Greeks defeated the Carthaginian invasion of Sicily.
Xerxes, “king of kings,” ruler of the vast Persian Empire, prepared well for his revenge against the Greeks. Not only did he amass the largest army the world had ever seen with the logistics to match, he also sought allies to help crush the Greeks from the west as he struck from the east. His ambassadors found the Carthaginian Empire in North Africa most receptive. For centuries Carthage had contested the rule of Sicily with the Greek colonies there. The benefit of a Persia-Carthage alliance was obvious: pressure the Greeks in the east and west simultaneously to prevent them from shifting forces to meet each threat, thereby denying them the advantage of occupying an interior strategic position.
Thus as Xerxes assembled his masses, the Carthaginians gathered their strength on an unprecedented scale. Fifty thousand men, 200 warships and a huge swarm of supply ships gathered in the great harbor of Carthage (near modern-day Tunis). The young men of Carthage flocked to join the expedition, and its aristocracy went nearly en mass. Large numbers of mercenaries were recruited in Italy, Spain and Gaul. To command this expedition, the Carthage council chose Hamilcar, a general of great renown.
However, even before the armada reached Sicily, bad luck struck. A storm sank most of the transport ships carrying the army’s horses and chariots. The fleet made harbor at the Carthaginian city of Panormus (modern-day Palermo, Sicily), where repairs were made. Three days later, Hamilcar marched west along Sicily’s north coast, heading for the city of Himera. Founded in the seventh century B.C., Himera was a growing threat to the Carthaginian settlements in the north and west of the island.
Yet Himera was only a first step. The Greeks of Sicily and southern Italy were divided into many independent cities, and chief among them was Syracuse. Its ruler, Gelon, was a man of remarkable ability and guile, much appreciated by the Syracusans for his good government and integrity. If the Carthaginians could break Syracuse, the other Greeks would panic and come to terms.
Theron, ruler of Akragas, a major Greek city on the southwest coast of Sicily, arrived with his army to aid the Himerans. The Greeks sallied from Akragas but were soundly beaten by Hamilcar and suffered heavy losses. Theron then sent urgent pleas to Gelon for help. Fortunately for the Greeks, the two rulers were on the best of terms.
Gelon marched immediately, gathering allies along the way. The Sicilian Greeks were known for their cavalry, and soon Gelon’s mounted force grew to 5,000. Leading the advance, Greek cavalry overran thousands of Carthaginians who were dispersed ravaging the countryside. Clearly, the loss at sea of Hamilcar’s horses – depriving the Carthaginians of cavalry – was beginning to tell.
Gelon observed that the Carthaginian army was camped directly west of Himera while the enemy’s naval camp was to the north along the shore. At that moment a golden opportunity fell into his hands as his cavalry intercepted a courier from the Greek city of Selinos, which was on friendly terms with the Carthaginians. In the courier’s possession was a request from Hamilcar for the Selinians to send him a cavalry force to arrive on the day he was to conduct a major offering to the god Baal at the naval camp.
At dawn on the appointed day of the sacrifice, Gelon’s cavalry arrived from the direction the Selinians had been expected, and the cavalrymen were admitted into the camp. They immediately slew Hamilcar in the midst of his ceremony and then burned the camp along with the Carthaginian ships pulled up onto the shore.
Gelon received a signal reporting his cavalry’s success and ordered his army forward to attack the enemy camp west of Himera. The Carthaginian commanders, unaware that Hamilcar was dead, formed the army to meet the Greek host. The fighting was long and bitter, with neither side giving way until the report of the burning naval camp and the news of Hamilcar’s death reached both armies. The Carthaginians broke. Thousands were slaughtered as they fled since Gelon had ordered “no quarter.” About half of the original Carthaginian force found refuge on a hilltop several miles inland.
While Gelon’s men were looting the camp, the Carthaginians’ Spanish mercenaries counterattacked and nearly defeated the Syracusans. At that moment, Theron led his men from Himera to the rescue. The Carthaginian survivors on their waterless hill surrendered. Gelon’s victory was one of the most complete in all of military history. All the members of the Carthaginian land force either perished at Himera or spent the rest of their lives in slavery building temples to Greek gods.
The warships had all been burned, save a covering force of 20 vessels, all but one of which sank in a storm returning to Carthage. The single ship was all that remained of the enormous expedition. So panicked were the Carthaginians by the enormity of the disaster that they begged terms from Gelon, who gave them better ones than they had expected, demanding merely a payment of 2,000 talents in silver. Nevertheless, the power of Carthage in Sicily was broken for 70 years.
The two main sources for the Battle of Himera are histories written by Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) and Diodorus Siculus, a Sicilian Greek (circa 60-30 B.C.). Although both claimed that Himera fell on the same day as a major battle against Xerxes’ Persians, Diodorus claimed it happened on the last day of the Battle of Thermopylae (late summer), while Herodotus claimed it occurred on the same day as the naval Battle of Salamis (September). However, whether the victory at Himera coincided with Thermopylae or Salamis, it magnified the major Greek triumph of 480 B.C.
Peter Tsouras is the author of 26 books on military history. He served in the Army and Army Reserve and worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency until retiring in 2010 to devote himself to writing, his roses and his grandchildren.
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Armchair General.