Helmet and Spear - Alfred J. Church

The Storm from Africa

Though the Carthaginians, for some reasons which we do not understand, commemorated Hamilcar on the field of Himera, they did their best at home to banish all recollection of his disastrous expedition. They even sent his son, Gisco, into exile for no reason except his unfortunate parentage. Gisco took up his abode in the Greek city of Selinus. A Greek city was not likely to be an agreeable home for a stranger not of Hellenic blood. The Greek's pride of race was intense; all the outside world was barbarian to him. Anyhow, one of Gisco's children, Hannibal by name, carried away from the place where his youth was spent an intense dislike of the race. "He was by nature," says Diodorus, "a Greek-hater." The guilt of his race had been expiated, it would seem, by his father's lifelong exile, and he had been permitted to return home, and had even risen to the highest office in the State.

An opportunity now came to him for gratifying the animosity which he felt against the city of Selinus. This seems to have been in a state of chronic enmity with its neighbour Egesta. The quarrel between them had already led to the most disastrous consequences. It was the complaint of Egesta against their neighbours of Selinus that had given Athens a pretext for their Sicilian expedition. Only two years had passed since this expedition had come to an end, disastrous beyond all precedent in Greek history, and now this paltry quarrel was about to cause another devastating war. Egesta was, of course, worse off than when she made her unlucky application to Athens and was hard pressed by her Greek neighbours. She now sent envoys to Carthage. Hannibal, as I have said, saw his opportunity. He persuaded his countrymen to take up the cause of the weaker State. The first thing was to send envoys to Sicily with instructions so to manage the affair as to make an appeal to arms certain.

They were to go to Syracuse in company with a deputation from Egesta, lay the affair before that State, and offer to submit to arbitration. It was pretty certain that Selinus would refuse its consent, for it was practically in possession of the territory which was the matter in dispute. This, indeed, was exactly what happened. Selinus represented its case before the Syracusan assembly, but refused arbitration. Syracuse, accordingly, resolved to stand neutral, to maintain its alliance with Selinus, and to remain at peace with Carthage. Selinus, left to itself, failed to understand the danger in which it was placed. Five thousand Africans and eight hundred mercenaries from Italy, veterans who had served with the Athenians in the siege of Syracuse, but had left them or been discharged before the final catastrophe, came to the help of Egesta. The Selinuntines took no heed of their arrival, but continued to ravage the enemy's territory. As they met with no opposition, they grew more and more careless. But the enemy was on the watch, and taking the invading force by surprise inflicted on them a heavy loss, killing or taking prisoners as many as one thousand men.

Even now Selinus, it is possible, might have escaped her doom. My readers will remember that the State had been on friendly terms with Carthage, and had actually sent, or at least promised, help to Hamilcar when he was attacking Himera. Had it asked for peace and appealed to these associations in support of the petition, Hannibal might not improbably have granted tolerable terms. His great quarrel was not against Selinus, but against Himera. It was at Himera that his grandfather had perished, and it was his grandfather's death that he desired above all things to avenge. But the Selinuntines appear to have been totally insensible of their danger. They asked for help from Syracuse, should the need arise, and received a promise that it would be given. But nothing was actually done.

The fact is that no one in the island was aware of the vast preparations which Hannibal was making for an expedition in the following year. We are not told how the secret was kept; but kept it was. When the storm burst on the Sicilian Greeks it took them by surprise, and it came with overpowering force.

The numbers given by historians are, as usual, various and untrustworthy.

One writer gives 100,000, and this we may take as approximating to the truth. The army was made up as usual of mercenaries, commanded, as far at least as the superior officers were concerned, by native Carthaginians. The city was now at the very height of its prosperity and could command a practically unlimited supply of men from the fighting races of the world. Africans, Spaniards, and Italians made up the force, with a mixture of Greeks, always ready to sell their swords to any paymaster. This great army was carried across the sea in fifteen hundred transports, and were landed in the bay of MotyÚ not far from LilybŠum, the western extremity of the island. Selinus is on the southern coast of the island, but Hannibal preferred to disembark his troops at some distance. Had he sailed any distance along the southern coast his advance might have been regarded as a menace to Syracuse and the other Greek cities. His sagacity served him well. Syracuse, whether informed of what had happened or not, made no movement. Hannibal, on the other hand, lost no time, but marched straight to Selinus, his forces being increased by contingents from Egesta and the Carthaginian settlements. The walls of the town were ill-adapted to resist the attack of an army far outnumbering the force available for defence and amply furnished with everything that the engineers of the time could put at the disposal of a besieging force. Powerful catapults discharged showers of missiles which cleared the walls; archers and slingers were posted at points of advantage where they could serve with the best effect the same purpose; wooden towers, filled with armed men, were brought up to the walls, with which they were very nearly on a level; elsewhere huge battering-rams were driven against such spots in the fortifications as showed any signs of weakness or decay. Every one of these methods of attack was made formidable in the extreme by the multitudes of men available for pushing them home. And Hannibal was present everywhere, urging on his soldiers with an almost fanatical energy. The siege lasted for nine days, the besiegers pressing the assault with unabated energy, the besieged maintaining the defence with all the resolution of despair. There was no thought of capitulation. Indeed, the Carthaginian general would grant no terms. He had promised the plunder of the town to his soldiers, and Selinus had no other prospect than to resist or to perish.

