Dionysius I of Syracuse

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Dionysius I or Dionysius the Elder (ca. 432- 367 BC, Greek Διονύσιος) was a Greek tyrant of Syracuse, Sicily. 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.

Early life

Dionysius I began life as a clerk in a public office. 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.[1] In subsequent years he consolidated his position ruthlessly.

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’ 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”.[2] 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 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.


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”.[4] Aristotle wrote how some form of ‘guard’ (viz. a personal army) is needed for absolute kingship,[5] and for an elected tyrant a very particular number of professional soldiers should be employed; too few undermines the tyrants 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 carried on war with Carthage from 397 BC to 392 BC with varying success;[1] 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 [1] 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.

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

In 385 BC Alcetas of Epirus was a refugee in Dionysus' court. Dionysus wanted a friendly monarch in Epirus and so sent 2,000 Greek hoplites and five hundred 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] Sparta however intervened;[9] under Agesilaus and with aid from Thessaly, Macedonia and the Molossians themselves, the Spartans expelled[10] the Illyrians.[11]

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. Once he had Philoxenus arrested and sent to the quarries for voicing a bad opinion about his poetry. A few days later, 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 replied only "Take me back to the quarries."

He also posed as an author and patron of literature; his poems, severely criticized by Philoxenus, were hissed at the Olympic games; but, just prior to his death, he gained a prize for a tragedy on the Ransom of Hector at the Lenaea at Athens.


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.

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.

Another theory suggests that "The Company", of which he was a member, took revenge on him for his earlier purges and taxation imposed upon them, in an attempt to raise money for the war with Carthage.

His life was written by Philistus, but the work is not extant

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.

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.[12]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Template:Cite book
  2. Yalichev, Serge. (1997) Mercenaries of the Ancient World, London: Constable, pp 210
  3. Diodorus Siculus 14.10.2
  4. Polybius 11.13
  5. Aristotle Politics 1286b28-40
  6. Ibid
  7. Pseudoskylax, Periplus
  8. A History of Greece to 322 B.C., by N. G. L. Hammond. ISBN 0198730950, 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 0198730950, 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 0521233488, 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. "The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World" by Chris Scarre, 1999, publisher=Thames and Hudson, pages=210–211
  • This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge University Press

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