Historical Tales: 10—Greek - Charles Morris

The Tyrants Of Corinth

We have already told what the word "tyrant" meant in Greece,—a despot who set aside the law and ruled at his own pleasure, but who might be mild and gentle in his rule. Such were the tyrants of Sicyon, spoken of in our last tale. The tyrants of Corinth, the state adjoining Sicyon, were of a harsher character. Herodotus, the gossiping old historian, tells some stories about these severe despots which seem worth telling again.

The government of Corinth, like most of the governments of Greece, was in early days an oligarchy,—that is, it was ruled by a number of powerful aristocrats instead of by a single king. In Corinth these belonged to a single family, named the Bacchiadę (or legendary descendants of the god Bacchus), who constantly intermarried, and kept all power to themselves.

But one of this family, Amphion by name, had a daughter, named Labda, whom none of the Bacchiadę would marry, as she had the misfortune to be lame. So she married outside the family, her husband being named Aėtion, and a man of noble descent. Having no children, Aėtion applied to the Delphian oracle, and was told that a son would soon be born to him, and that this son "would, like a rock, fall on the kingly race and right the city of Corinth."

The Bacchiadę heard of this oracle, and likewise knew of an earlier one that had the same significance. Forewarned is forearmed. They remained quiet, waiting until Aėtion's child should be born, and proposing then to take steps for their own safety.

When, therefore, they heard that Labda had borne a son, they sent ten of their followers to Petra (the rock), where Aėtion dwelt, with instructions to kill the child. These assassins entered Aėtion's house, and, with murder in their hearts, asked Labda, with assumed friendliness, if they might see her child. She, looking upon them as friends of her husband, whom kindly feeling had brought thither, gladly complied, and, bringing the infant, laid it in the arms of one of the ruffianly band.

It had been agreed between them that whoever first laid hold of the child should dash it to the ground. But as the innocent intended victim lay in the murderer's arms, it smiled in his face so confidingly that he had not the heart to do the treacherous deed. He passed the child, therefore, on to another, who passed it to a third, and so it went the rounds of the ten, disarming them all by its happy and trusting smile from performing the vile deed for which they had come. In the end they handed the babe back to its mother, and left the house.

Halting just outside the door, a hot dispute arose between them, each blaming the others, and nine of them severely accusing the one whose task it had been to do the cruel deed. He defended himself, saying that no man with a heart in his breast could have done harm to that smiling babe,—certainly not he. In the end they decided to go into the house again, and all take part in the murder.

But they had talked somewhat too long and too loud. Labda had overheard them and divined their dread intent. Filled with fear, lest they should return and murder her child, she seized the infant, and, looking eagerly about for some plane in which she might conceal it, chose a cypsel, or corn-bin, as the place least likely to be searched.

Her choice proved a wise one. The men returned, and, as she refused to tell them where the child was, searched the house in vain,—none of them thinking of looking for an infant in a corn-bin. At length they went away, deciding to report that they had done as they were bidden, and that the child of Aėtion was slain.

The boy, in memory of his escape, was named Cypselus, after the corn-bin. He grew up without further molestation, and on coming to man's estate did what so many of the ancients seemed to have considered necessary, went to Delphi to consult the oracle.

The pythoness, or priestess of Apollo, at his approach, hailed him as king of Corinth. "He and his children, but not his children's children." And the oracle, as was often the case, produced its own accomplishment, for it encouraged Cypselus to head a rebellion against the oligarchy, by which it was overthrown and he made king. For thirty years thereafter he reigned as tyrant of Corinth, with a prosperous but harsh rule. Many of the Corinthians were put to death by him, others robbed of their fortunes, and others banished the state. Then he died and left the government to his son Periander.

Periander began his reign in a mild spirit. But his manner changed after he had sent a herald to Thrasybślus, the tyrant of Miletus, asking his advice how he could best rule with honor and fortune. Thrasybślus led the messenger outside the city and through a field of corn, questioning him as they walked, while, whenever he came to an ear of corn that overtopped its fellows, he broke it off and threw it aside. Thus his path through the field was marked by the downfall of all the tallest stems and ears. Then, returning to the city, he sent the messenger back without a word of answer to his petition.