Assault after assault was delivered and repulsed. But it was a conflict that could not be indefinitely continued. The combatants in the place could hardly have exceeded ten thousand; probably their number, even when swelled by every one who could hold a weapon, was under this figure. And they had all to be on service, with the very briefest intervals of rest, or with no intervals at all. The assailants came on by relays, of which there were so many that no one had to fight for more than three or four hours at a time. On the third or fourth day a body of Campanian mercenaries found their way into the town over a breach that had been made by the battering-rams. But Selinus was not yet taken. The townsmen gathered themselves up for a supreme effort, and the Campanians were driven out with the loss of many of their number. On the tenth day a Spanish force—the Spaniards were always the most resolute fighters in the armies of Carthage—made their way into the town. This time the wearied citizens could not drive the storming party back. Yet they still resisted. Barricades were set up and desperately defended in the narrow streets, while the women and children showered tiles and bricks from the roofs and upper stories on the enemy below. A last stand was made in the market-place. Thus most of those who still survived were slain. Some fell alive into the hands of the enemy; two or three thousand made good their escape to Agrigentum.

And all the while not a single soldier from any one of the Greek cities of Sicily came to help the unhappy town. Messenger after messenger had been sent to tell how pressing was the need, and to implore assistance, but no assistance was given. Agrigentum and Gela had indeed their forces ready to march, but they waited for Syracuse, and Syracuse was culpably tardy in moving. Possibly, as had been suggested, its rulers fancied that Hannibal would waste time as they had lately seen Nicias, the Athenian commander, waste it before their walls. Anyhow, they waited first till a petty quarrel with two of their Greek neighbours was finished, and then till the very largest and best equipped force that could be raised was ready to march. By this time the opportunity was lost. With horror, not unmixed with a certain fear for its own future, Syracuse heard that Selinus, a Dorian Greek city, like itself, had fallen.

The fall of a city taken by storm has always been miserable in the extreme. In whatever respects the world may have advanced and improved, in this it remains much about the same. But the Carthaginians seem to have used their victory with more than common barbarity. That the prisoners should be slaughtered in cold blood was unhappily a common incident. A Greek conqueror was more likely than not to treat fellow Greeks in this way. But mutilation was a hideous barbarity, and in this Hannibal permitted his soldiers to indulge. I mention the fact because it helps us to realise how the world would have been put backward if Carthage had triumphed over Greece. Selinus was again inhabited, but it never recovered the terrible blow inflicted upon it by Hannibal. To this day the prostrate columns of its temples, some of the most magnificent ruins in the world, bear the marks of the crowbars which the barbarous invaders used in overthrowing them.

The main purpose of Hannibal was still to be accomplished. It was against Himera, the scene of his grandfather's defeat, that his expedition was really aimed, and, Selinus destroyed, he marched against the other city, which was on the north coast of the island, and about fifty miles distant. His numbers were swollen by recruits from the native Sicilian tribes, who had never reconciled themselves to the presence of the Greek settlers, and now gladly seized the opportunity of expelling them. Hannibal repeated at Himera the tactics which he had employed with success at Selinus. He delivered his attack without any delay, bringing his battering-rams to bear upon the walls, and bringing up his movable towers. Nothing was accomplished on the first day. The people of Himera had the help and, what was probably not less effective, the encouragement of a Syracusan contingent of 4,000 men. Repeated assaults of the besiegers were repulsed with great slaughter, and the spirits of the defenders rose high. So great indeed was the confidence which they felt in their superiority to the enemy that they resolved to take the offensive. At dawn on the second day a body of 10,000 men sallied forth from the town and fiercely attacked the investing force. The Carthaginians were not prepared for any such action. Their first line was easily broken. The Greeks pursued the fugitives and inflicted upon them a heavy loss, killing, it is said by one writer, as many as 20,000 men. As this number would allow an average of two victims to each combatant, it may safely be rejected. The 6,000 given by a more sober historian is probably much nearer, though not under the number. But the easy success of the sally led to disaster. Hannibal was watching the affair from some elevated ground in the rear of the position, and he now moved forward. He found the Greeks exhausted and breathless, and after a fierce struggle drove them back. The main body reached the gates of Himera, though not without loss, but 3,000 men were isolated on the plain and perished to a man.

