BMCR 2022.12.13

Ermocrate: siceliota, stratego, esule

, Ermocrate: siceliota, stratego, esule. Diabaseis, 9. Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2021. Pp. 312. ISBN 9788846760517 €36,00.

Hermocrates of Syracuse twice defeated Athens in Sicily, first in the 420s and again in 415-413, and commanded twenty Syracusan ships in the Aegean as an ally of Sparta. He became a thorn in the side of Persia before returning to Sicily as an exile to fight Carthage; he died in 408 during a failed attempt to seize power in Syracuse. Despite this fascinating and important career, he remains one of the more under-appreciated figures of the Peloponnesian War. Maria Intrieri’s biography, aimed mainly at scholars, goes some way to rectifying this gap, shedding new light on a key player in both Sicilian and Greek history. An updated study of Hermocrates arrives at a good time. Greek historians have recently begun paying more attention to the interconnections between different regions of the Mediterranean and are working to construct new and less Athenocentric narratives. With his career spanning east and west and his anti-Athenian outlook, Hermocrates fits the bill perfectly.

Hermocrates has provoked an unusually wide range of opinions. Even in antiquity, the Sicilian historian Philistus saw him as a forerunner of the tyrant Dionysius I, while Timaeus sought to prove how different the two men were. More recently, scholars have given him such widely divergent labels as a reactionary oligarch, a man of the highest integrity, and a demagogue.[1] These varied positions usually arise from focusing on one part of his career – such as his statesmanlike speech at Gela (Thuc. 4.59-64) or his failed tyrannical coup – and using that to interpret all other parts of his career. Intrieri sensibly stakes out a middle-ground position, laid out most clearly in the conclusion. She argues that Hermocrates sought power throughout his career, but always tried to work within the laws and institutions of the polis. This reasonable conclusion sounds much like the attitude of many Athenian aristocrats such as Cimon and even Pericles.

Almost nothing is known of Hermocrates’ family and career up to the mid-420s. Therefore, Chapter 1, “Uno sguardo al contesto: Siracusa dal 466 al 427 a.C.,” tries instead to locate Hermocrates in the history of democratic Syracuse. Intrieri persuasively lays out a view of Syracusan politics as balanced between the elites and the demos, though elites enjoyed a larger role in public life than they did in Athens. Much of Hermocrates’ career can be read as seeking to carve out the largest possible place for himself within this system. Intrieri also avoids over-simplifying assumptions, such as the idea that all elites favored oligarchy; instead, more realistically, she sees a complex set of political dynamics with many competing factions.

Hermocrates’ earliest known political activity is the subject of Chapter 2, “La prima spedizione ateniese in Sicilia e la pace di Gela: il ruolo di Ermocrate.” The bulk of this chapter is devoted to the two surviving accounts of the Congress of Gela in 424, in which the Sicilian cities made peace with each other and excluded Athens from the island. Intrieri analyzes the reports of Thucydides and Timaeus, paying careful attention to the historiographical issues in each text, before using this analysis to draw her own historical conclusions. Despite the well-known debates over the nature of Thucydides’ speeches, she finds considerable historical value in this one, arguing in particular that the speech’s appeal for Sicilian unity was real and not the invention of Thucydides. Intrieri concludes that already in this speech, behind the surface-level rhetoric of unity, we can observe important features of Hermocrates’ later career, above all his desire to see Syracuse take a leading role in Sicily (and perhaps even on a wider stage), with himself as the protagonist.

Chapter 3, “La seconda spedizione ateniese in Sicilia,” outlines Hermocrates’ role in the Sicilian Expedition of 415-413. Intrieri carefully analyzes the internal political dynamics in Syracuse as revealed by Thucydides’ account of the debate at Syracuse (6.32-41), pointing out that Athenagoras’ characterization of Hermocrates as aiming at tyranny has unfairly colored scholars’ perceptions of the latter. Once the expedition proper begins, she argues that Hermocrates’ role in the Syracusan victory was more limited and more unofficial than is often realized: for instance, he only held office as strategos autokrator for a matter of months, and then held no further position until after Athens’ defeat. Intrieri’s balanced account provides an important corrective to Thucydides, who over-emphasizes his role by giving him three major speeches. Rather than an authoritarian military figure, she instead depicts a politician struggling to secure his position at home even as he tries to save his city from destruction, with the goal of securing for Syracuse a leadership position in post-war Greece.

The story moves to the Aegean in Chapter 4, “La missione nell’Egeo.” This phase of Hermocrates’ career is often overlooked. He led a squadron of twenty Syracusan ships to assist Sparta in Ionia and the Hellespont, remaining in command for about two years (412-410). The Syracusan contribution was significant, providing a quarter or more of Peloponnesian naval strength at Cynossema and Cyzicus, and holding the right wing in the former battle. His repeated clashes with the Persian satrap Tissaphernes over fair pay for his troops earned him a reputation for honesty. Intrieri emphasizes the ownership Hermocrates took over this campaign, first shepherding it through the assembly—it was by no means a foregone conclusion that Syracuse, shattered by foreign invasion, would pursue a war overseas—and then leading it personally. She also persuasively interprets his clashes with various Spartan commanders as driven by his own political imperatives: his position at home was not secure, and his absence was strengthening his domestic enemies. Thus, his goal was to inflict a decisive defeat on Athens as soon as possible and return home, and he therefore openly criticized the Spartans’ hesitation and delay. These concerns were well founded, Intrieri argues, since his Syracusan opponents passed a decree of exile against him in 410. When news of this arrived, the men of the Syracusan fleet insisted that he stay in command, but Hermocrates adhered to the law by stepping down – though he immediately began planning his return to Syracuse with the support of another Persian satrap, Pharnabazus.

