The Athenian Adventurer

(circa 1300 B.C.)


by Plutarch

Theseus suppressed crime and brought the natives of Attica together into the first democracy. He saved the Athenian children from the Minotaur, but his kidnap of the queen of the Amazons brought trouble, and he ended his days in disgrace.

As geographers add notes in the margins of their maps, to the effect that regions beyond are dangerous and barren, I might say as well regarding those records available of lives from a past which is more distant than reliable history: only fiction and legends can be found there. Perhaps the purifying process of reason may reduce the following legends into an exact history. 1 However, should they offend by refusing to be reduced to anything like probable fact, I hope that candid readers will indulge these stories of ancient times.

* * *

Aegeus, the king of Athens, wanted a son to be heir to his kingdom. He went to the oracle at Delphi 2 to ask advice on this matter. The statement of the oracle seemed to indicate that Aegeus should refrain from all intercourse with women outside of Athens. But the words of the oracle were ambiguous. For an interpretation, Aegeus travelled to Troezen to consult Pittheus, a man with a reputation for wisdom.

Pittheus, who understood the meaning, deceived Aegeus and persuaded him to lie with Aethra, who was Pittheus' daughter. Afterwards, Aegeus, in case the girl might be pregnant, put a sword and a pair of shoes under a large rock and told Aethra that if she gave birth to a son who could lift that rock, the sword and the shoes would be for him. Once this son had taken possession of the sword and the shoes, Aethra was to send him to his father in Athens. Aegeus commanded Aethra to keep all of this a secret from everyone.

The reason for the secrecy was that Aegeus was afraid that the fifty sons of Pallas [his nephews] might find out about Aethra's child. They were always mutinying against Aegeus' authority and would kill anyone, such as an heir, that might stand between them and supreme power in Athens after Aegeus' death.

Aethra gave birth to a fine boy, who was named Theseus. Pittheus claimed that his daughter's child was the son of Poseidon, 3 and he raised and taught the boy in his own house at Troezen. Theseus grew up to be a very strong man, with unusual courage and intelligence.

When the right time came, Aethra took Theseus to the rock and told him who his true father was. Theseus easily lifted the rock and took the sword and the shoes that Aegeus had left there. Then, instead of taking the safe and easy way to Athens, which was by ship, Theseus decided to take the risk of walking there.

* * *

At that time, many bandits infested the road from the Peloponnesus to Athens. That age produced men who had strength, speed, and stamina, but used these gifts of nature badly. Insolent and cruel, they enjoyed and took pride in committing all sorts of outrages on anyone and anything that came under their power. They believed that the strong had no reason to respect others, and that justice and humanity were only wishful thinking on the part of those who were too squeamish or too feeble to cause pain. 4

Hercules, 5 while he had been travelling in the world, had killed many of these evil men. Those who were afraid to fight Hercules kept out of sight, and eventually the territory of Greece was so peaceful and well-tamed that Hercules ran out of robbers and murderers to hunt there, and went to Lydia. But once Hercules was gone from Greece, crime broke out again because there was no one that dared to resist the criminals.

Pittheus told his grandson about all of the robbers and murderers who waited on the road, but Theseus thought it would be disgraceful to take the easy and safe way to Athens, instead of boldly meeting bad men. The example of his cousin Hercules had fired up his courage. Also, Theseus was ashamed to bring his father's sword back without baptizing it in evil blood, showing by his own noble deeds the noble blood that was in him. Disregarding all the arguments of his mother and grandfather, Theseus set out, like Hercules, intending to do no injury to anyone, but resolved to defend himself and to punish any aggressors he might meet.

The first villain that Theseus encountered was a robber named Periphetes, also known as the Club-Bearer. Theseus killed him in a fair fight, and from then on he used Periphetes' club as his own weapon. Hercules carried a lion-skin on his shoulders as proof of what a huge beast he had conquered, and Theseus used the famous club of Periphetes the same way. What he had overcome was now, in his own hands, invincible.

Continuing on through the Isthmus of Corinth, Theseus found Sinnis, who was called the Pine-Bender because this was his manner of executing his victims. Theseus put Sinnis to death the same way and without bending the pines down by any artificial means, thus demonstrating that natural power is above all art.

Phaea, the Sow of Crommyon, was very old, very ugly, and very fierce. Some say that this creature was not a pig but a woman robber who was so filthy and savage that she got this name. When Theseus came to her territory, he did not pass on but waited until he found her and killed her. It was his opinion that a brave man should lead the hunt for dangerous beasts, as well as evil men.

