Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


Nothing positive is known about the birth of Phocion, except that it took place in Athens. His parents were supposed to be of high standing, because he was well bred and well educated, which would probably not have been the case had they been ordinary people.

Phocion had a gentle, humane disposition, but the expression of his face was so severe that only those who knew him well dared to approach him. His conversation was full of wisdom and instruction, but he wasted no words, for he spoke briefly and always to the point, so that a philosopher of his day said, "Demosthenes is the best orator, but Phocion is certainly the most powerful speaker in Athens."

So reserved was Phocion that the Athenians never saw him either laugh or cry or use a public bath. If he made an excursion to the country, or marched out to war, he always went barefooted and without his cloak, unless it happened to be intensely cold, and then his soldiers used to laugh and say, "It is a sign of a sharp winter; Phocion has got his clothes on."

In his youth he served as a soldier under Chabrias, a general with whom he became such a favorite as to be selected from among the whole army to conduct enterprises of importance and trust.

Strange as it may seem, Phocion had great influence over his commander, who was many years his senior, and often kept him in check when he was rash, or urged him on when he was inclined to postpone a battle. In return, Chabrias gave his young friend opportunities to distinguish himself, and at the sea-fight of Naxos he behaved with so much valor that he won a great reputation in Greece.

After Chabrias was killed, Phocion continued to be friendly with his family, and tried very hard to improve his son, who was a stupid, badly-behaved fellow. Once he lost patience with the boy because he asked so many silly rude questions, and exclaimed, "O Chabrias, Chabrias! what a return do I make thee for thy favors, by bearing with the impertinence of thy son!"

The Athenians had so much confidence in the military genius of Phocion that whenever they were about to engage in a war they turned to him for aid, and he was elected general of their army forty-five separate times, though he never asked for the office, and was seldom present when the elections took place.

Phocion had the moral courage to do what he thought right, and no amount of ridiculing or fault-finding on the part of others could change him. On a certain occasion his countrymen insisted that he should lead them against an enemy, and, when he refused, called him a coward, whereupon he answered, "Do what you will, I shall not be brave; and do what I will, you will not be cowards; however, we know one another very well."

At a time of danger to the country the people once became angry with him, and demanded an account of how he had used the public money. All he said was, "My good friends, first get out of your difficulties."

While war lasted they were always humble and submissive, but as soon as it was over they were apt to find fault with their general. Once they declared that he had robbed them of victory at the very moment when it was in their hands. "It is well for you," he said, "that you have a general who knows you; otherwise you would have been ruined long ago."

There was a quarrel between the Athenians and Bœotians, which the latter refused to settle by treaty, and proposed to decide by the sword. Phocion told them, "Good people, you had better try the method you understand best; and that is talking, not fighting."

Demosthenes, the orator, who belonged to the opposite party, said to him, "Phocion, the Athenians will certainly kill thee some day." "They may kill me if they are mad, but it will be you if they are in their senses," was his ready answer.

A very fat man was one day urging on a war with Philip of Macedon, and got so hot and excited while speaking that he stopped several times to swallow a little water. "Here is a nice fellow to lead us to war," exclaimed Phocion, "for what may we expect of him loaded down with a suit of armor, when he is ready to choke under a speech that he has composed at his leisure?"

When Lycurgus took him to task for opposing the demand which Alexander made for ten Athenian orators to be sent to him, he answered, "It is true I have given my countrymen much good counsel, but they do not follow it."

There was a citizen named Aristogiton, who always pretended to be in favor of war; but when the lists came to be made out, he appeared with his leg bound up and a crutch under his arm. "Here comes Aristogiton," cried Phocion, aloud; "put him down a cripple and a coward."

It seems strange that a man who could say such severe things should have been surnamed the Good, but such was the case with Phocion, for he could be both rough and gentle, sweet-tempered or cross, according as he was affected by different circumstances. He never did harm to a fellow-citizen from personal feelings, but he was severe against those who worked not for the public good, and he was always ready to assist an unfortunate person, even though he chanced to be an enemy. His friends finding fault with him one day for pleading the cause of a man who was undeserving, he said, "Surely the good have no need of an advocate."

Although Phocion always desired peace, yet he distinguished himself frequently in battle, and he was so popular among the nations allied to Athens, that they treated every other commander sent to them as an enemy, though they always welcomed him and received him with honors.

He defeated the forces of Philip of Macedon in Eubœa, and afterwards saved Byzantium from that monarch, and recovered several cities that had been guarded by his forces. Thus King Philip was driven quite out of the Hellespont, where, until then, he had been greatly feared.

Upon the news of Philip's death, which happened not long after, Phocion would not allow sacrifices or public rejoicings, for he said, "Nothing shows greater meanness of spirit than expressions of joy on the death of an enemy. After all, the army we fought with is lessened only by one man, so there is no great reason to rejoice."

