Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


Theseus was one of the most celebrated heroes of ancient times, but he lived so many centuries ago that no one knows the date of his birth. He was a Greek of noble descent, Æthra, his mother, being the granddaughter of one of the most powerful of all the Peloponnesian kings. Ægeus, his father, was not of royal blood, but he was descended from the oldest inhabitants of Attica, and became a sovereign before Theseus was born. A short time after he was chosen to rule over Athens he had occasion to travel, and one of the cities he visited was Trœzene, where he was invited to court. There he met the Princess Æthra, with whom he fell in love. She returned his affection, and the two were married; but Ægeus did not mention this important event when he returned to Athens, because of the displeasure that he knew it would cause his relations, and still less did he dare to do so when the birth of his son was announced to him.

This was on account of his nephews, the Pallantidæ, a band of fifty brothers who expected to mount the throne in turn, and would not have hesitated to destroy anybody who might stand in their way. So Ægeus carefully preserved his secret, although it was his intention to recognize his son as soon as he felt that it would be safe to do it.

Before his departure from Trœzene, Ægeus had hidden a sword and a pair of sandals beneath a huge stone, and had told Æthra that when their boy should reach manhood and should become sufficiently strong to raise the stone without aid, he was to carry the articles concealed under it to Athens. In that way, after the lapse of many years, Ægeus hoped to recognize his son. He had no fear that Æthra would betray the secret, for he had taken great pains to make her understand the danger to himself and Theseus if the existence of the latter should become known to the Pallantidæ.

Pittheus, Æthra's father, took charge of his grandson, and engaged a tutor named Connidas to educate him. In later years the Athenians sacrificed a ram to this tutor on the day before the celebration of the Thesean feasts, simply because he had been honored with the care of the person whom they loved, and for whom they entertained the most profound reverence.

Æthra was true to her trust, and told nobody who was the father of her son; but Pittheus declared that it was Neptune, the god of the sea. This pleased the Trœzenians, because they considered Neptune their special deity, offered sacrifices to him, and stamped their money with a three-pronged sceptre called a trident, which was the symbol of his power.

In course of time Theseus became a robust, healthy youth, and his mother was so pleased on account of his strength of mind and body, as well as the excellent judgment he displayed on various occasions, that when he was only sixteen years of age she resolved to inform him of the secret of his birth; so taking him by the hand one day, she led him to the stone under which his father had placed the sword and sandals, bade him remove it, and with what he would find concealed beneath hasten to Athens and present himself before Ægeus.

The youth obeyed in so far as lifting the stone was concerned, for, as we have said, he was strong, and the task was by no means a difficult one; but he astonished his mother by refusing to sail to Athens at her request. To Athens, he replied, he would certainly go, but not by sea. This announcement troubled the fond Æthra, for traveling by land was at that time made extremely dangerous by the bandits and cut-throats who overran Greece, and whose cruelty, strength, and desperate deeds were world-renowned. But Theseus was inspired with the spirit of the Heroic age in which he lived, and before following him in his travels we will say a few words about this period.

What is known as the Heroic age in history is supposed to have extended over about two hundred years. The Greeks believed that during that time their country was governed by a noble race of beings who, though not divine, possessed more than human strength, and were in many ways superior to ordinary men. These are the heroes, mentioned in Grecian mythology, whose exploits and noble deeds furnished themes for the early writers. The Heroic age closed with the Trojan war, 1184 B.C. Homer has given the best picture of the government, customs, and society of that age, and his poems furnish the earliest knowledge we have of the Greeks. This renders them valuable, even though they may not always be based on facts.

Among the most prominent heroes of Grecian mythology are Hercules, Theseus, and Minos.

Now Hercules and Theseus were of the same family, and the latter had heard so much about the wonderful feats of strength and the glorious valor of his ancestor that he burned to imitate him and have his name enrolled among the heroes. He had longed for the day when he might set forth to perform great deeds, and when at last it dawned he eagerly began his plans, and before long he started on his journey, determined to destroy all those who should offer violence to himself or who had been cruel to other travellers. Thus he hoped to benefit his country and all mankind.

The first creature who tried to stop him was Periphetes, the Club-bearer. Theseus killed him and took the enormous club with which he had put an end to his victims for so many years. As Hercules carried a huge lion's skin to show what a ferocious beast he had slain, so now did Theseus appear with the club of Periphetes, which, in his hands, became a most formidable weapon.

