The Greeks in the West The Rise of Syracuse



In Sicily Thucydides (VI. 2–5) distinguished among the native peoples between Elymans, in the far west of the island (in particular, at Egesta), allegedly refugees from Troy; Sicans, whom he believed to be the original inhabitants; and Sicels, whom he believed to have arrived from Italy and to have pushed the Sicans into the western part of the island. These lived mostly in the interior, and by the fifth century the different native peoples were still perceived as different; they had to some extent been hellenised, more so in the east than in the west, and the Elymans not until the fifth century; otherwise they are not archaeologically distinguishable. The term Siceliots was used of the Greek settlers who had founded cities at various sites around the coast, except in the far west, between c.735 and c. 625. There were also Phoenician settlements in the far west: Carthage claimed Sicily in its treaty of c. 509 with Rome (Polyb. III. 22–3); but if the Carthaginians thought of expansion when they accepted an invitation to intervene in a dispute among the Greeks in 480, their defeat prevented it (cf. below), and after that they did not attempt it until the end of the fifth century (cf. p. 313). Similarly, in Italy the various native peoples could be referred to collectively as Itals (most important were the Etruscans, from whom Rome made itself independent c.509), in contrast to the Italiots, Greeks who had occupied sites from the Bay of Naples southwards from somewhat before 750 onwards. The native Italians were not hellenised as the native Sicilians were.

From the original foundation of Greek colonies to the late sixth century we have references to episodes and rulers in different places but cannot put together a connected account. That continues to be the case in the fifth century for Italy, but for Sicily we become better informed with a series of tyrants in Gela, beginning c.505, whose growing power culminated in their acquiring Syracuse c.485, and who became friends or enemies of other tyrants. Events down to 480 are dealt with by Herodotus, in connection with the war which prevented Gelon of Syracuse from helping the Greeks of Greece against the Persians. From 480 we have Diodorus, who may have used Ephorus for the western Greeks as for the rest of his fifth- and fourth-century Greek history (though some have thought that for western matters he used the SicilianTimaeus as well or instead: cf. pp. 311–12), and who on Sicily has a fair amount of information; and, since many of the poems of the Boeotian Pindar were written for Sicilian tyrants and other western Greeks, we have them and a substantial body of material in ancient commentaries on them. Diodorus’ narrative dates are no more secure for the west than for Greece, but he and Aristotle’s Politics (V. 1315 B 34–8) have regnal years for the Syracusan tyrants, and some firm dates are given by victor lists and the commentaries on Pindar (where there is no other dating evidence, I give Diodorus’ dates in brackets).

After previous tyrants had made Gela, a Rhodian/Cretan colony on the south coast, the most powerful city in the eastern part of Sicily, Gelon, the first ruler from what appears to have been one of the leading families of Gela, acquired the best site, the Corinthian colony of Syracuse on the east coast, c.485. He made that his principal city, transporting people from other cities to build it up and leaving his brother Hieron in charge of Gela. He formed marriage alliances with another family of tyrants, based in Acragas (west of Gela on the south coast: it had been settled from Gela): he himself married Demarete, daughter of the tyrant Theron, and Theron married a daughter of Gelon’s brother Polyzelus. Opposed to this southern alliance was a northern alliance based on Rhegium, a Euboean colony on the toe of Italy (now controlling another Euboean colony, originally called Zancle but whose name he had changed to Messene, on the Sicilian side of the strait), and Himera (on the north coast of Sicily, founded from Zancle). Anaxilas of Rhegium married a daughter of Terillus of Himera, and after Theron captured Himera and expelled Terillus, and Terillus and Anaxilas successfully appealed to Carthage for support, a major war was fought in 480. The result was a victory at Himera for the southern alliance, and for Gelon in particular; Anaxilas was brought into the Syracusan orbit, and Hieron married his daughter. The tyrants were active exponents of the aristocratic virtues: they competed successfully in the great games; they attracted poets to their courts, in particular to celebrate their victories; they built impressive temples to the gods. They could be referred to as monarchs in poetry for local audiences, but in inscriptions at the major Greek sanctuaries, with the exception of Polyzelus (below), they identified themselves simply as (e.g.) Gelon son of Dinomenes, the Syracusan (M&L 28 ~ Fornara 54).

