Carthage involvement in Sicily and the Battle of Himera
Though the Persian threat was most prominent in the minds of the Greeks, they were certainly not the only imperial force that sought to take territory and wealth.
To the west, the Carthaginian Empire was also rising and spreading at this time. Seeing that the Persians were putting much pressure on the Greeks and wanting to expand themselves, the Carthaginians decided it was time to launch their own attack.
The king of Carthage Hamilcar is said to have assembled an army numbering 300,000 (though most historians agree it was likely much less) soldiers from Iberia, Sardinia, Corsica, Italy, Gaul and Africa. The Carthage army was mostly comprised of mercenaries as they did not have a conscription service, preferring to have a small professional army with the aid of mercenaries, which would be under the command of Carthaginian officers. These soldiers for hire were quite expensive but Carthage, with it’s vast empire and wealth, had the funds for such a thing.
Sicily was split in 2 at this time, with Carthage having territory in the west and the Greeks in the east. Hamilcar wanted to bring all of the island under his control.
The force sent to Sicily had problems before reaching the island due to a large storm. A few of the ships bound for Sicily ended up sinking and others were badly damaged. The Carthaginian forces pushed on to their first target, the Greek city of Himera. Their plan was to take the city and reinstate it’s former tyrant under the rule of Carthage and take over the other Greek cities one by one through numerous other means.
The Carthaginians beached their ships to the north of Himera. Over the next 3 days they set up camp by the coast, repaired their ships and reorganised. After this they set up a second base camp further in land to the south west of the city. During the construction, Himera had enough time to send for aid and reinforcements from the other Greek cities in the area.
Hamilcar made the first move, sending a large force to test the city defences. The Greeks sallied out to encounter them but were beaten back quite badly and forced to retreat.
The neighbouring Greek city of Syracuse sent an army to aid Himera. This army of 50,000 included 20,000 hoplites, a few thousand archers mixed with light infantry and 2000 cavalry. The people of Himera were amazed and overjoyed at the sight of this army. While Hamilcars’ troops were out foraging, the Greeks sent out 5000 cavalry to cut down as many as possible. Many were killed in a short space of time. Seeing this Hamilcar sent word to near by Carthage cities that he required cavalry as his had been lost in the before mentioned storm.
The Greek army marched out to face the Carthaginians at their south western camp. The Carthage troops positioned themselves on top of a near by hill, forcing an uphill battle for their enemies.
Meanwhile the Carthaginian main camp to the north, commanded by king Hamilcar himself, finally received the cavalry units they needed. Or so they thought. Immediately apon their arrival, the cavalry started butchering the unsuspecting troops in their base camp. The reason for this is quite simple. The messenger Hamilcar sent had been interrogated by the Greek cavalry as they discovered him while on patrol. He revealed the day the reinforcements were coming and the Greeks ambushed them. They then set out to the camp, killing most who were there. A few got away in ships but overcrowded them in their haste to escape, causing them to later sink. King Hamilcar was one of the many to be cut down. The camp, it’s defences and all the ships on the beech were burned.
After the base camps destruction, the cavalry quickly charged down to assist the Greek army. Crashing into the Carthaginian lines, they routed the enemy. The Carthage troops retreated to a mountain not too far away, of which the Greeks promptly surrounded.
The remaining Carthaginians on the mountain surrendered after a while. Their lives were spared but they were now in service to the Greek city states of Sicily as slaves.
The Carthaginians realised just how disastrous their ambitions had been. Out of fear of having their cities destroyed by the Greeks, the Carthaginians sent ambassadors to organise a peace treaty.
The terms were completely dictated by the Greeks and Carthage was to hand over a very considerable amount of money.
This defeat had far reaching consequences both politically and economically for Carthage. Politically, the old government of nobility was ousted and replaced by the Carthaginian Republic. Kings were still elected, but their power began to erode, with the senate and the Tribunal gaining dominance in political matters. The Greek people had managed to defend their western holdings from a vast and wealthy empire while fighting the largest of such powers ever seen. Truly a remarkable feet for these resilient people.
Mardonius set about continuing the invasion of Greece and enforcing Persian dominance. With his army now once again numbering a massive 300,000 he dragged a campaign from city to city, looting and conquering.
After subduing the entirety of northern Greece, Mardonius settled down in his winter quarters in Boeotia during the colder months and began trying to defeat his enemies in a more diplomatic way, meanwhile the Athenians returned to what was left of their homes. Mardonius attempted to break the Greek alliance apart through negotiation. He did this by sending Alexander I of Macedon to the Athenians in an attempt to win them over with offers of self governance within the Persian empire along with new vast territories. The representatives of Athens, in the presence of Spartan representatives, simply stated in response that ”There is no need to point out the extent to which we are in the shadows of the Persians’ strength as we are well aware. But even so, such is our love of liberty, that we will never surrender”. They made it clear that they would not back down nor be bought out.
After this reply was relayed to Mardonius, the Persian army began to march south once again and the people of Athens were forced to evacuate their home for a second time. A delegation was sent to Sparta, requesting they aid Athens once more. The Spartans responded, sending an expeditionary force.
