Our Little Spartan Cousin of Long Ago - Julia D. Cowles




The Festival

The day of the festival had arrived, and the boys of the city were released from their usual drills and exercises.

There were no school buildings in Sparta. The boys were taught in the gymnasium or the barracks. They learned a little reading, a little writing, and a very little arithmetic. But greater attention was given to teaching them the laws; in training them to speak well in public; to recite the great poems of Homer; and to sing the national songs, and accompany them with the cithara. Then, too, they were taught to exercise, to swim, run, wrestle, ride, play football, and throw the discus. In spite of the hardihood of the Spartans, the rougher sports of that time were forbidden.

The girls of Sparta were given much the same training as the boys, although they were trained separately, and their leaders were young women. Unlike the girls of Athens, they were allowed to go freely upon the streets, and to join in the choruses and festivals. Only the married women of Sparta wore veils upon their faces when outside their homes. The Spartan girls played upon the lyre instead of the cithara.

The most beautiful women of all Greece were those of Sparta, for their outdoor life and athletic exercises gave them clear skins, bright eyes, and graceful, healthful bodies.

The day of the festival had arrived, and the boys and girls of the city were released from their usual drills and exercises.

The festival began with a procession, and the boys of Orestes' company took their places. First came the kings, who were to offer sacrifices to the gods; next the magistrates; and after these, the men of the city, the companies of maidens, and the companies of boys. Some of the men rode horses, and some of the maidens were in chariots, or in beautifully ornamented cars. They drove their horses quite as fearlessly as the men.

As the procession moved through the streets, the people sang a song, or paean, in thanksgiving for the bountiful harvests of the year. They stepped lightly, in time with the music, for their hearts were as joyous as those of children.

They reached the temple, and here the priests offered a sacrifice, and poured wine upon the altar.

As the people formed in groups, here and there, Orestes and Chartas stood together, near the other boys of their company.

"Did you notice how well Theognis sang the paean?" asked Chartas.

"Yes," replied Orestes. "There is something unusual about Theognis. He loves poetry, and music, and the graceful exercises of the gymnasium. It is my belief that he will some day be a poet, himself."

"Theognis a poet!" exclaimed Chartas, in surprise. And then he added: "There is something different about him—perhaps that is it!!"

"But see!" said Orestes.

A chorus of singers had joined hands, and were now dancing slowly about the blazing altar, and, as they sang, several of the men of Sparta acted in pantomime the words of the song.

Then a group of maidens came forward and danced with measured steps and graceful gestures, while one of their number played upon the lyre.

"See," said Chartas to Orestes, "my sister, Melissa, is among the dancers."

"Yes," answered Orestes, "she dances well." And Chartas noted with pleasure that Orestes' eyes followed her graceful figure throughout the dance.

"Now for the war dance!" exclaimed Chartas. "I think that is best of all."

A group of men took their places before the assembly. A flute player stood among them. There was silence for a moment, then he put his flute to his lips. Quickly and lightly the men began to dance, and, in perfect time to the music, they imitated the actions of a soldier in battle. They assumed an attitude of defence,—crouching, and presenting their shields; they avoided the thrust of an enemy; they sprang up; retreated; then sprang forward to thrust with their short swords; backward to throw a lance; and upright to draw a bow.

The people watched with breathless interest, for this, the Pyrrhic war dance, was best liked of all their dances.

"Isn't it wonderful how well they can do i t!" exclaimed Chartas.

"Yes," said Orestes, "but I shall expect you to do it as well some day."

"I?" questioned Chartas in astonishment.

"You!" answered Orestes with a quiet smile. "I am to teach it to our company very soon, and I will take special pains to drill you in it, if you wish."

"Oh, I do!" exclaimed Chartas, "and I will try my best. I would rather dance the Pyrrhic ajar dance well, than take any other part in the festivals."

"Very well, then," replied Orestes. "You shall be given the chance."

Chartas' eyes were shining with pleasure as Orestes said, "Come, it is our turn now."

Three groups were formed. One was of old men; the next was of the active men of the city; the third was of boys—the boys of Orestes' and Procles' companies.

The old men sang:

"We once were young and brave and strong.

The next group responded:

"And we're so now, come on and try."

Then the boys sang:

"But we'll be strongest by and by."

As the boys sang, Chartas again noticed how the voice of Theognis led all the others.

After the procession and dances, there was a great feast. Chartas had told the boys of his company that they were to be taught the Pyrrhic war dance, and it was the chief topic of conversation while they feasted.

"Good!" Brasidas exclaimed. "That is the dance for Spartans."

And Theognis echoed his exclamation. "Nothing else has such perfect rhythm of motion," he added.

Later in the day there were gymnastic exercises, and the great festival day closed with chariot races between men, and others between girls.

"See how well Gorgo handles her horses," exclaimed Brasidas, as one of the chariots swept past him.

"Yes," replied Theron, who was beside him,

"she handles them quite as well as any man." "That is what Spartan training does for our girls!" proudly exclaimed an older man who had overheard them. "In no other country are the girls so graceful and so strong."