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 Servant of the City

"I BELIEVE," said one soldier to another, "that we are going to have a sharp winter."

"What makes you think so?"

"The general has his cloak on."

"That is nothing unusual, is it?"

"Yes, for Phocion (Fose-yon)  is a hardy man, and never wears more clothes than he really needs. And he always goes barefoot."

If you had looked at Phocion, the Athenian general, you would have thought him harsh and stern. But his heart was kind and just. One day a speaker was addressing a crowd of Athenians, and he pointed to the general, and made a joke about his frowning forehead.

"My friends," said Phocion, "this brow of mine never gave you one hour of sorrow, while the men who have smiled as they spoke to you have brought Athens to tears."

Poor Athens! this fair city by the sea had many a trouble to bear at this time. It was the time when the Greeks of the north—the stout warriors of Macedonia—were becoming masters of the neighboring lands; the time of King Philip and of Alexander the Great. Phocion did not think the men of Athens were strong enough and wise enough to keep free; he thought it would be better for them to own the Macedonians as their leaders and lords. The Athenians loved to gather in the streets, and shout as they listened to orators who pleased them; but they were not ready to work hard in the defence of the State. Once, when the citizens cried out for war against another Greek State, Phocion said: "Let us rather settle the quarrel by peaceable means."

"No, no," yelled the mob; "to arms! to arms!"

"My good people," replied the general, "you had better keep to the style you understand most, and that is talking, not fighting."

He himself, though he talked only in short and quiet sentences, was not backward in war. As a young man he had taken part in a naval battle, and did much to gain victory for the ships of Athens. And so great faith had the citizens in his courage and good sense that, during his long life, 402–317 B.C., he was chosen general forty-five times; and yet he never asked to be elected.

When he was sent to certain islands to ask the people to pay their share to the expenses of the city of Athens, he was advised to take twenty war-vessels with him, so as to make him seem a man of power.

"If," said Phocion, "I am to cow these folk, I ought to take more ships. If I go to them as to friends, one galley is enough."

He sailed, therefore, with but one ship. So respectfully did he talk with the people of the islands that they, in their turn, showed him honor, and gave him the money which he asked for in the name of Athens. Thus did he prove himself to be a good statesman; for, though he would fight when he saw reason to do so, he sought rather to gain people by a courteous manner.

News came to Athens that King Philip was dead, and some of the citizens wanted to hold a holiday in token of their pleasure, for they hated Philip.

"No," said Phocion, "it is a mean thing to show joy at the death of an enemy."

Of course, if Philip was an enemy to Athens, you could not expect the citizens to show sorrow at his death. But it was not meet to break out into mirth and cheer because a brave foe had passed away.

After Philip came Alexander; and the young king, knowing that Phocion was friendly to Macedonia, thought to please him with a gift of money. Messengers came to Phocion's house, bearing a hundred talents ($100,000). Everything about the place was simple and plain. The wife was baking bread.

"Phocion," she said, "I want some water."

The Athenian general took a bucket and drew water from the well. When he had done this and other tasks, he sat down and wiped the dust from his bare feet. This was unusual. Men who were in high position such as he was in would bid slaves wash their feet for them.

"Sir," said one of the Macedonians, "you are Alexander's friend, and the friend of a king ought not to live in so shabby a style."

Just then a poor old man, in patched garments, passed by the door.

"Do you think I am worse off than that old man?" asked Phocion.

"No, sir."

"Well, but he lives on much less than I do, and is content. I should feel no happier if I had Alexander's money."

The messengers carried the talents back to Macedonia.

I have told you that Phocion was forty-five times chosen general of the Athenian army. Just when he had been elected on the twentieth occasion, a lady called to see his wife, and showed to the simple woman her necklaces and bracelets.

"And now let me see your jewels," said the visitor.

"Phocion is my ornament," answered Phocion's wife; "he has just been chosen for the twentieth time for the command of the Athenian army."


The son of the general, however, was not so fine in spirit as his father and mother. Phocus (Fokus)  was the young man's name. He had given way to drinking, and his father persuaded him to take part in the sports, especially the foot-races. Phocus trained himself, and ran in a race and won; and one of his friends made a great feast in his honor. Phocion came to the house where the feast was going on, and was much vexed to see the waste, for the guests that entered sat down and had their feet bathed in spiced wine. The general called his son to him, and thus reproached him:

"My son, why do you let your friends spoil the honor of your victory? You won the race by being temperate, and now you are wasting your strength in riotous living."

Not even when he was aged would Phocion resign his service. A stir was made in Athens against the people of a neighboring State, and the crowd shouted for war. So Phocion bade a herald proclaim in the streets:

"All citizens who are under the age of sixty are to enroll themselves in the army, and take with them food to last five days, and follow me at once to the camp."

But many of the elder men did not relish the order, and, instead of following the herald, began to move homeward.

"Why are you troubled?" cried Phocion. "Do you think you are too old for the wars? I myself, though I am eighty years old, will be your leader."

Thereupon the elder men, who dared not say they were not young enough, put on their armor and followed Phocion, and a victory was gained.

But the power of Athens was becoming less. Though King Alexander was dead, the Macedonians were, step by step, stretching their lordship over the Greek States; and the people of Athens watched the new masters come nearer and nearer; and, though they bragged loudly, they did not feel bold enough to withstand the men of the north. One day a priest was kneeling by the edge of the harbor washing a pig, and suddenly a shark rushed forward and bit off a part of the pig's body.

"Alas!" said the seers, or fortune-tellers, "this means that a part of Athens will be lost."

Shortly afterward a band of Macedonian soldiers entered Athens and took possession of the lower portion of the city near the sea. There was no fighting. The new garrison said they came as friends; but the Athenian folk knew in their hearts that the freedom of the city was gone. And then they turned in anger upon the good old general, who had for so many years served the city and fought for it and helped to govern it. Phocion was arrested as an enemy of the State—a traitor.

Phocion and some of his friends were placed in an open-air theatre, where a vast crowd of people had gathered, and they voted, with a loud shout, that Phocion and his companions must die. And some persons even placed garlands of flowers upon their heads, as if they were doing a happy deed. Then was Phocion led away to the jail; and as he went certain men abused him with evil words, and one even spat upon him. He showed no anger, but turned to the magistrates, and said:

"Will none of you chide this fellow for his rudeness?"

At the prison they found the jailer mixing the hemlock poison in a bowl for the condemned men to drink. One of the party begged Phocion to let him drink first. "For," said he, "I do not want to see you die."

"It is a hard request," replied Phocion; "but as I have always tried to oblige you in life, I will also do so in death. Drink before me."

And thus Phocion, the patriot, died with his friends. A sound of trampling steeds was heard. It was a train of horsemen that passed by the prison. They were keeping holiday, and their heads were crowned with flowers. But many shed quiet tears as they went by, for they thought of the good general whose voice they would hear no more.

And afterward the people were sorry for the deed they had done, and they raised up a statue of brass in his memory.

But the city of Athens was never again free.

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