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European Kingdoms

Ancient Greek Colonies


Syracuse (Greek Colony)

The identity of the Greeks was wrought during the Near East's climate-induced political upheavals of the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BC. Originally Mycenaeans, the descendants of the dominant Indo-European group on the Greek territories to the immediate south of the Balkans, they were formed during the upheavals through a mixture of surviving Mycenaean dominance in Athens, Dorian and Aeolian-induced blending in the majority of mainland territories, and Pelasgian inheritance from pre-Indo-European times.

Once a full recovery was underway in the eighth and seventh centuries BC, the Greek city states were able to trade with the Phoenicians, and with Syria as a whole, with papyrus being imported from there and locations being used in stories about the Greek gods. The Greeks also imported the Phoenician alphabet and eastern artistic influences, and were firmly a part of the trade system of the region. Each city state was self-governed, or looked to one of its larger neighbours for support and alliances.

Together they created a trading empire which eventually stretched across the Mediterranean. As they expanded they founded seasonal trading posts along the sea's northern and southern shores. Many of these posts gradually developed into colonies, usually becoming self-governing and often regionally powerful.

Syracuse is located in south-western Sicily. The first major colony on the island, it was founded between 743-734 BC by the city state of Corinth during an early period of Greek civilisation which, as mentioned, saw colonies being founded right across the Mediterranean. This was later than an equivalent phase of colony-founding by the Phoenicians, so the Greeks found themselves competing against established cities such as Carthage, Utica, and Gadir.

However, in this race to colonise, the Greeks were able to devote far more resources than the Phoenicians so they were able to catch up fairly quickly. Syracuse quickly grew into the most powerful of the Greek colonies, at times controlling the entire island. Its rulers were known as tyrants, which was not necessarily the commentary on their leadership style that it may be today.

Ancient Greek frieze

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, William Smith, from The History of Rome, Volume 1, Titus Livius (translated by Rev Canon Roberts), from Encyclopaedia Britannica (Eleventh Edition, Cambridge (England), 1910), from Encyclopaedia of the Roman Empire, Matthew Bunson (1994), and from External Links: Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

743 - 484 BC

Once the colony of Syracuse is established by Corinth it is governed by an oligarchy of the most powerful Greeks (perhaps descended from the Bacchiades, whose exile from Corinth is claimed as the reason Syracuse is founded). The native Siculi are forced inland, but many of their number are also subjugated and are used as a labour and farming force by the Greeks. Towards the end of this period the city falls under the control of another Greek colony, that of Gela, which introduces a kingship, or tyranny, to rule the city.

Map of the Etruscans
This map shows the greatest extent of Greek influence in southern Italy and on Sicily, during the fifth and fourth centuries BC, when the Etruscans were a major rival (click or tap on map to view full sized)

580 BC

FeatureSome Greek settlements on Sicily attempt to drive the Phoenicians and their Iberian Mercenaries (see feature link) from Motya and Panormus (Palermo) in the west of the island. The Carthaginians fear that if the Greeks win the whole of Sicily they will next move onto Sardinia and beyond, isolating the Phoenicians in North Africa.

The successful defence of Sicily is followed by attempts to strengthen limited footholds on Sardinia. A fortress at Monte Sirai in Sardinia is the oldest Phoenician military building in the west.

492 BC

The Syracusan colony of Camarina rebels, giving Hippocrates of Gela the excuse to attack Syracuse itself. The city's army is defeated at the River Heloros and Syracuse is besieged. Eventually, Hippocrates is bought off with the offer of the possession of Camarina.

484 BC

The successor to Hippocrates in Gela, Gelon conquers Syracuse and moves his seat to the city, handing the rule of Gela to his brother, Hieron.

484 - 478 BC

Gelon I / Gelo I

Son of Deinomenes. Tyrant of Gela (491-484 BC).

480 BC

Hamilcar of Carthage lands a huge army on Sicily in order to confront Syracuse on the island's eastern coast. Despite their assembled forces and fierce Iberian Mercenaries, the Carthaginians are defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Himera. A long struggle ensues with intermittent warfare between Carthage and Syracuse.

478 - 467 BC

Hieron I / Hiero I

Brother. Tyrant of Gela (484-478 BC).

476 BC

Less than a year after victory at the Battle of the Cremora, the Etruscan city of Veii sees its navy crushed off the coast of Cumae by Hieron and the city is forced to agree a treaty with Rome.

466 - 465 BC


Brother. Ruled for eleven months.

465 - 405 BC

Thrasybulus, the last of the three Deinomenid tyrants, is overthrown by the Syracusan people and a democratic republic is established to govern the city.

460 - 452 BC

The recent termination of the tyranny of Gelon I and his brothers has left problems in its wake on Sicily. In 460 BC, war breaks out between Syracuse and its former colony at Catana. Ducetius, a prominent Hellenised Sicel, backs Syracuse in revenge for the former occupation of Siculi land by Catana, and the latter colony is defeated. Ducetius goes on to unite central Sicily, by 452 BC, and founds the city of Palice, which becomes his capital.

