The following is one of the parts of Men of Old Greece, by Jennie Hall.
It was in one of the soldiers’ huts at Sparta. Fifteen men, young and old, sat at mess. The heavy table before them had no cloth and few dishes. The seats were backless benches. The ceiling and walls of the hut were of rough, round logs. The floor was of dirt. Against one of the walls leaned long spears. The men were clothed in coarse gray chitons. There was no shine of gold or flash of color to make the place beautiful, but there were some things there more beautiful than gold or gay cloaks — the men’s broad shoulders, the working muscles of their brown arms, their high-lifted heads, and tumbled hair.
While the others were eating, an old man spoke.
“I heard today of a good deed,” he said. “It was of young Lysander there, our messmate.”
As all eyes turned upon Lysander, he flushed and looked hard into his red bowl of broth.
“Three nights ago he went hunting on Mount Taygetus,” the old man went on. “During the night, Cleombrotus happened to pass by a deep rock pit. He saw something move down there, and he called out ‘Hello!’ Nobody answered. He peered down and saw that it was a man in the pit. ‘A bad fall,’ said Cleombrotus. ‘I will let down my hunting net and pull you out.’ The answer came: ‘You waste time. Does it take two men to get one man out of a hole?’ So Cleombrotus came away chuckling. He knew Lysander’s voice. I do not know how the lad got out, but I do know that he did not come back until today, and I saw that the skin was torn from his knees and toes and palms.”
Another man struck his hand upon the table.
“Done like a soldier and a Spartan!” he cried.
Lysander glanced up at him shyly with happy eyes.
Four little boys sat wide-eyed among these soldiers. The old man looked at the smallest one.
“What do you think of Lysander’s deed, Leonidas?” he asked.
The boy drew in his breath quickly.
“I wish I had done it,” he said. The man sitting next the boy clapped him on the shoulder.
“So this is your first day away from home?” he laughed.
“Yes,” answered Leonidas.
“Well, what do you think of our mess?”
“It is like being a soldier. I like it.”
“Do you know why you came here?”
“Because Sparta sent me.”
“But why did Sparta send you?”
“She needs soldiers.”
“Yes,” the old man said with flashing eyes; “and we all are born only to be her soldiers. Is there a finer thing in the world than to fight for Sparta?”
“Did you cry this morning when you left home, Leonidas?” another man asked teasingly.
“No. Why should I cry? I have come to be a soldier. Spartans do not cry.”
“But you did not like to leave your mother?”
“Sparta is my mother. And Sparta lives in the soldiers’ huts. I have come to live with her. That is what my mother told me.”
A man reached his hand across the table and said, smiling:
“Give me your hand, lad. Well said! But your manners need mending. Your mother has spoiled you. Boys should listen, not talk. A boy’s great virtue is modesty.”
The men rose from the table. It was night. They took their spears from the wall and walked away home. The lanes were dark and narrow, but the men carried no torches, for the Spartans had long ago made this law: “Men shall always walk in the city without torches, for in war they must march and scout in the dark.”
The boys were still in the hut. One of the men, too, had stayed. It was his duty to look after the boys of Sparta. Now he called these lads to him and said:
“Remember Lichas’s words: ‘A boy’s great virtue is modesty.’ When you are with older men, your tongue cannot teach them, so let your ears learn. For that purpose you visit the men’s mess. There you will hear more wisdom in one breath than you can speak in a whole day. Now report to your Iren. Remember — modesty! Your eyes on the ground! The gods give you sweet rest!”
The boys walked away slowly, their lips closed, their eyes turned to the ground. They went to another hut. It had but one large room. Here sat a young man in a heavy oak chair. A burning pine torch was thrust into the wall above his head. The smoky light flickered dimly on perhaps twenty boys standing about. They were from seven to eighteen years old. A grown man leaned against the door casing, spear in hand. As the four boys came in, they walked up to the young man in the chair and gave their names, and said:
“Returned from Lichas’s mess, Iren.”
Iren was a name that meant captain of a boy’s company.
“We are all in now,” said the Iren. “Give us a song, Anaxander.”
Anaxander took a lyre down from its peg on the wall. He ran his fingers over the strings and sang this song:
I hope to fall in battle, sword in hand,
for men will sing and women praise me then.
‘Here lies a Spartan hero dead,’ they’ll say;
‘let Sparta build for him a splendid tomb.
And on the tomb his statue high shall stand.
And Sparta’s men and lads shall come to see
how well our Sparta loves the strong and brave.’
Then raise the battle cry and draw your swords,
press close together, comrades, into line.
Now sword and spear and death for Sparta’s sake!
But all men hate the coward that turns and flees;
from that most shameful day lie longs for death,
for boys and women point at him and sneer,
and men all turn their heads aside and scowl.
He slinks from door to door to beg his bread,
he dares not show his face in Sparta’s streets.
At last he dies of shame and finds no grave.
Then raise the battle cry and draw your swords,
press close together, comrades, into line.
Now sword and spear and death for Sparta’s sake!
“Sparta, Sparta! A soldier’s death for me!” shouted all the lads.
“A good song,” said the Iren. You shall teach our new boy, Leonidas, to sing and to play the lyre. Tomorrow night I will see whether he has learned his strings. Leonidas, it is as much the duty of a soldier to sing as it is to fight, for how can he pray to the gods if he cannot sing? That puts courage into men’s hearts.”
Then he turned to another boy.
“Alcanor, what is the best thing in Sparta?”
The boy thought for a moment and then answered:
“A hero’s tomb, for it has in it a man who was brave, and it teaches other men to be brave.”
“Well answered,” said the Iren. “Pausanias, what makes a man brave?”
“Love of Sparta makes men brave,” cried Pausanias.
“A bad answer!” said the Iren. “It is the laws of Sparta that make men brave, for do not the laws say that boys shall not live at home among the women, but in camp with soldiers? Do the laws not say that men shall walk without torches through the dark? Do the laws not say that cowards shall be punished? And is this not what makes our men brave? Come here. You shall be punished for your bad answer. Let this help you to remember what makes men brave.”
As he said that, he bit Pausanias’ thumb. The thumb turned white under the teeth, but the boy did not wince. Then the Iren turned to someone else.
