THE HERACLIDAE COME TO ATHENS
WHEN Heracles had been received in heaven and his cousin Eurystheus, king of Argos, had nothing more to fear from him, he turned on the children of the demigod. Most of these lived in Mycenae, the capital of Argos, with Alcmene, the hero’s mother. When they became aware of the persecutions menacing them, they fled and put themselves under the protection of Ceyx, king of Trachis. But when Eurystheus asked this petty monarch to give them up and threatened to make war on him if he refused, they doubted the safety of their refuge and fled from Trachis. Iolaus, the distinguished kinsman and friend of Heracles, cared for them like a father. As a boy he had shared all the adventures and hardships of Heracles, and now that he was aging and gray-haired, he took the orphaned brood of his friend under his wing and roamed through the world with them. They set out to occupy the Peloponnesus, which was their father’s by conquest.
In the course of their journey, constantly pursued by Eurystheus, they came to Athens, which was ruled by the son of Theseus, Demophoon, who had just driven Menestheus from the throne he had usurped. On their arrival in Athens, the Heraclidae went straight to the market place, prostrated themselves before the altar of Zeus, and implored the protection of the people of Athens. They had been there but a short time when a herald, sent by King Eurystheus, appeared, faced Iolaus defiantly, and said to him in contemptuous tones: “You seem to think that this is a safe refuge for you and that you have come to a city which will act as your ally! Foolish Iolaus! Do you think that anyone at all would consider exchanging a mighty ally like Eurystheus for a weak one such as yourself? Away with you and all your charges! Away to Argos, where you will be fairly judged—and stoned to death!”
Iolaus answered him calmly. “Far be it from me to do as you say. For I know that this altar is a refuge which will protect me not only from an insignificant nobody like you but even from the hosts of your master. The land to which we have come is a land of freedom!”
“Then be advised,” continued Copreus, for that was the name of the herald, “that I am not here alone. Enough men come behind me to snatch your charges from the refuge of this city which you seem to think safe for you!”
When the Heraclidae heard these words, they broke into lamentation, but Iolaus addressed the Athenians in a loud voice. “Citizens of Athens,” he said, “do not allow the wards of Zeus to be led off by force, nor the wreaths we wear as suppliants to be soiled, lest your gods be dishonored and your city disgraced!”
At this call for help, the Athenians thronged together from all sides, and only now did they see the little group of fugitives huddled around the altar. “Who is that noble old man? And those beautiful youths with flying locks?” questioned a hundred lips. And when they learned that those seeking their protection were sons of Heracles, they were not only filled with compassion but with awe as well. They bade the herald who was about to lay hand on the boys to let them be, and to state his demands to the king of the land in proper fashion.
“Who is the king of this country?” asked Copreus, a little abashed by the firm and proud bearing of the Athenians.
“He is a man to whose judgment you well may bow,” they answered. “Demophoon, the son of immortal Theseus, is our king.”
Before long the news of fugitives in the market place, of a foreign host, and a herald who asked that the suppliants be delivered up to him, reached the king in his palace. He himself went to the market place and heard from the herald’s own lips the demand of Eurystheus. “I am an Argive,” Copreus told him. “The persons I wish to take with me are also Argives and therefore under the jurisdiction of my king. You will not be so unreasonable, O son of Theseus, as to be the one and only man in all of Greece to take pity on these fugitives and for their sakes to engage in battle with Eurystheus and his many and powerful allies.”
Demophoon was wise and contained. To the violent speech of the herald, he merely answered: “How can I hope to see this matter right, or decide in favor of one or another, before hearing both sides? Old man, you who are in charge of these youths, say what you can for yourself.”
