Gateway to the Classics: Three Greek Children by Alfred J. Church
Three Greek Children by  Alfred J. Church

The Home in Athens

I am going to tell you about some Greek children, who lived more than two thousand years ago in a city called Athens. The city stands still, and the ruins of many of its old buildings are to be seen. Most of these buildings were temples, in which the people used to worship their many gods. There was Phœbus, the sun-god; and Hera, the goddess of power; and Athené, the goddess of wisdom; and Demeter, or mother-earth. For they did not know, as did the Jews—who had, you will remember, but one temple,—that there is but one God from whom all good things come down to men. Athens was one of the richest and most beautiful cities in the world, and very powerful too; only at the particular time of which I am writing the people were in great distress. Their enemies sent an army every year into their country, and shut them up in their walls during all the spring and summer time. Thousands and thousands more than the city could properly hold were crowded into it; numbers of people had no houses to live in, and had to do as best they could under carts tilted up, and even in great barrels—any thing that could give them shelter. Even the rich felt this trouble very much, and especially the children, who had no out-door games; for the streets were, of course, not fit for them to play in, and they got sadly tired, in the hot days, of being always shut up in their nurseries.

It is a very hot day in July, and the three children I am going to tell you about are feeling very tired and, I am afraid, a little cross. There are two girls, Gorgo and Rhodium (Rhodium means Little Rose), and a boy, Hipponax (which is in English Horse King). Gorgo and Rhodium are playing with dolls, not made of wax or wood, like our English dolls, but of clay, and painted to make them look like soldiers, sailors, and merchants, or ladies finely dressed, or working women. Gorgo, who is the elder of the two girls, likes soldier dolls, and has divided hers into two little armies. One army she calls Spartans (the Spartans were the enemies who were shutting up the people in the walls), and the other Athenians. She sits on the floor and rolls a ball, first into one army and then into the other. I don't think that she rolls it quite fairly, for more of the Spartans are upset than of the Athenians. Gorgo is just ten years old. Her sister, who is four years younger, does not care about soldier dolls, but is never tired of playing at mother, nurse, and child, with the three dolls which her own nurse has dressed up for her. Hipponax, who is four, is amusing himself with a cockchafer, which one of the servants has caught for him. It has got a thread tied round it, and he holds the other end of the thread in his hand and lets it fly about the room. This is a rather cruel game, and the sisters seem to think so, for when the little boy runs out of the room to get a drink of water, Gorgo says to Rhodium: "I do wish that tiresome child would find something else to play with besides these wretched cockchafers. They do make such a nasty buzzing, and, besides, they fly up against one's face, and I don't like the feel of them at all. And I am sure they must be very unhappy. I shall cut the thread while he is away, and let the poor thing go."

"Oh! But he will be so angry," said Rhodium, who is a timid, peaceable child, and rather afraid of her sturdy little bother, who has already begun to think that he is very much better than his sisters.

"He may be as angry as he likes," says Gorgo, and cuts the thread which the little boy had tied to the leg of the chair.

Hipponax came back in just in time to see the beetle fly off through the open window, and very angry he was. He knew that Gorgo had let it go, and, small as he was, was ready to fly at her, when Rhodium, the peacemaker, had a happy thought.

"Brother, dear," she said, "will you have my chariot to play with?"

It was a beautiful little toy of ivory, with four horses made of wood, and so beautifully carved and painted that, but for their size, they might have seemed alive. The girl's uncle had given it to her the year before, when he won the chariot race at the great games of Olympia. Little Hipponax thought it ought to belong to him. "What have girls to do with horses and chariots?" he would say; "but I am the Horse King." It was a special treat for him to be allowed to play with it, and poor Rhodium used to look on in great fear while he dragged it about the room, pretending that he was winning a race. This is what he began to do now, and his two sisters played at being the people who look on, and clapped their hands and shouted, while he ran about with it.

Happily, before any mischief was done, the nurse came back, and the children left their play to ask her for a story.

