Battle of Himera, autumn 480 BC

The battle of Himera (autumn 480 BC) was a famous victory won by the Greeks of Syracuse over an invading Carthaginian army. The Carthaginians had landed at Panormus, on the northern coast of Sicily. The ancient sources given them 300,000 men under the command of Hamilcar (probably a significant exaggeration). The Carthaginians marched east from Panormus towards the city of Himera. Once there they built two camps - one on the coast to defend their ships and one for the main army. They then defeated the defenders of the city in a battle outside the walls and prepared for a siege.

Theron of Akragas, who had recently expelled the tyrant of Himera, was in command of the defence of Himera. He called for help from Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, who led a force of 50,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry to Himera. Again this figure is probably exaggerated. Gelon built his own camp near the city, captured a large number of Carthaginian looters in the local area and prepared for a decisive battle.

Diodorus gives the most detailed account of the battle. Gelon decided to try and trick the Carthaginians, burn their ships and if possible kill Hamilcar. By a stroke of luck Gelon's cavalry captured a messenger carrying a letter from the people of Selinus to Hamilcar in which they agreed to send a force of cavalry to the Carthaginian naval camp on the same day that Hamilcar was planning to be in the camp preparing a sacrifice to Poseidon.

Gelon decided to take advantage of this stroke of luck by sending his own cavalry to ride around the area of the two armies and approach the Carthaginian camp from the direction of Selinus. They were to pretend to be the allies from Selinus, trick their way into the camp and then kill Hamilcar and burn the boats.

At sunrise, just as Gelon's cavalry approached the naval camp, Gelon moved his main army out of camp and arrayed them in order of battle in front of the Carthaginian land camp. The Carthaginian commanders in the land camp led out their troops and a battle broke out between the two main armies.

Meanwhile at the naval camp Gelon's cavalry successfully tricked the guards and got into the camp. They found Hamilcar at the site of the sacrifice, killed him and then set fire to the boats.

The main battle was closely fought until the Carthaginians saw flames coming from their naval camp and began to hear rumours of Hamilcar's death. The same news greatly encouraged the Greeks.

Herodotus gives a very different account of Hamilcar's death. In his version of the battle Hamilcar spent the day making sacrifices in a vain attempt to get good omens. When he saw that the battle was lost Hamilcar threw himself onto the fire being used for the sacrifices and was burnt to death.

Polyaenus gives yet another account in his Stratagems. In his account Gelon didn't want to risk a battle, so he dressed Pediarchus, commander of his archers, in his cloths. Pediarchus and a group of arches dressed in white and with bows concealed in myrtle branches out to make a sacrifice, presumably on an altar between the armies. Hamilcar came out to offer his own sacrifice and was cut down by a shower of arrows.

The battle took place in the autumn of 480 BC. Herodotus says that it took place on the same day as the battle of Salamis while Diodorus has it taking place on the same day as Thermopylae.

The defeat at Himera ended Carthaginian interest in expanding their empire on Sicily for over seventy years, and they didn't return until 409 BC.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (16 July 2012), Battle of Himera, autumn 480 BC ,

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