ANTIGONE'S WAKE A NOVEL OF IMPERIAL ATHENS
“Oh yes, my life is marvelously fair.”
—Electra, Electra, l. 390
Seen from a godly vantage, the Athenian war fleet moved over the sea with a peculiar, spring-like action. Like the head of a caterpillar, the knot of vessels with experienced crews shot ahead, pulling hard as the body of the fleet stretched out behind. Zigging and zagging, the green-handed rearguard was left behind in the westward mist. In their case it was just as well that the oarsmen rowed virtually submerged in wood and the flesh of their companions, with their seats facing astern. It was a rare recruit who would not be discouraged to see the veteran ships race so far ahead that their rigging sank into the blue.
The sole advantage of arriving last was the fact that the pull-outs were already illuminated by watch-fires. The latecomers would then have the obvious target of the beached triremes, lined up like stranded whales on the sand, to motivate them. It was an unlucky ship that failed to arrive by dark, when the offshore breezes rose and the task of laying up for the night became infinitely more difficult and dangerous.
The ships rowed only in daylight, managing seven or eight miles an hour with a good crew and a following wind. Their limited range obliged the eastbound fleets to island-hop to Asia. After weathering the promontory at Sounion, the fleet caterpillared its way to the broad sandy beaches on the western shore of Keos. If going on to the Hellespont and the Black Sea, it touched in turn at Andros, Chios, and Lesbos; if making for Ionia proper, it cut through the heart of the Cyclades to the north coast of Ikaria, where foraging parties were sure to rush ahead to secure a supply of the local apricots to supplement the night’s rations.
From Ikaria it was an easy run to the large, wealthy island of Samos—a place where, until recently, the Athenians could expect a warm welcome and miles of empty shoreline to dry their hulls. But this time there would be no welcome. Instead of sailing east into Persian-controlled waters, the Athenians were bound for Samos herself, with the intention of humbling fellow Greeks.
On a spring voyage, the oarsmen knew an island was near when the sea’s color, freshened by the flow of stream water from the highlands, changed from a sky-reflecting blue to gray slate. Towers of vapor could be seen rising from the mountains of Naxos and Andros before the summits rose into view. It was not unknown for these plumes to blaze with sunset as the islands, drenched in shadow, floated in their turn above clouds of opalescent green, like sunken constellations. It was said by some that the glow in the water was made by tiny creatures that swarmed there. Others insisted it was the gleam of torches in Hades, as the miserable shades, seeking respite from an eternity in twilight, marched in procession in honor of the Lord of the Dead.
On this particular evening a fleet of sixty triremes was safe for the night on Keos. Another four had yet to reach shore as the sun washed its lower limb in the sea. The laggards, which were crewed mostly by poor citizens with no experience afloat, churned the blackening waves with triple-banks of oars, their bronze-clad rams plowing the swells. A pair of painted eyes on the bows fixed an impassive stare at the beach; behind, the superstructure ascended in a proud, erect curve, like some defiant gesture at departing Helios.
On the slowest-running ship of this, the lagging flotilla in the fleet, the deck pitched and twisted as the unstable, narrow-beamed warship settled in the hollows between the crests. To this motion was added the intermittent lurch of the hull as the ship was propelled forward by its oars. A lookout shouted ahead; the officer of the deck slowed the cadence as the ship approached the flotsam of some lost transport. Closer, they entered a stretch of water with horse carcasses scattered like wet, woolen blisters on the sea. Lifting their blades over the gas-swollen bags, the top oarsmen looked down on the drowned things as they floated, legs splayed in a slick becalmed with blood, each attended by writhing schools of silvery maggots. Novice rowers flinched in their benches as the ship’s beak exploded equine flesh. A putrid cloud rose, sending the marines scurrying to douse the torches, and turned even the most seaworthy stomachs inside out.
Watching this from the deck, just ahead of the steering oars, from a chair that was really no more than a puny shelf, was Sophocles son of Sophilos, general of the fleet and erstwhile civilian. And in green-faced Sophocles there was not a scrap of food, for he had vomited his breakfast into the sea hours ago, and only a single thought: how, by some perversity of the Fates, have I come to be here, on my way to war?
Nothing to do with Dionysus
“He who stands clear of trouble should beware of dangers; and when a man lives at ease, then it is that he should look most closely to his life, lest ruin come on it by stealth.”
—Philoctetes, Philoctetes, l. 500
A few days before the City Dionysia, the archons held a much-anticipated competition. The proagon was staged under the peaked roof of Pericles’ new concert hall. The thousands gathered there, under the eighty stone columns with their capitals clad in theatrical attributes, and woodwork cut from the masts of wrecked Persian ships, sweltering in their winter cloaks as the air stank of lampsmoke and tar still drying on the crossbeams. With the weather fair that early March, the mass of citizens overflowed out the doors, around the stone walls, spreading down the slope like a linen-drab stain.
