Born: c. 570 BC
Died: c. 554 BC
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Nationality: Ancient Greece
Executive summary: Tyrant of Acragas
Phalaris, tyrant of Acragas (Agrigentum) in Sicily. He was entrusted with the building of the temple of Zeus Atabyrius in the citadel, and took advantage of his position to make himself despot. Under his rule Agrigentum seems to have attained considerable prosperity. He supplied the city with water, adorned it with fine buildings, and strengthened it with walls. On the northern coast of the island the people of Himera elected him general with absolute power, in spite of the warnings of the poet Stesichorus. According to Suïdas he succeeded in making himself master of the whole of the island. He was at last overthrown in a general rising headed by Telemachus, the ancestor of Theron (tyrant c. 488-472), and burned in his brazen bull.
After ages have held tip Phalaris to infamy for his excessive cruelty. In his brazen bull, invented, it is said, by Perillus of Athens, the tyrant's victims were shut up and, a fire being kindled beneath, were roasted alive, while their shrieks represented the bellowing of the bull. Perillus himself is said to have been the first victim. There is hardly room to doubt that we have here a tradition of human sacrifice in connection with the worship of the Phoenician Baal (Zeus Atabyrius) such as prevailed at Rhodes; when misfortune threatened Rhodes the brazen bulls in his temple bellowed. The Rhodians brought this worship to Gela, which they founded conjointly with the Cretans, and from Gela it passed to Agrigentum. Human sacrifices to Baal were common, and, though in Phoenicia proper there is no proof that the victims were burned alive, the Carthaginians had a brazen image of Baal, from whose downturned hands the children slid into a pit of fire; and the story that Minos had a brazen man who pressed people to his glowing breast points to similar rites in Crete, where the child-devouring Minotaur must certainly be connected with Baal and the favorite sacrifice to him of children.
The story of the bull cannot be dismissed as pure invention. Pindar, who lived less than a century afterwards, expressly associates this instrument of torture with the name of the tyrant. There was certainly a brazen bull at Agrigentum, which was carried off by the Carthaginians to Carthage, from where it was again taken by Scipio and restored to Agrigentum. In later times the tradition prevailed that Phalaris was a naturally humane man and a patron of philosophy and literature. He is so described in the declamations ascribed to Lucian, and in the letters which bear his own name. Plutarch, too, though he takes the unfavorable view, mentions that the Sicilians gave to the severity of Phalaris the name of justice and a hatred of crime. Phalaris may thus have been one of those men who combine justice and even humanity with religious fanaticism.
The letters bearing the name of Phalaris (148 in number) are now chiefly remembered for the crushing exposure they received at the hands of Richard Bentley in his controversy with Charles Boyle, who had published an edition of them in 1695. The first edition of Bentley's Dissertation on Phalaris appeared in 1697, and the second edition, replying to the answer which Boyle published in 1698, came out in 1699. From the mention in the letters of towns (Phintia, Alaesa and Tauromenium) which did not exist in the time of Phalaris, from the imitations of authors (Herodotus, Democritus, Euripides, Callimachus) who wrote long after he was dead, from the reference to tragedies, though tragedy was not yet invented in the lifetime of Phalaris, from the dialect, which is not Dorian but Attic, nay, New or Late Attic, as well as from absurdities in the matter, and the entire absence of any reference to them by any writer before Stobaeus (c. AD 500), Bentley sufficiently proved that the letters were written by a sophist or rhetorician (possibly Adrianus of Tyre, died c. AD 192) hundreds of years after the death of Phalaris. Suïdas admired the letters, which he thought genuine, and in modern times, before their exposure by Bentley, they were thought highly of by some (e.g. Sir William Temple in his Essay on Ancient and Modern Learning), though others, as Politian and Erasmus, perceived that they were not by Phalaris.
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