The tension in the air surrounding the amphitheater in the center of the city was palpable. The Council of One Thousand’s decisions affected the lives of all seventy thousand residents of Croton proper in addition to the nearly three hundred thousand Greek farmers that made their homes in the surrounding countryside. As such, most members of the Council took their jobs very seriously. Defeat was not an option for the councilmen, and most would resort to whatever dirty tricks were necessary to forward their agenda. Traditionally, the council meetings began at midday, but a large majority of the councilmen came early to discuss their plans and opinions prior to the formal debates that were to follow.
Bromycles strode confidently towards the amphitheater. It had been constructed when his grandfather was a young man and had stood the test of time quite well, all things considered. It was shaped like a bowl that had been cut diagonally by a sword. The underlying structure was granite, though marble facades made the structure quite majestic in the early morning light. Tiered seats were arrayed around an open center. The structure opened north and overlooked the inlet that served as the city harbor. Not counting the city’s temple dedicated to Herakles, the legendary founder of Croton, the amphitheater was the most prominent building in the city and was used to host all manner of performances several times a week. It was also the one place large enough to hold the entire Council of One Thousand for its monthly meetings.
He felt hopeful, which was an unfamiliar emotion for the normally dour blacksmith. The gods had even seen fit to keep the skies clear for the meeting today, so there was no danger of getting rained upon. For the first time in a considerable while, he felt confident that his political foes would soon be punished for their overreach. He had been a council member for fifteen years. As such, he remembered a time, before the Sybarite War, when council meetings were a good deal more cordial. Back then, each man had said his piece and his fellow councilmen had debated the individual merits and problems of his proposal. Now, it no longer mattered what a man said. It only mattered who said it, and more importantly, who one’s friends were.
He was a large man, and years spent working at the forge had enlarged his arms and shoulders to the point where they could be seen even beneath his flowing robes. Despite the Sybarite arrow that had destroyed his knee ten years ago and the fact that he owned the largest smithy in Croton, Bromycles spent hours a day working at his forge. He had a keen mind when it came to business, and a strong sense of justice. As such, many of the other skilled tradesmen on the council looked to him for leadership. In this way, he found himself the head of the third most powerful block of councilmen, with a hundred or so votes that hinged on his own. He was a pragmatic man, and though he did not approve of the direction that politics in his city was taking, he would do what he had to do in order to keep the city from descending into tyranny.
A number of men had accompanied Bromycles to the amphitheater. Some were fellow craftsmen who served on the council, but there were also a fair number of younger men, to include two of his sons, with poorly concealed clubs bulging beneath their cloaks. They would wait outside while the council convened. In recent months certain councilmen had been beset by criminals or experienced other similar misfortunes on their way to or from the amphitheater. Strangely, the only councilmen that ever seemed to experience said ‘misfortunes’ were ones that disagreed with the course the city was taking. Bromycles did not believe in taking risks that could be avoided.
“Wait here,” he said to his oldest son. The young man nodded curtly as he and the rest of Bromycles’ escort stopped near the entrance to the amphitheater. He made his way inside and looked around at the amphitheater’s tiered seats. He noted that another disturbing trend was becoming all the more prevalent with each monthly assembly. More and more councilmen sat in clusters. These were not the small groups that one might expect from those who lived in the same part of the city or shared the same profession, but in large blocs, like they were part of a phalanx of warriors rather than a peaceful assembly convened to solve the city’s problems.
Where one could have once expected to hear the voices and opinions of any number of councilmen in years past, power was now almost completely centralized in the hands of the few councilmen who sat in the first row, at the head of their respective blocks. Those who sat farther back generally spoke one of two words: ‘yea’ or ‘nea’ depending on the wishes of their nominal superiors. The fact that he was one of those powerful voices did little to assuage Bromycles’ bitterness. His bloc was losing power and influence, and he feared that before long, the hardworking people of Croton would lose their voice in the council entirely.
Bromycles made his way to the innermost tier of seats, closest to the stage. Behind him, dozens of fellow councilmen took their seats as well. By their actions, these men were saying that they would stand with Bromycles’ decisions in the coming meeting. He did not like the system, but he knew that if he did not deign to participate, someone less able would instead. Besides Cleon, the only individual that commanded more votes in the council was the war hero himself, Milos of Croton. By his own estimation, he played the game well, but not well enough.
As if summoned by his thoughts, his two chief rivals entered the chamber, retinues in tow. Milos was in his early forties, one of the generation of men shaped and in some ways permanently scarred by the war with Sybaris. He was even larger than Bromycles was, though the fact that he did not labor intensely at a forge on a daily basis was made evident by his ample belly. Milos’ face twisted in distaste as he glanced about the seats. Quite a few men were already seated behind the place of honor that Milos had occupied since the Sybarites had been driven from the gates all those years ago, but unless a large number of his supporters were running late, Bromycles could see that there were not as many as there had been the month before.
