Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

In the Theatre at Athens

Democles to Chromius of Ætna, greeting.

So far, most excellent Chromius, I have performed the commissions entrusted to me with success. You must know that Poseidon favoured us with calm seas for our voyage, and that the Twin Brethren sent us a following wind from the very start to the end of our sailing. Nevertheless it was by the happiest chance that we escaped a most formidable danger. You must know that the venerable Thymbron, our sailing master—who practises the art of navigation in much the same fashion, I imagine, as it was practised by Tiphys—positively refused to pass through the Sicilian strait. He believes most firmly in Scylla with her dogs and the fatal whirlpool of Charybdis, though no sea-faring man since the days of Ulysses has seen either the one or the other. Verily, he had nearly thrust us into the jaws of a far more formidable monster than ever was the daughter of Nisus. Scarcely had we rounded Cape Lilybæum, when we espied a ship which Thymbron at once declared to be a Carthaginian.

[Illustration] from Greek Life and Story by Alfred J. Church


It was a fifty-oar, with a big fore-and-aft sail, and as we could plainly see, for we were not more than eight hundred paces away, crowded with men. "We are lost," cried our supercargo. "Not so," said old Thymbron, "I have not sailed these seas, man and boy, for seventy years, without learning something," and he put the ship's head straight for the land. It seemed a mighty dangerous thing to do, for the sea was breaking everywhere on rocks, either just hidden under the water or shaving a foot or so above. "Have a care," cried the supercargo, "or you will run us aground;" and he seized the old man's arm. "Away, you fool!" shouted the old man, "I know what I am about, and, anyhow, it is better to be drowned than to be burnt alive in honour of Melkarth, or whatever villainous deity those barbarians are pleased to worship." Before long we saw what Thymbron was after. There was a deep pool approached by a narrow channel which the old man knew, and we in it, safe, we could see, from pursuit. The Carthaginian tried to follow us, but it had not gone a hundred paces before the captain, whom we could see standing with a plumb-line in the bows, gave the signal to back. They had a narrow escape of striking, and he was clearly not minded to run any more risk. Then they tried to reach us with their slings, but the bullets fell far short, and they were only wasting their time.

They did not stop long, for the wind was coming on to blow from the East, and the lee-shore was dangerous. Before sunset we saw the last of them. Old Thymbron was triumphant, besides getting twenty gold pieces which the passengers collected for him.

We reached the Corinthian Gulf without any more adventures, and landing at Crissa, which we found to be little better than a heap of ruins, made the best of our way to Delphi. After I had performed the customary sacrifice, presenting at the same time the gifts with which you entrusted me, a voice came from the shrine uttering these words:

"Thine is the glory of battle and of

storm-footed steeds; but beware

Of the day when the brood of the lion

shall come yet again to his lair."

The next day using the mediation of Democrates my host, who desired me to give you assurances of his friendship, I approached the god privately and received another answer, which I think it better to reserve for your own ear. From Delphi I journeyed to Thebes, having the advantage of joining a strong company of Theban citizens who were on their way homeward. The people who dwell in these parts—Phocians they call them—have a somewhat evil reputation, being said to rob those that travel to and fro from the shrine of Apollo. I saw nothing of them, but the road, overhung in many places with frightful mountains, is but too well suited to such doings.

Among my fellow-travellers was a kinsman of the poet Pindarus. By his help and introduction I was able to transact more easily the business on which I came. I should not, however, in any case have found much difficulty, for the poet greatly admires things Sicilian. To tell the truth, he is but ill suited with his surroundings of Thebes. The state, as you know, followed the worse side in the Persian war, and was brought thereby into no little discredit, which is shared even by those who, as was the case with Pindarus, had no part in the evil doing. Thus it has come to pass that though he loves his country he loves not his countrymen, and still less is he loved by them. Hence it pleases him to look abroad for those whom he may lawfully honour and the further removed these are, the safer his praise. He has, I am told, been fined by his fellow-citizens for speaking well of his neighbours the Athenians. But of us Sicilians there is no jealousy, as there is no knowledge. Indeed, it affronts me to find that most men are in ignorance concerning us, as though we were barbarians. But to my business. The poet willingly consents to write an Epinikion for the occasion described. He was well pleased with the remuneration, of which I paid him at your desire a fifth part, i.e. ten gold pieces, by way of earnest. "All men," said he with a smile, "have not such faith in my performance; and from some it is hard to obtain the reward even for that which has be finished."

