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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Child-Stories in Herodotus.


Volume 1, 1890/91, pg. 577


If Herodotus is the father of history, he is the grandfather of anecdote. He cannot do without it; and he is quite content to be hoaxed if he can only get his story in. We form dim pictures of him, travelling alone among the barbarians of the earth, bent on seeing every sight and on fastening on every fresh acquaintance. He is a Mr. Pickwick without a servant collecting materials for his "Tales of a Grandfather," the busiest, liveliest old man who ever left Asia Minor in search of the marvellous.

And he is so quiet over it all. He does not tell us as Thucydides and Spenser do that we have in his book an everlasting possession which the world will do well to read. A sentence like this would have struck him as a challenge to the gods who are always on the watch to lower human pride. Nor does he boast of his accuracy; you may believe or you may doubt: here is the story for you, told in Greek which, compared with the Attic of Thucydides, is as a clear brook compared with a manufacturing river. He is the first of prose writers in more senses than one, even as Homer is the first of poets; and none was found to take up his parable and to tell a tale in as simple and graphic a manner until the evangelists gave the world the stories of the Prodigal Son and of the Jericho road.

Especially glad is he to get hold of tales in which children figure. It is meat and drink to him to see a child. The infants crying out for bread, the little Gorgo warning her father not to accept a bribe, the sulks of Periander's son, the tragedy of Atys, and that story of Cleobis and Biton, are gems in the nine books of Herodotus which will sparkle as long as story-telling lasts, and as long as children interest us. It is strange to us to hear of the Marquis of Salisbury eating bread and jam at the Duke of Wellington's, and it is at least as strange to hear Herodotus prattle of his children and their doings. We think but little of the stories told about "grown-ups"; but the eternal childhood of man is always new.

The solemn historian passes by a mere instance of filial love unless it gives him a fact to hang a date upon, but Herodotus, wiser than the solemn historian, gives us a lesson in style, morals, and in the social and religious history of the ancient world, when he writes the following words:- "And next in happiness to Tellus came Cleobis and Biton; this tale is told of them. There was a great festival in honour of the goddess Hera at Argos, to which their mother must needs be taken in a car. Now the oxen did not come home from the field in time, so the youths, fearful of being late, put the yoke on their own necks and themselves drew the car in which their mother rode. Five and forty furlongs did they draw her, and stopped before the temple. Herein, too, God showed forth most evidently how much better a thing for man death is than life. For the Argive men who stood round the car extolled the vast strength of the youths, and the Argive women extolled the mother who was blest with such a pair of sons, and the mother herself overjoyed at the deed and at the praises it had won, standing straight before the image, besought the goddess to bestow on Cleobis and Biton the highest blessing to which mortals can attain. Her prayer ended, they offered sacrifice and partook of the holy banquet, after which the youths fell asleep in the temple, and never woke more, but so passed from the earth."

A picture of a story. The proud boys, thinking they can do their five miles easily; the prouder mother, expectant of the cheers from the crowd; the strained bodies, as the mother stands before the image of the Queen of Heaven; the over-taxed strength, the sleep, and the death; the regrets of the worshippers and the mother's grief drowned in the consciousness that here was a taste of real happiness. They were the happiest pair of which the wise Solon had ever heard. More than two thousand years passed by; a religion far other that of Hera is spread widely over Europe; we think other thoughts and follow other ideals; yet today or yesterday Herodotus is echoed by De Quinccy, who, in telling the story of the blind beggar's daughter, catches the very fragrance of the Argive tale. "For this care of her father did God give her a great reward. In the springtime of the year He called her to himself."

Most of the child-stories in "Herodotus" are concerned with boys. The king's son is the father to the king, and nothing can overshadow his royalty. If God only intends him for greatness, you cannot stop God; king the boy will be. If God intends him for misery and early death, you cannot stop God. Remove all dangerous weapons from him; let him live among the women, and never fight a battle. Hide him away and let his existence only be felt. It will all be useless; the will of God must be done. So it was in the happy case of Cyrus, and in the miserable story of Atys.

Cyrus was not intended by man for royalty, and as an infant he was hurried away to be exposed upon the bleak mountains where the wild beasts live. But pity for the helpless child caused the man into whose hands Cyrus was given to disobey the orders, and the child was brought up as a herdsman's son.

"When the boy was in his tenth year an accident, caused it to be discovered who he was. He was at play in the village, along with the boys of his own age. The other boys who were playing with him chose the herdsman's son to be their king. He then proceeded to order them about; some he set to build him houses; others he made his guards; one of them was to be the king's eye; another had the office of carrying his messages. All had some task or other. Among the boys there was one the son of Artembares, a Mede of distinction, who refused to do what Cyrus had set him. Cyrus told the other boys to take him into custody, and when his orders were obeyed he chastised him most severely with the whip. The son of Artembares, as soon as he was let go, full of rage at treatment so little befitting his rank, hastened to the city and complained bitterly to his father of what had been done to him by Cyrus."

We can see the group now. Artembares the noble is expostulating before the king, and is showing his boy's shoulders; the sneaking son has the traces of the tears on his blubbered face; the herdsman, Cyrus's reputed father, is standing there trembling; Cyrus the boy of nine, speaks up proudly to the king.

"My lord, I only treated him as he deserved. I was chose king, in play by the boys of our village, because they thought me best for it. He himself was one of the boys who chose me All the others did according to my orders but he refused, and made light of them, until at last he got his due reward. If for this I deserve to suffer punishment, I am ready to submit to it."

