Gelo (Greek: Γέλων Gelon, gen.: Γέλωνος; died 478 BC), son
of Deinomenes, was a 5th-century BC ruler of
Gela and Syracuse and
first of the Deinomenid rulers.
1 Early life
2 Rise to power
Tyrant of Syracuse
4 Battle of Himera
5 Death and succession
6 Analysis of contribution to Sicily and Greek history
8 External links
Gelo was the son of Deinomenes. His ancestors according to Herodotus
came from the island of Telos in the
Aegean Sea and were the founders
of the city of
Gela in southern Sicily. One of his relatives, Telines,
was said to have reconciled his people after a period of civil strife
through the divine rites of the Earth Goddesses, and all his
descendents continued a tradition of priesthood in the cult of these
goddesses, which included Demeter.
Gelo was in all likelihood a priest
of this cult. His three brothers were Hieron, Thrasybulus, and
Deinomenes consulted an oracle about the fates of his
children, and was told that Gelo, Hieron and Thrasybulus were all
destined to become tyrants.
Gelo fought in a number of the conflicts between the various tyrant
kings of Sicily and earned a reputation as a formidable soldier. His
performance was so impressive that he was promoted to be commander of
the cavalry for Hippocrates, tyrant of Gela. From this position he
played a key role in a number of battles, including one against
Syracuse, a city which he himself would later conquer.
Rise to power
But it was not until Hippocrates was killed in a battle with the
Sicel tribe of Sicily at Hybla that Gelo’s rise to power
began. Upon Hippocrates’ death his sons retained the throne, but the
common people were tired of this family’s rule and revolted. Gelo
quelled the revolt on the pretext of helping Hippocrates’ sons gain
power. Instead, he took power for himself with the help of the army in
491 BC. The territory now under his control as tyrant included that of
Gela, Naxos in the east,
Zancle in the northeast, and Camarina in the
Tyrant of Syracuse
Gelo ruled over
Gela and his other territories in eastern Sicily
peacefully for the next five years. In 485 BC, the aristocracy of
Syracuse called the Gamori, who had been forced out of the city by the
common people, came to
Gelo seeking his aid. Seeing an opportunity for
Gelo used his now large military force to capture the city
of Syracuse with little or no resistance, reinstating the exiled
Gelo now ruled as the new tyrant of Syracuse and left his brother
Hiero to rule over Gela. According to Herodotus, he forced half the
Gela to move to Syracuse. Similarly, he removed all the
aristocracy from Camarina.
He continued this strategy as he conquered nearby Euboea and Megara
Hyblaea (483 BC), forcibly removing the aristocracy from each city and
placing the rest of the population in slavery. According to Herodotus,
because he was raised as a noble and was constantly in the presence of
Gelo did not care for the lower class, and “found the
common people unpleasant to share a house with”.
Under Gelo's rule, Syracuse soon became prosperous. Along with grand
building program in Syracuse,
Gelo sought also to create a powerful
mercenary army. Most of the recruits for his army came from the native
Sicel tribes. However, some were recruited from the Greek mainland,
men who had most likely fought with
Gelo at some point in the past,
and their total number was said to be around 10,000. All of these men
were granted citizenship of Syracuse.
Gelo found a powerful ally in Theron, tyrant of Acragas, a city west
of Gela, after he married Theron's daughter, Demareta. In 481 BC
Athens came to him asking for his aid in the
upcoming war against Xerxes I and his Persian army.
Gelo replied that
he could supply 28,000 men as well as 200 ships if he was appointed
commander of either the Greek navy or army. He was denied both
positions and, therefore, refused to supply the Greeks with any
supplies or men. In fact, he went so far as to prepare gifts for
Xerxes in case the Persian king won his war against the Greek
Battle of Himera
Main article: Battle of
Himera (480 BC)
His unwillingness to support the Greeks could have been related to the
threat posed by the
Carthaginians on the west coast of Sicily. Theron
of Acragas had jeopardized the independence of all of Sicily from the
Carthaginians when he defeated the tyrant
Terillus at Himera.
Seeking a powerful ally to assist in recapturing Himera,
to Carthage for assistance. The
Carthaginians were happy to respond to
his plea. The
Carthaginians were keen to increase their influence and
territory in Sicily and the opportunity came at a perfect time because
of the coming Persian invasion of Greece.
