The Battle of Himera (480 BC), supposedly fought on the same day as the Battle of Salamis, or at the same time as the Battle of Thermopylae, saw the Greek forces of Gelon, King of Syracuse, and Theron, tyrant of Agrigentum, defeat the Carthaginian force of Hamilcar the Magonid, ending a Carthaginian bid to restore the deposed tyrant of Himera. The alleged coincidence of this battle with the naval battle of Salamis and the resultant derailing of a Punic-Persian conspiracy aimed at destroying the Greek civilisation is rejected by modern scholars. Scholars also agree that the battle led to the crippling of Carthage’s power in Sicily for many decades. It was one of the most important battles of the Sicilian Wars (580-265 BC).
The discovery in 2007 and 2008 of mass graves from the battle has confirmed the location and nature of the battle.
The Phoenicians had planted trading posts all over the coast of Sicily after 900 BC, but had never penetrated far inland. They had traded with the Elymian, Sicani and Siculi communities and ultimately withdrew without resistance to Motya, Panormus and Solus when the Greek colonists arrived after 750 BC. These cities remained independent until becoming part of the Carthaginian hegemony after 540 BC, probably when Malchus of Carthage “conquered all Sicily” and sent the captured booty to Tyre.
Carthaginian Hegemony and Greeks in Sicily
Carthage created her hegemony in part to resist Greek encroachments in the Phoenician sphere of influence. Phoenicians initially (750-650 BC) did not resist the Greeks, but after the Greeks had reached Iberia sometime after 650 BC, Carthage emerged as the leader of Phoenician resistance. During the 6th century BC, mostly under the leadership of the Magonid dynasty, Carthage established a commercially dominant position in the Western Mediterranean. The Phoenicians in Sicily and the Elymians had teamed up to defeat the Greeks of Selinus and Rhodes near Lilybaeum in 580 BC, the first recorded clash between Phoenicians and Greeks incident in Sicily. The next known Greek incursion in Sicily took place 70 years later.
The Greeks living in Sicily behaved similar to mainland Greeks, expanding their political and commercial domain at the expense of their neighbours while keeping the Ionian/Dorian feud alive – the Doric colonies were comparably more aggressive in expanding their territory. As Sicilian trade flourished, the Greeks and the Phoenicians and the Sicilian Greeks colonies became prosperous. This prosperity enabled some of the Greek cities to start to expand their territories again, ultimately leading to the events known as the “First Sicilian War”.
Carthage Joins the Fight
Carthage and Elymians joined hands in 510 BC to oppose the expedition of Prince Dorieus, who had lost the Spartan throne and was seeking to found a colony, showed up to colonize Eryx – after being expelled from Libya by Carthage in 511 BC. Dorieus was defeated and killed; the Greek survivors then founded Heraclea Minoa. Sicilian Greeks (probably the cities of Akragas, Gela and Selinus) fought an undated war of revenge against Carthage, which led to the destruction of Minoa and a treaty which brought economic benefits for the Greeks. An appeal for aid to avenge the death of Dorieus was ignored by mainland Greece, even by Leonidas of Sparta, brother of Dorieus and who later would win immortal fame at Thermopylae in 480 BC. This possibly demonstrated the futility of opposing Carthage by single Greek cities or the unreliability of aid from mainland Greece, a situation that would change with the rise of the Greek tyrants in Sicily.
While Carthage remained engaged in Sardinia after 510 BC, most of the Greek colonies in Sicily fell under the rule of tyrants. The tyrants of Gela, Akragas and Rhegion successfully expanded their dominion at the expense of native Sicilians and other Greek cities during 505-480 BC, with the Dorian city of Gela being the most successful.
Dorian Greeks Dominate Sicily
Cleander (505-498 BC) and his brother Hippocrates (498-491) of Gela successfully took over both Ionian and Dorian Greek territory, and by 490 BC, Zankle, Leontini, Catana, Naxos, besides neighboring Sicel lands and Camarina had fallen to Gela. Gelo, successor of Hippocrates, captured Syracuse and made the city his capital. By using ethnic cleansing, deportation and enslavement, Gelo transformed the former Ionian cities into Dorian ones and made Syracuse the dominant power in Sicily. Meanwhile, Akragas, another Doric city, had taken over neighbouring Sikan and Sicel lands under the tyrant Theron (488-472 BC). To forestall any conflicts between Akragas and Syracuse, Gelo and Theron married into each other’s families, thus creating a united front against the Sicels and Ionian Greeks of Sicily.
