Agathocles of Syracuse: The Original Machiavellian Tyrant
Agathocles of Syracuse came from fairly humble beginnings but his focus and ambition brought him to the tyrannical rule of the city where he grew up. But his tyranny was not merciless and uncalculated, and this particular style, which Machiavelli later drew upon in his writing of The Prince, gained him fame, riches and even his own kingdom of Sicily. Although his quest to secure a Sicilian-Italian empire was a failure, he did succeed in being a menace to Carthage and revealing their vulnerability.
In the Time of Tyrants and Kings
The word ‘tyrant’ today has become associated with cruel and merciless despots, but its original meaning was slightly different. The term originated in ancient Greece, and etymologically ‘tyrant’ was the technical term for a person who came to power by unconventional means and it did not infer an objectively good or bad ruler.
The Greek tragedy Oedipus is known today by its Latin name Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) but its original Greek name was actually Oedipus Tyrannus and this change in terminology over time shows how king and tyrant merely denoted the way a person had come to rule.
It was only later in the ancient Greek culture that philosophers like Aristotle and Plato began to infer that a king was a good ruler and a tyrant a bad one. Rather than describing the way the ruler was instated, a king was someone who ruled with his subjects in mind whereas a tyrant ruled to serve only himself.
There are hundreds of examples of leaders who have been labeled tyrants from across ancient Greece and over a period of centuries. Some of them were power hungry and many met their demise through assassination, poisoning, or even torture.
But no matter how they died, their diverse origins show how different tyrants were to conventional kings. One such tyrant is Agathocles – a man who rose from humble origins to self-styled king of Sicily and tyrant of Syracuse, winning the hearts of his people while waging war in far off lands.
The Early Life of Agathocles
Agathocles was born in 361 BC at Thermae Himeraeae, in Sicily. He was the son of Carcinus, a potter who was originally from Rhegium. Carcinus was eventually made a citizen of Syracuse and his pottery workshop thrived. Agathocles originally trained in his father’s craft and was destined to take over the family business and work as a potter until he enrolled in the army with his younger brother, Antander.
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The young Agathocles of Syracuse. (Stella / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Around 330 BC Agathocles was enjoying success. He had recently married the widow of his wealthy patron Damas and as his military service continued he was beginning to show political ambition. But this ambition meant that he was increasingly perceived as a threat to the established oligarchical government of Syracuse and he was exiled from the city in an attempt to curtail his ambitions.
Agathocles kisses the widow of Damas. (Mikystar / Public Domain)
He settled in southern Italy after this exile and spent most of the next decade working as a mercenary in Croton and Tarentum, though he did return to Syracuse at some point where he was exiled for a second time for attempting to overthrow the oligarchy.
Agathocles’ Return to Syracuse
Agathocles returned to Sicily once again in 317 BC, this time with an army of fellow mercenaries. Rhegium was under attack by Syracuse, and Agathocles and his army came to their aid helping to defeat Syracuse. This victory was ‘third time’ lucky for Agathocles and he was finally successful in overthrowing the oligarchy in Syracuse.
Over the next few months there was a huge power struggle in the city, with the oligarchy refusing to give up their power. The mercenaries who had helped Agathocles take over Syracuse had sworn to uphold the democratic constitution in the city, and the struggles with the oligarchy eventually resulted in Agathocles exiling or executing all of the approximately 600 members of the ruling elite in 316 BC.
He cemented his power by banishing or killing anyone who opposed him – estimated to be around 10,000 people including the oligarchs – and establishing himself as strategos autokrator which translates from ancient Greek to ‘one who rules by himself’ or ‘sole-ruler’ and in modern Greek means ‘emperor’. In declaring himself the sole ruler of Syracuse, Agathocles had come to power by unconventional means – he was now officially a tyrant.
Conflicts in Sicily
As the tyrannical ruler of Syracuse, Agathocles had now had a taste of power. He embarked on a series of conflicts, attacking the cities, which had shown support for the oligarchs, to prevent them from gaining support to claim back power in Syracuse.
These battles against cities such as Messana, Acragas, and Gela brought the cities under his control, extending his influence across Sicily. The outcome was not favorable for Agathocles as his warmongering attracted the attention of the Carthaginian Empire, which had set its sights on western Sicily.
In 311 BC Agathocles led the Syracusans in battle against Carthage, led by Hamilcar. The battle is known as the Battle of the Himera River as it was waged at the mouth of the Himera River.
Agathocles led the Syracusans in the Battle of Himera River. (Macesito / Public Domain)
Agathocles was outmanned by the Carthaginians who had 45,000 troops, though the exact number of his troops is unknown. Hamilcar and his men also had a strategic advantage, positioning themselves on the hill of Ecnomus. The result was a loss of only 500 Carthaginian troops compared to 7,000 of Agathocles’ men.
Reclaiming Power from Carthage
The defeat Agathocles suffered at the hands of the Carthaginians was humiliating and it could have spelled the end of his time as ruler. But in a characteristically bold and potentially foolhardy move in 310 BC, Agathocles chose instead to leave his brother Antander in charge of Syracuse and push back against Carthage. He managed to break through the blockage, which the Carthaginian fleet had created, to protect the city with his own fleet of approximately 60 ships – a paltry amount compared to those stationed outside of Carthage.
He was able to land in Africa with 14,000 troops and it was a successful campaign with the aim of forcing the Carthaginians to turn away from Sicily. In either 308 BC or 307 BC he gained further support when he approached Ophellas, the ruler of Cyrenaica in modern day Libya. He was able to gain his support easily by offering him whatever territory they were successful in claiming in Africa, in exchange for keeping Sicily for himself.
