T HE beautiful island of Sicily had been so wasted by war and burning in the third century B.C. that the orchards and vineyards yielded little fruit, the towns were dull, and the trading-ships no longer passed in large numbers round the coast. Then came men from Carthage in Africa, and they landed on the island, thinking to take possession. These Punic warriors (as the men of Carthage were called) were so strong and cunning that the people of Sicily were in great fear, and sent messengers to the seaside town of Corinth, in Greece, to ask for help; for the Greeks in Sicily had first come from Corinth. The citizens of Corinth chose a man named Timoleon (Tim-o'-le-on) to go to the help of Sicily.
By night Timoleon set sail with ten ships. The wind blew fair toward the west; on a sudden the heavens seemed torn in two, and a flame leaped down and lit up the vessel in which Timoleon rode, and all his followers were much cheered at this happy sign. At least, so the story goes; but you need not believe all the marvels in old histories. You would think all the Sicilians would welcome the saviors from Greece; but it was not so, and a party of them barred the road by which Timoleon, after landing on the island, was marching to Syracuse, the capital. Near the place of battle stood a temple to the God of War, guarded by a hundred dogs. I dare say you have heard speak of "letting loose the dogs of war," for the dog was thought to be an animal beloved by the Battle-god. Timoleon put the foe to flight, he himself heading the Corinthians, and running forward with his buckler on his arm. To him, as he approached the temple after the victory, came many people, who declared that during the fight the doors of the holy building had opened of themselves, and the spear in the hand of the god's statue shook, and the face of the god dripped with sweat.
Not long afterward the Corinthians pressed their way into the city of Syracuse and made themselves masters of the strong-walled fortress or citadel. Timoleon, however, stayed in camp some distance away.
Two men were sent to put him to death. These assassins had daggers under their coats, and mingled with the crowd of people who filled the approach to the temple, waiting to see Timoleon come to offer sacrifice to the War-god. They edged themselves nearer and nearer. They were ready to strike. One of them suddenly fell to the ground. He had been killed by a blow from behind, and the man who struck him fled for his life through the crowd, and up to the top of a high rock. The other assassin in much fear ran to the altar, held on to it, and shrieked out to Timoleon:
"Sir, have mercy on me, in the name of this holy altar!"
The man on the top of the rock was fetched down.
"Why did you slay yonder Sicilian?" he was asked.
"Because," he replied, "this Sicilian slew my father; and there are people here who know what I say is true."
Yes, it was true. Strange, indeed, that he should have chosen just that moment to avenge his father's death, for he was thus the means of saving Timoleon's life. He was allowed to go free, and received a gift of gold. The second assassin confessed the plot, and was forgiven.
And now the party of Sicilians who had resisted the advance of Timoleon were so far enraged that they invited the Punic invaders to enter Syracuse. Into the harbor sailed four hundred and fifty ships under the command of Mago, and sixty thousand men of Carthage were landed in the unhappy city. The citadel was still held by Timoleon's men, and he managed to smuggle supplies of corn into the fortress by the hands of brave fellows who, in small fishing-boats, passed through the Punic fleet on a stormy day. But it was perilous to stay in the citadel. The garrison sallied forth, and made themselves secure in a certain quarter of the city, throwing up a strong fence behind which to fight. Soon, with a roar and a rush, the men of Corinth poured into the city, and, without the loss of a single man, Timoleon gained the citadel. For many years the tyrants of Syracuse had used the citadel as a place of strength to awe and cow the citizens.
"Let all the people come hither," was the order of Timoleon, "and lend a hand in overthrowing the walls of this castle of tyrants."
With right good-will did the folk ply pickaxe and crowbar and shovel, and, amid much dust and shouting, the fort was razed to the ground. Afterward, on the self-same spot, they reared a nobler building—a court of justice.