“Zeno, why should you steal flour for our bread tomorrow?”
“Because I am to be one of Sparta’s soldiers,” Zeno answered, “and when our army is in the enemy’s country, there is no other way to get food.”
“Good,” said the Iren. “Go and do it. But if you are caught, you shall be punished. And if you get no flour, you shall not eat tomorrow.”
As Zeno went out of the door, the Iren said to the others:
“Off to the Eurotas! If you do not want to sleep on the bare floor tonight, come back with your arms full of rushes. And be sure that you use no knife to cut them. A soldier’s hands must take a few scratches.”
So the boys scampered off through the dark to the river. Only the Iren and the man were left in the hut.
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“Well done,” said the man. “But in one thing you made a mistake. Pausanias’s answer was a good one. The love of Sparta does make men brave. Often in a battle have I thought: ‘Sparta is my mother.’ Then my arm has grown strong, and my heart bold. Your answer, also, was true. But Sparta needs thoughtful officers. Let this remind you to think twice before you punish a boy again.”
He struck the Iren across the legs with a leather strap.
“I will try to remember,” the young man answered.
The other nodded and put his hand on the Iren’s shoulder.
“The gods send sweet sleep to you!” he said. Then he walked away.
Soon the boys came straggling back. They threw their rushes down in a corner or next to the wall of the hut. Then, without undressing, they lay down upon them to sleep. There was nothing but the damp rushes to throw over themselves if they grew cold. But every boy was proud of that, thinking, “A soldier has nothing to cover him.”
Leonidas came in among the last. His hands were cut and bleeding, but he thought, “I have to do this to be a soldier.”
This thought made him happy.
At last, everybody in the hut was asleep. And in other cabins all about, people were sleeping. Some campfires burned. Guards in armor, with spears in their hands, walked up and down. It was like a great camp in time of war. Yet there was no war and no fear of it. The men of Sparta always lived like this. They were always soldiers.
The next morning, the boys were called at daybreak. There was no dressing, for they had slept in their clothes. There was only a run to the river and a cold plunge and a rough combing of hair with ringers. Then they ran back to the campground. The older men were gathering there, everyone with his spear. Many slaves were working about, building fires.
The different Irens called their boys together. Twenty or thirty companies stood in soldiers’ order.
“Line up for the foot race,” called the Iren of Leonidas’s group.
After the running, the Iren called to one of the larger boys:
“Come teach these little boys to box.”
All over the field, other companies were doing the same thing. The men walked among them, looking on. They gave praise when a boy did well. They stopped the game when it was wrong, and showed the right way to do. It was a busy, noisy, happy place.
After the boys had played for some time, a trumpet blew. Like a flash, all the men fell into line, bodies straight, heads up. Every man wore a red chiton that came to his knees. His feet and legs were bare. On his head shone a tall, egg-shaped helmet of bronze. A long shield hung on his left arm. On it was painted a great letter Λ. It stood for “Lacedaemon,” the country of Sparta. At every man’s left side hung his short broadsword. In his right hand he carried two or three lances. Their points glittered above his head.
By the side of the long line of men stood the officers. They passed down the order to march. Next came a quick command to swing into fours.
“That,” said a boy to Leonidas, “is the way they march off to war.”
Then the officers called out:
“Battle order, march!”
The eight fours at the head of the line stood still. The others marched up to the side of these and stood. There were all the fighting men of Sparta, in deep, close line, ready to meet a foe.
“Sparta, Sparta!” shouted the boys who were watching.
The men drilled for an hour or more. Then the trumpet blew again, and they all walked away to their huts for breakfast. The slaves had it ready on the tables. It was not a rich meal. At every man’s place was a red bowl of black broth. In the middle of the table were two large baskets of hard bread, a basket of fresh figs, and cheese on a wooden plate. There was no talking at first, for the men were hungry, but later it began. At Leonidas’s table, the old man who had told about Lysander spoke:
“Do you know why it is, boys, that we Spartans drill like this every day?”
“Because Spartans love to be soldiers,” answered one of the lads.
“So we do,” said the old man, and his eyes glowed. “But there is another reason, too. Hundreds of years ago the foster father of Heracles was king in this southern country, but his enemy drove him out and he fled north. Now Heracles’s sons and his sons’ sons never forgot that long ago one of their family had been king in this southern country. After a long time, they said, ‘We will go back to our old home.’ So great hosts of them came, some by land, some by sea. This country was already full of people, living on farms and in cities. But the children of Heracles were mighty men, taller, stronger, and braver than these people. So they fought with these men and won and made them slaves.
“The brave children of Heracles took the land and sat on the throne. These Helots who cook our breakfast and plow our fields and grind our flour and tend our cattle and make our wine and build our houses are the far-off sons of the people who fought with those children of Heracles. Those men who live on the mountains and herd our sheep and work in our mines and smelt our iron and make our swords and cut our timber are the children of the men who ran away. And we Spartans are the sons of those mighty children of Heracles. We are the lords of this land, the masters of these Helots.
“The Helots do not forget their free days. They hate us. They would be glad to drive us out. They are many more than we are. That is why a Spartan never walks without his spear. That is why we drill every day. That is why Sparta is a great camp. That is why we work to make ourselves good soldiers. A soldier must have strong muscles; so we exercise in hard games. A soldier must not be fat; so we eat little. A soldier must have time to drill; so we leave our work to the Helots. They are good laws that make us do these things. I think that Heracles must be proud as he looks down on us, his children, strong and brave.”
During that afternoon, the Iren of Leonidas’s company called his boys together and said:
“Tomorrow we struggle at the Planetree Grove. Let us go now to ask Achilles for help. Bring gifts for him.”
The boys ran to their hut. There seemed little there for gifts. But some brought pieces of hard bread saved from their breakfast.
“It is joy to go hungry and give to Achilles,” one said.
Another brought a hunting spear.
“Achilles will like the smell of blood on this,” he said.
One boy brought a wolf’s head.
“Ah!” cried the Iren; “there is a gift that will please Achilles.”
One was carrying a piece of iron as big as his hand.
“I suppose Achilles does not care for money,” said he; “but this has a good name on it — Lacedaemon.”
The Iren led a lamb.
They started across the country. The boy who had the piece of money told a story.
