A dead man fell from the sky, landing at my feet with a thud. I stopped and stood there like a fool, astonished to see him lying where I was about to step. He lay facedown in the dirt, arms spread wide, with an arrow protruding out his back. He’d been shot through the heart.
It was obvious he was dead, but I knelt down and touched him anyway, perhaps because I needed to assure myself that he was real. The body was warm to my touch. The blood that stained my fingertips, from where I had touched his wound, was slippery and wet but already beginning to dry in the heat, and the small cloud of dust his fall had raised made my nose itch as it settled.
It doesn’t normally rain corpses, so where had this one come from? I looked up. There was a ledge above me, and another to the left. The one directly above was the Rock of the Areopagus, home to the council chambers of our elder statesmen. The other to the left, but much farther away, was the Acropolis. There was no doubt about it; this man had fallen from the political heights.
I was about to rise when I heard the footsteps of someone coming down the road, and my immediate thought was the natural one: this might be the murderer coming to make sure of his victim, or perhaps the killer might lean over the ledge and shoot me too. I stepped backward to take cover at the side of the path, at a place deep in shadow, and waited, with no weapon other than the short dagger any citizen might carry. It wasn’t much but it would have to do, so I gripped the hilt in my right hand, and was aware of the stickiness of sweat in my palm.
A man came into sight, walking downhill from what could have been either rock above me. The man stopped and exclaimed when he saw the body lying in full view. He stepped forward and leaned over, much as I had done myself. A glance up the path showed me there was no one behind him. The opportunity was too good to miss, so I stepped out of the shadows, took two quick steps, and placed my dagger at his back.
He flinched and started to turn, but I pressed the blade firmly to dissuade him. I was ready to send it home if I had to.
“Do not move,” I said. “Do not stand up.”
He remained bowed over the victim, and without turning to look at me he said, “So, you are going to murder me too?”
“Me?” I said, surprised. “Of course not, I didn’t kill him.”
“There’s no point denying it, why else would you have a dagger at my back?” There was no fear in his voice, only contempt.
“Because you killed him.”
“Not I. You saw me come down the path.”
“That’s where he died. He fell from above.”
The man looked up and saw the ledge directly above us. “I see. Because I came down the path you think I’m here to make sure my victim is dead, but I give you my word I haven’t murdered this man.”
“That doesn’t count for much.”
“You’re right, though perhaps the fact I hold no bow helps?”
The same objection had occurred to me, and I had already thought of the simple answer. “You could have thrown it away before descending.” If he had, it would not be far.
The man nodded. “Yes, I had a feeling you were going to say that, but it seems to me a murderer is somewhat unlikely to throw away his weapon and then stroll past his victim. Shouldn’t I at least have walked in the opposite direction, knowing what I would find if I came this way?”
His point was very persuasive, and I’m sure he felt my hesitation because I saw the muscles in his shoulders relax a trifle. That irritated me, so without removing my dagger I said, “Let’s find out more. Turn him over.”
He said carefully, “To do so I will have to stand.”
The man grabbed the body and heaved. The arrow made it difficult, but the body slowly turned and we saw his face.
I gasped. Lying in the dirt before us was the man who had brought full democracy to Athens.
“Dear Gods, it’s Ephialtes!” the man cried.
“B-but…why would anyone want to kill him?” I stammered. “Everyone loves Ephialtes.”
The man shook his head. “The people might have loved him, but think of the men he took the power from!” Then he snarled, “Could they be so brazen as to kill him in their own chambers? An undeniable crime?”
I boggled at what he was saying. “You think the Council of the Areopagus murdered Ephialtes?”
“Didn’t he just fall from their rock? They killed my friend in revenge for what he did to them.”
He ignored my dagger and fell to his knees to examine the body, confirmed Ephialtes had departed for Hades, and wept softly.
