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Athens: Its Rise And Fall - Vol 1 - Book 1 - Chapter 3 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Nonfictions Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :1584

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Athens: Its Rise And Fall - Vol 1 - Book 1 - Chapter 3

VOL I BOOK I CHAPTER III

The Heroic Age.--Theseus.--His legislative Influence upon Athens.-- Qualities of the Greek Heroes.--Effect of a Traditional Age upon the Character of a People.


I. As one who has been journeying through the dark (84) begins at length to perceive the night breaking away in mist and shadow, so that the forms of things, yet uncertain and undefined, assume an exaggerated and gigantic outline, half lost amid the clouds,--so now, through the obscurity of fable, we descry the dim and mighty outline of the HEROIC AGE. The careful and skeptical Thucydides has left us, in the commencement of his immortal history, a masterly portraiture of the manners of those times in which individual prowess elevates the possessor to the rank of a demigod; times of unsettled law and indistinct control;--of adventure--of excitement;--of daring qualities and lofty crime. We recognise in the picture features familiar to the North: the roving warriors and the pirate kings who scoured the seas, descended upon unguarded coasts, and deemed the exercise of plunder a profession of honour, remind us of the exploits of the Scandinavian Her-Kongr, and the boding banners of the Dane. The seas of Greece tempted to piratical adventures: their numerous isles, their winding bays, and wood-clad shores, proffered ample enterprise to the bold-- ample booty to the rapacious; the voyages were short for the inexperienced, the refuges numerous for the defeated. In early ages, valour is the true virtue--it dignifies the pursuits in which it is engaged, and the profession of a pirate was long deemed as honourable in the Aegean as among the bold rovers of the Scandinavian race (85). If the coast was thus exposed to constant incursion and alarm, neither were the interior recesses of the country more protected from the violence of marauders. The various tribes that passed into Greece, to colonize or conquer, dislodged from their settlements many of the inhabitants, who, retreating up the country, maintained themselves by plunder, or avenged themselves by outrage. The many crags and mountains, the caverns and the woods, which diversify the beautiful land of Greece, afforded their natural fortresses to these barbarous hordes. The chief who had committed a murder, or aspired unsuccessfully to an unsteady throne, betook himself, with his friends, to some convenient fastness, made a descent on the surrounding villages, and bore off the women or the herds, as lust or want excited to the enterprise. No home was safe, no journey free from peril, and the Greeks passed their lives in armour. Thus, gradually, the profession and system of robbery spread itself throughout Greece, until the evil became insufferable--until the public opinion of all the states and tribes, in which society had established laws, was enlisted against the freebooter--until it grew an object of ambition to rid the neighbourhood of a scourge--and the success of the attempt made the glory of the adventurer. Then naturally arose the race of heroes--men who volunteered to seek the robber in his hold--and, by the gratitude of a later age, the courage of the knight-errant was rewarded with the sanctity of the demigod. At that time, too, internal circumstances in the different states-- whether from the predominance of, or the resistance to, the warlike Hellenes, had gradually conspired to raise a military and fierce aristocracy above the rest of the population; and as arms became the instruments of renown and power, so the wildest feats would lead to the most extended fame.

II. The woods and mountains of Greece were not then cleared of the first rude aboriginals of nature--wild beasts lurked within its caverns;--wolves abounded everywhere--herds of wild bulls, the large horns of which Herodotus names with admiration, were common; and even the lion himself, so late as the invasion of Xerxes, was found in wide districts from the Thracian Abdera to the Acarnanian Achelous. Thus, the feats of the early heroes appear to have been mainly directed against the freebooter or the wild beast; and among the triumphs of Hercules are recorded the extermination of the Lydian robbers, the death of Cacus, and the conquest of the lion of Nemea and the boar of Erymanthus.

