In the 2 nd year of the 52nd Olympias
When Agis of Elis won the stadion race
– 571 BCE –
“Think your horses can keep up with mine this time?” Hippokleides called to Megakles with that wide grin which quickly won friends. In his thirtieth year, Hippokleides still made for a stunning figure. His body was well muscled and covered with smooth, tanned skin. His tall frame supported a noble head. Dirty blond waves framed a youthful face with green eyes and a full-lipped mouth which always seemed on the verge of a hearty laugh. In his beardless youth his looks had been the rage and “Hippokleidês kalos” – beautiful Hippokleides – adorned vases produced by the best potters of Athenai. He had become a masterful charioteer, had a quick, disarming wit and his love poetry brought old men to tears.
“I think they’re having trouble finding anyone to bet on you, son of Alkmaion!” Hippokleides smiled.
Megakles smiled back, “who can blame them? But look to your own horses, son of Teisandros! The most important heat to win is the last, and I would gladly lose every other race to you as long as I win the prize.”
Hippokleides threw back his head and laughed, showing off his long, wavy hair. “You and Agaristê? Well, if anyone but I should win her, let it be you. Should anyone else get her, we’ll never see her again, but if you bring her to Athenai, I can keep her warm for you when you are away from home!”
Megakles was almost a half foot shorter than Hippokleides, and at twenty-five, looked older than him. His reserved and shy countenance lent him an air of maturity which was further enhanced by straight, light brown hair shot through with streaks of blond so light so as to appear silver-gray in the sunlight. His body was slighter as well, but capable of surprising quickness and strength, as many wrestling partners discovered.
The son of Alkmaion picked up the reins of his two-horse synôris team and drove his chariot alongside Hippokleides. The other suitors were gathered to one side, making wagers and shouting comments. The race course sat between the river Asopos and the fortified high-city. Its course ran along the river and had been kept in excellent condition for running horse races. As their host was a champion and an avid fan, the suitors knew that he watched their contests with particular interest.
The two rivals looked up the track. It was a fine day for racing. The late summer sun dominated a clear blue sky and was warm, and the waters of the gulf to the north sparkled beneath the distant shores opposite. Four stadia down the course – twenty-four hundred feet – stood the post around which the chariots would turn back up the track. The race was set for just two lengths of the course, much shorter than the four-horse races at Olympia and elsewhere, since the suitors competed often and Kleisthenes did not intend that his guests unduly risk either their own safety or those of their horses. The object here was a display of speed, skill and grace rather than the stamina, violence and ruthlessness that longer races were wont to demand.
Onomastos of Elis stood at one end of the start line. Since his city administered the games of Olympia, he had taken it upon himself to preside over all contests, excepting those in which he competed. “Are you two finally ready?”
“Just you watch that Hippokleides doesn’t jump the start like last time!” Megakles joked.
Onomastos raised his hand and shouted “hetoimoi!” The two charioteers gripped their reins tightly and set their eyes forwards; the four horses snorted and stamped, sensing the moment as racers are bred to. Onomastos then chopped his arm down and cried “aphiete!” The horses leaped forward at their masters’ shouts and pounded down the track, their heads bobbing in harmony to their paces. The chariots quickly produced a cloud of dust which obscured them from the spectators. Halfway down the first length, the teams galloped neck-and-neck, seemingly in perfect harmony. Hippokleides glanced over at Megakles and smiled. Shortly before the turn Hippokleides drew suddenly ahead and rounded the post. His chariot’s wheels spun up a cloud of dust and his left wheel bumped hard against the post, throwing his horses off their pace for a moment while Megakles chose a rounder turn, thus able to preserve his speed.
As the two teams started up the home stretch, Hippokleides still led slightly. The shouting onlookers all assumed that the race was as good as decided when the left wheel of his chariot began to wobble. Both men noticed; but while Hippokleides was distracted, his opponent reacted quickly. With a shout Megakles steered his team alongside Hippokleides, grinning fiercely, snapping the reins and encouraging his horses. Hippokleides recovered quickly and, ignoring the risk of losing his wheel, a spectacular crash and serious injury, urged his horses forward once again, but could not make up for his hesitation. As their fellow suitors leaped to their feet, Megakles flashed over the finish line half a length in front.
