Ancient History & Civilisation


Despite a full measure of political turbulence, Syracuse, throughout the fourth century, was one of the richest and most powerful cities in Greece. Dionysius I, unscrupulous, treacherous, and vain, was the most capable administrator of his time. By turning the island of Ortygia into a fortress-residence for himself, and walling in the causeway that bound it with the mainland, he had rendered his position almost immune to attack; and by doubling the pay of his soldiers, and leading them to easy victories, he secured from them a personal loyalty that kept him on the throne for thirty-eight years. Having established his government, he changed his early policy of severity to one of conciliatory mildness, and a kind of egalitarian despotism.* He gave choice tracts of land to his officers and his friends, and (as a military measure) assigned nearly all the residences on Ortygia and the causeway to his soldiers; all the remaining soil of Syracuse and its environs he distributed equally among the population, free and slave. Under his guidance Syracuse flourished, though he taxed the people almost as severely as the Assembly taxed the Athenians. When the women became too ornate Dionysius announced that Demeter had appeared to him in a dream and bidden him order all feminine jewelry to be deposited in her temple. He obeyed the goddess, and the women for the most part obeyed him. Soon afterward he “borrowed” the jewelry from Demeter to finance his campaigns.43

For at the bottom of all his plans lay the resolve to expel the Carthaginians from Sicily. Envious of Hannibal’s resort to battering machines in the siege of Selinus, Dionysius gathered into his service the best mechanics and engineers of western Greece, and set them to improve the tools of war. These men invented, among many new engines of offense and defense, the katapeltes, or catapult, for throwing heavy stones and similar projectiles; this and other military innovations passed from Sicily to Greece, and were taken up by Philip of Macedon. A call was sent out for mercenaries, and the armorers of Syracuse manufactured in unheard-of quantities weapons and shields to fit the habits and skills of each group of soldiers engaged. Land battles among the Greeks had heretofore been fought by infantry. Dionysius organized a large body of cavalry, and here, too, gave hints to Philip and Alexander. At the same time he poured funds into the building of two hundred ships, mostly quadriremes or quinqueremes; in speed and power this was such an armada as Greece had never seen.

By 397 all was ready, and Dionysius sent an embassy to Carthage to demand the liberation of all Greek cities in Sicily from Carthaginian rule. Anticipating a refusal, he invited these cities to expel their foreign governments. They did; and still enraged by the memory of Hannibal’s massacres, they put to death, with tortures seldom used by Greeks, all Carthaginians who fell into their hands. Dionysius did his best to stop the carnage, hoping to sell the captives as slaves. Carthage ferried over a vast army under Himilcon, and war went on at intervals in 397, 392, 383, and 368. In the end Carthage recovered all that Dionysius had won from her, and after the bloodshed matters stood as before.

Whether through lust for power, or feeling that only a united Sicily could end Carthaginian rule, Dionysius had meanwhile turned his arms against the Greek cities in the island. Having subjugated them, he crossed over into Italy, conquered Rhegium, and mastered all southwest Italy. He attacked Etruria and took a thousand talents from its temple at Agylla; he planned to plunder the shrine of Apollo at Delphi, but time did not permit. Greece mourned that in the same year (387) liberty had fallen in the west, and in the east had been sold to Persia by the King’s Peace. Three years before, Brennus and the Gauls had stood in triumph at the gates of Rome. Everywhere the barbarians on the fringe of the Greek world were growing stronger; and the ravages of Dionysius in southern Italy paved the way for the conquest of its Greek settlements first by the surrounding natives, and then by the half-barbarous Romans. At the next Olympic games the orator Lysias called upon Greece to denounce the new tyrant. The multitude attacked the tents of Dionysius’ embassy, and refused to hear his poetry.

The same despot who, after capturing Rhegium, offered freedom to its inhabitants if they would bring him nearly all their hoarded wealth as ransom, and then, when the wealth had been surrendered, sold them as slaves, was a man of wide culture, not prouder of his sword than of his pen. When the poet Philoxenus, asked by the dictator for his opinion of the royal verses, pronounced them worthless, Dionysius sentenced him to the quarries. The next day the King repented, had Philoxenus released, and gave a banquet in his honor. But when Dionysius read more of his poetry, and asked Philoxenus to judge it, Philoxenus bade the attendants take him back to the quarries.44 Despite such discouragements Dionysius patronized literature and the arts, and was pleased for a moment to entertain Plato, who was then (387) traveling in Sicily. According to a widespread tradition reported by Diogenes Laertius, the philosopher condemned dictatorship. “Your words,” said Dionysius, “are those of an old dotard.” “Your language,” said Plato, “is that of a tyrant.” Dionysius, we are told, sold him into slavery, but the philosopher was soon ransomed by Anniceris of Cyrene.45

The dictator’s life was ended not by any of the assassins whom he feared, but by his own poetry. In 367 his tragedy, The Ransom of Hector, received first prize at the Athenian Lenaea. Dionysius was so pleased that he feasted with his friends, drank much wine, fell into a fever, and died.

