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2

Persian Wars

1 – Marathon (6 August; 2,490 BP*)
The chest heaves
from exertion, epic
the mind reels – at vision of fallen
men, once known (so many, or … so few?)
to never be omitted from collective memory
… from the thoughts of Miltiades
architect of Athens’ campaign
(collapse the middle, envelope
via dual flanks), destined
to reside in the passing thought(s)
of even fewer descendents …
whose freiheit and very frame
of thought
and philosophy resided in the simple
outcome of (so few) archaic battles –
Hellene pitted against pawns of Darius; … now
the once-revered Greek general
is but a partial broken statue and somewhere
hidden in the hills … ashes in a tomb.
Few realities are so sweet
as blood, freshly spilled
… there is nothing
in the character of the gently
descending plains of Marathon to suggest
the course of transitory history
would, in part, be decided
on such a small strand
astride thalassa …
nor anything specific (other than the triad
of sun-water-sand) to foretell
the bodies
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of one-hundred and ninety-two
defenders would litter the slowly
uplifting
coastal landscape, scarcely
two metres above the level sea.
Mingled waters
from sacred cisterns – of Kassotis
and Castalia, poured forth
from the umbilicus of Gaia, dressed
wounds of warriors
who died nonetheless, there was no power
to heal, veer the boat to the left
on the River Styx, remove
the coins from empty sockets
… what there was coiled closely
around t h a n a t o s and weighed
upon the souls of surviving infantry.
Can a name
only, without the man, persist
throughout cascading centuries?
Inscriptions on monuments
fade
with / each / frost / or / rain.
Armies of Sparta did not arrive
until the funeral pyres had faded
and yet scores of brothers
both in blood and arms
were dead and gone. After
an emblematic scrutiny
of the fields where ‘immortals’ laid still,
They returned to Laconia –
unscathed. Their day
of reckoning
would come …
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2 – Thermopylae (17 August; 2,480 BP)

A discourse – in the shadow of Lygdamis’ Portara, Naxos

Leonidas: “Perhaps the earliest tale of valor my father told me was of the
Gigantomachy. I dreamt of turning
into a lion, like Dionysis
to devour my opponent. Perhaps your father
told you as a boy of the death
of your namesake
at the hands of Herakles and Apollo?”
Ephialtes: (a nod: nei) “Thus the gods became
sole masters of all creatures.”
Silence.
Leonidas: “I was your king, … root of the prosperous
olive tree. And yet you repaid
fealty with treachery.”
Ephialtes: “… Spartan military life was such
to deny honour. Should all accolades
have gone to your house? There is an ancient
proverb that none can judge
the life of any man for good or bad until
that man is dead; but I, for my part, though
still living, know well that mine is miserable
and hard.”
Leonidas: “What was denied you? The foot soldier’s desire
is always and only to appease the ruling king and subdue all
enemies. This has been known for centuries.
Even Themistocles would agree!
Did you not kill other men? Did you not thwart the invaders
alongside others trained in the same manner?”
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Ephialtes: “Like every man, I was born, my mother raised
me until the age of seven, I was taken from her
and thrust into a life-long
obligation of marching, beatings, taking orders, and partaking
in campaigns I scarcely believed in or had any control
over. I showed them the way … so as to change
that very predicament. My life, … my decision.”

T he death of
H onour comes like
A Nemean lion during the night watch, or
N othing more than
A hoplite
T raitor … having turned from Delphic
O racle and mother
S parta.
Leonidas: “Obligation? I and my best warriors
went to an early grave for your insubordinate fantasizing!
Generations of my forefathers, kings
of Sparta, died in their old age
after long lives of service, filled with the privileges
of our society. Would you
deny your king this?”
Ephialtes: “Privilege?! You utter this
word as if were a birth-right. And what of other
men, accorded less blue
blood and doomed to different
fates? I count myself among
them! But – unlike them – I was not content
with my fate. Allotted fate. Rage–Goddess, sing
the rage of Peleus’ son Ephialtes …”
Leonidas: “Bah, spoken as one who has read
and believes the heresies of Lysistrata!”
No man's connected with it; if that were the case, they'd soon come fluttering
along. No, no.”
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Ephialtes: “Lewd to the least drop in the tiniest vein, our sex is fitly food for
Tragic Poets, our whole life's but a pile of kisses.
But, hardy Spartan, if you join with me
all may be righted yet. A few years ago
a void formed when the Siddhartha ascended –
like Icarus flying to the east
… yet never arriving.”

