In that summer of 480, while Xerxes moved south into Greece, the carefully co-ordinated attack upon Sicily had begun. The importance of this western flank in the double-horned advance upon Greece and Mediterranean Europe has sometimes been a little neglected, all attention being concentrated upon events in Greece itself. But Xerxes and his staff had not been years in the planning of his great invasion without ensuring that the threat from Carthage to the Greek-dominated areas of Sicily should develop at the same time.
Western and north-western Sicily were largely controlled by Carthaginian colonies while the Greeks were mainly on the eastern and south-eastern coasts. Hamilcar, the leading Carthaginian general, had laid his plans accordingly and a vast flotilla of transports escorted by 200 warships had been assembled to carry a force of some 200,000 men, together with horses - for the Carthaginians relied largely on cavalry in warfare as well as the outmoded chariot. This was natural enough, for in the great expanses of north Africa the cavalry arm was supreme and even in Sicily the mounted men had an advantage over the hoplite, and the Sicilian Greeks also made much use of cavalry. Special horse-transports were constructed, no doubt somewhat similar to the gaulos (literally ‘tub’), the half-walnut-shaped merchant-ship of the time which was principally dependent upon sail rather than oars. Once again the elements were to prove the Greeks’ best friends. While the oared warships could advance well enough from the Gulf of Tunis across the midsummer Mediterranean the transports inevitably lagged behind, dependent largely upon a favourable southerly wind to waft them on their course towards the coast of Sicily. Unfortunately for the Carthaginian hopes the maistro, the ‘master wind’ (modern mistral), elected to blow hard from the north - something which to this day has upset the plans of many a sailor, and which nearly ruined the Allied invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943. The wallowing transports were scattered and many of them sunk, thus leaving Hamilcar in a worse position than Xerxes who, at least, had all his army and baggage-train safely on dry land.
The main body of the fighting fleet successfully rounded the north-western cape of Sicily, leaving behind them the great shoulders of Mount Eryx with its temple to Astarte crowning the peak, and headed east towards the Bay of Panormus (Palermo) where they could regroup and make ready for the campaign. The first objective was the city of Himera to the east of Panormus, on whose account the campaign had been largely initiated. Its capture by Theron of Acragas had provoked its former Greek ruler Terillus, who was a personal friend of Hamilcar, to ask for aid. Nothing had suited Hamilcar and the Carthaginians, and indeed the Punic-Persian alliance, better than this providential casus belli - although there can be no doubt that the invasion would have taken place in any case. To eliminate a powerful Greek threat to Carthaginian colonies, and then in due course to move east and one by one take over the Greek cities, was the long-term strategy. Beyond that, but still well within the planning capacity of the time, was the ultimate move up into southern Italy where prosperous colonies beckoned, from Rhegium on the toe of the continent to Crotone and Tarentum on the sole, and northwards as far as the pearls of Cumae and Neapolis. Beyond that again lay the rich territory and the metals of Etruria. It is significant that both Corsicans and Sardinians, who had long cast envious eyes on Etruscan richness and envied their technology, were among the vast army who accompanied Hamilcar on his expedition.
Xerxes’ invasion of the West, as has been seen, was no small thing: no reprisal raid on Athens and Sparta for their refusal to offer the tokens of submission (or for Sparta’s treatment of the Persian ambassadors); no simple vengeance on the mainland Greeks who had assisted the Ionians in their revolt; nor was it merely the desire to lay low these proud, warlike people and add them and their rocky land to his empire. However the Greeks at the time saw it, the ambitions of Xerxes far exceeded the ones that inevitably preoccupied his immediate enemies. His aim, with the aid of the Carthaginians, was the conquest of all the Mediterranean lands. Yet again, it is significant that among the forces which Hamilcar led against Sicily were Spaniards and Ligurians, and tribesmen from the Riviera. The Greeks in their subsequent history, poetry and drama somewhat naturally saw everything in terms of an attack directed against themselves and their proud little city-states. Xerxes’ aims and ambitions, on the other hand, were as wide and far-reaching as those of Alexander the Great in a later century - and had, on the surface at least, a better chance of success.
