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A Tale of the Fall of Athens

"_Athenae Lysandro superfuerunt: occiso Socrate tum demum civitas
eversa est._"



_Professor of Latin in University College, London_


The Chautauqua-Century Press

Copyright, 1891,

_The Chautauqua-Century Press, Meadville, Pa., U. S. A._
Electrotyped, Printed and Bound by Flood & Vincent.




A Tale of the Fall of Athens.



It is the second year of the ninety-third Olympiad[1] and the Theatre at
Athens is full, for the great dramatic season is at its height, and
to-day there is to be performed a new play by Aristophanes, the special
favorite of the Athenian public. It is a brilliant scene, but a keen
observer, who happened to see the same gathering some five and twenty
years ago, must now notice a certain falling off in its splendor. For
these five and twenty years have been years of war, and latterly, years
of disaster. Eleven years ago, the City wild with the pride of power and
wealth, embarked on the mad scheme of conquering Sicily, and lost the
finest fleet and army that it ever possessed. Since then it has been a
struggle for life with it, and year by year it has been growing weaker
and weaker. This has told sadly on the glories of its great festivals.
The furnishing of the stage, indeed, is as perfect as ever, and the
building itself has been pushed on several stages towards completion.[2]
However scarce money may be in the public treasury, the theatre must not
be starved. But elsewhere there are manifest signs of falling off. The
strangers' gallery is almost empty. All the Greek world from Massilia in
Gaul to Cyrene among the sands of Africa used to throng it in happier
days. Now more than half that world is hostile, and the rest has little
to hope or fear from the dispossessed mistress of the seas. Dionysius of
Syracuse, has sent an embassy, and the democracy, which once would have
treated with scant courtesy the representatives of a tyrant, is fain to
flatter so powerful a prince. There are some Persian Envoys too, for the
Persians are still following their old game of playing off one great
state against another. A few Greeks from Sinope and from one of the
Italian cities, persons of no importance, who would hardly have found a
place in the gallery during the palmy times of Athens, make up the
company of visitors. Look at the body of the theatre, where the citizens
sit, and the spectacle is deplorable indeed. The flower of Athens' sons
has perished, and their successors are puny and degenerate. Examine too
the crowd that throngs the benches, and you will see that the slaves,
distinguished by their unsleeved tunics, fill up no small portion of
space. And boys form an unusually large proportion of the audience.
Altogether the theatre is a dispiriting sight to a patriotic Athenian.

To-day, however, all is gaiety, for, as has been said, there is a new
play to be brought out, and an Athenian must be in desperate straits
indeed, if he cannot forget his sorrows at a new play.

When the curtain rises, or rather, is withdrawn, as the Greek
arrangement was, into an opening in the floor of the stage, a murmur of
recognition runs through the audience. The scene is the market place of
Thebes, and a familiar figure occupies the foreground.

The portly figure, the ruddy face, the vine-leaf crown, and the buskins
show him to be Bacchus, the patron-god, it will be remembered, of the
Drama. But why this lion's skin and club? The god gives a lordly kick at
the door of the house which was one of the familiar stage-properties,
and Hercules appears. He roars with laughter to see his own emblems in
such strange company. Bacchus explains. "The tragic poets grow worse and
worse. There is not one who can write a decent line. I am going down to
the regions of the dead to fetch Euripides,[3] and thought that I had
better dress myself up in your fashion, for you, I know, made this same
journey very successfully. Perhaps you will tell me something about the
way, and what inns you can recommend, where they are free from fleas,
you know."

"Are you really going?"

"Yes, yes. Don't try to dissuade me; but tell me the way, which must not
be either too hot or too cold."

"Well there is the Hanging way, by the sign of the Rope and Noose."

"Too stifling."

"There is a very short cut by the Mortar and Pestle."

"The Hemlock road,[4] you mean?"

"Exactly so."

"Too cold and wintry for me."

"Well; I'll tell you of a quick road and all downhill."

