The island of Sicily has an unusual past. During the classical period the small island off the coast of Italy was home to a variety of small city states, originally Greek colonies – the largest of which was Syracuse. Syracuse, unlike many traditional Greek cities, had a tormented political history. From the 5th Century BC until the Roman period, it was ruled both a tyranny and a democracy – sometimes both – countless times in its history. One tyrant, however, has become more infamous than any other.
Agathocles was a tyrant of Syracuse and King of Sicily, who, after conquering Syracuse in 317 BC (and promising to uphold the city’s democratic values) murdered over 10,000 of its citizens, made himself master of the city, and formed a massive army to conquer the rest of Sicily.
‘It cannot be called prowess to kill fellow-citizens, to betray friends, to be treacherous, pitiless, irreligious. … Still, if the courage of Agathocles in entering into and extricating himself from dangers be considered, together with his greatness of mind in enduring and overcoming hardships, it cannot be seen why he should be esteemed less than the most notable captain. Nevertheless, his barbarous cruelty and inhumanity with infinite wickednesses do not permit him to be celebrated among the most excellent men.’
Machiavelli, on Agathokles of Syracuse.
Silver Tetradrachm and bronze Trias of Agathocles, depicting the nymph Arethusa. Syracuse, c.317-289.
The tyrant’s army of mercenaries needed payment, and for this, gold staters were struck. Gold coins were always popular with mercenaries, who would be able to take the small, high value objects back to where they came from. Depicting the Goddess Athena, and a thunderbolt of Zeus, Agathocles’ coins are some of the finest of the ancient world. Athena’s helmet is decorated with a depiction of Pegasus, the winged horse, which has remained in exceptional condition on this coin, while most examples have completely worn away. Agathocles also issued silver coins, called tetradrachms, which were common denominations in the ancient world. They feature a portrait of the local nymph goddess Arethusa, who was said to live in the fresh-water spring on an island in the bay of Syracuse. She is a common motif on Sicilian coins.
Agathokles’ gold 100 Litra coins usually feature a portrait of Athena and a thunderbolt. Struck c. 304-289 BC, Syracuse.
The coins of Syracuse, and other Sicilian cities, are considered some of the highest quality of the ancient world. Prior to Agathokles’ rule, massive silver decadrachms were issued. These huge silver coins, weighing over 40 grams, were the largest silver pieces of the ancient world. The artists who engraved the dies for these masterpieces actually included their signatures as a mark of pride in their work.
Agathokles ruled for over two decades, though the final years of his life were plagued by illness. He died of natural causes in 289 BC.
Huge silver decadrachms were issued by Syracuse at the end of the 5th Century BC.