Ionian Greeks Call on Carthage
To counter this Doric threat, Anaxilas of Rhegion from Italy, who had captured Zankle from Gela in 490 BC, allied himself with Terillus of Himera, and married the daughter of Terillus. Himera and Rhegion next became allies of Carthage, the tyrants even built up personal relationships with the Magonid dynasty of Carthage. Selinus, a Doric city whose territory bordered Theron’s domain, also became a Carthaginian ally – perhaps the fear of Theron and the destruction of Megara Hyblaea (mother city of, Selinus), by Gelo, had played a part in this decision. Thus, 3 power blocks were delicately balanced in Sicily by 483 BC – Ionians dominating the north, Carthage the west, Dorians the east and south. The Sicels and Sikans in the interior remained passive, and if not directly under Greek rule, did not hinder the movements of their forces. The Elmyians joined the Carthaginian alliance.
The city of Himera had once requested Phalaris, tyrant of Akragas (570-554 BC), to rule Himera. Theron emulated Phalaris when he deposed Terillus and added Himera to his domain in 483 BC. Terillus had come to power in Himera after expelling the ruling oligarchs (who had taken refuge in Akragas), and he probably lacked popular support, which may have been exploited by Theron. Terillus requested Hamilcar, Suffet of Carthage, and Xenia (guest friend) of Terillus, for aid. Anaxilas also lobbied on his behalf, and sent his own children as hostages to Carthage as a token of loyalty. After a 3-year delay, Hamilcar led a Carthaginian expedition to Sicily in 480 BC, which coincided with the expedition of Xerxes against mainland Greece.
Gelo Refuses Greece Aid
The mainland Greeks had sent an embassy to Gelon requesting aid against Xerxes. Gelon at first complained that the Greeks spurned his request of aid against the Carthaginians in the past, but he offered to send 24,000 foot, 4,000 horse and 200 warships in addition to fully provisioning the combined Greek force in Greece if he was made the supreme commander. The Spartans objected to this, and Gelon then asked to be the commander of either the land or naval forces in exchange for his help. The Athenian envoy then objected, and the Greeks were sent packing empty handed. Gelon also hedged his bets, he sent 3 ships under Cadmus of Kos to Delphi, with instructions to offer his submission to Xerxes in case of a Persian victory.
Hamilcar is said to have assembled an army numbering 300,000 soldiers from Iberia, Sardinia, Corsica, Italy, Gaul and Africa, generally mercenaries (like the famed Iberian mercenaries) and under the command of a body of Carthaginian officers, along with war chariots, 200 warships and 3,000 transports for the venture. According to the modern historians, the numbers are clearly inflated; the Punic army may not have been significantly larger than that of the Greek coalition. The army had no siege engines and the Etruscans and the Elymians, allies in past struggles against Greeks, were not part of it.
The Carthaginian Army
The core units of the army came from Africa. The heavy African infantry fought in close formation, armed with long spears and round shields, wearing helmets and linen cuirasses. The light Libyan infantry carried javelins and a small shield. The Iberian infantry wore purple bordered white tunics and leather headgear, and fought in a dense phalanx, armed with heavy javelins, long body shields and short thrusting swords. Sardinian and Gallic infantry fought in their native gear, but often were equipped by Carthage.
The Libyans, Carthaginian citizens and the Libyo-Phoenicians provided disciplined, well trained cavalry equipped with thrusting spears and round shields. Iberians and Gauls also provided cavalry, which relied on the all out charge. Libyans also provided bulk of the heavy, four horse war chariots for Carthage.