And now, your affairs, most worshipful Chromius being, I trust, satisfactorily completed, I have something more to write which you will read, I am sure not without interest.

It had been my purpose to return home without delay from Thebes, having arranged to meet the ship which brought me hither at Corinth, where the supercargo had business to transact. But Pindarus strongly dissuaded me from carrying out this intention. "Nay," said he, when I told him what I was about to do, "to depart from this land without seeing Athens is a thing not to be thought of. Athens is the very flower of Greece, containing in itself all that is most noble and beautiful. It is the very home of the Muses, of whom we that dwell in other cities cultivate, according to our powers, this one or that, but they the whole quire. And, indeed, you are fortunate in coming at this time, for they are about to keep a great feast; and their city, always beautiful, will put on for the occasion a special splendour!" And then he told me a certain history which I will put into the best words that I can command. It ran thus:

Theseus, king of the Athenians, having gone down to the regions of the dead in company with Peirithoüs, his friend, sought to carry from thence Queen Proserpine. Then these two, being overtaken on their return, were condemned to a perpetual imprisonment. After a while Heracles descending to this same place, saw the two. Of Peirithoüs he took no account, but he thought it shame that Theseus, having done so great things on earth, should so suffer. Having, therefore, obtained his freedom he brought him back to earth, so that he again reigned in Athens. But in no long time, the people not liking his rule—and, indeed, it may be well believed that they who might come back from the dead would seldom find welcome—Theseus was constrained to flee from Attica and to take refuge in the island of Scyros. There he was treacherously slain by king Lycomedes.

So ran the story.

Some seven years since the Athenians were commanded by an oracle to bring back the bones of Theseus. This they were hindered from doing by various causes, but now, Cimon having captured the island, they were about to do. This I heard from Pindarus, who, at the same time, advised me not to neglect the occasion.

Truly I can say that he advised me well; a more noble sight I have never looked upon. Athens, having been made aware by a swift-sailing pinnace that the sacred ship would enter the harbour at sunrise on the morrow, crowded down thither to welcome it. By the kindness of your friend Andocides, who desired me to present his salutations to you, I had a most convenient place for the spectacle, being promoted for the time to the rank of "a distinguished stranger."

The sun was just showing itself out of the sea when the sacred ship—they call it the Salaminia, in remembrance of the great battle—entered the harbour. It was equipped and adorned in a way altogether worthy of its mission. The sails, intended I should say, for ornament rather than for use, were of purple; the figure-head, representing the patron goddess of the city, was of more than human size, and richly gilded; the officers and men were clad in holiday apparel of white, the steersman being conspicuous in his scarlet cloak. As for the oars, of which there were nearly four-score on either side, they were dipped into the water and rose again with absolute regularity. The rowers were chosen, I am told, with special care from the most respectable class of sea-faring men. Their pay is one drachma by the day.

So soon as the ship had been made fast to the quay and the gangway lowered, one of the magistrates of the city, by title the King Archon, for the Athenians, though they have long since driven away their kings, yet keep this name for the officer performing certain sacred duties, came forward and made a set oration. In this he welcomed the hero—returning, as he said, to his city—recounted the benefits which he had done to it in former times, and besought him to regard it with favour in the days to come. This done, a silver chest, containing the bones of the hero, carried by poles put through rings, was brought on shore, and set on an ox waggon, of a shape curiously ancient, and of the very model, they say, first made by Triptolemus. It was drawn by four milk-white heifers. Behind it followed the priests of the various temples in the city, headed by the King Archon; after them, in the chief place of honour came Cimon himself. A man of nobler aspect I never saw. He was of a commanding stature, being four cubits and a span in height, his face ruddy and of a most benevolent look, his hair black and long, so that it curled about his shoulders. The magistrates followed him, according to their rank, and behind them again came an immense multitude of citizens and aliens. The chest was deposited, with many ceremonies which it is needless to describe at length, in a temple, newly built for the purpose, and called by the name of the hero. Not only is this dedicated to his honour, but it also serves a purpose which agrees most suitably with his character, as having been one who destroyed oppressors and delivered them that were oppressed. Here will slaves, flying from masters that use them cruelly, and freemen of a mean condition, flying from powerful persons whom they may have cause to fear, find a refuge.

