Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

Carthage and Agathocles

Timoleon died in 337; for twenty years and more there was peace in Sicily; then the Greeks fell out among themselves. Carthage was called in to help one of the parties. Timoleon had restored Syracuse to freedom; but it had fallen again into the hands of a tyrant, Agathocles. Thousands of the citizens had been banished by the usurper; and these, under the leadership of a certain Deinocrates, made a treaty with Carthage. In 309 a powerful expedition set sail for Sicily. There was a contingent of native Carthaginians numbering two thousand, among whom were some of the noblest-born of the citizens, African and Italian mercenaries; and a thousand slingers from the Balearic Islands. Its start was unlucky. A great storm sank sixty of the ships of war, and more than two hundred transports, and the rest of the fleet reached Sicily in a sadly battered condition. It was easy, however, to find recruits in the island, and Hamilcar, who was in command, had soon under him an army of 40,000 infantry and 5,000 horse. Agathocles met him at a place famous in the history of Sicilian wars, the river Himera. The battle that followed began well for the Greeks. Some troops which Agathocles had put in ambush near the river fell upon a Carthaginian detachment as it was crossing the stream, laden with plunder, and drove them in confusion to their camp. Their commander thought it a good opportunity for a general attack. At first everything went well; the Greek army assaulted the Carthaginian camp, and at one time seemed likely to take it. Then the fortune of the day changed. The Balearic slingers were brought into action, and killed and wounded many of the assailants. These still kept up the attack, but at this moment appeared a fresh squadron from Africa, and took them in the rear. The defenders of the camp took fresh courage; the attack was finally repulsed, and soon changed into a rout. Five miles of level ground lay between the two camps; the Carthaginian cavalry could act on this with freedom, and they made dreadful havoc among the fugitives. Another cause, and this a strange one, increased the Greek loss. The battle was fought in the heat of summer and at midday. Many of the fugitives had made for the river rather than for their camp, and they reached it in a state of raging thirst. The water was salt, or at least strongly brackish, but they drank greedily of it, and with fatal results. Many unwounded corpses were found upon the banks. The total loss of the Greeks was seven thousand, that of the Carthaginians not more than five hundred. Agathocles shut himself up in Gela, hoping thus to divert Hamilcar's attention from Syracuse, where the people would then gain time to gather in their harvests. The Carthaginian general began the siege, but seeing that he had little chance of taking the place, soon changed his plan. His first step was to win over the other Greek cities by kind treatment and liberal offers. Many of them joined him; their own danger was imminent, and they hated Agathocles.

Reduced to the last extremity, for nearly all Sicily, with the exception of Syracuse, was lost to him, this extraordinary man conceived one of the boldest devices which history records. He determined to transfer the war to Carthage itself. That city, he knew, was not prepared for an attack, and its African subjects were always ill-affected, and he believed, and rightly believed, that it could be best attacked. This scheme he kept a profound secret. The measures that he took for carrying it out were most skillful, and, it must be added, most unprincipled. He began by choosing the force which he was to take with him most carefully. The greater part of it was cavalry. Horses he had no means of transporting to Africa, but he hoped to find them there, and the men were ordered to furnish themselves with bridles and saddles. He had to guard against a revolution in Syracuse during his absence; and he was careful to take hostage for good behaviour from all the most powerful families in the city; putting one brother, for instance, in the garrison, and enlisting another in his own army. Then he wanted money. He gave notice that any citizen who might be unwilling or unable to endure the hardships of a siege was at liberty to depart. The offer was accepted by numbers of the rich. They had the means of living elsewhere, and they hated the rule of the tyrant. They were accordingly permitted to depart, and to take their property with them. But Agathocles sent some of his mercenaries after them. The unhappy men were robbed and murdered, and the tyrant found himself amply provided with means.

