In his oration Against Leocrates, the fourth century BC Athenian orator Lycurgus accuses his fellow citizen Leocrates of having left the city just before the battle of Chaeronea in order to escape the dangers of war, thus failing his duties towards his country and his fellow citizens.

The passage belongs to the middle of the oration (chh. 84-7), when Lycurgus makes a list of mythical and historical examples which demonstrate the abnegation, the sense of duty, and the heroism of the Athenians of the past in order to emphasise by contrast Leocrates’ pusillanimity.

Domenico Beccafumi: Il sacrificio di re Codro
(Siena, Palazzo Pubblico. Fonte: Wikimedia commons)

The example of the heroic sacrifice of the last mythical Athenian king, Codrus, is interesting. The story is set during a famine, when the Peloponnesians declare war on Athens to conquer its territories and exploit its resources. Before embarking on military operations, the Spartans sent a delegation to Delphiin order to consult Apollo’s oracle on the outcome of the war. According to the tradition, the oracle replied: ‘Dear Spartans, you will overthrow Athensonly if you do not kill his king, Codrus’. The Peloponnesians, then, left the oracle self-confidently and warned their soldiers not to kill king Codrus for any reason. However, a certain Delphian called Cleomantis learned about the response of the oracle and secretly informed the Athenians.

Here is the text of the first part of the passage:

Ἐπὶ Κόδρου γὰρ βασιλεύοντος Πελοποννησίοις γενομένης ἀφορίας κατὰ τὴν χώραν αὐτῶν ἔδοξε στρατεύειν ἐπὶ τὴν πόλιν ἡμῶν, καὶ ἡμῶν τοὺς προγόνους ἐξαναστήσαντας κατανείμασθαι τὴν χώραν. Καὶ πρῶτον μὲν εἰς Δελφοὺς ἀποστείλαντες τὸν θεὸν ἐπηρώτων, εἰ λήψονται τὰς Ἀθήνας · ἀνελόντος δ’αὐτοῖς τοῦ θεοῦ, ὅτι τὴν πόλιν αἱρήσουσιν ἐὰν μὴ τὸν βασιλέα τὸν Ἀθηναίων Κόδρον ἀποκτείνωσιν, ἐστράτευον ἐπὶ τὰς Ἀθήνας. Κλεόμαντις δὲ τῶν Δελφῶν τις, πυθόμενος τὸ χρηστήριον, δι’ἀπορρήτων ἐξήγγειλε τοῖς Ἀθηναίοις.

Remember the reign of Codrus. The Peloponnesians, whose crops had failed at home, decided to march against our city and, expelling our ancestors, to divide the land amongst themselves. They sent first to Delphi and asked the god if they were going to capture Athens, and when he replied that they would take the city so long as they did not kill Codrus, the king of the Athenians, they marched out against Athens. But a Delphian Cleomantis, learning of the oracle, secretly told the Athenians. (transl. W. Heinemann 1962).

Having learned about the oracle, Codrus had no hesitation and resolved to set up a plan. He went out of the polis dressed as a farmer in order not to be recognized by the enemies. He approached the camp of the Peloponnesians, encountered two guards and killed one of them: believing to deal with a simple peasant, the other killed him.

When the Athenians sent a delegation to ask for the king’s body, the Peloponnesians learned about the truth and decided to stop the expedition and withdraw, having understood that they would have no longer been able to conquer the Athenian territory.

Here is also the second part of the passage:

Καὶ οὕτως ἦσαν ὦ ἄνδρες γενναῖοι οἱ τότε βασιλεύοντες, ὥστε προῃροῦντο ἀποθνῄσκειν ὑπὲρ τῆς τῶν ἀρχομένων σωτηρίας μᾶλλον ἢ ζῶντες ἑτέραν μεταλλάξαι τινὰ χώραν. φασὶν γοῦν τὸν Κόδρον παραγγείλαντα τοῖς Ἀθηναίοις προσέχειν ὅταν τελευτήσῃ τὸν βίον, λαβόντα πτωχικὴν στολὴν ὅπως ἂν ἀπατήσῃ τοὺς πολεμίους, κατὰ τὰς πύλας ὑπεκδύντα φρύγανα συλλέγειν πρὸ τῆς πόλεως, προσελθόντων δ ‘αὐτῷ δυοῖν ἀνδρῶν ἐκ τοῦ στρατοπέδου καὶ τὰ κατὰ τὴν πόλιν πυνθανομένων, τὸν ἕτερον αὐτῶν ἀποκτεῖναι τῷ δρεπάνῳ παίσαντα · τὸν δὲ περιλελειμμένον, παροξυνθέντα τῷ Κόδρῳ καὶ νομίσαντα πτωχὸν εἶναι, σπασάμενον τὸ ξίφος ἀποκτεῖναι τὸν Κόδρον. Τούτων δὲ γενομένων οἱ μὲν Ἀθηναῖοι κήρυκα πέμψαντες ἠξίουν δοῦναι τὸν βασιλέα θάψαι, λέγοντες αὐτοῖς ἅπασαν τὴν ἀλήθειαν· οἱ δὲ Πελοποννήσιοι τοῦτον μὲν ἀπέδοσαν, γνόντες δ ‘ὡς οὐκέτι δυνατὸν αὐτοῖς τὴν χώραν κατασχεῖν ἀπεχώρησαν.

And such was the nobility, gentlemen, of those kings of old that they preferred to die for the safety of their subjects rather than to purchase life by the adoption of another country. That at least is true of Codrus, who, they say, told the Athenians to note the time of his death and, taking a beggar’s clothes to deceive the enemy, slipped out by the gates and began to collect firewood in front of the town. When two men from the camp approached him and inquired about conditions in the city he killed one of them with a blow of his sickle. The survivor, it is said, enraged with Codrus and thinking him a beggar drew his sword and killed him. Then the Athenians sent a herald and asked to have their king given over for burial, telling the enemy the whole truth and the Peloponnesians restored the body but retreated, aware that it was no longer open to them to secure the country.

The anecdote is attested also in the Latin tradition by a number of authors: Cicero(in his Tusculanae disputationes), Horace, Seneca the Elder(in one of his Controversiae), Valerius Maximus, Velleius Paterculus and Servius.