Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.40

Caroline Lehmler, Syrakus unter Agathokles und Hieron II. Die Verbindung von Kultur und Macht in einer hellenistischen Metropole.   Frankfurt am Main:  Verlag Antike, 2005.  Pp. 254.  ISBN 3-938032-07-3.  €37.90.  

Reviewed by José M. González, University of Oregon (
Word count: 3525 words

Urbem Syracusas maximam esse Graecarum, pulcherrimam omnium saepe audistis. Est, iudices, ita ut dicitur. (Cir. Verr. 2, 4, 117)

The conquest of Syracuse marked the beginning of Rome's large-scale reception of Greek art--in Livy's words, inde initium mirandi Graecarum artium opera.1 For this reason alone would the cultural history of third-century B.C. Syracuse by Caroline Lehmler [henceforth L.] commend itself to us. Its title, "Syrakus unter Agathokles und Hieron II.," announces the place and time assayed: Syracuse from 316 to 215 B.C.; its subtitle, "Die Verbindung von Kultur und Macht in einer hellenistischen Metropole," advertises its sustained focus: here literary and archaeological sources are questioned for the ties that bind political power to culture broadly conceived, including, among others, coinage, institutional arrangements, the law, the trappings of state, building projects, and the course of political action. Specifically in view is how rulers use these constituents of culture to construct and project their public image.

"Syrakus" is a revision of L.'s 2003 dissertation for the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität of Munich. From the outset L. is at pains to lay before the reader her methodology and assumptions: the organizing principle of her work is "Kulturpolitik" and the dominant comparandum, the Hellenistic monarchy of Alexander the Great and his successors. Two simple questions drive the analysis: What was Syracuse like in the century that preceded Rome's conquest? And how similar were the regimes of its rulers to the Hellenistic autocracies of the east? Firmly rooting Agathokles and Hiero2 in the soil of Hellenism emerges as L.'s leading accomplishment. While Sicilian tyrants of old had been portrayed within the representational traditions of the classical polis, these two rulers, despite Sicily's peripheral status, variously conformed to the pattern of Alexander and the Diadochi (14-15). Characteristic of it were: a power founded on charisma, sustained by military prowess, and near-absolute in disposition (though expedience might commend the tolerance of tradition); a close relationship between the ruler and his forces; and the establishment of courts that exerted a decisive influence on social life. (Here L. follows H.-J. Gehrke and Max Weber.) Regarding Kulturpolitik, L. emphasizes the integration of patronage and culture in the pursuit of more than splendor, a nexus that renders culture the ruler's path to status and a high position in the eyes of both peers and subjects (17). This notion is rather familiar to classical scholars: a ruling elite that sets cultural goals and canons, responsible for the cultivation of the arts, for public construction projects, for the supply and conduct of feasts and festivals, for the patronage of artists and intellectuals, and for the support of religious institutions. All these were subject, in the case at hand, to the ruler's interests, values, and political goals as he addressed himself to the Syracusan polity, his client cities, and the Hellenistic world at large. Exploring this nexus requires that the archaeologist investigate art and culture in their socio-political context and consider their implications. As an alternative to Kulturpolitik L. approves of Zagdoun's politique de prestige (REG 105, 1992, 281). One must not, however, import into the ancient setting the thought of a developed ideological superstructure nor the modern notion of propaganda (19).

L.'s monograph is well structured. The introduction (13-33) clearly explains her methodology and goals; her review of the scholarship proves, and her study confirms, that she is thoroughly familiar with it. Her work intends to cover a gap in the literature: heretofore, approaches to Hellenistic Syracuse have been piecemeal or have neglected either historiography or cultural history. L. hopes that a comprehensive survey of the pertinent literary sources and archaeological record in cultural-historical terms will enable her to assess the precise character and peculiar shape of Syracuse's Hellenism. A review of the relevant ancient historians (primarily Diodoros, Polybios, Livy, and Pompeius Trogus) concludes her introduction.

Chapter 2, "Syrakus in hellenistischer Zeit: Historischer Kontext" (34-59), like those that follow, naturally divides into a former section on Agathokles and a latter on Hiero. Here, in the continuous narrative form of a historical survey, L. advances the cultural-historical insights that the rest of her monograph establishes.

