A Bishop Chickens Out. Would You?

“The incense is in that bowl, Basílides,” said the Roman official. “When you are finished making your offering to the emperor, I will give you this certificate with my signature. Keep it with you and show it to any Roman official who might ask to see it and you will not be bothered further.”

Basílides looked at the bronze tripod with the fire burning, and the bust of the Emperor Decius. He had only to put his hand in the bowl of incense, bring out a few grains, and sprinkle them onto the fire. It was nothing. The official sitting at his desk would then sign his name to the little parchment strip and stamp it.

The official pretended not to pay much attention but he was curious. What would this Basílides do? He was an intelligent and well-educated man in his fifties. If he did not sacrifice to the emperor he would be thrown into prison and then fed to the lions in the amphitheater once the next group of rebels had been rounded up. He was known to be a leader of the illegal Christian community. They called him a bishop.

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Wikimedia public domain photo)

“Please,” said the official. “I don’t have all day.”

Basílides stood taller for a moment, then walked over to the tripod and sacrificed to the emperor Decius.
He was the bishop of the diocese of Leon-Astorga in 250 during the Decian persecution. The bishop of Merida (Emerita) likewise apostated.

Their sin naturally angered their Christian communities, who wrote to the Bishop of Carthage, St. Cyprian, to ask for their dismissal.
Why did the Spanish Christians write to an African bishop to deal with this case? There was obviously a special relationship with the African Church. Most scholars believe Christianity came to Spain from Africa. Maybe Carthage was their Mother Church.

Cyprian fired the two apostates and called a synod of bishops. All this appears in the famous letter 65 of his correspondence, and it is the first real news we have of the infant Christian community in Spain (254 AD).

Basílides himself appealed to the bishop of Rome. The pope in Rome had no particular authority over the Spanish Church but Rome was reputed to be more tolerant. And in fact Pope Steven reinstated him. There is no record of the conflict this must have created.

Those bishops had sinned very gravely and needed some exemplary punishment, no doubt. The pile of stones is just over here….all you have to do is pick one up and throw it at them.


libellus This is a certificate like the one given to Basílides after he had offered sacrifice to the emperor as a god. It was called a libellus, and the owner, a libellaticus. Excavators in Egypt have turned up many of these. Every Roman citizen was obliged to possess one and show it on demand. The heavy writing in the middle is the signature of the presiding officer and the writing at the bottom is the date. It was issued in 250 AD, just the year Basílides apostated.

Read an actual letter from a Roman governor asking how to deal with the Christians in his province.



“Origen del cristianismo en Hispania”, pp.185-186, in Historia de la Hispania Romana, by A. Tovar and J. M. Blázquez; Alianza Editorial, S. A., Madrid, 1975

The photo of the libellus is from Ancient Times: A History of the Early World, p. 738, by James Henry Breasted; Ginn and Co., 1944



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Meeting Hemingway’s Hero

I knew a bar called Las Panderetas where bullfighters went and I had seen Nicanor Villalta sitting at a table in the corner one afternoon.  I could have approached him right then but I wasn´t ready, and by the time I had figured out what I could say to him he had gone to speak to somebody and the occasion was lost.

Bar “La Taurina” in old Madrid

Bar “La Taurina” in old Madrid (photo from file)

That night and a few other times I rehearsed the conversation I planned to have if I ran into him again.  And about a week later I went back to Las Panderetas and there he was again, sitting at the same table.  I sipped a glass of white wine (chato de vino blanco) at the bar while I went over my questions one more time and built up courage.  You´d have thought I meant to assassinate the guy.
OK.  One last look.  There he is now and looking in my direction.  Here goes.

I walked over to him and spoke just a little too soon, before I had reached him.  “¿Señor Villalta?”
His table was on a kind of podium and he bent way down to try to hear me.  “¿Perdón?”
“Are you Señor Villalta the bullfighter?”
“Sí,” he said dryly and sort of defensively.  Maybe he thought I wanted to sell him something or ask him for a dime.
Opposite him at the table was an old guy who took a deep interest in this interview and made me nervous with his watching.

