Dionysius, son of Hermocritus, was born c. 430, and the controversy that surrounds him begins with his ancestry. Sources describe him either as the scion of a respected family or as a man of an undistinguished origins who started his career as a lowly scribe. Like Themistocles, he may have belonged to the ruling class but not to its top ranks. His first taste of war probably came in his teens, when the Athenians tried and failed to capture Syracuse in 415–413, but nothing is known about his role then. His first recorded military experience was in 406 at Acragas (Agrigentum) during the so-called First Carthaginian War (407–405). The Carthaginians had renewed their large-scale military operations in the island in 409. They put Acragas in western Sicily under siege in 406, and Syracuse came to its rescue with large infantry and cavalry forces. In spite of an initial victory and their subsequent harassment of the enemy with their cavalry, the Syracusans were unable to save Acragas. Dionysius is said to have shown exceptional courage in the campaign, although it is unknown under what circumstances. Personal valor would also characterize him later as a commander of troops.
Dionysius rose to power in 406–405, but his ascendance tells nothing about his style of command as distinct from his artful politics. He charged his fellow generals with corruption and treason, accusations that found fertile ground in the Syracusans’ expectation of a Carthaginian attack and disappointment with the city’s military leadership. Dionysius was elected as supreme general (strategos autokrator), which perhaps remained his official title throughout his reign. Now and later, he used the conflict with Carthage to justify his rule, presenting himself as the only man who could win it. Among his first measures was to double the payment of the mercenaries, who had shown that their loyalty depended on timely payment, and to increase their numbers with additional men and exiles. To secure the city of Leontini, north of Syracuse, he called on Syracusans under forty years old to muster there, each with thirty days’ provisions. The city was a Syracusan outpost full of political exiles and non-Syracusans, and lay potentially on Carthage’s warpath. At home, Dionysius obtained a bodyguard of 600–1,000 men, whom he selected and armed, and appointed his own officers to the Syracusan armed forces. One source presents these and similar actions as designed to create a personal cadre loyal to Dionysius and his tyranny. He was certainly looking to strengthen his position, but all his measures also made good military sense in preparation for a campaign against Carthage. His army would fight a very large and well-financed force, and Dionysius needed all the men, provisions, and good will he could get.
Indeed, the Carthaginians had done very well up to this point. Under their aging general, Hannibal (an ancestor of his more famous namesake), and his co-commander Himilco, they had destroyed Himera in the north and Selinus in the south, and had later captured Acragas in spite of substantial Syracusan help and even an initial defeat (above). In 406, Carthage reinforced its invading army with 120,000 infantry and cavalry (according to one account), or 300,000 men (according to another). Both figures appear inflated; modern estimates reduce the size of the entire force to 60,000, and that of the army that soon marched on Gela to 45,000. The sources report the origins of the new recruits, but not their capacities. Their use elsewhere suggests that the mercenaries from the Balearic Islands excelled as slingers, and those from Iberia served as infantrymen, while recruits and allies from North Africa joined the infantry and the cavalry. Carthage also sent 1,000 transport ships and ninety triremes, fifteen of which were destroyed by a Syracusan navy at the start of the invasion.
Around the spring of 405, a Carthaginian army led by Himilco (now in sole command after Hannibal’s death) marched to southern Sicily against Gela, a close ally of Syracuse. Gela was built on a ridge near the shore. It was bounded to the east by the River Gela, whose outlet to the sea served the city’s port, and by a fertile plain and the Gattano River (modern name) to its west. It appears that the Carthaginians arrived without their ships, whose absence, perhaps due to the lack of a safe anchorage, proved costly later. Historian Diodorus suggests that Himilco and his army set up camp on the river Gela, but this location cannot be reconciled with the movements and actions of Dionysius’ forces in their later attack, which makes a site on the River Gattano more likely. The Carthaginian camp stretched from the sea inland and was defended by a trench and a wooden palisade.
