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Chapter 1 - The Golden Bond by A.J. Hall

One’s life, as I’ve said, takes long strides between Olympics.

As the next Games loomed, I got up a short tour to Ionia. I needed an excuse to be out of the way. I could not face seeing again the place where Dion had made up his mind to war. Not until his tomb had weathered, at any rate.

The Athenian, Timokrates, won the two-horse chariot race and gave a legendary party. Gylla of Thebes, who attended both, said it far outshone the one the Macedonian envoy threw to celebrate King Philip’s victory in the four-horse. This being Olympia, the Macedonians were at least unarmed, but she said everyone shouted as if on a battle-field and one expected a troop of cavalry to come storming into the room at any moment. Her headache lasted for days after.

She also said I’d been missed in the Athenian pavilion. It was generous of her to say so, and might even have been true. Timokrates was as great a patron of the arts as he was of the race-track and no fool, though generous to a fault. (He’d also, I learnt later, committed a good deal of money to the Syracuse adventure, on which he’d now no expectation of any return.)

In the Piraeus and the lower City, families live one on top of another. Small shopkeepers survive or fail by an obol’s credit granted or withheld. Small blame on them if they look for omens in a neighbour’s fresh-darned robe, or in his unmended sandal-sole.

Not so in the Kerameikos. High walls surround the great houses there, guarding their owners’ privacy as much as their strongboxes. Those may hold talents in refined gold or nothing but dust and dead men’s promises.

Four years later, when Timokrates sponsored my play at the Dionysia, his hair had turned silver (he was pushing sixty) and there were a few more lines about his mouth, but nothing suggested he was anything other than the rich nobleman who’d stood choreogos a dozen times, going back to my father’s day.

That year it was Theodoros’ contest. Neither I nor Thettalos felt happy with our roles, and the revolt on Euboea had put the audience on edge. They wanted the familiar, with a touch of the didactic, and Theodoros’ Antigone was all that, garnished with honey sauce.

We were on last. After the judges made their announcement, Timokrates came in to the skene room, accompanied by a slave bearing an amphora of wine for the cast. I had never tasted better, even in Delphi, though something must be owed to my relief at washing my role out of my mouth.

Like I said, Timokrates was no fool about drama. He praised the good parts and passed tactfully over the bits I’d sooner forget. Towards the end, he said, following some chance remark of mine, “I wish someone would revive The Persians. It would do the City good to be reminded that even an enemy formidable enough to drink the streams dry can be defeated, if our courage only holds. And that courage is for each of us to live; not just a word for demagogues to barter.”

An actor learns to listen. I cocked my head on one side, and raised an eyebrow by way of invitation.

He cleared his throat. “When I was a tiny boy, if I’d fallen over and hurt myself, or burnt my hand on the cooking range, there was only one person I would run to. My great-grandfather’s sister ruled the women’s quarters; she’d done so since time immemorial. My grandfather — my mother — my aunts — were all terrified by her. But to me, she was kindness itself. She taught me lessons in fortitude I’ve profited from all my life. She died on this very day, fifty years ago.”

“It must have been a grievous loss,” I said.

“Loss? It was as if Mount Olympos itself had fallen.” He paused for a moment, and added, “I named my daughter for her. I could do no less.”

I gave a sympathetic nod. Timokrates had married three times. Only the last had produced offspring, and that but a girl, her mother dying in the process.

“And The Persians?”

“Ah, that. She was there, she watched, the day the Persians came. The day Athens burned. When Xerxes destroyed our temples. She could have been killed a thousand times; the invaders slaughtered half her family. In the end she hid in a crevice below the Acropolis — the little lizard girl, too quick and small to capture. All day she lay there, too scared to piss, in case some Persian sentry heard the water fall.”

I winced, feeling the pressure on my own bladder. That I could use; it is always the small touches which make a performance live. An actor hands them down to those he teaches, and they in turn to their own pupils. It is a poor sort of immortality, but more than a well-born woman gets in the normal course of things.

