For Hellenistic history, Dionysius I (or Dionysius the Elder) is a bittersweet figure. On the one hand, he led Syracuse, a Sicilian city-state of Greek descent, to be a regional power that could defeat the empire of Carthage in multiple wars. On the other iron-fisted hand, however, Dionysius’ authoritarianism and inhospitable expansion throughout Sicily and lower Italy gained him the label of ‘tyrant.’
Dionysius’ life before his ascension to power remains obscure. He likely held some sort of public office, possibly the position of a clerk, but he began his rise to power in a war against Carthage around 409 BCE. Dionysius distinguished himself as a leader during the war, and by 405 BCE, he managed to seize power in Syracuse. The war that allowed him to rise to power ended—or a ceasefire was put in place—giving Dionysius approximately eight years to strengthen his hold over Syracuse and grow his influence to encompass other Greeks residing in Sicily.
Around 397 BCE, Dionysius was able to rally the Sicilians to attack Carthage. Dionysius’ army sieged the Carthaginian city of Motya, spurring Carthage to send an army to siege Syracuse. While they were encamped near Syracuse, the Carthaginian force may have picked up a plague, sapping their strength and crushing their morale. Dionysius pressed his advantage against his opponent’s weakness and relentlessly struck at the Carthaginian army. Harassed by Sicilian arms, and weary from plague, the Carthaginians conceded defeat around 396 BCE. Another war between Syracuse and Carthage broke out within the same decade, but Syracuse, again, emerged victorious near 392 BCE. With his two wars in the 390s, Dionysius pushed Carthage out of Sicily, and made Syracuse the master of the Sicilian island.
Shortly after expelling Carthage from Sicily, Dionysius set his sights on Italy. By 390 BCE, he moved into lower Italy, conquering Thurii, Croton, Locri and Rhegium, the last of which fell to Dionysius around 388 BCE. It is even thought that he established a colony in northern Italy around Illyria. Even though he had brought all of these places (Sicily and parts of Italy) under the control of a Hellenistic state, the Greek descendants living in Dionysius’ territory did not necessarily prosper. Like most other armies of the time, the military of Dionysius had a large contingent of mercenaries, and mercenaries require payment and gifts. Unfortunately for the Greeks living under Dionysius, one of the easiest gifts for the tyrant to give to the mercenaries was Greek lands and slaves.
In 383 BCE, Dionysius began a third war with Carthage that would end his laudable winning streak. Dionysius the Tyrant continued to fight Carthage until his death in 367 BCE, but he lost control of everything west of the ancient Halycus River (around 1/3 of Sicily). Nevertheless, Dionysius I brought himself, and Syracuse, on a tremendous rise to power. Unfortunately, as his power grew he only became more and more tyrannical, and will always be remembered as a tyrant.
Written by C. Keith Hansley