Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

Hamilcar and Hannibal

Sicily would naturally be the place in which Carthage would first seek to establish a foreign dominion. At its nearest point it was not more than fifty miles distant; its soil was fertile, its climate temperate; it was rich in several valuable articles of commerce. We have seen that, in the treaty which was made with Rome about the end of the sixth century B.C., the Carthaginians claimed part of the island as their own. It is probable that this part was then less than it had been. For more than two hundred years the Greeks had been spreading their settlements over the country; and the Greeks were the great rivals of the Phoenicians. If they were not as keen traders—and trade was certainly held in less estimation in Athens, and even in Corinth, than it was in Tyre and Carthage—they were as bold and skillful as sailors, and far more ready than their rivals to fight for what they had got or for what they wanted. The earliest Greek colony in Sicily was Naxos, on the east coast, founded by settlers from Euboea in 735. Other Greek cities sought room for their surplus population in the same field; and some of the colonies founded fresh settlements of their own. The latest of them was

Agrigentum on the south coast, which owed its origin to Gela, itself a colony of Cretans and Rhodians. As the Greeks thus spread westward the Carthaginians retired before them, till their dominions were probably reduced to little more than a few trading ports on the western coast of the island. As long, indeed, as they could trade with the new comers they seemed to be satisfied. They kept up, for the most part, friendly relations with their rivals, allowing even the right of intermarriage to some at least of their cities.

But in point of fact they were only waiting their opportunity, and the opportunity came when the Persians invaded Greece for the second time. Some historians tell us that it was agreed by the two' powers that a combined effort should be made, that, while Persia was attacking the mother-country of Greece, Carthage should attack its important colonies in Sicily. Others insist that there is no proof of any such agreement having been made. It is not easy to see what proof we could expect to find. But there is nothing, I think, improbable about it. The Phoenician admirals in the service of the Great King who had refused to obey Cambyses when he ordered them to sail against their kinsmen in Carthage, may very well have managed a matter of this kind. Anyhow it is clear that Carthage knew that the opportunity had come, and eagerly seized it. One of the family of Mago, Hamilcar by name, was appointed commander-in-chief. He set sail from Carthage with a force which, when it had been joined by auxiliaries gathered from. Sicily and elsewhere, amounted, it is said, to three hundred thousand men. There would have been even more had not the squadron which conveyed the chariots and the cavalry been lost in a storm. The number is probably exaggerated—the numbers in ancient history are seldom trustworthy—but we may take as genuine the list of the nations from which the army was recruited. The land-force consisted, we hear, of Phoenicians, Libyans, Sardinians, Corsicans, Iberians, Ligyes, and Helisyki. The first four names need little explanation. The Phoenicians were native Carthaginians and men of kindred race from the mother-country of Phoenicia, from Cyprus, and from other settlements on the Mediterranean shore. Sardinia, we know from its mention in the treaty of 509, belonged to Carthage; Corsica had probably been since acquired. The Iberians were Spaniards, over whose country Carthage was gaining some influence. The Ligyes were the Ligurians from the northwest of the Italian peninsula; the Helisyki may have been Volscians, neighbours of Rome on the southeast and for some time its most formidable enemies.

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


Hamilcar reached Panormus (now Palermo) in safety with the main body of his fleet. "The war is over," he is reported to have said, thinking that only the chances of the sea could have saved Sicily from such an army as his. At Panormus he gave his army three days' rest, and repaired his ships. Then he marched on Himera. There he dragged his ships on shore, and made a deep ditch and a rampart of wood to protect them. His forces he divided between two camps. The crews of his fleet occupied one, his soldiers the other. The two covered the whole of the west side of the city. A force from the city which encountered his advance guard was driven in, and Theron, the tyrant of Agrigentum, who had been appointed to take command of the garrison by Gelon of Syracuse, the most powerful monarch in the island, sent off in hot haste for help to his chief. Gelon had everything ready, and marched at once with an army far greater than any other Greek state could then have raised, fifty thousand infantry and five thousand horse. After thoroughly fortifying the camp which he had pitched near the city, he sent out his cavalry to attack the foraging parties of the Carthaginians. These suffered a signal defeat; and the people of Himera now grew so confident that they actually threw open the gateways which, in their determination to make a desperate resistance, they had at first bricked up.