Fig. 3 Tyrants of Gela/Syracuse, Acragas, Rhegium


One earlier episode is worth mentioning here for its relevance to fifth-century history. In 510 the legendarily rich Sybaris, under the instep of Italy, was destroyed by its neighbour Croton (both were Achaean colonies). Dorieus, half-brother of the Spartan king Cleomenes, who avoided Sparta after Cleomenes became king, fought on the side of Croton, and then went to north-western Sicily, intending to found a colony there, but was defeated and killed by a combination of the Phoenicians and Egesta.

Hieron and Theron

Gelon died in 478/7: according to Diodorus (XL 38) he insisted that he should be buried in accordance with a law forbidding elaborate funerals, but the people gave him a worthy tomb and a hero’s cult: his victory over the Carthaginians was an impressive achievement, and compensated for the unpopularity which his earlier population movements had caused. Presumably Gelon’s son was too young to succeed: Hieron moved from Gela to rule in Syracuse; the next brother, Polyzelus, took over the widowed Demarete, and also succeeded

Ill. 9 Polyzelus’ bronze charioteer at Delphi. Erich Lessing/AKG Images


Hieron in Gela. (The monument at Delphi, commemorating victory in a chariot race, from which the bronze charioteer survives - cf. ill. 9 - was dedicated by Polyzelus, as an indivdual like Gelon and Hieron elsewhere. His epigram is a replacement for an earlier epigram describing the dedicator as ‘lord of Gela’, and his name has been restored in that too but perhaps wrongly [SIG3 35. D; recent discussions summarised SEG xl 427, xlv 495, and see p. 86, below].)

Before long, Polyzelus was seen by Hieron as a rival to be eliminated. An opportunity was provided when men trying to refound Sybaris, besieged by Croton, appealed for help to Hieron. Hieron sent Polyzelus with a force of mercenaries, hoping that he would be killed either by Croton or by the mercenaries. We have differing accounts of what then happened. According to Diodorus, Polyzelus refused to go and fled to Acragas; war between Acragas and Syracuse seemed likely, but was avoided when envoys from Himera protested to Hieron against the rule of Theron’s son Thrasydaeus, but Hieron betrayed the envoys to Theron, who then arranged a reconciliation between Hieron and Polyzelus. According to Timaeus, Polyzelus did go to Sybaris but was successful and was not killed, and he fled to Acragas later when accused of plotting revolution; Theron marched out against Syracuse, and war was prevented by the mediation of the poet Simonides (Diod. Sic. XL 48. iii-viii, 49. iii [476/5];Timaeus FGrH 566 F 93. b ap. schol. Pind. Ol. ii. 15 [29]).

While Theron built up his power in the west of the island (Paus. V. 25. v reports a victory over Motya, and coins of Motya and Egesta show the influence of Acragas), Hieron took an interest in Italy. He prevented Anaxilas of Rhegium from making war on neighbouring Locri (Pind. Pyth. ii. 18–20 with schol. [36-8]). Anaxilas had fortified the straits against Etruscan raiders (Strabo 256–7. VI. i. 5); and Hieron responded to an appeal from Cumae for support against the Etruscans, who were perhaps in alliance with the Carthaginians, and won a great victory (Diod. Sic. XL 51 [474/3]; Pind. Pyth. i. 71–5 with schol. 71 [137]; dedication of bronze helmets at Olympia, in the name of ‘Hieron son of Dinomenes and the Syracusans’, M&L 29 ~ Fornara 64). Presumably after that, Syracuse established a colony on the island of Pithecusae (Strabo 248. V. iv. 9). In Sicily, Hieron indulged in further population movement: the inhabitants of Naxos and Catana were transported south to Leontini; and in 476 Catana had its territory enlarged and was refounded with new settlers as Aetna - to be a kingdom for Hieron’s son Dinomenes, at first under the guardianship of Chromius, a brother-in-law of Gelon (Diod. Sic. XL 49. i-ii; schol. Pind. Nem. i. inscr.; Strabo 268. VI. ii. 3). When Dinomenes was proclaimed as king, in 470, Pindar wrote Pythian i for the occasion, and Aeschylus wrote the tragedy (not now extant) Women of Aetna (among other poets who visited Hieron’s court are Simonides [cf. above] and Bacchylides [on whom see pp. 211–12], and we hear of two Syracusan poets, Epicharmus and Phormus).

