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The Earliest
Times

This webpage reproduces part of a chapter of
The Rulers of the South

by
Francis Marion Crawford

published by MacMillan & Co. Ltd.
New York and London
1900

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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The Greeks
(Part 2)

(Vol. I) The Greeks
(Part 1 of 3)

p26 It is no wonder that the Greeks were seamen and wanderers on the sea. With little more than twice as much land as Sicily, Greece has a coast line equal to that of all Spain and Portugal together. Moreover, every strong race that has reached the sea in the migration of peoples has sooner or later attempted to sail westward, like Ulysses in his last voyage, beyond the baths of all the western stars, and the Greeks were almost driven from their own shore by the press of those behind them, when their little country was filled to overflowing. So they began to spread and multiply in the islands of the Mediterranean, and certain of the bolder among them reached Italy and passed the straits, whence, sailing up the dangerous western coast, they came to the safe waters of Cumae, protected from storms by the island of Ischia; and there they founded a colony which was the beginning of Naples. Some of them, it is said, turned pirates and found their way back to Sicily.

They were very perfect men, and could do all and bear all that could be done and borne by human flesh and blood. Taking them altogether they were the most faultlessly constructed human beings that ever lived, and they knew it, for they worshipped bodily beauty and strength, and they spent the lives of generations in the cultivation of both. They were p27fighting men, trained to use every weapon they knew, they were boxers and wrestlers, athletes, runners and jumpers, and drivers of chariots; but above all, they were seamen, skilled at the helm, quick at handling sails masters of the oar, and fearless navigators when half of all navigation led sooner or later to certain death. For though they loved life, as only the strong and the beautiful can love it, and though they looked forward to no condition of perpetual bliss beyond, but only to the shadowy place where regretful phantoms flitted in the gloom as in the twilight of the Hebrew Sheol, yet they faced dying as fighters always have and always will, with desperate hands and a quiet heart.

Their ships were small craft, much more like the little vessels in which the Greeks and Sicilians sail to‑day, than those are like the vessels of the ocean. The first condition for safety was that their ships might be easily hauled up high and dry on any sandy beach, by means of such gear as they could carry with them; the second, that they should be very swift under the oar. The Norsemen who reached the Western Ocean needed the same qualities in their vessels; hence the resemblance between the old viking's ship and the southern felucca of our own time. Both are long, narrow, and of small draught, flat-bottomed amidships, yet sharp as a knife both fore and aft. The Greek ship, like the Norseman's, carried but one mast and one p28great sail that was furled whenever the wind was not free, so that the only means of motion lay in the sweeps, steadily swung and pulled by free men or slaves, as the case might be, sometimes from dawn to sunset.

Men rarely put to sea in one ship alone for any distant voyage. They sailed out in little fleets of ten, or even twenty sail, well knowing that some should not come home, and trusting in the number of their vessels to save some of their companions from death by drowning. As Holm quietly observes, when speaking of Ulysses, men did not travel for pleasure in those days.

When the Greek sailors were not pirates who got a living by robbing the Phoenician traders, they traded themselves, from Greece to Asia Minor and among all the rich Greek islands. They loaded their little ships on shore, covered the cargo with ox-hides battened down in the narrow water-ways to keep the stuff dry, they launched their vessels with the cargo in them, and they lived on deck, sleeping as they could in the open air, or making awnings of skins when they could anchor for the night in some natural harbour, or when with infinite labour they were obliged to beach their vessels on lonely shores before a coming storm. It was a rough life, and often they had to fight in self-defence, when weather-bound in barbarous places; but most men carried their lives in their hands in p29those times, and few looked forward to dying of old age.


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Cape Palinuro, Gulf of Policastro

A certain Theocles, whom some call Thucles, an Athenian, traded with Italy in the eighth century before Christ, and no doubt had been as far as Cumae, where the Greeks had settled. But neither he nor any other Greeks had landed in Sicily, for the Sicelians had a bad name in the south, and it was said that they devoured human flesh and destroyed every one who p30tried to land upon their shores, so that other men left them in peace for a long time; and it is most likely that the Phoenicians, who traded with them, and even had settlements in Malta, and perhaps in Western Sicily, and who themselves offered up human sacrifices, spread this tale through the East to frighten off other trading folk.

But Theocles, the merchant, with his little fleet of vessels, was sailing near the straits one summer day, hugging the Italian shore, when the northeast wind came upon him, suddenly and violently, as it does in those waters, and he could not beat up against it to an anchorage under the land, but was obliged to run before it, towards Sicily; for it was wiser to take the risk of being eaten by the Sicelians than to face certain drowning in vessels that would not lie to in a gale. So he wore his ships to the wind under such sail as he dared carry and ran for the opposite land with a heavy sea following. It is very likely that two or three of his fleet were swamped and sank with all on board, though a felucca will run safely before weather that would be dangerous to many larger craft. Theocles offered prayers to Apollo, and kept the helm up.

Seeing that the wind was northeast, and that Sicily was a lee shore, he knew that his chance of safety and life lay in running under the only little headland that juts out from that part of the coast, and he succeeded in making the shelter in time, before the wind shifted to p31the eastward. The sea broke over him just as he rounded the point, but its force drove him on and into smooth water, where he came to and let go both anchors. One by one his companions followed him and anchored alongside, and the first Greeks proceeded to land, where they afterwards built Naxos and Tauromenium, on the soft beach of yellow sand below the little town now called Taormina, which many say is the most beautiful spot in the whole world.

It is not possible, as some traditions say, that Theocles should have landed in the sandy cove under Cape Schisò, and should have built his altar to Apollo on the spot where Saint Pancras's statue now stands; for the only storm which could have driven him across from Italy to the Sicilian shore was a northeaster; an easterly or southeasterly gale would have either swamped him or sent him up the straits, and when the wind is in the northeast, Cape Schisò affords no shelter, though there is smooth water a mile to the northward under Cape Sant' Andrea, and a little islet there protects the beach. So Theocles must have landed there, and there he doubtless proceeded to beach his vessels, heavy laden as they were, well knowing that the wind would shift to the dangerous southeast before the bad weather was over. It is most likely that he built his altar on the island, since he feared the Sicelians, and would feel safer if protected from them even by a narrow bit of shallow water; and on it he and his companions sacrificed p32 with a little meal and wine, which was all they had, and they prayed that their lives might be spared, not dreaming that they should reach Greece again in safety, and return a second time, and build a city which should endure for ages, and be the near forerunner of a vast Greek colonization.

Instead of a race of cannibals, rushing down from the hills to kill them for food, the Greeks found a peaceable farmer folk, well satisfied with themselves and others, who sauntered down to the shore and eyed the weather-bound strangers with benevolent curiosity. From a distance they must have seen their ships, and understood at once that these were not of Phoenician build; and they could see too, before they descended to the shore, that the newcomers were neither pirates nor soldiers, but peaceable merchants driven in from the sea for shelter. It is easy to fancy the distrust of Theocles and his companions, and the simple plan they had followed; how they allured the Sicelians by holding up specimens of their merchandise, coloured stuffs, glass beads, and bits of tinsel-ware that caught the eye, just as English sailors made friends of South Sea islanders two thousand years later. The Greeks could not speak the Sicelian tongue, but they conversed in the universal dialect of all commercial enterprise, the language of exchange, and for their wares they obtained fresh supplies, and by and by the natives sat down by the Greek camp fires while the great storm lasted, and they ate and drank together and talked by signs.


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On the Outskirts of Giardini, below Taormina

p33 Sitting there on the beach below Taormina, and wandering along to the southward, the strangers saw the rich foreshore full of trees and running springs of good water; their eyes followed the stubble fields up the rising ground, where the plentiful cornº had last been harvested, to the vinelands beyond, where the scarlet leaves still clung to the gnarled vine-stocks after the vintage; further up there were silver-green olives, and higher still the rich, dark foliage of carob trees, and all was very fertile and good. They bought wine also of the Sicelians, which was strong and almost black, and had a flavour of its own, unlike all other wines. They sacrificed at sunrise and at evening, but not every day; and the Sicelians stood apart at a little distance and watched how the strangers dealt with their strange gods, and listened to the musical Greek voices when they sang a hymn to Phoebus Apollo. But the Greeks looked over at the vast smoking mountain to the southward and dared not wander far in that direction, lest the fire god should be angry with them, though the Sicelians smiled and tried to make them understand that there was no danger; for Ulysses seemed as real and well remembered to Theocles as Columbus seems to us; and the Athenians believed that blind Polyphemus still wandered, bellowing for light, about the foot of Etna, and that the smoke they saw still came from Vulcan's smithy, and that all manner of monstrous and half godlike beings dwelt in the little valleys round p34about. So Theocles would not let his companions wander far away. But in the evening, when the Sicelian farmers had gone to their dark huts, and the Greeks lay on skins around the blazing camp fire on the beach, while the southerly storm howled far overhead from over the mountains, they told each other that the land was good and the people mild, and that a few hundred Greeks could easily hold their own there, if only they could get possession of the first hill above the shore, and a little to the northward, on which Taormina now stands. There would be little difficulty about that, since the Sicelians dwelt mostly in the valleys. Their real danger was from Polyphemus and the Laestrygones, and Hephaestos, and they therefore sacrificed continually to Apollo, the protector of colonists and the giver of victory.