“I´m American,” I began.
“Sí,” said Villalta again.  He was hard of hearing and listened with a grimace and a squint and one ear towards you.
“Last week the American bullfighter Sidney Franklin died.  Do you remember him?”
He didn´t hear me or understand me but fortunately the old guy with him at the table told him what I had said.
“Yes,” said Villalta, starting to look inside himself while he remembered.  “He was very brave.  Muy valiente.”   I wondered if he meant this as a false compliment.  Bravery was a lot more common than quality fighting.  Maybe he was saying that Franklin was brave but no good.
“He was left-handed,” he went on.  His statements came out one by one, decisively, the way old people often make them.  “He did all the pases the other way around.  It was very curious.  But it worked.  He was all right.  Yes, I remember him.”

I could see that that was about all I was going to get out of him on the subject of Franklin. He hadn’t asked me to sit down: I was still standing at the foot of his table/podium and sweating heavily.  Always so nervous.   But I tried to relax and make this conversation look casual.  “Would you let me buy you a drink?” I asked.
“No.”   Bad luck.      He wasn´t enjoying this conversation much.
“And Hemingway, do you remember him?”   The other guy at the table explained that I wanted to know about Ernest Hemingway, the writer.

Ernest Hemingway’s 1923 passport photo  (public domain)

“I think they introduced me to him once,” said Villalta.  You could see he had something against old Hem.
“You are in his book on bullfighting,” I said.
“Yeah, he called me I don´t know what kind of insect.”   I saw the misunderstanding right off.  Villalta cut a strange figure in the ring (and outside of it).  He was disproportioned: tall as a basketball player, with a wee little head on a long neck.  There was something stilt-like about his legs, something stiff about his way of walking.  Though he performed all the pases competently, he wasn´t pretty to see.  “He has a kind of praying mantis style,” wrote Hemingway.

“But Hemingway admired you, ” I said.
“Do you know he named his son after you?”  This last wasn´t rehearsed.  It may not even be true.  I knew one of Hem´s sons was called Nicanor and deduced.
But Villalta wasn´t appeased.  He had made a judgment on Hemingway years before and that was that.  He went back to Franklin.   “Your Franklin wasn´t around very long,” he said.   “I remember an awfully big cornada (horn wound).”
“Did you get many?”
“No!” He almost shouted it.  He looked exasperated, as though for years he had been fighting a recurrent lie.   “Very few.  None.”
Not every bullfighter sees gorings in the same way.  Some brag about them.  Villalta seemed to think that you got gored out of incompetence, mostly, and poor judgment.  That if you understood bulls you didn´t get gored except now and then from bad luck–the wind, the bull´s distraction.

He was one of the very greatest of bullfighters.  He still has the record for ears in the Madrid ring.  He must have made big money in the early ’30s but by the time I knew him he was so poor he had to ask for help.  I went to a benefit fight for him.  He came down into the ring to take the applause of the crowd and one last time made a trip around the ring and even tried to run a little–sideways like they do, with his arms outstetched.  But his old legs were too stiff and he had to give it up and just bow.  In his old suit which was too big for him he looked like a tall scarecrow, or with his little head, like a …praying mantis.

So that’s how I begged an old guy for change.  What he had he gave in the ring to the people who paid for it then.  I  won´t be such an ass as to complain that what I made him give me out of his old  pocket wasn´t worth much.

(photo source)

Here is some of what Hemingway says about him in Death in the Afternoon:

“…When he does a great faena [performance, the torero’s work] it is all valour; valour and that magic wrist, and it makes you put up with the greatest awkwardness…You are certain to see him looking as awkward as a praying-mantis any time he draws a difficult bull, but remember that his awkwardness is caused by his physical structure, not cowardliness.

photo of Nicanor Villalta y Serrés (1897-1980) from Death in the Afternoon

Because of the way he is built he can only be graceful if he can put his feet together, and where awkwardness on the part of a naturally graceful bullfighter is a sign of panic, in Villalta it only means that he has drawn a bull which he must spread his legs apart to work with. But if you ever see him when he can put his feet together…then you will forgive him the neck God gave him, the muleta the size of a bed-sheet that he uses, and his telephone-pole legs, because his strange mixture of a body contains enough valour and pundonor [moral imperative, sense of honor and responsibility] to make a dozen bullfighters.”

