Ancient History & Civilisation


However, this peace treaty, agreed to at a time of mutual weakness, was not destined to hold long. In the political turmoil that followed the military reverses against Carthage, Dionysius, a young man of modest birth but endowed with charisma and brilliant political instincts, managed to establish himself as tyrant of Syracuse.73 Bolstered by the news that Carthage itself was ravaged by plague, and anxious because a number of cities previously under Syracusan control had defected to the Carthaginians, Dionysius had almost immediately begun stockpiling weapons, building warships and hiring soldiers and crews.74 By 397 he was ready to strike. Brazenly taking up the mantle of Greek liberator, he summoned the Syracusan assembly and arranged that it issue a declaration threatening war if Carthage did not immediately set free the Sicilian cities that it had supposedly subjugated. At the same time, the Punic populations of Syracuse had their property seized and were expelled from the city. Across Greek Sicily, towns and cities were now purged of their Punic inhabitants in an ugly orgy of ethnic cleansing that included atrocities and massacres.75Joined by forces from a number of the Greek cities who saw this as an opportunity to cease paying tribute to Carthage, Dionysius assembled a substantial army and marched on the Punic city of Motya, which he put under siege.76

The Carthaginians were caught completely by surprise, and had not had sufficient time to raise a force to come to the aid of their Motyan allies. On seeing the Syracusan advance, the Motyans had broken down the causeway which joined their island city to the mainland. Dionysius, however, countered this by having a giant mole built, so that battering rams and huge siege engines could brought right up to the city walls. Despite the efforts of the Carthaginians, who created a diversion by raiding the harbour of Syracuse, the situation became increasingly hopeless for the island city, with the walls being eventually breached. Still, the defenders, knowing that no mercy would be shown to them, made the Syracusan forces fight for every street by building great barricades across the narrower streets, and hurling missiles down from their tall buildings on the advancing Greeks. But Dionysius now constructed giant six-storey siege towers, specially designed to be the same height as the tallest Motyan buildings, so that his soldiers were able to bring the fight to the defenders even in the most inaccessible of places.

The Sicilian Greek historian Diodorus, although hostile to the Carthaginians and writing many years after the event, gives a powerfully evocative if rather generic insight into the state of mind of the desperate Motyan defenders:

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 had been brought to such a state of mind that they now set no value on life; others, as they heard the lament of their wives and helpless children, sought to die like men rather than see their children dragged off into slavery. 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 of 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 to die.77

The city was given over to dreadful scenes of barbarity and slaughter. Diodorus reports that when Dionysius saw that not even the women or children were being spared, he decided to act–not out of any pity, but because he desperately needed the funds that could be raised by selling them into slavery. When his orders to stand down had no effect on his rampaging troops, he instructed heralds to announce throughout the city that the stricken Motyans were to make their way to the temples of deities which were revered by the Greeks, and take refuge there. Those who successfully made it to those sanctuaries were subsequently sold into servitude. The Greeks who had fought on the Motyan side were crucified.78 Such was the devastation visited upon it that Motya was never rebuilt.79

The next year, Diodorus/Timaeus relates, Dionysius moved to ravage other areas of Carthaginian-held Sicily.80 However, the Carthaginians, who had initially been caught out by the ferocity of the assault, raised sufficient troops to counter Dionysius’ advance. After a series of victories which included the capture and complete destruction of the city of Messana, the Carthaginian general, Himilco, forced Dionysius’ troops out of western Sicily, and even managed to advance as far as Syracuse itself.81 Dionysius was saved by the onset of what was very probably typhus in the Carthaginian camp–an occurrence that the hostile Greek historical tradition explained as divine punishment, due to the sacrilegious acts that the Carthaginians had committed, particularly the sacking of the temples of the goddesses Demeter and Core.82 Diodorus has left us with a graphic account of its symptoms:

The plague began with catarrh; then came a swelling in the throat; gradually burning sensations ensued; pains in the sinews of the back, and a heavy feeling in the limbs; then dysentery supervened and pustules upon the whole surface of the body. In most cases this was the course of the disease; but some became mad and totally lost their memory; they circulated through the camp, out of their mind, and struck at anyone that they met. In general, as it turned out, even help by physicians was of no avail, because of both the severity of the disease and the swiftness of death; for death came on the fifth day or on the sixth at the latest, amid such terrible tortures that all looked upon those who had fallen in war as blessed.83

