The Former King of Sparta by Zeke Greenwald

Demaratos began to feel remorse as he approached Sardis on foot. He was traveling with his slave.

The last king of Lydia before the Persian conquest was called Croesus. He had made the city fantastic. The gates were carved with reliefs of men enacting different parts of their city’s history, which Demaratos didn’t know, so he couldn’t understand the carvings.

That was a little later when the former king of Sparta stood a supplicant within view of the still fantastic Lydian walls; when he could whine aloud in Greek and the sentinels could spit back their throaty Persian tongue; when he stood in front of detailed sculpture, shining soldier, blue enamel, yellow gold and red bronze; in short, when he could finally tell someone that he had once been a king and that he expected according hospitality; in the moment when he could be compared to fabulous things and when he could be doubted.

For just then he was in the fields beyond the Anatolian headlands. He was still camping and begging from the unwalled rustic houses where he could eat and drink, but not explain himself. He told solicitous peasants any other thing. So far, these houses scattered in the grass was all he had seen of Asia. Demaratos’ Peloponnese didn’t have monumental structures, fortifying walls or prevalent, high-minded architecture. He had heard Persia was different. These simple reed houses reassured him somehow that it was not different here; that there was still a chance for a slapdash wanderer who had begged and slept in view of the shapely stars; whose skin was peeling from his often cloakless, exposed body along his shoulders and calves and feet, so that he was very brown and splotchy pink and bleeding sometimes; whose train and many satellites had been stripped from him in Zakynthos by the pursuing Lacedaemonians like the sun and certain itchy grasses had done to his skin; all the hovels gave him hope that this lone man might not be misunderstood, for these strange people he came to beg asylum from were modest at heart and so like his own. Demaratos, however, was not traveling alone.

The rival Spartan king had been spreading rumors. Demaratos asked his mother if it was true what they were saying. They didn’t relent. The doubt was astounding. He had to go.

“Xanthias,” said Demaratos. “You are my only companion. You remain my slave, yet you could escape.”

“Flight is a lonely, dangerous way,” he said.

The king chuckled to himself and remembered some lines of Homer when the swineherd explains to Odysseus how the day of enslavement takes away half a man’s virtue. Demaratos laughed because it was true.

Xanthias still limped today as they walked. Demaratos had whipped him with his sword and kicked him because he was hungry and hated his life and because he could. The grass was tall; it was itchy too; they had lost the path. The man got angry again, and thought as soon as there was water for his thirst, he’d beat the limping coward once more. It was one thing to stay loyal, it was another to simply fear the other option.

Hospitality was owed to him, a stranger. That peasants offered him kindness did not soften his attitude. His own sorrows did not create a fellow sorrowing for his slave. The remorse he felt was private and was this:

As he sat at evening facing the darkening east and a tiny darkening Sardis before Sardis, in turn, made him feel small, he unearthed a thin stream under a tamarisk bush, of which he used a branch to whip Xanthias for cowardice. He saw in the pebbly water many dark tadpoles above the blue and gray gravel submerged under the rivulet, but he did not see the mother frog, nor the father. Demaratos grieved for these quivering creatures for they had just his plight. He didn’t know who his parents were either.

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