When Aratus was a little boy only seven years old, his father, who was ruler of the city of Sicyon, in Greece, was put to death by a man named Abantidas, who thus made himself ruler instead. So great was the confusion in the royal household that Aratus was forgotten for the moment and made his escape.
He wandered about the city, too frightened to speak to any one or to know what to do, until he got to the house of Soso, his father's sister. He slipped in there and asked Soso to take care of him, for he knew that if his father's enemies got hold of him they would kill him too. Soso, being a kind-hearted woman, took the boy in, although she ran great risk in doing so, and, with the belief that the gods had directed him to her, hid him away until after dark, then sent him to Argos. His father had many friends and acquaintances there, who sympathized with Aratus, and received him with delight. He was sent to school, where he studied diligently and acquired a good education. Being a strong, healthy boy, Aratus took part in the public exercises, and became so expert in running, jumping, throwing the dart, boxing, and wrestling, that he won several prizes.
His father's death had made such an impression on his mind that he hated the very name of tyrant,—for the rulers had so much power that they were all called by that title,—and this feeling strengthened with age. Aratus constantly brooded over the injustice of his father's fate until he reached the age of twenty, when he resolved to free his native city.
Meanwhile, many changes and revolutions had taken place there. One tyrant had succeeded another, and now Nicocles was on the throne, having governed four months, and done considerable mischief in that time.
Aratus laid his scheme before two or three important personages, who tried to dissuade him from carrying it into effect, but when they saw that he was determined, and that his energy was tempered by remarkably sound judgment, they promised to lend him their aid. All the exiles from Sicyon came to him, anxious to be led back to their home; but it was necessary that everything should be done secretly. Among the exiles was one who had escaped from prison. He described to Aratus the point where he had got over the wall, also how it might be scaled there and the city taken by surprise. Aratus listened attentively, and sent to have the spot examined and the exact height of the wall measured. The report was favorable so far as the walls were concerned, but a gardener near by owned some uncommonly savage, noisy dogs, that made it almost impossible for any one to approach without being discovered.
Aratus thought he could manage the dogs, so went on with his preparations. It was easy to get a supply of arms without arousing suspicion, because robberies were so common, and the people from one territory so often made incursions into those of their neighbors, that everybody went armed. The scaling-ladders were made by one of the exiles, who, being a carpenter by trade, could work without attracting attention. Each of his friends in Argos supplied Aratus with ten men, he armed thirty of his own servants besides, and hired a few soldiers from Xenophilas, captain of a robber-band. These soldiers, after being told that they were going to Sicyon only to seize the king's horses, were ordered by different roads to a certain tower in the neighborhood to await their chief.
Caphesias, one of the exiles, was sent with five companions, disguised as travellers, to the gardener's house, where they were instructed to arrive after sunset and ask for a night's lodging. They were then to lock up the man and his dogs, and keep them out of the way. The ladders, being so made that they could be taken to pieces, were packed in corn-chests and sent forward in wagons hired for the purpose.
Now, Nicocles always had his spies in Argos to keep an eye on Aratus, of whom he was constantly in dread. Aratus knew this perfectly well, and so, to put the spies off their guard, he went to the market-place early in the morning, stood some time conversing with a number of people, and in various ways made himself observed. Then he anointed himself in the exercise ground, and gathering about him half a dozen young men with whom he was in the habit of feasting, he went home, chatting merrily with them as they walked along together. Shortly after several of his servants appeared in the market-place and made purchases, as if they were preparing for a feast.
The spies were thoroughly deceived, and said to each other, "It is certainly strange that so powerful a tyrant as Nicocles should feel the slightest fear of a young man who wastes all his money in drinking and feasting." So they went home, convinced that such a person needed no watching.
Immediately after his morning meal Aratus set out on his journey, and proceeded to the tower where the meeting with his men was to take place. In a few words he explained his intention, every man declared himself ready, and they marched forward, arranging their pace so as to reach the walls of Sicyon after the moon had set. Caphesias met them, and announced that he had locked up the gardener, but that the dogs had scattered before his arrival and made it impossible to secure them. Most of the company wanted to retreat when they heard that piece of news, but Aratus encouraged them with the assurance that if the dogs became troublesome he would not proceed.
