On a certain cold and wet evening, in the month of December of the year 379 b.c. , seven men, dressed as rustics or hunters, and to all appearance unarmed, though each man had a dagger concealed beneath his clothes, appeared at the gate of Thebes, the principal city of the Botian confederacy. They had come that day from Athens, making their way afoot across Mount Cithæron, which lay between. It was now just nightfall and most of the farmers had come into the city from the fields, but some late ones were still returning. Mingling with these, the seven strangers entered the gates, unnoticed by the guards, and were quickly lost to sight in the city streets. Quietly as they had come, the noise of their coming was soon to resound throughout Greece, for the arrival of those seven men was the first step in a revolution that was destined to overturn all the existing conditions of Grecian states.
We should like to go straight on with their story; but to make it clear to our readers we must go back and offer a short extract from earlier history. Hitherto the history of Greece had been largely the history of two cities, Athens and Sparta. The other cities had all played second or third parts to these great and proud municipalities. But now a third city, Thebes, was about to come forward, and assume a leading place in the history of Greece. And of the two men who were to guide it in this proud career, one was among the seven who entered the gates of the city in rustic garb that rainy December night.
Of the earlier history of Thebes little need be said. It played its part in the legendary story of Greece, as may be seen in our story of the "Seven against Thebes." During the Persian invasion Thebes proved false to its country, assisted the invaders, and after their repulse was punished for its treasonable acts. Later on it came again into prominent notice. During the Peloponnesian war it was a strong ally of Sparta. Another city, only six miles away, Platæa, was as strong an ally of Athens. And the inhabitants of these two cities hated each other with the bitterest animosity. It is a striking example of the isolated character of Greek communities, and one that it is difficult to understand in modern times, that two cities of one small state, so near together that an easy two hours' walk would take a traveller from the gates of one to those of the other, could be the bitterest of enemies, sworn allies of two hostile states, and the inhabitants ready to cut each other's throats at any opportunity. Certainly the sentiment of human brotherhood has vastly widened since then. There are no two cities in the civilized world to-day that feel to each other as did Platæa and Thebes, only six miles apart, in that famous era of Grecian enlightenment.
We have told how Platæa was taken and destroyed, and its defenders murdered, by a Spartan army. But it is well to say here that Thebans formed the most fiercely hostile part of that army, and that it was the Thebans who demanded and obtained the murder in cold blood of the hapless prisoners.
And now we pass on to a date less than fifty years later to find a remarkable change in the state of affairs. Athens has fallen from her high estate. Sparta is now the lord and master of the Grecian world. And a harsh master has she proved, with her controlling agents in every city, her voice the arbiter in all political concerns.
Thebes is now the friend of Athens and the foe of Sparta, the chief among those cities which oppose the new order of things. Yet Thebes in 379 b.c. lies hard and fast within the Spartan clutch. How she got there is now for us to tell.
It was an act of treason, some three years before, that handed this city over to the tender mercies of her old ally, her present foe. There was a party in Thebes favorable to Sparta, at whose head was a man named Leontiades. And at this time Sparta was at war with Olynthus, a city far to the north. One Spartan army had marched to Olynthus. Another, led by a general named Phbidas, was on its march thither, and had halted for a period of rest near the gymnasium, a short distance outside the walls of Thebes. There is good reason to believe that Phbidas well knew what Leontiades designed, and was quite ready to play his part in the treacherous scheme.
It was the day of the Thesmophoria, a religious festival celebrated by women only, no men being admitted. The Cadmeia, or citadel, had been given to their use, and was now occupied by women alone. It was a warm summer's day. The heat of noon had driven the people from the streets. The Senate of the city was in session in the portico of the agora, or forum, but their deliberations were drowsily conducted and the whole city seemed taking a noontide siesta.
Phbidas chose this warm noontide to put his army in march again, rounding the walls of Thebes. As the van passed the gates Leontiades, who had stolen away from the Senate and hastened on horseback through the deserted streets, rode up to the Spartan commander, and bade him turn and march inward through the gate which lay invitingly open before him. Through the deserted streets Phbidas and his men rapidly made their way, following the traitor Theban, to the gates of the Cadmeia, which, like those of the town, were thrown open to his order as polemarch, or war governor; and the Spartans, pouring in, soon were masters not only of the citadel, but of the wives and daughters of the leading Theban citizens as well.
