The philosopher behind the throne

August 13 2007

“The shaft which, on that first campaign, the Attic archer had shot into the Sicilian air had smitten the heart of a statesman who became the brother-in-law of each of the Dionysii in turn … .”

No less than three times in his life Plato voluntarily, though reluctantly, emerged from his Attic retreat and crossed the sea to Syracuse in the hope of converting a Sicilian despot to an Athenian philosopher’s conception of a prince’s duty. In his encounter, on his first visit, with the hard-bitten Dionysius I, Plato’s expectations may not have been great; but his hopes rose higher when the founder of the second dynasty of Syracusan despots was succeeded by a son who had been saved by his father’s criminal success in wading through slaughter to a throne from the horrid necessity of gaining his own throne by so unpropitious a method. Plato’s failure to make a philosopher-king out of Dionysius II was the great practical disappointment of Plato’s life. Yet the unexpected barrenness of his second and third visits to Syracuse was partially redressed by the unexpected fruitfulness of the first; for the shaft which, on that first campaign, the Attic archer had shot into the Sicilian air had smitten the heart of a statesman who became the brother-in-law of each of the Dionysii in turn besides being the uncle of the younger of them. “When”, Plato wrote long afterwards in retrospect, “I conversed with Dio, who was then still quite a young man, and instructed him in my notions of the principles of ethics as a practical ideal for him to act upon, I suppose I had no idea that, all unwittingly, I was really in some sense paving the way for a future overthrow of despotism.” [Footnote: Plato’s Letters, No. 7, 327 A. [Presumably Toynbee’s translation.]] In the fullness of time Dio put down from his seat a nephew and brother-in-law who had refused to play that part of philosopher-king for which Plato had perhaps rather arbitrarily cast him; and, when Dio, installed in Dionysius’s place, brought down upon himself the tragic verdict of being capax imperii nisi imperasset, [footnote: Tacitus: Histories, Book I, chap. 49.] the enterprise which had proved too much for this self-consciously enlightened Syracusan prince was executed by the un-self-consciously public-spirited Corinthian freeman Timoleon.

Syrcacuse was founded by settlers from Corinth and Tenea in the eighth century BC and was the largest Greek settlement in Magna Graecia. It experienced many different forms of government: tyranny, monarchy, democratic oligarchy, with intervals with a republican constitution. It had its own colonies. Its first famous despot was Gelon, 485 BC, who defeated Carthage at Himera. Dionysius I (405-367) was regarded by Plato as the worst of dictators. He led Syracuse to a lucky triumph over Carthage, saved the Greek cause in Sicily and made Syracuse supreme in the Mediterranean.

Dio, or Dion, was his, as well as his son’s, brother-in-law. He fell under Plato’s influence during Plato’s first visit, and tried but failed to influence the younger tyrant. He did eventually replace him, but he was then murdered. His murder gave Dionysius II the opportunity to re-establish himself – but Dionysius was expelled again by the Corinthian Timoleon (343-337), who founded a democracy.

Rome conquered Syracuse in 211 BC.

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

One Response to “The philosopher behind the throne”


  1. […] to read. His classical style is also mediated through the English Augustans, and through Gibbon. “The shaft which […] the Attic archer had shot into the Sicilian air”, “instilling a suggestion of the dewy freshness of dawn into the still and stale air of a […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s