The Spoils of Troy
And so I was required to stand before this uneasy table and raise my voice in the silence. I had been looking forward to this moment all day but any bard will tell you that few can sing at their best before those whose minds are elsewhere. My ambition had been to sing from The Lay of Lord Odysseus on which I had been working, and in the circumstances it would have been the courageous thing to do. But I was reluctant to expose a still raw and tender talent before a judge as stern as King Nauplius, so I chose instead to sing some of the traditional goat-songs sung by shepherds on the island. Amphinomus and Lady Penelope received them warmly enough, but those bucolic airs appealed no more to the visiting king’s ears than our island’s wine had done to his palate.
‘My son told me that you liked to keep a simple life here on Ithaca,’ he said dryly, ‘but I’m surprised to find that the court of Laertes lacks a bard even!’
‘The boy’s father is our bard,’ Penelope answered quietly. ‘There is some fear that his life was lost at sea after the Mysian campaign.’
‘A campaign against which my own son strongly advised,’ Nauplius said with narrowed eyes, ‘but other counsel was preferred, and with what disastrous results we may all now plainly see.’ Then he cast a searching look my way. ‘The boy sings sweetly enough,’ he conceded. ‘I hear the grief in his voice. It is hard for a son to lose a father, but it is in the natural course of things.’ Nauplius shook his gaunt head. ‘For a father to lose a son however …’
Amphinomus said, ‘Surely a father can take comfort from the knowledge that his son died honourably in battle?’
But Nauplius turned a cold stare on him. ‘My son was denied such honour. And denied it by those whom he had loyally sought to serve.’
The silence was broken by Lord Mentor. ‘As the king has observed,’ he said, ‘we are simple souls on Ithaca. Perhaps he will make his meaning plainer.’
Nauplius met the controlled anger with a bleak smile. ‘In good time,’ he said, ‘in good time. My business here is with the Lady Penelope. If she will grant me private audience when this meal is done, we will talk more of these things.’
‘You are the guest of our house,’ Penelope answered. ‘It shall be as you wish.’
And so, with the only subjects about which people wished to speak thus firmly confined to silence, this awkward meal progressed. Amphinomus did what he could to ease the atmosphere by extolling the contribution that Euboea had made to the art of navigation. In particular he praised that island’s introduction of cliff-top beacons beside dangerous shoals, an invention which had caught on across Argive waters and proved a boon to mariners everywhere.
Nauplius nodded in acknowledgement. He and Amphinomus chatted together for a while. ‘It pleases me,’ he said, ‘to learn that the Lady Penelope has found a diverting companion in her husband’s absence.’ And at the fireside pillar where we sat with the dog Argus stretched between us, kicking his hind-legs in a dream of chase, I saw Telemachus scowl.
Eventually, having eaten well for all his disdain for rustic fare, Nauplius declared himself replete, washed his hands in the bronze bowl and indicated his desire to speak alone with the lady of the house. We watched them leave the hall together, he gaunt and frail, she taller by almost a head, yet they felt worryingly like an executioner and his victim.
‘Come, Phemius,’ Amphinomus called across the hall, ‘sing for us again.’
Not for many years, not indeed till after her husband’s return, did Penelope utter a word about what was said between her and King Nauplius that night. The following morning, shortly after dawn, that disagreeable visitor put out to sea without offering thanks or saying farewell to anyone. No one on the island regretted his departure though we were all troubled by the shadow that he had evidently cast across Penelope’s mind and face, and not even Amphinomus could persuade her to share the burden of her cares.
Not many weeks would pass, of course, before we learned that this was only one of many visits that Nauplius was to make to the chief kingdoms of Argos, and everywhere he went, including, most dramatically, Mycenae itself, he left the contamination of his vengeful grief. And from reports of what happened elsewhere it was not difficult to guess what must have passed between Nauplius and Penelope that night.
