The Pythagoreans: Chapter 8

Chapter 8

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Binyamin opened his eyes and looked around his room. He was still in the guest quarters in the main building, but had been told that he would be assigned a room in the building reserved for young males without families within a week. It had been several days since his arrival at the school. He was so accustomed to listening to the creak of wood and feeling the Heron move beneath him as he slept that waking up in a quiet, motionless room was still a strange concept. He dressed, washed his face in the small bowl on his table, and opened the door to the courtyard. The sun had been shining through his room’s small window, but the courtyard was still fairly dark. After a few days, he was becoming accustomed to living in this strange place. The first day or two had been a bit strange though. The residents of the school eyed him with no small degree of apprehension, but as the bruises healed and they grew more accustomed to his presence, they became friendlier.

They were a fascinating group of people. Binyamin had not been around so many literate and learned men since he was a child. To his surprise, the women here were encouraged to study and learn alongside the men and their research and findings were shared and discussed with the same level of enthusiasm. Some of the scholars still regarded him with suspicion, most notably an older man and a middle-aged woman who Binyamin had been told was Pythagoras’ daughter, but for the most part, he felt very welcome in the small community of academics. The Great Sage himself was gone on business, but his small center of learning flourished in his absence.

The whole situation still seemed surreal to him. In one day, the life he had lived for nearly fifteen years had been torn away, he had nearly died a dozen times over, and he was now waking up in the home of Pythagoras. The Pythagoras. The man’s name was known throughout the world. People crossed oceans and kingdoms for an audience with the great and wise Pythagoras, and here he was, a temple scribe’s son from Jerusalem, a day or less from meeting the great man himself. Not for the first time this week, Binyamin reflected that his God truly did work in strange and mysterious ways.

Epigeus met him at the foot of the stairs. The friendly Greek scholar was the same age as Binyamin and seemed to take great pleasure in showing strangers around the school. Binyamin did not mind in the least. There was quite a bit to see, and this place seemed as good as any for him to keep his head down until the smuggling incident was forgotten. Most of the residents assumed that he was a newly arrived scholar from the East, and Epigeus had instructed Binyamin to do nothing to make them think otherwise. Based on what he could observe, it was clear that the prevailing attitude within the school was that the civil affairs of the nearby city were unimportant.

He had spent the last several days exploring the various nooks and crannies of the school alongside Epigeus. While he was not allowed in many of the classrooms or the repository of scrolls o the third floor of the building, there was still plenty to see and do for a man accustomed to living on a small boat for weeks at a time. Binyamin had quickly learned that the Pythagoreans guarded whatever it was that they were studying very closely. Even Epigeus, who had been there for years and had recently passed the tests to become a full member of the society of scholars was only allowed to request information from the repositories. He had never been in them himself.

The school was situated on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea, and looked much more impressive in the daylight. The white-walled compound opened into an imposing courtyard, with kitchens, stables, and other communal facilities hugging the walls and a large, open space in the center. Within the walls themselves, Pythagoras, his family, and those of a handful of the other most senior scholars kept apartments that, while small, were cunningly incorporated into the walls themselves. The third and highest level of the rooms built into the walls were either part of the repository or open classrooms where the scholars could meet and discuss their findings while enjoying sea breezes and fantastic views of the surrounding countryside. The city could be seen fairly easily from the north facing rooms, especially at night.

“Good morning,” said Epigeus as Binyamin reached him. Binyamin returned the greeting and the two made their way to the communal dining area. Breakfast was a delicious piece of flat bread dipped in olive oil, with small pieces of lamb cooked into the crust. While many in the community of learners followed Pythagoras’ example and abstained from eating beans or meat, the practice was far from mandatory. Even this early in the morning, there were already a fair number of scholars, craftsmen, and servants sitting down to eat. Binyamin, accustomed to hardtack and salted fish thanks to his years at sea, wolfed the food down eagerly.

Epigeus looked up from his own plate, looking pleased that his guest was clearly enjoying the meal. “I apologize for not joining you yesterday. I had some obligations that I could not easily avoid. I am sure that you have many questions by now that my colleagues did not have the time or inclination to answer yesterday.”

Binyamin did not know where to start. He had travelled to nearly every major city on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, along with many of the larger Numidian, Iberian, and Gallic settlements in the west without encountering a community whose major industry seemed to be the accumulation of knowledge. His mind struggled to decide which of the dozen or so questions he had to ask first

“The buildings look so new. Well-constructed too,” he said, instantly feeling foolish for saying something so inane.

