He was the son of one Pheidias, and born at Messana in Sicily, though he passed the greater part of his life in Greece, and especially in Peloponnesus. He was a disciple of Aristotle, and a friend of Theophrastus, to whom he dedicated some of his writings. He died about 285 BC.
Dicaearchus was highly esteemed by the ancients as a philosopher and as a man of most extensive information upon a great variety of things. His work is known only from the many fragmentary quotations of later writers. His works were geographical, political or historical, philosophical, and mathematical; but it is difficult to draw up an accurate list of them, since many which are quoted as distinct works appear to have been only sections of greater ones. The fragments extant, moreover, do not always enable us to form a clear notion of the works to which they once belonged. The geographical works of Dicaearchus were, according to Strabo, criticised in many respects by Polybius; and Strabo himself is dissatisfied with his descriptions of western and northern Europe, where Dicaearchus had never visited.
Among his geographical works may be mentioned:
Life of Greece (Βίος Ἑλλάδος) – The Bios Hellados, in three books is Dicaearchus’ most famous work. In the mid 1st century BC it inspired Jason of Nysa’s Bios Hellados and Varro's De Vita Populi Romani. It exists in only 24 fragments, but he apparently attempted to write a biography of the Greek nation from earliest times to the reign of Philip II. The most famous passages are those cited by Varro and Porphyry which suggest a dualistic view of progress. For example, the invention of agriculture alleviates hunger through the creation of surplus, but surplus in turn proves to be an incitement to greed which leads to war. Every human advance solves one problem but also engenders another. Passages which detailed human institutions and their history suggest he thought these could arrest decline. For example, his definition of country (πάτρα), family (φρατρία), and tribe (φυλή), is about the right ordering of human relations within the polis. Dicaearchus apparently explained the saying, "sharing stops choking", as a reference to how humans learned to distribute surplus fairly. Many fragments are interested in the origins of the music and culture of Greece. This is in contrast to the debased symposiastic Greek culture of which he complains in some of his other works. His interest in defining Greek culture in its heyday is thus partly polemical: he wishes to attack current fashions in music by reminding his readership of their original forms. The link between political decline and cultural debasement (as they saw it) was also made by his fellow Peripatetic and friend Aristoxenus. In a celebrated passage, he compared the introduction of the ‘New Music’ into Greek theatres to the barbarization of the Poseidoniates in the Bay of Naples.
Circuit of the Earth (Γῆς περίοδος) – This work was probably the text written in explanation of the geographical maps which Dicaearchus had constructed and given to Theophrastus, and which seem to have comprised the whole world, as far as it was then known.
Description of Greece (Ἀναγραφὴ τῆς Ἑλλάδος) – This is a fragment of a work dedicated to "Theophrastus", and consisting of 150 iambic lines. It was formerly attributed to Dicaearchus, but the initial letters of the first twenty-three lines show that it was really the work of one "Dionysius, son of Calliphon".
On the heights of mountains – A work which may have been part of his Circuit of the Earth. It was the earliest known attempt to measure the heights of various mountains by triangulation.
Descent into (the Cave of) Trophonius (Ἡ εἰς Τροφωνίου κατάϐασις) – A work which consisted of several books, and, as we may infer from the fragments quoted from it, contained an account of the degenerate and licentious proceedings of the priests in the cave of Trophonius.
Some other works, such as Spartan Constitution (Πολιτεία Σπαρτιατῶν),Olympic Dialogue (Ὀλυμπικὸς ἀγών),Panathenaic Dialogue (Παναθηναικός), and several others, seem to have been merely chapters of the Life of Greece.
Of a political nature was:
Three-city Dialogue (ΤριπολιτικόςTripolitikos) – A work which has been the subject of much dispute. It was probably a study of comparative government. Following Aristotle, Dicaearchus divided all governments into three categories: the democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical, He advocated a "mixed" government, echoing the Spartan system, in which elements of all three categories play a part. This may have been an inspiration for Cicero's De Republica.
Among his philosophical works may be mentioned:
Lesbian Books (Λεσϐιακοί) – In three books, which derived its name from the fact that the scene of the philosophical dialogue was laid at Mytilene in Lesbos. In it Dicaearchus endeavoured to prove that the soul was mortal. Cicero when speaking of a work On the Soul, probably means this work.
Corinthian Dialogue (Κορινθιακοί) – In three books, was a sort of supplement to the Lesbiakoi. It is probably the same work as the one which Cicero, in another passage, calls On Human Destruction (Latin: de Interitu Hominum).
According to Burkert (1972) Aristoxenus and Dicaearchus are the most important accounts for information regarding Pythagoras.
A work On the Sacrifice at Ilium (περὶ τῆς ἐν Ἰλίῳ ϑυσίας) seems to have referred to the sacrifice which Alexander the Great performed at Ilium.
There are lastly some other works which are of a grammatical nature, and may be the productions of Dicaearchus, viz. On Alcaeus (Περὶ Ἀλκαίου), and Summaries of the plots of Euripides and Sophocles (ὑποθέσεις τῶν Εὐριπίδου καὶ Σοφοκλέους μύθων), but may have been the works of Dicaearchus, a grammarian of Lacedaemon, who, according to the Suda, was a disciple of Aristarchus, and seems to be alluded to in Apollonius.
David C. Mirhady, "Dicaearchus of Messana: The Sources, Texts and Translations," in Fortenbaugh, W., Schütrumpf, E., (editors) Dicaearchus of Messana: Text, Translation, and Discussion. Transaction Publishers. (2001). ISBN0-7658-0093-4
Verhasselt, G. Die Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker Continued. IV. Biography and antiquarian literature, B. History of literature, music, art and culture. Fasc. 9 Dikaiarchos of Messene No. 1400. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2018. ISBN9789004357419
Wehrli, F., Dikaiarchos. Die Schule des Aristoteles. Texte und Kommentar, Hft. 1. Schwabe. 2nd edition (1967)
Alonso-Núñez, J.M., 'Approaches to world history in the Hellenistic period: Dicaearchus and Agatharchides' Athenaeum 85 (1997) 53-67
Bodei Giglioni, G., 'Dicearco e la riflessione sul passato' Rivista Storica Italiana 98 (1986) 629-652