Theseus next slew Sinnis, the Pine-bender, whose very name had long been a terror to the world. His way of destroying people was to fasten their limbs to branches of pine-trees which were bent together for that purpose; then suddenly the trees would be unfastened, when they would return to their upright position and tear the victim to pieces. Sinnis suffered the very fate he had imposed on others.

At Commyon there was an immense sow, so fierce and wild as to keep the whole neighborhood in a state of constant dread. Theseus went out of his way to meet the horrible creature, because he did not wish it to appear that he would avoid peril of any sort; besides, he thought that a truly brave man ought to rid the world of dangerous beasts as well as of wicked human beings. So he put an end to the sow, and then travelled on to Megara.

At Megara there lived a notorious robber named Sciron, who made any person that came his way wash his feet. That would not have been a fatal operation performed in the ordinary way, but Sciron would seat himself at the edge of a lofty precipice for the washing, and while it was going on he would give his victim a violent kick and send him headlong down the rock into the sea. Theseus did not go through the ceremony of foot-washing with Sciron, but seized him and dashed him over the precipice. In putting these creatures out of the world in the same way they disposed of others, Theseus imitated Hercules, as students of mythology will perceive. Thus, in boxing-matches he killed Cycnus and Cercyon, celebrated wrestlers; he broke to pieces the skull of Termerus, who had killed people by butting his head against theirs; and Procrustes, a famous robber of Attica, he punished in the following way: Procrustes had a bed on which he made all his victims lie to see how nearly they would fit, but it was of a size that was sure to be too short for some people and too long for others. So the tall ones were lopped off and the short ones stretched out. The powerful giant's whole head had to come off before he could lie on the bed, and so Theseus punished him, much to the delight of the neighbors.

On his arrival at Athens, Theseus found public affairs all in confusion, for the inhabitants were divided into parties that were constantly disputing with one another. He did not at once present himself before his father, but Medea, to whom Ægeus was then married, found out who he was, and made up her mind that he should not stay to inherit the throne if she could help it, particularly as she had a son of her own for whom she desired it. So she told Ægeus that the appearance of the young stranger at court just then, when the government was so disturbed, meant mischief, and he must be put out of the way. She advised him to give a banquet and invite Theseus, for whom she would prepare a cup of poison. Ægeus, who was always in dread of plots against his throne, readily consented. When all the guests were assembled he took the cup of poison in his hand and was on the point of offering it, when Theseus drew out his sword and prepared to cut the meat with it. The father recognized the token and dashed the cup to the ground. A few questions convinced him that the stranger was his son, and he forthwith tenderly embraced him and publicly proclaimed him his heir. The Athenians, who had heard of the daring deeds of Theseus, shouted with joy, for they were delighted at the prospect of one day having so brave a king.

Not so the Pallantidæ; seeing their hopes thus destroyed, they became desperate, and, dividing themselves into two companies, they broke out into open warfare. Their plan was for one party to attack the city while the other lay in ambush ready to set upon the enemy from the opposite side. They might have met with success had it not been for a herald named Leos. He pretended to work with them, but treacherously repeated all he heard to Theseus. That young hero speedily destroyed one party, whereupon the other thought best to disperse.

Having no special business to attend to after that, Theseus amused himself by going to Marathon to destroy a furious bull that was doing great damage to the fields and frightening the people. This bull Hercules had brought from Crete, and when Theseus led it in chains through Athens, the people were filled with wonder at his having captured so ferocious a creature alive.

Theseus was now ranked next to Hercules among the heroes; but the adventure which won for him the greatest glory was this:

The island of Crete was governed by Minos, a wise, good king, much beloved by his subjects on account of his justice and honesty. It so happened that his son, Androgeus, when on a visit to Attica, had been treacherously murdered, and in order to avenge the dreadful deed the disconsolate father made perpetual war against the Athenians. The gods sided with Minos, and not only sent famine and pestilence to punish his enemy, but dried up all their rivers.

At last their sufferings became so intense that the Athenians could no longer bear them, so they sent to the oracle for advice. The oracle told them that if they could devise some means of satisfying Minos the anger of the gods would be appeased, and their distress would come to an end. Messengers were forthwith despatched to Crete to see what could be done. The king proposed a treaty, which required that every nine years seven young Athenian men and as many girls, of noble families, should be sent to Crete as victims to the Minotaur.

