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Ellwood Wadsworth Kemp

The Youth of Greece and Her Struggles for Liberty

Phidippides started swiftly from Athens, "over the hills and under the dales, down pits and up peaks," reaching Sparta, a hundred and fifty miles away, in less than two days. His country was in danger, and there was not a moment to be lost. He went to ask help of the Spartans, for word had come to Athens that the Persian king, Darius, was moving straight toward the beautiful city to destroy her; and to meet Persia, Athens would need Sparta's aid. You wonder why this great king was coming over to Greece? He was angry with the Athenians, and I will tell you why.

It was now a long time, four or five hundred years, since Homer lived, and Greece had changed in many ways. It had grown much richer, and there were now the new poets Sappho and Hesiod, and many sculptors, who made beautiful statues to represent the gods and goddesses, and ornamented the graceful Greek temples.

Every five years the people from all Greece gathered to see the Olympic games, which were held in honor of their god, Zeus. There the young men and boys jumped, ran and wrestled with one another, and those who did best received a laurel crown. The boys who won were very proud of their crowns. It was at the games that the poets recited their new poems. Do you think that by gathering together in this way the people would understand each other better and be willing to help one another when they got into difficulty, as Athens is now?

You remember that, in Homer's time, there were little city-states scattered about in Greece separated by the hills and mountains. Well, these villages have now grown into towns and there are many more of them than in Homer's time. The people still do not live together in one government as they should, if they wish to be strong, but perhaps when Darius comes to fight Athens they will forget their little jealousies of one another and will join to protect their beautiful land. Sometimes, when these cities became crowded or the people disliked their king, they left their home-city, and sailed away as colonists to build new homes in Italy, Sicily, and far across the Ægean Sea along the coast of Asia Minor. Now, it is about something these cities in Asia Minor did that Darius, the Persian king, is angry. You do not now quite see why, but I think you will presently. But first I must tell you another thing that was changed since Homer's time. There were no longer kings in the little states ruling the people, except at Sparta, which was the largest city in southern Greece; and this king had men called ephors to help him. At Athens, the chief city in Attica, there had been no king for a long time. Long ago the people had grown tired of having one man rule them, and had chosen men called archons, and legislators, to rule them and make their laws.

Solon was one of the wisest of these men. He had traveled in many lands, in Egypt and Asia, was of noble birth, and kind to all the people. The rich had gotten most of the power in their hands and left the poor unprotected, but when Solon was chosen to be both archon and legislator, he made new laws to help the common people. They were glad of this, but because he did not divide the lands again as had been done before and give them a share, they were dissatisfied. But Solon saw that the people were better off than before, and hoping that they would stay so, he went away from Athens to travel again, spending, it is said, two years in travel and study—in the wiser and richer countries of the Old East.

Sometimes in the cities of this little land of Greece a nobleman who had been disappointed in not getting some office which he wanted, or who did not like the ruler, would say to the people, that if they would help him to put down the rightful ruler of the country so that he himself might rule, he would help all the people to have an easier time. A man who got the power this way was called a tyrant. I want to tell you about the tyrant Pisistratus, who seized the power after Solon went away.

Pisistratus came hurriedly driving into Athens one day, covered with blood and his mules bleeding. He told the people that his enemies had tried to kill him because he was the people's friend. This pleased the people, and they voted him a bodyguard of soldiers. With these he gained control of Athens and ruled for many years. He was a good ruler and did much to improve Athens. He built the Academy, which was something like the beautiful parks in some of our cities, and made a fine gymnasium in it, for the boys to exercise in. He also built a temple to Athena on the Acropolis,—a great rocky hill in the center of Athens.

But after him came his two sons, and they were not so good as their father. One of them was killed, and the other, Hippias, was driven out of the country. He went to the Persian court, but we shall presently see that he came back to Greece. After Hippias, there was one more friend of the people, Cleisthenes, who did much to help Athens by giving her better laws. After him the people were ruled again by archons, and it is at this time, 490 years before Christ was born, that Phidippides ran quickly to Sparta to ask help against the Persians.

The Grecian cities on the coast of Asia Minor had been ruled for several years by the Persian king, Cyrus, who was a great and good ruler of the Persians; but a few years before this time Cyrus died, and Darius came to be the ruler. Before the Persians conquered the Greek cities in Asia Minor, these cities had been ruled by Croesus of Lydia, the little country just east of them. He was kind to them, but the Persians, who liked to conquer all the countries about them, not only made the Greeks pay much money to them, but they had to be the Persian king's soldiers as well. Men who loved to rule themselves as dearly as the Greeks would not like this.

Darius, who now ruled over Persia, reaching from the Indus River to the Ægean Sea, found it so large that he needed many men to help him govern it. Many of the people over whom he ruled were not at all like the real Persians, but lived and dressed very differently. Darius did not care for this, as all he wanted was that they should pay him money and fight his battles. Would these men make as good soldiers as the Greeks, do you think?

