Lords of the World - Alfred J. Church

The Last of the Greeks

Most of Cleanor's fellow-passengers on board the Nereid—for this was the name of the singularly un-nymphlike trading vessel that carried him to Corinth—were a curious medley of races and occupations. Corinth was the mart of the western world, and was frequented, for business or for pleasure, by all its races. There were soothsayers from Egypt, who found their customers all the more credulous because they boasted that they believed in nothing; Syrian conjurors; Hebrew slave-dealers; a mixed troop of commercial travellers; and a couple of grave-looking, long-bearded men who, in spite of their philosophers' cloaks, were perhaps the greediest, the most venal of all.

One passenger, however, was of a very different class. He was a Syracusan noble, erect and vigorous notwithstanding his seventy years, whose dignified bearing and refined features spoke plainly enough of high breeding and culture. He was a descendant of Archias, the Corinthian emigrant, who, some six centuries before, had founded the colony of Syracuse, and he was coming, as he told Cleanor, in whom he had discovered a congenial companion, on a religious mission. The tie that bound a Greek colony to the mother city had a certain sanctity about it. Sentiment there was, and the bond of mutual advantage; but there was more, a feeling of filial reverence and duty, which was expressed by appropriate solemnities.

"I am bringing," said Archias—he bore the same name as his far-away ancestor—"the yearly offering from Syracuse the daughter to Corinth the mother. I have done it now more than thirty times. But I feel a certain foreboding that I shall not come on the same errand again. If that means only that my own time is near, it is nothing. I have had my share of life. The gods have dealt bountifully with me, and if they call me I shall go without grumbling. But I can't help feeling that it is something more than the trifle of my own life that is concerned, that some evil is impending either over Syracuse or over Corinth. As for my own city, I don't see where the trouble is to come from. We have long since bowed our necks to the yoke, and we bear it without wincing. For bearable it is, though it is heavy. But for Corinth I own that I have many fears. She is restless, she is vain; she has ambitions to which she is not equal. The gods help her and save her, or take me away before my eyes see her ruin!"

As they were drawing near their journey's end Archias warmly invited his young friend to make his home with him during his stay in Corinth.

"I have an apartment," he said, "reserved for me in the home of the guest-friend of Syracuse. The city rents it for me, and makes me an allowance for the expenses of my journey. I feel bound to accept it, though, without at all wishing to boast of my wealth, I may say that I don't need it. You must not think that you are burdening a poor man—that is all. I can introduce you to everybody that is worth knowing in Corinth, and, if you have any business on hand, shall doubtless be able to help you. And it will be a pleasure, I assure you, to have a companion who is not wearied with an old man's complaints of the new times."

Cleanor thankfully accepted the invitation. When the Nereid reached the port of Corinth he found that the Syracusan's arrival had been expected. A chariot was in waiting at the quay to convey them to the city. At the apartment all preparations for the comfort of the guests were complete—it was a standing order that a provision sufficient for two should be made. First there was the bath,—more than usually welcome after the somewhat squalid conditions of life on board the merchantman,—and after the bath a meal, excellently cooked and elegantly served.

The meal ended, Cleanor felt moved to become more confidential with his new friend than he had hitherto been. Naturally he had been very reserved, giving no reason for Archias to suppose that he had other objects in his travels than amusement or instruction. But he felt that it would be somewhat ungracious to maintain this attitude while he was enjoying so kind and generous an hospitality. In a conversation that was prolonged far into the night he opened up his mind with considerable freedom. His precise schemes he did not mention; they were scarcely his own secret; and he said nothing about Hasdrubal, feeling—for he had studied history with intelligence and sympathy—that a Syracusan noble would scarcely look with favour on anything that came from Carthage, the oldest and bitterest enemy of his country. But he gave a general description of his hope and aim, a common union of the world under the leadership of the Greek race against the domination with which Rome was threatening it.

The Syracusan listened with profound attention. "It has done me good," he said, "to hear you. I did not know that such enthusiasm was to be found nowadays. The very word has gone out of fashion, I may say fallen into disrepute. It used to mean inspiration, now it means madness. Our young men care for nothing but sport, and even their sport has to be done for them by others. They have chariots, but they hire men to drive them; the cestus and the wrestling ring are left to professional athletes. The only game which they are not too languid to practise with their own hands is the kottabos, and the kottabos is not exactly that for which our fathers valued all these things, a preparation for war. I hate to discourage you, but I should be sorry to see you ruining your life in some hopeless cause."

