Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


When Dionysius the Elder was tyrant or ruler of Syracuse, he had two wives, whom he loved very much. Their names were Doris and Aristomache. Aristomache had a brother Dion, who is the subject of this chapter.

Dion was well received at court, and his brother-in-law, Dionysius, liked him so much that he ordered his treasurer to supply him with all the money he wanted. Dion was too virtuous to take undue advantage of such generosity, but it enabled him to devote his time to study, and he became a very talented man.

Plato, the great Athenian philosopher, instructed him, and under such good influence Dion improved in every particular. He was considered one of Plato's most distinguished scholars, and so impressed was he by the doctrines of the philosopher that he wanted Dionysius to get the benefit of them too. So he persuaded him to attend some of the lectures; but Dionysius was not pleased to hear virtues lauded for which he cared nothing. Plato told him that only the just could be happy, and that the unjust were sure to be miserable. This was a new idea to Dionysius, whose actions were governed entirely by his passions, and it was an unwelcome one, particularly as he could find no good argument to bring forward on the other side.

So he became angry, and asked Plato, roughly, "What business have you here in Sicily?"

"I came to seek an honest man," answered the philosopher.

"Then you have lost your labor, it seems," returned the tyrant.

His anger did not end with words, and at last Dion persuaded Plato, for his own safety, to leave Sicily. Accordingly, he embarked on board a vessel to return to Greece. Dionysius ordered the captain either to drop him into the sea or to sell him as a slave. "For," said he, "according to his own teachings, this man can never be unhappy; a just man, he says, must be happy in a state of slavery as well as in a state of freedom."

The captain took his passenger to Ægina, and sold him there for twenty pounds, for the people of that place, being at war with the Athenians at that time, had decreed that any of them who were taken on their shore should be so disposed of.

Dionysius continued to be fond of Dion, and sent him on several important embassies. During his absence on one of these occasions the tyrant died, and was succeeded by his son of the same name.

The younger Dionysius was a less able man than his father, and had neither his judgment nor experience, so he allowed himself to be ruled by courtiers, who led him into all sorts of gayety and dissipation, against the advice of Dion, who, having returned to Syracuse, did what he could to direct the young man properly.

Dionysius wondered at the wisdom of Dion, and might have been influenced by him if the courtiers had been out of the way, but they were determined to keep the upper hand in the government and to control the young king. So they encouraged him to spend his life in enjoyment, and made up stories that put Dion in a bad light.

With a tyrant whose time and attention were devoted to pleasure the government became very weak, and this so grieved Dion that he persuaded Dionysius to invite Plato to Sicily and place himself under his guidance. At first he paid little heed to what Dion said, but as time went on and the maxims of Plato were repeated and made clear to him, he became impatient to see the man who set forth such novel and wonderful ideas. So he wrote two or three letters urging the philosopher to come to Syracuse. Dion and other wise men added their entreaties, and Plato, with the hope of doing good to the young tyrant, at last consented.

One of the royal chariots, richly ornamented, stood on the sea-shore to receive him when he landed, and after welcoming him, Dionysius sacrificed to the gods in acknowledgment of the great happiness, as he called the arrival of Plato, which had overtaken his government.

For a while all went well, and the citizens were delighted with the changes that were made, for their tyrant became kind and gentle, paid attention to matters of business, gave banquets that were decent and respectable, and no longer spent days at a time in intoxication, as he had frequently done. Everybody began to reason and argue about questions of public interest, and even the palace itself was filled with students.

But this state of affairs was not to last, for the greater Plato's influence became, the more were the courtiers alarmed at the effect it might eventually have on their tyrant. So they talked against Dion openly, and declared that through Plato he had bewitched Dionysius for the purpose of destroying in him all desire for power, riches, or pleasure, and of inducing him to settle his government on the children of Aristomache, Dion's sister.

At last they brought matters to a climax by showing Dionysius a letter which they said Dion had written the Carthaginians, advising them when they wanted peace to ask it through him, because he would promise to obtain for them whatever terms they proposed. Dionysius said nothing about this to Dion for a long while; but one day, having invited him to take a walk, he led him to the sea-side, and there produced the letter, and accused his companion of having conspired with the Carthaginians against himself. Dion was completely taken by surprise, and made such a lame defence that the tyrant resolved to get rid of him on the spot. He therefore ordered his attendants to carry him to a vessel which lay at anchor in the harbor close by, and bid the seamen to sail at once, and set their prisoner ashore on the coast of Italy.