"Excellent! for I am not a good walker."

"You know the tower in the Cemetery? Well; climb up to the top when the
Torch race is going to begin; and when the people cry out 'start,' start

"How do you mean 'start'? Start from where?"

"Why, start down from the top."

"What, and dash my brains out? No, not for me, thank you."

So it is settled that Bacchus and his slave, for he has a slave with him
to carry his baggage, shall take the usual route by the Styx.

To the Styx, accordingly, they make their way. Charon the ferryman is
plying for hire, "Any one for Rest-from-toil-and-labor Land? For
No-Mansland? For the Isle of Dogs?[5]"

Bacchus steps in, and by Charon's order, takes an oar which he handles
very helplessly. The slave has to go round: Charon does not carry
slaves, he says. As they slowly make their way across, the frogs from
the marsh raise the song of their kind, ending with the burden which is
supposed to represent their note, _Brekekekex, coax, coax_.

It is pitch dark on the further side. When the slave turns up, he
advises his master to go on at once. "'Tis the very spot," he says,
"where Hercules told us those terrible wild beasts were." Bacchus is
very valiant.

"A curse upon him! 'twas an idle tale,
He feigned to frighten me, for well he knew,
How brave I am, the envious braggart soul!
Grant, fortune, I may meet some perilous chance
Meet for so bold a journey."

"O Master, I hear a noise."

"Where, where?"

"It is behind us."

"Get behind then."

"No - it is in front."

"Why don't you go in front?"

"O Master, I see such a Monster."

"What is it like?"

"Why! it keeps on changing - now it's a bull, now it's a stag, and now
it's a woman; and its face is all fire. What shall we do? O Hercules,
Hercules help."

"Hold your tongue. Don't call me Hercules."

"Bacchus, then."

"No, no; Bacchus is worse than Hercules."

The travellers pass these dangers, and reach the palace of Pluto.
Bacchus knocks at the door. "Who's there?" cries Æacus the porter. "The
valiant Hercules," says Bacchus. The name calls forth a torrent of
reproaches, and threats. Hercules was only too well remembered there.

"O villain, villain, doubly, trebly dyed!
'Twas thou didst take our dog, our guardian dog,
Sweet Cerberus, my charge. But, villain, now
We have thee on the hip. For thee the rocks
Of Styx, and Acheron's dripping well of blood,
And Hell's swift hounds encompass."

"Did you hear that dreadful voice?" says Bacchus to the slave. "Didn't
it frighten you?"

"Frighten me? No, I didn't give it a thought."

"Well, you are a bold fellow. I say; suppose you become me, and I become
you. Take the club and the lion skin, and I'll carry the baggage."

"As you please."

They change parts accordingly. No sooner is this done, than a waiting
maid of Queen Proserpine appears. "My dear Hercules," she says, "come
with me. As soon as my mistress heard of your being here she had a grand
baking, made four or five gallons of soup, and roasted an ox whole."

"Excellent," cries the false Hercules.

"She won't take a refusal. And, hark you! there's _such_ wine!"

"I shall be delighted. Boy, bring along the baggage with you."

"Hold," cries the "boy." "Don't you see it was a joke of mine, dressing
you up as Hercules? Come, hand over the club and the skin."

"You are not going to take the things away when you gave me them

"Yes, but I am: a pretty Hercules you would be. Come, hand them over."

"Well; if I must, I must. But I shouldn't wonder if you were sorry for
it sooner or later."

It turns out to be sooner rather than later. As soon as the exchange is
made, two landladies appear on the scene. Hercules had committed other
misdemeanors besides stealing the dog.

_First Landlady._ "This is the villain. He came to my house, and ate
sixteen loaves."

_The Slave_ (aside). "Some one is getting into trouble."

_First Landlady._ "Yes, and twenty fried cutlets at three-half-pence

_The Slave_ (aside). "Some one will suffer for this."

_First Landlady._ "Yes, and any quantity of garlic."

