“Patêr means to marry me to Hippokleides.” Agaristê sighed. “The day’s not far off. He’ll announce it and then it will be done.”
“He seems a fine man, dear child!” Xanthippa smiled. She was Agaristê’s personal servant, one of the women enslaved when Krisa was taken and burned almost fifteen years ago. Despite her initial grief, she had become devoted to Kleisthenes’ beautiful daughter and cared for her as a mother ever since the girl’s real mother had died. Now she too saw the day of Agaristê’s betrothal approaching with sadness. Her last duty, as she felt it, was to prepare Agaristê for that day. Her last hope was that she would marry well and be as happy as a woman could in a world dominated by men.
“I think you would be content with him.”
“No doubt he would content any reasonable woman,” Agaristê looked at her servant. “But I don’t think he’ll make me happy. You see, Xanthippa, I’m afraid I am not at all reasonable: I’m a bit spoiled and ambitious. I want to belong to a family with prospects and I want a son who will make me as proud as my father does.”
“But Hippokleides’ family is very old and noble, and he’s very handsome, from what I’ve seen! Or is it his polis? Don’t you want to go to Athenai?”
“No, it’s not the place: from what I’ve heard, Athenai would suit me very well!” Agaristê answered. “And Hippokleides is handsome enough. I admit that the first time I saw him I thought to myself, ‘I hope it’s him!’ But he lacks a certain seriousness; he seems to treat the whole affair as a game with me as the prize, no more than proof of his excellence. Everything comes easily to him because of his family and his own talents. Will he treat me as the daughter of a worthy family, or merely as a trophy? Are his ambitions of substance or do they aim only at show?
“My father doesn’t notice this. He’s a man and admires him as a man does: for his noble blood, natural beauty, refined speech and easy talent for winning friends. In a way, he’s everything my father is not but perhaps wished he were. Yet for all that, my father’s qualities have made him a ruler.”
Xanthippa looked at Agaristê as if as for the first time. She had always known how proud she was of her father and her family, but Xanthippa had regarded her attitude as typical for a girl her age. Now she was astonished at how calmly Agaristê analyzed her situation and how clearly she had imagined her life as wife.
They had, of course, discussed the various suitors and compared their various virtues, but Agaristê had always remained somewhat non-committal when it came to naming a preference. Now Xanthippa thought she knew why: Agaristê realized that the choice of husband was not hers and had hoped that her father would choose well. She now feared for her future for the first time. This sudden insight saddened Xanthippa. She wanted the best for her little girl and was willing to do anything she could.
“Whom do you prefer, my lady? Whom would you have as your husband?”
Megakles had spent a few days reflecting upon his conversation with Hippokleides and about his own desires. He had come to Sikyon with little hope for winning Agaristê and had never given his chances too much thought; it had been enough for him to be a part of the company honored by Kleisthenes as fitting candidates. Megakles had always been a rather modest, soft-spoken person. He lacked Hippokleides’ easiness and was not the best spoken among his contemporaries, so he settled for behaving in a manner which would bring him honor and win the respect of his fellows. The knowledge of who he was, his father’s deeds and family’s fame had been enough for him to feel worthy of the company of suitors. Yet Megakles was, essentially, a young man unsure of himself. His family’s past had made him cautious in his ambitions.
Besides, what could marriage to Agaristê offer him or his family? If he were ever to become arkhon at Athenai, he needed to win allies, and marriage was one of the best means for winning them. It would be, after all, more prudent to have his father negotiate a match with any of the old eupatris families, the Well-Born, who could see an advantage in an alliance with the Alkmaionidai – and there were at present not too many of them! Although winning Agaristê’s hand would undoubtedly win him some fame, it could also incur jealousy, contempt and resentment. “So, none of Athenai’s native families are good enough for Megakles! Well, he will come to regret it!”
Now however, he could not deny how much he wanted Agaristê. Of course he was impressed with her beauty. Yet Agaristê meant more than that. On the few occasions when Kleisthenes presented his daughter, he had noticed her poise and maturity. Until he had seen her, he had never been able to imagine any woman he had known before as a wife; and Agaristê seemed capable of even more. He felt admiration for her. His intuition told him that she was strong and could be a friend and companion. Such thoughts had disturbed him somewhat, for although he knew a few women worthy of honor, such as his mother, he shared men’s typical condescension for women. Now, for the first time he admitted a compelling ambition for something that he intensely wanted. All the more frustrating that he could see no way towards achieving his desire. Zeus the Father, however, knows how the fate-spinning Moirai measure their threads!
