The history of Sicily is a very complicated one. To simplify things, I like to state that the Greeks colonized the island starting as early as the 8th century BC and that their success was such that it raised the envy and jealousy of the Carthaginians, which led to repeated quarrels and battles. Of course, this is a very simplistic explanation because “the Greeks” came from different cities and city-states in the motherland where they fought among themselves: Corinth, Athens, and Sparta; or from the islands of Rhodes and Crete. By the fifth century BC, mainland Greece suffered from two nearly consecutive invasions by the mighty Persian army, the first in 492-490 BC which ended with the Battle of Marathon under Darius I and the second led by King Xerxes I in 480-479 BC that was settled with the Battle of Plataea and the naval Battle of Mycale. At the same time, the Carthaginians had reached an agreement with the Persians to reduce the Greeks in Sicily, meaning that Persia was, although indirectly, attacking simultaneously on two fronts.
The Carthaginians may have seized the opportune moment now that Sicily was divided among their allies (Selinus (Selinunte) and Himera) and their enemies (Syracuse and Akragas (Agrigento)). They had already conquered several cities on the west and north coasts of the island like Motya and Panormos (Palermo) and now saw their chance to extend their power further eastward. Carthage had a powerful general Hamilcar, who led both military and naval forces on his warships across the Lybian Sea.
Terillos of Himera was his ally against Syracuse, a tyrant who lacked popular support. In 483 BC the situation changed as Theron, tyrant of Akragas, deposed Terillos and added Himera to his own realm. Himera was now in the adverse camp and it is not surprising that Terillos asked the Carthaginians for help to fight against his enemies. He had, however, to wait almost three years before Hamilcar decided to organize an expedition against Sicily.
I am being taken to the very heart of this decisive battle by Michael Metcalfe as I am travelling around Sicily on a tour organized by Peter Sommer Travels “Exploring Sicily”. Before arriving at Himera, I was captivated by Michael’s lively re-enactment of entering the Castle of Eurialo; and I took in the reasons for the solid defenses against the Carthaginians at Motya and Gela. As the tour moved on, the rich historical remains of Syracuse and the sacred area around the sanctuaries of Agrigento, Selinunte and Segesta have all been mentally reconstructed – even the quarry of Cave di Cusa abandoned since the Carthaginian invasion looked very real. With my fellow-aficionados, we now flock around Michael to hear how this major battle between the Sicilian allies and Carthage evolved.
As so many times before, Michael is quoting from Diodorus Siculus, a Sicilian historian who lived in the first century BC, and he is voicing the full action. We are actually standing opposite Himera inside the remains of a Doric temple, believed to be the Temple of Victory built as a celebration just after the war. On the left was the encampment of the Carthagian navy and on the right the one reserved to their landforces. As always, the figures in antiquity were very much inflated and Diodorus is no exception when he mentions that 300,000 men and 200 warships went underway together with a fleet of 3,000 and more merchantmen to transport the supplies. Modern historians have calculated that 200 ships is a fair amount and since they could never have held 1,500 men each they concluded that 150 men per vessel is about right. This would bring the total number of soldiers to 30,000, i.e. 1/10th of what is being reported. The same logic can be applied to the merchantmen which would reach 300 instead of 3,000.
Holding Diodorus’ account in hand, Michael tells us how the army had suffered badly from a storm during which Hamilcar lost the vessels carrying his horses and chariots. He first made a halt in the harbor of Panormos (modern Palermo) where he spent three days to repair the storm damage and to rest his troops. From here he marched towards Himera, with the fleet escorting him along the way. Here the warships were hauled ashore and the encampments were surrounded by a deep ditch and wooden palisade. After the army supplies were unloaded, the merchants were sent back with orders to bring in more grain and other goods from Libya and Sardinia. Hamilcar then marched on Himera located on the slope ahead of us with the pick of his troops, killing many of the Himerans who had ventured out of the city walls. Hamilcar’s daring action scared Theron, the ruler of Akragas whose role it was to protect Himera, and he decided to send an urgent message to Syracuse for help. Gelon of Syracuse had a huge army in readiness and as soon as he received the call from Theron, he marched from Syracuse with 50,000 infantry and over 5,000 cavalry according to Diodorus, although 10,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry sounds more reasonable – a large force anyway. Watching the arrival of Gelon’s men must have been quite comforting to the Himerans which I picture standing on the roofs of their houses or on a safe spot on the city walls.