Epigeus smiled proudly. “I am glad that you think so. I helped build several myself. The younger scholars are expected to pitch in whenever new construction is necessary. Most are eager to work with their hands after weeks of scribbling computations in some dank corner of the Compound. The buildings are all fairly new though. Pythagoras only arrived in the city of Croton fifteen years ago. He was fleeing a tyrant on his home island of Samos, and yearned to breathe the free air of the western colonies. They say that when he was about the age we are now, he travelled to Egypt, Babylon, Thrace, and all over Greece and acquired a great deal of wisdom from the greatest sages that lived there. Naturally, when he returned home with his head full of foreign ideas, many saw him as a threat and he was soon forced to leave.”

“Why did he choose Croton? I mean no offense, but Syracuse is bigger and Tarentum’s ruling council is not nearly so meddlesome from what I have seen.”

Epigeus conceded the point, “The council has only been this onerous for the past few years. It will pass when the people see the harm it is causing, I am sure. To answer your question, Milos of Croton invited Pythagoras because he needed a trainer to assist him in his Olympic preparations. With Pythagoras’ help, he went on to win several consecutive Olympic wresting titles, bringing great honor and acclaim to the city. He went undefeated for five years.” He paused and offered Binyamin some more water. “Have you ever heard of a town called Sybaris?”

“Well, we sailed past it on a few occasions, but we never stopped. It is only a fishing village built amongst some ruins in a swamp.”

“Well, that is where the story gets interesting, my friend. Sybaris used to be the dominant city here in southern Italia. Ten years ago, a man named Teleus rose to power there and began to threaten Croton with increasingly onerous demands. The council tried to give in to his demands at first, but it soon became clear that he was simply waiting for a pretext to invade.”

“What happened next?”

“The council was divided about how the city would defend itself, since the Sybarites’ army outnumbered Croton’s three to one. Some advocated for outright surrender, while others wanted to attack first. Naturally, they turned to Milos for help. Together, he and Pythagoras organized a clever defense of the city walls and repelled their first attack. Pythagoras then arranged for a merchant to bring several dozen camels into the city while the Sybarites were reorganizing. Milos led the Crotonian army into the field to face them, and the Sybarites got ready to smash them flat with their heavy cavalry. Right when they charged, Milos ordered the camels let loose, which scared the Sybarites’ horses. Telaus was thrown off and trampled and their whole army went into disarray. Milos and his men chased them back north and besieged Sybaris itself.”

The Hebrew nodded appreciatively. “He must have learned that trick while he was in Persia. That is similar to the way that Cyrus defeated some of his rivals before he released my people from slavery in Babylon.”

“You are probably right,” said Epigeus. “I am confident that Cyrus did not also devise a way to divert the course of a river so that it flooded the whole city and forced them to surrender, am I right?”

“No,” admitted Binyamin, “I do not believe he ever had to do that, though it does explain why they live in a swamp. My crewmates and I always wondered.”

“When I passed the test to advance beyond the rank of initiate last year, the test was not even conducted in Greek. I was forced to discuss harmonic theory in Egyptian and Old Babylonian. Pythagoras has always taught that the solution to any problem has already been discovered in some corner of the world, and that true scholars should always seek and appreciate the wisdom of others while combining it with their own.”

Binyamin nodded in agreement. In some ways, the diverse community of scholars reminded him of his old crew. They were after different things, but their approach of pooling the diverse experiences of their members into something greater than any individual could manage themselves made sense.

“It cannot be inexpensive to operate a place like this,” he said, gesturing about with his hands. “How did your master manage to find the gold necessary to build this place from nothing?”

“After the war, the council gave Milos a great deal of land and plundered wealth as thanks for his actions during the war. In turn, he granted most of that land and money to Pythagoras, who used it to start the school. Of course, did not hurt that Milos was by that point married to one of Pythagoras’ daughters. The school has occupied this spot for the last ten years, of which I have lived here for seven. I am one of the first students that was not a follower of Pythagoras at the time of the school’s founding to be elevated to the rank of full scholar, after only five years of study.”

Binyamin was impressed. He could tell that Epigeus was an intelligent man, but from what he could tell, it was rare for someone so young to become a full-fledged scholar in five years. Most of those that he had spoken to yesterday assumed that Binyamin was one of the hundreds of wandering students from across the world that arrived at the compound each year. As such, he had learned

“So what is the plan for today?” he asked as he swallowed his final mouthful of fresh bread.

