Agathocles (Agathokles): (b. 361 BC in Thermae Himeraeae; d. 289 BC in Syracuse). Tyrant of Syracuse (317-289 BC), king of Sicily (304 -289 BC). Of common birth (his father was a pottter by trade), he moved to Syracuse with his father and began a career as a soldier. His exceptional abilities and physical beauty earned him much popularity and he eventually won the patronage of Damas, Syracuse’s wealthiest citizen. Upon Damas’s death, Agathocles married his widow and thus came into possession of vast riches. He used these resources to build a private army and moved to seize power in Syracuse from the ruling aristocratic class. He launched his revolt by ambushing and killing about 400 of the city’s most important citizens. Over the next two days, another 4,000 Syracusans were killed while an equal number were banished. Thus rid of any possible opposition from the aristocracy, he proclaimed himself tyrant and won the support of the city’s commoners by canceling all their debts and dividing up amongst them the confiscated property of his wealthy victims. Despite his obvious cruelty and ambition, Agathocles also sought to return Syracuse to its primacy in Sicily. The legal codes and fiscal regulations of the city were revised and the city’s army and navy were reorganized and strengthened.
Agathocles sought to extend the supremacy of Syracuse over all of Sicily and, through military and diplomatic coercion, this ambition was nearly achieved. Having taken control of most of Greek Sicily, he turned his attentions westward towards the Carthaginian part of the island. It was then that Agathocles met his match. Hamilcar, Carthage’s principal military leader was sent to Sicily to face Agathocles. In 310 BC, Hamilcar defeated Agathocles and forced him to retreat back to Syracuse itself. The victorious Hamilcar followed with his army and soon laid siege to the city. Syracuse might have fallen at this point, bringing all of Sicily under Carthaginian rule and significantly changing the course of western history. But Agathocles showed a unique shrewdness. Instead of surrender, he counter-attacked, leading a Greek naval squadron out of Syracuse and landing a powerful army in North Africa, seizing several coastal towns and threatening Carthage itself. The plan worked and Hamilcar was forced to break off his siege of Syracuse to oversee the defense of his own city. Agathocles was forced to return to Sicily when Akragas, Syracuse’s principal Greek rival attempted to take advantage of the disputed state of affairs. After restoring order, Agathocles returned to Africa but now found the Carthaginians more formidable defenders. In 306 BC, he suffered a defeat and was forced to retreat back to Sicily. A peace agreement was finally reached with Carthage and the old status-quo on the island was restored. The Carthaginians were secured in their control over western Sicily, while Agathocles remained ruler over the Greek east.
The defeat Agathocles suffered at the hands of the Carthaginians did nothing to curb his ambition and arrogance. In 304 BC, he began to style himself as King of Sicily and ruled with a heavy hand for years afterwards. In 289 BC, Agathocles finally died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. While many believe that he die cancer of the jaw, there is a theory that he was the victim of an elaborate assassination. One of his kinsman, fearing for his own life, had a toothpick dipped in poison brought to Agathocles’s table. When the tyrant pricked his gum he became paralyzed. His breathing and heart rate slowed to such a weak level as to be undetectable and everyone believed him to be dead. Agathocles, however, was said to be very much alive and aware of what was taking place. Unable to speak or otherwise communicate, he was helpless as his body was lifted on to a hastily built funeral pyre. Thus, the hated tyrant was said to have been burned alive.