“Will you be at the Olympics?” Timokrates asked it as if he’d ventured too close to painful things and would be glad of a change of subject. I said I would, if the gods allowed, and so we parted.

As it chanced I did not see him there. Word was that affairs kept him in Athens. So they did. When I returned, he was dead. His body scarce cold, the creditors he had kept at bay descended upon the great house in the Kerameikos, ordered the strong-boxes thrown open and duly found dust not gold. Everything was to be sold up for whatever it might fetch.

I made my way to the house, in hope I was not too late to pay my respects. I found it like an overset ant-hill. The auctioneer’s men were wandering in and out measuring rooms, creditors were doing low-voiced side deals in corners and one or two mourners, like myself, shuffled around wondering where to put ourselves.

In the midst of it all a hard-faced, mean-voiced man held court, pouring down cup after cup of the rat-piss someone had provided for the refreshment of mourners and workmen alike. Presumably the good wine had been seized by the creditors, or maybe we’d had the last of it in the skene-room. I hoped the latter, for Timokrates’ sake.

The hard-faced man was, it transpired, Timokrates’ late wife’s brother. Although his sister had made a match more brilliant than her family could have had any right to expect, he was now roundly abusing her for not having anticipated (in advance of the whole of Athens, including most of her chief bankers) Timokrates’ subsequent defaults. As the rat-piss went down, he touched on all his grievances in turn, chief among them being that the care of his sister’s orphaned child had been left to him, without the solace of any other legacy.

He disgusted me. At length, rather than start a brawl in a house of mourning, I made the excuse of answering a call of nature and slipped from the room. I made a rambling route of my return, playing for time until I could decently take my leave.

The house exuded melancholy. Ghost shapes on the floor and against the light walls showed where furniture, polished and cherished for generations, had been carried away. I poked my head into the dining chamber, where I’d attended parties from time to time.

The olive-wood couches and tables were gone, as were the wine kraters and the bronze oil-lamps. Only the sideboard remained: a massive, ancient piece of some foreign wood, carved with a relief of men in Persian dress hunting driven game. As my footsteps sounded on the bare tile I caught a small sound from behind it. At first I thought it a lizard, flicking into its lair at my approach. Then I caught a glimpse of pale yellow, the yellow of a maiden’s peplum, and understood.

“‘Scuse us, sir.”

I had not even heard the workmen approach. I turned and they gestured towards the sideboard. “Just need to move that, to clear the room, sir.”

I caught a faint, broken noise from behind the sideboard and reacted on instinct. I leant on the doorjamb, casually, but barring entrance, nonetheless.

“I don’t want to make life harder for honest working men, but might you give me a short time to myself? Here’s where I want to remember my friend and host Timokrates, here where we feasted, not out there, not with —”

My gesture encompassed the audience hall and, by implication, the sottish bully holding court there. I guessed he would not have made a good name for himself with the workmen.

The bigger of the two men elbowed his fellow in the ribs. “Well, sir, we have to finish this today, but I daresay we could find something to do in the rest of the house, for a little time.”

“My thanks. Will you take this, to toast Timokrates’ memory? He was a fine man, and an Olympic victor. He deserves to be remembered so.”

Once the workmen had gone, I approached the sideboard, knelt by it, and turned my cheek to the cool tiles of the floor, so I could peer underneath.

“Don’t be afraid, daughter of Timokrates. They’ve gone, now. It’s only me, Nikeratos, the actor. I am a guest-friend of your father.”

After a moment or so, the child emerged. I caught my breath from shock and pity.

Her hair, tangled and wild as it was (presumably her nursemaid had already been sold) was the authentic blue-black of Attica. Her eyes were huge, of an extraordinary dark blue like the deep seas off Rhodes, beneath perfectly arched brows. Beneath a layer of dust and cobwebs, her skin showed pure ivory.

Timokrates, even in age, had been a handsome man, with the kind of bones which last. To produce a child like this, though, the girl’s mother must have been something quite extraordinary. The riddle of why Timokrates had chosen to ally himself to a bombastic nonentity like the man in the reception chamber was explained in an instant.

