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

At Sparta

The children were lodged in the house of a widow lady. She made a great favor of taking them in, for she was a very well-born person indeed, being related to one of the kings.

You must know that the Spartans had always two kings at the same time. Before I go any further with my story I will tell you how this came to be. The first king of Sparta had twin sons, but he died before they were born; so it was necessary that one of them should be made king in his stead, and this one ought to have been the elder. But when the chief men of the country asked the mother which of the two was the elder, she would not tell them. She loved them both equally, and did not want one to be put before the other. Then the chief men watched her through a little hole they had made in the wall of the room, and they saw that she always washed and dressed one of the babies before the other. Then they felt nearly sure that this was the elder. Still, to make quite certain, they sent to inquire of an oracle; that is a place where some god was supposed to answer difficult questions, and tell men what they ought to do. And the oracle said, "Let them both be kings." And this they did, but they made the child that they believed to be really the elder First King, and the other Second King. And the children of the two were so ever afterwards. So, you see, the mother got her way. This is how the Spartans came to have two kings.

The widow lady, though she was the cousin of a king, was very poor, and was glad to have the money that was paid for the children's keep by their friends in Athens. She had three children. The eldest was a young man of about twenty, next to him was a girl of eighteen, and there was a boy of about ten. Of the eldest son, whose name was Tellis, they saw very little. He did not have his meals at home, but used to breakfast and dine at the public tables. This custom the Spartans had in order that their men might not get fond of good living, or think too much of what they ate and drank. At the public tables all fared alike. The kings had just the same food as the common man, only they had twice as large a share, which they might eat if they could, or give away if they pleased. Very plain food it was that was served up at these public tables; perhaps we  should have called it nasty. There was some black broth. It took a long time before any one who was not used to it could like that. And there was very coarse bread, made of barley meal; meat only half cooked, and about a pint of sour wine for each man. One day Tellis came home laughing very much at something which a stranger had said, who had been a guest at one of their tables that day. "I saw he made wry faces at the broth, and could hardly get a spoonful of it down. So some one said to him: 'Friend, you have forgotten to bring your sauce with you.' 'Sauce,' he said, 'what sauce?' 'Hunger,' said the man. We all laughed at that. Before he went away he thought he would have a laugh at us. So he said to the friend who had brought him to the dinner: 'I always used to admire you Spartans for being so brave, and not being afraid of death. But I don't think so much of you now.' 'Why so?' said his friend. 'Because I think that any one would rather die than go on eating such dinners as these all the days of his life.' "

The next day the stranger came to call upon the lady with whom the children lived. His father had been a friend of her husband's. The children did not see him to talk to, but they caught a glimpse of him. He had a gown of fine purple color, reaching down as far as his ankles. Even at Athens this would have been thought very foppish, and at Sparta, where the men wore a short woollen mantle of some quiet sober color, it looked very odd indeed. His sandals were tied with crimson strings, and he had a broad-brimmed hat, white with a red rim. And they could see that his fingers were covered with rings, and that he had bracelets on both his arms. After he was gone they heard something about him from their hostess; that he came from a very rich and luxurious city in Italy, and that his family had always been the richest and most luxurious in it. It was an ancestor of his who, when he came to court a princess in Greece, brought a thousand cooks and fishermen and fowlers with him, and who when he was an elderly man used to boast that he had not seen the sun rise or set for twenty years.

The children asked how he had managed that. "Why," said their hostess, "he used never to get up till after the sun had set." Little Hipponax opened his eyes very wide when he heard this, and said: "What a curious man! that is just the time when I always go to bed."

One day Tellis came home looking dreadfully hurt. Two slaves—helots they used to call them—were holding him up on each side, and his face was all scratched and bloody. For some time the children saw nothing of the widow, who was busy all day attending to her son. Gorgo was quite concerned about the young man, who had given her a tame bird and a squirrel, and always seemed kind, though she thought his manners a little rough. But his mother seemed quite pleased and proud. Gorgo said she supposed that he had got among robbers and had been hurt by them, and she hoped that they would be caught and punished.