But by the end of the 470’s the tyrants were on their way out. In Acragas the popular Theron died c. 4 7 2. Thrasydaeus, who had already incurred unpopularity in Himera, moved to Acragas and made himself unpopular there; according to Diodorus he planned to attack Syracuse, but Hieron made the first move, and attacked Acragas and defeated it (perhaps 470). Thrasydaeus fled to Megara in Greece, where he was condemned to death; Acragas, and presumably Himera, acquired constitutional government (Diodorus says ‘democracy’) and treaties with Hieron (XL 53 [472/1]). Anaxilas of Rhegium died in the 470’s , leaving his sons under a regent called Micythus, who founded a colony at Pyxus, on the west coast of Italy (XL 59. iv [471/0]). Later Hieron encouraged the sons to take over: according to Herodotus, Micythus was expelled; Diodorus has a story that he behaved so unselfishly that they asked him to continue, but he insisted on resigning, and spent the rest of his life in Tegea, in Greece, in high repute (Hdt. VII. 170. iii-iv; Diod. Sic. XL 52, 66. i-iii [476/5, 467/6]).

Hieron himself, after several years of illness (cf. Pind. Pyth. ii, cf. Pyth. i. 46 sqq. with schol. 46 [89]), died in 467, at Aetna, where he was honoured as founding hero. Our sources now say nothing of Polyzelus. Thrasybulus, the last brother, took over: Hieron had been oppressive (Arist. Pol. V. 1313 B 11–16 refers to his spies), but Thrasybulus was much worse; the whole city united against him (at first, ostensibly in support of Gelon’s son: cf. Arist. Pol. V. 1312 B 9–16); there was a civil war, in which he relied on Aetna and his mercenaries, while the Syracusans gained help from many cities, Sicel as well as Greek. Thrasybulus was defeated at sea and on land, and, within a year of his succession (466), he had resigned the tyranny and retired to Locri (Diod. Sic. XL 66. iv, 67–8 [467/6, 466/5]).

Finally, Rhegium and Messene expelled the sons of Anaxilas (Diod. Sic. XL 76. v [461/0]).

Sicily after the Tyrants

After the departure of Thrasybulus the Syracusans established ‘democracy’, instituted a cult of Zeus Eleutherios (‘of Freedom’) and liberated other cities. Diodorus claims that this was a time of peace and prosperity (XL 68. v-vi, 72. i-ii). For ‘democracy’ in Syracuse cf. Arist. Pol. V. 1316 A29–33; and Syracuse was certainly democratic by 415 (cf. pp. 140–1). Temples in Himera, Syracuse (Athena) and Gela (Temple C = Athena), begun after the victory of 480, had probably been completed by the end of the Dinomenid tyranny. In Acragas work on Sicily’s largest temple, the temple of Olympian Zeus, begun before 500, was perhaps interrupted for a while and then resumed; less ambitious temples were built later, beginning with Hera Lakinia in the 450’s . In the major cities the coin types had not been changed by the tyrants, and were not changed on the overthrow of the tyrants (the 10-drachma silver coins of Syracuse - cf. ill. 10 - formerly identified with the gold coins mentioned by Diodorus after the victory at Himera [XL 26. iii], are now dated after the tyranny: a suggestion that they were actually named not after Demarete but after the goddess Demeter could still be correct with this dating); but many of the smaller cities adopted new types after the return of their original populations. Rhegium changed from the most recent designs (a mule-car on the obverse and a hare on the reverse) to an earlier obverse used by Anaxilas (a lion’s head) and a new reverse (perhaps the legendary founder, Jocastus); while Messene, after a period of uncertainty which saw the issuing of gold coins, and some coins using the old name Zancle, continued with Anaxilas’ later designs, but changed its spelling to the Doric Messana.

