Diodorus’ account of the relationship between the Carthaginians and the cult of Demeter and Core was in fact very partial. The goddesses had long been worshipped by the Punic population of Sicily as fertility and underworld deities, and it was most likely from this source that the cult had first come to Carthage. Core, in particular, became a ubiquitous presence on Carthaginian coinage. The two goddesses were two of the most popular motifs of the Punic world–especially on terracotta incense-burners, where they were depicted wearing concave headdresses in which perfumed pellets were placed. Indeed, within a very short period of time during the fourth century BC the cult would also proliferate across other Punic areas of the western Mediterranean, such as the rural shrine of Genna Maria in Sardinia, where the worship of Demeter was clearly amalgamated with that of indigenous deities. What is also clear is that, despite Diodorus/ Timaeus’ insistence to the contrary, this was no mere replication of the Greek cult, but one that had already been mediated through the extensive cultural and religious borrowings that had been taking place between the diverse communities that inhabited the island of Sicily, before being tailored to the diverse religious needs of its adherents across the Punic world.

Then there was the syncretistic figure of Heracles–Melqart, who became increasingly popular in Carthage during the third century BC. Of particular significance are a series of engraved bronze hatchet razors (a traditional part of the Punic funerary assemblage) dating to this period and found in the cemeteries that ringed the city. Although the images that were engraved on many of the blades of these hatchets show traditional Levantine representations of Melqart dressed in a long tunic and headdress, with a double-sided axe resting on his shoulder, new representations of the god had also begun to appear. Indeed, one particular example shows Heracles complete with a lionskin, a club and a hunting dog at his feet, in the classic iconography of the hero that had developed in the Greek cities of southern Italy. Yet, as the French scholar Serge Lancel has rightly observed, this was really only an ‘Italianate veneer’ on Punic Melqart. For on the reverse side of the blade was an image of Ioloas, Heracles’ nephew and companion, holding a branch from the kolokasion plant in one hand and a quail in the other. This was a Greek interpretation of the Phoenician/Punic rite of egersis. The story, preserved by the Greek writer Athenaeus, summarizing a story told by an earlier fourth-century Greek author, Eudoxius of Cnidus, told how ‘Tyrian’ Heracles lay dying and was soothed by his faithful companion with the leaves from the kolokasion plant, before being brought back to life by the smell of roasting quail meat. Another hatchet razor dating to the third century BC found in Carthage displays a possible Sardinian connection, with an engraving of Heracles naked under his lionskin leaning on his club on one side of the blade, while on the other side Sid, wearing a plumed headdress, spears a kneeling figure wearing a breastplate and a short tunic.

Thus, rather than proving the existence of an unbridgeable divide between Greek and Punic populations in the West, Timaeus and the other Sicilian Greek historians used by Diodorus represented a shrill xenophobic reaction to the growing political, cultural and religious syntheses that governed not only their home island, but also the whole central Mediterranean. For Timaeus in particular, the attraction of this model of ethnic conflict between Greeks and barbarians was clearly the result of his long absence from Sicily and the continually shifting compromises and allegiances that made up the political landscape there.

Depiction of a bust possibly belonging to Agathocles


Despite the fact that these sweeping generalizations bore little resemblance to the geopolitical realities on the ground, they did increasingly have an impact on the local Sicilian potentates who were Carthage’s rivals on the island: much better to portray oneself as the saviour of western Hellas from oriental barbarism than as yet another feuding warlord. After Alexander’s untimely death, his generals had quickly divided up his vast dominions in Asia, Europe and Egypt, and many bullishly adopted the heroic public persona of the Great King. As Peter Green has remarked, ‘They stood long after his death, in his [Alexander’s] tremendous shadow still. He made them what they were: and however consciously they might try to jettison his alleged ideals . . . their fierce ambitions forced them to follow where he had led.’