Athenians came because the contest decided the order in which the tragedies would be staged at Dionysus’ festival. Yet few of the spectators, indoors or out, had a decent view of the performance. The stage was built too low, as if begrudging any departure from the wide, flat expanse of the orchestra in the nearby Theater. The citizen fortunate enough to be a head taller than his neighbor still had to contend with that forest of columns, which doomed nearly every seat in the house to an obstructed view.
This competition was designed to be heard instead of seen. The three tragedians chosen for the season, matched with their state-sponsored choruses, would each present a foretaste of the songs from their productions. When an entrant’s turn came, he would get a few moments to impress the throng with his virtuosity. Self-appointed loudmouths would go about telling the people to shut up—swatting them if necessary—until they attained a silence long enough for the first few verses to waft through the hall and out the doors. Athenians, who attended many hours of drama every year, could tell in a few moments if the rest was worth hearing. Fine coming-attractions were politely attended and received applause; poor ones were drowned out by chatter and the cries of concessionaires selling cheap fans, water, fruit, or flatbread peppered with road-dust.
First to lead his chorus to the stage that day was Aristarchus of Tegea. His troupe entered through the side door and processed to the stage in a reverent silence. The poet and his fifteen choristers came garlanded with ivy, dressed in long, pleated stage-chitons, but without masks and without the chitons bustled for dancing. There were a few groans from the crowd as they assembled. In a dozen years, Aristarchus had entered tetralogies for seven Festivals, yet had never placed higher than second. Though the judges never favored him, the name-archon for the year, Timocles, had once again honored Aristarchus with a place among the final three. Timocles sat with the other magistrates in their wooden chairs beneath the stage, his arms crossed, his downcast expression revealing nothing. The poet presented himself to the people and sang the usual invocation:
“Aid us, our dear lord Dionysus, as we consecrate this offering, that it may please you, and shed your divine favor upon this city of the Athenians, which above all others honors you by consecrating these fruits at your festival, the greatest in all the lands of the Greeks.”
Aristarchus turned to his chorus. The self-styled soldiers of Dionysus in the crowd squelched all chatter, and Timocles unfolded his arms.
Though the poet had not named his play or described its subject, everyone recognized what followed as a tragedy set on the shores of Ilion. The chorus sang of the fair matron of Menelaus’ house, borne from Laconian purple over plum-wine seas to Alexandros’ scented bower. They sang of Priam’s turrets piercing the heavens above Sigeum, as the tenth-part of the cargoes of a hundred nations passed in tribute beneath his walls. They sang of Troy’s blooming manhood, playing at youthful games as the tide of death swept toward them from the prows of the easting Achaeans. And though they were forbidden to dance during the proagon, the choristers moved in time to the verses, the crimps of their gowns swaying, the sweat-smeared Aristarchus laboring before them, pumping his arms, as if inflating some kind of iambic bellows. The crowd gave their attention to the poet who had chiseled this ode from the mass of his inert talent, allowing him to evoke like the sweet memory of a dream, that distant beach, that patch of ground waiting for the ashes of great, broken Achilles—but only for a moment. When the Tegean turned back to face the people, he found they had returned to their roasted walnuts.
It was, on the whole, a typical performance for Aristarchus. The chorus, furnished him by the state, had done its level best with the mere competence of his verse. The producer assigned to him, an aristocrat named Theodorus, seemed duly committed to spending a patriotic abundance of his money on scenery and costumes. He even had a fine protagonist in Hegelochus, who had distinguished himself last year in the role of Darius in Achaeus’ Persians. Yet all this splendid support just inspired everyone to dread the final production even more; it was, after all, doomed to nothing more than a second-place finish. Athenians never had much time for worthy runners-up.
The glumness vanished when the crowd saw the next troupe mount the stage. A wave of relief swept through the Odeon—a spontaneous, collective exhalation—as a tall, familiar figure led his chorus before the people. The shudder of anticipation swept through the doors, into the crowd listening outside, and seemed to radiate into the city. The trees in the temple groves nodded, unfolding limbs laden with spring buds. In Dionysus’ sacred grotto under the Acropolis, the priests saw the lamps gutter, then burn with fresh vigor, and with that sign knew that a really good show was at hand, and that the god was beckoning them to run down the slope to glimpse the new work by Dexion, the city’s pride.
Sophocles of Colonus, son of Sophilos, father of Iophon, was a handsome man of fifty-five. Renowned since youth for his beauty, he had been kindly handled by age: his physique, which had graced the choral dances so often when he was a boy, had retained the balanced proportions of a champion pentathlete. His head was neither too squat like Socrates’, nor too high-crowned like Pericles’, but sat square on his tanned shoulders. The features on it were sculptural in their balance, with eyes finely spaced but not too far, lips appealingly plump but not sensuous, nose ascending straight and true from the untrammeled plain of his brow. Those who had not seen him since his last proagon noted that his beard was grayer, more deeply piled, and the lines on his face were deeper. Yet these badges of maturity only seemed to frame the ideality of what remained. When his fellow citizens passed him in the street, they would stare and point, and say “There goes Dexion, inspired by the gods and beautiful to look upon.”
