Saturday, October 9, 2010

At Athens

IN addition to his formal duties as commissioner in charge of the offering to the goddess, Charidemus was entrusted with special messages from Alexander to his old teacher, Aristotle, who had been a resident at Athens for now about two years. He found the philosopher in his favourite haunt of the Lyceum just after he had dismissed his morning class of hearers. Aristotle was somewhat slight and insignificant in person, but he had a singularly keen and intelligent face. His appearance, as far as dress was concerned, was rather that of a man of the world than of a thinker. In fact, it was almost foppish. His hair was arranged with the greatest care. His dress was new and fashionable in cut; and his fingers were adorned with several costly rings. Charidemus could not help thinking what a remarkable contrast he presented to the eccentric being whom he had seen in his tub at Corinth. But in the great man's talk there was not a vestige of affectation or weakness. Charidemus was struck with the wide range of subjects which it embraced. There was nothing in the world in which he did not seem to feel the keenest interest. He cross-examined the young man as to the features of the countries which he had traversed, the products of their soil, the habits of the natives, in a word, as to all his experiences. He expressed a great delight at hearing of the rich collection of curious objects which the king was making for him, and exhorted his young visitor never to let either the duties or the pleasures of a military life interfere with his persistent observation of nature. "If the king's designs are carried out," he said, "if the gods permit him to go as far as I know he purposes to go, he and those who go with him will have the chance of solving many problems which at present are beyond all explanation. This is a world in which every one may do something; and I implore you not to miss your chance. Mind that no fact, however insignificant it may seem, is unworthy of attention. Once the followers after wisdom began with theories; I begin with facts, and I take it that I cannot have too many of them."

Charidemus then put to the philosopher a question on Greek politics, which he had been specially instructed to ask. It was, in effect, whether Alexander had any reason to dread a coalition of the Greek states taking advantage of his occupation in his schemes of conquest to assail him in the rear. "I stand aloof from politics," was the answer of Aristotle. "No one, either now, or when I was in this city before, ever heard me express an opinion on any political subject; no one ever ventured to put me down as a Macedonian or an anti-Macedonian partisan. But though I stand aloof, I observe, and observe, perhaps, all the better. Tell the king that he need have no fear of a coalition against him. Here in Athens there will be no movement in that direction. The parties are too equally balanced; and the patriots, even if they were stronger than they are, would not stir. As for Sparta, it is sullen and angry; but the Spartans have long since lost their vigour. No; tell the king that his danger is at home. His mother and his regent are deadly foes. He must be friendly to both, and this it will require all his practical wisdom to do. And let him beware of plots. Plots are a poisonous weed that grows apace in an Eastern soil. And he has theories about men which may be a source of peril to him. I have often told him that there are two races, the free by nature and the slave by nature, races which are pretty well equivalent, I take it, to Greeks and barbarians. He thinks that he can treat them both as equal. I fear that if he tries the experiment he will alienate the one and not conciliate the other. But it is useless to talk on this subject. If I have not been able to persuade him, I do not suppose that you can. But you can at least tell him from me to beware."

From Athens Charidemus went to Pella. Alexander was perfectly well aware of the state of affairs at home. The letters of his mother, Olympias, had been full of the bitterest complaints against Antipater the regent, and the ill-feeling between the two was a source of serious danger, especially in view of the concealed disaffection of some of his own kinsmen. Charidemus, whose sagacity and aptitude for affairs the king's penetration had noticed, came to observe these facts for himself. This was, in fact, the secret errand which Alexander had entrusted to him. No one would suspect that a serious political mission had been confided to one so young; the fact that he had been brought up in Greece had detached him from native parties; in fact, he would have especially favourable opportunities of observing the set of feeling in Macedonia, while he was engaged in his ostensible occupation of looking after the reinforcements and stores which were to be sent out to Alexander in the spring.