Iolaus, to whom Demophoon had spoken, rose from the altar steps, bowed reverently before the king, and replied: “Now I know, indeed, that I am in a free city, for here a man is permitted to speak for himself and finds a hearing. In all other places, they drove away my charges and me before I could open my mouth to speak in their behalf. The truth of our plight is this: Eurystheus was the cause of our leaving Argos. We dared not remain in his country for another hour. How can he call us his subjects and claim that we, as Argives, must bow to his decrees, when he has robbed us of all the rights of a subject? If there were truth in what he said, then he who fled Argos would have to avoid all of Greece as well! But—heaven be thanked!—not Athens! Those who dwell in this glorious city will not drive the sons of Heracles from their land. You, O king, will not permit a suppliant to be snatched from the very altar. My children, be calm! You are in a free country, and what is more, you are with your kinsman. For know, O king, that you are not sheltering strangers. Both Theseus, your father, and Heracles, the father of these boys, were great-grandsons of Pelops. And they were bound by a tie stronger than kinship: they were comrades-in-arms. Heracles liberated your father from the underworld!”
While Iolaus was speaking, he had clasped the king’s knees, taken his hand, and touched his chin. The king raised him from the ground and said: “There are three reasons why I should grant your plea. First, Zeus and this holy altar; secondly, the kinship between me and your charges; and thirdly, the benefits I owe to Heracles’ efforts in my father’s behalf. If I allowed you to be taken from this sacred place, this land would no longer be a land of freedom, a land where virtue is practiced and the gods given their due.” Then he turned to Copreus. “Herald,” he commanded, “return to Mycenae and tell this to your king.”
“I go,” said Copreus, and brandished his herald’s staff threateningly. “But I shall come again—and with the Argive host behind me. Ten thousand shield-bearers only wait for my king to give them the sign. And he himself will lead them. He is, indeed, already at your borders.”
“Hades awaits you!” said Demophoon contemptuously. “I fear neither you nor all of Argos!”
The herald withdrew, and now the sons of Heracles, a band of strong youths and fair boys, joyously sprang up from the altar steps, put their hands into those of their kinsman, the king of Athens, and hailed him as their rescuer. Iolaus once more spoke for them and thanked Demophoon and the Athenians with words full of grateful emotion. “Should we ever return to our home,” he said, “should the children of Heracles ever be reinstated in the house of their father, they will not forget their friends, their liberators. Never will they make war on this hospitable city, but always regard her as a dear ally with a claim on their utmost loyalty.”
And now King Demophoon prepared for the attack of his new enemies. He assembled his seers and bade them make solemn sacrifice. Iolaus and his charges were, he said, to be his guests in the palace, but the old man declared that he did not wish to leave the altar of Zeus and would remain to pray for the welfare of the city. “Not until—with the help of the gods—victory is yours,” he said, “will we rest our weary limbs under the roof of our host.”
In the meantime the king had ascended the highest tower of his palace and, looking down, gauged the strength of the approaching army. Then he gathered his men, gave orders for the defense of the city, and took counsel with the soothsayers. Iolaus and his charges were fervently supplicating the gods, when Demophoon came toward them with swift steps, his face agitated and full of sorrow. “What am I to do, my friends?” he called to them with troubled countenance. “It is true that my army is ready for the Argives, but all my seers insist that I can defeat them only on one condition, and this I cannot fulfill! Hear what the oracle has said: ‘You shall slaughter neither calf nor bullock, but a maiden of noble birth. Only then can you and your city hope for victory!’ But how can this be? I myself have a daughter, young and lovely as a flower. But who can expect a father to make such a sacrifice? And what other noble citizen of Athens, having a daughter, would deliver her up to me, even if I ventured to ask her of him? Were I to do such a thing, I should have civil war to cope with at the very time I am fighting an alien foe.”
The sons of Heracles listened to the doubts and fears of their protector, and their hearts sank. “Woe to us!” cried Iolaus. “We are like shipwrecked mariners who thought they had reached the shore but are swept out to sea again by the ruthless storm. Why did we deceive ourselves with idle hopes and dreams? We are lost! Demophoon will yield us up, and how could we reproach him?” But suddenly a ray of hope shone in his eyes. “Do you know, O king, what the spirit prompts me? What can save us all? If you will only help me accomplish it! Instead of the sons of Heracles, give me up to Eurystheus! It would give him pleasure to force me, the constant companion of a great hero, to die a shameful death. But I am old and would gladly sacrifice my very soul for these youths.”
