Agathoclean Anecdotes

I thought it might be interesting to collect some of the anecdotes about him that the ancient authors have left us.  I consider Agathocles to be an especially interesting figure.  His rise from obscurity, his boldness, his brilliance, his caring for the common man, and his refusal to establish a dynasty, combined with his cruelty and violence, slaughtering his city’s senators, make for quite the fascinating figure.  If I had to pick a single virtue to exemplify him, it would be audacity.

We have a few sources for Agathocles, although only Justin and Diodorus Siculus really provide anything like a narrative, while the rest provide only anecdotes.  One flaw with the histories is that Agathocles tended to anger historians, especially Timaeus, a major source for other writers, whom Agathocles drove out of Syracuse: hardly an unbiased source.  I’m not directly quoting the below anecdotes from the sources, but trying to reword them a bit, so forgive me for any lack of art.


  • Agathocles was born the son of a potter, but rose to become a king.
  • Agathocles became well-known for his good fortune and rise to greatness, being used as an example of such by, among others, Maccius Plautus and Ammianus Marcellinus.  He was also well known for his idea of attacking Carthage directly while under attack by them himself in Syracuse, imitated by Scipio.

From Polybius:

  • Publius Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal by following in Agathocles’s footsteps, was once asked whom he considered to have been the most skillful administrators and most distinguished for boldness combined with prudence.  “The Sicilians Agathocles and Dionysius,” he replied.
  • Although Agathocles took power amidst cruelty and violence, once he was satisfied that his power was firmly established, became the most humane and mild of rulers.

From Plutarch

  • Some sailors of Agathocles once stole some animals from the Ithacans.  When the people of Ithaca protested to Agathocles, he replied, “But your king came to us, and not only stole our flocks, but blinded their shepherd,” a reference to the Odyssey, in which Odysseus of Ithaca
  • While Agathocles was besieging a city, the townspeople mocked him from the walls, crying, “Potter, how will you pay your men’s wages?”  He replied, unperturbed by their remarked, “If I take this town.”  When he had done so, he sold the townspeople into slavery and chided them, saying, “If you revile me again, what I have to say will be said to your masters.”
  • As mentioned, Agathocles was born the son of a potter, a fact that his enemies sought to never let him nor anyone else forget.  Yet he himself appeared to have taken it in good stride.  After he became king, he would keep clay cups with his golden ones and use them to instruct the young men around him, telling them, “That is the sort of thing I used to make previously, but now, I make these, because of my diligence and bravery.

From Polyaenus

  • While attacking the Carthaginians in Africa, Agathocles received the assistance of Ophellas of Cyrene, who joined him with a large army.  Knowing of Ophella’s love of handsome boys, Agathocles sent his own son, Heracleides, an exceptionally attractive youth, to him, with instructions not to give in to Ophellas’s solicitations.  Ophellas, smitten with Heracleides, devoted his attention to the boy, trying to seduce him.  While he was distracted, Agathocles attacked his army and slew Ophellas.  With Ophellas dead, and his soldiers stranded far from home, Agathocles effortlessly absorbed them into his own army.  As for Heracleides, he was recovered, unharmed.
  • Upon arriving in Carthage, Agathocles had his ships burnt, so that his men, finding escape impossible, would fight all the harder for victory.  In this, he borrowed the stratagem of Alexander the Great, who did the same thing in his war against Persia.
  • In order to seize power without appearing to desire it, Agathocles declared himself a private citizen, counting on his soldiers and countrymen to plead for him to continue in power.  He took up their offer, and did away with all opposition.
  • As a note, I personally consider Polyaenus unreliable.  His anecdotes tend to fall into the following pattern.  Agathocles wants to murder someone.  Agathocles gets them into his power and could kill them easily.  Agathocles gets people to let their guard down, then tricks them and murders them, despite it not being at all necessary, because he’s a king with an army, and he doesn’t need to trick people to murder them, especially when they’re unarmed prisoners.

From Orosius

  • Agathocles’s campaign in Africa went so well, that had his army not mutinied against him near its end, the Carthaginian general Hamilcar would have defected to him.  For this planned treason, the Carthaginians crucified their general in the town square.

From Justinus

  • A handsome youth, Agathocles was a prostitute.  As a youth, for men, and as a young man, for women.  After this, he became a robber, and finally, a soldier and a general, a position he leveraged into taking control of Syracuse.
  • With his army, Agathocles besieged Syracuse, while Hamilcar, the Carthaginian, having been asked to succor Syracuse, sent troops to assist them.  Agathocles was able to persuade Hamilcar to intercede on his behalf for a peace with the Syracusans, in exchange for which, Agathocles would provide him particular services.  Hamilcar agreed, persuaded by hopes of glory and reward, and by a fear of Agathocles’s army.  After being restored to Syracuse, Agathocles used his troops to take power and slay the leading citizens, the senators, and those who would most strongly oppose him.  After taking power, Agathocles continued the historical enmity of Syracuse against the Carthaginians, and harassed their allies.  In his absence, Hamilcar was secretly sentenced to be punished, but he captured and killed while besieging Syracuse before he could return home.
  • After his betrayal, the Carthaginians besieged Syracuse.  Agathocles, believing himself unable to defeat the Carthaginian army in an offensive action and unwilling to endure a long siege, came up with a marvelous plan.  In secret, he withdrew with a large part of his army and sailed to Africa, in order to attack Carthage directly.  For Carthage had many neighbors who opposed it, and only a small army of citizens, preferring to rely on mercenaries and allies.
  • In order to acquire soldiers, Agathocles freed all the slaves of the right age for service and then forced them to take the military oath.
  • On the voyage to Carthage, a solar eclipse occurred, frightening his soldiers, who feared that it was an ill omen.  But Agathocles reassured them, reasoning that, had it occurred before their voyage, it would portend ill fortune, but having happened on their trip, it portended ill fortune for the Carthaginians, instead.  And since eclipses predict great changes, and the Carthaginians were then superior over them, a change would logically imply their own success.
  • Upset at a lack of pay, his soldiers in Africa mutinied against them.  Agathocles mollified them by telling them that their pay should not be asked of him, but taken from the enemy.
  • After losing a great battle in Africa and the majority of his soldiers, Agathocles decided to flee Africa with his son, but his son became separated, and was captured by the soldiers and put to death, while his father fled to Sicily alone.

