Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

Carthage and Dionysius (406-405)

Hannibal's success in Sicily had encouraged the Carthaginians to hope that the whole island might yet be theirs. They resolved on making another expedition, and appointed Hannibal to the chief command. At first he declined the office, pleading his advanced age, but consented to act when Himilco son of Hanno, a kinsman of his own, was joined with him in the command. The two generals sent envoys to treat with the chiefs in Spain and the Balearic Islands; they went themselves to enlist troops among the African tribes and in the various Phoenician settlements along the coast. Mercenaries were also hired from other countries, and especially from Italy. The Italians in Hannibal's former army, thinking themselves badly treated by the general, had taken service with Syracuse and were, as their late general knew, a very formidable force. At last in 406—four years, i.e., after the first expedition—the invading force set sail. They numbered, on the lowest calculation, 120,000; one writer puts them down at nearly three times as many. They were carried across in more than a thousand transports; and these again were convoyed by a fleet of one hundred and twenty ships of war. The Greeks, taught by experience, were resolved not to be behindhand this time with their preparations for resistance. Forty Carthaginian ships had been sent on in advance to Sicily. Against these the Syracusans sent a squadron of equal strength. The two fleets met near the famous promontory of Eryx. After a long struggle the Greeks were victorious, and sank fifteen of the enemy's ships, the rest retiring to the African coast. Hannibal, hearing of the reverse, sailed out with fifty fresh ships. Before this new force the Syracuse squadron retired. It was now evident that the invasion could not be prevented.

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


All that remained was to make the best possible preparations for resisting it. Syracuse sent embassies begging for help to the Greeks in Italy and to Sparta, as well as to all the communities of the same race in the island. The city which felt itself most in danger was Agrigentum, the richest and most populous place in the island after Syracuse, and, indeed, scarcely inferior to that. The Agrigentines lost no time in preparing for defense.

They engaged Dexippus, a Spartan, who was then at Gela with a body of 1,500 soldiers, and they also hired the Campanian mercenaries, eight hundred in number, who in the former invasion had served under Hannibal. It was in May, 406, when the great Carthaginian host appeared before their walls. Hannibal began by offering conditions of peace. He proposed an active alliance; if this did not please the Agrigentines, it would be enough if they would be friendly to Carthage, but take neither side in the war which she was preparing to wage. The Agrigentines, unwilling to desert the cause of their countrymen, refused both offers. Then the siege began. The town had a very strong position, which had been carefully improved. It was built on a range of hills, rising in some places to the height of more than a thousand feet. On the slope of these hills a wall had been built, or, in some places, hewn out of the solid rock. Only one place was practicable for an assault. Against this the Carthaginian generals brought up their engines, especially two towers, from which they attacked the defending force upon the walls. The fighting lasted throughout the day without any result; at night the besieged sallied forth and burnt the enemy's engines.

Hannibal then determined to use the stones of the tombs—which, as usual, were outside the walls—to build mounds from which he might renew the attack. The most splendid of these tombs was the sepulchre of Theron, who had reigned in Agrigentum some eighty years before, and had borne a part in repelling the first Carthaginian invasion. While the men were busy in pulling it down it was struck with lightning. A religious panic followed. The sentinels declared that they were haunted by the spectres of the dead whose graves had been violated. A pestilence broke out in the camp. Great numbers died, and among them Hannibal himself, and the prophets declared that the gods were thus sharing their wrath at the impiety which had been committed. Himilco ordered that no more tombs should be pulled down. As an expiation of what had been done, he sacrificed a child to Saturn or Moloch, and threw a number of animals into the sea as an offering to Neptune. Meantime he pressed on the siege, damming up one of the rivers by which three sides of the town were surrounded. While he was thus engaged the relieving force arrived; it comprised auxiliaries from Magna Graecia (the name commonly given to the collection of Greek colonies in southern Italy) and from most of the Greek cities in the island.

The general's name was Daphnaeus, and he had with him thirty thousand infantry and five thousand cavalry. A squadron of thirty ships of war sailed along the coast, keeping pace with the army. Himilco sent against them his Spanish and Italian troops. A battle was fought on the western bank of the Himera, and was obstinately contested. In the end the Greeks were victorious, routing the enemy with the loss of six thousand men. The whole force indeed might, it was thought, have been destroyed but for the caution of Daphnaeus. Remembering how the men of Himera had been attacked and slaughtered in just such a moment of victory, he held back his men from pursuit. The same fear that Himilco, who of course had vast forces in reserve, might take them at a disadvantage, kept the Agrigentine generals from sallying forth upon the fugitives as they hurried past the walls. When the relieving force had entered the city, there was naturally much talk among the soldiers about the events of the day. Some loudly accused the generals of cowardice; others even declared that they had been bribed. The populace rushed to the market-place and held a public assembly, before which the Agrigentine generals were put upon their trial. Menes of Camarina, one of the leaders of the relieving force, was the chief accuser. The furious people would not listen to any defense from the accused. Four out of the five were seized and stoned to death; the fifth was pardoned on account of his youth.