Though I only guessed about it at the time, it is a fact that Hemingway named his first son after Villalta. (“If the baby had been a girl we would have named her Sylvia. Being a boy we could not call him Shakespeare.  John Hadley Nicanor is the name. Nicanor Villalta the bullfighter.” Letter to Syvia Beach, Nov. 6, 1923)

Hemingway put in a long afterward about Sidney Franklin in Death in the Afternoon.  He says things like this:

“Franklin is one of the most skilful, graceful, and slow manipulators of a cape fighting today…He is a better, more scientific, more intelligent, and more finished matador than all but about six of the full matadors in Spain today, and the bullfighters know it and have the utmost respect for him.”

Sidney Franklin (1903-1976) public domain photo by Carl Van Vechten

Hemingway was proud of his friendship with Franklin, who taught him much about bullfighting. Franklin died in a New York nursing home in 1976.


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Charles V Quits and Goes to Yuste

How would you like to rule the world?
Charles V ruled it—the best part of it, which included Western Europe and America.


Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg by Titian

He worked and worried day and night for forty years and then threw in the towel. “Don’t imagine that the pleasure of ruling so many peoples…isn’t mixed with… bitterness and linked with trouble,” he told his son. “If you weigh in a fair balance on the one hand the prerogatives and preeminences of sovereignty, and on the other the work in which it involves you, you will find it a source of grief rather than of joy and delight. But this truth looks so much like a lie that only experience can make it believable.”

Charles was a particularly gifted ruler. He was smart and brave and hard-working. But those qualities weren’t enough to make him successful except now and then and only for a short time. The French King Francis I tried to take his possessions; the Turks assembled great armies to seize the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, the Lutherans split up the Church.

He fought plenty of wars and he won a few; but his failure to recapture the city of Metz in 1552 got him down. He was worn out, tired, achey. “I’ve had it,” he told himself. “Let someone else take the helm.”

So he gave his Austrian possessions to his brother Ferdinand and his Spanish, Italian, Netherlandish, and American possessions to his son Philip. And he walked out of the palace—an unheard-of thing for a monarch to do.

Where did he go? To one of the beautiful cities of his kingdom? To the Blue Coast to watch the waves?

No. He went to a little monastery in an oak forest in Spain. It was a dinky Hieromite monastery called Yuste with no more than twenty cloistered monks. They must not have believed their ears when the prior announced to them that the emperor was coming and not just for a visit.

claustro-monasterio-de-yusteThe cloister of Yuste

Why did Charles go to a monastery?

He wanted to spend his final years preparing his soul for eternity. After all, he believed he would have to give an account to God of his stewardship and he wanted to work, so to say, on its presentation.
He had never had much time to stop and think. When he took over Spain at twenty it was as though he had hopped onto a coach that set off at a gallop and never stopped or slowed down. He rode right through the world, right through life. There was barely enough time to try to understand the conflicts he met before he was asked to solve them, to act. Then, almost before he knew it, they were far behind him and new ones were in front. A thousand times he would have liked to tell the driver to stop and let him go over what he had done or get a better look at the wonderful things he saw passing by the window; but there was no driver.

They built a little annex for him at the monastery. It was  two-storey building but his quarters  were as small as a modern apartment and not half as comfortable. The tapestries covering the walls were fine art but they didn’t keep out all the draft. And besides, the emperor ached all over. He had gout. The court carpenters under orders from his doctors made him a special chair so he could raise his legs while sitting but he got relief only occasionally. There was a passage leading from his living-room to the altar of the chapel. At first he walked over to Mass every day. Later, when it became too painful for him to move, he just watched through the open doors.
After only eighteen months he died. They buried him in the courtyard, the emperor of the world.

And now?

