Historical Tales: 10—Greek - Charles Morris

Four Famous Men Of Athens

In the days of Crœsus, the wealthiest of ancient kings, a citizen of Athens, Alcmćon by name, kindly lent his aid to the messengers sent by the Lydian monarch to consult the Delphian oracle, before his war with King Cyrus of Persia. This generous aid was richly rewarded by Crœsus, who sent for Alcmćon to visit him at Sardis, richly entertained him, and when ready to depart made him a present of as much gold as he could carry from the treasury.

This offer the visitor, who seemed to possess his fair share of the perennial thirst for gold, determined to make the most of. He went to the treasure-chamber dressed in his loosest tunic and wearing on his feet wide-legged buskins, both of which he filled bursting full with gold. Not yet satisfied, he powdered his hair thickly with gold-dust, and filled his mouth with this precious but indigestible food. Thus laden, he waddled as well as he could from the chamber, presenting so ludicrous a spectacle that the good-natured monarch burst into a loud laugh on seeing him.

Crœsus not only let him keep all he had taken, but doubled its value by other presents, so that Alcmćon returned to Athens as one of its wealthiest men. Megacles, the son of this rich Athenian, was he who won the prize of fair Agaristé of Sicyon, in the contest which we have elsewhere described. The son of Megacles and Agaristé was named Cleisthenes, and it is he who comes first in the list of famous men whom we have here to describe.

It was Cleisthenes who made Attica a democratic state; and thus it came about. The laws of Solon—which favored the aristocracy—were set aside by despots before Solon died. After Hippias, the last of those despots, was expelled from the state, the people rose under the leadership of Cleisthenes, and, probably for the first time in the history of mankind, a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people" was established in a civilized state. The laws of Solon were abrogated, and a new code of laws formed by Cleisthenes, which lasted till the independence of Athens came to an end.

Before that time the clan system had prevailed in Greece. The people were divided into family groups, each of which claimed to be descended from a single ancestor,—often a supposed deity. These clans held all the power of the state; not only in the early days, when they formed the whole people, but later, when Athens became a prosperous city with many merchant ships, and when numerous strangers had come from afar to settle within its walls.

None of these strangers were given the rights of citizenship. The clans remained in power, and the new people had no voice in the government. But in time the strangers grew to be so numerous, rich, and important that their claim to equal rights could no longer be set aside. They took part in the revolution by which the despots were expelled, and in the new constitution that was formed their demand to be made citizens of the state had to be granted.

Cleisthenes, the leader of the people against the aristocratic faction, made this new code of laws. By a system never before adopted he broke up the old conditions. Before that time the people were the basis on which governments were organized. He made the land the basis, and from that time to this land has continued the basis of political divisions.

Setting aside the old division of the Attic people into tribes and clans, founded on birth or descent, he separated the people into ten new tribes, founded on land. Attica was divided by him into districts or parishes, like modern townships and wards, which were called Demos, and each tribe was made up of several denies at a distance from each other. Every man became a citizen of the demo in which he lived, without regard to his clan, the new people were made citizens, and thus every freeborn inhabitant of Attica gained full rights of suffrage and citizenship, and the old clan aristocracy was at an end. The clans kept up their ancient organization and religious ceremonies, but they lost their political control. It must be said here, however, that many of the people of Attica were slaves, and that the new commonwealth of freemen was very far from including the whole population.

One of the most curious of the new laws made by Cleisthenes was that known as "ostracism," by which any citizen who showed himself dangerous to the state could be banished for ten years if six thousand votes were cast against him. This was intended as a means of preventing the rise of future despots.

The people of Athens developed wonderfully in public spirit under their new constitution. Each of them had now become the equal politically of the richest and noblest in the state, and all took a more vital interest in their country than had ever been felt before. It was this that made them so earnest and patriotic in the Persian war. The poorest citizen fought as bravely as the richest for the freedom of his beloved state.

Each tribe, under the new laws, chose its own war-leader, or general, so that there were ten generals of equal power, and in war each of these was given command of the army for a day; and one of the archons, or civil heads of the state, was made general of the state, or war archon, so that there were eleven generals in all.

The leading man in each tribe was usually chosen its general, and of these we have the stories of three to tell,—Miltiades, the hero of Marathon; Themistocles, who saved Greece at Salamis; and Aristides, known as "the Just."

We have already told how two of these men gained great glory. We have now to tell how they gained great disgrace. Ambition, the bane of the leaders of states, led them both to ruin.

Miltiades was of noble birth, and succeeded his uncle as ruler of the Chersonese country, in Thrace. Here he fell under the dominion of Persia, and here, when Darius was in Scythia, he advised that the bridge over the Danube should be destroyed. When Darius returned Miltiades had to fly for his life. He afterwards took part in the Ionic revolt, and captured from the Persians the islands of Lemnos and Imbros. But when the Ionians were once more conquered Miltiades had again to fly for his life. Darius hated him bitterly, and had given special orders for his capture. He fled with five ships, and was pursued so closely that one of them was taken. He reached Athens in safety with the rest.

