Dionysius I of Syracuse

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Dionysius I from Guillaume Rouillé's Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum

Dionysius I or Dionysius the Elder (Greek: Διονύσιος ὁ Πρεσβύτερος; c. 432 – 367 BC) was a Greek tyrant of Syracuse, in what is now Sicily, southern Italy. He conquered several cities in Sicily and southern Italy, opposed Carthage's influence in Sicily and made Syracuse the most powerful of the Western Greek colonies. He was regarded by the ancients as an example of the worst kind of despot—cruel, suspicious and vindictive.[1]

Early life

Dionysius began his working life as a clerk in a public office.[1] Because of his achievements in the war against Carthage that had begun in 409 BC, he was elected supreme military commander in 406 BC; in the following year he seized total power and became tyrant.[2]

Mercenaries and autocracy

Dionysius the Elder's victory over the democratic Syracuse represents both the very worst and the very best of the mercenary-leader. Dionysius's career as a despot occurred after he was given six hundred personal mercenaries to guard his person after faking an attack on his own life. He was able to increase this guard to one thousand and gradually consolidated his power and established himself as a tyrant. He imposed his mercenaries on all parts of the polis community. Such an act would have truly wiped out any suggestion that democracy was still in force. His rule was "unconstitutional and illegitimate and could not fail to provoke rebellions among the partisans of democratic government".[3] Dionysius' position at home would be threatened even as early as 403 by those philosophically opposed to tyranny. Interestingly, Sparta, which had in the past deposed tyrants from Corinth to Athens, did not damn Dionysius and his autocracy. In fact, relations between the two were very positive:

When the Lacedaemonians [Spartans] had settled the affairs of Greece to their own taste, they dispatched Aristus, one of their distinguished men, to Syracuse, ostensibly pretending that they would overthrow the government, but in truth with intent to increase the power of the tyranny; for they hoped that by helping to establish the rule of Dionysius they would obtain his ready service because of their benefactions to him.[4]

Dionysius would even have the privilege of being allowed to conscript mercenaries from lands under Spartan authority. The demise of a prominent democratic polis in the classical world and the subsequent tenure of Dionysius represented what would become a recurring norm in fourth century Greece, thanks to the prevalence of mercenaries. The mercenary and the tyrant went hand-in-hand; Polybius for example noted how "the security of despots rests entirely on the loyalty and power of mercenaries".[5] Aristotle wrote how some form of "guard" (viz. a personal army) is needed for absolute kingship,[6] and for an elected tyrant a very particular number of professional soldiers should be employed; too few undermines the tyrant's power and too many threatens the polis itself. The philosopher notes how based on this observation, the people of Syracuse were warned to not let Dionysius conscript too many "guards" during his reign.[6]


He fought a war with Carthage from 397 BC to 392 BC with mixed success;[2] his attempts to drive the Carthaginians entirely out of the island of Sicily failed, and at his death they were masters of at least a third of it. He also carried on an expedition against Rhegium, capturing it [2] and attacking its allied cities in Magna Graecia. In one campaign, in which he was joined by the Lucanians, he devastated the territories of Thurii and Croton in an attempt to defend Locri.[1]

Dionysius of Syracuse's military attempts to place Alcetas in the throne of the Molossians

After a protracted siege, he took Rhegium in 386 and sold the inhabitants as slaves. He also pillaged the temple of Caere (then allied with Rome) on the Etruscan coast.[1] In the Adriatic, to facilitate trade, Dionysius founded Ancona, Adria and Issa.[7] After him, the Adriatic became a sea of Syracuse. In the Peloponnesian War, he joined the side of the Spartans and assisted them with mercenaries.[1]

In 385 BC, Alcetas of Epirus was a refugee in Dionysius' court. Dionysius wanted a friendly monarch in Epirus, so he sent 2,000 Greek hoplites and 500 suits of Greek armour to help the Illyrians under Bardyllis in attacking the Molossians of Epirus. They ravaged the region and killed 15,000 Molossians, and Alcetas regained his throne.[8] He joined the Illyrians in an attempt to plunder the temple of Delphi.[1] Sparta intervened[9] under Agesilaus, however, and with aid from Thessaly, Macedonia, and the Molossians themselves, the Spartans expelled[10] the Illyrians.[11]


According to some sources, after gaining a prize for one of his tragedies (see Intellectual tastes below), he was so elated that he drunk himself to death.[12] According to others, he was poisoned by his physicians at the instigation of his son, Dionysius the Younger who succeeded him as ruler of Syracuse.

