The Tyrant of Syracuse
Y OU have seen what a cruel man Alexander was. He was not the only tyrant in those days, however; for the city of Syracuse in Sicily, which Alcibiades had hoped to conquer, was ruled by a man as harsh and mean as Alexander.
This tyrant, whose name was Dionysius, had seized power by force, and kept his authority by exercising the greatest severity. He was always surrounded by guards, who at a mere sign from him were ready to put any one to death.
Dionysius was therefore feared and hated by the people whom he governed, but who would have been very glad to get rid of him. No honest man cared to come near such a bloodthirsty wretch, and there were soon none but wicked men to be found in his court.
These men, hoping to win his favor and get rich gifts, used to flatter him constantly. They never told him the truth, but only praised him, and made believe to admire all he said and did.
Of course, even though they were wicked too, they could really admire him, but secretly hated and despised him. Their praise, therefore, was as false as they, and their advice was always as bad as bad could be.
Now, Dionysius was as conceited as he was cruel, and fancied that there was nothing he could not do. Among other things, he thought he could write beautiful poetry. Whenever he wrote a poem, therefore, he read it aloud to all his courtiers, who went into raptures over it, although they made great fun of it behind his back.
Dionysius was highly flattered by their praise, but thought he would like to have it confirmed by the philosopher Philoxenus, the most learned man of Syracuse.
He therefore sent for Philoxenus, and bade him give his candid opinion of the verse. Now, Philoxenus was far too noble a man to tell a lie: and whenever he was consulted by Dionysius, he always boldly told the truth, whether it was agreeable or not.
When the tyrant asked his opinion about the poems, therefore, he unhesitatingly answered that they were trash, and did not deserve the name of poetry at all.
This answer so angered Dionysius, and so sorely wounded his vanity, that he called his guards, and bade them put the philosopher into a prison hewn out of the living rock, and hence known as "The Quarries."
Here Philoxenus was a prisoner for many a day, although his only fault was having told the tyrant an unwelcome truth when asked to speak.
The philosopher's friends were indignant on hearing that he was in prison, and signed a petition asking Dionysius to set him free. The tyrant read the petition, and promised to grant their request on condition that the philosopher would sup with him.
Dionysius' table was well decked, as usual, and at dessert he again read aloud some new verses which he had composed. All the courtiers went into ecstasies over them, but Philoxenus did not say a word.
Dionysius, however, fancied that his long imprisonment had broken his spirit, and that he would not now dare refuse to give a few words of praise: so he pointedly asked Philoxenus what he thought of the poem. Instead of answering, the philosopher gravely turned toward the guards, and in a firm voice cried aloud, "Take me back to The Quarries!" thus showing very plainly that he preferred suffering to telling an untruth.
The courtiers were aghast at his rashness, and fully expected that the tyrant would take him at his word and put him in prison, if nothing worse; but Dionysius was struck by the moral courage which made Philoxenus tell the truth at the risk of his life, and he bade him go home in peace.