The storm may have lasted a week, and when it was over, and the sea rippled gently to the breeze under the quiet sunlight, Theocles launched his ships and sailed away, not without leaving gifts to the hospitable Sicelians. As soon as he reached Athens, he began to speak of the rich country he had seen, telling that the people were well disposed, and that it would be easy to get a broad strip of land, and hold it against all comers; but no one would listen to him, or if any noticed what he said, they answered that it would be unwise to disturb Polyphemus, or to run the risk of angering Hephaestos, and that moreover they did not believe p35anything that he said; which was a favourite refutation of argument among the Athenians. Then Theocles went over to Chalcis in Euboea, and told his story; and there he found hearers and men very restless with the spirit of the sea, who had sailed far, and wished to sail farther, and who preferred trading and wandering to staying at home, and liked fighting better than either. But they were not godless men, and before going upon the expedition they consulted the oracle of Apollo, and the god promised them his protection and a prosperous voyage and all good fortune. Then some other Ionians and certain Dorians joined themselves to the Chalcidians with more ships, and in the spring a whole fleet of vessels sailed westward, laden with all sorts of necessary things, and Theocles piloted them safely to the very point where he had found shelter the first time; but instead of waiting by the shore, he led his people up the hill by the easy declivities that are almost like artificial terraces, one above another, and took possession of the strong crest on which the theatre now stands. No doubt Theocles dealt in a friendly way with the Sicelians, especially at first; but they were a humble and peaceable folk who looked with admiration upon the Greeks and with mild covetousness on their possessions, and were quite willing to part with a little land in exchange for a few shining toys of glass and tinsel. Besides, it does not appear that the Greeks, who were after all but a few, had come with any idea of seizing a p36wide territory and enslaving the inhabitants to work for them. They had come, rather, to establish an outpost trading station whence they could export the produce of the rich island in the way of regular commerce, and the Sicelians soon found that instead of being a thorn in their side, the young city of Naxos, which Theocles founded to the southward of the hill, was a profitable market for their corn and wine and oil.

Seeing how easy it was to settle and take possession of a site for a city, some of the Dorians who were with Theocles took courage to face the dangers of the fire mountain and the anger of Polyphemus, and they sailed farther southward, along the coast, til they came to the beautiful natural harbour which is now Augusta, but which they called Taurus, at the foot of the Hyblaean hills, and there they founded Megara Hyblaea, in remembrance of Megara in the Dorian country, between Attica and the isthmus of Corinth. There, from the end of a low promontory, a tongue of land runs due south and almost encloses a sheet of still water, where ships may lie in all weathers; and there the foreshore is deep and fertile, being that lower extremity of the great plain of Catania which sweeps round the base of Mount Thymbris and terminates in the jutting land at Trogilos, just north of Syracuse.

Swiftly the news went back to Greece that the colony was successful and that its wealth was already increasing, and within two years the great western movement p37of the Greeks had begun, and the fate of the Sicelians on the coasts of Sicily was decided forever. Archias, the rich Heraclid of Corinth, whose evil passion had brought about the riot in which beautiful Actaeon was killed, was a fugitive and an exile before gods and men, and he collected together his wealth, his people and his servants, and sailed forth to found lordly Syracuse; and within a few years the Chalcidians and Ionians got possession of Catania and Leontini — the broad meadow lands where the Laestrygones had been supposed to dwell; and Achaeans had come to the mainland and had founded Sybaris in the soft Italian gulf, and Crotona, which is now Cotrone, soon taking possession of all that is now Calabria and building Metapontum, Poseidonia, and Terina. The Messenians of the Peloponnesus also built Rhegium on the Italian side of the straits, and somehow their name afterwards crept across the narrow water, and Zancle came to be called Messana and then Messina. The Ionians also got round to the north side of Sicily and founded Himera, and after that came Dorians from the island of Rhodes and built Gela, which is Terranova on the Gela, the 'gelid' river of the Sicelians; and nearly a hundred years later the same people got possession of Akragas, which became Agrigentum, and which is Girgenti to‑day. The Megarian Dorians also founded Selinus, near Western Lilybaeum, and there one may yet see the most unimaginable mass of ruins that exists in Europe, for the earthquake that p38destroyed it left not one stone upon another, and buried none.

In a hundred and fifty years the Greeks had got possession of the south, including all the mainland from Cumae near Naples, to the straits, and all the coast of Sicily from Himera on the north, not far from Palermo, round by the east and south sides to westward as far as Selinus. In Sicily the Phoenician traders had been gradually pushed to the west till their settlements only extended along about a hundred and fifty miles of the coast, though at that part of the island which was most convenient to them, as being nearest to Carthage. After they had got what they could of the south without very much fighting, the Greeks pushed further to the north and west, attempted to form a colony in Corsica and failed, and finally founded Massilia, now Marseilles.

Though the extent of territory which they occupied in a short time seems very great, it must be remembered that in reality they at first held only the coasts, and that both on the mainland and in Sicily they pushed the original people into the interior, where the Sicelians and Italians for a long time pursued their original rural occupations in peace and probably with profit, selling their produce to the Greeks, who consumed it in part, and in part exported it. The position of the Greeks in the south at that period was in one respect more like that which was p39held for a long time by the East India Company in India, than that of England's trading stations. It differed from it chiefly in that the majority of the Greek colonies were not only independent of each other, but also of the mother country, and had formed themselves into oligarchies, which had succeeded the first small monarchies of the founders, and were followed again by the despotisms of men who rose to the highest places through their own talents and the play of circumstances, like Gelon, Dionysius, and Agathocles. Another great difference lies in the fact that whereas the East India Company was never really a colony, in the ethnological sense, any more than it was politically one, and whereas the Englishmen who founded it, and the thousands who acted as its agents, officers, and fighting men, always looked forward to coming home to England, the Greek colonists settled permanently in new countries, and their cities became active and independent sources of genuine Greek thought, literature, and art.

Corinth alone seems to have kept some hold and influence upon the new settlements formed by her citizens, but in the end that connexion died away also, and at the time of the Athenian invasion all Sicily was entirely separated from the mother country. With regard to the relations between the Greeks and the natives, events followed their usual historical sequence. At first the newcomers spread round the coast, as p40they increased, seizing all places most desirable for trade, and driving out other traders as well as the indigenous population. But when the coast was fully occupied, they naturally began to take possession of the interior, enslaving the peaceable country people by degrees, till they were practically the masters through the length and breadth of Sicily and Southern Italy.


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Ancient aqueduct at Solmonaº in the Abruzzi, the birthplace of Ovidº

It would be a mistake to look upon the conquest of p41the south as a direct consequence of conditions in Greece. It was but an extension of the Hellenic westward movement from Asia Minor, which had settled Greece itself, and which filled all the eastern Mediterranean and ultimately spread into Spain. The whole race, continually fed by emigration from its place of origin in Asia, was moving towards the setting sun, as the Semite Phoenicians had moved before it, and it was with the latter people that it engaged in its first great struggle for existence in the west, at the very time when the mother country was fighting for life against the invasion of the Persian host. For the westward migration was itself caused by the awakening the Asian races, that culminated in the conquests of Nebuchadnezzar, Cambyses, Cyrus, and Darius, which was checked at Salamis, and was ultimately thrown back upon itself and annihilated by the Greek Alexander the Great.

We are too apt to think of those early times as barbarous and uncultivated compared with those of Pericles. We forget the vast civilization of Egypt, whose empire, in the seventh century before our era, was hastening to its decline, but whose culture was the model of all cultures then existing, and was looked up to by the Phoenician and the Babylonian alike, as well as by the Greeks themselves, who slavishly imitated Egyptian art for centuries, and surrounded with profoundest mystery the few poor p42secrets of nature they succeeded in stealing from the rich treasures of Egyptian learning. Many do not remember that Babylon was at that time the greatest city in the world, and was enclosed within walls that measured thirty-six miles in circuit, the chief stronghold of a power that overshadowed all central and western Asia. One should recall the existence of enormous libraries of learning, of hundreds of thousands of books, written in Egypt on papyrus, in Assyria on clay tiles, which were afterwards hardened by baking and coloured with many tints, each of which was distinctive of some branch of learning and thus contributed to the easy classification of the whole. Nor should it be forgotten that in those days the magnificent monuments of the Egyptians were still in the glory of perfect preservation, in Memphis, Heliopolis, and in Thebes, or that in Babylon the legendary gardens of Semiramis still hung between earth and heaven, supported on a thousand arches, high above the city, but themselves overshadowed by the vast temple of Bel. The Greeks were familiar with Egypt through their trade, and many of them had wandered beyond Palestine to the banks of the Euphrates, and had written down careful accounts of their journeys. The men who settled Sicily and the south of Italy were adventurers, wanderers, and fighting men, but they were very far from uncivilized; more than half of their religion was the worship of p43beauty, and if the science they had obtained from Egypt was scanty, their own brilliant intelligence enlightened them in applying it. It is no wonder that within a few years of their settling in the south they became a new nation of artists, poets, and thinkers, actively creative in their own right, as it were, and immeasurably superior in cultivation to all the races with which they came into contact; it is not surprising that Sybaris should have outdone the East in refinement of luxury, nor that strong Crotona should have bred more winners of the Olympic Games than all Greece and all the Greek islands together. The Greek athlete was not the gladiator of later days, the mere 'swordsman,' as the word signifies; he was the result of the thoughtful worship of human beauty, brought to its final expression by natural selection and artificial training; and the winner of the Games was not merely a runner, a wrestler, or a boxer, he was the best man of his day at all bodily exercises whatsoever, and in the eyes of the people that brought him home in triumph he was a visible god, the living incarnation of the Greek spirit. Every race that has beaten the world has at the outset shown a physical as well as a characteristic superiority over its opponents, but in almost every case that superiority has been unconscious, or has asserted itself with loud boasting and overwhelming brutality. The Greek alone knew how to cultivate and perfect the gifts that p44placed him above other men, reverencing his own endowments as something divine within him, and analyzing the secret sources of his own strength, until he had almost found a formula for the production of great men.


