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The Sicilian Wars

Aeneas Flees Burning Troy, by Federico Barocci

The Sicilian Wars In the centuries after Aeneas fled from Troy to settle in Latium, both the seafaring Phoenicians and Greeks were setting up colonies across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Among the chief settlements of the Phoenicians – a maritime people from Tyre, in Lebanon – was Carthage, near modern-day Tunis, which Aeneas had supposedly stopped at on his voyage after leaving Troy, where he fell in love with Queen Dido who killed herself after he left to continue his odyssey (although the date for the founding of the city places it after this time from the mythology).

Both the Phoenicians and the Greeks established settlements on Sicily, with the Greeks establishing cities across southern Italy too, which they referred to as Magna Graecia.

Ancient Greek colonies and their dialect groupings in Southern Italy (Magna Graecia).
Greek temples of Paestum, Campania

Carthage began to assert its supremacy over Sicily, and as Romulus was drawing his lines on the Palatine for the boundaries of Rome, Carthage was already dominating the western half of the island. When the two powers also contested for control of Iberia, the Greeks became divided between xt Ionians, from the modern west Turkish coast, and Dorians, from modern Greece.

Carthaginian hoplite (4th century BC) The Sicilian Wars

The explosive growth of the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great essentially made Carthage now a fully autonomous settlement from the Phoenicians, with Tyre itself now controlled by the Persians, as was all of the Levant. Around this time there were various attempts and expeditions by Carthage to control the whole island – which was allegedly achieved by Malchus in 540 BC – and the Greek cities increasingly came under the control of tyrants, and found themselves isolated from Greece itself.

The First Sicilian War erupted in 480 BC, the same year that Persian Emperor Xerxes launched his epic invasion of Greece and the Spartan 300 made their fabled last stand at Thermopylae.

Some accounts are even that the Carthaginians allied themselves with the Persians to launch a pincer attack on Greek interests, Xerxes into Greece and Carthage into Sicily.

Achaemenid king killing a Greek hoplite. Impression from a cylinder seal, sculpted c. 500 BC–475 BC, at the time of Xerxes I Metropolitan Museum of Art

This seems unlikely, especially given that the second Persian emperor, Cambyses, had supposedly lost 50,000 men who “disappeared in the desert” while attempting to march along the north African coast to Carthage following his annexation of Egypt.

The Carthaginian expedition to Sicily, betwixt 100,000 and 300,000 men, was crushed by a much smaller Greek force at the Battle of Himera – supposedly on the same day that the Athenian-led Greek navy under Themistocles crushed the Persian fleet at Salamis to end Xerxes’ hopes of annexing Greece.

The Battle of Himera saw the Carthaginian leader Hamilcar offer sacrifices to Baal in a huge fire at his camp, and when he saw his troops had lost the day, he threw himself into the flames.

Battle of Himera : The Sicilian Wars

There followed 70 years of peace in Sicily, during which Carthage extended its control over Africa. A renewal of Ionian and Doric rivalries in Sicily dragged the island into the Peloponnesian War, and the disastrous Sicilian expedition of 413 BC would be the beginning of the end for Athens in that conflict.

A Carthaginian expedition under Hannibal Mago saw victories in the Battle of Selinus and the Second Battle of Himera, before the general died of a plague which ravaged his army and prevented him from driving home Carthaginian advantage.

In 398 BC the Third Sicilian War began when Motya was captured, before a Carthaginian counter recaptured it and seized Messina. Syracuse, the Greek capital on Sicily, was besieged, but the campaign was again cut short by plague.

Destruction of the Athenian army at Syracuse.

A peace treaty was concluded when Carthage faced domestic troubles in Africa. 

Ancient catapult used in the siege of Motya CC BY-SA 3.0

Syracuse faced a two-front war in 383 BC, less than a decade after Brennus’ famed invasion of Italia had seen Rome sacked. Mago was defeated at the Battle of Cabala, though after demands for Carthage to evacuate all Sicily, his son Himilco defeated the Greeks at the Battle of Cronium.

A fifth war resulted in the Greeks suing for peace following a naval defeat in an attempt to seize Carthaginian territory.

A sixth war saw Carthage bungle an attempt to occupy Syracuse after initially taking the city, their expedition then destroyed at the Battle of Crimissus.

Present day site of Battle of Crimissus

Carthage defeated further Syracusian aggression at the Battle of Himera River, though a bold Greek invasion of Africa then saw the Carthaginians defeated at home by a much smaller Greek force at the Battle of White Tunis.

Battle of White Tunis (310 BC)

The Greeks lacked the troops to besiege the impregnable city of Carthage though, and an uneasy truce brought an end to the Seventh – and final – Sicilian War in 306 BC.

Further north, in central Italy, another titanic struggle had been taking place, this time for control of the peninsular. Three wars fought over almost a century would see the rising power of the Roman Republic assert its supremacy over the other major powers of the Samnites and Etruscans, having already subdued the Latins and Campanians, and then move successfully against the feared Gauls.

These wars would see Rome’s legions change from fighting in the typical Greek phalanx style(above) to fighting as maniples(below), much closer to what we think of legionaries as today.

In the east, Greek attention had shifted much further afield, with the rise of the Macedonian phalanx enabling Philip to annex all Greece. His assassination left his son Alexander to continue his plans, launching a spectacular invasion into Persia that would destroy the Achaemenid Empire and campaign all the way to India, before his successor Diadochi fought themselves over the remnants of his empire – Sicily, and Italy, was now an afterthought for a Hellenic world that encompassed the Levant, Persia, Egypt, and the Indian borderlands. 

All of this meant that Carthage now faced the attractive prospect of being able to campaign in a divided Sicily that no longer expected support from Greece. Having asserted its dominance over central Italia however, the Roman Republic was now looking to move south and encompass what had been Magna Graecia.

In conclusion, the two rising powers would soon come within touching distance, but before they did there would be one last Greek attempt to check them. King Pyrrhus of Epirus was not content to let Roman and Carthaginian expansion go unchecked, nor ignore the plight of Magna Graecia. While his contemporaries looked east across the Aegean, he prepared to sail west across the Adriatic, to end the expansion of both Rome and Carthage.

The Sicilian Wars Written by Jack Tappin

Military History | Rebellion Research

The Sicilian Wars

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