Having disembarked and beached their ships in the grand Bay of Panormus, the invasion force rested for three days. The loss of so many transports, of food, provender and general stores (and especially of horses), had left the great army somewhat depleted but - as Hamilcar was swift to assure them - the sea had been their greatest danger. Now that they were landed, the war was as good as over. It is somewhat difficult for the modern visitor to Sicily to comprehend the importance of this large island to the ancients. To the Greeks and Phoenicians who first competed as colonisers of the island it was indeed a place of almost miraculous richness.
Sicily [as I have written elsewhere] had everything to commend it: Good vine-growing country, land for pasturage and for agriculture, water, harbours, quarryable stone, trees for fuel and for boat-building, and craggy uplands where goats could pasture. Wherever the land could not support cereals or the vine, the hardy olive flourished. Before it was ravaged by thousands of years of occupation by man, Sicily was a garden of Eden, floating on the water south of Italy and bridging the worlds of Europe and Africa.
This current Carthaginian invasion led by the Suffete Hamilcar was triggered by the desire for land and its grain, mineral wealth and power. It had no religious or ethnic cause: Hamilcar himself was half Greek, having a Syracusan mother.
Unlike the invasion of Xerxes, where the route of the army could be fairly easily foreseen, the invasion of Sicily could have started at several points, the most likely perhaps being the city of Selinus in the south which was allied to Carthage. Gelon, therefore, whose main fleet-base was Syracuse and whose sphere of naval operations extended little farther than Theron’s Acragas, had no means of knowing where the blow would fall, nor of attacking the enemy at sea. Furthermore, even when it became known that Hamilcar’s army had landed in Panormus Bay the Greek fleet could not head north and make its way through the Messina Strait, for Zancle (Messina) and Rhegium (Reggio) were both pro-Carthaginian, Anaxilas of Rhegium being the son-in-law of Terillus the deposed ruler of Himera, while his own son Leophron was ruler of Zancle. It can be seen that, with this combination of alliances, the Carthaginians had a good chance of boxing in the Greeks on the east coast of the island and eliminating them at their leisure. As it was, the news of Hamilcar’s descent on Panormus only just gave Theron sufficient time to cross the island with a strong force and reinforce Himera before the Carthaginians were ready to attack.
Himera (Termini Imerese) stands on rising ground above the narrow coastal plain with the Himeras torrent directly protecting its eastern flank. Hamilcar, having beached the fleet immediately facing Himera, leaving only twenty triremes to patrol the coast, fortified his camp and extended its defences inland so that they reached the hills to the west of the city, thus leaving Himera cut off except for its southern and eastern approaches. Hamilcar made the first move and sent a powerful detachment of troops to test the walls and defences of the city, in the course of which the defenders were rash enough to sally out, only to be beaten back with the loss of many men. Theron, realising that it was upon the western walls that an attack must fall, promptly had the city gates on that side blocked up. He also sent off a message calling for help from his son-in-law, Gelon of Syracuse, richest of all the Sicilian tyrants and the man who had promised the Athenians such massive naval and military support if he were made commander-in-chief of all the Greeks. The latter had already mobilised all the forces at his command, which most probably included the 20,000 hoplites that he had promised for the defence of Greece, as well as several thousand archers, slingers, light infantry, and 2000 cavalrymen. (The wealth of Sicily always astounded mainland Greeks, and the fact that one city could produce so many men rich enough to own the armour to form such a vast body of hoplites was beyond the resources of Sparta and Athens combined.) Taking the swift overland route via Enna, having been reinforced by Hieron of Gela on the way, the number of troops that finally reached Himera from the south-east amounted to about 50,000 men. The joy of the besieged was reinforced by the immediate proof of the abilities of this considerable army. The Greek cavalry, now some 5000 strong, bypassed the western flank of Hamilcar’s defences and captured or cut down hundreds of his troops who were out foraging in the countryside.