“You have made a noble offer,” Demophoon said sadly, “but it will not avail us. Do you think Eurystheus would be content to kill an old man? No, what he wants is to destroy the young and blooming sons of Heracles, to put an end to his line. If you know other counsel, speak. But what you have proposed would be useless.”
At that so loud a clamor and cry of woe issued not only from the Heraclidae but from the citizens assembled in the market place, that the sound carried up to the palace. Soon after the fugitives had come, Alcmene, Heracles’ mother, bowed with age and grief, and Macaria, the lovely daughter Deianira had borne him, had been taken there to hide them from curious eyes, and now they waited for what was to come. Alcmene was very old, and her thoughts were turned within, so that she knew nothing of what was going on in the world about her. But her grandchild listened to the sounds of lament rising from the heart of the city, and so great was her anxiety for her brothers that she forgot she was a girl who had been reared in deep seclusion, forgot she was unaccompanied, and hurried to the market place, into the very midst of the throng. Not only Demophoon and the Athenians but Iolaus and his charges as well were struck with amazement when they saw her.
For a while she slipped in and out among the people and in this way learned of the danger threatening Athens and the Heraclidae and of the sinister oracle which seemed to block the path to a happy issue. Now she came before the king, and her step was firm. “Regard me as a victim,” she said, “a victim which will pledge you victory and whose death will save my poor brothers from the rage of a tyrant. You were told to kill a virgin of noble birth. Had you forgotten that the virgin daughter of the noblest mortal, of Heracles, dwells in your midst? I offer myself as a sacrifice, which must be all the more pleasing to the gods since it is made of my own free will. If this city is generous enough to engage in war for the sake of the Heraclidae, and to give up its own sons by the hundreds, why should not one of Heracles’ own descendants be ready to give her life in order to insure victory to such noble men? We should not be worth protecting and saving if one of us did not think in this way. So take me to the place where my body is to be offered up. Wreathe me, as you would wreathe a ewe or a hind. Brandish the blade, for my soul will rejoice to go.”
For a long time after the girl had spoken the last impassioned word, Iolaus and those with him were silent. At last the leader of the Heraclidae said: “Macaria, you have proved yourself worthy of your father. I exult in your courage, even while I mourn your fate. Yet it seems to me that all the daughters of the line of Heracles should come together and decide by lot which is to die for her brothers.”
“I do not want to die by lot,” said Macaria. “Do not hesitate too long, or the enemy will fall upon you and the oracle be in vain. Bid the women of the city come with me, lest I die seen by the eyes of men.”
And with a retinue of the noblest women of Athens, Macaria, steadfast and joyful, went forth to die the death she herself had willed.
The king and the citizens of Athens looked after her reverently, while Iolaus and her brothers, the Heraclidae, lowered their gaze in sorrow and pain. But Fate did not allow either side to dwell on their thoughts and emotions, for hardly had Macaria disappeared when a messenger came running toward the altar, his face bright with good tidings, his voice loud with joy. “Greetings, O sons of Heracles,” he cried. “Tell me where I can find Iolaus. I have a message for him which will give him happiness.” Iolaus rose from the altar, but he could not at once banish the lines of grief and care from his forehead, and the messenger asked him the cause of his gloom.
“I am troubled for those I love,” said the old man. “Do not question me further, but rather tell me your joyful news.”
“Do you not recognize me?” asked the messenger. “Do you not know the old servant of Hyllus, son of Heracles and Deianira? You will recall that my master separated from you in the course of your wanderings, in order to enlist allies for your cause and his. Now, at just the right moment, he has come with a mighty host and is camped opposite the army of King Eurystheus.”
