The Hemicycle Of Athens by August Strindberg

After a hot day the sun began to sink, and the market-place lay already in shadow. The shadow rose and climbed up the Acropolis, on which the shield of Pallas still gleamed as the aegis of the city.

Before the vari-coloured colonnade stood a group of men who had assembled before the semi-circular marble seat called the Hemicyklion; they appeared to be awaiting someone’s arrival before they sat down. Among them were stately and handsome men, but there was also an extraordinarily ugly one, round whom, however, the others seemed to press. His face resembled that of a slave or satyr, and there were Athenians who thought they could trace in it the marks of all kinds of wickedness and crime. On hearing of such suspicions, Socrates is said to have remarked, “Think how much Socrates must have had to contend against, for he is neither wicked nor a criminal!”

This was the man known to the whole population of Athens as an eccentric character who carried on philosophical discussions in streets and market-places, in drinking-houses and brothels. He shunned no society, and was on equally intimate terms with Pericles, the head of the state, and with the licentious Alcibiades. He sat down to table with tradesmen and artisans, drank with sailors in the Piraeus, and lived himself with his family in the suburb Ceramicus. When it was asked why Socrates was always out of doors, his friends answered, “because he was not comfortable at home.” And when his more intimate friends asked how he could be on intimate terms with seamen and tax-gatherers, Socrates himself answered, “They are also men!”

At the philosopher’s side, and when he sat, standing behind him, was always to be seen a youth, whose broad brow attracted attention. This was his best disciple, whose real name was Aristokles, but who, on account of his forehead, had the nickname Plato.

Vying with him in an almost jealous rivalry to appear by the Master’s side, stood the beautiful Alcibiades.

The third after them was the stately austere Euripides, the tragic dramatist. Turning his back to the company, absorbed in thought and tracing designs on the ground, as though he were always at work, stood Phidias, the man “who made gods for Athens.” On the edge of the fountain sat a man with his legs dangling and his mouth perpetually moving, as though he were sharpening his tongue for thrust and counter-thrust; his brow was furrowed and worn as though with fruitless thought, his eyes glowered like those of a serpent watching for its prey. That was the Sophist, Protagoras, the reasoner for hire, who for a few figs or a pair of obols, could make black seem white, but was tolerated in this brilliant society, because he could carry on a dialogue. They used him to enliven their meetings, and pitted him in argument against Socrates, who, however, always entangled him in the meshes of his dialectic. At last came the one they expected. It was the head of the State, who would have been king had not the kingship been abolished. His appearance was majestic, but his entrance without a body-guard was like that of a simple citizen. He ruled also only by force of his personal qualities–wisdom, strength of will, moderation, forethought.

After exchanging greetings which showed that they had already met that day, for they had been celebrating the deliverance from Persia at the Salamis festival, the company sat down on the long semicircular marble seat, called the Hemicyklion. When all had taken their seats, which were reserved for each according to prescription, a silence followed which was unusual in this circle, for they were accustomed to assemble as if for an intellectual feast at every sunset. It was a symposium of minds, at which the excesses, according to Alcibiades, were only spiritual.

Alcibiades, the second youngest, but spoilt and aggressive, was the first to break the silence. “We have been celebrating the battle of Salamis, the day of our deliverance from the barbarians and the King of Persia, and I see we are tired.”

“Not too tired,” answered Pericles, “to forget the birthday of our friend Euripides, for, as we all know, he first saw the daylight when the sun shone on the battle of Salamis.”

“He shall have a libation,” answered Alcibiades, “when we sit at table with our cups in front of us.”

The Sophist, sitting by the fountain, had now collected enough yarn to commence spinning with.

“How do you know,” he began, “that our deliverance from the King of Persia was really a piece of good fortune? How do you know that Salamis was a happy day for Hellas? Has not our great Aeschylus lamented and sympathetically described the defeat of the Persians?

“‘Hateful to me is thy name, Salamis,
And with a sigh I think of thee, Athens!’”

“For shame, Sophist!” Alcibiades broke in.

But Protagoras whetted his beak and continued, “It is not I who say that the name of Salamis is hateful, but Aeschylus, and I, as everyone knows, am not Aeschylus. Neither have I maintained that it was a good thing to serve the Persian King. I have only questioned, and a questioner asserts nothing. Is it not so, Socrates?”

The master drew his fingers through his long beard, and answered.

“There are direct and indirect assertions; a question can be an indirect and mischievous assertion. Protagoras has made such a one by his question.”

“Good! Socrates!” exclaimed Alcibiades, who wished to kindle a flame.

Pericles spoke: “Protagoras, then, has asserted that you would be happier under the Persian King. What should be done with such a man?”

“Throw him backwards in the fountain,” cried Alcibiades.

“I appeal!” protested the Sophist.

“To the mob! They will always justify you,” Alcibiades interrupted.

“One does not say ‘mob’ if one is a democrat, Alcibiades. And one does not quote Aeschylus when Euripides is present. When Phidias sits here one would rather speak of his Parthenon and his Athene, whose robe even now glitters in the sinking sun. Courtesy is the salt of social life.”

