Three Greek Children: A Story of Home in Old Time - Alfred J. Church

The Peirĉus

The Peirĉus was a delightful place for the children. Hipponax was handed over to the care of a young slave, a lad of seventeen, and in his company wandered about the docks, and looked at the ships from all parts which were taking in cargo or putting it out. Trade was very brisk just then, as it will be when there is peace after years of war, and the harbor had never been so full before. A great many of the ships came from Egypt; more, indeed, than from any other country. I will tell you some of the things which these ships brought. First, there was wheat. You must know that Attica, that is the country of which Athens was the chief city, was like England in this that it did not grow wheat enough for its own people. In the first place it was quite small, about as big as Berkshire in England, or a little more than half as large as Rhode Island in the United States, which American children will know to be the smallest of the States. And then the soil was very light and poor, not at all suited for growing corn. Lastly, the number of people that lived in it was very large, perhaps as many as half a million. So they had to buy most of their food from abroad.

The next thing that the ships from Egypt brought was paper. This was made from a kind of reed that grew in the Nile. As Athens was a great place for books, a large quantity of paper was wanted. But you must know that when I say a great place for books, I mean only as compared with other towns at that time. Very likely in all Athens there would not be as many books as you may see in one bookseller's shop in London or New York.

A third thing that was brought from Egypt was wine. It was very poor, thin stuff that they made in Attica. Then there were dried fruits, especially raisins, and spices, though these were not grown in the country, but imported from Arabia and India, and linen goods, and other things which I will not tire you by mentioning.

Another place from which ships came was Carthage. (You will not find that name in the map now, but if you look in North Africa you will see Tunis, which is within a few miles of the place where Carthage once stood.) One of the chief things that was brought from Carthage was ivory. The African hunters used to bring great quantities of elephants' tusks to that city, for in those days there were wild elephants over all the north of Africa; now you must go south of the great Sahara desert to find them. Many of these tusks the people of Carthage used to send to Athens, where ivory was much used. The very finest statues used to be made of gold and ivory. Wines also and dates came from the same place. But of all things nothing astonished Hipponax more than a little negro boy. Negro slaves were just coming into fashion at Athens, and some rich lady had made her husband get one for her. This whim of hers had cost him a great deal of money. "Two talents," Hipponax heard some one say, and this meant about £400 or $2,000 of our money. How Hipponax stared, and, indeed, how every one stared, to see the little fellow's woolly hair, and shiny black face, and white teeth which he was always showing. No two things could be more different than a Greek with his fair skin and straight nose, and a jet-black, flat-faced negro.

When Hipponax had seen the little negro boy taken away by his new master's steward, with a whole tribe of street boys in his train, there was another strange thing for him to look at. One of the two "state ships" came into the harbor. These two "state ships" used to carry ambassadors backwards and forwards. If the Athenians made an offering to some famous temple in a foreign country, as they sometimes did, one of these ships would carry it. Also they used to carry the money for paying the soldiers and sailors who were serving abroad, and to bring any gold and silver that was to be paid into the treasury at home. Every thing about them was as handsome as possible. The sails were beautifully white, the hull gayly painted with light colors, and the figure-heads were images of the goddess Athene. The steersman wore a fine purple cloak, and the crews were the best that could be picked. No one that was not a free Athenian citizen was allowed to belong to them. The ship that was now coming up to the side of the quay brought an ambassador whom the great king of Persia had sent to settle some matter in dispute between him and Athens. There was quite a crowd gathered to see the great man land. Very fine he looked with his turban of red and blue, his richly embroidered cloak, and heavy gold ornaments around his neck and arms. He was carried ashore in a litter borne by six stout slaves; and two more men walked behind, holding a huge umbrella, made of cloth of gold, over his head. He had a vast quantity of baggage with him, enough to fill a small wagon; and the people who stood round, when they saw small heavy bags brought out of the ship and put into the wagon, whispered that these held Persian gold. The Athenians were always thinking about Persian gold.

