Casting Through Ancient Greece

40: Sicily, The First Sicilian War

November 05, 2021 Mark Selleck Season 1 Episode 40
Casting Through Ancient Greece
40: Sicily, The First Sicilian War
Show Notes Transcript

As the 6th century BC on Sicily was coming to a close expansion would continue to take place. Tyrannies were now becoming the common governing system in a lot of the Sicilian Greek cities, appearing to follow the lead of their Metropolises back in Greece. This time though expansion would see Greeks focus on exerting their influence over other Greek cities.

This period would also see the rise of one of the most powerful Tyrants to yet emerge on Sicily, his name would be Gelon. His rise would be born out of a series of Tyrannies, to where his service to them would see him almost seamlessly take power thanks to the influence and reputation he had built up over the years.

Gelon would end up controlling almost the entire east cost of Sicily with campaigns that he would engage in during the early 5th century. His biggest prize would be that of Syracuse the largest and wealthiest city on the island. Though, Gelon’s campaigns would not go unnoticed with Carthage now preparing to launch an invasion of Sicily, sparking what is known as the first Sicilian War.

Carthage would land a force of unprecedented size on the north of the island indicating the threat their influence was under. They would march to the city Himera and establish camps outside the city. Gelon would be alerted to the Carthaginian army and would march his own army to defend the city. With both forces camped across from one another it wouldn’t be long until the Battle of Himera would erupt.

This episodes book recommendation is The Tyrants of Syracuse Vol 1, by Ian Champion

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Episode 40

Sicily, The First Sicilian War

“They say that on the very same day that the Hellenes won their victory over the Persians at Salamis, Gelon and Theron won their battle against Hamilcar the Carthaginian… When battle was joined and he was defeated, he vanished from sight and, although Gelon searched for him everywhere, he was never seen again anywhere in this world, living or dead”.[1] 


Hello I’m Mark Selleck and welcome back to Casting Through Ancient Greece, Episode 40, Sicily, The First Sicilian War.


We are now back with part three of our look at the Island of Sicily in the context of the Greek world. So far, we have covered the early prehistory of the island, before any Greek settlers had arrived. This period still remains somewhat mysterious when it comes to the origins of the many indigenous peoples, with much debate till taking place. With time passing through the Bronze, dark and Archaic ages we then were able to see connections to the Greek world. The Mycenaean Greeks of the Bronze Age seeming to have been actively trading with the island. Though with the collapse of the Bronze Age, the Mediterranean descended into the dark age where trade and settlements went into a regressive state. The rebirth of the Archaic Age in Greece would see many of the Greek settlements faced with the problem of over population. To help with this issue, expeditions would be sent out from these cities to found new colonies, with the island of Sicily being a focus of the first wave of migrations. This would see immediate stress relieved from the mother city with the departure of a percentage of their population, while the creation of new trade markets would help over the coming years.

We then saw as these first Greek colonies were established that they were done so on an island that was not uninhabited. The Greeks recognised three distinct indigenous cultures, while the Phoenicians originating from the Levant had also begun setting up a trade network through the area. All these groups would for the most part in the early stages, remain on peaceful terms and even actively engage in trade with one another. Though, as more colonies would be established in and around Sicily, competition around trade and the routes would start to strain relations. Conflict would start to develop in the region and then on Sicily itself, with the city of Carthage on the coast of Tunisia also becoming involved. This period would also see the rise of Tyrants in various cities on Sicily with them following in the footsteps of many of their mother cities. As the 6th century was coming to a close, the Greek expansion had continued, while Carthage had secured much of its trade network through the area, bringing many Phoenician colonies on Africa, Iberia and Sicily into an alliance that it would control.

This episode we will be turning to events on Sicily at the close of the 6th century and heading into the period that the Greek and Persian Wars were developing and taking place over on the Greek mainland and the Aegean. This will see us focusuing on the rise of yet more tyrants, though with their ambitions now focused on other Greek cities, with them attempting to bring large parts of the island under their control, if not all of it. We will also see the already important and wealthy city of Syracuse take centre stage becoming the centre of power for the Greeks on the island. Finally we will also see a renewed effort by Carthage to campaign on Sicily against the Greeks beginning what’s known as the first Sicilian War, culminating in the battle of Himera.    

The road to Gelon:

We ended last episode with Carthage having secured its trade interest in the region in the face of further Greek expansion. Now we are going zoom in on the Greeks back in Sicily and the road towards one of the most influential Tyrannies to develop. Here we will head to the city of Gela on the southern coast which we will see the path develop for the Tyrant Gelon. 