Thus Pericles sought to direct the conversation into a new channel, but the Sophist thwarted him.

“If Phidias’ statue of Athene must borrow its gold from the sun, that may prove that the gold granted by the State did not suffice, and that therefore there is a deficiency. Is it not so, Socrates?”

The master silenced with his outstretched hand the murmur of disapproval which arose, and said:

“It must first be proved that Phidias’ statue must borrow gold from the sun, but since that is unproved, it is absurd to talk of a deficit. Moreover, gold cannot be borrowed from the sun. Therefore what Protagoras says is mere babble, and deserves no answer. On the other hand, will Phidias answer this question? ‘When you have made Athene up there on the Parthenon, have you made Athene?’”

“I have made her image,” answered Phidias.

“Right! You have made her image. But after what pattern?”

“After the pattern in my mind.”

“Not after an external one, then? Have you seen the goddess with your eyes?”

“Not with my outward eyes.”

“Does she then exist outside you, or inside you?”

“If no one were listening to us, I would answer ‘She is not outside of me, therefore she is not anywhere at all.’”

Pericles interrupted him: “You are talking of the gods of the State: friends, take care!”

“Help, Protagoras! Socrates is throttling me!” cried Phidias.

“In my opinion it is not Zeus but Prometheus who has created men,” answered the Sophist. “But Zeus gave unfinished man two imperishable gifts–the sense of shame and conscience.”

“Then Protagoras was not made by Zeus, for he lacks both.” This thrust came from Alcibiades. But now the taciturn tragedian Euripides began to speak: “Allow me to say something both about Zeus and about Prometheus; and don’t think me discourteous if I cite my great teacher Aeschylus when I speak about the gods.”

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But Pericles broke in: “Unless my eyes deceive me, I saw just now a pair of ears projecting from behind the pillar of Hermes, and these ass’s ears can only belong to the notorious tanner.”

“Cleon!” exclaimed Alcibiades.

But Euripides continued: “What do I care about the tanner, since I do not fear the gods of the State? These gods, whose decline Aeschylus foretold long ago! Does not his Prometheus say that the Olympian Zeus will be overthrown by his own descendant–the son that will be born of a virgin? Is it not so, Socrates?”

“Certainly: ‘she will bear a son who is stronger than his father.’ But who it will be, and when he will be born, he does not say. Now I believe that Zeus already lies in extremis.”

Again the warning voice of Pericles was heard. “The gods of the State! Hush, friends! Cleon is listening!”

“I, on the other hand,” broke in Alcibiades, “believe that Athens is near her end. While we have been celebrating the victory of Salamis, the Spartans have risen and devastated the north. Megaris, Locris, Boeotia, and Phocis are already on her side.”

“What you say is well known,” answered Pericles deprecatingly, “but at present there is a truce, and we have three hundred ships at sea. Do you think, Socrates, that there is danger?”

“I cannot mix in the affairs of State; but if Athens is in danger, I will take up shield and lance as before.”

“When you saved my life at Potidaea,” added Alcibiades.

“No, the danger is not there,” interrupted Euripides–“not in Sparta, but here at home. The demagogues have stirred up the marsh, and therefore we have the pestilence in the Agora, and the pestilence in the Piraeus.”

“That in Piraeus is the worse of the two,” said Protagoras; “don’t you think so, Alcibiades?”

“Yes, for there are my best girls. My flute-players, who are to perform at supper this evening, live by the harbour. But, by Hercules, no one here fears death, I suppose?”

“No one fears, and no one wishes it,” answered Socrates; “but if you have other girls, that would increase our pleasure.”

“Euripides does not like girls,” interrupted Protagoras.

“That is not true,” answered Euripides; “I like girls, but not women.”

Pericles rose: “Let us go to supper, and have walls round our conversation–walls without ears! Support me, Phidias, I am tired.”

Plato approached Socrates: “Master, let me carry your mantle?” he asked.

“That is my function, boy,” said Alcibiades, intercepting him.

“It was once,” objected Socrates; “now it belongs to Plato of the broad head. Notice his name! He descends from Codrus, the last king, who gave his life to save his people. Plato is of royal birth.”

“And Alcibiades is of the race of heroes, the Alcmaeonidae, like his uncle Pericles; a noble company.”

“But Phidias is of the race of the gods; that is more.”

“I am probably descended from the Titans,” broke in Protagoras. “I say ‘probably,’ for one knows nothing at all, and hardly that. Don’t you think so, Socrates?”

You know nothing at all, and least of all what you talk about.” The company passed through the Sacred Street, and went together to the theatre of Dionysus, near which Alcibiades lived.

* * * * *

The demagogue Cleon had really been lurking out of sight, and listening to the conversation. And so had another man with a yellow complexion and a full black beard, who seemed to belong to the artisan class. When the brilliant company had departed, Cleon stepped forward, laid his hand on the stranger’s shoulder, and said:

“You have heard their conversation?”

“Certainly I have,” he answered.

“Then you can give evidence.”

“I cannot give evidence, because I am a foreigner.”

