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- Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book III. - 2/24 -


I. History is rarely more than the biography of great men. Through a succession of individuals we trace the character and destiny of nations. THE PEOPLE glide away from us, a sublime but intangible abstraction, and the voice of the mighty Agora reaches us only through the medium of its representatives to posterity. The more democratic the state, the more prevalent this delegation of its history to the few; since it is the prerogative of democracies to give the widest competition and the keenest excitement to individual genius: and the true spirit of democracy is dormant or defunct, when we find no one elevated to an intellectual throne above the rest. In regarding the characters of men thus concentrating upon themselves our survey of a nation, it is our duty sedulously to discriminate between their qualities and their deeds: for it seldom happens that their renown in life was unattended with reverses equally signal--that the popularity of to-day was not followed by the persecution of to-morrow: and in these vicissitudes, our justice is no less appealed to than our pity, and we are called upon to decide, as judges, a grave and solemn cause between the silence of a departed people, and the eloquence of imperishable names.

We have already observed in the character of Miltiades that astute and calculating temperament common to most men whose lot it has been to struggle for precarious power in the midst of formidable foes. We have seen that his profound and scheming intellect was not accompanied by any very rigid or high-wrought principle; and placed, as the chief of the Chersonese had been from his youth upward, in situations of great peril and embarrassment, aiming always at supreme power, and, in his harassed and stormy domain, removed far from the public opinion of the free states of Greece, it was natural that his political code should have become tempered by a sinister ambition, and that the citizen of Athens should be actuated by motives scarcely more disinterested than those which animated the tyrant of the Chersonese. The ruler of one district may be the hero, but can scarcely be the patriot, of another. The long influence of years and custom--the unconscious deference to the opinion of those whom our youth has been taught to venerate, can alone suffice to tame down an enterprising and grasping mind to objects of public advantage, in preference to designs for individual aggrandizement: influence of such a nature had never operated upon the views and faculties of the hero of Marathon. Habituated to the enjoyment of absolute command, he seemed incapable of the duties of civil subordination; and the custom of a life urged him onto the desire of power [1]. These features of his character fairly considered, we shall see little to astonish us in the later reverses of Miltiades, and find additional causes for the popular suspicions he incurred.

II. But after the victory of Marathon, the power of Miltiades was at its height. He had always possessed the affection of the Athenians, which his manners as well as his talents contributed to obtain for him. Affable and courteous--none were so mean as to be excluded from his presence; and the triumph he had just achieved so largely swelled his popularity, that the most unhesitating confidence was placed in all his suggestions.

In addition to the victory of Marathon, Miltiades, during his tyranny in the Chersonese, had gratified the resentment and increased the dominion of the Athenians. A rude tribe, according to all authority, of the vast and varied Pelasgic family, but essentially foreign to, and never amalgamated with, the indigenous Pelasgians of the Athenian soil, had in very remote times obtained a settlement in Attica. They had assisted the Athenians in the wall of their citadel, which confirmed, by its characteristic masonry, the general tradition of their Pelasgic race. Settled afterward near Hymettus, they refused to blend with the general population--quarrels between neighbours so near naturally ensued--the settlers were expelled, and fixed themselves in the Islands of Lemnos and Imbros--a piratical and savage horde. They kept alive their ancient grudge with the Athenians, and, in one of their excursions, landed in Attica, and carried off some of the women while celebrating a festival of Diana. These captives they subjected to their embraces, and ultimately massacred, together with the offspring of the intercourse. "The Lemnian Horrors" became a proverbial phrase--the wrath of the gods manifested itself in the curse of general sterility, and the criminal Pelasgi were commanded by the oracle to repair the heinous injury they had inflicted on the Athenians. The latter were satisfied with no atonement less than that of the surrender of the islands occupied by the offenders. Tradition thus reported the answer of the Pelasgi to so stern a demand-- "Whenever one of your vessels, in a single day and with a northern wind, makes its passage to us, we will comply."

Time passed on, the injury was unatoned, the remembrance remained-- when Miltiades (then in the Chersonese) passed from Elnos in a single day and with a north wind to the Pelasgian Islands, avenged the cause of his countrymen, and annexed Lemnos and Imbros to the Athenian sway. The remembrance of this exploit had from the first endeared Miltiades to the Athenians, and, since the field of Marathon, he united in himself the two strongest claims to popular confidence--he was the deliverer from recent perils, and the avenger of hereditary wrongs.

