Who was the worst tyrant in Europe during the classical age? Most texts from the Classical Age suggest that it was the Greek ruler of Syracuse, Dionysius I (ruled from 406 to 367 BC). He is described as a cruel, ruthless, corrupt, suspicious, and capricious ruler. The source of the information on the basis of which he has been branded as the “Tyrant of Syracuse” is Ancient Athens. The Athenians were the masters in the art of writing one-sided history for propaganda purposes. They knew how to promote themselves as the best people to ever walk on earth, while sullying the reputation of their political rivals by hurling innuendoes.
The relation between Syracuse and Sparta in the fifth and fourth centuries BC was positive. The Athenians followed the policy that every nation which cooperated with Sparta was their enemy, and they were suspicious of Syracuse. In 416 BC, ten years before the accession of Dionysius I, they launched the Sicilian expedition, with the aim of capturing Syracuse. But the expedition was a disaster. The Athenian side was decisively beaten. Almost all the Athenian soldiers (about 50,000) who had participated in the expedition were killed. Since the Athenians could not defeat Syracuse militarily, they resorted to vilifying its rulers in their literature and history texts.
Much of the negative material on Dionysius I was produced by Timaeus of Tauromenium who lived in Athens for fifteen years, which was the time when he completed his work of history, the Histories. Timaeus belonged to a political family in Sicily and he had a grudge against the rulers of Syracuse. He is unfair to Dionysius I and is full of praise for Timoleon, the Corinthian general who took advantage of the chaos created by the civil war between the Syracusan general Hicetas and Dionysius II to usurp power in Syracuse in 343 BC.
Dionysius I was a well educated and philosophically inclined ruler. He possessed considerable rhetorical powers and was the author of several works of literature and history. In his writings, he speaks against tyranny. He states: “Tyranny is naturally the mother of injustice.” He has referred to the “gazing eye of justice, regarding all equally.” He has made a number of philosophical comments in his writings: “Anxiety is for every man,” “only the Gods are happy,” “no mortals can ever judge themselves until they have seen their happy end,” “the dead alone is secure and happy.” In one of his plays, Dionysius has given a negative portrayal of Plato. The play is not extant but there are some references to it in ancient texts.
If Syracuse was being ruled by the worst tyranny in Europe, then why did Plato decide to create an ideal society there during the rule of Dionysius II, son of Dionysius I. Plato could have selected Athens for his political experiment. He could have selected Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, and Delphi. He could have tried Macedon or Thrace. He could have ventured into the Greek states in Southern Italy or the Ionian states in the Persian Empire. He selected Syracuse, because he knew that Syracuse was the best administered place in Europe of that time. He first visited Syracuse in 388 BC on the invitation of Dionysius I who wanted to engage him as a tutor for his son.
Plato’s method of creating an ideal society was to work through a monarch. In the Republic, he argues that the world was being ruled by monarchs because the demos were incapable of grasping the truth. Plato tried to influence Hermias of Atarneus, when Hermias was studying philosophy at Plato’s Academy. Plato was supportive of the Thirty Tyrants (the pro-Spartan oligarchy that took power in Athens after its defeat by the Sparta led alliance in 404 BC). He was critical of the failure of the Thirty Tyrants to cure Athenian society but he did not oppose their overthrow of the Athenian democracy.