Himilco (general)

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Reign 406 to 396 BCE
Predecessor Hannibal Mago
Successor Mago II of Carthage
Dynasty Magonids

Himilco (died 396 BCE) was a member of the Magonids, a Carthaginian family of hereditary generals, and had command over the Carthaginian forces between 406 and 397 BCE. He is chiefly known for his war in Sicily against Dionysius I of Syracuse. The Magonid Family of Carthage played a central role between 550 – 375 BC in the political and military affairs of the Carthaginian Empire. Himilco came to prominence after being selected deputy of his cousin Hannibal Mago in 406 BC for the Carthaginian expedition to Sicily. He took command of the expedition after Hannibal’s death and sacked Akragas, Gela and Camarina while fighting off determined Greek opposition led by successive leaders of Syracuse. The Peace treaty Himilco concluded with Dionysius of Syracuse in 405 BC brought Carthaginian holdings in Sicily to its maximum extent. Elected “king” by 398 BC, Himilco led the Carthaginian effort against Dionysius after 398 BC, and although initially successful, suffered a reverse at Syracuse in 396 BC when his forces were decimated by the plague and then defeated by Dionysius. He managed to bring the Carthaginians of the force home after bribing Dionysius and abandoning his other troops. Himilco publicly assumed full responsibility for the debacle, and after visiting all the temples of the city dressed as a slave to offer penance, starved himself to death.

Early life[edit]

Nothing is known about the early life or family of Himilco II. His family had been active in Carthaginian politics since 550 BC, expanding the empire in Sicily, Africa, Iberia and Sardinia during 550 - 480 BC. The power of the position of “King” diminished after the defeat of his grandfather Hamilcar Mago at Himera in 480 BC with the rise of the council Hundred and Four with the power to try and crucify Carthaginian commanders. Magonid family continued to be active in Carthaginian foreign affairs while Himilco was alive.

Himilco’s father, probably Hanno,[1] led a famous expedition down the west African coast to Cameroon, while his uncle, perhaps the famous Himilco the Navigator had explored the western coast of Iberia, Gaul and may have reached England, seeking to tap into the Tin trade with the Celts.[2] Hanno, Himilco and their brother Gisco, along with Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Sappho (sons of Hasdrubal the brother of Hamilcar Mago),[3] also were active in expanding the Carthaginian domain in Africa and Sardinia and ending the payment of tribute to the Libyans.[4] Gisco, however had been exiled to Selinus after the defeat at Himera. Hannibal Mago, son of Gisco, was the suffet of Carthage in 409 BC and led the expedition to Sicily which destroyed both Selinus and Himera and made Segesta a vassal entity. It is not know if Himilco had played a part in these activities, although the army had attracted a large number of Carthaginain citizens at that time.[5] Hannibal Mago was elected “King” for his successes in Sicily.

Deputy to Hannibal Mago[edit]

Hannibal Gisco was requested by the Carthaginian Senate to command the Carthaginian expedition to Sicily in 406 BC to punish Hermocrates for raiding Carthaginian possessions around Motya and Panormus. Hannibal initially refused pleading old age but accepted when the Carthaginian Senate elected Himilco as his deputy.[6] Hannibal led 60,000 soldiers[7] and 1000 transports, escorted by 120 triremes to Sicily,[8] where Akragas and Syracuse had gathered soldiers from Sicily and Italy to oppose the Carthaginians. Hannibal laid siege to Akragas, the wealthiest city in Sicily in the spring of 406 BC by “straddling” the city with 2 camps, while the Carthaginian fleet was based at Motya.[9] The main Carthaginian army was in the western camp while the eastern one housed the Iberian and Campanian mercenaries. Akragas could field 10,000 hoplites[10] and some cavalry and also had 1,500 crack mercenaries under the Spartan Dexippus in the city.

When the initial Carthaginian assault on the city gate nearest to the main Carthaginian camp with two siege towers failed, and Hannibal began to build siege ramps to assault the city from several directions.[11] However, a plague swept through the Carthaginian army and Hannibal perished with many soldiers.[12] Himilco was elected as the commander of the Carthaginian force. Carthaginians had demolished tombs to get materials for the siege ramps, and Punic soldiers believed that divine anger had caused the plague.

Appeasing the divine[edit]

Himilco’s first challenge was to tackle the plague. Left unchecked, the plague would have decimated the Carthaginians, and if Himilco retreated, the Greeks might have carried the war into Punic territories in Sicily. Himilco was in no position to force an advantageous truce – and defeated generals were often crucified in Carthage.

