Gateway to the Classics: Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch by F. J. Gould
Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch by  F. J. Gould


"Y OUR beard is growing again, sir. Will you have it shaved?"

"No, certainly not. Bring the red-hot coal, as before."

"Yes, sir."

The servant fetched a live coal, and singed the hair of the king's chin. The king was afraid lest his foes might tempt the barber to kill him with the razor; therefore, he would not allow a razor to be used. Very few persons loved this king, whose name was Dionysius (Dy-on-y-si-us)  the Elder, born 430 B.C., died 367 B.C. Once he had been a clerk. Step by step he had climbed to power, and now he dwelt in a royal house, overlooking the blue waters of the harbor of Syracuse (Sy-ra-kuze)  in the island of Sicily. Men who thus obtained power without the wish of the people were known by the Greeks as tyrants.

"Your brother is at the gate, sir, and desires to see you," said the attendant.

"Strip off his clothes," replied the king. The visitor's clothes were stripped off by the guards, and searched for daggers or other weapons which might have been used to injure the king; and a new suit was then given to the prince, and he was allowed to enter the royal chamber. You see that the tyrant was very suspicious.

One day a brother of the king was talking to him about the plan of a certain place, and he thought he would trace it on the floor of the room, just as you might draw a plan of a house with pencil on paper.

"Lend me your spear," said the king's brother to a soldier who stood by. He then marked out some lines on the floor. But the tyrant sat fidgeting in terror lest the spear should be aimed at his own heart. When his brother had left he caused the soldier to be put to death.

Sometimes, instead of slaying the persons he hated, he ordered them to be taken below. The prisoners were led down some dark stairs, through many narrow passages cut out of the solid rock, and then locked up in cells, where no sunlight gleamed, and no sound of the voices of earth was heard.

The tyrant had two wives; and the brother of one of them was Dion, a wise and brave man, who did his best to check the evil deeds of the king. Often would he speak to him, and seek to turn his heart to kinder ways. At last he said to the king:

"There is a learned man in Athens by whom I have been taught many useful lessons, and I believe it would interest you to hear him. Shall I send for him to come and see you? He is a philosopher of whom all the world has heard. I mean Plato" (Play-to).

"Send for him, if you will," answered the king.

Plato agreed to visit the city of Syracuse, and made the voyage in a galley across the Mediterranean Sea. The king received him in his marble palace, and Plato lectured to a richly-dressed company. He spoke of the manner in which men should labor, whether kings or working folk. And at the end of his lecture he said:

"Thus we see, O king, that they who act justly have peace in their hearts, but they who act unjustly are unhappy."

"Good! quite true," cried some of the audience (that is, the people listening).

"I do not admire your teaching," said the king. "What is the use of such talk? Why did you come to Sicily?"

"To find an honest man," replied Plato.

"I suppose you think you have come for nothing, then?" sneered the king.

Not long afterward word was sent to Plato that the tyrant no longer desired his presence on the island, and that it would be well for him to return to Athens. A ship's captain—a Spartan sailor—approached Plato, and said he had the royal orders to carry the philosopher back to Greece; and Plato embarked in the Spartan vessel. The king had secretly bidden the captain to sell Plato for a slave. "For," said he, "it must be all the same to him whether he is a free man or a slave, since he told me that the just man, whether free or slave, is always happy."

At a seaport in Greece Plato was sold in the market-place for one hundred dollars. However, a friend of his happened to be there at the time, bought him again, and sent him in safety to Athens. So Dion's plan to change his royal master's character came to naught. In the year 367 B.C. the tyrant lay ill, and asked his physicians for a sleeping-draught—that is, a medicine which would soothe his nerves and send him to sleep. They gave him a very strong dose. He drank it, and never woke again.

The king's son, Dionysius the younger, came to the throne. When a youth he had been kept very much at home by his father, who feared lest he should become a favorite with the people and try to gain the crown. The young prince amused himself at carpentry, and made little chariots, candle-sticks, chairs, and tables. On the death of the old king the prince's friends filled the palace with the noise of their feasts and music. For ninety days the revel went on. Wine was freely drunk from morning to night, and tipsy courtiers, crowned with roses, staggered along the lovely marble pavements of the royal house. Now and then a quiet, grave man looked on at the rowdy scene, and went away with a sigh. It was Dion.

Dion again thought of Plato, and, finding the young king in a sober humor, he persuaded him to invite the wise man of Athens to the Sicilian island once more. Again Plato came, and he was borne from the harbor to the palace in the king's own chariot. In conversation with the king Plato tried to lift up his thoughts to nobler things than wine and dainty eating and low-minded companions. The king and some of his friends resolved to change their lives. They would now study science, they would learn geometry (or the science of measurement), and con the lessons of Euclid, such as boys still con at school and college. So eager were the young men in their new study that groups of them were to be seen in various rooms of the palace holding sticks in their hands, and scratching the figures of Euclid in the dust which was spread on the marble floors. Wherever you went you would see squares, circles, and triangles; and you would hear the young nobles cry, "This line is parallel to that," or, "This angle is equal to those two angles," and so on.