“I saw an Athenian in the marketplace yesterday. He was as gay as a peacock. His hair was oiled and perfumed. He had a gold grasshopper pinned in it. His himation had a gold border. He had sandals on his feet. As though they were too good to touch the ground! Bah! He carried a little leather bag in his hand. I saw our good Ion looking at him and curling his lip. At last, he said: ‘Athenian, what is that you carry with so tender a hand?’ ‘My money bag,’ answered the stranger. He opened it and took out a little piece of gold and held it up. ‘Is it not beautiful?’ he said. ‘There is nothing in all Sparta that shines like that. It would buy this whole poor city.’ Ion looked at the man’s foolish clothes and smiled. ‘No,’ he said; ‘its owner would never spend it for anything so well worth having.’ Then he turned and walked away. I went with him. ‘Do you see, Hippias,’ he said to me, ‘why we do not have gold money in Sparta? Can you imagine a man’s carrying our iron money about and petting it? Surely our Lycurgus was wise. He saved us from being fools.'”
“There was only one Lycurgus,” said the Iren; “that is why there is only one Sparta.”
Soon the boys came to the temple of Achilles. A jar of salt water stood at the door. As the boys passed it, they dipped their hands into it.
“We must go into the houses of gods and heroes with clean hands,” men said in those days.
Inside the door stood the priest in long white robes. A garland of flowers was on his head. The Iren said to him:
“We wish to get Achilles’s help in our struggle tomorrow. We have brought this lamb to his table. We have other gifts for him.”
“Achilles, the warrior, is glad to receive brave lads of Sparta in his house,” said the priest.
He led the way to the altar. The boys laid their gifts upon it. The priest raised his hands and sang in a clear voice:
Achilles, mighty warrior, brave and strong,
oh!, hear us in your happy island home;
oh!, smile on us and give us what we ask —
to win the game and make our Sparta proud.
Then flutes played shrill music. The priest killed the lamb and laid pieces of the meat on the altar fire. Other pieces slaves cooked at another fire. They spread a table. All the boys sat down and ate with the priest.
“Achilles is our guest,” the Iren said.
“See the smoke curling up to him from the altar! It is a great thing to feast with such a man.”
After the meal, the boys walked back to Sparta. On the way, they talked of the struggle tomorrow.
“We prove tomorrow whether we are good sons of Sparta,” said the Iren. “I pray not to see a look of shame on my father’s face. If we lose tomorrow, you know what it will say for me, your Iren.”
“Never fear,” cried Anaxander. “There is not a coward among us. If we lose, we can die. That will take away the shame.”
On the next day, the boys went to the Planetree Grove. There were walks and race courses and gymnasium buildings. The fine old trees cast a pleasant shade. The boys ran down the broad walks.
“The bridge of Heracles!” they shouted. “Heracles is ours.”
A little round island was in the middle of the grove. A broad moat full of water went around it. A bridge crossed the moat at each side of the island. On one bridge stood a statue of Heracles; on the other stood a statue of Lycurgus, the lawgiver, the father of Sparta. The boys of Leonidas’s company ran to the bridge of Heracles; the other boys, to the other bridge. They had cast lots the night before to see where they should stand. Men came hurrying from temple and gymnasium and shaded walks. All the Spartans were there to see what lads were brave and who were well-drilled. They crowded to the edge of the moat. Some went upon the bridges behind the boys.
At a signal, the two companies ran together. They met in the middle of the island. Then began a pushing. The game was for one side to push the other side into the water. At first, they formed in solid blocks and pushed all together, but neither block moved, so they stood straining. Then different boys began to strike out with their fists. Some butted with their heads. Others rammed with their shoulders. The crowd broke up into couples, pushing, boxing, wrestling, falling, jumping up.
All this time the men on the shores and bridges were calling out:
“The boys of Heracles! Well struck, Hippias! Lycurgus! The boys of Lycurgus! To the water!”
Two boys were struggling near the bridge. The boy of Heracles was getting the worse of it. At last he broke away and ran toward the bridge. Then all the men hooted at him:
“Coward! Shame, shame! You are no son of Sparta! Shame!”
They closed together and stopped him. A man pushed to the front. He caught the boy by the shoulders.
“You are mad!” he cried. “It is better to die than to be a coward. I should be proud to carry you from here to your grave. But no coward shall ever call me father. Back, Damon, and show whose blood is in your veins.” And he pushed him toward the island.
The boy looked at his father for a minute. Then his white face flushed red. He clenched his teeth and turned and ran at his opponent. He caught him around the waist and threw him. Then he dragged him along the ground toward the moat. But the other boy twisted and struck out at every step. So sometimes one was down, and sometimes the other. Sometimes both were rolling on the ground. Their arms were bruised, their legs were scratched. But at last Damon picked the boy up on his hip and swung him and threw him into the water. Then all those men on the bridges gave a great shout.
“Good, good, Damon! Sparta is proud of you.” And they clapped the boy’s father on the shoulder.
Damon had got his courage now. He did not stop. He ran to two other struggling boys and lent a hand.
The same things were happening all over the island. Boys were scattered about by twos or threes, pushing, dragging, wrestling. Now and then was a splash, when someone went into the water. Then all that was left for that one to do was to swim across and stand dripping on the other shore, watching his friends. One by one they were pushed in; sometimes a boy of Lycurgus, sometimes of Heracles, but most often of Lycurgus. At last only five boys were left on the island. Four of them were of Heracles. Then the four gave a shout and ran at the one and pushed him in and ran to the bridge, shouting:
“Heracles! The boys of Heracles!” shouted the men.
They ran to meet the four boys. They lifted them upon their shields and went shouting up and down the walks.
“The heroes of Sparta,” they cried.
The other boys of their company went dancing around them.
“Our heroes,” they shouted; “the favorites of Achilles! He is our friend. Smile down, oh, Heracles!”
Lysander was one who was carried high on a shield. His face was pale. His lips were shut hard. His left arm hung broken. But his eyes were wide and shining with joy. What of his broken arm! Sparta was proud of him.
Damon, who at first had tried to run away, was another who was carried on a shield. His father walked behind him. He looked proudly at his son.
Leonidas had been pushed into the water. He was only seven years old, and it was his first game. But he had not been afraid. He had done his best. Now Ion came to him.