“I need to go talk to Hexaros about some new strings for my instruments,” Epigeus replied. “After that, I will take you to meet Antaros. He is our senior craftsman and a fully initiated member of the brotherhood. You will be working for him for the time being. After conferring with a few of my elders, we have decided that it will not do to have a strange foreigner suddenly appear in our midst right after the City Watch loses their new toy. They have no power here, but there is no point tempting fate. Pythagoras is supposed to be returning either today or tomorrow from Metapontum, and I am sure that he will want to meet you and the other recent arrivals as soon as he is rested. After that, we will have a better idea of what is in store for you.”

Their meal complete, they walked out of the dining hall into the courtyard. The compound was beginning to come to life around them. They headed to the front gate past a few farmers that were delivering vegetables to the kitchen.

Clinging to the outside edges of the school on the three sides that were not hugging a cliff face were a number of small workshops. Intricate chimneys carried smoke away from the cramped confines of the courtyards where craftsmen constructed everything from horseshoes to intricate scientific instruments for the school’s use. Small but well-constructed homes lined the winding trail that led up the hill to the school. While only a few of the craftsmen were fully fledged Mathematikoi, Binyamin found the hard-working smiths and carpenters to be some of the most interesting and intelligent people in the compound. He had been looking forward to an opportunity to return to the workshops since his first trip two days ago.

Pythagoras encouraged younger scholars to pursue a trade for the first five years or so of their time at the compound. This, Epigeus had explained to him, enabled aspiring scholars to learn to see numbers in daily life and apply mathematics to their work. It also helped ensure that the community had plenty of skilled craftsmen available for projects. According to Epigeus, some of the eastern scholars, descended as they were from many generations of royalty, chafed when they were told that they would be expected to work as weavers, smiths, or carpenters while pursuing their studies, but soon recognized the merit and underlying logic of having their education rooted in the practical. Those that failed to take their labors seriously soon found themselves lagging behind their peers because they could not apply the lessons learned from their work to their studies.

Following their time as craftsmen, scholars would then begin practicing an art. Music, sculpture, and oratory were the most popular and common, though Pythagoras would occasionally condone other pursuits so long as they allowed the scholar to continue to observe the interaction of daily life and mathematics. They would continue practicing their art while attending more advanced classes until Pythagoras felt that they were worthy of becoming fully fledged Mathematikoi. At that point, a scholar would either remain at the compound to teach and learn alongside the Sage, or go abroad to found a new Pythagorean community.

Epigeus told Binyamin that he had started out as a carpenter before dedicating himself to the study of music for the last two years. He was due for elevation to full Mathematikoi provided that he could pass a difficult examination administered by Pythagoras early next month. Binyamin could tell how much such an accomplishment would mean to his new friend, likening it to becoming the captain of one’s own ship, and made a mental note to add Epigeus to his list of prayers.

They had not made it more than ten steps outside the gate when they heard hoof beats in front of them.

“Look out, Losers!” called a slightly slurred female voice. A horse carrying a gorgeous young woman bowled past them, narrowly missing Binyamin and Epigeus. Binyamin caught a glimpse of a figure showing off a generous portion of exposed thigh before the figure rode into the gates. Binyamin whipped his head around and saw a beautiful young woman dismounting from a fairly large horse. She looked foreign at first, though on closer examination, Binyamin could see that she still had Greek features, even if her hair and skin were a little darker than normal. She patted the beast’s nose before retrieving a satchel of rolled parchment with brushes and small jars of pigment festooned along the outside. One of the small clay pots of paint had broken during her wild ride, covering a good portion of her back with blue splotches. She unrolled the parchment in her hand, and Binyamin could see an excellent depiction of a young man with a shepherd’s crook in his hand. She rerolled the papyrus and smiled at Binyamin mischievously before leading the horse to the small stable in the courtyard.

“Wha- who was that?” He asked Epigeus as they picked themselves up.

“Pythagoras’ granddaughter,” replied the musician. “She is beautiful, but she is also trouble.” They watched as she led the horse out of sight. “Clemena would kill me if she caught me looking at her,” Epigeus said, referring to another musician that he had a vaguely defined relationship with. Having already met Clemena, Binyamin had to agree with his assessment.

Binyamin struggled to get the image of the woman out of his head. Unlike some members of his former crew, he did not often solicit the company of that certain type of woman that could be found near ports in almost any city. Due to a longstanding tradition that dated back to the days of Abraham, Hebrews were a little… different down below, and Binyamin could not abide the stares and questions that accompanied his occasional forays into brothels. Still, the woman’s confidence intrigued him deeply.