The Sicilian Greek Army
Gelo and Theron had a well trained, battle tested army at their disposal. In addition to citizens, hired mercenaries from Greeks and Sicels augmented their forces. Gelon took out a loan from citizens to fund his war efforts, which indicates the seriousness of the situation. The Syracusan army at Himera is said to have numbered 50,000 foot and 5,000 horse – perhaps another exaggeration. The size of the army of Theron is not known. The main hoplite force came from the citizens of the Sicilian Greek cities. They were augmented by mercenary hoplites hired from Sicily and Italy, and even mainland Greece. Some of the citizens also served as peltasts while the wealthier citizens formed the cavalry units. Sicels and Sikan soldiers also served in the force. Mercenaries provided archers, slingers and cavalry.
The Himera Campaign
Hamilcar chose not to sail to Selinus and then attack Akragas, although it was the coast closest to Carthage. The Carthaginian fleet, escorted by 60 triremes, sailed to Panormus instead. Hamilcar chose this course probably because restoring Terrilus was his primary objective. The conquest of Sicily, if that indeed was a consideration, took second place to his duty as a guest friend of Terrilus. The fleet was battered by storms at sea, losing the ships carrying the chariots and horses – which would be a significant factor in the coming battle. The Greek fleet, able to muster 200 ships, did not contest the crossing, and in fact played no part in the coming battle.
The Carthaginian Camps at Himera
Hamilcar spent three days reorganising his forces at Panormus, and repairing his battered fleet. The Carthaginians marched along the coast to Himera, with the fleet sailing alongside, and encamped near the city. Theron was already present in Himera with his army, but the Greeks did not interfere with Carthaginian operations. The Greek allies of Hamilcar (Greeks of Selinus and Anaxilas of Rhegion) were absent – and never joined the battle.
The city of Himera sits on top of a hill (300-400 feet high) on the western bank of the River Himera. The hill is steep in the northern, western and eastern sides but gradually slopes to the south. There are hills to the west and south of the city. The Carthaginians erected two camps near Himera. The sea camp was set to the north of Himera by the sea, surrounded by a palisade and a ditch. The army was billeted in a separate camp to the south on a low hill west of Himera. The land and sea camps were joined by siege works.
Theron’s Defeat and Gelo’s Arrival
It is not known if Hamilcar wished to build siege weapons at Himera or settle the issue through battle. After the camps were erected, the Punic ships dropped off provisions at the sea camp and were sent to Sardinia and Africa for more supplies. 20 triremes patrolled the sea, the rest of the ships were beached in the sea camp. Himera was not fully invested – the east and south sides were open.
Hamilcar led a picked body of men on reconnaissance mission, and defeated the Greeks in a pitched battle outside Himera. The Greeks blocked the west gates of Himera and their morale also fell, while the Carthaginian foragers ranged the territory of Himera. Theron sent messages to Gelo, who arrived with his army and encamped across the river. Gelon’s cavalry managed to capture many of the foragers, as Hamilcar had no cavalry present to counter his moves. The morale in Himera improved, and the bricked up gates were cleared on Gelo’s orders.
Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus give different versions of the battle, which are hard to reconcile. Diodorus provides a more detailed account.
Herodotus on Himera
The Greek and Punic armies fought from dawn to dusk, while Hamilcar watched the battle from his camp and offered sacrifices to Baal in a huge fire. No information on numbers, battle formation or battle site is given. When the Carthaginian army was routed towards dusk, Hamilcar jumped into the sacrificial fire. His body was never found and the Greeks erected a monument to his memory where he supposedly died. Herodotus noted that Sicilian tradition held that this battle and the battle of Salamis were fought on the same day.
Diodorus Siculus and Other Sources
The actions of the Greek cavalry in countering Carthaginian foragers prompted Hamilcar to send a letter to Selinus requesting them to send their cavalry to Himera on a given date that Hamilcar was to offer a sacrifice to Poseidon – a Greek deity whose worship probably required the presence of Greeks. The letter was intercepted by Gelo’s men. Gelo planned to use his own cavalry to impersonate the Selinute reinforcement and infiltrate the Carthaginian camp, while his army attacked the land camp.