“You did well, lad,” he said.
He held out his hand, and Leonidas took it.
“Come with me,” the old man said. “Let us walk about the city. There are many things to see.”
Leonidas looked up proudly at Ion. It was good to hold that old man’s hand. It was good to get his smile. He was a senator — a great man and a wise one. He gave advice to the kings. Here he was talking to a little boy. He was saying:
“You have done such good work today that I want to show you the statue of a man who did still better things in a game. It is pleasant to an old man to see lads brave and quick and strong, with straight, tough bodies. Years ago my own boy won at the Planetree Grove. I was more proud then than I should have been to see him king. Some of us never can be kings, but we can be soldiers. But your grandfather was a king. We expect great things of you.”
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The streets they were walking down were strange-looking. They were like country lanes. A footpath wound through the grass. On either side were houses. They were made of squared logs, unpainted, and brown with age. The rough marks of the axe showed. The roof was flat and low. One wide door opened in the front. Around every house were wheat fields and gardens, with grapevines, olive trees, pomegranate trees, beehives. Slaves were working there.
“I myself have never been out of Sparta,” Ion said, “and I am glad of it. But I once talked with a man from Athens. That is a city north of us. From what he said, I thought Athens must be a poor place. To begin with, they have a high wall around their city. As though the people were pigs, to be fenced in! And besides, it shows that they are afraid, to protect themselves with a wall. Our good swords and right arms are our wall. No enemy can break through them. Inside of their little walls the Athenians crowd all their people. That leaves no room for gardens. I do not see how those men can breathe. See our green fields and trees! See the good breeze of Zeus playing in them! We have room to stretch ourselves, and air to breathe. Oh, Sparta, Sparta, beautiful strong mother!”
Leonidas looked up shyly and blushed.
“I shall fight for her sometime,” he said. “Perhaps I shall die for her.”
“There is no greater good fortune,” Ion answered.
He stopped now before a statue. It was of a man. His right foot was pushed before him. He was bent forward. He was reaching out with his arms. A fierce frown was on his brow. The muscles stood out on his slender bare body.
“Oh!” cried Leonidas; “he would win at the Planetree Grove.”
“That,” Ion said, “is Hetoemocles. For twenty years he was the best wrestler in Greece, and that means in the world. Five different times he went across the mountains to the great games at Olympia. The best men from all the cities of Greece were there. They wrestled with him, but he never lost. From every game he brought home an olive crown. The people of Sparta had this statue made in his honor. It is such men as this that make Sparta famous and strong. You began well today. Perhaps I shall live to see your statue beside his.”
A mist came into Leonidas’s eyes when he heard that. The blood rushed into his face.
“I cannot hope for that,” he said, “but I will try not to make Sparta ashamed.”
They walked on down the street. Farther on the houses were close together. There were statues between them instead of gardens — Apollo here, Zeus there, farther on Dionysus, across the street a victor of Olympia, some old king, a great battle hero. Ion had something to say of everyone as they passed.
“It is good for you to come often and see these gods and these great men,” he said. “You must not make them ashamed. Great men have walked this ground and loved it. Long ago, Menelaus was our king. His house still stands over yonder. He and the beautiful Helen lie buried across the Eurotas. Odysseus came here to get Penelope. Not far off the great Agamemnon lies in his tomb. There is not one of the gods that has not put foot in Sparta. It is holy ground. Let not your foot make it unholy.”
It was a busy life for Leonidas now. Every night he must pull rushes for his bed. Every morning he must drill with the company. For long hours every day he must go to the gymnasium in the Planetree Grove. Ion was often there to watch him. After work was finished, the old man took the boy for a walk. Sometimes it was along the banks of the Eurotas, out into the country. Sometimes it was about the city, to see the statues and public buildings.
Always Leonidas learned something new during those walks. Perhaps Ion told him the story of Troy or of some god. Perhaps he taught him some wise saying of Lycurgus. Perhaps he took stones and showed him how to count. Perhaps, as they stood before a statue, Leonidas learned to spell out the name of Zeus or of Heracles or of Sparta. Perhaps Ion taught him to sing a battle song. Leonidas had no other school than these tales and the gymnasium.
That gymnasium was to Leonidas the pleasantest place in Sparta. At the entrance stood a bronze statue of Heracles. Porches ran around the four sides of a court. Back of them opened the wide doors of dressing rooms. Men were walking along the porches, talking and laughing. Ion leaned against one of the columns. The court was filled with boys at work. Some were throwing the disc. This was a round plate of lead or of stone. It was thick in the middle and thinner at the edges. The thrower held it in his right hand. He swung it back and forth to get a good movement. Then he threw it. The game was to find who could throw the farthest.
Some boys were jumping. The jumper held a lead weight in each hand. He swung them back and forth, to give himself a good start. Then he threw them behind him and jumped. That backward push sent him ahead.
Other boys were throwing spears at a mark. These spears had leather straps wound around them at the balancing point. The thrower put his finger through the loop. When he threw, he held the strap for a second. That made the spear whirl. It bored into the target.
With every group of boys was a teacher. He allowed no laziness.
“You are not here to play,” he said. “You are here to get good bodies and to learn to be good soldiers. It is a hard task. Sparta is watching you.”
Leonidas, on his first day, went into a dressing room and threw off his chiton. When he came out into the court, a teacher met him. He looked the boy over carefully.
“Go to the running tracks,” he said. “Your legs are too thin.”
The running track opened out of the court. It was a long, smooth path. At each end was a post. On top of the post stood a little statue of Victory. So Leonidas ran here and rested, and ran again and again. Then he went back to the shady porch to rest.
Some slaves sat in one corner playing on trumpets and drums. In the court, boys were dancing to this war music. They were pretending to be warriors. They carried shields and swords. They moved forward and struck out with their swords. Then they leaped to the side and put up their shields. They were pretending to catch a stroke from an enemy. Then they peered over their shields and struck out from under them. They ran forward and struck fast. They were chasing the enemy. All this they did in time to the music, yet it looked almost like a real battle. It was hard work. The boys’ bodies were dripping. Their eyes and cheeks glowed. At the end, they turned and came dancing gayly to the porch. They held their shields high over their heads. They waved their swords. They sang a song of victory. The people watching cheered and clapped their hands.