Not long before Phidippides went to Sparta, the Grecian cities in Asia Minor which Darius ruled had revolted, and asking help of Athens and Eretria, their near kinsmen, they had together burned Sardis, one of Darius' richest and finest cities in Asia Minor. This was why Darius was so angry with Athens. He soon punished the colonies on the coast, and then shot an arrow toward Athens, to show that he meant to punish her next, but lest he forget (for he had many things to do in his great empire), he had a slave say to him each day at dinner, "Master, remember the Athenians"; and now he was getting ready to remember them. He had sent heralds to the different Grecian cities, bidding them send him "earth and water" as a sign that they would serve him. Most of the states had done so, but Athens had thrown the herald who came to her into a pit, and Sparta had thrown hers into a well. You may be sure a great king, ruling a vast empire, would feel very angry to have a little country like Greece treat his messengers in this way.

When his army was ready, he sent it across the Ægean Sea, toward Athens. As soon as Athens heard that the Persians were coming she sent Phidippides, the fleet-footed, as I have already told you, to Sparta for help; but Sparta could send no aid because the moon was not yet full, and it was against her law to start to battle before the full moon; so Athens was left to meet the enemy alone, but she did it bravely.

When the Persians reached Greece and landed at Marathon, led by the traitor Hippias (you remember who he was, do you not?), they found a little army of the Athenians gathered upon the hillside back of Marathon, eighteen or twenty miles northeast of Athens, under the Athenian general, Miltiades, ready to meet them. Without waiting for the Persians to begin the attack, the Athenians, singing, rushed down into the plain on the enemy so furiously that the Persians became frightened and confused, but not so the Greeks, who fought until the Persians turned and fled to their ships. The Greeks followed and destroyed many as they tried to get into their boats. One brave Greek seized a boat and held it fast till his hand was cut off.

Marathon was a great victory, and the Athenians were very proud of it. Just as the battle was over, the Spartans came up, but they were too late to help drive the Persians away. The Athenians had fought the great battle almost alone, and in after years the thought of it led them to do just as great things.

Miltiades did not let his victorious army camp on the battlefield that night and enjoy a feast of the many good things which the Persians left, but marched his soldiers across the country eighteen miles, without a halt, back to Athens. He thought that the Persians would next try to capture the city. The tired soldiers had only just reached home when they saw the Persians sail into the bay near Athens; but when the enemy saw the same brave men who had the day before defeated them, ready to fight again, they sailed away to their own country in Asia as fast as they could.

After the Persians were gone, Miltiades had the brazen arms and shields which had been captured from them melted and made into a statue of the goddess Athena and placed on the Acropolis. Darius was so sure that he could defeat the Greeks that he had brought a great block of marble along to put up in the city as a monument to celebrate his victory; but it was used for a different purpose, for Phidias, the great Grecian sculptor, made a beautiful statue from it.

The Athenians thought they had driven the Persians away forever, but there was one wise man in Greece—Themistocles—who did not think so. He thought that they would come again, so he urged the Athenians to build a great many new ships by taxing themselves and from the money of their gold mines, for there were excellent gold mines near Athens. Another wise and good man, called Aristides, thought they did not need any more ships and that it would be better to give the money to the people. Some of the people thought as Aristides, and others wanted to have the ships built. At last they saw that one of the men, in order to keep peace in the little Athenian state, must be sent away; so all the people gathered in Athens one day, and each wrote on a shell the name of the man he wished to send away. When they counted the names, it was found that there were six thousand shells for Aristides, which meant that he must leave his home and go into another country. This was called ostracism.  It took this name from the name of the shell, or tablet, upon which the vote was written. Themistocles then went on building the ships until the Greeks had a large fleet.

While the Greeks were building their ships, Darius was getting another army ready to come back to Greece. He was so certain he could conquer the Greeks that he was going to try again.

You see he did not know that, even if there were not many Greeks, they were very brave and had been well trained for war. He did not know what excellent training the Greeks obtained in their gymnasiums at Athens and how the Spartan boys by severe training, gathering reeds for their own rough beds, hunting on the mountains, eating coarse food and having to go barefoot winter and summer, became the best soldiers of the world in their time. The Spartan women, too, were often as brave as the men. They said to their sons, "Bring home your shield or come home on it," which meant that they must never give up to the enemy. They must either conquer him or die fighting him. The Athenians did not train their children to fight quite so well as Sparta did, but they knew how to make good plans to capture the enemy. Would these Grecians who ruled themselves and loved their homes and children, their little farms and gods, fight better than the Persian soldiers, who were hired to fight, and fought only for the king?

Darius had gathered together only part of the second army with which he meant to conquer Greece when he died, and his son Xerxes took his place. Xerxes did not want to fight the Greeks, but his nobles wished him to do so; so, after great preparations, he concluded to lead the army himself.

In gathering together his army he sent heralds all over his vast country to tell the people to make ready for war. For eight long years he gathered together his soldiers, made armor and collected food, built roads and trained his men. Would not you think he could bring together a large army in eight years? When they were all gathered, they spent the winter in and about the city of Sardis in Asia Minor, which the Persians had built up again after the Greeks had burnt it.