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After sunset on the shore of eastern Calabria

At this time appeared one of the most romantic figures in ancient history, the first that deserves especial mention in the story of the south, a man of almost superhuman genius, who, had he lived in more ordinary conditions than those which accompanied the first marvellous development of the Greek people, would have become in the west what his contemporaries, Zoroaster, Buddha, and Confucius, became in Persia, in India, and in China. This extraordinary person was Pythagoras, p45the Samian philosopher, the son of Mnesarchus, who was a very rich merchant and shipowner, and strange to say, in his moments of leisure, a sculptor of considerable talent.

It is neither a misuse of the term nor an exaggeration of fact to call the great thinker's career a romantic one; for in its original signification the romance was the tale of the 'romare,' of the pilgrim and wanderer; and from 'romare,' derived from, or very closely connected with Rome, as a chief place of pilgrimage, we have made our modern word 'roamer.' If ever a man earned that epithet it was the Samian seeker after knowledge, who, in a life that covered nearly a century, spent but the first eighteen years in his home, who lived twenty-two years in Egypt, twelve in Babylon, and thirty-nine in Italy, who was a pupil of Thales, the favoured guest of Pharaoh, the friend of Zoroaster, and the founder of the great Pythagorean brotherhoods that played so interesting a part in the political and civil history of Southern Italy.

The son of the rich man was taught by Hermodamas, and the tenderest affection grew up between the pupil and his master. The first instruction in those times consisted in the reading and recitation of poetry and in the art of music. Under the rule of Polycrates, Samos was the very centre of Greek art and thought. There lived Ibycus, the love poet born in Italian Rhegium, of whose works beautiful fragments have come down to p46us; there Anacreon spent his richest years, but of him little remains, for the Odes are not now believed to be all his work, though they have so long borne his name; there dwelt also Theodorus the younger, the Benvenuto Cellini of his day, famous for the statues he modelled and cast in bronze, and for his marvellous skill at engraving, who made the ring of Polycrates; and last, the great tyrant himself, cunning, cruel, fortunate, a lover of every beautiful art, the despot of the sea, the delight of poets, the friend of Pharaoh, fated to die on the cross at last, like a common malefactor. Such was the court in which the boy Pythagoras grew up to the age of eighteen years, beautiful beyond other youths and gifted of the gods above all his companions. It is a conspicuous fact and one that raises strange reflections concerning modern theories of education, that every supremely great man of antiquity, from myth to legend, from legend to fact, was first taught to recite poetry and make music, and was not instructed in mathematics till he had spent years in the study of both; for it was held that man who could not write in verse, could not write his own language at all, and that a being for whom musical sounds had no corresponding meaning was a barbarian unfit to associated with his fellows. So Pythagoras, whose famous proposition is the point of departure to which all trigonometry is referred, spent his first youth in playing on the seven-stringed lyre and in declaiming the Homeric poems, p47which Pisistratus, the wise ruler of Athens, had very lately collected and finally arranged. Without doubt he sat at the feet of Anacreon, and filled the poet's drinking-cup, listening to the voice that matched the words and to the words no age has ever matched, and doubtless he was beloved by Ibycus and saw Theodorus model gods of clay that were to be cast in bronze and set up in temples to be worshipped by the people; whence he began to understand that there was a faith above belief in idols, and that far beyond the earthly scenery of myth and the play of the beautiful little god-figures there was the All-Being in which all is contained that lives and dies and lives again. So when he was about eighteen years of age his mind was opened, and he began to desire absolute knowledge and to seek after it.

Now at this time Polycrates had not yet attained to the height of his power, and he was enriching himself by extorting money from his wealthy subjects and even by confiscating their goods with slight excuse. Therefore many writers have asserted that Pythagoras fled from Samos to escape from the tyrant's grasping hands, but this is a senseless story, since he was then but a boy and his father and mother remained in Samos and lived in riches for more than twenty years after his departure. It seems to me much more probable that Polycrates had made a law, as many modern despots have done, forbidding young men to leave their country until they had p48performed some stated service; and that Pythagoras was in such haste to increase his knowledge that he would not abide the ordained time. So he fled secretly by night with his teacher Hermodamas, who afterwards came back alone and appears to have suffered no penalty. It is very clear that Pythagoras feared pursuit and capture; for though Samos is close to the mainland, and not far from Miletus, where both Anaximander and Thales, or Theletas, as he is sometimes called, were famous philosophers, yet the young man preferred to sail all the way to Lesbos, far to northward, where at that time he was safe from the messengers of Polycrates. There he dwelt with an uncle, a brother of his father, and was taught by Pherecydes for some time; but when he had learned of him what he could, he journeyed southward by land to Miletus, and sat down beside the ancient Thales and began to be initiated into the secret wisdom of the priests.

The mysteries of the ancients were the truth, or the nearest approach to it then possible, as contrasted with the vast fictions of mythology in which the peoples believed. Without an exception, all the mysteries taught of a god who had died and had been buried on earth, and who had returned to life again in glory; most of them foretold a judgment of souls, and all looked forward to a future state, either as following directly upon death, or as the end of a p49series of migrations, in which the soul passed from one body to another, purifying itself by degrees, or sinking by steps of defilement to final perdition. All the mysteries were ultimately monotheistic in idea, though the one god of the secret faith was considered as containing two, three, or four principles in himself, according to the ethic and psychic schemes adopted by the initiated of different nations.

The early philosophers were all priests and mystics, most of them were poets, in the sense that they wrote down their thoughts in verse, and all were seekers after knowledge. The highest development, both of mysticism and of scientific inquiry, was considered to have been reached in Egypt, though it has been thought that the Magians of Assyria were better mathematicians than the Egyptian priests, and that the Chaldaeans were as good astronomers.

The true faith of those times was a profound secret in the hands of small communities of amazingly gifted men. It could never be popular, for the comprehension required to understand it was far beyond the gifts of the masses, and the consequence was that although initiation into the mysteries was not the exclusive privilege of the aristocratic class, it was nevertheless very closely associated with an aristocratic principle in the minds of the many, a fact which afterwards led directly to the violent destruction of the Pythagorean brotherhoods in Italy.

p50 The intellectual grasp of the young Samian soon took possession of his master's knowledge, and when he had been initiated into the mysteries of Zeus in the temple on Mount Ida, Thales declared that if his pupil would learn more he must find a way to be received among the priests of Egypt. No foreign student had ever accomplished such an apparently impossible thing; but Pythagoras, who admitted no impossibilities, forthwith determined to possess himself of all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and of all learning possessed by men.

That was a period of peace and prosperity in the world. Under Croesus, Lydia had developed immeasurable wealth, Phoenicia, now under the lordship of Babylon, was recovering from the ravages of Nebuchadnezzar, and Persia had not yet started upon her long career of conquest. Egypt, after a revolution which had placed a man of plebeian extraction upon the throne of the Pharaohs, was enjoying the last years of her splendour under the wise rule of Amasis. In the west the Greeks were spreading mightily, and were quickly developing the strength which first repelled the Carthaginians and soon afterwards proved an impassable barrier to the advance of Xerxes. The known world was rich and at peace, and in the shadow of a hundred ancient temples, from the islands of the Mediterranean to Mount Ida, from Assyrian Babylon and Phoenician Sidon to Egyptian Thebes, the chosen company p51of the wise cherished what was wisdom in those days, and followed those patient investigations in mathematics and astronomy to which modern science is so deeply indebted.

It was in Sidon that Pythagoras first became a true mystic, and it was there that he first conceived the idea of uniting and simplifying the many forms of mysticism into one religion which should satisfy at the same time the highest aspirations of the soul and the widest speculations of the intellect, and which should be at once a faultless rule of spiritual life and a perfect guide to man's social existence. The thought was high and noble, for it was the thought which inspired Zoroaster, Buddha, and Confucius, and it foreran the teaching of Christ as the dawn the day.

In order to prepare himself for his mission, Pythagoras felt that he must withdraw himself from the world among the wisest men at that time living. After he had been initiated in Sidon, he wandered down through Phoenicia into Palestine; he gazed thoughtfully upon the ruins of Jerusalem that lay broken to pieces in the dust like a vessel of clay, and he came to Mount Carmel and looked towards Egypt, which was the goal of his desires. So he took ship for the Delta in a small Egyptian trading craft, and the merchant and the sailors saw that he was a Greek, well skilled in learning, and they agreed that they would sell him for a slave in Memphis, where he would fetch a good price. p52But he understood what was in their minds and showed no fear, and fixed his eyes upon them until they were afraid under the strength of his look, and gave over their evil designs; so he came safely to Memphis, where Pharaoh dwelt at that time, and where there were many wise priests. But these would have none of him, for he was a foreigner, and they thought that he wished to learn their secrets only to sell them for much wealth to the priests of Ida or of Delphi. So he abode among the Greeks, for there were many of these in Memphis, and he occupied himself in learning the Egyptian language.