A stir of happy excitement ran through the group around the altar and spread to the citizens. The good news brought even old Alcmene from the women’s apartments of the palace, and gray-haired Iolaus had them bring him weapons and gird on his armor. He commended the younger children of Heracles and their great-grandmother to the care of the elders of Athens who remained behind in the city. Then he himself went out with the youths and King Demophoon to join the host of Hyllus.
Now when the allies were drawn up in battle array and the field glittered with armor as far as eye could reach, when only a stone’s throw away stood the army of King Eurystheus, who had placed himself at the head of countless rows of armed men, Hyllus, son of Heracles, descended from his war-chariot, and standing in the narrow space between the hosts, called to the Argive king: “King Eurystheus! Before we shed blood, before two great armies begin to fight for the sake of a handful of people and threaten each other with destruction, hear what I propose! Let us two decide this quarrel in single combat. If I fall at your hands, take with you my brothers, the sons of Heracles, and do with them as you wish. But if I defeat you, then let the sovereignty of my father, his house, and his rule in the Peloponnesus, be assured to me and mine.”
The allied hosts expressed their approval of this plan in loud applause, and the Argives muttered their consent. But Eurystheus, who had long ago proved himself a coward and who was again deeply concerned for his life, flatly rejected the proposal and would not leave his column of men. So Hyllus too returned to his host, the seers made sacrifice, and soon the battle cry was sounded.
“Fellow citizens!” Demophoon called to his men. “Remember that you are fighting for house and hearth, for the city that gave you birth, that feeds and protects you!”
On the other side Eurystheus begged his men not to disgrace Argos and Mycenae, but to add to the glory of their mighty state. And now the Tyrrhenian trumpets blared, shield thudded on shield, wheels rattled, spears rang, swords clashed, and the groans of the fallen sounded between. For one awful instant the allies of the Heraclidae recoiled from the thrusts of Argive lances, which threatened to break their ranks. The next moment they not only hurled back the enemy but surged forward themselves. For a long time the outcome was uncertain. At last the Argives fell back in confusion, and armored men and chariots all turned to flee. At that, old Iolaus suddenly felt a craving to make glorious his age by one last bold deed. As the chariot of Hyllus rolled past him to strike at the fleeing host of the enemy from the rear, the old man stretched his right hand up to the stalwart hero and begged to mount the chariot in his stead. Hyllus reverently made way for his father’s friend, for the protector of his brothers, and yielded his place to him.
It was not an easy task for those old hands to master four horses, champing the bit, but he drove forward and had just reached the temple of Pallas Athene when he saw the chariot of Eurystheus whirling up the dust ahead of him. Then he drew himself up and prayed to Hebe, the goddess of youth, to lend him the strength of youth for a single day, so that he might take vengeance on the foe of Heracles. And a miracle came to pass: two stars sank slowly out of heaven and came to rest on the horses’ harness, and a moment later a cloud of impenetrable mist enveloped the entire chariot. But the next instant mist and stars alike had vanished. Standing erect in the chariot was Iolaus, young and sound. His brown locks blew in the wind, his neck was straight and strong. He had sinewy arms and gripped the reins of the four horses with a firm hand. Storming ahead, he caught up with Eurystheus who had already passed the Scironian Rocks and was about to enter the valley in which the Argives thought to find safety. Eurystheus did not recognize his pursuer and fought back. But by dint of the youthful power the gods had lent him, Iolaus was victorious, forced his old enemy from his chariot, tied him fast in his own, and drove him toward the allied host as the first fruits of victory. The battle was won, for the leaderless host of the Argives scattered in frantic flight. All the sons of Eurystheus and countless other warriors were slain, and soon not a single enemy was left on the soil of Attica.
EURYSTHEUS AND ALCMENE
The victors had entered Athens, and Iolaus, who had again become an old man, brought before the mother of Heracles the humbled pursuer of a race of heroes, bound hand and foot.