Chapter 3, "Münzen als Medium politischer Botschaften" (60-96), takes up the often reviewed subject of Syracusan coins.3 That numismatics should loom so large in L.'s book is partly a consequence of the poverty of other forms of evidence (especially the dearth of sculptures and inscriptions), partly a function of the rich iconography of Hellenistic minting, whose coins may be organized into a relatively developed semiotic system with the ruler's portrait at the center. Still one should not overrate their value, for the slow rate of change of this iconography not infrequently must have resulted in "symbolic anachronisms." When considering their import one should also note the circulation enjoyed by a denomination (the "audience") and its nominal value (its significance). Syracusan coinage illustrates the transition from the representational traditions of the classical polis (local motifs, a mention of the citizens, and an emphasis on the continuity of the polis) to typically Hellenistic ones based on the ruler's portrait. The three main stages in Agathokles' reign are matched by three respective minting periods. During the first, 317-310 B.C., the legend reads ΣΥΡΑΚΟΣΙΩΝ and the motifs are traditional (e.g. images taken from polis cults): these answer to Agathokles' pan-Sicilian aspirations in his Carthaginian wars (the triskeles is used perhaps as his personal emblem) and portray him as the champion of the polis. During the second, 310-304 B.C., once entrenched as strategos autokrator, he followed his defeat at Himera with a campaign in north Africa. Now, his name, as ΑΓΑΘΟΚΛΕΟΣ or ΑΓΑΘΟΚΛΕΙΟΣ, appears on gold staters with Athena Promakhos or a Nike with a trophy on the reverse (underlining his defense of Hellenism and military prowess) and a beardless youth on the obverse wearing an elephant cap in imitation of current portraits of Alexander and Ptolemy: these bespeak Agathokles' claim to Alexander's spiritual heritage and perhaps also his nearness to Ptolemy. During the third period, from his assuming the title basileus in 304 until his death in 289 B.C., the legend reads ΑΓΑΘΟΚΛΕΟΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΟΣ, arguably a claim to equality with the Diadochi, to whom he was then bound by a dynastic alliance.

With Hiero the change-over to a fully Hellenistic iconography was completed. In contrast to Agathokles, he did not measure the success of his regime in military terms, but by the prosperity of his people. But as Agathokles before him, beginning in 269, his name, ΙΕΡΩΝΟΣ, started to supplant ΣΥΡΑΚΟΣΙΩΝ in gold, silver, and bronze coins. And after 263 (thenceforth bronze alone was used until 218) his portrait too was minted--the first of any Sicilian ruler ever to be stamped on coins--initially with a stephanos, then with a diadema. This accords with a developed Hellenistic iconography. Poseidon and his trident sometimes stood in the ruler's stead (the legend remained "of Hiero"); L. reads this as Syracuse's claim to sea power. The last period, 218-215 B.C., featured portraits of Hiero's wife Philistis and his son Gelo (ΒΑΣΙΛΙΣΣΑΣ ΦΙΛΙΣΤΙΔΟΣ and ΣΥΡΑΚΟΣΙΟΙ ΓΕΛΩΝΟΣ are the legends); as his father's colleague, Gelo sports a diadema. These images emphasize dynastic continuity. Bigas and quadrigas on the reverse hark back to traditional fourth-century motifs.

Chapter 4, "Die kulturelle Ausprägung von Macht in Syrakus" (97-155), examines Agathokles' and Hiero's building projects: their character, their beneficiaries, and their role in constructing and projecting images of power. The thinness of the archaeological record, especially Agathokles', forces L. to rely heavily on literary sources. Her method is simple, though, potentially, rather subjective: when in her judgment a project's pragmatic utility falls short of the effort and expense invested, L. assigns the "surplus value" to the image of the autocrat it publishes to the beneficiaries (the "audience"). Hiero's fortification of Syracuse and lavish spending on his flagship Syrakosia, L. notes, were not addressed to tangible needs: they must therefore have met the king's symbolic needs, his desire to be numbered with the great rulers of his time. In similar fashion do all of L.'s analyses lead to a comparison with the Hellenistic autocrats of the east and their manners. L. finds relatively little here to say about Agathokles: merely on the basis of Diodoros' report of an oikos hexekontaklinos (about which see more below), L. concludes that he rebuilt in Ortygia the residence Timoleon had torn down. Quite apart from the reliability of Diodoros' report, residing in Ortygia would have found sufficient incentive in the protection it offered the ruler, but L. encourages us to think of the proximity of the temples to the royal residence as a parallel to the public architecture and city planning of the Alexandrian or Pergamene court (108). We also learn from Diodoros that Agathokles reinforced the small harbor with towers; these L. views as a kind of facade for his palace. And the second phase of the castle Euryalos, from this time, if not immediately useful to Syracuse's defense (so L. thinks), and hence not justifiable on that basis, at least made for an impressive deterrent. Finally, we have the paintings of the tyrant which, Cicero tells us, were kept in the temple of Athena, insinuating that Agathokles was a promakhos of Hellenic values. In every case the primary audience were Agathokles' philoi, who alone had access to him in Ortygia; and, secondarily, the larger citizenry. The apparent absence of euergesia is surely significant: Agathokles was not responsible for public buildings, such as gymnasia or theaters, that would have been of especial benefit to his people.

