our steps approach

The rich and blessed hearth of Hieron,

Who wields his rod of justice

In Sicily, land of rich flocks

(Pindar, from First Olympian Ode,
trans. G. S. Conway and
R. Stoneman)

The distinguished scholar Moses Finley (died 1986) was Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge University (1970–9). He was also a child prodigy, taking his first degree of BA at the age of 15—from Syracuse University in New York State. This new-world Syracuse is just one of the hundreds of US towns and cities, both northern and southern, named after famous ancient cities (there is a Rome too not far away from Syracuse). The two most widely distributed, though, are Greek: Athens (as in the State capital of Georgia) and Sparta (Sparta, Tennessee, was the setting for the famous movie of pre-civil rights racial intolerance, starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier, In the Heat of the Night). Syracuse, located between Greece and Rome, can count as both Greek and Roman.

We have mentioned (in Chapter 6) that the Western Greek colonial world came to be seen as the ‘golden’ West, a space of unusual breadth, fertility, and prosperity—in comparison to the cramped, marginal conditions faced by the typical Greek farmer and his family in ‘Old’ Greece. Together with superior material conditions there went hand-in-hand alleged corporeal superiority: for example, ‘the most beautiful’ man in Greece at the time (round about 515 BCE) when Prince Dorieus of Sparta tried, unsuccessfully, to found a new colony in Sicily was Philippus of Croton; this city in the toe of Italy shortly afterwards destroyed utterly the fabled Sybaris, the city of luxury whence come our ‘sybarite’ and ‘sybaritic’. But—ironic as this may seem today, in light of its more recent history of Mafia-driven mayhem, and, not unconnected, extreme poverty—the destination of choice for Western Greek emigrants from the later eighth century BCE onwards was the island of Sicily. Of all the many new Greek cities founded there it was generally conceded that it was the settlers of Syracuse who had hit the jackpot.

An origins myth had it that the nasty old river Alpheius—male as all ancient Greeek rivers were taken to be—took a fancy to the gorgeous water-nymph Arethusa. Not keen to reciprocate his attentions, she fled his clutches—in a westerly direction, until she fetched up at Syracuse in the form of a perennial fountain of clear-flowing water. This myth was rationalized on the grounds that a stream of clear, non-salt water flowed all the way from the western Peloponnese to the eastern shore of Sicily. The one core element of empirical fact in the whole farrago was that a clearwater fountain did indeed flow at Syracuse, and more precisely on the small offshore islet of Ortygia (‘Quail Isle’), and the hard—well, liquid—historical fact the myth was designed to ‘explain’ was that the first settlers of Syracuse had settled on Ortygia precisely because of the presence of the fountain they named Arethusa (which may mean ‘fast flowing’ etymologically). Traditional ancient Greek chronographies assigned a date of what we call 733 BCEto the foundation, and that date is confirmed, as nearly as may be, by archaeology, which has also uncovered traces of what are probably the foundations of the very first settlers’ homes on Ortygia.

The founders came from old Greece, from the Peloponnese indeed, but not from where the Alpheius took his rise (Arcadia) nor from where he flowed into the sea (the region of which Elis would become the principal city). They came rather from Corinth, or, to be more precise still, from the small inland village of Tenea. One thing all descendants of emigrants to new worlds remember is exactly where their ancestors came from in the ‘old country’. Corinth was the ‘big city’, the name of the polis of which Tenea was a small and insignificant constituent, and an anecdote (plausible in principle, however embellished) has even preserved what was probably the major motive behind this act of Western ‘colonization’. On the boat over, one founding emigrant was so desperately hungry that he bartered away his golden prospects (in the form of a much larger and viable plot of agricultural land in eastern Sicily’s grain belt) in exchange for the immediate satisfaction of a honey cake. We can only hope it was a large one and that he enjoyed it. In other words, what drove the foundation of Syracuse was poverty at home in the Corinthia, a territory of only some 90 square kilometres in all. But it was not poverty alone that did this, and it was besides a poverty bred partly of success rather than simple economic failure.

In the 730s the ruling group in the new polis of Corinth was a single extended aristocratic family, that of the Bacchiads, who took their name from a supposed progenitor called Bacchis. They were personally extremely wealthy, basically in agricultural land, but also because they were exploiting without stint the passing trade that used one or other of Corinth’s two ports on either side of the Isthmus dividing the Peloponnese from central-mainland Greece: Lechaeum on the Corinthian Gulf, pointing westwards, and Cenchreae, on the Saronic Gulf looking east. It would have been from Lechaeum that the prospective Syracuse settlers set off, as did those traders from the Aegean area aiming at Western markets who wished to avoid the gale-blown shipwrecking terrors of CapeMalea (at the foot of the easternmost of the three southern ‘prongs’ of the Peloponnese).

