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Agathocles (1), tyrant

Agathocles (1) tyrant, later king of Syracuse, born 361/0 bce in Thermae, Sicily. His father Carcinus, an exile from Rhegium, received Syracusan citizenship under Timoleon343/2 and owned a large pottery manufactory. The young Agathocles took part in various military enterprises and early on nurtured political ambitions. The oligarchy of six hundred that ruled Syracuse after Timoleon's death distrusted the active young man with popular tendencies and he was banished c.330. During his exile he attempted to obtain a power base in southern Italy, operating as a condottiere in Croton or Tarentum. He successfully relieved Rhegium when it was besieged by the six hundred, thereby toppling the oligarchy. Recalled by the people in Syracuse he was exiled again after the oligarchs had been reinstated. Subsequently he threatened the oligarchs and their Carthaginian allies (see carthage) with a private army of mercenaries from the Sicilian inland. Hamilcar changed sides and through his mediation Agathocles was able to return to Syracuse and in 319/8 was made ‘stratēgos with absolute power in the cities of Sicily’ (FGrH239 B 12). A military coup in 316 (cf. Diod. Sic. 19. 5. 4–9, from Timaeus (2)) resulted in the murder and banishment of the six hundred and to Agathocles was entrusted ‘the generalship with absolute power and the care of the city’ (Diod. Sic. 19. 9. 4). The new rule, chiefly reliant on mercenaries, was a tyranny in all but in name.

During the following years Agathocles concentrated on the cities that had given refuge to the banished oligarchs, especially Acragas, Gela, and Messana. Messana appealed to Carthage for help and in 314 concluded a peace treaty with Agathocles; Hamilcar again acted as mediator. Carthage retained the ‘epicraty’ (area of control) west of the Halycus (mod. Platani), Syracuse the hegemony over the otherwise autonomous Greek cities (Schmitt, SdA 3, no. 424). When Agathocles in contravention of the treaty invaded Carthaginian territory he suffered a crushing defeat at the southern Himera in the summer of 311. While the Carthaginians were advancing against Syracuse Agathocles entrusted the city's defence to his brother Antander and made his way through the enemy blockade to Africa (14 August 310). His objective was to defeat the Carthaginians in their own country and to make them withdraw troops from Sicily (Diod. Sic. 20. 3–5). He burned his ships, defeated the enemy in the field, and advanced against Carthage. In Sicily Antander was holding out against the Carthaginians, but Acragas had organized an alliance of Greek cities promising them their liberty. Agathocles in Africa had been in contact with Ophellas, the governor of Cyrene, since 309. Ophellas was planning a great North African empire (Diod. Sic. 20. 40). On his assassination his army enlisted with Agathocles, who in 308/7 returned to Sicily where matters had been deteriorating. Soon afterwards the army in Africa was almost completely wiped out. Agathocles returned to Africa for a short time only to abandon the rest of his soldiers and to flee back to Sicily. The peace of 306 again named the Halycus as the border between the Carthaginian epicraty and Greek Sicily (Schmitt, SdA 3, no. 437). Agathocles later defeated the exiles' army and ruled Greek Sicily—with the exception of Acragas. In 305 he assumed the title of king (Diod. Sic. 20. 54, 1) and not long afterwards married Theoxene, one of Ptolemy (1) I's stepdaughters.

From c.300 he concentrated his efforts on southern Italy (Diod. Sic. 21. 4 ff.). In two campaigns he briefly brought Bruttium under his control and supported Tarentum in 298/7 against the native Lucanians and the Messapians (see lucania; messapii). He conquered Croton 295 and concluded alliances with other cities in southern Italy; he even captured Corcyra (Diod. Sic. 21. 2) and held it for a short time. Agathocles' aim seems to have been the union of Sicilian and south Italian Greeks under his rule. His preparations for another campaign against Carthage were cut short when he was assassinated in 289/8. His attempt to establish a dynasty failed owing to family rivalries, he therefore ‘restored to the people their self-government’ (Diod. Sic. 21. 16. 5). Agathocles was on no account the popular tyrant often depicted by historians (Mossé; see bibliog. below), but rather a cruel careerist and an unscrupulous adventurer. Modern historians have frequently overestimated his historical importance: he achieved nothing of lasting impact—on the contrary, immediately after his death anarchy erupted both in Syracuse, where a damnatio memoriae was decreed (Diod. Sic. 21. 16. 6), and other places (Diod. Sic. 21. 18).


Chief source: Diodorus Siculus 19. 5–31. 17 (mainly based on Timaeus, who had been banished by Agathocles and hence wrote with a strong negative bias—cf. esp. Diodorus Siculus 21. 17. 1–3, in Timaeus, Fragmente der griechischen Historiker 566 F 124d).

S. N. C. Langher, Storiografia e potere: Duride, Timeo e il dibattito su Agatocle (1998).Find this resource:

    F. Muccioli, La storiografia su Agatocle, in R. Vattuone (ed.), Storici greci d’ Occidente (2002), 164–171.Find this resource:

      H. Berve, Die Herrschaft des Agathokles (1953).Find this resource:

        H. Berve, Die Tyrannis bei den Griechen, 2 vols. (1967).Find this resource:

          C. Mossé, La Tyrannie dans la Grèce antique (1969).Find this resource:

            S. Consolo Langher, in R. Romeo (ed.), Storia della Sicilia 2 (1979).Find this resource:

              K. Meister, Cambridge Ancient History 72/1 (1984), ch. 10.Find this resource:

                S. N. C. Langher, Agatocle: Da capoparte a monarca fondatore di un regno tra Cartagine e i Diadochi (2000).Find this resource:

                  C. Lehmler, Syrakus unter Agathokles und Hieron II (2005).Find this resource:

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