History has two Testocles.
The rich kids from good Athenian families clamored to the fights at the Cynosarges gymnasium, the best fighters in town, always a good show. If you hung around long enough, you’d pummel and grapple and bleed and laugh with the rest.
The good Athenian families were distressed to see their sons doggy-fighting with foreigners from Cynosarges, the dogs of Argos. “We take in these stray Argive dogs, and now they’re showing our noble children how to snarl and bark and eat their own shit,” they would say. “The kynos-orcheis [dog’s balls] should lick themselves, not our sons.”
But Neocles didn’t mind. He was proud of his son’s scars. Any family with a Neocles, neo-kleos for new glory, had no excess of old glory. Perhaps his son would make something of himself and the family.
“Why do they call you Testocles?” Neocles asked his son. “Why don’t you tell them that your name starts with a theta, not a tau?”
Testocles knew better than to protest a nickname. After the battles of Marathon and Salamis against the Persians, everyone would remember forever the name Themistocles. For now, Testocles.
Many a brave soul did [the anger of Achilles] send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures.Homer, The Iliad, trans. Samuel Butler
Two hundred years earlier, another Testocles was being beaten to near death by his fellow students.
The clever children had already memorized the Iliad to the catalogue of ships and beyond. Testocles hadn’t made it past the dogs and vultures of the second line.
His mother died in childbirth and his father had fallen in battle. Out of respect and pity, the elders in his deme allowed him to follow the other children in their lessons, even though he was dull beyond measure.
Testocles was not dull, only inattentive. While the other students watched the teacher draw triangles in the dirt, Testocles gazed at the skies as he invented a language of squawks and caws for the vultures circling the fields. As he listened to the epics, his eyes drifted to the streets as he imagined names and lineages for the dogs.
At last, he spoke up: “If the dogs and vultures eat the brave souls of Achaeans and Trojans, shouldn’t the Muse sing the epics of the dogs and vultures?”
At the behest of Xelus, the teacher of epic poetry, the clever children led by young Peisistratus beat Testocles savagely. He lay in the dirt, drooling bubbles of bloody snot.
Testocles squawked to summon an avenging phalanx of vultures. The vultures did not come.
Testocles whined to summon a rescuing file of dogs. The dogs, they came. Dogs of the line of Herganos of the Herganossians, strongest of the curs. Dogs of the Xipyonians from Xipynos, island of endless shade. The direct descendants of dogs who dined on the warriors killed by Achaean heroes such as Ajax and Achilles.
And the dogs told him: We will dine on your corpse and spray your name, Testocles, upon all the roots of the earth. But first you must perform great deeds.
The customary path to great deeds goes through battle, and you rarely had to wait long. Yet Testocles was no warrior. He was barely able to carry a shield. To spear enemies while also carrying a shield? Such physical feats were unthinkable. Homer or his descendants would never write his story of valor in battle. Nor would the poets write odes about his prowess on horseback. He would win no discus-throwing contest. His javelin would set no distance records.
The poets were as weak as he, so what about them? At every competition, the poets awarded each other prizes. Could he win one of their prizes? Could he find a troupe of actors to perform his play at the competitions? Or compose an ode whose lyrics would travel around the known world?
No, what they wanted to hear, he didn’t want to sing. What he wanted to sing, they didn’t want to hear.
Testocles had dark thoughts. If I cannot perform great deeds in the world of men, he reasoned, what of the world of dogs? What are great deeds to dogs? What are great deeds to vultures?
Carcasses, piles of carcasses. The lion kills and takes its share. The dogs rip into the carcasses left behind. The vultures pick at the organs and bones.
The men, they emulate lion-hearted Achilles and the resourceful Odysseus. The dogs and vultures, they praise Helen for what her beauty provoked in men. Absent the beauty of Helen, there would be no rage of Achilles, no Trojan war, no glorious death, no heaping carcasses left on the plains.
The dogs and vultures demand their carcasses.