Battle of Himera: Carthage vs. Ancient Greeks of Sicily

In 480 BCE, two great powers met near a small town in Sicily to decide the fate of the Mediterranean.

Apr 23, 2024By Christopher Nelson, MSc Ancient History, BA Classical Archaeology, BA Anthropology

battle of himera


Since the fall of Phoenician Tyre, the Mediterranean, once interconnected by vast trade networks running from southern Iberia to the Levantine coast, was in flux. Sicily was perfectly positioned to serve as a central, commercial hub for the two halves of the sea. But who would control it? The Carthaginians, heirs of their Phoenician ancestors, or the colonial Sicilian Greeks with their famed capital of Syracuse. For nearly a century, the two powers would muster countless men, mercenaries, and fleets to answer this question, and it all began at Himera.


Before the Battle of Himera: The Lines Are Drawn

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Sicily after the Peace Treaty of 405 BCE, made by the author using QGIS


With lucrative ports and colonies in the western half of Sicily, Carthage guarded its territory with swift and often decisive proactivity, thwarting several attempts by Greek colonists to settle there.


Carthaginians, native Sicilians, and Greek colonists all vied for territory. Soon, a complex web of treaties, marriage alliances, and local despots developed, ensuring that the once small and sporadic conflicts would now escalate and draw in mercenaries from nearly every corner of the Mediterranean.


Seizing on civil unrest, an ambitious young man named Gelon took control of Syracuse. Seeking legitimacy for his new regime, the tyrant married the daughter of Theron of Akragas. Legitimacy was not his only goal. A rival, Anaxilas of Rhegium, had taken the town of Zancle to gain control over the Messenian Straits, threatening the eastern half of Sicily. Anaxilas was a well-connected man; his father-in-law also happened to be a tyrant, controlling a small town on the northern coast of Sicily. It was called Himera.

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Another duo of despots vying to control crucial shipping lanes could not be tolerated. It was against Anaxilas’ father-in-law that the new partnership of Gelon of Syracuse and Theron of Akragas first moved. Terillus of Himera was expelled, and he instinctively sought aid from his son-in-law. They turned to the one man in the region who could contend with the wealth and arms of a united Akragas and Syracuse: Hamilcar of Carthage.


Inherently leery of the Syracusans and any concentration of Greek power, Hamilcar agreed to aid Terillus and “brought against Gelon three hundred thousand Phoenicians, Libyans, Iberians, Ligyes, Elisyci, Sardinians, and Cyrnians” (Herodotus 7.165). In 480 BCE, the invasion of Sicily began, and the two new ententes would meet on the fields of Himera to decide the fate of Sicily.


Herodotus’ Account of the Battle

herodotus bust
Marble Bust of Herodotus, Copy of a Greek bronze statue of the first half of the fourth century BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art


Writing only a generation after Himera, Herodotus’ account (Book 7.165-167) is the most contemporary retelling of the battle. Yet, it remains frustratingly vague despite his claim that it was based on the stories of the Carthaginians themselves.


The historian’s estimate of 300,000 Carthaginian men landing on Sicily is surely hyperbolic. The Carthaginians, undoubtedly, mobilized a massive, multi-ethnic force, yet the Syracusan force response was similar. An army comprised of men from all over the Greek world was mustered to match the Carthaginian threat. The two commercial powers used their wealth to defeat each other.


The armies fought for hours, neither gaining the upper hand. The “barbarians,” as Herodotus calls them, held the field against the Greek coalition. Meanwhile, in his tent, the pious Hamilcar, whom Herodotus calls the king of Carthage, performed a sacrificial ritual in order to gain favorable omens for his endeavor. His efforts were in vain, and the sight of his army collapsing caused him to throw himself onto the huge sacrificial pyre. Far from being a shameful act, Hamilcar’s self-immolation was lauded by the Carthaginians, even inspiring honorific ruler cults to be established.


Herodotus’ account leaves out much of the actual battle, focusing instead on the figures of Gelon and Hamilcar, who are both portrayed as upright and noble men despite their contrasting fates.


Diodorus’ Account of the Battle of Himera

battle himera giuseppe sciuti
Battle of Himera, by Giuseppe Sciuti. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Most of Diodorus Siculus’ voluminous work has not survived into the present day. However, his account of Himera does remain (Book 11.21-23), giving us much of the detail that Herodotus’ account lacks. Writing in the first century CE, he tells us that Gelon, a tyrant of Syracuse, brought 50,000 men into the field. He rushed his men across the island to meet the invaders and quickly fortified the town of Himera. Some of the Carthaginians had strayed too far from their camp and were quickly taken prisoner by the mobile Syracusan cavalry. From them, Gelon learned that the enemy force had pulled their boats ashore, and were expecting allies from the local town of Selinus to join them shortly.


Gelon sent his cavalry, and ordered them to ride up to the walls posing as the friendly Selinuntians. Once inside the camp, they were to set fire to the ships.


An alarm was raised as soon as the fire from the ships could be seen. It was at that moment that Gelon led his force in a shattering charge against the Carthaginian camp. Panicked by the flames and the oncoming army, the Carthaginian coalition scrambled to the walls. It was in this maelstrom that Hamilcar, conducting his ritual to Poseidon, was slain.


Like Herodotus, Diodorus relays that the battle was hard fought. Slowly, as the flames from their destroyed fleet grew higher and thicker, word began to trickle through the Carthaginian ranks that their commander was dead. With their fleet burning, the Carthaginian lines broke, and a great slaughter ensued. Gelon gave the order that no order was to be given. So great were the casualties, that Diodorus reports that not a man that landed on Sicily returned to Carthage.