In terms of population, however, there was considerable upheaval: those who had been transported by the tyrants from one city to another wanted to return to their original homes and recover their properly there; while the tyrants’

Ill. 10 Syracuse: ‘Demareteum’ (c.460; 10dr.). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


mercenaries found themselves generally unwelcome, but were eventually allowed to settle in Messana (which may be the occasion for the change to the Doric spelling). Camarina, which had been destroyed by Gelon, was refounded by Gela; Catana was reoccupied by its original population (cf. below), and Aetna migrated to the inland Sicel site of Inessa (Diod. Sic. XL 72. iii-73 [463/2], 76 [461/0], cf. Thuc. VI. 5. iii, Arist. Pol. V. 1303 A 38-B 2, FGrH 577 F 1).

Some years later, Diodorus reports that the enrolment of citizens and distribution of land was leading to strife and upheaval, particularly in Syracuse. There, when a man called Tyndarides tried to make himself tyrant, he and his supporters were lynched; after further attempts at tyranny the Syracusans instituted ‘petalism’ (voting with olive leaves), a device similar to the Athenians’ ostracism for removing citizens perceived as dangerous; after a few petalisms the leading citizens thought it safer to keep out of politics, and there was a risk of a populist revolution, until petalism was abolished (XL 86. iii–87 [454/3]). It appears that the popular leaders of this period may have been the first to cultivate a sophisticated rhetorical style (Diod. Sic. XL 87. v, cf. Cic. Brut. 12). In Acragas the philosopher Empedocles is said to have been influential: reliable details are hard to come by, but he may have reconstituted the council of one thousand to make it more democratic; it is said that he refused an offer of kingship, but eventually he was forced to leave the city and fled to the Peloponnese (Diog. Laert. VIII. 63, 66, 71, cf. Plut. Adv. Col. 1126 B).

These disturbances provided the opportunity for the rise of the only Sicel leader who is named by our Greek sources, Ducetius. He first appears joining the recently liberated Syracuse in attacking Aetna-Catana, to allow the original population to return (Diod. Sic. XL 76. iii [461/0]: cf. above); he founded a city at Menaenum, west of Leontini, and captured Morgantina, further inland (XL 78. v [459/8]); he united all the Sicel cities except Hybla, in the south, under his leadership, and moved Menae (= Menaenum?) to a new site, refound-ing it as Palice (XL 88. vi-90. ii [453/2]). Next he captured Aetna-Inessa and killed its ruler, perhaps still Hieron’s son Dinomenes. He invaded the territory of Acragas, capturing the fort of Motyum and defeating the Acragantine and Syracusan forces sent against him. After a winter during which they condemned their general, the Syracusans sent a fresh expedition; Ducetius was defeated in a major battle, and most of his allies deserted him; and Acragas recaptured Motyum. Ducetius then fled to Syracuse as a suppliant, and the assembly, deciding that the rights of suppliants must be respected, sent him to Corinth, in Greece, with a maintenance grant (XL 91–2 [451/0]). But that decision was made without consultation of Acragas: Acragas declared war on Syracuse, and Ducetius took advantage of that to return to Sicily, with an oracle for the foundation of a colony at Kale Akte, on the north coast. Syracuse defeated Acragas (XII. 8 [446/5]); Ducetius built up Kale Akte, and might have used that as a base for renewed expansion, but he died (XII. 29. i [440/39]).