Himilco chose to sacrifice some animals to the sea and also sacrificed a human child (not known if it was his own) to a god Greeks associated with Cronos. It is not known if the Carthaginians had taken any practical measures to combat the plague, but the plague stopped. Himilco then resumed the ramp building and also dammed the Hypsas river to gain better access to the city.[13] Before he could take a crack at Akragas, Daphaenus of Syracuse arrived with 35,000 Sicilian and Italian Greek soldiers.[14] Himilco kept a part of his army in the main camp to watch Akragas while the mercenaries marched east to fight the Greeks. Daphaenus defeated the mercenaries, drove the survivors to the main camp, and occupied the eastern camp, lifting the siege.[15] Himilco chose not to offer battle to the victorious Greeks, but he did not abandon his position either.

Starvation and mutiny[edit]

The Carthaginians were dependent of supplies brought overland from Western Sicily and foraging. There was no natural harbors near Akragas to house a large supply fleet, while beached ships could be surprised and captured (like the Athenian fleet in the Peloponnesian War in 405 BC, and ships on the open seas can be destroyed by storms (The Romans lost several fleets during the First Punic War). Daphenaus began to harass the Carthaginians using peltasts and cavalry from Akragas and soon the Carthaginians faced a food shortage as less and less supplies got through – while morale plummeted, the mercenaries came close to mutiny as winter approached.

Managing men and fortune[edit]

Himilco temporarily placated the unruly mercenaries by bribing them with the gold and silver tableware of Carthaginian officers, thus avoiding his army imploding from within. He still needed to improve his supply situation – and he seized on opportune information to achieve this.[12] The Greeks were using grain ships escorted by 30 triremes to supply Akragas and their army, and had become lax due to the absence of Carthaginian ships in the vicinity. Just prior to the winter the Carthaginians managed to learn of the approach of one such convoy beforehand. Himilco then summoned 40 triremes from Motya and Panormus, which sailed up during the night and remained hidden from Greek scouts, then surprised the Greek flotilla at dawn as it sailed up without expecting any trouble, sank 8 Greek triremes and captured the entire supply flotilla.[12] The Carthaginians now had food to last for several months and their morale improved.

The Greeks now faced a problem – there was not enough food stocked at Akragas to feed both the population and the army until further supplies could be gathered – and organizing that would take time because of the winter season.[16] Mistrust between Greeks from various quarters now burst open when this news became public – thus reducing their ability to take a joint decision regarding continuing the conflict. Himilco further aggravated the situation by bribing some Campanian mercenaries – who deserted to him. Rumors circulated that Spartan Dexippus, leading 1,500 mercenaries, had also been bribed by Himilco.[14] The tension now caused the Greek army to fall apart. Italian Greeks quit Akragas rather than face starvation, and soon other Greeks contingents and the whole population marched east to Gela. Himilco took possession of the city, which was sacked and the Carthaginian army wintered in the city.

Siege of Gela and Sack of Camarina[edit]

In the following spring Himilco leveled Akragas and marched east to Gela. He did not circumvent the city with siege walls or “straddle” it by building several camps, but chose to encamp to the west of the city and carry it through assault. The Carthaginians duly attacked the west wall of Gela with battering rams but the Greeks beat back the attack and repaired the breaches in the walls during the night.[17] Dionysius soon arrived with a relief force consisting of 30,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 50 triremes and camped to the east of the city.[18] Himilco chose to await developments in his camp and did not offer battle.

Following the script used at Akragas, Dionysius harassed Carthaginian supply columns for 3 weeks with light troops. Greek soldiers had other ideas and forced him to attack the Carthaginians. The Greeks then launched a three pronged attack on the Carthaginian camp. The imaginative battle plan, if implemented properly, might have trapped the Carthaginians[19] ala Cannae but for the lack of coordination among Greek army units, which enabled the Carthaginians to defeat the Greeks in detail.[20] Dionysus then abandoned Gela,[21] and fell back to Camarina, and then left Camarina for Syracuse, while both the cities were sacked by Himilco’s forces[22] as the Carthaginians marched towards Syracuse.

Himilco did not press the pursuit but marched on Syracuse slowly. He thus missed an opportunity to destroy the forces loyal to Dionysius – because some Greek rebels had managed to seize Syracuse while Greeks of Gela and Camarina had marched off to Leontini with the Italian Greeks.[23] Dionysius was left adrift between the Carthaginian army and a hostile Syracuse, although he took speedy action and managed to recapture Syracuse.[24] Himilco and the Carthaginians encamped near Syracuse but made no attempt to besiege the city.[25] After a few weeks Himilco sent a herald with a peace offer. It has been speculated that a plague had broken out in the Carthaginian camp, causing the Carthaginians to request a truce. During the whole campaign Himilco had lost more than half his army to the plague.

