Gateway to the Classics: Ancient Greece by Ellwood Wadsworth Kemp
Ancient Greece by  Ellwood Wadsworth Kemp

Greece in Her Infancy or the Time of Homer

"We will travel today Harold," said the teacher, "with our imagination, not to the river Nile nor to the Phœnician land with its ships, but to Greece, a little country far to the east, jutting out from the southern coast of Europe into the Mediterranean Sea, and looking like a hand with stubby little fingers. This country is four or five days' travel by trireme from Egypt,—Kufu's country,—which we studied about in the first volume of this series; and five or six days' travel in a Phœnician boat westward would have brought us to its green islands and lovely shores. I want to tell you about this country when it was very young and but few people were living in it. We will first see it when it is a mere infant, as it were, and afterward see it grow to be a man." Harold closed his eyes to imagine the sea, mountains, valleys and rivers, and when he opened them again he found himself alone in the loveliest valley he had ever seen. Behind him lay the sea; to the right were hills crowned with tall pine trees; on the left was a thick wood, and beyond it the blue mountain peaks touched the blue sky. Harold stopped to pick up a few acorn cups and knock a prickly green chestnut bur from the tree.

He wandered on and presently was much surprised to see a stone wall a short distance before him. He walked in at the open gate. It was nearly dark by this time, and he did not know whether he was in a house or a barn, for he heard sounds of both animals and men; but being very tired, he lay down on one of the benches of polished stone just inside the gate and slept soundly until morning. He found his neighbors were awake, too. There were cows, a watchdog, sheep, goats, and pigs in their pens, built around the inside of the square wall; and there, too, were the rooms for the men who tended them, and rooms for the women who milked the cows and goats.

At one end of this court was a long portico with columns, which was the entrance to the real house. Harold thought he was never in such an odd-looking front yard.

A little boy of Harold's size came and stood by the side of one of the columns. He was barefoot and wore a garment thrown loosely over the shoulders, for Greece was so warm that only on colder days and near the mountains did one need much clothing. Harold joined Phœnix (for that was the boy's name), and after saying a pleasant good morning to a stranger who was folding up his bed of skins in the portico, he said, "Come with me into the doma (that was what he called the dwelling room) and I will ask my father if you may stay with me."

They passed through a dark hall into a very large open room, where there were many men, and were soon at the side of a kind-faced man, who said he would be glad to have his little son's guest remain with him. He was a tall, straight man, and his light yellow hair was arranged in long curls. He wore over his chiton (for so Phœnix called his dress) a beautiful red cloak. It was not a cloak such as we know, but a large square piece of cloth beautifully embroidered around the edge, draped about the body and fastened on the left shoulder with a silver clasp.

Harold sat on a footstool and looked about him. In two rows on either side of the room were wooden columns which held up the roof. Near the center of the room was a large column, and leaning against it were a great number of spears, which Phœnix said would be used to attack their enemies on the other side of the mountains. At one side of the room was a fireplace built of brick. There was no chimney, but Harold did not mind the smoke, for he was eager to see what was being prepared for breakfast. Two slave women, who were captives from another valley, cooked the meat. They put pieces of beef on iron sticks and slowly roasted it over the open fire. A young girl lifted a copper kettle from the crane and stirred something that very much resembled oatmeal.

Many men were in the room. Phœnix explained that some of these were his older brothers, who were married, and who, with their families, had rooms in another part of the house, while others were guests and strangers, who sat on the hearth-stone and sought his father's protection.

"Come, Phœnix, and take my shield to the room above," said the largest and strongest of them all. It took both boys to carry it to the apartment over the doma. There were so many interesting shields, swords, helmets, greaves and spears, besides the household goods stowed away, that Harold wished to look at them all. He was given one of the prettiest chairs to use for his own while he was there. It had a curved back all in one piece of wood, with a carved border, and with a bronze horse embedded in the center. It was a comfortable chair, although it had neither rockers nor arms. "What a fine store I could have, if all these things were mine," thought Harold.