Now his body is in the famous crypt of the Escorial with all the Spanish kings since his day. His son Philip II built that huge palace-monastery in the mountains near Madrid.
The monastery of Yuste, burnt down by Napoleon’s troops, was rebuilt in the last century, and the emperor’s rooms restored. You see it just as it was in his time.


Charles V at Yuste by Delacroix

Some say the truth of Yuste was that the Emperor didn’t lead a simple, monastic life but that he spoiled himself. He painted and listened to music and fished and ate like a pig. But a drive up through the woods of Cuacos and a visit to Charles’ rooms will show you their inadequacy for worldly delights.

Lately Yuste has become a symbol of Europeness and the Spanish government has created a European Academy of Yuste which awards a yearly Charles V European Prize.
Here is the 2007 prize-winner, the Bulgarian Tzvetan Todorov, entering the chapel. This year’s winner is the French politician Simone Veil.


At the monastery, Charles met a son of his for the first time. Read about it in The Emperor Meets His Natural Son.


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The Cicero You Never Knew

Name me a great Roman.

Julius Caesar.

Good.  Name me another one.

Um.  Some gladiator—no, I know: Pontius Pilate.

And Cicero?  Do you know what one scholar says about him?
“The influence of Cicero upon the history of European literature and ideas greatly exceeds that of any other prose writer in any language.” (Michael Grant)

But is that true?  He was just some orator, wasn’t he?

cicero-bustBust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license photo by Glauco92)

He is quoted (or was) in most of the controversies on law, politics, religion, education, literature, and philosophy that there ever were.

What do they quote?

His speeches such as Against Verres (an attack on misgovernment), the Philippics (an attack on tyranny). But even more, his essays like On Duties, On Old Age, and On the Nature of the Gods.
All the great thinkers and writers of Europe studied and imitated those for more than a thousand years. St. Augustine, St. Isidore, Thomas of Aquinas.

Yes, but now…

And then on a spring morning in 1345 Petrarch rediscovered his letters. And started the Renaissance.
“The Renaissance was above all things a revival of Cicero, and only after him and through him of the rest of Classical antiquity.” (Zielinski)

What the devil was so great about his letters?

“We may search history until quite modern times without finding either a personality so intimately known to us as Cicero or a period so vividly real as the years that led up to the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC,” says L.P. Wilkinson in his translation of Cicero’s letters. “Both of these facts are due to the survival of nearly eight hundred of Cicero’s letters, together with more than a hundred written to him by others.”

But why didn’t somebody ever tell us about him?

Until the twentieth century high-school and college students all knew him. They called him Tully. They read  Contra Catalinam and On Old Age in Latin class and On Duties (“Tully’s Duties”) in philosophy.
In our time Cicero was thrown out  with the rest of classical studies.

But that was right, wasn’t it?  That’s all so far back. Those old subjects are of little relevance anymore. Philosophical speculation seems like just a word game.
In any case, I don’t want someone to tell me what my duties are.  I want to be free.

Then you might read Tully to see how best to do that.

How to be free?

Exactly. That was the biggest concern of his life. He lived through a civil war and couldn’t decide what to do—exactly the same dilemma people have had all through our last century in Europe, South America, Asia and Africa, and many still have today.  The one between inefficient freedom and efficient dictatorship.  Cicero finally stood up to the tyrant and got himself killed for it, knowing that might happen.

You might also read his letters.  There’s nothing like them.  They shocked old Petrarch when he found them; they turned him off. They show such flagrant shortcomings and were so different from the saintly Cicero legend.  “THIS was the real Cicero?  But we thought he was perfect?”

See The Cicero You Never Knew 2 and meet one of the most fascinating men who ever lived. He was so vain he was funny; a brilliant wisecracker but he never knew when to shut up; a hero who was a scaredy-cat; Rome’s greatest orator but he sometimes got so nervous he shook when he had to speak.  He was so effective a speaker that he could spellbind great audiences, win hopeless cases, and bring tough men like Julius Caesar to tears.