I stood with my dagger hanging from my hand, wondering what this meant for me. With Ephialtes’ death the Council of the Areopagus might resume their traditional rule, and if that happened then it would matter once again what family you came from, who your father was. If the democracy failed, I would have no chance of rising in society, and I would be doomed never to be more than apprentice to my father. It was a personal disaster that I couldn’t bear to contemplate.
The man still wept over the body, which was enough to convince me it was safe to turn my back on him. There was something I had to do, and quickly. I ran up the path to the fork in the road, took the turn to the right, and stopped at the edge of the Areopagus, where I peered about. If anyone stepped out from cover to take a shot I would be down the path and back to the Agora before he could put arrow to string. But no one did; the killer was gone.
I returned down the path up which I’d run, and inspected the bushes alongside, being careful to keep an eye at all times on the ledge above us. The man bent over Ephialtes was done weeping but continued to kneel as he watched me.
“What were you doing?” he asked.
“Looking for a bow.”
He sputtered, “You still suspect me?”
“No, not anymore. There’s no bow here, and you haven’t had time to lose it farther.”
He nodded. “Who are you, young man?”
“I am Nicolaos, of the deme Alopece, son of Sophroniscus the sculptor.”
He hadn’t anything to say to that. I hesitated, expecting his name in return, and not getting it. He’d called Ephialtes “my friend.” He looked down at the corpse and I followed his gaze, thinking as I did that it was astonishing how quickly a man can be reduced from greatness to nothing. The death of this man had the power to change Athens forever.
“And who are you, sir?” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity.
“I am Pericles, of the deme Cholargos, son of Xanthippus.”
I hesitated. “Would that be the Xanthippus who—”
“Is a member of the Council of the Areopagus, which has just murdered my friend Ephialtes. Yes, that Xanthippus.” Pericles spoke grimly.
My mouth hung open. This was a man with problems.
“It might not be as you think,” I said warily. If a whole Council of men had been atop the Areopagus murdering Ephialtes, they had managed to disappear with astonishing alacrity.
“What do you mean?” he demanded.
I waved my hand at the arrow. “It’s not a close-range weapon. If someone pointed a bow and arrow at you, what would you do?”
“Duck, swerve, charge my attacker, run away?” he suggested. “I certainly wouldn’t stand still.”
“And an arrow square in the chest? Is that the position for a man who knows he’s a target?”
Pericles nodded. “Ephialtes did not see death coming, and the Rock of the Areopagus is small. Therefore the killer was not on the Areopagus, or perhaps he was hidden. Let’s see if there’s anyone there to tell us more.”
Since I was a young man of no consequence I was happy for Pericles to lead the way. Besides which, if I was wrong and the killer remained hidden up there, Pericles would be the one used for target practice.
I had walked up the Panathenaic Way from the Agora to the Acropolis many times in my life, but not once had I stepped onto the Areopagus. I looked about with interest. The council met upon rock that had been chiseled to create a flat base, and about it stone had been cut away and smoothed to form seats. Elsewhere the Rock of the Areopagus was as rough as any outcrop. There were a few bushes, several thick enough to hide a man. I walked over to the spot where Ephialtes must have been standing. It commanded a fine view of the Agora to the north, where I could see tiny figures going about their business, setting up their stalls for the day, placing their wares, all of them unaware that their world had just changed. The wide, paved Panathenaic Way snaked southwards and upwards from the Agora to where the body of Ephialtes lay. I couldn’t see anyone walking up the road, but with morning well advanced on such a fine day, that wouldn’t last. To my right the Acropolis loomed high above me, a great solid fortress of almost unclimbable stone. A saddle of land separated the Areopagus from the Acropolis. I looked down into the valley to see Ephialtes’ body below. Yes, this was the spot. The force of the blow must have pushed him over the edge; I could see a splash of blood on an outcrop where he bounced off the rock face on the way down, pushing him still farther away. I turned around and scanned the rest of the Rock. It was clear to me that whoever had fired the arrow had either hidden among the seating of the council, or popped out from behind a bush, or perhaps was someone Ephialtes knew and did not fear.
There was no one there but a couple of slaves, old men tidying the place. It was early morning, when the Councilors would be about their own business.