Soon after arriving, the Carthaginians raided the territory around the city all the way to Camarina and tried to breach the western city walls with rams. The Gelans defended themselves successfully by rebuilding portions of the wall and by attacking marauding units in the countryside. Their hopes of salvation rested, however, on the arrival of Dionysius and his army. Dionysius probably now presented himself as an all-Greek champion against the common Carthaginian enemy, if he had not done so earlier. It was a role that he continued to foreground, sincerely or opportunistically, throughout his career. When he arrived at Gela—he was later charged, perhaps unjustly, with procrastination—his army included Italian and Sicilian Greeks in addition to Syracusan recruits and his mercenaries. Altogether, he commanded 50,000 or 30,000 infantrymen, 1,000 cavalrymen, and fifty cataphract ships, a type of vessel whose top deck and screens sheltered the rowers. The year before he took power, a Syracusan army that went to help Acragas included 30,000 soldiers, 5,000 cavalrymen, and thirty triremes. Dionysius’ army, if 30,000 strong, had the same number of infantry, more ships, and fewer cavalrymen. Perhaps he was unable to recruit more cavalrymen, who came from the well-to-do class that opposed him and would later rebel against him. In any case, the man who cried foul against the previous leaders of the war, especially in Acragas, seems not to have enlarged the army, and would also lead his troops to defeat.
Dionysius camped by the sea, probably near Gela’s port. For the first twenty days, he attacked the enemy’s lines of supply, having probably gotten the idea while serving in the Syracusan expedition to save Acragas the year before. There the general Daphnaeus had almost managed to starve the Carthaginians by cutting off their supplies with his cavalry, and only a Carthaginian seizure of Syracusan ships carrying provisions to Acragas reversed the situation, eventually leading to the evacuation of the city by its residents. Dionysius also sent out light-armed troops, cavalry, and ships to disrupt the Carthaginian lines of supplies by land and sea. The tactic carried little risk, but it also failed to achieve the success of Daphnaeus or to move the enemy to ease its pressure on Gela. Dionysius then opted for a frontal attack on the Carthaginian camp that resembled the tactics of the Athenian general Demosthenes in its originality, ambition, and execution—and which failed for much the same reasons as Demosthenes’. Dionysius devised no fewer than four simultaneous prong attacks. Diodorus reports that he divided his infantry into three divisions: he told one, made up of Sicilian Greeks, to march to the enemy camp keeping the city to its left; the second, made up of Italian Greeks, was to go there along the shore with the city on their right. He was to take a mercenary group through the city towards where the Carthaginian siege engines were. His cavalry was to cross the River Gattano and overrun the plain, joining the fighting if successful or shelter battle refuges in case of a loss. His marines aboard the ships were to attack the camp as soon as the Italian Greeks (his second column) launched theirs.
Dionysius could not or would not meet the Carthaginians in a pitched battle, because of his smaller force and his preference for other modes of combat, which we shall see again later. His plan aimed to overcome three main challenges: the enemy’ superiority in numbers, its occupation of a well-protected camp, and the presence of additional enemy forces around Gela’s walls. Accordingly, he split his army into four separate attacking units, in the hope that by keeping the Carthaginians busy in different places, he would create confusion and reduce Himilco’s ability to send aid where it was needed. He also believed that a Syracusan victory in one place would have a rolling effect elsewhere because the victorious troops could join the fighting where it was successful, undecided, or difficult. It was an ambitious plan that showed a readiness to take risks and an urgent need to win.
The most problematical aspect of Dionysius’ plan was its dependence on successful synchronization and coordination of the different units. These included hoplites, light infantry, cavalry, and marines, who were spread over different locations. The plan’s originality lay in dividing rather than concentrating his power. It called for assigning separate key missions to seconds in command, whom the sources leave anonymous, and on whose success Dionysius relied for victory. A multi-pronged attack also meant that he had to give up direct control of the entire battle. Instead, he settled for leading his mercenaries through the city in a surprise attack on the Carthaginian siege engines, probably near the western walls and gate. It was arguably the least difficult assignment in the plan.