Not long afterwards Miltiades revenged himself on Darius for this pursuit by his great victory at Marathon, which for the time made him the idol of the state and the most admired man in all Greece.

But the glory of Miltiades was quickly followed by disgrace, and the end of his career was near at hand. He was of the true soldierly temperament, stirring, ambitious, not content to rest and rust, and as a result his credit with the fickle Athenians quickly disappeared. His head seems to have been turned by his success, and he soon after asked for a fleet of seventy ships of war, to be placed under his command. He did not say where he proposed to go, but stated only that whoever should come with him would be rewarded plentifully with gold.

The victor at Marathon had but to ask to obtain. The people put boundless confidence in him, and gave him the fleet without a question. And the golden prize promised brought him numbers of eager volunteers, not one of whom knew where he was going or what he was expected to do. Miltiades was in command, and where Miltiades chose to lead who could hesitate to follow?

The purpose of the admiral of the fleet was soon revealed. He sailed to the island of Paros, besieged the capital, and demanded a tribute of one hundred talents. He based this claim on the pretence that the Parians had furnished a ship to the Persian fleet, but it is known that his real motive was hatred of a citizen of Paros.

As it happened, the Parians were not the sort of people to submit easily to a piratical demand. They kept their foe amused by cunning diplomacy till they had repaired the city walls, then openly defied him to do his worst. Miltiades at once began the assault, and kept it up for twenty-six days in vain. The island was ravaged, but the town stood intact. Despairing of winning by force, he next attempted to win by fraud. A woman of Paros promised to reveal to him a secret which would place the town in his power, and induced him to visit her at night in a temple to which only women were admitted. Miltiades accepted the offer, leaped over the outer fence, and approached the temple. But at that moment a panic of superstitious fear overt me him. Doubtless fancying that the deity of the temple would punish him terribly for this desecration he ran away in the wildest terror, and sprang back over the fence in such haste that he badly sprained his thigh. In this state he was found and carried on board ship, and, the siege being raised, the fleet returned to Athens.

Here Miltiades found the late favor of the citizens changed to violent indignation, in which his recent followers took part. He was accused of deceiving the people, and of committing a crime against the state worthy of death. The dangerous condition of his wound prevented him from saying a word in his own defence. In truth, there was no defence to make; the utmost his friends could do was to recall his service at Marathon. No Athenian tribunal could adjudge to death, however great the offence, the conqueror of Lemnos and victor at Marathon. But neither could forgiveness be adjudged, and Miltiades was fined fifty talents, perhaps to repay the city the expense of fitting out the fleet.

This fine he did not live to pay. His wounded thigh mortified and he died, leaving his son Cimon to pay the penalty incurred through his ambition and personal grudge. Some writers say that he was put in prison and died there, but this is not probable, considering his disabled state.

Miltiades had belonged to the old order of things, being a born aristocrat, and for a time a despot. Themistocles and Aristides were children of the new state, democrats born, and reared to the new order of things. They were not the equals of Miltiades in birth, both being born of parents of no distinction. But, aside from this similarity, they differed essentially, alike in character and in their life records; Themistocles being aspiring and ambitious, Aristides, his political opponent, quiet and patriotic; the one considering most largely his own advancement, the other devoting his whole life to the good of his native city.

[Illustration] from Historical Tales - Greek by Charles Morris


Themistocles displayed his nature strongly while still a boy. Idleness and play were not to his taste, and no occasion was lost by him to improve his mind and develop his powers in oratory. He cared nothing for accomplishments, but gave ardent attention to the philosophy and learning of his day. "It is true I cannot play on a flute, or bring music from the lute," he afterwards said; "all I can do is, if a small and obscure city were put into my hands, to make it great and glorious."

Of commanding figure, handsome face, keen eyes, proud and erect posture, sprightly and intellectual aspect, he was one to attract attention in any community, while his developed powers of oratory gave him the greatest influence over the speech-loving Athenians. In his eagerness to win distinction and gain a high place in the state, he cared not what enemies he might make so that he won a strong party to his support. So great was his thirst for distinction that the victory of Miltiades at Marathon threw him into a state of great depression, in which he said, "The glory of Miltiades will not let me sleep."

Themistocles was not alone ambitious and declamatory. He was far-sighted as well; and through his power of foreseeing the future he was enabled to serve Athens even more signally than Miltiades had done. Many there were who said that there was no need to dread the Persians further, that the victory at Marathon would end the war. "It is only the beginning of the war," said Themistocles; "new and greater conflicts will come; if Athens is to be saved, it must prepare."