Hercules himself shines conspicuously forth the great model of these useful adventurers. There is no doubt that a prince (86), so named, actually existed in Greece; and under the title of the Theban Hercules, is to be carefully distinguished, both from the god of Egypt and the peaceful Hercules of Phoenicia (87), whose worship was not unknown to the Greeks previous to the labours of his namesake. As the name of Hercules was given to the Theban hero (originally called Alcaeus), in consequence of his exploits, it may be that his countrymen recognised in his character or his history something analogous to the traditional accounts of the Eastern god. It was the custom of the early Greeks to attribute to one man the actions which he performed in concert with others, and the reputation of Hercules was doubtless acquired no less as the leader of an army than by the achievements of his personal prowess. His fame and his success excited the emulation of his contemporaries, and pre-eminent among these ranks the Athenian Theseus.

III. In the romance which Plutarch has bequeathed to us, under the title of a "History of Theseus," we seem to read the legends of our own fabulous days of chivalry. The adventures of an Amadis or a Palmerin are not more knightly nor more extravagant.

According to Plutarch, Aegeus, king of Athens, having no children, went to Delphi to consult the oracle how that misfortune might be repaired. He was commanded not to approach any woman till he returned to Athens; but the answer was couched in mystic and allegorical terms, and the good king was rather puzzled than enlightened by the reply. He betook himself therefore to Troezene, a small town in Peloponnesus, founded by Pittheus, of the race of Pelops, a man eminent in that day for wisdom and sagacity. He communicated to him the oracle, and besought his interpretation. Something there was in the divine answer which induced Pittheus to draw the Athenian king into an illicit intercourse with his own daughter, Aethra. The princess became with child; and, before his departure from Troezene, Aegeus deposited a sword and a pair of sandals in a cavity concealed by a huge stone (88), and left injunctions with Aethra that, should the fruit of their intercourse prove a male child, and able, when grown up, to remove the stone, she should send him privately to Athens with the sword and sandals in proof of his birth; for Aegeus had a brother named Pallas, who, having a large family of sons, naturally expected, from the failure of the direct line, to possess himself or his children of the Athenian throne; and the king feared, should the secret of his intercourse with Aethra be discovered before the expected child had arrived to sufficient strength to protect himself, that either by treason or assassination the sons of Pallas would despoil the rightful heir of his claim to the royal honours. Aethra gave birth to Theseus, and Pittheus concealed the dishonour of his family by asserting that Neptune, the god most honoured at Troezene, had condescended to be the father of the child:--the gods were very convenient personages in those days. As the boy grew up, he evinced equal strength of body and nobleness of mind; and at length the time arrived when Aethra communicated to him the secret of his birth, and led him to the stone which concealed the tokens of his origin. He easily removed it, and repaired by land to Athens.

At that time, as I have before stated, Greece was overrun by robbers: Hercules had suppressed them for awhile; but the Theban hero was now at the feet of the Lydian Omphale, and the freebooters had reappeared along the mountainous recesses of the Peloponnesus; the journey by land was therefore not only longer, but far more perilous, than a voyage by sea, and Pittheus earnestly besought his grandson to prefer the latter. But it was the peril of the way that made its charm in the eyes of the young hero, and the fame of Hercules had long inspired his dreams by night (89), and his thoughts by day. With his father's sword, then, he repaired to Athens. Strange and wild were the adventures that befell him. In Epidauria he was attacked by a celebrated robber, whom he slew, and whose club he retained as his favourite weapon. In the Isthmus, Sinnis, another bandit, who had been accustomed to destroy the unfortunate travellers who fell in his way by binding them to the boughs of two pine trees (so that when the trees, released, swung back to their natural position, the victim was torn asunder, limb by limb), was punished by the same death he had devised for others; and here occurs one of those anecdotes illustrative of the romance of the period, and singularly analogous to the chivalry of Northern fable, which taught deference to women, and rewarded by the smiles of the fair the exploits of the bold. Sinnis, "the pine bender," had a daughter remarkable for beauty, who concealed herself amid the shrubs and rushes in terror of the victor. Theseus discovered her, praying, says Plutarch, in childish innocence or folly, to the plants and bushes, and promising, if they would shelter her, never to destroy or burn them. A graceful legend, that reminds us of the rich inventions of Spenser. But Theseus, with all gentle words and soothing vows, allured the maiden from her retreat, and succeeded at last in obtaining her love and its rewards.