Then Leonidas went to Ion, ready to walk. His face was flushed from the hard work. His eyes were dancing. When Ion saw him, he said, smiling, “Apollo of the track has breathed color and life into you, little runner.”
“I can dance that dance,” Leonidas said as they walked away. “My mother taught it to me when I was at home. I danced it with my sisters. My mother said to them: ‘We women shall never fight, but our sons will, so let us learn the dance. Sparta wants mothers who can take good care of their children, so let us run and wrestle and throw the disc and the spear, to make ourselves well and strong.’ They used to go to a gymnasium where there were only girls.”
“Yes,” answered Ion; “and that is what makes our Spartan girls beautiful, and our Spartan mothers brave.”
Leonidas Becomes a Man
Leonidas was eighteen years old. He was walking with Ion on the river bank after mess. The dark was coming on.
“So tomorrow you become a man, my boy,” Ion was saying; “a soldier of Sparta. We have been friends for a long time, Leonidas — eleven years. I have seen you grow tall. I have seen your shoulders broaden. I have seen your muscles harden. I have seen the fire of courage lighted in your eyes. I have seen your heart grow big. I am an old man. I shall not do much more work for Sparta, but I am proud of this, my last piece of work, this boy that has grown up under my hand. Has it been a hard life, Leonidas?”
“Yes, hard,” the boy answered, “but very sweet. I have been working for Sparta, and I love her.”
“Yes, I can see love for Sparta shining in your face every day,” Ion said. “You have never shrunk from pain and hard work. You have never complained. The hardest trial of all comes tomorrow. But I believe that you will go through it well. Some will fail and will be sent away from Sparta with fingers pointed at them. But you will not fail. And you will remember, too, that Sparta does it all in love. She will lash your back until the blood flows. But you will kneel at Heracles’s altar and smile, for you will know that, if you cannot bear pain, it is better that you go away now. If you stayed, you would some time shame yourself and your family and Sparta and Heracles in battle. You will get your sword tomorrow. Shall a man carry a sword if he is afraid of the cut of a whip? Your grandfather was a king of Sparta. Your brother is king now. But it is a poor thing to have men point at you and say: ‘There is the brother of a king.’ It is a fine thing to have them say of you: ‘There goes a Spartan.’ But no more talk now. It is time for you to report to the Iren.”
On the next day, things happened as Ion had said. Leonidas walked away from Heracles’s altar with a bleeding back, but his heart sang for joy. He was a man! He had been found brave enough to save Sparta. Perhaps he would be chosen Iren of some boys’ company. Before long, he could be a captain of Helots. Soon he could join a mess. He thought of the mess he would like to join. It was the Iren’s old company. But his friend was more than sixty years old now, so he lived at home and did no soldier’s work.
“I will get them a boar for supper,” Leonidas thought.
Off he ran to the west, towards Mount Taygetus. On the way, he stopped at a little hut.
“Pisander!” he called.
A young man came out. He was a Helot. He was not so tall or so strong as Leonidas. His skin was not so smooth and clear. His hands were stiff from holding the spade. Yet he was a fine-looking lad.
“Come for a hunt,” Leonidas said.
Pisander’s face lighted up.
“Artemis give us luck!” he cried and started off on a run beside Leonidas. “Hare or deer?” he asked.
“Boar,” answered Leonidas.
Pisander stopped short.
“You go to hunt boar with only two people?” he cried. “We shall be killed.”
Leonidas had kept on running. He called back over his shoulder.
“Don’t come if you are afraid.”
“I’m not,” shouted Pisander, and started on again.
“There are dogs at Ion’s,” Leonidas said.
Soon they stopped before a house. In the garden at the side were dog kennels. The boys went there. They took down five leashes and collars from a peg in the fence. Inside were a dozen dogs barking and leaping up. Leonidas and Pisander went into the yard. They picked out five of the largest dogs and put the collars on them and led them out. Then they went to a little shod and opened it. There lay nets piled up. Spears of all kinds leaned against the walls.
“We will not take nets,” said Leonidas; “this is to be a fair fight between the boar and me.”
Each boy took three spears. One was long, with a slim, sharp tip. One was short, with a heavy shaft and broad point. One had long guards sticking out halfway up the shaft. These dogs and spears and nets belonged to the city. Any Spartan had a right to take them whenever he needed.
The two boys walked on toward the mountain. Their matted-yellow hair shone in the sun. The wind waved their short gray chitons. The spears glistened above their heads. Their bare arms and legs flashed white over the green grass. The dogs barked and leaped about them and tugged at their leashes. Suddenly, Leonidas stopped and lifted his hands to the sky.
“Oh, Artemis, huntress, I vow to give you a share of our game. Give us good luck.”
As he walked on, he said:
“It is a hot day. I think we can run him down easily.”
Now they were making a steep climb. They were going through a forest. The dogs kept sniffling the ground. The boys looked to right and left for marks of a boar. They wound out of the forest and came upon a high cliff.
“Ah!” cried Leonidas, and pointed. “See! Sparta! The blue Eurotas and its flat, green valley! The marketplace, with its crowd of buildings! The temples, scattered everywhere among the trees! North are the mountains that shut us out from our enemies. That is the country I would die for, Pisander.”
And he turned and walked on up the mountains.
Soon one of the dogs began to pull hard at the leash. She put her nose to the ground and wagged her tail.
“She has a track,” whispered Leonidas.
“See!” cried Pisander, pointing to a tree. “The mark of a tusk on the bark.”
Now another dog got the scent.
“Unleash Augo,” said Leonidas.
Pisander did it, and the first dog ran ahead, with nose to the ground. But soon she stopped and ran about in one spot.
“She has lost it,” said Leonidas.
He gave his dogs to Pisander to hold. Then he went to Augo.
“Well done, Augo,” he said, “well done! Get it! Get it!”
He looked about for a tusk mark or a footprint or a broken twig. He found nothing.
“Let go Phonax,” he called to Pisander.
Then Phonax came running along the track. But she, too, lost the scent. At last, Leonidas said:
“It is cold. Let us go.”
They had that same luck all day long.
“No sleep or supper until we have a boar,” said Leonidas.