Now Dion was a great favorite in the royal household, and there were loud lamentations when his fate was made known; but Dionysius declared that he had not been banished, but only sent away for a limited time and for his own good. He did not reveal his true reason for his conduct with regard to Dion, but pacified his relations by giving them permission to load two vessels with the servants and effects of the exile and send them to him.

Dion was a man of wealth, and the number of costly and luxurious articles his friends shipped to him enabled him to fit up his house with royal splendor. In course of time he settled himself at Athens, and the people wondered what must be the power of a tyrant when an exile from his kingdom could make such a display of riches.

Dionysius removed Plato to the castle under pretence of doing him honor, but in reality to set a guard over him, lest he should follow Dion and tell the world how he had been banished. Dionysius had another reason for wishing to keep Plato with him, and that was that he had grown fond of him and of the study of philosophy under his guidance; but a war soon broke out, and he was forced to let him go.

Meanwhile, Dion was becoming very popular in Athens as well as in other Grecian cities, and public honors were often bestowed on him merely because of the love and admiration he inspired. This made Dionysius so angry that he confiscated the estates of the exile, and no longer sent him a supply of money. Then, fearing that Plato might speak ill of him among the philosophers, he collected a number of wise men at his court and tried to appear very learned before them. He soon found, however, that he needed Plato to help him to sustain his arguments, so he sent a messenger to beg him to return to Sicily, and wrote a letter in which he said that Dion might expect no favors from him unless Plato consented. The wife and sister of Dion also wrote, imploring Plato, for their sakes, to gratify the tyrant.

Therefore Plato set sail for Sicily the third time, and his arrival was hailed with joy, no less by Dionysius than by the citizens. Before long Plato began to speak of his friend Dion, and tried to make the tyrant say what he meant to do for him; but Dionysius always changed the subject, hoping that in time Plato would cease to think of Dion altogether.

While matters stood thus, one of Plato's followers foretold an eclipse of the sun, and as it happened just when he said it would, the tyrant rewarded him with a talent of silver. Thereupon a philosopher jestingly said, "I, too, can predict something extraordinary." On being questioned, he replied, "I foresee that in a short time there will be a quarrel between Dionysius and Plato."

Soon after this the tyrant sold Dion's estate, but refused to send him the money. Plato was so indignant at this that he resolved to leave Sicily forthwith, and one of his friends provided a vessel for him. But Dionysius, desiring to soften Plato's feelings towards himself, gave him some grand entertainments before he left. At one of these he said, "No doubt, Plato, when you are at home among the philosophers, you will often make my faults the subject of your conversation." "I hope we shall never be so much at a loss for subjects in the Academy as to talk of you," returned Plato.

Not only did the tyrant confiscate the absent Dion's estates, but he compelled the unfortunate man's wife to marry one of his favorite courtiers. When Dion heard of how he had been wronged he determined to make war on Syracuse. Many friends declared themselves ready to help him, and soldiers to the number of eight hundred were raised. They met on an island in the middle of summer, and Dion prepared a magnificent sacrifice to Apollo. Afterwards there was an eclipse of the moon, which frightened the soldiers dreadfully, but Dion, who understood the natural causes of such an event, made one of his soothsayers explain it as meaning that the splendid reign of Dionysius should be eclipsed as soon as they arrived in Sicily. So they were encouraged, though there were several other unfavorable omens, which even the most ingenious failed to turn to account.

Dion sailed with all his men in two ships, and had the good fortune to land at Syracuse when Dionysius was absent in Italy. There was great excitement in the city when his arrival was known, but he took care to preserve quiet as much as possible. Timocrates, who had married Dion's wife, despatched a messenger to Italy with a letter informing the tyrant of what had happened. While passing through Rhegium the messenger met an acquaintance who was carrying home part of a sacrifice. A piece of the meat was offered to him; he accepted it and proceeded on his journey. He travelled a good part of the night, but towards morning, being overcome by fatigue, he entered a wood just off the road and lay down to rest. He fell asleep, and a wolf, smelling the meat, came and seized it, and carried it away with the letter-bag, to which it was tied. When the man awoke he looked everywhere for his bag, and was dreadfully distressed at not being able to find it. Of course he did not dare to go before the king without the letter, so he decided to hide himself and keep out of the way of the royal displeasure.

Thus it happened that Dionysius heard nothing of the arrival in Syracuse of Dion for a long time. When at last the news reached him, he hastened home by sea and got safe into the citadel. But this took place a whole week after Dion had declared the Sicilians free from the yoke of the tyrant, and had liberated the state prisoners and armed the citizens.