Some scholars argue that Xerxes and the
Carthaginians were in contact
with each other and coordinated a simultaneous attack on both the
western and eastern fronts of Greece and its colonies, in the hopes
that it would prevent either front from aiding the other. In any case,
in 480 BC a Carthaginian force of 300,000 men landed at Panormus on
the north coast of Sicily and advanced east towards Himera, led by
their general Hamilcar. Gelo, upon hearing the danger his ally Theron
was in, led an army of 50,000 men and 5,000 cavalry to Himera.
A contingent of Gelo’s men gained access to the Carthaginian camp by
posing as allies from the nearby city of Selinus. Once inside they
signalled to the rest of Gelo’s troops, who were stationed in the
mountains overlooking the camp, by setting fire to Hamilcar’s ships.
The ensuing battle was a decisive victory for
Gelo and Theron, with
Carthaginian casualties estimated at 150,000, including Hamilcar.
The riches collected from the Carthaginian camp, as well as the 2,000
talents of silver that resulted from the peace treaty with Carthage,
were dispersed by
Gelo among his troops and his allies, with a large
amount designated for the construction of a new temple in Syracuse.
According to Herodotus, upon his return to his capital,
a meeting with the people of Syracuse, and described to them his
actions during the war with Hamilcar, and the manner in which he
dispersed the spoils. He told them that if they found anything wrong
in his conduct, they were free to kill him and take control of
Syracuse for themselves. The people of Syracuse decided to keep Gelo
as their tyrant, and he continued his reign in peace for the next two
Death and succession
Gelo died in 478 BC after ruling Syracuse for seven years. Control of
his kingdom passed to his brother Hieron, who ruled for the next 10
years until his death, when a dispute over to whom the crown should
pass led to the dissolution of the Syracusan state.
Analysis of contribution to Sicily and Greek history
Gelo’s first major contribution to Greek, and more specifically
Sicilian, history was the foundation of Syracuse as his capital, which
he turned into “the greatest Greek city in the west.” The location
of the city itself made it a prime spot for such a role. The city was
located on an island, connected to the mainland by a peninsula
constructed in the 6th century BC. The city faced east towards the
Greek mainland and had its own harbour.
Gelo constructed a wall that ran from the fort of Achradina on the
mainland to the sea, making Syracuse virtually impregnable. Also, by
bringing in the wealthy citizens from conquered cities, a tactic never
before used in Sicily, he greatly increased the prosperity of the
city. He constructed a theatre which improved the city’s culture,
and following the victory at Himera, he built an ornate temple
dedicated to the goddess Athena. All of these improvements influenced
the history of Syracuse for many years. The city was an important
outpost for both the Roman and Byzantine empires, and today is a
location of great historical importance for Sicily and Italy.
The other great contribution of
Gelo was the victory at
the Carthaginians. The battle was significant because of the timing
and location of the event. There is little doubt that if Hamilcar had
managed to defeat the large Sicilian force of
Gelo and Theron, he
could have conquered the entire island of Sicily if he so wished. The
Greek states on the mainland would have been unable to send troops due
to their own war with the Persians. If, as many historians believe,
the Persian and Carthaginian armies were in contact with each other, a
Gelo could have led to a two pronged attack on
the Greek mainland by the Persian and the Carthaginians, and perhaps
to the eventual demise of Greek civilisation. But by defeating
Hamilcar in 480 BC,
Gelo managed to keep Sicily free from Carthaginian
invasion for the next seventy years.
Gelo seems to have been highly regarded by his subjects at least
partially due to his victory at the Battle of Himera. This respect is
apparent from the elaborate tomb and statue built in his memory at
Despite Gelo’s mistreatment of conquered people, his reputation as a
respected tyrant and generous king survived the passage of time.
Perhaps the greatest testament to his influence over Sicily is how his
statue was spared as
Timoleon tried to erase all memory of the reign
of tyrants when Sicily became a democracy 150 years after Gelo’s
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This article incorporates text from a publication now in
the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Gelo".
Encyclopædia Britannica. 11 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
"Gelon". New International Encyclopedia. 1906.
Tyrant of Gela
491 BC – 485 BC
Tyrant of Syracuse
485 BC – 478 BC