So they kept on until it was dark. They could not see the ground well. Often they stepped on sharp stones and cut their feet. It was cold on the mountain.
“We must run to keep from getting stiff,” Leonidas said. “When the moon comes out, we may have better luck. May Artemis smile!”
Soon the moon rose. The sky was clear. The great mountain lighted up. Its white rocks gleamed. Little streams glistened. The light pushed among the trees and showed the hushes and paths. The boys stopped to drink at a spring.
“Look!” cried Leonidas. “The mark of a boar’s foot in the mud! Augo, Phonax! Smell, smell!”
In a flash, the dogs had the scent. Leonidas undid the leashes. Off they shot up the mountain, noses to the ground. The boys ran after, through forest, over rocks, across streams. They ran for miles. The dogs were far ahead.
“Did you hear?” Leonidas cried at last. “They are barking. They have him. Faster!”
Soon they came upon the dogs. They were in a circle about a clump of bushes. Every dog was looking into it and barking. The boys could see nothing, for the bushes were thick and close to the ground.
“Beat the bushes, Pisander,” said Leonidas, “and I will stand ready.”
So Pisander beat the bushes with his spear. There was a rustle, and the boar rushed out. He caught one of the dogs on his tusk and threw him into the air and against Leonidas. The boy stood on the edge of a small rock. This stroke pushed him off, and he fell. The boar ran past him down the mountain.
“I have lost him!” Leonidas cried. “Clumsy foot!”
He was up and after. The dogs ran ahead of him. After a long run, they were barking again. In a moment, Leonidas was up with them. The boar was facing them. Behind him was a gorge. The wall of stone dropped straight down. The boar had run into a trap. He could not jump, so he had turned to fight the dogs. Leonidas came close, among the dogs, and thrust at him with his spear, but he only gave the shoulder a little cut. The boar dashed at him madly. Leonidas leaped away. Then he found that he had leaped to the wrong side. His back was to the gorge. He and the boar had changed places. The beast rushed at him again, but Leonidas stood ready and ran his broad spear through the neck. But the boar’s rush pushed him back, and his feet slipped over the edge of the gorge. As he fell, he caught at a tree. There he hung by one arm. His head was only a little above the top of the ground. The boar was still able to fight; he was pushing at the spear, trying to reach Leonidas. His tusks were within a span of the boy’s face. The shaft of the spear was slipping and bending.
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“Oh, Artemis, help me!” breathed Leonidas.
After a few minutes, Pisander ran up, puffing. He stopped short when he saw Leonidas. The Spartan was standing with hands raised to the bright moon.
“Oh, Artemis,” he was praying, “queen of the hunt, queen of the moon, Artemis, mountain dweller, Artemis of the flying feet, of the moonlit eyes, Artemis, saver of life, your altar shall remember this night! The smoke of my sacrifice shall carry to you the heart of Leonidas and his thanks. Every morning I will send a prayer to you in Olympus, and every night in the moon.”
“What is it?” asked Pisander.
“Oh, Pisander, we are in the hands of the gods,” Leonidas said. “Just now I hung over that gorge. By my left hand I held to a tree. Through my right, my spear was slipping. The boar’s breath was in my face. His tusks scratched my hand. He was pushing nearer. Then I called upon Artemis for help. The moon was under a cloud, but Artemis put aside the clouds and with her beams she shot into my heart her own courage and into my limbs her own strength. She sent a strange voice into the woods. The boar stopped to listen. Then in that moment, with the strength that Artemis had given me, I pulled myself up to the ground, and lo! the boar was dead. Do not the feet of the gods make our land holy? They hide in our forests. They walk on the winds about us. They watch us from sun and moon. Their eyes are always upon us. Their hands are ever ready to help.”
The boys stood silent for a little while. They were thinking of the wonderful gods. Then Pisander quietly began to leash the dogs. Leonidas tied the feet of the boar together and hung it over a pole. Each boy took an end over his shoulder, and they started down the mountain.
They reached Ion’s house in the early morning. The light was just beginning to grow in the sky. They shut up the dogs and put away the spears. Leonidas took a hunting knife and cut off a shoulder of the boar and gave it to Pisander.
“Here is your share,” he said. “May the gods give you good appetite!”
Then he walked onto the training grounds, the boar across his shoulders. Helots were building the fires. Leonidas went up to one of these groups and laid the boar on the ground.
“This is for your masters’ mess,” he said.
He cut off a hind quarter, saying:
“This much belongs to Artemis.”
He walked through the city to an altar of Artemis. He laid the boar’s flesh upon the fire. He kissed the statue that stood there. He raised his hands and sang a prayer. The rising sun shone in upon him, on his yellow hair, his fluttering chiton, his lifted hands.
Against the Persians
An army lay encamped on a little plain. At one side was the sea. On the other rose a steep mountain, with its oaks and pines. In front of the army, the mountain came close to the water. An ox cart could just go between sea and hill. Across this place was a stone wall, with a gate. Behind the army was another narrow pass. The place was called the pass of Thermopylae. North of it lay part of Greece. South of it lay the other part, where Athens and Sparta were. Between these parts were steep mountains. Thermopylae was like a gate in that mountain wall. It was the only good road from north to south. This army was here now to guard it.
The Persians from across the sea were marching down toward the south. This news flew ahead of them:
“The king himself is coming. His army drinks rivers dry. Whole cities grow poor in feeding it. It stretches, glittering like the sea. The Greeks bow down as the king comes near. He meets no foes. The land is afraid. He comes to make us slaves.”
The men of Southern Greece said:
“We must stop those Persians. Thermopylae is the place. We must send an army.”
“There is no hurry,” the Spartans said. “They are yet far off. It is time for the great festival at Olympia. We must stay for that. But we will send a few men as a promise. More will come later!”
So the Spartan king went with his guard of three hundred men. That little army was fine to look at as it swung out of the city in double line, with shining armor and red chitons and long bronze shields and tall bronze helmets and dangling swords and stiff lances. And the king who led this army was Leonidas, for his brother had died and had left no sons.
These soldiers marched their long way through the country. People came to look at them.
“Sparta surely makes warriors,” they thought.
A few cities, seeing them, said, “We will help.”
