Pyrrhus - Jacob Abbott


The war in which Pyrrhus was invited to engage, at the time referred to at the close of the last chapter, arose out of a domestic quarrel in one of the royal families of Sparta. Sparta was one of the principal cities of the Peloponnesus, and the capital of a very powerful and warlike kingdom. The institutions of government in this commonwealth were very peculiar, and among the most extraordinary of them all was the arrangement made in respect to the kingly power. There were two dynasties, or lines of kings, reigning conjointly. The division of power between the two incumbents who reigned at any one time may have been somewhat similar to that made in Rome between the consuls. But the system differed from that of the consular government in the fact that the Spartan kings were not elected magistrates, like the Roman consuls, but hereditary sovereigns, deriving their power from their ancestors, each in his own line.

The origin of this extraordinary system was said to be this: at a very early period of the Spartan history, a king died suddenly, leaving two children twins, as his heirs, but without designating either one of them as his successor. The Spartans then applied to the mother of the two children to know which of them was the first-born. She pretended that she could not tell. They then applied to the oracle at Delphi, asking what they should do. The response of the oracle directed them to make both the children kings, but to bestow the highest honors upon the oldest. By this answer the Spartans were only partially relieved from their dilemma; for, under the directions of the oracle, the necessity of determining the question of priority in respect to the birth of the two children remained, without any light or guidance being afforded them in respect to the mode of doing it.

At last some person suggested that a watch should be set over the mother, with a view to ascertain for which of her children she had the strongest affection. They supposed that she really knew which was the first-born, and that she would involuntarily give to the one whom she regarded in that light the precedence in the maternal services and duties which she rendered to the babes. This plan succeeded. It was discovered which was the first-born, and which was the younger; and the Spartans, accordingly, made both the children kings, but gave the highest rank to the former, as the oracle had directed. The children both lived, and grew up to be men, and in due time were married. By a singular coincidence, they married twin-sisters. In the two families thus arising originated the Spartan lines of kings that reigned jointly over the kingdom for many successive generations. To express this extraordinary system of government, it has sometimes been said that Sparta, though governed by kings, was not a monarchy, but a diarchy.

The diarchy, however, as might have been expected, was found not to work very successfully in practice. Various dissensions and difficulties arose; and at length, about two hundred years after the original establishment of the two lines, the kingdom became almost wholly disorganized. At this juncture the celebrated lawgiver Lycurgus arose. He framed a system of laws and regulations for the kingdom, which were immediately put in force, and resulted not only in restoring the public affairs to order at the time, but were the means, in the end, of raising Sparta to the highest condition of prosperity and renown.

Lycurgus was indebted for his success in the measures which he adopted not merely to the sagacity which he exercised in framing them, and the energy with which he carried them into effect: he occupied personally a very peculiar position, which afforded him great facilities for the performance of his work. He was a member of one of the royal families, being a younger son of one of the kings. He had an elder brother named Polydectes. His father died suddenly, from a stab that he received in a fray. He was not personally engaged in the fray himself as one of the combatants, but only went into it to separate other persons, who had by some means become involved in a sudden quarrel. In the struggle, he received a stab from a kitchen knife, with which one of the combatants was armed, and immediately died.

Polydectes, of course, being the eldest son, succeeded to the throne. He, however, very soon died, leaving a wife, but no children. About eight months after his death, however, a child was born to his widow, and this child, according to the then received principles of hereditary descent, was entitled to succeed his father.

As, however, at the time of Polydectes's death the child was not born, Lycurgus, the brother, was then apparently the heir. He accordingly assumed the government—so far as the government devolved upon the line to which his brother had belonged—intending only to hold it in the interim, and to give it up ultimately when the proper heir should appear. In the mean time, the widow supposed very naturally that he would like to retain the power permanently. She was herself also ambitious of reigning as queen; and she accordingly made to Lycurgus the atrocious and unnatural proposal to destroy the life of her child, on condition that he would marry her, and allow her to share the kingdom with him. Lycurgus was much shocked at receiving such a proposition, but he deemed it best, for the time being, to appear to accede to it. He accordingly represented to the queen that it would not be best for her to make the attempt which she had proposed, lest she should thereby endanger her own safety. "Wait," said he, "and let me know as soon as the child is born; then leave every thing to me. I will do myself whatever is required to be done."