Dionysius despatched agents privately to Dion to see what terms could be made, but the answer he received was that he must treat with the people. So the tyrant sent one messenger after another with the fairest and most flattering promises; but the Syracusans had no faith in him, and would scarcely listen to his proposals. At last he asked them to offer terms themselves, or to send some representatives to the citadel to discuss what it was best to do. The Syracusans consented, but their agents were seized and locked up by the tyrant, who, having freely distributed wine among the soldiers in the citadel until they were intoxicated, made an attack on the city by break of day.

Dion was unprepared for such a surprise, but he resisted at first with the hired soldiers, whom he led on in person, and fought a fierce and bloody battle. He was wounded in the hand, but mounted a horse, rallied the citizens as they fled, and at the same time brought up his Greek soldiers, who drove Dionysius and his army back to the fortress after a great number of them had been killed. The Syracusans rewarded the foreign soldiers for their service, and put a gold crown on Dion's head.

The tyrant made another trial to regain his kingdom; this time by letter. He wrote Dion begging him not to destroy the government and give freedom to his enemies, but to proclaim himself king, if only for the protection of his family and friends. Dion was honest enough to show this letter to the Syracusans, but instead of admiring him for so doing, they became suspicious that he might really take some desperate step for the sake of his wife and son. So they began to look about for another leader, and heard with joy that Heraclides, a soldier then under banishment, who had once held an important command in the service of Dionysius, was on his way home.

As soon as he arrived an assembly was called, and he was chosen commander of the navy. Heraclides pretended to be a friend to Dion, but secretly he was an enemy, and tried in every possible way to injure him in the minds of the citizens. So Dion's unpopularity increased, but he worked so hard to keep order that no attack was made on him.

In course of time Dionysius made his escape from the citadel, and then Heraclides, who had charge of the navy, was openly blamed. He did not know how to excuse himself, so he turned people's attention in another direction, by causing one of the public speakers to go among them and excite them to rebel against Dion's laws, and to urge them to insist upon a redivision of land, on the ground that so long as they remained poor they would be slaves. He spoke to them also, and advised them to get rid of Dion's oppression. The idea of freedom was so new to the Syracusans that they did not quite understand it, but they hated Dion, and were willing to be led by any other person who seemed to be on their side.

So they called an assembly and elected twenty-five captains, among whom was Heraclides. They tried to win over Dion's men by offering to make them citizens of Syracuse if they would desert him. But they would not listen to anything so base; they went to Dion, and, with their swords in their hands, placed him in their midst and conveyed him out of the city. He went to Leontium, where he was received with honors. But the time came when the Syracusans were glad enough to get him back again. It happened in this wise.

Dionysius sent a fleet commanded by a Neapolitan, named Nypsius, with provisions and pay for those he had left in the citadel. Nypsius was attacked by the Syracusans, who took four of his ships, but, as they had no person to guide them and had not learned to control themselves, they celebrated their victory by feasting, rioting, and drunkenness, in which their twenty-five commanders joined. Taking advantage of the disorder, Nypsius broke through the walls in the night and let his soldiers loose upon the city. They tore down the fortifications, set fire to the houses, killed the men, and dragged the women and children shrieking and screaming to the citadel. The Syracusan officers gave up all for lost. Suddenly, in the midst of the terrible scene, a voice from the cavalry was heard crying, "Send for Dion and his Peloponnesians from Leontium."

The very mention of his name inspired hope; the people shouted for joy, and half a dozen of the cavalry immediately rode off towards Leontium. They arrived just after sunset, and, throwing themselves at the feet of Dion, told him of the deplorable condition of their city. He summoned an assembly, and the Leontines and Peloponnesians soon gathered about him. Then, at his request, the soldiers repeated the sad news, and added entreaties that he, with his foreign soldiers, would go to the assistance of the unfortunate people, who had suffered so much because of their ingratitude and ignorance. For several minutes Dion was so overcome with grief that he could not speak, but at last, wiping away his tears, he said, "Men of Peloponnesus and of the confederacy, I asked for your presence here that you might consider your own interests. For myself, I have no interests to consult while Syracuse is perishing, and, though I may not save it from destruction, I will hasten thither and be buried in the ruins of my country. Yet if you can find it in your hearts to assist us, you may, to your everlasting honor, save the unhappy city. But if the Syracusans are to have no more pity or relief from you, may the gods reward you for what you have done for them, and for your kindness to Dion, of whom speak hereafter as one who did not desert you when you were injured and abused, nor his fellow-citizens when they were afflicted."

