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James Baikie

The Torch-Bearers

AMONG all the peoples of the ancient world, there have been three, who, as it were, have been chosen by Providence to hold high the torch of Knowledge, that all other nations might see its light, and follow where the torch-bearers led.

Of these three, one, in the beginning, was a little knot of men who, according to their own ancient stories, had come from a far country to the pleasant land of Italy. There, after many wanderings and adventures, they founded, on the banks of the River Tiber, a city which grew to be the great and famous city of Rome, and which came at last to hold empire for many a day over almost all the world, as men knew it in those far-off times. To Rome it was given to hold high the torch of the knowledge of Law. For the Romans' watchwords were ever Order and Obedience, and what they themselves had learned in long ages of storm and stress they imposed upon all the nations that came under their sway, so that the Law of Rome ruled the actions of all civilized men in Europe for hundreds of years. And, ever since, the laws which the Romans framed for their own guidance have been the model after which the nations have shaped the varying codes of law under which they live.

The second of the three was a race of mingled blood which rose to greatness among the fertile valleys that lie between the mountains and the far-stretching gulfs and bays of the fair land of Greece. For among the ancient race of dark-haired Southerners who dwelt in Greece and its isles before the dawn of history, there came troops of big, fair-haired men from the North, Achæans, Dorians, and the like. Swarm after swarm they came during many years, conquering the gentler Southerners, and then settling down among them, and mingling with them in marriage, till, from this union of North and South, there arose a new race, with the strength and courage of the North, and the swift wit and love of beauty of the South, so that the men of Hellas, as Greece was called in the old days, were the cleverest, the most inquiring, and the most artistic of all the races of that old world.

To Greece it was given to hold high the torch of Wisdom—the wisdom that deals with all things of the mind, and with all beauty of the earth and man. Never, in that ancient world, never, perhaps, in all the world's history, has there been a race that has bred so many deep thinkers, so many seekers after the truths of nature, so many great singers and dramatists, above all so many great artists in sculpture and painting as this little people of Hellas. In the van of all the companies of great men from among all the peoples, who through the ages have sought after wisdom and beauty, you shall always find a Greek holding up his light for the rest to follow. Wherever men inquire into the mysteries of the human mind and life, they are following in the footsteps of Greek leaders. Wherever, in poem or in tragedy, they try to sing the greatness or the sorrow of mankind, it is a Greek who has struck the first note. Wherever they seek, in sculpture or in painting, to express the beauty and wonder of life, they are following those great Greek artists who first gave to the world the idea of beauty, serene, balanced, perfect, and whose wonderful works have never, in many respects, been surpassed, nor will be.

The third of the torch-bearers was a little race of wholly Eastern blood. Long time thralls in the land of Egypt, slaves of that mighty ancient civilization at whose relics we still marvel, they were freed at last, and found a home in the little, rugged, unattractive hill-country of Palestine—a land that was little more than the bridge between the two great empires of Assyria and the Nile. There for a little while they held a troubled sovereignty, and then for many generations were bowed under the yoke of greater nations; and there they gradually wrought out the great task which it was given them to do in the history of the world.

The Roman's task was a great one—to give Law to the world. The Greek's was greater still—to give Wisdom and Beauty. But greatest of all was the task of the Hebrew; for to him it was ordained that he should be the torch-bearer of the knowledge of God, and teach to the world the truth of things eternal. He was to have none of the power of Rome; he was never to know the Greek thirst for wisdom; he scorned and abhorred the Greek craving for earthly beauty. But he held before men's eyes a greater light than either, and rose to thoughts about God far nobler, truer, purer, than ever were reached by Roman law-giver or Greek philosopher, so that the world sees God to-day by the light that first dawned among a handful of Hebrew serfs, grew to its morning brightness in a third-rate Oriental kingdom, and reached its meridian glory in the life and teaching of a Jewish carpenter.

Now of Rome and the Romans I have written somewhat already in one of these little books; and perhaps I may tell you some day, in another, of Palestine and the Hebrews. Meanwhile my task is to tell you what may be told in a little space of the second of these Torch-Bearers of the World—of the beautiful little land of Hellas, which we call Greece, and of that wonderful race of men who called themselves Hellenes, and are called by us Greeks, the splendour of whose genius flamed at its highest for little more than two centuries, yet has lightened all the world ever since with its glory.

If you look at the map of Europe, you will see that the Continent throws out southwards into the sea three great projections or peninsulas, and that these three peninsulas are all separated from the lands to the north of them by great mountain ranges. Western-most of the three is the land which the ancients knew as the Iberian Peninsula, and which we call Spain and Portugal. Midmost, projecting like a big boot-leg into the Mediterranean, is Italy. Easternmost comes Greece, not so clean-cut as the other two, nor so separate from the mass of Europe to the north, lying quite close to Asia Minor, to which it is almost joined by a group of little islands dotted over the Ægean Sea.