In the evening I was by special favour of Andocides invited to a great banquet held in the Town Hall. Here citizens who have done great service to the state have free entertainment. Among these I saw many notable persons, captains that had led ranks at Marathon or commanded ships at Salamis, and others. Ambassadors also were present from Sparta and other places, and envoys from the islands which are in alliance with Athens.

On the day following I saw and heard that which delighted me more than all that has met my eyes and ears since I left Ætna. You must know that among the many honours paid to Theseus, thus restored, as is said, to his country, was a dramatic contest. At this three writers of tragedies competed; Chærilus, a man who continues to write even in extreme old age, for he is approaching his hundredth year, Æschylus, of whom it is needless to speak, so well are you acquainted with his genius, and Sophocles, a young man who now contended for the prize for the first time. On that and on the following day, there were exhibited nine plays in all. For myself I must confess that I was so overpowered by what I saw and heard that I could not sit out the whole. I was exhausted rather than wearied. To keep the mind on the stretch for so long a time was a labour greater than bodily exertion. But to the Athenians it seemed to be no labour at all. Even the women—for not a few women were present—sat out the performance from beginning to end seemingly unwearied, and were as eager and as keen in their attention at the last as at the first. To tell how great was this keenness passes all my powers of describing. Did an actor make so much as an awkward gesture or mispronounce a word even by a letter, there went up a roar of disapproval—many times, I must confess, I did not perceive the cause, which was explained to me by my companion—nor was the audience less vehement in its approval. Verily these Athenians are, as it were, a nation of schoolmasters.



One of the tragedies that I saw I will venture to describe to you as far as my abilities will suffice. It was entitled "Prometheus Chained." The scene when the curtain was lowered showed us a ravine in the Caucasus, to the precipitous side of which Strength and Force have brought the Fire-God Hephæstus, to carry out their purpose. Strength bids the divine craftsman begin his task—his companion, I should say, is silent throughout, looking with a stern, unpitying face. The god confesses his duty but owns that it is sorely against his will to do it, for he knows that it is a long and dreary punishment to which he is consigning the prisoner "Here," he says—

"Man's voice thou shalt not hear nor see his face;

Here day by day the blazing sun shall scorch

Thy fair skin's beauty; here thy heart shall long

For starry-kirtled night to hide the day,

And for the day returning to dispel

The morning's chilling frost."

"The deliverer," he goes on to say, "is yet unborn, and Zeus it not apt to change his purpose, for

"Power newly won is ever stern of mood."

This pitiful mood Strength will not away with, nor does he respect the plea of kinship which Hephæstus puts forth. It may be hard to put it aside, but it is harder to incur the wrath of Zeus.

"O much detested craft of skilful hand!"

the Fire-God exclaims, and so proceeds to his task, compassing the prisoner's limbs with chains and driving the rivet through his breast. All the while Strength urges him on, bidding him do his work so strongly that all the captive's art cannot undo it. When all is done the ruthless minister of Zeus turns away with a taunting farewell.

"Here nurse thy swelling pride; here stealing gifts

That dower the gods give them to mortal men,

To men that cannot help thee in thy woe,

Fore-thinker falsely called, who needest sore

Fore-thought to free thee from these artful chains!"

All this time the Titan has remained silent. Neither taunts nor violence have availed to wring a single word from him. Now, when he finds himself alone he breaks out:

"Oh! firmament of heaven! Oh! swift-winged winds!

Oh! river-fountains and the laugh of waves

Beyond all number; and Thou, Mother Earth,

And Thou, all-seeing Sun, behold the woes

I suffer, I, a god, of gods oppressed."

As he continues to lament his lot, though not without the comfort, such as it is, of knowing how it will end, a sound strikes his ear. "What is this light whirr of wings?" he asks himself,

"I see in all that comes new cause of fear."

Scarcely has he spoken when the new-comers appear. They are the Ocean-nymphs, who have come, putting aside their maiden bashfulness, from their father's halls, to show the pity that they feel for his woes. This pity and an equal anger against the power that oppresses him, they express in indignant words, and they entreat the prisoner to tell his story. Prometheus consents. There had been war in heaven, and he, seeing that the older gods were bent on compassing their own ruin, had ranged himself on the side of Zeus, and so brought about his victory. But Zeus had been ungrateful, a thing not to be wondered at—

"This is the vice of kingship that it keeps

Mistrust of friends."

