The Pythagoreans: Chapter 6

Chapter 6

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Epigeus enjoyed his solitary walks evening along the beaches of Croton. His status as a fully initiated member of Pythagoras’ famous commune of scholars ensured that he would have to endure stares and attempts at conversation if he frequented the market or other public places. Sometimes it was just better to be alone. He could think deep thoughts, meditate on the latest heady discussions that caught the imagination of his fellow Pythagoreans, and most importantly, practice his kithara in peace. Today did not seem like a day that he would succeed in his quest for solitude. Not only were there dozens of townsfolk gawking at the admittedly spectacular wreck of the City Watch’s massive new warship, but the watchmen themselves were still patrolling the beach, as they had for most of the day.
The wreck was actually not far from Pythagoras’ school, where Epigeus resided. Epigeus had passed by it on the way to the rocky outcropping where he preferred to practice. Though the tide had receded, the ship was still partially submerged on its side where the waves of the storm had pushed it into the sandy beach. Only luck had prevented the huge ship from washing up on a less hospitable part of the coast and breaking apart on the rocks. It would be hard work, but Epigeus was sure that the ship would eventually be repaired, if only to salve the fragile ego of the Council who would not allow such a potent symbol of the city’s wealth and power to languish on a beach for all the world to see. Regardless, Epigeus predicted that his beach would be much more crowded in the days to come.
At long last, he reached the outcropping. Time and water had carved the surrounding rocks into a very shallow cave that was not readily apparent to a casual observer. The acoustics of the chamber lent a haunting air to his kithara when he sat in the right place. His instrument, handcrafted in his native city of Miletus, was in a leather case on his back along with a smaller bag of light provisions. Its weight was familiar and reassuring. He climbed the rocks, only pausing once to balance himself with his right hand before reaching the small patch of sparse grass at the top. To his right, he could see the shallow chamber. Looking at the sun, he could tell that he had enough time to practice his scales and play three or four songs before he would have to begin making his way back to the compound.
The kithara slid against the supple leather of its case as Epigeus pulled it from its protective confines. It truly was a beautiful instrument. Epigeus’ mother had bought it for him on his thirteenth birthday. It was not a cheap toy like so many parents bought for their children after a particularly gifted bard or storyteller made his way through a Polis. Two elegant curving pieces of wood supported a metal crossbar which had seven strings running back down to the instrument’s base. When he plucked the strings, their vibration echoed within a small box that took up the bottom third of the oval formed by the two curved wood ‘horns’. The box itself was beautifully carved, with several leaf-shaped holes that allowed the sound to escape. The curved support pieces were inlaid with elegant designs that were indicative of Miletus’ status as a trading city and crossroads of the world’s cultures. Every time he looked at his beautiful instrument, Epigeus felt a slight pang of homesickness. Such was the price to pay if one wished to pursue knowledge and gain enlightenment.
Epigeus always found it best to play a few simple tunes from his childhood before he began working on the more difficult techniques that he had spent the better part of the last decade mastering. He tuned the instrument by ear, using special mechanisms built into the bottom of the instrument to tighten or loosen the strings until they met the stringent standards set by his well-trained ear. Unlike most kithara, Epigeus had installed an additional set of three strings beneath the ones that his fingers plucked. These strings ran through two holes drilled into the top and bottom of the sound box and were secured to a second, smaller crossbar, and the other side of the instrument’s base, respectively. While some would say the presence of the additional strings marred the elegant craftsmanship of the instrument, they would vibrate alongside the other strings when the right notes were played. This lent Epigeus’ music a depth that other players could not help but envy.
His instrument freshly tuned, Epigeus launched into a rollicking dancing tune that was both simple and popular throughout the Greek world. He played with his right hand at the base of the instrument, plucking one or more strings at a time, while his left hand hovered near the crossbar, plucking, muting, or creating harmonics with his finger nails as required. Instead of merely playing the notes required to play the melody. Epigeus added embellishments and complimentary notes to give even the simple tune the polished sound of a piece composed by a virtuoso. On evenings like this, the hours of study at the feet of the senior mathematikoi and the Sage himself seemed well worth the effort and privation. Although he had given up a life of privilege for a small cell in a walled compound by the sea, the knowledge that he had gained in the past six years had completely changed the way that he lived his life. He now saw numbers everywhere; from the movement of the stars, to the words of his fellow scholars, to the very notes that were cascading from his Kithara like water from a spout, amplified by the chamber behind him. The entire world was nothing but numbers and patterns, its secrets plain to anyone with knowledge of mathematics and an eye for detail.