Hamilcar still had a numerical advantage over his Greek opponents but he was sadly hampered by the fact that he had lost so many horses in the wrecked and sunken transports - thus reducing many of his formidable cavalrymen to the unfamiliar role of foot-soldiers. He had accordingly despatched an urgent message to his allies in Selinus asking them to send all their available cavalry. Unfortunately for the Carthaginian Suffete the returning messenger from Selinus was intercepted by the Greeks, who were roaming the countryside round about almost unchallenged. This was an almost miraculous stroke of fortune, for the message even revealed on what day the cavalry from Selinus were due to appear - obviously so that the Carthaginian lookouts would sight them as they came over the hills to the south and have the gates of their fortified camp open and ready for them. Now Selinus, although an ally of Carthage, was a Greek city, and its soldiers and cavalrymen, therefore, bore the same uniforms, armour, and horse-trappings as any of the other Sicilian Greeks. Here lay the seed of Gelon’s brilliant idea, and here lay the ultimate downfall of Hamilcar. Prior to this all-important secret falling into his hands Gelon had already established himself in a formidable position, setting up his camp on the east bank of the River Himeras opposite the city, on whose landward side he had dug a long ditch and erected a stockade. There was thus no chance of his being outflanked by any Carthaginian move from the west, and in any case the current superiority of his cavalry throughout the country round about meant that the Carthaginians were almost as much besieged as the Greeks in Himera. Although their transports could come and go unthreatened by any Greek warships, bringing provisions from the fertile lands around Panormus, they were largely denied access to the country immediately surrounding Himera.
Prior to the message from Selinus falling into his hands Gelon had been contemplating making a raid on the enemy’s ships, during the confusion of which he would loose his major frontal attack on their encampment. But now he hazarded his fortune oh a far better idea. On the appointed day, when the Carthaginians would be expecting the cavalry from Selinus, he would anticipate them, sending out his finest squadron from Syracuse to make a detour into the hills while it was dark and then show themselves at daylight and make their way down to Hamilcar’s camp, posing as the expected reinforcements. As soon as they had been admitted through the palisade they would declare their true nature, wreak as much destruction as possible, and above all, if they could find him, kill Hamilcar. Gelon had scouts posted on the hills overlooking the town to give the signal the moment that they had seen their cavalry admitted. Gelon with all his troops would unleash an assault on the Carthaginian position while Theron’s troops inside Himera would also burst out in a head-on attack on the enemy. To execute this brilliant stratagem everything depended on timing and perfect discipline. The fact that it succeeded suggests, as commentators have pointed out, that the autocratic rulers of the Greek city-states in Sicily possessed a marked advantage over the divided counsels that were part and parcel of alliances in Greece itself.
Hamilcar had intended on that day to make a great sacrifice to the Greek sea-god Poseidon, not only to ensure victory but most probably to show his new helpers from Selinus how much he welcomed them and thanked one of their most important gods for their assistance. A huge altar had been prepared, the fire had been lit and the slaughtered animals were sending up their tribute of burning flesh to Poseidon when the Syracusan cavalry were welcomed into the camp as the eagerly awaited reinforcements from Selinus. No sooner were they through the gate than they set about firing tents, ships, and anything that would burn to add to the general confusion. Within minutes the troops of Theron had struck from the east while the troops out of Himera poured over the frontal defences of the camp. The Suffete Hamilcar dressed in priestly robes and officiating over the great offering to Poseidon was a figure that could hardly escape notice. He was cut down in front of the blazing sacrificial altar and his body hurled on to it to join the previous victims. Despite the totally unexpected nature of the attack the battle was not won without considerable hand-to-hand fighting and there was even a moment when some of the Greeks, thinking victory was theirs, broke ranks and began looting. A counter-attack of hardy Spanish troops, which for a moment threatened the Greek position, was staved off by Theron, who ordered the troops with him to fire all the tents on the landward side, thus creating a flaming, smoking barrier between the Greeks on the one side and the enemy on the other. The news of Hamilcar’s death must have served to complete the demoralisation of his army and, in their ensuing flight, hundreds of them were slaughtered. Gelon had given orders for no quarter to be given. A large number of survivors, however, managed to make their escape to a hill position (most probably Mount Calogero about five miles west of Himera) where they proceeded to dig themselves in. Gelon had the hill surrounded, but made no move to attempt any assault on the Carthaginian position. He knew something that these foreigners to Sicily could hardly be aware of: Calogero is waterless. In August, under the ‘lion sun’ of Sicily, men who had been fighting and then running and climbing could hardly hold out for long. Thirst drove them to surrender, and this time their lives were spared. Something like half of Hamilcar’s army now became Greek slaves: they would work for the rest of their lives enriching with their labour the cities of their Sicilian masters.