At first Daphnaeus thought of attacking the Carthaginian camp; but the place was too strongly fortified, and he contented himself with scouring the roads with his cavalry and cutting off the supplies. The distress soon became very great; many died of starvation, and the mercenaries crowded round Himilco's tent, clamouring for their rations, and declaring that unless they were satisfied they would take service with the enemy. The general had just heard that the Syracusans were taking a convoy of provisions by sea to Agrigentum. His only hope of relief was in getting hold of this. He entreated the mutineers to wait for a few days, giving them meanwhile as pledges the costly drinking cups and plate of the Carthaginian officers. The Syracusan fleet had no expectation of being attacked, as Himilco had never attempted to claim command of the sea. They were taken by surprise and completely defeated. Eight of the ships of war were sunk, the others chased to the shore, and the whole of the convoy captured. This event changed the whole aspect of affairs. It was Agrigentum that was now in distress. Before long the Italian mercenaries in the city departed. They alleged that their time of service had expired; but it was said that Dexippus, their commander, had been bribed by the besiegers to tell them that there was no food in the city, and that they would find more profitable service elsewhere. That there was no food was too true; for when the generals came to examine the stores, they found that there was nothing to be done but at once to abandon the city.

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


That very night the plan was carried out. Guarded by the troops from the pursuit of the Carthaginians, the whole population of Agrigentum, with the exception of some who could not and others who would not leave their homes, crowded the road that led eastward to Gela. At dawn Himilco entered the city. It was one of the richest cities in Greece, and from its foundation three hundred years before it had never had an enemy within its walls. The houses were full of pictures and statues, of rich furniture, of gold and silver plate. The treasuries of the temple were rich with the offerings of many generations of worshippers. Himilco spared nothing. Everything that was valuable, sacred property as well as profane, was carried off.

The richest citizen of Agrigentum, unwilling to leave his native country, had taken refuge in the shrine of Athene. When he found that its sacredness would not protect him, he set it on fire and perished in the ruins. Himilco, who took the city just about mid-winter (i.e., eight months after his first landing in the island), occupied it till the spring of the following year. When he was ready to take the field again, he leveled the houses to the ground and defaced the temples. This done he marched against Gela, ravaged the country, which indeed there was no attempt to defend, and then assailed the city. Gela was for the time left to its own resources; it was neither so well placed nor so strongly fortified as Agrigentum. Still it held out bravely, the women, who had refused to be sent away to a place of safety, being conspicuous by their courage.

Meanwhile Dionysius, the Syracusan commander, had collected a relieving force numbering, to take the lowest estimate, thirty thousand infantry and a thousand cavalry, and accompanied by fifty decked vessels. With this he marched to the help of Gela, and pitching his camp between the Carthaginians and the sea, endeavoured to cut off their supplies. After twenty days' skirmishing, in which little good was effected, he determined to make an attempt upon the camp. The assault was to be delivered simultaneously from three places—from the sea, from the western side of the city, and from that part of the wall which was especially threatened by the siege engines. The seafront of the camp was the weakest; and here the attack, which was not expected, was successful for a time, and, but for the failure of the other movements, would probably have decided the day. The division that was to operate on the west was too late, for by the time it came into action the fight at the seafront was over. That which was told off to attack the siege-works, and was commanded by Dionysius himself, never came into action at all.

Nothing now remained but to leave Gela to the same fate which had overtaken Agrigentum and Himera—to abandon it to the fury of the enemy. This was done the same night, Himilco having been put off his guard by a request from Dionysius that he would grant a truce the following day for the burial of the dead. All that had strength for the journey left the city. Camarina was evacuated in the same way. Both cities were plundered and destroyed.

It now seemed as if the whole of Sicily were within the grasp of Carthage. The only first-rate town that remained to be conquered was Syracuse. We are inclined to ask, "Why did not Himilco march upon Syracuse after the fall of Gela and Camarina?" just as we shall be inclined to ask hereafter, "Why did not Hannibal march upon Rome after Cannae?" Doubtless he remembered that, a few years before, the most powerful expedition ever sent forth by a Greek state had been destroyed before the walls of this same city. It must have been difficult, too, to feed and pay so vast an army. But probably his strongest reason was the second breaking out of the plague. It had raged in his camp through the summer of the year before; and now that the hot weather had returned it probably broke out again. Anyhow we know that when he returned to Carthage he had lost half his army by sickness. Whatever the cause, he sent unasked to Syracuse envoys to treat for peace. Dionysius was only too glad to listen, and a treaty was concluded on these terms:

  1. Carthage was to keep her old settlements, and those of the Sicanian tribes.
  2. Selinus, Agrigentum, Himera, Gela, and Camarina, might be re-occupied by such of their old inhabitants as survived. But they were to be unwalled, and were to pay tribute to Carthage.
  3. Leontini, Messana, and the Sikel tribes, were to be independent.
  4. Syracuse was to be under the rule of Dionysius.
  5. Prisoners and ships taken by either party were to be restored.

Successful as the campaign had been it ended in disaster to Carthage. The army carried back the plague with it. Carthage and the neighbouring districts caught the infection, and multitudes perished.