It is a boy's story redolent of village air, and it is a good story for boys to know. Left to themselves they are not servile; they look the world in the face. They are brave and truthful, and perhaps Herodotus means to do more than chronicle a fact when in one immortal sentence he sums up Persian education. "The Persians' sons are carefully instructed from their fifth to their twentieth year in three things alone - to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth."

Herodotus always stands up for boys who assert their rights. Some Attic boys, sons of Athenian women who were carried of by Pelasgians, make common cause against the Pelasgian boys. "If a Pelasgian boy struck one of their number, they joined in avenging their comrade; nay, the Attic boys set up a claim to exercise lordship over the other, and succeeded in gaining the upper hand." No doubt their mothers egged them on. But mothers and sons were massacred for this boy-quarrel, and the proverbial saying of a "Lemnian deed " made little martyrs of these plucky fellows, who would allow no foreign rule, and who were proud of their mothers' race, and disdainful of their alien fatherhood. Again and again in Greek history we hear of the murder of children; but in every case the story brings out the love of the parents and their pride in their sons.

Xerxes in his madness is on his way to overthrow Athens, and has reached Sardis. Here he is royally entertained by Pythius. "Thou shalt be," says Xerxes, "my sworn friend from this day." So poor Pythius, relying on the words of the great king, comes forward as the army is about to leave Sardis, and makes this reasonable request: "O my lord, thy servant five sons, and it chances that all are called upon to join thee in this march. I beseech thee have compassion upon my years, and let one of my sons, the eldest, remain behind to be my prop and stay, and the guardian of my wealth; take with thee the other four." The answer is as cruel as it is undeserved. For thyself and for four of thy five sons, the entertainment which I had of thee shall gain protection; but as for him to whom thou clingest above the rest, the forfeit of his life shall be thy punishment." So he commanded, and they sought the eldest of the sons of Pythius, and cut his body asunder, and the army marched out between the two halves of the corpse. Marched out to defeat and shame. Great must have been the satisfaction of Pythius at the news of the battle of Salamis.

Herodotus's stories are not always sad. He must have chuckled when he told the tale of Psammetichus and the infants. The king wants to know what word the two children will first pronounce if they are left to themselves. This is his royal way of finding out whether his nation (the Egyptian) is the oldest in the world or no. The infants are brought up in a cottage; no one speaks to them, no nurse sings lullabies to them. They only "grow." At the end of two years the king visits them, and they run to meet him with outstretched arms, crying, "Becos! becos!" On inquiry the king finds that "becos" is the Phrygian for " bread," and he admits the greater antiquity of the Phrygian race. These are sharp children, but the girl Gorgo is Herodotus's favourite. She was able at the age of nine to warn her father Cleomenes against joining in the Ionian revolt. Before her, as she stood with her hand in her father's, stood Aristagoras, tempting the Spartan king with promises of money; and the tempter asked the king to send the tiny girl away. "Let her stay," said Cleomenes; "don't mind the child." And she stayed to some purpose, for, "Father," she said, when Cleomenes was yielding, "get up and go, or the stranger will certainly corrupt thee." And her father sensibly took her advice, and withdrew and went into another room. Herodotus mentions the child again, only to show her cleverness; and history tells us that she became the wife of Leonidas. Was she alive when, after the shameful victory of Thermopyke, Xerxes sought out the body of Leonidas and beheaded it, fixing the carcase on a cross? Shameful indignity for a Persian, more shameful for a Greek. Neither with his shield nor upon it did Leonidas return to Gorgo's home.

Once, too, our author depicts in a living way the conflict of duty and affection in the heart of a son. It is the well-known tale of Periander, king of Corinth. He had murdered his wife, Melissa, but his two boys knew nothing of the circumstances of their mother's death. A hint given to them when they were on a visit to their mother's father fell unheeded in the case of the elder; but the younger boy, Lycophron, when he got back to Corinth, looking upon his father as his mother's murderer, would neither speak to him, to, nor utter a word in reply to all his questionings. So Periander, at last growing furious at such behaviour, banished him from his house. And he sent a messenger to the persons who had opened their houses to his outcast son, and forbade them to harbour him"; and the boy wanders away and makes his lodging in the streets. The king tries every means to win him over; but the boy will not even speak to his father. So the king sends him to Corcyra. Time goes on, and Periander grows old. His heart is set upon this absent son, for the other is worthless, and he sends Lycophron's sister to him, "who would, he thought, have more power to persuade him than any other person." There is only one answer for her, "As long as I know my father to be alive, I will never come back to Corinth." Thereupon Periander proposes that his son should come and reign in Corinth, and he would come to Corcyra. To this Lycophron agreed; but the Cocyraeans, afraid of receiving such a ruler as Periander, put the young man to death.

What could the boy have done? He loved his mother, Melissa, and would make no peace with her murderer. He would not imitate Orestes and murder a parent. His youth and life were blasted by another's sin; and the reward from the gods, death, only, came to him after Many years of trouble. Herodotus makes no comment, but he seizes on the story because he feels that he can tell it so well that none shall tell it in Greek again.

Once told, Herodotus's stories are told for ever. The quaint dialect and the human touch show the world what can be done by a man who writes simply and forgets himself. Thucydides, the severe historian; Sophocles, the ethical poet; Pindar, the impassioned lyrist; Plato, the dreamer; Aristotle, the philosopher, can never be so near to us as the simple traveller, who, intending to chronicle the ruin of Xerxes and the justice of Almighty God, did not disdain to weave into his narrative pictures of childhood which may still delight the nurseries of a later time.



Typed by happi, March 2016