He then embarked his force, which filled sixty ships of war. The first necessity was to avoid the blockading squadron, which was much stronger than his own. Just at the right time a fleet of corn-ships appeared off the harbour. The Carthaginians left their post to pursue them, and Agathocles took the opportunity to get out of the harbour. For a time the Carthaginian admiral expected an attack, thinking that the Syracusan fleet had come out to fight for the corn-ships; then seeing that it was sailing in the other direction, he gave chase. The result was a double success to Agathocles. The corn-ships got safely into harbour, and relieved the city, which was already beginning to suffer from scarcity; and the squadron, which had got a considerable start, escaped. The escape, indeed, was a narrow one. The race lasted for five days and nights. On the morning of the sixth day the Carthaginian fleet unexpectedly appeared close at hand. Both sides strained every nerve; but the Greeks won the race. They reached the land first, but the foremost of the Carthaginian ships were close upon them. In the skirmish that followed these were too weak to act with any effect, and Agathocles not only landed in safety, but was able to fortify a camp, close to which he beached his ships.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


But he had in his mind a yet bolder stroke. He burnt his ships. Forced thus to give up all hope of escape, the army must now conquer or perish. At first they were in despair; but Agathocles did not give them much time to think about their situation. He led them to attack a district in which the wealthiest citizens of Carthage had their farms and country houses. It was a region of rich pastures, of olive-yards and vineyards, and the Sicilians were astonished at the plenty which they saw. Two towns fell easily into their hands, and their despair was soon changed into confidence. At Carthage there was the utmost dismay. It was commonly believed that the whole force in Sicily had perished, for no one could suppose that Agathocles could have ventured to leave Syracuse in danger and attack Africa. Some were for treating for peace; others advised delay till the truth could be found out. When news of what had really happened arrived, they were, of course, greatly encouraged, and prepared to attack the invaders.

In the first battle that took place, it is interesting to see the list of combatants on either side. Agathocles, besides his own Syracusans, had Samnites, Etruscans, and Celts (probably Gauls) in his army. The whole amounted to about eleven thousand, but many of them were insufficiently armed. There was no little discouragement among them, and the result seemed doubtful. The day, indeed, might have gone in favour of Carthage but for the misfortune of the death of ore of her generals, and the treachery of another. The two Suffetes of the year were Hanno and Bomilcar. Hanno was in command of the Sacred Band of native Carthaginians. Eager to break the opposing line, where Agathocles himself was in command, he exposed himself too rashly, and was killed. Bomilcar had designs of making himself a tyrant in Carthage, and felt that the defeat of the invaders would not help him in his object. He seems even to have had a treacherous understanding with the enemy. To his own officers he pretended that the death of his colleague made it necessary to retreat. The Carthaginian mercenaries soon took to flight; the Sacred Host held its ground for a long time, but was at last compelled to retreat. The camp fell into the hands of the Greeks.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


Agathocles continued his successes, and carried the war almost up to the walls of Carthage. Meanwhile things had been going well with him at Syracuse. Hamilcar had made a night attack upon the city, had failed, and had been taken prisoner. His head was cut off, and sent to Agathocles in Africa. Carthage suffered defeat after defeat in a series of battles, which it would be tedious to relate. At last the people found out one cause, at least, of their ill-fortune. Bomilcar had all along been playing the part of a traitor. He now thought that the time was come for seizing the prize of absolute power which he had always had in view. He ordered a review of the troops in the city, When it had been held, he dismissed all that were not pledged to support him. Keeping the remainder, five hundred native Carthaginians and five thousand mercenaries, he proclaimed himself king, and commenced a massacre of all his opponents. If Agathocles outside the walls had known of what was going on, and had arranged an attack for the same time, Carthage was lost. The battle in the streets raged fiercely. Bomilcar and his adherents forced their way into the market-place. But the place could not be held. It was surrounded on all sides by lofty houses, which were occupied by the friends of the government, and from which showers of javelins were discharged on the revolters. Bomilcar was compelled to retreat into the New City. Finally a truce was agreed to. An amnesty was promised, and the rebels laid down their arms. But Bomilcar was too dangerous a person, and had done too much harm, to be allowed to escape. The rulers of Carthage, never much troubled by scruples, moral or religious, broke their oath and crucified him. The tide of success did not turn at once. Agathocles took Utica, the largest of the Phoenician cities in Africa after Carthage, and a number of other towns, till Carthage was almost stripped of allies and subjects.