Continued adventures--the conquest of Phaea, a wild sow (or a female robber, so styled from the brutality of her life)--the robber Sciron cast headlong from a precipice--Procrustes stretched on his own bed-- attested the courage and fortune of the wanderer, and at length he arrived at the banks of the Cephisus. Here he was saluted by some of the Phytalidae, a sacred family descended from Phytalus, the beloved of Ceres, and was duly purified from the blood of the savages he had slain. Athens was the first place at which he was hospitably entertained. He arrived at an opportune moment; the Colchian Medea, of evil and magic fame, had fled from Corinth and taken refuge with Aegeus, whose affections she had insnared. By her art she promised him children to supply his failing line, and she gave full trial to the experiment by establishing herself the partner of the royal couch. But it was not likely that the numerous sons of Pallas would regard this connexion with indifference, and faction and feud reigned throughout the city. Medea discovered the secret of the birth of Theseus; and, resolved by poison to rid herself of one who would naturally interfere with her designs on Aegeus, she took advantage of the fear and jealousies of the old king, and persuaded him to become her accomplice in the premeditated crime. A banquet, according to the wont of those hospitable times, was given to the stranger. The king was at the board, the cup of poison at hand, when Theseus, wishing to prepare his father for the welcome news he had to divulge, drew the sword or cutlass which Aegeus had made the token of his birth, and prepared to carve with it the meat that was set before him. The sword caught the eye of the king--he dashed the poison to the ground, and after a few eager and rapid questions, recognised his son in his intended victim. The people were assembled--Theseus was acknowledged by the king, and received with joy by the multitude, who had already heard of the feats of the hero. The traditionary place where the poison fell was still shown in the time of Plutarch. The sons of Pallas ill brooked the arrival and acknowledgment of this unexpected heir to the throne. They armed themselves and their followers, and prepared for war. But one half of their troops, concealed in ambush, were cut off by Theseus (instructed in their movements by the treachery of a herald), and the other half, thus reduced, were obliged to disperse. So Theseus remained the undisputed heir to the Athenian throne.

IV. It would be vain for the historian, but delightful for the poet, to follow at length this romantic hero through all his reputed enterprises. I can only rapidly sketch the more remarkable. I pass, then, over the tale how he captured alive the wild bull of Marathon, and come at once to that expedition to Crete, which is indissolubly intwined with immortal features of love and poetry. It is related that Androgeus, a son of Minos, the celebrated King of Crete, and by his valour worthy of such a sire, had been murdered in Attica; some suppose by the jealousies of Aegeus, who appears to have had a singular distrust of all distinguished strangers. Minos retaliated by a war which wasted Attica, and was assisted in its ravages by the pestilence and the famine. The oracle of Apollo, which often laudably reconciled the quarrels of princes, terminated the contest by enjoining the Athenians to appease the just indignation of Minos. They despatched, therefore, ambassadors to Crete, and consented, in token of submission, to send every ninth year a tribute of seven virgins and seven young men. The little intercourse that then existed between states, conjoined with the indignant grief of the parents at the loss of their children, exaggerated the evil of the tribute. The hostages were said by the Athenians to be exposed in an intricate labyrinth, and devoured by a monster, the creature of unnatural intercourse, half man half bull; but the Cretans, certainly the best authority in the matter, stripped the account of the fable, and declared that the labyrinth was only a prison in which the youths and maidens were confined on their arrival--that Minos instituted games in honour of Androgeus, and that the Athenian captives were the prize of the victors. The first victor was the chief of the Cretan army, named Taurus, and he, being fierce and unmerciful, treated the slaves he thus acquired with considerable cruelty. Hence the origin of the labyrinth and the Minotaur. And Plutarch, giving this explanation of the Cretans, cites Aristotle to prove that the youths thus sent were not put to death by Minos, but retained in servile employments, and that their descendants afterward passed into Thrace, and were called Bottiaeans. We must suppose, therefore, in consonance not only with these accounts, but the manners of the age, that the tribute was merely a token of submission, and the objects of it merely considered as slaves. (90)

Of Minos himself all accounts are uncertain. There seems no sufficient ground to doubt, indeed, his existence, nor the extended power which, during his reign, Crete obtained in Greece. It is most probable that it was under Phoenician influence that Crete obtained its maritime renown; but there is no reason to suppose Minos himself Phoenician.