Greek Triumph

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Bases of the Deinomenid tripods at Delphi, by William West III (photographer). Source: Ancient World Image Bank


When we think of decisive battles in ancient history, we think of Salamis, Gaugamela, or Caesar’s stunning victory at Alesia. We do not think of Himera. Perhaps it is because, to noble Greeks drunk from their victory over the mighty Persians, Sicily was a backwater. However, in the ancient mind, Himera stood alongside other legendary victories. Both ancient accounts agree that it was a shattering victory for the Syracusans. It would drive the Carthaginians from the island for the next seven decades.


Gelon commemorated the event by dedicating a monument at Delphi, making sure to broadcast his victory to the wider Greek world. From the spoils, he also struck a magnificent series of silver decadrachms he referred to as Demareteia after his wife. The style adopted for this issue would go on to influence Carthage’s own religious iconography during the subsequent rise of Tanit’s cult within the capital city.


A Carthaginian Conspiracy?

gelon decadrachm coin
Decadrachm issued by Gelon with the head of a goddess, 5th century BCE. Source: University of Pennsylvania Museum



Herodotus (7.166) tells us that the battle took place the same day as the naval triumph at Salamis. While likely not chronologically true, the two victories, in his mind, were equivalently monumental, serving as an emphatic statement on the triumph of Hellenism. Similarly, Diodorus (11.24) reports that the battle actually took place on the same day as the Battle of Thermopylae. For narrative purposes, it was important for the ancient authors to emphasize the connection between the two conflicts. For Diodorus, he did not even see them as separate. It was his assertion that the Persians had coordinated their own invasion with the Carthaginians in an attempt to destroy the Greek world once and for all (Diodorus, 11.20).


However, there is little evidence outside Greek literature to suggest that there was, in fact, a coordinated, anti-Greek alliance. The Carthaginians were as deeply suspicious of the Persians as they were of the Sicilian Greeks. Three decades prior, Persia had planned its own invasion of Carthage. It was only thwarted by the Phoenicians’ unwillingness to sail against their Punic daughter colony.


In fact, it was not the Carthaginians that contacted the Persians. It was Gelon of Syracuse himself. Seeking aid for his campaign against the Carthaginians, he sent the traditional sign of friendship to King Xerxes: earth and water. He was a pragmatist with no compunctions about dealing with an enemy of other Greek city-states. There was no pan-Hellenic loyalty, nor was there a pan-Mediterranean alliance formed against it.


The Two Hundred Years War

himera temple
Temple of Syracusan Victory at Himera. Source:,


Some have argued that the repercussions of the defeat in 480 BCE were disastrous for the Carthaginians, setting them back decades on the world stage (see Warmington, Carthage,1960).  While this is true if our scope is limited solely to Sicily, Carthage, at large, continued to thrive through the 5th century BCE, both commercially and militarily. Their influence in Sicily lessened after the defeat at Himera, but their ambitions did not wane. They began to launch military campaigns into the interior of North Africa, kickstarting an agrarian aspect to an economy that had previously relied nearly entirely on maritime commerce (Pilkington, The Carthaginian Empire 550-202 BCE, 2019).


In 410 BCE, spats among Sicilian city-states would once again draw Carthage into the fray. This time, the expedition was led by Hannibal Mago. His grandfather was Hamilcar, the Carthaginian commander who lost his life at Himera. His grandson was seemingly less pious and wasted no time in taking his familial revenge.


The Second Battle of Himera did not go as well for the Sicilian Greeks. Hannibal won a resounding victory and sacrificed 3,000 prisoners on the same spot where his grandfather was sacrificed nearly 75 years earlier. Gelon’s Temple of Syracusan Victory that had been erected after the first battle was demolished as Hannibal continued his revenge tour (Diodorus, 13.62.4). The Carthaginians had returned with a vengeance, but the fortune of war is fickle. Within three years, Hannibal was to be dead, ravaged by an unforeseen plague that would soon spread to the shores of North Africa. Sicily for the Carthaginians seemed to be forever cursed.


A Discovery Related to the Battle of Himera

dido building carthage jmw turner
Dido Building Carthage by J.M.W. Turner, 1815. Source: London National Gallery


While the ancient accounts of the battle are crucial to our understanding of the events, modern-day discoveries have also helped us to fill in the gaps. In 2008, an archaeological excavation uncovered a mass grave to the west of the ancient fortifications of the city. Over 100 bodies were discovered. Weapon fragments were also found in association with the inhumations. Most of the individuals were young adult males.


Interestingly, strontium isotope ratio analysis of the bodies confirms the ancient sources and proves that the Syracusan army was made up of men from all over the Greek world. The diversity represents not only mercenaries hired by Gelon but also allies that provided men. The lack of a Carthaginian presence again corroborates the outcome of the battle. The victorious Syracusans had ample time to bury their dead with care while the invaders scrambled to the burnt remains of their ships.


Conversely, the graves associated with the Second Sicilian War (410 BCE) show hastily buried bodies done out of necessity rather than reverence. An army that once represented a diverse array of the Greek world now showed only Syracusans. As in the ancient sources, it appears in this fight the Syracusans stood alone. Unflinching yet unable to stop the Carthaginians from securing a shocking victory.


Few could have known at the time that this great clash at Himera between two powerful nations would lead to a nearly unending string of conflicts known as the Sicilian Wars. Seven wars would be fought between the Carthaginians and the Sicilian Greeks before Carthage’s eventual showdown with Rome.

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By Christopher NelsonMSc Ancient History, BA Classical Archaeology, BA AnthropologyChristopher holds a degree in Classical Archaeology from the University of Missouri and a Master’s degree in Ancient History from the University of Edinburgh. He is a Kansas City native where both of his parents worked as schoolteachers. They instilled in him a love of history that has manifested itself in countless travel excursions, stacks of books, and questions. He currently resides in New York City.