The Great Men of Samos


by Paul Holler


On a bright blue evening some days ago, I was walking down the road between the agora and my house when I saw a line of men on horseback riding toward me.  I’d been walking a long time, drawing my cart behind me.  It had been a slow day at the agora and my cart was heavy with all of the goods I did not sell.  I set my cart alongside the road and sat down to rest.  As the men on horseback came nearer, I was drawn to the man on the finest horse. He sat easily while his men trotted behind him.  I looked up to him and raised my hand.

            “I know you,” I said, “You were once a slave.  You are Paulus.  You belonged to Alexandros’s house.”

            “I belong only to my King,” he said and slashed the air with his hand.  Then he turned to his men and jerked his head toward the house in the distance and the ground shook with their horses’ hoof beats.

            I pulled my cart back onto the road and set out for home.  While I was walking, I could not stop thinking about Paulus.  I never thought I’d see him on so fine a horse and dressed in a rich man’s robe.  Yet, there he was.

            The taverna lay ahead of me.  The great men of Samos were gathered there, as they were every evening.  I decided to pay them a visit.

The great men of Samos are very much like me; white haired with wisdom and great with the fruits of a good life.  Not content with the fruits, we are also great with the bread, cheese, wine and lamb of a good life.  Such is our greatness that we fill twice the space of the taverna as men half our age. 

I pulled up a chair and called for the serving girl to bring me a retsina.  The great men sat around the table, flipping their kolomboi, playing backgammon and expounding their truths.  I told them about my meeting Paulus on the road outside of town.

            “Alexandros died some years ago,” said the great Cleatus.  “On his deathbed, he gave all of his slaves their freedom.  Alexandros was a good man after all.  And Paulus?  He is landowner himself now.  I understand he is a very great man.  He has slaves of his own now but I understand he treats them well.”

            “Landowner?  Bah!” said the great Themistocles.  “I heard that he works his own land alongside his own slaves. What kind of a landowner works his own land?”

            “Oh, his house will never be as great as Alexandros’s house,” said the great Darius.  “Paulus’ house is very small.  He only has a few slaves.  I don’t think he has the ambition to be a great man.  He will be forgotten.”

            “You are wrong about that, Darius,” I said.

            “Bah! Nonsense!  What has he ever done that any Samian would remember?”

            “You would have to ask Aesopus that question.”

            “Aesopus?  You mean the slave Aesopus?  The cripple who talked like a barbarian?  Besides, wasn’t he killed some years ago?”

            “Yes, he was.  But in life he could make words,” I said.  “He made words that people remember to this day.  I certainly do.” 

             How true that is, even if I said it myself.  Yes, Aesopus worked very hard to make his words understood.  He had to overcome his own gnarled tongue and the derision of his betters.  But a vine that fights for water produces the finest grapes.   Likewise, when Aesopus fought to bring out his words, no one who heard them ever forgot them.   

I wonder what Aesopus would say if he could see Paulus now.  It’s hard to know.  But Aesopus was there to witness the moment of Paulus’ greatness.  Or maybe it was Aesopus who gave him that moment.  I happen to know that he never forgot what he saw that day.  I was there, too, and I remember it well. 

I had arrived at the agora at my usual time that day, set out the same goods to sell as I had the day before and set the same foolishly high price for them.  I made the same bargains as I did every day.  The slaves filed past me as they always did. I paid no more attention to them than I would have to a stream of ants wearing a path in the ground.  

Nothing had changed at the agora except that, on that day, I noticed Aesopus.   I’m not sure why I noticed him.  I saw him at the agora almost every day.  It could have been the mere fact that there was no reason to notice him that made it impossible to turn him a blind eye.  I don’t know.  But that day, I saw that he was not in line with other slaves.  He sat to the side of the path, watching the slaves file into the market while Alexandros, the man who gave them all a living in exchange for their lives, sat astride a fine horse being led by one of their own. 

            I had often wondered what Aesopus did to earn his keep.  He belonged to Xanthus, who was known to be a learned man.  Aesopus often roamed the agora by himself, the only slave I knew of who was so privileged.  I don't recall ever seeing Aesopus working with the others.  Sometimes he fetched and carried for Xanthus but more often he sat alongside the other slaves, watching them with onyx eyes and listening with the intensity of Homer.  I suppose there was not much more he could have done.  He was neither a large nor a strong man and his shoulder was bent to a strange angle.  When he spoke, he had trouble making words. Sometimes he seemed pitiable and he brought out the generosity in people.  At other times, he seemed the xenos and brought out their fear.  Either way, it couldn't have been an easy life.

