Exedra ARTSJanuary 22, 2021
The Gardens of Villa ReimannJanuary 23, 2021
Anselm Feuerbach, Plato's Symposium,1874, Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Greek Syracuse saw the presence of many great figures who contributed to the development first of classical culture, then of Western culture. These men shaped the arts of writing and poetry, of rhetoric, of philosophy. Among them, perhaps one of the most important is Plato, who had a conflictual but fascinating relationship with the city. Several ancient sources present the facts of Plato’s involvement in Syracuse, including one written himself. These differ in their accounts of the details, but the general picture of what happened is clear enough.
Plato’s first trip to Syracuse, ca. 387 BCE, was prompted by an invitation from Dionysius I, who thought of himself as a writer, and wanted to surround himself with famous intellectuals and poets, “men of repute,” who could instruct him and revise his poems. Others say Plato’s first trip to Syracuse was motivated by an interest in visiting Mt. Etna. Whatever the motive for the trip, Plato and Dionysius I did not become friends, perhaps because Plato was too honest in his criticism of the tyrant’s poetry or politics, and so Plato eventually returned to Athens that same year, after being sold by Dionysius I as a slave for twenty minas on the island of Aegina.
It was during this first trip to Sicily that Plato met Dion, Dionysius I’s brother-in-law, and thus began a friendship that kept Plato tied to Syracuse and directly involved in its political affairs for more than twenty-five years.
„ἐλθόντα δέ με ὁ ταύτῃ λεγόμενος αὖ βίος εὐδαίμων, Ἰταλιωτικῶν τε καὶ Συρακουσίων τραπεζῶν πλήρης, οὐδαμῇ οὐδαμῶς ἤρεσεν, δίς τε τῆς ἡμέρας ἐμπιμπλάμενον ζῆν καὶ μηδέποτε κοιμώμενον μόνον νύκτωρ”
When Dionysius I died, his son, Dionysius II, inherited the rule of Syracuse and made Dion one of his closest advisors. Dionysius II initially showed promise: he cut taxes and released political prisoners, and he showed a “keen and even frenzied passion for the teachings and companionship of Plato”. This was what prompted Dion to invite Plato to return to the island of Sicily: better than anyone else, he could teach the young tyrant to value justice and moderation; he could “come get control of a youthful soul now tossed about on a sea of great authority and power, and steady it by his reasonings”. Plato was hesitant to return, but in 367 he decided to reunite with Dion and begin working with Dionysius II, believing that the “purification of one man” could “cure Sicily of all her distempers”.
It didn’t take long for Plato’s presence in Syracuse to arouse suspicion, however. Dion had powerful political enemies in the city who envied his influence over Dionysius II and worried that Plato was a genuine threat to their own. In time, they stirred up a conflict between Dion and Dionysius II, which resulted in Dion’s exile and Plato’s temporary house arrest in the citadel on Ortigia. Dion was allowed to take his wealth with him to the Peloponnese, while Plato stayed in Sicily with the unfortunate job of flattering Dionysius II’s ego. Plato was later allowed to return to Athens on the condition that he did not plot a revolution with Dion.
Raphael, Plato and Aristotle, The School of Athens, 1509-1511 circa, Musei Vaticani, Roma
"... and on arriving in Siracusa, I was not at all pleased with the "blessed life" as they say here, filled as it is with Italian and Syracusan banquets, for one's existence slips away stuffing oneself with food twice a day and never sleeping alone at night..."
Plato’s third trip to Syracuse was motivated by concern for Dion’s life. Dionysius II sent messengers to Athens to request that Plato return to Syracuse. They reported that Dionysius II had made great progress in his philosophical studies, while Dionysius II himself wrote to Plato, promising that “no mercy would be shown to Dion unless Plato were persuaded to come to Sicily; but if he were persuaded, every mercy”. And so, Plato returned to Syracuse in 362, “that he might once more measure back his way to fell Charybdis”. Unfortunately, like his first two trips, Plato’s third trip to Syracuse quickly became embroiled in court intrigue and ended in failure. He eventually returned to Athens and reported on his travels to Dion while attending the Olympics of 360. The message was clear: Dionysius II was incorrigible and dangerous.
Dion immediately began plotting to invade Syracuse and seek revenge against Dionysius II, who had taken his money and land, and married his wife to another man while he was banished from Syracuse. He felt compelled to attack in retaliation. In 357, with the help of Speusippus and several other members of Plato’s Academy—though not Plato because of his age and his firm stance against vengeance —Dion landed in Syracuse and succeeded in conquering the city while Dionysius II was away on his own military campaign in Italy. Dion’s grip on power in Syracuse did not last long, however. He quickly found himself in a conflict with a populist leader named Heracleides, who took advantage of the Syracusans’ distrust of Dion. Over the next two years, Dion was driven into exile for a second time, and then recalled back to Syracuse when, to the horror of most Syracusans, Dionysius II and his soldiers attempted to regain power in 355.
After an unusually destructive battle in the city, Dion succeeded in defeating Dionysius II for a second time, and in doing so he endeared himself to the Syracusans as never before. However, thanks to continued factionalism in Syracuse and the imperiousness of Dion’s rule, Dion’s supporters quickly abandoned him, and he was assassinated by Callipus, a member of Plato’s Academy. Syracuse was “continually exchanging one tyrant for another”. This was when Dion’s remaining followers fled to Leontini and wrote to Plato for his political advice. The Seventh Letter written in 353 BC is Plato’s response.
From: Plato at Syracuse: Essays on Plato in Western Greece with a new translation of the Seventh Letter
by Jonah Radding, edited by Heather Reid and Mark Ralkowski (Sioux City: Parnassos Press, 2019).
Plato, Roman 1st cent.CE copy. of a portrait by Silanion 370 BCE. circa, Musei Capitolini, Roma