Corinth as a whole in Homer had been given the formulaic epithet ‘Wealthy’, but under the Bacchiads’ regime the great and increasing wealth of the city was concentrated in a very few hands. As population increased, here as elsewhere in mainland Greece in the second half of the eighth century, so (the majority of) inhabitants owning or working only small plots of land became squeezed beyond endurance. The situation was aggravated by the Greeks’ practice of partible inheritance—equal inheritance, that is, among all legitimate sons (daughters, except in Sparta, tended to be awarded dowries rather than inheritances, and in media other than real estate). So, if a family had two or more sons, pressure and opportunity might combine to recommend that the younger one(s) made a new start, a new life, in the colonial West, in ‘Great Hellas’ (southern Italy) or Sicily. And if they did not go voluntarily, then they might have to be compelled to go, at the behest either of gods or of men—the men in Corinth’s case being the Bacchiad dynasty. It was probably one of their number, Archias, who was appointed leader of the foundation and who received the posthumous recognition as a worshipped hero that was a founder’s compensatory due.

The best-known example of a divinely authorized colonial foundation occurred more or less exactly a century later than the foundation of Syracuse. The island of Thera (Santorini today) allegedly experienced seven successive years of total drought—the figure is suspiciously symbolic, but even two successive years might have been sufficient. Apollo, Lord of Delphi, the recognized authority on such matters, ordered a Theran called Battus (or Aristotle) to lead a colony to Cyrene in north Africa (modern Libya). The Therans themselves, however, were far from keen to go—they were not even convinced when Apollo told them through the medium of the Pythia priestess that he knew the site, as he’d been there personally! So they settled to start with on an offshore islet, then tried to return home as meteorological conditions there had improved. But the stay-at-home Therans took a hard line and drove the recusants off, reminding them that they’d sworn a religious oath not to return to Thera ever, and that the original colonists had been selected by the powerfully objective, religiously inflected mechanism of the lottery. And in the end, stepping tremulously on African soil but finding a warm welcome from the locals who actually pointed out to them the most favourable site to settle, the settlers of what became Cyrene prospered mightily, from a combination of traditional Mediterranean agriculture, sheep- and horse-rearing and the export of wool and horses, and the cultivation and export of a medicinal plant (now extinct) called silphium. The city experienced severe internal political upheavals in the sixth century, but prospered none the less, and in the fifth century BCE the praise-poets Pindar and Bacchylides both numbered wealthy victors at the Panhellenic games from Cyrene among their clients.

If anything, Syracuse was even more of a success-story than Cyrene. It grew to be the largest, most wealthy and powerful of all the Sicilian Greek cities, commanding the second largest territory in the entire Greek world (some 4,000 square kilometres, second only to Sparta’s) and the forced labour of large numbers of the local native Sicel population, whom—somewhat along Spartan lines—they reduced to a form of serfdom and called Cillyrii (or Callicyrii). The Sicels it was who gave their name to the island as a whole, but they were just one of four separate population groups occupying the island before the first Greek permanent settlers came (Euboeans from Naxus—not to be confused with the Aegean island of the same name; other Euboeans from Chalcis and Eretria had already founded Pithecusae and Cumae in the bay of Naples). Apart from the Sicels, there were the Sicans in central Sicily, and on top of them the Elymians of the southwest, in the region where Selinus became the most important Greek foundation.

And then, parallel in many ways to the Greek incomers, there were the Phoenicians of the far west, who—like their compatriots who had founded Carthage (in modern Tunisia) and settled Sardinia and eastern Spain well before any Greeks got that far—had already founded, for example, Panormus (now Palermo) and Motya (Mozia). At key periods of Sicily’s Classical history it was battles between the Phoenician and the Greek settlements—the former sometimes aided and abetted by considerable forces from Carthage, and from Carthage’s mother city, Tyre, and other cities of the Lebanese homeland; the latter only by relatively smaller forces of hired mercenaries—that decided the entire island’s fate. One of those occurred at the Battle of (Greek) Himera in the northwest in 480 BCE, allegedly on the very same August day as the Battle of Salamis.

