Gateway to the Classics: Famous Men of Greece by John H. Haaren and A. B. Poland
Famous Men of Greece by  John H. Haaren and A. B. Poland



D URING the Peloponnesian War a very curious man lived in Athens. His name was Socrates. He must have been the ugliest person in all Greece. His nose was flat, his lips were thick, his eyes were bulging, and his face was like a comic mask; yet he was one of the best and wisest men that ever lived. His father was a sculptor who carved beautiful figures out of marble, and Socrates when a boy helped him and learned the art.



When the Spartans sent their armies to burn the farm-houses of Attica and capture cities that were friendly to Athens, many of the young men of the city went forth to fight for their country. Socrates laid down his hammer and chisel and took up a shield and spear instead. He fought in several battles, and Athens had no braver soldier. Once in winter he was ordered to a country called Thrace. It was very cold and "camping out" was not pleasant. However, Socrates bore the cold cheerfully, although he went barefoot and wore the same clothes that he wore in the warm weather in Athens.

After serving as a soldier for several years he left the army and went home to Athens. Here he became a teacher. He had no school-house. His school was wherever he met persons who were willing to listen to him. It might be in the market-place, or at the corner of streets. On a hot summer day he would go to the harbor of Athens and chat with people who were sitting there in the shade, enjoying the cool sea-breeze. He talked to the young as well as the old, and often he might be seen with a crowd of children about him. The lessons that he gave were simple talks about the best way of living, or what the Greeks called "philosophy."

Socrates was very unlike other teachers in Athens—and almost everywhere else—for he never made any charge for his teaching. This kept him poor. His clothes were often threadbare and shabby, and so were those of his wife Xanthippe. He cared nothing for this; but she did and it is said that she often scolded Socrates because he did nothing to make money, but idled away his time in talking. Once, when he was going out of the house to escape from a severe scolding, she threw a pitcher of water upon him. "I have often noticed, Xanthippe, that rain comes after thunder," said the philosopher.

No man ever had better friends than had Socrates. But no man ever had worse enemies. Some people disliked him because he used to ask them questions which they could not answer without admitting that they were very foolish in their way of living. Others said that he was teaching people not to worship Jupiter and Minerva and the other gods of Athens, and that he was misleading the young men of the city.


Socrates Teaching Young Alcibiades

One of his enemies was a poet called Aristophanes, who wrote the most humorous plays that were ever acted in Athens. In one of them a wild young man is one of the characters and Socrates is another. Aristophanes made it seem that the teachings of Socrates had caused the young man to become wild. The play did Socrates a great deal of harm, for many people came to believe that he really was advising young men to lead bad lives.



Yet one of the worst young men of Athens once said, "You think that I have no shame in me, but when I am with Socrates I am ashamed. He has only to speak and my tears flow."


Comedians with Masks

Finally, the enemies of Socrates brought against him in the courts the charge of ruining young men and insulting the gods. He was tried and condemned to drink the deadly juice of a plant called hemlock. In Athens condemned persons were usually put to death by making them drink this poison.

No man ever behaved more grandly when unjustly condemned to die than did Socrates.

Before he left the court he said, "My judges, you go now to your homes—I to prison and to death. But which of the two is the better lot God only knows. It is very likely that death is our greatest blessing."

Generally a person condemned to death had to drink the poison the very next day after his trial. But a sacred ship had just sailed from Athens to Delos. This ship carried every year the offerings of the Athenians to Apollo, the chief god of the island, and it was a law in Athens that no person condemned to die should be put to death while she was on her voyage to and fro. So for thirty days Socrates was kept in prison.

During that time his friends were allowed to go to see him. In the prison he talked to them just as he had done in the market-place or on the streets.

Some of his friends told him how sorry they were that he should die innocent.


The Death of Socrates

"What!" said Socrates, "would you have me die guilty?"

On the return of the ship from Delos he was told to prepare himself for death. He invited his friends to come and be with him at the end. He took with them his last meal and was as cheerful during it as if it had been a feast.

One of his friends asked where he would like them to "bury him."

"Bury me?"  he said. "You cannot bury Socrates. You can bury my body; you cannot put me  into a grave."

He spoke about death and the future life and said that death was only the end of sorrow and the beginning of a nobler life.

When the jailer came with the cup of poison Socrates drank it as cheerfully as if it had been a glass of wine. He walked about the cell as he was bidden and then, beginning to feel sleepy, lay down. Soon after this he ceased to breathe.

Plato, who was one of his pupils, says, "Thus died the man who was in death the noblest we have ever known—in life, the wisest and the best."


A FTER the death of Socrates (B.C. 399) his work was carried on by his pupil, Plato, who became one of the most famous philosophers of Greece. His lectures were given in the shade of the trees planted by Cimon in the Academy years before.


The School of Plato

Besides great philosophers Athens had some famous painters. Two of the most celebrated were Zeuxis and Parrhasius, who lived about 400 B.C. They were rivals. Once they gave an exhibition of their paintings. Zeuxis exhibited a bunch of grapes which had such a natural look that birds came and pecked at them. The people exclaimed, "Astonishing! What can be finer than Zeuxis' grapes?"

Zeuxis proudly turned to his rival's picture. A purple curtain hung before it. "Draw aside your curtain, Parrhasius," he said, "and let us look at your picture."

The artist smiled, but did not move. Some one else stepped toward the curtain to draw it aside, and it was then discovered that the curtain was part of the painting.

"I yield," said Zeuxis. "It is easy to see who is the better artist. I have deceived birds. Parrhasius has deceived an artist."

It is said the Zeuxis died laughing at a funny picture that he had painted of an old woman.

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