What were the Sicilian Wars (580-265 BC)?


The Sicilian Wars, or Greco-Punic Wars, were a series of conflicts fought between Ancient Carthage and the Greek city-states led by Syracuse, Sicily, over control of Sicily and the western Mediterranean between 580 to 265 BC.

Carthage’s economic success and its dependence on seaborne trade led to the creation of a powerful navy to discourage both pirates and rival nations. They had inherited their naval strength and experience from their forbearers, the Phoenicians, but had increased it because, unlike the Phoenicians, the Punics did not want to rely on a foreign nation’s aid. This, coupled with its success and growing hegemony, brought Carthage into increasing conflict with the Greeks, the other major power contending for control of the central Mediterranean.

The Greeks, like the Phoenicians, were expert sailors who had established thriving colonies throughout the Mediterranean. These two rivals fought their wars on the island of Sicily, which lay close to Carthage. From their earliest days, both the Greeks and Phoenicians had been attracted to the large island, establishing a large number of colonies and trading posts along its coasts. Small battles had been fought between these settlements for centuries.

No Carthaginian records of the war exist today because when the city was destroyed in 146 BC by the Romans, the books from Carthage’s library were distributed among the nearby African tribes. None remain on the topic of Carthaginian history. As a result, most of what we know about the Sicilian Wars comes from Greek historians.


The Phoenicians had established trading posts all over the coast of Sicily after 900 BC, but had never penetrated far inland. They had traded with the Elymians, Sicani and Sicels and had ultimately withdrawn without resistance to Motya, Panormus and Soluntum in the western part of the island when the Greek colonists arrived after 750 BC. These Phoenician cities remained independent until becoming part of the Carthaginian hegemony some time after 540 BC.

Carthaginian Hegemony

Carthage created its hegemony in part to resist Greek encroachments in the established Phoenician sphere of influence. Phoenicians initially (750-650 BC) did not resist the Greek colonists, but after the Greeks had reached Iberia sometime after 638 BC, Carthage emerged as the leader of Phoenician resistance. During the 6th century BC, mostly under the leadership of the Magonid dynasty, Carthage established an empire which would commercially dominate the western Mediterranean until the 2nd century BC. The Phoenicians in Sicily and the Elymians had united to defeat the Greeks of Selinus and Rhodes near Lilybaeum in 580 BC, the first such recorded incident in Sicily. The next known Greek incursion took place 70 years later.

Greek Settlement

The Greek-colonised zone encompassing Sicily and southern Italy came to be known as Magna Graecia. The Greeks living in this area behaved pretty much like the mainland Greeks, expanding their political and commercial domain at the expense of their neighbours while keeping the feud between the Ionians and the Dorians alive. In Sicily, the Ionian Greeks on the whole had friendly relations with native Sicilians and the Phoenicians, but the Dorian Greek colonies were comparatively more aggressive, expanding inland from the coast at the expense of the natives to expand their domain. Conflicts among the Greek colonies and between the natives and Greeks had erupted, but these were mostly localised affairs. Trade also flourished between the natives, the Greeks and the Phoenicians, and the Greek 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

The Carthaginian Malchus is said to have “conquered all Sicily” and sent captured booty to Tyre some time after 540 BC, which probably meant that Motya, Panormus and Solus had fallen under Carthaginian control. The growth of Selinus and Himera during this period indicates the Carthaginians and Greeks did not confront one another at this time. Thirty years later Prince Dorieus, having lost the Spartan throne, showed up to colonise Eryx – after being expelled from Libya by Carthage in 511 BC following a three-year struggle.

Carthage aided Segesta to defeat the expedition of Dorieus in 510 BC – 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 the brother of Dorieus Leonidas of Sparta, famous for his role at Thermopylae in 480 BC. This episode 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. Two Greeks from Gela, Cleander and Gelo, had been involved in this war and they would become the catalysts of the events that followed.

Sicilian Greek Tyrants

While the events in western Sicily played out and Carthage remained engaged in Sardinia, most of the Greek colonies in Sicily fell under the rule of tyrants. The tyrants of Gela, Akragas and Rhegion, successfully expanded their respective dominions at the expense of native Sicilians and other Greek cities between 505 and 480 BC, with the Dorian city of Gela being the most successful.

Dorian Greeks become Dominant in Sicily

Cleander of Gela (505-498 BC) and his brother Hippocrates (498-491) successfully took over both Ionian and Dorian Greek territory, and by 490 BC, Zankle, Leontini, Catana, Naxos, besides neighbouring Sicel lands and Camarina had fallen under Gelan control. Gelo, successor of Hippocrates, captured Syracuse in 485 BC 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 had successfully taken over Sikan and Sicel lands under the tyrant Theron of Acragas (488-472 BC). To forestall any conflicts between Akragas and Syracuse, Gelo and Theron married into each other’s families, creating a united front against the Sicels and Ionian Greeks of Sicily. The major part of the resources and manpower of Greek Sicily was thus concentrated in the hands of these two aggressive tyrants, a threat to all other Sicilian powers.

