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Laura Woolsey Lord Scales

Megacles and His Two Ambitions

The Greek Sculptor

The room was warm, the sunlight was very bright, and no sound except the drowsy humming of bees came from outside to interrupt the boys at their lessons. The cries from the agora had stopped, the unshaded streets were empty, and even the statues of the gods seemed to sleep. Megacles yawned. He was tired of tracing on his wax tablet the letters of the master's copy: Gnothi seauton, "Know thyself," while the wax ran together and filled up his efforts. Such soft wax was meant for better uses, and he scraped off a bit and began pinching it, though with an eye to the master, who, however, seemed busy listening to Lysicrates thumbing his lyre. He pinched and shaped; and first came a man's head, then a little pointed beard—unfortunately there was scarcely wax enough for shoulders, but he made eyes, ears, a nose and mouth. The task was absorbing, and everything else forgotten. "Megacles," the master's voice spoke sharply, "thine exercise! Come, fetch it here." Of course, standing before the master with his unfinished exercise, Megacles was scolded well and warned that if it were not done tomorrow he would bear the penalty. The penalty! Every boy's back knew the smart of that. Yet one more look Megacles gave to his little man and promised himself that tomorrow he would bring clay from his father's studio. For Simonides, Megacles' father, was a sculptor, and from babyhood it had been the boy's chief interest to sit and watch his father at work.

He was only nine years old now; only nine years ago it was that the olive branch had been tied to the door of Simonides' house as a sign of a boy's birth, and the nurse had run around the blazing fire on the family hearth carrying the baby in her arms, and friends and relatives had brought presents and come to eat a cake on the day when the boy's name was given him. A happy child he had been, with many toys and a nurse who told him Æsop's old, old stories of the fox and the raven and the lion and the mouse. But the happiest days had been those in the studio, and often he had kept still for hours, while in absorbed interest he watched the clay take shape under his father's hands until he could recognize his own face even as he had seen it in his mother's bronze mirror.



These scenes are painted around the center of a shallow bowl, hence their peculiar shape. In A  we see at the left a music teacher seated at his lyre, giving a lesson to the lad seated before him. In the middle sits a teacher of reading and literature, holding an open roll from which the boy standing before him is learning a poem. Behind the boy sits a slave who brought him to school and carried his books. In B  we have at the left a singing lesson, aided by the flute to fix the tones. In the middle the master sits correcting an exercise handed him by the boy standing before him, while behind the boy sits the slave as before. (From Breasted, "Ancient Times")

But those days were over, and at nine he was a boy in school. Each morning at sunrise his pedagogue called him from bed and hurried him off to school, following behind him with his books and never leaving him all day. As they went through the city streets, all astir even at this hour, they caught the cries of the market people in the agora: "Buy fish!" "Buy oil!" "Buy charcoal!" They passed dignified citizens wrapped in cloaks and followed by slaves. Megacles saluted each one gravely. As they neared the Acropolis, they heard the din of hammer and chisel, the shouts of command and the straining of the men at work, for here before their eyes great temples were being built and statues of the gods rising in their places.



Photograph furnished by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Regretfully Megacles left it all behind to enter the school, where only too surely a flogging awaited him, For he had brought the clay, and his writing was put aside while once again he began to work and pinch. This time the figure grew to a whole man seated, and then another bending above him: a barber at work with his shears—just such a scene as he had passed that morning. And so again the master's voice caught him; and again he had to produce his exercise untouched since yesterday. The master frowned with his shaggy brows and with his eyes searched him all through. "The thing with which thy hands have been busy,—go fetch it at once!" There it was: the little clay barber was held up for the whole school to laugh at, while Megacles hung his head as he stood waiting. Greek schoolmasters never spared the rod, and Megacles suffered all that day in his body. But he suffered too in mind, for the master had kept his toy,—his unfinished toy which like a good workman he wanted to complete and to take away from ridicule. And so all day while he tried to do the tiresome writing, he was comforting himself by repeating: "Laugh now, old thick-wits, but some day I will show you!" For Megacles intended to follow after his father and be a great sculptor some day. And he never guessed that that night the master showed his toy to Aristides, Megacles' uncle, saying, "Regard it! the very stoop of the shoulders, the way we all cringe under the shears, has he not caught it? Is he not already a worthy son of Simonides?"



