Ancient History & Civilisation


At the same time that the Carthaginians were becoming increasingly involved in Sardinia, they also intervened militarily in Sicily. The catalyst was a plea for assistance made in 483 BC by Terillus, the Greek autocrat of Himera, a city in the north of the island, to his guest-friend Hamilcar, the leader of the Magonids, the pre-eminent political clan in Carthage. Terillus had been driven out of Himera when it had been attacked and captured by the forces of Gelon, ruler of Syracuse, the most powerful Greek city in Sicily, who with his allies had been engaged in a campaign of aggressive expansionism directed mainly against other Greek cities on the island.

The Magonids had close ties with Sicily, and Hamilcar’s own mother was Syracusan. The solemn ties of guest-friendship (which involved the bestowal of hospitality and gift-giving), perhaps combined with concerns for the island’s western ports (vital for Carthaginian trading operations), prompted the Magonids into action. Yet it appears that the expedition remained a private enterprise, underwritten by the Magonids rather than by the Carthaginian state. The huge army that Hamilcar raised contained not only Carthaginians but also large numbers of mercenaries from across the central and western Mediterranean, including Libya, Spain, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica.13 These forces were further supplemented by those of Anaxilas, the Greek tyrant (autocratic ruler) of Rhegium in southern Italy, who was married to Terillus’ daughter.

In 480, after disembarking his army at the port city of Panormus, Hamilcar, wishing either to maintain an element of surprise or to advertise the very limited scope of this operation, marched directly to Himera. However, any hoped-for advantage created by catching Gelon unawares was lost when secret letters, setting out the Carthaginian tactical plans, were intercepted. Furthermore, by setting off in such haste, Hamilcar had not spent sufficient time preparing his troops. The two forces met at Himera, and the result was a total disaster for the Magonids, their army being obliterated and Hamilcar killed. One version of events, by Polyaenus, a later Greek writer, told how Gelon had ordered his commander of the archers, who closely resembled him, to impersonate him. Leading out his company of archers dressed as priests, with their bows hidden behind myrtle branches, the commander went out to make a sacrifice. When Hamilcar similarly came forward, the archers pulled out their bows and killed the Carthaginian general as he was making a libation to the gods.14 In another version of this story, recounted by Herodotus, during the battle Hamilcar remained in his camp, where he sought to enlist divine assistance by burning the bodies of whole animals on a great sacrificial pyre.15 Yet even as he received favourable signs, his defeated men were fleeing from the battlefield, making it clear that these divine omens were false. Seeing that all was lost, Hamilcar made a new offering to the Punic gods by throwing himself into the searing flames. The defeat was so total that only a few bedraggled survivors made it back to Africa to bring news of the disaster.

Diodorus goes on to emphasize the scale of the defeat that the Magonids suffered at Himera. On learning of the terrible disaster, the Carthaginians kept close guard over their city, terrified that Gelon would now mount an attack there.16 Labouring under this false expectation, they also immediately dispatched their ablest citizens as ambassadors to Sicily. These envoys sought the assistance of Gelon’s queen, Damaretê, and when a satisfactory peace had been concluded they showed their gratitude by giving her a crown created from 100 gold talents. The audience that the Carthaginian embassy had with Gelon himself was later portrayed as a triumph for the Syracusan tyrant, with his Punic visitors tearfully begging that their city be spared.17

The victory brought great material wealth to Gelon and his allies. Not only was there a huge quantity of war booty to be distributed among the victors, but an enormous number of prisoners of war were available to labour on a number of ambitious building projects.18 At the city of Acragas, a series of giant columns depicting what are thought to be the sculpted figures of Punic slaves were built as supports for the architrave of a temple to the Olympian gods.19

In Carthage itself, after the initial panic had subsided, the political fallout was surprisingly mild. In the decades that followed, there were political changes, including the creation of many of the political institutions that would operate throughout the remainder of the city’s existence: the Tribunal of One Hundred and Four, the suffeture and the Popular Assembly.20 Although the creation of the Popular Assembly, in which all citizens, whatever their socio-economic status, could participate, might seem to hint at some form of democratization of Carthage’s political apparatus, this was very far from being the case. Rather, the main aim of these constitutional reforms was the establishment of a new, more clearly defined, senior executive council and officers. The Popular Assemby’s ability to act was extremely limited, and, as the Athenian political scientist Aristotle noted approvingly, wealth remained as the defining factor in judging an individual’s fitness to hold political office.21 The Sardinian cities also adopted many of the political reforms that had originated in Carthage.22

