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Helmet and Spear by  Alfred J. Church




[65] IN the early part of the year 480, when the danger from Persia was imminent, the Greeks sent an embassy to their countrymen in Sicily, asking for help. The Greek power in the island was largely in the hands of one man, Gelo, tyrant of Syracuse. To him, therefore, the application was made. Herodotus gives an account of the interview, professing to report the speeches which were made at it. These may be epitomized thus:

AMBASSADORS: "The Persian King is bringing against us the strength of Asia. He professes to be seeking vengeance on Athens; really, he is bent on subduing the [66] whole Greek race. If he should conquer us he will certainly attack you. Join with us therefore in resisting him. Combined, we shall be a match for him; disunited, we shall certainly be conquered."

GELO: "When I asked you for help against Carthage you would not give it. For anything that you did to stop it, Sicily might have been conquered by the barbarians. But I will return good for evil. You shall have two hundred ships of war, twenty thousand men-at-arms, two thousand cavalry, as many more light-armed troops, and corn for your whole army as long as the war lasts. Only you must give me the chief command."

SYRAGUS (the Spartan ambassador): "What would King Agamemnon say if he heard that Sparta had given up her leadership to a man of Syracuse? Know that we will not have your help upon such terms."

GELO: "It seems but fair that I who send so large a force should have the command. Still, if you are so stiff about the leadership, I will say—'Command the army, and let me have the fleet; or, if you like it better, take the fleet and give me the army.'"

THE ATHENIAN AMBASSADOR: (interrupting before any one else could speak):  "The com- [67] mand of the fleet is ours. We will yield it, indeed, to the Spartans, if they desire it, but we will yield it to no one else."

GELO: "Friends, you seem not to want for commanders, though you want for men. As you ask everything and yield nothing, go back to Greece and say that she has lost the spring out of the year."

There is nothing improbable about this dialogue. Questions of precedence and leadership were regarded with great jealousy by States that were actually independent of each other and nominally equal. The strange thing is that Gelo makes no mention of the danger with which he was himself threatened. He brings up against the ambassadors the fact that the States which they represented had given him no help in conflict with Carthage (an incident of which we know nothing from any other source), but he does not mention what was undoubtedly the case that he was at the moment expecting another attack from the same quarter. It would have been quite impossible for Gelo to send fifty thousand troops—not to speak of the crews of the ships—out of Sicily, when he was certain to want every man that he could raise in the course of a few months.

The truth is that there was another Asiatic [68] power which was scarcely less formidable to European civilisation than Persia itself. I speak of Carthage. Though locally situated in North Africa as an Asiatic power, she was Phoenician in origin, character, and institutions. Founded by emigrants from Tyre some time in the ninth century B.C., she had always kept up a close connection with her mother-country of Phoenicia. One of the traditions of the race was to regard the Greeks as rivals or as enemies. Sicily, where Greeks began to settle in the eighth century, just about the time when Carthage was beginning to expand, and which, at its nearest point, was not more than a hundred miles from that city, naturally became a battlefield between the two races. Phoenician traders had been in the habit of visiting the island long before the Greeks appeared upon the scene, and though they seem to have given up most of their scattered ports and factories, they continued to occupy three towns in the western division. Carthage therefore would find kinsfolk and friends when she sought to gain a foothold in Sicily. When this attempt was first made we do not know. The early history of the city is a blank. About 550 B.C. we hear of one of its leaders making conquests in Sicily, among other places. That [69] there was a great effort to conquer the island in 480 we cannot doubt. Probably it was the result of an agreement with Persia. There is, it is true, no evidence forthcoming of any compact of the kind; but it is not likely that there would be such evidence. On the other hand, the Persian king may very easily have come to an arrangement with the Carthaginian government through Phoenician intermediaries. The Phoenician contingent was the largest in his fleet, and was high in his favour, at least until the disastrous defeat of Salamis. The coincidence of time is, in itself, a strong argument for the existence of a common plan.

