Tyrant of Syracuse, in Sicily, from 317 to c. 304 and self-styled king of Sicily after c. 304. A champion of Hellenism, he waged war unsuccessfully against Carthage.
The son of a potter who had moved from his native town, Thermae Himerenses (now Termini Imerese), Sicily, to Syracuse about 343. He learned his father's trade, but afterwards entered the army and served with distinction in the army. In 333 he married the widow of his patron Damas, a distinguished and wealthy citizen.
In 334 BC Alexander of Epirus had attacked Lucanian, Bruttian, and Samnite raiders in Italy, where he was killed by a Lucanian exile.
In Greek Sicily the Syracusan constitution of Timoleon had been overthrown by an oligarchy of 600. Syracuse sent a force to help Crotona fight off the Bruttians. The strong Agathocles fought bravely, and resenting not being honored, he organized his own force and tried twice to seize the government of Syracuse. He was twice banished for attempting to overthrow the oligarchical party in Syracuse. By dressing as a beggar Agathocles escaped assassination, but supported by Carthaginians he was appointed a general in Syracuse by the 600. In 317 he returned with an army of mercenaries under a solemn oath to observe the democratic constitution which was then set up. Having banished or murdered some 10,000 citizens, he made himself master of Syracuse and created a strong army and fleet and subdued the greater part of Sicily.
In 317 BC his soldiers murdered forty senators, then ravaged the city killing 4,000, as 6,000 fled or were expelled. Calling an assembly, Agathocles would only agree to lead if the city gave him dictatorial power. He promised abolition of debts and land distribution; he then expanded Syracusan territory by force of arms. Agathocles then embarked on a long series of wars. His first campaigns (316-c. 313), against the other Sicilian Greeks, brought a number of cities, including Messana, under his control. Carthage, however, fearing for its own possessions in Sicily, sent a large force to the island. Thus the struggle that had gone on between the Sicilian Greeks and Carthage intermittently since the 6th century was renewed. Syracusan exiles appealed to Spartan king Cleomenes, who sent his son Acrotatus; but when Agathocles killed exile leader Sosistratus at a banquet, Acrotatus fled.
A peace mediated by Carthaginian general Hamilcar divided hegemony in Sicily between Agathocles and the Carthaginians although the Greek cities were supposed to be autonomous. Messena stood outside, but Agathocles managed to kill 600 of those who opposed him there and at Taormina. When he besieged Agrigentum, Deinocrates and the exiles turned to Carthage, which captured twenty of his ships. So Agathocles marched into Gela and massacred 4,000 people.
At the Himera River he lost 7,000 to the Carthaginian cavalry and from thirsty men drinking salt water.
Besieged at Syracuse in 310 BC Agathocles took the desperate resolve of breaking through the blockade and attacking his enemy's homelands in Africa. He managed to steal enough money from the 1600 wealthiest citizens he had slaughtered, women's jewelry, and temples to take sixty ships filled with soldiers across to be the first Europeans to attack Carthage. In a sacrifice to Demeter and Persephone he burned his ships before taking a large city and fortifying Tunis. The Carthaginian army was defeated and driven back to Carthage in 310. Believing their loss was because they had been cheating on their child sacrifices, it was said the Carthaginians killed 500 children to expiate their guilt.
Meanwhile Agathocles' brother Antander defeated the Carthaginian attack on Syracuse led by Hamilcar, who was captured and killed. The Agrigentines led by Xenodocus expelled garrisons and liberated Sicilian towns. When a mutiny broke out in Tunis, Agathocles' threatening suicide got himself reinstated as general. After the Syracusans and Carthaginians fought each other while the Libyans watched, Agathocles appealed to Ptolemy's viceroy in Cyrene Ophellas, whom Agathocles then killed, taking over the army he brought, shipping out to Syracuse the colonists Ophellas had raised from Athens. At the same time the Carthaginians were being betrayed by their general Bomilcar. Like Alexander's successors, Agathocles declared himself king; then he attacked Utica by using its leading 300 citizens as shields for his siege engines.
After several victories he was at last completely defeated (307) and fled secretly to Sicily. The peace he concluded in 306 was not unfavourable, for it restricted Carthaginian power in Sicily to the area west of the Halycus (Platani) River. Agathocles continued to strengthen his rule over the Greek cities of Sicily.
Agathocles crossed back to Sicily, and two-thirds of the army led by his son in Libya was destroyed.
His generals defeated the Agrigentines, but the autonomy movement was revived by Agathocles' old friend Deinocrates, who raised an army of 20,000.
Agathocles went back to Tunis, where the situation became so desperate he tried to escape secretly but was arrested. Eventually he escaped back to Sicily; his sons left in Libya were killed, as his soldiers capitulated to the Carthaginians; commanders who did not were crucified, while their men were enslaved.
In Sicily Agathocles sent for his army, which massacred and plundered Egesta. Unable to agree with Deinocrates, Agathocles made a deal with the Carthaginians, defeated the forces of Deinocrates, and regained control of Syracuse.
By c. 304 he felt secure enough to assume the title king of Sicily, and he extended his influence into southern Italy and the Adriatic. Later he formed an alliance with Ptolemy I of Egypt. Agathocles led military expeditions in Italy and took the island of Corcyra (now Kérkira, in the Adriatic Sea) away from Cassander's Macedonians in 298 BC and then had 2,000 Ligurians and Etruscans killed for mutinously demanding their pay.
Agathocles' reign as king was peaceful, allowing him to enrich Syracuse with many public buildings. He was a born leader of mercenaries, and, although he did not shrink from cruelty to gain his ends, he afterwards showed himself a mild and popular "tyrant." Dissent among his family about the succession, however, caused him in his will to restore liberty to the Syracusan. Even in his old age he displayed the same restless energy, and is said to have been meditating a fresh attack on Carthage at the time of his death. His last years were harassed by ill-health and the turbulence of his grandson Archagathus, at whose instigation he is said to have been poisoned at age 72 in 289 BC; according to others, he died a natural death. His death was followed by a recrudescence of Carthaginian power in Sicily.