Check out my previous blog on the Battle of Mycale, 479 BC
The Persian Invasions proved desperate wars for the Greeks at the start of the 5th century BC, bringing the homeland of democracy itself very close to its knees at battles such as Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea and Mycale. However, while the mainland Greeks were fighting off the Persians, another important part of the Greek world was also under threat, dulling the chances of reinforcements to aid against Xerxes’s invasion, as the heavily Greek-populated isle of Sicily was rocked with an invasion by another superpower of the time; the wealthy maritime empire of Carthage had holdings in the western half of Sicily, and they soon set their sights east. Two centuries of what was to be known as the Sicilian Wars were to come, and the first and most decisive of its battles would be fought, supposedly on the same day as either the battles of Thermopylae or Salamis, near the city of Himera.
[ABOVE: A map of 5th century BC Sicily, showing Greek (red) and Punic (purple) settlements]
EXPANSIONS OF GELA UNDER CLEANDER, HIPPOCRATES AND GELON
[ABOVE: A Sileno (a humanoid depicted as slightly animalistic) head from Gela Archaeological Museum, Sicily]
Since 505, a major tyranny had arisen in the Sicilian city of Gela, under the brothers Cleander and Hippokrates. Cleander was made the tyrant of Gela in 505 BC, and in 498 BC, he was succeeded by Hippocrates. By 491, this new empire stretched over most of southern and eastern Sicily, from Agrigentum in the west to Leontini in the east and Messana in the north, with only Syracuse holding out. That year, a revolt throughout the empire quickly followed his death, but this was swiftly put down by Hippocrates’s cavalry commander, Gelon, who installed himself as the city's tyrant soon after. Gelon united himself via a double marriage tie to the daughter of Theron, the tyrant of Agrigentum, and when civil strife consumed the city of Syracuse, Gelon intervened, put down the revolt and installed himself as the city's new ruler, making this large, wealthy and well fortified city his new capital of the empire, reigning from there while he gave the city of Gela to his brother, Hiero. Syracuse quickly blossomed into a flourishing city, as the city was given plenty more people to inhabit it from other recently acquired cities.
[ABOVE: A "Classic, old depiction" of Gelon I]
At that point, pretty much the entire Greek-speaking eastern half of Sicily was under the rule of three people: Gelon in Syracuse, Theron in Agrigentum and Hiero in Gela. The other half to the west was controlled by a different peoples: the Phoenicians, under the maritime empire of Carthage.
[ABOVE: A map of the Carthaginian empire's expansions by the 3rd century BC, before the Punic Wars with Rome]
Carthage, located in modern-day Tunisia, was a Phoenician colony founded in 814 BC, and the name “Phoenician” derives from the Greek “phoinix” meaning “purple”, as a purple dye created from shellfish was created in Phoenicia, roughly modern-day Lebanon. This colour was regarded as the most luxurious and sought-after in the ancient world, so this association of the Phoenicians with the height of luxury might indicate that the Greeks saw the Phoenicians as refined and privileged.
[ABOVE: "Aeneas telling Dido the misfortunes of the city of Troy", by Guérin Énée, 1815]
Carthage itself was founded after the Queen of Tyre, Dido, fled her home city after her brother, the king, murdered her husband. Eventually leading colonists to the North African coast opposite Sicily, they founded “New City” - “Qart Hadasht” - “Carthage”. With the fall of their home states in Phoenicia to Assyrian powers, this colony would soon become the capital of a new western Mediterranean maritime empire, expanding into pretty much all of north-west Africa, Corsica, Sardinia, the Balearics, the coast of Spain, and western Sicily. So far reaching was their influence and trade routes that they would go on to trade with sub-Saharan African nations, and later in their history an explorer of theirs would even circumnavigate the entire African continent.
