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

Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic

Lessons were not quite forgotten at the Marathon house, though they did not take up much of the day. Hipponax, who, you will remember, was only four, was just learning his letters, and girls, in those days, were never taught much. The children's mother, indeed, had not been able even to read and write when she was married. You must not suppose from this that she was not a lady. On the contrary, she was a very well-born lady indeed, but then she belonged to an old-fashioned family, in which it was thought quite enough if a girl knew how to spin and sew. But Leon, her husband, was not of this way of thinking, and so, as Elpinicé was very willing to learn, he began to teach her himself. She became quite a well-educated lady, and her old aunts used to shake their heads, and hope that no harm would come of such new-fangled ways. However, no harm did come of it, and now she was teaching her own little girls. Perhaps you will ask, "What did she teach them?" Well, it is not very easy to say. You very likely are learning now, and certainly will learn some day, some other language—French, Latin, or German, perhaps all three. Nothing of the kind was thought of for our three children. No Greek ever dreamt of learning the language of any other nation. He thought far too much of his own people to do so. Of course when Greeks went to other countries as doctors or merchants, they had to use the language spoken there, but no Greek boy or girl ever learnt another language as a lesson. For the same reason they had no geography lessons. As for history, they knew a little about their own nation, but knew and cared nothing about that of any other. Then there were very few books; no story books, no children's books, only one or two histories, and a very few poems. The children's mother used to read to Gorgo some verses written by a wise man whose name was Solon, and Gorgo wrote them down on a piece of wood like a folding slate, and covered with wax. She did not use a pen and ink, but something like a skewer, with one end sharp and the other flat. Here is a picture of one.

She made the letters in the wax with the sharp end, and when she wanted to rub any thing out, she took the flat end, made the wax all smooth, and wrote the word again. All the words were written in capital letters, and there were no stops. Here are two of the lines that she wrote, translated into English, but printed in the way she wrote them. See whether you can make them out.



When Gorgo had written the verses down, her mother would correct them, and then the girl learnt them by heart. Rhodium had an easier lesson of the same kind. Then they learnt arithmetic. This they did by means of a kind of counting board. Here is a picture of it.

With this they used little pieces of wood or ivory, like the "men" on a draught-board or a backgammon-board. Any piece that was put into the division marked "1" counted for 100,000, in "2" it counted for 10,000, and so on till in "6" it counted for one only. When they wanted to add or subtract, they did not "do it in their heads," but really put other pieces in, or took them out. They could multiply and divide in the same way, but it would take too long to explain how. You must ask your teacher to do it, or perhaps, you might see a counting-board, for they are still sometimes made, only with differently colored balls strung upon wires.

Now, perhaps, you have had enough about lessons, and will be glad to hear a story by way of change. This is what Leon told the children when they came to him one day with a good report from their mother.

The Story of Ulysses and Circe

"One day Ulysses and his companions in their travels came to an island, which none of them knew. Ulysses went up to the top of a hill, and saw some smoke rising up out of a wood, and felt sure that it came from some house. Then he went back to his companions, and they cast lots who should go and see what kind of people lived in the house. The lot fell to a chief whom I shall call Broadbelt, and he went with about twenty men, and came to a house of marble in the middle of a wood. There was a garden round it, and a number of lions, and wolves, and other wild beasts walking about it. When Broadbelt and his company saw them they were frightened, but the beasts did not try to hurt them, but wagged their tails and rubbed up against them, like so many dogs and cats. While they were looking about them, they heard the voice of some one singing inside the house. 'Hark!' said one of them, 'that must be a woman, or, perhaps, a goddess; let us call to her.' So they called to her, and she came to the door and said: 'Come in, my friends.' So they all went in, all but Broadbelt, who was afraid that she might do them some mischief, and stopped outside. Then the woman, or rather the goddess, whose name was Circé, led the men in and made them sit down on chairs, and gave each of them a mess of barleymeal, mixed with cheese, and honey, and wine. Very sweet it was, and nice, and they all ate quite greedily of it. And when they had finished it, she struck them one after another with a little switch she had in her hand, and each one that she struck became a pig, for she had mixed a dreadful poison in the mess, which made them forget all about their country and their friends. So when they were turned into pigs she shut them up in styes, and gave them acorns and beech-mast to eat.

"Broadbelt did not know what had been done to his companions, but as they did not come out of the house again, he felt sure that some mischief had happened to them. So he ran back and told all he knew to Ulysses. Then Ulysses said: 'I must go to see after my friends,' and he went, though all the others begged him to stay.

"When he came to the house a very beautiful young man met him, and said: 'This is Circé's house. She has turned your companions into swine. Do you think that you will set them free? No; for she will make you like one of them. But stop; I will give you something that will help you, a certain flower that I know. Go into the house, keeping this flower in your hand. She will give you a mess; take it, for it will not hurt you. And when she shall strike you with her switch, draw your sword and run at her, and do not let her go till she has sworn to do you no harm.'

"Then the young man, who was Hermes, the god, picked a plant that grew close by. It had a black root, and a flower that was white as milk. Ulysses took it and went into the house, and every thing happened just as Hermes had said. Circé gave him the mess of meal, and honey, and cheese, and wine. And when he had swallowed it, she struck him with the switch, and said: 'Go to thy stye.' But he drew his sword, and made as if he would have killed her. Then she caught him by the knees, and begged for her life. And he made her swear that she would not harm him. Then she told her servants to make ready a great feast. But before he would eat he said: 'You must turn my friends into men again.' So she went to the styes and opened the doors, and drove them out. Then she rubbed each one of them with a magic ointment that she had, and the bristles dropped off from them, and they became men again, only younger, and handsomer, and taller than they were before. And after that for a whole year Circé kept Ulysses and all the company in her house."

Rhodium said: "O father, does this wonderful plant grow anywhere about here?"

"Yes," said Leon, "I am sure that it does, though it is not so common as I could wish."

Then Rhodium cried: "Tell us its name."

"Its name is Temperance," said Leon.

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