Nauplius would have begun by singing the praises of his dead son Palamedes. Was his not the swiftest and most orderly mind in the Argive leadership? Had he not come to the aid of the duller-witted Agamemnon by recommending an order of battle which would take full advantage of the diverse forces assembled under his command rather than allowing their rivalries and customs to weaken their strength and cause disarray? Had he not devised a common signalling system that could be understood and exploited equally well by tribesmen from Arcadia, Crete, Boeotia and Magnesia? Had he not unified the systems of measurement used throughout the host so that there could be no confusion over distances and arguments over the distribution of rations and booty might be kept to a minimum? Wasn’t it Palamedes who had kept the troops in good heart by teaching them his game of dice and stones? Hadn’t he always done what he could to make sure that the voice of the common soldiery was heard among the council of the kings? In short, Nauplius insisted that if it had not been for the presiding intelligence of Palamedes, anticipating difficulties and finding means to overcome them, Agamemnon’s vast army would quickly have degenerated into a quarrelsome rabble with each tribal contingent looking only to its own interests even though the entire campaign might founder on such narrow pride.
Penelope would have listened patiently to all of this. After all, the man was her house-guest and it was understandable that a father’s grief should exaggerate his dead son’s contribution to the arduous effort of a war in which he’d lost his life. She had no doubt, of course, that the intelligence and experience of Odysseus must have played at least an equal part in that effort, and probably a greater one, but she had already sensed that to speak up for her husband at this juncture could only arouse a hostile response from this lugubrious old man. So she preferred to hold her peace and wait to see what menace still lay concealed behind his show of grief.
It was not long in coming. Frowning into space as he spoke, Nauplius told how, late in the previous year, when their supplies began to dwindle and raids along the Phrygian and Thracian coasts produced little by way of grain and stores, the Argive host had been faced with a choice between starving outside the walls of Troy or turning tail with little to show for all those long years of war. Odysseus had been in command of one of the raiding parties that returned with its holds empty. When he was met by the rage of Agamemnon, he publicly defied any man to do better. The harvests had failed everywhere that year, he claimed. The granaries were bare.
‘Palamedes took up the challenge,’ Nauplius said, ‘and when he returned to the camp only a few days later, his ships rode low in the water, heavy with grain. You would have thought he deserved the heartfelt thanks of the entire host, would you not? And the common soldiers were warm enough in their praise. My son had always championed their cause. Now he had saved them from hunger. But with the generals it was a different story.’ Fiercely the old man drew in his breath. ‘Whenever there had been conflict among them as to the most effective course of action, Palamedes was invariably proved right. The high command sometimes paid a high price in blood for ignoring his advice and now, once again, my son had succeeded where others had failed. Their envy turned first to spite and then to malice. At least one of them was determined to blacken his name.’
By now Penelope must already have guessed the direction of Nauplius’s story. She knew very well that Odysseus cared for Palamedes no more than she did herself. But nothing could have prepared her for the charge that Nauplius was about to bring against her husband.
‘My son used to send me frequent reports of the progress of the war,’ he said. ‘After all, I had been one of Agamemnon’s principal backers from the first. To fight this war he needed the wealth of Euboea as well as our ships. Without the huge loans I made him, he could never have mustered half the force he did. And both my son and I were well aware that those loans would not be repaid unless Troy fell. So Palamedes went to the war as the guardian of my investment. I relied on him to make sure that the campaign was effectively pursued. I relied on him for news. When he fell silent I began to suspect that something untoward had happened.’ After a grim silence Nauplius said, ‘I sent urgent messages to the Atreides brothers. When no word came back I decided to sail for Phrygia myself.’
After a deliberate silence Penelope asked, ‘And what did you learn there?’
‘I learned that my son had been dead for some time. But he had been denied an honourable death in battle. Palamedes had been traduced by men he took to be his friends. Envious men. Men who worked in darkness to do him harm. A conspiracy of lies had been mounted against him. He was accused of treason. Evidence was fabricated. It purported to show that he had taken Trojan bribes. He was tried and found guilty by the very men who had perpetrated this foul calumny. Palamedes, always the most prudent and honourable of men, met a traitor’s end. He was stoned to death by the host he had sought to serve to the very best of his ability.’ Nauplius was shaking as he spoke. His lips quivered but his eyes were dry as in a hoarse whisper he said, ‘My son’s last words were, “Truth, I mourn for you, who have predeceased me.”’
The words lay heavily on the silence for a time. They could hear the sound of men carousing in the hall below. Eventually Penelope raised her eyes. ‘You are impugning the honour of Agamemnon and Menelaus?’ she demanded.
‘I am,’ Nauplius answered, ‘and I am impugning Diomedes of Tiryns and Idomeneus of Crete who conspired with them against my son.’ He paused to fix her with his flinty stare. ‘And I am impugning your husband Odysseus who was the father of these lies.’