Though he was nothing other than a man, his fame had given him an almost feminine acquaintance with being leered at. Over the years he had learned how to turn these instances into opportunities: as people watched, they would grow so immersed in their admiration they wouldn’t notice Sophocles scrutinizing them back. In this way he learned much about the character of his city’s people. One of the pleasures of his plays was the economical ways he captured these qualities, communicating them in his choice of words and the small gestures of his actors, so that even other Greeks in the audience, visiting from other cities, were sometimes at a loss to understand the hoots of recognition from the Athenians.
Years before he had been frequently seen on the orchestra. From boyhood he was noted for his skill with the lyre, and was heavily sought by other poets as an accompanist for their choral songs. It was young Sophocles who played the harp for the premiere performances of all three plays in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. When he began to write his own tragedies, he took the protagonist’s role himself. His performances came to be as finely wrought as his verse, so that again he was courted by other tragedians. For this versatility of his talent—writing, acting and musicianship—he soon earned the epithet of “Dexion,” the Entertainer.
He pursued this hyphenated career as long he was able—until the day he was acting the title role in Neophron’s Medea, and at a particularly fraught moment, when the heroine was obliged to confront the bodies of the children she had murdered, his voice broke. With fifty lines left to speak, he was obliged to continue in a whisper. The audience was so transported by the show that they leaned forward in a body to hear Medea’s barely-audible rant. The producer, Cimon son of Miltiades, won the ivy crown for his work; Sophocles, despite his mishap, also won the prize for his acting. Neophron, however, was forced to take second place among the tragedians. For failing his patron, Sophocles never forgave himself—and never trusted his voice on stage again.
And so he confined himself to writing, and did so with such success that the appearance of a new program by Dexion was something of a civic event. When he took the stage and commenced the invocation, there was no need to call for silence—curiosity stilled every tongue in the room. The chorus behind him was dressed much like Aristarchus’, but with a special touch typical of their master: all of them, in addition to the wreaths and chitons, were wearing the special kid-skin bootlets of the type Sophocles had designed himself. Once, when pressed, he explained that they were supposed to prevent slips during the dances. “When,” his rivals asked, “had a chorister ever slipped on the dusty floor of the orchestra?” “Never,” agreed the people, who ordinarily resisted any innovation. Yet, so good did the fancy things look on the feet of the dancers, for Sophocles alone they swallowed the conceit, and accepted the boots.
The troupe began the first song with voices so subdued that they were imperceptible beyond the first few rows of spectators. The people shushed each other, their hisses rising and falling away like one of the rare oceanic waves that broke on Sounion when the great Earth-husband, enthroned somewhere in the deep, tossed his weed-shrouded shoulders. When they settled at last, and the chorus rose, the audience heard them sing:
He set out against our land because of the strife-filled claims of Polyneices,
and like a screaming eagle he flew over into our land, covered by his snow-white wing,
with a mass of weapons and crested helmets.
He paused above our dwellings; he gaped around our sevenfold portals with spears thirsting for blood;
but he left before his jaws were ever glutted with our gore, or before the Fire-god's pine-fed flame had seized our crown of towers.
So fierce was the crash of battle swelling about his back, a match too hard to win for the rival of the dragon.
For Zeus detests above all the boasts of a proud tongue—
They elegized like this for some time as the audience stood rapt, watching if they could, just listening if the columns blocked their view, with snacks unchewed in their mouths and their faces suffused with pleasure. For an ode of Dexion was nothing if not pleasant—neither too rough or austere, like the poets of the generation that had served at Marathon, nor too precious, like the mellifluous droolings of the young. Better than anyone, he respected the people’s preference for dances over songs, and songs over dialog, even as he produced expositional verse as clever as the city literati could ever wish.
Yet if there was one criticism—and among the Athenians there was always at least one—it was that Dexion was perhaps too smooth, too easy to take. Some still compared him unfavorably to Aeschylus, whose verses serried and bristled like phalanxes, and whose productions were like forced marches through bramble-fields. While Sophocles was something of a trimmer, all too aware of striking a fair balance, the old master was never anyone but himself. In his severity, Aeschylus seemed primitive, yet also much closer to the source of what once made the tragedies consecrated acts, not excuses for someone to exhibit his cleverness.
But these were the carpings of scolds. When the song was over the people applauded freely. When the poet stepped forward, a fetching sheen of humility on his face, to announce the subjects of his plays, an immodest woman cried out that she would love Sophocles anywhere. Her ejaculation was followed by wolf-whistles from all over the Odeon, from men and women.
“The people will be dignified,” announced Timocles, who waited for order, then turned to Sophocles. “Continue.”
“The theme of the program,” said the poet, “is the wages the gods mete to the unjust. The first play has seven odes and seven episodes, and is called the Agamemnon. The second has ten odes and nine episodes, and is called the Danaids, and the third, with eight odes and eight episodes, is the Antigone. There will also be a satyr play, the Harvesters, with six odes and six episodes. The producer will be the metic, Chaerephilus of Chalcedon, and the protagonist for all the plays, Tlepolemus.”