The news got abroad only when it was too late to remedy the treacherous act. The Senate heard with consternation that their acropolis was in the hands of their enemies, their wives captives, their city at the mercy of the foe. Leontiades returned to his seat, and at once gave orders for the arrest of his chief opponent Ismenias. He had a party armed and ready. The Senate was helpless. Ismenias was seized and conveyed to Sparta, where he was basely put to death. The other senators hurried home, glad to escape with their lives. Three hundred of them left the city in haste, and made their way as exiles to Athens. The other citizens, whose wives and daughters were in Spartan hands, felt obliged to submit. "Order reigned" in Thebes; such was the message which Leontiades bore to Sparta.
Thus it was that Sparta gained possession of one of her greatest opponents. Leontiades and his fellows, backed by a Spartan general, ruled the city harshly. The rich were robbed, the prisons were filled, many more citizens fled into exile. Thebes was in the condition of a conquered city; the people, helpless and indignant, waited impatiently the slow revolution of the wheel of destiny which should once more set them free.
As for the exiles at Athens, they sought in vain to obtain Athenian aid to recover their city from the foe. Athens was by no means in love with Sparta, but peace had been declared, and all they could agree to do was to give the fugitives a place of refuge. Evidently the city, which had been won by treason, was not to be recovered by open war. If set free at all it must be by secret measures. And with this intent a conspiracy was formed between the leaders of the exiles and certain citizens of Thebes for the overthrow of Leontiades and his colleagues and the expulsion of the Spartan garrison from the citadel. And this it was that brought the seven men to Thebes,—seven exiles, armed with hidden daggers, with which they were to win a city and start a revolution which in the end would destroy the power of Sparta the imperial.
Of the seven exiles who thus returned, under cover of night and disguise, to their native city, the chief was Pelopidas, a rich and patriotic Theban, who was yet to prove himself one of the great men of Greece. Entering the gates, they proceeded quietly through the streets, and soon found an abiding-place in the house of Charon, an earnest patriot. This was their appointed rendezvous.
And now we have a curious incident to tell, showing on what small accidents great events may hinge. Among the Thebans who had been let into the secret of the conspiracy was a faint-hearted man named Hipposthenidas. As the time for action drew near this timid fellow grew more and more frightened, and at length took upon himself, unknown to the rest, to stop the coming of the exiled patriots. He ordered Chlidon, a faithful slave of one of the seven, to ride in haste from Thebes, meet his master on the road, and bid him and his companions to go back to Athens, as circumstances had arisen which made their coming dangerous and their project impracticable.
Chlidon, ready to obey orders, went home for his bridle, but failed to find it in its usual place. He asked his wife where it was. She pretended at first to help him look for it, but at last, in a tone of contrition, acknowledged that she had lent it, without asking him, to a neighbor. Chlidon, in a burst of anger at the delay to his journey, entered into a loud altercation with the woman, who grew angry on her part and wished him ill luck on his journey. Word led to word, both sides grew more angry and abusive, and at length he began to beat his wife, and continued his ill treatment until her cries brought neighbors in to separate them. But all this caused a loss of time, the bridle was not in this way to be had, and in the end Chlidon's journey was stopped, and the message he had been asked to bear never reached the conspirators on their way. Accidents of this kind often frustrate the best-laid plans. In this case the accident was providential to the conspiracy.
And now, what were these seven men to do? Four men—Leontiades, Archias, Philippus, and Hypates—had the city under their control. But they were supported in their tyranny by a garrison of fifteen hundred Spartans and allies in the Cadmeia, and Lacedæmonian posts in the other cities around. These four men were to be dealt with, and for that purpose the seven had come. On the evening of the next day Archias and Philippus designed to have a banquet. Phyllidas, their secretary, but secretly one of the patriots, had been ordered to prepare the banquet for them, and had promised to introduce into their society on that occasion some women of remarkable beauty and of the best families in Thebes. He did not hint to them that these women would wear beards and carry daggers under their robes.
