The city of Corinth stood upon the narrow isthmus that joined the mainland of Greece to the Peloponnesian peninsula. She had two harbours, a large fleet, and she carried on a prosperous trade with other countries.
As the city grew strong and populous, she began to plant colonies in other lands. One of the wealthiest of these colonies was the town of Syracuse in Sicily.
In 346 b.c. Syracuse was in the power of a tyrant named Dionysius. The other cities in Sicily would have been in the same plight had their inhabitants not fled to a neighbouring town, and sought the aid of a powerful prince named Icetes. Icetes had a large army, and with its help they hoped to be able to overthrow Dionysius.
But trouble after trouble overtook the people, for the Carthaginians had sailed from Africa and had reached their shores. Sicily was in despair lest they should conquer the island and make it their own.
In their distress, the Sicilians sent messengers to Corinth, their mother-city, to beg her to help them to get rid of both the Carthaginians and Dionysius.
Icetes pretended to approve of this, but no sooner had the ambassadors set out for Corinth than he made friends with the Carthaginians. He hoped that if they drove Dionysius away, he himself would become tyrant of Sicily.
In Corinth, about twenty years earlier, there dwelt two brothers of noble birth—one was named Timophanes, the other Timoleon. Never were two brothers more unlike save that both were brave. Timophanes was cruel and ambitious, while Timoleon was gentle and content. Yet under his quiet ways Timoleon had one strong passion and that was the love he bore his country.
Timophanes was a captain in the Corinthian army; his brother served in the ranks.
Once when the captain was sent against a neighbouring state, he was thrown from his horse, which had been wounded. He fell close to the enemy and his men fled, leaving him in danger of being taken prisoner.
Timoleon saw what had happened, and rushing from the ranks, he stood over Timophanes with his shield, and defended him from the spears which were being hurled at him by the enemy. Although he himself was sorely wounded, he never flinched. But at length his comrades rushed to his aid and drove off the foe. Timoleon had saved his brother's life.
Not long after this, Timophanes was given the command of four hundred foreign soldiers. This pleased the captain, but to the dismay of the citizens he used the troops to make himself tyrant of the city.
All who dared to oppose him he put to death, while he ruled so harshly that he was hated and feared by everyone.
Timoleon was ashamed of his brother's behaviour. He begged him to treat the people more kindly, and if he must rule at least to rule with justice. But Timophanes first mocked at his brother's words, and then he grew angry and refused to listen to them.
Gentle as Timoleon was, he could be strong when there was need to be so. In a short time he went again to his brother, taking with him two friends who used to admire Timophanes.
Together the three men besought the tyrant to give up the power he had so wrongfully seized, and to serve his country in an upright way.
Again Timophanes laughed at his friends, but when they persisted in their entreaties he grew angry, and rudely bade them begone. Then Timoleon hid his face in his cloak and wept, while the others put his brother to death.
The Corinthians, for the most part, praised Timoleon because he loved his country so well that he sacrificed his brother for her sake. But there were some citizens who blamed Timoleon for allowing his brother to be put to death before his eyes. His mother refused to see him and called down upon him the curses of the gods. This pained Timoleon more than anything else, and he begged her to see him, if it were but once. But she would not allow him to enter her house.
Timoleon loved his mother, and her treatment made him so sad that he refused either to eat or to drink. He resolved to starve himself to death rather than endure his mother's reproaches.
His friends did all they could to comfort him, and at length they succeeded in persuading him to eat. But his sorrow was too great to let him stay in Corinth, so he left the city, and for several years he lived by himself. Even when he returned to Corinth, he still refused to take part in any public business.
Timoleon was fifty years old when in 346 b.c. the Syracusans sent to the Corinthians to beg for help against the Carthaginians.
The Corinthians determined to send an army to Sicily to help their fellow-countrymen, but they could find no one willing to go at its head.
Some one proposed that Timoleon should be made commander of the force that had been raised, and he was at once appointed.
Perhaps Timoleon thought that it was now time that he should do something for his country; in any case he undertook the task that was given him with goodwill.
One worthy citizen bade Timoleon act "like a man of worth and gallantry. For," said he, "if you do bravely in this service we shall believe that you delivered us from a tyrant; but if otherwise, that you killed your brother."