Whilst he was thus employed he found the winter pass rapidly away. At the same time he had no particular reason for regretting his absence from the army. It was engaged in the important but tedious work of establishing a perfectly solid base of operations. Alexander felt that he must have Lesser Asia thoroughly safe behind him, and he employed the earlier part of the year in bringing about this result. But the romantic part of the expedition was yet to come. The great battle or battles which the Persian king was sure to fight for his throne were yet in the future. The treasures of Persepolis and Ecbatana, Babylon, and Susa, were yet to be ransacked; and all the wonders of the further East were yet to be explored. A letter from Charondas, which was put by a courier into the young man's hand on the very eve of his departure from Pella, told something about the doings of the army during this interval. It ran thus—

"You have missed little or nothing by being at home during our winter campaign. For my part I have not so much as once crossed swords with an enemy since I saw you last. Our experiences repeat themselves with a curious monotony. There are strongholds in the country which might give us an infinitude of trouble; but, after a mere pretence of resistance, they yield themselves without a blow. Hear what happened at Celenæ as a specimen of all. The town itself was unwalled—I cannot help thinking, by the way, that walls often do a town more harm than good—but the citadel was impregnable. I never saw a place which it would be more absolutely hopeless to attack. The garrison was ample; they were provisioned, as we have afterwards discovered, for two years, and there was a never-failing spring within the walls. Yet the king had a message the very next day after he occupied the town, offering to surrender the place if within sixty days no succour should come from Darius. And surrendered it was. Here was one of the strongest positions in Asia, and it did not cost us a single arrow, much less a single life. The fact is these people have no country to fight for. The natives have changed masters again and again; and the mercenaries would quite as soon receive pay from one side as the other, and naturally prefer to be with that which gives the hardest knocks.

"At Gordium we had a very interesting experience. There is a strange story connected with the place which an old Greek merchant who had lived there for many years told me. It was something of this kind:

"There was once—some four hundred years ago, as nearly as I could make out—a certain Gordius in this country. He was a poor peasant, cultivating a few acres of his own land. One day as he was guiding his plough with two oxen before him, an eagle settled on it, and kept its place till the evening. The man went to Telmissus, a town famous for its soothsayers, to find out, if he could, what this marvel might mean. Outside the gate of Telmissus he met a girl; and finding that she, too, practised the soothsaying art, he told her his story. 'Offer a sacrifice to King Zeus of Telmissus,' she said. This he did, the girl showing him how he should proceed, and afterwards becoming his wife. For many years nothing happened, not indeed till Gordius' son by this marriage had grown up to manhood. At this time there were great troubles in Phrygia, and the people, inquiring of an oracle how they might get relief, received this answer:

"Phrygians, hear: a cart shall bring

To your gates your fated king.

He, 'tis writ, shall give you peace;

Then shall Phrygia's troubles cease."

The people had just heard this answer when Gordius, who had come into the town on some ordinary business of his farm, appeared in the market-place riding on his cart with his wife and son. He was recognized at once as the person pointed out by the oracle, and named with acclamations as the new king of Phrygia. The first thing that he did was to take the cart with its yoke to the temple of Zeus the King, and tie the two to the altar. Whoever should untie the knot of this fastening, a later oracle declared, should be king of all Asia.

"This was the story which I heard, and which, of course, reached the king's ears. The rumour ran through the army that the king was going to try his fortune, and the next day the temple was crowded with chiefs of the country and with officers of our own army. The Phrygians, we could see, believed the whole story implicitly; our people did not know what to think. There is not much faith now-a-days in such things. Still there was a general feeling that the king had better have left the matter alone. Well, it was as ugly a knot as ever was seen. No one could possibly discover where the cord began or where it left off. For a time the king manfully struggled with the puzzle. Then as it defied all his efforts, one could see the angry colour rising in his cheeks, for he is not used to be baffled by difficulties. At last he cried, 'The oracle says nothing about the way in which the knot is to be undone. If I cannot untie it, why should I not cut it?' And in a moment he had his sword out, dealt the great tangle a blow such as he might have delivered at a Persian's head, and cleft it in two as cleanly as if it had been a single cord—there was not a shred left hanging on either side. Did he fulfill the decree of fate, or cheat it? Who can say? This, however, must be pretty clear to every one by now, that there is no knot of man's tying which that sword will not sever. But there are knots, you know, dearest of friends, that are not of man's tying. May he and we have safe deliverance out of them!"

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