They dusted themselves off and made their way to a low-slung building slightly separated from the other workshops. As Binyamin approached the front door, he could tell why. The smell of curing leather was not pleasant. The resident craftsman, Hexaros, had been working on a new technique to more accurately produce strings for musical instruments of various thicknesses, and Epigeus was eager to see how their first trial run of the strings, which were made from specially treated sheep’s intestines, was going. Epigeus opened the door of the workshop only to be bowled over by a short, rotund man with massive forearms and a soot-stained face as he hurried out the door. The short man was studying a scroll in one hand, while a number of papyrus and linen sheets covered in intricate drawing were tucked under the other. He was studying the diagram in his hand so closely that he failed to even notice Epigeus until he stumbled over the scholar’s shin.

The papers the short man was carrying flew up into the air in a manner that Binyamin considered rather comical as he too lost his balance and narrowly missed landing on Epigeus. For the second time that morning, Binyamin found himself sprawled on the ground beside Epigeus. You can survive capsizing an enemy warship, but you cannot keep your feet on dry land? Binyamin ignored his subconscious as it mocked him. The strange man was on his feet in an instant, face reddening with consternation and embarrassment.

“Sorry, sorry” he said as he offered a hand to Epigeus. Despite the man’s small size, he hauled the taller musician up with little apparent effort. He quickly set about dusting off Epigeus’ clothing mumbling apologies the entire time. “I honestly didn’t see you there, Epigeus. I was so wrapped up in the designs for my Celestial Projection Engine that I forgot to look where I was going. Once Hexaros finishes the case, I will be able to carry it as easily as a man could carry a basket of fruit or-“

“Wait,” said Binyamin, “a Celestial what?”

The man turned toward Binyamin for the first time and blinked, “A Celestial Projection Engine. Once finished, it will be able to map and predict the movement of the heavens across the sky. Depending on where one is and the time of year, the passage of the moon, sun, and larger stars can tell a man not only where he is, but when he is as well. Wait,” he moved closer to Binyamin. “I have heard about you. You are the one they have all been talking about. That sailor Epigeus found on the beach.” His face lit up. “You have to tell me how you were able to generate enough shear on a warship of that size to get it to capsize the way it did. Fantastic! I wish I had been there! Well, maybe not there there, but close, maybe watching on the shore or something. I hate being on boats.” At this point, he noticed that Epigeus was looking at him rather pointedly, and that Binyamin was glancing nervously from side to side. His red face turned redder. “Oh, sorry… I imagine that even here, you are trying to keep a low profile,” he said after lowering his voice’s considerable volume. “I would not get too nervous around here though. The city does not have any real jurisdiction over the school.”

“We would like to keep it that way, though,” replied Epigeus. “Rumors are one thing, but confirmation is another. That is why he will be working for you until we Pythagoras gets back.”

“Of course, of course,” the short man replied. “I am glad to have you for however long you might be with me, Binyamin. I can show you the ropes this afternoon. What brings you two out here so early in the morning?”

“Hexaros and I are working on a project involving instrument strings that will enable us to more accurately model our mathematically derived combinations of musical notes. I’m showing our Hebrew friend around the school. Your workshop was to be our next stop.”

“Ahhh… fascinating. Feel free to stop by my workshop and chat when you are finished. I would still like to pick your friend’s brain concerning his recent high seas adventure.” With that, the short man gathered the rest of his diagrams and ambled off into the cluster of workshops, already lost in thought once again.

“Well that was… interesting,” said Binyamin after the strange man was gone.

“Conversations with Antaros usually are,” Epigeus said ruefully. “We will l have to stop by after this or else I will never hear the end of it next time I need something built.” The meeting with Hexaros went quickly. The man was obviously a very skilled tanner and leatherworker.   While he and Epigeus talked, Binyamin admired the beautifully made saddles, shoes, and other leatherwork that adorned the wall. The strings were coming along nicely. The goal was to make a set of strings that diminished in width gradually, so that each on could play one note on a ‘scale’, as Epigeus called it, at the same relative tension, thereby making the instrument easier to play. It was all very interesting; Binyamin had never really thought about music the way that Epigeus and his friends did, that popular tunes were nothing more than a mathematically predicable sequence of sounds that were pleasing to the human ear when they were played together. Strangely, it seemed to make the songs that he had heard since he was young both more and less impressive.

These Greeks truly had an interesting outlook on life. They felt that the world around them was governed by numbers. Intuitively, Binyamin agreed with them. He had been taught from an early age that his people’s God had created the world and everything in it in accordance to a pre-determined set of rules. To him, it made perfect sense that the language that the Creator would use would be numbers. This was a truly interesting place indeed.

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1 thought on “The Pythagoreans: Chapter 8

  1. Pingback: The Pythagoreans: Chapter 9 | abouttogetreal

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