So other soldiers joined Leonidas. From one city came eighty; from another, a thousand; from Thebes, four hundred; from Thespiae, seven hundred. But, after all, it was only a little company.
Now this army was in camp at Thermopylae. Tents were dotted over the little plain. Mules and horses were feeding in the grass. The rough carts were drawn into a circle. Some of the soldiers were at work. They were building up the old wall across the pass. Others were playing games, running, throwing the disc, dancing, wrestling. The red chitons of the Spartans showed bright in the crowd. One of these Spartans was saying to a Theban:
“War is our play. You think it a hardship. You feast in time of peace. We feast in time of war. You put on gay clothes for a visit. We wear rags in peace and fine things for war. You curl your hair for a banquet. We go cut and uncombed table. Our hair grows long for war, and we dress it for battle; for lions must have manes.”
“Have you seen the army of the Great King?” asked the other man, pointing past the mountains.
“Yes,” answered the Spartan. “Yesterday I was a scout. An hour’s walk from our camp lie the Persians. Their tents are as many as the stars. The foolish king has had a great throne put up. There he sits and looks about.”
“I suppose he is waiting for us to run away,” said the Theban.
“Perhaps,” laughed the Spartan. “Have you heard of the man who sat down to see a river turn and run uphill?”
“Meanwhile,” said the Theban, “we play our games and have our drills and sharpen our swords.”
So the armies sat for four days. But on the fifth morning a Greek scout came running into camp.
“At last the fish bites!” he cried. “They are coming, but only one company of them.”
Then there was a rushing to arms.
“You Spartans look as though the best course of the banquet were being served,” said a Theban.
“So it is,” shouted a dozen Spartans.
The men fell into line at Leonidas’s command. The gates were opened, and they marched out. They formed in a deep mass before the wall. They waited. Soon there was a glint of bronze from around a hill. Then sounded horses’ hoofs. Still the Greeks waited. Leonidas stood in front of his Spartans. He was tall and straight. His head was high. His blue eyes blazed. His brown arms, rough with big muscles, held ready shield and spears.
The hoof beats and the shining armor came nearer. Now the Persians were in full view — thousands of men on running horses. Brilliant cloths fluttered from their heads. A strange iron dress, like the scales of a fish, shone on their bodies.
Wide scarlet trousers flapped in the wind. Every man leaned forward as he rode. At last, they pulled their long bows and let fly their arrows. They yelled strange words. They came on like a whirlwind. The Greeks waited until the Persians were crowded together in the narrow pass just in front of them. Then they opened their mouths and shouted their good war cry and blew their shrill trumpets. They swung their swords and ran into that crowd of Persians. Then was the noise of a great fight — clashing of swords, whizzing of arrows, shouting of men. From morning until afternoon they fought. Greeks fell dead under Persian arrows, but more Persians under Greek swords. At last, the enemies’ arrows were gone, their spears were broken. They were bleeding with wounds and stiff with fighting. And still the Greeks stood like a wall of biting swords. So at last the Persians turned in fear and rode back to their camp.
The Greeks sat down in front of the wall to rest. They sat as they were, in their armor, their spears in their hands. They knew that a million Persians waited back of the hills. They ate a quick meal. They carried their wounded behind the wall. The Spartans cleaned their armor and combed their long hair. But all the time the warriors kept their eyes on the pass ahead. At last, they saw again the flash of bronze and heard the clatter of hoofs. In a moment the Greeks were on their feet and in line of battle. This time there swung into view ten thousand gay horsemen.
“They are the king’s own guard,” called out a Greek. “This is the flower of their army.”
“The Great King flatters us,” said a Spartan, smiling, as he felt the edge of his sword.
Again the Greeks and Persians met. The Greeks were tired from the other battle: the Persians were fresh. Yet the Greeks stood. But the Persians were doing brave deeds. Neither side could force the other back. They stood struggling for an hour. At length, Leonidas gave a signal. Then his men turned their backs and all ran toward the wall. When the Persians saw them running away, they shouted and clapped their heels to their horses and rode after them. They laughed and waved their swords and forgot to be careful. That was what Leonidas wanted. At last, he gave another signal, and the Greeks turned in a flash and marched back against the Persians and cut them down, and made them flee to camp.
That was near night. Then the Greeks built fires before the walls and cooked their suppers and ate. Every man slept in his armor that night, with his spear by his hand.
All the next day there was fighting, but the Greeks stood their ground, and the Persians ran away.
Before supper that night, Leonidas said:
“Let us sacrifice to the gods for our good battle.”
So they put meat and wine into the fire that burned on a sod altar. As the smoke went up, Leonidas raised his hands and cried:
“Oh, great Zeus, and Ares, father of battles, and Athena of the bright shield, and all the gods who have fought with Greece today, receive our thanks!”
Then all the soldiers standing about raised a great song of thanksgiving. After that, Leonidas said to a man near him:
“Megistias, you are wise in reading the signs of what will happen. Come and look at the sacrifice and tell us of tomorrow.”
Then Megistias came and studied the fire. He noticed the color of the flame and the direction of the smoke and many other things. Then he stepped upon a pile of sod. There was no joy in his face. He raised his hands over the camp.
“Oh, ye Spartans and other Greeks, the gods send you the good luck of dying in battle! Tomorrow your wives will be widows; your sons, orphans. We shall lie here dead, and the Persians will march past us to Greece.”
Leonidas leaped upon the sod.
“Then they will meet our brothers, more brave and of better luck. It is no mean thing to die here for Sparta and for Greece. Let us make ready for a noble death that men shall talk about.”
As the Spartans sat about the campfire after supper, one of them took his lyre in his hands and stood among his countrymen and sang:
A foe, a sword,
our land to guard,
the gods to watch,
a grave, a stone,
a song of praise
enough for me.
Then he gave the lyre to the man next him. This was his song:
They say that some men sit and feast
and spend their nights in drink and song,
and idly sleep their days away.
Such men are laughter to the gods,
a shame unto themselves and Greece.
How do the Spartans spend their time?
In drills and games and mess and hunts,
to make them fit for death like this.
The singer passed on the lyre, and the next man sang:
For what do we fight, oh, Spartan men?
