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Diodorus on Himera

Battle of Himera (480 BCE): decisive Syracusan victory over the Carthaginians, which secured Syracuse's hegemonial position in the fifth century. This is the translation of Diodorus, World History 11.20-23, made by C.H. Oldfather.

The Carthaginians, we recall, had agreed with the Persians to subdue the Greeks of Sicily at the same time and had made preparations on a large scale of such materials as would be useful in carrying on a war. And when they had made everything ready, they chose for general Hamilcar, having selected him as the man who was held by them in the highest esteem. He assumed command of huge forces, both land and naval, and sailed forth from Carthage with an army of not less than three hundred thousand men and a fleet of over two hundred ships of war, not to mention many cargo ships for carrying supplies, numbering more than three thousand.

Now as he was crossing the Libyan sea he encountered a storm and lost the vessels which were carrying the horses and chariots. And when he came to port in Sicily in the harbor of Panormus he remarked that he had finished the war; for he had been afraid that the sea would rescue the Siceliotes from the perils of the conflict. He took three days to rest his soldiers and to repair the damage which the storm had inflicted on his ships, and then advanced together with his host against Himera, the fleet skirting the coast with him.

And when he had arrived near the city we have just mentioned, he pitched two camps, the one for the army and the other for the naval force. All the warships he hauled up on land and threw about them a deep ditch and a wooden palisade, and he strengthened the camp of the army, which he placed so that it fronted the city, and prolonged so that it took in the area from the wall extending along the naval camp as far as the hills which overhung the city. Speaking generally, he took control of the entire west side, after which he unloaded all the supplies from the cargo vessels and at once sent off all these boats, ordering them to bring grain and the other supplies from Libya and Sardinia. Then, taking his best troops, he advanced to the city, and routing the Himerans who came out against him and slaying many of them, he struck the inhabitants of the city with terror. Consequently Theron, the ruler of the Acragantini, who with a considerable force was standing by to guard Himera, in fear hastily sent word to Syracuse, asking Gelon to come to his aid as rapidly as possible.

Gelon, who had likewise held his army in readiness, on learning that the Himerans were in despair set out from Syracuse with all speed, accompanied by not less than fifty thousand foot-soldiers and over five thousand cavalry. He covered the distance swiftly, and as he drew near the city of the Himerans he inspired boldness in the hearts of those who before had been dismayed at the forces of the Carthaginians. For after pitching a camp which was appropriate to the terrain about the city, he not only fortified it with a deep ditch and a palisade but also dispatched his entire body of cavalry against such forces of the enemy as were ranging over the countryside in search of booty. And the cavalry, unexpectedly appearing to men who were scattered without military order over the countryside, took prisoner as many as each man could drive before him. And when prisoners of the number of more than ten thousand had been brought into the city, not only was Gelon accorded great approbation but the Himerans also came to hold the enemy in contempt. Following up what he had already accomplished, all the gates which Theron through fear had formerly blocked up were now, on the contrary, opened up by Gelon through his contempt of the enemy, and he even constructed additional ones which might prove serviceable to him in case of urgent need.

In a word Gelon, excelling as he did in skill as a general and in shrewdness, set about at once to discover how he might without any risk to his army outgeneral the barbarians and utterly destroy their power. And his own ingenuity was greatly aided by accident, because of the following circumstance. He had decided to set fire to the ships of the enemy; and while Hamilcar was occupied in the naval camp with the preparation of a magnificent sacrifice to Poseidon, cavalrymen came from the countryside bringing to Gelon a letter-carrier who was conveying dispatches from the people of Selinus, in which was written that they would send the cavalry for that day for which Hamilcar had written to dispatch them. The day was that on which Hamilcar planned to celebrate the sacrifice.

And on that day Gelon dispatched cavalry of his own, who were under orders to skirt the immediate neighbourhood and to ride up at daybreak to the naval camp, as if they were the allies from Selinus, and when they had once got inside the wooden palisade, to slay Hamilcar and set fire to the ships. He also sent scouts to the hills which overlook the city, ordering them to raise the signal as soon as they saw that the horsemen were inside the wall. For his part, at daybreak he drew up his army and awaited the sign which was to come from the scouts.

At sunrise the cavalrymen rode up to the naval camp of the Carthaginians, and when the guards admitted them, thinking them to be allies, they at once galloped to where Hamilcar was busied with the sacrifice, slew him, and then set fire to the ships; thereupon the scouts raised the signal and Gelon advanced with his entire army in battle order against the Carthaginian camp. The commanders of the Phoenicians in the camp at the outset led out their troops to meet the Siceliotes and as the lines closed they put up a vigorous fight; at the same time in both camps they sounded with the trumpets the signal for battle and a shout arose from the two armies one after the other, each eagerly striving to outdo their adversaries in the volume of their cheering.

The slaughter was great, and the battle was swaying back and forth, when suddenly the flames from the ships began to rise on high and sundry persons reported that the general had been slain; then the Greeks were emboldened and with spirits elated at the rumours and by the hope of victory they pressed with greater boldness upon the barbarians, while the Carthaginians, dismayed and despairing of victory, turned in flight.

Since Gelon had given orders to take no prisoners, there followed a great slaughter of the enemy in their flight, and in the end no less than one hundred and fifty thousand of them were slain. All who escaped the battle and fled to a strong position at first warded off the attackers, but the position they had seized had no water, and thirst compelled them to surrender to the victors. Gelon, who had won a victory in a most remarkable battle and had gained his success primarily by reason of his own skill as a general, acquired a fame that was noised abroad, not only among the Siceliotes, but among all other men as well; for memory recalls no man before him who had used a stratagem like this, nor one who had slain more barbarians in one engagement or had taken so great a multitude of prisoners.

Because of this achievement many historians compare this battle with the one which the Greeks fought at Plataea and the stratagem of Gelon with the ingenious schemes of Themistocles, and the first place they assign, since such exceptional merit was shown by both men, some to the one and some to the other. And the reason is that, when the people of Greece on the one hand and those of Sicily on the other were struck with dismay before the conflict at the multitude of the barbarian armies, it was the prior victory of the Sicilian Greeks which gave courage to the people of Greece when they learned of Gelon's victory; and as for the men in both affairs who held the supreme command, we know that in the case of the Persians the king escaped with his life and many myriads together with him, whereas in the case of the Carthaginians not only did the general perish but also everyone who participated in the war was slain, and, as the saying is, not even a man to bear the news got back alive to Carthage.

Furthermore, of the most distinguished of the leaders of the Greeks, Pausanias and Themistocles, the former was put to death by his fellow citizens because of his overweening greed of power and treason, and the latter was driven from every corner of Greece and fled for refuge to Xerxes, his bitterest enemy, on whose hospitality he lived to the end of his life; whereas Gelon after the battle received greater approbation every year at the hands of the Syracusans, grew old in the kingship, and died in the esteem of his people, and so strong was the goodwill which the citizens felt for him that the king close was maintained for three members of this house.

However, now that these men, who enjoy a well deserved fame, have received from us also the eulogies they merit, we shall pass on to the continuation of the preceding narrative.

This page was created in 2003; last modified on 18 June 2014.