by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright 2010
The image of the man with a machine gun behind a medieval king’s tent is a common symbol of how a time traveler with a new idea could influence history. It’s a potent image, but if time travelers wanted to influence history would that really be the most effective way?
Here’s a story about an alternative approach that might produce a better story to pass down through history. This is a story of 21st-century mercenaries time traveling to 2nd-century Greece and influencing history without becoming a part of history.
Note that this is a quiet story. The action story is the history of Alexander the Great. This story is about what people are seeing and thinking.
And it is about how the tools we have affect how we live.
I remember it like it was yesterday.…
Yes, I was as proud as any child could be and my father was as proud as any man could be. It was the day I was selected to be trained for Philip of Macedonia’s Immortals.
It was a sunny day in late winter. One of those sunny, windy, spring-like days that gets kids shouting, running, and jumping because it’s a break from winter’s cold and dreary days and they hope it means spring has arrived at last, and parents smiling at their children because they know it means a new storm is coming, not spring. On this day all the village lined up on the main street. In the morning a detachment of Philip’s soldiers had paraded down it in front of us, and they looked sharp. They wore shining armor and clean clothes and marched with wondrous precision. Now they stood on one side of the road while the villagers stood on the other. In between us the head of the detachment walked, inspecting the village children.
Beside him walked a man most strangely dressed, in a way that was full of paradoxes. Instead of white and red cloth covered with leather and brass armor his clothes were a mottled green and brown, and they fit the contours of his body quite closely. Yet in spite of the close fit and strange fabric they looked very comfortable. His feet were completely covered with shining black leather boots that stretched well above his ankles, yet in spite of that large coverage and close fit they did not impede his movement. He wore a black floppy hat yet it didn’t flop.
But most impressive of all were his size and the way he moved. He was huge! He was a giant! Not just in height but in girth as well. Yet he did not move like the clumsy giant freaks I had seen once in a circus. He moved with speed, grace, and discipline, as if he was fully the master of his body and his clothes.
And his face was impressive too. It was near spring, so all the village faces were thin and drooping and our eyes were dull—it was the look that came with eating stored wintertime food for months and months. It was the look that spring tonic was designed to ease, but the early plants that made up spring tonic were still a month from sprouting. Yet his face and eyes were harvest-time plump and bright. It looked as if he ate like harvest time all year round!
Yes, he was impressive, and I noticed I was far from the only one who stared at him.
And he could read words! He had paper with him, lots of it. He handled it so casually you could believe there were pounds more waiting wherever he got it from. It was so strange to watch.
The man was introduced to us by the detachment chief as a demigod. As he and the detachment chief walked down the line of children, they would recite their names. The demigod consulted his papers and gave some of the children a blessing. The blessings took many forms. Some were pronouncements, like the one I was about to receive; some were rituals (a common one was to run over to another demigod dressed in white and have something kind of tingly done to your arm); some were physical gifts. When he got to me…
“This fall, you will come to Amphipolis to begin training for the Immortals,” was his pronouncement.
The Immortals! This was the elite force in Philip of Macedonia’s new army. I was to become part of the Immortals?
“This means you may become part of The Immortals,” the detachment chief explained. “You will school for them and have the right to try out for them but it is by no means certain that you will gain entrance.” He looked at me sternly but with clear respect. “You will come to Amphipolis after your village has finished the harvest.”
“ … Coon … carn … congratulations,” said the demigod, smiling. I remember I was a little surprised that he didn’t speak our language easily. But clearly he was talking like some kind of foreigner. I thought, “I guess the gods don’t teach their children Macedonian, even if we are the chosen people.”
Along with the pronouncement I got a gift, a lightweight close-fitting shirt from the demigod. It was soft and bright white and on it was a magnificent image of a cavalryman with his sword drawn, and under the cavalryman was some writing. I was told by my father that I should wear that shirt at special occasions, like festival days, but I wore it all spring, summer and fall. I loved that shirt! I couldn’t wear it enough!