452 - 451 BC

Syracuse becomes concerned by the seemingly unstoppable expansion by the leader of the Siculi. Ducetius takes Motya (the modern island of San Pantaleo), a stronghold which had formerly been held by Akragas, so in 451 BC Syracuse assists Akragas in opposing him, unsuccessfully. The power of Ducetius and his Siculi empire is now at its height.

The Greek colony of Motya
The colony of Motya (modern San Pantaleo), just off the western coast of Sciliy and close to Syracuse, changed hands twice during the revolt, with Ducetius of the Siculi at the centre of the fighting in his attempts to oppose Greek dominance

450 BC

Ducetius of the Siculi suffers a shock defeat when his forces are decisively defeated at Nomae. His surviving army is scattered amongst the Siculi cities, and Ducetius remains with just a handful of followers. Akragas reclaims Motya and Ducetius flees to Syracuse, where he is tried by a general assembly and exiled to Corinth for life.

446 - 440 BC

Ducetius returns to Sicily, according to Diodorus, where he founds the city of Kale Akte or Caleacte on the northern coast (modern Caronia). This is probably with the permission of Syracuse, in the hope of establishing a permanent peaceful alliance. Unfortunately, Ducetius dies following an illness in 440 BC, and is unable to influence the subsequent revolt of the Siculi against Syracuse. The revolt quickly falls apart, the city of Palice is sacked, and its Sicel inhabitants are sold into slavery.

431 - 404 BC

The Second Peloponnesian War brings mighty Athens and its empire to its knees and establishes Sparta as the greatest Greek power. Syracuse sides with Sparta. When an Athenian fleet is sent to capture the island, the arrival of a Spartan general (Alcibiades, a former Athenian who had fallen from grace) and a few Spartan troops inspires the Syracusans to fight back, and a massive night attack by the Athenians turns into a disaster for them. Thousands of Athenian troops die. Dionysius is elected supreme military commander in 406 BC, and in the following year he seizes absolute power as tyrant.

420 BC

Antiochus of Syracuse completes his History of Sicily and Colonising of Italy around this time. The works exist today only in fragments but they are highly regarded by the ancient world thanks to the accuracy of their information. Antiochus writes that the entirety of later Calabria had originally been known as Oenotria after the Oenotri tribe which had settled there early in its history. He also confirms that the arrival of the more warlike Oenotri and Opici had triggered the migration of the Elymi, Itali, and Siculi into the 'toe' of Italy and onto Sicily.

405 - 367 BC

Dionysius I the Elder

Renowned as a cruel tyrant. Poisoned.

396 BC

When Hamilco of Carthage pulls out of Syracuse, abandoning his Iberian Mercenaries, it is the Iberians who survive the subsequent massacre. They group together, march to Syracuse, and offer Dionysius 'the Elder' their services. This results in some of them becoming his personal bodyguard while his son, Dionysius II, who sends some of their mounted warriors to aid Sparta.

385 BC

Dionysius supports and instigates an attack by Illyrians on the kingdom of Epirus. He wants to place Alcetas on the Epiran throne as part of his plan to control the entire Ionian Sea. Sparta intervenes and expels the Illyrians after defeating them in battle, although the Illyrians are reputed to kill 15,000 Molossians before they are expelled and ravage the region.

The Syracusian tyrant also trades with the Adriatic Veneti, desiring their famed horses and founding trading colonies along the Adriatic coast to work with them. He helps the town of Adria to build canals to link it to the sea and thereby breaks Sina's trading monopoly.

c.383 BC

Hanno the Great of Carthage renews the war with Syracuse amid a power struggle in the city. This act wins him massive public support at home.

367 BC

The war against Carthage finally comes to an end when Hanno the Great leads a fleet of two hundred ships to a decisive naval victory over Syracuse. Soon afterwards, Dionysius is apparently poisoned on the orders of his son.

367 - 356 BC

Dionysius II the Younger

Son. Overthrown but returned in 347 BC.

367 - 366 BC


Uncle, philosopher and supervisor of his nephew's rule.

366 BC

Dion attempts to improve his nephew's dissolute reign by inviting the philosopher Plato to visit the island. Together Dion and Plato try to restructure the ruling process to introduce moderation, but Dionysius resents the interference and Dion is banished. Dionysius gradually loses popularity with his relatively incompetent rule.

357 BC

Much to the relief of most of the Syracusan populace, Dion returns with a small army and Dionysius, away at the time, is left with little choice but to capitulate and abdicate the throne, sailing to Locri on the Italian mainland. He leaves the only uncaptured portion of territory, the citadel of Syracuse, in the hands of his son, Apollocrates.

356 - 354 BC


Seized the throne. Assassinated by his officers.

354 BC

The conservative Dion has become increasingly unpopular, generating growing opposition to his rule. Thanks to the machinations of Calippos, he is assassinated by his own mercenary officers. Calippos seizes control, the first of many who claim the title of tyrant during this period.