Greeks Attack the Land Camp
Gelo’s horsemen left their camp on the night before the appointed day, and at daybreak these horsemen arrived at the Carthaginian sea camp and were admitted into the camp. Greeks spotted them inside the Carthaginian camp from Himera and signaled Gelo. It is not known if the Syracusan army was inside Gelo’s camp or had assembled somewhere outside at that time. The Greeks marched around the south end of Himera and moved towards the Carthaginian land camp. Theron and his army stayed put in Himera. The Carthaginian army left their camp and formed up on the hill, forcing the Greeks to fight an uphill battle. The struggle was fierce and long and neither side gained any advantages.
Death of Hamilcar
Sometime after the battle was joined, the disguised Greek horsemen killed Hamilcar while he was preparing the sacrifice, and then set fire to the beached ships, causing great confusion at the sea camp. It is not known what further role the Greek cavalry played in the battle. The Carthaginians rushed to launch whatever ships they could save and some of the ships, overcrowded with soldiers, left the site altogether. When the news of Hamilcar’s death and the burning of ships reach the fighting armies, the Greeks pressed harder and routed the Carthaginians, who fled to their camp.
In an alternative version, Gelo ordered Pediarchos, his captain of archers, to “dress as the tyrant” to impersonate him and offer sacrifices in front of the camp. Pediarchos was surrounded by archers who had concealed bows in their dress while he impersonated Gelo. Hamilcar was obliged to come out to offer sacrifices also, and the bowmen shot him down.
Theron Takes Action
Gelo’s army stormed the Carthaginian camp and the Greeks scattered to loot the tents. The Iberians of the Carthaginian army reformed, and they attacked the now disordered Greeks, inflicting severe casualties. The Greeks fought back, but they were hard pressed and the Iberians got the upper hand in the struggle. At this critical juncture Theron decided to join the battle. He directed his attack on the flank and rear of the Iberian position inside the camp and also set fire to tents near them. The Iberians finally gave way, and retreated to the ships still afloat. Other Carthaginian survivors left the camp and retreated to a hill inland, where they attempted to defend themselves. The hill was waterless and they were ultimately forced to surrender. About half of the Carthaginian army and majority of the fleet was destroyed, numerous prisoners and rich booty had fallen into Greek hands. It is commented that the surviving Carthaginian ships were sunk in a storm on their return journey to Africa.
Aftermath and Legacy
Gelo and Theron did not attack Rhegion or the Carthaginian territory in Sicily after the battle. Carthage initially manned the city walls and prepared for a Greek invasion of Africa, and did not renew the struggle either. Gelo offered mild terms to the Carthaginian embassy that arrived asking for a ceasefire. Carthage paid 2,000 silver talents as indemnity, erected two monuments in the memory of Himera, but lost no territory. Selinus and Rhegion also came to terms with Syracuse and Anaxilas married his daughter to Hieron I, brother of Gelo. The status quo before the battle was reestablished – Terrilus being the ultimate loser. Greek culture and trade flourished in Sicily. Gelo, Theron and Hieron built public buildings using the slaves and spoils gained from the battle, such as the Temple of Victory. An era of prosperity began, but infighting among the tyrants ensured that the peace was not unbroken. Carthage focused on expanding in Africa, leaving Sicily alone for 70 years. Apart from an obscure clash in 454 BC, the Greeks and Phoenicians left each other alone in Sicily.
Himera remained in the possession of Akragas until 472 BC. Theron expelled the Ionians after they attempted a coup and settled the city with Dorian Greeks. By 466 BC, the Sicilian Greek cities had broken away from the dominions of Gelo and Theron and had overthrown the tyrants’ heirs, so in place of three Greek power blocks dominating Sicily (those of Syracuse, Akragas and Rhegion), eleven bickering Greek commonwealths came into being by 461 BC. They continued the Ionic/Doric feud in full force in addition to threatening the native Sicilians. Their actions ultimately led to the “Second Sicilian War” and the final destruction of Himera in 409 BC.
During the construction of a railway extension in 2008, near the site of the ancient Greek colony of Himera, archeologists uncovered more than 10,000 graves. A number of those graves held the remains of 5th century BC soldiers.