Periander, on his herald's return, asked him what counsel he brought. "None," was the answer; "not a word. King Thrasybślus acted in the strangest way, destroying his corn as he led me through the field, and sending me away without a word." He proceeded to tell how the monarch had acted.

Periander was quick to gather his brother tyrant's meaning. If he would rule in safety he must cut off the loftiest heads,—signified by the tall ears of corn. He took the advice thus suggested, and from that time on treated his subjects with the greatest cruelty. Many of those whom Cypselus had spared he put to death or banished, and acted the tyrant in the fullest sense of the word.

He even killed his wife Melissa; just why, we do not know. But we are told that she afterwards appeared to him in a dream and said that she was cold, being destitute of clothes. The garments he had buried with her were of no use to her spirit, since they had not been burned. Periander took his own way to quiet and clothe the restless ghost. He proclaimed that all the wives of Corinth should go to the temple of Juno. This they did, dressed in their best, deeming it a festival. When they were all within he closed the doors, and had them stripped of their rich robes and ornaments, which he threw into a pit and set on fire, calling on the name of Melissa as they burned. And in this way the demand of the shivering ghost was satisfied.

Periander had two sons,—the elder a dunce, the younger, Lycophron (or wolf-heart), a youth of noble nature and fine intellect. He sent them on a visit to Proclus, their mother's father, and from him the boys learned, what they had not known before, that their father was their mother's murderer.

This story did not trouble the dull-brained elder, but Lycophron was so affected by it that on his return home he refused to speak to his father, and acted so surlily that Periander in anger turned him out of his house. The tyrant, learning from his elder son the cause of Lycophron's strange behavior, grew still more incensed. He sent orders to those who had given shelter to his son that they should cease to harbor him. And he continued to drive him from shelter to shelter, till in the end he proclaimed that whoever dared to harbor, or even speak to, his rebellious son, should pay a heavy fine to Apollo.

Thus, driven from every house, Lycophron took lodging in the public porticos, where he dwelt without shelter and almost without food. Seeing his wretched state, Periander took pity on him and bade him come home and no longer indulge in such foolish and unfilial behavior.

Lycophron's only reply was that his father had broken his own edict by coming and talking with him, and therefore himself owed the penalty to Apollo.

Periander, seeing that the boy was uncontrollable in his indignation, and troubled at heart by the piteous spectacle, now sent him by ship to the island of Corcyra, a colony of Corinth. As for Proclus, the tyrant made war upon him for his indiscreet revelation, robbed him of his kingdom, Epidaurus, and carried him captive to Corinth.

And the years went on, and Periander grew old and unable properly to handle his affairs. His elder son was incapable of taking his place, so he sent to Corcyra and asked Lycophron to come to Corinth and take the kingship of that fair land.

Lycophron, whose indignation time had not cooled, refused even to answer the message. Then Periander sent his daughter, the sister of Lycophron, hoping that she might be able to persuade him. She made a strong appeal, begging him not to let the power pass away from their family and their father's wealth fall into strange hands, and reminding him that mercy was a higher virtue than justice.

Her appeal was in vain. Lycophron refused to go back to Corinth as long as his father remained alive.

Then the desperate old man, at his wits' end through Lycophron's obstinacy, sent a herald, saying that he would himself come to Corcyra, and let his son take his place in Corinth as king. To these terms Lycophron agreed. But there were others to deal with, for, when the terrified Corcyrians heard that the terrible old tyrant was coming to dwell in their island, they rose in a tumult and put Lycophron to death.

And thus ended the dynasty of Cypselus, as the oracle had foretold. Though Periander revenged himself on the Corcyrians, he could not bring his son to life again, and the children's children of Cypselus did not come to the throne.