Greek theatre
The fifth century BC Greek theatre lies on the southern slopes of the Temenite Hill on Syracuse, still in surprisingly good condition despite centuries of spoliation

354 - 352 BC

Calippos / Calippus

Opposed Dion and ruled for 13 months. Killed by his comrades.

352 - 350 BC


Son of Dionysius the Elder.

352 - 350 BC



350 - 346 BC


347 BC

The period of anarchy engendered by the rule of Dion continues as Dionysius II resumes control of the city, although he remains unpopular with the people.

347 - 344 BC

Dionysius II the Younger

Restored during a period of anarchy. Accepted exile in Corinth.

345 - 340 BC

The Carthaginians launch a large-scale military campaign in Sicily. Thanks to a decade of anarchy Syracuse is no longer the supreme power it had once been in the Mediterranean. Lots of small powers, war bands and tribal princes seek to control their part of the island. Into this chaos Carthage sends a force of 50,000 infantry, backed by cavalry, a large fleet of war chariots, and a large train of siege engines.

The Greeks receive assistance from Corinth under the able commander Timoleon who opposes Dionysius in 345 BC. Faced with an opponent he is unable to defeat, Dionysius accepts exile to Corinth where, after a year of declining living conditions, he dies. Timoleon spends the next five years driving out the invaders and becomes the colony's leading figure (although not tyrant).

345 - 337 BC


Opposed Dionysius. Led the defence of the city. Retired.

337 - 317 BC

Thanks to the democratic reforms of Timoleon, Syracuse adopts a system towards which it has been heading since the fall of Dionysius the Younger, by which the city state is governed as a form of oligarchic republic. The young Agathocles, son of a potter, twice attempts to overthrow the party controlling the state. In 317 BC he returns from banishment with a mercenary army, subdues the city, and subsequently conquers much of Sicily.

317 - 289 BC


Adopted the title 'King of Sicily' in 305 BC. Poisoned.

310 - 307 BC

Greek armies under Agathocles invade Cape Bon near Carthage, but with disappointing results. At the same time, in 307 BC, Agathocles destroys the Elymi city of Segesta.

289 - 270 BC

Following the death of Agathocles, apparently at the instigation of his own troublesome son, Archagathus, Syracuse is gripped by civil war and anarchy. Icetas is the first to claim to rule the city.

Syracusan coin
Shown here are two sides of a coin minted in Syracuse about 280 BC, around the crossover between Icetas, Toinon, and Sosistratos

289 - 280 BC


282 - 278 BC

The growing power of Rome has saved the Greek colony of Thurii from being overwhelmed by the Italics, but the colony of Tarentum intervenes, sinking some of the Roman ships. Rome declares war on Tarentum, but Pyrrhus of Epirus declares for Tarentum, as do many of the southern Italic peoples, including the Brutii, Lucani, and Samnites. A few years later these three Italic tribes send auxiliaries to the army of Pyrrhus, but following his withdrawal in 278 BC to attack Syracuse they face Rome's might alone.

280 BC


280 - 277 BC


277 - 275 BC

Epirus conquers Syracuse in 277 BC. When Pyrrhus leaves Sicily, one of his former generals, Hieron, is appointed commander-in-chief of the Syracusan armed forces.

He strengthens his position by marrying the daughter of a leading citizen and is made king in 270 BC after successfully defending Syracuse from the Mamertines, Italian mercenaries who had formerly been hired by Agathocles.

275 - 215 BC

Hieron II / Hiero II

Illegitimate son of Hierocles, who claimed descent from Gelon.

274 BC

Hiero II brings to an end the presence of Iberian Mercenaries in Syracuse thanks to another upset which has been caused by riots. He sends them to tackle the Italian marauders who are known as the Mamertines and then withdraws his own forces, leaving them to their fate.

263 BC

Shortly after the outbreak of the First Punic War. Hieron signs a treaty with Rome by which he is allowed to continue to rule his corner of Sicily. His son, disagreeing with this policy, sides with the Carthaginians, but he dies shortly afterwards, perhaps killed by his own father.

240 - 216 BC

Gelon II / Gelo II

Son. Killed after siding with Carthage.

215 - 214 BC


Son. Reigned for 13 months. Tyrant in the modern sense.

215 - 214 BC

Following Hannibal Barca's defeat of a Roman army at the Battle of Cannae, Hieronymus enters into an alliance with Carthage. His actions see Syracuse besieged by Roman forces in 214 BC and he himself is cornered and killed on the streets of Leontini by supporters of Rome before his guards can come to his rescue.

214 - 212 BC


Seized power. Assassinated by the pro-Roman faction.

213 - 212 BC


213 - 212 BC


Brother and general.

212 BC

Despite holding out for two years against the Roman siege of the city, Syracuse falls. It seems that Roman troops are accidentally allowed into the city by a Syracusan peace party. Now Syracuse becomes the Roman capital of Sicily. Its subsequent history follows that of Italy until AD 827 when Sicily is gradually conquered by the Aghlabids of Tunisia.

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