Further proof that these changes were part of a reorganization by the existing elite comes from the Magonids remaining the dominant political clan in Carthage, suggesting that they may have had a major hand in the formulation and implementation of these reforms. Although the suffeture was non-hereditary, and incumbents were selected from any elite family, Aristotle nonetheless observed that particular individuals monopolized a number of state offices simultaneously, which suggests that it was still possible for the particular clans to dominate many important posts.23 As a measure of undiminished Magonid influence, the posthumous reputation of Hamilcar was spared the opprobrium that was the usual lot of those commanders who had presided over military defeat on this scale. In fact his reputation appears to have been enhanced rather than diminished: monuments were built in his memory and sacrifices were offered up in his name all over the Punic world.24 Perhaps the tale of his martyrdom on the altar of guest-friendship played well with the Carthaginian public. And Magonid prestige was probably protected by the surprisingly modest terms that Gelon had demanded. Carthage was to pay 2,000 talents of silver as reimbursement for war costs, and was compelled to build two temples where copies of the peace treaty were to be kept. Himera was now recognized as part of the Syracusan bloc.25

No Carthaginian force would enter Sicily for over half a century. In fact the Carthaginians rejected a number of opportunities–including an overture from the Athenians for an alliance against their great nemesis, Syracuse–to become involved once more in Sicilian affairs.26 There are, however, few signs of Carthage suffering any kind of economic decline due to the defeat. Indeed, it was during the fifth century that the physical fabric of the city was transformed, with the creation of a coordinated street grid that took in both the old and the new districts of the city. The undulating topography of Carthage was integrated within this plan by the creation of a fan-shaped series of streets climbing the southern and eastern slopes of the Byrsa hill. New residential districts were built close to the shoreline, where a sea wall and a monumental gate were constructed.27 Although greatly hampered by the belt of cemeteries around the city, the spatial integrity of which continued to be respected, other new residential and industrial zones were also established.28

Himera would, however, have repercussions that affected Carthage in other, less direct, ways. Momentous events a long way away in Greece gave Carthage’s enemies in Sicily the opportunity to recast Himera in a grand narrative of how a barbarous invader had attacked and attempted to destroy the western Greeks, rather than the reality of a failed attempt by one of the Carthaginian political clans to come to the aid of a Greek ally. During the first two decades of the fifth century, the notoriously quarrelsome city states of Greece had twice united to repel the invading armies of Persia, the greatest superpower of the age. The result of Greece’s ‘finest hour’ was the crystallization of a set of ideas about what it meant to be Greek. In particular, the exclusivity and superiority of Greek ethnicity was defined against the ‘barbarian’ world (made up of all non-Greeks) around it.29

Gelon had in fact been conspicuous for his lack of support for the mainland Greeks when they had appealed for help in their efforts to defend themselves against the Persian invasion in 480. When Greece had first been menaced by the Persian expeditionary force, the mainland Greek cities had sent out messengers in order to enlist support from the wider Hellenic community. Syracuse was one of the first cities to be visited, but Gelon met the call for Greeks to stand shoulder to shoulder against the barbarian threat with an offer which skilfully exposed the snobbery of the Greeks towards their western cousins. He would come to their assistance as long as he could be the commander-in-chief of the Greek forces. This proposal was designed to be unacceptable to those it had been offered to. Gelon went on to express his anger and disappointment at his fellow Greeks’ past refusals to assist him in his struggles against the Carthaginians and the indigenous Sicilians, and in his proposal to liberate Greek trading stations from barbarian hands. Quite simply the Sicilian Greeks had not been treated as proper members of the Hellenic club, and the Greek envoys returned home empty-handed. After rebuffing their pleas, Gelon compounded this lack of pan-Hellenic solidarity by sending an envoy, Cadmus, to Greece with three ships and a large sum of money with instructions to wait for a victor to emerge. If the Persian Great King was victorious, then Cadmus was to give him the money and assurances of Gelon’s loyalty. If the Greeks were victorious, then he was swiftly to bring the money back to Syracuse.30

