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The Crown of Pine by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

JEW AND GREEK

[158] IT was the traditional glory of the Isthmian Games, as, indeed, it was of all the great athletic celebrations of ancient Greece, that the prize for which the competitors contended had no intrinsic value. At Olympia, the most famous of these festivals, the coveted reward of victory was a wreath of wild olive, cut from the sacred tree which Hercules was said to have brought from the happy land which lay behind the north wind. At Nemea the wreath was of parsley, at the Isthmus it was of pine at the time of which I am writing, up to the date of the second founding of the city by Julius Caesar it had been the same as at Nemea. But it must not be supposed that the victors in the various contests did not receive very substantial rewards. As early as the sixth century we hear that Solon, the law-giver of Athens, provided a bounty of a hundred [159] drachmae to any one who should win a prize at the Isthmian Games. In after-times these public rewards became more valuable. Prize winners became entitled to maintenance at the public expense in the Common Hall (Hôtel de Ville, or Mansion House) of the State, and enjoyed various other precedences and privileges. The result was that a victory became a very valuable thing, and in consequence the object of a good many intrigues and jealousies. And besides this there was a vast amount of betting about the competitions. Betting is a universal passion of man, civilized and uncivilized. It may be said to rule from the pole to the equator, but nowhere is it now, or was it then, more dominant than in the nations of Southern Europe. As may be supposed, it was briskly carried on in Corinth at the time of which we are writing, nor was there any competition on which more wagers were laid than the long foot race. It was a thing about which every one, it might be said, had an opportunity of judging for himself. The [160] boxers and wrestlers could not be so readily compared. Of course they were never matched against each other and their performances could not be estimated. As for the chariot races the teams which competed did not make their appearance till a little time before the actual contest, and they could only be judged by reputation. The runners, on the other hand, were daily seen at their exercise, and it was possible to get a good idea of their style and speed.

Eubulus was a leading favourite. He was, to begin with, a very handsome young man, and that always goes a long way, for

Worth appears with brighter shine

When lodged within a lovely shrine.

Then he was a Corinthian, or the next thing to one, as he had lived in the city ever since his earliest childhood, and he had the most charming manners. He had won, too, in the boys' race at Olympia. This, it was true, was not always an augury of success later on. Sometimes the successful boy competitor was overworked by these premature exertions. Eubulus, however, seemed to have escaped this danger. His tall, upright figure, fresh complexion obviously bloom- [161] ing with health, and light springy step, had all the appearance of perfect condition. Every one who was prepared to risk a drachma was anxious to back Eubulus. This very wide popularity, had, of course, its dangers. Of one of these dangers there will be a good deal to say hereafter. There are always a number of unprincipled people who stand to make money by the failure of the favourite, and the case of Eubulus was no exception to the rule. A more subtle peril came from friends rather than from mere enemies. The young man could have had as many so-called friends as he liked. Many men of much higher social standing than himself would willingly have made him their companion. Some were attracted by his genuine charm. With many, the strongest motive was a somewhat foolish pride in being able to boast acquaintance with a public character. And here the friendship of Aquila and Priscilla was of the greatest advantage to the young man. He was profoundly grateful for the kindness which had enabled him to finish his course of training. Possibly the ambition to win might have kept him in the straight way, but the motive was reinforced by gratitude. It would be shameful, he could not but think, to do anything or omit to do anything which might hinder him from showing himself worthy of such kindness.