"But, if I may say so much with all respect, isn't this exactly what has been said time after time? May there not be something better than you think, than anybody would think, in these frivolous young fellows? Who would have thought Alcibiades anything but a foolish fop, and yet what a soldier he was when the time came!"

"Well, I hope that you are right," replied the old man; "only your Alcibiades must make haste to show himself, or else it will be too late. But it is not only this, the folly and frivolity of the youth, that discourages me; it is the hopeless meanness and jealousy of the various states. If I could raise from the dead the very best leader a Greek city ever had, I should still despair. Now listen to the story that I have to tell you. Don't think that I am a mere grumbler, who does his best to discourage thoughts that are too high for him to understand; I speak from a bitter experience. But you shall hear.

"I am just old enough to remember the storm and sack of my native city by the Romans. I was but five years old, but even a child of five does not forget when he sees, as I saw, his father and his elder brother killed before his eyes. I should have been killed myself—for the soldiers, who had suffered terribly in the siege, spared no one—but for Marcellus himself. He let the slave who waited on me carry me off to his own hut. That worthy slave and his good wife kept me for five years out of their scanty wages—he was a workman in the stone-quarries, and she sold cakes to schoolboys in the streets—till I was ten years old. Then interest was made with the Senate at Rome, and part of the family property was given back to me. You will understand that I was very restless at Syracuse, but I could not move till I was twenty-five, for my father's will had fixed this age for my becoming my own master. It is a custom in our family, and I was too dutiful to think of breaking it. But the moment I became my own master I made haste to carry out a plan which I had been long thinking of. The famous soldier of the time was Philopśmen, the Arcadian. It was a privilege to serve under him as a volunteer, and there were always ten times more applications than there were places to fill. However, by great good luck, and partly, I may say, through my having had the good fortune to win the foot-race at Olympia, I was chosen. I landed here—it is more than forty-five years ago—and made my way to his home in Arcadia. He had himself just come back from Sparta, which he had brought over to the cause of Greece. Sparta, as I dare say you know, has always cared much for herself, and very little for anything or anybody else. I shall never forget what happened a few days after my arrival. The Spartans, or, I should rather say, the reforming party among the Spartans—for there never was a Greek city yet but had two parties in it at the very least—felt greatly obliged to him for what he had done, and determined to make him a present. Well, they sent three of their chief citizens to offer it to him. They came, and Philopśmen entertained them. Of course he knew nothing about the object of their coming, and they said nothing about it. They seemed ill at ease—that I could not help observing—though their host was all that was courteous and agreeable; but speak they couldn't. There was something about the man which positively forbade their mentioning such a matter. The next day they went away, leaving their offer unspoken. But as they could hardly go back to Sparta with this story, they put the matter into the hands of an old friend to carry out.

"It seems an easy thing to get rid of a pocketful of gold, but this man didn't find it so. Everything about Philopśmen was so simple, so frugal, he seemed so absolutely above things of the kind, that it was impossible to offer him money. The man went away without saying anything. He came a second time, and it was the same thing all over again. I don't say but what Philopśmen had now some inkling of what was on hand. There was a twinkle in his eye, as if he was enjoying some joke greatly. As for me, I was completely mystified. Then the three Spartans came back again, and this time they forced themselves to speak, and, of course, did it in the clumsiest, most brutal fashion. It was a large sum, too, a hundred and twenty talents, if I remember right.

"Philopśmen smiled. 'My friends,' he said, 'you would have laid out this money very badly if I were to take it. Don't buy your friends; you have them already. Buy your enemies.'

"And a good friend he showed himself. He wasn't in office then, and the President of the League, having a difference with the Spartans in some matter of no great importance, was all for using force.

"'Pray,' said Philopśmen to him, 'don't do anything of the kind. It is sheer madness to quarrel with a great Greek state, when the Romans are on the watch to take advantage of our divisions.'

