A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology

Smith, William

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. William Smith, LLD, ed. 1890

(Ἀγαθοκλῆς), a Sicilian of such remarkable ability and energy, that he raised himself from the station of a potter to that of tyrant of Syracuse and king of Sicily. He flourished in the latter part of the fourth and the beginning of the third century, B. C., so that the period of his dominion is contemporary with that of the second and third Samnite wars, during which time his power must have been to Rome a cause of painful interest; yet so entire is the loss of all Roman history of that epoch, that he is not once mentioned in the 9th and 10th books of Livy, though we know that he had Samnites and Etruscans in his service, that assistance was asked from him by the Tarentines (Strab. vi. p.280), and that he actually landed in Italy. (See Arnold's Rome, c. xxxv.) The events of his life are detailed by Diodorus and Justin. Of these the first has taken his account from Timaeus of Tauromenium, a historian whom Agathocles banished from Sicily, and whose love for censuring others was so great, that he was nicknamed Epitimaeus (fault-finder). (Athen. 6.272.) His natural propensity was not likely to be softened when he was describing the author of his exile; and Diodorus himself does not hesitate to accuse him of having calumniated Agathocles very grossly. (Fragm. lib. xxi.) Polybins too charges him with wilfully perverting the truth (11.15), so

that the account which he has left must be received with much suspicion. Marvellous stories are related of the early years of Agathocles. Born at Thermae, a town of Sicily subject to Carthage, he is said to have been exposed when an infant, by his father, Carcinus of Rhegium, in consequence of a succession of troublesome dreams, portending that he would be a source of much evil to Sicily. His mother, however, secretly preserved his life, and at seven years old he was restored to his father, who had long repented of his conduct to the child. By him he was taken to Syracuse and brought up as a potter. In his youth he led a life of extravagance and debauchery, but was remarkable for strength and personal beauty, qualities which recommended him to Damas, a noble Syracusan, under whose auspices he was made first a soldier, then a chiliarch, and afterwards a military tribune. On the death of Damas, he married his rich widow, and so became one of the wealthiest citizens in Syracuse. His ambitious schemes then developed themselves, and he was driven into exile. After several changes of fortune, he collected an army which overawed both the Syracusans and Carthaginians, and was restored under an oath that he would not interfere with the democracy, which oath he kept by murdering 4000 and banishing 6000 citizens. He was immediately declared sovereign of Syracuse, under the title of Autocrator. But Hamilcar, the Carthaginian general in Sicily, kept the field successfully against him, after the whole of Sicily, which was not under the dominion of Carthage, had submitted to him. In the battle of Himera, the army of Agathocles was defeated with great slaughter, and immediately after, Syracuse itself was closely besieged. At this juncture, he formed the bold design of averting the ruin which threatened him, by carrying the war into Africa. To obtain money for this purpose, he offered to let those who dreaded the miseries of a protracted siege depart from Syracuse, and then sent a body of armed men to plunder and murder those who accepted his offer. He kept his design a profound secret, cluded the Carthaginian fleet, which was blockading the harbour, and though closely pursued by them for six days and nights, landed his men in safety on the shores of Africa. Advancing then into the midst of his army, arrayed in a splendid role, and with a crown on his head, he announced that he had vowed, as a thank-offering for his escape, to sacrifice his ships to Demeter and the Kora, goddesses of Sicily. Thereupon, he burnt them all, and so left his soldiers no hope of safety except in conquest.

His successes were most brilliant and rapid. Of the two Suffetes of Carthage, the one, Bomilcar, aimed at the tyranny, and opposed the invaders with little vigour; while the other, Hanno, fell in battle. He constantly defeated the troops of Carthage, and had almost encamped under its walls, when the detection and crucifixion of Bomilcar infuised new life into the war. Agathocles too was summoned from Africa by the affairs of Sicily, where the Agrigentines had suddenly invited their fellow-countrymen to shake off his yoke, and left his army under his son Archagathus, who was unable to prevent a mutiny. Agathocles returned, but was defeated; and, fearing a new outbreak on the part of his troops, fled from his camp with Archagathus, who, however, lost his way and was taken. Agathocles escaped; but in revenge for this desertion, the soldiers murdered his sons, and then made peace with Carthage. New troubles awaited him in Sicily, where Deinocrates, a Syracusan exile, was at the head of a large army against him. But he made a treaty with the Carthaginians, defeated the exiles, received Deinocrates into favour, and then had no difficulty in reducing the revolted cities of Sicily, of which island he had some time before assumed the title of king. He afterwards crossed the Ionian sea, and defended Corcyra against Cassander. (Diod. xxi. Fragm.) He plundered the Lipari isles, and also carried his arms into Italy, in order to attack the Bruttii.

But his designs were interrupted by severe illness accompanied by great anxiety of mind, in consequence of family distresses. His grandson Archagathus murdered his son Agathocles, for the sake of succeeding to the crown, and the old king feared that the rest of his family would share his fate. Accordingly, he resolved to send his wife Texeina and her two children to Egypt, her native country; they wept at the thoughts of his dying thus uncared for and alone, and he at seeing them depart as exiles from the dominion which he had won for them. They left him, and his death followed almost immediately. For this touching narrative, Timaeus and Diodorus after him substituted a monstrous and incredible story of his being poisoned by Maeno, an associate of Archagathus. The poison, we are told, was concealed in the quill with which he cleaned his teeth, and reduced him to so frightful a condition, that he was placed on the funeral pile and burnt while yet living, being unable to give any signs that he was not dead.

There is no doubt that Agathocles was a mail who did not hesitate to plunge into any excesses of cruelty and treachery to further his own purposes. He persuaded Ophellas, king of Cyrene, to enter into an alliance with him against Carthage, and then murdered him at a banquet, and seized the command of his army. He invited the principal Syracusans to a festival, plied them with wine, mixed freely with them, discovered their secret feelings, and killed 500 who seemed opposed to his views. So that while we reject the fictionis of Timaeus, we can as little understand the statement of Polybius, that though he used bloody means to acquire his power, he afterwards became most mild and gentle. To his great abilities we have the testimony of Scipio Africanus, who when asked what men were in his opinion at once the boldest warriors and wisest statesmen, replied, Agathocles and Dionysius. (Plb. 15.35.) He appears also to have possessed remarkable powers of wit and repartee, to have been a most agreeable companion, and to have lived in Syracuse in a security generally unknown to the Greek tyrants, unattended in public by guards, and trusting entirely either to the popularity or terror of his name.

As to the chronology of his life, his landing in Africa was in the archonship of Hieromnemon at Athens, and accompanied by an eclipse of the sun, i.e. Aug. 15, B. C. 310. (Clinton, Fast. Hell.) He quitted it at the end of B. C. 307, died B. C. 289, after a reign of 28 years, aged 72 according to Diodorus, though Lucian (Macrob. 10), gives his age 95. Wesseling and Clinton prefer the statement of Diodorus. The Italian mercenaries whom Agathocles left, were the Mamertini who after his death seized Messana, and occasioned the first Punic war.