With a PhD from Gerard Butler University, where resides a respectably white supremacist Department of Greek, Igneous Johnson had had only the best of classical education. So it came as no surprise that Zeus, in all his infinite wisdom, told me that out of all the Americans, Igneous would be the one to enjoy the privilege of time traveling to the birthplace of democracy. Given our friend Igneous’ scholarly interest in the Persian Wars and disdain for ahistorical body jewelry, the Cloudgatherer figured 480 BC, so that he could witness the Battle of Salamis, was the ideal target year.
It was neither the cicadas nor the mosquitoes that awoke Igneous on the little island in the Saronic Gulf. Rather the smell of death and desperation forced him to sit up, wipe his eyes, and look around at the largest refugee camp he had ever seen. His heart jumped. He reached up to the top of his head and was relieved to realize that he was not wearing his red Make America Great Again hat. He was still nervous, however. Is that… Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? He asked himself, squinting at someone in the dawn light and trying to remember a photo of the ISIL leader he’d seen on Breitbart. It wasn’t, but given the bushy beards and olive skin, he decided it would be best to find a Blue Helmet.
“Pretty weird refugee camp,” he muttered to himself. “And why do they have shields and spears?” The American “mutter” is like a shout anywhere else, so he got the attention of several people significantly browner than Gerard Butler.
“Μῶρε!” A man called out at him in a sort of stage-whisper. “Σῖγα! Παῖδες μοὺ καθεύδουσι!”
Igneous scratched his forehead. They continued to look at him. “Τίς ἐστι;” One of them said to another.
“᾽κ οἴδα,” the other one said, shrugging.
“Καὶ δὲ πόθεν ἐσθὴς δή;” The two men got up and approached him while several others watched on. “Πόθεν εἶ; Ποῖε βάρβαρε;” one of them said to him pointedly.
“Uh,” Igneous responded. “My name is Igneous. I am American.”
“Τὶ ᾽φη;” One of them asked the other.
“Οὒ τῶν Πέρσων.”
“Τί ᾽στι Ἀμήρικαν?”
“American. American,” he repeated. They gawked at him. “Sorry, uh, I don’t speak, uh…” He trailed off.
“Ὦ Ἠλέκτρα, τὶς αὕτα γλῶττα;”
“Tὶ ᾽ρωτᾷς μου; ἆρα μὴ φαίνομαι σοφίστης;” giggled a woman sitting several feet away.
“Ἴσως κατάσκοπος,” said another woman.
“Οὐδαμῶς!” another woman laughed before covering her mouth to keep the quiet. “Ποῖος μὲν κατάσκοπος φαίνεται οὕτως ἄτοπος; Τὶ δὲ θέλοι κατασκέψεσθαι ἡμᾶς ἐνθάδε;”
“Ναί, ναί,” one of the men just in front of Igneous said. They were all laughing now. Then he shrugged. “Ἆρα βούλῃ συναριστᾶν, ὦ βάρβαρε;” He said, walking back to where he had been sitting and picking up a bowl and a spoon. “Tὸ ἔτνος μόνον.”
“Ἄγε, ἄγε.” He pointed to a little stool next to him. “Κατακλῖναι,” he said. The others all laughed. Igneous walked over to the stool and sat down. It was not very comfortable. “Δὸς αὐτῷ,” the man said to the woman.
“Δίδωμι, δίδωμι,” she responded impatiently.
The woman handed Igneous a little ceramic bowl of some soupy gunk and a dirty wooden spoon. He smelled it first and then took a bite. It was a plain mixture of beans, peas, and water, but Igneous only then realized how hungry he was. He ate it politely in silence. They were still eyeing him curiously, but as his linguistic uselessness was now clear, they no longer asked him any questions. He was also confident at this point that they were not terrorists.
He looked around. The air was still cool in the sunrise. The camp was beginning to stir. People were tending little campfires and cooking probably the same soup he was eating. They looked poor. They were sleeping either on rough wool blankets or just on the ground. The sun was poking the camp with its rosy fingers, and the temperature was very pleasant. Igneous began to see just how large it was. There must have been thousands of people all around.
His eyes at one point fell on some letters painted onto a shield. Oh, he thought to himself. I can read that. Uh, alpha, theta, epsilon. Huh. Never heard of that frat.
“Ἠλέκτρα,” the man said, giving his bowl to the woman, “εἴσιμεν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ. Ὁ Θεμιστοκλῆς ἀγορεύσει πότερον προσβαλῶμεν ταῖς Πέρσαις ἢ ἀναχωρήσωμεν πρὸς τὸν Κόρινθον.”
At this, a boy who couldn’t have been much older than ten stirred from his wool blanket on the ground behind the woman. “῀Ω πάππα φίλε,” he said, “τέλος δὲ προσβαλλῶμεν ταῖς Πέρσαις;”
“Οὐκ οἶδα, Εὐφόριον μού,” the man responded. “Ἐπανελθόντες δ᾽ ἐρῶ σοι ἅττα ὁ Θεμιστοκλῆς φησι.”
“῀Ω Αἰσχύλε, πάρελε τὸν Ἀμήρικαν,” the woman said, enjoying this strange word that Igneous had said several times, “ἴσως ἄν τις ξυνιείη αὐτοῦ.”
“Ναί,” the man responded, standing up. “Ἄγε,” he said to Igneous, gesturing for him to come along. The women and children remained as Igneous and the other men followed the first man toward another part of the island. It was not a long walk, but Igneous noticed over the course of it that many other men were headed in the same direction. Not a single woman was joining them, and he wondered if maybe it was some kind of Sharia thing.