Treaty of 405 BC[edit]

The treaty left Carthaginians supreme in Sicily with Syracuse isolated and Dionysius under suspicion of being a Carthaginian collaborator. The main conditions were:[26]

• Carthage keeps full control on the Phoenician cities in Sicily. Elymian and Sikan cities are in Carthaginian “Sphere of Influence”. • Greeks are allowed to return to Selinus, Akragas, Camarina and Gela. These cities, including the new city of Therma, would pay tribute to Cartage. Gela and Camarina were forbidden to repair their walls. • The Sicels and Messina were to remain free of Carthaginian and Syracusan influence, as was Leontini. This isolated Syracuse from the rest of Sicily. • Dionysius was confirmed as ruler of Syracuse. • Both sides agreed to release prisoners and ships captured during the campaign.

In return for recognizing Dionysius as the ruler of Syracuse, Himilco ensured total dismembered all the conquests of Gelo and Hieron. Neutral powers now bordered the Syracusan domain, and the independence of these was guaranteed by both Carthage and Dionysius. Gela, Camarina, Akragas and Himera had become tribute paying Punic vassals, while the Sikans and Elymians were part of the Carthaginian domain. Himilco had ensured Carthaginain rule was at its apex in Sicily, a position it would not again reach until 289 BC. Himilco garrisoned Western Sicily and disbanded the army. Returning soldiers may have carried back the plague to Africa – which weakened Carthaginian power to some extent.

King of Carthage[edit]

Himilco was elected “King” between 405 and 398 BC, so he was in Carthage part of that time. It is not known if he had any part in ordering the Sicilian territories, where Carthaginian rule was deemed harsh on her new subjects. When Dionysius broke the peace treaty in 404 BC by attacking Sicel city Herbessus, Carthage, possibly weakened by the plague, did nothing. In 403 BC Carthage provided mercenaries to restore Dionysius in power after he was besieged in Syracuse by a coalition of Sicilian Greek cities led by the Syracusan rebels.

Dionysius massively fortified the city of Syracuse between 400 – 398 BC and built up his forces, adding new weapons like the catapult and quinqueremes to his arsenal. In 398 BC he attacked the Punic city of Motya, sparking off the first of 4 wars he would launch on Carthage. Greek and Sicilians rebelled and joined Dionysius, leaving only 5 cities (Panormus, Solus, Segesta, Entella and Ankyara) in Sicily loyal to Carthage.[27] The Greeks besieged simultaneously Motya, Segesta and Entella in Sicily[28][29] while Himilco began to mobilize Carthaginian forces.

Siege of Motya[edit]

Without a standing army Himilco could not aid Motya immediately. While Carthage raised mercenaries and organized logistics, Himilco sent 10 triremes to attack Syracuse itself, hoping to draw off the Greeks from Motya. Although the Carthaginians sank whatever was afloat in the Great Harbor of Syracuse, Dionysius did not withdraw his soldiers from Western Sicily. Himilco could not mount an assault on undefended Syracuse as he lacked soldiers – something Scipio Africanus would pull off in a similar situation at Carthago Nova in 209 BC.[30]

Himilco next manned 100 triremes and sailed to Selinus in Sicily, from where he arrived at Motya the following day.[31] The Greeks had beached their transports to the south of Motya and their warships to the north, while the crews were busy building siege works. The Carthaginians first burned all beached transports then sailed north, trapping the Greek ships in the shallow waters north of the island of Motya.[32] Had Himilco attacked the beached Greeks warships he may have won a victory similar to the one Spartan Lysander had won at Aegospotami. However, The Carthaginian ships were positioned superbly on the narrow mouth of the channel between the Island of Motya and the isthmus, so the Greeks would not be able to sail out with their whole fleet, and if the sailed out in small groups they would face the same difficulty in maneuvering and reforming like the Persians did at Salamis.

