Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome – A Victor of the Games

The sacred games celebrated at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Corinth exerted a tremendous influence upon the life of ancient Hellas. Myers, in his ” Eastern Nations and Greece,” says : ” The competitors must be of the Hellenic race ; must have undergone special training in the gymnasium ; and must, moreover, be unblemished by any crime against the state or sin against the gods. Spectators from all parts of the world crowded to the festival. The victor was crowned with a garland of sacred olive ; heralds proclaimed his name abroad ; his native city received him as a conqueror, sometimes through a breach made in the city walls.”

The story describes a scene at Eleusis. Glaucon, an Athenian, is returning, a victor, from the Isthmian games at Corinth. His wife, Hermione, and her father, Hermippus, are waiting to welcome him as he passes through Eleusis on his way to Athens.

A cluster of white stuccoed houses with a craggy hill behind, and before them a blue bay girt in by the rocky isle of Salamis — that is Eleusis-by-the-Sea. Eastward and westward spreads the teeming Thriasian plain, richest in Attica. Behind the plain the encircling mountain wall fades away into a purple haze. One can look southward toward Salamis ; then to the left rises the rounded slope of brown Poecilon, sundering Eleusis from its greater neighbor, Athens. The stony hill slopes are painted red by countless poppies. One hears the tinkling of the bells of roving goats. At the very foot of the hill rises a temple with proud columns and pediments — the fane of Demeter, the Earth Mother, and the seat of her Mysteries, renowned through Hellas.

The house of Hermippus, first citizen of Eleusis, stood to the east of the temple. On three sides the gnarled trunks and somber leaves of the sacred olives almost hid the low white walls of the rambling buildings. On the fourth side, facing the sea, the dusty road wound west toward Megara. Here, by the gate, were gathered a rustic company : brown-faced village lads and lasses, toothless graybeards, cackling old wives. Above the barred gate swung a festoon of ivy, while from within the court came the squeaking of pipes, the tuning of citharas, and shouted orders — signs of a mighty bustling. Then, even while the company grew, a half-stripped courier flew up the road and into the gate.

” They come,” ran the wiseacres’ comment, but their buzzing ceased as again the gate swung back to suffer two ladies to peer forth. Ladies in truth, for the twain had little in common with the ogling village maids, and whispers were soon busy with them.

Look —his wife and her mother! See, she lifts her pretty blue veil ; I ‘m glad she ‘s handsome.”

The two ladies were clearly mother and daughter, of the same noble height and dressed alike in white.

Both faces were framed in a flutter of Amorgos gauze : the mother’s was saffron, crowned with a wreath of golden wheat ears ; the daughter’s, blue with a circlet of violets. And now, as they stood with arms entwined, the younger brushed aside her veil. The gossips were right. The robe and the crown hid all but the face and a tress of lustrous brown hair — but that face ! Had not King Hephstus wrought every line of clear Phoenician glass, then touched them with snow and rose, and shot through all the ichor of life ? Hermione was indeed the worthy daughter of a noble house, and happy the man who was faring homeward to Eleusis !

Another messenger! Louder bustle in the court and the voice of Hermippus arraying his musicians ! Now a sharp-faced man, who hid his bald pate under a crown of lilies, joined the ladies — Conon, father of the victor. Then a third runner, this time in his hand a triumphant palm branch, and his one word ” Here ! ” A crash of music answered from the court, while Hermippus, a stately nobleman, his fine head just sprinkled with gray, led out his unmartial army.

Single pipes and double pipes, tinkling lyres and many-stringed citharas, not to forget herdsmen’s reed flutes, cymbals, and tambours, all made melody and noise together. An imposing procession wound out into the Corinth road.

Here was the demarch of Eleusis, a pompous worthy who could hardly hold his head erect, thanks to an exceedingly heavy myrtle wreath ; after him, two by two, the snowy-robed, long-bearded priests of Demeter; behind these the noisy corps of musicians ; and then a host of young men and women — bright of eye, graceful of movement — twirling long chains of ivy, laurel, and myrtle in time to the music. Palm branches were everywhere. The pro-cession moved down the road, but even as it left the court a crash of cymbals through the olive groves answered its uproar. Deep now and sonorous sounded manly voices as in some triumphal chant. Hermione, as she stood by the gate, drew closer to her mother. Inflexible Attic custom seemed to hold her fast. No noblewoman might thrust herself boldly under the public eye, — save at a sacred festival, — no, not even when the center of the gladness was her husband.

” He comes ! ” So she cried to her mother; so cried every one. Around the turn in the olive groves swung a car in which Cimon stood proudly erect, and at his side another. Marching before the chariot were Themistocles, Democrates, Simonides ; behind followed every Athenian who had visited the Isthmia. The necks of the four horses were wreathed with flowers ; flowers hid the reins and bridles, the chariot, and even its wheels. The victor stood aloft, his-scarlet cloak flung back, displaying his godlike form. An unhealed wound marred his forehead, — Lycon’s handiwork, — but who thought of that, when above the scar pressed the wreath of wild parsley ? As the two processions met, a cheer went up that shook the red rock of Eleusis, The champion answered with his frankest smile ; only his eyes seemed questioning, seeking some one who was not there.