You should have heard, worshipful Chromius, the roar of applause which went up from the whole theatre when these words were uttered. Would they have been as well received, think you, in Syracuse? That I know not, but it is certain that they would never have been spoken. He went on to say that, setting his new kingdom in order, Zeus had taken no thought of man, had even designed to destroy the race. Prometheus only had interposed between him and the unhappy ones. He had given them gifts which made life worth having, the gift of hope, blinding them to the future, the gift of fire, by which all the arts are made possible.

Before the Titan had finished his story, another character appears upon the scene. This is Oceanus, father of the nymphs, who comes in a chariot drawn by a winged gryphon. Friendship and ties of kindred have brought him, he says, and he desires to give the sufferer all the help he can. The help is prudent advice. Let Prometheus submit himself to Zeus. This advice the Titan rejects. He had known beforehand what to expect, for he had seen others suffering from the wrath of Zeus, Atlas, and Typhon—Typhon on whom the weight of Ætna had been placed. But he will not suffer wholly unavenged, for from his prison-house

"In times to come great streams of fire shall burst

The fruitful fair Sicilia's golden plains

With angry jaws devouring"—

a prophecy of which none knew the terrible fulfilment better than we citizens of Ætna.

Oceanus, finding his advice rejected, departs, and Prometheus describes to the listening nymphs what he had done for men. It was he who had taught them how to live as reasonable creatures, to change the caves and holes of the earth, in which they had found shelter, for houses of brick and wood. He had shown them certain signs of the coming of the seasons, making them know the rising and setting of the stars. Number, he had taught them and memory, which is the mother of knowledge. He had tamed the horse for them, to the great use and ornament of life, and he had shown them how to traverse the sea in ships, healing arts also and the gift of prophecy.



The next figure that appeared upon the stage was another victim of Zeus, Io the daughter of Inachus. She comes in the shape of a heifer with the face of a woman, for into this similitude she has been changed by the jealous wrath of Heré. Behind her follows close the spectre of Argus, and a monstrous gadfly was seen to have fastened on her flanks. As the creature came in with "skippings unseemly," as the poet himself puts it, many of the spectators laughed, for these Athenians have an unconquerable passion for jesting and mirth, so that they do not spare even sacred things. This, it seemed to me, somewhat marred the success of the play; nor was that which followed wholly suitable to the audience, if, indeed, I may presume to judge of such things. For the Titan told her in many words of the strange places and things which she would see in her wanderings, and these, I could perceive, somewhat wearied the listeners. Their mood, indeed, changes very speedily, and they show their disliking as readily as they show their pleasure. In truth, the whole drama is somewhat wanting in action, a defect which counts for much with the majority. Nothing, indeed, could be nobler and of a higher dignity than the conclusion which, lest my long writing should weary you, I will now describe.

Io having departed, Prometheus declares in no uncertain words that Zeus himself will be hurled down from his throne. Thereupon comes Hermes the messenger, demanding of him that he should reveal the secret of how these things should come to pass. The Titan will not yield one jot, no, not to threats of storm and earthquake and of the eagle that will be sent to devour his living flesh. He is obstinately silent, and the nymphs show themselves as constant as he; they choose rather to share his fate than to save themselves by departing. And so, while the mountains seemed to reel and totter all around, and the lightnings flashed, and the thunder roared, coming nearer and nearer, the curtain rose, the last thing that we saw being the figure of the chained Prometheus standing erect and undismayed in the midst of all the growing terrors of the hour.

It will not, it may be, surprise you, after what I have said, that Æschylus did not win the first prize. In truth, while his tragedies—for there were two others performed at the same time—did not attract the vulgar, they did not wholly please the more serious. "He says strange things, methinks," I heard one grave senator say to another. "Are we to think that the older gods were better than the new?" The prize, accordingly, was given to this young Sophocles of whom I have spoken. The old poet is, I hear, so displeased with his countrymen that he purposes to leave Athens for ever. May I suggest to you, most excellent Chromius, that to invite him to Ætna would be a most wise and reasonable act? He has already visited our island, and in a conversation which I had with him this morning, spake of it and its inhabitants with much kindness and pleasing recollection. Our new city could not have a greater ornament.