“Is it you, hateful Eurystheus?” the old woman cried exultantly. “Have the gods brought justice upon you at last? Do not bow your head to the ground but look your foe full in the eyes. So this is you, you who for many years heaped labors and disgrace upon my son, sent him forth to strangle fierce serpents and savage lions, hoping that he might die in the doing. It was you who drove him down to the darkness of Hades, certain that he would have to remain in the underworld. And then, with every device, with all the power at your beck, you hunted me, his mother, hunted his children from land to land, trying to drive us from all of Greece, and snatching us from the altars that offered asylum. But you came up against men who were not afraid of you. You came to a free city. And now you must die, and may think yourself fortunate if you suffer only instant death, for the crimes you have committed deserve torture and death many times over.”
Eurystheus did not want to show fear before a woman. He collected himself and spoke with feigned coolness and calm. “You shall hear no word from my lips that might even seem to plead. I do not rebel against dying. But let me say this in justice to myself: it was not I, of my own free will, who faced Heracles as a foe. It was Hera, the goddess, who bade me work against him all my days. But once I had made an enemy of this mighty man, of this demigod—though it was counter to my wish—did I not have to do all I could to save myself from his anger? Even after his death, was I not compelled to persecute his sons, growing up as my foes, as the avengers of their father? Now do with me what you will. I do not long for death, but neither does it distress me to give up my life.”
So said Eurystheus and appeared composed in the face of destiny. Hyllus himself spoke in defense of the prisoner, and the citizens of Athens invoked their city’s gentle custom of showing mercy to a defeated foe. But Alcmene was implacable, for she could not forget the sufferings her immortal son had been forced to endure as the servant of this cruel king. She remembered the death of her beloved granddaughter, who had accompanied her to Athens and died of her own free will in order to snatch the victory from Eurystheus and his overwhelming numbers. Vividly she pictured the fate she and all her grandsons would have suffered were Eurystheus standing before her as a victor instead of a captive. “No, let him die!” she cried. “No mortal man shall save this evildoer from my revenge.”
Then Eurystheus turned to the Athenians and said: “My death will not bring misfortune upon you, who have pleaded so kindly in my behalf. If you give me worthy burial and dig my grave near the temple of Pallas Athene, where defeat overtook me, I will guard your land as a guest who means well by his host, and no enemy shall ever cross your borders. For you must know that the descendants of these youths and children you are protecting will one day fall upon you with weapons and ill repay the kindness you have shown their fathers. Then I, who am the sworn foe of the line of Heracles, will be your liberator.” With these words he went to his death unafraid, and died more nobly than he had lived.
HYLLUS AND HIS DESCENDANTS
The sons of Heracles vowed eternal gratitude to Demophoon and left Athens under the guidance of Hyllus, their brother, and Iolaus, their friend. Now they found allies in all quarters and journeyed to the Peloponnesus, the land which had been their father’s. For a whole year they fought from town to town until all had surrendered save Argos. During this time, a terrible plague raged throughout the peninsula and would not abate. At last an oracle revealed to the Heraclidae that they themselves were the cause of this affliction, since they had returned before the appointed time. So they left the Peloponnesus, which they had already occupied with their forces, and journeyed back to Attica. Here they settled on the plain of Marathon. Hyllus, meantime, had fulfilled his father’s wish by marrying lovely Iole, whom Heracles himself had once wooed, and pondered without ceasing how he might gain possession of his heritage. Finally he again consulted the oracle of Delphi and received this reply: “When the third harvest has been reaped, you will succeed in returning.” Hyllus took this to mean quite simply that he was to await the third year of gathering the fruits of the field. So, when the third summer had passed, he once more invaded the Peloponnesus.
After the death of Eurystheus, Atreus, grandson of Tantalus and son of Pelops, had become king of Mycenae. When he learned of the approach of Hyllus, he joined forces with the city of Tegea and other neighboring towns and went forth to meet the sons of Heracles. On the isthmus of Corinth the armies came face to face. But Hyllus, who was always intent on saving the land of Greece from the ravages of war, again offered to decide the issue by single combat. He challenged any one in the host of the enemy who was minded to fight with him and, certain that he had fulfilled the oracle and thus gained the approval of the gods for his undertaking, set the condition that, should he win, the realm Eurystheus had governed should go to the sons of Heracles, but that if he were defeated, the descendants of Heracles should not set foot on the Peloponnesus for fifty years to come.