It came as a surprise to no one that the competition ended with Dexion’s victory. The last entrant of the day was a newcomer, a youth named Thespis, who produced the kind of metrical fireworks that impressed the sophisticates, but fell flat with the people. The archons gathered, and after only a brief conference produced their verdict: Aristarchus would present first, then Thespis, and then, in the plum spot, Dexion. The people registered their acclamation by pelting the stage with blossoms if they had them, cheeses and uncracked nuts if they didn’t, followed by garbage, like fruit rinds and baked long bones with the tasty marrow sucked out, until the proceedings devolved into the usual riot. The archons loosed the Scythian flatfoots on the crowd, who cleared the Odeon by bludgeoning anyone in reach. When it was over, Sophocles was left on the stage with Timocles, looking down on the wooden floor smeared with urine, rose petals, discarded shells, and broken teeth.
“Smooth event this year,” appraised the archon as he swung his cloak over his shoulders. “Good luck, Dexion.”
Sophocles made a practice of visiting the Theatre in the early morning before his work was presented. This entailed getting up shortly after midnight and coming into town when it was still dark, before the caretakers arrived to make final preparations for the day’s productions. He was, in fact, rising with the farmers in the valley around the city, who would likewise roll off their pallets in the deep gloom to turn out the family cow, or milk their goats, or tweeze the pests from the corrugations of their olive trees. In those days, with the nightly breeze blowing steady across the thyme-scented slopes of Hymmetus, it was still possible to hear activity on the farms outside the city. All the animal cluckings and brayings and clanking of iron tools against the stony soil reminded him of a life he had given up long before, when he left his father’s armory shop as a young man. Truth be told, it was a life to which he, like most lettered craftsmen, would be loathe to return. Yet it always gave him a pinch of sentimental pleasure to know it was still there.
With spring not far advanced, his trek was through cold, deserted streets. It was the one moment of the day when Athens could be mistaken for a clean city. There would be no smoke in the air yet, and the hardpan of the streets was then in the process of being wetted to keep down the dust. The gutters would be clean for the moment, for the chamberpots of the citizens were yet undumped out the windows. Between the shutters, matronly shadows could be glimpsed collecting wood for breakfast fires. If he saw anyone on the street at that hour, it would be some hard-working storekeep shipping fish or winejars to his stall, or else—like some frail bird rarely seen—a freeborn girl with a wine jug, only permitted out on the streets when they were deserted of men.
The theatre was a wooden, semi-circular grandstand, nestled under the open sky in the southeast shoulder of the Acropolis. Above it, flying from temporary masts, snapped the banners of the ten tribes into which Attica was divided. Higher still flitted the swallows that made their homes in the cracks and ledges of the sacred rock. For two generations nothing was above the birds but the rampart started by Cimon out of the fire-stained blocks of the old sanctuary of Athena. Now, just peeking over the bastion, still controversial in its smug, self-celebratory bigness, stretched the roofline of the yet-unfinished Parthenon.
Inside the theatre, the painted stage scenery was already attached to the pavilion façade behind the orchestra: in this case, it was meant to evoke the Royal Palace of the Thebans. Dexion would look at it from various positions around the stage—front and center, from the stone seats reserved for the city magistrates; from the most distant upper tier, on the wooden benches where the women sat and, more often than not, chatted through the performance; from down on the orchestra, beside the altar of Dionysus, where he would play his harp for the choruses and fret over everything else in the production that failed to comport with his hopes.
No play was ever mounted twice for the Great Dionysia, but the festival itself never changed. Dionysus Eleuthereus, son of Zeus, also known as Bacchos the Twice-born, drinking buddy of Silenus, patron of theater and madness, inspirer of sweet indolence and frenzied violence, had always called forth the most committed of Athenian carousers. The celebrants began to drink during the procession on the festival’s first day. After the seals on last autumn’s wine jars were cracked, the city watched through blurry eyes as the god, his plaster face painted and uncut phallus festooned with ribbons, was borne aloft through the streets. He hit the road in his divine barge, but for good measure, as if ready to preclude any delay, he also had wings and a riding crop. The procession ended at the theatre, where the god was delivered to his altar in the center of the orchestra, and whence, on the first full day of festival performances, he would enjoy an unrivaled view of the year’s dithyrambs.
Ten fifty-man choruses—one for each tribe—would compete to mount the best songs and dances in honor of the god. Dexion had participated in his share of dithyrambs as a young man. Ungirdled, with skin oiled and goatskin around his shoulders, he danced in his first prize-winning chorus twenty-five years earlier, during the archonship of Phaidon. It was his first crack at performing as the troupe-leader, charged with introducing all the familiar stories about Dionysus—his rescue as a babe, plucked from his mother’s burnt corpse after she dared cast her gaze on the Thunderer; his emergence from his long childhood at Mount Nysa; his triumphant procession through India and Persia in an ivy-clad car pulled by panthers, spreading the blessings of the grape along the way. In every sense, Dexion’s career began with the god, for tragedy itself was said to have sprung from the dithyrambs, with the troupe-leaders having long ago evolved into protagonists, and the choral subjects straying farther and farther from the strict worship of Dionysus. As recently as Aeschylus’ time one could still hear old men complaining that the new plays had nothing to do with the god. But Dionysus himself, ever amused, ever erect and ready to fly, seemed content to take the best seat in the house.