Oh, memories dear; oh, Spartan land;
oh, heroes of old, in Sparta dead;
oh, tombs of our kings, who Sparta loved;
Lycurgus the wise, the Spartan seer;
oh, shrines of the gods, who Sparta trod;
oh, mothers and wives in Sparta now.
For these things we die, oh, Spartan men.
So they passed an hour or more in song. Around the other campfires, different things were happening. At some, men sat silent, with white faces. Around others were grumbling and angry looks.
“These Spartan fools!” some men said. “Hear them boast! They would fight against the sea itself.”
Two or three hours after dark, a guard came to Leonidas, leading a man.
“This man came running to me now,” he said. “He calls himself a Greek, a deserter from the Great King.”
The stranger turned to the men and spoke.
“I am a Greek from across the sea,” he said. “You know how the Great King has crushed us with his heavy hands. After that, he said, ‘You shall go with me to fight against your countrymen!’ But I did not come to tell you my story, but this news: the Persian army is moving. They are crossing the mountains at your left. A traitor told them of the path. They broke camp at lamp-lighting time. Part stayed behind. In the morning they will close around you from front and back and wipe you out. I swear by the gods that I speak the truth!”
“We believe you,” said Leonidas quietly. “A prophet has already told us that we shall die tomorrow.”
Just then another deserter was brought in. He told the same story.
“We put some men to guard that path,” Leonidas said; “but they are few. The path is little known. We thought the Great King would not hear of it. Besides, it is narrow and steep. So he would rather face the mountain than the Spartans?” he laughed. “But we need sleep to make us ready for the fight. The gods give us sweet rest, comrades!”
So the Spartans slept calmly all night.
Before sunrise next morning, the Greeks were at breakfast. As they ate, scouts came running down the mountainside. They leaped, panting, among the men.
“They are crossing the mountain. They will shut us in from behind and in front.”
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Then there was murmuring among the Greeks. Leonidas heard it and said:
“Come close, all you men of Greece. Let us talk this matter over. It is my opinion that we ought to stay and fight. How many think with me?”
Every Spartan and Thespian hand shot up with a shout.
“It is folly,” cried out a Theban. “Do you think you can stop a million men?”
“No,” answered a Spartan. “Neither can we run away.”
“Do you know how many there are?” called another man. “When they shoot their arrows, they will hide the sun.”
“So much the better,” laughed a Spartan. “We shall fight in the shade.”
“Let the Spartans stay,” called another Theban. “They are afraid to go back home. But we have mothers and wives who love us.”
“And we Thespians will stay,” shouted a man, “because we have mothers and wives whom we love.”
At last, Leonidas spoke.
“Oh, men of Greece!” he said. “We Spartans were sent here to guard this pass. There is nothing else for us to do. But your commands are not so strong. You have different laws. It is needless for you to stay. It means only death. The Persians are still on the mountain. The way to the south is clear. I send you to your homes. The Thespians stay with us from choice. The Thebans stay because I command it. We have heard whispers of what they wish to do — to join the Persians. To you others, farewell! May the gods keep you to fight against our enemies another day!”
Then Leonidas went to Megistias.
“No man will go alive from this field,” he said. “You can give the messages of the gods to men. Go with these soldiers and save your life.”
“No!” said Megistias, “I will not leave the company of the brave for the company of cowards.”
So those others marched away south. Those who were left waited until about noon. They cleaned their armor and got their weapons ready and talked quietly of what was coming.
“Here are our graves,” one said, looking about the little plain. “But, by Heracles! Here are some Persian graves, too.”
“We fight in the sight of our gods and by their holy altars,” Leonidas said, “for see, yonder is a healing spring of Heracles, and his altar by it. I pray that we may not make him ashamed of his children.”
At last there came the trampling of horses from the north. Then the Greeks marched out of the gate and on past the narrow place. They spread out into a thin line and went on to meet the Persians. Then the fight began. A god seemed to burn in every Greek. The Persians fell fast. Then they grew afraid and tried to turn back, but those behind pushed them ahead. And at the back the officers whipped their men into the fight. So some were trampled down, others were pushed into the sea. Soon all the Greek spears were broken or lost. The men fought only with their short swords. Then many of them died, and Leonidas was one. When he fell, the Persians gave a great shout and rushed to get his body. But the Greeks cried out, “Sparta and Leonidas!” and closed around him in a circle, with swords flashing death. So they stood for a long time fighting. But at last the word went about,
“The other Persians are coming from behind.”
Then those Spartans and Thespians who were left took up Leonidas and carried him back to a little hill behind the wall, fighting all the way. But the Thebans ran to the Persians and held out their hands, crying,
“We are friends of the Great King.”
So the Persians passed them by and went on to the hill. On the top was that little ring of brave men, facing out to their foes on every side. But such a thing could not last long. That sea of Persians swept up the hill and left every Spartan and Thespian dead and went on into Greece.
After that, there was a terrible war. But when it was over and the Persians were driven out, the Greeks said,
“Our children’s children must know what happened at Thermopylae.”
So they raised a great mound over the dead there and set up two columns. One was for all who fought on those first two days. There were carved on it these words,
“Four thousand Greeks here fought against a million Persians.”
The other column was for the Spartans alone. On it were these words,
“Stranger, go tell Sparta that we lie here at her command.”
But on that little hill where the Spartans made their last stand was another monument, a stone lion, with “Leonidas’s” carved upon it.
Sparta never forgot that battle or that hero. In her marketplace, she built a covered walk, called the Persian Walk. Instead of columns to hold up the roof, were Persians carved in stone, and on the wall of the porch were paintings of the Persian battles. That porch seemed always to say,
“Remember the courage of the men who drove the Persians out of Greece.”
Four years after the battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans said:
“Our greatest hero lies in strange soil. Let us bring him home. It will do our sons good always to see his tomb.”
So they brought the bones of Leonidas to Sparta and buried them in a great stone tomb. And there they hung a bronze tablet, with the names of those three hundred Spartans on it, and these words,
“These are the men who looked the Persians in the face.”
Every year at this tomb there were games and speeches. Only Spartans might play, and only Spartans might hear.
“Other heroes sleep in Spartan soil,” those speakers said. “Here sleeps the lion of Thermopylae. He was a king. He was a Spartan. Let Spartans see that they be worthy of this countryman and of this king.”