He was able to learn the word for “name,” “onoma.” The first man had pointed to himself several times and said, “Αἰσχύλος, Αἰσχύλος,” and then pointed to others and said things like, “Κλεισθένης,” “Κίμων,” and pointing at other members of the group. They had a laugh trying to pronounce Ἴγνειος, and discussed whether or not it was actually Ἴγνευς instead. What a barbarian name, they all agreed in a language Igneous knew nothing about.
Shortly they came to a big crowd of people standing around a raised platform. A man in a woolly robe but with a Spartan helmet resting on top of his head got up on the platform and started speaking. People listened but not silently, with many shouts of support with the occasional expression of what sounded like displeasure. People around Igneous’ little group also sometimes looked curiously at his T-shirt and cargo shorts. When the man was done speaking most people cheered, including Αἰσχύλος, so Igneous clapped a bit, which caused some of the men from his little group to chuckle at him.
People started mingling about and Αἰσχύλος tried to find out if anyone knew where Igneous might be from, but nobody had a clue what kind of name Ἴγνειος was or what Ἀμήρικαν might mean. As bizarre as this was, Igneous was actually happy that most people were shrugging him off. At least nobody seemed worried he was some kind of threat. In fact, they all seemed to be a little bit distracted now. Αἰσχύλος had spoken excitedly to the boy who had been sleeping on the wool sack when they returned to their little area, and since then they had all been rather quiet.
They were kind enough to feed Igneous a little lunch and a dinner, though they had nothing but the same watery pea soup as before. The day was warm and people spent it in a sort of pensive rest, like they were all waiting for something. Igneous did not get up and mill about much. The heat addled him a little bit and he stayed under the shade of a nearby tree for most of it. Besides, he had not seen a single camp staff member among the crowd of people, so it didn’t seem like it would be useful to go looking for any.
That night he was woken up when his watch said 4am. There was a silent commotion throughout the camp. All the men were kissing and embracing the women and children. He saw Αἰσχύλος whisper something into the ear of his wife, and saw her clutch his hand to her stomach. The little boy was tugging on his father’s robe. The couple kissed again before Αἰσχύλος patted his son on the head and then hurried off with the rest of them. Igneous was terribly curious, but his fear got the better of him. He lied motionless for what he thought was a couple minutes.
Before he knew it, his watch said 6am. There was another commotion. This time everyone was moving in the direction Αἰσχύλος had gone. Left alone now, he could not help himself. The sun was rising, so he stood up from the ground and jogged off after them.
It was not long before he came to a cliff that looked down over a gulf. Along the entirety of the cliff all the women and children in the camp were looking down at the water, where perhaps 300 big wooden rowing ships, the very kind out of 300: Rise of an Empire, were hauling themselves along toward a massive fleet of easily twice that many.
And then there was the chant. It rose up from the ships and out and over the cliff, barreling around the gulf, seeming already to topple the masts of the great fleet:
ὦ παῖδες Ἑλλήνων ἴτε, ἐλευθεροῦτε πατρίδ᾽, ἐλευθεροῦτε δὲ παῖδας, γυναῖκας, θεῶν τε πατρῴων ἕδη, θήκας τε προγόνων· νῦν ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀγών.
Igneous glanced around him. A few feet away was Αἰσχύλος’ wife and son, who were looking down not calmly but still tearlessly. The woman was running her fingers through the boy’s hair as he rested his head against her side. He did not flinch when the first of his father’s ships hammered its prow into the side of the enemy’s. He looked on as the ships of that great fleet, stuck in the narrow straits between wherever this was and wherever that was on the other side, began to crash against each other. He clutched his mother’s woolly robe in silence when, hours later, after his father’s new form of government had already been preserved by those honest, shit-covered free men in the holds of those ships, many others began to cleave apart the surviving enemy on the shore with the flotsam left over from the battle. Igneous did not watch in silence. Igneous quite rightly vomited. Nobody noticed him.
“Εὐφορίον φίλε,” Αἰσχύλος’ wife said to her son, “ἴμεν οἴκαδε.”
And Igneous still didn’t have the faintest idea what she had said. But then, neither did you, and probably neither did I.
“Hey idiot! Keep quiet! My kids are sleeping!” “Who is he?” “Dunno.” “And where are those clothes from?” “Where are you from? What sort of foreigner are you?” “What did he say?” “I don't know. It wasn't Persian.” “What is American?” “Electra, what's this language?” “Why are you asking me? Do I look like a sophist?” “Maybe he's a spy.” “No way. What kind of spy looks so ridiculous? And why would he want to spy on us right here?” “Yes, yes. Do you want breakfast, foreigner? It's just porridge. Come. Recline with us. Give him some.” “I'm giving it to him, I'm giving it to him.” “Electra, we're going to go to the assembly. Themistocles is going to speak on whether we should attack the Persians or retreat to Corinth.” “Daddy? Are we finally going to attack the Persians?” “I don't know, my Euphorion. When I come back I'll tell you what Themistocles says.” “Aeschylus, take the American. Someone might understand his language.” “Sure. Come on.” “Onward, children of Greeks, Free your fatherland, free your children, Your wives, the thrones of your fathers' gods, the tombs of your ancestors. Now is the fight for everything!” —Aeschylus, The Persians, lines 402 – 405 “Euphorion my dear, we're going home.”