Tyrannies were still a very viable option in the political landscape of the late 6th and early 5th centuries in Sicily. This period also saw Tyrannies on the Greek mainland, with Athens only having overthrown their tyranny of Hippias in 510 BC[2] and the threat of tyranny only fading away with the rise to power of Cleisthenes in 507BC[3]. In the city of Gela a man by the name of Cleander had rose to power as tyrant in 505BC over-throwing the oligarchic government of the city, presumably controlled by the aristocratic class. We don’t hear much about his time as tyrant at all but we hear from Herodotus that he ruled for 7 years, where he was then murdered in 498 by Sabyllos of Gela.[4] It would be reasonable to assume here that Sabyllos was from the land-owning aristocratic class and in these early stages of tyranny they were attempting to gain power back. Though, power in Gela would continue under another Tyrant, Cleander’s brother Hippocrates. It appears these political troubles continued as Hippocrates took power, as his brother would be assassinated. I want to be clear here, that these political skirmishes are an educated guess as we get no information on what was taking place during this time. Though, eventually Hippocrates secured himself as tyrant after gaining support of a popular noble named Gelon, so in turn Gelons supporters were now backing Hippocrates. Herodotus tells us Gelon was made commander of the whole cavalry because of his valour and competence.[5] But it was probably good judgment that saw Hippocrates elevate Gelon to this position since the support Gelon brought with him cemented Hippocrates position as tyrant. 

We once again don’t receive many details of Hippocrates rule, but from what we do hear it appears his time as tyrant was dominated by military campaigning. As we saw before with Phalaris, he directed his campaigns at the Sicles, this looking to expand the territory around Gela. The city’s control did not extend that far, with the Sicels controlling the wooded and mountainous regions around with their fortified settlements. It is thought that the Sicels fought as lightly armed skirmishers which would see them excel in this sort of terrain. The Greeks on the other hand who fought as heavily armoured hoplites in a phalanx formation, rather open flat ground. This may explain why Gela’s territory had not extended very far. Though, Hippocrates now sought to extend Gela’s territory. He did this by recruiting Sicels as mercenaries in his army, we hear through Polyaenus who wrote stratagems of War in the 2nd century AD how he was able to entice them into his service;

“He always gave them the largest portion in the distribution of booty; he gave them increased pay; he complimented them on being the best troops in his army; and he tried by every means to entice as many of them as possible into his service. The honours, the advantages, and the reputation, which they acquired under Hippocrates, induced them to leave their city in great numbers, in order to enlist in his army”.[6]

Once Hippocrates was able to defeat the various Sicle tribes around Gela, he was able secure the western and northern routes from the city. This now allowed him to shift focus and begin campaigning further afield. This time though we would see a somewhat relatively new development occur when it came to the conflicts on the island. For the most part in the past the Greeks had focused on the local Sicilian tribes or the Phoenician cities, but now Hippocrates would direct the next part of his campaign against the other Greek cities of Sicily. His campaign would be directed at the entire eastern coast of the island where he would capture the cities Callipolis, Naxos, Zancle and Leontini, as well as a number of Sicle settlements. The capture of Zancle in the north east would be somewhat connected with events over in the Aegean. The battle of Lade had just been fought in 494 BC, seeing the effective end of the Ionian revolt. The majoritory of the Samians during the battle had fled without fighting, apparently an agreement arranged beforehand. Though, many of the Samians back at Samos learning of the deal decided to leave to island and start their own colony rather than becoming slaves to a Persian backed tyrant.[7]

It was during the expedition to found this new colony that an opportunity presented itself. It appears that Zancle was originally in an alliance with Hippocrates and may have been taking part in the campaign. We hear they were off besieging a Sicle settlement when the city of Rhegion on the Italian southern coast, and hostile to Zancle, were able to get in communication with the Samians and convince them to make for Zancle and make it their own since all the fighting men were away. The men of Zancle learnt of their city being occupied by the Samians and marched home to defend the city. They had also sent for help to Hippocrates, but once arriving he placed the tyrant of Zancle in chains for allowing his city to be captured so easily. A new opportunity now presented itself to Hippocrates and he decided to take it. He betrayed the people of Zancle and came to an arrangement with the Samians. We hear he took possession of all of the movable property in the city and enslaved the Zanclaeans.[8] It is probably safe to assume here that Zancle although left to the Samians was probably under Hippocrates influence also. 

