Tyrant

by Valerio Massimo Manfredi


Reviewed by David Maclaine

Tyrant by Valerio Massimo Manfredi I doubt I'd have taken the trouble to seek out Tyrant if I had not been eager to find a novel dealing in depth with the Greeks of Sicily. My first taste of Valerio Massimo Manfredi was his novel Spartan, whose florid style and melodramatic storytelling made even the episodes drawn directly from history come across as pop fiction. But that novel was written fifteen years earlier in Manfredi’s career, so I decided to give this one a chance. Although not entirely free from scenes of boy’s-fiction intrigue, it provides a solid narrative of the rise to power and gradual corruption of Dionysius of Syracuse.

Tyrant portrays the island’s second Carthaginian invasion - the first, at the time of the Persian Wars has not yet been treated in fiction - and the struggle by the Greek colonies to survive and rebound from defeat. We see the fall of cities, the young leader appalled at the failures that allow those savage sacks, and his determination to replace the indecisive regime with his own resolute rule. There are exiles and returns, betrayals and revenge, battles won and lost, and the eventual establishment of Dionysius at the head of an empire in eastern Sicily and the south of mainland Italy. Manfredi streamlines the story, most notably by sidestepping the story of Dionysius’ son-in-law Dion, but his novel left me with a far clearer sense of the challenges faced at the western end of the greater Greek world. Before reading it I had no idea even of the existence of cities such as Motya, Himera, Selinus, and Acragas; now each evokes vivid images of war and destruction. The story of Dionysius’ drift toward a power sustained by pure force reveals the seeds of collapse in one path to building larger nations from Greek city states. The Greeks could never stand to be governed long by any outsider - but that also made it impossible for them to be amalgamated by any method less dire. (2003 in the original Italian; first English edition 2005, 250 pages)

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Tyrant appears on the list of The 36 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Greek History


Other novels set in Syracuse:

The Sand-Reckoner by Gillian Bradshaw (2000), about Archimedes of Syracuse. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Arrows of Hercules by L. Sprague de Camp (1965), about an engineer in the fourth century B.C. who invents an improved catapult and becomes involved in the war between Syracuse and Carthage. See review or more info at Amazon.com

The Mask of Apollo by Mary Renault (1966), about the fourth century B.C. philosopher Plato in Syracuse, as narrated by a Greek actor. See review or more info at Powell's Books


Nonfiction about Dionysius of Syracuse and his city:

Dionysius I: Warlord of Sicily by Brian Caven (1990). More info

Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities by Paul Cartledge (2010), about eleven major cities of ancient Greece, including Syracuse. More info

The Path to Tyranny by Michael E. Newton (2010), about several free societies in history which descended into tyranny and how it happened, including the story of Syracuse, drawing parallels to the present-day. More info


Online:

Dionysius I of Syracuse at Wikipedia


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