After the return of Theseus, the time came when the tribute to Crete was again to be rendered. The people murmured their dissatisfaction. "It was the guilt of Aegeus," said they, "which caused the wrath of Minos, yet Aegeus alone escaped its penalty; their lawful children were sacrificed to the Cretan barbarity, but the doubtful and illegitimate stranger, whom Aegeus had adopted, went safe and free." Theseus generously appeased these popular tumults: he insisted on being himself included in the seven.

V. Twice before had this human tribute been sent to Crete; and in token of the miserable and desperate fate which, according to vulgar belief, awaited the victims, a black sail had been fastened to the ship.

But this time, Aegeus, inspired by the cheerful confidence of his son, gave the pilot a white sail, which he was to hoist, if, on his return, he bore back Theseus in safety: if not, the black was once more to be the herald of an unhappier fate. It is probable that Theseus did not esteem this among the most dangerous of his adventures. At the court of the wise Pittheus, or in the course of his travels, he had doubtless heard enough of the character of Minos, the greatest and most sagacious monarch of his time, to be convinced that the son of the Athenian king would have little to fear from his severity. He arrived at Crete, and obtained the love of Ariadne, the daughter of Minos. Now follows a variety of contradictory accounts, the most probable and least poetical of which are given by Plutarch; but as he concludes them all by the remark that none are of certainty, it is a needless task to repeat them: it suffices to relate, that either with or without the consent of Minos, Theseus departed from Crete, in company with Ariadne, and that by one means or the other he thenceforth freed the Athenians from the payment of the accustomed tribute. As it is obvious that with the petty force with which, by all accounts, he sailed to Crete, he could not have conquered the powerful Minos in his own city, so it is reasonable to conclude, as one of the traditions hath it, that the king consented to his alliance with his daughter, and, in consequence of that marriage, waived all farther claim to the tribute of the Athenians. (91)

Equal obscurity veils the fate of the loving Ariadne; but the supposition which seems least objectionable is, that Theseus was driven by storm either on Cyprus or Naxos, and Ariadne being then with child, and rendered ill by the violence of the waves, was left on shore by her lover while he returned to take charge of his vessel; that she died in childbed, and that Theseus, on his return, was greatly afflicted, and instituted an annual festival in her honour. While we adopt the story most probable in itself, and most honourable to the character of the Athenian hero, we cannot regret the various romance which is interwoven with the tale of the unfortunate Cretan, since it has given us some of the most beautiful inventions of poetry;--the Labyrinth love-lighted by Ariadne--the Cretan maid deserted by the stranger with whom she fled--left forlorn and alone on the Naxian shore--and consoled by Bacchus and his satyr horde.

VI. Before he arrived at Athens, Theseus rested at Delos, where he is said to have instituted games, and to have originated the custom of crowning the victor with the palm. Meanwhile Aegeus waited the return of his son. On the Cecropian rock that yet fronts the sea, he watched the coming of the vessel and the waving of the white sail: the masts appeared--the ship approached--the white sail was not visible: in the joy and the impatience of the homeward crew, the pilot had forgotten to hoist the appointed signal, and the old man in despair threw himself from the rock and was dashed to pieces. Theseus received the news of his father's death with sorrow and lamentation. His triumph and return were recorded by periodical festivals, in which the fate of Aegeus was typically alluded to, and the vessel of thirty oars with which he had sailed to Crete was preserved by the Athenians to the times of Demetrius the Phalerean--so often new-pieced and repaired, that it furnished a favourite thesis to philosophical disputants, whether it was or was not the same vessel which Theseus had employed.

VII. Possessed of the supreme power, Theseus now bent his genius to the task of legislation, and in this part of his life we tread upon firmer ground, because the most judicious of the ancient historians (92) expressly attributes to the son of Aegeus those enactments which so mainly contributed to consolidate the strength and union of the Athenian people.