We hear that of all of the cities that Hippocrates had besieged, Syracuse the most powerful of them all, was the only to not fall to him. Before marching onto Syracuse, Hippocrates fought the Syracusan army at the river Helorus where he was able to defeat them. We have no other details of the battle other than that he was able to capture a number of the Syracusans as prisoners of war. It is thought that the battle occurred somewhere around 492 or 491, just before the first Persian invasion of Greece. This then opened the road to Syracuse, Hippocrates and his army made camp some 5km south of the city where the temple of Zeus stood. We hear through Diodorus that he attempted to appeal to the people of Syracuse by leaving in place the dedications within the temple as to show his devotion to the divine. He had also presented the priests of the temple as despoilers as they were in the process of removing everything of value as Hippocrates’ army had been approaching.[9] His tact at winning over the people and taking the city from within would not be successful however. Without a powerful navy and ability to lay siege to such a powerfully fortified city he was unable to take it by force. In the end the issue around Syracuse would be resolved by mediation, overseen by Corinth and Corcyra. Peace would be made, though Hippocrates would gain the city of Camarina east of Gela and once controlled by Syracuse by trading the Syracusan prisoners he had captured. Here he would make a base for part of his mercenary force. 

It must be noted that it is hard to place the unfolding of events of Hippocrates campaigns, but we do hear, 7 years after becoming tyrant he would be killed when fighting the Sicels, presumably attempting to extend the influence around the Greek cities already captured. Herodotus has him falling at the Sicel’s city of Hybla, inland from the mid-eastern coast.[10] It can be seen that Hippocrates had in his campaigns attempted to create a united Greek empire on Sicily, under his rule of course. Though, this vision of his would fall short and it would be others that would now attempt to see through this project. 


Hippocrates death had once again seen the opposition to tyranny in Gela rise up, but the momentum of Hippocrates rule would see that conditions were still ripe for a new tyrant to take control and squash any opposition. Herodotus tells us that during the 7 years of campaigning, Gelon, Hippocrates cavalry commander had emerged as the most brilliant of military men.[11]  It would be he who would defeat the uprising in the name of Hippocrates sons, but once defeated, he would turn against them and take power for himself. 

Gelon, according to Herodotus was from the aristocratic part of Gela’s population with his ancestors having been amongst the original colonisers back in 698 BC.[12] We also hear that his decedents would fulfill the role of priests of the goddesses of the underworld, Demeter and Persephone, which would continue on through the family line. We have seen opportunities presenting themselves through this period and now it would be Gelons turn to capitalise. Once the uprising against Hippocrates sons was defeated, he seems to have had no trouble in establishing himself as tyrant. As we saw he was a popular noble, with Hippocrates having used his support to help establish his tyranny 7 years earlier. We can also see that after the years of campaigning Gelon had built up a reputation as a great military leader, with probably having the respect of the citizens of Gela he led, as well as the mercenaries that had been recruited. It would seem once he usurped Hippocrates’ son’s he would have had a strong popular following along with a strong military backing to cement his position.

Another opportunity would present itself to Gelon a few years after coming to power in an area that Hippocrates had failed in. This was to do with the city of Syracuse, which seems to have had problems with civil strife. Hippocrates seems to have been very unlucky here, as it appears the conditions were ripe for the approach, he had taken in attempting to take the city. But it would appear the ruling class were able to maintain some sort of order long enough for mediation to be reached. Now though, it would appear things in Syracuse had reached a tipping point, the landowners, which would have included the aristocracy, were expelled from the city and went into exile. Gelon, instead of appealing to the lower classes and slaves of Syracuse, turned to helping the exiles. Though, of course this wasn’t from the kindness of his heart, he was looking to advance his own aims and his help would come at a cost. He made an alliance with the exiled aristocrats, and then marched with them and his army to Syracuse. With the approach of the army the newly formed regime descended into anarchy and Syracuse was surrendered to Gelon.[13]

Syracuse was the largest and richest Greek city on Sicily, so Gelon now established himself here. He would also relocate the mercenary force that had been settled in Camarina by Hippocrates and would make them citizens, further securing their loyalty. Although he had left Gela, it remained under his control with his brother being installed as governor there. The taking of Syracuse would elevate the power of Gelon considerably, as not only did he now have the wealthiest city under his control, but the harbour that Syracuse possessed would allow him to field a considerable navy. Not only would he have a strong military presence on land but he could also exert control in the sea. He now took measures to consolidate his position, where he oversaw the further growth and expansion of the city. It seems he had a program of forced relocation in place, though how forced this was would have depended on the populations that came to Syracuse. We hear that over half the population of Gela was settled in Syracuse and made citizens, while the populations of Megara Hyblaea and Leontini suffered different fates depending on their class after having surrendered to him. The aristocratic class he brought to Syracuse and made citizens, while the lower classes were also relocated but were sold into slavery. It seems Gelon was attempting to stack the odds in favour of the aristocratic class in Syracuse, well those at least in favour of his tyranny. It’s quite possible that Syracuse may have had one of the highest ratios of wealthy to poor in the Greek world, though the poor would have still outnumbered the rich. We get the impression through Herodotus that Gelon found the lower classes very distasteful, where he says in regards to Gelons relocation policy; “…he was motivated by the belief that living with “the people” was most difficult and unpleasant”.[14]   