Agathocles landed in Africa with 14,000 troops. (Gadox13 / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Ophellas proved himself a powerful ally. He took advantage of civil unrest in his wife’s hometown, Athens, and was able to gather a large number of troops.
Agathocles – King of Sicily
It took Ophellas two months to reach Agathocles with his powerful and newly improved army. The march was not easy, and it covered particularly rough terrain, but when he arrived he was welcomed as a close ally, and even as a friend of Agathocles. The two armies camped near to each other, and everything seemed like it was going well for a joint attack against Carthage.
Despite the initially positive meeting, it took only a matter of days for Agathocles to betray his newfound ally. Rather than teaming up with Ophellas and holding up his end of the bargain, Agathocles and his men attacked the camp of the Cyrenaean army. Far from seeing him as a friend, Agathocles immediately had Ophellas killed.
The remaining Cyrenaean troops chose to join with Agathocles rather than opposing him and risking death. Without Ophellas they were an army with no leader and many of them still disliked the Carthaginians and wanted to stop them from gaining any more power.
His campaign against the Carthaginian Empire went from strength to strength, and his army marched towards the capital city of Carthage, claiming the spoils of war along the way. The city was heavily fortified, and Agathocles did not stand a chance of besieging it successfully. But the people of Carthage were nonetheless intimidated by the approach of such a successful enemy and according to the historian Diodorus they sacrificed 500 children to the gods to ask them to protect their city.
Ancient city of Carthage. (Soerfm / CC BY-SA 2.0)
In 307 BC his surprising domination against Carthage ran its course and he was finally (and spectacularly) defeated. He fled back to Sicily in secret. A year later peace between the two factions was finally established.
The peace treaty was favorable for Agathocles and in 304 BC he declared himself ‘King of Sicily’. His influence across the island was felt now more than ever.
Agathocles the Man
It can be all too easy to forget that the people we read about in history books were real people. Agathocles was more than a tyrant with a penchant for causing trouble for the Carthaginians. He was married three times and had a number of children.
The two sons he had with his first wife, Damas, were both murdered in 307 BC. The daughter he had with his second wife married the Greek king Pyrrhus of Epirus. His third wife was a princess of the Ptolemaic dynasty (the most famous member being Cleopatra VII).
He was restless and ambitious. He was a natural leader and was especially good at leading mercenaries. It was rumored that even on his deathbed he was planning to resume fighting Carthage, despite his later years being marred by sickness.
His death is believed by some to have been ordered by his grandson, Archagathus. Others believe he was not poisoned to appease his grandson but died a natural death of old age.
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Coin of Agathocles of Syracuse. (Stella / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Although he was a tyrant, he considered himself a fair ruler and he was not cruel to his own people. He was a tyrant in the original sense of the word rather than the modern. He chose to restore democracy to Syracuse on his death rather than passing the title of king on to his son.
The Legacy of Agathocles
Agathocles may not be remembered by most people today, but he has been recognized by historians across the centuries. Most notably the 16 th century politician and historian Machiavelli wrote about Agathocles in his political treatise The Prince. He describes Agathocles as an example of a leader who gains their power by committing crimes.
Machiavelli believed Agathocles was a criminal throughout all stages of his life and that he became king of Sicily despite coming from a very low position in society. He believed Agathocles became infamous during his lifetime and that he was extremely talented which allowed him to progress beyond what his social status should rightfully have been as the son of a potter.
His closing thoughts on the talents and life of Agathocles were that his success as a tyrant was because he was capable of committing ruthless acts quickly, and whenever necessary, but without dwelling on them or committing crimes that were unnecessary for cementing his power.
He was a man who was capable of being ruthless when it was called for, but at the same time he was not the despotic ruler we would think of when we picture a tyrant. His reign over Syracuse was a surprisingly peaceful time in the city’s history and he was able to undertake a number of building projects which helped to improve the lives of his subjects.
By the more morally colored definitions laid out by Aristotle and Plato, he was not a tyrant. He did not rule only for himself; he had his subjects in mind. He was ambitious, and he certainly wanted more power for himself, but it is arguable that all of the things he did for more power were also for the greater good of Syracuse, and Sicily as a whole.
Fortifications of ancient Syracuse. (John McLinden / CC BY-SA 2.0)
He may have killed those who opposed removing the oligarchy from power, but he was popular, and he won the hearts of the Syracusan people. Many of the people in Syracuse, and Sicily as a whole, were unsatisfied by the way the ruling elite of the oligarchy were running the island.
They were not upset or concerned by Agathocles’ actions; they were happy to see the ruling elite overthrown. It is also true that defending Sicily from Carthaginian invasion was more than a power grab, as it meant that Carthage turned their attention away from Sicily during his rule and this doubtlessly saved the lives of thousands of his subjects.
His decision to revert Syracuse back to a democracy after his death was probably also made for the greater good of the city. There was no clear leader to take his place and the power vacuum he left would have caused a great deal of unrest in the city.
Unfortunately, this also meant the lifetime of work he had spent keeping Carthage at bay after he removed the oligarchy was undone. With no strong militaristic leader to take his place, Carthage once again saw Sicily as ripe for the picking, and the island was under Carthaginian rule soon after his death.
Top image: Agathocles of Syracuse; warrior, ruler, tyrant. Source: Fotokvadrat / Adobe Stock.
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