The Greeks, as you know, had founded colonies all along the coast of Asia Minor and on many of the islands. They had also sailed as far as Italy and Sicily, where they built many towns.
Little by little these colonies grew richer and stronger. As the Greek settlers increased in number, they claimed more and more land. In Sicily and southern Italy the soil was so fertile that the people soon grew very rich; and, as they had vessels in plenty, they traded everywhere, and became noted for their commercial enterprise.
The first of the Greek colonies in southern Italy was the city of Sybaris. It was so prosperous that the people had more money than they knew what to do with; and they spent large sums in making their houses beautiful and in securing every comfort.
The Sybarites soon became so luxurious in their habits, that they were noted all over the country for their love of ease. We are told that one Sybarite, for instance, once ordered his slaves to prepare a couch for him of fresh rose leaves.
When it was ready, he stretched himself out upon it and slept. In a short time he awoke with cries of great distress, saying that he could not sleep because a rose leaf was crumpled under him, and chafed his tender skin.
Ever since then, when people make a great fuss about a trifle, they are apt to hear the remark, “‘Tis the crumpled rose leaf!” and when they spend too much thought upon their bodily comfort, and indulge in too much luxury, they are called Sybarites.
The people of this town continued to flourish for some time, but they finally quarreled with the neighboring colony of Croton. A war followed, in which the ease-loving Sybarites were defeated and their city was destroyed.
Croton and Tarentum on the mainland, and Messina and Syracuse on the Island of Sicily, were now the principal colonies. They were all very rich and prosperous, so Alcibiades told the Athenians that it would be a good plan to send out a fleet to conquer and annex them.
Nicias and his party opposed this plan; but when it was put to the vote, it was found that the eloquence of Alcibiades had prevailed. A large fleet was prepared, and Nicias, Lamachus, and Alcibiades were chosen generals of the expedition. The fleet was on the point of sailing out of the Piraeus, when the Athenians found out that all the statues of their god Hermes, which were used as boundary marks and milestones, had been shamefully broken.
The excited people assembled on the market place to discuss this event; and all cried loudly against it, for the statues were considered sacred, as they represented a god. Alcibiades’ enemies -and he had a number, although he was so popular- now stepped forward, and declared that he had done it after the banquet which he had given to celebrate his departure.
The young man denied having broken the statues, and asked that his trial might take place at once, so that he might prove his innocence before he started out; but, in spite of this urgent request, it was postponed, and he was forced to depart with this cloud hanging over him.