Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Greek by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

Timoleon, The Favorite Of Fortune

In the city of Corinth dwelt two brothers; one of whom, named Timoleon, was distinguished alike for his courage, gentleness, patriotism, lack of ambition, and hatred of despots and traitors; the other, named Timophanes, was noted for bravery and enterprise, but also for unprincipled ambition and lack of patriotism. Timophanes, being a valiant soldier, had gained high rank in the army of Corinth. Timoleon loved his unworthy brother and sought to screen his faults. He did more: he saved his life at frightful peril to himself. During a battle between the army of Corinth and that of some neighboring state, Timophanes, who commanded the cavalry, was thrown from his wounded horse very near to the enemy. The cavalry fled, leaving him to what seemed certain death. But Timoleon, who was serving with the infantry, rushed from the ranks and covered his brother with his shield just as the enemy were about to pierce him. They turned in numbers on the defender, with spears and darts, but he warded off their blows, and protected his fallen brother at the cost of several wounds to himself, until others rushed to the rescue and drove back the foe.

The whole city was full of admiration of Timoleon for this act of devotion. Timophanes also was raised in public estimation through his brother's deed, and was placed in an important post. Corinth was governed by an aristocracy, who, just then, brought in a garrison of four hundred foreign soldiers and placed them in the citadel. Timophanes was given command of this garrison and control of the stronghold.

The governors of the city did not know their man. Here was an opportunity for the unlimited ambition of the new commander. Gaining some armed partisans among the poorer citizens, and availing himself of the control of fort and garrison, Timophanes soon made himself master of the city, and seized and put to death all who opposed him among the chief citizens. Unwittingly the Corinthian aristocrats had put over themselves a cruel despot.

But they found also a defender. The crimes of his brother at first filled Timoleon with shame and sorrow. He went to the citadel and begged Timophanes, by all he held sacred, to renounce his ambitious projects. The new despot repelled his appeal with contempt. Timoleon went again, this time with three friends, but with no better effect. Timophanes laughed them to scorn, and as they continued their pleading he grew angry and refused to hear more. Then the three friends drew their swords and killed the tyrant on the spot, while Timoleon stood aside, with his face hidden and his eyes bathed in tears.

He who had saved his brother's life at the risk of his own had now consented to his death to save his country. But personally, although all Corinth warmly applauded his patriotic act, he was thrown into the most violent grief and remorse. This was the greater from the fact that his mother viewed his deed with horror and execration, invoked curses on his head, and refused even to see him despite his earnest supplications.

The gratitude of the city was overcome in his mind by grief for his brother, and he was attacked by the bitterest pangs of remorse. The killing of the tyrant he had felt to be a righteous and necessary act. The murder of his brother afflicted him with despair. For a time he refused food, resolving to end his odious life by starvation. Only the prayers of his friends made him change this resolution. Then, like one pursued by the furies, he fled from the city, hid himself in solitude, and kept aloof from the eyes and voices of men. For several years he thus dwelt in self-afflicting solitude, and when at length time reduced his grief and he returned to the city, he shunned all prominent positions, and lived in humility and retirement. Thus time went on until twenty years had passed, Timoleon still, in spite of the affection and sympathy of his fellow-citizens, refusing any office or place of authority.

But now an event occurred which was to make this grieving patriot famous through all time, as the favored of the gods and one of the noblest of men,—the Washington of the far past. To tell how this came about we must go back some distance in time. Corinth, though it played no leading part in the wars of Greece, like Athens, Sparta, and Thebes, was still a city of much importance, its situation on the isthmus between the Peloponnesus and northern Greece being excellent for commerce and maritime enterprise. Many years before it had sent out a colony which founded the city of Syracuse, in Sicily. It was in aid of this city of Syracuse that Timoleon was called upon to act.

We have already told how Athens sought to capture this city and ruined herself in the enterprise. After that time of triumph Syracuse passed through several decades of terror and woe. Tyrants set their feet on her fair neck, and almost crushed her into the earth. One of these, Dionysius by name, had made his power felt by far-off Greece and nearer Carthage, and for years ruled over Sicily with a rod of iron. His successor, Dion, a friend and pupil of the philosopher Plato, became an oppressor when he came into power. Then another Dionysius gained the throne, a cowardly and drunken wretch, who repeated the acts of his tyrannical father.

