Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

Carthage and Dionysius (397)

We have seen that the rule of Dionysius in Syracuse was one of the articles of the treaty of 405. Such foreign support, of course, did not tend to make him popular, and as soon as he felt himself strong enough, he threw it off. In 397 he called an assembly of the Syracusans, whom he was then doing his best to conciliate, and proposed war against Carthage. "Just now," he said, "Carthage is weakened by the plague; but she has designs against us which she will carry out on the first opportunity. We had better deal with her before she has recovered her strength." The people greatly approved the proposal; all the more because Dionysius allowed them to plunder the property of Carthaginian citizens who were residing in Syracuse, and the ships of Carthaginian merchants that happened to be in harbour. News of what had been done spread over the island, and produced something like a massacre. Carthage had used her victory cruelly, and her misdeeds were now remembered against her. Carthaginian rule was oppressive, especially in the amount of tribute which was exacted; and Carthaginian habits and ways of life seem to have been particularly offensive to the taste of the Greeks. The result was a rising in the Greek cities which had been made tributary by the last treaty. Most of the Carthaginian residents perished. The example of the Greeks was soon followed by the native Sicilians, and in a very few days the dominions of Carthage in the island were reduced to her strongholds on the western coast.

All this happened before war had been formally declared. This declaration Dionysius did not omit to make. He sent envoys to Carthage with a message: if she would restore freedom to the Greek cities of Sicily she might have peace; otherwise she must prepare for war. For war Carthage was but ill prepared. The losses of the last campaign, and of the pestilence which had brought it to an end, had been terrible. Still it was impossible to accept the condition which had been offered, and the government prepared to resist. Of money, at least, they had an unfailing supply, and with money they could always purchase men. Some members of the council were at once sent off with large sums to hire mercenaries in Europe.

Dionysius, probably without waiting for the return of his envoys, marched to the west of the island. His object of attack was Motya, the chief harbour and arsenal of Carthage in Sicily. He was joined on his way by the whole force of all the Greek cities, and his army numbered eighty thousand infantry and upwards of three thousand cavalry, while he had a fleet of two hundred ships co-operating with him. Motya was strongly situated on an island divided from the mainland by a channel six furlongs broad. This channel was ordinarily crossed by a mole. But the mole could be removed in time of necessity, and this was at once done. Dionysius, after reconnoitring the place in company with his engineers, set about a siege. The harbour and all the shore were blockaded, and the channel, or at least part of the channel, was filled up, so that the engines might be brought up to the walls of the city. On the other hand, Himilco, who had been put in command of the Carthaginian force, was not idle. He sent ten ships from Carthage to Syracuse itself, and destroyed much of the shipping in the harbour. He then made a more formidable attack on the besieging force at Motya. Taking command in person of a squadron of a hundred ships he crossed by night from Carthage to Selinus, and sailing thence along the coast appeared at daybreak off Motya, sank or burnt the blockading squadron, and made his way into the harbour. The Greek ships were drawn up on land, and Dionysius did not venture to launch them. The harbour was too narrow for him to use his numbers with advantage. But he constructed a road of planks across a neck of land which divided the harbour from the sea, and made his men drag his ships along this. When Himilco endeavoured to interrupt the work he was driven off with showers of missiles from the Syracusan force on land, and by the arrows discharged by the catapults. Catapults were a new invention at the time, and probably caused something of the consternation which is felt by savages at the first sight of firearms. Himilco, whose fleet was only half as strong as that opposed to him, did not venture to give battle, but returned to Carthage.

