FORTRESS OF THE SUN
By 243 B.C., Alexander the Great had been dead for eighty years, but the effects of his reign still resonated throughout Greece. Indeed, it is oft forgotten that en route to his subjugation of the known world, the Macedonian’s conquests began with the free cities of Greece. And from the moment he cemented that hegemony in 335 with the destruction of Thebes, the dominance of Alexander and his successors would go challenged but unbroken for almost a century.
Three cities controlled Greece in those days: Demetrias in the north, Chalcis in the east, and the great trade and fortress city of Corinth in the south – the “shackles of Greece”, as Macedonian kings would come to call them. Possession of them meant command of Greece, and command of Greece was a near obsession with the Macedonians. Thus, they ferociously guarded possession of those cities like a bear does her cubs; the current king, Antigonus II, was no exception.
For all of Macedon’s power, however, not all Greeks went willingly or quietly. Nowhere was this truer than in the northern Peloponnesian region of Achaea, where ten small towns expelled their Macedonian garrisons and formed the Achaean League – a democratic confederacy united against the monarchs of the north. Per Polybius, the League had “the same laws, weights, measures and coinage, as well as the same magistrates, council-members and judges”; one “could not find a political system and principle so favorable to equality and freedom of speech, in a word so sincerely democratic.”
Though born of a noble cause, the League long awaited a statesman ambitious enough to take its reins – and that man was Aratus of Sicyon. Born in 271 to a city just beyond the League’s eastern edge, Aratus was forced to flee as a boy following his father’s murder – a murder orchestrated by a Macedonian-installed tyrant. Although he flourished in his adopted city of Argos, he never forgot his home or lost his hatred for tyranny, returning to Sicyon in 251 with a stunning coup against the reigning dictator. He restored democracy to the city before merging it with the Achaean League, assuming leadership of both; to Macedon’s chagrin, he would not look far for his next target.
Aratus’s rise had been warily monitored by the old but powerful King Antigonus. The third ruler of the Antigonid dynasty, he’d sat upon the throne in Pella for more than thirty years, certainly no stranger to Greek war and politics. He had already slain the infamous King Pyrrhus of Epirus – he of the “Pyrrhic victories” against Rome; smashed a rebellion by erstwhile rivals Athens and Sparta; and ruthlessly put down betrayals by any of his puppet-tyrants. He more than anyone knew the importance of the “Shackles”, of keeping them strong, making Greeks see them as invincible. And perhaps they did seem that way… to most.
But to Aratus, they were simply shackles meant to be broken.
* * *
I swear by Zeus Homarius, Athena Homaria, Aphrodite and by all the gods, that I will in all things abide by (the terms of) the stele, the agreement and the decree passed by the League of the Achaeans; and if anyone shall not abide thereby, I will resist them to the best of my ability; and may prosperity be mine if I keep my oath, but the reverse if I should break it.
Oath upon joining the Achaean League
. . . Aratus governed the Achaean nation, with his whole policy directed to one end alone: the expulsion of the Macedonians from the Peloponnese, the destruction of the tyrants, and the re-establishment in every state of the freedom their ancestors had long known.
He that is possessed of Corinth is master of all Greece . . . Hence, the place was always much contended for, particularly by kings and princes. [King] Antigonus' passion for it was not less than that of love, in its greatest madness.
Plutarch, Life of Aratus
7th Day of Phoinikaios, Year 1 of the 129th Olympiad
(August 28, 264 B.C.)
It sounded like a thunderclap.
With a start, the boy shot up from a bed soaked in sweat, his room sweltering from the summer heat. His heart raced, a fear of thunder compounded by the midnight hour. To his confusion, however, he found moonlight shining unvexed through his open window. No wind could be felt, no scent of rain.
Did I imagine it? He asked himself, still groggy. I must’ve… I’ve never heard Zeus’s anger under such peaceful skies…
“Papa?” the boy called out quietly, though he knew full well his father Clenias slept in chambers two doors down from him.
Another thunderclap made him jump, but no less confused at the source.
“Papa?” he called out again, feeling the corners of his eyes begin to well. With fidgeting hands, the terrified naked lad tiptoed towards his window, its panels open wide towards Sicyon’s dusty streets.
He didn’t see them at first. At first, he looked up and down the street of packed houses from his second floor perch, seeing them as barren as they typically were this time of night, when even the mutts had settled down for a slumber. But then –
“Shhh!” a man hissed, and the boy’s eyes were drawn to the home’s street entrance below. Pressed against the wall of the house were at least a dozen men in sleeveless tunics, some with daggers in hand, some with blades even longer. One looked to have shoved his through the slit in the double doors.
“Bloody thing is loosenin’ but it won’t budge!”
“Swipe it upwards damn –”
The man’s shoulder launched into it again.
The doors crackled, its bracelock weakening.
The boy watched in horror as the lead man laughed. “Did it! Ha! By the gods, it’s splintering!”
“Again! Go on, go!”
Rearing back, he crashed into it again, and all of a sudden, he was gone from view.
Paralyzed, he watched the men pour into his home like water to a drain.
They’re all inside!
His imagination ran rampant as an excruciating silence took hold. He tried to find his voice to scream but it was lost. His mouth was dry as the floor itself, his –
The house erupted in clamor and violence, the shrill cry of their slave’s warning drowned out by men’s bellowing, blades unsheathing. He heard noises like he’d never heard before in the room below him, surely that of weapons finding servants’ flesh. The uproar kept him locked in place, warily watching his bedroom door… waiting for the men with daggers and swords to come through.
