Helmet and Spear - Alfred J. Church

Dionysius the Tyrant

We may feel pretty certain that neither of the two parties to the treaty which brought the war of 407Ė6 to an end had any intention of keeping it longer than it might suit their convenience or interest. Dionysius had skilfully used the war to raise himself to despotic power; Carthage probably expected that once again, as so often before, the internal quarrels of the Greek people might give her the opportunity of some fresh aggrandisement. She had accomplished much in a few years, though not without severe losses. But these losses, after all, counted but for little. The blood of mercenaries was cheap. As long as the city's sources of income were untouched, she could reckon with certainty on gathering as many recruits from Africa, Spain, Italy, and the shores of the western Mediterranean as she might choose to pay for. She had therefore no small reason to believe that her long-cherished scheme of subjugating Sicily might be accomplished at no distant date.

Peace lasted for some eight years—years which Dionysius utilised to consolidate his power at home, and to extend his dominions abroad. He felt acutely the reproach levelled against him by his enemies that his power rested on Carthaginian support, and was anxious to remove it. In 397 he felt himself strong enough to act, and taking the people into his counsel, for he was careful to observe the forms of constitutional government, proposed to commence hostilities. No declaration of war was made, but the property of Carthaginian residents in Syracuse was given up to plunder, and the trading vessels in the harbour were seized as prizes. If Carthaginian wealth excited the cupidity of their Greek neighbours, so their oppressive rule and brutal manners were the objects of universal hatred. As soon as the news of what had been done in Syracuse with the consent, and, indeed, at the suggestion of, Dionysius spread through the Island, it was followed by a general massacre of the Carthaginian inhabitants. In all the cities which the late campaigns had left in a dependent or tributary condition there was a rising of the population against their Carthaginian masters, and a massacre followed not unlike that which was planned and partially carried out amongst the Danes of East Anglia on St. Brice's Day, 1006, A.D., or that which is known as the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. In a very short time the region actually held by Carthage in the Island did not extend beyond her strong-holds on the western coast.

Dionysius followed up these proceedings by an ultimatum. Carthage might have peace if she would renounce her dominion over all the Greek cities; failing this, she must prepare for war. To such a demand there could be but one answer. Dionysius did not even wait for the inevitable negative, but marched with the whole military strength of the Island—never probably gathered in such strength or with such unanimity before—against the stronghold of Motyť. The Carthaginians resisted with an obstinacy which is characteristic of the Semitic race. One line of defence after another was stoutly maintained. When the walls had to be given up, the streets were barricaded. In this kind of fighting the Greeks lost heavily. At last a stratagem which is not without parallel in modern warfare proved effective. For some days in succession the assailants ceased fighting at sunset, the signal for recall being sounded on a trumpet. This came to be expected by the townspeople, who began to relax their watchfulness. But Dionysius prepared a picked force which was to make a night attack. This was done before the Motyans were aware of what had happened, and the town was taken. A massacre followed in which many were destroyed, though Dionysius did his best to stop it. He was certainly not specially humane, but he did not approve of the useless destruction of what, in the shape of slaves, might be valuable property. It is to be noted that the Greeks respected the lives of those who fled to the temples for protection. It shows them to have been on a somewhat higher plane of feeling than were the Carthaginians. The temples, it must be remembered, were those of Punic gods.

Carthage had no intention of allowing these attacks to pass without retaliation. A large force, amounting at the lowest estimate to 100,000 men, was levied in Africa and landed in Sicily, where it received an accession of another 30,000. Himilco, who had commanded in the last campaign, was made general-in-chief. He conceived a novel and bold plan of campaign. He marched to north-eastern Sicily, a part of the Island which up to that time had been exempt from attack. Messana was his objective point, and Messana was almost helpless. It had walls, indeed, but these were in so bad a state that they were useless for any real defence. And then a considerable part of the army was with Dionysius and the Syracusans. What was left marched out to meet the invaders and offered them battle. Himilco declined the challenge, but embarking part of his force made his way with all speed to the town. He calculated that the ships would outstrip the Messanian army, and he proved to be right. The Carthaginians found the place almost deserted, and simply poured into the town by the gaps in the walls. The forts he could not take. Some of the inhabitants were slain in a hopeless attempt to hold the town; some attempted the desperate expedient of swimming across the Strait of Scylla and Charybdis, whose terrors were not so formidable as the ferocity of the Carthaginians—out of two hundred swimmers fifty got safe to the Italian side. Messana gained, Himilco marched on Syracuse, intending to take Catana on his way. The army was to follow the line of the seashore; the fleet was to keep on a level with it. At ∆tna diversion had to be made. The volcano was in action, and the streams of lava that flowed down the eastern slope compelled the army to make a detour to the west. Dionysius thought he saw his opportunity in this division of the invading force. He put both his army and his fleet in motion, and proceeded to meet the enemy. Only the fleets, however, came into collision, and the result was a serious defeat of the Syracusans. The admiral, Leptines by name, had been strictly enjoined to be cautious; to keep his fleet in close order, and on no account to break the line. This tactic did not suit him. He attacked the enemy with a squadron of thirty quick-moving ships, at first with brilliant success. Then what the more prudent Dionysius had feared came to pass. Leptines could not hold his own against the overpowering numbers of the enemy. After some hours of fighting he had to make his escape with what ships were left to him. He had lost a hundred ships and, it was said, as many as twenty thousand men.

