man, huge and almost naked despite the cold, swallowed the flames from two torches and expelled them violently through his nose; the others played tunes on battered Boeotian instruments. After the opening act, they donned masks and performed a poetic farce about Theseus and the Minotaur. The gigantic fire-eater played the Minotaur, lowering his head and charging, playfully threatening to gore the spectators gathered around the columns of the Stoa. Suddenly, the mythical monster drew a broken helmet from a sack and made a great show of placing it on his head. Everyone recognised it - a Spartan hoplite's helmet. Just then, the old man with the daggers, playing Theseus, flung himself at the beast, and struck it until he brought it to the ground. It was a simple parody, its meaning perfectly clear to the audience. Someone shouted, 'Freedom for Thebes!' and the actors chorused the cry wildly while the old man stood triumphantly over the masked beast. Confusion broke out among the increasingly restless crowd, and the actors, fearing the arrival of soldiers, stopped the pantomime. But spirits were running high: slogans against Sparta were chanted, someone forecast the imminent liberation of the city of Thebes (which had suffered under the Spartan yoke for years), and others invoked the name of General Pelopidas - rumoured to be in exile in Athens since the fall of Thebes - calling him 'Liberator'. There was a violent commotion in which reigned equally the old bitterness towards Sparta and the jolly confusion caused by the wine and the feast. Some soldiers intervened, but when they heard that the cries were not against Athens but against Sparta, they restored order only reluctantly.
During all the violent tumult, one man had remained motionless and indifferent, oblivious to the clamour of the crowd. He was tall and thin, and wore a humble grey cloak over his tunic. With his pallor and shiny bald head he resembled one of the polychrome statues adorning the vestibule of the Stoa. A second man - short and fat (the exact opposite, in fact, of the first man) with a thick neck and a head that was slightly pointed at the crown - strolled up to him. They greeted each other briefly, as if expecting to meet, and as the crowd dispersed and the shouting - now crude insults - subsided, they headed down the street and out through one of the narrow gates of the Agora.
'The furious Plebeians insult the Spartans in Dionysus' honour,' remarked Diagoras contemptuously, clumsily attempting to slow his impetuous steps to Heracles' plodding pace. 'They mistake drunkenness for freedom, revelry for politics. What do we care about the fate of Thebes, or any other city, when we have shown that Athens herself matters not to us?'
Heracles Pontor, who had some interest in politics and, as a good Athenian, took part in the violent debates at the
Assembly, said: 'We're bleeding from the wound, Diagoras. In fact, our desire for Thebes to throw off the Spartan yoke shows that Athens matters very much to us. We may have been defeated but we will not forgive open insults.'
'And why were we defeated? Because of our absurd system of democracy! If we had allowed the best among us to govern instead of the people, we would still have an empire.'
'I prefer a small assembly where I can cry out, to a vast empire in which I must keep silent,' Heracles said, and suddenly regretted not having a scribe on hand, because he felt rather pleased with this sentence.
'Why should you have to keep silent? If you were one of the best, you would be able to speak out, and if you were not, why not strive to be so?'
'Because I don't want to be one of the best, but I want to speak out.'
'It's not a question of what you want, Heracles, but of the well-being of the City. For instance, who would you have decide a ship's course? The majority of sailors, or the man with the greatest knowledge of seamanship?'
'The latter, of course,' Heracles replied, adding, after a pause: 'As