Ch. 002 - Despise strife
Philip made seven marriages total, all to seal peace-deals and alliances. My mother was the fifth, though by bearing him his only able-minded son she made him warm to her most. Either due to that or to them being in love of some sort, my mother shared with him the royal bed for as far back as I can remember.
His first wife was Audata, great-granddaughter of Bardylis, after Philip avenged Perdikkas in war. She bore my half-sister Kynnane. Then he married Phila of the other Makednian almost-royal line, to ensure their loyalty, who proved barren; then Nikesipolis and Philinna, both of Thessaly, but not at the same time, to make that lasting and strong alliance with the Thessalians that stood both us and them in such good stead. Nikesipolis bore my older half-sister Thessalonike, and Philinna bore Arrhidaios.
Then it was my mother, the daughter of Neoptolemos, king of the Molossians and our ally, descended of Achilles; then Meda of Thrakia, who never bore child, after my father defeated them. His last wife was Kleopatra, niece of Attalos, the patriarch of an old powerful Makednian house. She bore him one child, a girl.
I’d look up at one of my half-mothers who was not Makednian and wonder how it was for her, being made love to by her kinsmen’s killer, bearing his children. Perhaps we men can only pretend we know anything about diplomacy.
In all his wars he seized spoils and tax-bases enough to build each wife her own generous chambers. I remember them mostly being friends under the benevolent rule of my grandmother, until she died, and my mother gained ascendance, when I was seven.
You might as well say there is no such thing as a purebred Makednian in the royal line, really; my grandmother was half Illyrian, making my father a quarter, and hence me half Epeirote, an eighth Illyrian and three-eighths Makednian, if you want to be a stickler. Except, of course, that all that Illyrian and Epeirote blood was mixed too, with who knows how much Makednian. My father always said the southern Greeks have it wrong, that in truth race counts for nothing, only merit, anyway. It is their great weakness to think that, he taught me, because they will not let people move in and become Athenian or Theban or whatever, whereas a person need only swear loyalty to become Makednian.
For us children, this all meant growing up in a mix of languages and customs, the soil for nurturing worldliness in us. The guests helped, too; I learned the proper dialect of Attika not only from my pedagogue but by picking it up from conversations among the southern envoys, merchants, philosophers, playwrights, actors and assorted others my father was constantly hosting. A family tradition: we are called barbarian by certain Athenians, but Euripides wrote The Bacchai in our palace, a guest of my great-grandfather’s brother Archelaos, who built it. Before him his father, Perdikkas I, invited Sokrates here so as to save his life, but he instead stayed in Athens to drink the hemlock. I felt not only sad for this but slighted, until it came to me that he had been a warrior, serving as a hoplite when young—he was the perfect sentry because he’d happily stand all night thinking, Plato wrote—and to leave Athens as it was then would be like fleeing the field.
I even learned Persian, as the Persian nobleman Artabazos and his family stayed with us from when I was four to when I was fourteen, being out of favour with the Persian Great King. How kids who knew only one tongue managed, we couldn’t imagine.
My first reading was not the Maxims of the Seven Sages as inscribed at Delphi, like most kids, but the Iliad. My fingers, perhaps God-guided, found it on my grandmother’s shelf when I was three, perhaps going on four.
Sisele was a firm proponent of literacy for girls and even boys who were too young to have a pedagogue yet, so she hiked me up on her lap with her wrinkled hands and read to me from the scroll. Her voice, usually quiet and demure, was suddenly strong as a man’s; her clawed hand gestured violently, turning into a fist, like an actor’s. “μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος οὐλομένην!” The hair rose on the back of my neck, and I saw Achilles inwardly, his eyes on fire with it, and felt as if I were him, because his blood ran in my veins from my mother’s side, both at once. I picked up letters and then words from the ink as she sang them.
When I was five, my parents decided to have a mural painted on my chamber wall. He wanted it done by someone Attik; she had a man in mind whose style was more northern.
They started civilly, agreeing that how I was influenced through my eyes should be balanced. Then he said that since I was now in the men’s section, his choice should have more weight, and she answered that her love for her son and thus her concern over how he was being raised had hardly faded just because I was in the men’s section. The servant or two who were in the royal bedchamber casually vanished, knowing it was only a matter of time before their voices would start to rise.
I was well into the Delphic Maxims now, so could count off all the ones they were breaking. Govern yourself... master anger... “You up-country primitive!” he bellowed. “You man-tearing savage!” Find fault with no one... restrain the tongue... “You slave to southern fashion,” she snarled, “whom Athenians must all laugh at behind their hands!” They circled like duelists, veins standing up in his purpled forehead, her stare like a snake’s when coiled to strike. Despise strife...
