Sicilian Wars

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict= Sicilian Wars

caption=Map of Sicily designed by [ Prins-Jona Lendering] with all the Phoenician and Greek settlements
date= 480 BC - 307 BC
place= Sicily, North Africa, Carthage
result= Carthaginian victory
territory= Carhage retains Western Sicily until Punic Wars
combatant1= Carthage
combatant2= Greek city-states of Magna Graecia, led by Syracuse
commander1= Hamilcar†, Hannibal Mago†, Himilco, Hamilcar
commander2= Gelo, Dionysius I, Timoleon, Agathocles

The Sicilian Wars were a series of conflicts fought between Carthage and the Greek city-states of Magna Grecia, headed by Syracuse, over control of Sicily between the years 480 to 307 BC. Carthage's economic successes, and its dependence on shipping to conduct most of its trade, for the empire's southern border was surrounded by desert, led to the creation of a powerful Carthaginian navy to discourage both pirates and rival nations. They had inherited their naval strength and experience from the Phoenicians, but had increased it because, unlike the Phoenicians, the Punics did not want to rely on a foreign nation's aid. This, coupled with its success and growing hegemony, brought Carthage into increasing conflict with the Greeks, the other major power contending for control of the central Mediterranean.

The Greeks, similar to the Phoenicians, were expert sailors who had set up trade posts throughout the Mediterranean. These two rivals fought their wars on the island of Sicily, which lay at Carthage's doorstep. From their earliest days, both the Greeks and Phoenicians had been attracted to the large island, establishing a large number of colonies and trading posts along its coasts. Small battles had been fought between these settlements for centuries. No Carthaginian records of the war exist today, because when the city was destroyed in 146 B.C. by the Romans, the books from Carthage's library were distributed among the nearby African tribes, and none remain on the topic of Carthaginian history. As a result most of what we know about the Sicilian Wars comes from Greek historians.


The Phoenicians had planted trading posts all over the coast of Sicily after 900 BC, but had never penetrated far inland. They had traded with the Elymian, Sikans and Siculi communities and ultimately had withdrawn without resistance to Motya, Panormus and Solus when the Greek colonists arrived after 750 BC. [Thucydides VI.2.6] These Phoenician cities remained independent until becoming part of the Carthaginian hegemony after 540 BC. [Freeman, Edward A., History of Sicily, Volume 1, p283-297 – public domain book ]

Carthaginian Hegemony

Carthage created her hegemony in part to resist Greek encroachments in the established Phoenician sphere of influence. Phoenicians initially (750 -650 BC) did not resist the Greek colonists, but after the Greeks had reached Iberia sometime after 638 BC, Carthage emerged as the leader of Phoenician resistance. During the 6th century BC, mostly under the leadership of the Magonid dynasty, Carthage established an empire which would commercially dominate the Western Mediterranean until the 1st century BC. [Markoe, Glenn E., "Phoenicians", p54-55 ISBN 0-520-22614-3] The Phoenicians in Sicily and the Elymians had teamed up to defeat the Greeks of Selinus and Rhodes near Lilybaeum in 580 BC, the first such recorded incident in Sicily. The next known Greek incursion was 70 years later.

Greater Greece outside mainland Greece

The Greek colonized zone encompassing Sicily and Southern Italy came to be known Magna Grecia. The Greeks living in this area behaved pretty much like the mainland Greeks, expanding their political and commercial domain at the expense of their neighbors while keeping the Ionian/Dorian feud alive. In Sicily, the Ionian Greeks on the whole had friendly relations with native Sicilians and the Phoenicians, but the Dorian Greek colonies were comparably more aggressive, expanding inland from the coast at the expense of the natives to expand their domain. Conflicts among the Greeks colonies and between the natives and Greeks had erupted, but these were mostly localized affairs. Trade also flourished between the natives, the Greeks and the Phoenicians and the Greeks colonies became prosperous. This prosperity enabled some of the Greek cities to start to expand their territories again, ultimately leading to the events known as the "First Sicilian War".

Carthage joins the fight

The Carthaginian Malchus is said to have "conquered all Sicily" and sent captured booty to Tyre sometime after 540 BC, which probably means Motya, Panormus and Solus had fallen under Carthaginian control. The growth of Selinus and Himera during this period indicates that Carthaginians and Greeks did not face off at this time. Thirty years later Prince Dorieus, having lost the Spartan throne, showed up to colonize Eryx – after being expelled from Libya by Carthage in 511 BC following a three year struggle.