More can be said on this account for Hiero: Cicero confirms that he kept residence in Ortygia (though its precise location and appearance are unknown); there he erected large granaries (Livy's horrea publica), conspicuous symbols of the welfare and abundance enjoyed under his rule; in the Neapolis he built a large theater and a monumental altar (the largest in Greco-Roman antiquity but for Hermokreon's in Mysian Parion) as respective cultural and cultic foci; and in the Akhradine he added an Olympeion to the agora. Hiero's theater featured inscriptions along the diazoma for each kerkis, starting with Olympian Zeus in the central one and setting the members of the ruling family to one side (Gelo, Nereis, Philistis, and Hiero) in relation to Syracuse's deities on the other (their identities effaced or illegible). The theater therefore tied together citizens, royal family, and city gods in what was not only a festive setting but also the preeminent place of public assembly. Although Hiero did not institute a personal cult, he promoted the ruler's customary association with Olympian Zeus--as the supreme god of the pantheon, the traditional source of legitimacy for monarchic authority. Zeus', too, in all likelihood, was the monumental altar (142). There is even some evidence that Hiero may have been offered private cult as Zeus Soter in a household setting (so Habicht, cf. 148-49). Added reinforcements to the Euryalos and the flagship Syrakosia, neither answering to real defensive needs, as well as the prestige of Archimedes as the court "scientist" responsible for the improvement of military technique, served to show Hiero's power to his subjects and to the larger Greek world. A helpful comparison of Agathokles to Hiero closes this chapter.

With "Auswirkungen der syrakusanischen Kulturpolitik in Sizilien" (156-88) we finally move out of Syracuse into its immediate sphere of influence. Here L. wonders whether the building projects of Syracuse's client poleis may be directly traced to Agathokles' or Hiero's cultural policies or are due, rather, to Syracuse's influence as the leading cultural trend-setter. A prudent analysis leads L. to a negative conclusion: the vigorous public construction in eastern Sicily (of agorai, theaters, bouleuteria, and others) does not follow from Syracuse's cultural policies but from the economic prosperity of eastern Sicily. That artistic forms here should be similar to those found in mainland Greece is hardly surprising, given the large number of settlers from Greece and Asia Minor (among them, surely, craftsmen) that moved to Sicily at Timoleon's invitation. No significant instances of euergesia by either ruler towards the client poleis can be documented either.

Chapter 6, "Kulturelle Präsentation der syrakusanischen Herrscher in hellenistischen Staaten und Poleis" (189-209), takes us beyond Sicily to consider how the Syracusan autocrats appeared on the larger stage of the Hellenistic world in consequence of their cultural policies (including war, trade, ties of friendship, and dynastic marriages). Here L. has little to show for Agathokles: there are no signs of an active cultural policy directed at the Greek world, although he had contacts with other ruling houses and married his daughter Lanassa first to Pyrrhos and then to Demetrios Poliorketes. Hiero, on the other hand, was active internationally: his numerous dedications at panhellenic centers (especially Olympia) suggested his dynastic continuity with the Deinomenids; together with his son Gelo, ostensibly as representatives of the Syracusan citizenry, he helped Rhodes with 100 talents of silver after its 227 B.C. earthquake, making provision for its gymnasion and its public sacrifices; he also helped Rome and Alexandria with grain in times of need. In imitation of Agathokles, Hiero married Gelo with Nereis, Pyrrhos' daughter. In all these, the king's audience was not only the local citizenry of Syracuse (which enjoyed companion pieces to the ones at the panhellenic centers), but also free poleis, other Hellenistic ruling houses, and Rome.

Chapter 7, "Hierons Prachtschiff Syrakosia" (210-32), deals with Hiero's celebrated freighter. Perhaps unnecessarily long and detailed, one can easily understand the Syrakosia's irresistible appeal to L., in that it so effectively illustrates the various threads of Kulturpolitik she has sedulously woven into her argument.

