Preference for Authoritarianism in Fourth Century Syracuse

Andrew T. Alwine

University of Florida

The hostility of ancient sources towards the Dionysii of Syracuse has distorted the historical reality and muddied modern views of the past. Timaeus, Plato, Plutarch and others represent these rulers in a decidedly negative light, portraying them as models of the evil tyrant which became so common in later literature.  Accordingly, enmity against the Dionysii often entailed undue support for the enemies of their regimes.  This is clearly evident in the case of Dion, who served as a foil to the tyrannical and selfish qualities of the Dionysii.

Though many writers depict Dion as the enlightened disciple of Plato and liberator of Syracuse, in the factual information given by the sources, striking similarities between Dion and the Dionysii emerge and tend to discredit this portrayal of him.  Dion's actions indicate that he in fact had autocratic aspirations from the start enterprise and may even have been consciously imitating Dionysius I.  Consequently, the Syracusan citizens' attitude towards the Dionysii and tyranny itself, generally described as hostile and resentful, must also be reconsidered.  The willingness of the Syracusan people to elect Dion to the office which Dionysius I had used to establish his power and their general support for the new ruler show that tyranny was hardly as unpopular as many writers would have us believe.  The Syracusan people accepted Dion as a ruler in the vein of Dionysius I, not as a restorer of freedom and liberator from tyranny.

Unlike democratic Athens, which had rejected monarchy completely, Syracuse supported a long series of autocratic regimes, despite the city's earlier successful experiment in democracy.  It is the intention of this paper to investigate the motives behind this partiality for authoritarian forms of government.  A study of the Syracuse's absolutist governments when the city had reached its pinnacle of prestige and power in the Greek world may yield some explanations for this largely unexplored propensity for autocracy in Greek Sicily.


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