Gateway to the Classics: Ancient Greece by James Baikie
 
Ancient Greece by  James Baikie

When the World Was Young

NOW of the early days of this fair land of Greece, and of the men who lived there in the morning of all things, when the world was young, the Greeks of later times had many stories, and strange, to tell. Such were the tales of how Jason and the Minuai sailed from Iolcos, in the wondrous ship Argo, to seek the Golden Fleece that hung in Colchis, in the realms of King Aietes; and of how Herakles, the great son of Zeus the Father-God, freed the world from many a pest, slaying the lion of Nemea, and the Lernæan Hydra, and dragging up from Hades the three-headed dog Cerberus, keeper of the gate in the kingdom of the dead; and of how Perseus, the brave son of Danaë the Princess of the Brazen Tower, slew the Gorgon whose dreadful face turned to stone all who beheld it, and how he saved the Princess Andromeda from the sea-monster—and many other such like stories.


[Illustration]

Jason, Medea, and Orpheus with the Golden Fleece

No other race has ever had so many or so beautiful romances of its early days. Yet even till within the memory of men who still live, it was deemed that these tales were but wild romances, dream-children of the brains of ancient poets, and with naught, or little, of truth in them. But now we grow more cautious in our judgments, and believe rather that, however many the false wonders that have been added to the stories, there lay behind each tale some real truth of some great deed that was wrought in ancient days, and not seldom some priceless knowledge as to the men who lived in these far-off times.

In especial there were several stories which told how, long before history, as we speak of history, began, there ruled in the great island of Crete a mighty king named Minos. He was a Sea-King, a Viking of the Southern seas, as were our forefathers of the Northern, and his war-fleet of black galleys gave him wide dominion over all the lands of the Ægean. Ruthless he was, and cruel, and men said that in his great palace at Knossos he had made a maze, that was called the Labyrinth, and that in the inmost recesses of this maze there dwelt a strange monster, half-man, half-bull, called the Minotaur, which is the Bull of Minos. To this monster, they said, there were cast, every ninth year, seven youths and seven maidens, who were sent as tribute from the city of Athens, which Minos had conquered. And these, thus cast to the loathly brute, were by him slain and devoured.

They said, moreover, that the young prince Theseus, son of Ægeus, King of Athens, coming to Knossos with the tribute of youths and maidens, slew the Minotaur, being befriended by the Princess Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, who had fallen in love with his boldness and his beauty. For she brought to him in his dungeon a sword wherewith to slay the monster, and a clue of cord by which he might thread his way through the mazy paths of the Labyrinth; and when he had done his work, and freed the world of the vile creature, Ariadne fled with him and his companions in their black ship. And in after days Theseus was Lord of Athens, and fought with the women-warriors, the Amazons, and wedded their Queen Hippolyta, and was the friend of Herakles the great hero.

Yet other stories the Greeks had of this great King Minos. They told how he was favoured of the great god Zeus, and talked with him face to face in a cave on the Sacred Mount of Crete; and how his wondrous artificer Dædalus, first of great inventors, was imprisoned by the King in his anger, and escaped with his son Icarus by making wings for the twain of them, with which they flew over the sea. But Icarus soared too near the sun, and its heat melted the wax wherewith his wings were fastened, so that he fell into the sea, and was drowned. And when Minos learned of the escape of his captive, he manned his great fleet and went in chase of him even to Italy; and there the great king perished miserably by guile and treachery.


[Illustration]

Daedalus and Icarus

Now some part of these ancient stories we may lay aside at once—I mean the marvels and the monsters that we read of in them. For these, we know, are of the same family as the giants and dragons of our own fairy-tales. Wonders grew around the original story as the years went on, the fancy of one story-teller after another adding always a fresh touch to the marvel, or a fresh horror to the monster. But the core of the whole has been proved, and that not many years ago, to be simple truth; for an English scholar and explorer, Sir Arthur Evans, has found on the summit of a little hill in Crete the remains of the ancient palace of this grim King Minos, and the open-air theatre where his captives made sport for him, and the dungeons where they were confined. And he has found that the great sport of the Cretans was to witness a game, if it can be called a game, in which youths and maidens grappled with a bull, and leaped over his head, catching him by the horns as he strove to gore them. In Greece also another scholar, Dr. Schliemann, has found the graves of men of kindred race to these Cretan Sea-Kings, who dwelt in great fortresses of piled stone, and possessed rich treasures of wrought gold and ivory and bronze.

And altogether we have learned that long before the true Greeks of history appeared, there lived in the Greek islands and on the mainland, in such cities as Mycenæ and Tiryns, a race of men of whom these ancient stories were told. They were a people small of stature and dark of hair and colour, quick of brain, skilled in building and painting and in the craft of the potter, but, above all, daring and skilful seamen, who sailed east and west through all the Mediterranean, and left their colonies on many a far-off shore. These men used weapons and tools of bronze; they marched to battle lightly armed, wearing no mail, but only a loin-cloth on their bodies, covering themselves with a great shield made of wicker and leather, and shaped like a figure 8; and they were skilful with the sling and the bow.

