Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


Now we come to a great man, who was also such a kind, benevolent one, that the fortune of which he got complete control when he was still a youth was all used for the relief of others. Many a Theban had cause to rejoice on account of the liberality of Pelopidas. Indeed, he devoted so much time to affairs of state that he neglected his money matters, and his friends took him to task for it. He replied, "What care I for money? it is only necessary for such as Nicodemus there," pointing to a man who was both lame and blind.

All of Pelopidas's friends felt the benefit of his wealth except one; that was Epaminondas, who could never be persuaded to accept any of it. But Pelopidas loved him so much, that he spent his money on others, and for his own part preferred to live humbly, to dress plainly, and to work as Epaminondas did. This united the two friends very closely. Their tastes differed somewhat, for Pelopidas spent his leisure hours in wrestling or hunting, while the other was reading and studying. But no feeling of envy ever marred the affection of one for the other, and both had the same aim, which was to raise their country to the very highest point of glory. So they worked together to accomplish this, and their friendship lasted to the end of their lives.

During the Peloponnesian war, the Spartans appeared friendly towards the Thebans, though in reality they were jealous of their power. There were two political parties in Thebes, the liberal one, headed by Ismenias and Androclides, to which Pelopidas and Epaminondas belonged, and the opposite one headed by Leontidas. The liberals made themselves so much feared that Leontidas even became a traitor to keep them from getting the government in their hands. Once, when the Lacedæmonian troops were marching past Thebes, he actually helped them to seize the fortress. This gave them authority to govern the city, and left the liberals no chance whatever. Ismenias was taken prisoner, and soon after murdered in Sparta. Pelopidas and others escaped this fate by running away, for which they were sentenced to banishment. Epaminondas was too poor and too much of a student to have much power, so he was not disturbed.

All the exiles went to Athens, where they were kindly received. There seemed little hope of being able to shake off the Spartan tyranny, but Pelopidas gathered his countrymen around him, and constantly told them how shameful it was for them to submit tamely, until he aroused in them a determination to strike a blow for liberty. Then they sent messages to their friends in Thebes, telling them of their plans, and Charon, a prominent citizen, offered his house for a meeting-place.

Meanwhile, Epaminondas had not been inactive, for he took pains to lecture about bravery to the young Thebans, and encouraged them to organize wrestling-matches with the Lacedæmonians, and when they were victorious he would tell them "that they ought to be ashamed of their meanness of spirit in remaining subject to those to whom they were superior in strength."

When the day fixed for action came, it was agreed by the exiles that twelve of the younger men should go forward and get into the city, if possible, while the rest should stay at the plain of Thriasian. Pelopidas was the first to offer himself for the dangerous expedition, and all those who joined him were men of noble families, who rivalled one another only in courageous exploits. Clad in short coats, such as hunters wore, carrying hunting-poles, and followed by dogs, the twelve brave Theban exiles set out over the fields towards their native city. Their friends who were in the plot met them and provided each with the dress of a peasant; then they separated and entered Thebes at different points. All proceeded to Charon's house, which they reached in safety. When the exiled twelve and their friends had assembled, their number was forty-eight.

Phillidas, who was in the plot, had managed meanwhile to get the position of secretary to the tyrants Archias and Philip. On the night of the meeting, at the house of Charon, the secretary had invited the two tyrants to his house to an entertainment, telling them that they should be introduced to some ladies of distinction. They accepted the invitation, and, while waiting for the ladies they expected to meet, drank a great deal of wine, which Phillidas supplied liberally.

While thus engaged, a messenger entered to tell Archias that there was a report about town of the presence of some conspirators in Charon's house. Phillidas ridiculed the report, and Archias was enjoying himself so much that he did not wish to be disturbed, so he sent one of his guards to bring Charon before him at once.

The conspirators were just in the act of girding on their armor, when they were startled by a loud knocking at the door. One of them stepped out to see what was the matter, and when he informed the others that an officer had been sent to fetch Charon they felt sure that their cause was lost without their having had a chance to prove their valor. It was agreed among them that Charon should obey the summons, and if possible deceive the tyrants and put a stop to their suspicion. But Charon was placed in a very unpleasant position with his friends, for he feared that they might think it was he who had let out the secret and played the part of a traitor. So before leaving he brought his little boy to Pelopidas, and said, "If you find me a traitor, treat this child as an enemy, and show him no mercy."

