A Land of
"Go tell at Sparta, thou that passest by,
That here, obedient to her word, we lie";
or it might show itself, as at Athens, in the intense
pride which the Athenian took in making his city
more beautiful, more stately, more cultivated than
any other in Hellas; but it was always wonderful.
When the Athenian silver mines at Laurium, the
property of the state, began to yield a revenue,
Themistocles had little difficulty in persuading the citizens
that, instead of each man claiming his own share, as
he had a right to do, they should all unite in devoting
the whole sum to the building of a fleet—the fleet that
saved Greece from Persia at Salamis. I wonder if all
the citizens in our land would be patriotic enough to
do a thing like that
Each young Athenian, when he was enrolled in his tribe, took an oath, not only that he would never disgrace his arms or desert his comrade, but also that he would hand on his fatherland greater and better than he found it. And if the rivalries of the different cities led to a ruinous waste of the energy that might have made Greece mistress of the world, we must not forget that there was a nobler side to this rivalry, and that the citizen's pride in his city was the spur that made the Greek accomplish the wonders of art and literature which are the marvel of all ages. "As iron sharpeneth iron," so the generous rivalry of the Greek cities made each citizen eager and alert to see his own city taking a foremost place. What other group of towns no larger than the cities of Greece can show one hundredth part of the glories of building, of sculpture, of learning and literature that these can show? It was the intense patriotism bred by the eager life of the city-states that alone made such triumphs possible.
How then did these little states, that have done so much for the world, first arise? I have told you already how Nature had so divided Greece by bays and mountains as to make a united nation almost impossible—each little plain, separated from its neighbours by sea-loch or mountain range, making a home for a separate clan or tribe, which lived its own life between the mountain-wall and the sea. Let us look for a little at the most famous of them all—Athens, with its land of Attica.
You have a triangular piece of land about the size of Kent, projecting into the Ægean Sea, which washes two sides of the triangle. The third side is walled in by the mountain ranges of Kithairon and Parnes, which cut it off from its northern neighbour, Bœotia, where the Thebans live. Between the mountain-wall and the sea, you have a clan of Ionians, living in scattered villages, and finding their main industry in olive-growing. The light soil is not good for grain, and what between the call of the sea, and the need for importing corn, the clan is naturally inclined to seafaring and trading.
But our villages are far too scattered and defenceless for these troubled times. The Ægean swarms with the long black galleys of the sea-rovers, for piracy is looked upon as a regular and quite gentlemanly trade. Sad experience teaches us that we must take steps to resist these wandering gentry more efficiently than any group of scattered villages can do. We must have a central fortress, where the strength of the land can gather and its treasures be stored in time of need. Here, almost half-way down the western side of the triangle, is the very place for it—a great flat-topped rock, standing alone, and towering almost two hundred feet above the plain. It is four miles from the sea, so that we have good warning of any pirate raid, and can be ready to meet the rovers when they come; and yet it is handy enough to the sea, if we want to go trading ourselves, for there are bays with fine beaching-ground for our own galleys. On this rock, then, we will build a castle and a temple—the castle, to make our land secure, the temple to honour our tribal God; and in time of danger folks can come here to shelter from the enemy.
Gradually people begin to find it handier to live under the shadow of the great rock than merely to run to it when the sails of the rovers are sighted; and so a town begins to grow up on the lower ground around the Acropolis, as we now call our stronghold. For a while we go on as before, each little village in the plain governing itself, though in time of war we all obey the chief who has his home in the castle on the rock. But that is not good either, for with so many governments it is difficult to organize the clan for war; and so at last one strong wise chief (people say it was Theseus, the prince who slew the Minotaur) persuades or compels us to make the town by the rock the seat of government for the whole land. We can't all go to live there, for it is too far to travel to our farms, and only the wealthier folks from the country take up town houses. But we are all enrolled as citizens of Athens (so our new city is called, after its virgin-goddess Athene); we all, by and by, come to have a vote and a share in the government; and we all call Athens our Metropolis—our Mother-city.
Bit by bit the city grows in importance, and the land around it becomes more and more only a convenience for the city, until at last the rude fortress on the rock has grown into a magnificent citadel, with temple after temple crowning it in splendour of marble and bronze, and a great town lies beneath in its shadow, with stately squares and streets, and magnificent porticoes and theatres. Down on the shore lies a busy seaport, with three great harbours, Peiræus, Munychia, and Phalerum, and the four-mile stretch between the city and its port is enclosed between battlemented walls, which make town and harbour practically one. Athens dominates all Attica now, and every free citizen in the farthest corner of the little plain looks to the city by the Acropolis as his city, for which he lives, and for which, if need be, he is ready to die.
Of course the story would be a little different in the case of each city-state in Greece; but its main outlines would always be the same. A scattered tribe living in little open villages—the need of a fortified centre for refuge and defence—the choosing of a strong hill or rock for the building of a fortress—and then the gradual growth of the city and the city-state round the castle and temple on the rock. So it was at Corinth, with its stately Acrocorinthus; so at Argos, with its Larissa; so at Thebes, with its Kadmeia. The one outstanding exception to the rule was the state of Sparta, which remained to the end of its existence nothing but a cluster of open villages, where a small warrior-caste of knights, who never deigned to soil their hands with trade or field-labour, ruled by force and fear over a great crowd of slaves and serfs.
Strangely enough it was Athens and Sparta, the two states of Greece that lay wide apart as the poles from one another in almost every detail of their constitution and life, and that were destined in after days to be deadly rivals for supremacy in Greece, that were called upon to stand shoulder to shoulder against the might of the vast empire of Persia in the great struggle which settled, once and for all, whether Europe should become a mere province of an Eastern empire, or be left free to work out its own fate and to shape its own civilization.