Himilco’s stratagem failed because instead of trying to engage the Punic fleet piecemeal, Dionysius sent his catapult armed ships and land based catapults to engage the Carthaginians with missiles. While Himilco’s crews suffered casualties, Dionysius had his men drag 80 triremes across the base of the isthmus to the north of Motya into the open sea beyond. These ships then sailed south – and the Carthaginians in turn were almost trapped between the Greeks firing catapults and the triremes. The Carthaginians sailed back to Carthage, and Motya eventually fell after days of fierce street fighting.[33]

Sicilian Campaign 398 -396[edit]

After capturing Motya Dionysius kept Segesta and Entella under siege, garrisoned Motya and withdrew to Syracuse, while his brother Leptines was posted at Eryx with 120 ships (triremes and quinqueremes). Himilco marshaled an army of 50,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 400 chariots, while the Carthaginian navy mobilized 400 triremes and 600 transports.[34] In term of number of warships this was the largest armada ever mobilized by Carthage. To keep any information from leaking to the Greeks, Himilco wrote down the armada's destinations in sealed letters, which were issued to his captains at the last moment. These letters were to be opened only if a storm caused the ships to become separated and lose sight of their flagship.[35] The Punic armada split in two groups, the transports headed straight for Panormus while the warships sailed north before turning east. Leptines managed to sink 50 transports (with 5,000 men and 200 chariots) but the rest of the transports reached Panormus aided by an opportune wind.[36]

Motya retaken[edit]

The Carthaginians, reinforced by Elymian and Sikan soldiers first marched to Motya from Panormus. Eryx, which had been betrayed to Dionysius through treachery – now fell to Himilco similarly. Himilco next attacked and captured Motya,[37] but decided to build a city at Lilybaeum to replace Motya before marching north. When the Sikans refused to join Dionysius or leave their cities and the Sicel city Halyciae switched sides, Dionysius retreated to Syracuse after despoiling lands in Western Sicily.[38] The siege of Segesta and Entella was over.

Lipari subdued[edit]

Himilco chose not to march to Syracuse along the southern coast of Sicily, as Dionysius had destroyed all the crops and hostile Greek cities stood on his path. After garrisoning Punic territory he made treaties with the cities of Thermae and Cephaleodium on the north coast of Sicily to secure his supply route. Himilco attacked Lipari, whose Dorian Greek inhabitants were notorious pirates and could post a threat to Carthaginian supplies, with 300 triremes and 300 transports, captured the island and forced the Greeks to pay 30 talents as ransom.[39] Then he sailed and disembarked at Cape Pelorum, 12 miles to the north of Messina.

Messina captured[edit]

Himilco did not march directly to Messina. When the Messanian army marched north, Himilco sent 200 triremes manned with picked rowers and soldiers to the city. Aided by the wind, this force managed to arrive and capture the city before the Greeks doubled back.[40] Had Himilco also defeated the Messanian army his would have won a complete victory, but he allowed the surviving Greeks took refuge in nearby mountain fortresses, which Carthaginians could not quickly reduce.[41]

Strategic Solution: founding of Tauromenium[edit]

Himilco chose not to occupy Messina permanently, although it would have given Carthage permanent control over the Strait of Messina. Himilco probably was not confident about holding an area far from Carthage.[42] He faced a strategic dilemma: if he took time to reduce the mountain fortresses of Messina, Dionysius would have time to prepare or launch an attack on Punic Sicily. If Himilco simply marched off, the Messinian Greeks could harass his rear. Dividing the army would weaken his striking power against Dionysius. Himilco found a unique solution to his strategic problem. The Carthaginians founded a city at Tauromenium, south of Messina and populated it with Sicels. This caused all Sicel cities except Assurous to abandon Dionysius. Thus Himilco killed several birds with one stone, he weakened his enemy while gaining additional allies and protection from Messinian Greeks at one stroke.

Battle of Catana[edit]

The Carthaginians marched south, with the fleet sailing along the coast but an eruption of Mt. Etna made the roads near Naxos impassable. The Carthaginian army under Himilco marched around the mountain while the navy under Mago sailed to Catana, where the army rejoined Mago’s force after covering the 110 km trek in two days.[39] Without the army’s protection the beached Carthaginian ships were vulnerable to the army of Dionysius, which had assembled at Catana. However, Mago managed to defeat[43] the Greek fleet under Leptines, and Dionysius withdrew to Syracuse before Himilco arrived with the Punic army.[44]

Siege of Syracuse[edit]

From Catana Himilco marched south to Syracuse and encamped to the south of the city while the Punic fleet entered the Great Harbor. Himilco built his fortified camp[45] near the temple of Zeus,[46] then built 3 additional forts[47] and employed 3,000 transports to bring in supplies for the Carthaginian force, while 208 warships were stationed at Syracuse. The land around Syracuse was ravaged for 30 days. The winter of 397 BC was spent in small skirmishes, and in the Spring of 396 BC The Carthaginians captured the unwalled suburbs of the city and destroyed the temple of Demeter. During the Summer a plague swept through the Carthaginian army, decimating their ranks. Dionysius launched a night attack that captured 2 forts but was unable to take the main camp. The Greek fleet also managed to burn and capture many of the Carthaginian ships – many of which was not properly manned.