We have told, in a previous tale, the story of the "Seven against Thebes." The one with which we are now concerned might be properly entitled the "Seven for Thebes." That night and the following day the devoted seven lay concealed. Evening came on. The hour when they were to play their parts had nearly arrived. They were in that state of strained expectation that brings the nerves to the surface, and started in sudden dread when a loud knock came upon the door. They were still more startled on hearing its purpose. A messenger had come to bid Charon instantly to come to the presence of the two feasting polemarchs.
What did it mean? Had the plot been divulged? Had the timid Hipposthenidas betrayed them? At any rate, there was but one thing to do; Charon must go at once. But he, faithful soul, was most in dread that his friends should suspect him of treachery. He therefore brought his son, a highly promising youth of fifteen, and put him in the hands of Pelopidas as a hostage for his fidelity.
"This is folly!" cried they all. "No one doubts you. Take the boy away. It is enough for us to face the danger; do not seek to bring the boy into the same peril."
Charon would not listen to their remonstrances, but insisted on leaving the youth in their hands, and hastened away to the house of the polemarchs. He found them at the feast, already half intoxicated. Word had been sent them from Athens that some plot, they knew not what, was afloat. He was known to be a friend of the exiles. He must tell them what he knew about it.
Fortunately, the pair were too nearly drunk to be acute. Their suspicions were very vague. Charon, aided by Phyllidas, had little trouble in satisfying them that the report was false. Eager to get back to their wine they dismissed him, very glad indeed to get away. Hardly had he gone before a fresh message, and a far more dangerous one, was brought to Archias, sent by a namesake of his at Athens. This gave a full account of the scheme and the names of those who were to carry it out. "It relates to a very serious matter," said the messenger who bore it.
"Serious matters for to-morrow," cried Archias, with a drunken laugh, as he put the unopened despatch under the pillow of his couch and took up the wine-cup again.
"Those whom the gods mean to destroy they first make mad," says an apposite Grecian proverb. These men were foredoomed.
"A truce to all this disturbance," cried the two polemarchs to Phyllidas. "Where are the women whom you promised us? Let us see these famous high-born beauties."
Phyllidas at once retired, and quickly returned with the seven conspirators, clothed in female attire. Leaving them in an adjoining chamber, he entered the banquet-room, and told the feasters that the women refused to come in unless all the domestics were first dismissed.
"Let it be so," said Archias, and at the command of Phyllidas the domestics sought the house of one of their number, where the astute secretary had well supplied them with wine.
The two polemarchs, with one or two friends, alone remained, all half intoxicated, and the only armed one being Cabeirichus, the archon, who was obliged by law to keep always with him the consecrated spear of office.
And now the supposed and eagerly expected women were brought in,—three of them attired as ladies of distinction, the four others dressed as attendants. Their long veils and ample robes completely disguised them, and they sat down beside the polemarchs without a suspicion being entertained. Not till their drunken companions lifted their veils did the truth appear. But the lifting of the veils was the signal for quick and deep dagger-thrusts, and Archias and Philippus, with scarcely a movement of resistance, fell dead from their seats. No harm was meant to the others, but the drunken archon rushed on the conspirators with his spear, and in consequence perished with his friends.
There were two more of the tyrants to deal with. Phyllidas led three of the conspirators to the house of Leontiades, into which he was admitted as the bearer of an order from the polemarchs. Leontiades was reclining after supper, with his wife spinning wool by his side, when his foes entered his chamber, dagger in hand. A bold and strong man, he instantly sprang up, seized his sword, and with a thrust mortally wounded the first of the three. Then a desperate struggle took place in the doorway between him and Pelopidas, the place being too narrow for the third to approach. In the end Pelopidas dealt him a mortal blow. Then, threatening the wife with death if she gave the alarm, and closing the door with stern commands that it should not be opened again, the two patriots left the house and sought that of Hypates. He took the alarm and fled, and was pursued to the roof, where he was killed as he was trying to escape over the house-tops.
