When Pythagoras, the celebrated Greek philosopher, settled in the ancient Italian city of Crotona (between 550 and 520 b.c. ) there was living in that town a youthful surgeon who was destined to have a remarkable history. Democedes by name, the son of a Crotonian named Calliphon, he strongly inclined while still a mere boy to the study of medicine and surgery, for which arts that city had then a reputation higher than any part of Greece.
The boy had two things to contend with, the hard study in his chosen profession and the high temper of his father. The latter at length grew unbearable, and the youthful surgeon ran away from home, making his way to the Greek island of Ægina. Here he began to practise what he had learned at home, and, though he was very poorly equipped with the instruments of his profession, be proved far abler and more successful than the surgeons whom he found in that island. So rapid, indeed, was his progress that his first year's service brought him an offer from the citizens of Ægina to remain with them for one year, at a salary of one talent,—the Æginetan talent being nearly equal to two thousand dollars. The next year he spent at Athens, whose people had offered him one and two-thirds talents. In the following year Polycrates of Samos bid higher still, offering him two talents, and the young surgeon repaired to that charming island.
Thus far the career of Democedes had been one of steady progress. But, as Solon told Crsus, a man cannot count himself sure of happiness while he lives. The good fortune which had attended the run-away surgeon was about to be followed by a period of ill luck and degradation, following those of his new patron. In the constant wars of Greece a free citizen could never be sure how soon he might be reduced to slavery, and such was the fate of Democedes.
We have already told how Polycrates was treacherously seized and murdered by the Persian satrap Ortes. Democedes had accompanied him to the court of the traitor, and was, with the other attendants of Polycrates, seized and left to languish in neglect and imprisonment. Soon afterwards Ortes received the just retribution for his treachery, being himself slain. And now a third turn came to the career of Democedes. He was classed among the slaves of Ortes, and sent with them in chains to Susa, the capital of Darius, the great Persian king.
But here the wheel of fortune suddenly took an upward turn. Darius, the king, leaping one day from his horse in the chase, sprained his foot so badly that he had to be carried home in violent pain. The surgeons of the Persian court were Egyptians, who were claimed to be the first men in their profession. But, though they used all their skill in treating the foot of the king, they did him no good. Indeed they only made the pain more severe. For seven days and nights the mighty king was taught that he was a man as well as a monarch, and could suffer as severely as the poorest peasant in his kingdom. The foot gave him such torture that all sleep fled from his eyelids, and he and those around him were in despair.
At length it came to the memory of one who had come from the court of Ortes, at Sardis, that report had spoken of a Greek surgeon among the slaves of the slain satrap. He mentioned this, and the king, to whom any hope of relief was welcome, gave orders that this man should be sought and brought before him. It was a miserable object that was soon ushered into the royal presence, a poor creature in rags, with fetters on his hands, and deep lines of suffering upon his face; a picture of misery, in fact.
He was asked if he understood surgery. "No," he replied; saying that he was a slave, not a surgeon. Darius did not believe him; these Greeks were artful; but there were ways of getting at the truth. He ordered that the scourge and the pricking instruments of torture should be brought. Democedes, who was probably playing a shrewd game, now admitted that he did have some little skill, but feared to practise his small art on so great a patient. He was bidden to do what he could, and went to work on the royal foot.
The little skill of the Greek soon distanced the great skill of the Egyptians. He succeeded perfectly in alleviating the pain, and soon had his patient in a deep and refreshing sleep. In a short time the foot was sound again, and Darius could once more stand without a twinge of pain.
The king, who had grown hopeless of a cure, was filled with joy, and set no bounds to his gratitude. Democedes had come before him in iron chains. As a first reward the king presented him with two sets of chains of solid gold. He next sent him to receive the thanks of his wives. Being introduced into the harem, Democedes was presented to the sultanas as the man who had saved the king's life, and whom their lord and master delighted to honor. Each of the fair and grateful women, in reward for his great deed, gave him a saucer full of golden coins, which were so many, and heaped so high, that the slave who followed him grew rich by merely picking up the pieces that dropped on the floor.
Nor did the generosity of Darius stop here. He gave Democedes a splendid house and furniture, made him eat at his own table, and showed him every favor at his command. As for the unlucky Egyptian surgeons, they would all have been crucified for their lack of skill had not Democedes begged for their lives. He might safely have told Darius that if he began to crucify men for ignorance and assurance he would soon have few subjects left.
