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Diony'sius or Diony'sius the Elder or the Elder Diony'sius

*Dionu/sios) the Elder, tyrant of SYRACUSE, must have been born in B. C. 431 or 430, as we are told that he was twenty-five years old when he first obtained the sovereignty of Syracuse. (Cic. Tusc. 5.20.) We know nothing of his family, but that his father's name was Hermocrates, and that he was born in a private but not low station, so that he received an excellent education, and began life in the capacity of a clerk in a public office. (Cic. Tusc. 5.20, 22; Diod. 13.91, 96, 14.66; Isocr. Philip. § 73; Dem. c. Lept. § 141, p. 506; Polyaen. Strateg. 5.2.2.) He appears to have early taken part in the political dissensions which agitated Syracuse after the destruction of the great Athenian armament, and having joined in the attempt of Hermocrates, the leader of the aristocratical party, to effect by force his restoration from exile, was so severely wounded as to be left for dead upon the spot. (Diod. 13.75.) We next hear of him as serving with distinction in the great war against the Carthaginians, who had invaded Sicily under Hannibal, the son of Gisco, and successively reduced and destroyed Selinus, Himera, and Agrigentum. These disasters, and especially the failure of the Syracusan general, Daphnaeus, to relieve Agrigentum, had created a general spirit of discontent and alarm, both at Syracuse and among the allies, of which Dionysius skilfully availed himself. He came forward in the popular assembly as the accuser of the unsuccessful commanders, and, being supported by Philistus, the historian, and Hipparinus, men of wealth and influence, he succeeded in procuring a decree for deposing the existing generals, and appointing others in their stead, among whom was Dionysius himself. (Diod. 13.91, 92; Aristot. Ploit. 5.5, 6.) His efforts seem from this time to have been directed towards supplanting his new colleagues and obtaining the sole direction of affairs. He persuaded the Syracusans to recall the exiles, most of whom were probably partizans of Hermocrates, and would readily admit him as their leader, and secretly accused his colleagues in the command of holding intelligence with the enemy. Being soon after sent to Gela with the separate command of a body of auxiliaries, he there carried on similar intrigues, and when he thought that he had sufficiently secured to himself the favour both of the people of Gela and of his own troops, he returned abruptly to Syracuse, and brought before the assembled people distinct charges of corruption and treachery against his brother generals. These found ready belief, and it was determined to depose all the others and appoint Dionysius sole general, with full powers. (Diod. 13.92-94.) This was in the spring of the year B. C. 405, the first appointment of Dionysius as one of the generals having been in Dec. 406. Comp. Clinton, F. H. ii. p. 82; Diod. l.c.; Dionys. A. R. 7.1.) According to Plutarch, indeed, Hipparinus, who is represented by Aristotle (Aristot. Pol. 5.6) as lending his aid to procure the elevation of Dionysius, was at first appointed his colleague in the chief command (Plut. Dio 3); but, if this be not a mistake, his authority could have been little more than nominal, as he plays no part in the subsequent transactions.

The position of general autocrator by no means implied in itself the exercise of sovereign power, but the measures of Dionysius soon rendered it such; and we may date from this period the commencement of his reign, or tyranny, which continued without interruption for 38 years. His first step was to procure, on the ground of an attempt on his life, whether real or pretended, the appointment of a body-guard, which he speedily increased to the number of 1000 men: at the same time he induced the Syracusans to double the pay of all the troops, and took every means to ingratiate himself with the mercenaries, taking care to replace those officers who were unfavourable to him by creatures of his own. By his marriage with the daughter of Hermocrates he secured to himself the support of all the remaining partizans of that leader, and he now found himself strong enough to procure the condemnation and execution of Daphnaeus and Demarchus, the heads of the opposite party. (Diod. 13.95, 96.)

His first operations in the war against the Carthaginians were, however, unsuccessful. Having advanced with a large army to the relief of Gela, then besieged by Himilco, he was defeated, and deemed it prudent to retire, taking with him the inhabitants both of Gela itself and the neighbouring Camarina. This reverse gave a severe shock to his popularity, of which his enemies at Syracuse availed themselves to attempt to overthrow his power. For a moment they were masters of the city, but Dionysius disconcerted their plans by the suddenness of his return, and compelled them to quit the city, though not until his unfortunate wife had fallen a victim to their cruelty. (Diod. 13.108-113, 14.44; Plut. Dio 3.) He soon afterwards gladly accepted the overtures of the Carthaginian general Himilco, whose army had suffered greatly from a pestilence, and concluded peace with Carthage B. C. 405. (Diod. 13.114.)