His reverie was interrupted when he heard the rasp of a bare foot against stone behind him. He spun around and froze. He could see the form of a man pressed against the back wall of the shallow cave. He must have been attempting to remain still for some time. Now, knowing full well that he had been spotted, he moved towards Epigeus. The stranger was of medium height with dark curly hair and green eyes, marking him as one of the peoples that populated the eastern Mediterranean. He wore little but a breechclout, and his face held a gaunt, tired look. As he continued to stagger unsteadily toward Epigeus, the junior sage could see that he was badly hurt. One of his arms hung limply at his side, and most of his body was mottled with bruises and abrasions. His lips were cracked and dry, and Epigeus did not doubt that the man had not had anything to eat or drink in some time. Fighting the instinct to raise his instrument in defense, Epigeus instead rose to his feet and regarded the stranger. The man swayed unsteadily on his feet, but one look into his narrowed eyes told Epigeus that he was prepared to defend himself, regardless of his condition. Epigeus decided that he would try to lower the tension of the situation. After all, he would eventually have to climb down from the outcropping, which would be difficult to do if a crazed stranger decided to push him as he began his descent.
Epigeus drew on his training as a sage of Pythagoras to try to gain more insight on the situation. From the look of him, the man was obviously a foreigner. That much, Epigeus already knew. That begged the question, what exactly was he doing here so far from home? The list of plausible possibilities was not long. If he was a sage from foreign climes seeking knowledge from his master, he would have surely identified himself by now, and even then such foreigners were a small minority compared to those that crewed the trading vessels that disgorged the wealth of the world into Croton’s harbor. The thought that he was an escaping slave briefly crossed his mind, but he looked nothing like the Samnites that comprised most of the city’s foreign slave population. So he is probably a trader of some type. As he continued his line of reasoning, he could almost imagine a senior sage or even Pythagoras himself laying out a series of questions in an eminently logical manner, though he was sure that the Sage of Sages would do so much more elegantly than he would ever be able to manage.
Very well, now what exactly is he doing up here? The storm this morning probably had something to do with it. Signs of serious dehydration had not yet manifested themselves on the man’s features, so he had probably only been up here for a day or so, and the most logical reason for that was that the man was washed ashore during the storm, which would also explain his bruises, since, unlike the Artemisium, he was washed up on a relatively rocky part of the coast. One question still eluded him; if he was strong enough to climb this outcropping, then why has he not simply gone for help? Croton was a relatively friendly city when it came to the hosting of foreigners, due both to its extensive trading network and the presence of so many Eastern scholars seeking out Pythagoras for answers to life’s questions. Then, all at once, it made sense. The Watchmen patrolling the beach were not looking for more of their comrades; they were looking for a fugitive. It was common knowledge that the Watch was far more interested in catching smugglers and enforcing taxation than hunting murderers and thieves. This man clearly knew that he was being hunted, making him either a smuggler, the party responsible for the near destruction of the city’s new flagship, or both. Intriguing.
The Pythagoreans were always looking for interesting individuals to speak with. Furthermore, if he was any good at his profession, the Community was always in need of a few men able to circulate secret mathematical proofs and philosophical papers amongst the various cities in southern Italia where studets of Pythagoras could be found. If he cooperated, the Easterner could yet prove very useful. He extended his hands in greeting and said, “Welcome to Croton, smuggler. If you need a place to stay or food and drink, please come with me.” To his surprise, the man responded in Greek.
“I thank you for your offer of hospitality, but I believe that you are mistaken in my identity. I am a simple traveler who lost his equipment in the morning storm.”
Epigeus snorted in response and proceeded to succinctly lay out his observations and contradictory argument while the man before him looked acutely uncomfortable. “We both know that you are a hunted man. You can come with me, or stay and be captured or die of thirst, whichever comes first. You picked a good hiding place, but even the City Watch will catch on eventually.” He rummaged through his second bag, much smaller and less well-appointed than his instrument case. He produced a flat loaf of bread and a small cask of wine. “Here, my friend, take it. The wine is quite good; Cretan, I am told.” For a moment the man looked ruefully upward before taking the offered food. Within moments, it was gone. Epigeus smiled in approval. “Now come, before it gets too dark. The Community of Pythagoras’ is not far. You will find sanctuary there, and if you are the right sort of person, perhaps lucrative employment as well.” The man looked slightly puzzled, but haltingly got back on his feet and followed the junior sage as he climbed down the outcropping.
The two men, one in flowing white robes with his two bags slung over his shoulder, the other clad in dirty rags made for a strange sight as they walked up the beach in the gathering twilight. On two occasions, they had to circle around a squad of watchmen as they continued to patrol the beach and surrounding roads. Fortunately, the watchmen were carrying torches and wearing heavy armor, which compromised their night vison and made them visible and audible from a distance. Most of them had been assisting in the recovery of the Artemisium’s crew or patrolling for most of the day and their discipline was beginning to lapse while performing what they undoubtedly saw as an increasingly pointless mission.