Ionian Greeks Call on Carthage

To counter this Doric threat, Anaxilas of Rhegion from Italy, who had captured Zankle from Gelo in 490 BC, allied himself with Terrilus, the tyrant of Himera, and married his daughter. Himera and Rhegion next became allies of Carthage, the nearest foreign power strong enough to provide support. Selinunte, 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 in 483 BC, had played a part in this decision. Thus, three blocs of power were delicately balanced in Sicily by 483 BC – Ionians dominating the north, Carthage the west, Dorians the east and south. The Sicels and Sikans, sandwiched in the middle, remained passive, but the Elymians joined the Carthaginian alliance.

The First Sicilian War (480 BC)

Refer to the Battle of Himera (480 BC).

Carthage responded to the call for aid by Terrilus, tyrant of Himera, after Theron deposed him in 483 BC to set up an expedition to Sicily. Carthage could not ignore this imminent threat because the Gelo-Theron alliance was about to take over the whole of Sicily, and Hamilcar was a guest friend of Terrilus.

Carthage may have also chosen this time to attack because a Persian fleet attacked mainland Greece in the same year. The theory that there was an alliance with Persia is disputed, because Carthage neither liked foreign involvement in their wars, nor wanted to contribute to foreign wars, unless they had strong reasons to do so. But because control of Sicily was a valuable prize for Carthage and because Carthage fielded its largest military force to date, under the leadership of the general Hamilcar, Carthage was eager for war. Traditional accounts give Hamilcar’s army a strength of 300,000 men; this number seems unlikely because, even at its peak, the Carthaginian Empire would have only been able to muster a force of about 50,000 to 100,000 men. If Carthage had allied with Persia, they might have supplied Carthage mercenaries and aid, which the Persians undoubtedly had, but there is no evidence to support this cooperation between the Carthaginians and the Persians.

En route to Sicily, the Punic fleet suffered losses, possibly severe, due to poor weather. After landing at Ziz, the Punic name for Panormus, modern-day Palermo, Hamilcar was then decisively defeated by Gelo at the Battle of Himera, which was said to have occurred on the same day as the Battle of Salamis.

Hamilcar was either killed during the battle or committed suicide in shame. The loss caused changes in the political and economic landscape of Carthage, the old government of entrenched nobility was ousted, replaced by the Carthaginian Republic. The king still remained, but he had very little power and most power was entrusted to the Council of Elders. Carthage paid 2,000 talents as reparations to the Greeks, and did not intervene in Sicily for 70 years.

In Sicily, Carthage lost no territory and the Greeks gained none. Syracuse did not attack Rhegion or Selinus, allies of Carthage. The booty from the war helped to fund a public building program in Sicily, Greek culture flourishing as a result. Trading activity saw the prosperity of the Greek cities increase and the wealth of Akragas began to rival that of Sybaris. Gelo died in 478 BC and, within the next 20 years, the Greek tyrants were overthrown and the Syracuse-Akragas alliance fragmented into 11 feuding commonwealths under oligarchs and democracies. Their bickering and future expansionist policies led to the Second Sicilian war.

The Second Sicilian War (410-404 BC)

While the Greek cities in Sicily bickered and prospered for 70 years after Himera, Carthage had conquered the northern fertile half of modern-day Tunisia, and strengthened and founded new colonies in North Africa, such as Leptis and Oea, modern Tripoli. Carthage had also sponsored the journey of Mago Barca (not to be confused with Mago Barca, Hannibal Barca’s brother) across the Sahara Desert to Cyrenaica, and Hanno the Navigator’s journey down the African coast. The Iberian colonies had seceded in that year with the help of the Iberians, cutting off Carthage’s major supply of silver and copper.

In Sicily, Dorian-Greek Selinus and Ionian-Greek (former Elymian) Segesta renewed their rivalry. Selinus encroached on Segestan land and defeated the Segestians in 416 BC. Carthage turned down their plea for help, but Athens responded to the Segestan plea and the Sicilian Expedition sent by Athens was destroyed in 413 BC by the joint effort of the Sicilian cities with Spartan aid. Selinus again defeated Segesta in 411 BC. This time Segesta submitted to Carthage, and a Carthaginian relief force sent by Hannibal Mago helped Segesta defeat Selinus in 410 BC. Carthage sought to end the matter diplomatically while assembling a larger force.

After a round of diplomacy involving Carthage, Segesta, Selinus, and Syracuse failed to bring about a reconciliation between Segesta and Selinus, Hannibal Mago set out for Sicily with a larger force. He succeeded in capturing Selinus after winning the Battle of Selinus, then destroyed Himera after winning the Second Battle of Himera despite Syracusan intervention. Hannibal did not press on to attack Akragas or Syracuse, but returned triumphantly to Carthage with the spoils of war in 409 BC.

While Syracuse and Akragas, the strongest and richest cities of Sicily, took no action against Carthage, the renegade Syracusan general Hermocrates raised a small army and raided Punic territory from his base Selinus. He managed to defeat the forces of Motya and Panormus before losing his life in a coup attempt in Syracuse. In retaliation Hannibal Mago led a second Carthaginian expedition in 406 BC.