[162] But what was of especial benefit to him was the intimacy which grew up between him and his two patrons, if they may be so called. It showed to him a home where every influence was for good. His trainer was a decent fellow, who was strict, from the business point of view, in keeping an orderly house, but the talk and the general tone were not particularly improving. Eubulus had to take all his meals there, and of course to sleep there, and on these points the rule was of the strictest, but the time that remained over to him after his daily exercises were done was his own, and he spent it with Aquila and Priscilla, to his immeasurable advantage. He was of a naturally religious temper, and for such a disposition there was little satisfaction to be found in those days. In all that concerned the spiritual world, things were at their darkest, as, indeed, they are wont to be before the coming of the light. It was impossible for any one of intelligence to respect the popular beliefs. They revolted even the moral sense; and a man was on the whole better without them. Eubulus had found some little good in a mystical brotherhood, which he had joined at Sicyon, where his father had kept up some old friendships. The institution was not of much account, but still it was better than nothing. In theory it kept alive [163] the knowledge of two truths of the greatest importance, that there was one All-wise and Almighty God, and that man was immortal; in practice it was sadly degenerate. The truths were embodied in sentences formally pronounced, to which few paid any attention. Practically the meetings meant little beyond a spectacle and a feast. All that his membership did for Eubulus was that it gave him hints in which the companionship of his friends developed new meanings.

It was, of course, only by degrees that topics so serious were reached. The young Corinthian was keenly interested in what was, for the present, the work of his life, but he had a suspicion that Aquila personally did not regard it with very much favour. He was not a little pleased therefore when the Jew told him what he had heard from his Ephesian friend.

"I don't suppose," Aquila went on, after explaining what had made him change his way of thinking, "that I should ever be a spectator of the Games either here at the Isthmus or anywhere else. I have not been brought up to interest myself in such matters. But I have learnt to think of them with more tolerance; I cannot condemn what one of the greatest of the servants of God is content to use as an illustration."

[164] "Pardon me, sir," said Eubulus, "but are there any games, any amusements practised among your people?"

Aquila was a little perplexed by the question.

"Well," he said after a pause, "I hardly know how to answer you. The children, of course, have their toys and sports; and where there are boys they are sure to run races and wrestle. But for regular sports for grown-up men I can hardly speak. You see I have never lived in my own country, and there are difficulties, as you will easily understand, when our home is among strangers. We have always had, of course, practice at archery and throwing the javelin at a mark and using the sling. We pride ourselves on being as skilful with the sling as the most famous experts in that weapon, the Cretans for example. But these are more martial exercises than sports, and now that we are a province of the empire, and war is practically out of the question, such exercises have fallen into disuse. No, I should say that as a nation we never had any games to speak of."

"And don't you think, sir," Eubulus went on, "that this is a loss."

"Very likely," replied Aquila, "but then you will remember that in the days when we were free, every man was virtually a soldier, and between [165] keeping himself ready for service and working for his daily bread, he had no time to spare."

Priscilla, who had been listening to the conversation, now took a part in it.

