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The Glory of Athens

Now the most famous statesman of Athens was named Pericles (495-429 B.C.). After the struggle with Persia, Pericles replaced the old shrines of Athens, which the enemy had burnt down, with the most beautiful buildings the world has ever known. On the citadel was built the Parthenon, a lovely marble temple dedicated to Athena. Pheidias, the famous sculptor, adorned it with beautiful frescoes and statues, and made for it a wonderful figure of the goddess in gold and ivory. The colonnades of the temple were formed of the Doric columns, the oldest, simplest, most dignified and massive of Greek columns. Near by, at the foot of the citadel, was the theatre, where the citizens flocked to hear the dramas of their own poets -- some of the greatest poets of the world.

In his famous funeral oration, after Marathon, Pericles spoke of the glory of Athens. "We are lovers of the beautiful," he said, "yet simple in our tastes, and we cultivate the mind without loss of manliness. Wealth we employ, not for talk and idle show, but when there is a real use for it. To avow poverty with us is no disgrace; the true disgrace is in doing nothing to avoid it. An Athenian citizen does not neglect the state because he takes care of his own household; and even those of us who are engaged in business have a very fair idea of politics. We alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as a harmless but as a useless character; and if few of us are originators, we are all sound judges of a policy ... for we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act."

Under Pericles, Athens became a new and splendid city, and it attracted the greatest poets, artists, and scientists. It became, as he said, "the school of Greece."

In the streets of Athens the citizens might stay awhile to listen to the greatest of all the Greeks, Socrates. He was a poor man, the son of a stone-cutter. By his questions he tried hard to improve the individual citizen, upon whom the greatness of a state rests. But his questions left the citizens in doubt about many things, including the old Greek gods. So Socrates was tried and put to death. The story of his death (399 B.C.) is told by his most famous pupil, Plato. When Socrates addressed the jury, he told them that the man that is good for anything ought not to calculate the chances of living and dying. He ought only to consider whether he is doing anything right or wrong -- acting the part of a good man or a bad.

To the writings of Socrates' pupil, Plato, and to those of Plato's pupil, Aristotle, we still turn for the highest wisdom on some of the greatest problems of life.

If only Athens and Sparta could have agreed after the great victory over Persia, it would have been well for Greece. But while the men of Athens loved freedom and beauty, the Spartans preferred the hard discipline of an armed camp, and despised the higher things of life. They were jealous of Athens, for her navy was master of the seas, and she had kept together a league of cities after the Persian war. Soon this league became an empire, paying tribute to Athens. High walls were built round the city, watched by the jealous eye of Sparta.

Then there followed a disastrous thirty years' war between the two cities. During the third year a terrible plague broke out, carrying off half the people of Athens, including Pericles. Then Athens was persuaded to attack a famous Greek colony in Sicily. There, in the stone quarries, perished the flower of the Athenian youth.

The Athenian supremacy was at an end. Sparta, and then Thebes, became leaders of Greece. But the glory of Athens lived on in its great university, the first in the world.

"We may go back," says a modern writer, "for the last poetic word on the greatest things of life, to the ode in the Greek play where the chorus recounts how, of all the many wonders of the world, the most wondrous is Man. He makes a path across the white sea, works the land, captures or tames animals and birds for his daily use; he has devised language, and from language thought, and all the moods that mould a State. He finds help against every evil of his lot, save only death; against death and the grave he has no power. No progress -- at any rate in harmony of words or strength of imagination, in the four-and-twenty centuries since Sophocles -- dims the force and beauty of these ancient lines.

"As the flowers adorn the earth, and the stars adorn the sky, so Athens adorns Greece, and Greece the world."