Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Alfred J. Church


Life at Bisanthe would, in any case, have been remarkably attractive to Callias. The taste for sport was hereditary with him, as it was with most Athenians of his class. But, ever since his boyhood, circumstances had been altogether adverse to any indulgence of it. For a quarter of a century an Athenian's life had been perforce a city life. The country outside the walls was not available for when it was not actually in the occupation of a hostile army, it was still in a state of desolation. Game, it is probable, had almost disappeared from it. It had long been too thickly populated for the larger animals to exist in it. These the sportsman had been obliged to seek in the mountain regions of Phocis, Doris, and Thessaly. Now the smaller such as the hare, always reckoned a special dainty in Athens, could scarcely be found, even when it was possible to seek for it. Callias was delighted to find a totally different condition of things at Bisanthe. Here there were to be found fierce and powerful animals the pursuit of which gave something of the delightful excitement of danger, the bear, the wild-boar, and the wolf. Lions, too, could be sometimes seen, though they were not so common as they had been some eighty years before when the army of Xerxes, marching through this very region, had had so many of the camels attacked and killed by them. Our young Athenian highly appreciated this abundance of noble game. He had had no experience, indeed, in the huntsman's craft, but he became fairly expert at it. He was an excellent rider; this accomplishment was a necessary part of the education of a well-born Athenian. He was expert in all martial exercises, especially in the use of the javelin and the spear; and, above all, he had a cool courage which his warlike experience by land and sea had admirably developed.

But there were more serious matters than sport to occupy him. The relation of his host to his neighbors, both Greek and barbarian, was of curious interest to a thoughtful young man. He had heard something of it at Athens, for Alcibiades was a much talked of personage, all of whose movements were earnestly, even anxiously, discussed both by friends and foes. Now he was, so to speak, behind the scenes, and saw and heard much that the outside world did not know or did not understand. The neighbors with whom his host came in contact, friendly or unfriendly, were three. There were the Greek cities along the northern coast of the Propontis; there was Seuthes, the king of Thrace; a potentate whose kingdom had many uncertain and varying boundaries, and there were the free or independent Thracians. Between these last and Alcibiades there was constant war. Accustomed for centuries to plunder their neighbors, they now found themselves repaid in their own coin. At the head of a picked force, highly disciplined and admirably armed, Alcibiades harried their country with an audacity and a skill which made his name a constant terror to them. The Greek cities, on the other hand, were uniformly friendly. Before his coming they had been sadly harassed and distressed by their barbarian neighbors. They had not been able to call anything beyond their walls exactly their own, and even their walls had sometimes scarcely sufficed to protect them. All this was altered by the military genius of this remarkable man. The robber bands which had been accustomed to ride unchecked up to their fortifications were now compelled to keep at a respectful distance from them, and not only the cities themselves but their territories were practically safe. Land which it had been impossible to cultivate at all, or from which only a precarious crop could be snatched with imminent danger to the cultivator, was now covered with prosperous farms and pleasant homesteads. For this protection, enabling them as it did to save the exhausting expense of imported food, the cities were willing to pay, and considerable sums which were practically a tribute, only much more cheerfully paid, came regularly into the treasury at Bisanthe, and enabled its master to keep up a numerous and efficient force.

As for King Seuthes, his relations with the powerful stranger who had settled on these his territories were more doubtful. He was not an enemy, but he certainly was not a friend. All that Alcibiades could do in weakening the independent Thracians was altogether to his mind. Let them be weakened enough, and they would gladly seek protection by becoming his subjects. On the other hand he did not approve the idea of anyone but himself becoming the patron of the Greek cities on, his coast. What they were willing to pay for protection ought to come, he felt, into his coffers, not into those of an interloping adventurer. Meanwhile he was content to remain on outwardly good terms with the master of Bisanthe, and to await the development of events.

In the little town of the same name that was dominated by the castle of Bisanthe, the young Athenian found some pleasant society. He was the more at home in it because it was an Ionian colony, and the inhabitants were akin to him in race and sympathies. They had the same culture, a quality that always flourished more kindly in the Ionic branch of the Hellenic race. Plays of the great dramatists of his own country were performed in a small but well appointed theatre, and there was at least one circle in the town in which literary topics were discussed with interest and intelligence.

The resources available in the way of native society were not great. Thracian habits in general were not unfairly represented by the behavior of the chief to whom my readers were introduced in the last chapter. Their hard drinking habits had already made them notorious throughout Greece. Our hero accordingly kept away from the entertainments which his host felt it a matter of policy to attend. The one great social function at which he assisted was the marriage of a prince who was nearly related to King Seuthes. Athenian habits were commonly frugal. Their public buildings, whether for political or religious purposes, were splendid in the extreme. On these, and on the ceremonies of worship, they were accustomed to spare no expense. But their private expenditure was, as a rule, not large. Our hero was proportionately astonished at the profusion, which prevailed at the wedding festivities of the Thracian Caranus. There were twenty guests. Each as he entered the banqueting chamber had a circle of gold put upon his head, and in taking his place was presented with a silver cup. These and indeed all the dishes, plates, and cups with which the guests were furnished during the entertainment, were supposed to become their actual property. A brass platter, covered with pastry, on which were birds of various kinds, was put before each, and after this another of silver, furnished with a variety of fresh meats. These disposed of—they were just tasted and handed to the slaves who stood behind the guests—two flasks of perfume, one of silver, the other of gold, fastened together with a link of gold, were distributed. Each flask held about half a pint. Then came a piece of quite barbarous extravagance—a silver gilt charger, large enough to hold a porker of considerable size. The creature lay on its back with its belly stuffed with thrushes, the yolks of eggs, oysters, scollops, and other dainties. The carrying capacity of the slaves was nearly exhausted, and the bridegroom received a hearty round of applause when he ordered his guests to be supplied with baskets, themselves richly ornamented with silver in which they might carry away his bounty.