Then he bethought himself of Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, who was yet in close friendship with Amasis, and with whom his father Mnesarchus had much interest. After that time Pharaoh, seeing the marvellous good fortune of Polycrates, advised him to cast away what was dearest to him, lest the gods should be angry; and then the tyrant threw into the sea the ring which Theodorus had made for him, and which he prized above all his possessions; but it was found again in the belly of a fish and was brought back to him by the fisherman. So Amasis broke friendship with him, seeing that he was so highly favoured of the gods, because it was not good, being powerful, to be too closely intimate with one who was devouring the wealth of others and who never failed in an undertaking. But these things had not then happened, and Pythagoras wrote p53a letter to the tyrant, setting forth his desires, and speaking of his long studies, and showing that the Greeks might profit by the wisdom of the Egyptians if only Polycrates would persuade Amasis to command the admission of Pythagoras to the school of the Egyptian priesthood. Polycrates therefore wrote a very urgent letter to Pharaoh, which he sent to Pythagoras himself; and Amasis received the young man graciously, and sent him to the priests at Heliopolis, the city of the Sun. But these sent him back to the priests at Memphis, and these latter, not knowing what to do, sent him at last to the great high priest at Thebes, with the royal command. The high priest made it hard for him, and required a long period of purification, and a painful rite and ordeal, hoping perhaps to terrify the scholar. But Pythagoras was of those who are born without fear, and he despised pain, and was initiated.

Two and twenty years he lived in the temple in Thebes, and he mastered by degrees all the sciences, and the writings, and the mystic teaching of the Egyptians, and the religion which was afterwards called his teaching was a complete exposition of all that Egyptians both knew and believed, and had acquired laboriously in thousands of years. It was the wisdom of those to whom a hundred years were but a day, and to whom ten generations were but as the continuous life of one man, inasmuch as whatever was learned by each was wholly known to the p54next, without break nor interval of forgetfulness; and the whole was written down in a hard language that changed not in ten centuries, and was kept secret from the people. It is small wonder that Pythagoras should have spent a quarter of his life in acquiring what the wisest nation in the world had accumulated in more than a hundred generations. There, in the temple of Thebes, he dwelt and studied in peace, while the face of the earth was changed, while Cyrus grew greater and greater, till he seemed the greatest of men that had lived, and spread out the empire of Persia and gathered all into his hands, to the very borders of Egypt. Then he died, and Amasis died also, and Cambyses came victoriously to Egypt and dragged Pharaoh's embalmed body from its tomb in Sais to insult it shamefully; and he carried many away captive to Babylon, and Pythagoras the Samian was among the prisoners. Then Cambyses died too, and the pseudo-Smerdis, the Magian, and Atossa, the sister of the first and the wife of both, married Darius, the friend of Zoroaster, and became the mother of Xerxes who invaded Greece.

At the time when Pythagoras was taken to Babylon, he was forty-four years of age, and since he afterward lived to be almost a hundred years old, he had not then reached the middle of life. When he found himself a prisoner, and probably in the social condition of a slave, within the four walls of the greatest capital in p55existence, in the heart of Assyria and at least five hundred miles east of the Mediterranean, he can have had little hope of ever returning to the west again. Yet to his philosophic genius such a captivity may not have seemed irksome, and he was not cut off from intercourse with his own people, for a great number of Greeks were employed about the court of the Persian king, and though news travelled slowly, it was brought with much detail, if also with much exaggeration. He resigned himself to his fate, and set to work to study the religious reforms of Zoroaster, whom he undoubtedly knew, and the mathematical methods of the Assyrian and Chaldaean astronomers — of some of those very men, perhaps, whom Belshazzar had called in to interpret the writing on the wall. So he lived and studied in peace, being one of the wise men attached to the court of Darius.


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Aqueduct at Taranto, formerly Tarentum

Then he regained his liberty by a most extraordinary train of circumstances. Before Cambyses died of his wound in Ecbatana, Oroetes, the governor of Sardis and satrap of Western Asia, who had long cherished a private quarrel with Polycrates of Samos, enticed him to land in Lydia as his guest, and then crucified him with circumstances of hideous cruelty. But Darius sent a single ambassador who came to the court of Sardis and read to Oroetes the king's commands, and the last command was that the satrap's own guards should smite off his head. And so they p56did, for Darius' name was great, and they hated Oroetes. The ambassador took back with him as slaves many of the friends and servants of the dead man, among whom was a very cunning physician of Crotona, who became the friend of Pythagoras in Babylon. One day Darius sprained his foot, and when his own physicians could do nothing for him, some one brought the skilled captive, who cured the king at once. So the king asked him what reward he desired, and he begged that he might return to his home. Darius yielded so far as to permit him to visit Crotona, if he would promise to come back, and not trusting him, he sent with him a Persian guard, and several men of learning, bidding them to write a description of the coast as they sailed, and he gave them a fine ship and many supplies. But it came to pass that as they sailed to Crotona they were driven into Tarentum under stress of weather, and the Tarentines took them all prisoners with their goods, and when the physician had told his story they let him go free and he returned to Crotona. Now there was at Crotona a rich man exiled from Tarentum. And learning what had happened, he sent thither, and ransomed the Persian captives and their ship, and sent them all back to Darius, asking two things; namely, that the King would use his power to make the Tarentines receive him again and also that he would set free the wise man Pythagoras p57whom Cambyses had taken captive in Egypt; this he asked at the request of the physician. Then Darius, being glad to receive his Persians safely again, promised both things, and the second, at least, he performed, for Pythagoras was set at liberty; and he came to Samos in time to see his father and his mother alive, and also Hermodamas his first teacher, who p58had helped him to escape in the days of Polycrates. But he stayed not long in his home, for he desired to work among men and to turn his learning to their good, and his thoughts went out westward to the great Greek colonies of Italy, so that at last he followed the instinct of his soul and took ship and came to Crotona and founded the Pythagorean brotherhood, which was mystic, philosophical, and aristocratic, after the model of this Egyptian priesthood from which Pythagoras had got his wisdom.

Hallam says somewhere that mankind has generally required some ceremonial follies to keep alive the wholesome spirit of association. It is hard to say now how many of the curious rules of life adopted by the Pythagorean brotherhood should be traced to this motive, and many of these contain more wisdom than appears in them at first sight. The brethren abstained from eating flesh, as most mystics have done, but they were as careful never to eat beans; they believed in the transmigration and immortality of souls, yet they prohibited the use of woollen grave-clothes; they had an elaborate system of degrees and initiations, they possessed most of the existing wisdom of their time, and they nevertheless followed rules for making a fire which seem utterly childish. Yet an inquiry into the origin and reason of some of these practices, if the facts could be sufficiently known, would throw a brilliant light upon the domestic p59customs of the early Greeks, and might not impossibly explain some of the peculiar superstitions of the south, such as that, for instance, with forbids a man to lay his hat upon a bed, or the universal southern belief that if a woman drinks from a new earthen jar, before a man has drunk from it, the water kept in it will ever afterwards taste of mould. In considering some of the extraordinary beliefs current among the Italians and Sicilians, it has often occurred to me that they may have had their origin in the fables about the Pythagorean brothers, to whom strange powers were imputed, of whom extraordinary tales were told, and some of whose visible practices may have been ignorantly imitated by the people in very early times.


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Columns called the "tavole Paladine,"
at Metaponto, formerly Metapontum

The society founded by Pythagoras was as much a secret one as that of the modern Japanese Buddhists, and lovers of esoteric philosophy will find many points of close resemblance in the two religions, if the doctrine of the Greek philosopher deserves the name of religion, which he would undoubtedly have applied to it, if an equivalent word had existed in the Greek language. It taught that the soul is immortal, that the aim of man should be a virtuous life on earth and a state of peace hereafter, and that goodness, if not the fear of God, is the beginning of wisdom. Yet it limited by the strictest tests the number of those who were admitted to a full knowledge p60of its secrets, and its visited every betrayal with merciless severity; it professed to be a religion for the few, it was necessarily hieratic if not aristocratic, and it was fatally disposed by its exclusiveness to identify itself with a political party. It drew into itself, or its founder gathered round him, the noblest youth of Grecian Italy, at a time when the power of the democracy was increasing at an enormous rate; and in the first real conflict which took place its adherents died devoted deaths at the hands of a bloodthirsty proletariat, as more than one aristocracy has perished since. They had advised, directed, and morally ruled the people, and their general, the heroic Milo, had returned from a victorious war with Sybaris, once all-powerful, but then fast sinking to an inglorious decadence by degrees of aesthetic idleness and unmeasured luxury. They brought home great spoils to Crotona, and in the division, one Kylon, a brutal fellow whom the Pythagoreans had refused to receive on account of his evil life, stirred up a riot against them. In the house of Milo they made their last stand, and there most of them were slain; but a few escaped, and Pythagoras came to his end in Metapontum, and the brotherhoods were done away with forever. Their existence had endured twenty years; had it lasted longer they would have been led from their natural political sphere, by the dangerous paths of political expediency, down to the moral disgrace p61of a political necessity, which is wholly unreconcilable with any true philosophy, and they would have left behind them the tradition of a once pure faith degraded to the basest uses and expedients of politics. But they died in a whole and clean belief, and from their ashes arose something new, which was not the Pythagorean religion, but the Pythagorean philosophy; their leader left a name little less than saintly, he bequeathed the accumulated wisdom of the world to his surviving followers, and he left his memory to the veneration of mankind.