While the onlookers rained praise upon him, Megakles slowed his team past them with raised fist. “Hah, you sluggards, have I spoiled the wagering? Or did some god whisper to one of you?”
“No one was as foolish as I,” laughed Smindyrides of Sybaris. “Wagering on Hippokleides was no fun, and I had a feeling. Besides, it’s only silver and I have enough of that!” Indeed, thought Megakles, Smindyrides could afford losing. They say that Sybaris is so rich a city that infants there play with toys of silver. He halted his team in front of his fellow suitors and grinned at their praises and jokes until Hippokleides drew his team alongside.
“Well done, son of Alkmaion,” he smiled, “although it would seem you had some unfair help from the gods.”
“Ah!” laughed Megakles, “truly it’s as you say, son of Teisandros. I saw Apollon himself appear in the form of a post and loosen your wheel!” Both men laughed. “And what’s wrong with that? Better to have the gods with you than against you!”
“Oh well,” winked Hippokleides, “at least I did not need to let you win on purpose. It’s about time Kleisthenes took more notice of you.” The two men looked up the hill where the Sikyon’s ruler stood regarding them. The old man still made an impressive figure with his straight back, broad chest and his noble head framed by long, pepper grey hair and a full, manicured beard.
One could not have imagined a more fitting appearance for a ruler and a man of his reputation. Kleisthenes, son of Aristonymos, son of Myron, son of Andreas, had ruled Sikyon with a strong arm and gentle hand for almost thirty years now.
His family had ruled ever since his great-uncle Orthagoras exploited his popularity as elected military commander to drive out the ruling clique of aristocrats and replaced them. For that they called him and his successors tyrannos, what else? One could not name him basileus like the kings of old. Kleisthenes was an extralegal ruler, governing against all tradition and law, based only on his own reputation and personal following.
Until a generation before Orthagoras there had been no tyrannoi in the cities of Hellas. Popular dissatisfaction with their ruling families had, however, encouraged men with military backing to drive them out and seize power for themselves. The most famous of them was Kypselos of Korinthos. He had even been a member of the the Bakkhiadai, the ruling family there, but that had been no hindrance to his ambitions. These days poleis all over Hellas were governed by tyrannoi.
Kleisthenes himself had been the most audacious of all commanders in the ten-year war for control over the sanctuary of Apollon at Delphoi, thereby winning great favor with the oracle. He then enhanced his fame soon afterwards by winning the tethrippon at the games of Pythia at Delphoi, and just one year ago, he crowned his fame by winning the same event at the games of Olympia. It was there, upon receiving the victor’s wreath of wild olive, that he invited suitors to spend one year as his guests and compete for the hand of his daughter.
What a sensation that had been! It was not unheard of for a man to invite suitors to compete for his daughter’s hand, although the practice was dying out and candidates usually came from no further than a day’s journey distance. But what Kleisthenes intended was straight out of legend, when Tyndareus entertained heroes like Odysseus, Diomedes, Menestheus, Idomeneus and Menelaos for the hand of the incomparable Helenê! No news had ever flown faster, even to the farthest flung settlements of the Hellenes. Within a week of his announcement, the first suitors had arrived at Kleisthenes’ door even before their host had returned from Olympia.
For almost a year now, Kleisthenes had entertained – and observed – potential sons-in-law from all over Hellas. They had all come to Sikyon. The city and the territory it commanded is located along the southern coast of the gulf of Korinthos and extended to the territory of the Korinthians in the southeast. The actual astu of Sikyon, the settlement where civic and cultural life centered, was located on a bluff not far from the gulf between the river Asopos on the east and the Helisson to the northwest. The akropolis, the city’s high-city, sat on the high northeastern spur of the bluff. Perfectly sited to provide a refuge in times of invasion, it was home to temples and shrines which demonstrated the stone and bronze working skills for which the polis of the Sikyones had become renowned ever since the Orthagoridas and his successors had ruled. Under their leadership, the Sikyones had freed themselves of the domination of the Argives further to the southeast and their polis experienced a blossoming of commerce and the arts.