(A long silence. The two stare at the Aegean expanse; begrudging awe
conquers them.)

T hat social
H eiarchy of Iron
A ge Hellas
N avigated by light of
A thena’s sword obliges
T he korax to bring an
O live branch at Apollo’s beckon;
S lowly that world will fall.

Leonidas: “You know nothing of being doomed. To have
the Medes hoard encircled
about our final desperate stand, fighting to the last
man, even with our bare teeth …
bodies piled as high as …”
Ephialtes: “Speak no more of it. I witnessed it all
unfold. The moment you abandoned the narrow
pass … your doom was sealed. As was mine so many
years ago when Sparta chose a life of administering
death on men who needn’t
necessarily be enemies unto me.”
Leonidas: “Did you rejoice in our agony
on Kolonos Hill?”
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T houghts adrift – an empire
H angs ominously on
A ccumulated flashes of
N ecrophobic reasoning – racing across myriad minds
A s the last breath of
T hin air escapes, and soul joins
O rions Belt at the centre;
S oldier, your tapho is but transitory …

Ephialtes: “No, my king. Tears were my
libation, though the victors offered me wine.
I couldn’t leave the plain – the personal cost of treason, again
wishes and orders given
by others. If only I could have fallen
with you …”

Leonidas: “Then your cup will be filled
many times over before you taste of death.
As my own life could have been, may
your mortality be long, Ephialtes.
Elati of Poseidon’s sea will forever
be on your lips, but not from the crashing
waves we perished but a stone throw from.
The root is cut
from the tree, but olives
shall still come forth – nourishing
the armies of Sparta. Oil for the lamp
and soul, …nectar of Olea for three-hundred martyrs. Tell
Simonides when he passes by
that ‘Leonidas lies here,’ obedient
to the laws of Sparta. One hundred score years
plus twenty more shall pass
before my name is inscribed
at Thermopylae, but in the comparative
light of eternity, … it will suffice.”
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3 – Salamis (22 September; 2,480 BP)
Saronic Gulf isle: as to
gulf of solar system
gulf of Milky Way constellations
and the space between asteria
therein, gulf of Orion
Supercluster – random god-cast
of galaxies too
numerous for comprehension, as
a cluster of Xerxes’ battle-rammed
warships lying
in splinters on seabed
of the narrows. The length
and breadth and girth of Greek trireme mirror
the black monolith
from Kubrick’s Odyssey: ‘golden
triad’ linking solid matter
(wood, iron, blood, et cetera) to rectangular
harmonic, the mathematical perfection
of oars gliding in semicircular arcs
en echelon
over tepid waves
churning saltwater into chaotic whirlpools
ceasing to exist before the next oar-stroke
touches water.
Do numbers alone
define why we still feel awe
across the monochromatic blur of centuries?
76,000 maritime troops reared
by women of the Argolid, Achaea, and Attica versus
541,000 equals raised by mothers
of Chaldaia and Babylonia … does meaning
in such comfortable
statistics get lost
via numb repetition through ages
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of mankind and Aquarius? Salamis was
such a dawning of a “new chapter” in the violent
saga of mortal men …
Normandy
Antietam
Jerusalem
Carmel Cave
… weathered earth visited
by epic machy, waged
and carried-out by biped hominids, thinking
themselves to be favoured by their imagined
pantheon of gods.
Go stand
at the very place upon Mt. Aigaleo
where Persian labour positioned
the throne of Xerxes, stare
out to the northwest at the inter-fingered
quilt of land, sea, and sky …
on a blue moon the straits
will speak – almost inaudibly – but unequivocally
of a day not long before, measured
by duration of our brief tenure on this
Holocene stage, when two opposed
bands of brothers slew
each other on the water
just below. One declined
from intended conquest
of all known lands, the other
flowered (with exception of the Peloponnesian Wars)
into a philanthropic age. The varied fate
of ancient brothers-in-arms.
Cain slew Abel in the fields … a less fluid
grave than the environs of Pireas; thus