Next, Theseus killed Sciron of Megara, a notorious robber of travellers along the coastal highway. Sciron would command his victims to wash his feet, and when they were stooping down to do so, he would kick them over the edge of a cliff and down into the sea below. Theseus threw Sciron off the same cliff.

At Eleusis, Theseus killed Cercyon in a wrestling match. A little farther down the road, he found Procrustes. Theseus killed Procrustes by stretching him on his own bed of torture, as he himself had done to so many unhappy visitors. 6 Like Hercules, Theseus justly compelled criminals to suffer the same torments that their victims had suffered.

* * *

When Theseus arrived in Athens, he found the city in chaos, and divided into factions. King Aegeus' household was in an uproar, due to the presence of Medea. 7 Medea had fled from Corinth and come to Aegeus, promising to use her sorcery to produce him a son. Aegeus did not know who Theseus was, but Medea understood that Theseus would mean the end of her influence. She persuaded jealous and suspicious old Aegeus to give Theseus a cup of poison at a banquet given to welcome this hero to Athens.

Theseus preferred to let his father discover by himself that he had a son, so when the meat was set on the table, Theseus casually pulled out his sword as if he were going to cut the meat with it. Aegeus recognized the sword and poured out the cup of poison. After questioning his son, he called an assembly of the Athenians and presented Theseus to them as the heir to the kingdom of Attica. News of the adventures of Theseus along the road to Athens had preceded him, and the people were pleased to have such a man as their prince.

Pallas and his fifty sons now saw the end of all their hopes, and they openly revolted against Aegeus. One group of them advanced on the palace, and another group hid in an ambush for Theseus. Theseus found the ambushers and killed them all, and when Pallas heard the news, he and the rest of his sons scattered for safety.

* * *

Now that he had secured his position, Theseus did not choose to live lazily at home. He went to Marathon, where a large bull was terrorizing the inhabitants. Theseus captured this bull and brought him back alive to show the Athenians, then took the bull to Delphi, where he sacrificed him to Apollo. 8

Soon afterwards, the collectors from Crete arrived for the tribute that Athens was required to send every nine years: seven boys and seven girls. This tribute had to be paid because of the murder of Androgeus, the eldest son of King Minos of Crete, while he had been a guest of Aegeus in Attica. Minos avenged the death of his son with war, and in addition to the damage done to the Athenians by Minos' army, the gods also punished the land with drought, famine, and plague. The oracle at Delphi told the Athenians that their troubles would not end until they appeased Minos, so the Athenians immediately asked for terms of peace. Minos required that every nine years, seven boys and seven girls would be sent to Crete as tribute.

From the example of Minos we may learn how dangerous it is to make an enemy of a city that has great writers. Although Hesiod called him "most royal Minos," and Homer called him "Jupiter's good friend," playwrights of Athens always represented Minos as a cruel and violent man, and rained down abuse and slander from the stage. 9

Some say that the Minotaur, a strange combination of man and bull, ate these Athenian children as they wandered in the Labyrinth. Others say that the Labyrinth was only an ordinary prison, and that the Athenians were kept in the Labyrinth as slaves to be a prize for the victor in the games of King Minos. This was the third time that the Cretans had come for the tribute, and the Athenians were all very unhappy. Every man with a teen-aged son or daughter had to participate in a lottery to determine who would have to go. The Athenians grumbled that Aegeus, who was the cause of their trouble, would not participate in the lottery, and that true Athenians sacrificed their children so a foreign bastard might inherit the kingdom.

Theseus was aware of this discontent, so he offered himself as one of the victims, not just as a participant in the lottery. Everyone admired the nobility and loved the goodness of this act, and all of Aegeus' tears could not turn Theseus away from his noble resolution.

Black sails were on the ship taking the victims to Crete. This time, however, Aegeus put white sails aboard and ordered the crew to use white sails instead of the black ones on the return voyage if Theseus managed to do what he had confidently promised -- kill the Minotaur.

When the ship arrived at Crete, Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, fell in love as soon as she saw Theseus. Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of string to mark his trail through the Labyrinth, and Theseus managed to kill the Minotaur in the Labyrinth and lead out all of the Athenian hostages. Then Theseus and the hostages escaped from Crete on the ship that had brought them, and they steered home to Athens. Ariadne went with Theseus.