Cicero Denounces Catiline by Cesare Maccari (1840–1919) public domain photo



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Cervantes Leaves His Pretty Wife and Looks for a Job

A few days after his wedding Cervantes must already have suspected that he had made a mistake.

Monument to Cervantes’ wife in Esquivias, Toledo, Spain

His wife was cheerful and  pretty and passably wealthy but he couldn’t stand her little town. How was he going to spend the rest of his life on a farm? He had wasted his youth first marching around Italy and then playing cards in an old Turkish bath in Algiers while he was a prisoner of the pirates. Would he waste the next best years being a country gentleman, hunting partridges and rabbits and husbanding vineyards?

Cervantes’ wife’s farmhouse in Esquivias, Spain

(See Cervantes’ House Restored)

Every chance he got he left the farm and went to Madrid to see old friends, including maybe his lover La Franca and their daughter.
But it seemed like it was always time to return to the damned farm.

Wasn’t he glad to see his young wife? No one knows. Perhaps he really loved her, perhaps he had only married her for her money. However that was, after nineteen months he pulled out of Esquivias.
“I’m going down to Seville to look for a job,” he told Catalina.

He had a good friend there, a former comic actor named Tomás. Tomás had decided that making monkey-shines on a stage was never going to bring him much money so he left Madrid and went home to Seville, where he ran an inn now. It wasn’t just any inn—it was probably the most luxurious one in Seville. The best people in town stopped in there—nobles, rich empresarios, high government officials. “Come on down south and stay at my place,” Tomás had written to Cervantes. “Good jobs are dealt out here at my tables over drinks. I can introduce you to some very important people. Probably in less than a week you will nail something.” Cervantes had grown up in Seville and loved the booming city. It was the biggest, the busiest city in Spain at the time. “Save me a room,” he wrote Tomás. “I’m coming.”

He stayed at Tomás’s inn for two weeks. What kind of talk did he hear? Spain had just beaten the Portuguese in a decisive naval battle and everyone was euphoric—cocky. “That’s one enemy down,” said the men at the inn. “Now let’s go get those damned English.” They had heard about the execution of the Catholic Queen Mary Stuart and wanted revenge on the Protestants. “And we’re getting sick and tired of those English pirates, who have been getting away with murder for decades. It’s time to hang the whole lot—right, boys?” And they would raise glasses of wine and vow to undo the English. King Philip saw that the whole country was in a mood of revenge and heroism and he decided to take advantage of it. “How many ships do you think we can assemble?” he asked the Duke of Alba. “The time is right to win back England for the Church.” For the Crown too.

One day while the inn was crowded with customers Tomás called Cervantes over. “See those two men by the window? The fat one is Antonio de Guevara. The King has just appointed him Head Comissary for a great Armada. That other fellow is Diego de Valdivia, Guevara’s adjutant. I’m going to introduce you to them. They are looking for commissaries to collect provisions for the fleet. The money is very good.”

The two nobles told Cervantes exactly what he would have to do. “The King needs wheat and oil to make the sailors’ biscuits. Of course the Crown cannot afford the huge sums necessary to pay for all that. But His Majesty is sure every Spaniard will want to cooperate in the undertaking, which the Almighty has surely ordained.”

“I see,” said Cervantes. “Requisitioning. The grain and oil will be collected by force.”

“Correct,” said the big Guevara. “Our commissaries will collect from each landowner an amount that we have fixed. You will simply go to his residence and present the official writ. Then at the granary you will supervise the actual transferral of the grain and oil to the King’s siloes. The Crown will pay you twelve reales a day.”

“And if the landowner or farmer refuses to open his bins?”

“As His Majesty’s commissary you will have full powers to oblige him to do so. Should the man refuse to cooperate, you will have him imprisoned.”

Cervantes was back on the farm when his offical appointment came through. What did he tell Catalina as he prepared to go south? Neither knew he would spend the next fifteen years collecting taxes in all the towns and villages of Andalucía. “Your mother wanted me to administer your family fortune, right?” he must have said. “Well, within two years I will double it—or my name is Charlie.”