The conclusive battle was not long delayed, and Gelon is said to have won it by the help of a curious stratagem. His scouts had intercepted a letter from the people of Selinus to Hamilcar, in which there was a promise that they would send on a day named a force of cavalry to his assistance. Gelon instructed some of his own horsemen to play the part of the cavalry of Selinus. They were to make their way into the naval camp of the Carthaginians, and then to. turn against their supposed allies. A signal was agreed upon which they were to show when they were ready to act. Gelon's scouts were posted on the hills to watch for it, and to communicate it to the main body of his army in the plain. The fight was long and bloody; it lasted from sunrise to sunset, but the Carthaginians had lost heart, and the Greeks were confident of victory. No quarter was given, and by night, one hundred and fifty thousand men (it must surely be an impossible number!) had fallen. The rest fled to the hills, and were there compelled by want of water to surrender to the people of Agrigentum. Of the fate of Hamilcar nothing was ever certainly known. Some said that he had been slain by the pretended allies from Selinus; others that, being busy with a great sacrifice at which the fire was piled high to consume the victims whole, and seeing that the fortune of the day was going against him, he threw himself into the flames and disappeared. His body was never found, but the Greeks erected a monument to his memory on the field of battle; and the Carthaginians, though never accustomed to be even commonly just to their beaten generals, paid him, after his death, honours which it became a custom to renew year by year. The rest of the story is curiously tragic. Twenty ships had been kept by Hamilcar to be used as might be wanted, when the rest of the fleet was drawn up. These and these only escaped out of the three thousand vessels of war and commerce, which Hasdrubal had brought with him. But even these did not get safe home. They were overtaken by a storm, and one little boat carried to Carthage the dismal news that their great army had perished.

The city was over whelmed with dismay and grief. An embassy was at once sent to Gelon to beg for peace. Peace was granted, but on hard conditions. Carthage was to pay a ransom of two thousand talents, to build two chapels in memory of the event, and, one writer tells us, to abolish the hideous practice of human sacrifices. If this last condition was ever agreed to, it was certainly not kept.

It has been said, and one would like to believe, that the great battle of Himera, by which the Greek colonies in Sicily were relieved from the pressing fear of Carthage, was fought on the very same day on which the Persians were defeated at Salamis.

Carthage could not have been long in recovering from this loss, for we find her able soon afterwards to dictate a treaty to Rome, but she did not meddle with Sicilian affairs for many years. But in 410 a Sicilian town, Egesta, invited her aid against their neighbours of Selinus. Both towns were near the Carthaginian settlements; and it was possible that these might suffer, if Selinus, which was said to be the aggressor, were allowed to become too powerful. But probably the desire to avenge the defeat of seventy years before was the chief reason why Carthage promised the help that was asked. It so happened, too, that Hannibal, grandson of the Hamilcar who had perished at Himera, was the senior of the two first magistrates of the city. He had been brought up in exile—for Gisco, his father, had been banished after the defeat of Himera—and at this very city of Selinus. "He was by nature," says the historian, "a hater of the Greeks," and he did all he could to persuade his countrymen to undertake the war.

After some negotiations which came to nothing, Hannibal sent a force of 5,000 Africans and 800 Italian mercenaries to Sicily. The army of Selinus, which was busy plundering the territory of their enemies, was surprised, and lost a thousand men and all the booty which it had collected. Selinus now sent to Syracuse to beg for help, and Egesta, on her part, made a fresh appeal to Carthage. This appeal was answered in a way that took the Sicilians by surprise. Hannibal had collected a great force of Spaniards and Africans. This he carried to Sicily in a fleet of as many as 1,500 transports, escorted by sixty ships of war. It numbered, according to the smallest estimate, 100,000 men, and was furnished with an abundance of all the engines used for sieges. The general lost no time. Without a day's delay he marched upon Selinus, invested it, and at once began the assault. Six towers of wood were brought up against the walls; battering-rams headed with iron were driven against them, while a multitude of archers and slingers showered arrows and stones upon their defenders. The fortifications had been allowed, during a long period of peace, to fall out of repair; and the Italian mercenaries were not long in forcing their way in. These were driven out again with great loss, and for a time the assault was suspended. The besieged sent their swiftest horsemen to beg for instant help from Syracuse, Gela, and Agrigentum. It was promised, but while it was being prepared Hannibal was pressing his attack with the utmost fury. A great part of the wall was thrown down by the battering-rams; but the people of Selinus still fought with the courage of despair. For nine days and nights the struggle went on, every street, almost every house, being fiercely contested. At last the numbers of the barbarians overpowered resistance. Between two and three thousand of the armed men escaped; about twice as many of both sexes were made prisoners; the rest were massacred. As many as sixteen thousand bodies are said to have been counted.