The second day was devoted to the year’s comedies, with the honored poets staging one play each. The crowd would file into the theatre as the sun rose, bearing blankets for their shoulders and pillows for the rumps that would remain planted on those wooden benches, with only brief pee breaks, for the eight hours necessary to see all five plays. For this entertainment, respectable citizens were expected to pay two obols each for a seat—less than half a day’s wages. Yet Dionysus would be displeased to see half the city barred from his levee. The city Treasury therefore paid the admission fees of hundreds of the city’s worst reprobates, scoundrels, and layabouts. These tended to cluster in the theater’s upper reaches, where they honored the god of inebriation out of small wineskins and earthenware cups. When bored, they pounded the benches with their heels; when amused, they guffawed the loudest, while at all times they shouted down impromptu reviews of the rich and the powerful in the seats below.
The atmosphere at the end of the second day was more raucous than ever, with everyone giddy and exhausted after hearing sixty-five hundred lines of verse and sixty or seventy choruses, and the comic poets competing to influence the judges by stirring up the crowd, and the low-class spectators more than ready to oblige by flinging those earthenware cups, until the Scythians were inevitably called in to secure the formalities of the prize-vote. If the judges’ decision was unpopular, an undeserving winner would be lucky to escape Dionysus’s sanctuary with his ivy crown unmussed and his prize purse unpicked.
And so the people trudged to the festival’s third day—the opening day of the tragedies—at daybreak, with most of them not having slept for forty-eight hours. The poet saddled with presenting his trilogy first (this year, the hapless Aristarchus) would have only half an audience for the initial four or five odes of his first play. All the officials were obliged to be there, but it was a rare judge who cast his first-place vote for a program few citizens had seen in full.
By the start of the fourth day, consigned this year to Thespis’ tongue-tanglers, the earnest playgoers would have arrived in force, and the less-earnest either nodded off in their seats or slunk off to bed. The sobering influence of the tragedies themselves had its effect on the proceedings, which became ever more serious as the day wore on. In Dexion’s experience, the optimal moment came with the premiere of the opening play on festival day five. It was at this juncture, when the prospect of competition between the poets was felt most keenly, and the people came to the theater fresh after a good night’s rest, and his chorus and players were in their best voice, and the dust of the city had not yet risen to obscure the magnificence of the setting, that he had reserved to present his Antigone.
The poet slumped on his bench as his heart sank. The sun would rise soon, casting its light indifferently on triumph or disaster. The quiet before a festival performance always depressed him, for the actors had learned their lines, the choruses had been drilled, the costumes had been stitched, and there was nothing more he could do. Anyone spying on Sophocles on the morning before a performance would have seen him sitting there with his lips silently moving, but not to his own iambs. The lines, instead, would be the ancient prayers of his fathers, and his audience Dionysus, Aesclepius, or any other god who might take pity on him,
Pericles never lingered at parties for the start of the drinking. Lysicles son of Neanthes therefore gave his review of the year’s tragedies while the food was still on the table.
“Truly magnificent . . . a pity it had to end . . .” he remarked, waving a peacock egg for emphasis. “No one can remember an occasion when the giving of the prize was so foregone.”
“And what do you know about drama, Lysicles?” said Menippus son of Myronides, Pericles’ advisor in things military. “You are a dealer in sheep.”
“Even for a tragedy, Antigone is such a tedious story,” said Aspasia, who had come to the hall in a chiton so delicately woven, and so expensive, that she dared not eat in it. Imported from the finest clothier in Miletus, the gown shone from certain angles like spun silver, while from others it was semi-transparent. On her head she wore an olive wreath circlet made of beaten gold, and around her right arm a golden serpent with ruby eyes and a carnelian tongue. By the twinkle in the eyes of her male guests she could see the impression this ensemble made. Pericles, who had withdrawn to the farthest corner of his couch, seemed irked by the show of her wealth—if not of her roseate, yet-unsuckled teats.
“You insist on embarrassing yourself with this vulgarity,” he would tell her later, though the puckering of his high-domed brow proved it was the great man himself who was embarrassed. “How will I defend myself from the demagogues, when you go around like a tramp?”
“But I am your tramp, great Pericles!” she replied without shame. “And how else shall I present myself in this uncivilized place? Here, even the wives of the thetes pretend they have money, yet I am expected to dress like a pigseller’s daughter?”
And noble Pericles, son of Xanthippus, blood descendant of Cleisthenes the Lawgiver, elected general of the Acamantian tribe for fifteen consecutive years, first citizen of Athens and architect of an empire that spanned the Aegean, would make no response except to cover his face. This was partly because he was not the sort to debase himself with petty arguments, but also because he had already learned not to match wits with Aspasia, who had a lively tongue and little dignity to lose.