“You two there!” Pericles barked. The slaves dropped their brooms and came to him. “What happened here?”
They looked blank. “We’re cleaning, sir,” one said.
“A man has just been murdered on this rock. Tell me what you saw.”
The slaves quaked.
This was no way to handle it. It is the law that slaves must be tortured when they testify in court; the greater the crime, the greater the pain.
“We saw nothing, sir,” the first said.
“And we didn’t hear nothing either,” the second added for good measure. They would have been fools to say anything else.
I said smoothly, “I’m sure these men aren’t witnesses, Pericles. They would have raised the alarm if they’d seen anything, wouldn’t you, men?”
Both nodded vigorously.
“But perhaps you can tell us, does anyone come here in the mornings?”
“Sometimes there’ll be a Councilor, sir, and someone will come to talk to him, official-like.”
“What happens then?”
“Don’t know, sir! We disappear until it’s over. Orders.”
“And this morning?”
“Don’t know, sir! We only just returned.”
“Yes, sir! The Councilor ordered us to clear off.”
“Who! Who was it?” Pericles demanded.
The man shrank back, looking at Pericles in fear.
“But, sir, isn’t that why you’re here? Didn’t you say he died this morning?”
“What are you talking about?” Pericles asked.
The slave looked perplexed. “Why, sir, your father, Xanthippus,” he said. “That’s why we didn’t see anything. He ordered us away.”
I found myself at the home of Pericles, in his private office, where for half the morning he had paced to and fro, tearing out his hair. The performance had given me ample opportunity to study the man. I was struck by how almost perfectly proportioned he was, so much so that he could have worked as an artist’s model for my father, but for his head. The head of Pericles was his only aberration from classical beauty, strangely elongated at the top, as if someone had placed a blunt cone there. He was graceful in his movements, with the same sort of economy of action as a tragic actor, or a great athlete; even in his distress he held his head high, never looking at the ground.
He was dressed in the same simple chiton that any man would wear, though I could see the material of his was superior, and he wore a fashionable short beard and hair that was well barbered. A himation of finest, pure white Milesian wool was draped across his shoulders as a cloak which hung in large, flowing folds down his back and over his left arm. The clothing marked him as one of the wealthy elite who did not have to work for a living.
His voice was remarkable, the most astonishing thing about him; it rang with a beautiful, rich timbre. I could have listened to him speak all day, and at the rate we were going, I probably would.
“It can’t be true, Nicolaos. I refuse to believe it!”
“Then perhaps you should ask your father what happened.”
That stopped him dead. “I don’t dare,” he whispered. He resumed his pacing.
I sat upright upon a couch, not quite daring to lean back in the manner of a normal visitor, a cup of wine beside me. The cup was silver, which did nothing to relax me; in my father’s home it would have been clay. Even the table on which my wine stood was imposing; it was a circular top, patterned around the edge, its three legs carved to resemble the legs of horses, ending in finely wrought hooves.
As Pericles paced, my head swung left and right, left and right, as if I were watching a ball thrown by two boys.
“Ephialtes was my friend. More than that, he has been my mentor ever since I entered politics. He has a clearer vision of where to take Athens than any man alive.”
“You mean had,” I reminded him.
Pericles stopped pacing and glared at me with a sour expression. “Yes, I do mean had. He knew we had to take the final steps to democracy.”
Pericles resumed his to-and-fro march. “That meant removing from power the last ruling institution still controlled by the unelected elite: the Council of the Areopagus.”
I said, “Because the Areopagus is not elected by the people?”
“Because the Areopagus obstructs the people. For generations now, ever since the reforms of Solon the Wise, we have had the Ecclesia—the People’s Assembly to which all citizens belong—and in theory the people had sovereignty. But the Ecclesia had no power to set foreign policy; that was reserved for the old men of the Areopagus, and even when the Ecclesia voted on domestic affairs, the Areopagus might overturn any decision it didn’t like. The whole thing was a sham.