“Still you have heard how they spoke against the gods of the State.”

“I am a Syrian, and only know one true God. Your gods are not mine.”

“You are a Hebrew, then! What is your name?”

“I am an Israelite, of the family of Levi, and call myself now Cartophilus.”

“A Phoenician, then?”

“No, a Hebrew. My forefathers came out of Ur of the Chaldees, then fell into bondage in Egypt, but were brought by Moses and Joshua to the land of Canaan, where we became powerful under our own kings, David and Solomon.”

“I don’t know them.”

“Two hundred years ago our city Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, and our people were carried captive to Babylon. But when Babylon was overthrown by the King of Persia, we fell under the power of the Persians, and have groaned under the successors of your Xerxes of Salamis, whom we called Ahasuerus.”

“Your enemies, our enemies! Very well, friend; how did you come here.”

“When the Assyrian was about to carry us for the first time into captivity, those who could flee, fled to Rhodes, Crete, and the islands of Greece. But of those who were carried away some were sent northwards to Media. My ancestors came hither from Media, and I am a new-comer.”

“Your speech is dark to me, but I have heard your nation praised because they are faithful to the gods of the State.”

“God! There is only One, the Single and True, who has created heaven and earth, and given the promise to our people.”

“What promise?”

“That our nation shall possess the earth.”

“By Heracles! But the commencement is not very promising.”

“That is our belief, and it has supported us during our wanderings in the wilderness, and during the Captivity.”

“Will you give evidence against these blasphemers of the gods?”

“No, Cleon, for you are idolaters. Socrates and his friends do not believe in your gods, and that will be counted to them for righteousness. Yes, Socrates appeared to me rather to worship the Eternal and Invisible, whom we dare not name. Therefore I do not give evidence against him.”

“Is that the side you are on? Then go in peace, but beware! Go!”

“The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will protect me, so long as I and my house keep His laws.”

Cleon had espied his friend and fellow-artisan in the colonnade, and therefore let the inflexible Hebrew go. The latter hastened towards the sycamore avenue of the oil-market, and disappeared there.

Anytos the tanner and politician approached, rehearsing a written speech which he was intending to deliver: “Athens or Sparta,–that is the whole question at issue….”

Cleon, full of curiosity, interrupted him: “What are you rehearsing, Anytos?”

“A speech.”

“So I heard! Athens or Sparta! Government by the people, or government by donkeys. The people, the weightiest element in the State, the cultivators of the land, the producers of wealth, lie at the bottom like gold. The worthless, the drones, the rich, the aristocratic, the most frivolous, swim on the surface like chips and corks. Athens has always represented government by the people, and will always do so; Sparta represents the donkey-government.

“The oligarchy, you mean, Cleon.”

“No; donkeys. Therefore, Anytos, Athens is badly governed, for Pericles the rich man, who boasts of royal ancestors, has come to power. How can he sympathise with these people, since he has never been down there below? How can he see them rightly from above? He sits on the gable-roof of the Parthenon, and views the Athenians as ants, while they are lions, with their claws pared and their teeth drawn. We, Anytos, born down there amid the skins of the tanyard and dog’s-dung, we understand our perspiring brothers–we know them by the smell, so to speak. But like readily associates with like; therefore Sparta feels attracted to Athens, to Pericles and his followers. Pericles draws Sparta to himself, and we sink….”

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Anytos, himself an orator, did not like to hear eloquence from others, therefore he cut abruptly through Cleon’s speech.

“Pericles is ill.”

“Is he ill?”

“Yes, he has fever!”

“Really? Perhaps the plague.”


This interjected remark of Anytos had crossed Cleon’s prolix discourse, and a new hope glimmered before him.

“And after Pericles?” he said. “Cleon, of course.”

“Why not? The man of the people for the people, but no philosophers nor actors. So, Pericles is sick, is he? Listen, Anytos? Who is Nicias?”

“He is a grandee who believes in oracles.”

“Don’t attack the oracles. I certainly do not believe in them, but a State requires for its stability a certain uniformity in everything –laws, customs, and religion. Therefore I support the gods of the State–and what belongs to them.”

“I also support the gods of the State, so long as the people do.”

The two orators began to be mutually weary, and Cleon wished for solitude in order to hatch the eggs which Anytos had laid for him. Therefore he remarked, “You say that Nicias….”

“I am going to bathe,” broke in Anytos; “otherwise I will get no sleep to-night.”

“But Alcibiades, who is he?”

“He is the traitor Ephialtes, who will lead the Persian King to Thermopylae.”

“The Persian King in the east, Sparta in the south.”

“Macedonia in the north.”

“And in the west, new Rome.”

“Enemies in all four quarters! Woe to Athens!”

“Woe to Hellas!”

* * * * *

The guests had assembled at the house of Alcibiades, who on his arrival had immediately gone off, with the laudable object of procuring flute-players. Since the evening was warm, supper was served in the Aula, or inner court, which was surrounded by Corinthian colonnades, and lighted by many lamps which hung between the pillars.

