Our Little Athenian Cousin of Long Ago - Julia D. Cowles

The Wrestling School

To have a strong and beautiful body was considered by the Greeks almost as important as to have a well-trained mind; so every Greek boy was taught to run, to jump, to throw, and to wrestle. There were separate schools in which the boys were trained in all these exercises. We would call such a school a gymnasium, but in Athens it was called a wrestling school.

Duris had found that he could read and write quite as well as Hiero, and he could play upon the lyre even better, but as they were on their way to the wrestling school he said, "You will be far in advance of me in running and wrestling, I know, for I have had no training in gymnastics. Of course," he added, "we boys had contests of our own on the Island, but we had no teacher. My pedagogue, Theron, taught me to read and to write, and my mother taught me to play upon the lyre, but I have had no training in running or wrestling."

"There is to be a contest in jumping in the school this afternoon," said Hiero. "You will be interested in that. Some of the boys can jump a remarkable distance."

The wrestling school consisted of a large open court, around which was a covered portico, divided into small rooms and halls. Duris looked eagerly about him. A large number of boys were already in the court. One was just mounting a horse. There were no stirrups, and he used his lance to help him vault to its back. In another part of the grounds a young man was practising spear-throwing. But these boys were older than Hiero or himself.

"Come," said Hiero, touching his arm, "they are getting ready to jump."

Duris stood aside with a group of boys while Hiero took his place among the contestants.

A line was drawn upon the ground, crossing a small mound. One by one the boys who were to take a part in the contest ran from a distance to this line, and then jumped from the mound.

Duris exclaimed at the length of the jump as the first boy came lightly to the ground. A young man ran forward and drew a line to mark the distance.

Hiero was the second to jump, and his mark was in advance of the first.

"Surely no one can do better than that!" exclaimed Duris to one of the boys standing near him.

"Oh, you just wait and see!" replied the boy. "Hiero is not a great jumper. But when it comes to running! Well, they talk about his being a contestant at the games some day. You should see him run!

"Look! Here comes our greatest jumper now. It is Cleon. Be prepared for a surprise."

And Duris was surprised. It seemed to him as though the boy before him must have wings, for he seemed truly to fly through the air from the mound, and the mark that he made was so far ahead of all the others that the difference itself would have been a creditable leap for one who had had no training.

A great shout arose from the boys, and Duris joined it heartily.

"That is what training does!" exclaimed the boy at his side.

"But have the others had less training?" asked Duris.

"Perhaps not," answered the boy, "but Cleon has practised jumping more than any other exercise, and there is no one of his age or size who can begin to leap as far."

When all the contestants had taken their turn, the length of each jump was measured with a long chain, so that a record could be kept for each pupil.

After that there were exercises in running, and in quoit throwing. Duris became more and more interested, and when a torch race was begun, he himself took part. This race did not require so much speed as it did skill in keeping one's torch lighted while running, and at this Duris, to his own surprise, did remarkably well.

"You will enter the regular classes to-morrow," the master said to him, as he and Hiero were about to leave, and though Duris knew that he would fall far behind his companions at the start he determined to make the most of his training and to gain strength and speed as fast as possible.

Phorion was given a glowing account of the wrestling school that night. When Duris had finished, Phorion said, "I am glad you are to have this training. But do not forget to seek grace and symmetry, as well as strength and speed. Let me show you what I mean," and he led the way into Hermippos' studio.

Lifting the cloth with which it was covered, he pointed to a magnificent statue which Hermippos had that day completed.

"This," said Phorion, "is a statue of Theseus attacking the Minotaur. Do you boys remember the story?" he asked, for Hiero was also in the studio.

"Tell it to us, Father," said Duris, "even though we have heard it before."

"Very well," said Phorion, seating himself, while the boys stood respectfully before him.

"Many years ago," he began, "the city of Athens had to pay tribute every year to King Minos, of the Island of Crete. This yearly tribute did not consist in money, but in seven of the fairest youths and seven of the fairest maidens of the city. They were taken in a ship to the Island of Crete, where they were devoured by a terrible monster called a Minotaur. This monster had the body of a man and the head of a bull.

"At the time of our story the King of Athens had a son named Theseus, who was as brave as he was strong and beautiful. When the time of the yearly tribute came near, Theseus declared that he was ready to go to Crete as one of the victims of the Minotaur.

"The people begged him not to go, but he was determined, and perhaps something in his face or manner told them that it was best to let him have his way. It might be that some good would come of it.

"When the ship arrived at Crete, Theseus, as the king's son, demanded that he be allowed to see King Minos.

"As he stood before him, he said: 'Oh, King, I have come to pay the tribute of my city. But as the son of my royal father, I ask that I may first meet the Minotaur alone.'

"King Minos laughed scornfully at Theseus, but he could not refuse his demand, so he sent him forth to meet the Minotaur, and promised that his companions should speedily follow.

"But while King Minos laughed at Theseus, the king's daughter, Ariadne, determined that she would help him. She admired the brave youth, and she knew of the magic means which would enable Theseus to overcome the Minotaur.

"Ariadne followed him when he left her father's palace, and promised him her help. She told Theseus that the Minotaur was not only strong and powerful, but that he lived in a winding abode, called a labyrinth, from which no one ever could find their way back. But she promised to give him a sword which was a magic weapon. 'If you can but touch the Minotaur with it,' she said, 'his strength will leave him, and you will have no trouble in killing him. But,' she added, `before you enter the labyrinth, you must fasten this cord just outside and unwind the ball as you go. Then, when you have killed the Minotaur, you can follow the cord back, and so reach the entrance to the labyrinth.'

"Theseus thankfully took the sword and the ball of cord, and did as Ariadne had told him. He reached the Minotaur, and a terrible struggle followed, but at length Theseus thrust the magic sword into the Minotaur's body, and slew him. Then, following the cord as Ariadne had directed, he made his way back to the opening of the labyrinth. Hastily summoning his companions, they once more boarded the ship and sailed away to Athens.

"Never, after that, did Athens have to pay tribute to Crete, and the memory of Theseus is honored in Athens to this day.

"This figure, as you see," added Phorion, "represents Theseus attacking the Minotaur, and the reason that I brought you in to see it just now is that you may study the figure of the young hero. You will notice how Hermippos has shown his strength by the powerful muscles, and by the manner in which he stands. But that is not all that makes the figure so wonderfully good. It is the grace of the figure as well as the strength; the perfect development of every part of the body, not of one particular part. Do you understand what I mean?"

"I think I do," responded Duris slowly, while he looked earnestly at the marble figure before him.

"Then," said Phorion, "you will understand what I mean when I tell you that I want you to think no more about the distance you can run, or jump, or throw a quoit, than you do about the manner in which you run, or jump, or throw. I want you, in other words," concluded Phorion, "to make your body graceful, symmetrical, and strong: equally ready for the demands of art, or for heroic deeds."

Hiero and Duris looked for a long time at the figure of Theseus, and when they left the studio both felt that they understood the beauty of the sculptured hero better for having listened to Phorion's words.