Beneath the top tier of the diadochi–the senior Macedonian military commanders who had carved up the great empire between them–was a jostling group of minor princes, junior officers and other adventurers, many with the most tenuous connections to Alexander. Self-conscious about their peripheral position on the fringes of this gilded world, some ardently desired to be included in the dazzling club of A-list Hellenistic monarchs. Such a figure was Agathocles, a dashing cavalry commander with a shady past that included spells in exile and as a mercenary captain, who had risen to autocratic power in Syracuse in the 320s through popular demagogy and military thuggery. Like Gelon and Dionysius, Agathocles would use the almost continuous round of warfare that he provoked with the Carthaginians as a way to consolidate his regime.

The conscious connection that had been made by Alexander between his great victories in the East and the earlier Persian invasion of Greece (at first he mooted his campaigns in Asia as a revenge mission) also breathed new life into the perennial conflict between Carthage and Syracuse. Once more the totally erroneous but seductive idea that the Sicilian wars were a western extension of the age-old struggle between the civilization of Greece and the dark forces of the barbarian East would have renewed capital. Throughout a long and eventful career, Agathocles consistently chose to present himself as the western heir to Alexander. His coinage, like that of other post-Alexander Greek leaders, self-consciously reproduced the motifs favoured by the Great King of Macedon and self-styled Lord of Asia. A century later, the Roman playwright Plautus would mockingly refer to Agathocles’ desperation to ape the imagery and antics of Alexander.

However, Agathocles’ talent stretched to more than an ability to present himself as the heir to Alexander in the West. Carthage’s long sojourn on Sicily meant that many Sicilian Greeks had a very good knowledge of Carthaginian military institutions. Indeed, one of Agathocles’ most potent weapons was his understanding of Carthage and his awareness of the tensions that existed between the city and its army in Sicily. Carthage’s use of mercenaries to fight its wars engendered a feeling of suspicion towards its generals, and the ruling elite in particular felt threatened by the perceived unconstitutional ambitions of the men who were sent to command the Carthaginian armies. During the fourth century BC it appears that Carthage’s generals, particularly in Sicily, had acquired a wide range of powers that allowed them to operate with a certain amount of autonomy while on campaign, including the authority to negotiate for peace and to form alliances (although it is likely that these agreements then needed to be formally ratified by the Council of Elders, who also approved the resupply of armies). Indeed, such was their mandate for independent action that the fourth-century-BC Athenian politician Isocrates was moved to comment that the Carthaginians were ‘ruled by an oligarchy at home, by a king in the field’.

Although these generals were drawn from Carthaginian ranks, they had been chosen not by the Tribunal of One Hundred and Four, but by the whole citizenry of Carthage in the Popular Assembly. This fact alone placed them under suspicion by the elite. The development of the Carthaginian army in Sicily into a quasi-independent institution with its own coinage and administrative structure made the situation even more tense. The ports of Sicily were hundreds of kilometres away from Carthage, and news of events on the island was sporadic and often inaccurate. In such circumstances it was easy for a military commander to forget that he was answerable to his peers.

Though Carthaginian army commanders made decisions with considerable autonomy while on campaign, these decisions were retrospectively subject to a rigorous audit carried out by the Tribunal of One Hundred and Four. Many years of campaigning in Sicily meant that these generals could scarcely have failed to notice how some of their Syracusan equivalents–men who like themselves had first gained their commands through their popularity with the general citizenry –had managed to shed the awkward scrutiny to which they were subjected by their peers by seizing autocratic power. The harsh punishment of military commanders who had failed to show sufficient skill or courage on the battlefield was a long-standing feature of Carthaginian political life. The Carthaginians were certainly not the first in the ancient world to use crucifixion; however, whereas others reserved this horrific punishment for the lowest of the low–runaway slaves, common criminals, and foreigners–Carthage would periodically nail its generals to the cross. This was not just a grim warning against failure, but also acted as a gruesome form of political decapitation.