‘Then I will hear no more of this,’ Penelope said steadily, ‘for it seems to me that anyone can vilify another man’s name when he is not present to defend himself, but there can be no honour in such slander.’
‘Which is precisely what your husband did to my son,’ Nauplius retorted, ‘and his shade still cries out for justice. Do not turn away from me, Penelope. I have never felt anything other than affection in my heart for you. Yet I confess I have long shared your father’s doubts about the man you chose for your husband. Odysseus was always a plausible rogue, yes, but a rogue nevertheless. And now I know him to be more and worse than a rogue – he is a villain, one who will stoop to any deceit to secure his own ends. Do not turn away, my dear, for as you will soon learn to your bitter cost, you are as much the victim of his duplicity as I have been.’
But Penelope was already on her feet and crossing the room to leave it. She stopped at the door to confront the old man with the cold rebuke of her eyes. ‘You have already said too much.’
‘The truth is often painful, I know,’ he began to answer, ‘but it must be heard if justice is to be done.’
‘You are the guest of my husband’s house,’ Penelope interrupted him, ‘and you are also old, sir. So I will not ask you to leave this place at once. But I advise you to take to your ship at dawn. Otherwise I will not answer for your safety.’
‘Hear me,’ Nauplius beseeched as she turned to open the door. ‘I speak only out of care for you. This war has corrupted all who lead it. Why do you imagine that not one of them has come home in all these years? It is not because they are constantly in the field, I assure you. Far from it! Those errant gentlemen have long been living a life of licence and debauchery out there in Phrygia. From all the many women they have taken to their tents, each has now selected his favourite concubine. And there is more. They mean to make queens of their oriental paramours when they return to Argos. Pledges have been given before the gods. Believe me, my dear, Odysseus is as faithless as the rest.’ He took in the hostile glitter of Penelope’s eyes and refused to be abashed by it. ‘You do well to look for comfort elsewhere. Amphinomus is a handsome fellow.’
Penelope drew in her breath. ‘Now I am sure that you lie,’ she said. ‘May the gods forgive you for it, for I cannot. Let me never see your face on Ithaca again.’
She left the chamber, banging the door behind her. Yet for all her defiance I doubt that she slept that night. Nor can she have known much rest in the days and nights that followed, for secrets and lies are defilers of the heart and once the trust of the heart is breached it knows no peace. So Penelope was often to be heard sighing as she worked her loom by day, or again when she made her offerings to Athena and prayed that the goddess might teach her patience of soul. And often she would walk alone along the cliff, gazing out to sea as she wondered what had happened to her husband beneath the distant walls of Troy.
The Division of the Spoils (#ua64eaa0a-7742-5392-bdde-0a10329dd011)
Dawn, when it finally came, was little more than a ruddy gleam blackened by smoke and made redder by the flames still rising from the burning buildings. Again and again throughout the night the nerves of the Trojan women had been shaken by the noise of roof-beams collapsing and the harsh clatter of falling tiles. Here and there the hoarse gust of a blaze still sent its vivid exhaust of sparks upwards through the smoke, but most of the fires were now under control, all resistance had ended, and only occasional screams rose from men under torment to reveal where their riches were concealed.
The streets stank vilely of blood and excrement. With the trapdoor still hanging open at its belly, the wooden horse looked down on a dense litter of corpses. Already kites and vultures circled. Somewhere, indifferent to everything but the glory of his own existence, a cockerel crowed his clarion to the day.
A few of the women had briefly taken refuge in oblivion, but only Cassandra had truly slept that night, and it would have been wrong to deduce from the subdued sound of their sobbing that the captives were calmer now. Rather, with the coming of the light, they felt more than ever to be the victims of a fate so violent and capricious that it numbed their frightened minds. Yesterday Troy had been intact behind its walls, having withstood all the strength the Argive host could bring against it. Today the city was a ruin and its royal women were waiting like stockyard cattle to be apportioned among foreigners they detested and feared.
Yet the sun seemed content to preside over such outrageous fortune and the sky might have been void of gods for all the notice it took of their imprecations. So these women were far from calm. They huddled together, exiled from the past, afraid of the future, seeking from each other the solace that none had to give, and deprived even of the means to kill themselves.