After they had taken a light meal, ivy wreaths were distributed and cups were set before the guests.

Aspasia, the only woman present, had the place of honour next to Pericles. She had come at the beginning, accompanied by her slaves, and was waiting impatiently for the verbal contests to begin. But Pericles was depressed and tired. Socrates lay on his back, silent, and looked up at the stars, Euripides chewed a wood-splinter and was morose; Phidias kneaded balls of bread, which in his hand took the shapes of animals; Protagoras whispered to Plato, who, with becoming youthful modesty, kept in the background.

Quite at the bottom of the table sat the skeleton, with a wreath of roses round its white forehead. In order to counteract the uncanny feeling likely to be aroused by this unbidden guest, Alcibiades had placed an onion between its front teeth, and in one of its hands an asphodel lily, which the skeleton appeared to smell at.

When the silence at last became oppressive, Pericles roused himself from his lethargy, and opened the conversation.

“I should like,” he said, “without raising any bitterness or strife, to suggest as a subject for discussion the often-raised question of Euripides’ supposed misogyny. What do you say, Protagoras?”

“Our friend Euripides has been married three times, and each time has had children. He can therefore not be a woman-hater. Is it not so, Socrates?”

“Euripides,” answered Socrates, “loves Aspasia, as we all do, and can therefore not be a woman-hater. He loves, with Pericles’ consent, the beauty of Aspasia’s mind, and is therefore no misogynist. Not much that is complimentary can be said about Aspasia’s person, and we have nothing to do with it. Is Aspasia beautiful, Phidias?”

“Aspasia is not beautiful, but her soul is beautiful and good. Is it not, Pericles?”

“Aspasia is my friend, and the mother of our child; Aspasia is a wise woman, for she possesses modesty and conscientiousness, self-knowledge and foresight; Aspasia is prudent, for she is silent when wise men speak. But Aspasia can also cause wise men to speak wisely by listening to them; for she helps them to produce thoughts, not like Socrates’ midwife, who only brings corporeal births to pass, but she incarnates their souls.”

Protagoras continued: “Aspasia is like the Mother Cybele of us all; she bears us in her bosom.”

“Aspasia is the scale of the zither, without whom our strings would not sound.”

“Aspasia is the mother of us all,” recommenced Socrates, “but she is also the midwife who washes our new-born thoughts and wraps them in beautiful swaddling-clothes. Aspasia receives our children dirty, and gives them back to us purified. She gives nothing of herself, but by receiving gives the giver the opportunity to give.”

Euripides resumed the topic which they had dropped: “I was accused, and am acquitted–am I not, Aspasia?”

“If you can acquit yourself of the accusation, you are acquitted, Euripides.”

“Accuse me, dear Accuser; I will answer.”

“I will bring the accusation in your own words. Hippolytus says in one passage in your tragedy of that name: ‘O Zeus, why, in the name of heaven, didst thou place in the light of the sun that specious evil to men–women? For if thou didst will to propagate the race of mortals, there was no necessity for this to be done by women, but men might, having placed an equivalent in thy temples, either in brass or iron, or weighty gold, buy a race of children each according to the value paid, and thus might dwell in unmolested houses, without females.’”

“But now first of all, when we prepare to bring this evil to our homes, we squander away the wealth of our houses.”

“How evil woman is, is evident from this also, that the father who begat her and brought her up, having given her a dowry, sends her away in order to be rid of her.”

“Now defend yourself, Euripides.”

“If I were a Sophist like Protagoras, I should answer, ‘It was Hippolytus who said that; not I.’ But I am a poet, and speak through my characters. Very well; I said it, I meant it when I wrote it, and I mean it still. And yet I almost always love any given woman, though I hate her sex. I cannot explain it, for I was never perverse like Alcibiades. Can you explain it, Socrates?”

“Yes, a man can hate and love a woman simultaneously. Everything is produced by its opposite–love by hate, and hate by love. In my wife I love the good motherly element, but I hate the original sin in her; therefore I can hate and love her at the same time. Is it not so, Protagoras?”

“Now it is Socrates who is the Sophist. Black cannot be white.”

“Now it is Protagoras who is simple. This salt in the salt-cellar is white, but put out the lamps, and it is black. The salt therefore is not absolutely white, but its whiteness depends on the light. I should be inclined rather to believe that salt is absolutely black, for darkness is merely the absence of light, and is nothing in itself, communicates no quality of its own to the salt, which in the darkness is something independent, consequently its real nature is black.

“But in the light a thing can be both black and white. This sea-sole, for instance, is black above, but white below. In the same way something can be good and bad at the same time. Therefore Euripides is right when he says that he loves and hates woman simultaneously. The misogynist is he who only hates woman, but Euripides loves her also. Therefore he is not a misogynist. What do you think, Aspasia?”

“Wise Socrates! You confess that Euripides hates women, therefore he is a woman-hater.”

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“No, my dear child, I admitted that Euripides both loves and hates women,–both, mark you. I love Alcibiades, but I abhor and hate his want of character; now I ask the friends here, am I a hater of Alcibiades?”