The feelings of distrust were reciprocated by the military commanders themselves, who complained of the hostile treatment that they received from their fellow citizens on their return from campaign. As Diodorus/Timaeus acutely observed when providing an explanation for a later attempted army coup:

The basic cause in this matter was the Carthaginians’ severity in inflicting punishments. In their wars they advance their leading men to commands, taking it for granted that these should be the first to brave the danger for the whole state; but when they gain peace, they plague these same men with suits, bring false charges against them through envy, and load them down with penalties. Therefore some of those who are placed in positions of command, fearing the trials in the courts, desert their posts, but others attempt to become tyrants.

On one occasion early in his career, in the 320s BC, when his hopes of political power in Syracuse had been seemingly dashed, Agathocles raised an army of discontented Sicels with the intention of seizing the city with violent force. Finding that a large Carthaginian army was blocking his path, Agathocles used his considerable talent for diplomacy with the Carthaginian commander, Hamilcar. Learning that Hamilcar had ambitions of seizing autocratic power in Carthage, Agathocles agreed a secret arrangement with him whereby the Carthaginian army would stand aside so that he could take Syracuse, in exchange for which he would help the general in any future attempt to seize power in his home city. Indeed, Hamilcar went even further in his cooperation with Agathocles, by supplying him with 5,000 troops to assist in the massacre of his political opponents in Syracuse. A peace treaty was then agreed that appeared to be immensely favourable towards Agathocles, even though he was hardly in a strong position. Under its terms, the eastern Sicilian cities were compelled to acknowledge Syracusan suzerainty, while the Carthaginians gained nothing aside from confirmation of the territory that they had already held before the conflict. The situation was made even worse by Hamilcar’s appearing to turn a blind eye to Agathocles’ continued harassment of Carthage’s Sicilian allies.

The Greek and Roman sources which record this pact suggest that the crafty Agathocles duped Hamilcar. A more realistic explanation may be that continued violence and instability in Sicily was in the interests of both the Carthaginian army and Agathocles. The instability was an indication both of the lack of control that Carthage had over its army and of the level of collusion between its forces in Sicily and its Syracusan foes. The reaction of the Carthaginian Council is revealing. Rather than recalling Hamilcar and openly confronting him with his treachery, the Council voted on the matter but suppressed their judgement until such time as they felt confident to act against him. The Carthaginian army in Sicily was beginning to act as a semiautonomous force, and its supposed masters in Carthage had little power to control it.

In fact Hamilcar died before justice could be dispensed, and the confrontation that the Carthaginian Council had obviously feared was avoided. In an attempt to seize back the agenda, the Council sent a delegation directly from Carthage to warn Agathocles that he should respect the existing treaties between the two states. But, in an effort to reassert the Council’s authority over their forces in Sicily, a fresh army was recruited under a new commander, Hamilcar, son of Gisco.

Hamilcar’s campaign did not get off to an auspicious start. As the army crossed over to Sicily, a number of ships carrying Carthaginian noblemen were sunk in a storm. However, on his arrival on the island, in 311, Hamilcar quickly proved to be an excellent general. After winning a comprehensive victory, the Carthaginians managed to blockade Agathocles and the remainder of his forces in Syracuse. Hamilcar then followed up these military successes with a diplomatic initiative among the Greek Sicilian states which left Agathocles increasingly isolated. In a marked departure from his predecessors, Hamilcar attempted to end the war through the final defeat of Agathocles and the capture of Syracuse.

Agathocles was portrayed by Diodorus (as usual taking his information from earlier Sicilian Greek sources) as ruthlessly exploiting the tensions between the Carthaginian generals and the politicians at home. In this he was following historians such as Timaeus (who particularly disliked Agathocles because he had been responsible for the exile of the historian’s father), who showed Agathocles in a poor light as a political opportunist who willingly entered into compacts with the hated Carthaginian intruders. However, it also points to Agathocles’ understanding of the fears and ambitions of the Carthaginian military commanders on Sicily as a key element in his own rise to power.