17. Things Which Brought the Greeks Together. Though their cities often fought each other, the Greeks had many things to draw them together. They spoke the same language, and had the same gods, and the same poems and books. They also believed in and used the same "oracles." In early times, men always believed they could communicate with the gods. The Greeks thought this could be done through oracles. These were sacred places where a priest or priestess, on being asked a question, would go into a trance and give an answer which was supposed to come from a god. The most famous oracle was that of the god Apollo at Delphi, and thither the Greeks usually went when about to undertake some important work or adventure. The answer given by the Deiphic priestess was often so worded that it might mean one of two things. So if the undertaking failed when the answer had seemed favorable, the Greeks thought that they had not rightly understood Apollo.
Besides the oracles the Greeks had in common great athletic contests in honor of the gods. The Greeks always loved athletics, and eagerly indeed did the picked youth of the various cities contend for the prizes. These, however, were never money, but some simple thing like a crown of laurel, which, however, meant more to them than gold. No man who had done a mean thing could contend, and to commit a foul in the games was eternal disgrace.
The most famous contest was the great Olympic games held once every four years in honor of Zeus. During the games all wars were suspended and people journeyed from all parts of Greece to Olympia. Splendid indeed was the scene, when amid the applause of the throng in the stadium the well-trained athletes struggled for victory in sprinting, in running, in wrestling, in throwing the discus, and in the all-round contest.
Whoever won an Olympic crown was hailed as a man who had brought the highest honor to his native city. When he returned home he was received with music and shouts. Sometimes a hole was even broken through the walls that he might pass through in triumph. The statue of the victor in the Olympic games was set up in some public place, and he was treated with the greatest respect all the rest of his life.
18. Greece Attacked by the Persians. In early times a great danger threatened Greece. The Persians, a people of western Asia, were rapidly conquering all the surrounding nations. Babylon, Palestine, Phoenicia, and even Egypt were overcome by their arms. It seemed that the Great King of Persia would soon rule the world.
In some ways the Persians were a great people, but they took away from the nations which they conquered all right to think and act for themselves. How could the world make progress if everything were decided by the will of one king?
Finally the armies of the Great King conquered Asia Minor. In this region there were many Greek cities, for bands of Greeks often sailed forth from home and founded new cities on coasts and islands, sometimes far away from their native shores.
Naturally the Athenians sent soldiers and ships to aid the Greeks of Asia Minor when they rebelled against Persia. But this act so enraged the Persian king Darius that he determined to conquer Greece itself. He could not endure that those people of Europe should dare to defy him when the greatest nations of Asia trembled as his slaves. So set was he upon revenge that he ordered a slave to stand behind his throne whenever he dined arid say, lest he should forget, "Master, remember the Athenians."
The Great King sent messengers to Greece to order her people to submit and to send to him earth and water as a sign that he owned their land. How could the Greek cities, which did not even have a common government, refuse?
Many of the cities were terrified, and surrendered. But Sparta and Athens defied Darius. They even threw his messengers into a well and told them to take as much earth and water as they wanted. Then all the cities that stood firm formed a league to resist Persia. The Srartans were chosen leaders because they were the best soldiers.
19. The Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.) Soon the great Persian army came. Sailing across the sea from Asia Minor, they captured all the islands and finally landed on the plain of Marathon near Athens. There were at least one hundred thousand men, and their white tents covered all the shore.
On the hills overlooking the plain were the Athenians, only about ten thousand in all. In haste they had sent to Sparta for help, but the Spartans made excuses and delayed coming. The only aid the Athenians had was from a little town called Plataea, not far away. In days past the Athenians had protected the Plataeans, and they were grateful. When the news came in gymnastics, and were strong and skillful. The weapons of the Persians were much lighter, and some of that Athens was in danger, every man and boy in Plataea wno could carry spear and shield marched at once to join their friends. But of these brave soldiers there were only one thousand.
It seemed impossible that the Athenians should have any chance against the great Persian host. But some things not to be seen at first glance favored them. They were free men, defending their wives and little ones, while the soldiers of the Great King fought only because they were ordered to do so. It is even said that some of them had to be driven into battle with whips. The Greeks also had better weapons. They wore bronze breastplates, and helmets with horsehair crests, while their legs were protected by bronze pieces called greaves. They bore thick, round shields,
Though his countrymen were so few in numbers, Miltiades thought their best chance was to attack. So he dcew up his warriors in a line as long as the whole front of the Persian host, but only a few ranks deep, while the masses of the Persians seemed to fill the whole plain. Yet when he gave the signal the Greeks charged boldly down the hill. On they came, with their long line of gleaming shields, each warrior shouting the war cry, and running bravely forward.
Now with a crash the men of Asia and the men of Europe met. But in spite of their numbers both wings of the Persian army were broken, and fled. For a time their center, where the best Persian troops were stationed, stood firm, but the Athenians closed in from both sides, and soon the whole great Persian army was running to its ships.
At home in Athens, as a famous story tells, the old men and the women and children waited anxiously to hear the news. How long the time seemed! But at last they saw a runner covered with dust. He had fought that day at Marathon, and then sped over the twentyfour miles to Athens to bear the news. Exhausted, he struggled into the eager crowd. "Victory!" he gasped, and fell dead.