Famous Men of Greece - John Haaren



One of the most violent quarrels that ever disturbed the life of the gods was between Neptune and Minerva.

Cecrops, one of the wisest of the Greeks, was founding a city near the finest harbor in Greece. Neptune wished to be the chief god of the city, and Minerva also desired the honor.

Neptune said that as the city was going to be a great seaport, busy with vessels sailing in and sailing out, it was only right that he, the god of the ocean should be its guardian.

Minerva foresaw that in days to come the men of the city would care much less about commerce than about art and learning. She therefore thought that she, the goddess of wisdom, should be its guardian.

The other gods became very weary of the quarrel, and to bring it to an end Jupiter ordered that the one who should offer the more useful gift to the city should become its chief god.

Neptune then struck with his trident a rock within the city’s bounds, and up sprang a war horse ready for battle. Minerva touched the earth, and an olive tree rose on the spot.

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Greece by John Haaren


Now groves of olive trees, Jupiter knew well, would be far more useful to the people than the finest of war horses. He therefore decided in favor of Minerva. The city became the most famous place in all the world for learning and art, and from Athene, the Greek name of the goddess, it was called Athens.


The most noted of the early kings of Athens was Theseus, the son of Aegeus, who was himself a king of Athens. Theseus was born far away from Athens and was brought up by his mother, Aethra, at the home of her father.

Before parting with Aethra at her father's home, Aegeus placed a sword and a pair of sandals under a heavy stone and said to her:

"When the child is able to lift that stone, let him take the sandals and sword and come to me."

Years went by, and when Theseus had grown up, his mother led him one day to the stone and said to him:

"If you are a man, lift that stone."

Theseus lifted it with ease and saw a pair of sandals and a sword.

His mother told him that the sandals and the sword had been placed under the stone by his father, Aegeus, who was king of Athens. "Put them on and seek him in Athens," she said.

He fastened the sword to his girdle and buckled the sandals on his feet. Then he kissed his mother and set out for Athens.

He did not go far without an adventure. A robber called the Club-bearer attacked him. A struggle followed, in which the Club-bearer was killed. Then Theseus took the robber's club and ever after that carried it himself.

A little farther on he met a robber called Sinis, who was known as the Pine-bender. It was the Pine-bender's sport to pull down pine trees, tie travelers to their tops, and let the trees spring back. His victims dangled from the tree-tops until they perished from pain and hunger. When Theseus came along he bent a pine, fastened the Pine-bender to it, let the tree spring back, and left the robber to suffer the torture that he had inflicted on so many others.

Journeying still farther, the hero reached the dwelling of Procrustes, the Stretcher. Procrustes had a bed which he made all travelers fit. If a man's legs were too long, Procrustes cut them to the right length. If they were too short, he stretched them until they were long enough. Theseus forced Procrustes to lie upon the bed himself and chopped the Stretcher's legs to the right length.

In this manner, fighting often and bravely, Theseus made his way to Athens. When he reached the city and showed his sword to Aegeus, the king knew that the young man must be his son. He was filled with joy and declared Theseus his heir.


Every year the city of Athens had to send seven young men and seven maidens to Minos, the king of Crete, to be devoured by a terrible creature, called the Minotaur. It was kept in a place known as the Labyrinth. The Labyrinth was full of winding paths, so puzzling that a person, once in, could not find his way out.

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Greece by John Haaren


The day that the youths and maidens were to sail to Crete was at hand, and Athens was filled with sorrow. Theseus made up his mind that never again should the city have cause for such grief. He determined to kill the Minotaur.

"Father," he said to Aegeus, "let me go to Crete as one of the victims."

"No, no, my son!" cried Aegeus, "I could not bear to lose you."

"Ah, but you will not lose me," answered Theseus. "Not only shall I return, but I will bring back in safety all who go with me."

Aegeus at last gave consent and Theseus went as one of the fourteen victims.

The ship's sail was black, an emblem of mourning. As Theseus bade farewell to his father, he said, "I am taking a white sail with me to hoist when we come back. If the black sail should still be set when the ship comes home you will know that I have failed. But I shall not fail."

When the black-sailed vessel reached the shores of Crete there was a great crowd gathered to see the victims. Among the watchers was Ariadne, the lovely daughter of the king of Crete. She was full of pity for those who were to be devoured. When she was told that Theseus had determined to fight the Minotaur, she made up her mind to help him. She could see that he was very strong and she felt sure that he could kill the monster. But she feared that he would starve to death in the Labyrinth because he would not be able to find his way out. So when Theseus went into the Labyrinth she gave him the end of a ball of thread and said:

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Greece by John Haaren


"I will stand here at the entrance and let the ball unwind as you go in. When you have killed the Minotaur follow the thread back to me."

So Theseus took hold of the thread and went boldly into the Labyrinth. When he reached the center of it the monster came to attack him. Its weapons were stones. Stone after stone was flung by the monster but each was warded off by Theseus, just as a skilful batter wards off a swift ball. At length Theseus was close enough to strike the Minotaur with his sword and the creature fell dead.

Guided by the thread, Theseus quickly made his way back to the entrance of the Labyrinth. There he was joyfully received by Ariadne and the youths and maidens whom he had saved from death.

Theseus and Ariadne had fallen in love with each other, and when the tribute ship set sail for Greece Ariadne was one of the passengers.

On the homeward voyage the ship touched at the island of Naxos. There Theseus had a strange dream. In it he was told by Minerva to leave Ariadne on the island because the Fates intended her to be the wife of one of the gods.

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Greece by John Haaren


Accordingly, on the island of Naxos he left her, and sailed away to Greece. She afterward did become the bride of one of the gods, who gave her a golden crown, which after her death was changed to a crown of stars that is yet to be seen in the sky on any bright night.

On the voyage from the island of Naxos to Athens, Theseus was thinking so much of Ariadne that he quite forgot to change the black sail for the white one, as he had promised his father to do. This was a most unfortunate oversight, for it brought death to Aegeus and sorrow to Theseus.

Day after day, while Theseus was away, Aegeus had sat on a cliff which overlooked the sea, hoping to catch sight of the white sail. When at last the ship appeared with its black sail still spread, the poor king supposed of course that his son had been devoured by the Minotaur. He threw up his hands in grief, and falling from the cliff into the sea, was drowned. From that day to this the sea has been called the Aegean, or the sea of Aegeus.

When the ship reached the harbor of Athens, Theseus learned of his father's death, and bitterly did he mourn that he had forgotten to hoist the white sail.

He at once became king; and no king ever did more for Athens than he. Yet in spite of his love and labor for the city, the Athenians were not grateful. After a while he went on a journey. He remained away for so long that they chose a new king. When at last he came back and found that the people whom he had loved so well had forgotten him, he left the city and soon died.

The Athenians in later days repented that they had been so ungrateful. They brought his bones to Athens and buried them with great solemnity. Festivals were held in his honor, and he was ranked almost with Minerva herself as a guardian of the beautiful city.

The story is told that centuries after his death he left the spirit-world and helped the Athenians to gain the victory in the greatest battle they ever fought, the battle of Marathon, of which you will read farther on in this book.