Historical Tales: 10—Greek - Charles Morris

The Suitors Of Agaristé

Sicyon, the smallest country of the Peloponnesus, lay on the Gulf of Corinth, adjoining the isthmus which connects the peninsula with the rest of Greece. In this small country—as in many larger ones—the nobles held rule, the people were subjects. The rich and proud rulers dwelt on the hill slopes, the poor and humble people lived on the sea-shore and along the river Asopus. But in course of time many of the people became well off, through success in fisheries and commerce, to which their country was well adapted. Weary of the oppression of the nobles, they finally rose in rebellion and overthrew the government. Orthagoras, once a cook, but now leader of the rebels, became master of the state, and he and his descendants ruled it for a hundred years. The last of this dynasty was Cleisthenes, a just and moderate ruler, concerning whom we have a story to tell.

These lords of the state were called tyrants; but this word did not mean in Greece what it means to us. The tyrants of Greece were popular leaders who had overthrown the old governments and laws, and ruled largely through force and under laws of their own making. But they were not necessarily tyrannical. The tyrants of Athens were mild and just in their dealings with the people, and so proved to be those of Sicyon.

[Illustration] from Historical Tales - Greek by Charles Morris


Cleisthenes, who became the most eminent of the tyrants of Sicyon, had a beautiful daughter, named Agaristé, whom he thought worthy of the noblest of husbands, and decided that she should be married to the worthiest youth who could be found in all the land of Greece. To select such a husband he took unusual steps.

When the fair Agaristé had reached marriageable age, her father attended the Olympic games, at which there were used to gather men of wealth and eminence from all the Grecian states. Here he won the prize in the chariot race, and then bade the heralds to make the following proclamation:

"Whoever among the Greeks deems himself worthy to be the son-in-law of Cleisthenes, let him come, within sixty days, to Sicyon. Within a year from that time Cleisthenes will decide, from among those who present themselves, on the one whom he deems fitting to possess the hand of his daughter."

This proclamation, as was natural, roused warm hopes in many youthful breasts, and within the sixty days there had gathered at Sicyon thirteen noble claimants for the charming prize. From the city of Sybaris in Italy came Smindyrides, and from Siris came Damasus. Amphimnestus and Males made their way to Sicyon from the cities of the Ionian Gulf. The Peloponnesus sent Leocedes from Argos, Amiantus from Arcadia, Laphanes from Pæus, and Onomastus from Elis. From Eubœa came Lysanias; from Thessaly, Diactorides; from Molossia, Alcon; and from Attica, Megacles and Hippoclides. Of the last two, Megacles was the son of the renowned Alcmæon, while Hippoclides was accounted the handsomest and wealthiest of the Athenians.

At the end of the sixty days, when all the suitors had arrived, Cleisthenes asked each of them whence he came and to what family he belonged. Then, during the succeeding year, he put them to every test that could prove their powers. He had had a foot-course and a wrestling-ground made ready to test their comparative strength and agility, and took every available means to discover their courage, vigor, and skill.

But this was not all that the sensible monarch demanded in his desired son-in-law. He wished to ascertain their mental and moral as well as their physical powers, and for this purpose kept them under close observation for a year, carefully noting their manliness, their temper and disposition, their accomplishments and powers of intellect. Now he conversed with each separately; now he brought them together and considered their comparative powers. At the gymnasium, in the council chamber, in all the situations of thought and activity, he tested their abilities. But he particularly considered their behavior at the banquet-table. From first to last they were sumptuously entertained, and their demeanor over the trencher-board and the wine-cup was closely observed.

In this story, as told us by garrulous old Herodotus, nothing is said of Agaristé herself. In a modern romance of this sort the lady would have had a voice in the decision and a place in the narrative. There would have been episodes of love, jealousy, and malice, and the one whom the lady blessed with her love would in some way—in the eternal fitness of things—have become victor in the contest and carried off the prize. But they did things differently in Greece. The preference of the maiden had little to do with the matter; the suitor exerted himself to please the father, not the daughter; maiden hands were given rather in barter and sale than in trust and affection; in truth, almost the only lovers we meet with in Grecian history are Hæmon and Antigone, of whom we have spoken in the tale of the "Seven against Thebes."

And thus it was in the present instance. It was the father the suitors courted, not the daughter. They proved their love over the banquet-table, not at the trysting-place. It was by speed of foot and skill in council, not by whispered words of devotion, that they contended for the maidenly prize. Or, if lovers' meetings took place and lovers' vows were passed, they were matters of the strictest secrecy, and not for Greek historians to put on paper or Greek ears to hear.

But the year of probation came in due time to its end, and among all the suitors the two from Athens most won the favor of Cleisthenes. And of the two he preferred Hippoclides. It was not alone for his handsome face and person and manly bearing that this favored youth was chosen, but also because he was descended from a noble family of Corinth which Cleisthenes esteemed. Yet "there is many a slip between the cup and the lip," an adage whose truth Hippoclides was to learn.

When the day came on which the choice of the father was to be made, and the wedding take place, Cleisthenes held a great festival in honor of the occasion. First, to gain the favor of the gods, he offered a hundred oxen in sacrifice. Then, not only the suitors, but all the people of the city were invited to a grand banquet and festival, at the end of which the choice of Cleisthenes was to be declared. What torments of love and fear Agaristé suffered during this slow-moving feast the historian does not say. Yet it may be that she was the power behind the throne, and that the proposed choice of the handsome Hippoclides was due as much to her secret influence as to her father's judgment.

However this be, the feast went on to its end, and was followed by a contest between the suitors in music and oratory, with all the people to decide. As the drinking which followed went on, Hippoclides, who had surpassed all the others as yet, shouted to the flute-player, bidding him to play a dancing air, as he proposed to show his powers in the dance.

The wine was in his weak head, and what he considered marvellously fine dancing did not appear so to Cleisthenes, who was closely watching his proposed son-in-law. Hippoclides, however, in a mood to show all his accomplishments, now bade an attendant to bring in a table. This being brought, he leaped upon it, and danced some Laconian steps, which he followed by certain Attic ones. Finally, to show his utmost powers of performance, he stood on his head on the table, and began to dance with his legs in empty air.

This was too much for Cleisthenes. He had changed his opinion of Hippoclides during his light and undignified exhibition, but restrained himself from speaking to avoid any outbreak or ill feeling. But on seeing him tossing his legs in this shameless manner in the air, the indignant monarch cried out,

"Son of Tisander, you have danced your wife away."

"What does Hippoclides care?" was the reply of the tipsy youth.

And for centuries afterwards "What does Hippoclides care?" was a common saying in Greece, to indicate reckless folly and lightness of mind.

Cleisthenes now commanded silence, and spoke as follows to the assembly:

"Suitors of my daughter, well pleased am I with you all, and right willingly, if it were possible, would I content you all, and not, by making choice of one, appear to put a slight upon the rest. But as it is out of my power, seeing that I have only one daughter, to grant to all their wishes, I will present to each of you whom I must needs dismiss a talent of silver for the honor that you have done in seeking to ally yourselves with my house, and for your long absence from your homes. But my daughter Agaristé I betroth to Megacles, the son of Alcmæon, to be his wife, according to the usage and wont of Athens."

Megacles gladly accepted the honor thus offered him, the marriage was solemnized with all possible state, and the suitors dispersed,—twelve of them happy with their silver talents, one of them happier with his charming bride.

We have but further to say that Cleisthenes of Athens—a great leader and law-giver, whose laws gave origin to the democratic government of that city—was the son of Megacles and Agaristé, and that his grandson was the famous Pericles, the foremost name in Athenian history.