480 BC is a year widely-celebrated in Greek history – when Leonidas and his core of 300 Spartans heroically defended against a powerful Persian army at Thermopylae and an outnumbered, Athenian-led navy defeated a mighty Persian armada at Salamis.
Yet it was not just off the coast of Athens that one of antiquity’s most determining battles was fought that year. 600 miles to the west of Salamis, supposedly on the same day the decisive naval engagement occurred, another battle was fought: the Battle of Himera.
The ‘Jewel of the Mediterranean’
Throughout antiquity the rich island of Sicily witnessed waves of peoples arriving on its shores from distant lands and settling – one of the earliest of which were the Greeks.
In 735 BC a group of colonists from Chalcis established the first Hellenic colony on the island. They called it Naxos.
Further Hellenic colonies soon followed and by the beginning of the fifth century BC, powerful Greek cities, or poleis, dominated Sicily’s eastern shoreline.
In the interior of the island, the native Sicilian peoples – the Sicani, Siculi and Elymians – remained prominent. Yet to the west another major, foreign power had also established colonies.
Founded in 814 BC by Phoenician colonists, by the fifth century BC Carthage was a leading force in the western Mediterranean. At its zenith – in the mid-fifth century BC – its power reached far and wide: it sent naval expeditions to distant lands, including the western coast of Africa, the Canary Islands and southern Britain.
Alongside this epic exploration, Carthage also controlled a large empire, owning territory in Libya, Numidia, ancient Africa (modern day Tunisia), Iberia, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands and, most importantly, Sicily.
Since founding their first colony on the island at Motya back in the eighth century BC, the Carthaginians, like the Greeks, had established further settlements along Sicily’s coasts.
By the beginning of the fifth century BC, they had gained mastery over the island’s northern and western shorelines, included within which were two Greek colonies: Selinus and Himera.
By 483 BC Sicily’s shorelines were thus divided between two major power-blocs. To the south and east was the Hellenic power-bloc led by Gelon, a Greek tyrant who ruled from Syracuse. To the west and north was the power-bloc spearheaded by Carthage.
Himera: the trigger for war
In 483 BC Theron, the Greek tyrant of Acragas and a key ally of Gelon, deposed the Carthaginian-aligned tyrant of Himera, a man called Terillus. Expelled, Terillus duly sought Carthaginian aid to help him recapture his city.
As Himera was a key city within the Punic sphere of Sicily, Hamilcar, the patriarch of the most powerful family in Carthage, obliged.
He gathered a huge army (300,000 according to Diodorus Siculus, although modern estimates place it nearer 50,000), including Carthaginians, Iberians, Libyans and Ligurians and sailed over to Sicily to reinstate Terillus by force.
After defeating Theron and the Himerans in battle, Hamilcar and his army placed Himera under siege midway through 480 BC. In desperate need of aid Theron sought help from Gelon, who duly gathered his army – consisting of Greeks and native eastern Sicilians – and marched to relieve the city.
The Battle of Himera: 22 September 480 BC
Gelon reached Himera by September 480 BC and soon inflicted a great blow on the Carthaginians when his cavalry surprised and captured many of their soldiers (10,000 according to Diodorus Siculus) who had been raiding the nearby countryside in search of supplies.
Gelon’s cavalry then quickly gained an even greater success when they captured a Greek messenger, hailing from the Carthaginian-allied Greek city of Selinus. He bared a message intended for Hamilcar:
“The people of Selinus would send the cavalry for that day for which Hamilcar had written they dispatch.”
With this vital tactical information, Gelon devised a plan. On the day specified by the letter, before sunrise, he had his cavalry skirt around Himera undetected and, at daybreak, ride up to the Carthaginian naval camp, pretending to be the allied-cavalry expected from Selinus.
The hoax worked. Easily fooled, the Carthaginian guards allowed the cavalry past the palisade and into the camp – a costly mistake.
What followed was a bloodbath. Inside the camp, the horsemen began transfixing surprised Punic soldiers with their spears and setting boats alight. Further success soon followed: during the struggle Gelon’s cavalry located Hamilcar, who they had learnt was then conducting a sacrifice at the camp, and slew him.
Learning of the horsemen’s success, Gelon and the rest of his army now initiated battle against the Carthaginian land army, based in a separate camp further inland and thus unaware of their comrades’ fate by the sea.
The infantry fight was long and bloody, both sides being primarily-equipped with spear and shield and fighting in tight phalanxes. The breakthrough finally occurred, however, when the Carthaginians saw smoke rising from their ships and learnt of the naval camp disaster.
Disheartened upon hearing of the demise of their comrades, the destruction of their ships and the death of their general, the Carthaginian line collapsed.
What followed was a slaughter on such a great scale that, according to Diodorus, only a handful of soldiers that ventured to Sicily ever saw Carthage again.
Their finest hour
Gelon’s victory at Himera secured peace and prosperity on Sicily for the next eighty years, during which Syracuse transformed into the most powerful Greek city in the west – a title it maintained for over 250 years until its fall to Rome in 212 BC.
Although Greeks had, in fact, been present on both sides, the Battle of Himera soon became intertwined with the other timeless, heroic Hellenic victories that were gained at the beginning of the fifth century BC against all the odds: Marathon, Salamis and Plataea most famously.
This link became even stronger when Herodotus claimed Himera had occurred on the same day as the Battle of Salamis: 22 September 480 BC.
As for Gelon, his successful command at Himera secured him eternal fame as the saviour of Hellenism on Sicily. For all future rulers of Syracuse, Gelon became a role-model: a man to emulate. For the Syracusans, Himera was their finest hour.