I have dwelt at great length upon his story because it combines in a wonderful degree the elements of fable, romance, and history, and is therefore a fitting link between myth and truth. I am aware that almost every incident in the tale has been held up to ridicule by p62some one scholar, but there is not one in which many others have not firmly believed. When learned authorities disagree, it is the right of the student of romantic history to choose from the confusion of discords those possible combinations which seem most harmonious. It is not his province to dissect the nerve of truth from the dead body of tradition, but rather by touch and thought and sympathy to make the old times live again in imagination. Therefore the godlike figure of this Pythagoras belongs among the Rulers of the South, as with the legends of his miracles, and the reality of his wisdom, with his profound learning, his untiring activity, and his unswerving belief in the soul's life to come, with his love of man and his love of beauty, his faith, his hope, and his almost Christian charity, he represented in its best conditions the highest type of the Aryan or Indo-Germanic people. It matters little that scholars should quarrel over the theories of numbers ascribed to him, that the one should deny his captivity in Babylon and the other his long residence in Egypt, that Bentley should tear the traditions of him to pieces, that Roeth should glorify him almost to sainthood, or that Ritter should make a laudable but ineffectual attempt to find a golden mean of sense between the extremes; the fact remains that he lived and laboured, that he dreamt of a world of brotherhoods in which all good was to be in common, and p63from which all evil was to be excluded, that when he was gone he left a philosophy behind him without which, as a beginning, it would be hard to imagine an Aristotle, a Socrates, or a Plato, and that both to his fellow-men and to those that came after him his name meant all that was best, whether possible or unattainable, in the struggle of inward civilization against outward darkness.

The place where Sybaris stood among gardens of roses and groves of fruit trees is a desolate plain, p64where not one hewn stone is to be seen above the storm-ploughed soil, and rotting trunks of trees and rain-bleached branches strew the sterile drift. There the soft Sybarites made it unlawful to rear a crowing cock in the city, or for braziers, smiths, and carpenters to work at their trades, lest any harsh sound should grate upon their delicate hearing; there even the children were clad in purple robes, and their hair was curled and braided with gold; there the idle reared witty dwarfs to jest for them, and bred little Maltese dogs with silky hair; and the five thousand horsemen of their cavalry rode in procession, wearing saffron-coloured robes over their corslets, and the people lived in luxuries beyond imagination, and in pleasures without a name, till Milo and the stern men of Crotona came and destroyed them all, and turned the waters of the river upon the city and swept it utterly away. The winter floods roar down the river bed where Sybaris was, and the spring freshets pile up brushwood and sand upon the barren stones, while overhead the southern hawk makes wide circles above the universal desolation, and his mournful note falls fitfully upon the lonely air. But Crotona flourished long and greatly, and its possessions extended from sea to sea; it has left in history the names of countless winners of the Olympic Games, and the reputation of its men and women for matchless strength and beauty; and though not a stone of its buildings p65remains in sight, yet there is a sort of logical satisfaction in knowing that the ancient ruins which were standing in the last century were finally destroyed in order that the stones might be used to build the mole of a safe harbour. For Crotona never disappeared p66from existence as Sybaris did, and where the ancient stronghold of Milo was reared upon a bold mass of seagirt rock, another fortress, strong in the middle ages, rebuilt by Charles the Fifth and still unruined, reflects its dark outline in the sea.


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The site of Sybaris


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Fortress of Charles the Fifth
at Cotrone, formerly Crotona

A deserted corner of Italy now, Crotona is a land of farmers ignorant of all but farming, and it is hard to feel that it was once the heart of Greek strength, and beauty, and civilization in the west, and that where a single column rises in lonely beauty almost from the water's edge, at Capo Colonne, the great philosopher once lingered in the shade of Lacinian Hera's temple; that the picture of Lacedaemonian Helen hung upon the wall within, painted by Zeuxis from the five most lovely maidens of the city, and that the Greeks of all southern Italy came up thither every year in splendid procession, bearing gifts and offerings to the goddess and her shrine.


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Temple of Hera, Capo Colonne, near Cotrone

It is generally said that the influence of Pythagoras and of the brotherhoods, which was dominant on the mainland and left distinct traces of itself there after the catastrophe in which the disciples and their master perished, had little influence upon Sicily. Some say indeed that a tyrant of Centoripa, one Simichus, became an adept and divided all his possessions between his sisters and his subjects, and others assert that the people of Akragas, and Tauromenium, and Himera threw off the yoke of their several tyrannies at last, not as p67common revolutionaries, but as true believers in the Pythagorean doctrines of individual freedom and common possessions; but these stories are gravely doubted, and Holm has shown that more than one wise despot was also accounted a Pythagorean. Yet to one who p68knows the south well, there is a striking resemblance between the organization of the original brotherhood, with its rigid tests of worthiness, its countless secret signs and pass words and peculiar practices, and its bloody vengeance upon unfaithfulness, and the rules and ordinances of secret societies that have ruled the south in later days. Were there no traces of such freemasonry among the slaves who twice rose against the Romans in Sicily and who seem to have connected themselves in some imaginative way with an Eastern tradition? Or among the people who destroyed Charles of Anjou's Frenchmen in the Sicilian Vespers? Or is the evil Camorra of Naples to‑day wholly different from a brotherhood, so far as the laws that bind together its members are concerned, though the object be crime instead of good? Or, to go one step higher, is the modern Mafia of Sicily, which so strangely combines a mistaken idea of patriotism, or at least of independence, with the most nefarious notions of general lawlessness, so wholly different in its forms from the brotherhoods, as not to be perhaps a degenerate descendant of them? Answer the question as one will, the south has always been the natural home of wide-spread and secret unions of determined men for one end; and whereas in recent history political parties have made use of them and have risen to power by their help, no party and no government has ever been able to fight them to an issue nor to stamp them out.

p69 The Greeks were an imaginative and a boastful people, prone to think well of themselves, like most highly gifted races, and it requires much good will to believe all the stories their historians have left us of their superhuman endurance and courage; but it is an undeniable proof of their extraordinary vitality and strength that they withstood victoriously the simultaneous attempts of two great powers to crush them out of existence at a very critical moment in their career. About the year 480 B.C. Xerxes and Carthage, apparently acting in concert, advanced from the east and west with vast armaments and enormous preparations, in the clear intention of annihilating the whole Greek nation in a single campaign. Xerxes came with all Persia and the north of India at his back; Carthage sent Hamilcar and three hundred thousand men.

At that time, except in Syracuse, despots ruled over the principal Greek cities of Sicily, Gela, Callipolis, Naxos, Leontini, and Zancle, the first of which had under Hippocrates acquired a sort of lordship over the rest; and he indeed attempted to conquer Syracuse also, but failed when on the point of success, and left the undertaking to his successor Gelon, the conqueror, and none could be compared with him excepting Theron of Akragas, who became his friend and gave him his daughter to wife; and Theron ruled through the midst of the land, from Akragas on the south to near Himera on the north, but the tyrant of Himera was his enemy p70and the friend of Anaxilas of Rhegium on the mainland. So there was war between the north and the south, and the south stood for a Greek Sicily and a Greek civilization, but the north was against both. But in Himera there was a division of parties, and the one asked help of Theron, who came and took the city and held it, while the tyrants of the north turned to the Phoenicians and to Carthage for aid. At that time the Phoenicians were powerful in Panormus and all the western parts of the island, so that the Carthaginians were sure of being well received with all their forces and supplies in cities belonging to their own people, whence they could fight their way by land to a general conquest.

They saw that their opportunity was come at last, and they made great preparations during three years, and gathered together mercenaries from many lands, as was their custom in time of war, from Italy and Liguria and from Gaul and Spain and Corsica, and many from Africa, and weapons were made without number, and a vast provision was collected; then they set sail with two hundred galleys and three thousand transports, under Hamilcar, the son of Hanno, one of the two kings called Suffetes, a man of ancient Carthaginian lineage, though his mother was a Syracusan; and he was a devout person who neglected no service of the Phoenician gods, and continually sacrificed men and children to Ashtaroth on the altars of his house. Moreover, he had good surety that some p71of the most western Greek cities would help him, such as Selinus and others.

He set sail, therefore, with a good heart and dreaming of great spoil. But immediately a great storm arose, and the ships that bore the cavalry with their horses, and the war chariots also, were filled and sank with all on board; so that when he reached Panormus he had only the mercenary foot soldiers, a great host of fighting men of all nations, wearing strange dresses and armed with many sorts of weapons. In the wide bay of Panormus, the "All-harbour," where the Golden Shell stretches between the high mountain and the water's edge, he landed his men, and repaired his ships; and thence he marched along the narrow foreshore against Himera, where Theron awaited him, not without fear, for great rumours went before the armament.

