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The Reign of Phalaris


Sicily. Design Jona Lendering.
(**)
Between 570 and 544, Phalaris was tyrant of Acragas, a newly founded city in southern Sicily, which he made very powerful. Our sources portray him as a clever man, and although many stories are probably untrue, they are nice to read. Polyaenus tells several anecdotes in his Stratagems of war 5.1, which was translated by Peter Krentz and Everett Wheeler. Small changes were made.

The citizens of Acragas wanted to spend 200 talents building a temple for Zeus Polieus on the citadel, since it was rocky and firm and, in any case, they believed it would be proper to build the god's temple in the highest place. Phalaris, the tax-collector of Acragas, promised that if he became superintendent of the project, he would get the best artisans, provide inexpensive materials, and give reliable sureties for the money. The people trusted him, thinking  that his career as a tax-collector had given him experience in such matters.

After taking the public money, he hired many foreigners, purchased many prisoners, and brought a great quantity of stones, wood, and iron up to the citadel. After the foundations were already dug, he sent a herald down to announce "Whoever has information about the men who stole the stone and iron in the citadel will receive a reward of so much silver."

The people were irritated, thinking the materials had been stolen. "Then", he said, "permit me me to fence off the citadel."

The city agreed to put a fence around and to erect a surrounding wall. Phalaris freed the prisoners, armed them with stones, hatchets, and axes, and attacked during the Thesmophoria.[1] He killed most of the men, established himself as lord of the women and children, and became tyrant of the city of Acragas.

Phalaris wanted to confiscate the Acragantines' arms, so he announced that he would hold a splendid athletic contest outside the city. After all the citizens had gone out to see the spectacle, he closed the gates and ordered his guards to carry the arms out of the houses.

When the Acragantines besieged the Sicanians [2], Phalaris was unable to capture them because they had stored a large supply of grain, and ended the war. But he also gave them the grain his army had, under the condition that he would receive the grain about to be harvested. The Sicanians gladly took the grain. Phalaris persuaded their grain guards, by bribing them with silver, to cut open the roofs of the granaries, so the grain would get wet and rot. He received newly harvested grain, as agreed. After being compelled to give their harvest to Phalaris, then, and discovering that the grain in the city had rotted, the Sicanians surrendered due to their lack of grain.

Phalaris sent men to Teutus, the ruler of Vessa (the most prosperous and largest city of the Sicanians), to woo his daughter. After Teutus agreed to the marriage, Phalaris put beardless soldiers in carriages and sent them dressed in women's clothing, as if they were female slaves bringing gifts to the bride. When they arrived at the house, they drew their daggers, and Phalaris appeared at once and mastered Vessa.[3]

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Note 1:
A festival to Demeter and Persephone.

Note 2:
The native population of the western interior of Sicily.

Note 3:
Herodotus of Halicarnassus tells the same story about a group of Macedonian courtiers killing Persian envoys.





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