At this point Alcibiades and his friend made an excuse to depart. "Caranus," said the former, as they returned to Bisanthe, "must have embarrassed himself for life by this silly extravagance. He must have borrowed money largely before he could indulge in all this silverware, for though his estates are large, he is far from being wealthy. But it is a point of honor with these people to go as near to ruining themselves as the money-lender will permit them, when they celebrate a birth, a wedding, or a funeral."

But Callias found the chief interest of the months which he spent at Bisanthe in the frequent conversations which he held with his host. In these Alcibiades expressed himself with the utmost freedom and frankness. What he said was in fact at once a confession and an apology, the substance of them may be given as follows:

"You have heard I dare say very much evil of me, and I cannot deny that much of it is perfectly true. It ill becomes a man to complain of circumstances, for everyone, I take it, can make his own life and if he goes to ruin has only himself to blame for it. Yet the gods, or fate, or whatever it is that rules the world, were certainly adverse to me from the beginning. My father fell at Coronea when I was but a mere child, and the loss of a father is especially damaging when his son is rich and noble. Everyone seems to agree in spoiling the boy, the lad, the young man, who is the master of his own fortune. I know that I was fooled to the top of my bent. However, that is all past, and the free man who lets others turn him about to their own purposes has nothing to say in his own defence; and I had at least one good thing on my side of which if I had been so minded I might have made good use. Socrates never wearied of convicting me out of my own mouth of folly and ignorance, and he knew my great weakness and told me of it in the most unsparing fashion. I remember once how he convicted me of what I know has been the great fault of my life. 'If,' he said, 'you can convince the Athenians that you deserve to be honored as no man, not even Pericles himself deserved, if you gain an equal name among the other Greeks and barbarians, if you cross over from Europe and meddle with matters in Asia, all these things will not satisfy you. You desire to be nothing less than master of the whole human race.' That perhaps was somewhat exaggerated, but I certainly have had big schemes in my head, bigger than I ever had, or could hope to have, the means of carrying out. My hopes took in all Greece, Persia, Carthage, the Western barbarians who inhabit the shores of the ocean, and I know not what else. It was too great a structure to build on the slight foundation of an Athenian dock-yard; it was piling Olympus and Ossa and Pelion on the hill of Hymettus, and such structures are sure to fall even without the thunder-bolt of Zeus. Yet it is only fair to myself to say that in my ambitions I did think of my country as well as of myself; and I think that I have not always had fair play in carrying them out. There was the expedition to Sicily, for instance. I suppose that no one will ever speak of it but as a piece of hair-brained folly into which I was the means of leading Athens. Looked at by the event, it seems so, I allow, and yet it might have succeeded. Indeed it was within an iota of succeeding, and this though the people showed the incredible folly of putting as senior in command, a man who hated the whole business. Even Nicias almost took Syracuse. If they had only left me without a colleague or with colleagues who would have yielded to my counsels! But what did they do? Just at the critical time they recalled the man whom everyone in the expedition, from the first to the last, identified with its success; and why did they recall me? On that trumpery charge of having broken the Hermie. You would like to ask me, I know, whether I had anything to do with the matter. No; I had not, but I could have told them all about it if I had had the chance. As it was, they were ready to listen to anyone but me. Why, there was an outrageous liar came forward, and declared he had seen the whole thing done by the light of the moon; and on the night it was done there was no moon at all. But I had enemies, personal enemies who would stick at nothing as long as they could injure me. And here I must confess a fault, a fault that has been fatal to me. I deserved to have enemies. I made them by my annoyance and insolence; and if they ruined me, and, as I think, my country with me, I have only myself to blame. You would like to know how I justify myself for what I did after my banishment, for getting Sparta to help Syracuse against my own country? I do not justify myself at all. It was madness, tho' it was only too successful. But it made me frantic to think what a chance, what a splendid opportunity for myself and for Athens, the fools who were in power at home were throwing away. No; on that point I have nothing to say for myself. But since then I have honestly tried to do the best that I could for the city. And if the Athenians could only have trusted me and had had a little more patience, I believe that I could have saved them. But it is always the same story with them; they must have what they want at once, and if they don't get it, some one has to suffer. How could they expect that I could put right at once all that had been going wrong for years?"

Such was the substance of what Alcibiades said to his guest on the many occasions on which they discussed these matters, said, of course, with a variety of detail and a wealth of illustration, which it is impossible to reproduce. More than once Callias asked his host what were his views and expectations of the future of the war. He found that Alcibiades did not take a cheerful view of the prospects of the campaign that would be soon beginning.

"I was always afraid," he said, "that the victory at Arginusæ would be only a reprieve, a postponing of the evil day. The effort which Athens then made was too exhausting to be repeated—her next fleet will be nothing like as good as the last, and the last had hard enough work to win the day. And then there was the disastrous folly and crime of putting the generals to death. Mind, I don't say that they were not to blame; but I do say that to kill the only good officers the city had, even if they had deserved death ten times more than they did, was mere madness. Whom have they got to put in their place? Conon is a man who knows his business and would do his duty, but as for the rest," he went on, anticipating a witticism which was made many hundred years afterwards by an English statesman, "I can only say that I hope they will inspire the enemy with half the terror with which they inspire me."