The fleet sailed along close in shore, keeping the army in sight, and when they came to Himera and saw that the gates were shut against them, Hamilcar made two camps, the one for his land forces and the other for his ships, which he beached high and dry, surrounding them with a high stockade and a broad ditch. But the tents of the soldiers began from the enclosure and followed all the west side of the city and along the low heights to southward. When Theron saw how great a host was come against him, he was afraid, and he walled up the west gate of the p72city and sent messengers quickly and secretly to Gelon, the soldier king of Syracuse. But Hamilcar besieged the city, and when the defenders made sallies he drove them back with slaughter, making many of them prisoners; and the strange arms and wild dresses of the Carthaginian mercenaries frightened Theron's men even before they came to close quarters. Nevertheless Hamilcar did not press the siege overmuch, and while he was wasting his days in small engagements, thinking himself sure of taking the city without loss, Gelon was crossing over through the mountains by forced marches, day and night, with fifty thousand men-at‑arms and five thousand horsemen, not mercenaries speaking many tongues and trained to many different kinds of warfare as Hamilcar's men were, but all Greeks of the Sicilian cities under Gelon's rule, well trained, speaking one tongue, and ready to die for their homes, their children, and their gods. They all encamped together and intrenched themselves in the plain to eastward of Himera, and Gelon began to harass the Carthaginians with his cavalry, for they had none, having lost both horses and men in the great storm. Then the face of things changed, and the Himerans took heart and opened the west gate again, tearing away the stones they had piled up, and Gelon took many prisoners and bethought him of some plan of striking a decisive blow. Now the Carthaginians had received p73promises of help from Selinus, the unfaithful city of the west, and the Selinuntians had agreed to send a body of horse to Hamilcar on a certain day which was also the feast of the Phoenicians; and a captive told his news to Gelon. He therefore waited until the feast day, and very early in the morning, before the sun was risen, he sent a chosen band of his own cavalry to the gate of Hamilcar's camp, bidding them say that they were the Greek horsemen from Selinus whom Hamilcar expected. He, being deceived, bade the gates be opened and the riders went in; but they rode past him and his men without drawing rein till they came to the ships that were beached upon the sand, and they set them on fire before the Carthaginians well understood what they were doing, and then drew their swords and began to slay.

Then, when Gelon saw the column of smoke rising up from the enemy's camp, he knew that his stratagem had succeeded, for he was ready and on the watch; and he marched down with all his fifty thousand men, and with all the Himeran soldiers also, and in that great day the Greeks slew of the Carthaginians outright one hundred and fifty thousand, and wounded many more; and the rest fled as they might, leaving all behind them. Hamilcar also perished, and some say that he died a strange death; for it is told that all day, while the battle ebbed and flowed in a tide of blood, he stood before the great altar in the midst of his camp, sacrificing p74human offerings to the gods, that by some miracle they might turn and save him from destruction; but when it was towards evening, and he saw that all was lost, he spread out his arms and prayed to the setting sun, and threw himself into the flames upon the altar, the last and noblest burnt-offering of his own sacrifice.

The few who fled intrenched themselves upon a mountain west of Himera, whither Gelon pursued them, and they were soon obliged to abandon their position for lack of water. Hastening to the shore with the Greeks in hot pursuit, they found the few vessels which had escaped the flames, launched them as best they could, and put to sea; yet the unappeased gods pursued them to the end, for the vessels were overladen and overwhelmed in the stormy waters of the Malta channel. Three thousand and two hundred ships had sailed from the harbour of Carthage with more than three hundred thousand men, to make the conquest of Sicily; a single skiff returned with scarce a dozen survivors to tell the tale.

Then the Carthaginians feared lest Gelon, having felt his strength and their weakness, should cross the water with his victorious Greeks to blot out their city and name, and take the rich coasts of Africa for his spoil, and so complete the circle of Greek possession round the central basin of the Mediterranean Sea. For, as some say, it was on the very day of Hamilcar's destruction that Xerxes was disgracefully beaten at p75Salamis; and if that be not so, it was at least soon afterwards; and the allied attempt of Persia and of Carthage to crush out the Greek power had utterly failed. Therefore the Carthaginians sent ambassadors to Gelon, who was now the greatest ruler in Sicily, to sue for peace on such terms as he could be induced to grant. But it is said that Damarete, Gelon's wife, advised him not to set the price of peace too high, lest at some future time he should need Carthaginian help for himself. He therefore exacted only three conditions; namely, that the Phoenicians should desist from offering human sacrifices in Sicily; that they should pay two thousand talents as indemnity for the cost of the war; and that they should build two temples to the memory of the peace; the one in Carthage, and the other at their expense in Syracuse. When the Carthaginians heard of such easy terms, they were overjoyed, and because they attributed their good fortune to Damarete, they presented her with a golden garland of one hundred talents' value, which may have been equal only to about seventy-five ounces of pure gold, if the Sicilian talent is meant, but if the Attic talent was the measure, the worth of the garland would have been near twenty-five thousand pounds sterling.

The power of Gelon grew vastly after these things, which happened about thirty years after Rome had become a republic, and more than two hundred years before Rome's first war with Carthage. He was p76the first great ruler, for he brought under his dominion not only all Sicily but also a part of the mainland, and there is every reason to believe that he made Crotona and Rhegium, with all their possessions, tributary to him. In the first years of his lordship, he called a great meeting of the Syracusan people, and of all those to whom he had given the right of citizenship, bidding them come fully armed; but he himself, now that he trusted them, came alone and without armour or weapons, and stood up in their midst, and gave a true account of his actions in the war and afterwards. Then the people cried out and cheered, calling him their saviour, their benefactor, and their king; and so was, and he changed not till he died, for he was a brave and just man, and a glory to the Hellenic name. He died of a dropsy when he had ruled only seven years, and the Syracusans built him a tomb with nine towers; but long afterwards the Carthaginians destroyed the sepulchre, and at last Agathocles pulled down the towers in envy of Gelon's greatness, so that nothing remains to mark the spot to‑day.

It is easy and generally unprofitable to construct imaginary history from the starting-point of an event which might have occurred, but did not. Yet one may ask not unreasonably what would have taken place if Gelon had followed up the victory of Himera by crossing over to Africa and destroying Carthage at once and forever. That he could have done so there is little p77doubt. At that time Carthage had few fighting men of her own, but was accustomed to raise mercenaries for her wars, and her whole army, consisting of a third of a million men, had just been utterly destroyed. Gelon had fifty thousand trained Greeks, he controlled vast wealth, and he had the prestige of victory. If he had pushed the war, the issue could hardly have been doubtful; Carthage would have sunk to the level of a province of Sicily, and two hundred years later Rome would not have had to fight the Punic Wars. But Gelon was a victor, a patriot, a wise ruler; he had not the instinct of the conqueror, and Carthage was left to recover from her defeat and to grow strong again within a few years. Yet what Gelon did contributed more directly to the growth of the beautiful civilization which blossomed in the reign of Hiero the First, and bore fruit long afterwards, than a career of foreign conquest could have done.

With the exception of Alexander, whose character was more Asiatic than Hellenic, no Greek appears to have conceived the idea of direct lordship over many states. The ruler of the dominant state controlled the rest, much as the German emperors controlled the Holy Roman Empire, leaving to each country its own ruler and its own laws, but without the tradition upon which the Holy Roman Empire rested, and from which it derived its authority. From the days of Gelon, Syracuse became the chief despotism in Sicily, and led the p78rest in civilization as well as in war; but the other tyrants continued to rule, each in his own place, both in the island and on the mainland, with very considerable authority; and Gelon's brother and successor Hiero, who usurped the power from Gelon's young heir, whose guardian he was jointly with another, had to sustain no insignificant struggle with Theron of Akragas, who had been Gelon's friend, and with Anaxilas of Rhegium, before he established his right to stand first among the despots of his day. Then, indeed, he pushed his influence northward on the mainland, and vanquished the Etruscans who had attacked Greek Cumae, planting colonies in the island of Ischia and elsewhere, some of which afterwards moved away, being terrified by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, while others remained. So all the south became a harmonious, well-governed confederation of Greek states, a little empire — a great one for those days — under the guidance of Hiero.

But he having attained to greatness, not being by any means satisfied with the honour and glory achieved by his brother Gelon, nor being by nature of such simple and soldierly tastes, began to make his reign memorable for something higher and more enduring than conquest. Already the greatest ruler, he began to fill his court with the greatest men of the world, and to make Syracuse worthy, in beauty and grandeur, to be his home and theirs.

p79 The Olympic Games held together all Greeks, throughout the civilized world, by a common bond; to be a winner was not only to win fame, sometimes undying — much glory was also shed upon the contestant's native city. Nor were the games only for those trained athletes who ran long races on the measured course, who wrestled desperately in the dust, or fought even to the death for the boxer's prize, or leapt with weights, or strove in mere feats of strength without skill; besides these were the chariot races, to which all the tyrants of the Greek states sent both chariots and priceless horses, vying with each other in the splendid show; and in these races the prize belonged not to him who drove, but to the owner of the steeds. Countless coins of exquisite design bear witness to the value the princes set upon a successful race, for it is now believed that these coins were only minted for such as had been winners; and has been pointed out by specialists, there are coins of Messina, Catania, Leontini, Syracuse, Akragas, and many other cities, some even with Phoenician inscriptions from Panormus, all of which have on the reverse the biga, triga, or quadriga, often with a figure of Victory flying in the air above the horses' heads. That racing with chariots was an almost universal sport throughout the Greek states we know, and the fact explains the immense importance attached to the great contests of Olympia, of p80Delphi, of the Isthmus of Corinth, and of Nemea. But their greatest value to the world lay in the fact that they gave opportunities of inspiration to the poets of the time, whose odes to the victors earned a greater immortality of their own, and enriched posterity with some of the most beautiful masterpieces of verse that have ever been produced.

