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.
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.
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’
Faced with this desperate situation, Agathocles would decide upon a course of action so bold and indeed reckless that he caught the Carthaginians completely by surprise. He would take the war to the Carthaginians where they least expected it: in the Punic heartlands of Africa. Once more Agathocles showed a sound understanding of Carthage and its people. He knew that most Carthaginians had no experience of war. Their armies were made up largely of mercenaries, and as yet they had never been forced to fight any major conflicts in their North African homeland. By launching a surprise attack there, he would be able quickly to acquire supplies and booty, and thus pay his troops from land that had, unlike Sicily, been spared the ravages of war. He was also hopeful that the Libyans, for so long discontented by the treatment that they had received from the Carthaginians, would rise up and join with him. Faced with such a crisis at home, he reasoned, Hamilcar and his forces would quickly be compelled to evacuate Sicily.
Agathocles quickly recruited Syracusan levies, mercenaries and even slaves to serve in his army. Money for the expedition was acquired by murdering his surviving aristocratic opponents and confiscating their property, pillaging orphans’ inheritances, appropriation of temple offerings and women’s jewellery, and compulsory loans. After assembling a fleet of 60 ships and a very modest force of 13,500 men, Agathocles managed to slip through the Carthaginian blockade. Carefully disguising their route to ensure that the Carthaginians remained oblivious to the real objectives of the mission, in 310 the Syracusan flotilla landed on the Cap Bon peninsula a mere 110 kilometres from Carthage, after six days at sea. Knowing that he was finished if this venture failed, Agathocles set fire to the ships so that any thought of escape was discounted. He dedicated them to the goddesses Demeter and Core–surely as a way of propagandizing this campaign as Sicilian Greek revenge for previous outrages committed by the Carthaginians on their island. After a final exhortation to his troops, they moved against and captured with ease the towns of Megalopolis and Tunes (Tunis).
Buoyed by the ease of these successes, Agathocles’ army then pitched camp not far from Carthage, whose citizens started to panic because they wrongly assumed that Agathocles’ presence in Africa meant that the Carthaginian forces in Sicily must have been totally destroyed. Male citizens were now drafted into the army under the joint command of two political rivals, Bomilcar and Hanno. The campaign opened disastrously for the Carthaginians, with a heavy defeat in which their most able commander, Hanno, was killed. Bomilcar, seeing this as an opportunity to seize autocratic power for himself, retreated to Carthage with his troops.
Diodorus recounted how, with their city under siege and their best general far across the sea in Sicily, the Carthaginians sent a large sum of money and expensive offerings to the temple of Melqart at Tyre, in the belief that their present misfortunes were due to the god being disgusted with the miserly nature of their recent tithes. Now the terrified Carthaginians were also supposed to have tried to appease their vengeful gods by offering up 200 high-born children for sacrifice. Later another 300 citizens, who were thought to have particularly offended the gods, were reported to have voluntarily sacrificed themselves in the fire. In perhaps a further sign of the Carthaginians’ fears of having provoked divine anger, an inscription dated to around this period refers to the construction of new temples to the goddesses Tanit and Astarte, replete with decorations, gold statuary and furniture. Tellingly, the inscription also refers to the construction of fortification walls around the sanctuary, and probably also around the hill where it was sited.
Soon disastrous news arrived in Carthage from Sicily. Its general Hamilcar had been captured and killed while attacking Syracuse, with the result that the Carthaginian army in Sicily had fragmented into several warring factions. Agathocles was said to have carefully displayed Hamilcar’s head, which had been sent over from Sicily, within sight of the already demoralized Carthaginians.
On the brink of a great victory, it is perhaps hardly surprising that Agathocles’ Alexander complex became ever stronger. Certainly his coins from the period clearly aped those of the Macedonian king, especially in their use of the thunderbolt as a motif. His troops, however, mutinied, upset by their general’s pretensions and increasingly high-handed behaviour and, more importantly, by his failure to pay them. The Carthaginians now quickly seized on Agathocles’ difficulties and offered the leaders of the mutiny enhanced pay and a bonus if they brought the Sicilian Greek army over to them. Agathocles, whose troops still held him in great esteem, only just managed to save the situation by theatrically threatening to commit suicide.
After once more bolstering his position by defeating a Carthaginian force, Agathocles, distrusting the local Libyans and Numidians, cast around for an additional ally with whom to deliver what he believed would be the final victory. He successfully enticed Ophellas, the ruler of the Greek city of Cyrene and a man with a real Alexandrian pedigree (he had served in the army of the Macedonian king), to join the campaign with the promise of all the Carthaginian territory in North Africa if they were successful. However, true to form, Agathocles quickly murdered his new ally and incorporated his large and wellequipped army into his own forces. Yet the greatest danger to Carthage would come from those whom it had entrusted with its own defence.