Now I don’t think it’s surprising that it got worn, gray, and shabby by that fall, but at the time I did. It made me nervous and uncertain. It was a gift from the gods! Why wasn’t it lasting forever? It was over the years that I found that all gifts from these demigods faded quickly with time.
When the review was over it was time for the feast. There was always a feast when the demigods came so they were always welcome. They brought strange fruits and meats, even then, in early spring! The fruits were strange to us but always ripe, sweet, and sooo tasty! The meats were so filled with fat that at spring feasts like these we villagers could usually only eat a small piece or two. I remember my nose sniffing and saying “I want more!” but my stomach saying “Oh no you don’t! It’s too rich and you’ll get really sick.” But the demigods feasted as well and we watched as they ate plate after plate of the feast food.
The demigods always told us, “Eat as much as you want, but eat it all here. Don’t take any with you.” Once I saw them stop someone who was leaving and pull a piece of meat from their shirt. When the feast was finished the demigods cleaned up the tables and the Detachment Commander had us children clean up the surroundings very thoroughly. He said, “The demigods say they mustn’t leave any of their stuff behind except the gifts.” This insistence on unnatural tidiness was a small mystery compared to the great joy that their coming always brought the village.
After the feast and just before the detachment left there was a quick ritual that I didn’t even catch the first few times it happened. As the feast was being cleaned up the chief demigod and some of the detachment would lead away some of the villagers to a nearby secluded area—usually ten, sometimes as many as twenty. What happened there was a mystery to me as a child, but that year when I was selected I got to go on that ritual for the first time.
The villagers were lined up between the men of the detachment. They would bare their chests, men and women alike. The demigod would then walk by each and put a green-handled, deadly-looking twelve-inch knife to their chest, just below the sternum, and two soldiers would hold them tightly. Most of the time nothing happened. The demigod would stand there for thirty seconds, and stare hard at the villager. Once he did more; he lunged and the knife plunged into the villager’s chest but not far. Blood came out and after five seconds the demigod pulled the knife back and moved on.
That day, only one person was cut, but I now knew where those distinctive chest scars came from that I saw on some adult villagers.
That evening I talked to my father about what I’d seen.
“That was a warning. The demigods say they can see the future and the past. Those who are not cut are simply witnesses. Those who are cut are being warned: They are thinking of doing something wrong or they have actually done something wrong but there is still hope and value to them. If a person is beyond hope the demigod will plunge the knife a second time, all the way into the heart. Such a person will be said to have died of sudden disease.”
The army detachment with the demigods came four times a year. They always came when the weather was good. They had always been coming as best I could remember but my father says they started coming about the time I was born. That summer when the detachment came back one of the soldiers got a great cheering from the village. “Jason! Jason!” They cheered as he marched in the parade.
My father explained, “You were not the first to be picked for the Immortals, nor will you be the last, I hope. Jason was picked two years ago. Now he’s come back!” And my father cheered him as well, “Jason! Jason!”
Jason mingled well with the village. Even when the parading was finished and he was off-duty he looked sharp, if a bit stiff. He was courteous with his family and the village elders and brought gifts for them that had all the villagers oohing and aahing in wonder and pleasure. I could see that it was going to be good to be an Immortal.
As the feast was nearing its end he came to me.
“You are Nestor, aren’t you?” he said, sounding half-official.
“ … Yes? Sir?” I said. I was in awe that he would talk to me.
“I’m not a ‘sir’, not yet. Call me ‘Cadet’. That’s short for Senior Cadet.
“I will be coming with the detachment in fall and I will take you to Amphipolis. You will be my squire while you are training.”
“Yes … Cadet?”
He smiled. I guess I was saying it right. It was a new word for me. That brought home to me that there would be a lot of new things for me when I left that fall. I got kinda scared for a while, but my family and my village were all very proud and all summer they helped me plan and prepare for that big day.