Such was the state of affairs in Sicily when Timoleon was dwelling quietly at home in Corinth, a man of fifty, with no ambitious thought and no ruling desire except to reach the end of his sorrow-laden life. So odious now had the tyranny of Dionysius become that the despairing Syracusans sent a pathetic appeal to Corinth, their mother city, praying for aid against this brutal despot and the Carthaginians, who had invaded the island of Sicily in force.

Corinth just then, fortunately, had no war on hand,—a somewhat uncommon condition for a Greek city at that day. The citizens voted at once to send the aid asked for. But who should be the leader? There were danger and difficulty in the enterprise, with little hope for profit, and none of the Corinthian generals or politicians seemed eager to lead this forlorn hope. The archons called out their names one by one, but each in succession declined. The archons had come nearly to their wits' end whom to choose, when from an unknown voice in the assembly came the name "Timoleon." The archons seized eagerly on the suggestion, hastily chose Timoleon for the post which all the leading men declined, and the assembly adjourned.

Timoleon, who sadly needed some active exertion to relieve him from the weight of eating thought, accepted the thankless enterprise, heedless probably of the result. He at once began to gather ships and soldiers. But he found the Corinthians more ready to select a commander than to provide him with means and men. Little money was forthcoming; few men seemed ready to enlist; Timoleon had no great means of his own. In the end he only got together seven triremes and one thousand men,—the most of them mere mercenaries. Three more ships and two hundred men were afterwards added.

And thus, with this small force, Timoleon set out to conquer a city and kingdom on whose conquest Athens, years before, had lavished hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men in vain. The effort seemed utterly puerile. Was the handful of Corinthians to succeed where all the imperial power of Athens had failed? Yet the gods fought with Timoleon.

In truth, from the day he left Corinth, those presages of fortune, on which the Greeks so greatly depended, gathered about his path across the seas. The signs and tokens were all favorable. While he was at Delphi, seeking the favor of Apollo, a fillet with wreaths and symbols of victory fell from a statue upon his head, and the goddess Persephone told her priestess in a dream that she was about to sail with Timoleon to Sicily, her favorite island. He took, therefore, a special trireme, sacred to the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, both of whom were to accompany him. While at sea this sacred trireme was illumined by a light from heaven, while a burning torch on high seemed to guide the fleet to a safe harbor. All these portents filled the adventurers with hope and joy.

But Timoleon had himself to depend on as well as the gods. At the Italian port of Rhegium he found Hicetas, the despot of a Sicilian city, who had invited him to Sicily, but was now allied with the Carthaginians. He had there twenty of the warships of Carthage, double the force of Timoleon. Yet the shrewd Corinthian played with and tricked him, set him to talking and the people of Rhegium to talking with him, and slipped slyly out of the harbor with his ships while the interminable talk went on.

This successful stratagem redoubled the spirit of his followers. Landing at a small town on the Sicilian coast, a new enterprise presented itself. Forty miles inland lay the town of Adranum, sacred to the god Adranus, a deity worshipped throughout Sicily. There were two parties in Adranum, one of which invited Timoleon, the other Hicetas. The latter at once started thither, with a force of five thousand men, an army with which that of Timoleon seemed too small to cope. But heedless of this discrepancy Timoleon hastened thither, and on arriving near the town perceived that the opposing army had outstripped him in speed. Hicetas, not aware of the approach of a foe, had encamped, and his men were disarmed and at their suppers.

The small army of Timoleon, worn out with their long and rapid march, and in sight of an enemy four times their number, were loath to move farther; but their leader, who knew that his only chance for victory lay in a surprise, urged them forward, seized his shield and placed himself at their head, and led them so suddenly on the foe that the latter, completely surprised, fled in utter panic. Three hundred were killed, six hundred taken, and the rest, abandoning their camp, hastened at all speed back to Syracuse.

Again the gods spoke in favor of Timoleon. Just as the battle began the gates of the temple of Adranus burst open, and the god himself appeared with brandished spear and perspiring face. So said the awe-struck Adranians, and there was no one to contradict their testimony.