It is possible even that there was some co-ordination between Phoenicians, who were subjects of Xerxes’s empire and the mainstay of his Mediterranean fleet, and Persians in the timing of their attacks. At any rate, from the ‘patriotic’ Greek side in Sicily a figure full of self-importance and admittedly considerable genuine power made representations in spring 480 to where the (few) loyalist Greeks of the old country were in conclave, at the isthmus of Corinth, trying to thrash out their response to the impending Persian invasion from the north. He offered the support of the considerable armed forces at his command, but on one condition, so it was said: that he be made joint overall commander, on equal terms, of the loyalist Greek resistance. That offer, or rather that condition, was rejected with contumely, above all by Sparta, the leader by divine election of ‘the Greeks’, as the resisters simply called themselves. Gelon, for such was his name, returned to his seat of Sicilian power and prepared for the coming of the Carthaginians, which he met and rebuffed with total success.

Gelon derived his name apparently from his native polis, the Sicilian Greek city of Gela founded by islanders from Crete and Rhodes traditionally in 688. But Gelon transformed himself into a Syracusan by adoption, since Syracuse alone could offer the necessary power base for a man of his ambition. And the very nature of his rule—and not his alone, by any means—calls into question how deeply the republican polis as known in mainland Greece and the Aegean had managed to sink roots into Sicilian soil. For example, within a few generations of the foundation of Selinus in the west the city was being ruled by a tyrant—a non-elected, non-responsible autocratic ruler—who has left a still visible mark on the place in the shape of the most important Temple (‘C’), constructed in about 560. And Gelon too, like his patron Hippocrates before him, was a tyrant, first of Gela (after Hippocrates’s death in 491), and then of Syracuse, to which he transferred half of Gela’s population, while installing his brother Hieron as tyrant of Gela. To extend his reach in eastern and southern Sicily he married a daughter of Theron, tyrant ruler of Acragas, concluded an alliance with Leontini, and doubled the home territory of Syracuse by conquest and incorporation. It was probably the Phoenician-Sicilians’ fear that he might extend his sway yet further, to the north and the west of the island, that prompted the invasion that culminated in the crushing defeat, for them, at Himera.

Greeks liked to place badges or emblems of their civic identity on their official coinages. The canting symbol and numismatic signifier of Himera was a cock—since Himera sounded like the Greek word for ‘day’; and we can be sure that the Himerans crowed long and loud over their defeated adversaries of 480. But Himera’s coinage paled, both in weight (that is, value) and in beauty of execution, beside that of Syracuse, unsurprisingly. In an act of spectacularly effulgent self-advertisement the city issued a series of silver decadrachms, ten-drachma pieces, at a time when a single drachma would have comfortably kept alive a family of four for several days. On the obverse appears characteristically the head of the nymph Arethusa, surrounded by darting dolphins (Plate 13). The most spectacular of all are dated around 470 BCE, by which time Gelon had died (478) and his younger brother Hieron had taken over (‘succeeded’ would give the wrong impression) from him at Syracuse.

Like his brother, Hieron extended his reach through a dynastic marriage-alliance, but his ambitions extended beyond Sicily to south Italy, since he wed the daughter of the tyrant-ruler of Rhegium, just across the straits of Messina—a man claiming kinship with the Messenians of the Peloponnese who languished under Sparta’s iron heel as Helots. Indeed, in 474 Hieron took on the Etruscans in a sea-battle off Greek Cumae in the bay of Naples—and won: as token of his Hellenism and as a war-trophy, he dedicated a captured Etruscan bronze helmet to Zeus at Olympia—one up on Miltiades of Marathon, who had dedicated there his own, suitably inscribed bronze helmet (Plate 21). A brother of his, Polyzalus, tyrant of Gela, about the same time offered up a magnificent bronze sculpture-group to Apollo of Delphi, in thank-offering for a victory in the most prestigious and costly four-horse chariot-race at the Pythian Games (478 or 474).

Like Gelon, too, Hieron played fast and loose during the twelve years of his rule (478–466) with the Greek city-populations within his ambit. He destroyed Naxus, the oldest Greek settlement of Sicily, and Catane too; their surviving inhabitants he ‘resettled’ in Leontini. Having first annihilated Catane, however, in a seeming act of restitution or perhaps just because he wanted to be worshipped after his death as a founder-hero, he then resurrected it in 474—under a new name: Aetna, in tribute to the eponymous volcano that had erupted significantly only a year or so earlier. He persuaded Pindar to write a celebratory ode, and, less predictably, specially commissioned a new play by Aeschylus, his Women of Aetna. Yet far more striking (pun intended) even than those was the unique silver tetradrachm (four-drachma) coin he caused to be produced in about 470 (now in the Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels) (Plate 14).

