The people of Argos were celebrating the Festival of Hera and it was vital that the priestess be driven to the temple by a yoked team of oxen. However, the oxen had still not returned from the fields. Time was running out, so her sons, Cleobis and Biton, shouldered the yoke and pulled the wagon with their mother inside it for five miles until they reached the temple of Hera.
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Their mother was delighted with their efforts. She stood in front of the statue and prayed that, since Cleobis and Biton had shown her such honour, the goddess Hera should grant them the greatest reward which a man might have. The prayer made, the people sacrificed and feasted. As for the young men, they fell asleep in the temple, and never woke again. Their lives were over. The Argives made statues of them, which they dedicated at Delphi, to show that they had been the best of men.
Sit in the top tier of the theatre’s rock-cut auditorium, and Argos – ancient and modern – stretches before you. The view is vertiginous. Clumps of pale grasses pockmark rows of grey stone seats, whose plunging lines are scarred by brutal fissures, the work of centuries of winter rain. On either side, phalanxes of tall trees file obliquely down, drawing the eye first to the theatre’s orkhestra and stage, and then on, beyond the Roman bath-house, its brickwork rosy-pink, across the modern road towards the agora, the flat green plain, across the bay to Nafplio, and finally to the blue hills far beyond. Rather than to modern Argos, a concrete catastrophe, bleakly unattractive, a bewilderment of busy one-way streets, it is on these hills that the eye rests. And so it was, too, in antiquity. For across the dusty riverbed of the Inachus, beyond the fields and vineyards, the most sacred shrine in all the land of Argos nestled on a low plateau below these distant hills. It was the sanctuary of Hera, the ‘oxeyed goddess’, thanks to whose protection the land of Argos thrived.