Superstition came here to the adventurer's aid. The report of the god's doings did as much as the victory to add to the fame of Timoleon. Reinforcements flocked to his ranks, and several towns sought alliance with him. He now, with a large and confident army, marched to Syracuse, and defied his foe to meet him in the field.

Hicetas was master of all Syracuse except the stronghold of Ortygia, which was held by Dionysius, and which Hicetas had blockaded by sea and land. Timoleon had no means of capturing it, and as the enemy would not come out from behind its walls, he would soon have had to retire had not fortune again helped her favorite son, and this time in an extraordinary manner.

As it happened, Dionysius was growing short of provisions, was beginning to despair of holding Ortygia, and was withal a man of indolent and drunken habits, without a tithe of his father's spirit and energy. He was like a fox driven to bay, and having heard of the victory of Timoleon, it occurred to him that he would be better off in yielding the city to these Corinthians than losing it to his Sicilian foe. All he wished was the promise of a safe asylum and comfortable maintenance in the future. He therefore agreed with Timoleon to surrender the city, with the sole proviso that he should be taken safely with his property to Corinth and given freedom of residence in that city. This Timoleon instantly and gladly granted, the city was yielded, and Dionysius passed into Timoleon's camp with a few companions.

We can imagine the astonishment of the people of Corinth when a trireme came into their harbor with tidings of the remarkable success of their towns- man, and bearing as striking evidence the person of the late tyrant of Sicily. Only fifty days had passed since he left their city with his thousand men, and already he had this extraordinary prize to show. At once they voted him a reinforcement of two thousand hoplites and five hundred cavalry, and willingly granted the dethroned king a safe residence in their city. In after years, so report says, Dionysius opened a school there for teaching boys to read, and instructed the public singers in their art. Certainly this was an innocent use to put a tyrant to.

Ortygia contained a garrison of two thousand soldiers and vast quantities of military stores. Timoleon, after taking possession, returned to Adranum, leaving his lieutenant Neon in command. Soon after—Hicetas having left Syracuse for the purpose of cutting off Neon's source of provisions—a sudden sally was made, the blockading army taken by surprise and driven back with loss, and another large section of the city was added to Timoleon's gains.

This success was quickly followed by another. The reinforcement from Corinth had landed at Thurii, on the east coast of Italy. The Carthaginian admiral, thinking that they could not easily get away from that place, sailed to Ortygia, where he displayed Grecian shields and had his seamen crowned with wreaths. He fancied that by these signs of victory he would frighten the garrison into surrender. But the garrison were not so easily scared; and meanwhile the Corinthian troops, tired of Thurii, and not able to get away by sea, had left their ships and marched rapidly overland to the narrow strait of Messina, that separated Italy from Sicily. They found this unguarded,—the Carthaginian ships being away on their mission of alarm to Ortygia. And, by good fortune, several days of stormy weather had been followed by a sudden and complete calm, so that the Corinthians were enabled to cross in fishing and other boats and reach Sicily in safety. Thus by a new favor of fortune Timoleon gained this valuable addition to his small army.

Timoleon now marched against Syracuse, where fortune once more came to his aid. For Magon, the Carthaginian admiral, had begun to doubt Hicetas. He doubted him the more when he saw the men of Timoleon and those of Hicetas engaged in fishing for eels together in the marshy grounds between the armies, and seemingly on very friendly terms. Thinking he was betrayed, he put all his troops on board ship and sailed away for Africa.

It may well be imagined that Timoleon and his men saw with surprise and joy this sudden flight of the Carthaginian ships. With shouts of encouragement they attacked the city on all sides. To their astonishment, scarcely any defence was made. In fact, the army of Hicetas, many of them Greeks, were largely in favor of Timoleon, while the talk of the eel-catching soldiers in the marshes had won many more over. As a result, Timoleon took the great city of Syracuse, on which the Athenians had vainly sacrificed hundreds of ships and thousands of men, without the loss of a single man, killed or wounded.