Additionally, it is said that upon hearing news of his play, The Ransom of Hector, winning the competition at the Lanaean festival at Athens, he celebrated so fiercely that he drank himself to death. Others report that he died of natural causes shortly after learning of his play's victory in 367 BC. The third theory suggests that the company, of which he was a member, had taken revenge on his earlier purges and taxation imposed upon them, in an attempt to raise money for the war with Carthage.[citation needed]

His life was written by Philistus, but the work is not extant.[1]

Intellectual tastes

Like Pisistratus, tyrant of Athens, Dionysius was fond of having literary men about him, such as the historian Philistus, the poet Philoxenus, and the philosopher Plato, but treated them in a most arbitrary manner.[1] Diodorus Siculus relates in his Bibliotheca historica that Dionysius once had Philoxenus arrested and sent to the quarries for voicing a bad opinion about his poetry. The next day, he released Philoxenus because of his friends' requests, and brought the poet before him for another poetry reading. Dionysius read his own work and the audience applauded. When he asked Philoxenus how he liked it, the poet turned to the guards and said "take me back to the quarries."[13] Plutarch relates a version of this story in his On the Fortune of Alexander.[14]

He also posed as an author and patron of literature; his poems, severely criticized by Philoxenus, were hissed at the Olympic games; but having gained a prize for a tragedy on the Ransom of Hector at the Lenaea at Athens, he was so elated that he engaged in a debauch which, according to some sources, proved fatal.[1] His name is also known for the legend of Damon and Pythias, and he features indirectly (via his son) in the legend of the Sword of Damocles. The Ear of Dionysius in Syracuse is an artificial limestone cave named after Dionysius.[citation needed]

Walls of Syracuse

In 402 BC Dionysius I began building the Circuit Walls of Syracuse. They were completed in 397 BC and had the following characteristics:

  • Length: 27 kilometers
  • Width at base: 3.3 m to 5.35 m
  • Number of known towers on circuit: 14 (including Euryalos)
  • Largest tower: 8.5 m x 8.5 m
  • Deepest ditch (at Euryalos fortress): 9 m

Building so big a fortress would have involved installing well over 300 tons of stone every day for 5 years.[15]

Fictional references

Dionysius I is mentioned in Dante's Inferno (of the Divine Comedy) (1308–21) as a tyrant who indulged in blood and rapine and suffers in a river of boiling blood. A fictional version of Dionysius is a character in Mary Renault's historical novel The Mask of Apollo (1966). He also features prominently in L. Sprague de Camp's historical novel The Arrows of Hercules (1965) as a patron of inventors on the island of Ortygia near Syracuse. He is the main character in Valerio Massimo Manfredi's novel Tyrant (2003). He is also featured in the 1962 film Damon and Pythias.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainLua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. Endnotes:
    • Diod. Sic. xiii., xiv., xv.
    • J. Bass, Dionysius I. von Syrakus (Vienna, 1881), with full references to authorities in footnotes
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  3. Yalichev, Serge. (1997) Mercenaries of the Ancient World, London: Constable, pp 210
  4. Diodorus Siculus 14.10.2
  5. Polybius 11.13
  6. 6.0 6.1 Aristotle Politics 1286b28-40
  7. Pseudoskylax, Periplus
  8. A History of Greece to 322 B.C., by N. G. L. Hammond. ISBN 0-19-873095-0, 1986, page 479: "... Molossi, Alcetas, who was a refugee at his court, Dionysius sent a supply of arms and 2,000 troops to the Illyrians, who burst into Epirus and slaughtered 15,000 Molossians. Sparta intervened as soon as they had learned of the events and expelled the Illyrians, but Alcetas had regained his ..."
  9. A History of Greece to 322 B.C., by N. G. L. Hammond. ISBN 0-19-873095-0, 1986, page 470, "Sparta had the alliance of Thessaly, Macedonia, and Molossia in Epirus, which she had helped to stave off an Illyrian invasion. ..."
  10. Diodorus Siculus, Library, Book 15.13.1,Fifteenth Book of Diodorus
  11. The Cambridge Ancient History, by John Boardman, ISBN 0-521-23348-8, 1923, page 428: "Bardyllis who seized power and set himself up as king of the Dardani"...."Forming an alliance with Dionysius tyrant of Syracuse he killed 15,000 Molossians"
  12. Chisholm 1911.
  13. The Library of History of Diodorus Siculus, Book XV, Chapter 6. Loeb Classical Library (1935)
  14. On the Fortune of Alexander, Second Oration, Chapter 1. Loeb Classical Library (1935)
  15. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.

Further reading

External links

Preceded by:
position previously held
by Thrasybulus in 465 BC
Tyrant of Syracuse
405 BC – 367 BC
Succeeded by:
Dionysius the Younger