Callias - The Fall of Athens - Alfred J. Church


It was with no common emotion that the young Athenian entered the great harbor of Syracuse. It was here that the really fatal blow had been struck from which his country had never recovered. She had struggled gallantly on for nearly ten years after she had lost the most magnificent armament that she had ever sent forth, but the wound had been mortal. Thenceforward she had been as a man of whose life-blood a half had been drained away. Callias had read, shortly before leaving Athens for the last time, the magnificent passage, then recently published, in which the great historian of Athens had described the decisive battle in the harbor. The sight of the place now enabled him to realize it to himself in the most vivid way. He seemed to see the hostile fleets crowded together in a way for which there was no precedent, two hundred war galleys in a space so narrow that maneuver was impossible, and nothing availed but sheer fighting and hard blows; while the shores seemed alive again as they had been on that eventful day with a crowd of eager spectators, the armies of the two contending powers, who looked on with passionate cries and gestures at such a spectacle as human eyes had scarcely witnessed before, a mighty war-game in which their own liberties and lives were the stake. The heights that ran above the harbor were scarcely less significant. There, its remains still visible, had been the Athenian line of investment. If only a few yards more had been completed, the young man thought to himself, the whole course of history might have been changed. Not far away was the spot where the sturdy infantry of Thebes had withstood the fiery shock of his own countrymen, and so, not for the first time, wrested from them the empire that seemed almost within their grasp. And somewhere—no one knew where—his own father had fallen, one of the thousands of noble victims who had been sacrificed to the greed and ambition of a restless democracy.

The noble house of which Callias was the representative had, of course, its hereditary guest-friend at Syracuse. Naturally there had been very little intercourse between citizens of the two states in late years; but the old tie remained unbroken, and Medon, for that was the Syracusan's name, was as ready to give a hospitable welcome to the young Athenian, as if he had been a citizen of one of his country's allies, a merchant prince of Corinth, or a scion of one of the two royal houses of Sparta. He insisted upon his guest taking up his quarters in his house, and exerted himself to the utmost to supply and even anticipate every want.

"Now you have seen something of the outside of our city," said Medon to his friend as they sat together after the evening meal on the third day after his arrival, "you should know something of its politics. But first let me make sure that we are alone."

The dining chamber in which the two were sitting had an anteroom. The door of this the Syracusan proceeded to bolt.

"Now," he said, "we shall have no eavesdroppers. Any inquisitive friend may listen at that other door, with all this space between us and him, without getting much idea of what we are talking about. All the other walls are outer walls, as you know, and unless a certain great personage has the birds of the air in his pay, we may talk without reserve. You look surprised. Well, you will understand things a little better when you have heard what I have to tell you. You know something, I suppose, of what has been happening here of late years. The fact is we have been going through an awful time. No sooner were we free of the danger that you put us in—you must pardon me for alluding to it—than we were confronted with another which was every whit as formidable. Another wretched quarrel between two towns in the island—curiously enough the very same two that were concerned in your expedition against us. —brought in a foreign invader. This time it was the Carthaginians. They had had settlements in the island for many years, had always coveted the dominion of the whole, and more than once had been very near getting it.

"They were not far from success this time. First they took Selinus and massacred every creature in it; then they took Acragas; then they utterly destroyed Himera. Something made them hold their hands, and we had a short breathing space. Four years afterwards they came back in greater force than ever. Acragas was besieged; it held out bravely, but at last the population had to leave it; only Syracuse was left. Again when in the full tide of victory, the Carthaginians held their hand. Do you ask me why? I cannot tell you. But listen to the fourth article of the treaty of peace." In spite of the precautions that he had taken against being overheard, Medon, at this point lowered his voice. "Syracuse is to be under the rule of Dionysius. Yes; the secret is there; it was he that made it worth their while to go; and you may be sure that it was worth his while to buy them off. I must allow that he was the only man who showed a grain of sense or courage in the whole matter; the other generals as they were called were hopelessly imbecile. Well, they went, and Dionysius became, shall we call it, 'commander-in-chief,' or perhaps as we are quite alone, 'tyrant?' He had not an easy time of it at first; I don't suppose that he will ever have an easy time, tyrants seldom do. The nobles and the heads of the democratic party leagued together against him, and drove him out. That did not last long. Of course the conquerors used their victory most brutally. They were furious that Dionysius had slipped out of their hands, and wreaked their vengeance on his poor wife. I can't tell you the horrible way in which they killed her. She was the daughter, too, of Hermocrates, one of the very best and noblest men that Syracuse ever had. Equally of course they quarrelled over the spoils. Naturally, before long they had nothing left to quarrel over. Dionysius hired a force of Campanian mercenaries, the hardest hitters, by the way, that I ever saw, and drove them out of the city. Now, I fancy, he is pretty firmly seated. The people like him; they were never as fit, you must know, for popular government as yours are. He gives them plenty of employment and amusements, wrings the money out of us with a tight hand, and scatters it among them with an open one. Of course a dagger may reach him, and there are not a few that are kept ready sharpened for the chance. Barring that, he is likely to be master here as long as he lives. And to tell you the truth, though personally I hate the idea, as any noble must—it is the nobles that always hate a tyrant most—yet I do not see that anything could be better for Syracuse. The Carthaginian danger is not over yet, and Dionysius is the very ablest soldier and administrator that we have. Of course the pinch will come later. A ruler of this sort always becomes harder, more cruel, more suspicious as he grows older. And if he has a son, brought up in the bad atmosphere of tyranny, the country has a terrible time of it. Happily the son is generally a fool, and brings the whole thing down with a crash. But all this is far off. Dionysius is still a young man, not more than twenty-six years old, I fancy. However, you shall see him—we are very good friends in public—and judge for yourself."

