Once, Frederick the Great toured one of the prisons in Berlin. Seeing their king pass, every prisoner pled their case before him, begging him to pardon them, claiming that they were innocent of every crime. He ignored them all, until he came to one prisoner, quiet in his cell. Intrigued, Fritz asked him why he was there.
“Armed robbery,” replied the prisoner.
“And are you guilty?” asked the king.
“Yes, indeed, Your Majesty. I deserve my punishment.”
Frederick called to the guards. “Remove this man from this prison at once,” he declared. “I won’t have this guilty scoundrel kept in this prison where he will corrupt all these innocent men who occupy it.”
Dionysius I was Tyrant of Syracuse, infamous for his cruelty and paranoia. He did, however, seek to surround himself with literary men, including Philoxenus, whose own life is of interest. He was enslaved by the Athenians and made his way into the household of the poet Melanippides, who educated and manumitted him. Evidently, his education included poetry, for Philoxenus was famous and skilled enough for no less than Alexander the Great to send for his poems while campaigning in Asia.
Once, though, Philoxenus criticized Dionysius’s poem, and for this crime, was sent to work in the quarries. After some time, Dionysius relented, encouraged by his friends, and allowed the poet to return to court. Dionysius recited a new poem and asked Philoxenus for his opinion.
Philoxenus replied, “Take me back to the quarries.”
Athens had a practice known as ostracism, where the citizens could banish someone for ten years if they were thought to be harmful to the city. At one of the votes, an illiterate citizen approached Aristides, known as the Just, and asked him whether he could write down a name for him upon his shard (for that was how they voted.) Aristides agreed to do so, and asked the man for the name.
“Aristides,” replied the citizen, not recognizing to whom he spoke.
“How has Aristides wronged you, that you desire him exiled?” asked Aristides, having no memory of harming the man.
“Not at all,” replied the man, “but I am sick of always hearing him called the Just.”
Aristides said nothing, but wrote down his own name upon the citizen’s potsherd, proving his appellation.
Frederick II, King of Prussia, once visited a fortress prison. Every prisoner, upon seeing the king, dropped to their knees and begged for mercy, pleading their innocence, in the hopes of being set free. Then the king passed by one cell with a quiet prisoner, who neither took notice of Frederick nor spoke to him.
“You there!” spake the king. “Aren’t you going to tell me you’re innocent and don’t deserve to be here?”
“No, sire. I committed my crime and I deserve my fate.”
Impressed by the man’s honesty Frederick called to the wardens. “Wardens! Take this man out of here! I won’t have this guilty man corrupting all these innocent people.”