Before he had ended, the soldiers shouted out their readiness to go with him, and begged him to lead them at once to the relief of Syracuse. When quiet was restored, Dion gave orders that all should go to their quarters and prepare to march. That night they set forward.

Meanwhile, another attack had been made on the city by Nypsius, who seemed determined to lay it in ruins and leave not a living human being within its walls. In this dreadful strait, messenger after messenger met Dion on the road, and begged him to hurry forward. He made his arrangements that he might attack from several quarters at once, and, having offered vows to the gods, rode into the city at the head of his men, while a confused sound of shouts, congratulations, and prayers was raised by the people. They called Dion their deliverer, and his soldiers their friends, brethren, and fellow-citizens.

Heaps of dead bodies lay in the streets through which Dion passed with his men, and houses were blazing on all sides, which made it both difficult and dangerous for them to advance. When they came near the enemy, the road was so narrow and uneven that only a few could engage at a time, but they beat off Nypsius's men and put them to flight. Many got into the castle, but those who did not were put to the sword.

The Syracusans could not spare time to rejoice, for they were too busy in trying to put out the flames, at which they worked the entire night. All of the captains, except two, escaped from the city, well knowing that they deserved punishment for what had happened.

The two who remained were Heraclides and Theodotes. These went to Dion and surrendered themselves. They acknowledged that they had been wrong, but begged him to treat them more kindly than they had treated him, and to be generous to men who were absolutely in his power.

Dion's friends advised him on no account to pardon men who had been so active in bringing about the ruin of the city, but he said, "My studies under Plato and other wise men have taught me to subdue my passions, and not to give way to anger and revenge. There would be no merit in showing kindness to men of virtue; it is those who have injured us that we must pardon. If I have excelled Heraclides in ability, I must not be inferior to him in justice and clemency. Heraclides may be treacherous, malicious, base; but must Dion therefore sully his glory by indulging his anger? There is no man so wicked but that he may be influenced by kindness and softened by favors."

Having spoken thus, Dion pardoned the guilty men and sent them away.

But Heraclides proved himself unworthy the mercy that had been shown him, for, although Dion even restored him to his position as admiral after having pardoned him, he excited the sailors to rebellion and led them against Syracuse. Dion went out to sea with an army to meet him, and defeated him. Then it was decided to lay by the fleet, because it was not really needed at that time, and was only an expense and trouble to the Syracusans.

Attention was next turned to the citadel, and the son of Dionysius, who had been left there in command, agreed to deliver up the fort, with all the soldiers and ammunition, to Dion. It was a happy day for Syracuse when the prince sailed away with his five vessels, leaving them free from the most tyrannical rule that had ever existed.

Dion now settled himself in his house, and lived in very plain, frugal style, notwithstanding his high position. He knew that the eyes of the whole world were upon him, and he was anxious to show that prosperity did not make him foolish.

It was not long before Heraclides gave trouble again by interfering with political affairs, and opposing everything that Dion attempted. Then some of the citizens, feeling that there could be no peace while Heraclides lived, broke into his house and murdered him.

Dion had a friend named Calippus, in whom he placed a great deal of confidence; but Calippus only pretended friendship, while all the time he was going around among the lower classes talking against Dion, and trying to make them hate him. When Dion heard what Calippus said of him, he believed, as he had been told by the false friend, that it was done merely for the sake of finding out who were true to him, and that Calippus spoke so freely on purpose to draw others out.

But he soon found his mistake, for Calippus was forming a plot against his life. Just then his only son threw himself from the top of a house in a fit of temper and broke his neck. While Dion was mourning the loss of this youth, whom he had loved very dearly, Calippus hurried on his conspiracy by announcing that the son of Dionysius was going to be sent for to become their ruler. This aroused the people to such a degree of indignation and terror that a great number were added to those already in the plot. So when Dion sat at supper one evening with several of his friends, the conspirators surrounded the house and guarded the windows and doors while a few entered, and, falling upon Dion, threw him to the ground and endeavored to stifle him. His friends thought only of their own safety, and did not attempt to assist him. Presently a sword was handed in at one of the windows, and with it the almost exhausted Dion, who had made a desperate resistance, was quickly despatched.

Calippus then took the government of Syracuse in his own hands, but he was hated and despised by everybody. No city that he visited would receive him, and at last he was killed by his own soldiers with the very sword that had been used to put Dion to death.