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


The men of Sparta, and the boys from seven years upward, did not eat at home, but at public tables. Their meals were simple, and all fared much the same. Even the kings sat with the citizens and shared the same plain food, which often consisted mainly of black broth and barley bread.

Each citizen of Sparta gave from his own stores a regular quantity of supplies for the tables. He gave barley-meal, wine, cheese, figs, dates, and meat. Extra meat for the tables was sometimes provided by those who went hunting, or from the sacrifices offered at the altars. Then, too, a generous citizen would now and then give white bread, instead of barley bread, or bring birds which he had caught, or offerings of fruit or vegetables when in season.

The food for the boys' tables was simpler and less varied than that for the men's, although plain, simple food was the rule for all.

Very little money was used in Sparta. What they had was of iron. If a man had corn raised upon his land, he exchanged a part of it for other articles which he needed. The market-place of the city was, for this reason, a place of trade, rather than of buying and selling.

After their breakfast, on the morning of the Assembly, Orestes sent the boys of his company away to get food for their table.

"Go where you like outside the city," he said, "but do not return until you can bring something for the common table. Be soldiers now; be men. Stop not for hunger, or pain, or toil, but secure food, and come not back without it.

If you do your work awkwardly and are caught, you will be flogged. Be off."

It was no new message to the boys. This was a part of their training; a part of their education. They were sent out as soldiers to forage for supplies. They might steal, in fact they must steal, but they must not be caught. Therein lay the disgrace. This was a part of their preparation for warfare. It was a national custom, understood by all; and so, although no man wanted his goods stolen,—and he caught and flogged the offender if he could,—he knew that in taking his goods the boys were not breaking the laws of Sparta, but obeying them.

Thus foraging was, to the boys, an exciting game; a chance to test their skill, their dexterity, and often their endurance. And the Spartan boy who could endure most was the hero of his fellows.

"Where shall we go?" asked Brasidas of Chartas, as the company of boys broke up into smaller groups.

"To the mountain!" exclaimed Chartas. "A dish of grapes would taste good at our table, and they must be ripe by this time."

"Just the thing!" replied Brasidas. "A mountain climb suits me, and the grapes will, indeed, be good."

The two boys started westward from the city toward the mountain, with its rocky slopes, its forests, and its snow-crowned peaks. The path they took was rugged, and the climbing steep. But they did not hesitate. The difficulties of the way only made their task more exciting, and would win for them greater credit when they returned.

At first they ran along the path, then they clambered up the side of the mountain. In places the rocks were sharp and broken, and in others there were steep, slippery cliffs, but, although their feet were bare, they climbed the steep places, jumped from one broken rock to another, or pulled themselves up the cliffs by their bare hands.

Suddenly Chartas stopped and threw himself upon a flat rock. Lifting his foot, he pulled from it a large thorn. The blood followed as he did so, but, making no comment, he sped on again after Brasidas.

At last they came to a more open space on the mountainside. "Now," said Brasidas, "we may begin to look for the vines."

"Yes," said Chartas, "now we must separate and keep hidden."

As he said this he turned to the right and made his way cautiously forward, while Brasidas crept along a cliff to his left.

Suddenly Chartas dropped behind a huge rock. Above him a man, dressed in a leather chiton, was crossing the open space. In his hands he carried large vessels for holding water.

"'Tis one of the slaves who cares for a master's vineyard," said Chartas to himself. He turned his head. Beyond him he saw a grove of plane trees, and, listening intently, he heard the splash of water. "He is going to the fountain in the grove," he said. "The vines are in need of water. They must be near."

He waited until the slave disappeared in the grove, then carefully he made his way upward. It had been a hard climb up the mountain, and his foot ached from the long thorn which had been pulled away, but his one thought was to find the vines, secure the grapes, and make his escape unseen.

He darted forward, now stopping to crouch behind a rock, or to stand close against a tree, while he peered out or listened. Again he darted on; he had seen the vines; they were heavy with purple grapes.

Casting himself among them, he began pulling the clusters. An empty water jar stood near, and hastily he tossed the ripe clusters into it. It was nearly full. He stopped again to listen.

In the distance he heard a slight crackling. It was the sound of footsteps in the grove. The slave was doubtless returning.

Catching up the water jar, he ran farther up the mountain, turned to his right, and stopped again to listen. He could hear the slave, now below him, returning to his vines. Making a circuit, Chartas ran quickly but softly down through the farther side of the grove, and was once more upon the rocky pass which he and Brasidas had climbed.

He stopped for a moment to adjust his jar, for it was large and awkward to carry. At the same moment he heard a shout, then a crashing above him. One thought passed through his mind. The slave had discovered the loss of the jar, and was looking for him. Just an instant he listened again. The sound was coming nearer.

Like some wild animal of the mountains, Chartas turned and jumped. With his bare feet he leaped from jagged rock to jagged rock, holding tightly to his jar, and balancing himself, he knew not how.

[Illustration] from Our Little Spartan Cousin by Julia D. Cowles


It was not the fear of losing his longed-for grapes; it was not the fear of being beaten: that did not matter, for the pain of that would pass. It was the fear of a flogging before his mates, and before the men of the city—not the pain of the flogging, but the disgrace of having failed.

This was the fear that made him plunge, barefooted, over jutting rocks; that made him swing over cliffs with one hand, while he clutched his jar with the other.

At last he reached the top of the little path which stretched away to the plain below, where stood the houses of Sparta.

He stopped to catch his breath. What was that? He still was followed! The footsteps were close behind him!

Once more fear lent wings to his feet, nor did he notice that a trace of blood was left wherever his feet touched the ground. He did not even know that his hands, as well as his feet, were bleeding. He was too much of a Spartan to care for that, if only he did not fail. On he sped, like the wind.

"Chartas, Chartas! What a runner you are! Stop! Let us go on together!"

Chartas turned his head; caught his breath; then dropped upon the ground. It was Brasidas who had chased him down the mountain!

Upon Brasidas' shoulders rested a bag, filled, like his own water jar, with clusters of grapes.