The fancy for schooling and learning did not last long. Dion became hateful in the sight of the king, and was banished from the land of Sicily. Plato stayed on for a while, but the king regarded him less and less, and, at length, hinted that it was time for him to depart. Just before Plato left he was sitting at a banquet with Dionysius, and the king said:

"I suppose, Plato, when you return to Athens, you will pick my character to pieces before your friends, and tell them all my faults."

"I hope, sir," was Plato's reply, "that we shall have enough to talk about without talking of you!"

Soon afterward he sailed for Greece. Meanwhile Dion brooded over the troubles of his country, and longed to be able to set aside the tyrant, and give a free government to the citizens of Syracuse. He told his thoughts to his friends who had also been banished. Eight hundred of them assembled on a Grecian island, and prepared to travel to Sicily and deliver their country from the oppressor.

It was now midsummer, and the moon was at the full, and the eastern wind was blowing, day by day, and they would need this wind to carry them quickly across the sea. The eight hundred patriots—lovers of their fatherland—put on their bright armor, and marched to the temple of Apollo, and asked the God of the sun to bless them in their great adventure. The next night the moon was eclipsed, and the warriors were uneasy at the black shadow. One of Dion's friends explained the meaning of this sign, or omen. The bright moon, he said, was the tyrant of Syracuse, and Dion was the black shadow which would creep over the tyrant's glory and hide it! And when they heard that, in Syracuse, some little pigs had been born without ears, Dion's friends declared that the dwellers in that city would no longer have any ears for the commands or laws of the tyrant!

Dion's fleet made for the open sea. The vessels carried, besides the weapons of the eight hundred, piles of shields, javelins, and darts for the use of new recruits who would join at the landing of the army. The cliffs of Sicily came in sight. Then arose a violent storm of thunder and lightning, the north wind blew the ships toward Africa, and a pelting rain drenched the patriots to the skin. At one point the fleet nearly perished on rocks, at another it only just escaped running upon a huge sand-bank. Calmer weather followed, and, under a fair sky, Dion's ships again appeared off the coast of the Sicilian isle. The eight hundred landed, and Dion told them they might now take a rest after the hardships of the voyage.

"No, no!" they cried; "lead us at once to Syracuse."

Dion took them at their word. They put aside all luggage which was not immediately wanted, and they began the march in high spirits. Before long crowds of Sicilians had flocked to Dion's support, and he had five thousand men.

"Liberty, liberty!" they shouted as they marched.

"Liberty, liberty!" was the cry when they saw the tall towers of Syracuse, and the strong citadel (a fortress), and the ships in the harbor.

The joyful citizens came forth from the gates, clothed in white, and gave a loud welcome to the army of Dion.

Dion, dressed in splendid armor, entered the city of Syracuse; a friend on each side wore a garland of flowers; a hundred foreign soldiers followed as his body-guard, and the rest of the army marched joyously behind. The citizens raised loud shouts of "Liberty!" They had suffered the hard rule of the tyrants for forty-eight years.

At the sound of a trumpet silence was made, and a herald cried to the people, and said Syracuse would now enjoy a free government. Then Dion climbed to the top of the Tower of the Sundial—a sundial, as you know, being a slab of wood or stone, with a piece projecting (or sticking out) and throwing a shadow by which to tell the time. The multitude stood below and listened while he begged them to stand firm when the tyrant Dionysius returned from Italy, and when the tyrant's soldiers sallied out from the citadel. This citadel was a strong-walled fortress in the town, and it was guarded by men who were in the pay of the bad king.

Round the citadel Dion built a fence, from behind which his people could shoot arrows and stones at the garrison. Suddenly the garrison sallied out. Many of the citizens fled. Dion was in the thick of the fray, and his head was gashed by a lance. Then he retired from the battle, but rode about the streets, though his head was bleeding, and besought all the men to hurry to the aid of those who were fighting. Many of the enemy lay dead; and, next day, the people of Syracuse crowned Dion with a crown of gold.

Yet Dion was not the only leader. A fleet of galleys lay in the harbor, and it was under the command of a bold admiral, whom many of the citizens liked better than Dion. The admiral tried to gain the love of the folk by fair words and promises. He even said that all the lands ought to be equally divided, and many of the poorer men were pleased at the idea, and resolved to support the admiral rather than Dion. Meanwhile the King Dionysius had come back from Italy, stayed awhile in the citadel, and then, fearing lest the fort should be captured, he stole secretly away with his treasures, and returned no more.