The Minotaur was a huge monster that had the body and limbs of a man and the head of a bull. His abode was at the central point of several winding paths, that crossed and recrossed one another in such a puzzling manner that nobody who got into the labyrinth, as it was called, could ever find his way out again.

Well, Ægeus had agreed to King Minos's treaty, and two sets of Athenian maids and youths had been devoured by the Minotaur. The period for sending the third lot came around just after Theseus had captured the Marathon bull. The sorrow in Athens was so great that Theseus was much affected by it. Parents lamented loudly, and in the bitterness of their grief accused the king of signing the cruel treaty only because he had no child to sacrifice. No sooner did Theseus hear this than he unhesitatingly offered himself. Ægeus was shocked, and tried to dissuade his son from taking such a rash step, but Theseus remained firm, and the other thirteen victims were chosen as usual, by lot.

The treaty provided that the Athenians should furnish their own ships, and that no weapons of war should be carried to Crete. But it set forth distinctly that if, by any fair means, the Minotaur should be destroyed, the tribute should cease forever. On the two previous occasions the ships had carried black sails only, but Theseus had so encouraged his father by declaring that he felt certain of being able to kill the monster, that Ægeus gave the pilot a white sail, commanding him to hoist it on his return if he brought Theseus safely back, but should such not be the case, the black one was to appear as a sign of misfortune.

On his arrival in Crete, Theseus took part in the public games that Minos yearly celebrated in memory of his lost son, and showed such superiority as a wrestler that Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, fell in love with him. This proved a blessing, for she secretly informed Theseus how to reach the centre of the labyrinth, and gave him a thread which he was to unwind as he passed along, and thus be able to find his way back.

With such a clue the killing of the Minotaur became an easy task to so powerful a man as Theseus, and having accomplished it, he set out with his companions in triumph for Athens. But when the ship neared the coast, so great was the excitement on board that neither Theseus nor the pilot remembered the signal of success they had been ordered to hoist. So when Ægeus beheld the vessel with its black sail, he naturally concluded that his son was dead. In despair he threw himself headlong from a rock and perished in the sea.


The first thing Theseus did on stepping ashore was to offer sacrifices to the gods, but while thus engaged he sent a messenger to Athens to announce his victory and safe return. The city was filled with mourning on account of the king's death, but the lamentations were changed to rejoicing when the good news was made known. The messenger was crowned with garlands, which he hung upon his staff, and hastened back to the sea-shore.

Theseus was still sacrificing when the death of his father was reported to him. He was much grieved, and so were his companions, all of whom took part in the funeral ceremonies, and helped Theseus to do honor to the memory of the late king. They then marched through the city in triumph, the people flocking out to welcome them, and to gaze at the hero who had relieved them from the cruel tribute imposed on them by King Minos.

Theseus was now king of Attica, and he set about improving the condition of his subjects at once. Instead of living near together, they were scattered over such a large space that they could not be easily governed, so disputes, and even battles, were constantly taking place. Theseus thought of a remedy, and, after consulting the Oracle of Delphi and getting a favorable answer, proceeded to apply it.

He went from town to town, from tribe to tribe, and explained his plan for establishing a commonwealth, which he promised to protect. It required a vast deal of persuasion before he could convince people that he was working for their good, and not for the purpose of increasing his own power; but at last he was rewarded for his trouble by seeing the various little state houses closed and one grand council hall established for the use of the whole kingdom. A public feast was given to celebrate this union of the people, and the state was henceforth called Athens.

Strangers from other countries were now invited to settle in Athens, and they flocked there in crowds. Much confusion might have resulted; but Theseus was wise enough to provide against this at the outset. He divided the people into three classes,—the noblemen, the husbandmen, and the mechanics,—each class having its duties and position clearly defined. The nobles had charge of religious affairs, appointed the magistrates, and saw that the laws were not violated. The husbandmen tilled the ground and raised cattle, and the mechanics attended to buildings and improvements in machinery, etc.

The new money was stamped with the image of an ox; probably in memory of the brute Theseus had slain at Marathon; so the Athenians valued an article at so many oxen, instead of dollars, as we do.

Theseus took possession of the country about Megara and added it to Athens, but wisely set up a pillar to mark the boundary-line, so as to avoid dispute on that point. Indeed, he seemed to be ever on the alert for anything that might disturb the peace and order he had established at home; but he was not so considerate of other nations, as his expedition against the Amazons proves. The Amazons were a race of warlike women represented in the ancient pictures and writings as fighting the Greek heroes. Theseus seized Antiope, their queen, fled with her to his ship, and set sail forthwith.