While the struggle was proceeding, a squadron of twenty-five ships of war arrived from Syracuse. Unfortunately they brought with them some alarming news. In passing the Carthaginian port of MotyÚ they had observed signs of preparation in the fleet. The explanation suggested and received was that the enemy were preparing to attack Syracuse. The captain of the Syracusan contingent, Diocles by name, was profoundly alarmed by this intelligence. The defence of Himera became a secondary consideration in view of what he believed to be the instant danger of Syracuse itself. He ordered the warships to return immediately. He even insisted on taking back the troops under his own command. The HimerŠans remonstrated against this desertion, but remonstrated in vain. It could hardly be denied that Diocles was acting in the interest, at least in the immediate interest, of Syracuse. All that he would agree to, in the way of compromise, was that the ships should transport as many of the Himereans as could be taken on board to Messana, which was about 150 miles distant (Syracuse was too miles further off), and that they should return with all speed to take away the remainder. Those who were left behind, or elected to remain, should do their best in the meantime to hold the city. As for Diocles, he marched away in such haste that he left the bodies of such of his own men as had fallen in the recent conflict unburied—the most shameful confession that a Greek general could make of weakness or defeat. The next day Hannibal renewed the attack. The brave HimerŠans still repulsed him. For the whole of that day they were able to hold their own. If they could have maintained their resistance for yet another twelve hours, all might have been well, for the ships, which clearly could not have gone so far as Messana, were seen to be returning. But their strength was exhausted. A breach had been made in the walls, and the Spaniards, again showing their superiority over Hannibal's other troops, forced their way through it. A few of the HimerŠans made their way to the ships; but the great mass of the population was either slain or captured. Hannibal, while giving up the spoil of the city without reserve to his soldiers, did his best to stop the massacre. But there was no mercy in his motives. The women and children were either distributed among the conquerors or sold as slaves. The male captives of full age, 3,000 in number, were taken to the precise spot where Hamilcar had been last seen alive, cruelly mutilated and slain. We read of many barbarous acts in Greek history, but of nothing so atrocious as this. If we can see but little trace of humanity, as we understand it, in the Greek character, the people had a sense of fitness, a restraining power of taste, if not of conscience, that forbad such horrors.

The danger that threatened civilisation must have seemed great at the time, though it was probably less than had been the case when the fate of the world, so to speak, had been in suspense on the day of Salamis. But the fears of Sicily, felt also, we may believe, in mainland Greece, were suddenly relieved. Hannibal had accomplished his object. He had exacted a never-to-be-forgotten vengeance for the death of his grandfather, and he wanted no more. Half Sicily was now in the hands of Carthage, and the Greek name was more humbled than it had been within the memory of man. He disbanded his army, and returned, laden with the spoils of war, to Carthage, where he was received with enthusiasm.

But the danger was only postponed. If Hannibal had been satisfied with the results of his campaign, Carthage was not. Its old ambition of dominating Sicily was revived, and for the next four years it made costly and incessant preparations for another invasion of the eastern or Greek portion of the island. Unfortunately the Sicilian Greeks spent the time, not in consolidating their strength, but in intestine strife. The most eminent citizen of Syracuse had made repeated attempts to establish a despotism. He had met with failure and death, but he left behind him a legacy of political hatred that might well have proved fatal to the State.

In 407 the hostile intention of Carthage became known to the Sicilian Greeks. They sent envoys to make a remonstrance, and to suggest a treaty of peace. No answer was given, and the preparations went on with unabated zeal.

In the following year the expedition sailed. Hannibal was again in command, but he shared his power with a young kinsman, Himilco by name. His force, on the most moderate computation, amounted to 120,000 men, with a fleet of 120 ships of war. It was in Agrigentum, to which the frontier of Greek Sicily had now been pushed back, that the storm was first to fall.

