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The coup of Agathocles (316)


Sicily. Design Jona Lendering.
(©**)
In 316, the Syracusan general Agathocles seized power in his native city, which meant the end of the period inaugurated by Timoleon in which the Sicilian cities had been independent and had regained some prosperity. However, the island remained politically divided and threatened from the west, where Carthage loomed large. During Agathocles' tyranny, the lower classes of Sicily gained access to power.

Diodorus of Sicily tells the story in his Library of World History,19.9, basing himself on a hostile source, Timaeus of Tauromenium. The translation was made by M.M. Austin.

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Coin of king Agathocles. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien (Austria). Photo Jona Lendering.Agathocles (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien)


After this [the massacre of the Syracusan oligarchs] Agathocles summoned an assembly and accused the Six Hundred [1] and the oligarchy they had previously set up. Claiming to have rid the city of the would-be tyrants, he declared that he was restoring to the people their full autonomy; his own wish was to be freed from his toils and live the life of a private citizen on equal terms with all. With these words he took off his military dress and exchanged it for a civilian dress, and was on the point of walking off after demonstrating that he was one of the many.[2] In behaving so he was playing the part of a man of the people and he knew very well that the majority of the assembly, as they were implicated in his criminal deeds, would never consent to entrust the office of general to anyone else.
 
At once these men, who had plundered the property of their unfortunate [wealthy] victims, shouted not to abandon them but to take full control of affairs. Agathocles at first said nothing, but when the crowd became more insistent, he said he accepted the office of general provided he did not share it with others; he could not accept having to render accounts as one of a board of generals, as the laws required, for crimes committed by others. As the crowd agreed to let him be sole ruler, he was elected general with full powers and henceforth he ruled openly and controlled the city.

As for the [wealthy] Syracusans who had not committed themselves, some were restrained by fear to submit, while others, being no match for the crowd, were deterred from making any hostile demonstration. There were also many poor and indebted men who welcomed the regime change; for Agathocles had promised in the assembly to carry out  a cancellation of debts and distribute the land to the poor.

This done, he put an end to massacres and punishments, and undergoing a complete change showed himself considerate to the common people [3]. Conferring benefits on many, making encouraging promises to not a few, and by conversing in a friendly fashion with everyone he gained great favor.

Although he wielded such great power, he did not assume a diadem, keep a bodyguard or seek to make himself difficult to approach, as is the custom with nearly all tyrants.[4] He also busied himself with the revenues and the manufactures of weapons and missiles and built more warships in addition to the existing ones. He also brought under control most of the forts and cities in the interior.

Reverse of a coin of Agathocles, showing the thunderbolt of Zeus and the legend king Agathocles.
Reverse of a coin of  Agathocles, showing the thunderbolt of Zeus and the legend "king Agathocles" (©!!)

Notes

Note 1:
An oligarchic body.

Note 2:
The many: the people, in its political sense - the commoners.

Note 3:
Diodorus seems to refer to something like the middle class: not the very poor which had made Agathocles tyrant, not the extremely rich, but the people between these extremes.

Note 4:
Later, Agathocles assumed the royal title, after the Successors of Alexander the Great had done the same.

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