with the speed of lightning, swift and accurate. Before I could hear two anguished heartbeats in my breast they had found their target.
Three of them; the fourth had struck a plank, but the three struck swiftly. One was struck in his shoulder, the others in an arm and a leg. The injuries were slight, but the poisons did their work well. The helm suddenly was free of the helmsman, and two other men fell down, unconscious. The oarsmen are terrified. They turn their trireme aside, to slip away and flee. I see some men running to assist the wounded, but they touch the arrows with the poison and begin to flail.
Nikomedes is still hanging from the ship. In two leaps, Lysippos and Apellaios are there and we pull him aboard.
“What did you do?” he asks me. Sweat and blood roll of him and the anguish has distorted his face.
I told him about the arrows of Artemis. He laughed. The others, too, laughed; they needed to. And we again take our positions, defensive positions, because the enemy is closing in on us, trying to break our resistance.
As Nikomedes is standing next to me, in the rain of aimless arrows, I see the wound on his shoulder. “It’s nothing, he says, a scratch…” Then I see another, gaping, wound on his leg, “nothing…,” he repeats, and tries to obstruct several gigantic Asians who are pulling our trireme toward theirs and preparing to jump onto our deck.
We all run to that spot, panic-stricken; we slash hands and feet, to stop them, but others follow them, indifferent to the axe that awaits them. Some men must be sacrificed in order to achieve the enemy’s goal, and they know that. Xerxes sees them from the hillside. He watches, his body bending forward. And, as each man believes that Xerxes is watching him, he fights rabidly. All of them are fighting with unbelievable savagery. And they shove some men forward, sacrificing them. They send them first to leap aboard, to distract the men on our trireme, and to find the opportunity to board our ship.
The shouts of our men are angrier now.
Shouts emerging from the depths of time, from the struggle of the gods with the titans.
And I, for a moment, feel that I am moving in a mysterious abstraction, outside of blood and tumult. And I wonder whether I am losing consciousness, whether what I am experiencing is real or a frightful nightmare. I try to bend my bow, but a vision immobilizes me. Vision and strange voices, “Iacche…Iacche…”
It is the same vision that appeared also at the burning of Eleusis, on the last day of the Sacred Mysteries, and they said that it was the initiated dead who were on their way to Salamis, singing the hymn to the god of the Mysteries, Iacchos. Are others seeing this vision? Are others hearing the mysterious voices? I exert a superhuman effort to come out of this abstraction, and draw my bow. Enoitos approaches me, “did you, too, hear the hymns to Iacchos?” he asks me. But something else is on my mind now. Phrygias and Nikomedes are still fighting with the enemy trireme, and I can read her name, Hyampole. She is tall and beautiful, and could have been on our side.
At the same moment I see the ship with the bronze griffin, the Miletos, which is coming up on our other, leeward, side, and the men ready to leap onto our ship. We are mad with rage. Half of our men stay on the leeward side with the Hyampole and the others run to the right, toward the Miletos. Menoitos is beside and pulls me in that direction to aid in the skirmish with the men from the Miletos. Our men are trying desperately to fend off the ramming. They roar like lions, fight tooth and nail, fight with bows and curved daggers.
The Miletos takes position to sink our ship by overturning it, or perhaps by ramming it, and we are distraught. A moment longer, half a moment…She does not do it. For some reasons that we do not have time to think of, she does not do it. The huge trireme remains motionless. And with swift maneuvers, our trireme manages to slip away. The deck is covered with blood, severed hands and feed obstruct our movement, we stumble over them and slip, our anguish reaches its peak, as the men from the Hyampole, now, on our leeward side, board us like demons and the battle is waged man to man, an infantry battle. I see nothing, I only strike; we strike with force, desperately. Milo is hit and falls; someone rushes to pick him up. Phrygias is covered with blood; he is wounded somewhere, but continues to fight with the same passion.
At some moment, we realize that there are no more enemy soldiers on our trireme; we had cut them all down. And we saw the Hyampole pulling away quickly, while the Miletos was still beside us, besieging us in whatever way she could. She could, even at this point have rammed us; she has turned her bow toward our sides. But once again, she does not do it. And several our men leap quickly aboard to take her hostage. I am beside Telemachos, and Nikomedes is pushing both of us to leap aboard with him. A savage, relentless battle follows. Our blood brothers, together with the dark-skinned Asians and the wild, mountain-dwelling Scythians, who perhaps jumped from other sinking triremes, fall on us, shrieking. I see Rhexibios fall, his head cut to pieces. And soon Daman rolls into the sea with his belly open. A huge-bodied hoplite raises his curved sword to strike Damaratos, but fortunately, Phrygias cuts him off. With a well-timed blow to his neck, he fells him. But the huge-bodied man rises up again, and Phrygias, his wound hemorrhaging beneath his breastplate, again fights vigorously. Both of them are covered with blood, slipping on the sea of blood and urine, fighting like enraged beasts.