“No, certainly not,” they answered simultaneously. But Aspasia was roused, and wished to rouse him. “Wise Socrates, how do matters stand between you and your wife?”

“The wise man does not willingly speak of his wife,” Protagoras struck in: “nor of his weakness.”

“You have said it. One sacrifices to the earth, but unwillingly; one binds oneself, but without pleasure; one endures, but loves not; one does one’s duty to the State, but with difficulty. There is only one Aspasia, and she belongs to Pericles–the greatest woman to the greatest man. Pericles is the greatest in the State, as Euripides is the greatest on the stage.”

This was an opportunity for Protagoras, without his needing to seek it. “Is Euripides greater than Aeschylus and Sophocles?” he asked.

“Certainly, Protagoras! He is nearer to us; he speaks our thoughts, not those of our fathers; he does not cringe before the gods and fate; he fights with them; he loves men, knows them, and laments them; his art is more elaborate, his feelings warmer, his pictures more life-like than those of the ancients. But now I should like to speak of Pericles.”

“Stop, Socrates! In the Pnyx or the Agora, but not here! Though I should be glad of a word of encouragement since false accusations rain on me. We have come here to forget and not to remember ourselves, and Socrates delights us most when he speaks of the highest things, among which I do not count the State of Athens. Here comes Alcibiades with his following. Kindle more lights, boys, and put more ice in the wine.”

There was a noise at the entrance; the dog barked, the doorkeeper shouted, and Alcibiades entered with his companions. These consisted of girls and of two strangers whom he had found in a wine-house.

“Papaia!” he cried. “Here is the host! And here is Aristophanes, a future dramatist. Here is the Roman Lucillus, formerly a Decemvir, who has been banished. There is one of the many Laises who have sat to Phidias. Aspasia must not take it ill. And here are flute-players from Piraeus. Whether they have the pestilence, I know not! What can they do to me? I am twenty years old, and yet have done nothing? Why, then, should I live? Now Lais will dance. Papaia!”

Euripides rose and made a sign for silence. “Let the dance wait; Pericles is not pleased, and looks serious.” A pause followed. The heat was oppressive. It was not thunder-weather, but something like it, and a sense of uneasy expectation seemed to weigh upon all their spirits.

Then, as if by accident, the arm of the skeleton fell on its knee with a slight snap. The flower, which it had held under its nose, lay on the earth.

All started, even Alcibiades, but, angry with himself for this weakness, he took a cup and stepped forward.

“The skeleton is thirsty! I drink to it! Who pledges me?”

“Socrates can do so the best. He can drink half a jar of wine in one pull, without winking.”

As a matter of fact, Socrates was notorious for his drinking powers, but now he was not in the mood. “Not to-day! Wine is bitter to my taste,” he said.

And turning to Pericles, he whispered: “Evil eyes have come here. This Aristophanes is not our friend! Do you know him?”

“Very little, but he looks as though he would like to murder us.”

Alcibiades continued to address the skeleton: “Thus looks Athens at this moment! Sparta and the Persian King have gnawed off its flesh; Cleon has tanned its skin; the allies have gouged out its eyes; the citizens have drawn out its teeth,–those citizens whom Aristophanes knows and whom he will soon describe. Here’s to you, skeleton! ‘[Greek: Polla metaxu pelei kulikos kai cheileos akrou]!’”

There was a sudden change in the scene. The skeleton sank backwards like a drunken man; the lamps began to sway on their chains, the salt-cellar was spilt on the table.

“Ohioh!” cried Alcibiades, “Tralall! Ha! Ha! Ha! The table wobbles, the sofa rocks; am I drunk, or is the room drunk?”

All were alarmed, but Socrates commanded quiet. “A god is near! The earth shakes, and I hear … does it thunder? No! That is an earthquake.”

All jumped up, but Socrates continued, “Be quiet! It is already past.”

After they had all taken their places again, he continued: “I was five years old when Sparta was visited by an earthquake; twenty thousand men perished, and only six houses remained standing. Then it was Sparta. Now it is Athens. Yes, friends, a voice says to me, ‘Before a babe can become a man, we shall have been dispersed and destroyed like a bevy of birds.’”

Again the dog barked, and the door-keeper shouted. There entered an uninvited guest in a state of excitement.

Alcibiades greeted him. “It is Nicias,” he said. “Now I will be sober; the thoughtful Nicias comes to our feast. What is the matter?”

“Allow an uninvited guest.”

“Speak, Nicias!”

“Pericles!” began the new-comer hesitatingly, “your friend, our friend, the glory of Athens and Hellas,–Phidias is accused….”

“Stop! Silence!”

“Accused! O shame and disgrace! I cannot say it without weeping: Phidias is accused of having purloined gold from the statue of Athene.”

The silence which followed was first broken by Pericles: “Phidias hides his face in his mantle; he is ashamed for Athens. But by the gods and the nether world, let us swear to his innocence.”

“We swear!” exclaimed all like one man.

“I swear also,” said Nicias.

“Athens is dishonoured, if one has to swear that Phidias has not stolen.”

