Founded (734 B.C.) by Greek colonists from Corinth, Syracuse grew rapidly and soon founded colonies of its own. Its democratic government was suppressed by Gelon, tyrant of Gela, who took possession of the city in 485 B.C. Under his rule, marked by a great victory (480 B.C.) over Carthage at Himera, Syracuse took the lead among the Greek cities of Sicily. Gelon's successor, Hiero I, made it one of the great centers of Greek culture; the poet Pindar and the dramatist Aeschylus lived at his court. Soon after Hiero's death a democracy was again established; it lasted from 466 B.C. to 406 B.C. During this period Syracuse extended its control over E Sicily and defeated an Athenian expedition (begun in 415 B.C. by Alcibiades) in a great land and sea battle (414 B.C.). In 406 B.C., Dionysius the Elder became tyrant. Under his long rule Syracuse reached the high point of its power and territorial expansion.
After the death of Dionysius there followed a period of bitter internal struggle in which Dionysius the Younger, Dion of Syracuse, and Timoleon were the chief protagonists. There were several decades of democratic government until tyranny was reestablished by Agathocles and Hiero II (4th–3d cent. B.C.). Hiero's reign was relatively peaceful and prosperous, but after his death Syracuse suffered catastrophically when it abandoned its traditional ally Rome in favor of Carthage, in the second of the Punic Wars. After a long siege by the Roman consul Marcellus, the city fell in 212 B.C. and was sacked; Syracuse thence was reduced to the status of a provincial town. The period from Dionysius the Elder to 212 B.C. was brilliant in terms of culture. The philosopher Plato visited Syracuse several times, and the poet Theocritus probably lived at the court of Hiero II. The mathematician and physicist Archimedes, born (287 B.C.) in Syracuse, directed the defense of the city against the Romans and was killed during the sack of the city. Syracuse suffered another major setback in the late 9th cent. A.D., when it was badly damaged by Arab conquerors. It was captured by the Normans in 1085.