One of the many Hamilcars who figure in Carthaginian history was put in command of an army which is said to have numbered 300,000 men. It was made up of Phoenicians, probably recruited in Carthage itself, and in various settlements of that race along the Mediterranean coast, of Africans from the home provinces, of natives of Sardinia, Corsica, and the Italian mainland, and, finally, of Spaniards, for Spain was by this time within the sphere of Carthaginian influence. Hamilcar landed at Panormus and marched to Himera, which lay some twenty miles to the westward [70] on the northern coast of the island. Some of his large fleet of transports, especially such as carried the cavalry and the war-chariots, were lost on the way, or lagged behind. Still the army, as a whole, was successfully transferred to Sicilian soil, and Hasdrubal, convinced that if this could be done his force would be practically irresistible, is reported to have said: "The war is over." He had, we must remember, another good reason for confidence. There was a powerful minority among the Greek cities which was prepared to welcome the interference of Carthage. Hamilcar had been actually invited by the banished tyrant of Himera. Unfortunately, any enemy of a Greek city could expect to find helpers within its walls in an unsuccessful party. Eager political life did much for the development of Greek character, but a heavy price had sometimes to be paid for its benefits. Hamilcar divided his force between two camps. One of them was for the crews of the fleet, which had all been beached with the exception of twenty swift vessels kept for an emergency; the other was occupied by the army. Himera, on the other hand, prepared for a desperate resistance. Even the gates were bricked up. The garrison was under the command of [71] Theron, tyrant of Agrigentum. His first step was to send off a messenger to Gelo with an urgent appeal for help. Gelo was ready to march. He had under his command fifty thousand infantry and five thousand horse. He reached Himera, and strongly fortified a camp outside the city. He had, as has been said, a strong force of cavalry, an arm in which the Carthaginians were deficient owing to the accident to the horse transports. This superiority he used to cut off the enemy's foraging parties. His success in these operations was so great as to raise the spirits of his troops. The inhabitants of Himera grew so confident that they pulled down the brickwork with which, as has been said, they had blocked up their gates.

The decisive battle was not long delayed. We have no details of the tactics employed on either side, but we are told that the contest was long and bloody, lasting from sunrise almost to sunset. A daring stratagem seems to have done something towards deciding the issue of the battle. Gelo had intercepted a letter from the magistrates of the Greek city of Selinus to Hasdrubal, in which there was a promise that they would send a force of cavalry to his help. He instructed some of his own horsemen to play the part of the cavalry of Selinus. They were [72] to make their way into the enemy's camp and then take the opportunity of doing all the mischief they could. A concerted signal was to apprise the commander-in-chief of their success. On seeing he would press the attack with all possible vigour. This he did, and the result was the complete defeat of the Carthaginians.

So far there is nothing improbable about the story. When we are told that one-half of the invading army fell on the field of battle we recognise one of the familiar exaggerations of ancient history. It is probable that the real number, both of the combatants and of the slain, was much smaller than that commonly received. However this may be, Carthage certainly suffered a disaster of the first magnitude. Her army ceased to exist; some of the fugitives probably made good their escape to the Phoenician strongholds in the island, but many were compelled to surrender to the conquerors. Some, doubtless, were ransomed by their friends at home; the rest were sold as slaves.

So fine an opportunity of pointing a moral and adorning a tale was not likely to be lost by the Greek writers. The story in the shape which it ultimately took was this: As both of the Carthaginian camps were captured by Gelo, [73] the fleet met with the same fate as the army. But the squadron of twenty ships which had been reserved for emergencies made good its escape. But even these were not fated to reach the African shore. A storm overtook them on their voyage and all perished. One little boat, rowed by a single survivor, survived to carry the story of how the most splendid armament ever sent forth from Carthage had ceased to exist. Exactly the same story was told of the return of Xerxes after the defeat of Salamis. According to Herodotus, who had every opportunity of knowing the truth, the Persian king made his way back overland, losing many men on the way from hunger and disease, but unmolested. So tame a conclusion did not satisfy the Greek sense of the fitness of things. Tradition pictured the Persian king as making his escape after the battle in a single ship; and Juvenal, when he was seeking illustrations for the great theme of the vanity of human wishes, found the legend admirably suited to his purpose. Xerxes had lashed the winds and put the sea in fetters when they hindered his triumphal march. But how did he return?—

"In one poor ship the baffled monarch fled

O'er crimsoned seas and billows clogged with dead."

[74] The fate of Hamilcar himself was wrapped in romantic mystery. Some said that he was slain by one of the horsemen who made their way into the camp; according to others he destroyed himself. While the conflict was raging he remained in the camp, occupied in soliciting the favour of the gods by costly sacrifices. He was not content to offer the victims in the usual way, by pieces taken from this or that part. They were thrown whole into the fire, which was built high in order to consume them. When he found that his devotion was unavailing and that the tide of battle was turning against him, he threw himself into the furnace. Certain it is that he was never again seen alive. Gelo erected a monument to him on the field of battle, and the Carthaginians paid to his memory yearly honours of sacrifice. There must have been some greatness in the man which was thus recognised by the conqueror, and by the city which had, one would think, no reason to be grateful to him.

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