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


The attempt at relief having thus failed, Dionysius pushed the siege vigorously. The walls were battered with the rams, while the catapults, with a constant discharge of arrows, drove the garrison from the walls. Towers were wheeled up against the fortifications. They had six stories, each of them filled with men, and were as high as the houses of the town. The people of Motya, on the other hand, defended themselves vigorously. They raised great masts with yard-arms, from which men, protected from the missiles of the besiegers by breastworks, threw ignited torches and bundles of flax steeped in pitch on the engines that were being used against the walls. Some of these were set on fire, and the assailants had to turn their attention to extinguishing the flames. Still the attack went on, and before long the rams made a breach in the wall. A fierce battle followed. The Greeks burned to avenge the cruelties that had been done to their countrymen; the Phoenicians, who could hope for no mercy, and who had no way of escape open to them either by sea or land, resisted with the courage of despair. When they had to give up the walls, they made barriers across the streets, and defended every house as if it had been a fort. The Greeks brought their siege-towers into the streets, and from them made their way into the upper stories of the houses. Still the people of Motya did not lose courage, but fought with a resolution which reminds us of the Jews when they defended Jerusalem against the Romans under Titus. The Greeks suffered heavily in this street fighting. Their opponents were utterly reckless of their lives, and they knew the place where they were fighting. At last a stratagem succeeded where force had failed. For several days the Greeks had retired from the conflict as evening approached, the signal for retreat being given by a trumpet, and the people of the town came to regard this as the regular course of things. But one night Dionysius sent a picked force to renew the attack after dark. This detachment established themselves in some of the houses before the besieged were aware of what had happened; the rest of the army poured across the channel now filled up, and Motya was taken. One of the horrible massacres which make these wars so terrible followed. Dionysius tried in vain to stop it, not so much from any feeling of mercy, as because prisoners might be sold for slaves, and would bring in considerable sums of money. The soldiers paying no heed to his orders, he made proclamation that such of the inhabitants as still survived should take shelter in the temples. This was effectual. The soldiers then began to plunder. This Dionysius did not attempt to hinder. Wishing to encourage his men for the campaign which lay before them, he gave up to them all the booty in the town. To the leader of the party which had surprised the town he made a present of about 400, and was liberal in his gifts to all who had distinguished themselves.

Carthage meanwhile had been preparing a formidable force with which to re-establish her dominion in Sicily. It amounted to one hundred thousand men, taking again, as being the most probable, the smallest estimate. Thirty thousand more joined it after it had landed in Sicily. Himilco was appointed to the command. Aware that Dionysius had his spies in Carthage, he gave to the captain of each transport sealed orders directing them to sail to Panormus. They were attacked on their way by a Syracusan squadron, which sank fifty of their number, and with them five thousand men and two hundred chariots. Himilco then came out with his war-ships, and the Syracusans retired. The Carthaginian general marched along the coast to Motya, and recovered it without any difficulty. Dionysius did not venture to attack him, but retired to Syracuse.

Himilco now conceived a very bold scheme, nothing less than to make his way to Messana, in the extreme northeast of the island. It had an admirable harbour, capable of holding all his ships, which numbered more than six hundred. It was near the mainland of Italy, from which he hoped to draw fresh forces, and it commanded the approach from Greece. He marched along the north coast, his fleet accompanying him, and pitched his camp at Pelorum, the extreme north-eastern point of Sicily, which was about twelve miles from the city. The Messanians were struck with terror. Their walls were out of repair; they had no allies at hand, and part of their own military force was absent at Syracuse. The first thing was to send away the women and children and the most precious of their possessions. Then they prepared for defense. Some were encouraged by remembering an old oracle, "The sons of Carthage shall bear water in the streets of Messana," which they took to mean that there should be Carthaginian slaves in their city. They sent a military force to the spot where Himilco was encamped, with instructions to resist any attempt to occupy the country. Himilco at once sent a squadron of two hundred ships to attack the town, which would now, he reckoned, be almost stripped of defenders. An opportune north wind carried the ships rapidly to their destination—more rapidly than the Messanian soldiers could follow them. Himilco's hopes were fulfilled. His ships landed the troops which they carried. These made their way into the city through the spaces in the walls, and the place was captured almost without a struggle. Some of the Messanians fell in a vain attempt at resistance; many took refuge in the neighbouring forts; two hundred and more had recourse to the desperate expedient of swimming the strait between their city and Italy. Fifty succeeded in the attempt. Himilco, after trying in vain to capture the forts, marched on Syracuse.

His first object was the city of Catana, which lay on the southern slopes of Mount Aetna. His original plan was to march his army along the coast, with the fleet keeping pace with it. But this plan could not be carried out. A severe eruption of Aetna took place at the very time of his march, and the stream of lava which poured down the eastern or seaward slopes of the mountain made it necessary for him to make a circuitous march round the western side.

