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Battle of Himera (480 BCE)


The battlefield of Himera, seen from the town. Photo Jona Lendering.
The site of Gelon's camp near Himera, seen from the town.
Battle of Himera (480 BCE): decisive Syracusan victory over the Carthaginians, which secured Syracuse's hegemonial position in the fifth century.

Introduction Diodorus Herodotus

Introduction

The power of Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, was expanding rapidly in the first decades of the fifth century. When his ally Theron of Acragas captured Himera, the Carthaginian government, which controled the western part of Sicily, decided to intervene and restore Himera to its tyrant Terillus. The Carthaginian commander Hamilcar built up a large army and navy in the far west of Sicily and started to besiege Himera. Theron, however, held out, and in Syracuse, Gelon mobilized.

It seems that the Carthaginians expected reinforcements from their Greek allies from Selinus, and understood too late that the troops they had allowed to enter in their camp, were in fact their enemies. This is, at least, how Diodorus of Sicily tells the story in Book 11 of his World History. Herodotus of Halicarnassus tells the story too, but focuses on the fighting in the camp.

After the victory, which meant the beginning of a Syracusan superiority on Sicily that was to last for some seven decades, the Greeks built a temple to commemorate the spectacular achievement. The foundations can still be seen on the spot (satellite photo), but the decoration is now in the splendid Museo Archeologico Regionale "Antonio Salinas" in Palermo. Another monument erected to commemorate the Greek victory was the Temple of Athena in Syracuse, which is still in use as cathedral.

According to later legend, the victory at Himera, where the western Greeks had been liberated from the Carthaginian threat, took place on the very day of the Greek defeat at Thermopylae or Salamis.

Diodorus, World History, 11.20-23

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.

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Temple of Victory at Himera. Photo Jona Lendering.Temple of Victory at Himera
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.

Water sprouts of the temple of Victory. Museo archeologico, Palermo (Italy).Water sprouts of the temple of Victory. Museo archeologico, Palermo.

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.


The Cathedral of Siracusa. Photo Marco Prins.
The Cathedral of Syracuse, former Temple of Athena.

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.

Herodotus, Histories, 7.165-167

The story which here follows is also reported by those who dwell in Sicily, namely that [...] Gelon would have come to the assistance of the Greeks, but that Terillus, the son of Crinippus and lord of Himera, having been driven out of Himera by Theron, the son of Aenesidemus and the ruler of Acragas, was just at this very time bringing in an army of Phoenicians, Libyans, Iberians,  Ligurians, Elisycans, Sardinians and Corsicans, to the number of 300,000, with Hamilcar the son of Hanno king [1] of the Carthaginians as their commander, whom Terillus had persuaded partly by reason of his own guest-friendship, and especially by the zealous assistance of Anaxilaus the son of Cretines, who was despot of Rhegium, and who to help his father-in-law endeavored to bring in Hamilcar to Sicily, and had given him his sons as hostages; for Anaxilaus was married to the daughter of Terillus, whose name was Cydippe. Therefore, they say, Gelon was not able to come to the assistance of the Greeks, and sent money to Delphi.

In addition to this they report also that, as it happened, Gelon and Theron were victorious over Hamilcar the Carthaginian on the very same day when the Greeks were victorious at Salamis over the Persian. And this Hamilcar, who was a Carthaginian on his father's side but on his mother's Syracusan, and who had become king of the Carthaginians by merit, when the engagement took place and he was being worsted in the battle, disappeared, as I am informed; for neither alive nor dead did he appear again anywhere upon the earth, though Gelon used all diligence in the search for him.

Moreover there is also this story reported by the Carthaginians themselves, who therein relate that which is probable in itself, namely that while they fought with the Greeks in Sicily from the early morning till late in the afternoon (for to such a length the combat is said to have been protracted), during this time Hamilcar was remaining in the camp and was making sacrifices to get good omens of success, offering whole bodies of victims upon a great pyre: and when he saw that there was a rout of his own army, he being then, as it chanced, in the act of pouring a libation over the victims, threw himself into the fire, and thus he was burnt up and disappeared. Hamilcar then having disappeared, whether it was in such a manner as this, as it is reported by the Phoenicians, or in some other way, the Carthaginians both offer sacrifices to him now, and also they made memorials of him then in all the cities of their colonies, and the greatest in Carthage itself.[2]

Notes

The translation of Diodorus was made by C.H. Oldfather, and was taken from LacusCurtius. The translation of Herodotus was G.C. Macaulay's.

Note 1:
There were no kings in Carthage by this time. Perhaps, Hanno and Hamilcar were suffetes, an office not unlike the Roman consulship.

Note 2:
This is a very strange story. Human sacrifice was practiced in Carthage and it is possible that Hamilcar threw himself into the flames (devotio), but the commemoration after his death is probably a confusion with the cult of Melqart. After all, the name Hamilcar is a Greek rendering of Abd-Melqart, "servant of Melqart".

Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2003
Revision: 28 June 2008
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