How the Ancient Greeks and Carthaginians Settled Sicily | History Hit

How the Ancient Greeks and Carthaginians Settled Sicily

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In 735 BC a flotilla of ships made land on Sicily‘s eastern shoreline. The crew hailed from the Greek city of Chalcis, some 600 miles to the east. Upon setting foot on Sicilian soil the Greeks surveyed the surrounding region: a little promontory stretched out from the coast – a strategic goldmine for a settlement – while a naturally sheltered shoreline stretched to the immediate north. To the west Mount Etna stood supreme.

On that spot the Chalcidians settled and established the first Greek settlement on Sicily. It was named Naxus.

Naxus was situated on Sicily’s eastern coastline, adjacent to Mount Etna.

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Naxus was the first of many Greek colonies in Sicily. Within ten years of its foundation, six more Hellenic settlements had been established on the island; within a hundred years that number was nearer twenty. By the turn of the 5th century BC, Greek cities dotted Sicily’s eastern and southern coastlines. No longer were they all small, isolated settlements however. By then many had become prominent political entities on the island, ruled by powerful tyrants.


In 491 BC, much of eastern Sicily lay in the hands of one such man. His name was Hippocrates, the ruler of a relatively minor Greek city called Gela. Despite its small size, under Hippocrates’ leadership Gela became the nucleus of the most powerful kingdom in Sicily.

Conquest after conquest, victory after victory, by 491 BC Hippocrates and his army looked unstoppable. Still no rapid expansion continues forever and later that year Hippocrates was killed while laying siege to Megara Hyblae, one of the last cities on the eastern coastline that remained resisting his power. The age of Hippocrates was over; but another ambitious tyrant soon took his place.

Hippocrates’ Empire in 491 BC. It stretched from Zancle in the North-east to the Himeras River in the south.

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Emerging from a noble background, Gelon had been a senior cavalry officer in Hippocrates’ army. He was well-respected among the soldiers and Gelon used this to his advantage, seizing control and naming himself Hippocrates’ successor. He aimed to continue the expansion his predecessor had started. But things, initially, did not go according to plan.

Not long after gaining power, Gelon lost control of Zancle, the Greek bastion in the north-east, to the rival tyrant Anaxilas who was based across the narrow straits in Rhegium. It was a blow for Gelon. Never again would he control that vital part of the island, the gateway to southern Italy. It was not all bad news.

Outdoing Hippocrates

In his lifetime Hippocrates had conquered almost all of Sicily’s eastern shoreline. Yet two Greek cities had eluded his grasp: Megara Hyblae and Syracuse. Both cities would play prominent roles in any biography of Hippocrates: he had lost his life outside the walls of the former and against the latter he had won perhaps his greatest victory in 492 BC, at the Battle of the Helorus River.

He had, however, not taken Syracuse in the aftermath of this decisive battle and the city remained free from Hippocrates’ control.

By 483 BC Gelon had fulfilled Hippocrates’ grand ambitions. Not only had he successfully stormed and suppressed Megara Hyblae, but he had also subdued Syracuse. Syracuse’s submission was especially pivotal. Recognising its potential for power and prosperity, Gelon situated his court there, depopulating neighbouring towns and relocating them in his forecast metropolis. No longer was Gela the epicentre of Gelon’s empire. That role now lay with Syracuse.

The alliance

Recreating Syracuse was one piece in a much larger puzzle for Gelon. Back in circa 490 BC, when Gelon was seeking to establish his regime, he allied himself with another powerful tyrant on the island: Theron, the ruler of Acragas. Joining their domains in an alliance, the newly-established Syracusan-Acragas bloc controlled a significant portion of the east and south of the island.

But they weren’t the only major force in Sicily. To the west, stretching along the length of Sicily’s north coast, the north African city of Carthage had significant influence.


Carthage in Sicily

Originally founded by Phoenician colonists back around 814 BC, the city of Carthage had soon become the centre of a large empire. Spain, Sardinia, Numidia, the Balearic Islands and Libya were all places the Carthaginians settled. Yet one lucrative land attracted Punic eyes more than any other: Sicily, the jewel of the Mediterranean.

In the 8th century BC, these ‘Punic’ settlers had founded Motya on Sicily’s extreme western edge – their first colony. Further settlements followed and very quickly Punic influence had gained a strong foothold over Sicily’s northern and western shorelines, within which was included some notable Greek and Siciliote settlements – Selinus, Segesta and Eryx for instance. By 483 BC, Carthaginian influence spread the length of these two coastlines, from Selinus in the west to Rhegium in southern Italy.

Much of Sicily was therefore divided between two power blocs in 483 BC: Gelon and Theron to the east and south, Carthage and its allies to the north and west. Before this time relations between them had been cordial, though occasional territorial incidents had occurred. In 580 BC, for instance, Greek settlers had audaciously attempted to found a settlement on the western tip of Sicily, near Lilybaeum. The Carthaginians were having none of it and they swiftly defeated the expedition.

70 years later the Carthaginians destroyed another expedition, led by a royal Spartan called Doreius (the brother of the famed Leonidas), which had similarly aimed to establish a settlement in western Sicily within the Punic sphere. Both of these incidents may have rustled patriotic feathers on either side, but full-scale war never seemed likely. But by 483 BC, it was fast approaching.

Tristan Hughes