The identification is given on the obverse by the eight letters spelling out ‘Aitnaiôn’—‘of the citizens of Aetna’—distributed on either side of a bushy-bearded, ivy-crowned Silenus (elderly satyr, part-man, part-beast, all wine-fuelled sexual lust), below whose neck nestles a peculiarly large and local type of dung-beetle. On the reverse is shown a Zeus of Mount Etna, seated in majesty on an elaborately carved throne draped with a panther’s skin, his right arm resting on a vine-staff, his left sinisterly grasping his trademark thunderbolt. In front of him rises a tree, probably of the sole native species of fir, atop which perches an eagle—the king of the birds of the air, symbolizing the King of Gods and Men. Hieron, styling himself Hieron of Aetna, also sent an inscribed Greek-made helmet to Olympia, presumably also booty but this one taken from Greek opponents; it went as a dedication to the other, far more famous and long-established mountain Zeus, of Mount Olympus. Hieron’s Pan-hellenic superstar-status must have seemed untouchable to him, but that was not how it seemed to his rivals in Acragas and elsewhere, and it did not outlast his death in 466. For when he died, something really rather extraordinary happened: what Moses Finley in his history of ancient Sicily nicely labelled a ‘democratic interlude’.

The roots of democracy in Sicily are difficult if not impossible to locate in Sicily itself. Whereas democracy was Athens’s own native invention, at Syracuse it was surely a foreign import—and presumably from Athens (where Themistocles, a keen personal exporter of democracy to Argos, had already been showing a keen interest in the West long before his death in the 460s). But, oddly quickly, the alien-born graft seems to have taken, both institutionally and culturally. A local form of popular comic drama associated with Epicharmus flourished at Syracuse, as at Athens, and it was two Syracusans, Tisias and Corax, who were credited with some sort of formalization of the rules of public rhetoric—the type of communication that was fundamental to the successful working of a direct, face-to-face, Greek-style democracy. Probably not coincidentally, it was another Sicilian Greek, Gorgias from Leontini, who in 427 introduced Athenians to the full blooms of rhetorical florescence.

Elsewhere in Sicily too there are signs of great prosperity in the middle decades of the fifth century—the mute testimony of a huge number of massive temples at Acragas, or the recently raised remains of a sewn-planked merchantman bearing a precious cargo of Athenian and Peloponnesian amphorae, drinking-cups, oil lamps, and woven baskets towards Gela, are impressive enough. And that was on top of Sicily’s own natural resources of grain—for example, Gela, where Aeschylus died in 456, bears the epithet ‘wheat-bearing’ in the great tragedian’s moving epitaph. So it came about that imperial democratic Athens, charged with feeding an ever-growing population with ever-increasing amounts of imported grain, began to cast its eyes longingly westwards, to south Italy and Sicily, with an eye both to Western grain imports and to Western timber for shipbuilding. Treaties, the texts of which have survived on stone, were sworn between the Athenians and the ‘Ionian’ Greeks of Rhegium and east Sicilian Leontini, but also, more curiously,with the non-Greek Elymians of Segesta in the far south-west of the island. And, among the precipitating causes of a conflict between Athens and Sparta (‘the Peloponnesian War’) that initially affected only the Greek mainland and Aegean, Thucydides placed first the dispute which broke out in the later 430s between Corinth and the Corinthians’ own foundation of Corcyra (Corfu), over Epidamnus (Durazzo/Durrës in modern Albania). This conflict in turn drew Athens in on Corcyra’s side, precisely because Corcyra lay on the lucrative Western route, but also because it possessed Greece’s second largest trireme warfleet and, last and least, was a democracy.

During the first, ten-year phase of the Peloponnesian War, Athens made a quite serious attempt at establishing a firm presence in Sicily, but this backfired to such an extent that it produced the virtually unthinkable—a show of political unity among the Sicilian Greeks, demonstrated by a congress at Gela that was dominated by a politician from democratic Syracuse. Almost ten years later, in a period of ‘phoney’ peace with Sparta, Athens reawakened its interest in Sicily, and especially in taking Syracuse down if not out. This was partly for reasonably sound strategic reasons: increased availability of Sicilian resources might well be decisive in any renewed conflict with Sparta. But alongside these, there were flying around crazy notions of extending imperial domination to all Sicily, and possibly even from there to Carthage…Small wonder that Aristophanes satirized this castle-building in the air in his comedy Birds of 414.