He was now able to devote his whole attention to strengthening and consolidating his power at home. He converted the island of Ortygia into a strong fortress, in which he took up his own residence, and allowed no one but his own immediate dependents to dwell; and while he courted the favour of the populace by assigning them lands and houses, he augmented their numbers by admitting many aliens and newly-freed slaves to the rights of citizenship. These measures naturally gave umbrage to the higher class of citizens who formed the heavy-armed infantry, and they took advantage of an expedition on which he led them against the Sicelians to break out into open revolt. They were instantly joined by the exiles who had established themselves at Aetna, and Dionysius was compelled to take refuge in the island which he had so recently fortified. From this danger, however, he managed to extricate himself by the aid of a body of Campanian mercenaries, seconded by the dissensions which broke out among his enemies. Some of these submitted to him on favourable terms; the rest retired to Aetna. (Diod. 14.7-9.) From this time his authority at Syracuse appears to have been undisputed. He soon after took advantage of the harvest time to disarm those citizens whom he had still cause to fear, and reduced the fortress of Aetna, which had been the stronghold of the exiles disaffected to his government. (Ib. cc. 10, 14.)

His arms were next directed against the Chalcidian cities of Sicily. Naxos, Catana, and Leontini, successively fell into his power, either by force or treachery. The inhabitants were either sold as slaves or compelled to migrate to Syracuse. Naxos was utterly destroyed, and Catana occupied by a colony of Campanian mercenaries, B. C. 403. (Diod. 14.14, 15.) For several years after this he appears to have been occupied in strengthening his tower and in preparations for renewing the war with Carthage. Among these may be reckoned the great works which he at this time erected,-- the docks adapted for the reception of several hundred ships, and the wall of 30 stadia in length, enclosing the whole extent of the Epipolae, the magnihcence of which is attested by its existing remains at the present day. (Diod. 14.18, 42; Smith's Sicily, p. 167.)

It was not till B. C. 397 that Dionysius considered himself sufficiently strong, or his preparations enough advanced, to declare war against Carthage. He had in the mean time assembled a large army of auxiliary and mercenary troops, and a fleet of two hundred ships, remarkable for the number of quadriremes and quinqueremes which were seen in it for the first time. The Carthaginians had been greatly weakened by the ravages of a pestilence in Africa, and were unprepared for war. Dionysius was immediately joined not only by the Greeks of Gela, Agrigentum, Himera, and Scinus, which had become tributary to Carthage by the late treaty of 405, but by the Sicelians of the interior, and even the Sicanians, in general the firm allies of Carthage. He thus advanced without opposition from one end of Sicily to the other, and laid siege to Motya, one of the chief strongholds of the Carthaginians, which fell into his power after a long and desperate resistance, prolonged till near the close of the summer. Segesta, however, successfully resisted his efforts, and the next year (B. C. 396) the arrival of a great Carthaginian armament under Himilco changed the face of affairs. Motya was quickly recovered; the Sicanians and Sicelians abandoned the Syracusan alliance for that of the enemy, and Himilco advanced unopposed as far as Messana, which he carried by assault, and utterly destroyed. The Syracasan fleet under Leptines, the brother of Dionysius, was totally defeated; and the latter, not daring to risk a battle, withdrew with his land forces, and shut himself up within the walls of Syracuse. Abandoned by the other Sicilian Greeks, and besieged by the Carthaginians both by sea and land, his situation appeared to be desperate. It is even said that he was on the point of giving up all for lost, and making his escape, but was deterred by one of his friends observing, "that sovereign power was an honourable windingsheet." (Isocrat. Archidam. § 49; Ael. VH 4.8; but compare Diod. 14.8.) A pestilence shortly after broke out in the Carthaginian camp, which a second time proved the salvation of Syracuse. Dionysius ably availed himself of the state of weakness to which the enemy was thus reduced, and by a sudden attack both by sea and land, defeated the Carthaginian army, and burnt great part of their fleet. Still he was glad to consent to a secret capitulation, by which the Carthaginians themselves were allowed to depart unmolested, abandoning both their allies and foreign mercenaries, who, thus left without a leader, were quickly dispersed. (Diod. 14.41-76.)