When they came down, the door of the doma was opened, and there stood a gentle woman with a fine face, dressed in a long white chiton. She bade her son come to his breakfast. Harold followed, and when all the children were seated, a little table was set before each one. Harold enjoyed his wholesome breakfast of goat's milk and barley bread, and was too polite to seem to notice the very odd but beautifully shaped spoon and bowl given him. After breakfast they went to the large garden back of the house, where Phœnix proudly pointed out his own special young apple trees, which were bearing for the first time, the trim rows of asters and the abundant crop of beans which he had been taught to care for during the summer. Near by was a goose pond where Penelope, Phœnix's sister, was throwing bread to the geese.

She presently came to them, and they entered the house together—not the room where they first went, but the one back of that, where Harold and the others ate breakfast, the thalium, or women's room, as it was called. There sat the mother and the sisters of Phœnix, sewing. The mother passed from one to the other, showing one how to turn a hem and another how to arrange the colors on the border she was embroidering. Even little Penelope was taking stitches in a chiton which was intended for her brother's birthday, for all girls among the early Greeks learned to sew and spin and to do all kinds of household work. Harold could not decide which was the prettiest of Phœnix's four older sisters, for they were all beautiful; but he liked Narcissa, the one with golden hair, the best, for she was the most gentle. A dark-haired little girl, not much older than Penelope, carried Narcissa's silk to her, arranged her footstool, and brought her a drink. She did not look happy, and Harold saw her wipe away the tears as she gazed toward the sea; for she remembered how, not many months ago, she was stolen from her country and brought by the Phœnician and sold to be a sewing-maid in this household. Narcissa found her weeping, and kissed her softly. Harold wondered if she would ever forget her home, and the parents and brothers and sisters from whom she had been stolen.

At dinner time the work was put away, the hunters returned, bringing a large stag, and men and women sat down in the doma. The slaves brought in jugs of wine and cases of water, and these the master mixed in an earthen urn of the most beautiful pattern. Its handles were traced with gold, and a silver dove perched on each. Small tables were brought in, and after being carefully washed, were placed, one before each person, for the Greeks never all sat at one table to dine as we do. The kettle of peas was lifted from the crane and then put into small dishes that looked like the saucers Harold had seen under his mother's flower-pots, only they were not so well shaped. The roasted pork and beef were carried to the table of the carvers, and there cut into small pieces before being served. Baskets of onions were passed around, and barley and wheat bread looked very tempting in baskets of golden wire. A piece of cheese, a cup of olive oil, and a bronze saucer of honey completed the food they would have for dinner. Before any one ate, a slave poured water from a golden pitcher into a basin, and each washed his hands; for since there were no forks, and spoons were little used, the fingers needed to be quite clean. Instead of using napkins they cleaned their fingers, after the meal, on pieces of dough. They drank wine, but it was well mixed with water, and the Greek was so temperate in its use that he rarely became intoxicated.

After the tables were removed and the crumbs picked up off the floor, the father took his place on a great throne-like seat covered with a fine rug. Here he sat with the other people grouped around. On one side Harold noticed a platform up high, much like the band stand he saw in town. Here musicians sat and played upon the harps and sang the songs of the heroes— among others a song about the capture of the Golden Fleece. "This is very beautiful," said Harold. "Oh, wait until we go to the market place and hear Homer," said Phœnix. "I will ask my father if we may go with him."

Just then a bugle sounded, and both boys scampered away to the outer wall. Coming over the ridge beyond the meadow, was a drove of white oxen with glistening coats, accompanied by their driver and his servants. Phœnix clapped his hands at first, but, thinking again, said, "I hope it isn't Narcissa he is coming for." The man proudly approached the wall, and entering the doma was presented at the throne of the chief. The next day when he went away he took Narcissa to be his wife and left the oxen, for they were the price her father received for her. Narcissa rode a pretty gray horse as she went away. The dark-haired little slave girl whom she took with her smiled back from the donkey-wagon that held the beautiful and useful garments Narcissa and her maidens had woven.