Lycurgus, moreover, had attendants, provided with orders to keep themselves in readiness when the child should be born, and, if it proved to be a son, to bring the babe to him immediately, wherever he might be, or however he might be engaged. If it proved to be a daughter, they were to leave it in the hands of the woman who had charge of the queen. The babe proved to be a son. The officers took it, accordingly, and brought it at once to Lycurgus. The unnatural mother, of course, understood that it was taken away from her to be destroyed, and she acquiesced in the supposed design, in order, by sacrificing her child, to perpetuate her own queenly dignity and power. Lycurgus, however, was intending to conduct the affair to a very different result.

At the time when the attendants brought the new-born babe to Lycurgus's house, Lycurgus was engaged with a party of friends whom he had invited to a festival. These friends consisted of nobles, generals, ministers of state, and other principal personages of the Spartan commonwealth, whom Lycurgus had thus assembled in anticipation, probably, of what was to take place. The attendants had been ordered to bring the child to him without delay, wherever they might find him. They accordingly came into the apartment where Lycurgus and his friends were assembled, bringing the infant with them in their arms. Lycurgus received him, and holding him up before the company, called out to them, in a loud voice, "Spartans, I present to you your new-born king!" The people received the young prince with the most extravagant demonstrations of joy; and Lycurgus named him Charilaus, which means, "Dear to the people."

The conduct of Lycurgus on this occasion was thought to be very generous and noble, since by bringing the child forward as the true heir to the crown, he surrendered at once all his own pretensions to the inheritance, and made himself a private citizen. Very few of the sons of kings, either in ancient or modern times, would have pursued such a course. But, though in respect to his position, he abased himself by thus descending from his place upon the throne to the rank of a private citizen, he exalted himself very highly in respect to influence and character. He was at once made protector of the person of the child and regent of the realm during the young king's minority; and all the people of the city, applauding the noble deed which he had performed, began to entertain toward him feelings of the highest respect and veneration.

It proved, however, that there were yet very serious difficulties, which he was destined to meet and surmount before the way should be fully open for the performance of the great work for which he afterward became so renowned. Although the people generally of Sparta greatly applauded the conduct of Lycurgus, and placed the utmost confidence in him, there were still a few who hated and opposed him. Of course, the queen herself, whose designs he had thwarted, was extremely indignant at having been thus deceived. Not only was her own personal ambition disappointed by the failure of her design, but her womanly pride was fatally wounded in having been rejected by Lycurgus in the offer which she had made to become his wife. She and her friends, therefore, were implacably hostile to him. She had a brother, named Leonidas, who warmly espoused her cause. Leonidas quarreled openly with Lycurgus. He addressed him one day, in the presence of several witnesses, in a very violent and threatening manner. "I know very well," said he, "that your seeming disinterestedness, and your show of zeal for the safety and welfare of the young king, are all an empty pretense. You are plotting to destroy him, and to raise yourself to the throne in his stead; and if we wait a short time, we shall see you accomplishing the results at which you are really aiming, in your iniquitous and hypocritical policy."

On hearing these threats and denunciations, Lycurgus, instead of making an angry reply to them, began at once calmly to consider what it would be best for him to do. He reflected that the life of the child was uncertain, notwithstanding every precaution which he might make for the preservation of it; and if by any casualty it should die, his enemies might charge him with having secretly murdered it. He resolved, therefore, to remove at once and forever all possible suspicion, present or prospective, of the purity of his motives, by withdrawing altogether from Sparta until the child should come of age. He accordingly made arrangements for placing the young king under protectors who could not be suspected of collusion with him for any guilty purpose, and also organized an administration to govern the country until the king should be of age. Having taken these steps, he bade Sparta farewell, and set out upon a long and extended course of travels.

