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

At Corinth

After a most delightful visit of six weeks the party at Pauson's house broke up. Manto's husband was the first to go. Orders came to him from home that he was to take command of some soldiers that were to march to the border of the country of the Argives. The Argives were always on bad terms with the Spartans, and they were now collecting an army which might do some mischief. So Agis had to take leave of his wife and baby, and was quite surprised to find, for the first time in his life, that it was not always a delightful thing to be a soldier. As for Manto, she quite broke down when the time for parting came. No one would have known her for the same young woman who, a year or so before, could have boasted that she had never cried since she was a baby. She was a little ashamed of herself now, but her friends thought her improved for not being quite so hard. She had grown to love the three Athenian children; so it was settled that she should remain with the party for the present and perhaps pay a visit to them at their Marathon home.

The day after Agis had left they all started for Corinth, where they meant to stop for a short time on their way home. Certain games, called the "Isthmian" games, because they were held on the isthmus that joins the Peloponnesus to the mainland of Greece, were about to take place, and a young Athenian, Hippocles by name, who was cousin to Leon, was going to try for the prize in one of them. Leon himself had won a prize when he was a young man, and he wished to see how his cousin might fare.

It would tire you out were I to tell you of all the wonderful and beautiful things that our party saw in Corinth. I shall speak of two only.


Going to the War

First there was a very fine statue in front of one of the temples, about which their guide told them a curious story. The statue was of a woman, young and very beautiful. At her feet there lay several rolls of parchment, all, of course, worked in marble, and she was looking at a helmet which she held in her right hand, and which she seemed to be just going to put on. "That lady's name," said their guide to them, "was Telesilla, and she lived not quite a hundred years ago. Those rolls of parchment that you see at her feet are the poems which she wrote. The girls sing some of them still at our festivals. But it is for her courage that we chiefly honor her, and that is shown by the helmet which she holds in her hand. The Spartans, you must know, defeated our people in a great battle, and killed a great many of them, and most of them that escaped from the battle were burnt to death in a sacred enclosure in which they had taken refuge. There were hardly any men left in Argos, and so, when the Spartans went on to attack the city, there seemed no help for it but that they would take it. Then Telesilla gathered all the slaves that could fight, and the old men and boys, and all the women that were young and strong, and armed them with all the arms that had been left in the houses and temples, and drew them up in array at the place which she knew the enemy would attack. The Spartans came up, and raised their war-cry, thinking that the women would be frightened at the sound. But when they saw that they stood quite firm they thought to themselves: 'It would be no credit to us if we were to conquer these women and kill them; and if, by any chance, they should conquer us, it would be a very great disgrace.' And the end of it was that they went away without attacking the city. This Telesilla was a woman of Corinth, and the people of Argos set up this statue of her in her own city."

The second thing that they saw was a copy of the famous chest of Cypselus, who had been a king of Corinth about a hundred and fifty years ago. (The real chest was kept elsewhere in a temple in which it had been offered.)

It had some writing on it, in which the words were put in a curious order like this:

This was the old-fashioned way, and was called the ox-turning fashion. When a man ploughs a field he begins at the top and makes his first furrow down to the bottom, and then he turns his oxen (if he is ploughing with oxen, as they always used to do in those days), and makes his second furrow from the bottom to the top.

On the sides and on the top of this chest there were hundreds of figures beautifully carved. I can describe only a very few of them: Hercules, the strong man, was bending his bow to shoot the great water-snake, and Atlas, the giant, was standing up with the heavens resting on his shoulders. In another place there were two warriors fighting, and two women looking on. One of these warriors had golden armor, but his face was quite black. The guide said: "That is Memnon the African, and the woman who is standing near him is his mother, the Goddess of the Morning. You see how she shines all over, and there seem to be rays of light coming out of her head. The other warrior is the great Achilles. His mother stands by him. She was a sea goddess, as you may see by her robe being all blue." Then again, there were some girls riding in a carriage drawn by mules, with what looked like a basket full of linen between them. The children thought it quite strange that this very simple thing, which they might see any day, should have a place among all these wonderful figures of gods and heroes and warriors, and were very curious to know what it meant. Their father smiled, and said: "I am not quite sure, but I do believe that it has something to do with your old friend Ulysses. Do you remember where we left him?"