Chapter 5, “Il ritorno in Sicilia,” covers the final phase of Hermocrates’ career, his return to Sicily, culminating in his death while attempting to enter Syracuse by force. Intrieri is particularly interested in Hermocrates’ propaganda and what that tells us about his political goals. All of this occurred in the aftermath of a Carthaginian invasion of Sicily in 409, which resulted in the sacks of both Selinus and Himera. Hermocrates established a base at Selinus in the following year and made a great show of burying the bodies of Syracusans left unburied at Himera. All this suggests that his goal was to resist Carthage and promote the recovery of Greek Sicily, and secondly to discredit his opponents in Syracuse, who were responsible for allowing those bodies to lie unburied. Intrieri thus persuasively shows how domestic and international politics intermingled. Hermocrates finally attempted to enforce his return to Syracuse, where he was met by the citizenry en masse and killed. Only at the last moment and after exhausting all possible alternatives, Intrieri argues, did he abandon his adherence to the laws of the city. This final action, which (she admits) was an illegal attempt at tyranny, should not color our interpretation of earlier parts of his career.

The final chapter, “L’eredità e l’immagine postuma di Ermocrate,” explores the ways Hermocrates’ legacy was used and transformed after his death. Dionysius, who seized power in Syracuse in 406, presented himself as Hermocrates’ heir by marrying his daughter and building ties with his supporters. Intrieri argues, however, that Dionysius’ politics also differed from those of Hermocrates in major ways; in particular, while Hermocrates consistently respected the law and worked within the city’s institutions, Dionysius consolidated power by delegitimizing those institutions. Historiographers, meanwhile, transformed Hermocrates’ image over time. The contemporary authors Thucydides and Philistus gave balanced accounts of the defense of Syracuse in 415-413, spreading credit for the defeat of Athens among Hermocrates, Gylippus, and others. The third-century historian Timaeus, however, inflated Hermocrates’ role to link him with Gelon, Timoleon, and Pyrrhus as virtuous leaders who defended Sicily against outsiders. Timaeus’ new interpretation made him the sole “victor over Athens,” which is still a powerful image today. This final chapter opens up a number of interesting lines of inquiry, which would be worth pursuing further in future work.

The book is well edited, attractively produced, and provides very full footnotes and a substantial bibliography. One particular strength is Intrieri’s emphasis on the interrelationship between events in Sicily and the Aegean. The Syracusan contribution to the Ionian War, for instance, was affected both by Syracusan internal politics and by the Carthaginian invasion of 409, points that may be missed by scholars focusing on the Aegean. There is often room to push such discussions further, however, such as the very brief account of the radical democratic reforms of Diocles. Moreover, Intrieri’s understandable desire to stick mainly to events involving Hermocrates himself, rather than giving a more extensive narrative, can sometimes make the story hard to follow, even for professional historians. This relative lack of contextualization may sometimes assume too much of readers’ prior knowledge of events, particularly in Chapters 3 and 4.

The near-total reliance on literary sources will also strike an odd note with some readers. Intrieri barely mentions archaeology and uses coins only occasionally. Granted, a biographical narrative does not always lend itself particularly well to archaeological evidence, but it should be used when possible. At Selinus, remains of fortifications are usually attributed to Hermocrates’ brief occupation of the site, and these finds are clearly relevant to his actions there.[2] Similarly, the recently discovered mass grave at Himera dating to 409 provides important context for Hermocrates’ burial of Greek soldiers left on the field after the Carthaginian victory.[3] If many soldiers were in fact buried immediately after the battle, that would significantly affect our understanding of Hermocrates’ actions and propaganda. Intrieri does not engage with these examples to any meaningful extent, but they would provide an important supplement to the short Chapter 5 and its sole literary source, Diodorus.

Despite these critiques, Intrieri’s biography is in many ways a model of historical writing. She consistently goes beyond a mere retelling of the various narrative sources, but instead analyzes them critically and recognizes the ways each of them has shaped their material in different ways, often either to promote or denigrate Hermocrates. She rightly employs a wider variety of sources than is common, particularly the Sicilian historians Timaeus and Philistus (the latter of whom was a contemporary of Hermocrates). In practice, this means taking Diodorus and Plutarch more seriously than is often the case. They provide precious bits of information from a Sicilian perspective, which often contrasts strongly with that of the Athenian writers Thucydides and Xenophon. This data is tricky to work with, since the texts are fragmentary, but they cannot be ignored. Intrieri handles this well, wisely sticking mainly to fragments attributed to one of these authors by name; she occasionally speculates on the authorship of unattributed anecdotes in Diodorus, but her argument rarely hinges on such risky identifications. This approach is a good fit for such a central but under-studied figure, one whose career brings much-needed attention to Mediterranean interconnections and to Greeks outside the mainland.



[1] H.D. Westlake, “Hermocrates the Syracusan,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 41 (1958) 239-69; F. Grosso, “Ermocrate di Siracusa,” Kokalos 12 (1966) 102-43; M. Sordi, “Ermocrate di Siracusa: demagogo e tiranno mancato,” in Scritti sul mondo antico in memoria di Fulvio Grosso (Rome 1981), 595-600.

[2] S. Vassallo, “Le battaglie di Himera alla luce degli scavi nella necropolis occidentale e alle fortificazioni: i luoghi, i protagonisti,” Sicilia Antiqua 7 (2010) 17-38.

[3] D. Mertens et al., Selinus I: Die Stadt und ihre Mauern (Frankfurt 2003), 97-118, 268-69.