When those who went first were fixing the ladders to the wall the dogs set up a furious barking, and to add to the din a large hound kept at the tower within the walls began to bark in return while Aratus and his men were climbing over so that they were in great danger of discovery. Just then the fortress bell rang for the change of guard, and Aratus heard them asking each other what could be the cause of the disturbance among the dogs. He and his companions kept well within the shadow of the wall, and were much relieved when the sentinel said it was the sound of the bell and the light of the torches used by the guard that had aroused the hound. Aratus knew then that he had a friend in the sentinel, and that many others in the city awaited his coming. Presently the cocks began to crow, and no time was to be lost. Having scaled the wall, Aratus hastened to the tyrant's house, followed by his men. The hired soldiers, who passed the night at the general's office hard by, were taken by surprise and captured without a single drop of blood being shed. By daybreak, the friends of Aratus had been summoned from various quarters, crowds of people, who had heard all sorts of true and false reports, had gathered in the public square to find out what had happened, and the whole city was in a state of excitement. Suddenly a crier appeared, and proclaimed aloud that Aratus, son of Clinias, had come back, and invited the citizens to help him to recover their liberty.
Shouts of joy rent the air; what they had hoped and prayed for had come at last. Crowds pressed forward to the tyrant's palace, and in a few moments the whole building was in a blaze. Nicocles made his escape from the city by a secret underground passage. The fire was extinguished in time to save the enormous riches of the tyrant, which were divided equally among the citizens and the soldiers Aratus had brought, and, strange to say, not a single life had been sacrificed. One of the first acts of Aratus was to recall fifty exiles that Nicocles had sent away, and no less than five hundred that had been expelled by other tyrants, some of whom had been away from their home for nearly fifty years.
The return of these exiles after so long an absence caused great trouble, for they wanted back their estates, many of which had been sold, and the purchasers refused to give them up. Then Aratus showed himself a high-minded, true statesman; for, feeling that he was unable to settle the difficulty, and knowing that the city was in danger of an attack from Antigonus, the Macedonian king, he determined to sacrifice himself for the good of his country. He therefore gave up his position as ruler and joined Sicyon to the Achæan League. This was a great council of the whole Greek nation that assembled twice a year and made laws for all the cities that chose to place themselves under its rule, each city sending representatives, who were elected by ballot.
Then Aratus served in the cavalry, and the generals thought very highly of him as a soldier, for he was as obedient and tractable as any man in the ranks.
Ptolemy, King of Egypt, had sent Aratus a sum of money when he returned to Sicyon, which had all been divided among the citizens, but they were so poor that it had not been enough, and the exiles would not be satisfied unless they got back the estates they had lost. So, finding that there was danger of serious trouble, Aratus determined to seek further aid from Ptolemy. Aratus had some claim on the friendship of this king, for he had always been in the habit of collecting for him the best works of the celebrated painters, some of whom were his personal friends. He had been asked to do this because he was an excellent judge of works of art, and because the Sicyon painters were considered the greatest of their time. So much was this the case that artists from other parts of Greece went there to study only to get the reputation of being of the Sicyon school.
So, as soon as Ptolemy heard of the arrival of Aratus in Egypt, he sent for him and made him a present of a hundred and fifty talents for the relief of Sicyon. On his return, Aratus sought the assistance and advice of fifteen of the citizens in the distribution of the money he had brought, and after a great deal of thought and management on his part, peace and contentment were at last established among the people; for each man felt that he had been fairly dealt with.
Aratus was now chosen general of the Achæan League, and immediately undertook a most daring and remarkable enterprise; it was the freeing of Corinth from Macedonian tyranny. This was of the greatest importance, because the possession of Corinth made a man master of all Greece on account of its position, and there were few kings who did not long to add Corinth to their territory.
This was such a bold and difficult undertaking that it has been called the last of the Grecian exploits, and its consequences prove it to have been one of the greatest ever recorded.