He did and he didn’t. At one time he had thousands of maravedis in his hands but they disappeared mysteriously. “There are really only two ways he could have lost that money,” says a biographer. “Either he made bad investments or he gambled it away.”

Cards in the Spanish deck

“Cervantes must have been quite a card-shark,” says another of his biographers, “after all those years in the army and in the Turkish bath. In his stories he shows familiarity with all the games of the time.”
Perhaps at the gaming table they called him Charlie.


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The Emperor Meets His Natural Son

carlosv_i1The Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain)

“Put my leg up.”

The servant stooped down to see that the board holding up the Emperor’s left leg was solid, then cranked it higher. The orthopedic chair was an invention of his doctor’s.
“And throw this damn shawl over my shoulders. It’s chilly this morning.”

That he couldn’t manage such a simple thing himself made the Emperor Charles cross. Gout had begun to ruin him years ago already but he would never get used to being an invalid.
And now an unspeakable sadness hit him when the servant drew back the drapes and he saw the brilliant day outside. I can’t walk in that sun anymore! I will never walk in that sun anymore!

Tranquilo, he told himself. You know what Soto would say: “Resignation, Sire”. Soto was his confessor.
Remember why you came to Yuste. You were going to renounce the world.
Yeah, but who is renouncing who? I don’t FEEL like renouncing the world, damn it!
…It’s not as though you had much choice, old man.

He popped a couple of marzapan horses into his mouth for consolation and swallowed them down after just one bite. His bite was no good because of his protruding Habsburg jaw. Unchewed food caused him endless problems of digestion and also occasional embarrassment during audiences.
“Are they out there?” he asked his servant.

“Senor Quijada and his son arrived early this morning from Cuacos, Sire. They have been waiting in the antechamber for some time now.”

“Send Quijada in alone. Tell the boy we won’t be long. Give him something to play with. Show him that silver ship from Amberes.”

Quijada barged in as soon as the door was open, went right up to the Emperor, and kissed his hand. “Sire.”
“How are you doing, old friend?” Charles asked.

Quijada was his mayordomo and Master of the Horse. He was closer to the Emperor than many of his royal relatives, though Quijada was from peasant stock. They had been together for thirty-odd years, through most of Charles’ wars, in camps as well as palaces, and Quijada had more than once saved the Emperor’s life, shielding him from crossbow bolts and escaping with him from enemy traps. For his service the Emperor had made him a knight and given him an encomienda near Valladolid.


Ruins in García del Campo (Valladolid) of Quijada’s castle

Quijada lived there in a castle with his wife and the boy and had not yet been to Yuste since Charles’ was installed.
“You’re getting too fat, Sire,” he told him now.

Quijada said what he thought and often said it without tact. Charles, who was surrounded by flatterers and pretty-spoken courtesans, liked Quijada for his blunt and truthful ways. He smiled. “I don’t get much exercise anymore. It’s not like our campaigns in Flanders when…”
“Who’s your doctor? Still that idiot Matisio?”
“He’s a great doctor.”
“He’s a coward. Why does he allow you to have all those damned sweetmeats?”
Quijada looked with disgust at Charles’ sweets table. “Gout is cured by closing your mouth, Sire. He knows that or ought to. So do you.”

The Emperor kept smiling. “Try one of these dried figs my daughter sent from Oran. Or one of her raisins.” He enjoyed teasing Quijada.
Suddenly he got serious. “What’s the boy like, Quijada?”

“He’s a good one, Sire,” said Quijada. “Quick to learn. Rides like a little elf and you should see him with a sword.
Not bad at books, either, they tell me, though you know I’m no judge there.”

Quijada was the only one in all of Spain who knew that the boy was the Emperor’s natural son by the daughter of a Salzburg comic.
When she had sent word that she was pregnant, Charles had quickly found her a husband and had them married. But after only three years the woman died and Charles gave the boy to the faithful Quijada to raise.
Not even Quijada’s wife knew. She assumed the lad was her husband’s own bastard. But she loved him and set about raising him as a great nobleman as soon as he turned up at the castle. She taught him French and Latin and court manners. Quijada himself saw to it that the boy learned riding and hunting and was skilled with weapons.

