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Dionysius I or Dionysius the Elder (ca. 432–367 BC, ) was a Greek tyrant of Syracusemarker, in what is now Sicily, southern Italy. He conquered several cities in Sicily and southern Italy opposed Carthagemarker's influence in Sicily and made Syracuse the most powerful of the Western Greek colonies. He was regarded by the ancients as an example of the worst kind of despot—cruel, suspicious and vindictive.

Early life

Dionysius I began life as a clerk in a public office. Because of his achievements in the war against Carthage that had begun in 409 BC, he was elected supreme military commander in 406 BC; in the following year he seized total power and became tyrant. In subsequent years he consolidated his position ruthlessly.


He carried on war with Carthage from 397 BC to 392 BC with varying success; his attempts to drive the Carthaginians entirely out of the island of Sicily failed, and at his death they were masters of at least a third of it. He also carried on an expedition against Rhegiummarker capturing it and attacking its allied cities in Magna Graecia. In one campaign, in which he was joined by the Lucanians, he devastated the territories of Thurii and Crotonmarker in an attempt to defend Locrimarker.
Dionysius of Syracuse's military attempts to place Alcetas in the throne of the Molossians
After a protracted siege he took Rhegium (386), and sold the inhabitants as slaves. He joined the Illyrians in an attempt to plunder the temple of Delphimarker, pillaged the temple of Caere (then allied with Rome) on the Etruscanmarker coast, and founded several military colonies on the Adriaticmarker. In the Peloponnesian War he espoused the side of the Spartansmarker, and assisted them with mercenaries.

In 385 BC Alcetas of Epirus was a refugee in Dionysus' court. Dionysus wanted a friendly monarch in Epirus and so sent 2,000 Greek hoplites and five hundred suits of Greek armour to help the Illyrians under Bardyllis in attacking the Molossians of Epirus. They ravaged the region and killed 15,000 Molossians, and Alcetas regained his throne. Sparta however intervened; under Agesilaus and with aid from Thessaly, Macedonia and the Molossians themselves, the Spartans expelled the Illyrians.


According to others, he was poisoned by his physicians at the instigation of his son, Dionysius the Younger who succeeded him as ruler of Syracuse. His life was written by Philistus, but the work is not extant.

Additionally, it is said that upon hearing news of his play, The Ransom of Hector, winning the competition at the Lanaean festival at Athens, he celebrated so fiercely that he drank himself to death. Others report that he died of natural causes shortly after learning of his play's victory in 367 BC. The third theory suggests that "The Company", of which he was a member, had taken revenge on his earlier purges and taxation imposed upon them, in an attempt to raise money for the war with Carthage.

Intellectual tastes

Like Pisistratus, tyrant of Athensmarker, Dionysius was fond of having literary men about him, such as the historian Philistus, the poet Philoxenus, and the philosopher Plato, but treated them in a most arbitrary manner. Once he had Philoxenus arrested and sent to the quarries for voicing a bad opinion about his poetry. A few days later, he released Philoxenus because of his friends' requests, and brought the poet before him for another poetry reading. Dionysius read his own work and the audience applauded. When he asked Philoxenus how he liked it, the poet replied only "take me back to the quarries".

He also posed as an author and patron of literature; his poems, severely criticized by Philoxenus, were hissed at the Olympic games; but having gained a prize for a tragedy on the Ransom of Hector at the Lenaea at Athensmarker, he was so elated that he engaged in a debauch which proved fatal.

His name is also known for the legend of Damon and Pythias, and he features indirectly (via his son) in the legend of the Sword of Damocles. The Ear of Dionysiusmarker in Syracuse is an artificial limestone cave named after Dionysius.

Walls of Syracuse

In 402 BC Dionysius I began building the Circuit Walls of Syracuse. They were completed in 397 BC and had the following characteristics:

  • Length: 27 kilometers
  • Width at base: 3.3 m to 5.35 m
  • Number of known towers on circuit: 14 (including Euryalos)
  • Largest tower: 8.5 m x 8.5 m
  • Deepest ditch (at Euryalos fortress): 9 m
Building so big a fortress would have involved installing well over 300 tons of stone every day for 5 years.

Fictional references

Dionysius I is mentioned in Dante's The Divine Comedy (1308-21) as a tyrant who indulged in blood and rapine and suffers in a river of boiling blood. A fictional version of Dionysius is a character in Mary Renault's historical novel The Mask of Apollo (1966). He also features prominently in L. Sprague de Camp's historical novel The Arrows of Hercules (1965) as a patron of inventors on the island of Ortygiamarker near Syracuse. He is the main character in Valerio Massimo Manfredi's novel Tyrant (2003).

See also

  • Diod. Sic. xii., xiv., xv.; J Bass, Dionysius I von Syrakus (Vienna, 1881).
  • "Tyrant" a novel by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, ISBN 0-330-42654-0


  1. A History of Greece to 322 B.C., by N. G. L. Hammond. ISBN 0198730950, 1986, page 479: "... Molossi, Alcetas, who was a refugee at his court, Dionysius sent a supply of arms and 2,000 troops to the Illyrians, who burst into Epirus and slaughtered 15,000 Molossians. Sparta intervened as soon as they had learned of the events and expelled the Illyrians, but Alcetas had regained his ..."
  2. A History of Greece to 322 B.C., by N. G. L. Hammond. ISBN 0198730950, 1986, page 470, "Sparta had the alliance of Thessaly, Macedonia, and Molossia in Epirus, which she had helped to stave off an Illyrian invasion. ..."
  3. Diodorus Siculus, Library, Book 15.13.1, Fifteenth Book of Diodorus
  4. The Cambridge Ancient History, by John Boardman, ISBN 0521233488, 1923, page 428: "Bardyllis who seized power and set himself up as king of the Dardani"...."Forming an alliance with Dionysius tyrant of Syracuse he killed 15,000 Molossians"

Preceded by:
position previously held
by Thrasybulus in 465 BC

Tyrant of Syracuse
405 BC– 367 BC
Succeeded by:
Dionysius the Younger

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