CAUSES OF THE CONFLICT
DELEGATIONS FROM MAINLAND GREECE
Meanwhile, as Xerxes’s armies marched down through central Greece, ambassadors from several Greek states were enlisted to call for aid across the Greek world, fearing their numbers wouldn’t be enough for the approaching Persian hordes. Greek delegates arrived in Syracuse, where they spoke with Gelon, stating that the Spartans had enlisted them to call for Sicilian aid. However, Gelon snapped back, stating that it was only self-interest that guided the delegates’ words, for Gelon had once requested aid against local Sicilian forces before, when Dorieus, son of the Spartan king Anaxandridas II and brother of Cleomenes and Leonidas, landed on Sicily to found a colony, only to be attacked and murdered. Gelon had offered his hands in aid to avenge Dorieus’s death, but was turned down. Luckily, the Greeks on Sicily did manage to avenge Dorieus’s death, and despite the Greeks having treated the Sicilian Greeks poorly in the past, Gelon was prepared to offer up 200 triremes, 20,000 hoplites and several thousand skirmishers and cavalry, all supplied with their own food and supplies at no cost to the Greeks. This was all offered, under the condition that Gelon himself would be put in charge of the entire army against Xerxes. This is where the agreements failed, since the delegation knew that the Spartans would not willingly hand over command authority to anyone else. And even when Gelon counter-offered by proposing that he only be in command of the fleet, leaving the land army ultimately under Spartan command, the Athenian delegates spoke up, stating that it was clear that Gelon merely wanted authority and power; the Greeks had come looking for an army, not a leader. Negotiations broke down, and Sicily would not aid the Greeks against Persia.
Gelon would later send an envoy, Cadmus, with a large cash gift to Delphi. The money was to go Xerxes should he win the war, but it was to return to Sicily should the Greeks win. After winning over the people of Cos and becoming the island nation’s tyrant, Cadmus emigrated to Zancle back in Sicily, renaming the city Messana, and eventually returned to Gelon with the very same cash he had given him, proving himself an honest man as Gelon had obviously predicted, having trusted him with such a large amount of money before.
THERON OF AGRIGENTUM, HAMILCAR OF CARTHAGE
One account claims that Gelon would have been happy to help the Greeks under Spartan/Athenian command had it not been for the actions of Terillus, after being expelled from Himera by the king of Agrigentum, Theron. Theron achieved his power-grab by bringing over an army from Carthage (50,000 strong according to modern estimates, 300,000 strong according to Herodotus) under the command of Hamilcar I, the king of Carthage. Theron persuaded Hamilcar to support his war efforts due to Theron's guest-friendship with the now-deposed Terillus. There was also the added persuasion of Anaxilaus - the tyrant of Rhegium who was married to Terillus’s daughter - who had given his own children to Hamilcar as a means of strengthening relations and guaranteeing safety, brining the Carthaginian and his army over to Sicily to support Terillus in reclaiming his Himeran throne.
[ABOVE: The "Tomb of Theron", nearby to the Porta Aurea, Agrigento]
HAMILCAR AND XERXES - WERE THEY ALLIES?
Ancient Greek sources, primarily Diodorus Siculus and Ephoros, claim that the Carthaginian invasion of Sicily was done deliberately in conjunction with the Persian invasion of Greece, as both Hamilcar and Xerxes agreed to ally and destroy Greek civilization together. However, there’s no real evidence of the two kings ever allying with such a joint goal, and the invasions of both happening near simultaneously seems to be purely coincidental.
HAMILCAR SETS OUT FOR SICILY
Setting sail from Carthage, Hamilcar crossed the Libyan sea with his forces towards Sicily. There, he encountered a large storm, and the transport ships carrying much of his cavalry and all of his chariots were destroyed. Finally docking at Panormus, (modern-day Palermo) Hamilcar remarked that he had already won the war, having been worried that the sea would save the Sicilians from the coming conflict. Stopping at Panormus for three days to repair his ships and rest his troops, he marched for Himera, while his fleet followed his army along the coast.
OUTSIDE OF HIMERA
[ABOVE: A birds-eye view of the stages of the battle of Himera. NOT TO SCALE]
Outside Himera, Hamilcar pitched two camps, one for the army and the other for the navy. Hamilcar then set his forces about hauling the ships onto land, and using their wood to make a ditch and palisade for his army camp, which fronted the city from the coast to the hills down south. Unloading his troops, Hamilcar sent for his boats to get more supplies from Libya and Sardinia, while he took his best troops towards the city, repelling a light Himeran counter-attack that came to meet them. Now nearly besieged in his city, Theron sent envoys out to Gelon in Syracuse to ask for aid.