_Bacchus._ "Woman this is all rubbish. I don't know what you are talking

_First Landlady._ "Ah! you villain, because you have buskins on, you
thought I should not know you - and then there was the salt-fish."

_Second Landlady._ "Yes, and the fresh cheeses which he ate, baskets and
all; and when I asked him for the money he drew his sword, and we ran
up, you remember, into the attic."

_The Slave._ "That is just the man. That's how he goes on everywhere."

The angry women run off to fetch their lawyers; and Bacchus begins

"My dear boy, I am very fond of you."

"I know what you are after. Say no more; I'm not going to be Hercules;
'A pretty Hercules I should make,' you say."

"I don't wonder that you're angry. But do take the things again. The
gods destroy me and mine, root and branch, if I rob you of them again."

"Very well; I'll take them, but mind, you have sworn."

So the exchange is made again.

Then Æacus with his infernal policemen appears on the scene.

"That's the fellow who stole the dog," he cries to his men, "seize him,"
while the false slave murmurs aside, "Some one is getting into trouble."

"I steal your dog!" says the false Hercules. "I have never been here,
much less stolen the worth of a cent. But come. I'll make you a fair
offer. Here's my slave. Take him, and put him to the torture, and if you
get anything out of him against me, then cut my head off."

"Very fair," says Æacus; "and of course, if I do him any damage, I shall
pay for it."

"Never mind about the damage; torture away."

"Hold," shouts Bacchus, as the policemen lay hold of him, "I warn you
not to torture me, I'm a god."

_Æacus._ "What do you say?"

_Bacchus._ "I am Bacchus, son of Zeus, and that fellow there is my

_Æacus_ (to the false Bacchus) "What do you say to that?"

_The false Bacchus._ "Say? Lay on the lash; if he's a god, of course he
can't feel."

_Bacchus._ "And you're a god too, you say. So you won't mind taking blow
for blow with me."

_The false Bacchus._ "Quite right." (To Æacus) "Lay on, and the first
that cries out, you may be sure he's not the real god."

So the trial takes place. Both bear it bravely, till at last Æacus cries
in perplexity. "I can't make it out. I don't know which is which. Well,
you shall both come to my master and Queen Proserpine. They're gods, and
they ought to know their own kind."

_Bacchus._ "An excellent idea; I only wish that you had thought of it
before you gave me that beating."

Things are now supposed to be set right. Bacchus goes to dine with Pluto
and Proserpine; the slave is entertained by Æacus in the servants' hall.
While they are talking a tremendous uproar is heard outside; and Æacus
explains to his guest that it is a rule in their country that the best
poet or writer or artist should have a seat at the King's table and a
place at the King's right hand. This honor Æschylus had held as the
first of the tragic poets, but when Euripides came, all the crowd of
pick-pockets and burglars and murderers, who were pretty numerous in
these parts, had been so delighted with his twists and turns, that they
were for giving him the first place; and on the strength of their
support he had claimed the tragic throne.

"But had not Æschylus any friends?"

"O yes, among the respectable people; but respectable people are scarce
down here, as they are up above."

"What about Sophocles?"

"Oh! as soon as he came, he went up to Æschylus and kissed him on the
cheek, and took him by the hand. He yielded the throne, he said, to
Æschylus; but if Euripides came off best, he should contest it with

"Well, what is going to be done?"

"There will be a trial."

"Who is to be judge?"

"Ah! there's the difficulty. Wise men, you see, are not so plenty. Even
with the Athenians Æschylus didn't get on very well. However they have
made your master judge. He is supposed to know all about it."