            I stood and watched Aesopus who watched the other slaves with a furrowed brow.  The slave who had been leading Alexandros’s horse stopped, tied the horse to a tree and helped his master dismount.  Alexandros stood up straight, shoved the slave out of his way, shook the stiffness out of his bottom and dusted off his cloak.  He rested his hands on his hips, looked around him and began stroking his beard with his fingers.

            “Where’s Paulus?” said Alexandros.  “He’s supposed to be here to round up the others.”

            The slave looked down at the ground and folded his hands in front of him.  “I don’t know where he is, Sir.”

            “Well go find him!” Alexandros barked.  “He’s supposed to be here.”

            The slave trotted away and disappeared into the crowd.  Alexandros shaded his eyes with his hand and looked across the agora.  He raised his head when he saw Paulus.

            “Paulus!” he shouted, walking toward the slave.  “I want you here now!”

            Paulus walked toward his master calmly, even serenely.  Without a word, he stood before Alexandros with an expectant look.

            “Where’ve you been?” said Alexandros impatiently. “I needed you and I couldn’t find you again!”

            “Here I am.” said Paulus quietly.

            “One of these days,” said Alexandros wagging his finger, “one of these days, Paulus, you’ll go too far!  Who are you to think you can wander off by yourself?  You think you have a mind of your own, but let me tell you, I own you and your mind!”

            It was then I noticed that Alexandros was acquiring an audience.  It wasn’t a very large audience, to be sure, but it was an attentive one.  Aesopus had circled around the two men and taken a position at their side, behind a few other men who were setting up their stalls.  Another man, Lykourgos, a wealthy merchant who had come to trade in fine gold work, stood nearby.

            “You’ve got a problem on your hands,” said Lykourgos, laughing.  “If you have to tell your slave you own him, do you really own him?”

            “Oh, I let you talk too much, Lykourgos.”

            “Do you?”

            “Yes, I do.  My slaves do my bidding.  Nothing more, nothing less.”

            “So, by wandering off into the crowd, as if he had nothing to do and no one to serve, he is doing your bidding?”

            Alexandros turned to Paulus.  “Do you see what you’ve done?” he said, exasperated.  “You are making a fool of me!  After all I’ve done for you, I’ve given you a home, I’ve provided you with honest work and this is how you repay me!”

            Paulus’ expression did not change.

“Have I not repaid you with my work?” he said.

            “You owe me much more than your work, young Paulus!” Alexandros shouted.  “You belong to my house!  When I come home, I expect the dogs to celebrate my return, the horses and donkeys to rear up in their stalls in joy at seeing their master!  But you?  What do you show me but disrespect?  Just remember, you are a slave.  And you are one of many.”

            Paulus considered that for a moment. 

            “I am.” he said. “As are you.”

            “As I am what?” Alexandros asked impatiently.

            “You are a powerful man.  And you are one of many.”

            “And you are replaceable!” said Alexandros, stabbing the air with his finger.

            “Oh, you’re in trouble now.” said Lykourgos.

            “Stay out of matters that don’t concern you!” barked Alexandros.

            “Oh, come now,” said Lykourgos, draping his arms around Alexandros’s shoulder,  “don’t be so defensive.  You know, you have a good man here.  Whether he respects you or not, he has a mind.  He has spirit, in his own, odd way.  Yes, he’s a good man.  Maybe not a good slave, but a good man.”

            “Spirit I don’t need.” said Alexandros. “I don’t even need a man with a mind.  I need a man with a strong back and a respect for his betters.  That’s what I need.”

            “Is that what you are, Paulus?” said Lykourgos.  “Are you a man with a mind and a destiny that you have chosen?”

            “I have a destiny.  I have a mind,” said Paulus.  “Just as you do.  Even the gods and the hares that they hunt have minds and destinies.” 

            “You know, if you were my slave, you would not be looking me with those empty eyes that you save for Alexandros here.  With him you can just stand there, let the world do what it will and come up with pretty words to explain it away.  But my slaves either look at me with terror in their eyes or murder in their hearts.  Either way is to my liking.  If you were my slave, you would learn that.”

            Alexandros stood beside Lykourgos, studying his eyes.  Aesopus also stood by, closer now, watching.

            “Hmmm…” said Alexandros.  “You seem to have a proposition in mind.”

            “Oh, perhaps.  Perhaps.  But then again, perhaps not.”

            “Oh, come now.  I’ve known you a long time, Lykourgos.  I know when you want to strike a bargain and you want to strike a bargain.”

            “I do not need any more slaves.  I have enough to suit my needs.  Any more would be a burden to me.”

            “Really?” said Alexandros.

            “Well, I don’t know what I would do with this one,” said Lykourgos.

            “Is that so?”