Campaigns against Carthage:

Along with Gelons consolidations, he would have been actively been increasing the size of his forces as he was planning a campaign against the Carthaginians. We find during this period as preparations were being made, political developments around the island were also taking place with the coming campaign in mind. Gelon had secured an alliance with another tyrant, Theron, who had risen to power in Akragas around the same time he was taking control of Gela. Theron appears to have taken control in Akrages in a very similar fashion to Phalaris that we saw last episode.[15] Between the two most of the Greek cities on Sicily would fall under their control to some degree for the coming conflict. Though there were a few Greek cities that would not align themselves with Gelon and Theron, and perhaps for protection against any retribution from these tyrants they sought an alliance with the Carthaginians. Himera and Selinus were geographically some distance from Gelons influence and close to the Carthergian controlled west coast. While Messana, formally Zancle in the north east, was controlled by Rhegion. Rhegion had captured the city, placed it under their control and renamed it. After Hippocrates campaign, Messana sort to protect its independence from Gelon with an alliance with Himera and Carthage. 

We also find the notion that Gelons coming campaign was being presented as a sort of holy war between Greeks and the barbarian. It appears that he had sent for an alliance with the Greeks on mainland Greece, though it would not be formed. We find Herodotus reporting Gelons reference to this when rebuking the Greeks when they came seeking his aide in their war with Xerxes;

“Men of Hellas, you have been so bold as to come here and present your self-seeking request, summoning me to become your ally against the barbarian. A while ago, however, when I was waging war with the Carthaginians, I asked you then to join me in attacking a barbarian army, I urged you to exact vengeance from the Egestaians for the murder of Dorieus son of Anaxandridas, and I offered to join you in defending the freedom of the trading posts which have provided you with great profits and benefits. But then you refused to come for my sake to help against the barbarian, or to participate in avenging the murder of Dorieus”.[16]

Carthage decides to Campaign:

It would appear that campaigning had been taking place against Phoenician and Carthaginian ports and trading settlements over this period, but we get no real details or time frame to put them into. Though, we do get in the sources, a point in Gelon’s and Theron’s campaigning that would see Carthage now actively prepare for war and their own campaign against the Greeks of Sicily. At some stage during their campaigning Theron had attacked the city of Himera, this is not the larger battle of Himera we will be focusing on, but would help lead to it being fought. Himera was also controlled by a tyrant at this stage, named Terillo, though not much is known about his rise to power. Once again, we would see a very similar situation occur as with Phalaris’ campaign beginning in Arkragas. Theron during the campaign would arrive outside Himera and would end up taking control of the city, ousting Terillo from power.[17] It seems the earlier efforts by Gelon and Theron around attacking Phoenician settlements, would have no doubt come to the Carthaginians attentions, but it doesn’t seem to have solicited a dramatic response. Though, with the taking of Himera, who had put themselves in a power bloc allied to Carthage, the power dynamics and threat to Carthaginian interests in Sicily were now being tested. Himera was effectively boarding territory controlled by the Phonecians and by extention, Carthage. Losing this city would also see Messena isolated up in the north east. If messures were not taken Carthage could well lose the control and influence it had built up on the island over the generations. It’s at this point that we now begin to hear of the preparations Carthage was making for its campaign in Sicily. Though before we get into the War that was about to unfold, I want to take a slight side step and focus on the connection we see appear in the sources between events in the Aegean and what was unfolding in Sicily, which I have briefly alluded to.