When his words became known in the enemy’s camp, Echemus, king of Tegea, a warrior in the very prime of life, accepted the challenge. Both combatants fought with boldness and skill, but Hyllus was defeated. Even in death, his forehead was furrowed and his mouth bitter with brooding on the ambiguous oracle which had led him into battle. The Heraclidae kept to their agreement, desisted from further fighting, returned to Attica, and again settled near Marathon. The years passed and the sons of Heracles never thought of breaking their word. They made no new attempt to win back their heritage. In the meantime Cleodaeus, son of Hyllus, had passed his fiftieth year. Since the period for the truce had elapsed and his hands were no longer tied by a promise, he and the other grandsons of Heracles attacked the Peloponnesus at a time when the Trojan War was already thirty years past. But he too was luckless as his father before him; he perished in this campaign, and all his men with him. Twenty years later his son Aristomachus, grandson of Hyllus and great-grandson of Heracles, made another attempt. This was at the time when Tisamenus, a son of Orestes, ruled the Peloponnesus. Aristomachus too was led astray by the enigmatic words of an oracle: “The gods will grant you victory by the narrow passage.” He invaded the Peloponnesus by way of the isthmus, was beaten back, and lost his life like his father and grandfather before him.
Thirty years passed, and for eighty years Troy had lain in ashes. And now the sons of Aristomachus, Temenus, Cresphontes, and Aristodemus, the grandsons of Cleodaeus, fared forth on their line’s ancestral quest. Despite the seeming trickery of the oracles, they staunchly held to their faith in the gods, went to Delphi, and asked the priestess concerning the outcome of their enterprise. But the two answers she gave were word for word the same their forebears had received: “When the third harvest has been reaped, you will succeed in returning,” and “The gods will grant you victory by the narrow passage.”
Then Temenus, eldest of the three brothers, said mournfully: “My father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather obeyed these utterances, and all met with destruction!” And at last the god took pity on these three and, through the priestess, disclosed to them the oracle’s true meaning.
“Your forbears themselves were to blame for their misfortune,” she said. “They could not interpret the wise words of the god. What the immortals meant was not the third harvest of the fruits of the earth, but the third harvest from the seed of your race. The first was Cleodaeus, the second Aristomachus, and the third harvest, that to which victory is promised, is that of you three brothers. As for the ‘narrow passage’—there again those luckless ones, now dead, misunderstood what was implied. The gods were not speaking of the isthmus, but of a different passage: of the straits of Corinth. Now that you know the meaning of the oracle, do what you have set out to do, and embark upon your enterprise with the good fortune attending gods.”
When Temenus heard this explanation, it was as though scales had dropped from his eyes. Together with his brothers he rapidly equipped a great host and had ships built in Locris, at a place which, to commemorate this, was later called Naupactus, which means shipyard. But even this expedition, launched under such happy auspices, was beset with difficulties for the descendants of Heracles and cost them grave concern and many tears. When the host was assembled, Aristodemus, the youngest of the brothers, was struck by lightning. His wife Argia, the great-granddaughter of Polynices, thus became a widow and his twin sons, Eurysthenes and Procles, were left fatherless. When Aristodemus had been buried and the squadron of ships was to leave Locris, a soothsayer appeared, one who was inspired by the gods and issued oracles. But the descendants of Heracles took him for a sorcerer or a spy sent by the Peloponnesians to destroy their host. They persecuted him with suspicion and harshness, and finally Hippotes, son of Phylas and great-grandson of Heracles, hurled his lance at the old man, who was killed on the instant. This roused the anger of the gods against the Heraclidae. A tempest shattered their ships and sank them to the bottom of the sea. Their landtroops suffered long famine, and soon the entire host dissolved.