Many wept, and begged Charon not to think them so base and mean-spirited as to suspect or blame him; they therefore requested him to put the child beyond the reach of danger, so that he at least might escape the tyrants and live to avenge the city and his friends. "No," said Charon; "what life, what safety, could be more honorable than to die bravely with his father and such generous companions?"

When Charon was announced, Archias came out of the house, followed by Phillidas. The former said, "I have just heard, Charon, that certain suspicious-looking men have come to town and are concealed by some of the citizens." Seeing that he had no positive information, Charon was immensely relieved, and, assuming an air of innocence, asked, "Who are they? Who conceals them? Do not disturb yourself on account of a mere rumor. I will go and make all the inquiries I can, for it is perhaps not prudent to disregard anything of that sort." Phillidas praised him for being so ready to watch the interests of his country, and then led Archias back to his bottle, telling him that neither he nor Philip must go until the ladies arrived.

Not long after, a letter was handed to Archias from a friend in Athens. On the outside was written, "Urgent business; to be read at once." It contained a full account of the conspiracy; but Archias was too intoxicated by that time to care for anything; so, pushing the letter under his cushion, he said, with a drunken smile, "Urgent business to-morrow," and tried to turn his thoughts to what his host was saying, for Phillidas worked hard to hold the attention of his guests.

The return of Charon was greeted with cheers, and the friends of liberty prepared to act without delay. Pelopidas, taking half under his direction, went against two of the nobles in the neighborhood, whose names were Leontidas and Hypates, while Charon and the rest, having put on women's clothes over their armor, and wreaths of pine and poplar upon their heads to conceal their faces somewhat, undertook to dispose of the tyrants who were being entertained by Phillidas.

The make-believe women were allowed to enter the house without the least resistance. Three or four of them walked straight to the table at which Archias and Philip sat, and while Phillidas persuaded the rest of the company not to interfere, they drew their swords and killed the intoxicated tyrants without much trouble.

Pelopidas and his party had a more difficult task, for Leontidas was not only brave, but he was sober. His house-door was found locked, for he had gone to bed, and the conspirators had to knock loud and long before they could make themselves heard. At last a servant unbarred the door, but before he could ask what was wanted he was knocked down, and a rush was made for the bed-chamber. The noise aroused Leontidas, who, always on the alert for treachery, jumped up and seized his sword. If he had remembered to put out his lamp, he might have escaped; but, as he did not, his chances were few. However, with one stroke he laid the first man who entered dead at his feet. Pelopidas was the second. The narrow door-way and the dead body that lay across it made the fight long and doubtful, but Pelopidas was victorious at last; and no sooner had he slain Leontidas than he hastened to the house of Hypates, who had been warned just in time to seek refuge with a neighbor; but he was followed and killed also.

By this time the whole city was aroused, and all was terror and confusion. Men ran to and fro trying to find out what had really happened, for all sorts of wild rumors were afloat, and the citizens watched eagerly for day to dawn, that they might find out the truth. Now there were fifteen hundred Spartan soldiers in the garrison, and many people had joined them during the night, but they were so alarmed and so unable to find out the true state of affairs that they contented themselves with merely guarding the citadel, instead of falling upon the conspirators as they ought to have done.

By the time the longed-for day did at last dawn, those of the exiles who had remained outside the city had joined the others. Pelopidas had sent Phillidas to the jails to release those brave Thebans who had been imprisoned by the Spartans, and Epaminondas, with a large body of armed men, young and old, had marched to the market-place, where an assemblage of citizens was soon summoned.

Pelopidas stood surrounded by priests, who carried garlands in their hands and called aloud to the people to exert themselves for their gods and their country. Loud cheers rent the air, and the excited assembly shouted the names of the conspirators in turn, calling them their preservers and deliverers.

Pelopidas was chosen chief captain of Bœotia, and his first action was to blockade the citadel. With the assistance of Charon and Melon he stormed it on all sides and drove the Spartans out. A good many skirmishes were fought between the Spartans and the Thebans after that, but the former could not again get the upper hand. From the night when the Theban exiles fought so desperately for liberty and put an end to the tyrants who ruled them, the Spartans lost their power.

Pelopidas, with his company of three hundred foot-soldiers, called the Sacred Band, won victories at every turn. This Band of Lovers, as it was sometimes termed, was the very flower of the Theban army, a brave, resolute set of young men who had vowed eternal friendship for one another, and had bound themselves by the strongest ties to stand by one another to the last drop of blood. These warriors showed themselves superior even to the Spartans, who had never before been beaten by a company smaller than their own, and proved that the bravest and most formidable opponents are those who fear disgrace more than danger.