Personally, Bromycles liked and respected the man. Politically, he did not trust him. He was too close to his old trainer and mentor, Pythagoras. No one was ever entirely sure what the man and his coterie of academic sorts were doing on that hill of theirs, but judging by their secrecy, it could not be anything good for his beloved Croton. Still, Bromycles’ disagreements with Milos paled in comparison to the man who, judging by the change in volume within the chamber, was nearly inside.
Here he comes, Bromycles thought, as a small, self-assured figure entered the meeting place. The buzz of conversation increased as Cleon and his long line of hangers-on took their seats across from Bromycles and his faction. Unfortunately, even when both groups of councilmen agreed; or more accurately, when Milos and Bromycles agreed, they still did not have as many dependable votes as Cleon.
“He carries himself like a king,” said the councilman sitting next to Bromycles.
“Give him another year,” replied the man behind the speaker “he will be before long. His purse strings are wrapped around the necks of half the men in the city, and the rest are already inside it.”
With more confidence than he realistically felt, Bromycles replied, “today will be the day that we take him down a few notches. Even Cleon cannot ignore that warship washed up on the beach, and what it symbolizes.” The two councilmen looked at him dubiously, but did not contest his opinion.
Bromycles gritted his teeth. Deep down, he knew that Cleon was a superior politician, and always would be, though it still confounded him as to where the man had found the guile necessary to have so many people beholden to him in so many ways. Bromycles remembered when Cleon was an unremarkable junior member of the council. When it became clear that Sybaris was going to invade, he argued vociferously against Milos and Pythagoras. Most of the council ignored him, and Milos led the Crotonian army to victory.
It was the chain of events that transpired after the war that troubled Bromycles. The first mistake had been putting Cleon in charge of disbursing the spoils of war taken from Sybaris. He had not participated in the final campaign, and when the army returned to Croton, most were so eager to return to their families that they accepted the plan that he had devised to equitably distribute the funds seized when the city was sacked. The rival city had been one of the wealthiest of the Greek colonies, so the amount of gold plundered from their coffers was not insubstantial. Councilmen that wanted money diverted into particular projects or areas of the town had to meet with him to explain why their plan was the most efficient way to spend Croton’s newfound wealth. He used his newfound influence to control his supplicants’ voting habits, and leveraged those votes to create a much larger City Watch that, of course, was beholden to him for its existence. Cleon took his seat, signaling that he and his faction were prepared for the council to convene.
As the longest serving member of the council, Old Lycenos had convened the meetings for as long as Bromycles could remember. The old man tottered to the center of the amphitheater and called the council to order in a reedy voice that still managed to carry quite well through the semi-enclosed space. As always, the first order of business was to induct the twenty or thirty new members that joined the council each month.
Generally, when a council member stepped down from office, the council would vote to accept a man of note from within the city to replace them as the last order of business before the council dispersed, to be inducted at the next month’s meeting. Cleon has hijacked that process as well, Bromycles thought glumly. Thanks to his large and dependable block of council votes, the man could appoint nearly anyone he wished to the council. There were now senior priests from old families in the city without council spots, while one of the newest councilmembers sold fruit from a stall in the market. Doubtless, the lucky man would soon find his competitors’ stalls either vandalized or forcibly relocated in exchange for his support. That morning, no fewer than seventeen of the new council members immediately took their place in the rearmost of seats behind Cleon. If recent trends were to continue, it would be years before any of them did anything more than raise their hands and voices at the command of their political master.
Lycenos stood once more, invoked the wisdom of the gods, and began the meeting. The first man to speak was a landowner with holdings that bordered the city. Bromycles knew that the man had recently begun to associate himself more closely with Cleon. He spoke at great length about the continuing scourge of Samnite bandits from the hills, and how his slaves and tenant farmers huddled inside their homes at night fearing an attack from the as yet still un-subjugated highland tribes. His solution, predictably, was to increase funding for the City Watch and allow them to conduct more aggressive patrols throughout the countryside. Cleon’s supporters made a great show of agreeing with the landowner, decrying any attempt to limit the size or scope of the City Watch as an existential threat to the city.
The next man to speak was the harbormaster, one of Cleon’s earliest allies in the council. He decried the recent increase in smuggling along the coast, and the disastrous effect that it could have on the city treasury, which relied heavily on harbor revenue. He called on the city council to increase the amount of funding for armed ships and shore patrols to combat the smugglers. Of course, neither men made mention of the City Watch’s spectacular failure to apprehend one small galley, or the fact that Crotonian merchants were the ones working with the smugglers to avoid the harbor’s exorbitant taxes.
Finally, Milos had his turn to speak. Bromycles watched as he strode confidently to the center of the amphitheater. He looked no more nervous or ill at ease than a farmer on his way to talk about the harvest with his neighbor. Bromycles was secretly jealous of Milos’ apparent comfort while speaking in front of crowds, but it was to be expected from one who had spent the better part of his life wrestling in the arena.
“Gentlemen,” Milos began, his voice carrying so that his voice carried to the rearmost benches of the amphitheater, “I will begin by reciting a history lesson that we all learned as young men, for I feel that it bears directly on our current predicament. The founders of Croton, struggling to adapt to life on southern Italia’s hostile shoes originally instate a ruling council as a way to pool their mental resources in the face of Samnite raids, pirates from the northern swamps, and other hostile Greek colonies. During those early days, already partially shrouded in the mists of legend, the council was forced to work together to develop the best possible solutions to their town’s problems. Their very survival depended on it.” Milos looked around the amphitheater. Those behind Cleon were already muttering tersely amongst themselves.
