Events in Magna Graecia proved more formidable than those in Greece proper, for Sicily was suddenly swept into the war on the death of the aged Hiero (215). During his reign he had raised Syracuse to great prosperity and culture, and though the loyal ally of Rome, he had avoided the enmity of Carthage. Some of his subjects, however, including his own son, began to intrigue with Carthage and Rome’s rebellious allies in Italy, while others desired to end the monarchy. But if they hoped for a glorious war of independence they forgot that the citizens of Syracuse lacked the resources and spirit which had made possible the resistance of their ancestors to the armada of Athens. Successful revolt from Rome could only lead to dependence on Carthage.
Since Hiero’s son died shortly before his father, the kingdom fell to a grandson of the old king. This fifteen-year-old boy, Hieronymus, was soon entangled in the meshes of court intrigue. Two of Hiero’s sons-in-law quickly usurped the regency of fifteen members which Hiero had appointed, and forced Hieronymus to approach Hannibal, whose agents, Hippocrates and Epicydes, arranged a treaty by which all Sicily was conceded to Hieronymus – notwithstanding the warning protests of the praetor Appius Claudius. A reaction of popular feeling against the monarchy quickly followed, and resulted in the murder of Hieronymus and nearly all the royal house (214); relations with Rome might yet be established. But suddenly the pendulum swung back again and the new republic chose as generals the two Carthaginian agents, Hippocrates and Epicydes. Meanwhile the Romans were alarmed, and sent the consul M. Claudius Marcellus to Sicily with an additional legion to join the two already there – the disgraced survivors of Cannae; the fleet was raised to a hundred sails. On Marcellus’ arrival an attack on a Roman frontier post led to the outbreak of war. In reply Marcellus sacked Leontini with great severity. Hippocrates and Epicydes, who escaped to Syracuse, there massacred the Roman party and amid the utmost confusion prepared to defend the city against the might of Rome. It was a different beginning to the war from the one they had hoped for, when Syracuse, supported by the uprising of all the Siceliots, might have taken a glorious offensive; yet they could trust in the strength of their city, protected by the walls of Dionysius and the engineering skill of Archimedes.
Syracuse was situated partly on the ‘island’ of Ortygia, partly on the mainland. This latter settlement was divided into three separate regions: Neapolis (an extension of the old Temenitis) in the west, Achradina on the east coast, and Tyche to the north. The whole town nestled at the foot of the cliffs of the large plateau of Epipolae, around which ran the almost impregnable walls built by Dionysius, and guarded at their western extremity by the fort Euryalus. Nothing daunted, Marcellus approached with all speed and the Roman army camped in two divisions, one in the south at Olympeium, the other to the north of Epipolae near Hexapylon (Scala Graeca); thus they controlled the two main roads to the city. Then he launched an assault by land and sea from the north; Appius Claudius tried to storm the walls by Hexapylon, while Marcellus brought siege engines on his ships against the sea walls at Achradina. But the attack was beaten off, thanks largely to the efficiency of the artillery and contrivances devised by Archimedes; Marcellus had to desist and resign himself to a regular and lengthy blockade.17
Meanwhile Carthaginian reinforcements under Himilco had captured Agrigentum, where Marcellus arrived too late. But he won over some towns that had belonged to Hiero and cut to pieces a force which had slipped out of Syracuse to support Himilco. Reinforcements from Rome reached the army at Syracuse in safety, while the Carthaginian fleet, after an abortive demonstration by Bomilcar, did not try to relieve the city. But an ugly incident in central Sicily provoked considerable anti-Roman feeling: in attempting to hold Enna in face of treachery, the Roman garrison massacred the inhabitants. So ended the year 213; though Rome had lost much of the south coast and centre of Sicily, she had satisfactorily withstood the first shock of the revolt of the Greeks.
Throughout the winter the siege of Syracuse continued; no Greek or Punic army appeared to divert the besiegers. One night in the spring of 212, utilizing the preoccupation caused by the drunken revelry of a festival, Marcellus stormed part of the northern walls of Epipolae and advanced over the plateau. Tradition tells how when day broke he gazed over the beautiful city weeping with joy at his achievement and with sorrow at the impending doom. This was not long delayed. Descending the southern slopes of Epipolae, he camped between Tyche and Neapolis (near the necropolis of Groticelli) and overran the two suburbs. In his rear was the great fort of Euryalus, the impressive ruins of which still demonstrate its impregnable strength; but the commander surrendered in panic. Thus Marcellus had won all Epipolae. Counter-attacks by a sortie from Achradina, by Himilco, and by the fleet, all failed. Then, as so often in the history of Syracuse, Nature intervened. A pestilence swept through both armies; the Romans on the higher ground and with better sanitation escaped lightly, but Himilco’s force perished. This decided the fate of Syracuse; the fall of the remaining portions, Achradina and Ortygia, was only a matter of time. In 211 Bomilcar arrived in Sicily with a Carthaginian fleet, only to panic and sail off again. Finally the city was betrayed by a Spanish mercenary captain; its rich artistic treasures were shipped to Italy, and Archimedes was killed during the looting of the city while absorbed in a geometrical problem. So after a siege of two and a half years fell a city which for three centuries had been chief among the Greek cities of the west.
The rest of the tale is soon told. Marcellus easily defeated a small Carthaginian force near Himera and then hastened home to enjoy an ‘ovation’. A praetor continued to reduce the smaller towns, while late in 210 Valerius Laevinus took out fresh forces and conquered Agrigentum. Sicily was pacified. So by the persistent energy of Rome and the dash of Marcellus, through Carthage’s lack of naval enterprise, fatal alike in Sicily and Greece, and above all because of the plague, a serious danger was averted. Sicily was the bridge between Italy and Africa, between Hannibal and his home government; the control of the bridge was of paramount importance.