Dionysius at once took advantage of this division of the Carthaginian forces, resolving to attack the fleet while it was unsupported by the neighbourhood of the army. He marched with his own army along the seacoast nearly as far as Catana, while Leptines, the Syracusan admiral, sailed alongside with the fleet. Mago, who was in command of the Carthaginian ships, felt at first no little dismay at the sight of the combined force which was coming to meet him. He had, however, no alternative but to fight; and indeed his fleet was a very powerful one, numbering, along with the transport ships, which were furnished with brazen beaks for purposes of attack, as many as five hundred ships. The Syracusan admiral, who probably bore the character of being too adventurous, had been strictly ordered by Dionysius to keep his fleet in close order, and on no account to break the line. It was only thus that he could hope to hold his own against the superior numbers of the enemy. These orders he disregarded. Picking out thirty of his fastest sailers, he advanced far ahead of the rest of the fleet, and boldly attacked the Carthaginians. At first he was successful, sinking many of his antagonists But the numbers which were brought up against him were overwhelming. It became more and more difficult to manoeuvre; at close quarters, when it was possible for the enemy to board, one ship, however skillfully commanded, was not much better than another. Before long Leptines was glad to escape to the open sea with such of the ships as were left to him. The rest of his fleet, who had thus lost the leadership of their admiral, and who came on in disorder, made but little resistance to the enemy. More than a hundred ships were taken or destroyed. Nor was the near neighbourhood of the army on shore of much service to those who tried to escape from the wrecks. The Carthaginians had manned a number of boats which intercepted the fugitives, and slaughtered them in the water before the eyes and within the hearing of their countrymen. More than twenty thousand men are said to have been lost by the Greeks in this battle.

Dionysius was strongly urged to meet Himilco at once before the news of the disaster to the fleet had become known through Sicily. At first he was inclined to follow the advice. But more cautious counsels prevailed, and he retreated on Syracuse. This was probably a mistake. Not only did he disgust many of his allies, but he lost an opportunity of inflicting a great blow on the enemy. Immediately after the battle bad weather came on, and the Carthaginian fleet could not keep the sea. Had the Greek army still occupied their position on the shore they might have inflicted immense damage on their opponents. As it was, Himilco came up with his army in time to assist his fleet. His own ships, and those which had been captured from the Greeks, were drawn up on the shore and repaired. The men had some days given them for rest and refreshment; and he then marched on to Syracuse. Before starting for this last stage he sent envoys to the little town of Aetna, where the Italian mercenaries of Dionysius were strongly posted, inviting these troops to change side and take service with himself. They were strongly inclined to do so, but could not. They had given hostages to their master, and their best troops were actually serving in his army. They were thus compelled to refuse the offer, and Himilco was obliged to leave them' in his rear.

On arriving at Syracuse his first step was to make a great demonstration of force. He sailed into the Great Harbour with all his fleet. There were more than two hundred ships of war, which he had adorned with the spoils of those captured off Catana, and nearly two thousand others of all kinds and sizes. The harbour, though measuring more than a mile and a half one way and two miles and a half the other, was absolutely crowded with them. The army is said to have numbered three hundred thousand; but this is doubtless an exaggeration. Altogether the display of force was overwhelming, and the Syracusans did not venture to show themselves outside either their harbour or their walls.

The Carthaginian general prepared to blockade the city, building three forts, which he stored with wine and other provisions. His merchants were sent at the same time to Sardinia and Africa to fetch new supplies. Dionysius, on the other hand, sent to Greece and Southern Italy in the hope of collecting a force of volunteers and mercenaries.

The tide of success now began to turn against Carthage. One of Himilco's corn-ships was approaching his camp when five of the Syracusan ships sallied forth from the Inner Harbour and captured it. The Carthaginians sent out a squadron of forty ships to drive off the assailants. On this the Syracusans manned their whole fleet, attacked the hostile squadron, sinking twenty-four out of the forty, and capturing the admiral's ship. They then paraded their force in front of the Carthaginian position, and challenged the invaders to a general engagement. The challenge was not accepted.

And now, for the third time, pestilence, the old ally of the Greeks, appeared to help them. Himilco had shown himself as careless of the religious feelings, not only of his foes, but also of his friends, as his predecessors had done. He had broken down the tombs outside the city to get materials for his forts, and he had robbed such temples as, being without the line of fortifications, had fallen into his hands. One specially rich and famous shrine had been thus treated, that of Demeter and Persephone. It was to this impiety that the disasters were generally attributed; but the natural causes at work were sufficient to account for them. An enormous force was crowded together. It was the most unhealthy season of the year; and the heat of the summer, that was now coming to an end, had been unusually great. The plague that now broke out in the army seems, from the description that the historian gives of it, to have been much of the same type as the disease now known by that name. It began with swellings, and ended, after a most painful illness of five or six days, almost invariably in death. The danger or the fear of infection prevented due attention to the sick, or even the burial of the dead. We are told that as many as one hundred and fifty thousand corpses at one time lay rotting on the ground. The marvel is, if this or anything like this be true, not that so many died, but that so many survived.