Nicias had approached Pericles, and, bowing to Aspasia, he whispered, “Pericles, your son Paralos is ill.”

“Of the pestilence! Follow me, Aspasia.”

“He is not my son, but yours; therefore I follow you.”

“The house collapses, friends depart, all beauty passes away, the ugly remains.”

“And the gods sleep.”

“Or have emigrated.”

“Or are dead! Let us make new ones.”

Another shock of earthquake extinguished the lamps, and all went out into the street, except Socrates and Alcibiades.

“Phidias accused of theft! Let the walls of the world fall in!” said Socrates, and sank, as was his custom, into a fit of absent-mindedness that resembled sleep.

Alcibiades took one of the largest double-goblets, veiled it, and improvised the following dithyramb:

“May everything break up from Pindus to the Caucasus!
Then will Prometheus be unbound and bestow fire again
on frozen mortals!
And Zeus descends to Hades, Pallas sells herself;
Apollo breaks his lyre in two, and cobbles shoes;
Ares lets his war-horse go, and minds sheep;
And on the ruins of all earthly glory, stands Alcibiades
In the full consciousness of his almightiness,
And laughs!”

* * * * *

The pestilence had broken out in Athens accompanied by shocks of earthquake.

When Pericles, accompanied by Aspasia, reached his house, his son by his divorced wife was dead.

According to the prevailing custom, and to show that he had not been murdered, the corpse was placed in the doorway. A small coffin of cedar-wood, painted red and black, stood on a bier, and showed the dead child dressed in a white shroud. He had a garland on his head, woven of the plant of death, the strong-scented Apium or celery. In his mouth he had an obol as Charon’s fee.

Pericles uttered a prayer in an undertone, without showing especially deep sorrow, for he had gone through much, and learnt to suffer.

“Two sons the gods have taken from me. Are they enough to atone?”

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“What have you to atone for?” asked Aspasia.

“One must suffer for another; the individual for the State. Pericles has suffered for Athens.”

“Pardon me that my tears dry sooner than yours. The thought that our son lives, gives me comfort.”

“It comforts me also, but not so much.”

“Shall I go, before your wife comes?”

“You must not leave me, for I am ill.”

“You have spoken of it for a long time now. Is it serious?”

“My soul is sick. When the State suffers, I am ill…. There comes the mother of the dead.”

A black-robed woman appeared in the doorway; she wore a veil in order to hide the fact that her hair was cut off; she had a garland in her hand, and a slave followed her with a torch.

She did not immediately notice Aspasia’s presence, greeted her former husband with a glance, and laid the garland at the dead boy’s feet. “I only bring a funeral garland for my son,” she said, “but instead of the obol, he shall take a kiss from the lips of his mother.”

She threw herself on the dead child, and kissed him.

“Beware of the dead!” said Pericles, and seized her arm; “he died of the pestilence.”

“My life has been a lingering death; a quick one is preferable to me.”

Then she noticed Aspasia, and, rising, said with quiet dignity, “Tell your friend to go.”

“She goes, and I follow her.”

“That is right! For now, my Pericles, the last tie between us is dissolved! Farewell!”

“Farewell, my wife!”

And, turning to Aspasia, he said, “Give me your hand, my spouse.”

“Here it is.”

The mourning mother lingered: “We shall all meet again some day, shall we not? And then as friends–you, she, and he who is gone before to prepare a dwelling for the hearts which are separated by the narrow laws of life.”

* * * * *

Pericles and Socrates wandered in the avenue of plane-trees below the Hemicyklion, and conversed together.

“Phidias has been acquitted of theft, but re-arrested on the charge of blaspheming the gods of the State.”

“Arrested? Phidias!” “They say that he has represented me and himself in Athene’s shield.”

“That is the mob’s doing, which hates all greatness! Anaxagoras banished because he was too wise; Aristides banished because he was too just; Themistocles, Pausanias…. What did you do, Pericles, when you gave the people power?”

“What was lawful and right. I fall certainly by my own sword, but honourably. I go about and am dying piecemeal, like Athens. Did we know that we adorned our statues for a funeral procession? that we were weaving our own shrouds? that the choruses of our tragedies were dirges?”

“Athens is dying–yes! But of what?”

“Of Sparta.”

“What is Sparta?”

“Sparta is Heracles; the club, the lion-skin, brute-strength. We Athenians are the sons of Theseus, ranged against the Heraclidae, Dorians, and Ionians. Athens dies by Sparta’s hand, but Hellas dies by her own.”

“I believe the gods have forsaken us.”

“I believe so too, but the Divine lives.”

“There comes Nicias, the messenger of misfortune.” It was Nicias; and when he read the question in the faces and glances of the two, he answered, without waiting to be asked: “From the Agora!”

“What is the news from the Agora?”

“The Assembly seeks help from the Macedonians.”

“Why not from the Persians? Good! then the end is near. Do they seek help from the enemy? From the barbarian, the Macedonian, who lies above us like a lion on a hill. Go, Nicias, and say, ‘Pericles is dying.’ And ask them to choose the worthiest as his successor! Not the most unworthy! Go, Nicias, but go quickly.”