The folk met together to choose twenty-five men for the city council. While they were preparing for the election, a most dreadful thunderstorm had broken over the town, and scarce any one dared stir out-of-doors. When at last the people assembled, a new fright seized them. An ox, which had been standing quietly in the highway, broke loose, and ran madly through the crowd; and the citizens counted this a bad omen—that is, a sign of evil things about to happen. They did not choose Dion for the council, but they chose the admiral. Dion saw that trouble was overshadowing Syracuse, and he and his faithful followers began to leave the city. Some of the Syracusans attacked him. Dion had no heart to fight his own countrymen. Pointing to the dark citadel, on the ramparts of which the foes of liberty were watching, he said:

"Yonder are our enemies. Do you wish them to see us at war with each other?"

The mob would not listen. Then Dion bade his warriors advance with a clash of weapons and stern faces, but not to strike; and the people fled, and even the women, looking from the windows, laughed at their sudden flight. Dion and his troops encamped some way out of the city, and ill did it fare with Syracuse after his going. The tyrant sent a fleet of ships, filled with provisions, to the help of the garrison of the fort. Four of these ships were taken by the citizens, and, in their joy, the people made high festival, and sang songs of victory, and rolled drunken in the streets. The captain of the tyrant's fleet saw the disorder of the city, landed his soldiers, killed many of the men, and dragged a crowd of shrieking children and women to the gates of the citadel and made them captives. Then the Syracusans met in great grief, and looked at one another in silence and in despair. Presently a voice cried:

"Send for Dion!"

Ah, send for Dion! They had ill-used the patriot leader, and now they longed for his strong arm to fight the foe, and once more give liberty to Syracuse. Seven men were sent to Dion's camp. It was sunset as they reached the spot, and by the light of the camp-fires the unhappy messengers told Dion and his friends what a plight the city was in. Dion arose to reply, but at first the tears rolled down his cheeks and he could not utter a word. Then at last he said:

"Comrades, I cannot hesitate. My beloved city is perishing. If I cannot save it, I will at least hasten thither and fall beneath the ruins of my country."

The whole army shouted that they were ready to march.

"Go to your tents," said the commander, "and refresh yourselves, and then meet again, each warrior with his armor, for this very night we shall go to Syracuse."

Before Dion reached the city the tyrant's garrison had again broken out. More citizens were slain in the streets; more houses were aflame. When the news came to Dion he and his men no longer marched—they ran through the streets amid the smoke of the burning dwellings. Oh, then were heard the glad cries of citizens welcoming the deliverer, and they rejoiced to see once again the man whom they had driven from their midst! The enemy hastened to retreat into the citadel, and Dion was again master of Syracuse.

"Now," said some of his friends—"now is the time to punish the evil men who rebelled against your rule."

"Not so," replied Dion; "it is not enough to be kind to men of virtue—we should forgive those who work us injury."

Ere long the broken fence round the citadel was repaired, and the place was besieged. The garrison were being starved out. Their captain offered to surrender if he and part of the defenders might sail away in five galleys. This request was granted, and one day all the citizens assembled on the shores of the harbor and watched the five galleys pass out and leave the fair island of Sicily in peace. Syracuse was free.

I wish I could close the story here. But I must tell dark incidents as well as bright. The admiral was still jealous of Dion's power, and still drew a portion of the people away from their obedience to the government of the man who had saved the city. One day a band of men broke into the admiral's house and slew him. It is said that Dion knew of their purpose, and allowed it. He certainly felt uneasy in his mind about the deed. His conscience told him he might have prevented it, and did not. When he walked outside his mansion one evening his mind was disturbed, and he fancied he saw a terrible Fury coming toward him with a broom in her hand. The Greeks used to think of the Furies as three awful giantesses whose bodies were black, whose eyes dripped drops of blood, and in whose hair were snakes entwined; and they flew on great wings, and bore daggers or whips in their hands to punish evil-doers. This story reminds us of Shakespeare's tale of Macbeth, the Scottish nobleman who murdered the king and other men, and then could not sleep for fear of their ghosts.

And perhaps some of the citizens feared that Dion would now in turn become a tyrant. A number of men resolved to take his life. They broke into his house, and Dion fell by the stroke of a short sword 354 B.C. Yet the memory of the patriot who had done and suffered so much for Syracuse was dear to thousands of the people. The leader of the plot by which he lost his life was unable to stay in Syracuse, nor would any city in the whole island receive him. At length he was killed by two of his companions. And the story went round among the Sicilian folk that he was slain by the very same short sword which had caused the death of the noble Dion.

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