            “Why do you think you know what is in my mind?  If you want to sell your slave, go find yourself someone who wants to buy one.”

            “I never said anything about selling my slave.” said Alexandros.  “But that was in your mind, wasn’t it?”

            “Sometimes I really let you talk too much!”

            “So why don’t you do some of the talking?”

            Lykourgos looked deeply into Paulus’ eyes. 

            “I just might,” he said.  “I just might.”

            Lykourgos smiled and then began to laugh.  Something in the way he laughed made Aesopus shrink back.

            “Well, slave with a mind of his own, how would you like to become a part of my retinue?”

            Paulus said nothing.

            “Oh, come now.  We all know you have strong opinions for a slave.  If you could choose the man who owned you, who would it be?  Alexandros?  Lykourgos?  Perhaps the great Zeus himself?”

            “It wouldn’t matter.  My lot would be the same no matter who owned my hands and feet.”

            Alexandros looked at Paulus and shook his head. 

            “Would it, Paulus?” asked Alexandros.  “If I sold you to Lykourgos today, I would have a pocketful of Drachmae and you would be a sorry slave.  Lykourgos would work you like an animal and beat you whenever he pleased.”

            “You work me like an animal.” said Alexandros.  “You beat me, too.”

            “He has you there, Alexandros,” said Lykourgos quickly.  “Am I really so inhuman compared to you?”

            Alexandros did not answer, but turned to Paulus.  “You would appreciate the home you have with me if you spent one night under the roof of this man.  He treats his slaves far worse than I treat you.”

            “Have you ever been his slave?” Paulus asked.

            “I’ve never been the slave of any man!”

            “Can you be sure that his slaves have so different a lot than yours?”

            “I can be sure,” said Alexandros, with a growl in his voice.  “Surer than you’ll ever know.  Maybe I should sell you to him and then you’ll find out once and for all that I am a better master than he is!”

            “That is an excellent idea,” said Lykourgos.  “I’ll take this troublemaker off your hands.  I’ll turn him into useful being.”

            “Well, what do you think of that?” said Alexandros to Paulus.  “I just may sell you to this man.  What do you think of that?”

            “I think nothing about it at all.” said Paulus.  “Whether I belong to you or this man, I am still a slave.”

            “Then why shouldn’t I sell you to this man!”

            Paulus said nothing.

            “Let’s not waste any more time,” said Lykourgos.  “I’ll give you 75 drachmae for him.”

            “75 drachmae! What do you take me for, a mere child in the woods?  I would take nothing less than 125 drachmae.”

            “Oh, come now.  You know very well that no slave is worth 125 drachmae.”

            “I know that very well?  I know very well that a slave of his youth and strength is worth twice that.”

            “Then why aren’t you asking for twice that?”
            “What do you offer for him?”

            “75 drachmae.  My offer stands.  And remember, I’m taking him because he is a burden to you.”

            “I wouldn’t take a mere 75 drachmae for a dog much less a slave of this quality.  He was a soldier once.  He knows things and has seen things you can’t imagine.  100 drachmae.”

            Lykourgos pursed his lips and thought.

            “Very well.” he said.  “100 Drachmae it is.”

            “Paulus, go.” said Alexandros, motioning the slave toward Lykourgos.

            Without a word or even a stern look, Lykourgos took hold of the slave’s arm and pulled him to the side.  It was all Paulus could do to keep his balance.  Aesopus drew closer, but still stayed lost in the crowd.   With one hand, Lykourgos kept an iron grip on Paulus’ arm.  With the other, he reached into a sack slung over the shoulder of one of his other slaves and drew out a long leather cord.  Clasping Paulus’ wrists, he tied them together with the cord, the last round so tight it made the slave wince. Alexandros dropped his jaw.  Aesopus stepped back as though his hands were being tied.  Then Lykourgos knelt down and, with another leather cord, tied Paulus ankles together.  Something in Lykourgos had changed.  He seemed a different man: a new, terrible and deadly serious man.

            “On your knees, slave.” said Lykourgos.

            Paulus complied without a word, a look or a gesture other than the bending of his knees.  Alexandros began to speak, but changed his mind and remained silent.

            “You are wrong, my slave.” said Lykourgos.  “It does matter whose burden you carry.  I expect absolute obedience from my servants.  Remember that your very life is in my hands.  And if you use that same sharp tongue with me that you do with Alexandros, I’ll kill you.  You are my property.  You’re life is mine.”

            Paulus stared at the ground.

            “Look at me.” said Lykourgos.  Paulus turned his head slowly.
            “I said look at me!” cried Lykourgos, kicking Paulus hard in the ribs.