Agrigentum was a splendid city, second only to Syracuse in population, and not yielding even to it in magnificence and wealth. No city in the island or even in mainland Greece, Athens only excepted, could boast more stately temples and public buildings. Surrounded by a large and fertile territory, it carried on a profitable trade with the African coast. It could boast of one kind of wealth in which few Greek cities could vie with it—a noble breed of horses, which were seen at least as often in the front at the chariot-races of Olympia as the teams sent from Syracuse or Argos. Only two years before the time of which I am speaking an Agrigentine citizen had won the prize for four-horse chariots, and on his return home had been escorted from the frontier by three hundred private chariots each drawn by two white horses.

Agrigentum was built on a site naturally strong and had been skilfully fortified. It occupied a group, or rather part of a group, of hills which on all sides but one, the south-western, rose precipitously from the plain, so precipitously indeed that attack was impossible. On the north-east, crowning the height of the most lofty hill, was the citadel, approachable by one narrow path only.

While the fortifications were strong and well cared for, they were also adequately garrisoned. Besides a numerous force raised from her own citizens Agrigentum had in her pay eight hundred Campanian mercenaries, who three years before had served under Hannibal, and had thrown up their engagement dissatisfied with their pay. She had also secured the services of fifteen hundred other mercenaries who were under the command of Dexippus, a Spartan soldier of fortune. The citizens were confident in their ability to repel any attack that might be made on them. When Hannibal proposed a treaty of alliance, which, however, would permit Agrigentum to stand neutral in the approaching conflict, it was promptly rejected.

For a while all went well with the defence. Hannibal assaulted the town at the only point where an assault was possible, but accomplished nothing. He even lost his siege train, for the Agrigentines made a sally, captured, and burnt it. He then adopted the alternative plan of constructing a mound which would put the assailants on a level with the walls. The cemetery of Agrigentum was situated outside the walls in the same quarter as that which was the scene of the attack. Indeed, it was only here that there was any level space. Massive tombs of stone, in which reposed the remains of distinguished or wealthy Agrigentines of past days, abounded, and Hannibal, with the national carelessness of all religions other than his own, determined to make use of these materials for his siege work. His workmen had destroyed many of the tombs, and were busy with the most splendid of them all, that of Theron (tyrant of Agrigentum from 488 to 472) when a thunderbolt fell on the spot. This was regarded by the Carthaginians as a manifest token of the divine displeasure. The panic which followed largely increased the fatalities from a disease which now appeared in the camp. Thousands perished, Hannibal himself being one of the victims. It was not till various expiations, one of them a human sacrifice, had been made that Himilco, who now succeeded to the chief command, was able to resume the operations of the siege.

But fortune still seemed to favour the Greek cause. The other Greek cities had been actively employed in raising a relieving force. A Syracusan army, made up by contingents from Gela and Camarina to 30,000 foot and 5,000 horse, reached the Agrigentine territory. Himilco despatched a force of Spaniards and Italians to contest their further advance. After a fierce fight the Carthaginian mercenaries were broken, and compelled to retreat to their camp. DaphnŠus of Syracuse, who was in chief command, possibly recollecting the disastrous result of the too vigorous pursuit of the enemy before Selinus, held back his men when they would have followed up the victory. The officers in command at Agrigentum were equally cautious. Their troops were eager to sally out from the gates and fall upon the flying mercenaries as they hurried past in disorder, but the generals absolutely refused their permission, and the opportunity of completely destroying the enemy—so at least the malcontents contended—was lost.

The allies now entered the town amidst general rejoicing. It was not long, however, before a discordant note was heard. Loud complaints were made of the supineness of the Agrigentine generals in allowing the enemy to escape. Some went so far as to suggest that their conduct was due to a treasonable understanding with Himilco. A public assembly was hurriedly convened, and the accused generals were put upon their trial. The leader of the contingent from Camarina, Menes by name, ranged himself with the accusers. What evidence was brought against the generals we do not know. It is quite possible that there was nothing worthy of the name, for a Southern mob was ready then, as, indeed, it is now, to take its wildest guesses as truth. Anyhow their defence, whatever it was, availed nothing. Four out of the five were stoned to death, the fifth was allowed to escape in consideration of his youth. At the same time the Spartan Dexippus was severely censured.