No peace was concluded with Carthage upon this occasion; but the effects of their late disastrous expedition, and the revolt of their subjects in Africa, prevented the Carthaginians from renewing hostilities against Syracuse until the summer of 393, when Mago, who had succeeded Himilco in the command, having renewed the alliance with the Sicelians, advanced towards Messana, but was defeated by Dionysius near Abacaenum. The next year (B. C. 392) he marched against the Syracusan territory with a much greater force; but Dionysius having secured the alliance of Agyris, tyrant of Agyrium, was enabled to cut off the supplies of the enemy, and thus reduced them to such distress, that Mago was compelled to treat for peace. The Syracusans also were weary of the war, and a treaty was concluded, by which the Carthaginians abandoned their Sicelian allies, and Dionysius became master of Tauromenium: in other respects, both parties remained nearly as before. (Diod. 14.90, 95, 96.)

This treaty left Dionysius at leisure to continue the ambitious projects in which he had previously engaged against the Greek cities in Italy. Already, before the Carthaginian war, he had secured the alliance of the Locrians by marrying Doris, the daughter of one of their principal citizens. Rhegium, on the contrary, had been uniformly hostile to him, and was the chief place of refuge of the Syracusan exiles. (Diod. 14.40.) Hence Dionysius established at Messana, after its destruetion by Himilco, a colony of citizens from Locri and its kindred city of Medama, to be a stronghold against Rhegium. (14.78.) His designs in this quarter attracted so much attention, that the principal Greek cities in Italy, which were at the same time hard pressed by the Lneanians of the interior, concluded a league for their common defence at once against the barbarians and Dionysius. The latter retaliated by entering into alliance with the Lucanians, and sending a fleet to their assistance under his brother Leptines, B. C. 390. (14.91, 100-102.) The next year he gained a decisive victory over the combined forces of the Italian Greeks at the river Helorus; and this success was followed by the reduction of Caulonia, Hipponium, and finally, after a siege protracted for nearly eleven months, of Rhegium itself, B. C. 387. (14.103-108, 111.) The inhabitants of the conquered cities were for the most part removed to Syracuse, and their territory given up to the Locrians.

Dionysius was now at the summit of his greatness, and during the twenty years that elapsed from this period to his death, possessed an amount of power and influence far exceeding those enjoyed by any other Greek before the time of Alexander. In Sicily he held undisputed rule over the eastern half of the island, while the principal cities of the interior and those along the north coast, as far as Cephaloedium, were either subject to him, or held by his close and dependent allies. (14.78, 96.) In Italy it is difficult to estimate the precise extent of his influence: direct dominion he had apparently none. But his allies, the Locrians, were masters of the whole southern extremity of the peninsula, and his powerful fleets gave him the command both of the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic seas. In the former he repressed the piracies of the Etruscans, and, under pretence of retaliation, led a fleet of 60 triremes against them, with which he took the town of Pyrgi, the port of Caere, and plundered its wealthy temple of Matuta. (Diod 15.14; Strab. v. p.226; Pseud.-Aristot. Econ. 2.2.) (On this occasion he is also said to have assailed Corsica (Strab. l. c.), but probably did not form any permanent establishment there. The sovereignty of the Adriatic seems to have been a favourite object of his ambition. He endeavoured to secure it by establishing a colony on the island of Lissa, or, according to other accounts, at Lissus in Epeirus (comp. Scymn. Chius, 1. 412; Diod. 15.13, 14), where he kept up a considerable naval force, and another at Adria in Picenum. (Etym. Magn. s.v. Ἀδρίας.) Ancona too was probably founded by him at the same time. (Plin. Nat. 3.13; Strab. v. p.241; Arnold's Rome, vol. i. p. 437.) With the same view he sent a squadron to assist the Lacedaemonians in preventing the Athenians from establishing themselves at Corcyra, B. C. 373. (Xen. Hell. 6.2. §§ 4, 33.) The extent of his commercial relations may be inferred from his importing horses for his chariots from the Venetian tribes at the head of the Adriatic. (Strab. v. p.212.) As early as B. C. 402 he is mentioned as sending large supplies of corn to relieve a scarcity at Rome. (Liv. 4.52; Niebuhr, Rom. Hist. ii. p. 564.) At the same time he took every opportunity of extending his relations with foreign powers, and strengthening himself by alliances. Thus we find him assisting the Illyrians against their neighlours the Molossians (Diod. 14.13), and concluding a treaty with the Gauls, who had lately made their appearance in Italy, and who continued from this time to furnish a considerable part of his mercenary troops. (Justin, 20.5; Xen. Hell. 7.1. §§ 20,31.) In Greece itself he cultivated the friendship of the Lacedaemonians, to whose support he had been greatly indebted in the earlier days of his rule (Diod. 14.10, 70); and among the last acts of his reign was the sending an auxiliary force in two successive years to support them against the increasing power of the Thebans. (Xen. Hell. 7.1. §§ 20, 28; Diod. 15.70.) He also conciliated, but by what means we know not, the favour of the Athenians, so that they bestowed upon him the freedom of their city. (Epist. Philipp. apud Dem. p. 176, ed. Bekk.)