Concerning this disaster also, Temenus sought the advice of the oracle. “Because of the seer you have killed,” so ran the answer, “all this has overtaken you. For ten years you shall banish the murderer from the land, and put the three-eyed in command of the host.” The first part of the oracle was quickly carried out. Hippotes was removed from the army and compelled to go into exile. But the second part drove the Heraclidae to the verge of despair. For how and where were they to find anyone with three eyes? Yet they looked for such a man untiringly, so great was their trust in the gods! At last they happened to find Oxylus, of the line of the kings of Aetolia, son of Haemon and descendant of Oeneus. At the very time the Heraclidae invaded the Peloponnesus, Oxylus had committed murder and been forced to flee from his native Aetolia to the little land of Elis in the Peloponnesus. Now that a year had gone by, he was on his way back to his country and met the descendants of Heracles as he was riding his donkey. This Oxylus had only one eye, for as a child he had put out the other with an arrow. So his donkey had to help him see, and man and beast together had three eyes. The Heraclidae realized that the singular oracle had been fulfilled and chose Oxylus for their leader. In this way the conditions set by Fate were satisfied. They attacked their enemies with fresh troops and a new squadron of ships and slew Tisamenus, the leader of the Peloponnesian host.
THE HERACLIDAE DIVIDE UP THE PELOPONNESUS
When the Heraclidae had, in this way, conquered the entire Peloponnesus, they erected three altars to Zeus, their ancestor on their father’s side, and made offerings. Then they began to distribute the cities by lot. The first city they were to cast for was Argos, the second Lacedaemon, and the third Messene. They agreed to drop their lots into an urn filled with water, and that each was to mark his own lot with his name. Thereupon Temenus, and Eurysthenes and Procles, the twin sons of Aristodemus, cast two marked stones into the water, but crafty. Cresphontes, who wanted Messene most of all, threw in a lump of earth, which dissolved almost immediately. Now they decided that he whose stone was taken from the urn first was to have Argos, and it was the stone of Temenus. Then they cast lots for Lacedaemon, and the stone of the twin sons of Aristodemus was the one to be drawn. This made it superfluous to cast lots for the third city, and Cresphontes received Messene.
Hereupon they and their followers went to the three altars and made sacrifice to the gods, who accorded them certain strange signs. For each found an animal on his altar, and the animals were different. Those who had been allotted Argos found a toad; those who had got Lacedaemon, a serpent; and those who were to have Messene, a fox. They pondered these signs and finally asked a seer, a native of that land, to interpret them. “Those who were given a toad,” he said, “had best remain at home in their city, for the toad is vulnerable and has nothing to protect its goings. Those on whose altar the serpent is coiled will be great aggressors and need have no fear in crossing the borders of their country. And those who saw the fox shall avoid both passiveness and force; their safeguard shall be shrewdness.”
These animals later became the emblems on the shields of the Argives, Spartans, and Messenians. And now the Heraclidae remembered Oxylus, their one-eyed guide, and granted him the kingdom of Elis in reward for the help he had given them. In all the Peloponnesus, the mountainous land of Arcadia was the sole region left unconquered by the descendants of Heracles. Sparta was the only one of the three realms they founded on the peninsula that endured for any length of time. In Argos, Temenus married his favorite daughter Hyrnetho to Deiphontes, another great-great-grandson of Heracles, and consulted his son-in-law on all matters of importance. At last rumor had it that he was planning to turn over the rule to him and Hyrnetho. This embittered his sons. They conspired against their father and slew him. The Argives did, indeed, recognize the eldest son as their king, but because they loved liberty and equality above all, they limited the king’s power so much that he and his descendants had nothing left of the kingship but the mere title.