After two days of intense thought he decided to seek help from the goddess Athena. He did not have far to go; the goddess’ temple at Sikyon was located only a short walk away from Kleisthenes’ house on the akropolis. He bought an unblemished lamb, and with his head covered in reverence, he offered it on the altar there and silently begged the goddess’ aid, yet not quite able to believe it would do any good. When the sacrifice had been ended and he had uncovered his head he noticed a woman almost completely wrapped from head to foot in a grey himation beckoning to him from a corner of the temple. Megakles wondered what she could want. He knew no women in Sikyon aside from the occasional hetaira he enjoyed for entertainment. He normally would have ignored her, yet a strange compulsion overcame him. His present thoughts somehow suggested the song of Homeros about shipwrecked Odysseus and his divine protectress Athena.
When he approached the woman she disappeared around the corner. By the time he got there he could see her walking away in the shadow of the temple’s north side. As he followed her, she walked to the small building behind the temple where objects of ritual were stored. He saw her unseal its door and enter. Megakles slowed his pace, not wanting to attract attention to himself. He loitered about the temple’s northwest corner until he was sure no one was observing him and then hurried over to the building and through the door.
The door shut behind him and he could barely see anything for a moment aside from a small oil lamp burning on a table. Megakles turned back to the door and discerned a figure standing now in front of it. He put a hand on a dagger he carried with him.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
The woman’s face was still mostly hidden by the folds of her garment and her answer was muffled. “The question is, son of Alkmaion: what do you want?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve just sacrificed to Athena,” the woman answered. “Did you ask her for anything?” Xanthippa could of course not know what was on Megakles’ mind, but she thought she could make a shrewd guess. Megakles trembled slightly in awe.
“Who are you to ask such a question?”
“Don’t worry, I am not the goddess! But I am a woman nonetheless, sent by the goddess perhaps.” Xanthippa chuckled softly. “And you have the look of a man troubled by women, or in your case, a particular woman. Will you speak her name, or shall I guess?”
“If the goddess has sent you, you may. If not, there is no point to our talk,” Megakles declared.
“Well, if I can arrange for you to meet her, will that suffice?” Megakles could now see the woman well enough to notice that her eyes were smiling. She then turned and exited. As Megakles began thinking what he should do, another feminine voice came from behind a curtain.
“Don’t worry, son of Alkmaion, she has gone to make sure we are not discovered together.”
Megakles said nothing as a slim figure emerged into the lamplight. It was Agaristê. She smiled and looked at him in silence. After waiting a moment to recover from his surprise Megakles whispered, “What are you doing here? Do you know what we would suffer if discovered here alone?”
“I can go, if you wish,” Agaristê whispered.
“I don’t wish it, daughter of Kleisthenes,” Megakles now smiled. “But I would still have your answer.”
“Son of Alkmaion, I need your help. Will you aid me?”
“What may I do for you?”
“The time is nearing, as you doubtless guess,” Agaristê explained. “My father will announce his choice soon. He is a wise man and means to choose wisely, I am sure. Yet I am not sure if his choice will please me. Perhaps he can still be influenced in my favor. Will you help me?”
“If you are determined to have my friend Hippokleides, I’m sure that my help will not be necessary,” Megakles sighed.
“Therefore do I need your help,” Agaristê responded.
“Whom do you want?”
“Before I say, answer me first. Would you have me as your wife?”
Megakles had to swallow hard before he could answer. “Even if Aphroditê offered herself to me, I would prefer you.”
“That is well, son of Alkmaion,” Agaristê smile once again, “because my heart has already chosen you.”