"And when he found that speaking was of no use, he mounted his horse and rode straight to Sparta—I was with him—to warn them of what was going to be done. Sure enough, in the course of ten days or so, the President comes with some five thousand men of his own and half a Roman legion; but Sparta was ready. They had to go back again without doing any harm. Some two months afterwards he was chosen President—for the eighth time it was—very much against his will, for he had passed his seventieth year, and was hoping to spend the rest of his days in peace. But it was not to be. There was a revolution in Messene, one of the endless changes which tempt one to think, against one's own conscience, that the steady, fixed rule of an able, honest tyrant is the best kind of government that a state can have. The Messenians, accordingly, renounced the League. This might have been endured; but it was another matter when they proceeded to seize a strong place outside their own borders. Philopśmen was lying sick with fever at the time in Argos, but he left his bed immediately, and was on horseback in less than an hour. I was with him; indeed, I never left him of my own free will. Before nightfall we had reached his home in Arcadia, four hundred furlongs was the distance, and the roads about as rough and steep as you will find anywhere in Greece. The next day he sent round the city calling for volunteers. Some three hundred joined him—gentlemen, all of them, who furnished their own arms, and rode their own horses. We had a smart brush with the enemy, and got the better of them. But they were strongly reinforced, and as we were now heavily overmatched, Philopśmen gave the signal to fall back. His one thought now was to save the volunteers.

"'They are the heart's blood of the city,' he said to me, 'and they must not be wasted.'

He placed himself with a few troopers, who formed his body-guard, in the rear, and protected their retreat. He was a famous swordsman, you must know, and old as he was, there were very few who cared to come to close quarters with him. But of course they had their darts, and he was soon wounded in several places, as, indeed, we all were. And then on some very rough ground his horse stumbled and threw him. He was an old man, you see, and he had had two days of hard riding, and the fever fit—which was of the ague kind, caught some years before when he was campaigning in Crete—was coming upon him.

"'Save yourselves,' he said to us; 'your country will want you for many years yet, but I am an old man.'

"However, he gave me leave to stay; the others he commanded on their obedience to go. When the enemy came up he had fainted. They thought he was dead, and began to strip him of his arms, but before they had finished he came to himself. My blood boils to this day when I think how they treated him. They bound his hands behind his back, and drove him before them on foot as he was, half-dead with fatigue and sickness.

"That night we bivouacked in the open. Some of the troopers had a feeling of pity or shame. One lent him his cloak to keep the cold off, though he had to go without one himself; another shared his ration of bread, dried meat, and rough wine with him. On the evening of the next day we came to Messene town, and I must do the townsfolk the justice to say that the sight was not at all to their liking. I heard many of them cursing the man—Deinocrates was his name, and he was as ill-conditioned a scoundrel as there was in Greece—who had given the orders for it to be done. Still, no one had the courage to interfere, and Deinocrates determined to finish matters before he was hindered; for he knew perfectly well that the League would spare nothing to get back their president.

He thrust him, therefore, into a dungeon that was called the Treasury, a dreadful hole without a window or door, but having the entrance to it blocked by a huge stone. Deinocrates then held a hurried council with some of his own party. They voted with one accord for death. What followed I heard from the executioner himself, who was one of Deinocrates' slaves. His story was this:

"'My master said to me, 'Take this cup'—I guessed from the look and the smell that it was hemlock—'to the prisoner, and don't leave him till he drinks it.' I went in—it wanted but a little time to midnight—and found Philopśmen awake. 'Ah!' he said, when he saw me, 'your master is a generous man, and sends me, I doubt not, a draught of one of his richest vintages. But before I drink it, answer me, if you can, one question. Have any prisoners been brought in?' I said that I had not heard of any. 'None of the young horsemen that were with me?' I said that I had not seen them. He smiled and said, 'You bring good tidings. Things have not gone altogether ill with me.' Then he took the cup and drank it up without another word. This done he lay down again. I watched by him, but though I heard him breathing heavily he never moved. Just before cock-crow I judged that he died, for it was then that breathing ceased, and when I put my hand on his heart I could feel nothing.'

"That was the end of Philopśmen, 'the last of the Greeks', as I heard an enemy, a Roman, call him. And what, my dear young friend, can Greece do without Greeks?"