A conclusion that recalls the subtitle of the monograph, "Die Verbindung von Kultur und Macht unter Agathokles und Hieron II." (233-40), restates L.'s argument and summarizes her accomplishments. After the wide-ranging discussion of the preceding seven chapters, this summary reads like a marvel of condensation, helpfully putting the entire discussion in perspective and highlighting its weaknesses and strengths. This might be the most convenient entry point for the hurried reader, from which he may branch into specific sections for greater detail using the indices that follow: a list of the 96 illustrations that accompany the text as well as registers of ancient sources cited, of inscriptions and papyri, of ancient names, of places, and of subjects (this last easily improvable by the addition of important, but missing, headings).

L. seems more at home interrogating the archaeological record and assessing its evidential value than sifting the literary sources. On the former, her interaction with secondary literature is robust and prudent; often she will question and reevaluate established views (cf., e.g., page 187 on the presumed cultural leadership of Syracuse over client poleis). Unfortunately, if understandably, she seems not as self-assured and sophisticated in her handling of the primary historical sources: here her judgment is derivative and avoids her own Quellenkritik. It would have been desirable, e.g., to do more than offer a list of Diodoros' probable sources (25-27), judging, rather, his method and his credibility. L. is obviously familiar with modern literature on these points (cf. 25n53) but is loath to enter into them. Hence the authority of her study limps on its historical leg. This is the more to be regretted in that one of L.'s many virtues is her insistence on using the witness of history to control and reinforce the archaeological record. As some have quipped, stones do not lie, but neither do they speak. The danger of inviting error is the greater where there are no stones to witness. Such is the case with Agathokles' oikos hexekontaklinos, reported only by Diodoros (16.83) and whose actual existence has been doubted (106). L. vouches for Diodoros' general reliability (his description of Hiero's buildings, after all, does fit the extant record) but she fails to take the full measure of her observation that neither Diodoros nor Timaios (his likely source) would have known of it but by word of mouth. That a rather similar story (D.S. 8.11) is actually told in connection with the oikia of yet another Agathokles (this one an epistates whom most scholars place in archaic Syracuse) should commend the reader's skepticism of 16.83.4 Nevertheless, the oikos takes pride of place as "evidence" of court life ("höfisches Leben," 108). L.'s argument, moreover, risks circularity: the oikos must be true because it is readily paralleled in the palaces of Hellenistic rulers who held court; and although no ancient sources speak of Agathokles' court, surely the oikos can only be understood as part of a palace; therefore, Agathokles must have held court too. (Into this circle is fed the occasional mention of Agathokles' philoi, which is too generic to be decisive.)

L.'s efforts to conform Agathokles to her argument do not come off as well as they do with Hiero. For this, the state of the evidence is partly to blame. We simply do not know as much about Agathokles, and the archaeological record about him--L.'s strength--is rather more deficient. Although there is no reason to doubt the tyrant's desire to vie with the grandees of his own time or to class himself with Pyrrhos and Demetrios Poliorketes, no one who is well acquainted with his portrayal in the (admittedly partial) ancient sources can easily avoid the impression that he showed comparatively little concern for his image; neither can one come up with much in Agathokles' Syracuse that would readily pass for a Hellenistic court. To put the matter bluntly, Agathokles was a philistine: marshaling his brother Antandros, the biographer Kallias, and an otherwise anonymous circle of philoi to prove the existence of a "Hellenistic court" seems to me to be grasping at straws. Even for Hiero, who on the face of it much more easily suits the role, one can only cite the redoubtable Archimedes and perhaps the painter Mikion--a far cry from the cultural effervescence, say, of the Alexandrian court.

This remark brings me to the following observation: the main gap L. has failed to close is our ignorance of the cultural life of Syracuse. What was its festival calendar? What public, semi-public, and private settings existed for the performance of poetry in all its various forms? How were the cultural rhythms affected by the turmoil of the times and Syracuse's endemic stasis? Was Hiero's construction of the theater in the Neapolis accompanied by a corresponding program of poetic patronage? The near-absence of pertinent inscriptions is not L.'s fault, of course, but the consequence of continual construction and the paltry progress of archaeological exploration to date. But I would have welcomed a synoptic review of all discovered inscriptions and the bringing together of what is known about performances in Hellenistic Syracuse. It is surely no coincidence that the last great Syracusan poet, Theokritos, having famously addressed Hiero in Idyll 16 and invited his patronage, should have found sustenance at the table of the Ptolemies instead.

