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The Imperial Shuffle: Markets and Land Allotment on the Syracusan Frontier

Timothy Sorg

This paper argues for a systemic and comparative approach to Syracusan imperialism in Sicily during the first generation of the Second Greco-Punic War, c. 410-380 BC. Like fifth-century Athens and Rome in the mid-Republic, the Syracusans were fairly unique in the pre-modern world in how they sought to balance the internal division of benefits with external predation. Above all, the allotment of confiscated land (klēroi) was the most common way for ancient Mediterranean states to divide the fruits of empire—it was the shared imperial practice among Greco-Roman city-states in the process of becoming territorial empires. But unlike their imperial neighbors, I argue that the Syracusans in the fifth and early fourth centuries tended to use land allotment to shuffle and reorganize Sicilian populations to speed up economic development back at Syracuse. Confronted by the systemic conditions of eastern Sicily, the Syracusans disrupted local markets by relocating defeated elite populations back to Syracuse with full citizenship, and then allotted their land to mercenaries or foreign allies to form new communities on the frontier.

In recent years, Demand (1990), Vattuone (1994), Giuliani (1995), Lomas (2006) have all looked to the forced urban relocations and subsequent allotment of land in Magna Graecia under Dionysios I to show the extent of Syracusan expansion and the fluidity of Sicilian citizenship. None of the studies, however, have developed how the Syracusans’ approach to imperial territoriality affected regional markets. In light of recent trends in global imperial history (Abernethy 2002; Morris and Scheidel 2009), this paper explores the dynamics of the Syracusans’ fourth-century empire by linking imperial land allotment to a new sensitivity for how empire-building was also a social phenomenon in frontier regions. It demonstrates the importance of a comparative perspective to imperial territoriality and draws wider conclusions about our understanding of Syracusan imperialism.

My study develops through three sections. First, I look to the case of Leontinoi c. 403 to illustrate broader trends in Syracusan land allotment. The literary (Diod. 12.54; 14.15; 14.78) and archaeological (Scerra 2003; Frasca 2009) evidence at Leontinoi suggest that the relocation of the city’s wealthy elite back to Syracuse significantly disrupted local economic networks to the advantage of Syracusan markets. Though Dionysios later divided up the land in 396 among his mercenaries as payment for their service, social stability on the frontier was secondary to the economic benefits of increasing the entrepreneuring population back at Syracuse. 

Second, I look to structural trends in eastern Sicily that developed during the fifth century to explain the Syracusans’ approach to imperial territoriality. In this pre-history to Syracuse’s fourth-century empire, I look to archaeological evidence to show that two processes preconditioned how the Syracusans thought about land allotment: social fragmentation at Syracuse (Jackman 2005) and regional economic competition (Prag 2010; Pilkington 2013). As a result, the trajectory of Syracusan state-formation during the fifth century created a distinctive approach to frontier regions that put a premium on extracting human capital back to Syracuse.

Finally, I turn to Syracuse’s broader Mediterranean context to briefly compare Syracusan land allotment to similar processes among the Athenians (in fifth-century Euboea) and the Romans (in fourth-century Latium). By emphasizing the particularities of each imperial repertoire, I distinguish between what was peculiar about of the klēros in Syracusan society and also how Mediterranean conditions created similar problems that each state had to find solutions for.

Such an approach accounts for why the Syracusans, relative to their Mediterranean counterparts, tended to allot confiscated land to mercenaries and allies after removing the local elite population back to Syracuse. Though the new communities of mercenaries and allies provided stability on the frontier, they had very weak social links to Syracuse and did not require any reduction in Syracuse’s urban population. Therefore, Syracusan land allotment was not a story just about tyrants (Sanders 1987; Péré-Noguès 2006) in a Near-Eastern mold of authoritarianism (Morris 2010), but also one of shifting markets in distinctly Sicilian conditions.

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