Early in the spring 480 years before Christ, Xerxes started toward Greece with his great army, but it was a motley looking mass of men. The king rode in his chariot, which was drawn by eight white horses. In his gorgeous dress and chariot it must have been a beautiful sight. On either side of Xerxes were his best soldiers, the Immortals. Those who fought on foot wore coats of mail made of metal or quilted linen, which covered all the body except the head. They had also shields made of wicker-work, which were set in front of them, from behind which they shot with bow and arrow. Those who rode on horseback had coats of mail to cover the entire body, and these men carried a sword and knife for weapons. But besides the Immortals there were many who could not fight so well. Some were dressed in leopard skins and carried bows made of the ribs of palm leaves. Their arrows were reeds tipped with small, sharp stones, and some had only clubs with which to fight. Others had a lasso and long knife, while still others had short darts and knives. Some of the wilder tribes tried to protect their heads with wooden hats, but had no protection whatever for their bodies.

Xerxes, with his mighty army, marched westward across the country to the Hellespont, where he had had a bridge of boats built for his army to cross on. It took a long time for all the soldiers to cross, but at last they were all over and marched toward Greece.

While Xerxes was leading this part of his army around to the north, the Persian fleet had crossed the Ægean Sea to help him capture the Grecians.

When the Athenians heard that Xerxes was coming, they were filled with fear. Miltiades, who had led them at Marathon, was dead, and they did not know who could lead them to victory now. Finally they sent for Aristides, who, you remember, had been sent away by ostracism. Runners were sent from Athens all over Greece to ask aid of the different states, but nearly all the people were at the Olympic games. Finally the Spartans promised to send some soldiers to the narrow pass of Thermopylæ, which was a narrow road, just wide enough for a chariot to creep between the mountains and the sea, leading into central Greece. So Leonidas, with three hundred of the bravest Spartans and seven hundred Thespians, stationed himself there to meet the Persians.

Leonidas had not been at the pass long before Xerxes came. When Xerxes saw so few men, he sent a messenger to ask the Spartans to give up their arms. Leonidas sent him word to "come and take them." Then Leonidas and his men put on their finest armor, combed their long hair, and played at games in the sunshine. Xerxes thought the Greeks were crazy when he saw them combing their long hair, but a traitor Spartan in Xerxes' camp told him they always did so before a dangerous battle, and it did not mean they were careless but determined to fight to the last. Xerxes then sent some of his troops against them, but they had to fall back; this happened again and again, and perhaps Leonidas could have kept the Persians back until the rest of the Greeks returned from the games, had not a traitor gone to Xerxes and for money offered to show him a path which led over the mountains and behind Leonidas, who had placed only a few men to guard it.

Led by the traitor, the Persians came to the guards of the path, whom they soon killed, and then they marched down the mountain side toward Leonidas. It was yet early morning, and there was still time for all the Greeks to escape. Leonidas told his men that all might go except the Spartans. "We," said he, "must stay." Yet he knew that all who remained would be killed. The Thespians, who lived in a little city not far away, however, refused to go. They were brave, too. All day long this handful of men, clothed in brass from head to foot, and armed with spears, fought against the mighty Persian hosts, and at night not one of Leonidas' brave men was left. This, as I have told you, was just ten years after the battle of Marathon and four hundred and eighty years before the birth of Christ. It looked discouraging when the mighty Persian host marched through the pass and came on toward Athens. Do you think the Persians will now conquer Greece?

When the Persians had gained the victory at Thermopylæ, Xerxes, as I said, marched on toward Athens. The people of that city fled, and not knowing what to do they asked advice of their god, Apollo, at Delphi. The answer was, "The wooden walls will defend you and your children." The Greeks were not sure what this meant, but Themistocles said it meant for them to go into their ships, which you remember he had already persuaded the Athenians to build.

All the women and children were put on ships and sent away from Athens to the southern part of Greece; then the warriors made the rest of the ships ready to fight in the bay of Salamis. The people had just left the city when Xerxes marched into Athens and burned it. His ships had not helped him much yet, but he thought they could surely defeat the little Greek fleet which he saw in the bay of Salamis, west of Athens, so he had a throne built on a mountain, not far from Salamis, that he might watch the battle.

The Greeks fought so bravely and so well that they cut the Persian fleet all to pieces. Xerxes became frightened, and taking most of his army, fled to Persia. He left quite a large number, however, in Greece, under his general, Mardonius; and not very long after, the Greeks fought another battle with him at Platæa. In this battle the Greeks were completely successful; and when Mardonius saw that he was defeated, he ran away with the men he had left, leaving great riches on the battlefield. The Greeks were glad to see him leave for Persia, for they thought that the Persians would never come again.

Thus, you see, this brave little country had defeated a country forty times as large, and by doing so prevented a king who cared nothing for common people from crushing out the liberty-loving Greeks. It made them very proud of themselves, and made them feel as if they could do great deeds. If the little city-states of Greece could now have been less selfish, and had all worked together, they might have done even more than they did. It was a pity they never could learn to work together. But even as it was, Athens now grew rapidly and did wonderful things, and of these things we will next study.