Although Cecrops is said to have brought the tribes of Attica under one government, yet it will be remembered that he had divided the territory into twelve districts, with a fortress or capital to each. By degrees these several districts had become more and more distinct from each other, and in many cases of emergency it was difficult to obtain a general assembly or a general concurrence of the people; nay, differences had often sprung up between the tribes, which had been adjusted, not as among common citizens, by law, but as among jealous enemies, by arms and bloodshed. It was the master policy of Theseus to unite these petty commonwealths in one state. He applied in person, and by all the arte of persuasion, to each tribe: the poor he found ready enough to listen to an invitation which promised them the shelter of a city, and the protection of a single government from the outrage of many tyrants: the rich and the powerful were more jealous of their independent, scattered, and, as it were, feudal life. But these he sought to conciliate by promises that could not but flatter that very prejudice of liberty which naturally at first induced them to oppose his designs. He pledged his faith to a constitution which should leave the power in the hands of the many. He himself, as monarch, desired only the command in war, and in peace the guardianship of laws he was equally bound to obey. Some were induced by his persuasions, others by the fear of his power, until at length he obtained his object. By common consent he dissolved the towns'-corporations and councils in each separate town, and built in Athens one common prytaneum or council-hall, existent still in the time of Plutarch. He united the scattered streets and houses of the citadel, and the new town that had grown up along the plain, by the common name of "Athens," and instituted the festival of the Panathenaea, in honour of the guardian goddess of the city, and as a memorial of the confederacy. Adhering then to his promises, he set strict and narrow limits to the regal power, created, under the name of eupatrids or well-born, an hereditary nobility, and divided into two orders (the husbandmen and mechanics) the remainder of the people. The care of religion, the explanation of the laws, and the situations of magistrates, were the privilege of the nobles. He thus laid the foundation of a free, though aristocratic constitution--according to Aristotle, the first who surrendered the absolute sway of royalty, and receiving from the rhetorical Isocrates the praise that it was a contest which should give most, the people of power, or the king of freedom. As an extensive population was necessary to a powerful state, so Theseus invited to Athens all strangers willing to share in the benefits of its protection, granting them equal security of life and law; and he set a demarcation to the territory of the state by the boundary of a pillar erected in the Isthmus, dividing Ionia from Peloponnesus. The Isthmian games in honour of Neptune were also the invention of Theseus.

VIII. Such are the accounts of the legislative enactments of Theseus. But of these we must reject much. We may believe from the account of Thucydides that jealousies among some Attic towns--which might either possess, or pretend to, an independence never completely annihilated by Cecrops and his successors, and which the settlement of foreigners of various tribes and habits would have served to increase--were so far terminated as to induce submission to the acknowledged supremacy of Athens as the Attic capital; and that the right of justice, and even of legislation, which had before been the prerogative of each separate town (to the evident weakening of the supreme and regal authority), was now concentrated in the common council-house of Athens. To Athens, as to a capital, the eupatrids of Attica would repair as a general residence (93). The city increased in population and importance, and from this period Thucydides dates the enlargement of the ancient city, by the addition of the Lower Town. That Theseus voluntarily lessened the royal power, it is not necessary to believe. In the heroic age a warlike race had sprung up, whom no Grecian monarch appears to have attempted to govern arbitrarily in peace, though they yielded implicitly to his authority in war. Himself on a newly-won and uncertain throne, it was the necessity as well as the policy of Theseus to conciliate the most powerful of his subjects. It may also be conceded, that he more strictly defined the distinctions between the nobles and the remaining classes, whether yeomen or husbandmen, mechanics or strangers; and it is recorded that the honours and the business of legislation were the province of the eupatrids. It is possible that the people might be occasionally convened--but it is clear that they had little, if any, share in the government of the state. But the mere establishment and confirmation of a powerful aristocracy, and the mere collection of the population into a capital, were sufficient to prepare the way for far more democratic institutions than Theseus himself contemplated or designed. For centuries afterward an oligarchy ruled in Athens; but, free itself, that oligarchy preserved in its monopoly the principles of liberty, expanding in their influence with the progress of society. The democracy of Athens was not an ancient, yet not a sudden, constitution. It developed itself slowly, unconsciously, continuously--passing the allotted orbit of royalty, oligarchy, aristocracy, timocracy, tyranny, till at length it arrived at its dazzling zenith, blazed--waned--and disappeared.