Our shouts are the roar of Hades. And all the tumult around us is a roaring Hades. Vomiting blood. I am at the stern with Telemachos and Pylades, and Pytheas. Suddenly we hear cheers from the skirmish at the bow. They have cut them all down; the huge man is lying on the slime. And we are called back to our own trireme, which was about to ram and sink the Ionian vessel, ungovernable as it was.
At that moment, a man with a grey beard, covered with blood, comes out of the luxurious cabin and stands before us, about to collapse. Nikomedes runs to attack him, but he raises a weaponless hand. We approach him. He looks familiar, and his eyes are fixed on me. “Protolaos of Miletos,” he says in his loud voice, and waits. “And the other man?” I ask him. He looks at me, insistently and with a barely discernible smile, “Herakleides of Ephesos, he says, they have withdrawn the cavalry tonight…”
It is the second time I am meeting the same individual, I reflect quickly; soon perhaps I will see the map-maker, Lygdamis of Phoenicia…
Nikomedes gives me an angry look. “Who is he?”
I explain to him as laconically as I can. There is incredulity in his expression. For a moment he looks at the purple clothing Protolaos is wearing. He looks like the helmsman of the ship; he could have rammed us. “I could have, he says, but I did not give the order…I saw the messages Themistocles had carved on the cliffs…”
Nikomedes’ curved dagger is at his throat, but he looks at us calmly.
“What else can you say to convince me?” he asks him roughly.
“Aristodemos…” he says.
Nikomedes is shaken. Even here, at this wild moment of battle, the name of Aristodemos torments him…
“Take him, he shouts, and see that he receives the best medical care…”
I was the last to board our trireme. As I was pushing aside the corpses, to pass through, I bumped into a body that was still breathing. I look down.
It was Lysippos. With a deep chest wound. Soaked in blood. Unconscious.
I instantly place him over my shoulder and try to leave the trireme. But I do not succeed. The ungoverned Ionian vessel is swept away by the waves, as the oarsmen jump panic-stricken into the sea to save themselves.
I look at the distance to the water, see the bloodied water, no I cannot jump into the sea with Lysippos on my shoulder, I reflect quickly, and I shout as loudly as I can to the crew on our trireme.
How can a man in such critical moments, only one centimeter from the death swirling around him, possess such clarity of mind, comprehend some unbelievable details from the terrifying event taking place, comprehend totality and detail together, enter into the chaotic fissures that deepen and are lost in time, in that slight space of time. As I did not know whether I would fall into the water with Lysippos on my shoulder, or whether some help might arrive, my eyes seized the image of the battle. A quick glance seized the destruction and the blood, the curiously shining corpses, the cries of drowning men, the fragments from the splintered triremes, the death that sang sarcastically over the works of man. Swiftly flowing streams of blood shone on the water, forming red blossoms of a moving flame, terror in the embrace of a macabre beauty—and I shuddered.
Centuries from now, I reflect, when time will have traced its endless cycles over us, this morning, in the last part of the month Boedromion, only one day before the new moon, I will be here again, wandering here, dead or alive, attempting to detach from oblivion this terrifying but also magnificent theater of history. Because witnesses do not die. Witnesses keep vigil in the solitude of time, keep vigil with eyes open. And I, the insignificant child from Lemnos, the Helot, the wandering dreamer, I, the owner of time am here today, I say, the witness of history.
I felt that I was talking nonsense. In the midst of the tumult, surrounded by death, touched by it, I was slipping into abstraction, losing myself in strange visions, in babbling and emotion, and I realized that I could not bear what I was living through, that I was not worthy to confront it in all its appalling reality. So small did I feel, so minute, beside those demigods who, disciplined and fearless, most of them wounded, never stopped for a moment to struggle valiantly, to retain control of the battle, in their self-sacrifice.
And with Lysippos on my shoulder I jump into the sea.
“Alkames, come quickly, who are you carrying?”
I hear Nikomedes voice, who is frantically waiting for me to return to our trireme, so that the Ionian trireme can be rammed and sunk quickly.
The weight of Lysippos is dragging me down, and I try to stay afloat; I sense that I will not be able to, and the drowned corpses keep me from moving ahead. The sea water has become bloody, the red streams that shone a while ago are astringent blood, saltier than even the sea, disgusting as I swallow them, madness pounds my brain as the arrows whistle around me.
“Did you find another Ionian to rescue, Alkamenes…Who is it that you are carrying?”
I raise my head with difficulty, choking in the spilled blood.