Book Review: The Tyrants of Syracuse: War in Ancient Sicily, Vol I, 480-367 BC


by Jeff Champion

Barnsley, S. York.: Pen & Sword / Havertown, Pa.: Casemate, 2010. Pp. xxii, 250. Illus., maps, diagr., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1848840632

Less famous now than many other ancient cities, during the “Golden Age” Syracuse was the largest, richest, and for several centuries arguably the most powerful of all Greece city-states.  In The Tyrants of Syracuse Chapman, an independent scholar who has written extensively on ancient military history, gives us a lively look at the city and its string of “ tyrannoi ,” a word only poorly translated as “tyrants.”  This is a story so rich it takes two volumes to tell. 

In Volume I, Chapman covers the period from the Persian Wars, in which Carthage served as an ally for Persia, pinning Sicilian Greek resources down, through the Peloponessian Wars, during which took place the disastrous Athenian attempt to capture the city, which led to the rise of the greatest of the Syracusan tyrannoi was Dionysius, who ruled from 406 BC to his death in 367 BC, a multitalented, ruthless, brilliant ruler.  At the peak of peak of his reign Dionysius ruled most of Sicily and a large swathe of southern Italy as well, making Syracuse undoubtedly the richest and most powerful of all Greek city-states.  Like most Sicilian tyrants, Dionysius rose to power because of the Punic threat; the Carthaginians struggled long and hard to gain control of Sicily, and came close more than once, usually frustrated by the power of Syracuse. 

In telling us the story of Syracuse, Chapman also gives us a valuable look at the entire Greek world in the period from about the eighth century BC until the Roman conquest, including the perennial struggles between aristocrats and democrats.  Unlike some scholars, Chapman directly addresses problems in the evidence, analyzing conflicting accounts and explaining his choices among them. 

A rich work, The Tyrants of Syracuse is a must read for anyone interested in ancient history.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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