The defeat of Acragas left Syracuse without a rival as the most powerful Greek city in Sicily (XII. 26. ii-iv [442/1]). It gradually gained control of Sicel cities in the interior, ending perhaps by capturing and destroying Palice (XII. 29. ii-iv [440/39]: Trinakie in the manuscripts at this point,Pikenous at the corresponding point in an epitome): Diodorus claims that it came to control all the Sicel cities, but Thucydides suggests that some of the cities either soon defected or were never conquered (Thuc. III. 103. i, IV. 25. ix, VI. 88. iv). Diodorus’ last report on Sicily before the Peloponnesian War is that Syracuse built 100 triremes, strengthened its other forces and levied more tribute from the Sicels (XII. 30. i [439/8]) - but he goes on to mention, several years too early, Athens’ intervention in the war between Corinth and Corcyra (cf. p. 88), and there is no sign of that large navy when Athens sends an expedition to Sicily in 427 (cf. pp. 109–10), so he may here be anticipating a later development.

The cities in the west of the island had gone their own way, and their temples show stylistic influence from Athens rather than from the other Siceliot cities. Selinus, on the south coast (colonised from Megara Hyblaea, itself destroyed by Gelon), was busy building temples from the mid sixth century to the mid fifth: the temple of Hera and temple G are dated to the early fifth century, and temples A and O to the mid fifth century. At Elyman Egesta, to the north, a temple of which fragments survive was built about the 450’s , and the temple which survives substantially complete towards the end of the century. The inscription concerning Egesta’s alliance with Athens is to be dated not 458/7 but 418/7 (cf. pp. 52, 139); under 454/3 Diodorus records a war between Egesta and ‘Lilybaeum’ - but Lilybaeum did not yet exist, and both Halicyae and Selinus have been conjectured (XL 86. ii); Athens made an alliance with Halicyae, perhaps in the late 430’s (cf. pp. 85, 139).


In the earlier part of this period the Greeks in Italy are mentioned largely for the tyranny of Anaxilas in Rhegium, and for Hieron’s victory over the Etruscans in 474 (cf. p. 81). On the coast south of the bay of Naples Posidonia (Paestum, founded from Sybaris) was a prosperous city which built several temples between the mid sixth century and the mid fifth: the so-called temple of Poseidon, in fact more probably Zeus, has stylistic affinities with temples in Himera and Syracuse and was perhaps built after 474.

Under the instep of Italy Sybaris had been destroyed by Croton in 510 (cf. p. 79), but coins show that the site continued to be occupied as a dependency of Croton. There were various attempts at refounding an independent Sybaris: first in the 470’s , when Hieron may have sent Polyzelus to support the Sybarites (cf. pp. 80–1); a second time in 453/2, under a man called Thessalus, issuing coins based on those of Sybaris’ colonies Laus and Posidonia (Diod. Sic. XL 90. iii-iv, cf. XII. 10. ii, Hdt. VI. 21. i). Perhaps in 446/5 (on the chronology and the Athenian dimension cf. p. 74) another attempt was made, after an appeal to Sparta and Athens had elicited support from Athens: the coins show that at this stage the city still used the name Sybaris. But the original Sybarites tried to monopolise the best land and the major offices, and this led to fighting in which the newcomers were victorious. They then brought in further settlers from Athens and elsewhere, and, perhaps in 444/3, made a fresh start with the new name Thurii (Diod. Sic. XII. 9–11 [-18], cf. Arist. Pol. V. 1303 A 31–3, Strabo 263. VI. i. 13). Some of the original Sybarites settled at Sybaris-on-the-Traes, to the south-east, where they issued coins continuing the designs of Posidonia used in 453/2, but after a while they succumbed to the neighbouring Bruttii (Diod. Sic. XII. 22. i [445/4]).