Connections with Carthage’s and Persia’s invasions:

It was around this point, before Carthage’s campaign but with some idea of what was developing, that a delegation from the newly formed Hellenic league arrived in Syracuse to seek an audience with Gelon.[18] We have already pointed out that it seems Gelon had sought aide himself from the Greeks a few years earlier when beginning his campaign against the so-called barbarians. His call for help went unanswered, but now the Greeks from the mainland were seeking all the help they could get now being aware of the invasion Xerxes was planning against Greece. Herodotus reports the envoys presenting to Gelon;

“The Lacedaemonians and their allies have sent us to recruit you to our side against the barbarian. For surely you have heard of his invasion of Hellas: how the Persian has bridged the Hellespont and is bringing the whole army of the east out of Asia to lead a campaign against Hellas. His pretext is that he is marching against Athens, but he actually plans to subject all of Hellas to himself. You yourself have attained great power, and your share of Hellas is hardly insignificant, since you rule over Sicily. So, help us to defend the freedom of Hellas, and join us in keeping it free. With all the men of Hellas joined together, a great force will be assembled, and with it we can match the invaders in battle. If, however, some of us turn traitor and others refuse to help defend Hellas, the health of Hellas will be much diminished, and therein lies the danger that all of Hellas will fall. For you should not expect that if the Persian defeats us in battle and subjects us to his rule, that he will not then march against you.”[19]      

After hearing this plea, Gelon then proceeded to rebuke the delegation for the Greeks failure to answer his call for aide a couple years earlier, which we quoted a little earlier.[20] Though, we hear through Herodotus that he offered to help the Greek cause against the Persians, offering 200 triremes, 20,000 hoplites, 2,000 cavalry and 4000 light troops, as well as feeding all the forces for the duration of the war. His one stipulation though, was to be in command of the entire Greek force. This condition though, was unacceptable to the league and Gelon attempted to compromise by asking for command of either the land or sea forces. But again this was an unacceptable condition, the league not willing to have a Tyrant control the entire allied force from Greece, they would have been well aware of his campaigns in Sicily against the other Greek cities.[21] With no agreement being reached between the two parties, Gelon left them with these words;

“My friend, Gelon replied, it looks as if you have the commanders – but will not have any men for them to command. Since, therefore, you claim everything and yield nothing, you had better go home as quickly as you can and tell Greece that the spring of the year is lost to her”.[22] 

To close out his account of this meeting Herodotus then tells us that Gelon took measures to hedge his bets once news of Xerxes invasion had crossed the Hellespont. He thought it unlikely that the Greeks would resist such a large force, so he sent a reprehensive to Delphi with a large sum of money and instructions to offer earth and water to Xerxes if he prevailed in Greece. If not the representative was to return back to Syracuse with the money and offers of submission.[23]

Could have Gelon offered Help?

The question has to be asked, if Gelon could have realistically offered this help. Though this question becomes a more obvious one once we are aware of the Carthaginian invasion a year or so later. So, we are using hindsight in trying to address this question. Gelon and Theron were conducting operations around this time but we are not entirely clear on the exact year the campaigns were taking place. So, it could be entirely possible that Gelon thought that he had men and resources to spare to send to Greece. Also, at this stage there wasn’t any direct threat from a Carthaginian invasion. Though, it seems likely that Theron’s capture of Himera probably took place just before the delegation’s arrival. This being the event that would see the Carthaginians prepare for their own campaign. But, it is hard for us to tell the timeline of the preparations in relation to the Greeks plea for assistance. Surely if Gelon had knowledge of a large Carthaginian force being assembled, he would not have seriously offered up these forces. We do find Herodotus suggesting that Gelon, didn’t send these forces for this exact reason, and perhaps the offer in his account was a face saving exercise, with knowledge that The Greeks would not accept his terms of being named commander. Though, he does report that he heard from Sicilian sources that Gelon would have ended up sending a force, even if he didn’t receive command, but the knowledge of the coming invasion prevented his doing so.[24] Though, I personally find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t have heard whisperings about possible Carthaginian actions against him. So on the face of it and the very limited information found in the sources, it seems plausible he could have offered the help Herodotus reports providing the timeline supported Gelon being unaware of the Carthaginians preparations early on.   

Carthaginian preparations:

With the threat to Carthaginian interests in Sicily at its worse since securing their alliances, Carthage would now put in motion preparations to sail against the Island. The size of the force that would be sent, was unprecedented which probably attests to the seriousness of the situation, as well as the power the Gelon / Theron alliance held.