Carthage aided Segesta to defeat the expedition of Dorieus in 510 BC – Greek survivors then founded Heraclea Minoa. [Diodorus Siculus IV.23] Sicilian Greeks (probably the cities of Akragas, Gela and Selinus) fought a undated war of revenge against Carthage, which led to the destruction of Minoa and a treaty which brought economic benefits for the Greeks. [Freeman, Edward A, "History of Sicily", Volume 2, p97-100] An appeal for aid to avenge the death of Dorieus was ignored by mainland Greece, even by Leonidas of Sparta, brother of Dorieus and who later would win immortal fame at a narrow pass called Gates of Fire in 480 BC. This episode possibly demonstrated the futility of opposing Carthage by single Greek cities [Baker, G.P., Hannibal, p15] or the unreliability of aid from mainland Greece, a situation that would change with the rise of the Greek tyrants in Sicily. Two Greeks from Gela, Cleander and Gelo, had been involved in this war and they would become the catalysts of the events that followed.

Greek tyrants

While the events in western Sicily played out and Carthage remained engaged in Sardinia, most of the Greek colonies in Sicily fell under the rule of tyrants. The tyrants of Gela, Akragas and Rhegion successfully expanded their respective dominions at the expense of native Sicilians and other Greek cities during 505 -480 BC, with the Doric city of Gela being the most successful.

Dorian Greeks become dominant in Sicily

Cleander (505-498 BC) and his brother Hippocrates (498 -491) of Gela successfully took over both Ionian and Dorian Greek territory, and by 490 BC, Zankle, Leontini, Catana, Naxos, besides neighboring Sicel lands and Camarina had fallen under Gelan control. Gelo, successor of Hippocrates, captured Syracuse in 485 BC and made the city his capital. By using ethnic cleansing, deportation and enslavement, [Freeman, Edward A, History of Sicily, Volume 2, p130-31 – public domain book] Gelo transformed the former Ionian cities into Dorian ones and made Syracuse the dominant power in Sicily. Meanwhile Akragas, another Doric city, had successfully taken over Sikan and Sicel lands under the tyrant Theron (488-472 BC). To forestall any conflicts between Akragas and Syracuse, Gelo and Theron married into each others families, creating a united front against the Sicels and Ionian Greeks of Sicily. The major portion of the resoursces and manpower of Greek Sicily were thus concentrated in the hands of these two agressive tyrants, a threat to all other Sicilian powers.

Ionain Greeks call on Carthage

To counter this Doric threat, Anaxilas of Rhegion from Italy, who had captured Zankle from Gelo in 490 BC, allied himself with Terrilus, the tyrant of Himera, and married his daughter. [Herodotus, VII.163] Himera and Rhegion next became allies of Carthage, the nearest foreign power strong enough to provide support. Selinus, a Doric city whose territory bordered Theron’s domain, also became a Carthaginian ally – perhaps the fear of Theron and the destruction of Megara Hyblaea (mother city of Selinus) by Gelo in 483 BC, had played a part in this decision. Thus, 3 power blocks were delicately balanced in Sicily by 483 BC – Ionians dominating the north, Carthage the west, Dorians the east and south. The Sicels and Sikans sandwitched in the middle remained passive, but the Elmyians joined the Carthaginian alliance.

The First Sicilian War (480 BC)

Carthage responded to the call for aid by Terrilus, tyrant of Himera, afther Theron deposed him in 483 BC to set up an expedition to Sicily. Carthage could not ignore this imminent threat beciause the Gelo-Theron alliane was about to take over the while of Sicily, and Hamilcar was a guest friend of Terrilus.

Carthage may have also chosen this time to attack because a Persian fleet attacked mainland Greece in the same year. The theory that there was an alliance with Persia is disputed, because Carthage neither liked foreign involvement in their wars, nor wanted to contribute in foreign wars, unless they have strong reasons to do so. But because control of Sicily was a valuable prize for Carthage and because Carthage fielded its largest military force to date, under the leadership of the general Hamilcar, Carthage was eager for war. Traditional accounts give Hamilcar's army a strength of three hundred thousand men; This number seems unlikely because, even at its peak, the Carthaginian Empire would have only been able to muster a force of about fifty thousand to one hundred thousand men Fact|date=February 2008. If Carthage had allied with Persia, they may have supplied Carthage mercenaries and aid, which the Persians undoubtedly had, but there is no evidence to support this cooperation between the Carthaginians and the Persians.