This is a marble figure of a boy on the side of a Greek altar of the fifth century B.C. The cithara had strings like a small harp and was played with a pick or plectrum. (Photograph furnished by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

In spite of such beginnings Megacles learned to read and write; he also learned by heart long rolls of Homer's poems; by playing on the cithara, he trained his spirit in love of harmony and beauty, and in the wrestling schools he developed his body. He learned too to sing and dance. And one day at home he was dancing and chanting some verses of Homer, to the accompaniment of his sister's flutes, when Aristides, his uncle, came in. Aristides was a man of fortune and now doubly prominent in the life of Athens, for he had undertaken to train the chorus for a drama. For this was the season of the Dionysiac festival, when for three days dramas were played before the people of Athens to see which play the judges would declare was the best. And for each play there was a chorus, trained at the expense of one of the citizens. Aristides was full of interest in his new work. He caught sight of the dancing children as he was on his way to see Simonides, who was just beyond, in the studio, and he called out, "Good day. What, have we a dancer here? Come, let me borrow thy lad, Simonides. Why should he not go with me tomorrow to the play? Mark my words! It is worth his remembrance,—a chorus well-trained, even I must admit," he laughed good-naturedly, "and Sophocles' lines are not those doomed to perish with the day. If these make him not immortal, then am I no judge of tragedy."



Here the great plays of Sophocles were given, while the people sat on the hillside, or in later times on seats placed like these in a circle. The seats for the chief men were at the front. (From Robinson and Breasted, "History of Europe, Ancient and Medieval")

So it came about that the next morning at sunrise, Megacles with his uncle was swept into the great stream of people that was setting toward the theater on the edge of the Acropolis hill. Men, women, and children were on their way there, many like Megacles and Aristides wreathed with ivy, many carrying baskets of eatables, for they had come to spend the day,—all in holiday dress and mood, pouring into the vast semicircle of benches that climbed the hillside. Near the front, in a seat of importance, sat Megacles with his uncle. The excitement was intense. There was the interest and wonder about what the play would be, but besides, since this play was one of three in the competition between the tragedies, there was also the great question of the prize at the end. To whom would the judges give the prize as the best writer of a tragedy? Which actor would they reward, which trainer of a chorus? The great throng was seated and ready, when only a moment after sunrise the chorus stepped into its place, an actor appeared on the wooden stage, and the play began. Would the audience listen to it gladly, or would they pelt the actor with figs and howl down the lines? It was the question of only a moment. In an instant all were held by the great lines of the drama, for this was Sophocles' tragedy of King Œdipus.



This is a painting on a Greek amphora, or jar, made in the fifth century B.C. (Photograph furnished by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The story was well known: King Laius of Thebes was warned by an oracle that his own son would cause his death, and so when his boy, Œdipus, was born, he had him taken to the mountains and left there to die. Kind shepherds found the child and took him to the king of Corinth who brought him up as his son. But when Œdipus was a man grown, he heard the fate which the oracle had prophesied about him. Supposing that of course the king of Corinth was his father, he left Corinth lest somehow unknowingly he should kill the king, his father. With a few followers he journeyed away, until in a narrow path he met an old man whose attendants quarreled with his attendants over the right of way. In the struggle Œdipus by accident killed the old man. Going on to Thebes, he was, like everyone else, halted by the Sphinx with her riddle: What creature is it that in the morning goes on four legs, at noon on two and in the evening on three? "Man," Œdipus replied, "who as a baby crawls on all fours, in his strength walks erect on his two feet, and in old age must use a cane." So he solved the riddle of the Sphinx and in shame the monster put an end to herself; and the rejoicing citizens of Thebes asked Œdipus to become their king in the place of their king Laius who had just been killed, while away on a journey. So Œdipus was made king and married the queen, and all seemed happy until it became apparent that the gods were displeased with the city. The reason was that the city was sheltering the murderer of King Laius. Instantly Œdipus did everything in his power to find who the murderer was, swearing that, no matter who was guilty, he would not be spared the hardest punishment. At last proof was brought only too clearly that Œdipus himself was the wrongdoer, for the old man whom he had killed on his journey was Laius, King of Thebes and his own father. And so unsuspecting he had fulfilled the fate foretold by the oracle. Then, though he had acted innocently and without knowing what he did, Œdipus cruelly punished himself as he had said he would punish whoever was guilty. He put out both eyes, left the city and went into banishment for the rest of his days.