Megakles almost convinced himself that he had misunderstood her. Torn between hope and doubt, his face betrayed his feelings better than a poet could describe. For her part, up to that instant, Agaristê had thought to have favored him because he seemed the most fitting among the suitors. Her choice had been motivated by reason and consideration; romantic feelings had played no role. The look on his face made her forget her calculations. With the exception of her brother, she had never seen a man without the mask all men seemed to wear – at least in her presence. Kleisthenes her father was never anyone else than the wise, strict but caring father, careful to betray no weakness. His associates always treated her with a propriety directed more at her father rather than herself. The house slaves of course only showed her the deference due their master’s daughter. Her suitors, above all, constantly behaved to impress her, and her father, with their nobility. But now she saw Megakles as he really was, a man who had for a moment shed all pretense. In that moment Agaristê fell in love.
“I can hardly believe it, Agaristê,” Megakles finally spoke. “But what would you have me do? I admit there is almost nothing I’m not prepared to undertake to make you my wife, but your father is a man not easily influenced.”
“My dear Megakles, do not ask me how!” Agaristê replied.
Megakles sounded desperate. “I am so glad you are here. I never thought it possible to speak with you alone, as much as I had hoped for the chance. But if you can give me no advice, why have you come?”
“Son of Alkmaion,” she smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I had hoped to inspire you. I am sure you will find a way. Don’t you remember? The goddess Athena helped Odysseus because he was clever and inventive. And you – a man of Athenai – how can you fail to win her favor?”
“Were you serious about not wanting Agaristê?” Megakles panted. Hippokleides noticed his distraction and lunged for his left leg. Megakles was just able to insert his right arm into Hippokleides’ embrace and break it. The two wrestlers parted and circled each other.
“Of course!” Hippokleides grinned fiercely.
“Then perhaps you could do both of us a favor, son of Teisandros.”
Hippokleides looked at Megakles strangely. Now it was the smaller man’s turn to take advantage. Megakles rushed at his foe, slapped a distracting hand at Hippokleides’ eyes, darted in low, wrapped his arms around Hippokleides’ upper torso and began driving him back. Hippokleides almost lost his balance, but his greater height and weight enabled him to plant his left foot. He only had an instant to make use of this leverage. He pivoted on the foot and threw his weight to his right, directing Megakles’ momentum across, instead of at his own body. Both men fell hard on their sides, hitting the sand at the same moment. Megakles grunted in pain as Hippokleides fell onto his left arm, now pinned under his opponent. Hippokleides tried to use his new leverage to roll on top of Megakles and score a fall, but the smaller man was too quick. Placing his right hand on Hippokleides’ chest, he wrenched his left arm from under his rival’s body and quickly rolled away.
Both men stood and began circling once again, blood welled from where the sand had scraped the skin from Megakles’ arm. Between drawn breaths Hippokleides asked, “What’s the favor?”
“Well, I want Agaristê and you don’t. So if we could somehow discourage Kleisthenes in you, we’ll both get what we want,” Megakles answered and then made a feinted attack. Hippokleides stepped away and straightened his back a bit in order to relax for a moment.
“Hah! How are you so sure Kleisthenes will choose you, when there are so many others?” Hippokleides gestured with his head to the edge of the palaistra where their host stood watching them.
“Well, let’s say I met a goddess who promised her support!” Megakles smiled. Hippokleides nodded and then suddenly grabbed his foe’s wrist, pulled him towards himself and tried a foot-sweep. Megakles danced away from Hippokleides’ foot and broke the grip. Both men were now panting heavily and separated for a moment. The late morning summer sun beat upon them and the sand was hot. Their bodies glistened with olive oil save for those areas where the arena sand adhered. Although both men thirsted, neither called for a pause.
“So, what would you have me do, son of Alkmaion?” Hippokleides whispered between breaths. “Must I dishonor myself?”
“Hopefully not,” Megakles answered. “But the fact remains: if you don’t do something, you will be chosen. Then you will have to marry Agaristê, or refuse her and dishonor yourself by insulting your host.”
Hippokleides smiled. “Well argued, Megakles. Very well, I’ll think of something. But I have two conditions.” He then made another grab for Megakles’ right arm. Megakles parried with a hand on Hippokleides’ forehead.
“Name them, son of Teisandros!” Megakles feinted an attack at his leg.
“You’ll owe me a favor. I want to be arkhon!”
“Agreed!” Megakles answered immediately. “What’s the second condition?”
“You must throw me!” Hippokleides now grinned with determination. “And if I’m to let you win one contest, I won’t let you win another!”