“A month ago Ephialtes persuaded the Ecclesia to vote away from the Areopagus almost all their powers, and the Areopagus had no choice but to accept it. All those powers are now divided between the Ecclesia and the courts.”
“Then what was the Areopagus left with?”
“The power to hear cases of murder and heresy. That’s all.”
“So they went from being the most powerful men in Athens to a court of law?”
“Correct. The Areopagus members resent it bitterly, they loathe the democratic movement, and, above all, they hated Ephialtes.”
“Has the Areopagus tried to harm Ephialtes before this?”
“Not that I know of, only abused him verbally, which they did often and with malice.”
“Did they threaten his life?”
“Not in public. He wasn’t the type of man to admit it if he received private threats.”
“So the Areopagus hated Ephialtes, but did they hate him enough to murder him? It seems hard to believe.”
“The guilt of the Areopagus is obvious, whether my father had a hand in it or not. All that’s lacking is the proof.” He stopped his pacing once more, this time by the window, and looked down into his courtyard. He was silhouetted by the light streaming in.
I said, “Then the answer is for someone to find out who killed Ephialtes.”
“I think you must be right.”
“But keep in mind, the answer might not be as certain as you think, Pericles.”
Pericles waved his hand in dismissal. “I’m not worried about that. Now, be silent for a moment, I must think about this.”
Pericles remained silent for such a long time that I became uncomfortable. I’d begun to wonder if I should take my leave when he turned to me and said, “You seem a remarkably logical man, Nicolaos, especially for one so young. How old are you?”
“Twenty. I’ve just finished ephebe training.” Every young man, when he reaches eighteen, is required to spend two years in a training unit in the army. After that, he is expected to volunteer for service whenever the state needs him.
Something in my tone must have alerted Pericles, because he laughed humorlessly. “Ah, and did you enjoy it?”
“I did well enough.” I was careful to keep my voice and face expressionless.
In fact, I was relieved to be done with it, but it would never do to complain. I hadn’t minded too much the rough lifestyle, the deliberate starvation, and the punishments—the sergeants do that to toughen us—but I found having to be part of a squad claustrophobic. I preferred to rely only on myself.
Pericles studied me critically. “Yes, you have that starved, weathered look. Don’t worry, everyone’s like that when they finish training.”
Two years in the army had left me thin, and my normal light olive skin was dark where the armor didn’t cover me, especially my face and arms. I’d already been well muscled when I’d joined—working with my father from an early age had seen to that—but the army had taught me combat, with only a few small scars to show for my pains. I’d decided to follow the latest fashion among the young men and shaved my beard. I’d thought it would enhance my looks, but instead, where the beard had been, my skin was noticeably lighter than the rest. Now I was spending a lot of time out of doors to even the color.
“What are your plans now?” Pericles asked.
I was as free as any citizen. Free to be a young man in Athens, and free also to consider my future. I knew what I wanted, but had no idea how to achieve it. I wondered what Pericles would say if I told him I wanted his position.
“I have no particular plans.”
Pericles nodded approval. “I noticed back at the Rock of the Areopagus you didn’t panic and you didn’t run away. Instead you stayed calm, kept your head about you, and dealt with the situation as you thought best. That would be remarkable in a man twice your age. For one as young as you, it’s astonishing. I like that. I want you to investigate this crime. Find out what really happened.”
“Me?” I couldn’t believe he meant it.
“You. Athens is poised between the powerful old oligarchs, led by the Areopagus, and the Ecclesia, led by Ephialtes until this day. If you can prove he was struck down by the Areopagus, then they’ll be finished as a political force and the democracy will be safe.”
“But…when I said someone should find the killer, I wasn’t talking about myself!”
“I will reward you greatly if you succeed.”
Pericles was the son of an aristocratic family, and therefore wealthy. He could afford whatever sum he had in mind, and I could certainly use the money and, more to the point, I needed the democracy as much as he did. Did I want to investigate this murder? I knew immediately that I did; I was burning with curiosity to know what had happened.