Standing ready with his army, (50,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry according to Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, but 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry by modern estimates) Gelon hastily marched for Himera, quickly reaching the city and inspiring the disheartened Himerans. Gelon too set about making his own fortified encampment, also surrounded by a protective ditch, before sending out his entire cavalry force into the local area to scout for more supplies and booty. In their search, the cavalry were said to have captured as many prisoners as there were horsemen, granting Gelon great approbation while also making the Himerans hold the Carthaginians in great contempt now. So trusted was Gelon now that the previously blocked-up gates of Himera were opened for Gelon and his men.
Inside the walls of Himera, Gelon plotted as to how he could overcome the Carthaginian army, without risking his soldier’s in combat if possible. He eventually decided that setting fire to Hamilcar’s ships would not only leave no room for an escape, but would also halt any supplies or reinforcements coming their way. So while Hamilcar was making sacrifices, Gelon’s cavalry, whose ranks were now bolstered by more horsemen from the defecting city of Selinus, set out for their encampment. The Carthaginians, mistaking the men from Selinus as allies, let the horsemen into the encampment, which they now set ablaze. In this frenzy, Hamilcar too was slain. Meanwhile, Greek scouts in the hills near Gelon’s army, who were ordered to wait for a fire signal, saw the encampment and the ships alight, so Gelon advanced the rest of his 30-50,000 strong army towards the Carthaginian army.
THE DEATH OF HAMILCAR
Hamilcar was killed in the fighting, and his body was never found. Carthaginian accounts explain that his body was never found because it had been burnt to ash; while performing animal sacrifices on a fire and libations for favourable omens, Hamilcar noticed that his army had been beset upon without his command; humiliated and seeing his forces be beaten back, he chose to throw himself into his own fire. A monument in Carthage itself, and several others like it throughout the empire, would be dedicated by the Phoenicians to Hamilcar.
There is an alternate account of the death of Hamilcar, from the historian Polyaenus: Gelon, wary of fighting the Carthaginians and eager to preserve the lives of his own men, hatched a plan; he removed his ornate clothes and armour down to just his robes, and, already looking somewhat like him, impersonated his archer commander, Pediarchus. Gelon ordered the real Pediarchus to march out of Himera and join Hamilcar by the coast for an animal sacrifice. Gelon was followed by his archers, all dressed in white and carrying myrtle branches, concealing their bows under their robes. Suspecting nothing, Hamilcar addressed these fellow “sacrificers” and went about his customs. Just then, the archers drew their bows, and shot the Punic king, killing him.
[ABOVE: A symbolic portrait of Greco-Punic Sicilian mingling, merging a Greek gorgon (left) with a Punic "Grinning" mask]
Sources claim that the battle of Himera took place on the same day as either the battle of Thermopylae (according to Diodorus Siculus) or the battle of Salamis (according to Herodotus). However, there is no evidence to support this claim, and it is likely that it was invented as a means to put Gelon's coming victory on-par with the great battles fought over in mainland Greece, although it of course isn't an impossibility.
The two lines engaged head-on, each side putting up a vigorous fight. Meanwhile, both camps shouted out encouragement for their fellow soldiers, attempting to out-do the enemy camp in their cheering’s volume. While the battle went bak-and-forth, word eventually reached the Greeks that the Carthaginian general had been killed. Emboldened, the Greeks pushed on, while the Carthaginians, disheartened, began to disband and flee.
[ABOVE: The romanticised "Battle of Himera" by Giuseppe Sciuti, 1873]
Amidst the pursuing Greeks was Theron. The Greek forces entered the Carthaginian camp and plundered it of all its loot. During this disorder, the Iberian (Spanish) contingent of the Carthaginian army fell upon them, proving tough adversaries for the Greeks. Noticing this, Theron ordered for some of his unengaged forces to encircle the camp, enter from the opposite side and set fire to the farthest tents. Surrounded, and seeing their own tents alight, the Iberian forces soon fled too, but very few of them managed to escape as the Sicilians pursued them, and cut them down.
