The Man Who Ate Greek Coins
by Gustav Hasford

When Alexander resigned, it is reported that there was a very beautiful strumpet in Alexandria that from her childhood always fed on spiders.  And for that reason the king was admonished that he should be careful not to embrace her lest he be poisoned by venom...
                E. Topshell
                The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents, London 1607

 

It is an uncirculated silver tetradrachma of Philip II of Macedonia (359-338 B.C.).  Philip II was the father of Alexander the Great, the energetic young warrior who made good even though he started out as nothing more than a king's son.
    The fat, heavy coin is beautiful there in the center of Billy's dinner plate.  For a true-hearted lover of antiquity, the coin is chock-a-block full of nutritional values.
    "WILLIAM?  ARE YOU IN THERE?  DO YOU KNOW YOUR DINNER IS GETTING COLD?"
    Billy doesn't know what to say.
    "WILLIAM?  DON'T YOU HEAR ME TALKING?  YOU GOT TO EAT, YOU KNOW.  YOU WANT TO PASS AWAY?"
    Crushed by a phalanx of details, Billy wishes he were Alexander the Great.  Confronted with the problem of the Gordian Knot, Alexander chopped it in half with one stroke of the sword.  Alexander the Great didn't fool around.
    Trying to sound like a leader of men, like a veteran of wars: "I'm just not hungry, dear."
    "BUT YOU AIN'T ATE FOR A WEEK, WILLIAM.  YOU'RE SO DARN TOUCHY.  YOU'LL GET SICK.  YOU'LL LOSE YOUR JOB..."
    A lie: "I'll be out soon, dear."
    "Promise?"
    "Of course.  You have my word as an officer."
    Footsteps.
    The tetradrachma is delicious.
    A kaleidoscope of images: Socrates walking, tanned girls in wisps of white, the navy of Athens, athletes at the Olympics, Aphrodite in white marble, Aristophanes wearing a great wooden phallus, sirens tempting sailors, olive groves in the sun, Bacchus and his panthers, the yellow vapors of Delphi, Aristotle lisping as he talks with Alexander, blind Homer charming the mob with tales of dead heroes, the host springs of Thermopylae...
    His eyes focus on his room: His miniature reproductions of Greek sculpture have been broken. Paperback books--torn apart.  On the floor, fragments of engravings depicting great moments in Greek history.  Stacked on the bed, empty frames which held Greek coins, arranged by city-states.  Now the coins are scattered all over the floor.
    He was at the laundromat when she burned his helmet.  He'd made the helmet from a cardboard bucket from Kentucky Fried Chicken.  A can of silver spray paint covered Colonel Sanders and "It's Finger-Lickin' Good!"
    She burned his maps with lighter fluid.  "For your own good!" she said, and meant it.  "Face facts!" she said, and burned them up.
    The tetradrachma falls into his belly sack on top of a hundred other coins--the first piece Billy ate was a bronze obol bearing a finely styled bust of Athena on the obverse and the sacred owl of Athens on the reverse--very tiny, yet tasty.
An obol was placed in the mouths of dead Greeks to pay their passage to Charon, the boatman on the river Styx.
    That first day, the flavor of the obol was strong and tangy and Billy swallowed it with a glass of warm Mogen David wine.  And then came the silver slater of Thasos, depicting a satyr wrestling with a nymph; a Corinth piece with an image of Pegasus, the winged horse; an electrum coin of Carthage; a large specimen from the island city-state of Aegina bearing a great sea turtle; and a gold slater of Boetia stamped with the fierce image of a Chimera.  The coins in his belly are miniature works of art, tiny metal sculpture wrought with dies cut by skilled artisans and pounded into crude pieces of metal one coin at a time by Ethiopia slaves.
    Billy feels good, feels the coins, feels the tiny shields and spears and javelin throwers and Zeus and everything that was Greece and that was fine.
    Like Diogenes, who killed himself by refusing to breathe, Billy drowns in a coma.  The pain is not important.  He controls his fear with Spartan discipline and Athenian philosophy.
    Billy does his impression of Mr. Richard Egan, a Hollywood actor who portrayed Leonidas in the film, The 300 Spartans.  Talking to himself, Billy says, "From this place, we do not retreat."  He feels that the impression is a good one, and that Mr. Egan would approve.
    Leonidas, one of the co-kings of Sparta, told all his friends that the blood of Hercules was in his own blood.  It is unclear whether this was a historical fact or a public relations release.
    Alexander the Great of Macedonia ruled from 336 to 323 B.C. and conquered all of the known world.  He did pretty good for a short guy.  When he ran out of world, he wept by the Indus.  He was Pharaoh of Egypt, epileptic, and he brought back peaches from Persia.  He bequeathed his kingdom to "the strongest" and died.  His corpse was put on display in a glass coffin, embalmed in honey.
    Archimedes was executed by Roman soldiers while drawing circles in the sand.
    When Philip of Macedon wrote to the Spartans that, if he came within borders he would not leave one stone of their city, the Spartans replied with one word: "If."
    The Spartans had a public official whose duty was to get drunk and make a fool out of himself as an object lesson for the young men.
    Odysseus took nine years to reach Ithaca, even though Ithaca was not far away.  Odysseus had red hair and liked to call himself Ulysses to mess people up.
    Falling...Billy on the floor...his nose crushed into a torn map he clipped from a National Geographic: Beyond This Place There Be Dragons... Billy whispers, "Rejoice! We conquer!" and laughs--strong, healthy, standing on new soil in a sun-washed world, tall and tanned and loving himself in his new battle helmet.  The Macedonian helmet is bronze and leather with a red crest of dyed horsehair.

Is it not passing brave to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?

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