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

Good-Bye to Sparta

For a whole year Elpinicé and the children lived at Sparta without receiving a letter from Leon. They did hear, however, two or three times from friends in Athens, that, though still shut up in prison, he was quite well. At last a letter came, and, as you will see, it brought good news. This is what was written in it:

"Leon, son of Hipponax, to the dearest Elpinicé, greeting. Know that I am set free from prison, being wholly acquitted of the charges brought against me. But of these things more hereafter. I judge it better not myself to come to Sparta, which I would gladly do. Set out, therefore, as soon as you conveniently may; I will await you at Tegea at the house of Pauson. Kiss Gorgo and Rhodium for me, and Hipponax also, who, I trust, has not forgotten either Athens or his father. Farewell."

This letter was written on a strip of parchment. At first sight one would have thought that it could not be read, for the letters were straggling all over it in the strangest way. But Elpinicé rolled it round a little stick which she had, and then the letters came together into words, and the words into sentences. Leon, you see, had another stick of exactly the same size, and had rolled the parchment around that before he wrote on it. This was one of the ways in which the people in those times kept what they had to write to each other secret.

When Elpinicé had read the letter she sent for the postman, as I may call him, who had brought it. He had run all the way from Athens with it. He was a short, spare man, about thirty-five years old, and was one of the most famous runners, for a long distance, in all Greece. His family indeed had been great runners, from father to son, for many generations. When he came into the room he looked so little tired with his journey that he seemed quite ready to do it again.

"Hail, Lagopus!" said Elpinicé. "When did you leave Athens?"

"Lagopus" was the name which the runner had taken for himself. It means "Harefoot."

"At noon the day before yesterday, most worshipful lady," answered the man. He had reached Sparta about four o'clock in the afternoon.

"That is marvellously quick running," said Elpinicé.

"I know no man now alive that could better it," answered the messenger; "but it cannot be compared with what has been done by those who have gone before me. Did not Pheidippides, my grandfather, do this same journey in less than two days?"

"O tell us about him," cried Hipponax.

This was what Lagopus was very glad to do, for he was almost as proud of this famous run of his grandfather as if he had done it himself.

"More than seventy years ago," he began, "the Persians brought a great army to fight against Greece, and they landed at Marathon—"

"Oh! I know all about Marathon and the great battle," broke in the little boy. "My great-grandfather fought there, and so did old Sciton, and they conquered the Persians, and I have Sciton's sword, and I mean to conquer the Persians myself when I am grown up."

"Be it so, young master," said the messenger. "Well, as soon as the magistrates at Athens knew that the Persians had landed, they thought where they could get help. And it seemed to them that the most likely place was here in Sparta. For the Spartans are not only the best soldiers in Greece, but they are always ready. So they wrote a letter and sent for my grandfather to carry it. The news about the Persians came to them just at midnight, and my grandfather was on his way two hours afterwards, and he got to Sparta just before midnight on the next day."

"How far is it?" asked Gorgo.

"One thousand and ninety-six stadia," answered Lagopus. (This is about one hundred and thirty-seven miles.)

"I do not remember hearing of any Spartans being at the battle," said Hipponax.

"No, young sir," replied the runner, "they were not in time. You see that when my grandfather reached Sparta it was the ninth day of the moon, and their custom is not to set out on expeditions except at the full moon. So they had to wait for five days. But they started as soon as ever they saw the full moon in the sky, and they got to Athens early in the afternoon of the third day."

"Was that very quick?" asked Hipponax.

"Wonderful for men with heavy armor. Still they were too late, for the battle was over by the time they came. So all they could do was to go on to Marathon, and see the Persians that had been killed lying on the field—for they had not been buried yet,—and then march home again."

"I should like to be a great runner when I grow up," said Hipponax. Then he thought for a little time, and changed his mind. "No, I will be a soldier, and fight with Sciton's sword."

Elpinicé gave the messenger a gold-piece for his good news, and she wrote a letter which he was to carry back to her husband.

"Elpinicé, to her most beloved and honored husband, Leon, son of Hipponax, greeting. The gods be thanked for your deliverance! Your letter has made me and the children more happy than can be set forth in words. We set out on the tenth day. Meanwhile let this parchment, which we have all kissed many times, carry our salutations. Farewell."

Elpinicé would have started sooner, but that she had made an engagement with a Spartan lady of her acquaintance to go with her to the temple of Artemis (or Diana, to use the name by which she is best known). This lady's child had been very ill, and Elpinicé and nurse had helped her with it very much. The Spartan mother did not know much about nursing, for when a child was weakly it was not allowed to live. This baby had been strong and healthy enough when it was born and for some months afterwards. Then it began to ail, and could hardly have been saved but for the skill and patience with which Elpinicé nursed it. Now it was quite well, and, indeed, was a particularly fine and strong boy, whom the mother was very proud to present, after the Spartan fashion, in the temple of "Artemis the Child-Rearer."