The chief of the Chersonese was not slow to avail himself of the advantage of his position. He promised the Athenians a yet more lucrative, if less glorious enterprise than that against the Persians, and demanded a fleet of seventy ships, with a supply of men and money, for an expedition from which he assured them he was certain to return laden with spoil and treasure. He did not specify the places against which the expedition was to be directed; but so great was the belief in his honesty and fortune, that the Athenians were contented to grant his demand. The requisite preparations made, Miltiades set sail. Assuming the general right to punish those islands which had sided with the Persian, he proceeded to Paros, which had contributed a trireme to the armament of Datis. But beneath the pretext of national revenge, Miltiades is said to have sought the occasion to prosecute a selfish resentment. During his tyranny in the Chersonese, a Parian, named Lysagoras, had sought to injure him with the Persian government, and the chief now wreaked upon the island the retaliation due to an individual.

Such is the account of Herodotus--an account not indeed inconsistent with the vindictive passions still common to the inhabitants of the western clime, but certainly scarce in keeping with the calculating and politic character of Miltiades: for men go backward in the career of ambition when revenging a past offence upon a foe that is no longer formidable.

Miltiades landed on the island, laid vigorous siege to the principal city, and demanded from the inhabitants the penalty of a hundred talents. The besieged refused the terms, and worked day and night at the task of strengthening the city for defence. Nevertheless, Miltiades succeeded in cutting off all supplies, and the city was on the point of yielding; when suddenly the chief set fire to the fortifications he had erected, drew off his fleet, and returned to Athens, not only without the treasure he had promised, but with an ignominious diminution of the glory he had already acquired. The most probable reason for a conduct [2] so extraordinary was, that by some accident a grove on the continent was set on fire--the flame, visible equally to the besiegers and the besieged, was interpreted alike by both: each party imagined it a signal from the Persian fleet--the one was dissuaded from yielding, and the other intimidated from continuing the siege. An additional reason for the retreat was a severe wound in the leg which Miltiades had received, either in the course of the attack, or by an accident he met with when attempting with sacrilegious superstition to consult the infernal deities on ground dedicated to Ceres.

III. We may readily conceive the amazement and indignation with which, after so many promises on the one side, and such unbounded confidence on the other, the Athenians witnessed the return of this fruitless expedition. No doubt the wily and equivocal parts of the character of Miltiades, long cast in shade by his brilliant qualities, came now more obviously in view. He was impeached capitally by Xanthippus, an Athenian noble, the head of that great aristocratic faction of the Alcmaeonids, which, inimical alike to the tyrant and the demagogue, brooked neither a master of the state nor a hero with the people. Miltiades was charged with having accepted a bribe from the Persians [3], which had induced him to quit the siege of Paros at the moment when success was assured.

The unfortunate chief was prevented by his wound from pleading his own cause--he was borne into the court stretched upon his couch, while his brother, Tisagoras, conducted his defence. Through the medium of his advocate, Miltiades seems neither vigorously to have refuted the accusation of treason to the state, nor satisfactorily to have explained his motives for raising the siege. His glory was his defence; and the chief answer to Xanthippus was "Marathon and Lemnos." The crime alleged against him was of a capital nature; but, despite the rank of the accuser, and the excitement of his audience, the people refused to pronounce sentence of death upon so illustrious a man. They found him guilty, it is true--but they commuted the capital infliction to a fine of fifty talents. Before the fine was paid, Miltiades expired of the mortification of his wound. The fine was afterward paid by his son, Cimon. Thus ended a life full of adventure and vicissitude.

The trial of Miltiades has often been quoted in proof of the ingratitude and fickleness of the Athenian people. No charge was ever more inconsiderately made. He was accused of a capital crime, not by the people, but by a powerful noble. The noble demanded his death-- appears to have proved the charge--to have had the law which imposed death wholly on his side--and "the favour of the people it was," says Herodotus, expressly, "which saved his life." [4] When we consider all the circumstances of the case--the wound to the popular vanity-- the disappointment of excited expectation--the unaccountable conduct of Miltiades himself--and then see his punishment, after a conviction which entailed death, only in the ordinary assessment of a pecuniary fine [5], we cannot but allow that the Athenian people (even while vindicating the majesty of law, which in all civilized communities must judge offences without respect to persons) were not in this instance forgetful of the services nor harsh to the offences of their great men.

CHAPTER II.

The Athenian Tragedy.--Its Origin.--Thespis.--Phrynichus.--Aeschylus. --Analysis of the Tragedies of Aeschylus.

I. From the melancholy fate of Miltiades, we are now invited to a subject no less connected with this important period in the history of Athens. The interval of repose which followed the battle of Marathon allows us to pause, and notice the intellectual state to which the Athenians had progressed since the tyranny of Pisistratus and his sons.

We have remarked the more familiar acquaintance with the poems of Homer which resulted from the labours and example of Pisistratus. This event (for event it was), combined with other causes,--the foundation of a public library, the erection of public buildings, and


Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book III. - 2/24

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