One morning, just after breakfast, the father with several of his sons and slaves walked out into the country to oversee the men who farmed his land. The men who tended the land lived in rude but well-kept huts. The father went to the threshing floor, where they saw a servant driving a pair of oxen over the barley. Phœnix and Harold gathered up what was thrown to the side, for Phœnix might have this for his own planting. Harold became interested in a man who was using a pick to break up the ground, for the plows drawn by oxen were not much better than sharpened sticks and did not loosen the ground well. Laertes (for that was his name) spoke kindly to Harold, and pointed out his hut among the rest. He explained that the little bunch of wool which Harold noticed on Laertes' door told that a little girl baby had come to live in his home. He pointed out for Harold the road to the vineyards where the grapes were ripening, and let him pet the sheep whose coats were so carefully kept. The chariot of a nobleman, with four horses hitched abreast, passed by to the race-course; a soothsayer came muttering something about the flight of a flock of crows meaning bad luck to the olive crop; a traveler sat down to tie the cord of his sandal. The goats came up from the meadows, and the maidens came with earthen jars to milk them. Harold had had a lovely day in the country, but it was now evening and he bade farewell to Laertes and returned with the others to the town; for although he had been so interested in the home of Phœnix that he had not noticed other houses, he was really in a small city just beginning to grow up in a beautiful valley, for at this time in Greece there were many little independent towns. The houses in each town were far apart, and many families often lived in each one.

Early the next morning the men made ready to go to the market place. There, after seeing the onions, olives, fruits, beans and melons sold, they gathered in groups around the porticoes of the market place, and the boys listened to a heated discussion of the question of waging war against a neighboring valley. Among the people Harold noticed Laertes in his coat of lion skin and asked him what he was going to say; but Phœnix quickly drew Harold aside and said that Laertes would not be allowed to speak, for he was only a laborer, and that his father and brothers and others who were noblemen would decide what wars should be waged. Just then the soothsayer whom Harold had seen that day at the farm appeared. Taking a scepter in his hands as a sign of authority, he began to speak. He said he had dreamed of a returning army and many captives, fair women and strong men, of shields and plundered gold. All listened attentively, and it was decided to make war on a neighboring city, chiefly because they were jealous of its growth, for the people of the city had given no offense. Phœnix loved to hear of war, and said that when he was a man he would go with war-chariots to every valley and make the chiefs give up their gold and silver, that he would bring home their men and women as slaves, that he would gain the laurel crown in the race-course, and then he would be the greatest man in all Greece.

Presently there appeared in the market place a man with head slightly bent forward, with cautious step and intent face, who put his hands before him, and finding his harp, drew it to him. As his fingers moved gently over the strings, a deep silence fell all around him—it was Homer, the blind poet. "How delightful!" whispered Phœnix; "he is going to sing more about the beautiful Helen and the siege of Troy. About Achilles, the brave boy-hero, and Ajax the powerful, and wise old Nestor, and the wooden horse. We must listen, for he cannot be with us many years, and he who listens best now can best tell his sons the story. My father says many traditions have been lost because no one remembered them well enough to tell them to his sons." Harold thought they would remember because the story was so beautiful and so beautifully sung. Homer told only a part that day, and at evening the boys repeated at home parts of what they had heard.

While Phœnix was taking his lesson in music from one of the captive princes, and learning to repeat legends and wise sayings after a trusted slave, Harold stole away and watched the older boys and men at their contests in running and leaping. They had all been trained to be great athletes, and even the poorest seemed to Harold to be very good. They all did so well he wished everybody could be awarded an olive branch, which was given only to the victor.

He liked to play with Phœnix's little cart, and many a game of marbles and checkers they enjoyed together, while Penelope stood by with her kitten in her arms and Phœnix's little dog bit at the marbles.