There are signs of Athens’ growing interest in the west in the mid fifth century (cf. p. 74). In the 440’s it responded to the invitations to the last foundation of Sybaris and to its refoundation as Thurii; perhaps about the same time it took part in a refoundation of Neapolis. In 433/2 Athens was to renew alliances with Rhegium and Leontini: the lettering would support a date in the mid 440’s for the original alliance with Rhegium, slightly earlier for Leontini; and it was perhaps in the late 430’s that Athens made an alliance with Halicyae near Egesta. But Thurii did not remain within the Athenian orbit: Diodorus reports conflict among the settlers over who should be regarded as the founder of the city; Delphi was consulted and ascribed the foundation to Apollo -essentially a victory for the opponents of Athens (XII. 35. i-iii [434/3]).

There is a wider Italiot context for the foundation of Thurii, whose details are regrettably uncertain. It is claimed that disciples of the philosopher Pythagoras (who migrated from Samos to Croton in the late sixth century, but ended his life at Metapontium) were for a time influential, and made Croton the most powerful of the Italiot cities; that there was later a period of disturbances in which the meeting-houses (synedrid) of the Pythagoreans were burned; the Achaeans were brought in as mediators; and that, some time before 417, Croton, ‘Sybaris’ and Caulonia joined in a league of Zeus Homarios modelled on the Achaean League (Polyb. II. 39. i-vi, cf. Iambi. V.P. 249, 255). Thurii is more likely than any of the communities of Sybarites to be the ‘Sybaris’ which joined in a league that included Croton. The Sabellian tribes were at this time expanding from the interior of southern Italy and putting pressure on the Greeks, and the new Thurii may have been welcome as a contributor to resisting that pressure: there are stories of Thurii’s fighting under the Spartan exile Cleandridas against the Lucanians (Polyaenus, Strat. II. 10).

Thurii came into conflict with Sparta’s colony Taras over a settlement at Siris to which they both laid claim, and Thurii’s forces were again commanded by Cleandridas: Taras was finally successful, and moved the settlement to a new site with the new name Heraclea (Diod. Sic. XII. 23. ii [444/3], 36. iv [433/2], Strabo 264. VI. i. 14); it dedicated spear-butts at Olympia to commemorate its victory (M&L 57 ~ Fornara 112).


Freeman, History of Sicily, is a detailed account based on the literary sources (the earlier part of the fifth century, vol. ii; the period of the Peloponnesian War, vol. iii; from the end of the fifth century to the beginning of the third, reconstructed by A. J. Evans, vol. iv). For a shorter but more up-to-date account see Finley, Ancient Sicily. On the cities of Sicily and of Italy see T. Fischer-Hansen et al. in Hansen and Nielsen (eds.), An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis, 172–248 and 249–320.

On the titles of the tyrants in poetry and in inscriptions see S. E. Harrell, ‘King or Private Citizen: Fifth-Century Sicilian Tyrants at Olympia and Delphi’, Mnem.4 Iv 2002, 439–64. For a suggestion that the man who as ‘lord of Gela’ originally dedicated the bronze charioteer at Delphi was Hieron, and that he subsequently allowed his victory to be credited to Polyzelus, see H. Maehler, ‘Bakchylides and the Polyzelus Inscription’, ZPE cxxxix 2002, 19–21 (cf. SEG Hi 533).

On the dates of temples see Mertens, Der Tempel von Segesta, 186–205. On the Syracusan ‘Demareteum’ see R. T. Williams, ‘The Demareteion Reconsidered’, NC7 xii 1972, 1–11 (not Demarete but Demeter); C. M. Kraay, ‘The Demareteion Reconsidered: A Reply’, NC1 xii 1972, 13–24 (10-dr. silver coins c.465); N. K. Rutter, ‘The Myth of the "Damareteion"‘, Chiron xii 1993, 171–88 (hellenistic invention).

For doubts about Syracuse’s alleged new ships of 439/8 see Cawkwell, Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War, 79, 86.

On Sybaris and Thurii, emphasising the Italian rather than the Athenian background, see N. K. Rutter, ‘Diodorus and the Foundation of Thurii’, Hist, xxii 1973, 155–76.

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