The Thebans gained so many victories that they won over to themselves the greater part of those nations that had formed the Spartan confederacy. The army was led by Pelopidas and Epaminondas, both so popular that the peoples they conquered were glad to be placed under their protection and to follow wherever they led. This being the case, they did not stop until many towns of Lacedæmonia had been taken, and the whole country to the very sea-shore had been laid waste.

Then Alexander, the tyrant of Pheræ, made war against the Thessalians, and they sent to Thebes for assistance. Pelopidas offered himself, and he was so successful in Thessaly that Alexander became frightened and stole away with his guards. Having relieved the Thessalians of their tyrant, Pelopidas went to Macedonia, because his reputation for justice was so well known that he had been sent for to settle a dispute between Ptolemy of Egypt and the king of Macedonia. He made peace between the two monarchs, and received for hostages Philip, Prince of Macedonia, and thirty children of noble birth. These he sent to Thebes, to show the Greeks what confidence was felt in the only one of their colonies that still had a popular government.

Again were the Thessalians forced to seek aid of the Thebans. Pelopidas and Ismenias went to them, but took no troops of their own this time, and were therefore obliged to make use of the Thessalian forces.

But just then there was fresh trouble in Macedonia, for a new quarrel had arisen, and Ptolemy had killed the king. Thereupon the friends of the dead sovereign called on Pelopidas to help them, and having no troops of his own, as we have said, he hastily raised some mercenaries or paid soldiers, and marched with them against Ptolemy. It must be remembered that these mercenaries were foreign soldiers who received money for their services; consequently, as they were not prompted by patriotism, they fought for the highest bidder. Such being the case, Ptolemy bribed them liberally and got them over to his side. But even then he was so much afraid of Pelopidas that, not knowing what steps he might take next, he went to pay his respects to the Theban general, and tried very hard to pacify him by promising to keep the kingdom in trust for the brothers of the dead king, and to take sides with Thebes against her enemies. As a guarantee of honesty, he delivered his son and fifty of his companions as hostages. These also were sent to Thebes.

Pelopidas next turned his attention to the mercenaries, whose treachery he determined to punish. They had lodged themselves, with their effects, their wives and children, at Pharsalus, and thither, with some troops from Thessaly, Pelopidas proceeded. Much to his surprise, it was the tyrant Alexander with his army who met him there. Supposing that he desired to apologize for his former conduct, Pelopidas and Ismenias went to him together. They speedily found their mistake, for they were seized and shut up in the fortress at Pheræ.

As soon as the Thebans heard of this outrage, they ordered their troops to Thessaly without delay. Epaminondas was acting as a private soldier then, because he had been accused of not pursuing all his advantages in a late battle against the Spartans, and, in consequence, deprived of his command.

The tyrant Alexander did not prevent his prisoner from seeing people while he was in the fortress; he rather encouraged visitors to go there, because he wished to make a display of the way he had humbled Pelopidas. But the Pheræans were so distressed when they saw the situation of so brave a general that he had to comfort them. One day he sent word to the tyrant "that he was very wrong to put to death so many of his innocent subjects and spare him, who, he might be sure, was determined to punish him as soon as he was free."

"Why is Pelopidas in such haste to die?" asked the tyrant. When this question was repeated to the prisoner, he said, "It is that Alexander, being more hated by the gods than ever, may the sooner come to a miserable end."

This Alexander was such a wicked wretch that he often buried people alive, and some he would have dressed in the skins of bears and wild boars, and then either drive dogs at them or fire darts at them, merely to amuse himself. Many such horrible deeds are related of him, and, knowing what a cruel tyrant he was, it is astonishing that Pelopidas should have been so daring. But he probably knew that tyrants are nearly always cowards, and Alexander proved the truth of this saying when Epaminondas was placed at the head of the Theban army again. This change was made because the other generals who had gone to Thessaly were either incapable or unfortunate. As soon as Alexander heard that Epaminondas was coming, he began to tremble, and sent ambassadors forward to meet him and offer satisfaction.

Epaminondas would enter into no treaty with such a man, nor would he listen to any propositions. He made a formal demand for the return of Pelopidas and Ismenias; they were conducted to him, and he marched away with his army.

