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

The Assembly

The streets of Sparta presented a lively scene on the following day.

It was the monthly meeting of the Assembly, and every street was filled with a moving throng. Men of all ages were there, for every citizen who was old enough to bear arms could vote. The meeting was held in an open space just west of the city.

Sparta was ruled over by two kings and twenty-eight magistrates, who were called ephors. These thirty men could make plans, and propose changes in the government, but they must tell their plans to the whole people at one of the Assemblies, and let them vote "yes," or "no." In this way Sparta was governed.

Orestes and Procles, another captain of a company of boys, were together.

"The crowd is making way," said Orestes.

"Yes," replied Procles, "the kings and ephors are taking their places."

The great gathering of people was made up principally of the men of Sparta, each dressed in his chiton, over which was draped the himation, or cloak. This cloak consisted of a square piece of cloth, sometimes rounded at the corners. It was thrown over the left arm, brought loosely across the back under the right arm, and the end again thrown back over the left shoulder. Thus the right arm was left free, while the left was covered by the graceful drapery of the himation. Some of the men wore hats with a broad brim, but the greater number had their heads bare. All wore their hair long, and arranged in a knot upon the crown of the head.

Occasionally a young man would be seen with a purple military cloak, adding a brilliant bit of color to the scene. These cloaks were fastened with a clasp upon the right shoulder, where the ends fell apart, again leaving the right arm free and uncovered.

With the exception of these military cloaks, the people were dressed in white, for in Sparta it was said, "deceitful are dyes." The Spartans thought that nothing was so beautiful as the white color of the natural wool, and that dyes robbed the wool of its true beauty.

Occasionally, upon the outskirts of the crowd, or darting through the streets, would be seen a slave from the country, dressed in a leather cap, and a chiton made from skins. The workmen of the city, who had no vote in the government of Sparta, could readily be told by their simpler dress and their closely cut hair.

Orestes and Procles stood quietly among the men, their arms folded beneath their cloaks, and their eyes cast down. Yet with quick glances they took note of any unusual sights.

"Who is the man in splendid garments, who has his hair parted and fastened with a jeweled ornament?" asked Procles quietly.

"He must be an ambassador—from Athens, perhaps," said Orestes.

"But see the gold and embroidery upon his cloak. I think he must come from beyond Greece," Procles replied.

"Perhaps he will speak, and then we will learn more about him," said Orestes.

Then one of the ephors arose, and the people became quiet. He made a short speech, and ended by proposing the name of a well-known citizen for councillor. Then he asked for the vote of the Assembly. The citizen was well liked, and when the vote was called for, the voices of the people arose in one great shout "Aye, aye."

Then the man of whom Orestes and Procles had spoken was allowed to address the people. He was an ambassador, as they had guessed, and came from an island to the east of Greece. He wanted to arrange a treaty between his country and Sparta, but his appearance did not please the Spartans.

"He smells of ointments, and his clothes are far too richly embroidered," growled an old man, who stood near the boys.

"And he would have us Spartans pay for the extravagance which we allow not in our own country," replied the man to whom he had spoken.

There were murmurs of disapproval from the crowd while the ambassador spoke, and when the ephor called for a vote giving consent to the treaty, a few voices answered, but when it was asked whether they should deny the request, a multitude of voices blended like the roar of a mighty sea.

When it had grown quiet again, another of the ephors spoke. He told of a war in which one of their colonies was engaged. "They are losing ground," he said, "and they beg us to send them the statues of the Twin Gods, that they may bring them better fortune, and turn the tide of battle in their favor."

At this some of the people shouted, "Send them! Send them!" Others said, "No, no; it is too great a risk." "The statues might be lost at sea!" exclaimed others. "Let them make statues of their own!" "Why should we send them ours?"

The whole multitude was in an uproar. The angry voices increased; the excitement grew each moment. In vain the ephors tried to quiet the people. Even the kings could not control them. They threw up their arms; they shouted; they surged back and forth.

Suddenly a man vaulted to a place beside the ephors. In his hand he held a cithara, and he began to play. Then, to the accompaniment of his instrument, he sang.

No sound reached the multitude. Only those who looked knew that he was singing. But, one by one, these pointed, or nudged a noisy neighbor, and, little by little, the tumult grew less; the angry voices dropped to a lower key, then ceased altogether, and the throng stood still.

Above the murmur, the voice of the singer began to be heard. Then, as the people grew quiet, his notes rang out clear and true. He sang of patriotism, of heroism, of strength in battle. He sang of the deeds of the gods whom the Spartans worshipped. Then, by degrees, his voice grew less ringing; its tones became solemn and soothing. And the people listened; they forgot their anger and discord, and there was a hush over all the great throng.

When he stopped there was silence. Then a voice arose: "The colonists are of our own people. They, too, were Spartans. Shall we send the images to them?"

And a great shout arose, "Yes, yes. Let the images go."


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