But Pericles had something I wanted more than wealth, only it was something he probably wouldn’t care to give me. Should I ask? I decided not. Why court failure, when already before me was a fine offer he might easily retract? I began to say yes, then stopped, realizing I was being a fool. Here was an opportunity that would never come again. It was up to me whether I grabbed it with both hands, or let it pass by for fear of rejection. I took a deep breath.
“You offer great reward, sir, so I will ask for two things,” I said.
“The first?” Pericles didn’t blink. He’d been expecting me to bargain!
“Sufficient wealth to establish a modest home and a small, steady income.”
Pericles grunted. “No wish to follow in your father’s footsteps, eh?”
“I accept. The second?”
“You will teach me politics.”
Pericles pulled up short. His eyes widened, and he stood still for the briefest of moments.
“You’re right, Pericles. I don’t want to follow in my father’s footsteps. I want to follow in yours.”
“You surprise me. Are you sure about this? No one can simply become a successful politician, like putting on a hat. It’s the same as any craft, it takes years to learn.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Am I correct in thinking you support the democracy?”
“I’m not going to rise any other way. My father’s a sculptor, he isn’t wealthy like yours.”
“Good, because I’m hardly going to agree to train an opponent. Let me think.”
Pericles folded his arms, and considered me as if I were some horse he might buy. It was lucky I’d chosen to wear my best clothes that morning: a chitoniskos—a little chiton, of the same style as Pericles’, but stopping at the thighs rather than full length—and a small chlamys cloak pinned about my neck. My chitoniskos was new and therefore still white, with a fancy red key pattern about every edge. Pericles probably thought I was of a higher station than I was.
He held his pose for what felt an interminable time, during which I could feel my heart thudding. I looked back at him, attempting to keep my expression neutral and, I have no doubt, failing miserably.
Pericles frowned. “You must learn rhetoric. With your logical mind that should be easy.” He paused. “Your voice. There’s nothing we can do about your voice.”
I clutched my throat. “What’s wrong with my voice?” I asked, alarmed.
“But perhaps it can be trained a little, to remove the roughest edges.”
“You’re young, of course. The bumptious manner will wear off with time, I hope. You’ll have to learn to fake being calm and confident. Acting is a large part of the skill, but you must learn it without ever being seen on a stage. That would be shameful. No one in their right mind would vote for an actor.”
“I’m willing to learn.”
“You realize I can teach you the basic skills, to whatever degree you can learn them, but in a democracy it’s the will of the people that decides who leads? I cannot guarantee your success as the second price.”
“Of course. I accept your commission.”
We heard commotion from the front of the house, slaves exclaiming, and running feet. Four men burst through the doorway.
“Pericles, Archestratus is saying Ephialtes is dead!” They were so agitated they were almost jumping on the spot.
Pericles waited until they had relaxed a little, then said, “It’s true. I have seen the body.” Before, in speaking to me, there’d been fear and worry in his voice. Now it was pure calm, which I knew for a pose.
“And is it true too, then, what Archestratus is saying, that he was murdered?”
“Yes,” Pericles said quietly.
One man wailed, what would become of the democracy with Ephialtes gone, another shouted revenge against the Areopagus, and the third demanded the men of Athens take arms immediately to defend the democracy. The fourth man thought for a moment, then asked who would lead the democrats now.
“Pericles,” answered the first man, calming down.
“Archestratus has a claim to leadership too,” said the second.
“What we need now is an experienced commander of war to lead us against the aristocrats,” said the third. “I would be the right man for that.”
“You’re talking civil war!” the fourth man protested.
“Yes. The Areopagus has started it, and we’ll finish it for them.”
They shouted at one another all at once.
Pericles looked at me, and I at him.
“And so it begins. Don’t fail me in this, Nicolaos. I will do my best to limit the political damage, but I can only do so much without your answer. This pot will boil, and it is a mere matter of time before it explodes.”
THE PERICLES COMMISSION Copyright © 2010 by Gary Corby