Stories from Greek History - Ethelwyn Lemon

Timoleon (died B.C. 336)

We do not know the year in which Timoleon was born, but in 336 he died, at, we are told, "a good old age, and full of honours." In truth, he, of all the heroes whose stories are told in this book, had a happy ending to his life. There is a proverb which says, "All is well that ends well." It might have been written about Timoleon, as you will see.

No stories are told about his childhood. His father and mother were people of rank and wealth in Corinth, where his brother Timophanes and himself were born. Timophanes was not like Timoleon in character, for he was cruel and greedy, though very brave. Timoleon, on the contrary, was gentle and kindly, hating no one but those who did not serve their country well.

Because of his bravery Timophanes was often sent out with the army to fight the enemies of Corinth. Timoleon sometimes went with him, and so loyal a brother was he that he did all he could to hide his brother's faults, and to make him seem a better man than he really was.

On one occasion both the brothers were fighting in a battle against the Argives. Timophanes was commander of the cavalry, while Timoleon served as an infantry soldier. Timophanes' horse was wounded, and threw him on to the ground amongst the enemy; the soldiers near him were partly driven back, partly ran away in fright. Then Timoleon saw his brother in danger, and ran to help him.

Timophanes lay helpless on the ground; Timoleon covered him with his own big shield, and, fighting bravely, at last drove the Argives away. Then he carried his brother off to a place of safety.

Yet this young man, who willingly risked his own life to save his brother, had it in him to be very stern towards that same brother when he did wrong.

For, not long after this battle, the people of Corinth were afraid that their enemies were coming to attack the city. They hired four hundred soldiers to fight for them, and asked Timophanes to be the leader of this troop. Timophanes was at heart a bad man. He was pleased to have four hundred soldiers to do as he bade them. But he meant to use them to make himself tyrant of Corinth, as you remember Peisistratus had done long before in Athens. Only Peisistratus behaved well when he became tyrant, but Timophanes did many wicked deeds.

The soldiers, being but hired men, were ready to do whatever their captain ordered. They helped him to seize the city, and to kill all the best men in it, who would have been strong enough to prevent Timophanes from having his own way, or to punish him for his crimes.

Timoleon was grieved at his brother's behaviour, and went to him alone to beg him to change it. He asked him earnestly to give up the tyranny, and to beg the forgiveness of the citizens for all the crimes and murders he had done. Timophanes would not listen to him, but haughtily drove him from his house.

Timoleon was not to be discouraged, however. He went to a few of his friends and kinsmen who had once been fond of Timophanes, and arranged with two of them to visit Timophanes again. On the next day, therefore, Timoleon, with Aeschylus, a brother-in-law of Timophanes, and Orthogras, a friend, went to Timophanes' house.

They all spoke very seriously to Timophanes; but it was of no use. At first he laughed at them; then the more serious they grew, the more angry he became. At last Timoleon drew aside and hid his face in his cloak, while the others slew the tyrant.

The news of this terrible deed soon spread through Corinth, and many praised Timoleon for being so true a patriot. For they remembered how, while his brother served his country well, no kindness was too great for him, but when he betrayed his country, then Timoleon did not spare him. This, they said, was the truest love both to his brother and to his country.

But there were others who were horrified at Timoleon, and thought him a bad and cruel man. His own mother was one of these. She would not let Timoleon see her, nor would she speak to him again. This broke Timoleon's heart; and he was so filled with sorrow that he would not eat, and wished to die. But his friends came about him, and forced him to eat and live. Had he been less gentle in temper, Timoleon might have got over the dreadful event soon. He would have reminded himself that he had done the right thing in consenting to the death of a tyrant and traitor. But as his mother still said she would never see him again, he sank into low spirits, and for years would take no part in anything that was done in Corinth.

For this we cannot praise him, though we may feel sorry for him. But he still owed to his city his service, and should have crushed his own grief aside.

Almost twenty years after his brother's death, there came messengers from Syracuse, a large city in the island of Sicily in the west (you will find it in the map of Italy, near the "toe" of the "boot"), to ask the Corinthians to come over and help them.

They had a tyrant whom they wished to drive away, and other enemies besides. These others were Carthaginians from the North of Africa, who were often very tiresome neighbours of Syracuse.

The Corinthians were glad to help the Syracusians. Timoleon, who hated tyrants so much, seemed to them the right man to send against the Syracusan tyrant Dionysius. So they made him general of the army which they sent. When he reached Sicily, he had much fighting to do. It was not very long before the chief among his enemies, Dionysius and Hiketas, quarrelled with one another. They hated each other so much that Dionysius chose to yield to Timoleon rather than to trust Hiketas any longer.