The Greeks of Sicily and of the Italian mainland rivaled the rest and often outdid them in the number of winners they sent to Greece, and while Crotona surpassed all other cities in the foot races and in wrestling and boxing, Sicily was more often first with her chariots and horses. That was a sort of contest in which only the richest could compete, and more than once Hiero himself carried off the palm. Then in the train of Olympic victories came the Olympic poets, and Simonides of Ceos, and Bacchylides his nephew, and Pindar himself, all came to Sicily and spent years in Syracuse, being three lyric poets of strangely different genius, but reckoned almost equal in fame while they lived. We know something of the character of each. We can call up from the depth of five and twenty centuries the still living memory of Simonides, who enjoys the singular distinction of having for discovered that poetry is a marketable production of genius, for it is recorded that he was the first poet who not only received remuneration, but exacted payment for his verses, and p81he must therefore be looked upon as the direct literary ancestor of the modern author. Worldly, gifted, tactful and extravagant, he used to say that his poetry filled two chests, the one with thanks and the other with gold, but that when in need, he had always found the first empty. Once, when Anaxilas of Rhegium won the mule race at Olympia, — for there were mule races too, — he offered Simonides a sum of money to write an ode to him as victor. The poet thought the price too small and answered that he would not demean his genius by writing of mules. The tyrant determined to have what he wanted, increased his offer to a sum which he knew that the poet would not refuse, but wondered how the latter would extricate himself from the dilemma he had created by his first refusal. Simonides was equal to the occasion. His address to the mules began, 'All hail, ye daughters of wind-swift mares' — and the poem contained no further allusion to the hybrids. At another time he observed that it must be better to be rich than to be wise, since he always saw wise men knocking at rich men's doors. Filled with amazing vitality and love of large, age seemed to take no hold upon him; at eighty he was the winner of a poetic contest and led the Cyclic Chorus in Athens, which means that he not only composed the song and sang it, but danced round the altar with the chorus of fifty youths who sang with him; and this p82was in Athens, the very home of satire, where to be ridiculous for an instant was to be ruined forever. He lived to the age of ninety, and we do not hear that his faculties lost their vigour nor his genius its charm.

Bacchylides, his nephew, was of different temper, though he affected to imitate the worldly wisdom of his uncle. Nothing he wrote has come down to us, but at one time Hiero esteemed him above Pindar, and the blot upon his character is his mean jealousy of the latter and his low instinct of flattery. The evil that he did lived after him, but his good verses perished, like those of Simonides.

Last of the three, and unlike both, comes the greatest — 'as the rain-fed river overflows its banks and rushes from the mountains, immeasurable, deep-mouthed Pindar rages and rushes on' — the proud, the stern, the inspired, who 'lived not for the world but for himself,' scorning gold as Simonides loved it and despising flattery and backbiting alike. There must have been something about the man that imposed itself upon others, something not far from awe and much above the most sincere admiration — something that is in the Odes, which alone have come down to us, with a few fragments quoted by Athenaeus, something lofty, half divine, almost of the prophet; and all men recognized it and honoured the poet. Yet he would never make his home with Hiero, though he wrote four odes p83upon his victories, and in the end, being eighty years of age, he died in Argos, independent to the last, and leaving that rare and unrivalled fame which suggests neither comparison nor similarity with that of other men, the glory of those few who were not only first but last of their kind.

To the court of Syracuse there came not only lyric poets; Aeschylus was a favourite with Hiero also, and Epicharmus, the father of comedy, whose rough humour shocks the instinctive reverence we feel even for false gods, when they were grand or beautiful, who in the 'Marriage of Hebe' represented mighty Jove squabbling for the best fish at the feast of the gods, and introduced the divine Muses as glibly chattering fishwives, offering their wares for sale; a man of most irrepressible wit and impertinent humour, even in his ninetieth year.

Aeschylus was a younger and a stronger man. He may be called the father of tragedy as Epicharmus was of comedy. Rugged and vast of plan, his work is to that of Sophocles as a rock temple of India to a Gothic cathedral; dimly terrible with the unseen presence of fate, the horror of the final catastrophe overshadows the play from the first and speaks in every accent of predestined man and woman. The watchman sees evil coming from afar, the stamp of it is on Clytemnestra's brow, Cassandra in frenzied prophecy foretells the master's murder, and when it is accomplished, unseen, in p84the imagination of the horrified spectator, its effect is a hundred more times more terrible than if the king's blood were shed upon the stage. The weapons of Aeschylus are huge, and unwieldy to a common hand; but in his strong grasp they have a masterly precision and an appalling directness. Before his time there were playwrights and actors, there were wandering companies of Sicilian mimes who played from town to town, changing the action and the lines of their half-improvised dramas to suit the circumstances in which they found themselves; and there were genuine theatres also in the great cities, where graver plays were performed. But Aeschylus first made the stage what it has remained more or less ever since, by introducing machinery and accessories never heard of before, a god appearing through a trap-door — the original 'Deus ex machinâ,' — to put an end to a situation which had no natural conclusion; and rich costumes were also his invention, and sounds produced behind the scenes suggestive of deeds too atrocious to be seen by the audience.

Many tales are told to explain why the tragic poet left Greece. One writer says that he was dissatisfied with the honour he received in his own country; another, that during a great performance of one of his tragedies a platform broke down with its load, and that the poet feared the ridicule of the people; again, it is p85said that he left his home in anger, because in a contest of tragedy the young Sophocles obtained the prize against him, but the strangest reason of all is that the Athenians drove him out because their women were driven to frantic fear by the terrible chorus of the Furies, in his tragedy called the Eumenides. Whatever the cause may have been, and it seems useless to seek for a complicated one, he came twice to Sicily, and on the second visit, being nearly seventy years of age, he settled in the city of Gela, near which, as tradition says, he died a very extraordinary death. For it is said that an eagle, having taken a tortoise and meaning to drop it from a great height upon a rock, in order to break it and devour its flesh, looked down and saw the bald head of Aeschylus, who was walking in a meadow near the city; and taking it for a polished stone, the eagle dropped the tortoise directly upon it, whereby Aeschylus came to his end. The people of Gela buried him with great pomp, and raised a splendid monument to his memory.

Besides his other inventions in connexion with the stage, Aeschylus was the inventor of the tragic trilogy, which in its true and original form consisted of three complete tragedies, of which the subjects were closely dependent each upon the other and in each of which the unity of time, of place, and of action were maintained in the strictest manner. It p86had not entered the thoughts of Greek playwrights to give any play a greater scope of time than was required for its actual performance, by dividing it into acts, separated by an imaginary lapse of hours, days, or months; to produce such an illusion it seemed necessary to them to write as many different plays as the whole action required different times, and to present them on successive days in order that the spectators might the more easily imagine a longer interval of time to have passed. The modern play in three, four, or five acts is in substance a trilogy, a tetralogy, or a pentalogy on a small scale, and the Greeks would certainly not have admitted a Wagnerian trilogy to be a legitimate piece of play-writing.

During his splendid reign Hiero not only attracted to his court such men as this and many others besides, but he exerted also the great powers which had fallen to his lot in improving and beautifying his capital and it was largely due to his initiative that Syracuse soon afterwards became one of the most beautiful cities of the world. It was to be the privilege of others, notably of Dionysius the Elder and of Hiero the Second, to bring the work to full perfection, but the first and greatest merit is due to the first Hiero. To the end he was successful in all he understood, and victorious in every war. When Theron, the friend of Gelon, died at last after reigning sixteen years, his son Thrasydaeus succeeded him in the tyranny. p87Ambitious as he was cruel, and in all other respects different from his father, he conceived the idea of conquering Syracuse, and raised an army of twenty thousand men, almost all of whom were Greeks. But Hiero was before him, though he had to march his troops over a hundred miles through a difficult country, and Thrasydaeus, instead of invading his enemy's dominions, was forced to give battle within his own on the banks of the river Akragas. Hiero's army slew four thousand and put the rest to flight, including the young tyrant himself, who escaped to Megara in the hope of being received in a friendly manner; but the inhabitants feared him, for his name was associated with every sort of barbarity, and when they had taken counsel they put him to death. After that Hiero was supreme while he lived.

He died after reigning eleven years, probably in the city of Aetna, of which it is doubtful whether any trace remains. He had founded it himself, notwithstanding certain authorities which insist that it was only built after his death, and in the latter years of his life he probably preferred it as a residence during the cold weather, for it was situated on the southern slope of the volcano, partly protected from the east winds which, in the winter season, are the only drawback of the climate of Syracuse.

The first great development of art, as well as of literature, in Sicily dates from the victory of Himera p88which terminated the first Carthaginian invasion. It was between 480 B.C. and 409 B.C. that the great temples of Selinus, of Segesta, and of Akragas were built, edifices which surpassed in size and solidity almost every building of the sort in the Greek world. The architecture was most magnificent; the art of sculpture, however, was still in its archaic infancy, and the large fragments of uncouthly sculptured metopes preserved in the museum at Palermo must have contrasted strangely, when whole and in their places, with the splendid proportions and finished workmanship of the temples they adorned. These stand, or lie in fragments, throughout the island from end to end, witnesses of an age of faith, of strength, and of warfare; of a primitive warfare that was but wholesale hand to hand strife, of physical strength deified and worshipped as the main requisite for victory, of a material faith which was little better than a glorified generalization of man's animal instincts and of nature's common phenomena. We modern men are more easily surprised by such monuments of material power than by the far more wonderful results which purely spiritual and ethic influences have brought about in more recent days. It seems more extraordinary to us that human hands should ever have piled one upon another the enormous masses of stone that composed the temples of Selinus, than that whole nations should have fought to the p89death for half a dozen more or less vague articles of religious belief.


