Agathocles of Syracuse
Agathocles was born at Thermae Himeraeae (modern name Termini Imerese) in Sicily. The son of a potter who had moved to Syracuse in about 343 BC, he learned his father's trade, but afterwards entered the army. In 333 BC he married the widow of his patron Damas, a distinguished and wealthy citizen. He was twice banished for attempting to overthrow the oligarchical party in Syracuse.
In 317 BC he returned with an army of mercenaries under a solemn oath to observe the democratic constitution which was established after they took the city. Having banished or murdered some 10,000 citizens, and thus made himself master of Syracuse, he created a strong army and fleet and subdued the greater part of Sicily.
War with Carthage followed. In 311 BC Agathocles was defeated in the Battle of the Himera River and besieged in Syracuse. In 310 BC he made a desperate effort to break through the blockade and attack the enemy in Africa. In Africa he concluded the treaty with Ophellas, ruler of Cyrenaica. After several victories he was at last completely defeated (307 BC) and fled secretly to Sicily.
After concluding peace with Carthage in 306 BC, Agathocles styled himself king of Sicily in 304 BC, and established his rule over the Greek cities of the island more firmly than ever. A peace treaty with Carthage left him in control of Sicily east of the Halycus River. Even in his old age he displayed the same restless energy, and is said to have been contemplating a fresh attack on Carthage at the time of his death.
His last years were plagued by ill-health and the turbulence of his grandson Archagathus, at whose instigation he is said to have been poisoned; according to others, he died a natural death. He was a born leader of mercenaries, and, although he did not shrink from cruelty to gain his ends, he afterwards showed himself a mild and popular "tyrant." Agathocles restored the Syracusan democracy on his death bed and did not want his sons to succeed him as king.
Agathocles was married three times. His first wife was the widow of his patron Damas by whom he had two sons: Archagathus and Agathocles, who were both murdered in 307 BC. His second wife was Alcia and they had a daughter called Lanassa, who married as the second wife of King Pyrrhus of Epirus. His third wife was the Greek Ptolemaic Princess Theoxena, who was the second daughter of Berenice I from her first husband Philip and was a stepdaughter of Ptolemy I Soter. Theoxena bore Agathocles two children: Archagathus and Theoxena. Theoxena survived Agathocles. He had further descendants from his second and third marriage.
Agathocles was cited as an example "Of Those Who By Their Crimes Come to Be Princes” in Chapter VIII of Niccolò Machiavelli’s treatise on politics, The Prince (1513). He was described as behaving as a criminal at every stage of his career.
However, he came to "glory" as much as he did brutality by repelling invading Carthaginians and winning the loyalty of the denizens of his land. However, many later disapproved of his actions, including to an extent Machiavelli, who claimed
It cannot be called prowess to kill fellow-citizens, to betray friends, to be treacherous, pitiless, irreligious. ... Still, if the courage of Agathocles in entering into and extricating himself from dangers be considered, together with his greatness of mind in enduring overcoming hardships, it cannot be seen why he should be esteemed less than the most notable captain. Nevertheless, his barbarous cruelty and inhumanity with infinite wickednesses do not permit him to be celebrated among the most excellent men.
Machiavelli goes on to reason that Agathocles' success, in contrast to other criminal tyrants, was due to his ability to mitigate his crimes by limiting them to those that
are applied at one blow and are necessary to one's security, and that are not persisted in afterwards unless they can be turned to the advantage of the subjects.
- Chisholm 1911.
- The Prince, Chapter VIII
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Agathocles". Encyclopædia Britannica 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- THE HISTORY OF AGATHOCLES by H. J. W. TILLYARD (BTM format)
- Ancient Library articles: Archagathus no. 1 & 2
- Ptolemaic Genealogy: Theoxena
- Ptolemy Dynasty: Affiliated Lines – Agathocles
- Schubert, (1887) Geschichte des Agathokles
- Grote, History of Greece, ch. 97.
- Diodorus Siculus xix., xxi., xxii. (follows generally Timaeus who had a special grudge against Agathocles)
- Polybius ix. 23
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position previously held
by Timoleon in 337 BC
|Tyrant of Syracuse
317 BC – 289 BC