“In Sophocles’ hands the story was not dreary, but the finest sort of agony,” continued Lysicles. “For it may have been called Antigone, but it really had two heroes—the princess Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, and Oedipus’ successor as King of Thebes, Creon. Both were given their due. Everyone was so moved by the plight of each that the audience fell into a dispute with itself after the last chorus, arguing over which character was more admirable. The archons had to delay the next play.”
Menippus spat in a fold of his tunic. “Yes, I can attest to that: the whole day was set back. The satyr play didn’t end until after sundown. I was numb by the end—you could have stuck a cavalry lance in my ass and I wouldn’t have felt it.”
“How can the play have two heroes?” interjected ten year-old Alcibiades, his tender young mouth stuffed with roast dormouse. “That is not the correct form for tragedy.”
Aspasia reached out to straighten the boy’s unruly bangs. Pericles’ ward was really coming into fine form—she would soon have to appoint a slave to instruct him in what a handsome young man should know about women. “Don’t talk with your mouth full, dear,” she said. “And finish your wine.”
“I don’t like wine.”
“Silly child, don’t the pine nuts make you thirsty?”
“I prefer water.”
She sighed. “Are we doomed to raise a boy with unbalanced humors? Pericles, tell him.”
“The poet opens the story right after the war between the spawn of Oedipus,” Lysicles went on. “Polyneices, the younger son, has come to Thebes to wrest the throne from his brother, Eteocles. Both were cursed by Oedipus for their disrespect after his secret was revealed; both therefore fall in the siege. Creon, the new king, chooses to honor the eldest with a state funeral, but decrees that the corpse of Polyneices must rot in the dust. Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter, will have nothing of that—she tells her sister Ismene so right from the start. . . . ”
“It was interesting to watch the people argue over that fable. . . .” mused Pericles, positioned some distance away. Though his body dented the cushions like that of any other mortal, there was a precision about his repose that made everyone else look as if they were slouching. It was a grace Alcibiades was determined to imitate exactly, as was Menippus, though the latter was so naturally twitchy he could manage it only when he was a little drunk.
“You’d expect the monied ones, the knights and the five-hundred-bushel men, to sympathize with Creon—the power of the state—but they seemed divided amongst themselves, with some for the king, others for Antigone—as were the thetes—”
“Try some of this,” Aspasia told Alcibiades, holding a fingertip dipped in wine to the boy’s lips. “It’s the sweet vintage you like—”
“So the first chance she gets she’s out on the battlefield, giving the body a ritual dusting. When Creon hears of it of course he is beside himself. They can barely dissuade him from killing the messenger, who’s a splendid portrait by the way, an exact reflection of your typical Athenian bureaucrat, caring only that he doesn’t get prosecuted! Creon orders him back out to the battlefield, to find out who defied his orders—or else!”
“Did you happen to attend the comedies this year, my dear?” Aspasia asked Pericles with a mischievous lilt in her voice. The great man ignored her, but Menippus whooped at the question, spilling the barley stuffing from the sow’s womb that was on its way to his mouth.
“Oh, not a good year for that! There was a devastating piece by Cratinus this time, set on an unknown island where the people’s heads literally swell up when they receive praise. The producer sprung for masks with inflatable bladders. There was a line in there by a whore that everyone just loved, that just killed, that went:
Some girls open up for a well-hung man
But what city can resist Mr. Big Brain-pan . . . ?
Aspasia gave her party laugh. “The slaves are talking about another coup, where two guardsmen on top of a wall are watching a horse and rider approach the city from a distance—”
“—and from the size of the heads,” cried Menippus, “they can’t tell if it’s the horse or High-head who wears the saddle!”
“That’s enough,” warned Pericles, turning anywhere for rescue. “Lysicles, tell us more about Dexion’s play.”
“Forget the dreary mythifying, and tell us about the dances!” Aspasia commanded.
Lysicles rolled his eyes in delectation as he downed a cup of water.
“When has Dexion disappointed us on that score?” he resumed. “As usual, his chorus was the sharpest-looking on the stage. When he wants them to wear white chitons, they are the whitest; when black, they are like dancing shadows. And those darling little boots! Of course, Chaerephilus won the producer’s prize. Dexion himself played the harp for the odes. I’ll say this for him: I’ve been to as many festivals as I have years as a man, and I have never seen plays that seem so much like the work of one mind. He was in control of everything—you could see him watching the choristers like a drillmaster, conducting them with his eyes. Through eight odes they never fell out of synchrony, except when he wanted them to. He makes the work of everyone else seem half-baked.”
“Do you hear that, my dear?” Aspasia addressed Pericles. “Our Dexion has the makings of a drillmaster!”
“If Polyneices was a traitor, why do the gods make Creon suffer?” asked Alcibiades.
“You may answer that question yourself,” replied Pericles in his didactic mode, “if you think about another: is it within the power of a mortal king to define who may be buried, and who may not?”
“That is up to the gods.”
“Then you know Creon’s error: by decreeing that the dead be exposed, and the living buried, he sought to enlarge the authority of men, and in so doing, he despised the gods.”