About this time the Spartans and Athenians sent to the Persians for assistance, and as soon as the Thebans heard of it they despatched Pelopidas on the same errand. This was a wise choice, for Artaxerxes had heard of the wonderful victories of the Theban, and of his having beaten the Lacedæmonians by sea and land, and he was proud to receive such a distinguished person with honors. He offered him costly presents too, but Pelopidas would accept nothing; all he asked was "that Greece should be free and independent; that Messenia should be repeopled; and that the Thebans should be considered the king's hereditary friends."

These terms being granted, greatly increased the popularity of Pelopidas at home. The other ambassadors met with no favors whatever.

Soon after Pelopidas got back to Thebes, the Thessalians were obliged to send for him again, because the tyrant Alexander had seized many of their cities, and was threatening others. The army was just ready to move, when an eclipse of the sun took place at noonday. We know with what superstitious awe the ancients looked upon this event, and how they always considered it an ill omen. Pelopidas was not more advanced in this regard than his countrymen, but he was ready to march, and nothing could deter him. But he understood the objections made by the seven thousand citizens who were under arms, and sympathized with them, so with a body of only three hundred volunteer horsemen he set forward.

At Pharsalus more troops joined him, and the two armies met at Thetidium. "The tyrant meets us with a great army," said one of the soldiers to the general on beholding Alexander with his numerous troops. "So much the better," he replied, "for then we shall conquer the more."

When the battle began, Pelopidas commanded his cavalry to charge the enemy. They did so, and routed them. Then Alexander took to the hills near by, and killed many of the Thessalians as they tried to climb after him. But Pelopidas sounded a retreat to his cavalry, and, leading his foot-soldiers to the attack, drove the enemy back in their turn. By this time the Thessalians had got on a hill above the enemy, and, observing a good deal of disturbance among them, Pelopidas ordered a charge, rushing first himself headlong and calling on Alexander to come and fight him single-handed. The tyrant did not obey the challenge, but retreated and hid himself among the guard. The foremost of the mercenaries that attacked Pelopidas were driven back, and some were slain; but many at a distance aimed their darts at him and killed him before the Thessalians could run down the hill to save him. The cavalry then came on again, drove the enemy before them and strewed the country with three thousand of their dead and wounded.

The Thebans showed deep grief at the death of Pelopidas, and called him their father and deliverer. They gathered about his body, and would neither put off their armor, dress their wounds, nor unbridle their horses. They were silent and sad, and any stranger seeing them would not have supposed that they had just gained a great victory over a tyrant. As soon as the death of Pelopidas was known in the cities, the magistrates, priests, and youths marched out to meet the body, carrying crowns, garlands, and suits of golden armor. The Thessalians begged that they might give the funeral, and said to the Thebans, "Friends, we ask this favor of you, that will be an honor and a comfort in this our great misfortune. We can never again wait on the living Pelopidas, never give honors that he can know of, but if we may have his body, adorn his funeral and inter him, we hope to show that we have met with a heavier blow than you have. You are deprived of a good general, while we have lost both a general and our liberty. For how shall we dare to ask of you another captain, since we cannot restore Pelopidas?"

The request was granted, and never was a more splendid funeral seen in Greece. The death of the tyrant Alexander occurred not long after, in this way: he had a wife named Thebe, who had been witness to many of his wicked and cruel actions. Besides, he had not been a faithful or a good husband, and so year by year she hated him more and more. This was the cause of her laying a conspiracy to kill him, though of course it does not excuse her. She took her three brothers into her confidence and sought their aid, though the palace was filled with the tyrant's guard. Besides, a ferocious dog kept watch before his chamber-door every night, and would allow no one to approach but Thebe and Alexander himself; he had to be disposed of before anything could be done. Having made her plans, Thebe concealed her brothers all day in a room not far from the one in which the tyrant slept, so that their presence in the palace was not suspected. In the night, after her husband was in bed, she made some excuse for entering his room, and, finding him fast asleep, took the sword that hung at his head, concealed it under her gown and carried it to her brothers. Then she called a servant and requested him to take the dog, which she had led out, saying that Alexander was disturbed by the movements of the animal and had ordered his removal. The concealed brothers were next brought forth and led by the treacherous wife to her husband's bedside. The young men hesitated before performing the horrible deed, but Thebe urged them on, and, holding a lighted lamp that there might be no mistake, directed them in their movements. Two of them seized the sleeping tyrant, while the third plunged the sword Thebe had provided through his body. So occurred the death of one of the most sinful, hard-hearted wretches that ever lived.