The fall visit came, and as was becoming customary we had our harvest games when the detachment came as well as the feast. We found that the detachment soldiers were good at games, and as might be expected the demigods were even better. The games gave us a chance to see the bodies under those strange clothes, and they were as amazing as the clothes. The demigods came in many sizes, shapes, and skin colors, but most amazing all those sizes, shapes and skin colors looked flawless—there was plenty of muscle and fat under the flesh and there were hardly any scars or pocks on the flesh. Those scars we did see were so small and neat that they surely had been magically attended to. They also all had wonderful, white, straight teeth. The human side of these demigods was perfect.
When the games ended I made the days-long journey to Amphipolis with Jason.
My stay in Amphipolis was engaging. We spent much of our time getting a first-rate education from tutors brought in from Athens, Thebes, Corinth, and Miletus. We even had a Spartan, but he turned out to be a really strange fellow with what seemed to be pretty backwoods ideas so we laughed at him behind his back, even though the other tutors showed him great respect to his face.
That part of our education was first-rate but conventional—conventional in the sense that it was the same kind of education that our richer, city-living neighbors to the south gave their noble children. But for a few days every month we would journey north into the countryside for a field trip, and on those field trips we would either study what the demigods were teaching country folk or meet with the demigods personally for some face-to-face training.
In those face-to-face sessions the demigods always talked about revolution. One of them would get in front of us and say something like:
“You men are going to be leaders of a revolution that will shake the world. The Greeks to the south are rich and famous and have a lot of learning. But they haven’t learned how to work together. By Hades, even they know this! You are going to do something that has never been done before: Unifying the Greeks. And when you’ve done that you will have laid the foundation for unifying the known world!
“My friends and I are here to help you do this. The task won’t be easy and some of you will die before it is finished. That we can’t help. But what we can do is see that if you die you die gloriously. Those of you who work with us, I guarantee will not die of something stupid like shitting yourself to death from some strange disease or starving away like some poor, lame beggar or freezing to death after losing a battle on some cold lonely mountainside. That won’t happen! If you die you will go down to an arrow in the heart or a well-thrust spear in the hands of an honorable enemy. Your family will know of your honor and they will be taken care of.
“But … most of you are going to live! And you’re going to be part of one of the greatest conquests in the history of the world!”
And then he would go on to talk about some practical topic, such as tactics, or supply, or proper fitting of armor.
The demigods never talked about treachery, but every retreat ended with a “knife session” and there were a few in my class who “died of acute disease.” What they had done, or would do was never discussed by the demigods but people speculated endlessly.
Now that I look back on those days, the demigods were strange like that. We never saw them in Amphipolis or any other city. We didn’t have meetings there and we never saw them in parades or casually walking the streets of cities or in famous temples or other popular places. We would see them regularly and their information was hugely valuable for both its practical value and for its confidence building. But we would see them only in the countryside or in other pretty dull places. They would show up before exciting events but never at exciting events.
Likewise they shunned big city scribes. Occasionally, especially in the early days, a scribe from Athens or Thebes or some such would come to Macedonia to research our success. If the conversation turned to the role of the demigods they would ask to meet them. We Macedonians never received any specific instructions about scribes but if one of these big city scribes came to a meeting place the demigods were never there to be seen. This was consistently true and it didn’t take long for the scribes to decide that Macedonians telling them about demigods were yanking their chain. Likewise, the Macedonians who dealt with the demigods figured out that inviting scribes was a sure way to produce a demigod no-show. So after a while the scribes and Macedonians agreed to disagree on the issue of demigods. Now that I think back on it, all this was strange behavior for a people who most loved to talk about making history.