Himilco chose to open negotiations with Dionysius. A bribe of 300 silver talents ensured the safe passage of 40 ships bearing all the Carthaginian citizens to Carthage. Himilco abandoned his mercenaries and allies to their fate. The Sicilians went home, the Iberians joined Dionysius while the rest was enslaved.

The people of Carthage were outraged, and the Libyans revolted and besieged the city. It is not known if Himilco was summoned before the tribunal of Hundred and Four. He accepted full responsibility for the disaster, dressed up as a slave and went to all the temples of the city, begging forgiveness. Then he bricked himself up in his house, refused to see his family and starved himself to death. His successor was Mago the Second.


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  • Warry, John (1993). Warfare in The Classical World. Salamander Books Ltd. ISBN 1-56619-463-6. 
  • Lancel, Serge (1997). Carthage A History. Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 1-57718-103-4. 
  • Bath, Tony (1992). Hannibal’s Campaigns. Barns & Noble. ISBN 0-88029-817-0. 
  • Kern, Paul B. (1999). Ancient Siege Warfare. Indiana University Publishers. ISBN 0-253-33546-9. 
  • Freeman, Edward A. (1892). Sicily Phoenician, Greek & Roman, Third Edition. T. Fisher Unwin. 
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See also[edit]



  1. ^ Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, vol. 2, page 342 (1880)
  2. ^ Pliny the Elder, Natural History 2.169a
  3. ^ Justin XIX, pp1-4
  4. ^ Lancel, Serge, Carthage, A History, pp256–pp258
  5. ^ Freeman, Edward A., Sicily: Greek, Phoenician and Roman, pp142
  6. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 13.80.1-2
  7. ^ Kern, Paul B., Ancient Siege Warfare, pp168
  8. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 13.61.4-6, 13.84
  9. ^ Kern, Paul B., Ancient Siege Warfare, pp168 – pp169
  10. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 13.84
  11. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 13.65.5, 13.86.1
  12. ^ a b c Freeman, Edward A., History of Sicily, pp150
  13. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 13.86.3-6
  14. ^ a b Kern, Paul B., Ancient Siege Warfare, pp170
  15. ^ Church, Alfred J., Carthage, pp42
  16. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 13.88.1-5
  17. ^ Kern, Paul B., Ancient Siege Warfare, pp172
  18. ^ Caven, Brian., Dionysius I: Warlord of Sicily, pp162
  19. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 13.109.4
  20. ^ Caven, Brian., Dionysius I: Warlord of Sicily, pp163
  21. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 13.111.1-3
  22. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 13.111-113
  23. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 13.112
  24. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 13.113
  25. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 13.112.2
  26. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 13.114
  27. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 14.48.2-6
  28. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 14.49
  29. ^ Whitaker, Joseph I.S., Motya, pp78
  30. ^ Whitaker, Joseph I.S., Motya, p78 note-2
  31. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 14.49-50
  32. ^ Church, Alfred J., Carthage, pp48 - pp49
  33. ^ Whitaker, Joseph I.S., Motya, p80-84
  34. ^ Caven, Brian, Dionysius I,: Warlord of Syracuse, pp107
  35. ^ Frontinus, Sextus Julius. The Stratagems: and The Aqueducts of Rome. London: Heinemann, 1925. Print. Stratagems, Book I, Section 1 ("Concerning the Concealment of Plans"), paragraph 1.
  36. ^ Diodorus Siculus, XIV.53-55
  37. ^ Diodorus Siculus, XIV.55
  38. ^ Diodorus Siculus, XIV.54-55
  39. ^ a b Freeman, Edward A., Sicily: Phoenician, Greek and Roman, pp173
  40. ^ Diodorus Siculus, XIV.57
  41. ^ Diodorus Siculus, XIV.58.3
  42. ^ Kern, Paul B., Ancient Siege Warfare, pp184
  43. ^ Diodorus Siculus XIV.60
  44. ^ Kern, Paul B, Ancient Siege Warfare, pp185
  45. ^ Diodorus Siculus XIV.63
  46. ^ Diodorus Siculus XIV.62
  47. ^ Freeman, Edward A., History of Sicily Vol 4, pp509 – pp510


  • Lewis, D. M. "Sicily, 413-368 B.C." In The Cambridge ancient history. Volume VI: the fourth century B.C., ed. D. M. Lewis, John Boardman, Simon Hornblower and M. Ostwald. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. pp. 120–155.