The rash act led to a disastrous war, which lasted four months; for the Amazons followed their queen to Athens and fought desperately. Antiope was slain, and so were many of her race, before peace was declared.

Theseus performed several exploits which we need not relate, because they were not of great importance, but when he reached the age of fifty he was guilty of a deed that by no means adds to his glory. That was the carrying off of Helen, who was supposed to be the daughter of the god Jupiter. She was considered the greatest beauty in the world, although she was then only nine years old.

Helen was dancing in the temple of Diana when Theseus went there, accompanied by his friend Pirithoüs, and stole her away. Armed men pursued the robbers, but could not overtake them, for they hastened on through Peloponnesus, and were soon beyond danger of arrest. Then they drew lots to see which of them should marry Helen when she should grow up, agreeing beforehand that the successful one should assist the other in getting a wife. Theseus proved the lucky man, and he bore the beauty to the house of a friend of his named Aphidnus, bidding him take the very best care of her and keep her hiding-place a profound secret. Æthra was conducted to the same house by Theseus, who begged her to assist in the care of the precious charge.

Now Pirithoüs had to be provided with a wife, and Cora, daughter of Pluto, god of the lower regions, was fixed upon. Accordingly, the two friends set out to secure Cora; but this was by no means so easy a task as they had supposed, for Pluto kept a fierce dog, named Cerberus, and all the suitors for Cora's hand had to fight the brute before they could be received. Cerberus must have been wonderfully intelligent, for he knew that Pirithoüs had come to steal the young lady, not to sue for her, so he rushed at him and tore him to pieces. Theseus escaped a similar fate; but he was captured by Pluto and locked up.

Theseus was still in prison when Helen's brothers, Castor and Pollux, went to Athens to seek their sister. The inhabitants assured them that she was not with them, and that they did not know where she was to be found. But an Athenian, named Academus, had discovered her hiding-place, and informed Castor and Pollux of it. They gathered together an army, marched to the town where Aphidnus lived, assaulted and got possession of it. Helen was rescued and sent to Troy, where it is supposed Æthra went to live with her.

Castor and Pollux returned to Athens and became citizens; for the people felt so grateful to them for not punishing them on account of Theseus's crime that they received them with every mark of friendship.

In course of time Hercules, while travelling, went to visit Pluto, who related to him how Theseus and Pirithoüs had tried to steal his daughter, and the punishment each had received. Hercules was grieved at what he heard of Theseus, whom he had long admired, so he entreated Pluto to release his prisoner, telling him that so great a hero deserved a better fate.

So Pluto opened the prison door, and Theseus returned home, where, as a mark of gratitude, he dedicated all the sacred places to Hercules.

Now Theseus expected to resume his place on the throne and govern the Athenians as before, but he soon found he was mistaken. All the good he had done was overshadowed by the silly actions that had made the people despise and distrust him. At first he thought of fighting for his rights; but deciding that no benefit could result from that, he gave up hope and set sail for Scyros, where he owned land that had belonged to his father.

He thought that Lycomedes, King of Scyros, was his friend, and that he should have no trouble in laying claim to his own possessions; but such was not the case. Lycomedes received him courteously, and invited him to walk with him to a cliff, under pretence of pointing out the estate he owned. When they reached the highest point Lycomedes threw his visitor headlong into the sea, killing him instantly.

In course of time the Athenians began to worship Theseus as a demi-god; and when they were at war with the Medes and Persians part of their army declared that he appeared at their head, completely armed, and led them against the enemy. After that sacrifices were offered to him, and the Oracle of Apollo ordered that his bones should be placed in a sacred spot at Athens. But for a long time it was impossible to find them, for the people of Scyros were not friendly, and would not tell where Theseus was buried.

At last Cimon, who had conquered the island, saw an eagle one day pecking at a certain mound and trying to scrape up the earth. It suddenly struck him that the gods were thus pointing out to him the burial-place of Theseus; so he dug until he came to a coffin, which he opened. It contained the bones of a very large man, by whose side lay a sword and a brass spear-head. Cimon was now convinced, and lost no time in carrying the coffin to Athens. Had Theseus returned alive his countrymen could scarcely have rejoiced more than they did when his remains were brought to them. They made a grand public funeral, and erected a tomb in his memory just in the heart of the city.

Ever after, sacrifices in honor of the benefactor of Athens were offered on the anniversary of his return from Crete.