Aspasia exchanged glances with Menippus and Lysicles as the irony seemed to congeal in the air above them: Pericles, a man of almost lordly arrogance, whose disdain for pietist niceties was almost legend, was instructing the boy on the virtues of mortal discretion. But none of them spoke. After an afternoon of testing, even the patience of Pericles had its limits.
When the wine appeared their host made his usual excuses. Alcibiades was packed off to bed, and Menippus and Lysicles—with the discreet help of Aspasia—did their best to make it to a fifth jar of Chian red. But without the foil of chilly Pericles the fun soon went out of drinking. By the time the full moon had cleared the mountains the party had broken up, with Menippus on his way back to his home on Muses Hill, and Lysicles lurching from house to house, pounding on the doors of bewildered citizens, demanding entrée to the taverns he insisted were inside.
Aspasia was snuffing the lamps in the drinking parlor when Pericles appeared again. She had learned to recognize the expression he wore, the kind that betokened an idea was slowly and relentlessly hatching. For although his mind was not as quick as her’s, she knew that none was more thorough in its deliberations, sifting every conceivable pro and con. When he turned up like this he was ready to speak.
“An interesting idea you had, about making Dexion a soldier.”
“I wasn’t serious.”
“Though I imagine he’d prefer to be something more dignified than a drillmaster,” he went on, as if not hearing her. “A general perhaps. What is his tribe?”
“I don’t know.”
He turned to leave, but seemed to be frozen when his eyes swept over her expensive dress.
“Did you buy that in the market, or was it a gift?”
“Would I accept any gifts, after the way you have pestered me about that?”
“Then what are you prepared to give up?”
“Of all the niggardly tightfisted pinchpenny meanies!”
“I will not have it said I have used my position to enrich myself,” he declaimed, as if explaining to a child one of life’s eternal verities. “What about that new litter . . . why would anyone need more than one litter?”
She looked down for something to throw at him. But as the slaves had already cleared the tables, all she could find was a single olive. She launched it, hitting Pericles in the center of his vertically-plumb forehead. Since it was one of last year’s olives, soft and pickled in brine, it hit with a splat, leaving a brown spot.
“You will sell the litter or sell the dress,” he said. He then walked out without wiping his brow, for Pericles, of all people, was precisely the kind of man who, over some fine point of home economics, would never wipe away the pulpy residue when a soft, briny, year-old olive struck his forehead.
Sophocles was born in the suburb of Colonus, and still lived there. He had bought his little house with the pooled resources of his father’s inheritance, Nais’ dowry, and the modest income he made ghost-writing speeches for the courts. Prize-winnings for his plays came too infrequently, and were too uncertain, to count as steady income. Indeed, it was not so long ago that the first-place prize for drama was a wreath, a goat, and a pat on the back. For these reasons—and despite his fame—Sophocles’ modest pile could never be mistaken for the house of a rich man.
In the warm months he rose early to do his writing in the garden, under the shade of the little plane tree. There, enveloped in the scents of mint and oregano, he would wait for inspiration, reciting the verses as they came into his mind as his slave, Bulos, set them down on a tablet of soft lead. Some days he would cover an entire sheet and send Bulos to fetch another; others, the slave would sit waiting for hours, tapping the cornel wood stylus against the frame.
When his inspiration was particularly dry, his daughter Photia would come out with a pitcher of herbed wine. She turned sixteen that year, looking more and more like his memory of her mother. Crossing the yard she was the figure of a marriageable girl, anklets tinkling, black hair tucked in a kitchen-bun, holding the pitcher aloft as she stepped with careful grace in fancy sandals. But when she looked at the tablet, tracing the waxy etchings with a finger, she became as wondering as a child regarding some mystery of adulthood. Sophocles had indeed made his name with words. He was no different from his neighbors, though, in raising an illiterate daughter.
Colonus was far enough from the center of town to be free of the noise and stench, but close enough for him to stroll to the marketplace several times a day. When the sun had climbed some distance above the construction cranes on the Acropolis, Dexion would leave his garden and go into town. There he would make the rounds at the usual market stalls—the wine merchant, the fish-monger, the bookseller with his racks full of imported scrolls—and send his purchases home with Bulos, because he was loathe to see his wife’s expression when she discovered how he had spent the household money.
Sophocles himself would linger at the market for several more hours, never seeking attention but very much aware of his status as a local celebrity. Often he would encounter younger poets in the stoa, who would address him outright if they were bold, or simply orbit around him if they were not, eavesdropping from a distance.
He had met the young Euripides this way. The long-nosed, large-eyed youth had attached himself to his idol’s shadow, staring with such plaintive ardor that Sophocles at last felt obliged to bring him in out of the cold. The young man plied him with questions, but not the ones Sophocles would have expected: what did the great Dexion wear when he composed his award-winners? What sort of stylus did he favor? What sacrifices to Dionysus did he make before a performance? Never did the boy ask his views on the role of the gods in mortal life, nor about the proper sort of hero for a tragedy, nor even about the technicalities of his choreography or meter. And when that bizarre exchange was finished, Sophocles didn’t see his admirer again until four years later, when, on the boy’s first attempt, his work placed a respectable second behind a tetralogy by Neophron.