A complete victory attended the efforts of Aratus, who took the city with a body of four hundred picked men. After a night of anxiety and peril, during which he had seized the citadel, Aratus appeared in the theatre of Corinth. The people crowded to see him, eager to hear what he had to say to them. He came from behind the scenes in his armor and stood in the centre of the stage, his soldiers having previously arranged themselves to form an effective background. Aratus looked extremely careworn, and showed plainly how much he had endured. But this made him even more welcome to those whom he had come to liberate, and they greeted him with deafening cheers and cries of congratulation. He stood with his spear in his right hand until quiet was restored, then he began an oration in the name of the Achæans, persuading the Corinthians to join their league and to deliver over to them the keys of their city, which had not been in their power, as he reminded them, since the time of King Philip.
The Corinthians agreed to join the league, and Aratus, having seized the temple of Juno, placed a garrison of four hundred Achæans in the citadel, then went to the harbor of Lechæum, took twenty-five of the enemy's ships, four hundred Syrians, whom he sold, and five hundred horses.
The consequences of winning over the most important city of the Peloponnesus to the Achæan League show what a wise undertaking it was. Aratus saw that the cities of Greece divided were weak, but that if they could be united for defence and for the promotion of the common good, they would be strong. So, leading the Achæan forces from place to place, he never ceased in his labors until most of the prominent cities and states of Southern Greece had become members of the league.
In course of time the Ætolians grew jealous of the fast increasing power of the league; so, calling in the aid of the Lacedæmonians, who were enemies to the Achæans, they crossed over to the Peloponnesus and seized the city of Pellene. The soldiers rushed about from house to house, helping themselves to whatever treasure they could lay hands on, each claiming a wife or daughter of the citizens, whom he intended to marry. Every man marked his prize by putting his helmet on her head, and this it was that made them lose the city when Aratus marched in with his army. It happened in this way: one of the captives was a tall, handsome young girl, daughter of one of the wealthiest and most distinguished citizens of Pellene. She had been claimed by a captain, who, having put his helmet on her head, had placed her in the temple of Diana for safe-keeping. Hearing the noise caused by the arrival of the Achæans, she stepped out to see what was the matter, and stood in the gateway of the temple looking down upon the soldiers as they fought.
Now, so holy was the image of Diana in the eyes of the Ætolians, that whenever a priestess removed it from one place to another, people turned away their heads or covered their eyes, because they believed that to look at it would bring to them some dreadful misfortune.
The young Pellenian lady, being a priestess herself, and knowing of the superstition of the Ætolians, brought out the image of the goddess and held it up. As she stood with the helmet on her head and the image raised on high, she did not resemble an ordinary human being. The enemy, believing that they saw before them some divine apparition, turned away, covered their eyes, and ceased to defend themselves. Aratus immediately got the advantage, and, after killing seven hundred Ætolians, drove the rest out by main force. This action gained new honor for Aratus, and one of the greatest artists of the day painted a picture of the battle, which was considered a most wonderful exploit.
However, as many powerful states were preparing to oppose the Achæans, Aratus hastened not only to make peace with the Ætolians, but to form an alliance with them. He next turned his attention to Athens, which he wished to liberate, and made several attempts on her harbor, but failed each time. In one of these he broke his leg, and had to be carried into several actions in a litter. When this accident happened, it was reported that he was dead, and in order to flatter the Macedonians, under whose rule they then were, the Athenians made a public rejoicing.
Angry at such ingratitude, Aratus marched against them and entered their city, but they implored him to spare them, and he returned without doing them the least harm. Such humane treatment had its effect, and when Demetrius, their tyrant, died, the Athenians determined to strike a blow for liberty, and called the Achæans to help them. Aratus was not general then, because it was against the laws to re-elect him every year, so he held that office every other year, being chosen regularly twelve times.
When the Athenians sent for him he was in bed, too ill to rise, but he caused himself to be carried in a litter, so anxious was he to do what he could for them. For a hundred and fifty talents, twenty of which he furnished himself, he prevailed upon Diogenes, the Macedonian general, to give up the Piræus, Munychia, Salamis, and Sunium to the Athenians, and then the greater part of Arcadia joined the league.