Thucydides took almost the opposite, tragic tack. He emphasized Athens’s hybristic ignorance of conditions in Sicily, and not least in Syracuse itself, a city comparable in size, wealth, and population and, what’s more, like Athens a democracy, so unsusceptible to any Athenian charm offensive promising to the masses democratic liberation from an oppressive oligarchy—or tyranny. Within eighteen months all Athens’s highest hopes had been shattered, the end militarily coming in a huge naval battle in Syracuse’s great harbour. Out of so many, Thucydides epigrammatically put it, so few returned to Athens. Many indeed languished and died in the fossil-ridden limestone quarries of Syracuse, as miserable prisoners of war unaided by any Geneva Convention. The story went that some Athenians made a lucky escape because they could recite from memory the latest choruses of Euripides to their tragedy-mad captors, but those who knew only Aristophanes were presumably less fortunate.

Politically, Syracuse and Athens at first went opposite ways—Syracuse becoming more radically democratic, Athens undergoing two bouts of oligarchic reaction, coupled fatally with final defeat by Sparta in 404. But Athens was not Syracuse’s only foreign opponent to contend with in these last decades of the fifth century. Very much not. In 409, the Carthaginians tried again, in order to redress their failure of 480. At Athens, from 413 on, the question had been asked—can a democracy run an empire and win a major war? The eventual answer, in 404, was a resounding negative. At Syracuse, even before an external military defeat had been inflicted, a major political defeat was suffered by the pro-democratic forces, and in 405 the democratic interlude came abruptly to an end as the Carthaginian threat intensified.

Syracuse and all Greek Sicily, it was argued, needed a single strong man, a generalissimo who could knock the Greeks’ heads together and mould them into a coherent force of resistance. Unlike the resistance of 480 to the Persians, this was not to be danced to the tune of ‘Battlecry of Freedom’. Cold pragmatism was the order of the day, and the man who emerged as the General Washington of the Sicilian Greeks of the late fifth century BCE was one Dionysius, posthumously Dionysius I, since he managed to set up some sort of monarchical succession based on birth. In short, Syracuse and Sicily had reverted to tyranny, and the tyranny of Dionysius was sufficiently long (405–367) and sufficiently successful (he not only beat off the Carthaginians but established a sort of mini-empire on the Adriatic coast of Italy) that it became a sort of archetype of what Tyranny in essence was: an autocracy based on military force supplied by a personal bodyguard and mercenaries; and reinforced by multiple dynastic marriages, the unscrupulous transfer of populations, and the enfranchisement of foreigners. There was a downside, however: constant terror of plots against his life. Sic transit gloria democratica.

The tyrant dynasty of Syracuse did not long outlive Dionysius I; there was even a democratic revival of sorts in the mid-century, including a forcible redistribution of land and houses in favour of the poor. But the future of the Greek world was to lie in the hands, not of republican regimes, whether democratic or oligarchic, but of political strong men whom the Greeks called ‘dynasts’. In the wake of Dionysius of Syracuse followed the non-Greek but strongly hellenized dynast Mausolus of Caria in south-west Asia Minor: a vassal of Persia, he moved his capital from the interior to Greek Halicarnassus on the coast and was buried there in 353/2 in the aboriginal and eponymous Mausoleum, a fabulously ornate tomb commissioned by his sister-wife Artemisia and decorated by the very best Greek sculptors of the day, including Scopas from the Aegean marble island of Paros. But even this magnificence paled by comparison with that of the greatest dynast of them all to date, Philip of Macedon, under whose sway by the 330s all mainland Greece had fallen.

To enshrine and perpetuate his rule of Greece, Philip founded in 338/7 the League of Corinth (see Chapter 11). Shortly thereafter, a citizen of that latter city, Timoleon, was dispatched to help its daughter-city Syracuse out of the terrible economic and political mess it had got itself into. This was a neat reminder of how the close sentimental tie that normally subsisted between a metropolis and its ‘colony’ might be translated into effective reciprocal political action. Indeed, such was Timoleon’s success there, and elsewhere in Greek Sicily, that he became in effect Syracuse’s second Founder, and was buried in the Agora of Syracuse in the mid-330s as if he really were.

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