The harassed city, which had borne with him as an alternative to subjection by Carthage, accepted hopefully the succession of his son to the throne. Dionysius II was now a youth of twenty-five, weak in body and mind, and therefore, thought the crafty Syracusans, likely to give them a mild and negligent rule. He had able advisers in Dion his uncle, and Philistius the historian. Dion was a man of wealth, but also a lover of letters and philosophy, and a devoted disciple of Plato. He became a member of the Academy, and lived, at home and abroad, a life of philosophical simplicity. It occurred to him that the malleable youth of the new dictator offered an opportunity of establishing, if not quite the Utopia that Plato had described to him,46 at least a constitutional regime capable of uniting all Sicily for the expulsion of the Carthaginian power. At Dion’s suggestion Dionysius II invited Plato to his court, and submitted himself to Plato’s tutoring.

Doubtless the young autocrat put his best foot forward, and concealed from his teacher that addiction to drink and lechery47 which had drawn from his father the prediction that the dynasty would die with his son. Deceived by the youth’s apparent willingness, Plato led him towards philosophy by its most difficult approaches—mathematics and virtue. The ruler was told, as Confucius had told the Duke of Lu, that the first principle of government is good example, that to improve his people he must make himself a model of intelligence and good will. All the court began to study geometry, and to stand in diplomatic awe over figures traced in the sand. But Philistius, eclipsed by Plato’s ascendancy, whispered to the dictator that all this was merely a plot by which the Athenians, who had failed to conquer Syracuse with an army and a fleet, would capture it through a single man; and that Plato, having taken the impregnable citadel with diagrams and dialogues, would depose Dionysius and put Dion on the throne. Dionysius saw in these whispers an excellent escape from geometry. He banished Dion, confiscated his property, and gave Dion’s wife to a courtier whom she feared. Despite the dictator’s protestations of affection, Plato left Syracuse and joined Dion in Athens. Six years later he returned at the King’s invitation, and pled for Dion’s recall. Dionysius refused, and Plato resigned himself to the Academy.48

In 357 Dion, poor in funds but rich in friends, recruited in mainland Greece a force of eight hundred men, and sailed for Syracuse. Landing secretly, he found the people eager to aid him. With one battle—in which, though he was now fifty, his own heroic fighting turned the tide—he so completely defeated the army of Dionysius that the frightened youth fled to Italy. At this juncture, with Greek impulsiveness, the Syracusan Assembly that he had convened removed Dion from command, lest he should make himself dictator. Dion withdrew peaceably to Leontini; but the forces of Dionysius, liking this turn of events, made a sudden attack upon the popular army, and defeated it. The leaders who had deposed him sent appeals to Dion to hurry back and take charge. He came, won another victory, forgave the men who had opposed him, and then announced a temporary dictatorship as necessary to order. Despite the advice of his friends he refused a personal guard, being “quite ready to die,” he said, “rather than live perpetually on the watch against friends and foes alike.”49 Instead he maintained, amid surroundings of wealth and power, his accustomed modesty of life. For though, says Plutarch,

all things had now succeeded to his wish, yet he desired not to enjoy any present advantage of his good fortune. . . . He was content with a very frugal and moderate competency, and was indeed the wonder of all men, that when not only Sicily and Carthage but all Greece looked to him as in the height of prosperity, and no man living greater than he, no general more renowned for valor and success, yet in his guard, his attendance, his table, he seemed as if he rather communed with Plato in the Academy than lived among hired captains and paid soldiers, whose solace of their toils and dangers it is to eat and drink their fill, and enjoy themselves plentifully every day.50

If we may credit Plato, it was Dion’s aim to establish a constitutional monarchy, to reform Syracusan life and manners on the Spartan model, to rebuild and unify the enslaved or desolate Greek cities of Sicily, and then to expel the Carthaginians from the island. But the Syracusans had set their hearts on democracy, and were no more hungry for virtue than either Dionysius. A friend of Dion murdered him, and chaos broke loose. Dionysius hurried home, recaptured Ortygia and the government, and ruled with the bitter cruelty of a despot deposed and restored.

Undeserved fates come sometimes to individuals, but rarely to nations. The Syracusans appealed for aid to their mother city, Corinth. The call came at a time when a Corinthian of almost legendary nobleness was waiting for a summons to heroism. Timoleon was an aristocrat who so loved liberty that when his brother Timophanes tried to make himself tyrant of Corinth, Timoleon killed him. Cursed by his mother and brooding over his deed, the tyrannicide withdrew to a woodland retreat, shunning all men. Hearing nevertheless of Syracuse’s need, he came out of his retirement, organized a small force of volunteers, sailed to Sicily, and deployed his little band with such strategy that the royal army yielded after a brief taste of his generalship, and without killing any one of his men. Timoleon gave the humbled tyrant money enough to take himself to Corinth, where Dionysius spent the remainder of his life teaching school and sometimes begging his bread.51 Timoleon re-established democracy, tore down the fortifications that had made Ortygia a buttress of tyranny, repulsed a Carthaginian invasion, restored freedom and democracy in the Greek cities, and made Sicily for a generation so peaceful and prosperous that new settlers were drawn to it from every part of the Hellenic world. Then, refusing public office, he retired to private life; but the island democracies, appreciating his wisdom and integrity, submitted all major matters to his judgment, and freely followed his advice. Two “sycophants” having indicted him on a charge of malfeasance, he insisted, over the protests of a grateful people, on being tried without favor according to the laws, and thanked the gods that freedom of speech and equality before the law had been restored in Sicily. When he died (337) all Greece looked upon him as one of the greatest of her sons.

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