Gelon had ordered for no prisoners to be taken, so a particularly brutal slaughter occurred as a vast amount of Carthage’s army was butchered; this amounted to some 150,000 according to Diodorus Siculus, (half of the Carthaginian army, according to his own numbers) while modern estimates, unsure as to the exact amount, simply state the casualties as “heavy”. Whatever the figure, the Carthaginians had been heavily and decisively beaten. Those Carthaginians that did escape soon fled to a defendable plot of land, and were able to repel Greek attacks for some time. However, the area’s lack of a water supply soon brought a desperate thirst upon the Carthaginians, who quickly sued for peace.
THE RENOWN OF GELON
For his unique head-on tactic, Gelon would be remembered throughout the Greek world as a bold and brilliant commander, his victory compared to that of Pausanias’s at Plataea in terms of its importance and overall success; Gelon’s victory here would supposedly make its way over to mainland Greece, inspiring the Greeks at Salamis at the time to push onwards, winning them too a great victory. However, whereas Xerxes had room to escape, Hamilcar was slain before the main battle had even properly started. Unlike the great Greek leaders of the second Persian invasion - Leonidas, Themistocles and Pausanias - Gelon would go on to live with great admiration from his fellow countrymen; he would live out the rest of his reign until old age took him. Even in death, his family and lineage, respected by the people, would carry on for three more generations.
[ABOVE: Silver coin of Gelon struck in Syracuse, c.480 - 478 BC, showing a charioteers and horses with the goddess Nike flying above them on one side, and the head of the nymph Arethusa on the other]
SUING FOR PEACE
Following the battle, twenty Carthaginian ships manage to escape before they were even noticed by the Greeks, even managing to capture some fugitives on the way back to Africa. However, another storm would destroy these ships, and only a handful of survivors would escape on small rowing boats back to the capital. There, they proclaimed to the Carthaginian senate,
All who crossed over to Sicily have perished.
So high were the losses for Carthage, that the city’s homes and streets were filled with the sounds of public mourning and wailing for the dead soldiers. Moreover, the city posted more watches on the city’s walls and outskirts, expecting Gelon to counter-attack with his own army any moment. Fearing Gelon would cross over to attack, Carthage sent envoys over to Syracuse.
As for Gelon, he was triumphantly welcomed back into Syracuse with his army. So vast were his captives of war that Diodorus Siculus claimed that it looked as if all of Libya had been subdued. Gelon would also busy himself to bring the spoils of war to his temples, selling the captured enemy as slaves to his allied Sicilian cities, and rewarding his brave horsemen who had charged head-on into the enemy camp before the main battle; they had not only burnt down many ships and the encampment itself, but had gone above and beyond and slain Hamilcar.
It was here that the Carthaginian envoys arrived, begging Gelon to forgive their past transgressions and promising to obey his future commands. As part of the treaty, Carthage handed over two-thousand talents of silver, and was made to construct two temples in their capital city, to which they were to nail a copy of the peace treaty to. On top of this, the Carthaginians offered Damarete, Gelon’s wife who was key in this peace treaty, a golden crown.
Gelon’s acts here towards his aggressive opponents seems too kind to be true, but he was keen to make good impressions on anyone he may wish to make his own subjects one day. Moreover, he wished to keep his western front secure as he had plans to sail east for Greece and aid his Athenian and Spartan allies against Persia, but stopped his preparations once a delegation arrived from Greece telling him of the Greek victory at Salamis.
The battle of Himera marked the official beginning of a series of conflicts that would stretch over two centuries in Sicily, simply known as the Sicilian Wars. After this first war, Greek Sicily would blossom and flourish in wealth, culture and power. In 474 BC, Hieron even defeated an Etruscan army at the battle of Kyme, securing the Greek west yet again.
With the battle of Himera, and the wars against Xerxes, over, peace had been restored to the Greek world for now, but more wars are yet to come.
Stay tuned, and thank you for reading!
NEXT BLOG: THE FALL OF THEMISTOCLES, 478 - 459 BC: From Hero to Exile
- Herodotus, "The Histories"
- Diodorus Siculus, "Library of History"
- Polyaenus, "Stratagems of War"
- Oswyn Murray, "Early Greece"
- Tom Holland, "Persian Fire"
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"Battle of Himera 480 BC - Greco-Carthaginian Sicilian Wars DOCUMENTARY" by "Kings and Generals"
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