"Robbers! my dear," said the widow, "what are you talking about. They were some of his own particular friends whom he was fighting with. There was his cousin Pauson, who is the second king's youngest son, and Myra,"—and she ran through quite a list of names. "And he came out of it at least as well as any one else. He had one of his little fingers nearly bitten off, but I think we shall be able to save that; and he lost a piece of his right ear, that is quite gone; and there is very little hair left on one side of his head; and his face is scratched all over, as if a wild cat had got at him; and his legs are black and blue with bruises. But he gave quite as good as he got. He hopes, but he is not quite sure, that he scratched one of young Pauson's eyes out, and he knocked Myron backwards into the water with a blow of his fist. I am told that they thought he was dead for some time, but at last he came to. Oh! yes, Tellis did not get the worst of it by any means."

"But what did they quarrel about so dreadfully?" asked Gorgo, quite innocently.

"Quarrel, indeed! there was no quarrel," said the widow. "It is a game they have every year, and the young men would not miss it for any thing."

"But don't they sometimes get killed?" asked little Rhodium.

"Of course, my child; now and then something of the kind happens. As they say, 'you cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs.' We must leave that to the gods."

"But were you not rather afraid for Tellis?" said Gorgo.

"Afraid!" the widow almost screamed out. "How dare you say such a thing. But of course you don't know any better. If I was to be afraid of any thing, it would be that my son should not be brave. But that, of course, is out of the question with such a young man as Tellis; and, to tell you the truth, I felt quite easy in my mind after we had sacrificed the puppy. Arés never had a finer, bolder puppy sacrificed to him, and I was sure he would be on Tellis' side after that."

"So that's what became of poor little Labrax," thought Gorgo to herself. She had made great friends with a very spirited little puppy, one of the mastiff sort, and had missed him, and never had been able to hear any thing about him. Afterwards she heard that before this yearly battle between the young men, each party used to sacrifice to Arés the finest puppy that they could find. It was a long time before Gorgo could forgive Tellis for this.

There were a good many things at Sparta that seemed quite strange to the children. For instance, the daughter of the house was not at all like an Athenian girl. She used to go in and out just as if she were a young man. One day she would go with her brother and hunt wolves and wild boars in the woods of Mount Taygetus. Nor did she mind sleeping out all night under any kind of shelter she could find, and, if the weather was not very cold, without any shelter at all. Her room, instead of being handsomely furnished as an Athenian young lady's would be, had nothing but a straw mattress with a rug and a bear's skin (she had killed the bear with her own spear), a tub and pitcher for washing, and a chest for her clothes, of which she had but very few, and nothing fine among them, except a robe which she used to wear on grand occasions two or three times a year. The walls were adorned with heads of boars and stags; there was a stand for her hunting spears, of which she had three or four, only just a little lighter than those which her brother used; and a peg on which her bow used to hang.

One day the family was a little startled to see the young lady brought home on a hurdle that was carried by four helots, three or four of her girl companions following it. Commonly her mother did not seem to be afraid of any thing happening to her, and was not the least anxious when she stopped out all night on her hunting expeditions. But now she was a little frightened, and came running out at the door.

"Trouble not, mother," the girl cried, "I had a little fall."

The fact was that she had sprained her ankle so badly that she could not put her foot to the ground. One of her companions explained that there had been wrestling matches that day between six girls and six young men, that Manto had thrown two of the young men, but that the second had tripped her up as he fell, and that she had come down with her ankle bent under her. She did not seem to mind it much, but she declared that she would pay the young man out when she got well, for she thought it a very mean trick.

There was one thing that this young lady would not do,—she would not box. She was handsome, and did not care to have her eyes blackened and her nose flattened, as would sometimes happen to girls that boxed with young men or each other. But there was scarcely any thing else that she did not practise. She could throw a dart at a mark even better than her brother, and was not far behind him in hurling a quoit, which was a great lump of iron, with a leather thong through it to hold it by. It was not thrown at a mark like our quoits; that thrower won who could send it farthest; so, you see, Manto must have been very nearly as strong as her brother, and he was reckoned to be one of the very strongest young men in Sparta. Then she could run like a deer, and she could swim across the river. Almost the only thing that she did like the girls whom the children had known was that she used to mend her brother's clothes. To be sure, that did not take her very long, for he did not wear more than one garment! I mean, not more than one at a time. Still, though she was rather rough, she was kind, in her way, to the two strange girls; only that she could not help despising them for being so weak.