When Alexander of Macedon marched against Thebes and took possession of the city, he demanded that Demosthenes and three others who had opposed a treaty should be delivered up to him. The people did not know what to do, but turned to Phocion for advice. As usual, he spoke out boldly, and said, "The persons whom Alexander demands have brought the commonwealth into such a miserable state, that even if he had named my most intimate friend as one of them, I should vote to deliver him up. For my part, I should think it the greatest happiness to die for you all. At the same time I am not without pity for the Thebans who have taken refuge among us; but it is enough for Greece to weep for Thebes, let her not weep for Athens too. The best thing we can do is to intercede with the conqueror for both, but by no means to think of fighting."

Acting upon this advice, the Athenians sent Phocion himself to confer with Alexander, and he was so successful that not only was peace restored, but he became the friend and guest of the great monarch, who showed him more respect than he did any other person at his court. Later, Alexander sent him a hundred talents for a present. When the money was brought to him, Phocion asked the ambassadors, "Why, among all the citizens of Athens, am I singled out as the object of this bounty?"

"Because," said they, "Alexander looks upon you as the only honest and good man."

"Then let him permit me always to continue so," returned Phocion, as he returned the money.

The men were invited to go home with him, and when they saw how simply and plainly he lived, his wife baking bread, himself drawing water to wash his feet, they urged him again to accept the gift, saying, "It is a shame for a man whom Alexander calls friend to live so poorly."

"There would be no use in my having money which I would not spend, and if I did make use of it I should get a bad name both for myself and for Alexander from my countrymen." So the treasure went back; an evidence that the man who could afford to refuse it was richer than he who offered it.

Alexander was displeased because Phocion would not accept his gift, and wrote him, "I cannot number among my friends one who refuses my favors." Still Phocion would not take the money. But he did ask a favor of the king, which was immediately granted, and that was the release of six prominent persons whom he held as prisoners. Afterwards, Alexander wanted to present him with one of four cities of Asia, which he named, but again he refused, and a few months later Alexander died.

Phocion had a son named Phocus, who gave him a great deal of trouble, because his habits were disorderly and he drank to excess. Once he asked permission to take part in the games at the great feast of Minerva; his father granted it, not because he valued the victory, or even supposed that Phocus would gain it, but because he hoped the training and discipline would make a better man of him. Phocus won the race, and many of his friends invited him to banquets in honor of it. One of these Phocion attended, and when he saw the costly preparations, for even the water which was brought to wash the guests' feet contained wine and spices, he was disgusted, and took his son to task for permitting his friend to spoil his victory thus. With the hope of weaning Phocus from such company and such luxurious habits, he sent him to Lacedæmon, to be placed among the youths under a course of Spartan discipline. The Athenians took offence at this, thinking that Phocion did not appreciate home education. One of them said to him in public, with a sneer, "Phocion, suppose you and I advise the Athenians to adopt the Spartan constitution. If you like, I am ready to introduce a bill to that effect and to speak in its favor." "Indeed," returned Phocion, sarcastically, "you, with that strong scent of perfumes about you, and that costly mantle on your shoulders, are just the very man to speak in honor of Lycurgus and Spartan simplicity, are you not?"

When the news of Alexander's death reached Athens it caused so much excitement that Phocion said, "Well, then, if Alexander be dead to-day, he will be so to-morrow and the day after, so we may make our arrangements quietly and at leisure."

Immediately after this the Lamian war began. This was a war between all the Greeks, except the Bœotians and the Macedonians; it received its name from the fact that Antipater was besieged in the town of Lamia.

It was Leosthenes who raised the forces for this war; for Phocion was very much opposed to it, and used every argument to prevent it. Thereupon one young man asked him, "Tell us, then, what will be the proper time for the Athenians to go to war?" He answered, "When the young men keep within the bounds of order and propriety, the rich become liberal in their contributions, and the orators stop robbing the public."

Leosthenes was victorious at first, and there was great rejoicing in Athens, particularly when an embassy came from Antipater to sue for peace. But the victors would listen to nothing but an unconditional surrender. Leosthenes was killed at the siege of Lamia, and from that moment victory favored Antipater, until he had defeated all the Greek states except Athens. Then a treaty was agreed upon, and Phocion, who was highly esteemed by Antipater, was made ruler of the city.

But there was a Macedonian garrison stationed there and commanded by Menyllus, a man who was friendly to Phocion, and did no sort of injury to the citizens. Once he offered Phocion a sum of money as a token of friendship. It was refused, with this remark, "Menyllus is not a greater man than Alexander; nor have I greater reason to receive a present now than I had when the latter offered me one." "Take it for your son Phocus," urged Menyllus. Phocion answered, "If Phocus becomes sober, his father's estate will be sufficient for him; and if he continues to drink nothing will be so."

Although Phocion commanded the Athenian armies so many times, it is to his credit that he remained poor to the end of his life. The Athenians were constantly begging him to ask Antipater to withdraw his garrison, but he saw no reason for doing so, and refused. All went well until the death of Antipater, and then new troubles arose.