En route to Sicily, however, the Punic fleet suffered losses, possibly severe, due to poor weather. After landing at Ziz, the Punic name for Panormus, modern-day Palermo, he was then decisively defeated by Gelo at the Battle of Himera, which was said to have occurred on the same day as the Battle of Salamis [Herodotus 7.166]

Hamilcar was either killed during the battle or committed suicide in shame. The loss caused changes in the political and economic landscape of Carthage, the old government of entrenched nobility was ousted, replaced by the Carthaginian Republic. The king still remained, but he had very little power and most was entrusted with the Council of Elders. Carthage paid 2000 talents as reparations to the Greeks, and did not intervene in Sicily for 70 years.

In Sicily, Carthage lost no territory and the Greeks gained none. Syracuse did not attack Rhegion or Selinus, allies of Carthage. The booty from the war helped to fund a public building programme in Sicily, Greek culture floruished as a result. Trading activity saw the prosperity of the Greek cities increase and the wealth of Akragas began to rival that of Sybaris. Gelo died in 478 BC, and within the next 20 years, the Greek tyrants were overthrown, and the Syracuse-Akrags alliance fragmented into 11 feuding commomwealths under oligarchs and democracies. Their bickering and future expansionist policies led to the Second Sicilian war.

The Second Sicilian War (410 BC-340 BC)

While the Greeks cities in Sicily bickered and prospered for 70 years after Himera, Carthage had conquered the northern fertile half of modern day Tunisia, and strengthened and founded new colonies in North Africa, such as Leptis and Oea, modern Tripoli. Carthage had also sponsored Mago Barca's, not to be confused with Mago Barca, Hannibal Barca's brother, journey across the Sahara Desert to Cyrenaica, and Hanno the Navigator's journey down the African coast. Although the Iberian colonies had seceded in that year with the help of the Iberians, cutting off Carthage's major supply of silver and copper.

In Sicily, Selinus and Elymian Segesta renewed their rivalry. Selinus encroached in Segestan land and defeated the Elymians in 416 BC. Carthage turned down their plea for help, but Athens responded to the Segestan plea and the Sicilian Expedition sent by Athens was destroyed in 413 BC by the joint effort of the Sicilian cities with Spartan aid. Selinus again worsted Segesta in 411 BC. This time Segesta submitted to Carthage, and a Carthaginian relief force sent by Hannibal Mago helped them defeat Selinus in 410 BC. Carthage sought to end the matter diplomatically while assembling a larger force.

After a round of diplomacy involving Carthage, Segesta, Selinus and Syracuse failed to bring about a reconciliation between Segesta and Selinus, Hannibal Mago set out for Sicily with a larger force. He succeeded in capturing Selinus after winning the Battle of Selinus, then destroyed Himera after winning the Second Battle of Himera despite Syracusan intervention. Hannibal did not press on to attack Akragas or Syracuse, but returned triumphantly to Carthage with the spoils of war in 409 BC.

While Syracuse and Akragas, the strongest and richest cities of Sicily took no action against Carthage, the renegade Syracusan general Hermocrates raised a small army, and raided Punic territory from his base Selinus. He managed to defeat the forces of Motya and Panormus before losing his life in a coup attempt in Syracuse. In retaliation Hannibal Mago led a second Carthaginian expedition in 406 BC.

This time, however, the Carthaginians met with fierce resistance and ill-fortune. During the Siege of Akragas, the Carthaginian forces were ravaged by plague and Hannibal Mago himself succumbed to it. Himilco, his successor captured and sacked Akragas, then captured the city of Gela, sacked Camarina and repeatedly defeated the army of Dionysius I, the new tyrant of Syracuse. The plague struck the Carthaginian army again, and Himilco agreed to a peace treaty that left the Carthaginians in control of all the recent conquests, with Selinus, Thermae, Akragas, Gela and Camarina as tributary vassals. Carthaginian power was at it's peak in Sicily.