The Syracusans did not fail to take advantage of the distress of the invaders. Dionysius planned a simultaneous attack by sea and land. Leptines, with a Spartan officer, was put in command of a squadron of eighty ships, and Dionysius himself directed the movements of the troops. He marched out of the city at night, and delivered an unexpected attack about daybreak on the landward side of the Carthaginian camp. At first he suffered a reverse; but this he had fully planned, for it enabled him to get rid of a body of disaffected mercenaries. Put in the front, and deserted by the troops which should have supported them, they were cut to pieces by the Carthaginians. But when Dionysius advanced in force, these, in their turn, were driven back; and one of the forts was captured. Meanwhile the Syracusan ships attacked on the other side. The Carthaginian ships were but ill manned, a great part of their crews having doubtless perished in the plague. Anyhow they suffered a crushing defeat, and the army, weak itself, and distracted by the assailants on the other side, could give them no very effectual help. Many of the ships were deserted. To these the Greeks set fire. The flames spread from vessel to vessel till nearly the whole of the fleet, both war-ships and merchantmen, was in a blaze. They even spread to the camp, which itself was, at least in part, consumed. In short, the victory of the Syracusans was complete, and Dionysius encamped that night near the temple of Zeus, in which Himilco had lately had his headquarters.

Reduced to these straits, the Carthaginian general resolved to open communications with Dionysius personally, and without the knowledge of the people of Syracuse. He offered three hundred talents if he would allow him to remove to Africa what was left of his army. Dionysius replied that it would be quite impossible to conduct so extensive an operation as the removal of the whole of the army without exciting the suspicion of the people. But Himilco himself and the Carthaginian officers would be allowed to escape. He was not anxious to push the Carthaginians to extremities. Their friendship might be useful to him on some future occasion, for his own power was not very firmly established, and he had more than one proof of late that there was a strong party at work in Syracuse to overthrow it. Himilco accepted these terms. It was arranged that he and the other native Carthaginians should depart secretly on the fourth night following, and Dionysius led back his army to the city. The money was duly sent, and at the time appointed, Himilco, with his officers and friends, and such of his troops as belonged to Carthage, embarked. They filled, it is said, forty ships of war. Their escape did not pass unnoticed. News of what was going on was taken to Dionysius. As he seemed to be tardy in his movements, the Corinthian ships that were in harbour acted for themselves, pursued the fugitives, and captured some of the worst sailers in the squadron.

The army that was thus shamefully abandoned by its general fared, perhaps, better than might have been expected. The native Sikels at once left the camp, and thus anticipating the attack of the Syracusans, reached their homes for the most part in safety. The Spaniards offered such a bold front to their enemies, that Dionysius was glad to take them into his own service. The rest of the army surrendered, and were sold as slaves.

Himilco did not long escape the punishment which was due to his treachery and cowardice. All Carthage was plunged into mourning by the terrible disaster which had happened. Every house, every temple, was closed; all rites of worship were stopped, and private business was suspended. The city crowded to meet the ships which were bringing back Himilco and his followers, and inquired the fate of friends and relatives. When the whole truth was known, a cry of wailing went up from the crowd. The general himself landed from his ship clad in the meanest garb. Stretching his hands to the sky, he bewailed aloud the disasters which had fallen on himself and on his country. The only consolation which he could offer was that he had been conquered not by the enemy, but by the will of heaven. At the same time he publicly confessed his own impiety, and took the blame of what had happened on himself. After visiting every temple in the city with this confession on his lips, he went to his own house, blocked up his doors, and, refusing admission even to his own children, starved himself to death.

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


The misfortunes of Carthage were not yet at an end. She had seemed to be on the point of subduing all Sicily, and indeed only one, city remained to be taken; and within a few months she had to fight for her own existence. Her African allies and subjects, with whom she seems to have been exceedingly unpopular, rose by one consent against her. An army numbering one hundred and twenty thousand was soon raised. They made their headquarters at Tunes, and for a while, so superior was their strength, kept the Carthaginians within their walls. For a time the city was in despair. Besides the visible dangers that threatened, the people dreaded the anger of heaven. Their general had grievously insulted the gods of Greece. He had made a dwelling-house of one temple at Syracuse, and had robbed another. The government at once set itself to calm these fears. The offended gods, especially Demeter and Persephone, who had never before been worshipped in Carthage, were propitiated by sacrifices in Greek fashion, which the handsomest youths of Greek race that could be found were appointed to perform. This done, they applied themselves to the business of defending the city. And indeed the danger was soon over. The hosts that threatened them were nothing more than irregular levies, who could not agree among themselves, and who had no leaders worthy of the name. Provisions soon failed them, for they had no ships, whereas the Carthaginians had command of the sea, and could import as much food as they wanted from Sardinia. Nor was it only in this way that their vast wealth served them. They used it also to buy off some of their most formidable enemies. In the course of a few months the great Libyan army broke up, and Carthage was safe.