The Corinthian Assembly
Cleanor was of far too sanguine a temperament to allow himself to be daunted by the gloomy reminiscences of his friend. "Things", he said to himself, "are altered since then. Rome is more manifestly formidable, for she has rid herself of more than one rival. The mere instinct of self-preservation must make those that are left unite."
Still, he could not hide from himself various discouraging facts that forced themselves upon his notice. In the first place Corinth, or, rather, the Corinthian people, disappointed him. The place itself was intensely interesting; he did not know whether to admire more the splendid remains of the past that it had to show, or the evidences of a prosperous present with which it abounded.
At one time he would make his way to the highest point of the citadel, the Acro-Corinthus, and look down upon the city, crowded as it was with temples, public halls, mansions, on which the wealth of centuries had been lavished. At another he would spend long hours in wandering about the docks, that one which brought to the "City of the Two Seas" the commerce of the West, or that other which was filled with the merchandise of the East.
There were vessels of all sizes and of every kind of rig, manned with seamen of every nationality, and bringing the merchandise of every country, from the Atlantic shores on the west to remote regions of the east of which no European knew except by repute. Blocks of tin and strings of amber from far-off islands of the north, ivory and precious stones from the African coasts far to the south of the Pillars of Hercules, iron from Elba, cattle and fruit from the Balearic Isles, wines from Sicily and the shores of the Adriatic, were among the most common articles in the western harbour; to the eastern harbour came silks from China, metal work from India,—then as now famous for the skill of its handicraftsmen, dried fruits from Lesser Asia, salt and pickled fish from the Black Sea, wheat from Egypt, and wines, some of them the finest vintages in the world, from the islands of the Ægean. Corinth, then, was interesting enough, making the impression upon a stranger of being one of the busiest and wealthiest places in the world.
But what of the Corinthians? A more mixed, I may say mongrel, multitude could not be seen anywhere. Cleanor's first impression was that the population contained specimens of every nation upon earth—except Greeks. There were swarms of Asiatics from the Lesser Asia and from Syria, yellow-skinned Egyptians, Arabs and Moors showing every variety of brown, and negroes with their glossy black. In effective contrast to these might be seen a few Gauls, blue-eyed and yellow-haired, whose imposing stature seemed to dwarf to pigmies the crowds through which they shouldered their way. Now and then a Roman, conspicuous in his white toga edged with a narrow purple stripe, moved along with slow, dignified step, which seemed to speak of a man born to rule. It was curious to note the expression of fear and hatred with which he was regarded. Again and again, as he watched this motley crowd thronging the streets with an endless variety of costume, colour, and dress, Cleanor felt disposed to say, "Here is Corinth, but where are the Corinthians?" And when he did see specimens of the genuine Corinthian, he had to own to himself that they did not greatly impress him. The city had its gilded youth, most of them belonging to the second or third generations of families enriched by trade, but some claiming to be Bacchiadæ, or even descendants of the mythical Sisyphus who had founded the city some fourteen centuries before. A more debauched, spendthrift, and generally useless set he had never seen. They made no pretence to culture; they shuddered at the idea of a campaign; even the sports of the arena were too much for their effeminate frames. Cleanor felt his spirits sink and his hopes diminish day by day, for Corinth was now the capital of Greece. Archias, his host, watched him meanwhile with a compassionate interest. He had had something of the same enthusiasm himself in bygone days, and had known the inexpressible pain of having to own that it was a delusion.
"Do you know," he said to his young guest some ten days after their arrival, "that there is to be an important meeting of the Assembly to-morrow?"
"I heard Polemon say something about it to-day. He asked one of the young fellows who were playing at kottabos with him whether he thought of going, and seemed to surprise him very much by the question. Polemon, you see, has not been living in Corinth for much more than a year, and has not quite caught the high-toned Corinthian manner. He actually imagines it possible for a man to have some interest in public affairs. You should have heard the astonishment in his friend's voice when he answered him, 'Going to the Assembly, did you say? Why, my dear fellow, I have never been to the Assembly, and certainly never shall, till they make me Eparch or whatever they call it, when I shall have to, I suppose. And to-morrow of all days in the year! Why, don't you know that Pintocles of Megara is coming over with his champion team of quails, and that I am going to meet them with mine: We have a wager of a hundred gold pieces on the event. If one side kills all the birds on the other side, the loser is to pay double stakes. In any case the winner is to give a dinner to the loser and his friends. Going to the Assembly, indeed!' That is all that I have heard about it."
"Then I had better enlighten you," replied Archias. "You know that the Assembly has been called to hear the envoys from Rome state the terms which the Senate is willing to agree to. You ought to be there. You will find it very interesting, whatever these young gentlemen with their teams of fighting quails may think about it."
"Certainly I should like to go; but how am I to get in? At Athens they were very particular not to admit any one that was not a citizen."
"Don't trouble yourself on that score. Here they are not particular at all. Simply follow the crowd. There will be no one to stop you."
And so it turned out. There were door-keepers at the entrances to the vast amphitheatre in which the meeting of the Assembly was held, but they did not attempt to exclude anyone. Cleanor found himself, when he was seated, in the midst of a crowd almost as variegated and as polyglot as that at which he was accustomed to gaze in the streets. No one could suppose that any large proportion of them were genuine Corinthian citizens. The fourth hour was the time appointed for the commencement of business, and the multitude spent the interval much in the same way that a waiting crowd would do nowadays. They cheered or hissed any well-known citizen as he took his place, yelled out witticisms which seemed to please the more the coarser and more personal they were, sang songs with noisy choruses, and kept up generally an incessant uproar. Men carrying baskets of cakes and sweetmeats, or jars of wine, passed up and down the spaces between the blocks of seats, and did a brisk business in their respective wares.