Megakles had never before beaten Hippokleides. Teisandros’ son was larger and stronger and in excellent condition. They had already wrestled each other often, and although Megakles had beaten many of his fellow suitors, the best he had ever achieved against Hippokleides was a draw. Megakles had already resigned himself to begging off this match. He was near the end of his strength and very thirsty. Now however he had more than pride as a reason for winning: he suddenly had the feeling that his very fate hung on this match. His thoughts briefly turned once again to the story of Odysseus and the goddess. “Even though she meant him well, Athena never directly intervened. She merely created conditions for Odysseus to overcome obstacles. She aided him only because he was worthy of her.”
Megakles looked at Hippokleides and nodded. “Very well, friend: I accept!”
Just at that moment, almost as Homeros sung in the Odusseia, Agaristê appeared in the company of an older woman. It was rare for her to attend a contest, and normally would have been impossible, since the Hellenes often competed completely nude. Kleisthenes was, however, a bit old-fashioned and had bidden his guests to compete with a perizôma around their loins. Megakles felt her unusual appearance to be an omen. He attacked. The other wrestling suitors broke off to watch and the two Athenians became the center of all attention.
The goal of palê, wrestling as the Hellenes practice it, is to throw one’s opponent to the ground. If both went down, then a fall is awarded to the man who comes out on top. Hippokleides’ size was an advantage which a smaller man could counter only with quickness and leverage.
The spectators noticed the two Athenians visibly increase their exertions. Hippokleides repeatedly attacked Megakles, at one moment grabbing for his rival’s wrists, at the next rushing at him to throw him off balance. Megakles himself had little opportunity to attack; he was occupied with countering his opponent’s moves and looking for an opening, a chance to use Hippokleides’ aggressiveness against him. Within a few moments his lungs were burning for air and his chest heaving for breath. Perspiration now flowed freely down both men’s bodies, mixing with the oil and making a firm hand grip almost impossible. This was to Megakles’ advantage and he was able to twist and slither out of Hippokleides’ hand-holds.
The match settled into a waiting game about who would make the first mistake, and Hippokleides seemed determined to force Megakles into committing it. Yet the word palaistês not only meant wrestler, it could also refer to a trickster or a man of cunning: fitting epithets for Odysseus the crafty. Megakles knew that he would lose a contest of strength or attrition and quickly considered how he could surprise his rival. After countering another move, he determined to take a risk.
Hippokleides had tried twice now to seize Megakles left wrist and upper arm in both hands in order to spin behind him. Megakles had countered the move successfully but now decided to allow it. As Hippokleides pulled Megakles’ arm across his own body Megakles lowered his stance. Hippokleides next let the arm go and reached his arms around Megakles’ torso. He intended to embrace the smaller man, lift him off his feet and throw him over one of his shoulders. By the time Hippokleides was behind him, Megakles slid downwards out of the embrace and, reaching behind him, was able to hook his arms around Hippokleides’ thighs. Now he had the advantage of surprise and leverage. He tightened his grip and with all the strength remaining in his own thighs pressed upwards and back. Hippokleides reacted by releasing his own embrace to take Megakles in a head lock, but he was too late. Megakles now threw him off his own back and pivoted to prevent himself from falling. As Hippokleides landed on the sand with an audible thud, Megakles spun to the side and remained standing. The onlookers broke out into cheers.
As Megakles reached his hand down to Hippokleides and helped him to his feet, Kleisthenes approached them with a smile.
“Well done, son of Alkmaion!” the tyrannos cried and placed a hand on Megakles’ shoulder. “I’ve been to a few of the agones at Olympia, but I must say, I’ve never seen a better throw! But it was very risky. If you hadn’t brought it off, you would have lost.”
Megakles smiled. “You know better than any man, son of Aristonymos! A gambler cannot win if he does not throw the dice!”
“Very true, young man,” Kleisthenes agreed. “Come now, and you too, Hippokleides, I think we could all use some refreshment!”
Hippokleides, who stood trying to wipe sand from his back, smiled in disarming amusement “I certainly could!”
As Megakles followed the father he was able to get a last look at the daughter. Perhaps he was only imagining it, but he was sure he could see her eyes sparkle.
He was not the only man to notice it.