This deplorable affair bears a curious resemblance to a well-known incident in Athenian history, which indeed almost coincided with it in time: the execution of the Athenian generals after the victory at ArginusŠ, on the charge of having neglected to do all that was possible in saving the lives of the shipwrecked crews. It shows, as any one who tells the story of Greece has many occasions of showing, the dark side of free political life. For the time, however, no ill result seemed to follow, as far as the war was concerned. The tide of fortune still ran strongly against the invading army. Himilco had practically to raise the siege of Agrigentum, and was besieged in his own camp. This was too strongly fortified to be taken by assault, but it seemed in danger of being reduced by famine. DaphnŠus was strong enough to cut off the supplies, and the Carthaginians were reduced to the greatest straits. Some of the mercenaries mutinied, and were with difficulty pacified by having handed over to them the plate which the wealthy Carthaginians who held high command in the army had brought with them. Then by a bold coup Himilco effected a total change in the situation. Agrigentum was mainly supplied from Syracuse, and towards the end of the year a fleet of transports carrying stores was on its way under the escort of some Syracusan ships-of-war. The Carthaginian fleet had been inactive since the beginning of the campaign, and the Greek commanders seem to have thought that it might safely be neglected. In this they were soon undeceived. A squadron of forty ships-of-war issued unexpectedly from MotyÚ, attacked the escorting ships, of which they destroyed eight, driving the rest ashore, and succeeded in capturing the whole of the convoy.

The positions of the two armies were now reversed. The Carthaginians were possessed of abundance of supplies; the Greeks were threatened with famine. The mercenaries in the service of Dexippus approached him with a complaint. He was unable to satisfy them, and they marched away to Messana, alleging that the time for which they had been engaged was expired. The alarm caused by this desertion was great, and Dexippus took no pains to allay it. He had not forgotten the fate of the Agrigentine generals or the censure passed upon himself. The magistrates of Agrigentum instituted an inquiry into the condition and amount of the supplies still remaining in the city, and found that very little was left. They lost no time in deciding on a course of action. Agrigentum must be evacuated, and that at once. That very night all the population, except the sick and helpless, and a few patriots who preferred dying in their native city to leaving it, hurriedly fled to Gela, their rear being guarded by the Syracusan and Agrigentine troops. They escaped with their lives and with such property as they were able to carry off. Those that remained behind were slaughtered without mercy, unless they preferred to put an end to their own lives. Some had hoped to find safety in the temples, but the Carthaginians showed no respect for the sacred places of the city, which they plundered and destroyed as remorselessly as they did the secular.

But the tide of Carthaginian success had not yet reached its height. Two more Greek cities, Gela and Camarina, had to be evacuated. Practically Syracuse and Messana alone remained. If this success had been attained in 480 the prospect of European civilisation would have been dark indeed. Happily by this time Persia, Carthage's natural ally, had ceased to be formidable.

It would demand too much time, and would take me too far from my proper subject, if I were to relate in detail the history of the war. It can hardly be doubted that there had been much mismanagement on the part of the Syracusan generals. But all the mistakes which they made might have been repaired without serious loss to the State and to the welfare of the Greek race in Sicily, if it had not been for the unscrupulous ambition of a Syracusan citizen. A short time before the Carthaginian invasion there had been attempts on the part of one of the leaders of the aristocracy of Syracuse to make himself an absolute ruler. He perished in the enterprise, but his plan did not die with him. A certain Dionysius, who had married the daughter of the deceased man, now saw in the popular indignation against the incompetent generals an opportunity of securing his own ends. He brought about their condemnation, and procured his own election in their place. A crafty manťuvre enabled him to surround himself with a body-guard. In the end he made himself master of the city. Ostensibly he was the chief citizen of the republic. The coins of Syracuse still bore the figure of the personified city, for Dionysius did not venture to put his own likeness upon them. But practically he was absolute. So far the success of the Carthaginian invasion had helped him. He would never have risen to supreme power had it not been for the terrible disasters which had overtaken Agrigentum, Camarina, and Gela, and had seemed to make him a necessary person. But he felt, of course, that Syracuse must not fall. Fortunately for his plans, he found that Himilco was not in a position to carry the war further. The Carthaginian army, loosely constituted of mercenaries gathered from many countries, had fallen into a disorganised condition. The sickness that had worked such havoc during the siege of Agrigentum had broken out again, and had claimed thousands of victims. Without much difficulty an agreement was arrived at. The Carthaginians were to keep all their former possessions and their recent acquisitions. Only Gela and Camarina might be reoccupied by their former inhabitants, on the condition of paying tribute. And—for here was the important article of the treaty—Syracuse was to be subject to Dionysius.  Peace was concluded on these terms, and the Carthaginian army returned home, carrying back with it, we are told, the terrible disease which had wrought so much damage in Sicily.