Leading this force was Hamilcar, he was from the Magonid family or dynasty, the line that came to power after Mulchus’s downfall. For the forces that he would command we need to turn to Herodotus and Diodorus, though we need to keep in mind what they report are often thought as an exaggeration. Though, seeing what we have through the series so far when it comes to Greek writers describing foreign invasions, this should come as no surprise. Diodorus says that Hamilcar would sail with no less than three hundred thousand troops, with a navy made up of two hundred triremes and three thousand transport ships, with Herodotus providing the same numbers of troops.[25] Many modern historians believe that Hamilcar’s force would have most likely numbered somewhere around 50,000, with perhaps 500 to 600 transports a more realistic number. Though, the reported size to the fleet of Triremes seems believable since as we have seen Gelon was able to muster a fleet this size himself.[26] We get a sense of the level of preparation through Herodotus where he gives us a similar picture to what he describes of Xerxes preparations against Greece. It would appear the campaign was three years in the making with Hamilcar assembling troops from many areas that Carthage has spread its influence to. Men from Carthage, Libya, Iberia, Liguria, Helisycia, Sardinia and Corsica would all be a part of the invasion against Sicily.[27]   

The campaign would finally begin in 480 BC the same year Xerxes would unleash his invasion of Greece. This brings us to another question that has been brought up on a number of occasions, was Xerxes and Hamilcar in communication during the lead up to the campaigns. This could possibly have seen them occurring as part of a larger strategy, not allowing the Greeks of Sicily or Greece to come to the aide of one another, as Diodorus suggests when speaking of Xerxes;

“… sent an embassy to the Carthaginians to urge them to join him in the undertaking and closed an agreement with them, to the effect that he would wage war upon the Greeks who lived in Greece, while the Carthaginians should at the same time gather great armaments and subdue those Greeks who lived in Sicily and Italy.”[28]

Although we have no sources that can provide any evidence of these communications and arrangements being made, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility since this approach would have benefited both Persia and Carthage. Also, it seems there would have been a line of communication between the two because of their Phoenician connections, Carthage being of Phoenician origins, while the Phoenician cities in the Levant were integral to the Persian fleet.  

Though, lets now turn to the events of the Carthaginians 480BC campaign of Sicily or otherwise known as the First Sicilian War.

The Campaign:

The forces assembled would set out from Carthage to cross the Libyan Sea to make their way for Sicily. During the voyage they would be stuck by a storm, that we hear would see Hamilcar lose most of his cavalry and chariots. This storm may not have been the disaster it was made out to be in the ancient sources, as Ian Champion in his book The Tyrants of Syracuse, points out. He says that theories suggest that Hamilcar was looking to recruit cavalry from the local allied population. This would reduce the stress on logistics as well as making the journey far less complicated. Also, he puts forward suggestions that the storm that the fleet had to contend with, may have in fact worked in Carthage’s favour, as it saw that Gelons fleet would not be able to challenge them before making land at Sicily.[29]

It would seem that the main initial objective and reason for the campaign was in fact Himera as the sources have pointed out. This being supported by the location the Carthaginian fleet put in at. The west coast would have seemed like an obvious choice being closer and having many friendly ports, with Motya the largest Phoenician city amongst them. Though, the fleet would continue to round the west coast and head to the north coast where they would finally arrive at Panormus. Once the forces disembarked, they would stay in the region for 3 days to reorganise and recover from the voyage. Once the ships were repaired and the men rested, Hamilcar would now march towards Himera with the fleet shadowing them just off the coast line. Once arriving outside of the city, Hamilcar would have two camps established, one of his land forces and one for the naval force. Himera was on high ground, like most important cities of ancient times. It sat on a hill some 100 meters above the surrounding land, so time and organisation would be needed for whatever approach Hamilcar would take. It seems settling in for a siege may have been the intention as we hear of extensive defensive works being constructed around the camps, while the transports once unloaded of their supplies were sent back to ports in Sardinia and Lydia to collect more grain and supplies.[30]   

At some stage after the preparations outside Himera a force was assembled of the best troops in the army who then advanced onto the city. It’s unclear how big this force was and what the intention was sending them forward, possibly a probe or reconnaissance. Whatever the case a force went out to challenge them but were defeated, being routed with many of them killed. It is worth pointing out here, that it is also thought Theron deployed this force first outside Himera, with Hamilcar then responding. Diodorus indicates this force was made up of the Himerans while Theron and his forces were standing by, presumably in the city. Witnessing the Carthaginian victory alarmed Theron who at once sent word to Gelon back in Syracuse to come to his aide as soon as possible. Gelon who appears to have had his forces assembled, probably due to the news of the Carthaginians approach to Sicily, now set off with all haste now that it was clear where Hamilcar was focusing his forces. 