MEROPE AND AEPYTUS
Cresphontes, king of Messene, was no more fortunate than his brother Temenus. He had married Merope, daughter of King Cypselus of Arcadia, and she had borne her husband many children. The youngest of these was Aepytus. Cresphontes had a stately palace built for himself and his children. But he was not to enjoy his sumptuous halls for long. Since he was a friend of the common people, he favored them wherever and whenever he could. This angered the rich in his realm, and they killed him together with his sons—all but the youngest, Aepytus, whom his mother managed to hide from the murderers and had taken to Arcadia, to her father Cypselus. In the meantime Polyphontes, also a descendant of Heracles, seized the throne of Messene and compelled the widow of the murdered king to become his wife. When he heard it whispered that one of the rightful heirs to the throne was still alive, he set a great price upon his head. But there was no one who wanted to gain it—or even could, had he wanted to—for there was no certainty to go by, only vague rumors, and no one knew where the boy really was.
When Aepytus had grown into a youth he secretly left his grandfather’s palace and, telling no one of his purpose, set out for Messene. There he heard of the price set on his head. He whipped up his courage, went to the court of King Polyphontes, where no one recognized him, not even his mother, and said in the presence of Queen Merope: “I have come, O king, to tell you that I intend to win the reward you have offered for the son of Cresphontes, who is a constant danger to your throne. I know him as well as I know my own self and shall deliver him into your hands.”
When his mother heard these words, the color left her face. Quickly she sent for an old and trusted servant, who had helped her save little Aepytus, and who, for fear of the new king, was now living at a distance from the palace and the court. Him she secretly dispatched to Arcadia to guard her son from possible plots, or perhaps fetch him to Messene to lead the citizens in revolt against Polyphontes, hated for his tyrannical rule, and ascend the throne of his father.
When the old servant arrived in Arcadia he found King Cypselus and the entire palace in confusion and sorrow, for Aepytus had vanished and no one knew what had become of him. Anxiously the servant hastened back to Messene and told the queen what had happened. And now both had only one thought: that the stranger who had appeared before the king and offered to win the reward must have murdered Aepytus in Arcadia and brought his body to Messene. They did not waste time in mournful reflection. Polyphontes had given the stranger a lodging in the palace, and that very night the old servant and the queen, armed with an axe, went into his room with the purpose of killing the sleeper. The youth did not waken at her coming. A moonbeam fell on his face, quiet in gentle slumber. They leaned above him and Merope lifted her axe, preparing to strike, when the old servant, who stood closer to the couch and saw the boy’s features more distinctly, suddenly gripped the queen’s arm with a cry of amazement. “Stop! It is your son Aepytus you are about to kill!” Merope’s arm fell to her side. She put down the axe and threw herself over her son, whom she woke with her sobs. When they had clasped each other lovingly and long, her son told her that he had not come to deliver himself up to those plotting against him, but rather to punish them, to free her from a husband she despised, and, with the help of the citizens whom he hoped to win over to his cause, to assume his father’s sceptre.
After this, the three discussed the best means of taking revenge on wicked Polyphontes. Merope donned mourning robes, went to the king, and told him she had just received the sad news that her only remaining son was dead; that from now on she was willing to live at peace with her husband and to forget the unhappy past. The tyrant walked into the snare. He grew light of heart, since the heavy burden which had weighed upon him had been miraculously removed, and declared he would make thank offerings to the gods because now he had no more enemies in all the world. He summoned the citizens to attend these rites in the market place, but they came reluctantly and with downcast eyes, for the common people had loved good Cresphontes and now mourned his son, whom they had regarded as their last hope. When the city was assembled, Aepytus himself fell on the king as he was making sacrifice and stabbed him to the heart. Merope and her old servant swiftly proclaimed to the Messenians that the youth they had thought a stranger was, in reality, the rightful heir to the throne. At this they broke into deafening shouts of jubilation, and that very day Aepytus occupied the throne of his father. Conducted by his mother, he entered the palace as king of Messene. His first action was to punish the murderers of his father and brothers as well as all others implicated in the crime. But when the dead had been avenged, he proved so generous and so benevolent a ruler that he won over the nobles as well as the people of Messene. He was held in such esteem that his descendants were permitted to call themselves Aepytidae instead of Heraclidae.