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The Sileraioi (Greek : Σιλεραίοι) were a group of ancient mercenaries most likely employed by the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse, though it is unknown at what time during Dionysus' reign and to what capacity the Sileraioi were employed. They began to issue coinage between the years 357 and 336 BC, and this coinage provides the bulk of evidence we have of their existence, since no ancient authors wrote about them by name and the location of any "city" of the Sileraioi has not been conclusively determined. However, much can be inferred about the ruthless character of the Sileraioi based on what ancient authors wrote about Dionysus' mercenaries in general. [1]

Greek language language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning more than 3000 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

Dionysius I of Syracuse Sicilian tyrant

Dionysius I or Dionysius the Elder was a Greek tyrant of Syracuse, in Sicily. He conquered several cities in Sicily and southern Italy, opposed Carthage's influence in Sicily and made Syracuse the most powerful of the Western Greek colonies. He was regarded by the ancients as an example of the worst kind of despot—cruel, suspicious and vindictive.


Origin of Name

There are a few possible explanations for the origin of the name “Sileraioi”. Some believe that they were named after the area of the Sila Mountains, in ancient Bruttium, and only left that area to come to Sicily when employed by Dionysius I of Syracuse. [2] Others believe the group originated around the river Sele in Campania, and were therefore Campanian mercenaries, who also would have been employed by Dionysius I. A third and more recent theory places the origin of the Sileraioi in Lucania. [3] However, the word Sileraioi is related to the paleo-mediterranean word sila, which means “channel in which water flows” and is the root of hundreds of names in Magna Graecia, [4] and therefore the original location of the Sileraioi cannot be said to be Bruttium, Campania or Lucania definitively, without further archaeological evidence, although at this point modern scholarship points to Lucania as the most likely. [5]

Sicily Island in the Mediterranean and region of Italy

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and one of the 20 regions of Italy. It is one of the five Italian autonomous regions, in Southern Italy along with surrounding minor islands, officially referred to as Regione Siciliana.

Campania Region of Italy

Campania is a region in Southern Italy. As of 2018, the region has a population of around 5,820,000 people, making it the third-most-populous region of Italy; its total area of 13,590 km2 (5,247 sq mi) makes it the most densely populated region in the country. Located on the Italian Peninsula, with the Mediterranean Sea to the west, it includes the small Phlegraean Islands and Capri for administration as part of the region.

Lucania ancient district of southern Italy

Lucania was an ancient area of Southern Italy. It was the land of the Lucani, an Oscan people. It extended from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Gulf of Taranto. It bordered with Samnium and Campania in the north, Apulia in the east, and Bruttium in the south-west, at the tip of the peninsula which is now called Calabria. It thus comprised almost all the modern region of Basilicata, the southern part of the Province of Salerno and a northern portion of the Province of Cosenza. The precise limits were the river Silarus in the north-west, which separated it from Campania, and the Bradanus, which flows into the Gulf of Taranto, in the east. The lower tract of the river Laus, which flows from a ridge of the Apennine Mountains to the Tyrrhenian Sea in an east-west direction, marked part of the border with Bruttium.


Some scholars believed that the Sileraioi had a city somewhere between Agrigento and Caltanissetta. [6] [7] The Sileraioi would have been hired by Dionysius I and when their service finished, remained in Sicily, either taking over some municipality by force or simply integrating into the local population. Dionysius I of Syracuse often granted citizenship to his mercenaries and was known for allotting land to them as well, and the Sileraioi were most likely entitled to the same benefits. More recent scholarship, however, supports the notion that there was never a city of the Sileraioi at all, but instead they were located on a natural hilltop stronghold now called Cozzo Mususino, which is between Alimena and Resuttano. [8] The latter is supported by the amount of Sileraioi coins found at that location.

Agrigento Comune in Sicily, Italy

Agrigento is a city on the southern coast of Sicily, Italy and capital of the province of Agrigento. It is renowned as the site of the ancient Greek city of Akragas, one of the leading cities of Magna Graecia during the golden age of Ancient Greece with population estimates in the range of 200,000 to 800,000 before 406 BC.