Greek Forces:

We hear from Diodorus that Gelon marched with a force of around 50,000 troops and a cavalry force of 5,000.[31] The historian Ian Champion points out that the credibility of these figures could go either way, with some seeing them as plausible due to the previous years of campaigning, with the increased number of cities that could be called upon. Also, as we have seen the Sicles were extensively recruited as mercenaries. On the other hand, others have thought Diodorus talked up the numbers to make events on Sicily as impressive as what was unfolding in Greece, often pointing to the fact the Epirus some 200 years later would only muster 25,000 troops from the same cities.[32] For the most part it is generally thought that the Greeks and Carthaginians were somewhat on par in numbers once Gelon arrived on the scene.


The shaky moral of the Greeks in Himera after their defeat was now restored with the arrival of Gelon and his army. They would set up camp outside of the city and would fortify their position with a palisade and ditch. The force march by Gelon would catch the Carthaginians by surprise who we are told were off foraging and in the search for booty in the surrounding regions. Gelon on his arrival learnt of this and quickly took advantage of their vulnerable position. The cavalry force was sent to target the Carthaginian foragers who had no cavalry protection of their own since most had been lost at sea on the journey from Libya. The Greek cavalry were very successful in their mission, capturing 10,000 of the enemy we are told. Their success also contributed to the further bolstering of moral within the army where Gelon was able to show his superiority over the enemy. 

With the Greek camp built, the cavalry success and moral now at its height, Gelon began planning on defeating Hamilcar’s entire force. His mind turned to the Carthaginian life line, the fleet. Attacking the naval camp and setting fire to the fleet would see the Carthaginians in a precarious position without any lines of communication or means of being resupplied. As luck would have it, an opportunity would arise giving him the perfect means to support this plan.

Hamilcar seeing his vulnerability in the face of the Greek cavalry had been sending messages to the city of Selinus, the Greek city in the south allied to Carthage, for them to send a cavalry force to help support their position. Gelon’s patrols had intercepted a messenger carrying the plans for the cavalry’s arrival at the Carthaginian camp. Gelon now took measures to ensure it would be his cavalry that would appear at the arranged place and time. During the night the cavalry were sent out to approach the Carthaginian naval camp as morning dawned. The guards took them to be the Selinian cavalry they were awaiting and admitted them into the camp. This would now see the opening to the battle Himera develop. I just want to point out that the events here around the battle of Himera I have put together mostly from Diodorus’ account, as he gives us the most detailed account of the battle. Where Herodotus just tells us that the battle lasted all day in an even contest until the Greeks got the upper hand. He also reports Hamilcar commited suicide after learning of his army’s defeat. This last part being at odds with Diodorus’ account. 

The Battle:

With Gelons cavalry in the camp we hear that they made their way straight to where Hamilcar was offering up a sacrifice a slew him. From here they were able to make their way to the ships and set them alight. Gelon during the night had also sent off some scouts to high ground to observe when the cavalry was inside the camp. These scouts now raised the signal back to Gelon, back in his camp where his forces were assembled. The Greek army with Gelon leading it now set in motion and marched onto the Carthaginians camp with the land forces. The commanders of the army inside the camp had observed Gelons activities and led their forces out to meet the advancing Greeks. The sounds of battle were being raised on both sides and in short order battle was joined by both as they attempted to outdo one another with their war cries as they closed ranks. Both Diodorus and Herodotus indicate the battle that erupted was evenly matched with it swaying back and forth.[33] Though, as the battle raged news would finally make its way to both the Greek and Carthaginian lines of the death of Hamilcar. This would see a renewed vigour instilled into the Greeks while the moral of the Carthaginians would begin to waver at the death of their commander. Added to this was the sight of the flames that had now engulfed much of the naval camp destroying the Carthaginian life line.[34]  

This now saw the tipping point in the battle and the Carthaginian forces broke, with a route ensuring. As we have seen with a number of battles now, this was the point where we hear of the greatest slaughter taking place. The routed side with no cohesion was completely defenceless and at the mercy of the attackers. In this case, there would be no mercy as Gelon had issued orders that no prisoners were to be taken. Those who managed to escape the initial slaughter of the route were able to form back up on defensible terrain where they now attempted to beat back the advancing victorious Greeks. It appears they were able to hold their position for a time, but with no access to drinking water in their new position, exhausted and probably with many wounded, the Carthaginian force surrendered to Gelon.  