The peace with Carthage did not remain uninterrupted during the whole of this period, but the wars were not of any great importance, and are not known to us in detail. In B. C. 383 the intrigues of Dionysius with the subject allies of Carthage led to a renewal of hostilities. Two great battles, the sites of both of which are uncertain, decided the fortune of the war. In the first Dionysius was completely victorious, and Mago, the Carthaginian general, fell; but in the second the Syracusans were defeated with great slaughter. Peace was concluded soon after, by which the river Halycus was fixed as the boundary of the two powers. (Diod. 15.15-17.) Dionysius seems to have been again the aggressor in a fresh war which broke out in B. C. 368, and in which he a second time advanced with his army to the extreme western point of Sicily, and laid siege to Lilybaeum. Hostilities were however suspended on the approach of winter, and before they could be resumed Dionysius died at Syracuse, B. C. 367. His last illness is said to have been brought on by excessive feasting; but according to some accounts, his death was hastened by his medical attendants, in order to secure the succession for his son. (Diod. 15.74; Plut. Dion, 6; Corn. Nep. Dion, 2.) After the death of his first wife, Dionysius had married almost exactly at the same time-- some said even on the same day--Doris. a Locrian of distinguished birth, and Aristomache, a Syracusan, the daughter of his old patron and supporter Hipparinus. (Diod. 14.44; Plut. Dio 3.) By the former he had three children, of which the eldest was his successor, Dionysius. Aristomache bore him two sons, IIipparinus and Nysæus, and two daughters, Sophrosyne and Arete. (Plut. Dio 6 ; Corn. Nep. Dion, 1; Athen. x. pp. 435-6.)

The character of Dionysius has been drawn in the blackest colours by many ancient writers; he appears indeed to have become a sort of type of a tyrant, in its worst sense, and it is probable that many of the anecdotes of him related by Cicero, Aelian, Polyaenus, and other later writers, are grossly exaggerated; but the very circumstance that he was so regarded in opposition to Gelon and others of the older tyrants (see Plut. Dio 5) is in itself a proof that the opprobrium was not altogether undeserved. He was undoubtedly a man of great energy and activity of mind, as well as great personal courage; but he was altogether unscrupulous in the means which he employed to attain his ends, and had no thought beyond his own personal aggrandizement. Thus while he boasted that he left to his son an empire held together with bonds of iron (Plut. Dio 7), he exhausted his subjects by excessive taxation, and was obliged to have recourse to every kind of expedient to amass money. (Aristot. Pol. 5.11; Pseud.-Aristot. Econ. 2.2. The statements of the latter must be received with caution, but they are conclusive as to the general fact.) Diodorus tells us that, when his power became firmly established, he abated much of his former severity (14.45), and he gave a signal instance of clemency in his treatment of the Italian Greeks who had fallen into his power at the battle of the Helorus. (Diod. 14.105.) But it is probable that the long possession of absolute power had an injurious effect upon his character, and much apparent inconsisteency may be accounted for in this manner. In his latter years he became extremely suspicious, and apprehensive of treachery even from his nearest friends, and is said to have adopted the most excessive precautions to guard against it. Manly of these stories have however an air of great exaggeration. (Cic. Tusc. 5.20; Plut. Dion. 9.)