The fact that the allied Greeks under Athens and Sparta went on to win a series of resounding victories over the Persian invader made it even more important that Himera should be claimed as the equivalent of these great victories. The promotion of Himera and the idea of a ‘western front’ against a Persian-led alliance not only showed that the great tyrant of Syracuse deserved a place on the top table of Greek states, but also provided a convenient explanation for Syracuse’s telling absence from the war effort.31 Carthage could be linked to the Persians through the Phoenicians, who, as vassals of the Persian king, were obliged to provide a large number of levies and ships for the naval armada. Furthermore, the Greek Cypriot city states had recently rebelled and been put under the control of the Cypriot–Phoenician kings of Kition by their Persian overlords.32 Over the next few decades, the Deinomenids, the ruling family of Syracuse, would use the huge wealth that they had accumulated to press their claims for Himera across the Greek world. Magnificent monuments were put up in prominent Greek religious sites such as Delphi and Olympia, and famous poets were commissioned to write paeans celebrating the victory–such as the following lines by Pindar, in praise of Gelon’s brother and successor Theron:

I pray, son of Cronus, that the battle cry of the Phoenicians and Etruscans remain quietened at home, since they have seen arrogance bring grief to their ships before Cumae [a Syracusan naval victory over the Etruscan fleet in 474 BC]. They suffered such things after being subdued by the ruler of the Syracusans, he who hurled their youth into the water from their swiftly moving ships, and drew Hellas out of overbearing slavery.33

Among the wider Greek community, there were some signs that this extraordinary publicity campaign was successful, for the historian Herodotus believed that Salamis–the famous naval victory that the joint Greek fleet won against a far larger Persian force in September 480–and Himera had taken place on the same day, and the later Athenian scholar Ephorus embraced the idea that the battles had in fact been the result of a wider conspiracy between the Carthaginians and the Persians.34 Yet within the wider Greek intellectual community there was still little enthusiasm for viewing Carthage as a western surrogate for Persia, despite the best efforts of the Syracusans.35 Aristotle dismissed the theory of any collusion between the Carthaginians and the Persians, arguing that, apart from their timing, the two events were unconnected.36 Indeed, in contrast to the opprobrium that Persia’s autocratic monarchy usually attracted, the Carthaginian political constitution was widely admired in Athens.37 Aristotle would include Carthage with Sparta and Crete on the very short list of contemporary city states that he considered had an excellent system of government.38 His comment that it was because of the high quality of their political system that the Carthaginians had never suffered from rebellions and had never been under the rule of a tyrant may have been a sideswipe at the Syracusans, who were likely to have still been peddling the idea of Carthage as the Persia of the West.39

Earlier, Aristotle’s own teacher, the Athenian philosopher Plato, would present the image of an extremely well-ordered state when he referred to the strict laws in Carthage forbidding the drinking of wine for magistrates, jury members, councillors, soldiers and ships’ pilots while on duty, and for slaves at any time. Moreover, all Carthaginians were supposedly banned from imbibing wine during the day, unless in connection with exercise or medicine, while couples who were attempting to procreate were also covered by these restrictions at night.40

In fact, a few decades after Himera, the Athenians would try to broker an alliance with the Carthaginians against Syracuse. Carthaginian trading relations with Greece and the wider Aegean region appear to have strengthened in the interim, with large quantities of Attic fine pottery being transported to Carthage and other Punic towns.41 The fifth-century Athenian poet Hermippus mentioned Carthaginian multicoloured carpets and cushions that were presumably exported to Greece.42 Punic traders were also involved in the shipping of Greek goods to Spain, and of Spanish tuna fish to Greece. Indeed, a recent study of fourth-century BC transport amphora from an excavation in Carthage produced the surprising statistic that over 20 per cent of them hailed from the Ionian Islands–four times more than those from the Levant.43 Further evidence of healthy trading relations comes from the presence of a resident community of Punic merchants operating in mainland Greek and Aegean cities.44

On Sicily itself, Himera had little immediate impact on the cultural and religious synergies that had long existed between different ethic groups on the island. Politically, there was also little change, as Greek city states continued to seek political alliances with Carthage in disputes with their neighbours. However, for influential early-fourth-century Syracusan historians such as Antiochus and Philistus, Himera marked the genesis of a new set of ideas that ignored the complex mix of political allegiances and cultural interactions between Syracusan, Punic and indigenous populations that had for long been a major part of the colonial landscape of the central Mediterranean.45 In its place came a grand narrative that erroneously emphasized inter-ethnic rivalry and the brooding threat that Carthage posed to the very survival of the western Greeks.

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