“I go,” said Nicias, “but for a physician.”

And he went.

“No physician can cure me!” answered Pericles; but in a weak voice, as though he spoke to himself. He took his old seat in the Hemicyklion. When he had rested a while, he made Socrates a sign to come near, for he did not wish to raise his voice.

“Socrates, my friend,” he began, “this is the farewell of a dying man. You were the wisest, but take it not ill if I say, ‘Be not too wise’; seek not the unattainable, and confuse not men’s minds with subtleties; do not make the simple complicated. You wish to see things with both eyes, but he who shoots with the bow, must close one eye; otherwise he sees his mark doubled. You are not a Sophist, but may easily appear so; you are not a libertine, but you go about with such; you hate your city and your country, and rightly; but you should love them to the death, for that is your duty; you despise the people, but you should be sorry for them. I have not admired the people, but I have given them laws and justice; therefore I die!

“Good-night, Socrates! Now it is dark before my eyes. You shall close them, and give me the garland. Now I go to sleep. When I awake, if I awake, then I am on the other side, and then I will send you a greeting, if the gods allow it. Good-night.”

“Pericles is dead. Hear it, Athenians, and weep as I do!”

The people streamed thither, but they did not weep. They only wondered what would now happen, and felt almost glad of a change.

* * * * *

Cleon the tanner stood in the orator’s pulpit in the Pnyx. Among his most attentive hearers were Alcibiades, Anytos, and Nicias. Cleon said: “Pericles is dead, and Pericles is buried; now you know it. Let him rest in peace with his merits and faults, for the enemy is in Sphacteria, and we must have a commander; Pericles’ shadow will not serve for that. Here below sit two adventurers, fine gentlemen both; one is called Nicias, because he never has conquered; the other Alcibiades, and we know his conquests–goblets and girls. On the other hand, we do not know his character, but you will some day know him, Athenians, and he will show his incisors himself. Such and such and such a one have been proposed for commander–oddly enough all fine gentlemen, and all grandees, of course. Athens, which has abjured all kings and their like, must now fight with royal Sparta, and must, faithful to its traditions, appear in the field under a man of the people on whom you can rely. We need no Pericles who commissions statues and builds temples to Fame and Glory; Athens has enough of such gewgaws. But now we must have a man who understands the art of war, who has a heart in his breast and a head on his shoulders. Whom do you wish for, men of Athens?”

Alcibiades sprang up like a young lion, and went straight to the point. “Men of Athens, I propose Cleon the tanner, not because he is a tanner, for that is something different. At any rate the army may be compared to an ox-skin, and Cleon to a knife; but Cleon has other qualities, especially those of a commander. His last campaign against Pericles and Phidias closed with a triumph for him. He has displayed a courage which never failed, and an intelligence which passed all mortal comprehension. His strategy was certainly not that of a lion, but he conquered, and that is the chief point. I propose Cleon as leader of the campaign.”

Now it so fell out that this patent irony was still too subtle for the mob, who took it seriously. Alcibiades also had a certain influence with them because of his relationship to Pericles, and they listened to him readily. Accordingly the whole assembly called out for Cleon, and he was elected.

But Cleon had never dreamt of the honour of being commander, and he was prudent enough not to endeavour to climb beyond his capacity. Therefore he protested against the election, shouting and swearing by all the gods.

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Alcibiades, however, seized the opportunity by the forelock, and, perceiving that the election of Cleon meant his death, he mounted an empty rostrum and spoke with emphasis: “Cleon jests, and Cleon is modest; he does not himself know what sort of a commander he is, for he has not proved himself; but I know who he is; I insist upon his election; I demand that he fulfil his duty as a citizen; and I summon him before the Areopagus if he shirks it when the fatherland is in danger.” “Cleon is elected!” cried the people.

But Cleon continued to protest, “I do not know the difference between a hoplite and a peltast; [Footnote: a heavy-armed and a light-armed soldier.] I can neither carry a lance nor sit upon a horse.”

But Alcibiades shouted him down. “He can do everything; guide the State and criticise art; carry on law-suits and watch Sophists; he can discuss the highest subjects with Socrates; in a word, he possesses all the public virtues and all the private vices.”

Now the people laughed, but Cleon did not budge.

“Athenians!” said Alcibiades in conclusion, “the people have spoken, and there is no appeal. Cleon is elected, and Sparta is done for!”

The assembly broke up. Only Cleon remained behind with his friend Anytos. “Anytos!” he said. “I am lost!”

“Very probable!” answered Anytos.

But Alcibiades went off with Nicias: “Now Cleon is as dead as a dog. Then comes my turn,” he said.

* * * * *

Socrates walked, deep in thought, up and down the courtyard of his house, which was very simple and had no colonnades. His wife was carding wool, and did it as if she were pulling someone’s hair.

The wise man kept silence, but the woman spoke–that was her nature. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“For the sake of old acquaintance, I will answer you, though I am not obliged to do so. I am thinking.”

“Is that a proper business for a man?”