Strange or not the demigod meetings made a difference. Before the coming of the demigods Macedonia was a place that could be great but it never was. It had the forests, it had the fertile valleys, and the Macedonians were as brave, fierce, and cunning as any Greek. But … our cunning was a particular problem. Give a Macedonian half a chance and half a reason and he would slit your throat. As a result the blood feuds ran every which way through the region and if you brought ten Macedonians together in the morning for a project so staggering that it would shake the entire world there would be nine by the next morning, and some more vengeance paid and some more due, and the nine remaining would return home before there were only eight.
This Macedonian Cunning that was our birthright was something that was strange to the demigods. They could see it but they couldn’t seem to understand it. We never saw them betray each other and they always acted strangely with regards to betrayal. They acted like their fellow demigods were completely trustworthy, like they were brothers, even though they weren’t. If you watched them for a while it got kind of upsetting, actually … watching all those wonderful ambush opportunities … just passed by without a second thought … even children weren’t that naive!
But King Philip understood cunning. He thrived on it. It was one of the tools he used to build our country. And the demigods supported him so we supported Philip. But I get ahead of myself.
While I was studying in Amphipolis Philip was about his first and hardest task: Unifying the Macedonians. Others had tried before him and failed, because for as long as anyone could remember a man’s tribe determined a man’s loyalty.
But we were a changing people. Ideas from the southern Greeks were coming to our lands, and by picking and choosing from those ideas we were prospering. There were more of us now because we picked up farming ideas and we understood the world better because we picked up trading ideas. Now we were also prospering more than those bastard barbarians who bordered us to the west, north, and east, so it was payback time.
That’s how Philip got us unified to start with: He showed us that if we would just stick together for a few days without killing each other we could have a whole lot more fun and glory killing barbarians than we could killing each other. The demigods wanted us to learn this but it was Philip who was the teacher.
It wasn’t an easy lesson. There were lots of backsliders and Philip had to be a stern taskmaster. He killed a lot of traitors—I wouldn’t be surprised if he taught the demigods the knife ritual. But he let many minor traitors live, too, if they let him educate their children. In retrospect that may have had something to do with why I was selected for Immortal training; my father was a village leader.
Slowly and steadily those who could not get with the program were weeded out. Slowly and steadily the farmers and craftsmen learned how to pull more from the land and make better equipment. To our surprise it was only twenty years before Philip had whipped us into a force that was ready to take on Greeks and Persians! I was there. Some of my blood is on five fields of battle and there is blood of my foes on eighteen.
Then crisis: Philip dies. Rumors abound about the cause but that’s not the real crisis. The real crisis is what do we Macedonians do now? Do we backslide into an orgy of vendettas or do we stay united?
It’s here, at this crisis, that the demigods make their second biggest difference. The meetings continue, quietly. The demigods show their deep understanding of the situation.
They don’t say, “We back this man,” or “We back that man.” If they had said that they would have been choosing sides and made enemies of those not chosen. They would have rapidly brought back traditional Macedonia—an interlocking mass of blood feuds.
What they said instead was, “You must choose your new leader quickly. Greece is yours and Persia is there for your plucking. We see this clearly in your future but … only … only if you choose quickly and you all back the new choice.”
Alexander, Philip’s second son, moved the most quickly and decisively. In six weeks it was clear he could lead and by the end of the year all Macedonia agreed to follow him. The demigods had not fought and had not endorsed, but they had helped us steer clear of the traditional years-long way of determining succession and in so doing had kept us on the path to eternal glory.
The second most memorable day in my life was when my battalion of Immortals stood on the edge of the Bosporus—the “river” that separates Europe from Asia. I remember the hiss of the wind in the pine trees. I remember the mix of sea smell and pine smell. I remember the countless seagulls flying overhead and over the Bosporus itself. I remember the huge current of water flowing through the Bosporus that was upwelling fish and thus providing home to those seagulls. Just days after we arrived we crossed that mighty river with the rest of Alexander’s army, and the rest is the history you are in the process of writing.
It is amazing what we accomplished, but it is also amazing that the demigods who helped us so much successfully became such a minor part of this tale that will be told through the ages. Truly, they were the ones who understood history-making.