A Child Presented in the Temple

This picture shows you the mother holding the boy in her arms. He is older than the children usually were when they were presented. This is because his illness had prevented his being brought before. The other lady is Elpinicé herself. In one hand she is holding a square basket of small loaves made of the very finest wheat-flour. (The bread that the Spartans used commonly to eat was made of barley or rye.) In the other hand she has a jar of wine. The loaves and the wine were always offered on these occasions: and there was also offered what you do not see in the picture, a sucking-pig. The very poorest Spartan mother was not content unless she could do this. First a portion of these things were burnt in the fire. This was the goddess' share, Manto thought. The smoke went up into the air with the smell of what had been burnt, and the goddess was supposed to smell it, and be pleased with the worshippers who offered it. Then what was left was divided, put into baskets, and sent round to friends. Elpinicé's friend, who had the same name, by the way, as the Gorgo we know, was the wife of one of the Ephors, and was rich. She offered I do not know how many sucking-pigs, and loaves of wheaten bread, and jars of wine, so that she feasted half Sparta with them. This was how she tried to show her thankfulness for being able to bring her little son safe and sound to the temple; and though it was an ignorant way we may hope that it was not refused.

The next day Elpinicé and the children started for Tegea, which was a city, as you may see from a map, a little way inside the borders of Arcadia. Manto went with them. She was now the mother of a fine boy, and she had not been very strong since its birth. She was recommended to try the air of the Arcadian mountains for a change.

The journey did not occupy more than one day. The distance, indeed, was something less than thirty miles, and so the party were able to reach Pauson's house, which was a mile outside the town, a little before nightfall. Leon, who had been detained by business in Athens longer than he had expected, happened to arrive about noon the same day. How glad the family were to be together again after a separation of more than two years I cannot pretend to describe.

A very delightful time they all had with the kind old Arcadian host, the very same Pauson, you must know, who had given Leon his hunting spear. Hipponax saw with a little shudder the very skin of the bear which had almost killed his father twenty years before, and was very much pleased to find dogs that were great-nephews or, it may have been, great-great-nephews of their own Hylax. So like were they to the old dog that one would have thought he had come to life again. It was too early in the year for hunting; but then there was plenty of what was far better fun for the children,—fishing. A stream ran through Pauson's garden; and there was a little waterfall with a pool below it in which the girls and Hipponax, with a slave lad to look after them, were never tired of fishing. Then one day the whole party, which had now been joined by Manto's husband, went on an expedition to a beautiful sheet of water that there was three or four miles from the town. It was a bright, calm day, too bright and calm for fishing, for you could see the fish far down in the clear water, and, of course, the fish could see you and your line, and all your little tricks for catching them. Hipponax was getting excited when he looked over the edge of the boat and saw the big fishes swim up to his bait and look just as if they were just going to take it. But when this had happened twenty or thirty times, and the fish always ended by sailing away again, he lost his patience, and began to grow quite angry. However, he caught two or three little ones, who were less cautious than their elders, and at last one of the elders themselves. The creature was smelling at the bait for at least the tenth time when the fisherman said to Hipponax, "Now's the time, sir," and at the same time laid hold of the little boy's hand and gave the line a sideways jerk. And there, sure enough, the fish was hooked. What pulling and struggling there was before he could be got into the boat! but at the last moment he seemed to be lost, for the hook came out of his mouth. But he was quite spent with struggling, and lay on his side without moving, so that the fisherman could slip a small net under him. Hipponax's delight at his  fish was beyond all expression.

Towards noon, when the sun grew very hot, the party took shelter under a grove of trees that grew by the side of the lake. There they had their mid-day meal, and when this was over they were entertained by a playing and singing match between two shepherds. Pauson offered a kid and a skin of wine for a prize. First the two men played on their shepherd's pipes. These were something like what is now called a mouth organ, a number of pipes, of unequal size, joined together, each with a stop on which the player could put his finger. Then they sang each a verse of a song. These were sometimes funny, sometimes serious; but as they were in a very rude country dialect no one but Pauson, who was an Arcadian born, understood much about them. After all, the contest was never decided. Pauson, who was judge, said that they were both so good that he did not know which was the better. So he ended by giving a kid and a skin of wine to both.

Altogether the day at the lake was a very pleasant one.

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