In 398 BC, Dionysius had consolidated his strength and broke the peace treaty, commencing the Siege of Motya and capturing the city. Himilco responded decisively, leading an expedition which not only reclaimed Motya, but also captured Messina. Finally, he laid siege to Syracuse itself after decisicively defeating the Greeks in the naval Battle of Catana. The siege met with great success throughout 397 BC, but in 396 BC plague again ravaged the Carthaginian forces, and they collapsed. Carthage lost her new Greek conquests but retained control over the western territories and the Elymians. No treaty was signed between the belligerents to signal the end of the war.

Dionysius soon rebuilt his power and sacked Solus in 396 BC. He was engaged in eastern Sicily during 396-393 BC while Carthage was occupied in Africa dealing with a rebellion. In 393 BC, Mago, successor of Himilco, led an attack on Messina, but was defeated near Abacaenum by Dionysius. Reinfored by Carthage, Mago led another expidition through central Sicily, but ran into trouble near the River Chrysas. Dionysius also faced a difficulties of his own, and a peace treaty was concluded that basically ensured Carthage and Syracuse left each other alone in their respective sphere of influences.

Dionysius opened hostilities again in 383 BC. Mago allied with the Italiote league led by Taras and landed in a force Bruttium, forcing Syracuse into a two front war. Details of the first 4 years of campaigns are sketchy, but in 378 BC Dionysius defeatd Mago in Sicily in the Battle of Cabala. Carthage, also faced with rebellions in Africa and Sardinia, sued for peace. Dionysis asked them to evacuate all Sicily, so war was again renewed, and Himilco, son of Mago, destroyed the Syracusan army at the Battle of Cronium in 376 BC. The following peace treaty forced Dionysius to pay 1000 talents as reparations and left Carthage in control of Western Sicily.

Dionysius again attacked Punic possessions in 368 BC, and laid siege to Lilybaeum. The defeat of his fleet forced him to call off the war and his death in 367 BC ensured a peace of 22 years between Carthage and Syracuse. Dion of Syracuse made peace with Carthage, and Carthage retained her Sicilian possessions west of the Halycas and Himeras rivers.

Carthage became embroiled in Syracusan politicis in 345 BC, and her forces managed to enter the city at the invitation of one of the political contenders. The comander Mago bungled the affair, retreated to Africa and kiled himself to escape punishment. Timoleon assumed power in Syracuse in 343 BC and started raiding Carthaginian possessions in Sicily. The Carthaginian expedition to Sicily was destroyed in the Battle of the Crimissus in 341 BC. The following peace treaty left Carthage in control of territories west of the Halycas river.

The Third Sicilian War (315 BC-307 BC)

In 315 BC Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse, seized the city of Messene, present-day Messina. In 311 BC he invaded the last Carthaginian holdings on Sicily, which broke the terms of the current peace treaty, and he laid siege to Akragas. Hamilcar, grandson of Hanno the Navigator, successfully led the Carthaginian counterattack. By 310 BC he controlled almost all of Sicily and had laid siege to Syracuse itself.

In desperation, Agathocles secretly led an expedition of 14,000 men to the mainland Africa, hoping to save his rule by leading a counterstrike against Carthage itself. In this, he was successful: Carthage was forced to recall Hamilcar and most of his army from Sicily to face the new and unexpected threat. The two armies met in battle outside Carthage, and the Carthaginian army, under Hanno and Hamilcar, was defeated. Agathocles and his forces laid siege to Carthage, but its impregnable walls repelled him. Instead, the Greeks contented themselves with occupying Northern Tunisia until they were defeated two years later in 307 BC. Agathocles himself escaped back to Sicily and negotiated a peace treaty with the Carthaginians, which maintained Syracuse as a stronghold of Greek power in Sicily despite its loss of much of its power and the strategic city of Messene.


After Agathocles sued for peace, Carthage enjoyed a brief, unchallenged period of control of Sicily, which ended with the Pyrrhic War. In some respects, the Pyrrhic War (280 BC-275 BC) and Mamertime Revolt (288 BC-265 BC), which ultimately lead to the Punic Wars, can be considered part of the Sicilian Wars, but as they involved outside forces, namely Rome and Epirus, are not considered as such. Rome, despite its close proximity to Sicily, was not involved in the Sicilian Wars of the 5th and 4th centuries BC due to its pre-occupation with its liberation from the Etruscans of the 5th century BC and conquest of Italy in the 4th century BC. But Rome's later involvement in Sicily ended the indecisive warfare on the island.


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