It’s difficult to say what exactly made Eraton up and leave his home, but leave he did. He was born in the small city of Axos in central Crete around or just before the middle of the third century BCE. As an able-bodied citizen he was expected to be a soldier and in third-century Crete there were plenty of opportunity to exercise this civic duty. At that time Crete was home to some 50 independent city-states, which were in almost constant state of competition for territory. As a consequence of the constant warring among the island’s city-states (and probably furthered by the concentration of land on still fewer hands) warriors became one of Crete’s primary exports during the Hellenistic period. Eraton was only one among many Cretans to hire out his martial skills.
And there were plenty of takers. The armies of the great Hellenistic kings were in constant demand for new recruits. Around the time Eraton left his native Axos approximately 143,000 men collided in a massive battle outside Raphia, not far from modern Gaza, that left some 12,500 men dead (and 21 elephants).
Eraton, however, sailed off to the island of Cyprus to find employment. At that time Cyprus was in the hands of the king of Egypt, who had a reputation for being the best paymaster a mercenary could hope to find.
While he was there he took a wife. After all, there was no reason why a mercenary could not also be a family man. At the time of his death Eraton left not only a wife, but also two sons. How he met his end is not known, but given his profession it is possible that it was a violent one. Whatever happened more misfortune was visited on his family. His wife and sons were captured and put up for sale. Eraton’s oldest son Epikles was sold to masters in the city of Amphissa in central Greece, far away from Cyprus. Nothing is known of his mother or his brother.
Though now no longer someone else’s property, as a foreigner he did not enjoy the same protection under the law as citizens.
In Amphissa, Epikles eventually managed to buy back his freedom. He did not return to Cyprus or even his father’s city of Axos, remained in Amphissa, where he married and had three children of his own: two sons, Erasiphon and Timonax, and a daughter named Melita. But life as a former slave was precarious. Though now no longer someone else’s property, as a foreigner he did not enjoy the same protection under the law as citizens. That, however, would soon change.
It is something of a mystery how Epikles made contact with the city of his father. He had never lived there or exercised his citizen rights, but word reached the magistrates in his father’s native city in Crete. In a meeting of the people’s assembly, to which all adult male citizens were invited, the Axians acknowledged Epikles’ citizenship and decided ask the city of Amphissa to afford Epikles and his family the same protection which her own citizens enjoyed. For it happened that the city of Axos had entered into an agreement for equal citizenship with the Aitolian League, a federation of city-states to which Amphissa belonged.
In order to make good that Epikles was in fact a citizen of Axos, the magistrates of that city (called kosmoi) sent a letter to the Aitolians outlining Epikles’ story from the departure of his father from Axos, his birth, his capture, sale and subsequent release in Amphissa. The matter was brought before the assembly of the Aitolians who acknowledged the report and decided to publish the letter as permanent and visible evidence of Epikles’ citizenship. Their decision was inscribed on two blocks of stone one of which was set up in the sanctuary in Thermos. The other was set up in Delphi and survives to this day. Following the order of the Aitolian assembly to set up the inscription, the full letter can be read:
The kosmoi and the city of Axos to the [councillors] and the general and the hipparch of the Aitolians, greetings. Know that Eraton, being a citizen of ours, but having sailed off to Cyprus to serve as a soldier and having taken there a wife, had two children, who were called Epikles and Euagoras. Upon the death of Eraton in Cyprus it happened that Epikles and his siblings as well as their mother were captured and Epikles was sold to Amphissa. Having bought his release Epikles lives with you in Amphissa being a citizen of ours, himself as well as his sons Erasiphon and Timonax and his daughter Melita. [Therefore] you will do [well] to remember this so that if anyone attempts to harm [them], he might be prevented by you, collectively or individually, and that an everlasting record be made of their citizenship.
(Syll.3 622. Delphi, around the year 180 BCE)
Epikles’ official family history, carved in stone and displayed in Delphi takes the reader (ancient as well as modern) on an impressive Odyssey across the Aegean, from Crete to Cyprus, to Amphissa. But the legal and social boundaries traversed by the family are even more stunning. From citizen, to free foreigners, to slaves and back to free foreigners and eventually citizens.
We usually think of ‘citizen’, ‘free foreigner’ and ‘slaves’ as distinct categories (as did the Greeks themselves), but this family went through the list twice in two generations. One wonders how many more had similar stories to tell.