At first, success smiled on the attackers. The Syracusan ships charged the unprotected part of the enemy camp on the beach and landed marines and probably other crewmembers. Himilco must now have sorely regretted his lack of ships to oppose the landing. The Carthaginians rushed to meet the disembarking soldiers, weakening the camp’s line of defense and allowing the contingent of Italian Greeks, who must have hurried their march along the shoreline, to overcome the depleted enemy forces and enter the southern part of the camp. It was a short-lived victory, however, because the Carthaginians had enough soldiers of high quality to recover quickly. Himilco sent a large force led by Iberian and Campanian troops against the Italian Greeks, who were now pressed between a trench in front of the camp and an acute angle of the palisade. There was no help in sight. The Syracusans who had disembarked from the ships could not join them, probably because the enemy did not allow it. (Their hold on the beach was precarious anyway.) The Sicilian Greeks, who marched behind or on the ridge of Gela to the right of the city and into the plain, did well against their Libyan opponents and penetrated the northern part of the camp. They were even joined by many Gelans, and Dionysius’ cavalry surely helped the effort by engaging enemy forces on the plain. Yet even these units could not come to the rescue of the Italian Greeks, because they arrived at their destination late and were busy fighting their opponents. Dionysius could provide no assistance either. He got stuck in the streets of Gela (he should have known better, having been there before), and even if he completed the mission of destroying the Carthaginian siege engines, it was too late to do anything else. Some of the Gelans tried to help the Italian Greeks, but, fearing for their walls, they would not venture beyond them. One thousand Italian Greeks fell, and the rest fled to the city under the protection of arrows that the ships’ crews shot at their pursuers. Their escape freed the Campanians, Iberians, and other enemy combatants to return and help the Libyans against the Sicilian Greeks, who also retreated to Gela, after losing 600 men. The Syracusan cavalry, whose role was auxiliary to begin with, also fled to the city for shelter.
The defeat was not heavy or even inevitable. Yet it took a great deal of youthful daring and optimism to assume that a coordinated attack of four separate forces could succeed despite the delicacy of their interdependence. A win at one point could not be sustained without a decisive victory at, and help from, another, and the whole scheme required, not just simultaneous attacks and good communication, but also an enemy who would become flustered and despondent. None of this happened. Dionysius underestimated the Carthaginians’ ability to recover from a setback and to use reserves effectively (as they did earlier in 409 in a campaign against Himera). An anecdote related to the earlier battle of Acragas is illuminating. It tells how the Syracusan general Daphnaeus on the right wing of his phalanx heard a commotion on his left wing where the Italian Greeks were fighting. He hurried there, saw them losing, and ran back to the Syracusans on the right to tell them falsely that the Italians were winning. The message energized his soldiers, who went on to defeat the enemy. Even if the story is suspect, it highlights the importance of commander’s presence at the scene of the fighting. But Dionysius was stuck in town.
The defeat decided Gela’s fate. As much as the Gelans (and even Dionysius, who could ill afford failing in his first lead command) may have wished to offer another battle, the unanimous opinion in his war council was that he should retreat. He organized a mass evacuation of the city by night, under a ruse designed to convince the enemy that he was still in the city. The trick was probably superfluous, because the Carthaginians must have been happy to take and despoil Gela without a fight. Ancient and modern critics have argued that Dionysius should have offered a more stubborn resistance and that he erred in evacuating Gela and then Camarina, whose people he told to move to Syracuse. But the later desertion of his Italian Greek allies suggests the defeat undermined his authority over the coalition army that he needed for a fight over both cities. Besides, Syracuse with its walls, army, and navy offered a better chance of withstanding the Carthaginian offensive.
Dionysius’ defeat and the unpopular evacuations of Gela and Camarina encouraged members of the Syracusan cavalry to rebel against him. They burst into his house and gang-raped his wife, who subsequently killed herself. Dionysius rushed back to the city and, with the help of his bodyguard and mercenaries, put down the revolt ruthlessly. What saved him and Syracuse, however, was a recurrent plague in the Carthaginians’ camp, which killed half their men. Cutting his losses, Himilco signed a peace treaty with Dionysius that confirmed Carthaginian control over western Sicily, allowed refugees from the cities Carthage had conquered to return as autonomous but tribute-paying residents, and arranged for the exchange of prisoners and captured ships. Dionysius was recognized, at least de facto, as the ruler of Syracuse. For some contemporary observers, the treaty begot or confirmed the idea that he used Carthage and the fear of it to become the lord of Syracuse and later of Sicily.