Polyxena crouched among them, knowing that sooner or later Neoptolemus must come in search of her again. She had been present by the altar of Zeus when that terrifying youth had struck off her father’s head, and she had guessed already that he would seek her out. The sixteen year old girl had huddled behind her sister Laodice in the portico earlier that night, listening to his voice cajoling her to reveal herself. She had cast about for a form of words that might convince him that she had been only the unwitting bait in the trap that had been set for Achilles. But she had seen the torchlight glancing off his sword and knew that words would make no difference. The boy was fanatical in his desire to avenge his father. Her only chance of survival was to conceal herself among the other women in the hope that he might be struck down by the hand of a merciful god before he could identify her. Then, when Agamemnon had called Neoptolemus away, she had begun to wonder whether the fates might prove kindly after all. But as the night wore on there was no evidence of kindness in this stricken city and when daylight broke, her terror returned with greater force.
Polyxena could not prevent her teeth from chattering as she crouched beside her mother who sat nursing Andromache’s head in her lap. Beside them Cassandra whispered prophecies that the Trojans would prove more fortunate than their enemies. They had at least died in defence of their sacred homeland, while thousands of the barbarian invaders had perished far from their homes, and those who made it back to Argos would find a cruel fate waiting for them.
‘Agamemnon will see that he has taken death into his bed,’ Cassandra chanted. ‘Already the lioness couples with the goat. A blade glints in the bath-house. A torrent of blood flows there. I too shall be swept away on that red tide. But the son of Agamemnon shall bring a bloody end to Neoptolemus. He will leave his impious body dead beneath Apollo’s stone. As for that ingenious fiend Odysseus, Blue-haired Poseidon will keep him far from the home while others junket and riot in his hall. The Goddess will seize his heart. Hades will open his dark door to him. Death will crowd his house.’ But none of the women believed the mad girl any more than they could silence her. So they sat together under the portico, watching the sun come up and dreading what the day must bring.
Exhausted from the efforts of the night, most of the Argive leaders were relaxing in the palace across the square. The first elation of victory had passed and the rush of wine to their heads brought, at that early hour, only a queasy sense of what they had achieved. Odysseus had wandered off alone somewhere. Apart from Menelaus, who still brooded in the mansion that Paris had built for Helen, the others were carousing together, but there were grumbles of dissent from Acamas and his brother Demophon when Neoptolemus claimed the right to take Polyxena for his own before the lots had been apportioned.
Annoyed that even in this hour of triumph, discord should have broken out so quickly among his followers, Agamemnon stood uncertainly. He knew there was some justice in the complaint but he was reluctant to offend Neoptolemus who had shown a ferocity in the fight against the Ethiopians that had astounded older, battle-hardened men. Also he knew what fate lay in store for Polyxena if he acceded to this demand, and his thoughts had involuntarily darkened at the memory of what he had done to his own daughter Iphigenaia.
Seeing his hesitation, Neoptolemus declared that the shade of his father had demanded in a dream that the girl who had betrayed him should be sacrificed on his tomb. ‘Does the High King not believe that the man who did so much to win this war should be accorded such justice? Would you deny my father’s shade?’
Immediately Agamemnon made the sign to ward off the evil eye. A quarrel with Achilles had almost lost him this war once. He would not risk another with his angry ghost. ‘Take her,’ he said. ‘It is only just.’
So Neoptolemus came to claim Polyxena in the early morning light. Again he summoned her out of the huddle of women. Again Hecuba rose to protect her youngest daughter. But the weary young warrior was in no mood to listen to her pleas and insults. ‘If you don’t want to feel the flat of my sword on your old bones,’ he snarled, ‘tell your daughter to show herself.’
Polyxena rose from the place where she had been crouching. ‘I am here,’ she declared in a voice that shook as she spoke. ‘Achilles asked for me more gently. If you hope to emulate your father, you must learn to speak with something other than your sword.’
‘Come into the light,’ Neoptolemus answered. ‘Let me take a look at you.’
Loosing the hand of Laodice, Polyxena stepped between the women huddled round her and stared without flinching at the youth. Being his senior by three years or more, she might, in other circumstances, have taunted him for parading in the suit of armour that had been made to fit his father’s broader shoulders. But she knew that her life stood in graver danger now than when she had met with Achilles in Apollo’s temple at Thymbra. Her face was flushed with fear. Her breath was drawn too quickly. When Neoptolemus smiled at the swift rise and fall of her recently budded breasts she glanced away.
‘I understand that my father sought to befriend you,’ he said. ‘Is that not so?’