There are many other stories about these events, all of which are inconsistent with each other. 10 Clidemus researched these events very carefully, and this is his account:

At this time, vessels with a crew of more than five men were banned. Jason and his ship Argus, however, had a commission to sail everywhere and suppress piracy. Daedelus [a famous architect] escaped from Crete to Athens in a little boat, and Minos -- contrary to the law -- chased after him with a fleet. A storm blew Minos' ships all the way to the coast of Sicily, and Minos died there. Deucalion, Minos' son, angrily demanded that the Athenians turn over Daedelus or he would put to death the Athenian children he was keeping as hostages. Theseus secretly put together a fleet and sailed to Crete before the Cretans knew anything about it. The Cretans thought that these ships were their friends, so Theseus was able to land and take the harbor. Then, having Daedelus and other Cretan exiles for guides, he entered Cnossus and killed Deucalion in a fight at the gates of the Labyrinth. Thus the kingdom went by inheritance to Deucalion's sister, Ariadne. Theseus made peace with Ariadne and returned to Athens with the children.

As for Ariadne, there are many different stories. Some say that she hung herself after Theseus left her. Others say that she went with him to Cyprus, where she died in childbirth. Still others say that she bore Theseus two children. There is no way to decide which story, if any, is true.

* * *

When Theseus' ship came in sight of the coast of Attica, everyone on board was so happy that no one remembered to put up the white sail. Aegeus saw the black sail and remembered that this was the signal that his son Theseus was dead, so he jumped off a cliff to his death.

After the suicide of Aegeus had made Theseus king, he proceeded to gather the inhabitants of Attica into one city. Before, they had been spread out, and were not easy to assemble. Theseus settled their disputes and persuaded them to be at peace under a central government. The poor people consented eagerly to the new political arrangement. Theseus obtained the cooperation of the more powerful by promising the end of monarchy, and the institution of a democracy, in which the king would be no more than the commander-in-chief and protector of the laws.

Those who had any reservations feared Theseus' power and determination, so they preferred to be persuaded rather than forced to comply. Theseus abolished all local courts and administrative offices, and made Athens the sole location of government. Then, as he had promised, he surrendered his royal power.

Aristotle tells us that Theseus was the first king to form a democracy voluntarily. To find out the future of his new political enterprise, Theseus traveled to consult the oracle at Delphi, and the oracle gave the following answer:

"Many are the cities which will end by and be spun out of your own. Therefore do not despair; the float will cross the violent ocean."

To enlarge his city, Theseus invited foreigners to come and live there, enjoying the same civil rights as the natives. To preserve order, he divided all of the citizens into three distinct classes, each with different duties and privileges. These three classes were the nobles, the farmers, and the craftsmen.

The nobles were in charge of religion and the law, including the selection of judges. The farmers had more wealth, the craftsmen were more numerous, and the nobles had more prestige, so there was a sort of balance of power among the various classes in Athens.

* * *

Theseus instituted the Isthmian Games, in honor of Poseidon, just as Hercules had instituted the Olympic Games in honor of Zeus. Then Theseus sailed into the Black Sea, to visit the land of the Amazons. 11

These lusty women, when Theseus and his sailors came in sight, brought presents of welcome. Theseus invited their queen, Antiope, to come aboard, and once he had her, he set sail at once with his captive. That began the war between Athens and the Amazons.

After a long journey by land, the Amazons conquered all the way to the city of Athens itself. A bitter, bloody battle ended in a draw, and then there was a siege of four months. At last, a peace treaty was made, and the Amazons left. 12 Many graves of Amazons and other memorials show that this invasion really happened.

* * *

The famous friendship between Theseus and Perithous began as follows:

The fame of Theseus had spread throughout Greece, and Perithous decided to steal some cattle from around Marathon so that Theseus would come after him. When these two warriors faced each other, each of them admired the strength and courage of the other, and lost all desire to fight. Perithous was the first to reach out his hand, and he said: "I make you the judge of any damage caused by my invasion, and with all my heart I promise to pay what you decide." Theseus not only pardoned Perithous but also proposed that they become brothers-in-arms. Then and there, they took the oath.

Soon afterwards, Perithous married Deidama, and Theseus went to the wedding. At the wedding feast, some Centaurs got drunk and started molesting the women, so Theseus joined with Perithous and his people and chased the Centaurs out of that region.