As the last glow of the sun receded from the sky, Epigeus and his guest, who he soon learned was from the land of Judea, arrived at the house of Pythagoras. The house was actually more like a small fortress. It was an imposing structure three floors high, built on a cliff overlooking the sea. Over the years, additions and outbuildings had been built, giving the structure a rambling appearance that still managed to appear to have been designed with an overarching plan in mind. Tall, thick walls and a large gate enclosed numerous brick and plaster buildings with a large open courtyard. Within the buildings, one could find anything that a small community could need to sustain themselves to include a small well, workshop, kitchen, several storerooms, a stable, and room enough for nearly a hundred people to sleep comfortably, albeit in close quarters. Around the walls, one could see innumerable small gardens devoted to the cultivation of grapes, olives, vegetables, and herbs, with vines climbing up the walls on three sides.
A small village had sprung up lining the road to the gate of the compound. The homes and shops were a hodgepodge of designs and architectural styles, but, like the home of Pythagoras, they still looked well-built and orderly.
The compound was truly the pride of the city, even if it was situated about two leagues south of the town proper. It was truly the beating heart of the budding philosophic movement for all of the western Greek colonies, and whether certain factions in the city’s ruling council wanted to admit it or not, one of the primary reasons that Croton was held in such high esteem in the first place. Within these walls, pioneering discoveries in mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, and, thanks in no small part to Epigeus’ own work, musical theory were recorded ad debated on a daily basis. Of course, if the school was truly the western colonies’ intellectual heart, the heart of the school itself was the Great Sage himself, Pythagoras.
Epigeus looked over at the Hebrew. Despite the man’s obvious pain and discomfort, he looked as impressed as Epigeus himself had been the first time he saw the orderly community of thinkers that had grown up around Pythagoras in the past ten years. He waited for the injured man to catch his breath before continuing
As the pair entered the unguarded gates of the school, the stranger’s eyes widened as he looked around. Despite the darkness, men and women were out and about. Some appeared to be in heated, yet friendly debates, gesturing excitedly with their hands or making rough sketches in the sand at their feet with sticks that seemed designed for just that purpose. In a corner, a group was playing a variety of exotic looking musical instruments, while still others pored over scrolls or moved carved pieces of wood and stone across game boards under the soft light of numerous oil lamps. A few servants scuttled about, occupied with more mundane tasks such as cleaning, laundering, or preparing food. Several of the people near the entrance turned and stared at the stranger. Epigeus conferred hastily with a passing washer woman and procured a cloak for the stranger, who quickly covered himself.
They arrived at a set of stairs and climbed up to a second level and a series of rooms built into the wall. They were reserved for guests and important travelers. He would be able to stay there for a few days until other accommodations were found.
“Many thanks,” replied the Hebrew smuggler, looking visibly relieved for the first time. The room was sparsely furnished, but contained the essentials; a bed, small table, wash basin, privy pot, and a chair were kept here for weary travelers passing through.
“Do not be troubled. You have an interesting tale to tell, and I am sure some of the senior mathematikoi will be very anxious to hear it over breakfast tomorrow. For now though, I will bid you good night and let you get some rest.” With that, Epigeus closed the door and headed towards the musicians in the courtyard. As he descended the stairs, two figures moved in front of him. Physically, neither was particularly imposing; one was a small woman in her late thirties, the other was an older, balding man who looked to be in his mid-fifties. The woman spoke first, with the air of one who was accustomed to being taken seriously; as well she should as Pythagoras’ eldest daughter.
“Would you mind telling me where you found your friend, Epigeus?” He started to answer, but before he could, the older man interrupted in a high, nasal tone. His name was Oxander, and many in the school assumed that it would be he who would act as the head of the school when Pythagoras himself eventually passed on. As such, he was very interested in the politics of the region and kept many close friends among the school’s associates in the nearby city.
“Everyone knows that you prefer to practice by the seashore, Epigeus. Do not try to deceive Damo or myself. He is the man that the City Watch is looking for, is he not? I ran into no less than three patrols on my way back from Diomedes’ house in town.”
Epigeus saw no use in trying to exercise deception so he simply nodded while keeping his face neutral. It seemed as if the two had been expecting a severe verbal altercation, so Epigeus’ lack of combativeness or guile surprised them. Damo recovered first and leaned in to speak more quietly. “I realize that my father and his friends in town have decided that Cleon and his hired thugs are not a major threat to the long-term survival of this school, and some of the junior mathematikoi might adopt their carefree attitude, but make no mistake, he and his lackeys in the council will do what they have to in order to control the goings on of this city, even if it means plowing every last building under and salting the earth.” Epigeus had seen the two senior scholar debate often enough that he knew that the latent threat posed by Cleon’s faction of the council was one of the few things that they agreed upon.