I have tried to give some idea of the first, the farcical half of the
play. It is possible to appreciate the fun, though much of its flavor
has evaporated, and there are many strokes of humor which, for one
reason or another, it has not been possible to reproduce. The second
half is a series of subtle literary criticisms on the language, style,
dramatic construction, and ruling sentiment of the two poets. No one can
appreciate it who is not familiar with their works; no version is
possible that would give any that idea of it. One specimen I shall
attempt. Æschylus finds fault with the prosaic matter-of-fact character
of his rival's opening scenes. "I'll spoil them all with a flask," he
says. "Go on and repeat whichever you please." Euripides begins with the
opening lines of the Danaides (a play now lost).

"Aegyptus - so the common story runs -
Crossed with his fifty sons the ocean plains,
And reaching Argos - "

"Lost a little flask."

puts in Æschylus.

He begins again with the opening lines of another

"Cadmus, Agenor's offspring, setting sail
From Sidon's city - "

"Lost a little flask."

Then he tries with the first lines of a third

"Great Bacchus, who with wand and fawn-skin decked,
In pine-groves of Parnassus, plies the dance,
And leads the revel - "

"Lost a little flask."

The reader may have had enough. It will suffice to give the result of
the contest. All the tests have been applied. Euripides, as a last
resource, reminds the judge that he has sworn to take him back with

Bacchus replies:

"My tongue hath sworn; yet Æschylus I choose."

A cruel cut, for it is an adaptation of one of the poet's own lines
(from the Hippolytus) when the hero, taunted with the oath that he had
taken and is about to violate, replies:

"My tongue hath sworn it, but my mind's unsworn."

When the curtain rose from the floor and hid the last scene, it was
manifest that the "Frogs" of Aristophanes, son of Philippus, of the
tribe Pandionis, and the township Cydathenæa, was a success. Of course
there were malcontents among the audience. Euripides had a good many
partisans in young Athens. They admired his ingenuity, his rhetoric, and
the artistic quality of his verse, in which beauty for beauty's sake,
quite apart from any moral purpose, seemed to be aimed at. They were
captivated by the boldness and novelty of his treatment of things moral
and religious. Æschylus they considered to be old-fashioned and bigoted.
Hence among the seats allotted to the young men there had been some
murmurs of dissent while the performance was going on, and now there was
a good deal of adverse criticism. And there were some among the older
men who were scarcely satisfied. The fact was that Comedy was undergoing
a change, the change which before twenty more years had passed was to
turn the Old Comedy into the Middle and the New, or to put the matter
briefly, to change the Comedy of Politics into the Comedy of Manners.

"This is poor stuff," said an old aristocrat of this school, "poor stuff
indeed, after what I remember in my younger days. Why can't the man
leave Euripides alone, especially now he is dead, and won't bother us
with any more of his plays? There are plenty of scoundrel politicians
who might to much more purpose come in for a few strokes of the lash.
But he daren't touch the fellows. Ah! it was not always so. I remember
the play he brought out eighteen years ago. The 'Knights' he called it.
That was something like a Comedy! Cleon was at the very height of his
power, for he had just made that lucky stroke at Pylos[6]. But
Aristophanes did not spare him one bit for that. He could not get any
one to take the part; he could not even get a mask made to imitate the
great man's face. So he took the part himself, and smeared his face with
the lees of wine. Cleon was there in the Magistrates' seats. I think we
all looked at him as much as we looked at the stage. Whenever there was
a hard hit - and, by Bacchus, how hard the hits were! - all the theatre
turned to see how he bore it. He laughed at first. Then we saw him turn
red and pale - I was close by him and I heard him grind his teeth. Good
heavens! what a rage he was in! Well, that is the sort of a play I like
to see, not this splitting words, and picking verses to pieces, just as
some schoolmaster might do."

But, in spite of these criticisms, the greater part of the audience were
highly delighted with what they had seen and heard. The comic business,
with its broad and laughable effects, pleased them, and they were
flattered by being treated as judges of literary questions. And the
curious thing was that they were not unfit to be judges of such matters.
There never was such a well-educated and keen-witted audience in the
world. They knew it, and they dearly liked to be treated accordingly.
The judges only echoed the popular voice when at the end of the festival
they bestowed the first prize upon Aristophanes.