He was gone from his native land many years, during which period he visited all the principal states and kingdoms of the earth, employing himself, wherever he went, in studying the history, the government, and the institutions of the countries through which he journeyed, and in visiting and conversing with all the most distinguished men. He went first to Crete, a large island which lay south of the Ęgean Sea, its western extremity being not far from the coast of Peloponnesus. After remaining for some time in Crete, visiting all its principal cities, and making himself thoroughly acquainted with its history and condition, he sailed for Asia Minor, and visited all the chief capitals there. From Asia Minor he went to Egypt, and, after finishing his observations and studies in the cities of the Nile, he journeyed westward, and passed through all the countries lying on the northern coast of Africa, and then from Africa he crossed over into Spain. He remained long enough in each place that he visited to make himself very thoroughly acquainted with its philosophy, its government, its civilization, its state of progress in respect to the arts and usages of social life—with every thing, in fact, which could have a bearing upon national prosperity and welfare.

In the mean time, the current of affairs at Sparta flowed by no means smoothly. As years rolled on, and the young prince, Charilaus, advanced toward the period of manhood, he became involved in various difficulties, which greatly embarrassed and perplexed him. He was of a very amiable and gentle disposition, but was wholly destitute of the strength and energy of character required for the station in which he was placed. Disagreements arose between him and the other king. They both quarreled, too, with their nobles and with the people. The people did not respect them, and gradually learned to despise their authority. They remembered the efficiency and the success of Lycurgus's government, and the regularity and order which had marked the whole course of public affairs during his administration. They appreciated now, too, more fully than before, the noble personal qualities which Lycurgus had evinced—his comprehensiveness of view, his firmness of purpose, his disinterestedness, his generosity; and they contrasted the lofty sentiments and principles which had always governed him with the weakness, the childishness, and the petty ambition of their actual kings. In a word, they all wished that Lycurgus would return.

Even the kings themselves participated in this wish. They perceived that their affairs were getting into confusion, and began to feel apprehension and anxiety. Lycurgus received repeated messages from them and from the people of Sparta, urging him to return, but he declined to accept these proposals, and went on with his travels and his studies as before.

At last, however, the Spartans sent a formal embassy to Lycurgus, representing to him the troubled condition of public affairs in Sparta, and the dangers which threatened the commonwealth, and urging him in the most pressing manner to return. These embassadors, in their interview with Lycurgus, told him that they had kings, indeed, at Sparta, so far as birth, and title, and the wearing of royal robes would go, but as for any royal qualities beyond this mere outside show, they had seen nothing of the kind since Lycurgus had left them.

Lycurgus finally concluded to comply with the request. He returned to Sparta. Here he employed himself for a time in making a careful examination into the state of the country, and in conversing with the principal men of influence in the city, and renewing his acquaintance with them. At length he formed a plan for an entire organization of the government. He proposed this plan to the principal men, and, having obtained the consent of a sufficient number of them to the leading provisions of his new constitution, he began to take measures for the public promulgation and establishment of it.

The first step was to secure a religious sanction for his proceedings, in order to inspire the common people with a feeling of reverence and awe for his authority. He accordingly left Sparta, saying that he was going to consult the oracle at Delphi. In due time he returned, bringing with him the response of the oracle. The response was as follows:

"Lycurgus is beloved of the gods, and is himself divine. The laws which he has framed are perfect, and under them a commonwealth shall arise which shall hereafter become the most famous in the world."

This response, having been made known in Sparta, impressed every one with a very high sense of the authority of Lycurgus, and disposed all classes of people to acquiesce in the coming change. Lycurgus did not, however, rely entirely on this disposition. When the time came for organizing the new government, he stationed an armed force in the market-place one morning at a very early hour, so that the people, when they came forth, as usual, into the streets, found that Lycurgus had taken military possession of the city. The first feeling was a general excitement and alarm. Charilaus, the king, who, it seems, had not been consulted in these movements at all, was very much terrified. He supposed that an insurrection had taken place against his authority, and that his life was in danger. To save himself, he fled to one of the temples as to a sanctuary. Lycurgus sent to him, informing him that those engaged in the revolution which had taken place intended no injury to him, either in respect to his person or his royal prerogatives. By these assurances the fears of Charilaus were allayed, and thenceforth he co-operated with Lycurgus in carrying his measures into effect.