As the actors unfolded the story of the tragedy, deeper and deeper fell the hush upon the listening audience, except at moments when in response to the singing or the wailing of the chorus, the whole assembly swayed and sighed as if a wind was sweeping over the strings of a lyre. To Megacles it was the greatest moment of his life, and when at the end he walked quietly back from the theater beside his uncle, he seemed to himself not the same boy who had so lightly set out in the morning. For questions were repeating themselves over and over in his mind, one especially: Why must the king suffer for a wrong that was no fault of his? It was too big a question for a boy to answer, and he turned to his uncle. "Why did Œdipus do it?" he asked, "why punish himself for what he could not help?"

"Do you not remember the story of Heracles," Aristides answered, "how, when because of his great strength he unwittingly killed his music master, Linus, he was sent away to live in the mountains alone with the shepherds? So must it always be, for good intentions do not hold back the dire effects of evil done."

But Megacles was not satisfied. "It is not fair," he murmured. "Is  it fair for the gods to cause the evil and then to punish for it?"

"Tut, tut, 'for who can understand the will of the gods?' " his uncle quoted. "But no, it was not only because the gods willed it, but because Œdipus wanted to punish himself that he did it. For how could he face the light of the sun and live happily in the midst of his fellows when with his own hand he had killed his father? Only if he suffered too, could he find peace. It was the easier way for him. Such things thou canst not understand as yet, my lad."

A turning-point in Megacles' life had now come, for he left the school to take up with special masters the study of rhetoric and general culture, and to train his body on the gymnasium. And in stepping from childhood, as it were, over the threshold of youth, he began work again guided by the familiar legend (this time cut over the doorway of the gymnasium), "Know thyself." Earnestly Megacles set to work to train every part of himself to be as strong and perfect as possible, for in addition to the Greek's usual love of clean, vigorous manhood he had before him a growing hope, a hope only a little less dear to him than his other ambition of becoming a sculptor. For already while in the boys' wrestling schools he had twice, once when ten years old and again when he was fourteen, won the boys' boxing match in the great games at Olympia. These were the games in which the whole of Greece shared, and his opponents had been the best boy-boxers of Argos and Thebes. And if at the next festival, just before he became an ephebus  and left boyhood behind, he could win the boys' boxing match again, he would be victor of all Greece, his name would ring through the whole land, statues and poems would be made in his honor, and he could bring glory to his family and city. So he worked with a will.



This is a Greek painting on a large drinking-cup. The boy holds in his hands jumping weights. (Photograph furnished by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

He was sixteen, and a boy of great beauty. "See him!" "There he goes!" "Ah! a new one!" "How beautiful!" so the older men cried, as they came daily to the gymnasium and watched him among the other boys at their training. And because to an unusual degree he was beautiful as well as strong, and because his fellows and the men of the city too began to look forward to the contest at Olympia, he became a great favorite. Men after their dinners, as they drank their wine mixed with water, raised their kylixes and toasted him. But Megacles was not spoiled, for his life was too much taken up by work and drill and routine, by the slow, hard building up of endurance and courage. And as he felt his chest broaden and saw his muscles strengthen and grow firm and supple, as he watched the swift, clean sweep of his arm when he hurled the discus, something of the reverence that he had felt as a child for his father's statues came to him now for his own body. And so, in shaping his body in all modesty to become as fit as possible, he tasted beforehand something of the joy of the sculptor who makes bodies of marble, and over and over he promised himself, "What I make now in my own body in flesh and sinew, I shall yet some day make come true in bronze and marble." So his two ambitions went hand in hand as he grew to manhood.