"I cannot help thinking that our young friend is right. And I am quite sure that in one thing he and his people are greatly superior to my own. Their Games are infinitely superior to our dreadful Shows, poor creatures torn to pieces by wild beasts, a dreadful fate even for the worst criminals, and, what is still worse, men set to fight with men, aye, and slaughtered in cold blood afterwards if they do not acquit themselves so as to satisfy the spectators. I never shall forget what I saw when I went one day with my Aunt Cornelia to a great show. It was the first that the Emperor exhibited after he came to the throne, and it was expected to be particularly splendid. And so it was, as I was told by those who were experienced in such matters, but I thought it a very dreadful affair, and was very sorry that I was ever persuaded to go. The first part of it wasn't so bad; there were performing elephants and dancing bears and dogs that performed such tricks as you never saw. Then there were all sorts of strange and beautiful animals from all parts of the world, ostriches, and flamingoes—bright scarlet creatures [166] —and deer of all kinds, big and little. I could not help feeling a little sorry for the beautiful creatures, taken away from their own places, and pretty certain to die. But this was nothing to what came afterwards. I can't attempt to describe the horrors of that day; as a matter of fact I saw very little of them, for I hid my face in my hands, but what I did see was too dreadful—I can see it as I sit here at this moment. My aunt said, 'Come, Prisca'—they did not call me Priscilla then, for I had not grown as tall as I am now—' here is something well worth seeing, and nothing, too, that need shock you.' Well I looked up, and it was an exciting thing, I must own, to watch. Do you know that I am ashamed to remember how exciting it was? perhaps it was the wolf's blood in my veins. There were two men fighting. One had a net in one hand and a sort of three-pronged fork, rather bigger than a common shovel, in the other. He had a dagger, too, though I did not see it at the time. The other had a long sword, a very much more powerful weapon than the fork or the dagger; but then the net was supposed to make the two equal. Well, it was very interesting to see them making feints, advancing or retreating, first one seeming to get the advantage and then the other. At last the man with the net made a throw—- [167] you see, if he entangled the other in it he had got the better of the fight—but he missed; the other man was watching him, watching not the hand but the eye, and guessed when he would throw, and so contrived to keep clear. Then the net-man took to his heels with his antagonist after him. He could not run quite so fast; his net and fork hindered him, and the other was soon close behind. And then a strange thing happened; the swordsman looked away for a moment; they told me afterwards that it was to the place where the girl to whom he was betrothed was sitting. In a moment the net-man saw it, made another cast, and entangled the swordsman in it. The next instant he struck him with the fork. That was bad enough to see, but it was nothing to what came after. The swordsman was supposed to have disgraced himself, though I don't wonder at his doing it; anyhow, the spectators were very much enraged—some of them I was told had lost money in betting on the affair—and they positively ordered the man to be killed. Yes, and my aunt was one of them. She was holding her thumb out straight, in a striking attitude, you might say, and she looked as fierce as if she could have killed the man with her own hands. 'Clumsy fool,' I heard her say, 'when he had the game in his [168] own hands, to throw it away in this silly fashion. Let him suffer for it.' There was a horrid fascination in the thing, and I positively could not look away. And besides, I hoped that the poor fellow might escape after all. For all the people were not of the same mind. Some held their thumbs down—that means mercy. But it went against him. They told me afterward, that when there is a difference it almost always does; except the party that is for killing is very small indeed. The Emperor, if he is present, or if not, the elder consul, decides, and he knows that the death sentence is more liked. It is the only thing that remains to the Romans of their old power. They used to rule the world, and now they have to be content with saying whether some poor wretch of a gladiator shall live or die. I shall never forget the gasp of satisfaction which my aunt gave when the net-man struck his dagger into his antagonist's side; there was a dead silence, and you could hear the blow. So, at least, I fancied. I never went again, as you may suppose; and I could hardly bear to speak to my aunt, though I don't suppose, poor woman! that she was worse than others."

Eubulus, who was perfectly candid and honest when he was questioned about his life at the trainer's, could not give a very good account of [169] the life that he had to lead there, or of his companions.

"The thing is not what it was, if I am to believe what was written about it in the former days. All the boys and lads are professionals, or would like to be professionals. If they win a victory, then they have their chance. One victory is not enough; they must have a second, and then the people who pay their expenses are willing to go on. If they fail, they have to take up with some other occupation. But there is not a single competitor who comes for the love of the thing. In the old days, as I have read, the sons of the best families in Greece used to compete. Commonly they were content if they won a prize; they went back to their houses and lived the life that they would have lived in any case, as statesmen, soldiers, teachers or anything else. Now and then if a man had special aptitude he would compete again and again. But he wasn't a professional. These things adorned his life, but they did not make it. So I have read. There was a Dorieus of Rhodes, whom I have read about in Xenophon. He won the Pancratium three times at Olympia, and eight [170] times here at Corinth. That was a wonderful thing to do when one thinks what the Pancratium is. There is a man of eight and twenty training for it with us, and the master thinks that he is a little too old. But Dorieus, I have read, was always the first man in his state notwithstanding. I don't wonder that the Athenians when they took him prisoner let him go free. He must have been a wonder of a man. There is nobody of that sort among us. Of course I have no right to talk about birth and station. Still I wouldn't be a professional on any account, and I must say that I like the whole business far less than I did six weeks ago."


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