L.'s interests are not new, though her concentration on the making and diffusion of symbols of power, her attention to the personal image of autocratic rulers, is very much the child of our own times. Of course, it is not for this reason of any less value to our grasp of the Hellenistic ethos of autocratic rule and the ways in which the hegemons of the 3rd century differed from the tyrants and kings of the classical period. Already in his 1959 study "König Hieron II.", Berve had underscored in connection with the Syrakosia both the "representative character" of so impractical a vessel and Hiero's purpose to amaze the world and communicate his greatness.5 And both Berve (ibid.), whom L. credits (22), and Moses Finley (in his 1968 "A History of Sicily") had remarked not only on the propriety of numbering Hiero among the Hellenistic rulers but also on Hiero's desire to be reckoned their peer.6 But if these insights are old, it is to L.'s credit that she has undertaken a careful and comprehensive review of the record up to date; that she has successfully kept her focus on the manifold use of culture in constructing and projecting symbols of power; and that she has set in historical context the ways in which both Agathokles and Hiero embodied the ethos of Hellenistic rule, as well as the ways in which they severally suited this ethos to their respective tempers.

In his review of M.-P. Loicq-Berger's "Syracuse: histoire culturelle d'une cité grecque", J. M. Cook noted that "there are few Greek cities whose cultural history adds up to a book and Syracuse is not one of them" (CR 18, 1968, 240-41). Cook was particularly critical of the sterility of restricting "cultural history" to "literature and art": "The evidence for classical times is generally slight; for Hellenistic times, in places where inscriptions are abundant, it can be informative. It might be better to start where there is Hellenistic material that can be extrapolated" (241). Happily, L. does not work with an impoverished notion of "cultural history" and she has picked up the thread where the evidence is more promising: she has done her work well. No deficiency seriously detracts from the overall value of her study, which fills an obvious gap in the scholarship and for which the modern student of Hellenistic Syracuse must long remain in her debt.


1.   Lehmler's citation of Livy's celebrated words, early in her introduction (12), contains a slight error, Graecorum for the correct Graecarum. This is the first of several slips in the Latin and the Greek that mar her book and that should have been corrected by an alert editor. Of the ones lurking in the text, I chanced on the following typos: reum for rerum (19n30); ὕψσος for ὕψος (105); οἴκος for οἶκος (107); γενόμενους for γενόμενος (189); οὕτος for οὗτος (196); ἐπι for ἐπὶ (200). All these are trivial and easily caught.
2.   For "Hiero" read "Hiero II" throughout.
3.   Most recently by Carroccio, B. Dal basileus Agatocle a Roma: le monetazioni siciliane d'età ellenistica. Messina: Di.Sc.A.M., 2004.
4.   The office of the Agathokles of D.S. 8.11 (ἐπιστάτης οἰκοδομίας), his death by burning, and the mention of γεωμόροι--all these suggest an archaic Syracusan other than the well-known Hellenistic tyrant. And although 8.11 uses the word οἰκία, implying rather more than a banqueting hall, the building's reported grandeur, the corresponding hubris of the epistates, and the gods' vengeance by lightning surely entail that 8.11 and 16.83 must go back to a single tale and that both cannot be true.
5.   "Dem Griechentum Siziliens ist stets ein gewisser Hang zum Kolossalen und Maßlosen eigen gewesen, doch ist nicht allein und wohl nicht einmal vorwiegend aus ihm der Bau des Riesenchiffes zu erklären. Es darf vielmehr als sicher gelten, daß Hieron mit diesem Werk ... aller Welt seinen Reichtum bekunden und für die unter seiner Ägide vollbrachte organisatorische und technische Leistung Bewunderung erwecken wollte" (74).
6.   So Berve: "Nicht für den Fürsten eines kleinen Territoriums sollte man den Bauherrn halten, sondern für einen mit den großen hellenistischen Monarchen wetteifernden Herrscher, dem sogar Produkte der europäischen Länder des westlichen Mittelmeeres zur Verfügung standen" (74). Similarly, having called Hiero "a businessman and a technocrat" (120), Finley added that "fundamentally, he has to be ranked with the contemporaneous Hellenistic monarchs in the Greek East, though a minor one, not with the Greek rulers of an earlier age" (121). And about Agathokles' assumption of the title "king" he said: "What is significant, however, is that Agathocles was following the new Hellenistic practice, and abroad, at least, the title was no doubt helpful in his dealings with other monarchs" (106).

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