“Eventually, thanks in no small part to the planning and pragmatism of the earliest citizens of Croton, the city grew into a regional power famed throughout the Adriatic for fair dealing, honesty, ad industriousness. As a result, the city grew rich, much to the chagrin of neighboring colonies like the despotic city of Sybaris. When the tyrant Telauges took over, the Sybarites invaded on land and sea. Nearly every Crotonian man picked up spear and shield to defend their homeland, many of whom sit in this room today bearing the scars of those dark days.” He nodded towards Bromycles. The two had fought back-to-back atop the city wall before the Sybarite attack was finally broken. Even if the two men occasionally disagreed, their mutual respect was still strong. Milos continued, “Thanks in no small part to the sage Pythagoras, we were able to cunningly defend our own walls before taking the fight to the heart of Sybaris and burning it to the ground. I lost many friends and neighbors to the Sybarite scourge, but looking around this assembly place today, I see that our city’s problems have not faded into history like our old enemy.”
Bromycles smiled in satisfaction as Cleon and his followers began to look more and more uncomfortable. Milos continued, “so far, we have heard nothing today but justifications for why we need to continue doing what we are doing. There has been no mention of the fact that our illustrious City Watch on which we have lavished so much of the city’s treasure failed to apprehend one boat. I find that to be very telling. Clearly, many in the room are benefitting from this arrangement even as the people suffer. There is no other logical conclusion. Are these taxes making us wealthier as a city? It is true that our citizens no longer fear being awoken in the dead of night by raiders from the hills. Instead, they must now submit to searches for hidden coppers at the hands of the City Watch. They are not interested in protecting crime, only in making themselves and their patrons wealthier,” he paused and looked pointedly at Cleon. “It cannot be borne.” With that, Milos crossed his arms and glared directly at Cleon. Forgoing the unspoken prohibition on direct attacks on the character of fellow councilmen, he had stated the necessary and obvious.
The silence that followed Milos’ most aggressive condemnation of Cleon and his underhanded tactics in many years did not last long. Pandemonium erupted in the amphitheater as Cleon’s and Milos’ followers began shouting at one another angrily, faces flushed in anger. In the rearmost rows, a few men began a brief tussle that was quickly broken up. Lycenos shouted for order as the chaos continued. Slowly, Cleon rose to his feet. His expression was a perfect balance between that of a man whose honor has been tarnished, and one who has seen his hard work come to nothing. Only Bromycles and those that had spent the last decade trying to check his ambitions could see the predatory gleam in his eye. He reached the center of the amphitheater and raised one hand to chest height. Like a massive pack of trained dogs, the councilmen on his side of the stage immediately stopped their shrieks of outrage. Like a highly trained dramatist performing a tragedy, Cleon turned to the rest of the council, face drawn in anguish.
“My friends and fellow citizens, to hear a venerable war hero such as Milos attempt to heap shame on two councilmen that are close personal friends has brought dishonor to this august body. I too, served alongside councilman Milos during the defense of our great city, and I have continued to serve alongside him in the years since in whatever small capacity that I was able. I fear now though, that our great hero’s avarice has grown stronger as his body has begun to weaken.” Bromycles snorted in Derision at that. Cleon had fought in the war briefly before being injured. He still strongly suspected that Cleon’s wound was self-inflicted, for his injury allowed him to become firmly ensconced in the council while the real men were off finishing the war with Sybaris. Shortly thereafter, members of the council suddenly began taking his side in each and every argument. Once again, men began to shout in agreement or derision.
Cleon was not done yet. “I believe,” he said without a trace of irony, “that our close friend Milos here does not feel that a council comprised of the most influential and civic-minded members of the polis is the most efficient way to govern. I just so happen to disagree, and I am sure that many of you do as well.” The shouting intensified as Milos looked at Cleon in mute rage, veins throbbing in his neck and forehead. Ignoring him, Cleon continued, “Milos spends his days reveling in past glories, and his nights conversing with those crackpots that live on the hill. He does not care that the city lavishes gold on these useless mouths, but would begrudge those of us that live on the outskirts the protection that they need from bands of roving hill folk?” Perhaps he believes that a group of Persians, Egyptians, and mainlanders are the most qualified to rule over us? I am sure that his long train of sycophants that sit behind us would surrender power willingly to these foreigners, but I will not let that happen.” The chamber erupted. No one tried to restrain the men coming to blows now. Lycenos’ calls for quiet went unanswered.
Bromycles did not even bother to stand behind the pulpit. He thundered and raged from his spot in front of his hundred allies. He knew that nothing more would be accomplished today. His carefully prepared speech would never reach its intended ears. By next month, the city guard’s disastrous failure would be forgotten, and any attempt to call Cleon to task for it would be regarded as petty. Cleon had outmaneuvered them again.