Then there began to come down out of the North, from the forests and mountains of Central Europe, swarms of big long-haired northern men. The first-comers were, perhaps, the Achæans, as they called themselves—Homer's "long-haired Achæans," who fought at Troy; then came Thessalians, and, last of all, Dorians. Mighty fighters they were, and especially the Dorians, but their main advantage over the dark Southerners against whom they fought lay in their weapons. For the Northmen were cased from head to foot in bronze harness—a helmet with a nodding horse-hair crest, a hauberk covering the body, greaves to protect the legs, and a round buckler with a central boss; and their swords and spear-heads, instead of being made of the softer bronze, like those of their opponents, were of iron.

With such advantages, little wonder that they pushed the Southerners before them. The old strong-holds of the Sea-Kings were overthrown, and the newcomers settled down in the lands they had won. Yet there were parts of the country into which the invaders did not penetrate, or from which they were thrown back. The Arcadians told how, when the Dorians came against them, it was agreed to decide the ownership of the land, not by a battle between the two hosts, but by a single combat between the Arcadian champion, Echemus, and Hyllus, the leader of the Dorians. Echemus proved victor in the fight, and the Dorians duly observed the bargain and retreated. The men of Athens, too, and their brother-Ionians who lived on the western coast of Asia Minor, claimed to have kept themselves free from aught but a slight mixture of northern blood.

Now when the Northerners had made their conquest, they settled down in the land, and that happened, which ever happens in such cases; they wedded wives of the dark southern race, and their sons and daughters were a new people, with something in them of both North and South. The North gave strength, warlike spirit, cleanness of living, and the love of music; the South gave wit and quickness, the passionate love of beauty, the love of the sea, and that yearning after the unknown which makes adventurers and explorers. And when these two sets of gifts had been thoroughly mingled and fused in the new race, there arose for a while in Greece a people such as the world had never seen before—a people bold in arms, pure, on the whole, in conduct, daring in exploration, eager in the search after truth, and with such an instinctive love for and taste in all things beautiful, that their work has remained ever since a standard by which beauty in art is measured, and most other races seem mere clumsy-fingered bunglers beside them.

Where the Northern part of the mixture was strongest, as with the Spartans, who claimed to be pure Dorians, there was more of the warlike, and less of the artistic, so that the Spartans were the foremost soldiers of Greece, but did almost nothing for art or letters. Where the Southern element prevailed, as with the Athenians, there was a keener love of the sea, so that the Athenian was a notable fighter in sea-battles, but less so in warfare on the land, and a natural quickness of intelligence, and a passionate love of art that have never been excelled by any people. Roughly, you may say that the Spartan was the soldier, the Athenian the sailor, trader, thinker, and artist of Greece; and the other clans of the land, Thebans, Argives, Arcadians, and the rest, inclined in the one direction or in the other according as they had more or less of Northern or Southern blood in their veins.

Now when these Achæans from the north had been some while settled in Greece, and were masters of the old cities and strongholds where the Southern race had once held sway, and while yet the Dorians had not come, or were but beginning to come, into the land, it fell out that there arose a great quarrel between the Achæans and their neighbours who dwelt on the other shore of the Ægean Sea, in the land that was then called the Lesser Phrygia, and in the famous city of Ilion, or Troy, where King Priam ruled. For Paris, the son of Priam, had come as a guest to Menelaos, King of Sparta, and had carried away the king's wife Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Therefore the Achæans took up the quarrel of Menelaos, and gathered a great fleet and army, led by Agamemnon, King of Mycenæ, and brother of Menelaos, and by Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax, Diomedes, and many other famous chiefs.

For ten years they beleaguered Troy, and many were the victories and defeats that fell to the one side or the other in the course of the war. No man on the side of the Greeks was so noble or so knightly as the gallant Hector, who led the men of Troy, though Achilles was the mightier man-at-arms. At last, when Hector had been slain by Achilles, and Achilles himself had fallen to the arrow of Paris, Troy was captured by the stratagem of the Wooden Horse, of which you have all heard. But the capture of the city did not end the troubles of the Achæans who had warred against it; for misfortune followed them on their homeward journey, and but few of them reached their native land in peace. To the wisest of all the Greeks, Odysseus, the chief of the little island of Ithaca, the gods appointed ten more years of wandering and adventure, so that when at last he returned to Ithaca and to his wife Penelope, who had waited faithfully for him so long, there was not one of his comrades remaining to him.

And long years after all these things had happened, there arose in Greece, some say in Chios, one of the Grecian islands, a great poet named Homer, one of the greatest of those who have sung songs such as the world will never let die; and he sang in immortal verse the tale of the Siege of Troy, the valour of Hector, and the wrath of Achilles. And his song has come down to us, and it is called the "Iliad," because it tells of the war against Ilion. Thereafter he sang another famous song, which tells of the adventures of the wise Odysseus, as he returned from the Trojan War. And that song is called the "Odyssey." These were the first of all the great poems that the world has known, nor have any greater songs ever been sung than these, whose maker is but a dim shadowy figure standing amidst the morning mists of the dawn of history. Some day you will read them for yourselves, and learn how great was the nation which, even in its childhood, could breed such men.


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