One criticism, strange to say, no one ever thought of making - and yet,
to us, it seems the first, the most obvious of all criticisms, and that
is that the play was horribly profane. This cowardly, drunken, sensual
Bacchus - and he is ten times worse in the original than I have ventured
to make him here - this despicable wretch was one of the gods whom every
one in the audience was supposed to worship. The festival which was the
occasion of the theatrical exhibition was held in his honor, his altar
was the centre round which the whole action of every piece revolved. And
yet he was caricatured in this audacious manner, and it did not occur to
anyone to object! Verily the religion of the Greeks sat very lightly on
their consciences, and we cannot wonder if it had but small effect on
their lives.


[1] According to our reckoning B. C. 406.

[2] It was not actually finished till twenty-three years later.

[3] Euripides had died a few months before.

[4] The Athenians used to inflict the penalty of death by a draught of

[5] For the "Crows" in the original. "Going to the crows" was the first
equivalent for our "Going to the dogs." The "Isle of Dogs" is a
wellknown spot near London.

[6] When he captured the Spartan garrison of the Island of Sphacteria,
B. C. 425.



I anticipated the course of my story when I spoke of the first prize
being adjudged to the comedy exhibited by Aristophanes. There were
various competing plays - how many we do not know, but the titles and
authors of two that won the second and third prizes have been
preserved - and all those had of course to be performed before a decision
could be made. Two or three days at least must have passed before the
exhibition was at an end.

The next competitor had certainly reason to complain of his ill-luck.
Just before the curtain fell for the opening scene of his comedy an
incident occurred which made the people little disposed to listen to
anything more that day. The spectators had just settled themselves in
their places, when a young officer hastily made his way up to the bench
where the magistrates were seated, and handed a roll to the president.
The occurrence was very unusual. It was reckoned almost an impiety to
disturb the festival of Bacchus with anything of business; only matters
of the very gravest importance could be allowed to do it. The entrance
of the young man, happening as it did, just in the pause of expectation
before the new play began, had been generally observed. Every one could
see from his dress that he was a naval officer, and many knew him as
one of the most promising young men in Athens. "News from the fleet,"
was the whisper that ran through the theatre, and there were few among
the thousands there assembled to whom news from the fleet did not mean
the life or death of father, brother, or son. The president glanced at
the document put into his hands, and whispering a few words to the
messenger, pointed to a seat by his side. All eyes were fastened upon
him. (The magistrates, it may be explained, occupied one of the front or
lowest rows of seats, and were therefore more or less in view of the
whole theater, which was arranged in the form of a semicircle, with tier
upon tier of benches rising upon the slope of the hill on the side of
which the building was constructed.) When a moment afterwards, the
curtain was withdrawn, scarcely a glance was directed to the stage. The
action and the dialogue of the new piece were absolutely lost upon what
should have been an audience, but was a crowd of anxious citizens,
suddenly recalled from the shows of the stage to the realities of life.

The president now carefully read the document and passed it on to his
colleagues. Some whispered consultations passed between them. When at
the end of the first act a change of scenery caused a longer pause than
usual the president quietly left the theatre, taking the bearer of the
despatch with him. Some of the other magistrates followed him, the rest
remaining behind because it would have been unseemly to leave the
official seats wholly untenanted while the festival was still going on.
This proceeding increased the agitation of the people, because it
emphasized the importance of the news that had arrived. Some slipped
away, unable to sit quietly in their places and endure the suspense, and
vaguely hoping to hear something more outside. Among those that remained
the buzz of conversation grew louder and louder. Only a few very
determined play-goers even pretended to listen to what was going on upon
the stage. Meanwhile the unfortunate author, to whom, after all, the
fate of his play was not less urgent a matter than the fate of the city,
sat upon his prompter's stool - the author not uncomonly did the duty of

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Online LibraryAlfred John ChurchCallias. A tale of the fall of Athens → online text (page 1 of 22)