Carthaginian-Syracusan War (481-480 B. C. E.)

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“First Battle of Himera, 480 BC”, Giuseppe Rava

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First Battle of Himera 480 BC. A generic representation, not to exact scale, geographic features partially shown and path of troop movements and dispositions are indicative because of lack of primary source data.

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Carthage vs. Syracuse

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Syracuse

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Carthage’s efforts to impose hegemony over southern Italy and the western Mediterranean

OUTCOME: Carthage’s forces were defeated.

CASUALTIES: Hamilcar Barca of Carthage killed himself after his army’s defeat and enslavement; the Carthaginian navy was destroyed; totals for Syracuse forces unknown.

TREATIES: Formal treaty unknown. Carthage was forced to pay an indemnity to Syracuse.

By the dawn of the fifth century B. C. E., Carthage had established itself as the predominant power in the Mediterranean. Situated in North Africa, Carthage controlled all of southern mainland Italy as well as the western Mediterranean. Carthage’s hopes for total hegemony in the region lay in conquering the island of Sicily. If the Carthaginians had designs on domination in the Mediterranean, so Persia, under Xerxes (c. 519-465), had designs on Greece. Xerxes persuaded the Carthaginians to launch an invasion against Sicily, and, more important Syracuse, the powerful city-state on the island, thus keeping the powerful Greek colony occupied while Xerxes launched his colossal invasion against Greece itself. The Carthaginians readily agreed, as it was their intention to invade anyway.

In 481 a massive Carthaginian force under Hamilcar Barca (d. 480) embarked for Sicily while Xerxes launched his offensive of some 200,000 troops, perhaps the greatest force yet assembled in the world. The Carthaginians landed at Palermo and marched to the Syracusan city of Himera, laying siege to the city with a combined force of Libyans, Campanians, Sikels, Iberians, and even a few Greeks. However, Gelon (c. 540-478), the king of Syracuse and an evil tyrant, intercepted a Carthaginian communiqué to some mercenary cavalry and sent his own troops in disguise. This left Hamilcar’s flank completely exposed. The Syracusans crushed Hamilcar’s forces at Himera and then torched the Carthaginian fleet in Himera’s harbor. Hamilcar, who had conducted sacrifices to the gods throughout the battle, allegedly made himself the last sacrifice by self-immolation.

The Carthaginian defeat at Himera was a major disaster. The entire fleet lay at the bottom of Himera harbor, thousands of troops were taken into slavery, and the Carthaginian economy suffered a severe blow as it watched massive amounts of silver, paid as indemnity, fuel an economic renaissance in Sicily. Syracuse stood at the height of its power and maintained its position of dominance for 70 years before the Carthaginians exacted a harsh revenge under the legendary general Hannibal (d. 406)

Further reading: Serge Lancel, Carthage: A History (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995); Gilbert Charles Picard, Carthage: A Survey of Punic History and Culture from Its Birth to the Final Tragedy (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1991); Brian H. Warmington, Carthage, rev. ed. (New York: Praeger, 1969).