The news that met the travellers when they arrived at Athens was as bad as their worst fears had anticipated. The whole city was in mourning. One of her sister states—after herself the most splendid, and wealthy beyond anything to which she could pretend—had perished, and Athens, more generous than her rival had been in former days, grieved unfeignedly for her fate. It was a lamentable story of rashness, incapacity, and cowardice that Polybius and Cleanor had to listen to, and they heard it in full detail from a young soldier who had himself taken part in the campaign. At first the young man could hardly be persuaded to speak, so heartily ashamed was he of the conduct of his countrymen. At last, assured of the sympathetic temper of his hearers, he related a narrative, of which it will be sufficient for me to give an out-line.
"I was one of the aides-de-camp to the general of the year, Critolaüs. Did you know him?"
"Yes," said Polybius, "only too well; a more incompetent fool never ruined the affairs of a state."
"Well," said the young soldier, "he has paid for his folly. Early in this year we marched out of our winter-quarters near Corinth to attack Heraclea in Thessaly, which had declared itself out of the League. We had just sat down before the town when news came that the Roman army was approaching. Immediately there was a scuttle. The general did not wait to hear what was the force of the enemy, but was off at once. Some of his officers begged him to make a stand at Thermopylæ. We were not all of us such curs as he. There really was a chance of holding the pass till we could get any help that might be forthcoming. Anyhow, it was a place where a Greek might fight with the best hope, and die with the most honour. But the general had no wish to fight, much less to die. He hurried through Thermopylæ, thinking to get back to the intrenched camp at Corinth in which we had wintered; but Metellus—he was in command of the Romans—was too quick for us. He overtook us when we had got about twenty miles from Thermopylæ, and there was a battle,—if you may call it a battle, when one side charges and the other runs away. The Thebans, it is true, held their ground. They may call the Thebans stupid, but they are wonderfully good soldiers. Yet what was the good of one corps standing firm when there was no one to back it up? As for Critolaüs, no one knows what became of him. He galloped off as soon as the Roman troops came in sight, and he has never been seen from that day to this.
"Well, nothing was left of the army but a few scattered troops and companies, and many of these were cut up, or taken prisoners one by one. I am bound to say that the Romans behaved very well. They offered quarter to anyone who would lay down his arms, and safety to every state that would submit. It was more than could be expected, for really they could have imposed any terms that they pleased. But our chiefs, led by Diæus, who had succeeded Critolaüs, were bent on securing their own lives. They were afraid that on some pretext they would be excepted in any amnesty that might be offered, and so they went on fighting. Diæus made a levy en masse of the whole population, and, besides, armed twelve thousand slaves, if you may call it arming a man to give him a blunt sword and a spear with a cracked shaft. Money he raised in any way he could; first he confiscated the property of all who belonged to the peace party, and made up what was wanting—and a good deal was wanting—by robbing his own friends. He took up his position on the Isthmus, close to what is left of the wall built in the Persian time. Everything went badly from the first. Our vanguard was near Megara, and, of course, we expected that it would make a stand, so as to give us a little time. It had a strong position which it might have held for at least three or four days. Well, it fled without so much as striking a blow.
"After this Metellus, who really behaved in the most moderate way, gave Diæus a chance. He sent envoys to offer terms, really liberal terms, too, which it would have been no dishonour for people much better off than we were to accept. To make them more acceptable, as he thought, these envoys were Greeks, men of the highest character. But our general would not listen to them. Not only that, but he charged them in the public assembly with being traitors, and they were all but killed in the riot that followed. Then we had yet another chance. Philo the Thessalian, than whom there is no man more honoured in Greece, came with conditions for an arrangement. Some of the general's own party were convinced. Old Stratius, who has never been a friend to Rome, as you know, actually groveled on the ground, and caught Diæus by the knees, entreating him to give way. But it was all of no use. Philo had to go away without accomplishing anything. In fact, all this seemed only to make the man more furious. He had some of his own officers brought before a court-martial on the charge of being in communication with the enemy. Their real fault was that they had been imprudent enough to show that they were in favour of peace. One of them was found guilty and put to the torture. He bore it, I was told, without saying a word. Two others escaped with their lives, but only by paying a bribe—one a talent, the other forty mince, for the man was as greedy as he was cruel, and he went on robbing and murdering with the sword within a foot of his own neck.
"Then we had another reprieve. There was a change of generals in the Roman army. Mummius, who had crossed from Italy, took over the command from Metellus. While new arrangements were being made the Romans sat still, and Diæus took the notion into his head that they were beginning to be afraid of us. Then there happened some small affair of outposts in which our cavalry got the best of it. It was but a trifle, not more than half a dozen men killed or wounded on either side, but it elated our chief beyond all measure. First he sent envoys to offer terms to the Romans. They were to evacuate Greece, and give hostages as guarantee that they would not return. If they did this, Diæus would allow them to depart in safety. It was the act of a madman, and, of course, Mummius did not even condescend to send back an answer.
"But it was a good thing for me. I, you see, was one of the envoys, and I did not go back with them. It was quite enough for me to go through the Roman camp, and see the admirable order and discipline, not to speak of the number of the men, to feel sure that we had not the shadow of a chance. I frankly told the Roman general, who seems a kind-hearted man, though somewhat of a boor, how I was situated. I was really serving under compulsion, a sort of hostage for my father, who is a leader of the peace party, and as he was out of danger now, living as he did in Northern Greece, and so not within reach of the League, I felt free to leave, without having to feel myself a deserter. The general was very kind, and advised me to leave the seat of war, where, indeed, it would have been painful for me to stay, whatever might happen. Accordingly I came to Athens; that is why I have the pleasure of seeing you to-day."