Dionysius had watched the disaster from the shore without being able to give any help to his comrades. The question what he was himself to do became urgent, His bolder counsellors urged him to give battle to Himilco. He was half disposed to follow their advice, but the risk seemed too great. It would be to hazard everything on one throw of the dice. He retreated on Syracuse, and took shelter within the walls. Himilco promptly followed. His army, said to have numbered 300,000, and certainly large, was easily able to invest the city on the landward side; his fleet filled the Great Harbour, though this had an area of nearly four square miles. The Syracusan army did not dare to leave the shelter of their walls; the fleet was glad to be protected by the defences of the Inner Harbour, a refuge which had never yet been entered by a foe. Never had the Greek race in Sicily been reduced to straits so desperate. Only one city remained to it, and this closely invested. Syracuse was like Jerusalem as Isaiah describes her in the height of the Assyrian invasion, "a cottage in a vineyard, a lodge in a garden of cucumbers."

Then the tide began to turn. The Syracusans obtained some successes at sea. Some corn ships carrying supplies to the Carthaginian camp were captured, and a squadron of men-of-war which attempted to recover them was defeated with a loss of more than half its number, including the admiral's ship.

Then pestilence, an attack of bubonic plague if we are to judge from the description given of it, broke out in the camp. It was aggravated by religious terrors. Himilco had shown himself as careless about sacred things as his predecessor in command. He had broken down tombs to use their materials, and had plundered temples, one of them of especial sanctity, the shrine of Persephone, Queen of Hell, and her mother Demeter (the Ceres of Roman mythology). Thousands of men perished—the historians, dealing, as usual, in enormous figures, say one hundred and fifty thousand. The mortality was certainly great, and Dionysius did not fail to use his opportunity. He delivered simultaneous attacks by land and sea, and was successful in both. The fleet was nearly destroyed. Many ships were captured; many more were burnt. Part of the camp was taken. Dionysius took up his quarters at the close of the day near the temple of Zeus, in which Himilco had had his headquarters that very morning.

The Carthaginian general then opened secret negotiations with his antagonist. To tell the story in a few words, he purchased the safety of himself and the native Carthaginian officers in the army by a bribe of three hundred talents. The money went into the private coffers of Dionysius, and Himilco was allowed to escape with his countrymen, though some of the forty ships filled with the fugitives were captured. The Syracusan admiral, of course, knew nothing about the arrangement, and Dionysius, while he contrived to postpone, could not absolutely forbid pursuit. The mercenaries thus left to their fate had various fortunes. Dionysius took some of them into his own service; the native Sicilians contrived, for the most part, to escape unmolested to their own homes. A considerable number surrendered, and were sold as slaves. Himilco reached Carthage in safety, but could not endure the humiliating position in which he found himself. He blocked up the doors of his house, refused admittance to friends and kinsmen, even to his own children, and died by voluntary starvation.

Whether Carthage would have made any attempt to recover what had been lost, we cannot say. The events that followed made it impossible. Her African subjects revolted from her; her allies deserted her. For a few weeks she stood as much alone as Syracuse had stood a few weeks before. But the combination against her was not one that could hold together long. It soon began to fall to pieces, Carthage helping the process by heavily bribing the leaders. But her power was crippled for a time, and she had to be content with withdrawing her boundary line in Sicily to its old place in the western portion of the Island.

It would be tedious to follow in detail the wars of the next few years. War followed war; sometimes one party triumphed, sometimes another. We have just seen Carthage reduced again to the narrow limits within which she had been confined before 409. Then, twelve years afterwards (383), Dionysius is compelled, after a disastrous defeat at Cronium, at which he is said to have lost 14,000 men, to concede nearly half of the Island. In 368 again—our knowledge of these campaigns is sadly broken and confused—there is another change of fortune, a brilliant victory of Dionysius, followed, however, by a reverse, which had the effect of leaving things very much as they had been when the campaign began.

In 367 Dionysius died, after a reign of thirty-eight years. I am not concerned now with his character as a domestic ruler. In this respect his name is proverbial for a cruel tyranny, amply punished by the torturing suspicions with which the life of the tyrant was harassed. But it is impossible to deny his great merits as a soldier. He had faults, but he certainly supported the Greek cause in Sicily against the incessant attacks of a very powerful enemy. We shall see how much his abilities were missed when his power passed into the hands of a feebler successor.