Such a succession of astonishing favors of fortune has rarely been seen in the world's history. The news flew through Sicily, Italy, and Greece, and awakened wonder and admiration everywhere. Only a few months had passed since Timoleon left Corinth, and already, with very little loss, he was master of Syracuse and of much of Sicily, and had sent the dreaded Sicilian tyrant to dwell as a common citizen in Corinth. His ability seemed remarkable, his fortune superhuman, and men believed that the gods themselves had taken him under their especial care.

And now came the temptation of power, to which so many great men have fallen victims. Timoleon had but to say the word and he would be despot of Syracuse. Everybody looked for this as the next move. In Ortygia rose the massive citadel within which Dionysius had defied revolt or disaffection. Timoleon had but to establish himself there, and his word would be the law throughout Syracuse, if not throughout Sicily. What would he do?

What he proposed to do was quickly shown. He proclaimed that this stronghold of tyranny should be destroyed, and invited every Syracusan that loved liberty to come with crowbar and hammer and join in the work of levelling to the ground the home and citadel of Dionysius. The astounded citizens could scarcely believe their ears. What! destroy the tyrant's stronghold! Set Syracuse free! What manner of man was this? With joyous acclaim they gathered, and heaved and tugged until the massive walls were torn stone from stone, and the vast edifice levelled with the ground, while the time passed like a holiday, and songs of joy and triumph made their work light.

The Bastile of Syracuse down, Timoleon ordered that the materials should be used to build courts of justice,—for justice was henceforth to replace despotism in that tyrant-ridden city. But he had more to do. So long had oppression and suffering lasted that the city was half deserted and the very market-place turned into a horse pasture. The same was the case with other cities of Sicily. Even the fields were but half cultivated. Ruin had swept over that fertile island far and wide.

Timoleon now sent invitations everywhere, inviting exiles to return and new colonists to come and people the island. To make them sure that they would not be oppressed, a new constitution was formed, giving all the power to the people. The invitation was accepted. From all quarters colonists came, while ten thousand exiles and others sailed from Corinth. In the end no fewer than sixty thousand new citizens were added to Syracuse.

Meanwhile Timoleon put down the other despots of Sicily and set the cities free. Hicetas, his old enemy, was forced to give up his control of Leontini, to which he had retired on the loss of Syracuse. But the snake retained his venom. The Carthaginians were furious at the flight of their fleet. Hicetas stirred them up to another invasion of the liberated island.

How long they were in preparing for this expedition we do not know, but it was made on a large scale. An army of seventy thousand men landed on the western corner of the island, brought thither by a fleet of two hundred triremes and one thousand transports. In the army were ten thousand heavy-armed Carthaginians, who carried white shields and wore elaborate breastplates. Among these were many of the rich men of Carthage, who brought with them costly baggage and rich articles of gold and silver. Twenty-five hundred of them were called the Sacred Band of Carthage. That great city had rarely before made such a determined effort at conquest.

Timoleon was not idle in the face of this great invasion. But the whole army he could muster was but twelve thousand strong, a pitiable total to meet so powerful a foe. And as he marched to meet the enemy distrust and fear marched in his ranks. Such was the dread that one division of the army, one thousand strong, mutinied and deserted, and it needed all his personal influence to keep the rest together.

Yet Timoleon had in him the spirit that commands success. He pushed on with his disheartened force until near the river Crimesus, beyond which was encamped the great army of Carthage. Some mules laden with parsley met the Corinthians on the road. Parsley was used for the wreaths laid on tombstones. It seemed a fatal omen. But Timoleon, with the quickness of genius, seized some of it, wove a wreath for his head, and cried, "This is our Corinthian symbol of victory: it is the sacred herb with which we decorate the victors at the Isthmian festival. Its coming signifies success." With these encouraging words he restored the spirits of the army, and led them on to the top of the hill overlooking the Crimesus.

It was a misty May morning. Nothing could be seen; but from the valley a loud noise and clatter arose. The Carthaginians were on the march, and had begun to cross the stream. Soon the mist rose and the formidable host was seen. A multitude of war-chariots, each drawn by four horses, had already crossed. The ten thousand native Carthaginians, bearing their white shields, were partly across. The main body of the host was hastening in disorderly march to the rugged banks of the stream.