When he was fifty years old, Theseus and Perithous went to Sparta, where they saw Helen dancing in the temple of Diana. Although Helen was still just a girl, and too young for marriage, 13 they abducted her and ran. Armed men chased Theseus and Perithous as far as Tegea, but they managed to escape with Helen. Once out of danger, Theseus and Perithous agreed to let luck decide who would get to keep Helen, on condition that the winner would have to help the loser get another bride. Theseus won Helen and sent her to live with his mother in Aphidnae while he went with Perithous to Epirus, where they planned to steal the daughter of the king.

This king, who called himself Pluto, 14 kept a dog called Cerberus. 15 He had proclaimed that anyone who wanted to marry his daughter would first have to fight the dog. When Pluto understood that the intention of his visitors was not to woo his daughter but to steal her, he threw Theseus into prison and let Cerberus tear Perithous to pieces.

* * *

While Theseus was absent on his adventures, Menestheus, one of the nobles of Athens, began to ingratiate himself with the multitude, stirring up trouble. To the nobles, he complained that Theseus had taken away the power they used to have in the country, and had shut them up in the city, where now he was treating them as his slaves. To the poor people, he complained that Theseus was not a native Athenian, and this foreigner was only dangling the delusion of liberty in order to boss them around.

While Menestheus was thus infecting the minds of the Athenians, Helen's brothers Castor and Pollux appeared with an army of Spartans, and demanded the return of their sister. The Athenians replied that they did not know where Helen was, whereupon the Spartans prepared to invade the city.

Menestheus persuaded the Athenians to open their gates and welcome the Spartans as friends, since their quarrel was only with Theseus. Somehow, the Spartans found out that Helen was being kept at Aphidnae, and after a battle they managed to get her back. They also took Theseus' mother to be Helen's servant.

After Theseus had been a prisoner of Pluto for some time, Hercules happened to be travelling in Epirus, and he stopped to visit Pluto. In the course of their conversation, Pluto casually mentioned what had happened to Theseus and Perithous. Horrified, Hercules asked Pluto to do him the favor of releasing his cousin Theseus, which Pluto did.

Back in Athens, Theseus found that things had changed. The minds of the people were so corrupted that they expected to be sweet-talked into obedience. The new factional spite, aggravated by demagogues, overpowered his authority. Those who had been against Theseus before now added contempt to the hatred they already felt.

Finally Theseus gave up trying to recover leadership. After solemnly cursing the Athenians, he sailed away to Scyros, where later he died. Menestheus quietly took over as king in Athens. At that time, no one cared about Theseus' death.

At the Battle of Marathon [490 B.C.], 16 many of the soldiers believed they saw Theseus running ahead of them against the Persians. The oracle at Delphi commanded the Athenians to bring home the bones of Theseus and give them an honorable burial in the city. But at that time, the hostile inhabitants of Scyros made it impossible even to find where these old bones might be. When Cimon captured Scyros many years later, he saw an eagle clawing at the ground, and suddenly it came into his mind to dig there and search for the bones of Theseus. He found there a coffin of a man more than the ordinary size, and a bronze spearhead and sword. Cimon loaded these on board his ship and transported them back to Athens.

The Athenians, greatly delighted, went out to meet and receive these relics with splendid processions and sacrifices, as if their founder had returned alive. They buried him in the middle of Athens, where his tomb became a sanctuary for slaves and poor people who ran from men of power, in memory that Theseus was a protector of the weak, and always helped the people in trouble who fled to him.


1. Plutarch did not, unlike modern scholars, make a shibboleth of scientific method. Yet he was a very careful and critical examiner of his materials, as the reader may see by reading the full-text Lives. Plutarch worked from the core belief that even vague anecdotes and legends might be processed into history by the sovereign operation of reason, like rusty pig iron may be smelted into steel.

2. The oracle at Delphi was located in a cave under Mount Parnassus. A woman, known as the Pythoness, who was specially dedicated to this task, walked deep into the cave and received inspiration. Then she came back and delivered Apollo's answer to the inquirer. Plutarch himself was one of the two priests at this temple for many years. In his essay entitled "On the Cessation of Oracles" Plutarch gives this description of one priestess who died from the stress of inspiration: "With great reluctance she went into the sacred place to be inspired, and she came out foaming at the mouth, her eyes goggling, her breast heaving, and her voice indistinguishable and shrill. It was as if she had an earthquake inside her."

3. Neptune was known to the Greeks as Poseidon, the god of the sea. Illegitimate children were often laid at the door of the gods, who frequently visited mortals.