The Carthaginian general Bomilcar, who had long held autocratic ambitions, at last judged the time had come to act. First he sent out a force made up of many of Carthage’s most distinguished citizens to fight against the Numidian tribes, thereby removing from the city many of those who might oppose his coup. He then mustered his troops, made up of citizens and mercenaries, in an area of Carthage called the New City. Diodorus left a vivid account of what occurred next:
Dividing his troops into five groups, he sounded the attack, massacring those who opposed him in the streets. Since an extraordinary disturbance broke out everywhere in the city, the Carthaginians at first thought that the enemy had broken in, and that the city had been betrayed. When however the true situation became known, the young men gathered together, formed groups, and moved against the tyrant. However, Bomilcar, slaughtering those in the streets, moved quickly into the marketplace. Discovering many unarmed citizens there, he killed them. The Carthaginians, however, took over the tall buildings around the marketplace, and hurled down missiles which struck the rebels. Hard-pressed, the plotters closed ranks and forced their way through the narrow streets of the New City, all the time being struck by objects thrown from the houses that they passed by. Once they had occupied higher ground, the Carthaginians, who had now mustered all the citizens, rallied their forces against the rebels. At last, sending older citizens as envoys, and offering an amnesty, terms for surrender were agreed. Against the rebels they demanded no restitution, on account of the dangers presently facing the city, but Bomilcar himself was cruelly tortured and then put to death, with no attention being paid to oaths that had been given. Thus, in this way, the Carthaginians, having faced the gravest danger, saved the constitution of their forefathers.
Diodorus, whose sources were ever hostile to Carthage, could not resist the temptation of highlighting the treachery of the Carthaginians at the end of this account, although on this occasion the victim was a traitor. There is, however, no reason to dispute his account of the attempted coup.
Although he now found himself in control of a huge swathe of Carthaginian territory in North Africa, Agathocles now received alarming news of renewed conflict in Sicily, where several vassal cities had decided to take advantage of the lengthy absence of the Syracusan army to declare their independence. Agathocles was forced to return to try to retrieve the situation, leaving his son Archagathus, who had inherited little of his father’s political or military talents, in command of his army.
The Carthaginians, clearly re-energized by the defeat of the coup and the absence of their talismanic opponent, intelligently refocused their military strategy away from set-piece battles, in which they had fared so badly. They now split their forces into three combat groups with explicit areas of operation: the coast, the interior and the deep interior. Faced with this fresh challenge, Archagathus made the catastrophic decision to match this move by dividing his own forces in the same way. Soon the two battalions that had been sent into the interior to hunt down their Carthaginian foes were ambushed and cut down.
Deserted by his fickle Libyan allies, Archagathus rallied the remainder of his forces at Tunes, and sent messages to his father requesting urgent help. Although Agathocles did return, he found the situation irretrievable. A further defeat at the hands of the Carthaginians was followed by a terrible conflagration, which Diodorus–surely fancifully –states was started by the Carthaginians incinerating the fairest of their Greek captives as sacrificial victims to their gods. Many Sicilian Greek troops were killed, which led the Syracusan general to decide to leave Africa. Knowing that a large-scale evacuation would quickly come to the attention of the Carthaginians and lead to an attack, after one failed attempt to flee, Agathocles eventually managed to slip away, leaving his army and at least two of his own sons behind. This last detail, probably taken from Timaeus, whose loathing of Agathocles made him want to portray him in as poor a light as possible, may well have been false. A Roman account, clearly using other sources, related that Agathocles tried to take Archagathus with him, but they became separated during the night and the latter was captured and brought back to the Syracusan camp.
After killing their erstwhile general’s progeny, Agathocles’ deserted army swiftly negotiated surrender with the Carthaginians. The latter offered them generous terms: all the army received cash donatives, and those who wished to be were co-opted into the Carthaginian army; the remainder were transported to Sicily and allowed to settle at the Punic city of Solus. Those who, out of misguided loyalty to their old leader, refused to cooperate were set to work to restore the lands which as soldiers they had laid waste. The most recalcitrant were crucified.
After settling with his troops, the Carthaginians then concluded a peace with Agathocles himself, which superficially offered surprisingly generous terms. Carthage agreed to pay Agathocles a large amount of gold and grain, in exchange for which he would recognize Carthage’s rights over all the territory that it had previously controlled in Sicily.