Caltanissetta Comune in Sicily, Italy

Caltanissetta is a comune in the central interior of Sicily, Italy, and the capital of the Province of Caltanissetta. Its inhabitants are called Nisseni.

Alimena Comune in Sicily, Italy

Alimena is a comune (municipality) in the Metropolitan City of Palermo in the Italian region of Sicily, located about 80 kilometres (50 mi) southeast of Palermo.


Eventually, the group organized themselves enough to mint coinage, as we see bronze coinage from Sicily with the inscription ΣΙΛΕΡΑΙΩΝ (it appears retrograde in the image). These coins were always over-struck on other coins of the area, usually bronze litras of Dionysius I. Some scholars believe that the entire series consists of two basic types. [9] It is unclear what the Α-ΛΙΣ inscription on the coins' reverses refers to. If in retrograde as with the opposite side, it could be a reference to SILA, as mentioned above. [10]

Mercenaries and autocracy

Mercenaries such as the Sileraioi were essential to tyrants, in particular Dionysius I of Syracuse. Dionysius the Elder’s victory over the democratic faction in Syracuse represents both the very worst and the very best of the mercenary leader. Dionysius’ career as a despot occurred after he was given six hundred personal mercenaries to guard his person after faking an attack on his own life. He was able to increase this guard to one thousand and gradually consolidated his power and established himself as a tyrant. He imposed his mercenaries on all parts of the polis community. Such an act would have truly wiped out any suggestion that democracy was still in force. His rule was “unconstitutional and illegitimate and could not fail to provoke rebellions among the partisans of democratic government”. [11] It is not known at which point during his rule Dionysius employed the Sileraioi.

Demokratia is a direct democracy, as opposed to the modern representative democracy.

Mercenary soldier who fights for hire

A mercenary is an individual who is hired to take part in a conflict but is not part of an army or other-governmental organisation. Mercenaries fight for money or other forms payment rather than for political interests. In the last century, mercenaries have increasingly come to be seen as less entitled to protections by rules of war than non-mercenaries. Indeed, the Geneva Conventions declare that mercenaries are not recognized as legitimate combatants and do not have to be granted the same legal protections as captured soldiers of a regular army. In practice, whether or not a person is a mercenary may be a matter of degree, as financial and political interests may overlap, as was often the case among Italian condottieri.

Polis ancient Greek social and political organisation

Polis, plural poleis, literally means city in Greek. It can also mean a body of citizens. In modern historiography, polis is normally used to indicate the ancient Greek city-states, like Classical Athens and its contemporaries, and thus is often translated as "city-state". These cities consisted of a fortified city centre (asty) built on an acropolis or harbor and controlled surrounding territories of land (khôra).

The demise of a prominent democratic polis in the Classical world and the subsequent tenure of Dionysius represented what would become a recurring norm in fourth-century Greece, thanks to the prevalence of mercenaries. The mercenary and the tyrant went hand-in-hand; Polybius for example noted how “the security of despots rests entirely on the loyalty and power of mercenaries”. [12] Aristotle wrote how some form of ‘guard’ (viz. a personal army) is needed for absolute kingship, [13] and for an elected tyrant a very particular number of professional soldiers should be employed; too few undermines the tyrant's power and too many threatens the polis itself. The philosopher notes how based on this observation, the people of Syracuse were warned to not let Dionysius conscript too many ‘guards’ during his reign. [14]

Classical antiquity Age of the ancient Greeks and the Romans

Classical antiquity is the period of cultural history between the 8th century BC and the 5th or 6th century AD centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilizations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome known as the Greco-Roman world. It is the period in which Greek and Roman society flourished and wielded great influence throughout Europe, North Africa and Western Asia.

Polybius ancient Greek historian

Polybius was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period noted for his work The Histories, which covered the period of 264–146 BC in detail. The work describes the rise of the Roman Republic to the status of dominance in the ancient Mediterranean world and includes his eyewitness account of the Sack of Carthage in 146 BC.