“Certainly; a very manly business.”

“At any rate no one can see what you are doing.”

“When you were with child, it was also invisible; but when, it was born, it was visible, and especially audible. Thus occupations which are at first invisible, become visible later on. They are therefore not to be despised, least of all by those who only believe in the visible.”

“Is your business with Aspasia something of that sort?”

“Something of that, and of another sort too.”

“You drink also a good deal.”

“Yes, those who speak become thirsty, and the thirsty must drink.”

“What is it in Aspasia that attracts men?”

“Certain qualities which give zest to social intercourse –thoughtfulness, tact, moderation.”

“You mean that for me?”

“I mean it for Aspasia.”

“Is she beautiful?”


“Anytos declares that she is.”

“He tells an untruth. Do you see Anytos, Cleon’s friend and my enemy?”

“He is not my enemy.”

“But mine. You always love my enemies and hate my friends; that is a bad sign.”

“Your friends are bad men.”

“No, on the contrary. Pericles was the greatest of the Athenians, Phidias the best, Euripides the noblest, Plato the wisest, Alcibiades the most gifted, Protagoras the most acute.”

“And Aristophanes?”

“He is my enemy, though I do not know why. I suppose you have heard of the comedy which he has written about me.”

“Anytos told me. Have you seen it?”

“I saw the Clouds yesterday.”

“Was it amusing–was it clever?”

“What did Anytos think?”

“He made me laugh when he described some scenes.”

“Then it must be amusing, or you would not have laughed.”

“Did you not laugh, my Socrates?”

“Yes, of course; otherwise they would have thought me a blockhead. You know that he has depicted me as a rogue and fool. Since I am neither, it was not serious; therefore it was in jest.”

“Do you think so? I think it was serious.” “And you laugh at the serious? Do you weep, then, at jesting? Then you would be mad.”

“Do you think I am mad?”

“Yes, if you think me a rogue.”

“You know that Cleon is with the army.”

“I was astonished to hear it.”

“Astonished! You think, then, that he is not fit to command.”

“No, I know nothing about his fitness as commander, for I have never seen him in the field. But I am astonished at his election, as he himself was, because it was unexpected.”

“You therefore expect him to be defeated.”

“No, I wait for the result, in order to see whether he wins or loses.”

“You would be glad if he lost?”

“I do not love Cleon, but as an Athenian I would mourn if he were defeated; therefore I would not rejoice at his overthrow.” “You hate Cleon, but you do not wish his overthrow.”

“On account of Athens–no.”

“But except for that?”

“Except for that, Cleon’s overthrow would be a blessing for the State, for he has been unjust to Pericles, to Phidias, to all who have done anything great.”

“Here comes a visitor.”

“It is Alcibiades.”

“The wretch! Are you not ashamed to be on intimate terms with him?”

“He is a man; he has great faults and great merits, and he is my friend. I do not wish to be on intimate terms with my enemies.” Alcibiades knocked at the door, and rushed in. “Papaia! The pair are philosophising together, and talking of yesterday’s comedy! This Aristophanes is an ass! If one wishes to kill an enemy, one must hit him; but Aristophanes aims at the clouds. Hit, yes! Do you know that Cleon is defeated?”

“What a pity!” exclaimed Socrates.

“Is it a pity that the dog is unmasked?”

“I think Alcibiades is misinformed,” broke in Xantippe.

“No, by Zeus, but I wish I was!”

“Hush! here is Anytos coming,” said Socrates.

“The second tanner! It is strange that the destiny of Athens is guided by tanners.”

“The destiny of Athens! Who knows it?”

“I, Alcibiades, am the destiny of Athens.”

“[Greek: Hubris]! Beware of the gods!”

“I come after Cleon; Cleon is no more; therefore it is my turn.”

“Here is Anytos!”

Anytos entered: “I seek Alcibiades.”

“Here I am.”

“Must I prepare you….’

“No, I know.”

“Prepare you for the honour….”

“Have I waited long enough.”

“To go at the head….”

“That is what I was born for.”

“To take the lead….”

“That is my place.”

“And conduct the triumphal procession?”

“What procession?”

“Ah! you did not know. Cleon’s triumphal procession from the harbour.”

Alcibiades passed his hand downwards over his face, as though he wished to changed his mask, and it was done in a moment.

“Yes, certainly, certainly, certainly. I have in fact just come here to–announce his victory.”

“He lies,” broke in Xantippe.

“I jested with the pair. There will be a triumphal procession, then, for Cleon! How fine!”

“Socrates,” continued Anytos, “are you not glad?”

“I am glad that the enemy is beaten.”

“But not that Cleon has won a victory?”

“Yes, it is nearly the same thing.”

Xantippe seized the opportunity and struck in: “He is not glad, and he does not believe in Cleon.”

“I know you,” concluded Anytos. “I know you philosophers and quibblers! But take care!–And now, Alcibiades, come and receive the despised Cleon, who has saved the fatherland!”

Alcibiades took Socrates by the hand, and whispered in his ear. “What a cursed mischance! Well, not yet!–but the next time!”

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