He screamed a piercing, terrible sound as his entryway flung open, hands covering wet eyes, urine soaking his legs.
He couldn’t stop.
“Aratus!” a man yelled again, barely audible beyond the scrap downstairs.
Hands gripped his shoulders. Shook him violently.
“Oh my gods, my gods!” a woman’s voice cried, which he finally recognized as his mother’s. “My poor baby!”
“Close his door and block it!” his father barked at her, calloused hand now gripping his son’s cheek. “Now!”
Sobbing, the boy finally looked around and found his father as naked as he but with knife in free hand, dark eyes wide in terror, face in torrential perspiration. His mother bawled in her own right, her small frame weighing as best she could against the door.
“I wanna sleep, papa!” Aratus mewled helplessly.
“I know, lad, I know,” his father said briskly, stroking the boy’s curly hair as he frantically looked about for something. “You’re gonna get back to sleep, I promise…”
More screams from below. Steps up their stairwell.
“Who is screaming? Who is scream –”
“Aratus, there are some bad people here right now, aye?” Clenias said as he dashed towards his son’s bed and grabbed his sheet.
“There just are, huios, so we’re all going to get out of here for a wee bit, all three of us, you understand me?”
“What about –”
“Quiet now, lad!” his father said, pressing a finger to his lips, before quickly wrapping the sheet around the boy’s bony waist.
“Clenias!” came a shout down the hall.
“Check every room, quickly!” answered another.
A tear fell from his father’s eyes which frightened him further; he’d never seen him cry before. “Papa?”
“We have to leave through the window, so I’m going to lower you down…”
“I don’t want to, I don’t want to!”
“You have to! Close your eyes and you’ll be down in a moment!”
“No, no –”
But his father’s powerful arms yanked his squirming body from the ground, and in seconds he was through his window, suspended in mid-air over the twilight street.
“I love you, huios!”
“Aratus, when you hit the ground, you run!” Clenias said, head looking down on him from the window above as he lowered the sheet. “To Timanthes’ or to –”
He stopped, head jerked back and in a flash let go of the sheet. Aratus screamed as he plummeted the final five feet onto the gritty road. The crash knocked the wind out of him and scraped his bare buttocks, but his eyes still vacantly searched his bedroom window; his ears heard the awful shouts of his father and mother, but he was grateful to hear them at all.
Because it was horror when they ceased.
“Mama?” he mouthed silently. “Papa?”
“Get ’em all?”
“Aye… aye, I think so…”
“He had a boy, didn’t he?”
“He did! The bloody boy’s dead too, no? Abandtidas said get ’em all!”
“I don’t know!”
“Well, make sure, dammit!”
A head appeared at the window, shadowed eyes finding his.
He’d never run so fast in his life. Down the desolation of narrow, dusty streets, afraid to look back because when he did –
* * *
“Dammit, Aratus, wake up already!”
His eyes sprang open. “Huh?”
“Gods save us from your wailing,” he heard his friend Timanthes groan in the cot next to his. “Drivin’ me bloody crazy…”
Suddenly, he was back in Bura, a small Achaean city where they’d slumbered in anticipation of arriving in Aegium later that day. Even as his senses woken, his nightmare of two decades prior still seemed as vivid as the night it happened.
“Last time I bunk with you anywhere, honestly,” Timanthes muttered further. “Even on the high seas, you didn’t bleat so bad…”
Aratus sat up on the edge of his cot, running a hand over his eyes and a stubbly beard. Ever since it happened, he’d dreamt the nightmare from time to time, but lately it had been happening more and more. And it always struck him that all these years later, he never dreamt about the rest of his escape; perhaps because for years he didn’t remember himself. It was only in hindsight that he learned his aunt Soso had seen him running wildly through the streets of Sicyon, snatching him inside her home to hide him from his parents’ murderers; only later that he learned those men worked on behalf of Abantidas, a vicious warlord who’d crowned himself a despot by slaughtering his father, the city’s beloved and duly elected leader. No, he learned of all this only after he’d been living in Argos for years, safely shipped there by his brave aunt shortly after the bloodletting. By the time he’d returned to liberate Sicyon some thirteen years later, Abantidas had long been slain, done in by a tyrant in his own right.
“You want to get walking?” he asked hoarsely.
Timanthes barely stirred. “Not even first light yet…”
“Yes, it is.”
“Mmph… barely even first light then…”
“Get up, you lazy bastard. Not much walkin’ left to do.”
He stretched his tired limbs, donning a woolen tunic before throwing open the inn’s door to enjoy the brief respite of cool air they would see that day. He stood quietly in the doorway, eyeing the brightening sky as he recalled the dream yet again. The screams of that summer night had followed him for a lifetime, screams that fed an insatiable vendetta against tyrants ever since. He’d never have the pleasure of killing the man responsible for his parents’ murder, for subjecting his homeland to more than a decade of violent oppression, but so long as he breathed, he’d be damned before he’d see it succumb to another in Abantidas’s mold; he’d be damned before he’d let another city of Hellas suffer the same fate or ignore their cries for liberation.
And as they set out for Aegium, his eyes were fixed on Antigonus II Gonatus, King of Macedon – the greatest tyrant of them all.