From Diodorus Siculus

  • Agathocles would punish the many for the crimes of a few, slaughtering kindred for the crime of an individual, and the people for the crimes of the city, and the many for the crimes of the few.
  • Carcinus of Rhegium, the father of Agathocles, was troubled by dreams while his wife was pregnant with Agathocles.  We asked Carthaginians envoys who were going to the Oracle at Delphi to ask the god about his son.  They were told that the child would be the cause of great misfortune to both Carthage and Sicily.  Afraid, Carcinus had the infant exposed to die, and set men to watch over him that the child might not be rescued.  After a few days, the child still lived, and his guards grew complacent, allowing the child’s mother to rescue him and deliver him to her brother, Heracleides.  When Agathocles was seven, Carcinus visited Heracleides, and upon seeing the youth, grew despondent over the thought of his own murdered son, and began to weep, regretting his act.  His wife, seeing them, told him the truth, and Carcinus recovered Agathocles.
  • Agathocles’s mother dedicated a stone image of her son, and upon this statue, bees settled and built their hive upon its hips.  When this was reported to interpreters, they declared that at the prime of his life, the boy would attain great fame, a prophecy that came true.
  • While a soldier, Agathocles wore armor so heavy that no one else could easily wear it, bringing him no small measure of celebrity.
  • Agathocles was ordered to leave Syracuse by Acestorides, recently-elected general of Syracuse.  However, Acestorides planned to kill Agathocles secretly, as he escaped.  Guessing his plan, Agathocles chose a slave who greatly resembled him, dressed him in his armor, and sent him out in his stead, resulting in the slave’s death.  Agathocles safely escaped in rags.
  • When the Carthaginians sent fresh forces to Sicily against him, Agathocles was particularly worried about the city of Gela.  He feared it would go over to the Carthaginians, but also feared that, if the Geloans saw his own army approaching in force, they would keep them out and prevent him from keeping the city under his control.  Therefore, he sent in his soldiers a few at a time for various reasons, until eventually, his own troops greatly outnumbered those of Gela, and he held the city securely.
  • After being defeated by the Carthaginians at the Himeras, Agathocles refused to retreat to Syracuse, but instead only went as far as Gela, so that by drawing the enemy there, he might preserve the farmers of Syracuse and allow them to gather their crops in peace.
  • When Agathocles departed from Africa, he purposefully separated relatives from each other, taking brothers from bothers and fathers from sons, so that those left behind might behave well for the sake of those with Agathocles, and vice-versa.
  • Before engaging the Carthaginian army in battle, Agathocles had a great number of owls released throughout the army, birds which are sacred to Athena.  The owls flew though the phalanx and came to rest on shields and helmets, encouraging the soldiers and raising their morale before the battle, which they won handily.
  • In order to decide the Carthaginians as to the true size of his army, Agathocles had his men set up a great number of fires at night, spread across a large area, so that they might believe he had many more soldiers than he truly did.
  • Even after assuming the title of king, Agathocles wore not the diadem, but only a chaplet, which was the symbol of the priesthood he held at the time he became tyrant.
  • When besieging Utica, Agathocles first made a sudden attack upon the city and captured many prisoners.  After offering to exchange them for the city, he constructed a siege engine, hung his prisoners upon it, and moved it against the city, hoping to dissuade those inside from attacking it by his living armor.
  • Agathocles so trusted the people of Syracuse that he entered the assembly without a bodyguard, in contrast to a previous tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius, who slept surrounded by a moat, and refused to submit himself to barbers for fear of their razors.
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2 Responses to Agathoclean Anecdotes

  1. kaushik55 says:

    Very interesting. Agathocles seems to have been the Syracusean contemporary of Alexander of Macedonia. History books have more stuff on Alexander than on Agathocles. I wonder if the two ever crossed swords?


    • johnkutensky says:

      Unfortunately not. Alexander was already dead before Agathocles became important, and Alexander never went as far west as Sicily. (Although Livy believed that, had he reached Italy, the Romans would have fought him off.) Agathocles was more contemporary with Alexander’s successors, the Diadochi. Ophellas of Cyrene, the guy he betrayed after distracting him with his handsome son, was actually one of Alexander’s former soldiers. And Agathocles’s descendants worked with some of the other successor dynasties, but Agathocles himself was mostly left alone by the Diadochi, and he himself focused on Carthage, Sicily, and Italy. It wasn’t until after Agathocles passed that Pyrrhus, the younger cousin of Alexander the Great, came over to Italy and Sicily. He, too, thought he could copy Agathocles, and, according to Plutarch, planned to invade Carthage after conquering Sicily.


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