It was time, indeed, for Timoleon to help poor Sicily. The market-place of Syracuse was overgrown with grass, so little trade had been done lately; and in other towns in the islands the wild deer and boars from the forests were roaming unchecked, the people having fled to wild places to hide themselves. At Timoleon's invitation, there came over ten thousand more men from Corinth, to settle in Sicily, and to till the soil and make it yield corn and fruit again.
But the foes from Africa did not readily yield. They sent over a large army in twelve hundred vessels, and some seventy thousand men, with engines to batter city walls, were preparing to conquer the island. Terror seized many Sicilians. Only about five thousand footmen and about one thousand horsemen remained steadfast. Timoleon was not daunted. He led his small army toward a river where he heard the Punic foes were encamped. As he climbed a hill with his troops, he met some mules loaded with parsley.
"A bad sign," murmured the men; "for do we not place parsley on the tombs of the dead?"
"A good sign," cried their leader; "for do we not place crowns of parsley on the heads of those who win races and wrestling-matches?"
Thereupon he made himself a chaplet or wreath of parsley, and crowned his own head.
The river and the marshes that lay about it were at first clad in a thick mist. As the Corinthians paused to take breath on the hilltop after their hard climb, the sun came out and cleared the mist. The enemy were crossing the river. First were seen chariots, each drawn by four horses. Then marched ten thousand warriors carrying white shields, and their helmets were of brass and their breastplates of iron. The Corinthian horsemen darted in and out among the chariots. Timoleon caused his foot-soldiers to draw close together, holding their bucklers in front, so as to make a kind of moving wall.
"Be of good courage!" he cried, in a very loud voice; and the little force descended to the plain.
A tempest burst over the hills and the marshes. Hail beat furiously upon the faces of the Punic foe, and half blinded them while they staggered under the charge of Timoleon's warriors. The victory was to the Corinthians; and more than five thousand prisoners were taken, and heaps of shields and breastplates, captured from the enemy, glittered among the tents of Timoleon's army.
What he did in this battle he did in other places. The invaders were got rid of; the desolate cities were busy with people again; the peasants labored in peace in the field; justice was meted out by the magistrates; and the island of Sicily had cause to bless the name of Timoleon.
He sent for his wife and children from Corinth, and they all dwelt in a country house, where he enjoyed the sweet air of the hills and the sight of harvests and flocks; but his chief happiness was to behold the safety and comfort of the Sicilians.
One day, indeed, at a large public meeting, two noisy talkers made complaints against Timoleon. The people loved the man who had saved the island, and would have risen up in anger and ill-treated the accusers. But Timoleon cried:
"Stay! there is no need for me to answer these men; for what I have done is the best answer. The poorest man in Syracuse can obtain justice, and the citizens enjoy free speech, and each man may speak his mind as he wills."
Alas for Timoleon! He had given liberty to Sicily; but, in his old age, blindness came upon him, and he could no longer take regular part in public affairs. Yet the people still felt deep respect for the blind old man, and many a visitor to Syracuse would ask the way to Timoleon's house if haply he might chance to see the deliverer of Sicily. Sometimes, when the citizens had assembled in the theatre and were unable to decide some troublesome question of government, they would send for Timoleon; and the aged general was borne on a litter through the streets amid the greetings of the crowd.
He died 337 B.C. Great was his funeral. The bier upon which his body lay was grandly adorned, and it was carried by chosen young men across the place where once stood the dreadful citadel of the tyrants. It was followed by a multitude of men and women, who were crowned with flowers and wore white dresses. Many tears were shed by the mourning citizens, and a herald cried with a loud voice:
"The people of Syracuse will bury Timoleon the Corinthian at the public cost; and each year, through all time, they will hold in his honor games at racing and wrestling, while music is played; for he put down tyrants, conquered the foreign invaders, gave welfare to cities that had been laid waste, and restored law and peace to Sicily."
In the market-place was built a pleasant house, in the courts of which the young men of Syracuse might take exercise and engage in sport. It was called the Timoleonteum, or House of Timoleon. And thus, in joyous games, the people remembered the noble soul who gained freedom for a suffering land.