A brief hush fell upon the noisy crowd when, after the signal had been given by the blast of a trumpet, the doors leading into what may be called the magistrates' box were thrown open, and the officials, who were to conduct the business of the day filed in. There was nothing noteworthy about their reception, but when the figures of the two Roman envoys became visible, a storm of groans and hisses broke out ten times louder and fiercer than the noisiest manifestation that had greeted the most unpopular Corinthian. The two Romans bore themselves with characteristic indifference, took their seats in the places allotted to them, and watched the furious multitude with the utmost unconcern.
After the howling and stamping had gone on for some quarter of an hour, the demonstration began to die away. One of the magistrates dropped a few grains of incense into a fire that was burning in front of him, and poured out a little wine, muttering at the same time an invocation to Zeus, the patron deity of Corinth. This was equivalent to our "opening the proceedings with prayer". This ceremony completed, a herald proclaimed that the Assembly was constituted, and the presiding magistrate stepped forward to open the proceedings.
His speech was of the briefest. "Citizens of Corinth," he said, "you are called together to-day to hear the terms on which the Senate and People of Rome are willing to make a treaty of perpetual friendship with you. They have sent two distinguished citizens, both members of the Senate, who will set the matter before you, and whom you will receive with that courtesy which it is the custom of Corinth to show to the ambassadors of other nations."
The Romans stepped to the front of the platform. They were met for a few moments with a renewal of the uproar which had greeted their first appearance. But the Assembly was genuinely anxious to hear what they had to say, and the disturbing element was hushed into silence.
Rome had paid the Greek people the compliment of sending them envoys who could address them in their own language. Titus Manlius—this was the name of the senior envoy—was one of the most cultured men of the time, one of the Scipio circle, and feeling a genuine admiration for Greece, for the Greece, i.e., of the past, for he had no little contempt for the Greece of the present. On the present occasion, however, he had every wish to please and conciliate.
When it was seen that he was going to address the Assembly without the aid of an interpreter, he was greeted with applause, which was renewed after he had uttered a few sentences with a fluency and purity of accent which much impressed his hearers, few of whom, indeed, could in these respects have rivaled him. When he went on, in a few well-turned phrases, to compliment his hearers on the dignity and antiquity of their city, and on the services which they had rendered to Greece in repelling the barbarians from without, and checking undue ambition from within, he was met with loud applause.
But after compliments came business, after sweets bitter. The first statement was that the Senate and People of Rome desired that every Greek city should enjoy complete freedom, electing its own magistrates, and being governed by its own laws.
This was received with some applause, though the Assembly was acute enough to be aware that a generality of this kind might not mean very much.
The speaker went on: "Every city may form such alliances as may seem expedient, provided only that they be not to the injury of the public peace. No city shall be compelled to enter into or to give up any alliance against its will."
At this there were loud expressions of disapproval. It was a cardinal point with the League, of which Corinth was the ruling member, that every city in Greece must join it. At this very time Sparta was insisting on her right to stand alone, and the other states, headed by Corinth, were insisting that she must join them. And now Rome had pronounced in favour of Sparta.
The third item in the programme pleased the audience still less, for it touched their pride at a very tender point. "A Roman garrison will occupy the citadel until affairs shall have been finally arranged. The occupation is for a time only, and will cease as soon as this may be done without injury to the public good."
But when the last condition was announced it was met with a perfect storm of rage. "Anxious to promote the general welfare of Greece, the Senate and People of Rome decree that the island of Delos shall be a free port."
This was a thing that everybody could understand. Freedom, after all, was not much more than a sentiment, and affiances were a matter for rulers to settle. Even a garrison in the citadel might be endured, for it meant the spending of a good deal of money. But Delos a free port! That was beyond all bearing. There was not a man in the whole of the Assembly but would be distinctly the poorer for it.
The Roman had scarcely sat down when Critolaüs, the president of the League, sprang to his feet, and poured out a furious oration, in which he denounced the hypocrisy, the arrogance, and the greed of Rome. As he spoke, the temper of his audience rose higher and higher. The whole multitude sprang to their feet, howling, and shaking their fists at the Romans as they sat calm and indifferent in their place. Still the crisis, dangerous as it looked, might have passed off but for the mischievous act of some half-witted fellow who had found his way into the Assembly.
"As for these men who have come hither to insult us," cried the orator in the peroration of his speech, "let them carry back to their employers at home the message of our unanimous contempt and defiance." "And this too," shouted the man, "as a little token of our affection," throwing at the same time a rotten fig. It struck one of the envoys on the shoulder, making a disfiguring stain on the white toga. "Good! good!" shouted the crowd, and followed it up with a shower of similar missiles. Some stones followed, and then came a leaden bullet propelled from a sling, which struck the wall behind the chairs of the Romans, and only a few inches above their heads.
The magistrates awoke to the gravity of the situation. They were responsible for good order, were unwilling, in any case, to be themselves compromised, and had an uneasy feeling that the excitement of such proceedings would have to be dearly paid for. They caught the two Romans by the arms, and literally forced them out of the building by the door which served as a private entrance for official persons. The usual escort was in waiting outside. Under this protection the envoys were able to reach the citadel in safety. They had received a few blows, but had not sustained any serious injury.
"What think you of this?" asked the Syracusan of his young friend as they walked back to their lodging.
"A grievous business indeed, and of the very worst augury for the future," replied Cleanor.
"Yes," said Archias. "Who can help thinking of Tarentum, and how the robe of Postumius was soiled and washed white again."