Agathocles was now recalled by urgent affairs to Syracuse. He left his son Archagathus in command of the African army. Archagathus was too ambitious, and undertook enterprises, especially against the wandering tribes of the interior, for which his strength was not sufficient. Carthage, on the other hand, was now under wiser rule. The army was divided into three corps, each of which carried on separate operations against the invaders. Archagathus suffered a great defeat under the walls of the city, and was also weakened by the revolt of many of his allies. His father now returned from Sicily, and for a time restored the balance. But an attack on the Carthaginian camp proved to be a failure.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church

Then occurred a strange succession of changes of fortune. The Carthaginians, in celebrating their last victory after their own hideous fashion with human sacrifice, set fire to their camp. When the confusion was at its highest, some African mercenaries, who had taken service with Agathocles, deserted to the Carthaginians. Their approach was taken as an hostile attack, and a general panic followed. When the mistake was discovered, some were admitted into the city, and there made the very same panic among the Greeks which they had just made among the Carthaginians. Agathocles lost more than four thousand men through this mishap. His African allies now left him, and he began to despair of success. He had no hope of being able to get terms from the enemy, and no means of carrying away his army. His plan was to depart secretly, taking the younger of his two sons with him. But Archagathus the elder discovered the scheme, and revealed it to the army. The soldiers, furious at the thought of being thus deserted, mutinied, seized Agathocles and put him in chains. Everything was now in disorder. Finally, Agathocles contrived to escape from confinement, and to make his way to Sicily. The army being thus abandoned, revenged itself by murdering his sons, and then made peace with Carthage. They gave up all the towns which they had captured, and received three hundred talents, a free passage for such as wished to go, and service in the army of Carthage for such as preferred to remain. The city had been besieged for four years. It was now safe, and, indeed, seems to have soon recovered her old strength. A few years afterwards we find her helping her old enemy Agathocles—in return, no doubt, for substantial advantages—to make himself supreme over Sicily.

The last Greek antagonist with whom Carthage had to deal might well have been the most formidable of all. Pyrrhus, king of Epirus (modern Albania), was of the kindred of Alexander the Great, through Alexander's mother, Olympias. He had conceived a scheme of conquest which should be like that achieved by his famous kinsman. But as Alexander had gone eastward, so he would go westward. His famous conversation with his philosophical adviser will show us what were his plans, and I will give it, as Plutarch tells it, in dialogue form:

CINEAS. The Romans, my lord Pyrrhus, are said to be great warriors, and to rule over many nations. If, by the favour of God, we conquer them, what use shall we make of our victory?

PYRRHUS. That is an easy question to answer. There will be no city, Greek or barbarian, that, if Rome be once conquered, will be able to withstand us. We shall certainly gain the whole of Italy, of the greatness, excellence, and wealth of which you, of all men, cannot be ignorant.

CINEAS (after a brief silence). After gaining Italy, what shall we do next?

PYRRHUS (not yet seeing his drift). Close to Italy is Sicily, stretching out her hands to us, a wealthy island and a populous, and easy to subdue. Since the death of Agathocles it has been all confusion, for lack of government in the city and the folly of them that lead the people.

CINEAS. That is like enough. When we have conquered Sicily, shall we come to an end of our wars?

PYRRHUS. Heaven prosper our undertakings so far! Well, then, who would not go on to Africa and Carthage, Carthage which will then be in my grasp? Did not Agathocles, though he had to run away, so to speak, from Syracuse, with only a handful of ships, come very near to taking it?

We are not concerned just now with the rest of the conversation, or with the moral which Cineas drew from it. It was a splendid plan, and Pyrrhus was one who had all the genius that was wanted to carry it out. Hannibal, no mean judge in such a matter, thought him the greatest general that had ever lived. But the beginning of his great enterprise was the hardest part of it—too hard, indeed, for him to accomplish. He spent his strength in vain on Rome. He defeated her armies, but he could not conquer her. Rome, we may say, saved Carthage from conquest. These two were to fight for the mastery of the West.

His own dealings with Carthage may be briefly told. After two campaigns in Italy, in which he had won much glory but little else, he passed over into Sicily in the spring of 278. The Greek cities had invited him to come; they wanted him to help them against their old enemy Carthage. At first he carried everything before him, but Carthage offered him a large sum of money and a fleet which should co-operate with him in his enterprises. He refused these terms. Nothing, he said, would satisfy him—and we cannot but admire his fine feeling for the honour of the Greek name—but that Carthage should quit the island altogether and make the sea the boundary between Greece and herself. After this his good fortune left him. The Greeks grew weary of their ally. They plotted against him, and he retaliated with severities which made them hate him still more. Then he failed in an attempt to storm the fortress of Lilybaeum; and even his reputation as a soldier was damaged. At last there was nothing left for him but to go. "How fair a wrestling ring," he said, as he looked back from his ship upon the island; "how fair a wrestling ring, my friends, are we leaving to Rome and Carthage!" In the fourth part of my story I shall tell the tale of this wrestling match.