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Fragment of the ruins of Selinus,
now Selinunto

There is nothing in Europe like the ruins of Selinus. Side by side, the one stone upon another, as they fell at the earthquake shock, the remains of four temples lie in the dust, within the city, and the still more gigantic fragments of three others lie without the ruined walls. At first sight the confusion looks so terrific that the whole seems as if it might have fallen from the sky to the world, from the homes of the gods to destruction on earth — as if Zeus might have hurled a city at mankind, to fall on Sicily in a wild wreck of senseless stone. Blocks that are Cyclopean lie like jackstraws one upon another, sections of columns twenty-eight feet round are tossed together upon the ground like leaves from a basket, and fragments of cornice fifteen feet long lie across them more stand half upright, or lean against the enormous steps. No words can explain to the mind the involuntary shock which the senses feel at the first sight of it all. One touches the stones in wonder, comparing one's small human stature with their mass, and the intellect strains hopelessly to recall their original position; one climbs in and out among them, sometimes mounting, sometimes descending, as one might pick one's way through an enormous quarry, scarcely understanding that the blocks one touches have all been hewn into shape by human hands and that the hills from which men p90brought them are but an outline in the distance. But as one reaches the highest fragment within the Acropolis, the plan of the whole begins to stand out from the confusion; the columns have all fallen in ranks, and in the same direction, and from the height one may count the round drums of stone which once composed each erect pillar. There is method in the ruin and a sort of natural order in the destruction. No earthly hands, bent on blotting out the glory of Selinus, could have done such work, neither the crowbar and lever of the Carthaginian, nor the giant-powder of the modern engineer. Nature herself did the deed. In the morning the seven temples of Selinus were standing whole and perfect against the pale and dazzling sky; at noonday the air grew sultry and full of a yellow glare, the sea lay still as liquid lead, and the sleeping beast in the field woke suddenly in terror of something far below, that could be felt rather than heard; an hour and more went by, and then the long, low sound that is like no other came up from the depths of the world, and the broad land heaved like the tidal swell of the ocean, once, twice, and thrice, and was still, and a great cloud of white dust hung where the seven temples had stood. As they fell, so they lie and will lie for all time, a very image of the abomination of desolation.


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The Ruins of Selinus

The sculptured fragments have been almost all removed to the great museum in Palermo; they seem to p91have represented battles between goddesses and giants, and, while the treatment is of archaic simplicity, there are, here and there, a few figures in which the rising genius of sculpture foreshadows the great things it was soon to do. On the whole they almost reach the artistic level of the fragments from Aegina, and we may fairly take it for granted that this was the state of art throughout Sicily towards the end of the seventy years which elapsed between the two Carthaginian invasions. Of the same period is the great temple of Athene at Syracuse, crowning the island of Ortygia. Enclosed within high walls, it has been converted to the uses of a cathedral, but the columns of the temple stand intact within, and it is easy to fancy it as it was. High on its seaward side Athene's burnished shield was hung up of old to catch the rays of the noonday sun, a beacon to ships at sea; for mariners who were departing on p92a voyage used to go up thither before they weighed anchor, and when they had made offerings to the goddess they received from the priests little earthen vessels containing flowers and grains of incense; and when the burnished shield was lost to their view as they sailed away, they consigned the little jar and its contents to the sea with a final prayer for their safe return.

In widest contrast to the ruins of Selinus and to the church-temple at Ortygia, is the still almost perfect temple of Segesta.a At the western extremity of the island a lonely valley leads from the deep Gulf of Castellamareº upwards to the mountains. Climbing the narrow path, the traveller looks in vain for ancient ruin or modern habitation until he pauses for breath upon the shoulder of a hill, and suddenly he sees over against him the faultless outline of one of the most beautiful temples in the world. Dark and symmetrical, it stands alone upon the waste, vividly perfect against the sky that is bright with the reflection from the sea beyond. Of all its forty Doric columns, only one is very slightly injured. Nothing more strangely impressive can be imagined, nothing more solid and more silently grand, more nobly done. It is as if the visible spirit of the Greeks had chosen that wild solitude for its last abiding-place.


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Temple at Segesta

Yet of all the cities of Sicily, Segesta was the least Greek, if, indeed, it can be said to have been Greek at all. There is a sort of romantic uncertainty about its p93origin which was particularly attractive to the Romans, and they admitted the claim of the Segestans to Trojan descent as noble as that of Aeneas himself. It is certain that from very early times Segesta was in closer and more friendly relations with the Phoenicians than any other colony, and it was this circumstance which twice almost caused Segesta to be the ruin of all Greek Sicily: the first time when, finding itself isolated from the other Greek cities and hated by them owing to its former attachment to Phoenician interests, it sent out ambassadors to Athens and provoked the ill-fated Athenian expedition in which Alcibiades played so strange a part; the second, when it appealed to Carthage for help against Selinus and brought on directly another Carthaginian invasion.

But before describing those great events which took place when Sicily's power and influence were at their height, it is necessary to glance at the record of Hiero's successors, since Syracuse had, under him, become the commanding power of the island, and the chief centre of its civilization. Though Hiero was one of the great rulers, and, on the whole, a wise one, it must not be forgotten that he had in reality usurped the sovereignty which Gelon had intended to transmit to his own son, and had held it in spite of the other members of his own family, by the means usually adopted by usurpers. He employed numerous spies, both men and women, to detect his enemies, and he exiled or destroyed the latter p94without the slightest hesitation. At his death, he left one brother living, the eldest of all and the least gifted, Thrasybulus by name. He also believed that he was destined to the kingship, and he attempted to withhold it from his nephew as his brother had done; but he had neither the strength of character nor the talent which the latter had possessed, and he oppressed the people beyond endurance. The Syracusans had borne the exactions of Hiero, the victorious, the generous, the adorner of the city, the terror of their foes; they soon lost patience with his mean and miserly successor.

Sicily was ripe for a revolution, and the democratic spirit was abroad; the fall of the tyrant of Akragas had prepared the way, and the despots of the minor cities governed in hourly fear of ruin. Syracuse was mistress of the island, and indirectly of Southern Italy; it was certain that if she freed herself from her master, the rest of the country would follow.

But Thrasybulus was strong in mercenary troops and ships, and the numerous relations and adherents of his family stood by him to a man; a memorable struggle began, of which the result was long doubtful and which showed for the first time the extraordinary strength which the older parts of the city possessed, both by natural position and artificial fortification.

Syracuse overlooks an extensive natural harbour, two miles long and a mile across, free from rocks or shoals, and so completely enclosed by the mainland and p95the island of Ortygia that the entrance is but little over a thousand yards wide, opening due east. The island is divided from the mainland by what is nothing more than a narrow canal; it extends from the entrance northward, and north of it Gelon had walled off from the mainland a strip of land about two and a half miles long, of which the sea-line consists of low cliffs that offer no landing worth the name, and no shelter from any wind all the way round by east, from north to south. This strip of land received the name Achradina, a word for which there seems to be no satisfactory derivation, unless it comes from 'achrades', the wild pear trees, which still abound in this part of Sicily. A modern Sicilian writer suggests that the word might be made to mean 'the height of the cape.' The city of Gelon consisted of Achradina and Ortygia, both strongly fortified. At the time of the revolution against Thrasybulus, the suburb Tyche, 'good Fortune,' was without the walls, on the west, and the larger suburb Neapolis, 'the new city,' extended to the Lysimeleian swamp that open upon the bay. In later years the whole of the great harbour was surrounded by buildings.

Thrasybulus shut himself up within the walls with about fifteen thousand men who bore arms. The population of the city consisted largely of those persons to whom Gelon had given rights of citizenship, whom he had collected about him, and who had remained there p96under Hiero. In the general revolution these made common cause with the genuine Syracusans of old stock, and, with the latter, occupied the suburbs, making fruitless attempts to drive the tyrant from his position. They soon saw that success was impossible, for by means of his ships he kept his communications open by sea and was able to provision the city at his pleasure. The people then turned to the other Sicilian cities for assistance, renouncing their supremacy over the island by doing so. Those to whom they appealed asked nothing better than to help in destroying the power under which they had fretted so long. Gela, Akragas, Selinus, and Himera joined the Syracusans, sending both men and ships. Thrasybulus attacked the ships first, but lost a part of his own, and the remainder were soon blockaded in the harbour; his attempts to sally out by land were equally unsuccessful, the enemy closed in upon him on every side, he was in danger of famine, and he sued for his life, asking only that he might be allowed to leave the country unmolested. The men who had him in their power had been oppressed by him, robbed by him, and it is more than probable that some of them had been tortured by him; but they magnanimously granted his request, he was allowed to depart unmolested, and he ended his days peacefully in Locri. His fall was the signal for a general rising against the tyrants, and in a few months all the south was in the hands of a jubilant democracy.

p97 The Syracusans set up a gigantic statue to Zeus and instituted the Festival and Games of Freedom, during which four hundred and fifty oxen were to be sacrificed every year to make a feast for the people, and for this purpose they built an altar a tenth of a sea mile long and over sixty feet wide — a Gargantuan expression of gratitude to the gods in the present and the future, which suggests that under Thrasybulus they had never enjoyed a feast, and had rarely had enough. But the revolution was not yet over, for the new democracy took measures to exclude from the higher public offices all those burghers who owed their citizenship to Gelon, Hiero, or Thrasybulus, and a long struggle ensued, during which the offended party held Achradina and Ortygia as the last tyrant had done. With the help of the Sicelians, the old burghers triumphed at last, however, got possession of the walled city, and drove out their adversaries.


Thayer's Note:

a For a good selection of more recent photos of the temple, see the pages at Livius.


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Page updated: 20 Apr 08