The younger boy seemed even more strange to the children than his brother and sister. One thing that they never could understand was that his mother used to give him hardly any food, just a little bit of bread the first thing in the morning, and, perhaps, nothing more all the day, and that, nevertheless, he always seemed to get on very well, and was never very hungry, and certainly never thought of asking his mother for any thing more. At first Gorgo and Rhodium thought that he must go to the public tables, but when they found that boys were not allowed at them they were quite puzzled. At last they found it out, and they were very much astonished. One day he came home looking very miserable and ashamed of himself. He sat down in a dark corner and covered his face, and would not say a single word to any one. His mother took no notice of him, neither did his brother and sister. At last, when every one else had gone away, little Rhodium, of whom he had come to be very fond, coaxed him to tell her what was the matter. He held out for a long time, but at last he told her his story. And it was this.

"I went to get my dinner at the house of Agis the Ephor. [The Ephors, I should tell you, were very great people at Sparta. There was a council of five of them, and this council was more powerful even than the king.] I climbed up a tree which stands on the north side of the house, close outside the larder, and managed to creep through a hole in the wall which they have made to let the air in."

Rhodium opened her eyes. "What a very odd boy you are," she said. "That is not the way to go to a friend's house to have a dinner—fancy creeping into his larder? Why did you not go to the door?"

Now it was the boy's turn to open his eyes. "Go to the front door! What do  you mean? How could I get in without being seen?"

"But why should you want to get in without being seen?" said the little girl. "If Agis asks you to dinner why should he not see you?"

"Agis ask me to dinner! I don't believe he asks any one, the mean old wretch, and certainly no one who is poor as we are."

Rhodium could not understand it in the least. "But why did you go to dine at his house if he did not ask you? Then something began to dawn upon her; but it seemed so shocking that she could hardly bring herself to say it. "You don't mean that you went to, to steal  your dinner?"

And she blushed quite red at having to say such a dreadful thing. She had heard of people stealing before, but she did not remember ever having seen a person who did it.

"Yes, I do," said the boy. "Of course I meant to steal my dinner; I always steal it when I get a chance."

"But isn't it wrong to steal?" said poor little Rhodium, who was as much astonished as if every thing had been suddenly turned upside down.

"Wrong, certainly not," said the boy; "but it is very wrong to be found out. And I was found out this morning. And it was all my own fault too. I had got all I wanted without being disturbed, when I saw a piece of sweet maize-pudding on a top shelf, and I must need clamber up to get it. Well, the shelf I was standing on broke under me just as I had got the dish in my hand, and I came down with such a clatter that every one in the house must have heard it. The fall, too, made me quite stupid; and before I could get up there was old Agis with two of his helots. They gave me an awful beating. But one comfort is that I did not cry out. I heard the old brute grumble to himself: 'He is pretty hard, after all.' "

"But," Rhodium said, "I  have always been told that it is wrong to steal."

"Why—we are made to do it," said the boy. "It teaches us to be clever in deceiving our enemies when we grow up and become soldiers! and it teaches us to be brave, too, I think. Shall I tell you what a cousin of mine did? He stole a pet fox from somebody's house. He got clear away from the house, but when he was in the street he happened to meet the man to whom it belonged. The man stopped him and asked him a number of questions, how he was getting on with his exercises, and all the rest of it; and all the while the fox was biting him as hard as it could. He didn't flinch in the least; and when the old fellow had finished his questions he could just get home, and dropped down as if he were dead. It was months and months before he got well again."

Rhodium remembered that she had been crying that very morning because her squirrel had given her a little bite, and was very much astonished indeed at this story.

Another thing that the children thought very odd about the boy was that he could not write or read, and never thought of learning to do either. But scarcely any body at Sparta did. There was not a single book in the widow's house, or picture, or statuette, or any thing to make it look pretty. And all the city was like the house. It was like a big, ugly village. There were temples, of course, but not very many of them, and those that were there were roughly built. In Athens even the small streets were full of statues and beautiful things. Here there was nothing of the kind. Another thing that the children wondered at very much was that there were no walls. But they never forgot what Tellis said to them one day about this.

Gorgo asked him: "Where are the walls?"

"Walls!" said he; "we have no walls."

"But what do you do when your enemies come?"

"Our enemies don't come. And if they did our men would be our walls."

Gorgo could not help thinking that there was something fine about these Spartans, though they were ignorant and stupid about books.

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