At last the midsummer came which brought the Olympic games, and Megacles with the other competitors went ahead to receive from the trainers at Olympia their last lessons. Then through all Greece went three heralds announcing the truce of Zeus, bidding the people everywhere drop their wars and quarrels and come to the sacred festival of the god. On every road the crowds came surging; hucksters with their wares, men and boys on foot, citizens of importance in chariots and officers from the different cities in gorgeous dress. But just before they reached Olympia, Megacles with the other athletes had left the town to go to the sacred fountain of Piera to offer a sacrifice and to purify themselves; at least all had gone who like Megacles could answer to the solemn charge of the trainers: "If you have exercised yourself in a manner worthy of the Olympic festival, if you have been guilty of no slothful or ignoble act, go on with a good courage. You who have not so practiced, go whither you will."

The great day came, the day that Megacles had been looking forward to for so long, the day of the boys' games. Though the sun was hot and there were no seats and though dust and thirst beset them, the spectators, eager and expectant, were ready and willing to stand for hours. Under the blue skies, surrounded by the temples and statues of the gods, the crowds gathered in the stadium. Then the procession entered: first came the trainers, splendid in their purple robes and with garlands on their heads, and then the athletes followed. The boys had already taken their oath to use no unfair means against each other to gain victory. Before each event a herald stepped out to proclaim the contestants.



This is a Greek painting on a bowl. The boxers have wound around their hands heavy leather thongs. (Photograph furnished by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

"Megacles," he announced, "son of Simonides, from the noble city of Athens, age, seventeen, contest, boxing; against him, Astylus, the son of Callippus, from the mighty city of Sparta, age, seventeen." The boys stepped into the ring, and each wound on his hands the leather thongs of the boxer—Megacles, lithe, straight and alert, Astylus, heavy and strong. The trumpet blew; the time was come. Astylus rushed forward, strong and sure, ready to strike with both his hands, but Megacles dodged and dealt him a quick blow on the chin; then, head down, Astylus drove into him, but again Megacles parried his thrust and hit him on the ear and cheek. Back and forth the blows fell; there was to be no easy victory. Now with his great strength Astylus seemed sure to crush Megacles; then Megacles, agile and unwearied, hit fast and clean, until the baffled Astylus caught Megacles' left hand in his and held him securely, while with his powerful right fist he swung upward, this time to give a final blow. A rush of anger blinded Megacles; this was against the rule, the unfair thing that each had sworn not to do. In a flash he struck out, hit Astylus on the head, snatched himself free, and saw Astylus drop. For a moment the Spartan lay still, while the crowd waited breathless; then his hand was held up in the signal of defeat. Megacles was victor.

The blare of the herald's trumpet told it, and the onlookers cheered and shouted, and Megacles decked his head with fillets of wool. But the unconscious Astylus had to be carried from the field. Then the chief trainer crowned Megacles with a wreath of sacred olive, and the crowds showered him with flowers as they cheered. For Megacles was now three times a winner. A statue would be raised in his honor in the street of the victors, and the great Pindar himself promised an ode to his name. But that evening at the banquet as the songs were being sung, whispers passed from mouth to mouth, and Megacles heard them too. Astylus was still lying unconscious, ill either from the blow which Megacles had given him or from overexerting himself, because he had been bound to win at any cost. With the crowd it did not matter, for it was one of the chances of the games; worse things than that had happened before and would doubtless happen again. But for Megacles the feast was done. He hurried from the room distressed to think that he might have injured another boy even in fair play; and though he knew that no blame rested upon him, the truth remained that Astylus was hurt and for the time being unable to take his part with the other boys, while he himself was well and free.

