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The Fall of Motya


Sicily. Design Jona Lendering.
(**)
In 398, Dionysius I, the tyrant of Syracuse, launched a campaign against the Carthaginians, who had conquered central Sicily in a large war in 408-405. He had carefully prepared the war, and immediately captured Motya, the main base of the Carthaginians, situated on a small island in the far west. Diodorus of Sicily tells the story in his Library of World History (14.47.1-53.5). The translation was made by C.H. Oldfather.

When Dionysius, the tyrant of the Syracusans, had completed all his preparations for the war according to his personal design, he sent a herald to Carthage, having given him a letter to the Senate, which contained the statement that the Syracusans had resolved to make war upon the Carthaginians unless they withdrew from the Greek cities. The herald accordingly, pursuant to his orders, sailed to Libya and delivered the letter to the Senate. When it had been read in the council and subsequently before the people, it came about that the Carthaginians were not a little distressed at the thought of war; for the plague had killed great numbers of them, and they were also totally unprepared. Nevertheless, they waited for the Syracusans to take the initiative and dispatched members of the senate with large sums of money to recruit mercenaries in Europe.

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Motya and its laguna. Photo Marco Prins.
Motya

Dionysius with the Syracusans, the mercenaries, and his allies marched forth from Syracuse and made his way towards Eryx.[1] For not far from this hill lay the city of Motya, a Carthaginian colony, which they used as their chief base of operations against Sicily; and Dionysius hoped that with this city in his power he would have no small advantage over his enemies.



In the course of his march he received from time to time the contingents from the Greek cities, supplying the full levy of each with arms; for they were all eager to join his campaign, hating as they did the heavy hand of Carthaginian domination and relishing the prospect at last of freedom. He received first the levy from Camarina, then those of Gela and Acragas; and after these he sent for the Himeraeans, whose home was on the other side of Sicily, and after adding the men of Selinus, as he passed by, he arrived at Motya with all his army. He had 80,000 infantry, well over 3,000 cavalry, and a little less than 200 warships, and he was accompanied by not less than  500 merchantships loaded with great numbers of engines of war and all the other supplies needed.

Since the armament was on the great scale we have described, the people of Eryx were awed by the magnitude of the force and, hating the Carthaginians as they did, came over to Dionysius. The inhabitants of Motya, however, expecting aid from the Carthaginians, were not dismayed at Dionysius' armament, but made ready to withstand a siege; for they were not unaware that the Syracusans would make Motya the first city to sack, because it was most loyal to the Carthaginians.

This city was situated on an island lying 1100 meters off Sicily, and was embellished artistically to the last degree with numerous fine houses, thanks to the prosperity of the inhabitants. It also had a narrow artificial causeway extending to the shore of Sicily, which the Motyans breached at this time, in order that the enemy should have no approach against them.

Dionysius, after reconnoitering the area, together with his engineers, began to construct moles leading to Motya, hauled the warships up on land at the entrance of the harbor, and moored the merchantships along the beach. After this he left [his brother] Leptines his admiral in command of the works, while he himself set out with the infantry of his army against the cities that were allies of the Carthaginians. [...]

Himilco, the general of the Carthaginians, being himself busy with the mustering of the armaments and other preparations, dispatched his admiral with 10 triremes under orders to sail speedily in secret against the Syracusans, enter the harbor [of Syracuse] by night, and destroy the shipping left behind there. This he did, expecting to cause a diversion and force Dionysius to send part of his fleet back to the Syracusans. The admiral who had been dispatched carried out his orders with promptness and entered the harbor of the Syracusans by night while everyone was ignorant of what had taken place. Attacking unawares, he rammed the vessels lying at anchor along the shore, sank practically all of them, and then returned to Carthage.

Dionysius, after ravaging all the territory held by the Carthaginians and forcing the enemy to take refuge behind walls, led all his army against Motya; for he hoped that when this city had been reduced by siege, all the others would forthwith surrender themselves to him. Accordingly, he at once put many times more men on the task of filling up the strait between the city and the coast, and, as the mole was extended, advanced his engines of war little by little toward the walls.

Meanwhile Himilco, the admiral of the Carthaginians, hearing that Dionysius had hauled his warships up on land, manned at once his 100 best triremes; for he assumed that if he appeared unexpectedly, he should easily seize the vessels which were hauled up on land in the harbor, since he would be master of the sea. Once he succeeded in this, he believed, he would not only relieve the siege of Motya but also transfer the war to the city of the Syracusans.

Sailing forth, therefore, with 100 ships, he arrived during the night at the territory of Selinus, skirted the promontory of Lilybaeum, and arrived at daybreak at Motya. Since his appearance took the enemy by surprise, he disabled some of the vessels anchored along the shore by ramming and others by burning, for Dionysius was unable to come to their defense. After this he sailed into the harbor and drew up his ships as if to attack the vessels which the enemy had drawn up on land.

Dionysius now massed his army at the entrance of the harbor; but when he saw that the enemy was lying in wait to attack as the ships left the harbor, he refused to risk launching his ships within the harbor, since he realized that the narrow entrance compelled a few ships to match themselves against an enemy many times more numerous. Consequently, using the multitude of his soldiers, he hauled his vessels over the land with no difficulty and launched them safely in the sea outside the harbor.

