Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Greek by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

The Sacred War

There were two places in Greece which had been set aside as sacred, Platæa, the scene of the final defeat of the Persian invaders, and Delphi, the seat of the great temple of Apollo, in whose oracles all Greece placed faith. We have already seen how little the sacredness of Platæa protected it from ruin. We have next to see how the sacredness of Delphi was contemned, and how all Greece suffered in consequence.

The temple of Apollo at Delphi had long been held so inviolate that it became a rich reservoir of treasures, gathered throughout the centuries. Crœsus, the rich king of Lydia, sent thither the overflow of his wealth, and hundreds of others paid liberally for the promises of the priestess, until the treasures of Delphi became a by-word in Greece. This vast wealth was felt to be safe. The god would protect his own. Men's voices were deep with awe when they told how the wrath of Apollo had overthrown the Persian robbers who sought to rifle his holy fane. And yet the time came when a horde of bandit Greeks made the temple their prey and the hand of the god was not lifted in its defence, nor did outraged Greece rise to punish the sacrilegious robbers. This is the tale that we have next to tell, that of the so-called Sacred War, with all it meant to Greece.


Bed of the River Kladeos.

There was a great Greek council, centuries old, called the Amphictyonic. It met twice every year, usually for religious purposes, rarely for political. But in the time we have now reached this Amphictyonic Council ventured to meddle in polities, and made mischief of the direst character. Its first political act was to fine Sparta five hundred talents for seizing the citadel of Thebes in times of peace. The fine was to be doubled if not paid within a certain time. But as Sparta sneered at the fine, and neither paid it nor its double, the action of the council proved of little avail.

This was of small importance; it was to the next act of the council that the mischief was due. The people of the small state of Phocis, adjoining Delphi, had been accused of cultivating a part of the Cirrhæan plain, which was consecrated to Apollo. This charge, like the former, was brought by Thebes, and the Amphictyonic Council, having fined Sparta, now, under Theban influence, laid a fine on the Phocians so heavy that it was far beyond their means of payment. But Sparta had not paid; why should they? The sentence troubled them little.

At the next meeting of the council severer measures were taken. Sparta was strong; Phocis weak. It was resolved to seize all its territory and consecrate it to Apollo. This unjust sentence roused the Phocians. A bold citizen, Philomelus by name, told them that they must now face war or ruin. The district of Delphi had once been theirs, and had been taken from them wrongfully. "Let us assert our lost rights and seize the temple," he said. "The Thebans want it; let us anticipate them and take back our own."

His words took fire. A strong force was raised, the town and temple were attacked, and both, being practically undefended, were quickly captured. Phocis had regained her own, for Delphi had been taken from her during an older "Sacred War."

Philomelus now announced that the temple and its oracles would not be meddled with. Its treasures would be safe. Visitors would be free to come and go. He would give any security that Greece required that the wealth of Apollo should be safe and all go on as before. But he fortified the town, and invited mercenary soldiers till he had an army of five thousand men. As for the priestess of Apollo, from whose lips the oracles came, he demanded that she should continue to be inspired as before, and should give an oracle in his favor. The priestess refused; whereupon he seized her and sought to drag her to the holy tripod on which she was accustomed to sit. The woman, scared by his violence, cried out, "You may do what you choose!"

Philomelus at once proclaimed this as an oracle in his favor, and published it widely. And it is interesting to learn that many of the superstitious Greeks took his word for it. He certainly took the word of the priestess,—for he did what he chose.

War at once began. Many of the Greek states rose at the call of the contemned Amphictyonic Council. The Phocians were in imminent peril. They were far from strong enough for the war they had invoked. Mercenary troops—"soldiers of fortune"—must be hired; and to hire them money must be had. The citizens of Delphi had already been taxed; the Phocian treasury was empty; where was money to be obtained?

Philomelus settled this question by borrowing, with great reluctance, a sum from the temple treasures,—to be paid back as soon as possible. But as the war went on and more money was needed, he borrowed again and again,—now without reluctance. And the practice of robbery once started, he not only paid his troops, but enriched his friends and adorned his wife from Apollo's hoarded wealth.

By this means Philomelus got together an army of ten thousand men,—reckless, dissolute characters, the impious scum of Greece, for no pious Greek would enlist in such a cause. The war was ferocious. The allies put their prisoners to death. Philomelus followed their example. This was a losing game, and both sides gave it up. At length Philomelus and his army were caught in an awkward position, the army was dispersed, and he driven to the verge of a precipice, where he must choose between captivity or death. He chose the latter and leaped from the beetling crags.

The Thebans and their allies foolishly believed that with the death of Philomelus the war was at an end, and marched for their homes. Onomarchus, another Phocian leader, took the opportunity thus afforded to gather the scattered army together again, seized the temple once more, and stood in defiance of all his foes.

