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

A Vacancy Filled

The next few days were days of intense excitement for the boys. They were preparing for the war game in which two companies of Spartan boys took part each year. It had been announced that the companies of Orestes and Procles had been chosen for the conflict. In no other state than Sparta would this have been called a game.

Early upon the day appointed, a sacrifice was made upon one of the altars, and then the two companies of boys, to the music of the cithara and the fife, marched away from the city to an island which had been made ready for them. This island was formed by ditches filled with water, and it was reached by two bridges upon opposite sides. One was called the bridge of Herakles, and was guarded by an image of this hero-god. The other was the bridge of Lycurgus, with its image of Sparta's great law-giver. Orestes' company crossed the bridge of Herakles; Procles' company the bridge of Lycurgus, and, facing each other, they stood, quivering with excitement; eager to show their courage and endurance.

The citizens and boys of Sparta had followed the two companies, and now surrounded the island, intent upon the outcome of the conflict.

The struggle began by wrestling, but as one opponent or another was thrown, a fury seemed to seize the boys. It was no longer a wrestling contest; it became a hand-to-hand struggle; a war of strength and physical endurance.

We, of to-day, can scarcely understand how such a contest among boys could have received the approval of sober-minded men; but the Spartans despised pain and honored physical hardihood. That they should have given so great a degree of honor to mere physical courage, is the chief reproach that has been brought against the Spartans. The moral, as well as physical, courage which made them die in battle rather than let a foreign army take possession of their lands and their homes, was altogether different from this.

When Orestes, with his victorious company of boys, marched back to the city, they bore grim evidence of their sturdy fighting in the war game which Spartan custom endorsed;—but Ceos, with his ready fun, was not with them, nor would he be again.

The older men, however, as they marched back to the city, said tersely, "The best survive."

The days that followed were filled as usual, for the boys, with exercises in the gymnasium; with tasks which took them to the mountains, to the river, and out into the farming country; and with lessons in music and the study of Homer.

The poems of Homer—the Iliad and the Odyssey—stirred the enthusiasm of the boys, not only because they told of wars and strange adventures, but because Helen, of whom the Iliad told, was stolen away from Sparta, and from her husband, Menelaus, who was one of Sparta's early kings.

The lessons in singing were of great importance. The boys were not taught to sing alone, so much as in chorus. They were trained by one of the older men of the city under the superintendence of an ephor, or magistrate.

Every festival had its chorus of singers, and there were many festivals. At the games and processions there were choruses, and in every battle the Spartan warriors advanced singing.

So the boys, and also the girls, of Sparta, were taught to sing, and the singing was accompanied by the cithara, the lyre, or the flute.

The character of the music was in keeping with that of the people. It was severe, and yet had a simple grandeur which inspired the singers as well as the hearers.

"Who was Terpander?" asked the singing-master, suddenly, during one of his lessons. He addressed his question to Chartas.

"A great Spartan musician," answered Chartas. "He invented the seven-stringed lyre."

"What else did he do?" questioned the master of Theognis.

"He won four prizes for his music at the Pythian games," replied Theognis. "And he once quieted a tumult in the city, by his playing,—as was done at the last meeting of the Assembly," Theognis added, with shining eyes.

"Good," said the master. Then, turning to Gelon, he asked: "How many strings had the lyre before Terpander?"

"But two," answered Gelon.

"I wonder if the master is thinking of the musician we heard a few days ago," said Theron to Brasidas. "I wonder if he thought himself a second Terpander!"

The master raised his hand; the room grew silent. Then there burst forth the stirring strains of a Spartan war song, and the boys sang with a will:

"Now fight we for our children, for this land;

Our lives unheeding, let us bravely die.

Courage, ye youths! together firmly stand;

Think not of fear, nor ever turn to fly."

At the close of the lesson, Orestes addressed the boys of his company:

"Our company now numbers but fourteen," he said, gravely. "Penthilus, son of Androcles, has been mentioned to fill our ranks. What have you to say?"

As Orestes asked the question, Theognis stepped forth. "I have seen Penthilus show disrespect for age. I should not like to have him one of our number," he said, and stepped back to his place.

"As you know," said Orestes, "no one is admitted into a company who is not approved by all. I have another name: Dorus, son of Cleomenes."

Chartas turned to Brasidas. "'Tis the king's youngest son."

"I know him," said Brasidas. "He is small of stature, but strong and active."

"He already rides the swiftest horse in the king's stables," commented Theron.

"I have heard of him as a fearless hunter," added Gelon.

"Will he give and take with the rest, or will he be the king's son?" asked another of the boys.

"He will give and take," cried Brasidas. "Have no fear as to that."

"Are any dissatisfied with the choice Dorus, son of Cleomenes?" asked Orestes.

There was silence.

"He is one of us," said Orestes,—and Ceos' place was filled.

That night, while the boys of his company slept, Orestes paced back and forth outside the barracks, his mind upon the war game in which his company had taken part. His face was set; his hands were clenched.

"'Tis a custom unworthy of Sparta!" he exclaimed bitterly. "'Tis a waste of life, for which there is no reasonable excuse! But Sparta requires it, and not even to Chartas may I show my grief!"