I hurt inside from head to toe, as always. As a baby, I’d always cried or got my fingers into something I shouldn’t whenever this happened, until they sent me out with Lanike. Now, however, I was old enough to know logic. An idea came to me, by which I’d not only stop this cold, but shame them into never quarreling again.
“I know the answer!” I yelled, using the high note of my piping voice to cut through theirs. They both stopped, gazing at me startled. “It’s my wall; so I pick. And my choice is this: it doesn’t matter which artist does it, so long as he does a big herd of horses. There—settled—simple!”
All well and good; I should have left it there. But pain breeds anger. “Why do you have to scream at each other? You grown-ups are always telling us kids to master ourselves—but listen to you! You couldn’t even think of this yourselves, so you yell like drunken Thrakians instead. It’s so stupid. Stop it!”
They were both stunned speechless. I stood triumphant.
Then she pierced me with the same deadly snake-stare she’d had on him, began with “How dare you speak to us that way! A child so small trying to rule over your parents who gave you life and slighting us with such insolence blah blah blah” and went on unbroken.
He, on the other hand, didn’t say a word. He just grabbed me up by the arm, threw me over his knee, gave me such a blow on the butt that I couldn’t walk for a day, and threw me out the doorway like a used rag. I wish I had thought to say, “At least I got you to agree on one thing!” They looked at each other as if to ask each other, “Where were we, darling?” and went right on as if nothing had happened.
I lay on the floor of the royal antechamber, everything inside my skin on fire. I hardly felt the butt-pain. I couldn’t even get away from their yammering. It was no comfort even to understand they’d done this to me because I was right; what use in being right when you are helpless? Kynnane, who was seven then, found me. Years later she told me my face was pure white, as she’d never seen in her life in someone who wasn’t deathly ill.
She carried me on her back to my bed, and sent for the doctor, who felt me over and found no broken bones. When the doctor was gone, she got me crying first, which wasn’t hard, then, after a long while, calmed down. “Listen, Alé,” she said, once I could.
“Yours is a good idea. It would be a beautiful painting, so it’s exactly what they should do. But you don’t understand. They aren’t really fighting about that.”
“They aren’t?” I said, feeling my voice quiver and making it stop. “What are they really fighting about, then?”
“Father wants your mother to be obedient like a Makednian wife. Your mother thinks of herself as good as him because she is his wife, because she’s from Epeiros.”
Kynna understood, I saw, because her own mother was the same—or more, being a warrior. I could see no middle ground. “Why don’t they just be apart, then?”
“Oh no, no, Alé, you don’t want them to do that. If they did, you’d be a bastard and you’d never get to be King.” So much for that idea. “Something else you should know before you try to stop them from fighting,” Kynna said. “They like to fight.”
“Like to? Why?” That was the absolute antithesis of the Delphic Maxims, which they were paying my pedagogue well to teach me, because they were sacred. My father and his army had once fought as a ritual for Apollo, with wreathes on their helmets, my grandmother had told me; had he forgotten?
“I don’t know, but they do. I’ll show you—here, ride on my back again.” Careful to put her hands under my thighs more than my rear, she carried me back to the royal bedchamber door, which was now closed. “Shh, treasure. Listen.”
I heard their voices again, but no enraged words; instead they rose in rhythmic, quivering moans and gasps, his low note and her high one joined, like singers. It was the sound they made when they were giving each other ecstasy. By mistake I’d wandered in on them, and him with other people, a few times. I couldn’t believe it. “That’s the sound grownups make when they’re giving each other ecstasy,” Kynna whispered, taking my speechlessness for ignorance, or maybe knowing I needed it confirmed by reading my mind.
I was speechless all the way back to my room, where she gently let me down onto my bed again. After trying futilely to understand for a while, I said, “I still don’t ever want to see them fight like that again.”
“Then do what I do, Alé. Just get away. You come to me, and we’ll go off and do something fun—go down to the stables and bother the grooms until they let us ride around the yard, or play-fight, or play a game, or you can practice reading Homer and I’ll teach you the big words.” She knew what would make me happy. Her mother was teaching her the arts of war because that was permitted in Illyria, and though Kynna would never be allowed in the palaistra, the sacred precinct of naked training, she was passing them on to me in other palace courtyards.
She kept her promise always. She’d either come and get me, or I’d scratch on her door. When it was very bad, she’d let me sleep that night with my head on her shoulder.
After all that, my parents remembered what I wanted, because soon the artist was there, painting a big herd of horses. He did them in every position, grazing, frisking, whinnying, rearing, leaping, rolling, mounting, foaling, fighting. I remember falling asleep following their graceful lines by moonlight, until they galloped into my dreams, peaceful and knowing how beautiful they were.