Story of the Greek People - E. M. Tappan

The Greek Colonies: the Tyrants

The games did much to unite the Greeks and bind them to the fatherland, but, nevertheless, large numbers of them had left their homes and gone to other countries. There were three reasons for this emigration. One was that the cities were growing; many persons who had become wealthy had little share in the government, and they were dissatisfied and restless. A second reason was that those who were not rich were becoming more and more eager to make their fortunes as soon as possible. There were better opportunities to do this in the less settled lands than in Greece itself. Third, the Greeks liked adventure, and therefore a company could always be found ready to go to the eastward or even to sail away to see what might be discovered in the wonderland of the far west, that is, in Italy or Sicily or Sardinia. They could land and establish a colony almost wherever they chose, for few of the tribes living along the coast of the Mediterranean valued the shore or the harbors. Indeed, they were often glad to have the strangers come to their lands to trade with them. So it came about that between 750 B.C. and 600 B.C. Greek colonies were founded by the score. Men who wished to mine for silver and gold, went to Macedonia. Those who meant to buy fish or cattle or grain or slaves, sailed to the shores of the Euxine, or Black Sea. Those who expected to get rich by trading in amber and tin, journeyed to the coast of what is now called France; for those valuable articles could easily be brought from the north down the river Rhone. In earlier times settlements had been made on the islands and shores of the Ăgean Sea, and now on the islands to the west of Greece, on the shores of Africa, in the Delta of the Nile,—wherever a company of Greeks thought there was a good chance for trade, there Greek colonies were established.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Apollo was the god of colonizing, and of course no colonists would set out before asking the advice of the oracle at Delphi. This advice was exceedingly valuable, for people from far near came to consult the oracle, and the priests had much better opportunities to learn about the different countries than other men. When a band of Greeks who wished to found a colony asked the oracle about the place to which they meant to go, they would perhaps learn that the land was not fertile, or that the natives were savage and warlike, or that there were no good harbors on that coast. Then the colonists would change their plans and choose some other place for their settlement.



Generally the colonists of any one company came from the same city. They always carried with them some embers from the sacred fires of their home town, and with these they kindled the altar fires of their new home. They were not governed by the old city, however, but were free to rule themselves as they thought best. The colonies were not crowded: there was room for people to live in their own way. The thoughts of the colonists were more original and more bold; and for a long while the poets and philosophers of the colonies and the islands were greater than those of the mainland of Greece. The little island of Lesbos was the home of the poet AlcŠus and the poetess Sappho. AlcŠus wrote chiefly on political subjects, but he found time to compose a poem to Sappho, in which he called her "violet-weaving, pure, sweet-smiling Sappho." Sappho herself wrote such beautiful poems that people spoke of her, not as a poetess, but as the poetess. One pretty fancy of hers was:—

"The stars around the lovely moon

Fade back and vanish very soon,

When, round and full, her silver face

Swims into sight, and lights all space."

The greatest philosopher of the time, Pythagoras, was also born on one of the Greek islands, Samos, a bit of land only twenty-seven miles long. "What is a philosopher?" he was once asked by a king; and he replied: "At the games some try to win glory, some buy and sell for money, and some watch what the others do. So it is in life; and philosophers are those who watch, who study nature, and search for wisdom." There are many absurd stories about Pythagoras. One is that he tamed a savage bear by speaking to it; another that, as he was crossing a river, the stream cried out, "Hail, Pythagoras!" Even though he did not tame bears with a word or listen to the greetings of rivers, the stories show what a remarkable man people thought him. He was a deep thinker and very learned in mathematics. Some of his teachings, however, were most fanciful; for instance, he thought that, as the planets rolled on in their courses, they made a delightful harmony. "Why, then, do we not hear it?" questioned his disciples. "Because the music is too delicate for the ears of men," was his reply. One of his wise sayings was, "Stir not a fire with a sword"; that is, If any one is angry, do not add to his wrath. Another was, "Leave not your post without the command of the general"; that is, Do not take your own life.

This colonizing went on, as has been said, between 750 B.C. and 600 B.C. During nearly those same years, most of the Greek states were changing their government. In the early days they had all been ruled by kings. The power of the kings grew less and less, and at length in nearly every country a few of the strongest families, owners of large estates, took the rule into their own hands. The government then became an oligarchy, that is, government by the few. These "few" claimed to be descendants of the heroes, and to be far greater and wiser than the common folk around them. The common folk did not always agree with them, and in most states some leader arose after a while who became ruler. Such a ruler was called a tyrant, that is, one whose power is above the laws.



In one way the rule of the tyrants was good for the states, for to win the favor of the gods they built many handsome temples. The building of these and other public works made the cities far more beautiful than when the kings were in power, and also provided work for the people. Some of the tyrants were more kind than the kings had been; nevertheless, the Greeks did not like the idea of being ruled without law and according to the whim of any one man, and the tyrannies seldom lasted long. Sparta, indeed, never had a tyrant, and she was always ready to increase her power by helping drive out one from any other state.

One of the most famous tyrants was Polycrates of Samos, who seemed for a long while to be the luckiest man in the world. He seized the throne in one island after another, and even with the help of Sparta the people could do nothing against him. He built a fleet of one hundred ships, and whenever a galley with a specially rich cargo was heard of, some of these fast-sailing vessels would pursue it and bring back to the tyrant a great load of treasure. Whatever he undertook succeeded, and finally his friend, the king of Egypt, wrote him: "The gods will surely be jealous of your prosperity. Give up, I pray you, whatever you value most highly, that they may not be envious and do you a harm." The thing that Polycrates looked upon as his rarest treasure was a splendid emerald signet ring, and he threw this into the sea. "Surely, the gods will not envy me now," he said to himself regretfully, as he gazed at the place where his ring had disappeared. A few days later, a fisherman brought him a great fish for a present. Behold, when the fish was opened, there lay the emerald ring. When the king of Egypt heard of this, he thought, "The gods refuse his, offering. I can no longer be his ally, for certainly some terrible misfortune is about to befall him." The prediction came true, for Polycrates fell into the hands of an enemy, who put him to death by crucifixion.

[Ilustration] from Story of the Greek People by E. M. Tappan


Another famous tyrant was Dionysius of Syracuse, who lived more than a century after Polycrates. He was cruel and revengeful, but one pleasant story is told of his rule. A man named Pythias conspired against him and was sentenced to death. Pythias begged for a few days of freedom, to arrange some business affair. "My friend Damon will take my place," he said, "and if I do not return, he will die in my stead." Dionysius scoffed at the idea of such friendship, but he was so curious to see what the result would be that he agreed to the exchange. The time for the execution drew near, but Pythias was not to be seen. At the last moment he appeared, breathless with haste, for some unexpected obstacle had delayed him. The story declares that Dionysius was so moved by this unselfish affection that he pardoned Pythias and begged that he might become a third in their friendship.


Many Greek colonies had been founded.

The oracles were of great value to the colonists.

Poetry and philosophy flourished in the colonies. Lesbos was the home of AlcŠus and of Sappho; Samos, of Pythagoras.

The colonizing went on between 750 B.C. and 600 B.C.

Most of the Greek states became oligarchies, then fell into the hands of tyrants. One famous tyrant was Polycrates of Samos. Another, who lived later, was Dionysius of Syracuse.

Suggestions For Written Work

A Greek tells why he wishes to become a colonist.

The king of Egypt relates the story of Polycrates.

Dionysius tells about Damon and Pythias.