4. The most famous apostle of this point of view was Nietzsche (1844 - 1900), a German philosopher and apostate classical scholar. Nietzsche articulates what every tyrant, felon, and two-year-old has felt -- that personal fiat trumps justice. See the Gorgias of Plato for Socrates' rebuttal. Before Nietzsche, the Russian novelist Dostoevsky explored this rationale for ruthlessness in his novel Crime and Punishment (1866).

5. Plutarch wrote a life of Hercules, but it has not survived. Hercules was a very strong man, the son of Zeus (Jupiter) and a mortal woman named Alcmena. His heroic deeds earned him a promotion to heaven. Theseus' mother was the daughter of Pittheus, and Hercules' mother, Alcmena, was the daughter of Lysidices, who was Pittheus' half-sister, so Theseus was the first cousin of Hercules.

6. Procrustes amused himself by torturing his guests by stretching them to fit his iron bed, or cutting off their feet if they were too tall. Therefore "Procrustean" is a word used to describe standards that are rigidly and unreasonably applied.

7. Medea was the daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis, on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. Jason was a young prince from Thessaly, who came with his companions (the Argonauts) to get the Golden Fleece from Aeetes. Medea fell desperately in love with Jason and used her sorcery to help him escape with the Golden Fleece. She accompanied Jason back to Thessaly, where she helped him take revenge on those responsible for the death of his father, then she went with Jason to live in Corinth. Medea bore Jason two sons. Medea's reward was that Jason deserted her and married a princess of Corinth. Medea poisoned Jason's bride, killed her own two children, then fled to Athens. See Euripides' play Medea.

8. Apollo was the Greek god of the Sun, and of Reason. Plutarch was a priest of Apollo.

9. Perhaps the Athenians did not have the last laugh after all. Minos and Rhadamanthus (his chief justice) made a majority of the three-judge panel of Hades. That court decided what to do with the souls of the dead.

10. Plutarch gives in excruciating detail some of these other accounts, but they have been omitted here. Philochorus says that the Athenians were to be the slaves of the winner in the games of King Minos. Taurus, captain of the Cretans, was expected to win, but neither Minos nor anyone else were pleased with this prospect because Taurus was a cruel and arrogant man. Theseus challenged Taurus to a single combat, and Minos complied. Ariadne was one of the spectators. Theseus beat Taurus, which pleased Minos so much that he gave Theseus the Athenian captives and ended the tribute.
A footnote to the story of Theseus (the Minotaur version) is the story of Daedalus and Icarus. The architect of the Labyrinth was Daedelus. He confided the secrets of its passageways to Ariadne, and Minos deduced that the disclosure must have come from the architect. As punishment, Minos imprisoned Daedelus and his son, Icarus. To escape, Daedelus constructed some wings made out of wax and feathers. He told his son not to fly too near the sun or the wax would melt. But Icarus was so intoxicated with the joy of flying that he disregarded his father's warning, and his wings fell apart.

11. The Amazons were a nation of female warriors, whose principal city was located on the southern shore of the Black Sea. They were expert riders and archers, and for close-in fighting they used spears and long battle-axes. Only those who had killed in battle were allowed to mate, and only during two months of the spring. Male children and captives were crippled and used as slaves. The reason for crippling the males was to tame them and to make them better for breeding. "The lame best perform the act of love," said Antianara, a queen of the Amazons. See Donald J. Sobol, The Amazons of Greek Mythology (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1972).

12. On their march away from Athens, the Amazons scattered into colonies rather than endure the shame of returning home defeated. Thereafter, the Amazons declined in strength, but later on they participated in the Trojan War. There were even some Amazons still in existence at the time of Alexander the Great.

13. The age for marriage in Ancient Greece was between 12 and 14. See Douglas M. MacDowell, Spartan Law (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1986), p. 73. Helen's beauty started another war -- she later was kidnapped by the Trojan prince, Paris, and taken to Troy. The Greeks gathered a fleet of 1,186 ships (approximately 50,000 soldiers) and went to punish Troy, but victory took ten years (circa 1250 B.C.).

14. Pluto, known to the Greeks as Hades, was the god of the underworld, where souls of mortals went after death of the body.

15. Cerberus was the three-headed dog who guarded the entrance to Hades, the dismal abode of the dead and of Pluto.

16. At the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.), the Athenians defeated the Persians who had invaded their country. See the life of Aristides.

See also Mary Renault, The King Must Die (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958) and The Bull from the Sea (New York: Pantheon Books, 1962) for an entertaining fictional biography of Theseus.

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