So in a very humble way he came to Timoleon's camp as prisoner. Timoleon sent him to Corinth with one ship only, so great was the change of fortune for a man who had been the wealthiest tyrant in the world. In Corinth he lived in a mean and poor way, giving lessons to little children, or, as others tell us, to poor singing-girls; and at times drinking and talking gossip in a butcher's or a barber's shop to any one that would stop to talk to him. Visitors to Corinth used to go and see him, so wonderful did it seem to every one that a man who had been so great in the world should be happy to live such a mean and sordid life. For Dionysius looked always as if he were happy enough.

But we must return to Timoleon. Even after Dionysius was gone, Timoleon had still much fighting to do. Yet he took the great city of Syracuse in less than two months after leaving Corinth. Then Hiketas quarrelled with the Carthaginians, and went to his own city of Leontini. Hither Timoleon followed him, and after hard fighting defeated him. Then he was free to turn against the Carthaginians. He meant to drive them right out of the island. So he made ready to fight them; but in the meantime a great many more Carthaginians had come across to Sicily, and were landing in thousands at Lilybmum.

Timoleon and eagles


The Sicilians were so frightened that only three thousand of them would help Timoleon to fight. Besides these he had four thousand hired soldiers. But one thousand of these ran away in fright, crying out that Timoleon must be mad to think of fighting against seventy thousand men with but six thousand.

If he was mad, there was much method in his madness, for he cheered on his six thousand, and led them to the banks of the river Crimesus. He was glad the others had left him, for he had no use for cowards when he had such a mighty foe to meet.

As they drew near the river, expecting to see the enemy in a few moments, they met men leading mules loaded with baskets of parsley. At that time in Sicily people placed parsley on the graves of their dead friends, just as nowadays we place everlastings. The Sicilians were simple people, and they thought that parsley was a bad omen. You know that sometimes your old nurse has told you, when you see a beetle running across the road when you are out for a walk in the country, that "it is a bad omen, for it means rain"; or again, when the cat washes itself, and rubs its paw over its ears, "it is a bad omen," for again it means that it will rain. Well, in the same way, the Sicilian soldiers said to Timoleon, "This parsley is a bad omen, for it means we are all soon to be in our graves."

But Timoleon said, "In my country we crown the victors with parsley, and these mules have brought us parsley to make ourselves crowns ready to wear after we have beaten the enemy." And he went up to the mules, pulled some parsley from their load, and twisting it into a crown for himself, put it on his head. When his officers and soldiers saw this, they ran and took parsley also, and went forward bravely towards the enemy.

Just then two eagles came flying towards them. One of them held a snake in its talons, which it had killed. It was always a good omen to be met by eagles. So the soldiers thanked the gods for sending them these signs, and prayed them for help to win a great victory. How the gods answered their prayers, you will soon hear. And now the little army went on more bravely than before. But Timoleon did not think it wise to fight the whole army of the enemy at once with his small troop. So he waited till the Carthaginians began to cross the river, and when some of them had crossed, but were still in disorder, he attacked them with fury.

The Carthaginians fought bravely, almost as bravely as the Sicilians, so that it is doubtful which side would have won had not a terrible thunderstorm burst upon the two armies. Rain and hail descended in torrents, beating upon the faces of the Carthaginians, so that they could not see what they were doing. Then the hail made so much noise as it rattled down upon their shields that they could not hear their own officers giving them orders. Further, they wore heavy clothes and armour, and when these got full of water, the Greeks could easily send them over on their backs on to the ground. They were so heavy with the wet that they could not get up again, and so were killed. The river too was in flood, and its waters came up above its banks, and spread all over the field in which they were fighting. So often the men that were knocked down were drowned by the water into which they fell. Terrified by all these things, those that had not fallen turned tail and ran away. But the Sicilians were more lightly armed, and could run faster. So they caught and killed many.

Timoleon's soldiers picked up many beautiful and precious things of gold and silver after the battle was over, and sent much of this home to Corinth to be hung up in a temple, as an offering to the gods, "who had given them the victory."

The Carthaginians left Sicily after this defeat, and for thirty years they did not trouble its people again.

Timoleon had still a few more tyrants to crush. But after he had defeated them all, he settled down to end his days happily among the Syracusans in their beautiful city. They gave him a magnificent house in the city to live in, and a very beautiful one in the country. In this he spent most of his time, for he was growing old and weary, and he wanted the Syracusans to feel free to do what they thought right without him. Yet they liked to ask his advice about everything they did, and often went out to his country-house to visit him and to take strangers to see their dear hero.

His wife and family came from Corinth to live with him as soon as his wars were over, for he would not go back to Corinth.

It was in the midst of all this happiness that he went blind. The blindness had been coming on for a few years, since a white speck had appeared on one of his eyes during his wars against the Sicilian tyrants. But he did not mind it very much, for his work was done, and he felt that it had been blessed by the gods.

A few years later he died quietly in his bed, after a short illness; and was followed to the grave by a loving and grateful people. A monument in his honour was set up in the market-place, and a large block of buildings was afterwards added in which the young men of the city took their exercise. This was called the Timoleonteum, and for long it served as a memorial to Timoleon.