” Io ! Glaucon ! ” The Eleusinian youths broke from their ranks and fell upon the chariot. The horses were loosed in a twinkling. Fifty arms dragged the car onward. The pipers swelled their cheeks, each trying to outblow his fellow. Then after them sped the maidens. They ringed the chariot round with a maze of flower chains. As the car moved they accompanied it with a dance of unspeakable ease, modesty, and grace. Youths and maidens burst forth into singing.

” Io ! Io, paean ! the parsley-wreathed victor hail !

Io ! Io, pan ! sing it out on each breeze, each gale !

He has triumphed, our own, our beloved,

Before all the myriad’s ken.

He has met the swift, has proved swifter ! The strong, has proved stronger again ! Now glory to him, to his kinsfolk,

To Athens, and all Athens’ men ! Meet, run to meet him,

The nimblest are not too fleet.

Greet him, with raptures greet him,

With songs and with twinkling feet.

He approaches, — throw flowers before him, Throw poppy and lily and rose ;

Blow faster, gay pipers, faster,

Till your mad music throbs and flows,

For his glory and ours flies through Hellas, Wherever the Sun-King goes.

Io ! Io, paean ! crown with laurel and myrtle and pine,

Io, pan I haste to crown him with olive, Athena’s dark vine.”

Matching action to the song, they threw over the victor crowns and chains beyond number, till the parsley wreath was hidden from sight. Near the gate of Hermippus the jubilant company halted. The demarch bawled long for silence, won it at last, and approached the chariot. He, good man, had been a long day meditating on his speech of formal congratulation, and enjoyed his opportunity. Glaucon’s eyes still roved and questioned, yet the demarch rolled out his windy sentences. But then occurred something unexpected. Even as the magistrate took breath after reciting the victor’s noble ancestry, there was a cry, a parting of the crowd, and Glaucon leaped from the chariot. The veil and the violet wreath fell from the head of Hermione. Then even the honest demarch cut short his eloquence to swell the salvo.

” The beautiful to the beautiful ! The gods reward well. Here is the fairest crown!” For all Eleusis loved Hermione and would have forgiven far greater things from her than this.

Hermippus feasted the whole company, — the crowd at long tables in the court, the chosen guests in a more private chamber. ” Nothing to excess ” was the truly Hellenic maxim of the refined Eleusinian, and he obeyed it. His banquet was elegant without any gluttony. The Syracusan cook had pre-pared a lordly turbot ; there was no vulgar gorging with meat, after the Boeotian manner. The aromatic honey was the choicest from Mount Hymettus.

Since the smaller company was well selected, convention was waived and ladies were present. Hermione sat on a wide chair beside her comely mother, her younger brothers on stools at either hand. Directly across the narrow table Glaucon and Democrates reclined on the same couch.

The dinner ended toward evening. The whole company escorted the victor on his way to Athens. At Daphni, the pass over the hills, the archons and strategi — highest officials of the state — met them with cavalry and torches and half the city trailing at their heels. Twenty cubits of the city walls were pulled down to make a gate for the triumphal entry. There was another great feast at the government house. The purse of a hundred drachm, due by law to Isthmian victors, was presented. A street was named for Glaucon in the new port town of Piraeus. Simonides recited a triumphal ode. All Athens, in short, made merry for days.

Abridged from “A Victor of Salamis”

Samothrace (sam o thras). — Olympia (o lim’pi a). — Nemea (ne’me a). —Corinth (kor inth): a city on the Isthmus, southwest of Athens.—Eleusis (elu’sis).—Glaucon (glau’kon).—Hermione (her mi’o ne).—Hermippus (her mip’pus). — Salamis (sal’a mis). — Thriasian (thri a’shi an). — Attica (at’i ka) : a district of Greece of which Athens was the capital. —Poecilon (pe’si lon). — pediment (ped’i ment): a low, triangular part resembling a gable, crowning the fronts of Greek buildings, especially porticoes. — Demeter (de meter) : Greek name for Ceres (se’rez), goddess of agriculture. — Mysteries : secret religious ceremonies. — Megara (mega ra) : a city between Athens and Corinth. — cithara (sith’a ra): a musical instrument resembling the guitar. — Amorgos (a mor’gos): an island in the Aegean Sea. — Hephaestus (he fes’tus): the god of fire and workmanship ; the Roman name was Vulcan. -Phoenician (fe nish’an): from Phoenicia, north of Palestine. — ichor (i’kor): a fluid supposed to supply the place of blood in the veins of the gods. — Conon (ke’non).—demarch (de’mark): head of one of the wards into which Athens was divided. Eleusis and other small towns in Attica were counted as divisions of the great city. — Cimon (si’mon): a great statesman and general. —Themistocles (the mis’to klez): a famous Greek statesman and politician. — Democrates (de moc’ra tez). — Simonides (si mon l dez) : a famous Greek poet. — Isthmia (is’mi a): the Corinthian games. — Lycon (li’kon). — Io (i o): hail. — paean (pe’an): praise. — salvo (sal’vo): burst of applause. — Syracusan (sir a ku’san) : from Syracuse, a city in Sicily, renowned for its high living. — turbot (tur’bot) : a fish. — Boeotian (be o shan): pertaining to Boeotia, a province northwest of Athens. — Hymettus (hi met’us). — Daphni (daf’ni). — archon (ar’kon); strategi (stra te’ji): chief officers of the state. — cubit (ku’bit): a measure of length, about eighteen inches. — drachma (drak’ma): a Greek coin worth about eighteen cents ; plural, drachma (drak’me). — Piraeus (pi re us): the seaport of Athens.