This is not the place for a full account of the plan of government which Lycurgus introduced, nor of the institutions which gradually grew up under it. It is sufficient to say that the system which he adopted was celebrated throughout the world during the period of its continuance, and has since been celebrated in every age, as being the most stern and rugged social system that was ever framed. The commonwealth of Sparta became, under the institutions of Lycurgus, one great camp. The nation was a nation of soldiers. Every possible device was resorted to to inure all classes of the population, the young and the old, the men and the women, the rich and the poor, to every species of hardship and privation. The only qualities that were respected or cultivated were such stern virtues as courage, fortitude, endurance, insensibility to pain and grief, and contempt for all the pleasures of wealth and luxury. Lycurgus did not write out his system. He would not allow it to be written out. He preferred to put it in operation, and then leave it to perpetuate itself, as a matter of usage and precedent. Accordingly, after fully organizing the government on the plan which he had arranged, and announcing the laws, and establishing the customs by which he intended that the ordinary course of social life should be regulated, he determined to withdraw from the field and await the result. He therefore informed the people that he was going away again on another journey, and that he would leave the carrying forward of the government which he had framed for them and initiated in their hands; and he required of them a solemn oath that they would make no change in the system until he returned. In doing this, his secret intention was never  to return.

Such was the origin, and such the general character of the Spartan government. In the time of Pyrrhus, the system had been in operation for about five hundred years. During this period the state passed through many and various vicissitudes. It engaged in wars, offensive and defensive; it passed through many calamitous and trying scenes, suffering, from time to time, under the usual ills which, in those days, so often disturbed the peace and welfare of nations. But during all this time, the commonwealth retained in a very striking degree the extraordinary marks and characteristics which the institutions of Lycurgus had enstamped upon it. The Spartans still were terrible in the estimation of all mankind, so stern and indomitable was the spirit which they manifested in all the enterprises in which they engaged.

It was from Sparta that the message came to Pyrrhus asking his assistance in a war that was then waging there. The war originated in a domestic quarrel which arose in the family of one of the lines of kings. The name of the prince who made application to Pyrrhus was Cleonymus. He was a younger son of one of the Spartan kings. He had had an older brother named Acrotatus. The crown, of course, would have devolved on this brother, if he had been living when the father died. But he was not. He died before his father, leaving a son, however, named Areus, as his heir. Areus, of course, claimed the throne when his grandfather died. He was not young himself at this time. He had advanced beyond the period of middle life, and had a son who had grown up to maturity.

Cleonymus was very unwilling to acquiesce in the accession of Areus to the throne. He was himself the son of the king who had died, while Areus was only the grandson. He maintained, therefore, that he had the highest claim to the succession. He was, however, overruled, and Areus assumed the crown.

Soon after his accession, Areus left Sparta and went to Crete, intrusting the government of his kingdom, in the mean time, to his son. The name of this son was Acrotatus. Cleonymus, of course, looked with a particularly evil eye upon this young man, and soon began to form designs against him. At length, after the lapse of a considerable period, during which various events occurred which can not be here described, a circumstance took place which excited the hostility which Cleonymus felt for Acrotatus to the highest degree. The circumstances were these:

Cleonymus, though far advanced in life, married, about the time that the events occurred which we are here describing, a very young lady named Chelidonis. Chelidonis was a princess of the royal line, and was a lady of great personal beauty. She, however, had very little affection for her husband, and at length Acrotatus, who was young and attractive in person, succeeded in winning her love, and enticing her away from her husband. This affair excited the mind of Cleonymus to a perfect phrensy of jealousy and rage. He immediately left Sparta, and, knowing well the character and disposition of Pyrrhus, he proceeded northward to Macedon, laid his case before Pyrrhus, and urged him to fit out an expedition and march to the Peloponnesus, with a view of aiding him to put down the usurpers, as he called them, and to establish him on the throne of Sparta instead. Pyrrhus immediately saw that the conjuncture opened before him a prospect of a very brilliant campaign, in a field entirely new, and he at once determined to embark forthwith in the enterprise. He resolved, accordingly, to abandon his interests in Macedon and march into Greece.