Seated after play on his beautifully shaped chair, he never tired of looking at the furniture of the doma. There were chairs, and wooden chests with ivory figures on the lids, couches, carpets and rugs, all of which had been made by hand. Near the hearth on the floor and hanging on the wall were all varieties of earthenware vessels and kettles of copper and bronze, for the Phœnicians had taught the Greeks how to make all these things. A large red earthenware vase was placed near the cupboard where the goblets stood. This vase was the prettiest in the room. It had around its top a picture of a hunter and his dogs—done in black. The figures looked rather stiff, but they were pretty, considering they had to be cut in the vase and then filled with black paint. The greatest beauty was in the shape of the vase, and in the handles, which were large and symmetrical. On the walls were great plates of brass ornamented with iron. On the great one that hung over the door to the thalium was the picture of a tower over the city wall. A woman, tall and graceful, stood there with a little baby in her arms. She was looking beseechingly into the face of a young warrior clad in armor from head to foot. Just showing beyond the wall on a hill was the army to which he seemed about to return. Harold looked so often at this picture that he would never forget it. There were many other pictures, and all interesting, and, like other pictures of ancient times, all made of metals. It is thought by many that at this time the Greeks had not yet learned to paint pictures.

On the day that the men were to start out to battle, all assembled in the doma and prepared to offer a sacrifice to Ares, the god of war. A strong ox, with a wreath of flowers around its neck, was led in and killed before the hearth. Part of it was put upon the hearth, which was their altar, and burned. By the manner of burning and the color of the smoke, the oracles tried to tell what would be the result of the battle. Prayers were made to Ares, and in the thalium sacrifice was offered to Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, and prayers were offered that she might protect the household. Then the men, clad in armor, with bows and arrows, and slings, and spears, and shields, marched away a few miles across the mountains to fight a neighboring city; for, as I told you, one thing the Greek cities never could learn was to be friends with one another.

But Harold and Phœnix remained at home, passing many days playing marbles, jack-stones and ball, very much as boys do now, till one morning several ox carts were drawn up before the outer gate and Phœnix and Harold were delighted when they were told they might go with a farm hand on a journey to the seashore to trade with the Phœnicians. In the first cart was placed the fine linen and woolen goods that Phœnix's mother and sisters had woven. In another was wool, and in another the finest of the olives that Laertes had brought in from the farm. Hirus, the brother of the dark-haired little slave girl, drove the oxen for Phœnix. As they lay that night on the soft wool, near the seashore, and looked up at the clear sky and the stars, Phœnix told Harold about the ships and the trade of the Phœnicians; and in the quiet night, after Phœnix was asleep, Hirus told Harold how he and his Phœnician kinsmen had once on the sea been taken captive and sold to Phœnix's father. He said they did the finest carving and work in metals, and that the Greeks were just beginning to learn to do that kind of work. Harold at last fell asleep listening to the dark-eyed slave's stories of the wonderful work of his people—of how other kings hired them to build their temples, of how they braved the roughest sea to get tin from distant lands, and of the rich palaces of their kings. The next morning they were busy trading at the coast. The Phœnicians were there in their ships, and everybody was busy. Phœnix traded the wool plucked from his own sheep for a silver cup. When the wagons went back the next day, they were loaded with shields and spears, chairs, tapestries and rugs from the countries about Babylon; jewels and wheat from Egypt, and purple dyes, cashmere shawls and metal looking-glasses from the land of Phœnicia. Thus Harold saw how the beautiful little country of Greece learned many of its first lessons about useful and beautiful things by trading with the Phœnicians, and how the Phœnicians gathered together the things made in the countries we studied about earlier—Egypt, Palestine and Babylon—and brought them westward and traded them to people who had not yet learned to make things so useful and beautiful.

By the Greeks learning all that the Phœnicians had to teach them about the alphabet, about weights and measures, about purple dye for making hangings for palaces, and robes for kings, about how to tan skins by using the root of the evergreen oak of Greece, and how to make useful things of iron, copper and silver, they became more than the simple farmers which Harold saw as he took his trip through the country; for they soon learned to make ships like those which the Phœnicians used, and after a time became the greatest traders on the Mediterranean Sea.

But although the Greeks at this early time were very simple and plain, yet at this very time they wrote a book, which people read with as much delight now as they did thousands of years ago. It is one of the greatest books ever written, telling us most of what we now know of early Greece, with her brave heroes and beautiful women. The book is made up of the songs of Homer, and it is called the "Iliad." Readers continue to enjoy this book in our own day, and in this way, although Greece died thousands of years ago, the best things the Greeks wrote still live as fresh as ever in the life of every good scholar.

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