We have elsewhere told how he induced the Athenians to build a fleet, and how this fleet, under his shrewd management, defeated the great flotilla of Xerxes and saved Greece from ruin and subjection. All that Themistocles did before and during this war it is not necessary to state. It will suffice here to say that he had no longer occasion to lose sleep on account of the glory of Miltiades. He had won a higher glory of his own; and in the end ambition ruined him, as it had his great predecessor.

To complete the tale of Themistocles we must take up that of another of the heroes of Greece, the Spartan Pausanias, the leader of the victorious army at Platća. He, too, allowed ambition to destroy him. After taking the city of Byzantium, he fell in love with Oriental luxury and grew to despise the humble fare and rigid discipline of Sparta. He offered to bring all Greece under the domain of Persia if Xerxes would give him his daughter for wife, and displayed such pompous folly and extravagance that the Spartans ordered him home, where he was tried for treason, but not condemned.

He afterwards conspired with some of the states of Asia Minor, and when again brought home formed a plot with the Helots to overthrow the government. His treason was discovered, and he fled to a temple for safety, where he was kept till he starved to death.

Thus ambition ended the careers of two of the heroes of the Persian war. A third, Themistocles, ended his career in similar disgrace. In fact, he grew so arrogant and unjust that the people of Athens found him unfit to live with. They suspected him also of joining with Pausanias in his schemes. So they banished him by ostracism, and he went to Argos to live. While there it was proved that he really had taken part in the treason of Pausanias, and he was obliged to fly for his life.

The fugitive had many adventures in this flight. He was pursued by envoys from Athens, and made more than one narrow escape. While on shipboard he was driven by storm to the island of Naxos, then besieged by an Athenian fleet, and escaped only by promising a large reward to the captain if he would not land. Finally, after other adventures, he reached Susa, the capital of Persia, where he found that Xerxes was dead, and his son Artaxerxes was reigning in his stead.

He was well received by the new king, to whom he declared that he had been friendly to his father Xerxes, and that he proposed now to use his powers for the good of Persia. He formed schemes by which Persia might conquer Greece, and gained such favor with the new monarch that he gave him a Persian wife and rich presents, sent him to Magnesia, near the Ionin coast, and granted him the revenues of the surrounding district. Here Themistocles died, at the age of sixty-five, without having kept one of his alluring promises to the Persian king.

And thus, through greed and ambition, the three great leaders of Greece in the Persian war ended their careers in disgrace and death. We have now the story of a fourth great Athenian to tell, who through honor and virtue won a higher distinction than the others had gained through warlike fame.

Throughout the whole career of the brilliant Themistocles he had a persistent opponent, Aristides, a man, like him, born of undistinguished parents, but who by moral strength and innate power of intellect won the esteem and admiration of his fellow-citizens. He became the leader of the aristocratic section of the people, as Themistocles did of the, democratic, and for years the city was divided between their adherents. But the brilliancy of Themistocles was replaced in Aristides by a staid and quiet disposition. He was natively austere, taciturn, and deep-revolving, winning influence by silent methods, and retaining it by the strictest honor and justice and a hatred of all forms of falsehood or political deceit.

For years these two men divided the political power of Athens between them, until in the end Aristides said that the city would have no peace until it threw the pair of them into the pit kept for condemned criminals. So just was Aristides that, on one of his enemies being condemned by the court without a hearing, he rose in his seat and begged the court not to impose sentence without giving the accused an opportunity for defence.

Aristides was one of the generals at Marathon, and was left to guard the spoils on the field of battle after the defeat of the Persians. At a later date, by dint of false reports, Themistocles succeeded in having him ostracized, obtaining the votes of the rabble against him. One of these, not knowing Aristides, asked him to write his own name on the tile used as a voting tablet. He did so, but first inquired, "Has Aristides done you an injury?" "No," was the answer; "I do not even know him, but I am tired of hearing him always called 'Aristides the Just.'" On leaving the city Aristides prayed that the people should never have any occasion to regret their action.

This occasion quickly came. In less than three years he was recalled to aid his country in the Persian invasion. Landing at Salamis, he served Athens in the manner we have already told. The command of the army which Aristides surrendered to Miltiades at the battle of Marathon fell to himself in the battle of Platća, for on that great day he led the Athenians and played an important part in the victory that followed. He commanded the Athenian forces in a later war, and by his prudence and mildness won for Athens the supremacy in the Greek confederation that was afterwards formed.

At a later date, leader of the aristocrats as he was, to avert a revolution he proposed a change in the constitution that made Athens completely democratic, and enabled the lowliest citizen to rise to the highest office of the state. In 468 B.C. died this great and noble citizen of Athens, one of the most illustrious of ancient statesmen and patriots, and one of the most virtuous public men of any age or nation. He died so poor that it is said he did not leave enough money to pay his funeral expenses, and for several generations his descendants were kept at the charge of the state.