Though his government was oppressive in a financial point of view, Dionyius seems to have contributed much to the greatness of Syracuse itself, both by increasing the population with the inhabitants removed from many conquered cities, and by adorning it with splendid temples and other public edifices, so as to render it unquestionably the greatest of all Greek cities. (Diod. 15.13; Isocrat. Panegyr. § 145.) At the same time he displayed his magnificence by sending splendid deputations to the Olympic games, and rich presents both to Olympia and Delphi. (Diod. 14.109, 16.57.) Nor was he without literary ambition. In the midst of his political and military cares he devoted himself assiduously to poetry, and not only caused his poems to be publicly recited at the Olympic games, but repeatedly contended for the prize of tragedy at Athens. Here he several times obtained the second and third prizes; and, finally, just before his death, bore away the first prize at the Lenaea, with a play called "The Ransom of Hector." These honours seem to prove that his poetry could not have been altogether so contemptible as it is represented by later writers; but only the titles of some of his dramas and a few detached lines are preserved to us. He is especially blamed for the use of far-fetched and unusual expressions. (Diod. 14.109; 15.74; Tzetz. Chil. 5.178-185; Cic. Tusc. v. 22; Lucian, ad v. Indoctum. § 15; Helladius, apud Photitum. p. 532b. ed. Bekk.) Some fragments of his tragedies will be found in Stobaeus (Florileg. 38, 2; 38, 6; 49, 9; 98, 30; 105, 2; 125, 8; Eclogae, 1.4, 19) and in Athenaeus. (ix. p. 401f.)

In accordance with the same spirit we find him seeking the society of men distinguished in literature and philosophy, entertaining the poet Philoxenus at his table, patronizing the Pythagorean philosophers, who were at this time numerous in Italy and Sicily, and inviting Plato to Syracuse. He however soon after sent the latter away from Sicily in disgrace; and though the story of his having caused him to be sold as a slave, as well as that of his having sent Philoxenus to the stone quarries for ridiculing his bad verses, are probably gross exaggerations, they may well have been so far founded in fact, that his intercourse with these persons was interrupted by some sudden burst of capricious violence. (Diod. 15.6, 7; Plut. Dio 5; Lucian, ad v. Indoct. § 15; Tzetz. Chil. 5.152, &c.; but compare Athen. 1.6f.) He is also said to have avenged himself upon Plato in a more legitimate manner by writing a play against him. (Tzetz. Chil. 5.182-185.)

The history of Dionysius was written by his friend and contemporary Philistus, as well as by Ephorus and Timaeus; but none of these authors are now extant. Diodorus is our chief, indeed almost our sole, authority for the events of his reign. An excellent review of his government and character is given in Arnold's History of Rome. (Vol. 1.100.21.) Mitford's elaborate account of his reign is rather an apology than a history, and is very inaccurate as well as partial.


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hide References (51 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (51):
    • Aristotle, Economics, 2.1349b
    • Aristotle, Politics, 5.1306a
    • Aristotle, Politics, 5.1313b
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 13.114
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 13.92
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 15.7
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 13.108
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 13.113
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 13.75
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 13.91
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 13.94
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 13.95
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 13.96
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.10
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.105
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.109
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.13
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.14
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.15
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.18
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.40
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.41
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.42
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.44
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.66
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.7
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.70
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.76
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.8
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.9
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.90
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.95
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 14.96
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 15.13
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 15.14
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 15.15
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 15.17
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 15.6
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 15.70
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 15.74
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 16.57
    • Xenophon, Hellenica, 6.2
    • Xenophon, Hellenica, 7.1
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 3.13
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 4, 52
    • Plutarch, Dion, 3
    • Plutarch, Dion, 6
    • Plutarch, Dion, 5
    • Plutarch, Dion, 7
    • Athenaeus, of Naucratis, Deipnosophistae, 1.6
    • Aelian, Varia Historia, 4.8
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