Callias, who had the hereditary abhorrence of his race for anything like tyranny, demurred at the proposed introduction to the despot. Medon was very urgent in over-ruling his objection. "Don't mistake Sicily for Greece," he said; "we are half barbarous, and what would be monstrous with you is quite in its right place here. I grant you that an honest man should have no dealings with a tyrant who should set himself up at Thebes, or Corinth, or Argos. But it is different here. I am sure that the man governs us better than we should be governed by the people, or, for the matter of that, by the nobles either."

At last the Athenian consented. "Very good," cried Medon, "you will go. Then we will lose no time about it. Depend upon it, Dionysius knows all about you; and if you do not pay your respects to him without loss of time he will be suspicious. Suspicion is the bane of his situation. Servant, friend, wife; he trusts nobody."

The next day Medon and his guest presented themselves at the palace. The Athenian had half turned back when he found that he must be searched. No one was admitted into the presence until that precaution had been taken, and his freeman's pride revolted. Medon simply shrugged his shoulders. "He is quite right," he whispered to his indignant friend, "he would not live a month if he did not do it."

Dionysius was, or pretended to be, busy with his studies, when the two visitors were announced. A slave was reading to him from a roll; and he was taking notes on a wax tablet. He welcomed the newcomers with much cordiality.

"So, Medon, you have brought your Athenian friend at last. I hope that you have not been slandering me to him."

"My lord," answered Medon with a courtly bow, "I have told him the history of the last five years, and have taken him to see Syracuse. That is not the way to slander you."

"Good," said Dionysius, "I shall have you a courtier yet." He then turned to the Athenian, asked him a few questions, all with the nicest tact, about his movements, and finally named a time when he should be at leisure to have some real conversation with him.

"Believe me," he said, "I honor the Athenians more than any other people in Greece; a strange thing you may think for a Syracusan to say, but it is true."

Certainly when Callias presented himself at the appointed time, everything that his royal host had said seemed to bear out this assurance. "After to-day," he said, "politics shall be banished from our talk. Don't suppose for a moment that if I had been a citizen of Athens, I should have attempted, that I should even have wished, to be what I am here. But Syracuse is not capable of being what Athens is. Even you find liberty a little hard to manage sometimes. Here it is a farce, only a very bloody farce. Listen to what happened to my father-in-law, Hermocrates. There never was an abler man in the country. If it had not been for him, I verily believe that you would have conquered us. He saved the city; and then, a little time afterwards, because he did not do what ten years before no one would have dreamt of doing, that is, conquer you Athenians in a sea-fight, they banished him. Can you imagine such ingratitude, such folly? Well; he was not disposed to put up with it; he saw what I see, that the Syracusans are not fit to govern themselves, and if it had not been for an accident, perhaps I ought rather to say his own reckless courage, he would have been in my place now. What he intended to do I have done. I saved Syracuse as he saved her from Athens; and I dare say that in a year or two my grateful countrymen would have banished me as they banished him. Only I have been beforehand with them. So much for politics; now let us talk of something more pleasant and more profitable.

"Tell me now, do you know one Socrates in your city, a very wise man they tell me?"

"Yes, I know him well."

"And he is wise?"

"Yes, indeed; there is no one like him; and so the god thought, for the Pythia declared him to be the wisest of men."

"I should dearly like to see him. Do you think it likely that he would come here, if I were to invite him? I would make it worth his while."

"I fear there is no chance of it. He never leaves Athens; never has left it except when he served abroad with the army, and as for money, he is quite careless about it."