Gate of the Agora of Oil Market, Athens.
This work done, and no alarm yet given, the conspirators proceeded to the prison, whose doors they ordered to be opened. The jailer hesitated, and was slain by a spear-thrust, the patriots rushing over his body into the prison, from whose cells the tenants were soon released. These, one hundred and fifty in number, sufferers for their patriotic sentiments, were quickly armed from battle-spoils kept near by, and drawn up in battle array. And now, for the first time, did the daring conspirators feel assurance of success.
The tidings of what had been done by this time got abroad, and ran like wildfire through the city. Citizens poured excitedly into the streets. Epaminondas, who was afterwards to become the great leader of the Thebans, joined with some friends the small array of patriots. Proclamation was made throughout the city by heralds that the despots were slain and Thebes was free, and all Thebans who valued liberty were bidden to muster in arms in the market-place. All the trumpeters in the city were bidden to blow with might and main, from street to street, and thus excite the people to take arms to secure their liberty.
While night lasted surprise and doubt continued, many of the citizens not knowing what to do. But with day-dawn came a wild outburst of joy and enthusiasm. Horsemen and footmen hastened in arms to the agora. Here a formal assembly of the Theban people was convened, before whom Pelopidas and his fellows appeared to tell what they had done. The priests crowned them with wreaths, while the people hailed them with joyful acclamations. With a single voice they nominated Pelopidas, Mellon, and Charon as Botarchs,—a Theban title of authority which had for a number of years been dropped.
Such was the hatred which the long oppression had aroused, that the very women trod underfoot the slain jailer, and spat upon his corpse. In that city, where women rarely showed themselves in public, this outburst strongly indicated the general public rage against the overthrown despots. Messengers hastened to Attica to carry to the exiles the glad tidings, and soon they, with a body of Athenian volunteers, were in joyful march for the city.
Meanwhile, the Spartans in the citadel were in a state of distraction and alarm. All night long the flashing of lights, the blare of trumpets, the shouts of excited patriots, the sound of hurrying feet in the city, had disturbed their troubled souls, and when affrighted partisans of the defeated party came hurrying for safety into the Cadmeia, with tidings of the tragic event, they were filled with confusion and dismay. Accustomed to look to the polemarchs for orders, the garrison did not know whom to trust or consult. They hastily sent out messengers to Thespiæ and Platæa for aid, but the forces which came to their help from these cities were charged upon by the Thebans and driven back with loss.
What to do the Spartan commander knew not. The citizens were swarming in the streets, and gathering in force around the citadel. That they intended to storm it before aid could come from Sparta was evident. In fact, they were already rushing to the assault,—large rewards being offered those who should first force their way in,—when a flag of truce from the garrison stopped them in mid-career. The commander proposed to capitulate.
All he asked was liberty to march out of Thebes with the honors of war. This was granted him, under oath. At once the foreign garrison filed out from the citadel and marched to one of the gates, accompanied by the Theban refugees who had sought shelter with them. These latter had not been granted the honors of war. Among them were some of the prominent oppressors of the people. In a burst of ungovernable rage these were torn from the Spartan ranks by the people and put to death; even the children of some of them being slain. Few of the refugees would have escaped but for the Athenians present, who generously helped to get them safely through the gates and out of sight and reach of their infuriated townsmen.
And thus, almost without a blow, in a night's and a morning's work, the city of Thebes, which for several years had lain helpless in the hands of its foes, regained its liberty. As for the Spartan harmosts, or leaders, who had capitulated without an attempt at defence, two of them were put to death on reaching home, the third was heavily fined and banished. Sparta had no mercy and no room for beaten men.
Thebes was free! The news spread like an electric shock through the Grecian world. A few men, taking a desperate risk, had in an hour overthrown a government that seemed beyond assault. The empire of Sparta, the day before undisputed and nearly universal over Greece, had received a serious blow. Throughout all Greece men breathed easier, while the spirit of patriotism suddenly flamed again. The first blow in a coming revolution had been struck.