The end of Pericles’ long and useful life was troubled by a new war between Athens and Sparta; for, as soon as the thirty-years’ truce was ended, both cities flew to arms. The war which then began, and which in history is known as the Peloponnesian War, lasted almost as long as the truce; that is to say, for nearly thirty years.
Pericles knew very well that the Athenians, not being so well trained, were no match for the Spartans on land. He therefore advised all the people to come into the city, and take refuge behind the mighty walls, while the fleet carried on the war by sea.
This advice was followed. All the farmers left their fields, and crowded into Athens. When the Spartans came into Attica, they found the farms and villages deserted; but from the top of the Acropolis the people could see the enemy burn down their empty dwellings and destroy the harvests in their fields.
In the mean while the Athenian fleet had sailed out of the Piraeus, and had gone down into the Peloponnesus, where the troops landed from time to time, striking terror into the hearts of the inhabitants, and causing much damage.
The Spartans also had a fleet; but it was so much smaller than that of the Athenians, that it could not offer any very great resistance. Still the time came when a battle was to take place between the vessels of the two cities.
It happened on a day when there was to be an eclipse of the sun. Now, you know that this is a very simple and natural thing. An eclipse of the sun is a darkening of its surface, which occurs whenever the moon passes between it and the earth.
As the moon is a very large and solid body, we cannot see either through or around it, and for a few minutes while it is directly between us and the sun it entirely hides the latter from our sight. Pericles, who had so often talked with Anaxagoras and the other learned men of his day, knew what an eclipse was, and had even been told that one would soon take place. He was therefore quite ready for it, warned his soldiers that it was coming, and illustrated his meaning by flinging his cloak over the head of his pilot.
“Can you see the sun now?” he asked.”Why, no! master, of course not!” replied the man. “Your thick cloak is between me and the sun; how could I see through it?” “Well, neither can you see through the moon, then,” replied Pericles.
His men, thus warned, showed no fear of the eclipse; but the Spartans, who did not trouble themselves greatly with learning, were terrified. They imagined that the darkening of the sun at midday was the sign of some coming misfortune, and hardly dared to fight against the Athenians.
Thanks to this superstitious fear, Pericles laid waste the fields of the Peloponnesus, and came back to Athens in triumph; for, although much damage had been done to the enemy, the Athenians had lost only a few men. These were buried with great honors. Pericles himself pronounced their funeral oration; and we are told that he was so eloquent that all his hearers were melted to tears.