It would not have been thought proper for Gorgo and Rhodium to go about the docks, as their brother did; so they had to be content with what they could see from the roof of the house.

But in the evening all the children had the pleasure of hearing their host, the harbor-master, spin them some sailors' yarns. He had made many voyages in his youth; indeed, there was not a man in Athens who had travelled to such strange and far-off places. You shall hear some of the things that he told them.

The Harbor-master's Yarn

"Some forty years ago, when I was a young man, I went on a voyage to a trading place that the Carthaginians have on the western side of Sicily. Well, we were nearly there when there came on a storm from the east, and carried us far away from the land. For three days and three nights it went on without stopping, and we could make no head against it. It was as much as we could do to keep ourselves afloat, and as to where we were we had no more notion than so many babies, for we could see nothing of the sun by day, nor of the stars by night. Just as it was getting dark on the fourth day we found ourselves near the shore. The wind dropped very suddenly, and as there was a very handy little bay in sight, we thought that we could not do better than land. So we made the ship fast, and went ashore. We were regularly tired out, for we had not had any sleep since the storm began, so we threw ourselves down on the sand, wrapped in our cloaks, and fell fast asleep. We did not so much as set a watch, though this was very foolish, for there might have been wild beasts or savages. Well, in about six hours' time, when it was beginning to get light, one of our party woke us by crying out, 'It is gone! it is gone!' 'What is gone?' said our captain, sitting up, only half-awake. 'The sea is gone,' said the man. We were all awake by that time. Sure enough it was true. It was a rather misty morning, and we could not see the sea anywhere. Our ship was there high and dry, fallen over on its side, and the anchor, which we knew we had dropped into fairly deep water the night before, quite plain to see upon the sand."

"Well," asked Hipponax, "did the sea ever come back?"

"O yes, it came back sure enough, and afterwards we found that it goes and comes like that twice every day."

"Did you find any savages there?" asked Gorgo.

"O yes, and did some good trade with them."

"But how did you understand each other? Did they talk Greek?"

"Talk Greek! no, indeed. They chattered away like so many birds or monkeys. Still we got on very well with them. We used to put what we had to sell on the shore, and light a fire, and then go back to the ship. And when the people of the country saw the smoke, they used to come to the place, and look at the goods, and put by them so much gold as they thought they were worth. When they had done this, they went away. Then we used to land, and if the gold seemed as much as we were likely to get, we took it and sailed away. But if we thought there was a chance of getting more, we went back to our ship and waited. Then the people used to come down, and put down some more gold, and so it went on till we were agreed."

"Have they much gold, do you think?" said Leon, who was as much interested as his children in what the old man had to tell.

"Plenty, from all that I have heard. One of their tribes, I have heard tell, makes the chains which the prisoners have to wear out of gold. But what these people used to bring was always in dust or very small bits. They find it, I was told, in their rivers."

"Did you ever see any strange kind of people among them?" asked Leon.

"Well, I never saw any thing very much out of the common with my own eyes, but I heard of some curious things. In one part there is a tribe of dwarfs, most of them not more than two cubits high. A man of three cubits [a little more than four feet and a half] is quite a giant among them. Then there are some who are covered all over with hair. They are called Gorillas; some sailors from Carthage, I have heard, once caught some of them. They could not lay hold of any of the men, they were too nimble and swift-footed; but they caught two of the women, and brought them on shipboard, meaning to carry them home to Carthage. But they bit and scratched so, that the sailors had to kill them. All that could be done was to take their skins; and these I have seen with my own eyes hanging up in one of the temples. But the most wonderful thing that I ever heard tell of was a tribe that use their feet to shade themselves from the sun."

"What?" said all the children in a breath.

"Well, the story is this. There are no trees in that part of the country, and the gods, to make it up to the people and to keep them from being scorched to death, have given them such large feet that a man has only to lie down on the ground and hold one of his feet up between him and the sun, and it keeps his head and the rest of his body in the shade."