"But he takes a fee for his teaching, I suppose."

"Not a drachma."

"Well, that astonishes me. Why, Georgias would not teach anyone for less than half a talent, and has got together, I suppose, a pretty heap of money by this time. But, perhaps, if I could not get the great man himself, I might get one of his disciples. Whom do men reckon to be the first among them?"

"I think that one Plato is the most famous. He was a poet when he was quite young, indeed he is young now, and had a great reputation; but he has given up poetry for philosophy."

"That seems a pity. I don't see why a man should not be both poet and philosopher. I am a little of both myself. Can you remember anything that he has written?"

"Yes; there was an epigram which everyone was repeating when I left Athens. It was written for the tomb of one of his fellow disciples."

"Let me hear it."

Callias repeated,

"In life like Morning star thy shining head;

And now the star of Evening 'mid the dead."

"Very pretty indeed. I have something very like it of my own. Would you like to hear it?"

Callias of course politely assented and expressed as much admiration as his conscience permitted, possibly a little more, for the composition was vapid and clumsy.

But though Dionysius was an indifferent composer, he had really a very strong interest in literary matters. Personal vanity had something to do with it, for he was fully convinced of his own abilities in this way; but he had a genuine pleasure in talking on the subject. This was indeed the first of many conversations which the young Athenian had with him. Politics were never mentioned again, but poetry, the drama, indeed every kind of literary work, supplied topics of unfailing interest. The drama was, perhaps, the despot's favorite topic. He had received not long before Callias' arrival, a copy of the play which was described in my first chapter, and was never tired of asking questions about various points of interest in it. It soon became evident that his special ambition lay in this direction.

"So, now that your two great men are gone," he said to the young Athenian, "you have no man of really the first rank among your dramatists?"

"I should say not," replied Callias. "Some think well of Iophon, who is the son of Sophocles. Others say that he would be nothing without his father. They declare that the old man helped him when he was alive, and that what he has brought out since his father's death is really not his own."

"Well," said Dionysius, "the stock will be exhausted before long. And there is no one, you say, besides him?"

"No one, certainly of any reputation."

"Then there would be a chance for an outsider? But would a dramatist that was not an Athenian be allowed to exhibit?"

I know nothing to the contrary. But I do not know that there has ever been a case. Anyhow it would be easy to exhibit in the name of a citizen."

"An excellent idea! I shall certainly manage it somehow. The first prize at your festival would be almost as well worth having as the tyranny itself."

It is not surprising that a ruler who cherished such tastes should have reckoned a library among the ornaments which were to make Syracuse the most splendid among Greek cities. In his Athenian guest he believed himself to have found a competent agent for carrying this purpose into effect; and Callias was in truth a well educated person who knew what books were worth buying. He was well acquainted with the literature of his own country and had a fairly competent knowledge of what had been produced elsewhere in Greece. For the next three years it was his employment, and one, on the whole not uncongenial to his tastes, to collect volumes for Dionysius. In Sicily there was little culture, but the Greek cities of Italy furnished a more fertile field. There was not indeed much in the way of belles-lettres. Works of this kind had to be imported for the most part, either from Athens, or from Lesbos, where the traditions of the school of Sappho and AlcŠus were not extinct, but books on philosophy and science, could be secured in considerable numbers. At Croton, for instance, Callias was fortunate enough to secure a valuable scientific library which had been for some years in the family of Democedes, while at Tarentum he purchased a handsome collection of treatises by teachers of the school of Pythagoras.

This occupation was varied in the second year of his residence by an interesting mission to Rome. That city, the rising greatness of which so keen an observer as Dionysius was able to discern, was at this time sorely distressed by a visitation of famine, and had applied far and wide for help. The harvests of Sicily had been remarkably abundant, and Dionysius sent a magnificent present of a hundred thousand bushels of wheat, putting Callias in charge of the mission.

In spite of these honorable and not distasteful employments the young Athenian did not greatly like his position. It would indeed have been scarcely endurable to a soul that had been reared in an atmosphere of liberty, but for the fact that his work took him much away from Syracuse. Dionysius was all courtesy and generosity in his dealings with him; but he was a tyrant; there was iron under his velvet glove. It was therefore with a considerable feeling of relief that in the early spring of the third (or according to classical reckoning the fourth) year after the fall of Athens, he received a missive from Xenophon couched in the following terms.

"Meet me at Tarsus with all the speed you can. Great things lie before us, of which you will hear more at the proper time. Farewell."

Leave of absence was obtained with some difficulty, and towards the end of June, Callias found himself at the appointed place.