"And what has happened since?" asked Polybius.
"A despatch came in yesterday. Everything has gone as I expected. The League generals were as rash at the end as they were timorous at the beginning. They offered battle to the Romans though these were twice as strong in actual numbers, not to speak of being vastly superior in discipline and quality generally. The cavalry turned and fled without waiting to cross swords with the enemy. The infantry, who were mostly Thebans, behaved better, but the number of the enemy told against them. They were outflanked and broken. After that, of course, all was over. The general wrote that he held back his troops from the pursuit."
"And Diæus, what of him?" asked Polybius. "I hope the villain has had his deserts. How has Greece sinned against the gods that she should be cursed with having such fellows put in authority over her?"
"Nothing was known of what happened to him. But his body was not found among the dead."
Polybius and his companion were kept for three days longer in Athens, the Roman commissioner refusing them a permit to pass to the front. Mummius was still before the city. Till he had entered it the presence of strangers in the camp was considered to be inconvenient. Late in the evening of the third day a despatch arrived from him, dated from the citadel of Corinth. He explained that, no resistance had been offered by the Greek army; but that, finding it difficult to believe that so strong a place could be given up without some attempt at defence, he had waited till he could be sure that no stratagem was intended. The city, he added, was perfectly quiet; all the leaders of the hostile army had either fallen in battle or were prisoners in his hands. Diæus was reported to have fled into Arcadia, and to have there committed suicide along with his wife, but the report was not at present confirmed.
The Roman commissioner immediately on receiving this news sent the desired permission to Polybius, and the two friends, who had everything in readiness for their journey, started at once. Travelling all night they reached Corinth, which was not more than thirty miles from Athens, shortly after dawn. The city presented a most lamentable appearance. The great market-place, and all the other squares and open spaces, were thronged with a helpless and miserable crowd of men, women, and children, of all ages and all ranks, doomed to the cruellest lot that humanity can endure. The Senate and People of Rome, provoked, it must be allowed, to the utmost by the insolence and folly of the Corinthians, had passed the savage decree that the whole population of the city should be sent to the slave-market.
The horrible business had already begun. The wretched victims had been divided into lots according to sex and age. The quæstor's clerks—the quæstor, it may be explained, was the officer who had charge of finance—were busy noting down particulars, and the loathsome crew of slave-dealers and their assistants, foul creatures that always followed close on the track of a Roman army, were appraising the goods which were soon to be offered for competition. Nobles of ancient houses, merchants, who but a month before could have matched their riches with the wealthiest capitalists of Rome, the golden youth of the most luxurious city of the world, and, saddest of all, delicate women, whose beauty had been jealously guarded even from sun and wind, stood helplessly exposed to the brutal gaze and yet more brutal handling of Egyptian and Syrian slave-dealers, barbarians to whom, in the haughty pride of their Hellenism, they would scarcely have conceded the title of man. Cleanor recognized among the victims several whose acquaintance he had made during his brief sojourn in Corinth during the previous year. The contrast between their present degradation and the almost insolent pride of their prosperous days touched him to the heart. The emotion of Polybius was even more profound. Some of these men were lifelong friends. He had sat by their side at the council; he had been a guest at their hospitable tables. Some of them bore names associated with the greatest glories of Greece. To see them exposed for sale like so many sheep or oxen was a thing more strange and more horrible than he could have conceived to be possible.
Not less strange, if less harrowing, was the spectacle which presented itself to the two friends when they reached that quarter of the city in which the Roman soldiery had bivouacked. One of the first things that they saw was a group of soldiers off duty busy with a game of hazard. For the convenience of having a level surface on which to throw the dice they had stretched a canvas on the ground. Polybius, whose eye was caught by what looked like a figure on this improvised dice-table, approached and looked over the shoulder of one of the players to examine it more closely. He started back in amazement and horror.
"Great Zeus!" he cried, "what do you think it is, Cleanor, that these fellows have laid there to throw their dice upon? Why, it is one of the finest pictures in the world! It is the 'Dionysus' of Aristides! The city, I have been told, gave twenty talents for it to the artist, and, to my certain knowledge, might have sold it over and over again for twice as much if not more. Look at it. Did you ever see anything finer? See how the god is flinging himself from his car! See with what surprise Ariadne is turning to look at him! And the throng of nymphs and satyrs, did you ever behold such variety, such energy, such grace? And these barbarians are using it for a dice-table!"
"Hush!" said. Cleanor warningly. "They may be barbarians, but they are our masters, and it is prudent to be civil."
Close by was another group which was amusing itself in precisely the same way. The picture was not, it is true, so famous a master-piece as the "Dionysus"—it was the "Hercules" of Polygnotus, but it was a work of art which meant a modest fortune to anyone who had had the luck to possess himself of it. As for the purpose which it was then serving, a table of gold would not have been so inappropriately costly. Anomalies of the same kind could be seen everywhere. Coverlets of the richest Tyrian purple, tapestries worked with figures as graceful and delicate as the most skilful brush of the painter could make them, embroidered robes that Pallas might have worked or Aphrodite worn, the treasures brought from the harems of Eastern kings, lay about to be trampled under the feet of Apulian herdsmen, Sabine ploughmen, and Campanian vine-dressers. To these sturdy peasants, ignorant of all arts but the soldier's, they were but gaudy-coloured cloths which might be put, in default of something more convenient, to the meanest purposes.
"Great Zeus!" cried Polybius, as he looked on the scene, "what a waste! It is better that anyone should have these treasures than that they should be wasted in this fashion. Let us see Mummius and give him an idea of what is going on."