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Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch by  F. J. Gould


 

 

THE LAST OF THE GREEKS

"HERE, you fellow, come and chop this wood for my hearth-fire!"

The Greek lady was speaking to a tall, broad-shouldered man who had just come to the door of her house.

"Yes, madam, certainly," he said, and, throwing off his cloak, he began to cleave the wood which she pointed out to him. When the lady's husband arrived he was much surprised.

"Why, my friend," he cried, "what is the meaning of this?"

"You see, I am so ugly that your wife thought I was a slave, and bade me help her in the kitchen."

The master laughed.

"Well," he said, "come to supper now, for you have earned it."

[158] The mistress felt rather confused when the tall man, whose name was Philopśmen (Fil-o-pe'-men), 253&8211;182 B.C., sat at her table as chief guest. He was General of the Achćan League, of which I have told you in a previous story, and she had mistaken him for one of his own servants!

Not only was he tall; he was also very strong and active. He was so fond of work that he often went out to his estate near the city of Megalopolis (Meg-a-lo-po-lis—Great City), and toiled in the fields for hours with the ploughmen or in the vineyards. Being fond also of horses and of war, he spent much time in training steeds for cavalry, and in buying and testing swords, spears, etc. When he took walks in the country with his friends, his thoughts were often of battles. He would say:

"Suppose one army was on the hill among those rocks, and suppose another army was posted on the opposite bank of this river, which would be in the better position?"

And so on. Besides this, he was a magistrate, and would sit in a court, hearing cases of quarrel and evil-doing that came before him. And when he rested in his house after the business of the day, he turned over his books, and chatted with his comrades about wisdom (or philosophy) and the poetry of Homer.

He joined his army with that of the King of [159] Macedonia against the Spartans. The king told Philopśmen to wait with his horsemen at a certain spot until he saw a piece of red cloth lifted up on the end of a spear. Then he could charge with all his might. The noise of battle went on for some while, and Philopśmen waited and waited, until a troop of the enemy had pressed forward and caused terror among the Macedonians. Then he could wait no longer, but, with a shout, he led his horsemen to the onset, and they drove off the attacking force. Leaping from his horse, he ran on by himself, so eager was he to come at the foe. The ground was soft and boggy, and he slipped; and a dart from the enemy pierced the flesh of both his legs. He called to a companion to draw out the dart, and then he hobbled on, calling to his side to follow. With a big cheer they rushed, and the foe fled.

The king asked his officers why they had charged before he gave the order?

"We could not help it, for a young man from Megalopolis began the forward movement, and we were obliged to follow."

"That young man," replied the king, smiling, "has behaved like a tried captain. He knew the right moment to strike."

Even when there was no war, Philopśmen did much to practise young Greeks for battle. He persuaded them to wear suits of armor which cov- [160] ered them from head to foot, and taught them how to manage horses.

"If any of you," he said, "have gold and silver wine-cups and dishes, take them to the armor-makers, and let them use the metal to adorn your shields and breastplates and bridles."

And the young men did so.

In a battle against the Spartans, Philopśmen met the captain of the enemy, a tyrant, trying to cross a ditch on horseback. The steed was just struggling up the bank of the ditch, when Philopśmen thrust his spear into the tyrant's body and slew him. Not long afterward, when many Greeks were assembled at the public games, Philopśmen held a review of his troops, and his young men, marching by in scarlet jackets, were much admired. Just as their leader walked into the theatre, where the sports were being held, a musician was striking the strings of a lyre and singing:

"The palm of liberty for Greece I won."

The people shouted loudly, for they thought the words just fitted the brave Philopśmen. He did his best to keep the different Greek republics friendly with one another, and at the same time friendly with the strong kings of Macedon in the north; for he thought that was the wisest plan for making Greece orderly and happy. At last he got the Spartans also to join the Achćan League, [161] and this saved Sparta from further war—at least, for a time. So the Spartans sent messengers to Philopśmen's house to thank him and to offer him a gift of gold. They came back and said they had not liked to give it him, for he seemed so honest a man that they did not think he would care to accept money for doing his duty to the liberty of Greece.

So another messenger was sent; but, though he dined at Philopśmen's house, he did not dare to mention the gold.

The same man was sent a second time, and still kept silence.

A third time he went, and then spoke: "Sir, I beg your pardon, but—ah!—well, I beg your pardon for naming the subject, but—would you care to take a—a—a—present from Sparta?"

Philopśmen thanked him, and would take nothing.

When he was seventy years old he was elected general of the League for the eighth time.

He lay at Argos, sick of a fever, when he heard that the city of Messene had broken away from the League. At once he rose from his bed, collected a body of cavalry, and met the enemy on the hills. A troop of five hundred men came to the aid of the foe, and his horsemen retired. Philopśmen was left alone. The enemy rode round and round and shouted and threw darts, [162] but dared not come too near the old warrior. His horse stumbled among the crags, and he lay stunned. When he came to himself they bound his hands behind his back, and led him to the city. The Messenians beheld this famous captain led through their streets like an evil-doer, and some of them pitied him and some shed tears. He was put in a cell that had no light in it, nor had it a door, for it was closed by a huge block of stone.

As Philopśmen lay in this dungeon, covered with a cloak, he could not sleep. His thoughts kept going back to his wars, to Greece, and to his capture.

A light flashed in the dark cell. By the prisoner's bedside stood a man holding a lamp in one hand and a cup in the other. The cup contained poison. Philopśmen quite understood. He knew he must drink. When he had taken the cup, he asked:

"What became of my cavalry? Did they escape?"

"Yes," said the jailer; "they nearly all escaped."

The prisoner nodded his head as if much pleased.

"Thou bringest good tidings," he answered, "and I am not so unhappy as I should have been if I had not had this news."

So saying, he drank the poison, and lay down again. Presently he was dead.

[163] When the news of his death was spread abroad there was a sound of grief in all the land. Many men gathered together in an army, and they marched upon the false city of Messene and entered it, and seized all the men who had had any part in the death of the general of the League.

His body was burned, and the ashes were placed in a pot or urn, and carried in a procession to his native city. First walked foot-soldiers wearing crowns of leaves and flowers, in memory of the victories which the dead patriot had gained. Then came his son carrying the urn, which was adorned with ribbons and garlands. Last appeared the horsemen in grand array. The people of the towns and villages on the way to the Great City crowded to the wayside, and raised mournful cries for the leader whom they had lost.

Soon the land of Greece was to fall into the power of the Romans. And when men thought of the noble general, and how there seemed no one as brave and good as he to stand up for the freedom of the country, they gave him a name which was beautiful and yet sad. They said that Philopśmen was "the last of the Greeks."


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