the War must conclude on Terra Firma, less
than a day’s walk from the omphalos of Gaia.
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4 – Plataea (27 August; 2,479 BP)
Along the Silk Road
scythian traders are said
to have woven the myth
of the Griffin, melding
eagle, python, and lion – their vision
molded like mental clay from protrusions
of Protoceratops skulls and
bones, weathering
from softer western
Gobi sands.
By the same measure
of limited human ethos, Euripides
set one cyclopean eye
(gouged by Odysseus et al.)
in the proboscidian kephali
of Poseidon’s son; fiction feared
by Before Christ travelers of Adriatica
and its plethoric islets en route
to Ithaca, until Alexander – seeking
some measure of empiric
reprisal
for Persian deeds of old – had shadow
of Elephas indicus cast over
Bucephalus and his insatiable rider. Now
the bones of extinct mammoths tell
a less mythological tale
then when Artistotle’s admonishments
fell on deaf ears.
Bones are
nonetheless bones. Femur, scapula
radius & ulna … it matters not. Those remembered
by history (myopic and perfumed
faintly of sea salt) curve like bent iron
and metamorphose as attribute of ethnic
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import rises like an asymptote.
Then, as stars and tides and legends
surely must all bow to entropy,
… bones become dust.
Forming new manifestations of matter.
Wherefore art the bones
of those slewn on the Plataean Plain?
Of Mardonios, or Pausanias?
Mere dust? Crushed under boulders of Phaedriades
hurled down by Philacus and Autonous?
Or in stars
which are neither Persian nor Greek?
Adrenaline and sheer plod carried them in a final
battle charge into a phalynx of spears
as they faded from Sirius to faintly
luminous Proxima Centauri … as Darius’ brainchild
empire joined the bones of 100,000 in certain dust
and improbable defeat. Lured
into Boeotian interior by divination
song of seers
Pythia, Sibyl, Cassandra
(it matters not), blinded
by the megamaniacal dream
… few would return to the seaport
of Chirrha. Fewer yet to the familiar
environs of fair Lydia across the Aegean.
For two drachmai, Charon
would steer these dead over
the Styx, … where their greaves could
be forever removed. Loses
at Mykale and the Hellespont -- opposite
the plains of Troy, laden with ashes
of even more hoplites of the Geometric
(no less stoic Achilles) – register diminutive in the beyond
… time abounds in unfathomable measure
for reflection.
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Shock and awe – spread by mariners
and trading vessel – uttered
by mortals, yet regarded
as tidings from the resident of Olympus –
settled into circum-Mediterranean conscience.
Zeus, Athena, Asklepios
held out, though buffeted briefly
by Ahura Mazda… fifth century (sensu Caesar)
demigod ‘over there.’
Generals
from either hoard now share a sip
of ambrosia in the necropolis, having
cast their lots in the three-dimensional lands.

Christopher Collom
8–12 to 8-29-2004
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LEGEND
• *Time intervals for each ‘battle-canto’ (e.g. 6 August; 2,490 BP*) are listed in
years Before Present, or ‘B.P.’ Thus, the battle of Marathon occurred in 490 B.C.
(or ‘Before Christ’), but two-thousand four-hundred and ninety years BP –
including the two millennia after the death of Jesus Christ (A.D.). “Present” is
defined as the year 2000 A.D. (a.k.a. ‘Y2K’) because it is culturally symbolic, and
easily added to or subtracted from. At the time this poem was written, therefore, the
last of the great battles (Plataea) occurred 2,483 years ago: 2,479+4=2,483 (with 4
being the # of years since Y2K).

• Speakers in Canto 2: Leonidas (martyred general and king of the Spartans) and
Ephialtes (Greek traitor that showed the Persian army a way around the pass at
Thermopylae, resulting in the deaths of >1,000 Greeks, including Leonidas).

• Collages at end of each canto are the writer’s own graphic expressions of themes
and images pertaining to each battle. Copyright permission for some images was
not obtained; remaining illustrations scanned from published sources.

©2004 Blue Eyes Press