Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

Carthage and Timoleon

I said in my last chapter that for twenty years and more after the death of Dionysius the story of Carthage is "almost a blank." We know, however, so much about her as to be sure that she was gaining strength in Sicily. The condition of the Greek cities in that island was going from bad to worse. Most of them had fallen into the hands of tyrants, and these tyrants were always intriguing or fighting against each other. Carthage all the while was steadily watching her opportunities and extending her power. In 344 she had become so dangerous that some Syracusan citizens, who had been banished by the younger Dionysius, son of the tyrant of that name of whom so much was said in the last chapter, resolved to call in the aid of Corinth. Corinth was the mother-city of Syracuse, and the tie between the two had always been close. The Corinthians listened to their request, and, as it happened, had at hand just the man who was wanted. Timoleon was one of the best and noblest of their citizens; but he was the most unhappy. He had had a terrible duty put upon him. A brother whom he had loved had tried to make himself tyrant in Corinth, and Timoleon had ordered him to be put to death, or, as some say, had killed him with his own hand. After this dreadful act done to save his country, he had shut himself up in his house. When the Syracusan envoys came with their request, he was glad to go, and his countrymen were glad to send him.

It was but a small force that Timoleon could get together for his enterprise—ten ships of war, and seven hundred mercenaries. The Carthaginians sent a squadron to intercept him. This he contrived to escape, and landed in Sicily. The tale of his wonderful achievements does not belong to my story. It must be enough to say that he gained possession of Syracuse, though one of his opponents had actually introduced the Carthaginians into that city; that he gave it free government, and that he did the same service to other Sicilian towns. To gain means for these enterprises he is said to have plundered the Carthaginian territory. However this may be, we may be sure that Carthage would not look upon these proceedings with favour. War was declared before long, and the Carthaginians exerted themselves to the utmost to meet their new enemy. They collected an army of 70,000 (it may be noticed that the numbers become smaller and more credible as we go on), well furnished with the artillery of the time, and supplied with abundance of provisions. As usual, this army consisted for the most part of mercenaries, but it contained also a numerous force—one historian puts it at ten thousand—of native Carthaginians. The fleet transported it safely to Lilybaeum, and it at once commenced its march eastward. Timoleon had but a small force with which to meet this great host. In Syracuse he could not raise more than three thousand; of mercenary troops, after he had sent away a thousand laggards and cowards, he had about as many more. But he boldly marched out with his six thousand, and found the enemy encamped on the river Crimessus.

It was nearly midsummer, and the heat of the sun had drawn up from the low ground near the river a thick fog. The Greeks could see nothing of the enemy's camp, but they could hear the confused hum of many voices rising up from it. As the sun grew stronger, the mist began to lift from the valley, though it still lingered on the hills; and as it cleared away the river could be seen, and the great Carthaginian army in the very act of crossing it, with the four-horse chariots in front, and after them a solid body of infantry, ten thousand in number, splendidly armed and bearing white shields. These were the native Carthaginians, and their march was orderly and slow. After them came the mixed crowd of hired troops, disorderly and unruly, struggling who should first cross the river. Timoleon saw his opportunity, while the army of the enemy was still divided, some being actually in the river, and some on the further shore. The native Carthaginians were just struggling up the bank and forming themselves in line, when the Greek cavalry fell upon them.. At first charge after charge was made in vain. The chariots of the enemy were driven furiously backwards and forwards in front of the army, and the Greek horsemen had to do their very best to prevent their own lines being broken by them; on the lines of the enemy they could make no impression. Timoleon, who had about him a small force of Syracusans and picked mercenaries, came up to the help of his cavalry. They were no longer, he said, to attack the front line of the enemy—that with that he would himself engage—but were to fall upon the flanks. Putting his men into as compact a body as possible, something, we may guess, like the phalanx with which the Macedonians won so many victories, he charged the enemy. But even he for a time could do nothing. The iron breastplates, the helmets of brass, the great shields which covered almost the whole of the body, resisted the Greek spears. At this moment fortune, or, as the Greeks would have said, Zeus the cloud-compeller, helped him. Suddenly a storm, with loud peals of thunder and vivid flashes of lightning, burst from the hills. The mist, which had been hanging about the heights, came down again upon the plain, and brought with it a tempest of rain and wind and hail. The Greeks only felt them behind; the Carthaginians had them dashing in their faces; the rain and hail and lightning blinded them; the thunder would not allow them to hear the words of command. Then the ground grew slippery beneath their feet; and the heavy armour became a hindrance rather than a protection. They could hardly move from place to place; they found it difficult to stand; when once they had fallen it was impossible to rise. Then came a new trouble. The river, partly swollen by the rain, partly, it is said, dammed back by the multitude of troops that were crossing it, overflowed its banks, and the heavy-armed Carthaginians stumbled and rolled about in the water. First the front line was cut to pieces; then the whole vanguard was broken; finally the army gave way. Many were cut down in the plain, many drowned in the river, and yet more intercepted by the light troops as they were attempting to reach the hills. Ten thousand lay dead upon the field, and of these no less than three thousand were Carthaginian citizens. The city had never suffered such a loss before. It was not now Africans or Spaniards, but her own children for whom she had to mourn.

Even after this crushing defeat the war was not at an end. The Greeks were, as usual, divided among themselves; and the enemies of Timoleon invited Carthage to continue the war, and promised their own help. Another battle was fought, and with the same result. Then Carthage asked for peace. It was granted on the condition that she should keep herself to the western side of the Halycus, and that she should not pretend to interfere with the government of the Sicilian cities.