This time the Carthaginians met with fierce resistance and ill-fortune. During the Siege of Akragas the Carthaginian forces were ravaged by plague, and Hannibal Mago himself succumbed to it. Himilco, his successor, captured and sacked Akragas, then captured the city of Gela, sacked Camarina and repeatedly defeated the army of Dionysius I, the new tyrant of Syracuse. The plague struck the Carthaginian army again, and Himilco agreed to a peace treaty that left the Carthaginians in control of all the recent conquests, with Selinus, Thermae, Akragas, Gela and Camarina as tributary vassals. Carthaginian power was at its peak in Sicily.

The Third Sicilian War (398-393 BC)

By 398 BC, Dionysius had consolidated his strength and broke the peace treaty, commencing the Siege of Motya and capturing the city. Himilco responded decisively, leading an expedition which not only reclaimed Motya, but also captured Messina.

Finally, he laid siege to Syracuse itself after decisively defeating the Greeks in the naval Battle of Catana. The siege met with great success throughout 397 BC, but in 396 BC plague again ravaged the Carthaginian forces, and they collapsed. Carthage lost her new Greek conquests but retained control over the western territories and the Elymians. No treaty was signed between the belligerents to signal the end of the war.

Dionysius soon rebuilt his power and sacked Solus in 396 BC. He was engaged in eastern Sicily during 396-393 BC, including the Siege of Tauromenium (394 BC). At this time, Carthage was occupied in Africa dealing with a rebellion. In 393 BC, Mago, successor of Himilco, led an attack on Messina, but was defeated near Abacaenum by Dionysius. Reinforced by Carthage, Mago led another expedition through central Sicily, but ran into trouble near the River Chrysas. Dionysius also faced difficulties of his own, and a peace treaty was concluded that basically ensured Carthage and Syracuse left each other alone in their respective spheres of influence.

The Fourth Sicilian War (383-376 BC)

Dionysius opened hostilities again in 383 BC. Mago allied with the Italiot league led by Taras and landed in force at Bruttium, forcing Syracuse into a two front war. Details of the first four years of campaigns are sketchy, but in 378 BC Dionysius defeated Mago in Sicily in the Battle of Cabala. Carthage, also faced with rebellions in Africa and Sardinia, sued for peace. Dionysius asked Carthage to evacuate all Sicily, so war was again renewed, and Himilco, son of Mago, destroyed the Syracusan army at the Battle of Cronium in 376 BC. The subsequent peace treaty forced Dionysius to pay 1000 talents as reparations and left Carthage in control of Western Sicily.

The Fifth Sicilian War (368-367 BC)

Dionysius again attacked Punic possessions in 368 BC, and laid siege to Lilybaeum. The defeat of his fleet was a severe setback. After his death in 367 BC, his son Dionysius II made peace with Carthage, and Carthage retained her Sicilian possessions west of the Halcyas and Himeras rivers.

The Sixth Sicilian War (345-341 BC)

Carthage became embroiled in Syracusan politics in 345 BC, and her forces managed to enter the city at the invitation of one of the political contenders. The commander Mago bungled the affair, retreated to Africa and killed himself to escape punishment. Timoleon assumed power in Syracuse in 343 BC and started raiding Carthaginian possessions in Sicily. The Carthaginian expedition to Sicily was destroyed in the Battle of the Crimissus in 341 BC. The following peace treaty left Carthage in control of territories west of the Halcyas river.

The Seventh Sicilian War (311-306 BC)

In 315 BC Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse, seized the city of Messana, present-day Messina. In 311 BC, he invaded the last Carthaginian holdings on Sicily, which broke the terms of the current peace treaty, and he laid siege to Akragas. Hamilcar, grandson of Hanno the Navigator, successfully led the Carthaginian counterattack. He defeated Agathocles in the Battle of the Himera River in 311 BC. Agathocles had to retreat to Syracuse while Hamilcar won control over the rest of Sicily. In the same year, he laid siege to Syracuse itself.

Pyrrhic War (278-276 BC)

Refer to the Pyrrhic War (278-276 BC).

After Agathocles sued for peace, Carthage enjoyed a brief, unchallenged period of control of Sicily, which ended with the Pyrrhic War. The Sicilian Pyrrhic expedition, the second phase of the Pyrrhic War (280-265 BC), which ultimately led to the Punic Wars, can be considered the ultimate part of the Greek-Punic wars. Pyrrhus of Epirus arrived in Sicily to rescue the island from the Carthaginians. He conquered Palermo, Eryx and Iaitias but his siege of Lilybaeum failed. So he returned to Italy. Rome, despite its close proximity to Sicily, was not involved in the Sicilian Wars of the 5th and 4th centuries BC because of its focus on local conflicts in Latium during the 5th century BC and its conquest of Italy proper during the 4th century BC. Rome’s later involvement in Sicily ended the indecisive warfare on the island.


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