There was no time left him for thought, however, for in a few days he would be eighteen, and with other boys of his age he must go back to Athens to start upon his military training and to give himself for two years to the service of the state. As if in a dream he poured his libation at the temple to Heracles, put on his military dress, and took the oath not to disgrace his arms or to desert his comrades. Now for two years he was the servant of the state, one year serving at garrison duty in the city, and the next defending the frontiers. He did his duties like the others, but wherever he went a shadow seemed to have fallen upon his spirits. His companions noticed it and questioned what was the matter with Megacles, the pride of them all. While they joked, he sat silent. For he was seeing before him Astylus' white face, or he was hearing in his ears the wailing of the chorus in the Œdipus tragedy, and remembering again his uncle's words: "Only if Œdipus—suffered too . . ." Megacles was no longer light of heart like the other boys, but he was working on hard problems, problems too big for a boy of his age to settle, problems of right and wrong, of what was the will of the gods and what work was worthy of a man's devotion.

When the end of the two years came and the other ephebi  went back to Athens to taste their freedom and revel and feast, he could not, for a time, bring himself to go with them. But as Heracles and Œdipus had done, he took himself off to the mountains. He understood now why they had wanted to be by themselves. He too wanted to think over quietly what were the things he cared about and what he should do. Among the mountains he wandered with the shepherds and his lyre and his thoughts for company. And soon the animals were not afraid as he passed, and the trees and flowers seemed to speak to him. Sometimes as he played his lyre under a tree, it seemed as if a new music answered him,—a music, wild and strange, sad and sweet; and Megacles peered behind the tree, half expecting to see a goat's hoof or hear an elfish laugh, for surely such music could come only from the pipes of Pan. For living in the midst of superstitious shepherds, it was easy to see in the swaying trees and singing brooks fauns and dryads and the old woodland gods. Mystery was about him everywhere, too deep and too sweet to be questioned; until here mystery and the unknown ways of the gods began to seem a natural part of life, and as peace came to his mind, the love of beauty and of people filled his heart and brought back stronger than ever his old longing to carve a statue and become a sculptor. So he went to work on logs and blocks of wood, until at last he had succeeded in turning a fallen tree trunk into the likeness of man; and from that he went on making satyrs or shepherds out of tree trunks.



This painting on an oil-jug shows the wide hat, the cloak and high boots, worn by a man hunting or traveling. (Photograph furnished by the Musuem of Fine Arts, Boston)

One day, as he was at work modeling a shepherd boy, a hunter passed by and stood behind a tree watching him. Under Megacles' loving touch the wood was taking on form and beauty, and into the face of the figure which he was making he brought the look of the shepherd boy,—the look of one who lives face to face with the great mountains, who hears the woods whispering Nature's secrets and loves both the silence and the music of it all. It was not an ordinary piece of work, and the hunter, who happened to be an Athenian, recognized the rare quality of it. After talking with Megacles he was determined that Athens should not lose the promise of such a sculptor, and he went back to Pericles, the ruler of the state, to tell him what he had seen. So it was that Pericles sent a summons for Megacles to come to Athens, saying to him that there at home he must serve the state and the gods with his gift of sculpture.



This is a restoration to show as nearly as possible how this famous hill looked after the age of Pericles

Just at the time of the Panathenaic festival, Megacles entered the city and came home. At once his old friends seized upon him and made him join the great procession that was even then forming in honor of Athena. Up the slopes of the Acropolis wound the procession: the cavalry in gay-colored coats, the victors in the Panathenaic games with wreaths on their heads, the city fathers, the stately maidens, and borne ahead of them all a ship on rollers, whose sail was the gorgeous embroidered yellow robe of the goddess. So in a scene of rejoicing and of honor to the gods, Megacles came back to his own, free now to set himself to making the sculpture which he loved.