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The Story of Greece by  Mary Macgregor


 

 

THE LAST WORDS OF PERICLES

[207] WHEN The Spartans marched out of Attica, the country folk left the sheltering walls of Athens to go back to their fields, to dig, to plough, to sow.

They hoped in due time to reap a plenteous harvest, for their last year's crops had been destroyed by the enemy. But before the corn was ripe they knew their hopes were vain. The Spartans had come back, and once again the people were forced to leave their fields and take refuge within the walls of the capital.

But in the city itself an enemy appeared, an enemy that worked more dreadful havoc than even the Spartan army. The plague had come to Athens. It spread rapidly, for the people were crowded together, some in sheds, some in tents, and these rough shelters were not kept clean. Squalor and lack of room added to the misery of the sick folk.

Thousands of those who had fled for safety to the city were stricken by the plague, and at first few recovered. For fear seized upon those whom the plague spared and they left the sick untended, to die, tortured by thirst, and alone.

At length even the Spartans grew afraid, lest upon them too the plague should fall, and they again withdrew from Attica.

Then Pericles sailed to Peloponnesus and attacked the enemy in its own country, but with little or no success. But in Thrace, the town of Potidaea, which had been besieged by the Athenians for a year, was forced to surrender.

No breach had been made in the walls, but the famine- [208] stricken people could no longer bear the pangs of hunger, nor had they strength left to defend their city.

The Athenians allowed the miserable inhabitants to leave Potidaea, but the men were forbidden to take anything with them save one garment, while the women were permitted to take two. Before long Athenian families were sent to settle in Potidaea, which then became a colony belonging to Athens.

During the war the popularity of Pericles began to wane. It was he who had advised the Athenians to carry on war with the Spartans, and they now accused him of causing all the misery which they had to endure.

While he was absent with the fleet in 430 B.C., Cleon, the head of those who were opposed to Pericles, tried to make peace with the enemy, but his efforts were in vain.

Cleon was determined, if it were possible, to cause the downfall of Pericles. So when he returned to Athens, he accused him of using public money for his own ends.

When the public accounts were examined a small sum was missing and Pericles was fined by the law courts, but no stain was left on his character.

The Athenians were a fickle people, and before long they forgot their anger and Pericles found himself as popular as ever. They were even eager to carry on the war with Sparta.

Once before Pericles had been attacked by his enemies. He was accused, along with Pheidias the sculptor, of having kept some of the gold which was intended to adorn the statue of Athene in the Parthenon. But it was easy to prove that the charge was false, for the gold had been fixed to the statue in such a way that it could be easily detached.

Pericles demanded that this should be done, so that the gold might be weighed. His enemies could not refuse the test. So the gold was taken off the statue, weighed, and found to be correct.

Against Pheidias there were other charges, one being that in the frieze of the Parthenon there were sculptured portraits [209] of himself and Pericles. In 432 B.C. the great sculptor was thrown into prison, where he died before the day fixed for his trial.

The plague, which had disappeared for a year, broke out again in 429 B.C. with new violence.

Pericles had already lost two sons through the terrible scourge. When Paralus, his favourite child, died, he placed a garland upon his body, and shut himself in his house to mourn. Nor could he be persuaded afterward to take much interest in the affairs of the State.

A year later, he was himself stricken by the plague. He recovered, but was soon after attacked by fever which he was too weak to resist.

As he lay dying, his friends gathered around his bed. Thinking that he did not hear what they said, they began to speak to one another of the great things he had done during his life.

But Pericles heard, and interrupting them said, "What you praise in me is partly the result of good fortune, and, at all events, common to me with many other commanders. What I am most proud of, you have not noticed. No Athenian ever put on mourning for an act of mine!" These were his last words.

Plutarch tells us that "Pericles was indeed a character deserving our high admiration, not only for his equitable and mild temper, but also for the high spirit and feeling which made him regard it the noblest of all his honours, that, in the exercise of such immense power, he never had treated any enemy as irreconcilably opposed to him. And it appears to me," says Plutarch, "that this one thing gives that otherwise childish and arrogant title a fitting and becoming significance; so dispassionate a temper, a life so pure and unblemished, might well be called Olympian, in accordance with our conceptions of the divine beings to whom, as the natural authors of all good and of nothing evil, we ascribe the rule and government of the world."


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