Fortune had favored Timoleon again. If he hoped for success this was the moment to attack. The enemy was divided and in disorder. With cheery words he bade his men to charge. The cavalry dashed on in front. Seizing a shield, Timoleon sprang to the front and led on his footmen, rousing them to activity by exultant words and bidding the trumpets to sound. Rushing down the hill and through the line of chariots, the charging mass poured on the Carthaginian infantry. These fought bravely and defied the Grecian spears with the strength of their armor. The assailants had to take to their swords, and try and hew their way through the dense ranks of the foe.

The result was in serious doubt, when once more the gods—as it seemed—came to Timoleon's aid. A violent storm suddenly arose. Darkness shrouded the hill-tops. The wind blew a hurricane. Rain and hail poured down in torrents, while the clouds flashed with lightning and roared with thunder. And all this was on the backs of the Greeks; in the faces of the Carthaginians. They could not hear the orders of their officers. The ground became so muddy that many of them slipped and fell: and once down their heavy armor would not let them rise again. The Greeks, driven forward by the wind, attacked their foes with double energy. At length, blinded by the driving storm, distracted by the furious assault, and four hundred of their front ranks fallen, the white shield battalion turned and fled.

But flight was not easy. They met their own troops coming up. The stream had become suddenly swollen with the rain. In the confused flight numbers were drowned. The panic spread from rank to rank until the whole host was in total rout, flying wildly over the hills, leaving their camp and baggage to the victors, who pursued and slaughtered them in thousands as they fled.

Such a complete victory had rarely been won. Ten thousand Carthaginians were killed and fifteen thousand made prisoners, their war chariots were captured, and the spoil found in the camp and on the track of the flying army was prodigiously great. As for the Sacred Band, it was annihilated. The story is told that it was slain to a man. The broken remnants of the flying army hastened to their ships, which they were half afraid to enter, for fear the gods that helped Timoleon would destroy them on the seas. And thus was Sicily freed.

The thousand deserters who had left Timoleon's army on its march were ordered by him to leave the island at once. They did so, crossed the Strait of Messina, and took possession of a site in southern Italy, where they were attacked by the people and every man of them slain. As regards the concluding events of our story, it will suffice to say that Timoleon had other fighting to do, with Carthaginians and despots; but his wonderful fortune continued throughout, and before long Sicily held not an enemy in arms.

And now came the greatest triumph of the Corinthian victor. One master alone remained in Sicily,—himself. Despotic power was his had he said the word. The people warmly requested him to retain his control. But no; he had come to free them from tyranny, and free they should be. He laid down at once all his power, gave up the command of the army, and went to live as a private citizen of Syracuse, without office or power.

A single dominion yet remained to him,—that of affection. The people worshipped him. His voice was law. As he grew older his sight failed, until he became totally blind. Yet still, when any difficult question arose, the people trusted to their sightless benefactor to tell them what to do. On such occasions Timoleon would be brought in his car, drawn by mules across the market-place, and then by attendants into the hall of assembly. Here, still seated in his car, he would listen to the debate, and in the end give his own opinion, which was usually accepted by nearly the whole assembly. This done, the car would be drawn out again amid shouts and cheers, and the blind "father of his country" return to his modest home.

Such liberty and prosperity as now ruled in Sicily had not for a century been known, and when, three or four years after the great victory of the Crimesus, Timoleon suddenly died, the grief of the people was universal and profound. His funeral, obsequies were splendidly celebrated at the public cost, his body was burned on a vast funeral pile, and as the flames flashed upward a herald proclaimed,—

"The Syracusan people solemnize, at the cost of two hundred minŠ, the funeral of this man, the Corinthian Timoleon, son of Timodemus. They have passed a vote to honor him for all future time with festival matches in music, horse and chariot races, and gymnastics; because, after having put down the despots, subdued the foreign enemy, and recolonized the greatest among the ruined cities, he restored to the Sicilian Greeks their constitution and laws."

And thus died one of the noblest and most successful men the world has ever known. The fratricide of his earlier years was for the good of mankind, and his whole life was consecrated to the cause of human liberty, while not a thought of self-aggrandizement seems to have ever disturbed his noble soul.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Humiliation of Sparta  |  Next: The Sacred War
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.