The older man cut in once again, “Did anyone see you leaving the beach with that man? If this school is to retain the privileges afforded to us, we cannot blatantly dismiss the authorities in the city, or they will make life here unlivable.” Epigeus could not fault Oxander for his caution. Even though the man was ambitious, his self-identity was so intermingled with that of the school, that the thought of individual personal gain was almost completely alien to him. Even though he could be pushy and overbearing, Oxander’s heart was in the right place.
Epigeus fought a rising tide of nervousness as he faced the two senior mathematikoi standing before him with stern expressions on their faces. As a youth, he had often been nervous in front of powerful strangers. He could still remember quailing before his own father’s massive brother when he returned from soldiering on the Greek mainland. Years of training and studying the writings of Orpheus, the Dacian sage, who in the fields of rhetoric and debate was considered a peer of Pythagoras himself had steeled himself against such encounters. He slowed his breathing, and his pounding heart soon followed. He would not be intimidated by their rank. He was a fully-fledged mathematikoi just as they were. He was, of course, not nearly as senior, but his status still inferred within him the same right to defend his actions.
He turned first to Damo and bowed his head slightly, indicating that he was engaging in this debate out of respect and not from confrontation. “Mistress Damo,” he began, lapsing into the formal speech that was favored in discussions such as this, “You, foremost among us here at this institution, have always supported lending succor and shelter to those who are travelling. From your very lips, I have heard it said that even from the lowest and meanest stranger, can the wisest of sages further their understanding of the world.” Damo nodded in agreement, signaling that she conceded the point. Epigeus continued, “The man that I have brought into this house as a guest happens to be a Hebrew from the far off land of Judea. That, coupled with the fact that he is a sailor will mean that he surely brings with him much news concerning the happenings of the world beyond the borders of our own Polis.”
Damo waited for him to finish before responding. Epigeus saw that by erring on the side of formality, the woman was pleasantly surprised, and now saw this as a teaching moment rather than the confrontation that she had so clearly envisioned.
“Epigeus, you make excellent points with both of your initial arguments. However, as you and I both know, the object of contention is not the fact that he is a stranger, but the fact that he is a fugitive. You are one of my brightest students, and I have little doubt that you have not already deduced as much.” Before he could reply, Damo held up a hand to indicate that she was not finished. “the question that we must ask ourselves is whether or not this man’s news of events in foreign nations is of commensurate value to the school’s continued existence, which we all know requires the good graces of the local authorities from whom that man is fleeing.”
Obviously, Epigeus’ initial plan of appealing to the scholars’ academic curiosity was not going to work. He would have to make them see that not casting the Hebrew out was the practical choice as well. He briefly recounted the man’s account of the morning’s battle with the City Watch noting with amusement that Oxander struggled to maintain a disinterested façade during the course of the story.
“It is obvious,” he concluded, “that a man like this would be useful to the Community in ways that we, as mathematikoi, could not be. As the network of likeminded communities grows, so too does the necessity to share ideas amongst ourselves to ensure that those that are physically separated from the light of the Teacher do not wander from his path. To do so, we need people who are able to move things discretely across protected borders, would you not agree? How long before one of our white robe-wearing couriers is waylaid by a petty despot and vital mathematical or philosophical secrets are laid bare?”
That last sentence caused a start in both Damo and Oxander. Some of the knowledge contained in the Community’s vaults could enable a small, aggressive kingdom to dominate its neighbors. That, coupled with the treatises on politics and theories on methods to subversion could prove dangerous in the wrong hands. The Pythagoreans guarded their secrets jealously for just that reason.
“Very well, I see your point,” Oxander conceded.
Damo looked around before weighing in, “you are not the first to advocate such a course, and with that the political winds in this area are shifting, it may be time to implement such a policy. Keep our guest ignorant for now. I will discuss the idea at length with my father when he returns.”
“For now, Epigeus, we will need to keep his identity between ourselves. I do not want idle tongues to begin spreading rumors about who he is or where he has come from. Tomorrow, take him to meet with Antaros. He has been asking for an assistant for some time, and that should keep him out of the sight and mind until we have work for him.”
Epigeus bowed his head in to convey his understanding. It was a good plan, he admitted to himself. Oxander and Damo were both brilliant thinkers and they had been quick to understand the advantage that a seasoned smuggler could afford the Community. Wordlessly, the two senior scholars turned and walked back into the night.

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2 thoughts on “The Pythagoreans: Chapter 6

  1. Pingback: The Pythagoreans: Chapter 5 | abouttogetreal

  2. Pingback: The Pythagoreans: Chapter 7 | abouttogetreal

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