            Air burst from Paulus’ lungs and he fell over on his side. 

            “Get up!” he shouted.  Paulus tried, but with his hands and feet bound, he could only struggle on the ground.

            “I said get up!” cried Lykourgos again, this time grabbing Paulus by the hair and sitting him upright.   “When I tell you to kneel, you will kneel!  When I tell you to get up, you will get up!”

            Then, Lykourgos reached for a wooden axe handle that he kept close by and drew it back.  Paulus closed his eyes and clenched his teeth.

            “Enough!” cried Alexandros, snatching the axe handle from Lykourgos’ hand.  “He was trying to do what you said!  You’re going to give him a beating because you’re not letting him do what you say!  What kind of a man does that?”

            “This isn’t any of your affair any longer, Alexandros.  He’s a slave.  And furthermore, he’s my slave.”

            “No he isn’t.” cried Alexandros.  “He’s my slave, not yours.  You haven’t paid me for him.”

            “Very well.” said Lykourgos, turning to his man.  “Pay the man.”

            “Never mind.” said Alexandros.  “He’s not for sale.”

            Alexandros drew out a knife, got down on his knees and cut the binds on Paulus’s hands and feet.

            “You’re making a big mistake, Alexandros.”  said Lykourgos.  “You’ll never be able to control your slaves now.”

            “I can control my slaves.  And I’ll not be controlled by anyone.  Not them.  Not you.”

            Lykourgos laughed cruelly, then turned and walked away.

            That evening, I was walking home along the main road when I saw a small crowd gathered around a fire.  I stopped to rest and to see what had them all so interested.  Aesopus stood before them, silent and infinitely patient.  The talk of the crowd had become a part of the woods around us.  After a while, I could not tell the sound of their talk from the chirping of the crickets, the click of the bats and the rush of wind through the trees.

            I was beginning to think that Aesopus was being lulled by all of this.  I certainly was.  I wanted only to find a soft spot in the ground and go to sleep.  But then Aesopus drew himself up before the crowd and, suddenly, strangely, he was no longer seemed so odd.  His back seemed straighter somehow and his bearing larger.   His eyes, so often averted, now burned bright and met the crowd’s eyes.  The talking stopped.  The crickets’ chirping faded.  The wind relented.  Aesopus stood over the crowd, waiting for his time.

            After the fire had gone down to glowing embers, he began to speak.

            “You talk about slavery and what it is for a man to own the life of another man?” he said, taking a deep breath and letting it out very slowly.  “I say that I can do that better than anyone, even the great Solon.  Who better to tell you what it is to be owned by another man than someone who is owned by another man?

“Does it really matter who owns you?  If it is your lot to be owned by someone, be it a landowner, a king or a general, are you not the same as any man whose life belongs to another man?  Or, does it really matter who owns you?”

            Aesopus paused again and the crowd leaned forward expectantly.

            “There was once an old man and an ass walking down a road, very much like this one.” Aesopus began.  “They stopped to rest and the old man sat alongside the road, watching the ass graze in a field nearby.  Suddenly, the old man jumped at the sound of a band of men coming over a hill.  He knew who they were and he was afraid.

            “’Come along!’ he said to the ass, ‘we have to get out of here now!  If they catch us, they’ll capture us and take us prisoner!’

            “The ass just kept on grazing.

            “’Didn’t you hear me?’ said the old man.  ‘We’ve got to get out of here now!’

            “’Why?’ said the ass.  ‘If they capture me, will they make me carry heavier burdens than you do?’

            “’No.’ said the old man.

            “’So I would be no worse off than I am now.  You go on if you want to.  I’ll stay here and graze.’”

            Some in the crowd laughed and talked among themselves.  Others just sat by the dying fire, their faces far away in thought.  I didn’t laugh.  I watched Aesopus walk away.  He turned from the crowd and stopped for a moment to lift a bundle of wood to his shoulder.  The weight of the bundle pushed him to the ground and made him small again.  I watched him become a slave again, fading into the darkness of the road that led back to his master’s house.

            “He was a great man, this Aesopus,” I said later to the other great men at the taverna.

            “What about this Aesopus?” asked the Great Cleatus.  “I thought we were talking about Paulus, the slave who became a great man.”

            “Baa,” said the Great Themistocles, “Slaves do not become great men.”

            “No, slaves do not become great men,” said the Great Darius, “but they can become great if they first become men.”

            “And what about a slave who never ceases to be a man?” I said.

            The Great Darius thought for a moment.

            “Then that man,” he said, “can never be a slave.”

            I smiled and saluted my old friend.  I finished my retsina as the sun descended.  I thought about all of the great men I had known in my life.  Then I took up my cart and went home.