As for the fleet, one can do no more than presume, since accurate accounts are not available, that all the beached ships behind their protective palisade were destroyed. The squadron of twenty triremes that had been cruising offshore put in hastily and took off all the survivors from the army that they could carry - too many as it turned out. On their way homewards they too ran into a storm and, according to Diodorus, all but a single vessel were lost. One thing is certain: the Sicilian expedition was such a disaster that Carthage, terrified that the triumphant Greeks might swoop down and sack their great city by the sea, sent ambassadors to Gelon to sue for peace. He could afford to dictate his own terms and exacted a large indemnity of 2000 talents, while Theron’s beautiful daughter, Damarete, the wife of Gelon of Syracuse, was presented with a golden crown worth 100 talents. One of the most beautiful of all Greek coins, the Damaretia, which shows a winged Victory, a chariot and, below, a submissive lion (in the coinage language of the time, almost certainly symbolic of Carthage), was minted from the Carthaginian indemnity. On the obverse, familiar from thousands of reproductions, is a female head surrounded by dolphins, usually identified with the fountain-nymph Arethusa of Syracuse -and possibly a portrait of Damarete herself.
The battle of Himera, which for many years to come eliminated the Eastern and African threat to Sicily and the West, was rightly recognised at the time for what it was - a brilliant victory that rivalled that of Salamis. It was hardly surprising that popular tradition, even within the memory of those who had been living at the time, should maintain that these two great victories had taken place on the same day. Victory in the West together with victory at home in Greece showed, as it were, a divine blessing spread over the Greek cause. Aristotle, as Burn points out, was sceptical about such a temporal coincidence. It is indeed very unlikely, for the battle of Salamis was fought on or about 20 September 480. This was late in the year for warfare in those times, but necessitated by Xerxes’ protracted progress through Greece, the delay occasioned by Thermopylae, the fleet losses by storm, and by the Greek action at Artemisium. It is very unlikely that the Carthaginian landing in Panormus Bay, followed by the action at Himera, occurred at such a late date. Hamilcar, in his concerted action with Xerxes against the Greeks, would hardly have waited until September (when the weather in the central Mediterranean usually breaks) to move his entirely shipborne army from north Africa across to Sicily. There was very little delay - and no opposition - between his initial landing and his investment of Himera. He suffered a grave misfortune in encountering a mistral while the fleet was on passage, but this, while it occasioned the loss of a great many transports, did not delay him for days, let alone weeks. It seems probable, therefore, that the Carthaginian armada arrived off Sicily in August. (July would have been a better month to make a seaborne assault, but the administrative difficulties of mustering a great army of allies from various quarters of the Mediterranean in those days of primitive communications could well account for this.) In conclusion it seems safer to rely upon that native Sicilian historian, Diodorus, who states categorically that the battle at Himera took place on the same day as Thermopylae - that is, 20 August, rather than 20 September, Salamis. It was somewhat natural that tradition should later equate the two decisive Greek victories, but it is far more likely that Gelon was triumphant in Sicily on or about the day that Leonidas and the Three Hundred were dying in the rocky pass in distant Greece.