At the onset of the epidemic the Carthaginians buried their dead, but as increasing numbers succumbed to the sickness their bodies were left unburied to rot where they fell.84 Dionysius quickly took advantage of the calamity that had befallen the Carthaginians by sending both his naval squadrons and his land forces to attack the Carthaginian ships and army. Himilco, now in desperate straits, was forced to negotiate a truce. In a secret deal, which was struck without the knowledge of the citizenry of Syracuse or of much of the Carthaginian army, Dionysius agreed to let Himilco and the Carthaginian troops under his command escape in exchange for money.85 In fact only a few ships made it back to Carthage, for they were attacked as they fled the harbour by Syracusan forces unaware of their leader’s underhand negotiations. Of the Carthaginian allies who were left behind, the native Sicels managed to escape back to their homes in the interior, and one group of Spanish troops massed together in sufficient numbers to be able to negotiate their recruitment into Dionysius’ army. The vast majority, however, were captured and enslaved.86

Diodorus/Timaeus portrayed the political fallout in Carthage as considerable. Supposedly, on hearing the news of the disaster, the city went into mourning, with private houses closed to visitors, business dealings suspended, and temples shut. The whole population converged on the harbour in order to get news of their relatives as the boats carrying the survivors limped into the port. On learning of the full scale of the catastrophe, the wails and shrieks of the bereaved could be heard all along the shoreline. For the Magonids, the threat to their political dominance in Carthage was very real. Once more their name would be linked with failure overseas.

Himilco, disgraced and defeated, spent the rest of his days dressed in cheap robes going around the temples of Carthage accusing himself of impiety and offering himself for divine retribution. He then starved himself to death.87 This public act of repentance was still not enough to preserve Magonid power in the long term, and within a few decades another elite clan, led by Hanno ‘the Great’, had taken over as the dominant political force in Carthage.88

However, the old political status quo was not maintained for long after this takeover, as the elite classes within Carthage were clearly hungry for more change. During the early years of the fifth century a new constitutional body had been established: the Tribunal of One Hundred and Four. Made up of members of the aristocratic elite, it oversaw the conduct of officials and military commanders as well as acting as a kind of higher constitutional court. At the same time the Council of Elders remained in existence, and may even have had its powers enhanced, with treasury and foreign affairs coming under its control.89 At the head of the Carthaginian state were now two annually elected senior executive officers, the suffetes, and a range of more junior officials and special commissioners oversaw different aspects of governmental business such as public works, tax-collecting and the administration of the state treasury.90 Panels of special commissioners, called pentarchies, were appointed from the Tribunal of One Hundred and Four; they appear to have dealt with a variety of affairs of state.91

The war with the Syracusans continued without either side really gaining the advantage.92 The Carthaginians attempted a number of new tactics, including opening up a second front against Dionysius in southern Italy.93 Both sides won crushing victories, the Syracusans at Cabala and the Carthaginians at Cronium, but neither managed to sustain a consistent military advantage.94 Eventually, in 373, exhausted by their losses, a new treaty was signed that recognized the previous status quo of Carthaginian and Syracusan territorial influence.95 But by merely reacting to threats as they appeared, and doing only enough to defend their interests, Hanno’s faction proved, like the Magonids before them, that they could never provide any lasting security in the region. After each setback Dionysius was given sufficient time and opportunity to rebuild his support and military forces, before launching another attack.

The seemingly never-ending war grew ever more unpopular with the citizens of Carthage. Their discontent was further fuelled by another outbreak of plague in the city, as well as unrest in Sardinia and among the Libyans. Increasingly the political leadership of Hanno was called into question.96 Even the death of Carthage’s long-term nemesis, Dionysius, in 365 (after a marathon drinking session), and success in having Suniatus, Hanno’s chief political rival in Carthage, condemned for treason, did not silence the criticism.97 Unused to his supremacy being questioned, Hanno resorted to the desperate measure of trying to overthrow the constitution. At a banquet to celebrate his daughter’s marriage, he unsuccessfully attempted to murder his fellow councillors by poison.

Perhaps reading the Council’s failure to act decisively in this matter –its only response had been to pass a decree that limited expenditure on weddings–as a sign of weakness, Hanno now plotted an uprising of 20,000 slaves and conspired with the local Libyan and Numidian tribes to try to overthrow the Carthaginian state. Such treachery could not be overlooked, and Hanno, when captured after his rebellion failed, was subjected to merciless punishment. After suffering scourging and terrible torture, he was finally nailed to a cross.98 All the male members of his clan, whether innocent or guilty, were rounded up and executed.99 Although some aspects of this story, reported by hostile Greek sources, appear far-fetched, it is clear that for the time being Carthage had at last grown tired of being dominated by a single clan.

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