After the successful issue of his legislative attempts, we next hear of Theseus less as the monarch of history than as the hero of song. On these later traditions, which belong to fable, it is not necessary to dwell. Our own Coeur de Lion suggests no improbable resemblance to a spirit cast in times yet more wild and enterprising, and without seeking interpretations, after the fashion of allegory or system, of each legend, it is the most simple hypothesis, that Theseus really departed in quest of adventure from a dominion that afforded no scope for a desultory and eager ambition; and that something of truth lurks beneath many of the rich embellishments which his wanderings and exploits received from the exuberant poetry and the rude credibility of the age. During his absence, Menestheus, of the royal race of Attica, who, Plutarch simply tells us, was the first of mankind that undertook the profession of a demagogue, ingratiated himself with the people, or rather with the nobles. The absence of a king is always the nurse of seditions, and Menestheus succeeded in raising so powerful a faction against the hero, that on his return Theseus was unable to preserve himself in the government, and, pouring forth a solemn curse on the Athenians, departed to Scyros, where he either fell by accident from a precipice, or was thrown down by the king. His death at first was but little regarded; in after-times, to appease his ghost and expiate his curse, divine honours were awarded to his memory; and in the most polished age of his descendants, his supposed remains, indicated by an eagle in the skeleton of a man of giant stature, with a lance of brass and a sword by his side, were brought to Athens in the galley of Cimon, hailed by the shouts of a joyous multitude, "as if the living Theseus were come again."

X. I have not altogether discarded, while I have abridged, the legends relating to a hero who undoubtedly exercised considerable influence over his country and his time, because in those legends we trace, better than we could do by dull interpretations equally unsatisfactory though more prosaic, the effigy of the heroic age--not unillustrative of the poetry and the romance which at once formed and indicated important features in the character of the Athenians. Much of the national spirit of every people, even in its most civilized epochs, is to be traced to the influence of that age which may be called the heroic. The wild adventurers of the early Greece tended to humanize even in their excesses. It is true that there are many instances of their sternness, ferocity, and revenge;--they were insolent from the consciousness of surpassing strength;--often cruel from that contempt of life common to the warlike. But the darker side of their character is far less commonly presented to us than the brighter--they seem to have been alive to generous emotions more readily than any other race so warlike in an age so rude--their affections were fervid as their hatreds--their friendships more remarkable than their feuds. Even their ferocity was not, as with the Scandinavian heroes, a virtue and a boast--their public opinion honoured the compassionate and the clement. Thus Hercules is said first to have introduced the custom of surrendering to the enemy the corpses of their slain; and mildness, justice, and courtesy are no less his attributes than invincible strength and undaunted courage. Traversing various lands, these paladins of an elder chivalry acquired an experience of different governments and customs, which assisted on their return to polish and refine the admiring tribes which their achievements had adorned. Like the knights of a Northern mythus, their duty was to punish the oppressor and redress the wronged, and they thus fixed in the wild elements of unsettled opinion a recognised standard of generosity and of justice. Their deeds became the theme of the poets, who sought to embellish their virtues and extenuate their offences. Thus, certain models, not indeed wholly pure or excellent, but bright with many of those qualities which ennoble a national character, were set before the emulation of the aspiring and the young:--and the traditional fame of a Hercules or a Theseus assisted to inspire the souls of those who, ages afterward, broke the Mede at Marathon, and arrested the Persian might in the Pass of Thermopylae. For, as the spirit of a poet has its influence on the destiny and character of nations, so TIME itself hath his own poetry, preceding and calling forth the poetry of the human genius, and breathing inspirations, imaginative and imperishable, from the great deeds and gigantic images of an ancestral and traditionary age.

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