These three peninsulas have all played a great part in the history of the world; Spain and Portugal, perhaps, not quite so great a part as the other two, though we must not forget what the world owes to the famous navigators and explorers of these lands. Their mountain walls to the north kept them free for a long time from the assaults of the fierce and rude tribes of Northern Europe, and allowed them to develop their own life. Their easy access to the sea was always tempting them to adventure and conquest. And of the three peninsulas it was the smallest and most easterly where European men first wakened to civilized life, and first began to shape the world to its present form.

Greece, it has been said, "hangs like a jewel on a pendant from the south of Europe into the Mediterranean Sea." The central jewel of the pendant is surrounded by a cluster of lesser brilliants, "the isles of Greece," of which Byron sang so beautifully. The northern part of it, where, below the Balkan Mountains, the jewel joins the necklace, though far larger than the southern part, has always been less important, at least in the times of which I am writing. Macedonia, Epirus, and Thessaly were never more than half Greek in those early days. The real Greece of which we must think is the little country lying south of all these, below the Othrys Mountains. Look at it on the map, and read the names of the states that are gathered there—Bœotia, Argolis, Achaia, Laconia, Attica; or better still, read the names of the cities—Thebes, Argos, Delphi, Olympia, Corinth, Sparta, and, above all, Athens. Everything that is great and glorious in ancient Greek story rises to your mind as you read them, and stirs your blood like a bugle-call.

Now, still keeping your eye on the map, I want you to notice some other things about this real Greece. See how thoroughly the country, small as it is already, is broken up by arms of the sea. Greece has a very long coast-line for its size, because of the long gulfs and bays that reach into the very heart of the country. The sea that is thus brought everywhere almost to the gates of her cities is a sunny, sheltered, inviting sea—the very thing to tempt the inexperienced early sailors of Europe to adventure. Nearly all its best harbours look east, and that was an important matter in those days, because it was the lands of the East, Babylonia and Egypt, that first were civilized, and so were most worth trading with, and because Greece was linked to the East, as I have said, by its cluster of beautiful islands. You can sail from Greece to Asia without ever being out of sight of land; and that was no small matter to these early navigators, who had no compass or chart to guide them. Greece, then, is to be an adventurous, exploring, colonizing land, and all her early story, at all events, will be connected with those mysterious Eastern lands, with Troy, and Egyptian Thebes, and with all that shore of Asia Minor, where her colonies, from Trebizond to Cyprus, were strewn so thickly.

Next, notice how much the land is split up, not only by the sea, but by ranges of mountains as well. There are no great far-stretching plains in Greece, except in the northern parts, which scarcely count in our story. Greece is a country of little plains and valleys, divided from one another by big ranges of wild mountains; or rather, let us say, it is a country of big mountain ranges, with little plains and valleys nestling among them. Now, what happens in other countries like that—in the highlands of Scotland, for instance, or in Switzerland? Why, that instead of a real nation, one over all the land, you get a clan or a canton in each valley, akin in race, no doubt, to its neighbour over the hill, but quite separate from it in interest—with its own trade, its own culture, its own army or navy, perhaps its own capital city, if it is big enough—and, above all, its own pride. That is exactly what you get in Greece. Though all Greeks were proud to call themselves Hellenes, there never was in Greek history such a thing as a united Greek nation.

Even when they had to fight for their very lives against the giant power of Persia, the Greeks could not really unite. Thebes held aloof, Corinth held aloof. Athens and Sparta had to bear all the burden; and Sparta was furiously jealous of Athens all the time, and played her ally some very shabby tricks. The curse of Greece was that all these little clans of the country were always quarrelling with one another, till at last the great quarrel, which we call the Peloponnesian War, came between Athens and Sparta, wrecked Athens, and almost equally ruined Sparta. If the Greeks had been one, as the Romans were one, they might have conquered the world by arms as well as by thought and art; but it was not to be. Nature said No! and the Greeks, great as they were, were not great enough to say Yes! in spite of Nature.

One more point remains. What a little land it is! Yes, a very little land, if you count greatness by size. Great and famous history was made there in very small space, and by a very small nation. Athens, at her greatest period, held perhaps 30,000 free citizens, though she had a much larger subject population. Sparta probably never had more than 10,000, for she kept her citizenship very strictly guarded. The whole yearly revenue of the little empire which Athens ruled for a while was only about £100,000! We, who spend in a few months as many millions as Athens spent thousands in a year, may wonder and smile at the idea of such a little state calling itself an empire and aspiring to greatness. But out of that little income Athens built the Parthenon, to say nothing of other buildings, only less beautiful than that unrivalled temple. The Greek army at Marathon strikes us as ridiculously small, and the whole Greek fleet at Salamis could be sunk in an hour or two by the smallest of our light cruisers; but that army and fleet beat back all the power of a mighty empire. For size is not greatness. Greece bred in her little towns some of the greatest men that the world has ever known; and we, who also live in a little country, ought to be glad to remember that it has been the little countries which have done the most for the world.