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A Martyr King

"That young man's cloak is a very plain one, and yet he walks along the street with a step that is stately, as if he were not a common person. Who is he?"

"He is the king."

"Why does he wear so plain a dress? Why does he not show gay colors and adorn his body with gold, as other kings do?"

"I believe he wants us all to live in a simple way, like our fathers in olden times."

So spake two citizens of Sparta.

Yes, that was the aim of King Agis (A-jis). He reigned 244–240 B.C. As I have often told you, the Spartan folk had once clothed themselves in the roughest garb, lain on hard beds, eaten coarse food, and spent much of their time in exercise in sport or war. But now the ancient ways had almost died out. A few people were very rich, and possessed most of the land; and the great bulk of the people were poor, ragged, ill-fed, and in debt. When the young king saw the misery of Sparta, he thought of the days of old, and he longed to bring about a change or reform. One day he sat talking with his mother and grandmother.

"You are both rich," he said to them, "and if you will do as I ask you will set a noble example to other rich persons, and they will follow it."

"What is that?"

"I want you to give up a large share of your estates, and I will do the same; and if many of the richer class do likewise there will be an immense amount of land to spare for a purpose which I have set my heart on. I will divide it into small allotments for the people, so that each Spartan may then be a landholder, and have soil on which to grow corn and fruit for himself and his family. The unemployed will then have work to do, and the folk who are now idle and careless will become industrious and sober."

The royal ladies listened eagerly, and their hearts were warmed with the same desire as filled the young king's heart. They called a meeting of other Spartan ladies, and said to them:

"We shall give up much of our wealth for the good of the people. Ask your husbands to do as we do, and our ancient nation will have peace and contentment once more."

When the news of the king's plan spread among the poor folk there was much joy; but among the rich there was anger, for they thought they should now lose land, money, and comfort. The Spartans had the custom of choosing two kings instead of only one. Agis was the younger king; the elder was Leonidas, and Leonidas took the side of the wealthy class; and thus the country was divided. For a time the party of Agis gained the upper hand. Leonidas fled away, and his son-in-law, a prince, was made king in his place. As the son-in-law had a troublesome Greek name, I will simply call him the prince.

One day a vast crowd of Spartans had come together in the market-place to see the burning of the bonds. A bond is a paper which is held for a debt. If you owed me a sum of money, and you had agreed by putting your name on a certain paper to repay me the money, the paper would be called a bond; and if I destroyed the bond I should do away with the debt, and you would no longer be bound to pay. The king had ordered all persons who held bonds to bring them to the bonfire that was lit in the market-place. The bonds were cast into the flames, and the people shouted with gladness as they saw the papers crackle and smoke. But the money-lenders and bondholders walked away with sorrow in their faces and bitter feelings in their hearts. King Agis had given up for the people's use his ploughed land and his cattle pastures, as well as an immense sum of money. His mother and grandmother and some of their friends had also yielded up their possessions. But most of the rich folk were still waiting. They had no will to strip themselves of their goods.

It happened that a war was taking place in another part of Greece, and King Agis had promised to help one side with his troops. So he led an army of young Spartans to the field of war. On the march he was most strict in forbidding his warriors to hurt any man or any person's property in the villages they passed through. While he was thus absent, however, the rich class had made rebellion, and brought back Leonidas to the throne. This was done before Agis had time to return and prevent it. It was the hour of danger to the prince and to his friend Agis. Each of them fled to a different temple. Bands of enemies surrounded the buildings and watched. No Greek might be slain inside a holy temple, but if he issued forth then his life might be taken.

First, I will tell you what happened to the prince. His wife heard of his peril, and she took her two children and hurried to the temple and sat beside her husband. The guards told Leonidas, and he came and saw his daughter; her hair was fallen on her shoulders, and her dress was the dress of a mourning woman.

"Father," she cried, "when you went into exile I followed you, and tried to console you in your trouble. But now it is my husband who suffers. So I am bound to be wretched, first as a daughter and then as a wife. But I declare to you I will not see my husband die, for I will slay myself before you can touch him."

Having said this, the lady rested her head on her husband's shoulder, while the little children wept for their father's sake. And Leonidas was much moved, and he whispered with his friends, and then he gave command to the prince to go right out of Sparta, taking his wife and children with him. So the lady gave one child to her husband and carried one herself, and they four passed out into exile.

Next I will tell you of the end of Agis. For a while the king, Leonidas, had sent fair messages to him, and told him he hoped he would come out and take his part again in the governing of the country. Agis put little trust in these fine words; but he did at least believe Leonidas when the elder king said he might safely leave the temple each day to go to the bath at the end of the street. Several times Agis had visited the bath and returned to the temple unhurt, and so he came to think all was well. Three of his friends would meet him on the road and talk words of good cheer. But they had treason in their souls. In order to gain the favor of Leonidas, they had prepared a plot for the capture of the young king.

One evening, as the sky was getting dusky, they met Agis as usual walking from the bath, and they chatted with him until they reached the corner of a street that led to the prison. Suddenly one of them flung a cloak over the king's head, while the others held his arms. Other persons rushed up, and the party dragged Agis to the jail. The strong gates opened and soon closed again. A number of soldiers were posted about the building lest the citizens should seek to release the imprisoned king.

Before long, five magistrates sat in a chamber of the jail. By the light of lamps they tried the royal captive. The trial was very short. The questions they asked were few. The last question was this:

"Do you not repent of what you have done in Sparta?"

"No, indeed," answered the heroic king. "I shall never repent of so glorious a plan, even though I see death before my eyes."

Agis IV of Sparta

The five judges gave sentence that Agis should die. The officers carried him into a small room, from which he should never come out alive. Meanwhile, crowds of people had come to the prison, and were waving lanterns and torches in the darkness outside, wanting to know what was being done with the king. Alas! Agis lay dead. He had been strangled. Just before he died he saw one of the officers weeping.

"My friend," he said, "weep not for me. I have done no evil, and I am happier than those men who treat me unjustly."

The gates were opened for a moment to let in the king's mother and grandmother. The ladies hastened in, hoping to be in time to save their dear one's life. First of all the old grandmother was allowed to go into the inner chamber.

Then the mother. But when she entered she beheld her son's dead body, and she also beheld the dead body of her aged mother. When she saw this she knelt and kissed Agis, and said:

"My son, you were too honest and too generous a king for this country."

"If you approve your son's conduct," cried one of the three traitors who had seized the king on his way from the bath, "you shall share his reward."

"May all this be for the good of Sparta," sighed the queen.

Presently she herself was slain, and the three bodies were carried from the prison in the sight of the people, and the people were struck with terror, and they went to their homes.

Agis had died while trying to reform the condition of Sparta. He sought the good of his country, and he was put to death. Therefore we call him a martyr. He died in the year 240 B.C., more than two thousand years ago. Yet, you see, the world has not forgotten the young king and the Spartan ladies, and their noble purpose of helping their native land. They pointed to a goal for the people to go to, though they never lived to reach the happier place themselves. As we remember Agis and the brave women, we seem to see a light shine about us—the light of their good deeds:

Say not they die, those martyr souls

Whose life is winged with purpose fine;

Who leave us, pointing to the goals,

Who learn to conquer and resign.


Such cannot die; they vanquish time,

And fill the world with growing light,

Making the human life sublime

With memories of their sacred might.

(Malcolm Quin.)