The entire incident made Sophocles suspicious that he had been the victim of some sort of witchcraft—that some fraction of his talent had been spirited away while Euripides had distracted him. For Dexion, despite the adulation that followed him in his public life, was always sure that his most recent festival victory was his last one. Was he not saddled with the kind of good fortune that attracted malevolence? What man so honored was not secretly despised? See it behind that genial grin of the tavernkeep, the stinging spirit of Nemesis; see it in the eyes of the Dipylon whores, cockteasing from behind the orthogonals, and in the stare of the old woman who sweeps the ashes from Loxias’ shrine. Against these attacks he was obliged to wear a little bronze phallus by a chain around his neck, and never to pass an overturned beetle in the street without flipping it upright. Yet what precaution was ever enough against the determined spite of one’s own countrymen?
And so, despite the pleasantness of such afternoons, he would return to his house in a dark mood. Photia would seek to soothe him with a plate of savories. Bulos, meanwhile, would then read back the lines he had dictated that morning, and Dexion would spit in disgust, and order most of them scratched out. Nais would then come forth from her quarters, her hands and forearms broiled red, the pouch of her chiton wet with the steam of her laundering pots. In his wife’s eyes there would be a look that was faintly opprobrious, mouth twisted in bemusement at the many ways grown men found to waste their time.
“Did you see our son in the market?”
And he would answer, “Not in the stoa, no.”
“Oh, the stoa,” she would say, nodding her head in such a way that she communicated her meaning: scribbling verses was work barely worthy of a man, but idling in the stoa was a rank betrayal of their marital compact. Looking back at Nais, he could see the opportunity was there to despise her—the afternoon sunshine, after all, was harsh on skin that had long since puckered and sagged, and what had been the lustrous sheen of her black hair had cracked, like the façade of an unkempt fountain showing its grout. She was a handsome woman in the literal sense, in that there was now a mannish dignity about her. To penetrate her now seemed as incongruous as buggering some tough old Lacedaemonian drillmaster.
For all her husband’s acclaim, Nais had never been to the theater. “My Dionysus grows in the fields,” she would say. “He doesn’t prance on the orchestra!” His career as a poet she accepted as any other wife might some faintly embarrassing foible of her husband, like chasing pretty boys. This lack of awe was as precious to Dexion as public admiration was unnerving. For this alone, he would continue to love her in that way, inscrutable to many, that men of legendary attractiveness loved women who were less beautiful than they.
“You might look for him when you are out, instead of indulging your hobbies,” she said, and then waited, ready to leap down his throat if he dared deny his fatherly neglect.
“I saw his friends near the crossroads altar this morning,” reported Photia, “though I didn’t see him.”
“You should see nothing on those errands, girl, but the ground in front of you.”
“The good father speaks!” Nais mocked. “Now if he could guide his son half as well!”
This sparring over young Iophon lately dominated their conversation, now that the boy’s disappointing nature had fully revealed itself. Sophocles’ answer was always the same: a cluck of the tongue, a toss of the head, and the excuse, “He is a man now. What would you have me do about it?”
He would nap in the men’s quarters during the hottest part of the day. When the doves resumed cooing in the eaves in the late afternoon, and the distant pounding of hammers resumed for the evening in the foundries in the Ceramicus, he would rise, re-drape his tunic around his aging frame, and head back to the market. For despite his ambivalence about his fame, despite the hangers on and his fear of demon envy, he was a good Athenian, and could not conceive of spending less than half his time at the stoa every day. To be seen there, to converse and be talked about, to honor the wise and confound the fools—this was the proper job of a citizen.
Nais was waiting for him outside the door.
“Someone to see you.”
“Who?” he asked, surprised.
“He says he’s Menippus, son of Myronides.”
“Pericles’ man? What does he want?”
“Who knows?” she shrugged, then added in a dry tone, “But you might ask if he knows where your son is.”
Menippus, who was dressed as a civilian that day, was waiting for him in the garden. Bulos—Zeus strike him—had left one of the composition tablets on the stump, and his visitor was reading the verses there with a faint grin on his face.
“Those lines are rejected,” said Sophocles as he approached. Menippus looked up, fixing a pair of hungry eyes on his host.
“Yes, but to glimpse the discarded lines of Dexion—is that not a greater joy than to hear the finished work of others?”
The poet answered by collecting the tablet and clasping it, face hidden, against his chest.
“I was at the theater last month,” Menippus resumed, allowing the eagerness of his expression to signal what had happened there. “I saw your Antigone, sir. You may count me among your admirers.”
Sophocles frowned. “Is that what you’ve come to tell me?”
Menippus snorted with amusement, thinking Behold the temperamental artisan! He was not so diffident after his play, when he rose for his dozenth curtain call.
“My business has to do with your leadership during the Festival,” he said, “which was noted by certain others. Dexion, your city has a proposition for you.”