Himilco attacked the first ships, but was held back by the multitude of missiles; for Dionysius had manned the ships with a great number of archers and slingers, and the Syracusans slew many of the enemy by using from the land the catapults which shot sharp-pointed missiles. Indeed this weapon created great dismay, because it was a new invention at this time. As a result, Himilco was unable to achieve his design and sailed away to Libya, believing that a sea-battle would serve no end, since the enemy's ships were double his in number.

After Dionysius had completed the mole by employing a large force of laborers, he advanced war engines of every kind against the walls and kept hammering the towers with his battering-rams, while with the catapults he kept down the fighters on the battlements; and he also advanced against the walls his wheeled towers, six stories high, which he had built to equal the height of the houses.

The inhabitants of Motya, now that the threat was at hand-grips, were nevertheless not dismayed by the armament of Dionysius, even though they had for the moment no allies to help them. Surpassing the besiegers in thirst for glory, they in the first place raised up men in crow's-nests resting on yard-arms suspended from the highest possible masts, and these from their lofty positions hurled lighted fire-brands and burning tow with pitch on the enemies' siege engines. The flame quickly caught the wood, but the Sicilian Greeks, dashing to the rescue, swiftly quenched it; and meantime the frequent blows of the battering-rams broke down a section of the wall.

Since now both sides rushed with one accord to the place, the battle that ensued grew furious. For the Sicilian Greeks, believing that the city was already in their hands, spared no effort in retaliating upon the Carthaginians for former injuries they had suffered at their hands, while the people of the city, envisioning the terrible fate of a life of captivity and seeing no possibility of flight either by land or by sea, faced death stoutly. And finding themselves shorn of the defense of the walls, they barricaded the narrow lanes and made the last houses provide a lavishly constructed wall.

From this came even greater difficulties for the troops of Dionysius. For after they had burst through the wall and seemed to be already masters of the city, they were raked by missiles from men posted in superior positions. Nevertheless, they advanced the wooden towers to the first houses and provided them with gangways; and since the siege machines were equal in height to the dwellings, the rest of the struggle was fought hand to hand. For the Sicilian Greeks would launch the gangways and force a passage by them on to the houses.

The Motyans, as they took account of the magnitude of the peril, and with their wives and children before their eyes, fought the more fiercely out of fear for their fate. There were some whose parents stood by entreating them not to let them be surrendered to the lawless will of victors, who were thus wrought to a pitch where they set no value on life; others, as they heard the laments of their wives and helpless children, sought to die like men rather than to see their children led into captivity. Flight of course from the city was impossible, since it was entirely surrounded by the sea, which was controlled by the enemy. Most appalling for the Phoenicians and the greatest cause of their despair was the thought how cruelly they had used their Greek captives and the prospect of their suffering the same treatment. Indeed there was nothing left for them but, fighting bravely, either to conquer or die.

When such an obstinate mood filled the souls of the besieged, the Sicilian Greeks found themselves in a very difficult position. For, fighting as they were from the suspended wooden bridges, they suffered grievously both because of the narrow quarters and because of the desperate resistance of their opponents, who had abandoned hope of life. As a result, some perished in hand-to-hand encounter as they gave and received wounds, and others, pressed back by the Motyans and tumbling from the wooden bridges, fell to their death on the ground.

In the end, while the kind of siege we have described had lasted some days, Dionysius made it his practice always toward evening to sound the trumpet for the recall of the fighters and break off the siege. When he had accustomed the Motyans to such a practice, the combatants on both sides retiring, he dispatched Archylus of Thurii with the elite troops, who, when night had fallen, placed ladders against the fallen houses, and mounting by them, seized an advantageous spot where he admitted Dionysius' troops. The Motyans, when they perceived what had taken place, at once rushed to the rescue with all eagerness, and although they were too late, none the less faced the struggle. The battle grew fierce and abundant reinforcements climbed the ladders, until at last the Sicilian Greeks wore down their opponents by weight of numbers.

Straightway Dionysius' entire army burst into the city, coming also by the mole, and now every spot was a scene of mass slaughter; for the Sicilian Greeks, eager to return cruelty for cruelty, slew everyone they encountered, sparing without distinction not a child, not a woman, not an elder. Dionysius, wishing to sell the inhabitants into slavery for the money he could gather, at first attempted to restrain the soldiers from murdering the captives, but when no one paid any attention to him and he saw that the fury of the Sicilian Greeks was not to be controlled, he stationed heralds to cry aloud and tell the Motyans to take refuge in the temples which were revered by the Greeks.

When this was done, the soldiers ceased their slaughter and turned to looting the property; and the plunder yielded much silver and not a little gold, as well as costly raiment and an abundance on every other product of felicity. The city was given over by Dionysius to the soldiers to plunder, since he wished to whet their appetites for future encounters.

After this success he rewarded Archylus, who had been the first to mount the wall, with one hundred minas, and honored according to their merits all others who had performed deeds of valor; he also sold as booty the Motyans who survived, but he crucified Daemenes and other Greeks who had fought on the side of the Carthaginians and had been taken captive. After this Dionysius stationed guards in the city whom he put under the command of Biton of Syracuse; and the garrison was composed largely of Sicelians. He ordered Leptines his admiral with 120 ships to lie in wait for any attempt by the Carthaginians to cross to Sicily; and he also assigned to him the siege of Segesta and Entella, in accordance with his original plan to sack them. Then, since the summer was already coming to a close, he marched back to Syracuse with his army.






Note 1:
A town and a mountain in eastern Sicily, close to Motya.




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