But with all the favors which Darius granted, there was one which he steadily refused to grant. And it was one on which Democedes had set his heart. He wanted to return to Greece. Splendor in Persia was very well in its way, but to his patriotic heart a crust in Greece was better than a loaf in this land of strangers. Ask as he might, however, Darius would not consent. A sprain or other harm might come to him again. What would he then do without Democedes? He could not let him go.
As asking had proved useless, the wily Greek next tried artifice. Atossa, the favorite wife of the king, had a tumor to form on her breast. She said nothing of it for a time, but at length it grew so bad that she was forced to speak to the surgeon. He examined the tumor, and told her he could cure it, and would do so if she would solemnly swear to do in return whatever he might ask. As she agreed to this, he cured the tumor, and then told her that the reward he wished was liberty to return to Greece. But he told Atossa that the king would not grant that favor even to her, and that it could only be had by stratagem. He advised her how she should act.
When next in conversation with the king, Atossa told him that the Persians expected him to do something for the glory and power of the empire. He must add to it by conquest.
"So I propose," he replied. "I have in view an expedition against the Scythians of the north."
"Better lead one against the Greeks of the west," she replied. "I have heard much about the beauty of the maidens of Sparta, Athens, Argos, and Corinth, and I want to have some of these fair barbarians to serve me as slaves. And if you wish to know more about these Greek people, you have near you the best person possible to give you information,—the Greek who cured your foot."
The suggestion seemed to Darius one worth considering. He would certainly like to know more about this land of Greece. In the end, after conversing with his surgeon, he decided to send some confidential agents there to gain information, with Democedes as their guide. Fifteen such persons were chosen, with orders to observe closely the coasts and cities of Greece, obeying the suggestions and leadership of Democedes. They were to bring back what information they could, and on peril of their lives to bring back Democedes. If they returned without him it would be a sorry home-coming for them.
The king then sent for Democedes, told him of the proposed expedition and what part he was to take in it, but imperatively bade him to return as soon as his errand was finished. He was bidden to take with him the wealth he had received, as presents for his father and brothers. He would not suffer from its loss, since as much, and more, would be given him on his return. Lastly, orders were given that a store-ship, "filled with all manner of good things," should be taken with the expedition.
Democedes heard all this with the aspect of one to whom it was new tidings. Come back? Of course he would. He wished ardently to see Greece, but for a steady place of residence he much preferred Susa and the palace of his king. As for the gold which had been given him, he would not take it away. He wanted to find his house and property on his return. The store-ship would answer for all the presents he cared to make.
His shrewd reply left no shadow of doubt in the heart of the king. The envoys proceeded to Sidon, to Phnicia, where two armed triremes and a large store-ship were got ready by their orders. In these they sailed to the coast of Greece, which they fully surveyed, and even went as far as Italy. The cities were also visited, and the story of all they had seen was carefully written down.
At length they arrived at Tarentum, in Italy, not far from Crotona, the native place of Democedes. Here, at the secret suggestion of the wily surgeon, the king seized the Persians as spies, and, to prevent their escape, took away the rudders of their ships. Their treacherous leader took the opportunity to make his way to Crotona, and here the Persians, who had been released and given back their ships, found him on their arrival. They seized him in the market-place, but he was rescued from them by his fellow-citizens in spite of the remonstrances and threats of the envoys. The Crotonians even took from them the store-ship, and forced them to leave the harbor in their triremes.
On their way home the unlucky envoys suffered a second misfortune; they were shipwrecked and made slaves,—as was the cruel way of dealing with unfortunates in those days. An exile from Tarentum, named Gillis, paid their ransom, and took them to Susa,—for which service Darius offered him any reward he chose to ask. Like Democedes, all he wanted was to go home. But this reward he did not obtain. Darius brought to bear on Tarentum all the influence he could wield, but in vain. The Tarentines were obdurate, and would not have their exile back again. And Gillis was more honorable than Democedes. He did not lay plans to bring a Persian invasion upon Greece through his selfish wish to get back to his native land.
A few words more will tell all else we know about Democedes. His last words to his Persian companions bade them tell Darius that he was about to marry the daughter of Milo of Crotona, famed as the greatest wrestler of his time. Darius knew well the reputation of Milo. He had probably learned it from Democedes himself. And a Persian king was more likely to admire a muscular than a mental giant. Milo meant more to him than Homer or any hero of the pen. Democedes did marry Milo's daughter, paying a high price for the honor, for the sole purpose, so far as we know, of sending back this boastful message to his friend, the king. And thus ends all we know of the story of the surgeon of Crotona.