From the Archives - Phalaris Makes Himself Tyrant of Acragas
In A.D. 163 Polyaenus, a Roman citizen of Macedonian roots, dedicated his Strategemata – “Stratagems” – to the Roman Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, who were preparing for a war with Parthia. The book contained some 900 bits of business that he had culled from various sources to illustrate ways in which generals, rulers, and politicians – famous and not so famous, historical and legendary – had scammed their opponents. Virtually the entire work has come down to us, and among the anecdotes is this amusing tale of how the Sicilian city of Acragas (today Agrigento) fell under the rule of “a cruel and inhuman tyrant” around the year 570, given here in a slightly edited version of the 1793 English translation by the Reverend Doctor Richard Shepherd.
The people of Acragas decided to build a temple to Zeus Polieus within their citadel; both because the ground there was the firmest and hardest, and therefore most suitable for foundations, and also because the site was the most elevated, and therefore most suitable for the temple of the god.
Phalaris [a wealthy citizen] undertook to superintend the work, and to finish it for a fixed price, employing the most skilful workmen, and supplying the best materials. The people supposed him to be a proper person to conduct the work, because of his occupation, which was collecting public debts. They therefore contracted the work out to him, and put into his hands the necessary money. With this money he hired a number of strangers, bought many slaves, and gathered a quantity of stones, timber, and iron.
As soon as he had laid the foundations, he pretended that his materials had been stolen; and he ordered a proclamation to be made, that if anyone disclosed, who had stolen the stones and iron from the citadel, they would receive a sum of money in reward.
The people expressed great indignation at the theft; and gave him permission as he requested, to do what was necessary to prevent such thefts in future; in other words, to strengthen the fortress, and dig a trench around it. He then struck off the slaves' shackles, and armed them with battle-axes, hatchets, and stones. While the citizens were intent on celebrating the festival of Thesmophoria he suddenly fell upon them, slew many of the men, and seized the women and children. In this way he established himself as tyrant of the city of Acragas.
Polyaenus left out one detail which would have been familiar to the Ancients, but not to us moderns: the Thesmophoria, a two-day observance that occurred around October 8th-10th, was a women’s festival, and thus men remained indoors. This permitted Phalaris to take the women and girls hostage with little difficulty. And he probably didn’t slay many of the men, since it wouldn’t be very useful to rule over a city with a seriously depleted labor force.
Phalaris had a long, prosperous, and brutal reign, for a time dominating a significant part of Sicily. Although the exact circumstances of his fall are not known, an ancient tradition has it that he was torn to pieces in a popular uprising.