Aristotle philosopher in ancient Greece

Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher and scientist born in the city of Stagira, Chalkidiki, Greece. Along with Plato, he is considered the "Father of Western Philosophy". Aristotle provided a complex and harmonious synthesis of the various existing philosophies prior to him, including those of Socrates and Plato, and it was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its fundamental intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry. As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be central to the contemporary philosophical discussion.

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Tindari frazione of Italy

Tindari, anciently Tyndaris or Tyndarion is a small town, former bishopric, frazione in the comune of Patti and Latin Catholic titular see, in the Metropolitan City of Messina in northeastern Sicily, between Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto and Cefalù.

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The Mamertines were mercenaries of Italian origin who had been hired from their home in Campania by Agathocles, Tyrant of Syracuse and self-proclaimed King of Sicily. After Syracuse lost the Third Sicilian War, the city of Messana was ceded to Carthage in 307 BC. When Agathocles died in 289 BC he left many of his mercenaries idle and unemployed in Sicily. Most of them returned home but some liking the climate and the prospect of adventure on a foreign island remained. They played a major role in the lead up to the First Punic War.

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Callippus was a tyrant of Syracuse who ruled briefly for thirteen months from 354 to 352 BC. He was a native Athenian, who traveled with Dion to Sicily to capture Syracuse, where Dion became the tyrant. Callippus then gained power by assassinating Dion, but ruled briefly before being ousted from power himself. Afterwards he commanded a band of mercenaries, who later killed him with the same sword that he used to kill Dion.

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The Siege of Syracuse from 344 to 343/342 BC was part of a war between the Syracusan general Hicetas and the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius II. The conflict became more complex when Carthage and Corinth became involved. The Carthaginians had made an alliance with Hicetas to expand their power in Sicily. Somewhat later the Corinthian general Timoleon arrived in Sicily to restore democracy to Syracuse. With the assistance of several other Sicilian Greek cities, Timoleon emerged victorious and reinstated a democratic regime in Syracuse. The siege is described by the ancient historians Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch, but there are important differences in their accounts.


Adranon is ancient polis and archaeological site on the southwestern slopes of Mount Etna, near Simeto River, known for the "simetite" variety of amber" northwest of Catania. The ancient city was founded by the ancient Greek ruler Dionysius I of Syracuse around 400 BCE upon a pre-Hellenic neolithic settlement, near a temple dedicated to the god Adranus, worshiped throughout Sicily. Adranus was associated with volcanoes and equated eventually with Hephaestus. The city was conquered by Timoleon at 343-342 BCE and subjugated to Rome in 263 BCE. Romans declared it a civitas stipendiaria.


  1. J. B. Bury, The Cambridge Ancient History VI: Macedon, 401-301 BC, Chpt. 5, Cambridge: UP, 1975.
  2. Falco, Giulia (Athens). "Sileraioi." Brill’s New Pauly. , 2012. Reference. 15 March 2012 <>
  3. Mariangela Puglisi, "Distribuzione e funzione della moneta bronzea in Sicilia dalla fine del V sec. a.C. all’età ellenistica"
  4. N.Sisci, relaying article by Domenico Canino ('Il Quotidiano' 27/09/2009)
  5. D. Castrizio, mercenariale coinage in Sicily, 2000
  6. Giacomo Manganaro - “Per una storia della Sicilia romana”. In: “Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt”; Vol. I (1972, pp. 442-461 ANRW)
  7. Eugenio Manni - “Su alcune recenti proposte di identificazione di centri antichi della Sicilia”. In: L'Italie préromaine et la Rome républicaine. I. Mélanges offerts à Jacques Heurgon. Rome : École Française de Rome, (1976. pp. 605-617. Publications de l'École française de Rome, 27)
  8. Dea Moneta: Artemite Aste,
  9. D. Castrizio (mercenariale coinage in Sicily, 2000, p. 54 and 109)
  10. N.Molinari, Possible Explanation of "ALIS" Inscription.
  11. Yalichev, Serge. (1997) Mercenaries of the Ancient World, London: Constable, pp 210
  12. Polybius 11.13
  13. Aristotle Politics 1286b28-40
  14. Aristotle Politics 1286b28-40