This would bring the battle of Himera to a close where Diodorus tells us that news of the disaster only reached Carthage from, a handful of survivors, the defeat being so absolute, with just about all who participated either killed or captured. We are told of 20 ships that managed to escape during the battle, though they would encounter a storm trying to return to Libya with only a few men making it back to bring news of the defeat.[35]


Tradition would have it that the victory at Himera would occur on the same day the pass at Thermopylae was being fought over according to Diodorus.[36] While Herodotus says it took place the same day the Greeks won their victory at Salamis against Xerxes fleet.[37] Himera would also see Gelons reputation and wealth grow even more. The total defeat of the Carthaginians had seen much booty to be collected with obviously Gelon being able to take and distribute as he saw fit. Also, his use of strategy and his leadership during the battle would see his already great reputation as general reach new heights. Many of the cities, including Syracuse, who had taken part in the battle on Gelon’s side would raise new temples with the booty collected, with us hearing that much of the works would be carried out by the captured Carthaginians now reduced to slavery.  

It’s also interesting to read from Diodorus, thinking back to the Greeks plea for help against Xerxes, that Gelon, after victory over Hamilcar, now began to make preparations to sail for Greece to bolster their numbers. Though, we hear just as they were ready to sail, some Corinthians arrived at Syracuse to bring news of the Greek victory at Salamis and part of the Persian army withdrawing from Greece. How accurate this report is, is hard to tell, as we discussed before it was plausible that Gelon wanted to aide the Greeks but aware of the Carthaginian threat, did not want to leave. Having now neutralised the threat he could have been free to send aide. But having said this we also need to keep in mind Diodorus was a very pround Sicilian Greek who does like to show the great deeds of Sicily being on par with that of mainland Greece. 

Back in Carthage damage control was underway, The Carthaginians with such a great proportion of their fighting strength wiped out, feared that The Greeks might cross the sea and make war on Carthage. With this in mind they arranged for a delegation to be sent to Gelon to negotiate a peace. It appears the terms arranged were very mild with Gelon receiving a 2000 talent indemnity for what the war had cost him. Other than that the geopolitical position of the Greeks and Phoenician cities remained unchanged, with it suggested Gelon wanted them left alone to provide a threat against rival Greek tyrants in other cities.  


Gelon would die in 478 BC with power transferring to his brother Heiron, but Gelon would be remembered by future generations as presiding over a golden age in Sicily. He had seen the already wealthy city of Syracuse rise to new heights of wealth and prosperity. Trade amongst the Greek cities of Sicily would also continue to grow with power having been consolidated through the past campaigns and now the removal of the Carthaginian threat. The disaster at Himera would see Carthage turn its attentions to expanding in regions closer to home and would leave Sicily alone for the most part for the next 70 years.   

Obviously, the events in Sicily would continue to evolve with new political developments, conflicts and wars. As you can probably guess from the title of this episode there would be more Sicilian wars to come, with this being only the first. But Gelons death marks the point we left events in the Aegean with the Greeks victory over the Persians. This I think brings us up to speed with the developments of Sicily and it being connected to the Greek world. Though, as we continue with the series we will be dropping back in on the island of Sicily to revisit events as the 5th century would continue. Next up in our look at the Greek Periphery we will be turning our attention to those wild lands to the north of Greece, inhabited by many different tribal groups, This region would be collectively known as Thrace.







[1] Herodotus 7.166
[2] Herodotus 5.63 - 65
[3] Herodotus 5.73
[4] Herodotus 7.154
[5] Herodotus 7.154.2
[6] Polyaenus 5.6.1
[7] Herodotus 6.15 / 6.22
[8] Herodotus 6.23
[9] Diodorus 10.28
[10] Herodotus 7.155
[11] Herodotus 7.154
[12] Herodotus 7.153
[13] Herodotus 7.155
[14] Herodotus 7.156
[15] Polyaenus. "Stratagems in War." 5.51
[16] Herodotus 7.158
[17] Herodotus 7.165
[18] Herodotus 7.153
[19] Herodotus 7.157
[20] Herodotus 7.158
[21] Herodotus 7.159 - 161
[22] Herodotus 7.162
[23] Herodotus 7.163
[24] Herodotus 7.165
[25] Diodorus 11.20 / Herodotus 7.165
[26] The Tyrants of Syracuse Vol 1, Jeff Champion p38 / Carthage’s other Wars, Dexter Hoyos p48
[27] Herodotus 7.165
[28] Diodorus 11.1
[29] The Tyrants of Syracuse Vol 1, Ian Champion, p
[30] Diodorus 11.20
[31] Diodorus 11.21
[32] The Tyrants of Syracuse Vol 1, Ian Champion p40
[33] Herodotus
[34] Diodorus 11.22
[35] Diodorus 11.23
[36] Diodorus 11.24
[37] Herodotus 7.166