Up the Scaling-Ladders
"C HILD! where did you come from?" asked a woman of a seven-year-old boy whom she found in her house.
"Lady, take pity on me. If I am seen in the street, the soldiers of the tyrant may slay me. They have killed my father. I fled from the horrid noise and the sight of blood, and I wandered here and there till I saw your open door, and I entered."
"Do not tremble. I will take care of you till dark, and then one of my friends shall guide you to the city of Argos, where many people have gone so as to escape the tyrant's wrath."
The name of the lad was Aratus (A-ray'-tus), and the city where he was born, 271 B.C., was called Sikyon, and the city had fallen into the power of a tyrant.
A tyrant is a ruler who does what he wills, and takes no heed of the wishes of the people.
At Argos the boy was brought up by kinsmen of his dead father. In his heart there burned a deep hatred of tyrants. If ever he grew to be a man, he would fight against the cruel lord of Sikyon, and any other ruler in any other city who robbed the people of their freedom.
One day Aratus met a man who had escaped from the jail in Sikyon, where he had been shut up for rebelling against the tyrant's rule. He told Aratus how he had come over the wall of the castle and down the cliff and through a garden, and so out on the country road to Argos. It would be possible for a party of men to scale the wall by means of ladders, and so make their way into the fort. But in the garden at the foot of the cliff was the gardener's house, and in it were kept a number of watch-dogs who barked at the least sound. Aratus resolved to climb the wall and capture the fort. A carpenter who had once dwelt in Sikyon made several scaling-ladders, and Aratus collected about a hundred men to attack the castle.
The moon was shining when he and his party started out, but it had set by the time they reached the garden. A few of his followers had gone in front and made the gardener prisoner, but they could not seize the dogs. The ladders were placed against the rocky wall. Men climbed to a ledge, and then drew up the ladders and climbed again. Meanwhile the gardener's dogs yelped very loudly. The ladders shook, and some hearts feared; but Aratus would not go back. With about fifty men he arrived at the top of the rock. It was now near dawn. A flash of light was seen. It was the company of the guard who were coming off duty. They carried torches, and talked as they passed along the broad path along the battlements. Little did they think that Aratus and his men were hanging silently on to the rocks on the other side of the wall. The new guard also marched past, but did not notice anything unusual. Then Aratus got over the wall, followed by his friends, and they ran across the castle-yard to the tyrant's palace, and surprised the soldiers there, and took them all prisoners without any bloodshed. One of his men ran to several houses where lived persons who would be glad to know that Aratus had come. Soon a crowd had gathered from all sides, and they swarmed into the open-air theatre just as the sun was rising. A herald mounted a high place and cried aloud:
"Aratus calls the people to liberty!"
Then they raised a mighty cheer, and rushed to the tyrant's palace and set it on fire. The tyrant fled through underground passages, and so got away. Aratus ordered the fire to be put out. Not one person had been slain in this assault. More than five hundred citizens who had been obliged to leave because of the tyrant's conduct came back to Sikyon. Some had been absent fifty years, and they found their lands in possession of new owners; and it was no easy matter for Aratus to do justice and render them back their property, and yet not do wrong to the new holders of the lands. He formed a court of judges; he himself and fifteen other citizens sitting there to judge the questions and restore the lands to the rightful owners, and paying money to the persons who were turned out. But not having money enough, he thought he would go across to the King of Egypt. This king was friendly to Aratus, and Aratus had sent him many fine paintings done by Greek artists. On the voyage the ship was driven into a Greek port, held by a prince who was a foe to him. He hastened from the vessel and took shelter in a thick wood near the city. The governor of the port seized the ship and its crew, and kept a sharp lookout for Aratus, who concealed himself for several days. By good hap a Roman ship sailed that way, and put in for a while at a cove near the wood. Aratus begged the captain to let him go on board; and in this ship he voyaged to the south coast of Asia Minor, and thence he made passage in another vessel to Egypt. The King of Egypt gave Aratus much gold, and with this he returned to his native city of Sikyon. A number of Greek cities had now joined together to help each other, and they called their union the Achæan (A-kee-an) League; and Aratus was chosen general of the League; and many a time did he take part in the wars as leader of these cities.
The famous town of Corinth, a seaside place, was also delivered from a tyrant by the noble Aratus. With four hundred men he marched one night toward Corinth. The moon glittered on their armor, and had it not been for clouds rising and darkening the sky, the Achæans might have been observed. With the aid of the scaling-ladders they mounted the wall, and dropped over into the city. Then they marched quietly, spear in hand. A party of four watchmen met them; three were cut down; the fourth was wounded in the head, but he got free, and cried: "The enemy! the enemy is in the city!" Trumpets were blown. People hurried from their houses with flaming torches. A band of three hundred Achæans had entered Corinth by one of the gates, and had put to flight a troop of the defenders. Meantime Aratus had climbed the rough road that led up to the inner keep or citadel, which was held by the tyrant's men. The three hundred joined him. The moon shone out again, and the walls were stormed amid shouts and the hurling of darts. By the hour of sunrise the keep was captured. The citizens assembled in the theatre; and when Aratus appeared on the stage, and stood silent, leaning on his spear, they applauded their deliverer again and again. The governor had fled.
Aratus also tried to set free the city of Argos, which had yielded to the enemy. Having climbed the ramparts by the help of his ladders, he fought valiantly, and was stabbed in the thigh, and was obliged to retire unsuccessful.
He could bear defeat without losing heart. He also knew how to wait. An army of foes having invaded the land of the League, Aratus would not at once pursue them, but he watched them go by. His men urged him to pursue, but he made no move till he heard that the enemy had taken the city of Pellene (Pel-ee-nee). Great was the distress of this city. Houses had been plundered, poor women were dragged shrieking along the streets. One lady was seized by an officer and placed in a temple; and so that all who passed might know she was now his slave, he clapped his helmet on her head. It was a helmet which bore three waving plumes. And now came Aratus with his eager Achæans, and a battle raged in the city streets. The captive lady, hearing the fresh noise, came to the porch of the temple; and as she stood there, handsome and stately, and wearing the feathered helmet, the enemy were struck with terror, for they took her for a goddess who had come to threaten them with ruin; and they gave way in disorder, and Aratus had saved yet another city.
Aratus judged that the League would be stronger if they joined their power with Philip, King of Macedon (not the Philip who was the father to Alexander the Great). But Philip was a mean man and a pretender, and though he seemed friendly to Aratus, really desired to insure his death. He gained his purpose. One of his friends poisoned the food of the brave general, and Aratus died, 213 B.C.
The people of Sikyon were allowed to bury their beloved citizens inside their walls. In his memory they decided to hold two holidays every year. One was on the date when he saved the city from the tyrant, and they called it Salvation Day; and the other was on his birthday. On each occasion a sacrifice was offered to the gods. The folk walked in procession—first boys and young men; then the elders of the senate; then a crowd of citizens; and, to the sound of harps, hymns were sung by a choir. For very many years these festivals were kept up by the grateful people of Sikyon.
And, girls and boys, if ever you see wrong done in the world by rich men, or by statesmen, or governments, you will, I hope, resist the evil thing with hearts as bold as that of Aratus, who scaled the cliffs and feared no tyrant on the face of the earth.