The magnificence of arrangements and entertainments had caused talk among all the far-flung Hellenes. In addition to the hippodromos for horse and chariot races, Kleisthenes had built a palaistra for wrestling and another track for foot-races exclusively for his guests. The suitors were presented with gifts, given well-prepared quarters together near his palace and dined magnificently. They were also closely observed. Kleisthenes had organized contests in singing and speaking, running and wrestling as well as the chariot races which were run with the two-horse synôris rather than the four-horse tethrippon run at the great games. Only those men wealthy enough to own a chariot and team of horses and afford their transportation to Sikyon were welcomed. Most important of all, however, was their comportment in company, especially at dinner and drinking. The general conclusion among all the suitors on that morning was that time for a decision was drawing near. Despite his own family’s fame, nothing had happened in the intervening months to convince Megakles that Kleisthenes of Sikyon would prefer him or anyone else as son-in-law to Hippokleides.
Megakles slowly drove his two-horse team back to the stables deep in thought. What had he meant by, ‘It’s about time Kleisthenes took more notice of you’? And it was not like Hippokleides to make that that kind of driving mistake. He had noticed a strange mood growing on his friend during the last few weeks and wondered at it.
The stables which Kleisthenes had put at their disposal were like nothing he had ever seen in his homeland where few kept horses at all. The stalls provided each horse with more room than some family huts he had seen, and the straw was changed daily. The stables were also a popular gathering place for the suitors who enjoyed gazing at their steeds and comparing the merits of each horse and team. After ensuring that his horses were being brushed and fed, Megakles walked over to the large guesthouse which had been built to lodge the suitors, entered the spacious courtyard and walked past a group of them drinking some watered wine and playing dice. Politely waving at their repeated congratulations and invitations to join their company, he turned aside and knocked on the door leading to Hippokleides’ quarters before walking in. His fellow Athenian was lying on his back and staring at the ceiling and let a moment go by before turning his head in Megakles’ direction and raising his eyebrows.
“So, want to gloat, eh?” Hippokleides said with some amusement. “Well, it’s all right with me. You deserved to win and it was all the same to me anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Megakles wanted to know. “You haven’t been yourself lately, and it’s not like you to shrug off a defeat so quickly. And what did you mean when you said Kleisthenes ought to notice me more?”
“I’m just tired of being every man’s bet to win the fair Agaristê.”
Megakles thought he heard a hint of sarcasm. He pulled up a stool to his friend’s bed and asked, “What’s going on with you?”
“Well, it hasn’t been as much fun recently as it was in the beginning. I really only came for the honor and the fame of it all - and of course the dining and drinking and competitions,” Hippokleides winked. “I never expected to be chosen to marry the old man’s daughter. Now he usually asks me to recline near him during our dinners and ends up using the occasion for questioning me with that penetrating look of his. I barely get to speak with anyone else the whole evening until he retires, and by that time most of you are too full of wine for good fun. And ever since all the others have become sure he’ll choose me, they don’t behave the same towards me anymore: most of them resent me. I tell you, I am glad the whole affair is almost over.”
“You just can’t wait to be awarded your prize,” Megakles grinned. Hippokleides did not grin back.
“What? You mean you don’t want her?”
“Actually,” Hippokleides turned and faced Megakles, “No.”
Megakles fell silent for a long moment, searching the other’s face.
“Ma Dia! Why not, by Zeus?”
“Well, I never intended to marry her. Like I said, I really only came for the fun of it all. Agaristê is fine and all, quite beautiful actually, and no idiot to tell from her bearing. It’s just that I already know whom I want to marry, though I thought that a year away from home would give me a chance to be sure of my choice… and maybe make her worry a bit,” Hippokleides grinned. “Actually, I think you’re better suited for her. Do you want her?”
“Why… y-yes!” Megakles earnestly stuttered, “But… what are you going to do? You know that Kleisthenes is going to choose you for sure, and I cannot see you telling him in front of everybody ‘thanks sir, but I just came for the fun!’ You’ll mortally wound his pride and ruin your own reputation.”
“I know,” Hippokleides sighed. “I wish he would prefer someone else…”