Upon hearing of this Spartan advance, Mardonius decided it would be best to withdraw from Athens to the river bank near Plataea as this area was better suited for the deployment of his cavalry.
In August of the year 479 BC, Mardonius and his army arrived close to the city of Plataea, setting up on the plain at the river bank as planned.
After the Persians had fortified their position, the Greek force arrived. Though outnumbered this army was impressive, a large allied force of Spartans, Athenians, Corinthians, Lacedaemonians and many more from over 20 city states. The Greek alliance force numbered around 100,000 strong (39,000 being hoplites) and was led by Pausanias, a Spartan general and nephew to the now dead king Leonidas.
The Greeks chose to remain on high ground while moving into a formation that matched the Persian lines. Mardonius was cautious to not underestimate his enemy, being well aware that if he attacked the Greeks in this position it could lead to another defeat. With this in mind he attempted to lure the Greeks down into the plain by sending cavalry units on continues harassment raids against their lines. It is perfectly plausible to think that this may have worked, however the commander of the cavalry was killed while conducting one of these raids. This inspired a huge surge in moral within the Greek soldiers. The Greek forces closed in, closer and closer to the Persian lines but were sure to stay on the high-ground. As both sides had good defensive positions, neither risked a full scale attack, preferring skirmishes instead. This lasted for 8 days.
Realising that more Greek reinforcements could fall apon him at any moment, Mardonius ordered new cavalry raids. However unlike the previous raids, these were designed to cut supply lines which had a devastating effect. Food was running low and the Greek army’s water supply at Gargaphian spring had been cut off. This forced the Greeks to fall back closer to Plataea as to not risk starvation.
The repositioning was performed at night as to not draw suspicion. This very quickly turned into a disaster. The Greek centre was the first to go but got lost in the dark and ended up in the wrong position. By the time the Athenians were underway, daylight had come and the Spartans had not even started to move yet.
The Spartans made their way to a riverside hill to the far right, whereas the Athenians were to the left and everyone else was close to Plataea. The repositioning was a complete mess.
Thinking that the moral must have dropped and this was now merely a massive disorganised full retreat, Mardonius ordered a full attack. Without realising it, the Greeks, though in staggered formations had actually given themselves quite favourable positions.
Mardonius ordered his elite troops and cavalry forward. However in a moment of excitement the entire army charged without orders. The cavalry went for the Spartans in an attempt to decimate them. They were repulsed by a wall of shields and spears and could do very little to the hardened, heavily armoured soldiers. The might of the 39,000 hoplites was showing. The Persian infantry engaging the Spartans decided to wait for their archers to thin out there numbers. A bombardment ensued but the instant the Spartans shook off the pelting of the arrows, they counter attacked! With gravity of their side, they descended the hill, the Spartan phalanx exploded against the enemy line! An utter bloodbath began. They pushed the Persian line back and back until they could see the Achaemenid general. Mardonius himself was bravely leading his men, conducting the battle from his marvellous white horse with the dream of ruling over all of Greece in his emperors name.
Clashing and cleaving at each-other, the Persian and Spartan infantry fought on equal terms, with the hardened Spartan soldiers and the vast numbers of their enemies. It seemed that these armies would simply wipe one another out when suddenly everything changed. A Spartan picked up a rock, he ran through hordes of Persians right up close to Mardonius himself and threw it. The rock slammed into the Persian generals skull, cracking it open and killing him instantly. The great general Mardonius fell dead from his horse to the ground.
Mardonius was dead. Killed right in front of his men. Many Persian troops ran immediately after bearing witness to this. The generals’ personal bodyguard remained in order to avenge thier fallen leader but were wiped out quickly during the Greek advance. Around this time the Athenian left had too pushed back their enemy. They were facing Greek hoplites that had joined Persia and thus had proven their superiority in the phalanx formation. Troops scattered and ran in all directions, being cut down by Greek soldiers.
The Persians were in a state of mass panic. Those who remained to keep fighting were massacred and those who retreated to the city of Thebes would later be executed. A bulk of Persians managed to reach their fortified camp but there was no escape for them. It was not long before the walls of this now undermanned camp were breached and it’s inhabitants utterly wiped out.
The Persian defeat here was absolute. Around 50,000 Persians survived out of what was the largest army ever seen. Amazingly the Greeks managed to kill around 250,000 whilst losing only 10,000 of their own.
This marks the end of the Persian invasions of Greece. Against all odds they had managed to drive out a far superior enemy. It is easy to admire such strong determination to vanquish invaders from ones homeland.
During Darius’, Xerxes’ and Mardonius’ campaigns and marches through ancient Greece, they plundered and looted many great treasures from cities they encountered. But in the end they were not able to take their freedom.
This however is not the end of the Greco-Persian conflicts. No, for although the western city states were now free from invasions the eastern Greeks were still in the hands of Xerxes and the Persians still posed a great threat.
The Greek counter attack would soon begin….