Gateway to the Classics: Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch by F. J. Gould
Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch by  F. J. Gould

A Lame King

"W HO is that lame man?"

"The King of Sparta."

"But I thought the Spartans were so proud of their strength, and yet they have a lame king!"

"He is lame, but he is brave: and he is as ready to go to battle as any man with the finest limbs."

The king was Agesilaus (A-jes-si-lay-us),  who succeeded to the throne 398 B.C., and died about 360 B.C. He spent most of his time in warring with the Persians; so, of course, he had to take his Greeks across the sea in galleys. Once the Persian general proposed to have a talk, or conference, and he fixed a certain place and hour for meeting the Spartan king. The place was a grove of trees in a meadow; and Agesilaus, arriving there first with some of his friends, sat down on the long grass in the shade. Simple as the couch was, it was fair and easy enough for Spartans. When the Persian general reached the spot, his slaves laid soft rugs and cushions on the ground for their master to sit on during the conversation. But when he caught sight of the Spartans on the grass, the general felt ashamed to appear so fond of delicate cushions, and he also seated himself on the ground.

Enemies closer to Sparta than the Persians were now threatening, and Agesilaus recrossed the sea, and led his soldiers back to his native land, through rocky passes, across mountain streams, and past many a foeman's town. He had tried to stretch his empire far and wide, instead of staying in his own country and resting content with the kingdom he was born in. At length he fought his way back to the city of Sparta, and once more dwelt in his humble palace. Plain was his house, plain his furniture, and plain the dress of his daughters. The very doors told how little the Spartan kings cared for show, for the doors at the entrance of the royal abode were said to be about seven hundred years old.

The king had no love for display and glitter, either in houses or people. He was asked to go and hear a clever fellow who could whistle so exactly like a nightingale that you could fancy you heard the lovely bird singing in the forest. The king, however, said, "Thank you, no; I prefer to hear the nightingale itself."

Again, there was a doctor who was very vain of a name which the people gave him. They called him Jupiter, because he had (so they said) cured quite a number of folk of their ailments. You know that Jupiter was the master of all the gods. One day the foolish man was writing a letter to King Agesilaus, and he began thus: "Doctor Jupiter wishes the king health." To this the monarch replied: "King Agesilaus wishes Doctor Jupiter more common sense!"

In his manners in the house he was very homely, and he often played with his children. A nobleman, calling to see him, opened the door of the royal nursery, and stood still in astonishment when he beheld the mighty lord of Sparta galloping round with a walking-stick between his legs for a horse!

"Are you a father?" asked Agesilaus.

"No, sir."

"Well, wait till you are, and have children of your own, and then you will understand."

In the wars that followed between Sparta and other Greek States, Agesilaus was helped by some of his neighbors; but they complained of having more than their fair share of the fighting. This was said at a big meeting of the Spartans and their allies (friends). So the king asked them all to sit down, and then he bade his crier or herald summon the men of any trade to stand up:

"Potters, arise!"

And they arose up.

"Braziers, arise!"

And they arose up.

"Carpenters, arise!"

And they arose up; and then the masons, and so on. But not a single Spartan stood; for the Spartans did no hand-work, but left such labor to their slaves, or helots.

Then the king smiled, and said:

"You see, my people do nothing but fight, while you others work at various crafts, and therefore I think Sparta takes its fair share of war."

Yes, that was right, as an answer to the persons who complained. But I think it was a pity that so fine a nation as the Spartans should have no industry but the art of war. Potters, braziers, carpenters, masons, etc.—the more we have of these, and the fewer soldiers, the better.

So proud were the Spartans of their skill and courage in battle that they even despised the man who brought news of a defeat. Indeed, such news seldom arrived. Those who fled away from the enemy were called "tremblers," and the tremblers had to wear coats of patchwork colors, and to shave only one half of their beards!

A fierce battle took place with the Thebans, and the Spartans were beaten. Just as the news came to the city the people were engaged in sports, racing, and wrestling in the open-air theatre. The magistrates who sat in the theatre would not allow the games to stop. Each race was run; each exercise was finished, as if there was nothing to do but make merry. Next day, after the names of the men slain in the battle had been learned, all who had lost any sons, brothers, or friends went about the streets looking gay and cheerful; and those who had lost no friends shut themselves in their houses as if in mourning. You see, the Spartans were proud to give their sons to the service of their fatherland, and thought it quite an honor for a man to be killed in the wars. But so many "tremblers" had fled from the battle I have spoken of that the magistrates did not dare to dress them in the patchwork coats. Ere long the enemy appeared before the walls of Sparta, and set fire to houses outside the city. It is said that no foe had trodden the soil of Sparta for six hundred years. The women looked from the walls, and saw with terror the smoke that rose from the burning villages outside. Agesilaus was most cautious. He kept his men inside the walls, and would not be tempted into sallying forth; and at last the Thebans withdrew. At one moment the king was threatened with a danger in his own fortress. A party of two hundred of his own followers gathered at a temple, as if to begin a rebellion. What was to be done? Was Agesilaus to fight his own citizens? He used his wits, and thought of a plan. Advancing with only one attendant to the gate of the temple, he called out:

"You have made a mistake. I did not order you all to assemble here. Some of you are to march to that position" (pointing to a certain place on his right), "and others there" (pointing to a place on his left), "and others yonder."

So quiet and firm was his manner that they obeyed, and so the force was broken up. He took care, however, to arrest fifteen of the ringleaders, and they were put to death the next night. After a while the Thebans made an assault upon the town, but were hurled back, and they retreated, and, their captain being slain in a fresh battle, a peace was concluded.

Even when Agesilaus grew old—even more than eighty years old—he still took a joy in war; and, at the request of a prince of Egypt, he sailed to that country with an army, and prepared to fight the prince's enemies. This he did for pay, and not because he cared which side was in the right. A vast crowd of Egyptians waited on the shore for the coming of the Spartan fleet. Agesilaus landed, and sat down on some grass. When the Egyptians beheld the little lame old king, they could scarcely believe this man was the famous leader of whose exploits (deeds) they had heard so many stirring tales. They offered him presents of rich food. He took the solid part of it, such as the veal and geese, but would not taste the pastry and sweetmeats.

"You can take those things to my helots" (slaves), he said.

I am rather ashamed to tell you that, after all, he did not assist the prince who had invited him across the seas; but he went over to the enemy, and the war soon ended. But a new peril happened. A host of rebels appeared, and marched toward the city occupied by Agesilaus and his Egyptian allies. They dug a ditch, or trench, nearly all round. Agesilaus watched their work, but did not interfere till the trench was almost a circle. Then he sallied forth and attacked, marching straight onward; he had no need to guard the flanks or sides of his army, for the very ditch which the rebels had dug protected him from their onrush. And thus he easily won a victory.

At the close of the war he took away much money, and sailed for Sparta. But a wintry storm drove his vessels back to the African coast, and the old king, worn out with many hardships, died in a harbor of a strange land. His body was embalmed, or covered with wax, and carried to Sparta.

We cannot help admiring the boldness and sturdiness of the Spartans; but, for all that, we have to remember that they have given us no books, no poems, no pictures, and no beautiful buildings such as the Greeks of Athens produced. They loved only the glory of war.

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