Aratus was soon called to aid other cities, because Cleomenes, the Spartan king, attacked them; but he was so unfortunate as to meet with three defeats, one coming right upon the heels of another, and then it was decreed that he should have no more money provided for war. This made him so indignant that when the time came around again for him to be reappointed general of the army, he absolutely refused. As Achæan affairs were in a bad way, he was much blamed for giving up the helm to another pilot; but perhaps he did not feel capable of coping with so powerful a prince as Cleomenes.
Cleomenes had made himself absolute tyrant of Sparta, and now marched into Achaia to insist upon being made general of the league. He turned the Achæan garrison out of Pellene, and took not only that town, but so many besides, that the whole of Peloponnesus was in a tottering state, and dissatisfaction was felt on all sides. Even the Corinthians and Sicyonians were found to be in secret correspondence with Cleomenes, for they were tired of belonging to the Achæan League; they had lost confidence in Aratus, and wanted to get the power into their own hands.
Aratus was sent to punish the leaders, but he met with greater opposition in Corinth than he had expected, for the people would not suffer him to arrest anybody. They assembled at the temple of Apollo, and sent for him, intending either to kill or imprison him before openly revolting. He came leading his horse and pretending to feel no mistrust. When he reached the gate, a number of men arose and began to reproach him; but he mildly bade them to be less noisy, and not to crowd up the doorway to prevent others from entering. While he spoke, he drew back step by step, and pretended to be looking for somebody to take charge of his horse. Thus he got out of the crowd, and addressing each Corinthian as he came along, told him to hasten on to the temple. So without exciting suspicion he drew near enough to the citadel to order the governor to keep strict guard over it, then, mounting his horse, rode off towards Sicyon at full speed.
The Corinthians pursued him, but, failing to catch him, they sent for Cleomenes, and placed their city in his hands. Cleomenes would not touch the house nor any of the belongings of Aratus in Corinth, but sent for his friends and charged them to guard well all his effects.
Meanwhile, Aratus called a council of the Achæans, who decided to ask the aid of Antigonus, the Macedonian king. He approached with his army, and Aratus went by sea to meet him. Antigonus received him with honors, and soon learned to like and trust him, for Aratus was not only able to advise the king, but proved himself a most agreeable companion socially, and an intimate friendship grew up between them.
The arrival of Antigonus entirely changed the aspect of affairs. He lost no time in marching against Corinth, and made such a desperate attack that he got possession of the fortress, and Cleomenes retired to Mantinea. Then all the cities joined the Achæans again.
Antigonus entered Laconia shortly after this, and defeated Cleomenes near Sellasia, in a narrow pass between the two mountains Eva and Olympus. Cleomenes made his escape and sailed for Egypt, and Antigonus took Sparta. He then returned to Macedonia, where, being very ill, he sent his nephew Philip to Peloponnesus, but instructed him to be guided entirely by whatever advice Aratus should give him.
So he did as long as Antigonus lived, but when that king died and he succeeded to the throne he was less friendly towards Aratus; and when the Achæans became dissatisfied, and brought various charges, some real, some imaginary, against him, Philip willingly complied with their demand that he himself should look into the affairs of Greece. Even then he continued to be guided by the advice of Aratus, because it was of so much value to him that he could not act without it; but Philip was not a man who could bear prosperity. His character was bad, and he allowed himself to be governed too often by his passions. So the time came when he would no longer allow Aratus to thwart him in anything, and the more he saw that his actions were disapproved by the virtuous man the more he hated him. He had always feared the Grecian patriot, and that fear kept him within bounds, but when hatred got the better even of his cowardice his vices showed themselves clearly, and he became a cruel, unprincipled tyrant.
He was determined to rid himself of a man whom he could neither buy nor command, but dared not do so openly. He therefore had recourse to poison, ordering one of his generals to give it in small doses that would act slowly but surely. Aratus soon began to suspect it, but, knowing that he would gain nothing by making it public, he bore his sufferings silently. One day a friend who was visiting him expressed surprise at seeing him spit blood. He said, "Such, Cephalon, are the fruits of royal friendship."
The poison did its work, and before many months had elapsed the great statesman died, in the sixty-second year of his age. He was buried with honors, and a festival called Aratea was celebrated every year in his memory.