Famous Men of Greece - John Haaren

Aristides the Just


Aristides was the rival of Themistocles. Themistocles was wise and brave, but selfish and fond of money. Aristides, too, was wise and brave, but he was also so honorable that the Athenians called him "the Just."



On one occasion he was acting as judge between two men. One of them had spoken unfairly of Aristides and the other came secretly to Aristides to tell him of it. "My friend," said Aristides, "tell me the wrong the man has done to you, not what he has done to me. It is not my cause that I am to decide, but yours."

Aristides opposed many plans that Themistocles wished to carry out, and so at length Themistocles determined to have him banished.

There was at Athens a curious way of getting rid of a citizen. Every year this question was put before the people: "Does the safety of the State require that any citizen shall be banished?" If it was decided that this was necessary the people were called upon to vote. No person's name was mentioned, but every citizen wrote on a small earthenware tablet the name of any man whom he thought dangerous to the state. The tablets were collected and counted, and if the name of any one man was written on as many as 6,000 tablets he had to leave the city for ten years. Banishing people in this way was called "ostracism." We often use the word to-day. It comes from a Greek word meaning an earthenware tablet.

Themistocles and his friends persuaded many of the Athenians that Aristides was a dangerous citizen. So when a public meeting was being held the people were asked if they thought any citizen ought to be banished. No one mentioned Aristides' name, but Themistocles' friends said, "Let a vote be taken." While the vote was being cast a countryman who could not write his own name came up to Aristides and said:

"Friend, will you write the name of Aristides for me on this tablet?"

"Has Aristides ever wronged you?" asked Aristides gently.

"No," said the other, "I have never even seen him, but I am tired of hearing him called 'the Just.' "

Aristides said no more, but wrote his own name on the tablet.



There were enough votes against Aristides to banish him. As he was leaving Athens he prayed the gods that the time might never come when his fellow-citizens should have cause to be sorry for what they had done.

That time came, however. Three years later when Athens was threatened by the Persians the citizens, at the request of Themistocles himself, recalled Aristides. He sailed from his place of exile to the bay of Salamis and went on board the ship of Themistocles only a few hours before the famous battle. Themistocles at once gave him command of one of the Athenian ships, and he did good service in the battle.


In the spring following the battle of Salamis Mardonius, the Persian commander who was in Thessaly, tried to bribe the Athenians to become allies of the great king but they refused his offers with scorn. He then marched to Athens and the people abandoned the city, so that it fell into his hands.

The Greeks, however collected an army of one hundred and ten thousand men. Pausanias, a nephew of Leonidas, the hero of Thermopylae, was made commander-in-chief; but Aristides commanded the Athenian troops. Mardonius now retreated from Athens, destroying and burning as he went. The Greeks followed and overtook him near the city of Plataea, and there they defeated him in one of the "decisive battles of the world." Mardonius himself was killed.

It took ten days to divide the spoil and bury the dead. A tenth of the spoil was sent to Delphi and dedicated to Apollo, because the promise of his oracle that "the wooden wall would save the city" had led to the great victory of Salamis. A temple was erected to Minerva, and thank-offerings were made to other gods. "Liberty games" were established, to be held on the battlefield once in four years, and every year the tombs of those who had fallen in battle were to be decorated with flowers. The land upon which Plataea stood was declared to be sacred and the inhabitants of the city were to be always free from attack by other Greeks.

On the afternoon of the very day on which the battle of Plataea was won the Greek fleet gained a great victory over the Persians at Mycale, on the coast of Asia Minor. After their defeats at Marathon, at Plataea, and at Mycale, the Persians never again attempted to conquer Greece.


As soon as the victory at Plataea had freed Greece from the ravaging Persian army, the Athenians flocked back to their ruined city and began to rebuild it. Aristides and Themistocles carried on this work hand-in-hand.

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Greece by John Haaren


It was found that the sacred olive tree on the Acropolis, though burned to the ground, was not killed. From its root had sprung a stout young shoot. This was taken by the citizens as a good omen and rebuilding of the city went on rapidly. The great seaport called the Piraeus was fortified, and a wall was built round the city.

These and other public works required a great outlay of money, and it was needful to put some one whom all the citizens trusted in charge of the fund raised. Aristides was chosen and enormous sums of money were placed in his hands. He used his office solely for the good of the people and never became rich.

When he died, about 468 B.C., the whole nation mourned and he was buried at public expense.