At the very time when Selinus was taken, the advance guard of the Syracusan army reached Agrigentum. They tried to make terms with the conquerors. An embassy was sent to Hannibal, begging him to ransom the prisoners and respect the temples of the gods. Hannibal replied, "The men of Selinus have not been able to keep their freedom, and must make trial of slavery. As for the gods, they have left Selinus, being wroth with its inhabitants.' To a second embassy, headed by a citizen who had always been on friendly terms with Carthage, he made a gentler answer. The survivors might return, dwell in their city and till their lands, paying tribute to Carthage. The walls were razed to the ground, and according to some accounts, the whole city was destroyed. To this day the ruins of the temples show the marks of the crowbars by which the columns were overthrown.

But Selinus was not the real object of Hannibal's expedition. That was to be found elsewhere, at Himera, where, seventy years before, his grandfather had perished. To Himera, accordingly (it lay on the opposite, i.e.  the north coast, of the island) he marched without delay. Forty thousand troops he posted at some distance from the city, probably to deal with any relieving force from the other Greek cities. With the rest of his army, now increased by twenty thousand auxiliaries from the native Sicilians, he surrounded the walls.

He did not intend, however, to wait for the slow operation of a blockade, but attacked the town as fiercely as he had attacked Selinus. The walls were battered and undermined, and more than one breach was made in them. At first he was repulsed. The people of Himera fought with all the courage of their race, and they had the help of four thousand soldiers from Syracuse and elsewhere. The Carthaginians were driven back, and the breaches repaired. This success emboldened them to attack the besiegers. Leaving a sufficient force to guard the walls, they sallied forth, and fell on the hostile lines. Taken by surprise, the Carthaginians gave way. Their very numbers were against them, for they were too closely thronged to be able to act, and suffered almost more, says the historian, from each other than from the enemy. The assailants, who numbered about ten thousand, were roused to do their best by the thought of their helpless kinsfolk, women and children and old men, who were watching them from the walls. At first it seemed as if Himera was to be another Marathon. As many as six thousand of the besiegers (to take the smallest and most reasonable computation) were slain. But the pursuit was pushed too far. Hannibal brought down his army of reserve from the hills on which it had been posted, and fell upon the victorious Greeks. A fierce fight ensued, but the people of Himera and their allies were overpowered. The main body of them retreated into the city, but three thousand were unwilling or unable to leave the field, and, after performing prodigies of valour, perished where they stood.

At this crisis came twenty-five Syracusan ships of war, which had been taking part in the war then being carried on between Athens and Sparta. At first they were full of hope. It was rumoured that, besides the ships, the Syracusans were coming to their help with a levy en masse. But then came a most disquieting report. Hannibal was filling, it was said, his own ship with the picked troops of his army, and intended to fall upon Syracuse when that city should be stripped of its able-bodied men. The Syracusan commander dared not stay at Himera in the face of this alarm. The ships of war must, he said, sail home at once. But they would take as many of the helpless population of Himera as they could hold. The offer was accepted; for dreadful as it was thus to leave their homes, it was the only hope of escape that the poor creatures had. The ships were fled till they could hold no more. Then the Syracusan general marched out of the town in such haste, we are told, that he did not even stop to bury his own dead. Many of the inhabitants who could not be received on board the ships accompanied him on his march, preferring this to waiting for the return of the fleet; for this was to come back and carry off the rest of the population.

It was well for them that they did so. The next day the Carthaginians renewed the assault. The besieged were sadly reduced in numbers and weary, for after the battle of the day before they had spent the night in arms upon the walls. Still they held out. All that day the battle was kept up. On the morrow the ships came back, but at the very moment of their coming in sight a great part of the wall was broken down by the battering-rams, and the Spaniards in Hannibal's army rushed in. A general massacre followed, and was continued till Hannibal issued strict orders that all that remained were to be taken alive. It was no feeling of mercy that prompted these orders. The women and children were divided among the conquerors; the men were taken to the spot where Hamilcar had been last seen alive, and there to the number of three thousand cruelly slaughtered, an expiatory sacrifice to the spirit of the dead. Himera itself was utterly destroyed. The walls and houses were razed to the ground; the temples were first plundered and then burnt.

The rest of the Greek cities in Sicily must have trembled lest the fate which had fallen on Selinus and Himera should overtake themselves. But for the time, at least, their fears were relieved. Hannibal had done what he came to do, had avenged the defeat of Himera, the death of his grandfather, and his father's exile, and he was satisfied. He sent the native Sicilians who had joined him to their homes, dismissed many of his mercenaries, and, after leaving sufficient force to hold the territory which he had occupied, carried the rest of his army to Carthage. He brought with him much spoil and many trophies, and his countrymen received him with the highest honours. He had won in a few weeks' time victories that surpassed all that had ever been gained by Carthage before.