"Oh, yes," said Hipponax, "he had been shipwrecked and had just got to land, and had thrown the veil into the sea without looking behind him."

The girls had never heard this part of the story, so Leon had to tell it again for their benefit. When it was finished he went on.

"As you may suppose, Ulysses was quite tired out when he got at last to the land. He had been two days and nights floating about in the sea, and, for seventeen days before, while he was on the raft, he had never slept. So he now crept into a hollow place under an old olive tree, and covered himself up warm with dead leaves, and fell fast asleep. Meanwhile, the goddess Athené was contriving a way of helping him. That very morning—for it was very early in the morning when Ulysses got to the land—she appeared in a dream to the daughter of the king of the country, and said to her: 'What a pity it is that such a good mother should have such an idle daughter! Here are all the clothes want washing. Yet you know that you are going soon to be married. Wake up, and ask your father to let you have the carriage with the mules to take you to the river to wash the clothes.'

"So Nausicaa, for that was the name of the king's daughter, got up, and went to her father, and asked for the mule carriage. She was too shy to say any thing about being married, but she said: 'Father dear, the clothes want washing. You ought always to have a clean white robe when you go to the Council, and my five brothers like to be well dressed when they dance.' Her father said: 'Very good, my child. The men shall harness the wagon for you.' So the men harnessed the wagon, and put the clothes into it, with plenty for the girls to eat and drink, and oil to rub themselves with when they had bathed. So they went to the river, and washed the clothes, and spread them out on the rocks to dry. And, when their work was done, they bathed, and after their bath they had their meal, and when their meal was finished, they had a game at ball. It was this game at ball that led to their helping Ulysses. For the princess, throwing the ball to one of the other girls, threw it so wide that it fell into the river. Thereupon they all cried out so loud that Ulysses woke up, for he might have slept for hours longer, so tired was he. Then he covered himself as best he could, for he had no clothes, with a leafy branch, and came out of his hiding-place. All the girls were terribly frightened—and, indeed, he had a very wild, strange look; but Nausicaa stood firm, for a king's daughter should be brave. Then he told her how he had come there, and she gave him food and wine, and some of her brothers' clothes to put on. And when he was refreshed, she took him to the city. She told the king, her father, all his story; and the king put him on board one of his ships, and sent him back to his native country. And so Ulysses got back to his home, through the girls playing at ball."


Playing at Ball

When they had looked at all the figures, the guide told them the story of the chest itself.

"About a hundred and fifty years ago this city of Corinth was ruled by a few families who were all related to each other. Now in one of these families there was a daughter who was so plain that not one of the young men, her cousins, wished to marry her. So she was given to another citizen, who was glad to marry her, not only because she was rich and had powerful relations, but also because she was a very lovable woman. After she had been married some time she had a little son, and a prophet said to her kinsfolk: 'Take care of Labda's son'—the woman's name was Labda,—'or he will do you a great mischief.' So they determined to kill the poor little baby. They chose ten out of their number, and sent them on this errand to Labda's house. When they came to the house, they asked for the child, and Labda, who had no notion of what they were thinking about, took it out of its cradle, and put it into the arms of one of the ten. Now they had settled among themselves, as they were coming, that the one to whom the mother might happen to give the child, for they felt sure that this was what she would do, should dash it down upon the ground, and so kill it. But by a wonderful chance the baby smiled in the man's face, and when he saw it smile he felt as if he could not kill it, and so handed it to another; and the man to whom he handed it felt just the same. So it was handed in turn to all the ten, and not one of them had the heart to hurt it. Then they all went out of the house. But as soon as they were outside the door they fell to quarrelling with each other, and they were particularly angry with the man to whom the baby was first handed, calling him a soft-hearted fool, and other names of the kind. Then they agreed to go back and do the wicked deed. But Labda had heard all they had been saying to each other. She guessed that they might come back; so she hid the child in the most unlikely place that she could think of, and that was a corn-bin. So the ten men looked all over the house, but never thought of opening the corn-bin. And as they could not find the child, they thought it best to go back to those who sent them, and tell them a false story of how they had killed the baby. Sure enough, when he grew up to be a man this same child destroyed all these families, root and branch. And he made a model of the corn-bin, and had all these curious things carved upon it."

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