Ancient History & Civilisation


The Hellenistic age faced east and south, and almost ignored the west. Cyrene prospered as usual, having learned that it is better to trade than to war; out of it, in this period, came Callimachus the poet, Eratosthenes the philosopher, and Carneades the philosopher. Greek Italy was worried and weakened by the double challenge of multiplying natives and rising Rome, while Sicily lived in daily fear of the Carthaginian power. Twenty-three years after the coming of Timoleon a rich man’s revolution suppressed the Syracusan democracy, and put the government into the hands of six hundred oligarchic families (320). These divided into factions, and were in turn overthrown by a radical revolution in which four thousand persons were killed and six thousand of the well to do were sent into banishment. Agathocles won dictatorship by promising a cancellation of debts and a redistribution of the land.51 So, periodically, the concentration of wealth becomes extreme, and gets righted by taxation or by revolution.

After forty-seven years of chaos, during which the Carthaginians repeatedly invaded the island, and Pyrrhus came, won, lost, and went, Syracuse by unmerited good fortune fell into the power of Hieron II, the most beneficent of the many dictators thrown up by the passions and turbulence of the Sicilian Greeks. Hieron ruled for fifty-four years, says the astonished Polybius, “without killing, exiling, or injuring a single citizen, which indeed is the most remarkable of all things.”52 Surrounded by all the means of luxury, he led a modest and temperate life, and lived to the age of ninety. On several occasions he wished to resign his authority, but the people begged him to retain it.53 He had the good judgment to make an alliance with Rome, and thereby kept the Carthaginians at bay for half a century. He gave the city order and peace, and considerable freedom; he executed great public works, and without oppressive taxation left a full treasury at his death. Under his protection or patronage Archimedes brought ancient science to its culmination, and Theocritus sang, in the last perfect Greek, the loveliness of Sicily and the expected bounty of its king. Syracuse became now the most populous and prosperous city in Hellas.54

Hieron amused his leisure by watching his artisans, under the supervision of Archimedes, construct for him a pleasure boat that embodied all the shipbuilding art and science of antiquity. It was half a stadium (407 feet) in length; it had a sport deck with a gymnasium and a large marble bath, and a shaded garden deck with a great variety of plants; it was manned by six hundred seamen in twenty groups of oars, and could carry in addition three hundred passengers or marines; it had sixty cabins, some with mosaic floors, and doors of ivory and precious woods; it was elegantly furnished in every part, and was adorned with paintings and statuary. It was protected against attack by armor and turrets; from each of the eight turrets great beams extended, with a hole at the end through which large stones could be dropped upon enemy vessels; throughout its length Archimedes constructed a great catapult capable of hurling stones of three talents’ weight (174 pounds), or arrows twelve cubits (eighteen feet) long. It could carry 3900 tons of cargo, and itself weighed a thousand tons. Hieron had hoped to use it in regular service between Syracuse and Alexandria; but finding it too large for his own docks, and extravagantly expensive to maintain, he filled it with corn and fish from Sicily’s abounding fields and seas, and sent it, vessels and contents, as a gift to Egypt, which was suffering an unusual dearth of corn.55

Hieron died in 216. He had wished to establish a democratic constitution before his death, but his daughters prevailed upon his dotage to bequeath his power to his grandson.56 Hieronymus turned out to be a weakling and a scoundrel; he abandoned the Roman alliance, received envoys from Carthage, and permitted them to become in effect the rulers of Syracuse. Rome, not abounding in corn, prepared to fight Carthage for the wealth of an island that had never learned to govern itself. All the Mediterranean world, like a decaying fruit, prepared to fall into the hands of a greater and more ruthless conqueror than Greek history had ever known.

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