Polysperchon had been nominated general-in-chief of the army, and Cassander commander of the cavalry, before Antipater died. Cassander immediately sent Nicanor to take the place of Menyllus, because that would give him more power, the former being his friend. This made the Athenians very angry, and they accused Phocion of having kept the death of the king secret until the change was made. He did not take the trouble to defend himself against the charge, but made it a point to visit Nicanor, until he succeeded in gaining his good will for the Athenians. He also persuaded him to seek theirs by presiding at their public games.

Meanwhile, Polysperchon, who had the care of the young king, Alexander's son, was determined that Cassander should not have his way in Athens, so he wrote letters to the citizens telling them that the king restored them all their liberties. The result was that at a general assembly death or banishment was voted for any man who had held office while the Macedonians were stationed at Athens. This of course included Phocion, who had been highest in office.

Now Polysperchon was not really acting in the interest of the Athenians, though he made it appear so. His object was to get possession of their city, and he knew that in order to do so it was necessary to put Phocion out of the way. This could only be brought about by the offer he made of freedom to the citizens.

Nicanor knew what Polysperchon's intention must be, and, trusting his person to Phocion, for he did not feel safe during the excitement that prevailed, he entered the assembly to explain the case to the Athenians. Then a commander of the Macedonian king tried to seize him, but he was warned in time to defend himself, though he resolved to have his revenge. The Athenians found great fault with Phocion because he let Nicanor escape when he had him in his power, but he said, "I have no reason to believe that Nicanor means us harm; but even though he should, I had rather suffer wrong than do anything unjust."

Phocion was very honorable, but he made a mistake in the confidence he placed in Nicanor; for that general no sooner found himself safe among his soldiers than he ordered an attack on Athens. Phocion would have gone to oppose him, but his countrymen had lost confidence in him and would not obey his commands. The son of Polysperchon, whose name was Alexander, arrived just at that period and pretended that he meant to assist the city against Nicanor. Instead of that, he wanted to get hold of it himself; so, collecting about him the exiles who had returned with him, besides the foreigners and the citizens who were for one reason or another in disgrace, he made himself so powerful that he was able to turn Phocion out of office and appoint his own men instead. The city would not have escaped this snare had Alexander been more prudent; but he had several secret meetings with Nicanor, which were discovered by the Athenians and aroused their suspicion.

Phocion and several others of the most respectable and distinguished citizens who had been publicly accused of treason went over to Polysperchon for safety. They arrived at the same time with an embassy from Athens that had been sent to accuse them and to insist that they should be compelled to return.

Polysperchon basely gave them up to stand their trial, as he said, though he knew perfectly well that they were as good as sentenced to death already. It was Clitus who took the prisoners back to Athens and shut them up until he could call an assembly of the people. Having read a letter from the Macedonian king, in which he said, "I find the prisoners guilty of treason, but leave the Athenians, as freemen, to pass sentence upon them," Clitus led forth the unfortunate men.

Many covered their faces and shed tears when they beheld Phocion so humbled. One man tried to say a word in his behalf, but he was silenced by the excited crowd. At last Phocion desired to speak; and although he could scarcely raise his voice enough to make himself heard in the tumult, he asked, "Do you wish to put us to death lawfully or unlawfully?"

"According to law," was the answer.

"How can you do that unless we have a fair hearing?" was the next question. No one replied. Then, advancing a few steps, Phocion said,—

"Citizens of Athens, I acknowledge I have done you injustice, and pronounce my public conduct to deserve sentence of death; but why will you kill these men, who have never injured you?"

"Because they are your friends," cried out the populace.

Phocion had hoped to save them by declaring himself deserving of death, but he now drew back and said no more.

The sentence was then read and put to the vote, and there was scarcely one negative. Some of the people even crowned themselves with flowers, as though they were at a festival.

After the assembly separated, the doomed men were carried back to prison, all weeping and lamenting except Phocion, whose expression and bearing were just the same as when he was in command of the army. Some of his enemies abused him as he went along, and one man spat in his face, upon which he turned to an officer and said, "You should stop this fellow's rudeness."

One of the prisoners bemoaned his hard fate when he saw the executioner preparing the poison. "Dost thou not think it an honor to die with me?" asked Phocion.

One of his friends inquired whether he had any commands for his son. "Yes," said he; "tell him, from me, by all means to forget the ill treatment I have had from the Athenians."

The execution took place on the day when there was a solemn procession in honor of Jupiter, and many of the horsemen threw away their garlands and wept as they passed the prison. But Phocion's enemies were so numerous that they would not allow his body to stay within the borders of Attica, nor any Athenian to furnish fire for his funeral pile. A man whose business it was to bury people for pay carried the body to Megara, and a woman who, with her maid-servants, assisted at the ceremony of burning gathered up the bones carefully in her apron and carried them by night to her own house. She buried them under her hearth, and thus addressed the gods as she did so: "Ye guardians of this place, to you I commit the remains of a good and brave man, and I implore you to protect and restore them to the tombs of his fathers when the Athenians return to their senses."

And indeed it was not long before they began to feel what an excellent, just governor they had lost. Then a statue in brass was erected to his memory, and his bones were interred with honors at the public expense.