Nurse was a Spartan woman. Rich people always got a Spartan nurse for their children if they could, for they had a way of keeping them in order without being unkind. She had come into the family just after Gorgo's birth, and could not bear to leave the dear little baby when the war broke out between her country and Athens. And there she had stopped ever since, and the children loved her almost as much as they loved their mother.

"A story, nurse! a story!" they all cried.

"Have you been good children?" she said.

Hipponax hung his head, but as he had not actually beaten his sister she was able to give him a good character.

So nurse made the two girls sit by her, and took Hipponax on her knee, and told them the

Story of the Boy Whom Demeter Loved

"Once upon a time the goddess Demeter went wandering about the world looking for her daughter, whom she had lost, and in her wanderings she came to this country in which we are now living. There was a poor man that had a small farm about ten miles from the city. He had two children, one a girl of about ten years old, and the other a baby-boy. The girl took care of two goats, which she used to lead out to pasture and milk. One day as she was coming home she saw Demeter, who was dressed as a poor woman, sitting on a stone near the house. 'Mother,' she said, 'is there any thing that you want?' And when Demeter said nothing, but only shook her head and began to cry (for it was a sad thing to be called 'mother' now that she had lost her daughter), the little girl ran to her father and told him about the poor woman. The kind man came out and begged her to come in, though it was but a poor place, he said. Now it so happened that the baby-boy was very ill. Indeed, his mother had no hope that he would ever be well; but when Demeter went up to him and kissed him as he lay in his cradle, at once he began to get better, and before half an hour was over he was kicking and crowing as if he had never been ill in his life. Then they sat down to supper—some curds and whey made out of goat's milk, and honey in the comb, and apples."

"But hadn't they any bread?" broke in little Rhodium.

"No, my child," said the nurse; "no one knew then how to make bread."

"When they all went to bed Demeter said she would sit up by the fire, for she felt she could not sleep. About midnight, when all were sound asleep, she took the baby out of his cradle, and laid him in the middle of the fire. Ah! you look frightened; but she knew what she was about. She had done something to the child that the fire should not hurt him, but only burn out of him what was weak and mortal, so that he should not die like other people. But when this was half done the mother, who was still a little anxious about the baby, happened to wake and put her hand very gently on the cradle. And lo! it was empty! That woke her up, you may be sure, thoroughly, and she sprang out of bed, and going into the other room she saw the child lying in the middle of the fire. She had it out in a moment, making sure that it must be dreadfully burnt, if it was not dead. How astonished she was when she found it was not hurt at all! Then Demeter said, not angrily, but sadly: "Foolish mother, why did you not trust me, and leave him there? Now your child will die some day like other men and women. Still, I will make him a wise man, for he shall learn to plough, sow, and reap.' And this is how people first got to grow wheat, and to make bread."

Nurse had just finished her story when something happened that was very rare indeed—the children's father came into the nursery, for generally they went down to see him. But now he had such good news to tell them that he could not wait.

"There is peace, dear children," he said; "peace has been made to-day."

"And shall we be able to go to our dear country home?" said Gorgo.

"Yes," said he, "though I am afraid you will find it in a very sad state."

All the rest of the day the children were almost out of their minds with joy. When the two younger ones had gone to bed, nurse said to Gorgo: "Now I am going to tell you a story about another Gorgo, who lived many years ago in my own dear country. I would not tell you before, because I was sure that you did not like my people, and did not care to know any thing about them. But now that we are friends again you shall hear it.

"This Gorgo was daughter to one of your kings, and was about a year younger than you are. One day she was playing with her dolls in her father's room, when a stranger was talking to him on some very serious business. The stranger wished him to take an army of Spartans on a very dangerous expedition, and when he said no, he offered him money: first ten, then twenty, then fifty talents. When the king heard of the fifty talents he began to be shaken, for all the Spartans, even the kings, are very poor, and this was a great sum of money. Then Gorgo looked up from her dolls and said, 'Father, go away, or else this stranger will do you harm.' When she grew up to be a woman she became the wife of that Spartan king who fought with his three hundred men against all the army of Persians, and I think she helped him to be the brave man he was."

The next day when Gorgo played with her dolls, she made them into one army, and made believe they were going to march against the Persians.

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