While setting up his own encampment outside the city (and Michael points to the plain behind us), Theron sent his cavalry out against the Carthaginians roaming the countryside in search of easy plunder. At least, 1,000 men were rounded up and made prisoner. At this stage and as strange as it may seem, the inhabitants of Himera came to respect Gelon and to despise the Carthaginians.
Gelon, who by now was generally accepted as a man of outstanding generalship and clear insight, started to look for an easy way to outwit his enemy without having to sacrifice the lives of his own men. He knew that Hamilcar was preparing for a lavish sacrifice to the gods and he felt that this was his chance to set the enemy’s fleet afire. Luck was on his side when horsemen reached him with a message that was intercepted from a courier on his way to deliver letters from the people of Selinus to the enemy camp. These letters mentioned that they would send their cavalry on the day Hamilcar had asked for them. A chance opportunity for Gelon since that day was the same as the one planned for the Carthaginian sacrifices. The tyrant of Syracuse sent out a cavalry of his own, ordering them to take a wide loop and made it look as if they were the couriers coming from Selinus. Once inside the Carthaginian stockade, their instructions were to kill Hamilcar and set his ships afire.
From our vantage point inside the temple, it feels as if we can overlook the entire operation and we hold our breath together with the people of Himera, who are living between hope and fear. Scouts had been posted high up the surrounding hills for they would signal when the horsemen arrived inside the enemy’s camp.
At sunrise, the fake friendly cavalry rode up to the Carthaginian’s and was admitted inside the camp by the guards as their supposed allies. They rode straight up to the place where Hamilcar was holding his sacrifice, killed the general and set fire to the ships. At this point, the scouts in the hills gave the signal and Gelon advanced with his entire army in close order. The Carthaginians were entirely taken by surprise, trumpets sounded the alarm and a fierce battle developed. But when the flames of their burning ships rose high into the sky and the news of Hamilcar’s death started to spread among his men, most Carthaginians got disheartened and the Greeks took courage. Gelon had given instructions that no one should be taken alive and the carnage of the fugitives must have been horrendous. Since the heat of the battle was probably fought at the very spot where we are listening to this vivid story, I stare at my feet, realizing the soil must have been soaked in blood – an uneasy feeling to say the least, even after so many centuries. Reasonable figures mention that 30,000 men were killed or wounded, and certainly not all casualties fell in the enemy camp. Wow, what a place to be standing!
The temple that is our vantage point was in fact built by the Carthaginians taken captive on the orders of Gelon of Syracuse. Its dedication to Niké/Victory is uncertain for it may as well have been built in honor of Athena. In any case, it was destroyed and burnt to the ground soon after its completion and most likely in 409 BC when the Carthaginians attacked the city of Himera again.
After his victory, Gelon rewarded the brave cavalry that had killed Hamilcar and gave out decorations to other valorous combatants. The prisoners were shared proportionally among his allies, who employed them as laborers on public works. Akragas got most of the workforce, mainly because many of the Carthaginian soldiers had fled into the interior and inside Akragas’ territory in particular. They were the men who quarried the stones (like at Cave di Cusa) and who worked on the construction of many temples, the biggest being the Temple of Zeus (see: The Valley of the Temples at Akragas, Sicily). They were also forced to dig out the extravagant swimming pool in Akragas, which served as a water reservoir and a pond for fresh fish. This pond did not last long since it was drained approximately one century later to eventually become a garden where the Arabs cultivated their oranges, the Kolymbetra Garden.
Peace had returned to Himera but it was short-lived. The Carthaginians had not forgotten their bitter defeat and they attacked again in 409 BC when Sicily was torn apart by internal conflicts. This time, Himera was rased to the ground and never rebuilt.