15. How the Greeks Governed Themselves. Though the Greeks lived in a small land and all spoke the same language, they had no single king or common government. They did, indeed, regard each other as brothers and called all who did not speak their tongue "barbarians." Yet their cities could seldom agree, and often fought against each other in savage wars.

Since the people of each little plain were shut off from their neighbors by mountains they loved to rule themselves in their own way. On some central hill, easy of defense, they built shining temples to their protecting gods, and close under these clustered the white dwellings of the townsfolk. Round about, strong walls were set up to shield them from their enemies. Those who preferred to live on their little farms in the country, however, had also a share in the common life and might take refuge behind the fortifications when invaders appeared. Such a little state the Greeks called a "city." And to the Greek his city was his fatherland. In it he usually spent all his life. He knew all his fellow citizens well, and for his city and its gods he thought he ought to lay down his life if need came. Greece had many such cities, but the most famous are Athens and Sparta.

In early times the Greek cities had kings. But later most of them got rid of their kings and became little republics. All the citizens met from time to time in public assemblies, where they chose their officers from year to year and where any one who wished could speak about public matters.

But the Greeks always had trouble to keep their liberty. Often some rich or clever man would seize the power and compel his fellow citizens to obey him. The Greeks called such a man a "tyrant." By this word they did not mean a bad ruler, but one who had taken the government without proper authority. Some tyrants were wise and ruled well. Yet most of the Greeks did not like tyrants, and they tried hard to get rid of them.

16. Athenians and Spartans. The two greatest cities of Greece were not at all alike, and could seldom agree. The people of Athens loved new things; the people of Sparta loved old things. The Athenians loved what was beautiful; the Spartans only what had practical use. The Athenians excelled in music, in art, in learning; the Spartans.excelled in war, and thought everything else foolish.

Athens always loved liberty. She was the first great republic in the world. In her assemblies all her citizens took part in making the laws. They met on a hill called the Pnyx near the center of the city and, sitting on the stone seats which probably rose one above the other in the form of a semicircle, listened to speeches on public questions. Any citizen could speak who wished, but before doing so he must put a wreath on his head and take his stand, facing the people, beside an altar. If he spoke well the Athenians gave him loud applause and were often persuaded to vote what he wished. Exciting indeed was the contest when great speakers took different sides of a question, and the feelings of the people were swayed by their stirring words now on this side, now on that.

Because the laws of Athens were made by the Assembly, the Athenians greatly prized the power of speaking well. Every citizen was taught to speak in public and to take his share in the business of the city. But the best orators naturally had great influence. Carried away by their powerful appeals, the Athenians were often led to decide great questions rather suddenly. So it always meant much for Athens whether her most skillful speakers were wise statesmen or persons who tried to win applause by urging the people to do what was popular instead of what was best for the state.

The Athenian must serve his city not only in the Assembly but also, if need came, on the field of battle, so he was trained to handle spear and shield and to be a soldier. In war the Athenians were always brave and quick. The little Atnenlan boy went to two schools,—the music school and the wrestling school. About daylight he set out from home under the care of a faithful old slave, and meeting other boys of the neighborhood at some appointed place, marched with them to his task. Squatting on the floor or seated on low benches, the little Athenians were soon learning from the master of the music school how to read and write and to do very simple examples in arithmetic by means of a counting machine. But the master wanted most of all to have them learn the stirring poems of Homer and of the other famous poets, to play well on musical instruments, and to sing. The Athenians always felt it made people nobler to love music. In the wrestling school the youths learned to climb, to run, to jump, to dance, and to throw the javelin.

When the boys were fifteen they went to a higher kind of school for physical training called the gymnasium. Here they were taught to be athletes and to compete in the games.

At eighteen the young Athenian was ready to become a citizen. Now came a great ceremony, when all the youth were brought to the public assembly and, before all the grown men of the city, given spear and shield. Raising their hands, they swore that they would never disgrace their arms or desert a companion in the ranks, that they would obey the laws of Athens and the religion of the city, and that when the time came they would give over Athens to their children greater than they had received it. The boys then marched away to be trained in arms and to servO as soldiers for two years. When they returned they were free to live as they pleased and to share in all the advantages and pleasures of their beautiful city. But though every citizen was thus ready to fight as a soldier, the Athenians cared for many other things besides war.

As Athens was near the sea, many of her people became merchants and grew rich. Athenian sailors were bold and skillful, and Athens had more ships than any other city of Greece. Her people loved objects of beauty, and spared no expense in erecting public buildings and statues of the gods. But most of all, Athenians loved to talk and debate with each other and to learn what was new. Eagerly did they listen to the philosophers or wise men, like Socrates and Plato, who taught new ideas about life and the world. From all Greece wise men came to Athens, where they knew they would be heard.

But the Athenians had their faults. Too often they changed their minds. Then also, though they believed in liberty for themselves, their city was filled with slaves who had to do nearly all the hard work and had few rights. In this respect, however, the Athenians were only like all the other Greeks, and indeed like all other ancient peoples.

Unlike the Athenians, the Spartans lived as if always at war. When the Spartan boy was only seven he was taken from home altogether and made to live in barracks. He was trained to run, to jump, to wrestle, but especially to carry arms and to use the spear and shield. Above all he was taught to endure fatigue, pain, and hunger, and never to cry out if hurt. The Spartan soldier must never run from the enemy, and if he lost his shield in battle he was disgraced for life. Of learning the Spartan youth was taught little. The Spartans despised useless talk, and trained their boys to say everything as directly as possible in the fewest words.

The Spartan girls, too, were given an education much like that of the boys. They also were taught to run, to wrestle, to box, and to be strong and vigorous.

When the Spartan boy grew up he still gave all his time to warlike exercise. He must live with his messmates, and could not return home to stay until he was thirty. Even then he must not be a merchant or a workman. These pursuits were held unworthy of a Spartan.

Perhaps this warlike life of the Spartans was necessary, for they lived amid a numerous race of people whom they had conquered and made slaves. These "Helots" the Spartans treated very cruelly, so they always feared that they would rise against them.

In many other ways Sparta was just the opposite of Athens. Because the Spartans loved old things they still had kings. Queerly enough, they always had two at the same time. Unlike Athens, Sparta had no great temples, buildings, or adornments. She did not even have walls, "except the shields of her Sons."

The Spartans were the best soldiers and athletes in Greece, but they did little to make the world wiser of happier. Yet they gave us a wonderful example of courage and devotion to duty. When a man gladly sacrifices himself for his country we still say, "He died like a Spartan."

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© 2000 by Lynn Waterman