Gateway to the Classics: Our Little Athenian Cousin of Long Ago by Julia Darrow Cowles
 
Our Little Athenian Cousin of Long Ago by  Julia Darrow Cowles

The Beginning of War

"Father," said Hiero, as he came in from school one day, "the boys at school are talking of nothing but war these days. How is it? I thought that Pericles had made a treaty of peace which was to last for thirty years. Only half that time has passed since the treaty was signed."

"There is such a treaty," answered Hermippos, "though treaties are sometimes broken. I trust that this one will not be, but Athens must defend her honor.

"We cannot see Athens insulted," continued Hermippos, "but war is a terrible thing. It always brings sorrow and trouble and ruin somewhere."

"I had thought it would be rather fine to have a war," said Hiero slowly. "We are taught at school to honor heroes, and to be prepared to defend our city and our country with our lives."

"That is true," replied Hermippos earnestly. "We should honor all who are brave and noble, and try to acquit ourselves bravely and nobly. We should not fear death, even, in a just cause, and all men despise a coward.

"But although war is often necessary, and brave men are needed when a nation's honor is at stake, do not let the excitement or the trappings of war make you forget the fact that war itself is terrible.

"I would not have you a coward, my son," Hermippos concluded, "but I would have you reasonable and just and peaceable when peace does not involve dishonor."

But Hermippos' hope of peace was not to be fulfilled. It was only a few days later when word was brought to Athens that the truce had already been broken and the King of Sparta with his army was marching toward Athens.

Then there was a hurried mustering of soldiers. Pericles sent messengers through all the surrounding country, bidding the farmers leave their fields and their crops and hasten to the city for protection.

"The walls of Athens are strong and high, and they reach to the coast," declared Pericles. "No army can break through them. Our ships can bring supplies to the Piræus, so all who are within the walls will be safe."

The farmers came from all the country around, bringing their families and camping in the open spaces of the city, or between the walls which led to the Piræus.

Soon the King of Sparta came with his thousands of soldiers, far outmatching the Athenians in number. They marched across the country, burning the buildings and the stacked grain of the deserted farms.

Inside the walls the people prayed to the gods and wept as they watched the smoke from their ruined homes.

"How strange the city seems," said Hiero, as he went through the streets with Hermippos. "Not at all as it was when Duris and I ran about together."

They passed a group evidently from a farm. The man, with folded arms, marched back and forth. His wife stood screaming and the children, huddled, were beside her, some crying, and all looking toward a black column of smoke.

"See!" cried the man, stopping short in his walk and addressing Hermippos. "That is my farm that is burning. And here we are penned up like rats while the Spartan army destroys our homes. Why cannot we go out and fight like men?"

"Alas," said Hermippos, "we are too few to meet such an army. If Pericles were to open the city gates we should all be captured or slain. Inside the walls we are safe. It is hard, I know," he added, "but think of your wife and children."

That night Hermippos came home with news. "Pericles has decided to send out a fleet of vessels. We will fight along the coast."

"We!" cried Harmonia. "Are you going?"

"Yes," replied Hermippos. "I am going."

In a few days the fleet sailed. Harmonia was a brave woman, but she wept as she bade Hermippos farewell. Helen and Chloris clung to his hands as though they could not let him go.

Hiero felt strangely choked, but he was proud of his father. He remembered his words "Brave men are needed when a country's honor is at stake: but war is terrible."

Hiero was beginning to understand.

Each day, after the fleet had sailed, he went to the market-place to learn what news there might be, and then he returned to Harmonia and his sisters.

"The Spartan army will not stay much longer," he reported, after one of these visits. "They see that we could stay forever inside the walls of Athens and they could not touch us. They are getting tired of this sort of warfare."

"And will they go away, and will Father come back?" asked Chloris, looking at her mother.

"I hope so," answered Harmonia.

A few days later Hiero returned with better news still. "The Spartan army is making preparations to leave," he cried. "They are taking down their tents, and, in the distance, one company can be seen marching away."

"I hope this will end the war," said Harmonia earnestly.

But the next time Hiero returned from the market-place he came slowly, and when Harmonia saw his face she exclaimed, "What is it, Hiero? What is the news?"

Then he told her that the fleet which Pericles had sent out had been defeated in one of its battles and many of the soldiers had been killed.

"Was that all that you learned?" Harmonia asked, and Hiero answered, "Yes."

At the end of the year a solemn procession was seen, for the citizens of Athens were on the way to the public burial given in honor of those who had been killed in battle.

Among the number was Hiero, who walked proudly, and yet with bowed head, for his father was one of those who had given his life for his country.

The people gathered quietly and reverently about the monuments of the heroes of Athens. Not far away was the Acropolis, and the great statue of Athene, holding with one hand her shield and spear, and in the other the Winged Victory.

Hiero could remember but little afterward of the sacrifices and the ceremonies, but when Pericles spoke in honor of the heroes Hiero listened well, and part of Pericles' words he remembered as long as he lived.

"Let us who remain," said Pericles, "follow their example. Look around on this glorious city, think of her mighty empire. Let the love of her beauty sink into your souls, and when you consider her greatness remember that it was by the daring deeds of her citizens, done in the cause of duty and honor, that she was raised to this glorious height."

Hiero raised his eyes to the Acropolis. His father's statues were upon its greatest temple: his father's life had been given for Athens.

He went home proudly to Harmonia. His heart was sad, but comforted.


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