Gelon, tyrant of Gela and Syracuse, fl.491-477 BC

Gelon, tyrant of Gela and Syracuse (fl.491-477 BC) is best known for the defeat of a Carthaginian army at the battle of Himera in 480 BC.

Gelon was a member of one of the founding families of Gela, on the southern coast of Sicily. He is first mentioned as a spearman in the bodyguard of Hippocrates, tyrant of Gela (fl.498-491). As a result of his success in battle Gelon was promoted to command Hippocrates' cavalry and took part in the creation of a short-lived Geloan empire.

In 491 Hippocrates was killed and the people of Gela rose in revolt against his sons Eucleides and Cleander. Gelon helped put down the revolt and then overthrew the sons himself and took power in Gela.

Despite his earlier military successes Gelon's rise to power clearly weakened Gela. Hippocrates had captured Zancle, at the north-eastern tip of the island, and had later defeated an attempt by Anaxilas, tyrant of Rhegium (on the Italian mainland opposite Zancle) to take the city. This had involved a group of Samians who had been invited to Sicily by Hippocrates or his deputy at Zancle to help create a new city on the north coast. At Anaxilas's prompting they had seized Zancle instead, but Hippocrates had come to terms with the Samians and the city remained within his empire. Soon after Gelon came to power Anaxilas crossed the straits from Italy, captured Zancle, expelled the Samians and renamed the city Messana.

In around 485 BC Gelon became tyrant of Syracuse, something Hippocrates had failed to achieve. He did this by taking advantage of a civil conflict within Syracuse. The ruling aristocrats (the Geomori or Gamori) had been expelled by the popular party and had taken refuge at Casmenae. Gelon decided to support the exiles, but when his army approached Syracuse the popular party decided to hand the city over to him. From then on Gelon neglected Gela, which he handed over to his brother Hieron. Half of the population was moved to Syracuse. Gelon also emptied the colony of Camarina, which had been gained by Hippocrates, and moved the inhabitants to Syracuse.

Gelon expanded his empire by conquest. Euboia (or Euboea), somewhere to the west of Syracuse, was captured. Once again part of the population was moved to Syracuse (in the case the wealthier citizens) while the rest were sold into slavery. The same happened at Megara Hyblaea, just north of Syracuse on the coast.

When Xerxes threatened to invade Greece the Athenians and Spartans sent ambassadors to Syracuse to ask for Gelon's help. According to Herodotus Gelon responded by criticising the Greeks for not supporting him in an earlier war against Carthage (this conflict isn't recorded elsewhere and if any conflict did take place it must have been on a very small scale). He then offered to provide 200 triremes, 20,000 hoplites, 2,000 horsemen, 2,000 bowmen, 2,000 slingers and 2,000 lightly armed men as well as enough corn to feed the entire Greek army. In return he wanted to be made commander of the combined Greek armies and navies. The Greek ambassadors turned down this condition. Gelon then offered to accept command of either the army of the fleet, but this was also refused. This ended the negotiations and the ambassadors left.

According to Herodotus Gelon was worried that the Persians would win, and so he sent Cadmus of Cos to Delphi with a large sum of money. If the Persians were victorious Cadmus had ordered to offer the money to Xerxes as tribute and offer Gelon's submission to the Persians.

Herodotus also reports that the Sicilians of his time believed that Gelon changed his mind and was preparing to bring his army to Greece to serve under the Spartans when he learnt that the Carthaginians had landed a vast army in eastern Sicily.

The ancient accounts give two different reasons for this Carthaginian invasion. According to Diodorus the Persians had sent ambassadors to Carthage to arrange for an attack on the Greeks of Sicily and Italy that would take place at the same time as their own invasion of mainland Greece.

According to Herodotus the timing of the Carthaginian invasion was a simple coincidence. Carthage controlled three Phoenician cities in the north-west of Sicily and so had a direct interest in the affairs of the island. Terillus, tyrant of Himera, had become a guest-friend of Hamilcar, the ruler of Carthage, a form of alliance. His daughter married Anaxilas, tyrant of Rhegium on the Italian mainland, another ally of Carthage. In c.482 BC Terillus was expelled from Himera by Theron of Akragas, on the southern side of the island. Terillus appealed to Carthage for help and Hamilar agreed to bring an army to Sicily to restore Terillus.

This army landed at Panormus and marched east towards Himera. The defenders of Himera were defeated outside the city and the Carthaginians began a siege. Theron called for help from Gelon who arrived at the head of a large army (given as 50,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry). The resulting battle of Himera (Autum 480 BC) ended as a crushing Greek victory. Hamilcar was killed and most of his army destroyed. The Carthaginians agreed to pay 2,000 talents to Gelon and didn't return to Sicily in force for more than seventy years.

In the aftermath of his victory Gelon made a dramatic gesture clearly designed to cement his power. He appeared in front of the people and army of Syracuse, recounted his achievements and then offered to resign as tyrant. Predictably he was acclaimed by the people and confirmed in power. However he didn't survive long to enjoy his power, dying of illness three years later in 477 BC. He was succeeded by his brother Hieron.

Gelon remained a popular figure in Syracuse long after his death. Twenty five years after the death of the much less popular tyrant Dionysius the people overthrew the current tyrant and voted to destroy the statues of every tyrant of Syracuse, apart from Gelon. Ironically it had been the memories of Gelon's victory at Himera that had helped Dionysius gain power in the first place.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (10 July 2012), Gelon, tyrant of Gela and Syracuse, fl.491-477 BC ,

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us - Privacy