In addition to gold and silver, the treasury contained many gifts in brass and iron. The precious metals were melted and converted into money; of the baser metals arms were made. Onomarchus went farther than Philomelus; he not only paid his troops with the treasure, but bribed the leaders of Grecian states, and thus gained powerful friends. He was soon successfully at war, drove back his foes, and pressed his conquests till he had captured Thermopylæ and invaded Thessaly.

Here the Phocians came into contact with a foe dangerous to themselves and to all Greece. This foe was the celebrated Philip of Macedonia, a famous soldier who was to play a leading part in the subsequent game. He had long been paving the way to the conquest of Greece, and the Sacred War gave him just the opportunity he wanted.

Macedonia lay north of Greece. Its people were not Greeks, nor like Greeks in their customs. They lived in the country, not in cities, and had little or none of the culture of Greece. But they were the stuff from which good soldiers are made. Hitherto this country had been hardly thought of as an element in the Grecian problem. Its kings were despots who had been kept busy with their foes at home. But now a king had arisen of wider views and larger mould. Philip had spent his youth in Thebes, where he had learned the art of war under Epaminondas. On coming to the throne he quickly proved himself a great soldier and a keen and cunning politician. By dint of war and trickery he rapidly spread his dominions until all his home foes were subdued, Macedonia was greatly extended, and Thessaly, the most northern state of Greece, was overrun.

Therefore the invasion of Thessaly by the Phocians brought them into contact with the Macedonians. At first Onomarchus was successful. He won two battles and drove Philip back to his native state. But another large army was quickly in the field, and this time the army of Onomarchus was utterly beaten and himself slain. As for Philip, although he probably cared not an iota for the Delphian god, he shrewdly professed to be on a crusade against the impious Phocians, and drowned all his prisoners as guilty of sacrilege.

A third leader, Phayllus by name, now took command of the Phocians, and the temple of Apollo was rifled still more freely than before. The splendid gifts of King Crœus had not yet been touched. They were held too precious to be meddled with. But Phayllus did not hesitate to turn these into money. One hundred and seventeen ingots of gold and three hundred and sixty golden goblets went to the melting-pot, and with them a golden statue three cubits high and a lion of the same precious metal. And what added to the horror of pious Greece was that much of the proceeds of these precious treasures was lavished on favorites. The necklaces of Helen and Eriphyle were given to dissolute women, and a woman flute-player received a silver cup and a golden wreath from the temple hoard.

All this gave Philip of Macedonia the desired pretence. He marched against the Phocians, who held Thermopylæ, while keeping his Athenian enemies quiet by lies and bribes. The leader of the Phocian garrison, finding that no aid came from the Athenian fleet, surrendered to Philip, and that astute monarch won what he had long schemed for, the Pass of Thermopylæ, the Key of Greece.

The Sacred War was at an end, and with it virtually the independence of Greece. Phocis was in the hands of Philip, who professed more than ever to be the defender and guardian of Apollo. All the towns in Phocis were broken up into villages, and the inhabitants were ordered to be fined ten talents annually till they had paid back all they had stolen from the temple. Philip gave back the temple to the Delphians, and was himself voted into membership in the Amphictyonic assembly in place of the discarded Phocians. And all this took place while a treaty of peace tied the hands of the Greeks. The Sacred War had served as a splendid pretext to carry out the ambitious plans of the Macedonian king.

We have now a long story to tell in a few words. Another people, the Locrians, had also made an invasion on Delphian territory. The Amphictyonic Council called on Philip to punish them. He at once marched southward, but, instead of meddling with the Locrians, seized and fortified a town in Phocis. At once Athens, full of alarm, declared war, and Philip was as quick to declare war in return. Both sides sought the support of Thebes, and Athens gained it. In August, 338 b.c. , the Grecian and Macedonian armies met and fought a decisive battle near Chæronea, a Bœotian town. In this great contest Alexander the Great took part.

It was a hotly-contested fight, but in the end Philip triumphed, and Greece was lost. Thebes was forced to yield. Athens, to regain the prisoners held by Philip, acknowledged him to be the head of Greece. All the other states did the same except Sparta, which defied him. He ravaged Laconia, but left the city untouched.

Two years afterwards Philip, lord and master of Greece, was assassinated at the marriage feast of his daughter. His son Alexander succeeded him. Here seemed an opportunity for Greece to regain her freedom. This untried young man could surely not retain what his able father had won. Demosthenes, the celebrated orator, stirred up Athens to revolt. Thebes sprang to arms and attacked the Macedonian garrison in the citadel.

They did not know the man with whom they had to deal. Alexander came upon Thebes like an avalanche, took it by assault, and sold into slavery all the inhabitants not slain in the assault. The city was razed to the ground. This terrible example dismayed the rest of Greece. Submission—with the exception of that of Sparta—was universal. The independence of Greece was at an end. More than two thousand years were to pass before that country would again be free.

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