His enthusiastic report made the Emperor impatient. He had never met the boy. “Tell him to come in. I guess we’ve kept him waiting too long. Waiting is hard on a child.”
“Let him learn patience, Sire. That is also part of being a man.”
“You stay away for a few minutes, Quijada. I want to meet him alone.”

Juan de Austria’s presentation to Emperor CarlosV  atYuste by Eduardo Rosales (Wikicommons public domain photo)

(Meet the boy in The Emperor Meets His Natural Son II)


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How Xenophon Saved His Army

“So—is this the end?” Xenophon asked himself. “You asked for it and now you got it.”

He was lying in a tent in the middle of the Persian Empire. He was with a batallion of Greek mercenaries, though he was no soldier, just a rich kid from Athens. Tomorrow the whole bunch of them, soldiers and rich kid, would probably all be killed, and not very humanely.

“How did you get yourself into such a mess?”

Rhetorical question. He knew. It was his buddy Proxenos’ idea. Proxenos was a general and he had asked Xenophon to join the mercenaries. “We’re going to go over to Asia and help Prince Cyrus take the throne from his brother Artaxerxes,” he explained. “It shouldn’t be too hard. Cyrus says he will reward us all very liberally too, so there’s good money to be had.
I hope you weren’t planning to sit around all your life here in Athens, inventing puzzles with your friend Socrates. It’s time to do something you can tell your grandchildren about.”
So Xenophon had signed on. He went along for the ride, for good old adventure.

The first part of the expedition had been fun. The batallion of mercenaries had crossed over from Greece to Turkey, joined Cyrus’s army, and marched into the Persian Empire without opposition. Xenophon kept a diary and wrote down everything he saw. He admired the brave Prince Cyrus. He sat in on the meetings of the Greek generals and learned a lot about an army and leading men.

But then the day of the great battle came. Cyrus’ forces met Artaxerxes’ royal army in a fierce battle and the intrepid Prince Cyrus got killed. That was the end of his revolt. His army fell apart. The little Greek batallion had fought well for him but now they were in a very ugly situation. They were 1500 miles from home, without food and without money.

Artaxerxes told them to lay down their arms but they decided it would be better to die fighting him than to become his slaves, and they refused. For a few days while Artaxerxes made up his mind what to do with them, nothing happened. Finally he agreed to a truce and asked the Greek generals to come and parley. As soon as they got to his camp he murdered them all. One was Xenophon’s friend Proxenos.

The king then sent a messenger to the Greeks. He ordered them one last time to lay down their weapons and serve him. Xenophon stepped forward as a spokesman for the batallion and told the messenger to go to hell. “And remind your boss that by killing our generals he has broken his oath and made himself despicable to the gods.” The messenger galloped away. That was last night before bed.

Now it was the middle of the night and Xenophon had just had a terrible dream where he saw his Athenian house on fire, struck by lightning.

“Is there really no way out of this?” he asked himself. “Artaxerxes will come to get us first thing in the morning—that’s sure. Are we going to keep lying here doing nothing the rest of the night?

The thing was, the soldiers had no leaders anymore. All the generals were dead. No one was preparing the army to fight or do anything at all.
“SOMEBODY has to do something!” Xenophon declared to himself. “And you?”
“Me? I’m not a soldier. And I’m not old enough to take charge.”
“Oh–you’re waiting until you grow old enough. Well, buddy, if the enemy comes tomorrow you won’t get any older.

Everything points to you and to NOW.”

And in this world by Bruegel, where the great happenings of history and myth happen like only one more common event in a corner of the picture while great inscrutable Nature stirs the earth and simple, ignorant people carry on, there were no drums, no hero music while Xenophon stood up from his sleeping bag and hurried over to the tent where his dead friend Proxenos’ officers lay, to rouse them. “Listen,” he told them. “I have a plan. We’re going to save ourselves…”

Read Your Time to Be a Hero 2 and learn how he got that little Greek army home.


The full story is in Xenophon’s famous classic The March Up Country or The Persian Expedition.


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