If her promise lasted, the child would grow into the kind of beauty for whom men sacked cities. Foreboding clawed at my guts. Given the reversal of her fortunes, she would have been safer ugly.

I covered my unease with a smile. “That’s better. You are very clever at hiding; I thought it was just a lizard, moving up the wall behind the sideboard, until I glimpsed your dress.”

“Father always calls me his little lizard girl —”

She broke off. I think it was only at that very moment the knowledge truly hit her that this was it: her father dead and she destitute. Her eyes seemed to get bigger and bigger, her chin shook and her pallor became so intense I feared she would faint on the spot. Not a sound escaped her. That was the most uncanny thing of all.

Had she been a youth, rather than a young girl, I would have given her a cup of unmixed wine. Had the house been in any sort of order I would have sent a slave to make her a soothing posset and had her packed off to bed with it.

I fell back on memory and instinct. I recalled the oligarchs of Phigaleia and the little lizard hiding among the burning rocks below the Acropolis. Words are stronger than wine and a more comforting balm than possets.

“Listen, daughter of Timokrates. Have you ever seen a play?”

She was at the age when grown-up questions are always incomprehensible, so just nodded, solemnly, and said, “I was at the Lenaia. My father took me.”

There was a little hitch in her voice, but she sounded proud of the memory.

“You won’t have heard Aechylus’ Persians, then: it’s an old play and they don’t do it very often now. It’s about when the Persians came to invade Greece, and were flung back at Salamis. It was a favourite of your father’s. The last time we met, he spoke of it. He said, It does us all good to be reminded that even an enemy formidable enough to drink the streams dry can be defeated, if our courage only holds. And so I’ve found. There are words in it to hold onto, little lizard girl, to take you through the darkest hours. May I offer them to you?”

She hugged her arms around her knees, sitting on the cold floor, her whole soul thrown into her eyes. She gave a short, chopped nod, bidding me begin.

Forward, sons of the Greeks, liberate the fatherland, liberate your children, your women, the temples of your ancestral gods, the graves of your forebears: This is the battle for everything.

I cut the part about the corpses choking the Salamis strait, but otherwise gave her the whole speech. I have played plenty of command performances, some for kings, but never enthralled an audience so completely. By the end, silent tears were running down her cheeks, but her body had relaxed and her colour become healthier. Catharsis is, in truth, the gift of the god.

I held myself in stillness until her tears eased. Then she wiped her eyes with a fold of her peplum and rose to her feet with grace.

“I have to go now. I don’t expect my uncle will miss me, but if he should chance to remember, there’ll be trouble if I’m not within call.”

Part of my mind stored up for future use her poise, her too-adult recognition of an unjust fate. Iphigenia in Aulis must be due a revival, given how Antigone had been received at the Dionysia. People call actors callous, but it is, in its way, how we make tribute. Timokrates had known it. His shade would not object.

She turned back, on the threshold. Feathery brows were drawn down over those grave, dark-blue eyes.

“Thank you, Nikeratos. I will not forget your kindness.”

I repressed a smile at her incongruous formality, like that of a princess dismissing a favoured subject. It was only a momentary levity; the subject was not for jesting. With only her looks for dowry, and that flush-faced, mean-mouthed bully in charge of her life, she’d be shuffled off into some fitted-up marriage to one of his cronies as soon she was old enough for decency — or earlier, if the price was right. It might not even be marriage; I’d not lay wagers on her uncle’s family feeling if the money looked good.

At best, by next Olympics she’d be fretting out her life in the women’s quarters of some low merchant’s house until she died in childbed or of phthisis, or beneath some brute’s fists and feet.

I offered her the only gift within my power. “I’ll not forget you either, little lizard girl.”

For the first time a smile illuminated her face, fleeting and divine like the flight of a kingfisher.

“Because we are friends, I may allow you to call me by my name.”

“I am truly honoured. And your name is, daughter of Timokrates?”

“Thaïs.”