Episode 1.13 – Enter Dionysius – Part II – The Battle of Gela

The Ruins of Ancient Gela

Gela was a Doric city, founded in 688 BC by Greeks from the islands of Rhodes and Crete. It was the metropolis of Acragas. She was built on a long low hill, running parallel to the South Eastern coast of Sicily. She took her name from the river that ran to her east, which flowed, torrentially during the winter months, according to Ovid, into the sea just a short distance east of the town. Her acropolis occupied the Eastern end of the ridge. Just outside of Gela, towards her north and east, was a fertile wheat-growing plain which provided her with much prosperity and, as a consequence, a high culture rivalling that of Acragas. Soon, however, all of this would be for nought.

In the spring of 405, Himilco left his temporary home of Acragas and marched to these very plains and ravaged them, simultaneously restocking his own pantries and depriving the Greeks of any support from the land. After having ravaged Gela’s outskirts, he marched to Camarina, and did the same to her, as well.

He then marched back along the river Gela, to the city of Gela. Here, Diodorus’ text makes it sound like as though Himilco encamped at the mouth of this river, and thus, to the East of the city. This is impossible, not the least because this would be too close to the Syracusan’ camp when it would arrive a few weeks from now, but also because here he would be cut off from his supply lines. None of the other chroniclers provide any clarity, either. Many a suggestion has been made to alleviate this difficulty. Some have suggested that the Gela of history is not the same as the Gela of today, but this is unlikely. Others have suggested that, in ancient times, the river Gela flowed to the West of the city, and only sometime later, changed its course to flow to the east. This, however, has not been borne by any aerial photography or geological analysis, so we can safely put this suggestion to rest, as well. There are only two other likely explanations. One, that we’re reading Diodorus wrong. Or, two, that Diodorus made a mistake. In any case, given what happens during the battle, we know that Himilco encamped in the plains to the West of the city, not in her East.

He fortified his camp with a ditch and a palisade; these being the standard precautions a general would make if he was far away from his base, expecting his siege to be long and expecting a large army to arrive to help raise it.

The spot Himilco chose was apt because he had to keep his supply lines open to Western and Central Sicily. He had a large number of mouths to feed, so if supplies didn’t flow in regularly, he would find himself in the same situation that he found himself in last time. Also, being on a hill, Gela’s Western end was the only spot that was conducive for the operation of his siege towers. This is where the road to the city climbed up a steep slope. By no means was this a weak point, as the approach to the gate was flanked by fortified spurs of the hill.

This time around, Himilco brought no warships. The Gulf of Gela is very exposed making a landing here quite dangerous, while at the same time, a fleet was of little use against a city whose seaward flanks were composed of steep cliffs.

Himilco expected the Siceliots and their allies to encamp on the Eastern end of the city, near the mouth of the river, since that is where they could communicate with the Gelans inside the walls. As such, he put his camp to directly face them, with the ridge of the city and the northern plain between them. To do so, he laid out a linear camp. In the center, he put himself and his Carthaginian contingent, whose purpose was to operate the siege towers at the Western wall. He was flanked on his right by the Iberian and Oscan contingents, who lay close to the shore. On his left, facing the northern plains, were his Libyans.

The Gelans for their part, put their trust in the Syracusans and made ready their defences. Morale at the city was high. Diodorus tells us that, in a display of courage and solidarity with their soldiery, the women and children refused to evacuate the city. When Himilco began his assault, the citizens resisted fiercely, with the women and the children helping to repair the broken walls alongside the men. They also patrolled the surrounding areas seeking Punic foraging parties to harass, bringing them back to the city as prisoners.

Once the harvest season was over, the Greek army, composed, once again, of Siceliots and Italiots, arrived and encamped in the East of the city, right at the mouth of the river, just as Himilco expected. Estimates for its size range from 30,000 to 50,000 men. Again, the lower number can be reconciled with the larger one by assuming that it does not take into account the light infantry that usually accompanied the Greek armies.

At the head of this considerable cohort was the former adjutant to Daphnaeus at the Fall of Acragas, none other than our friend, Dionysius the Elder. Over the winter, he had led somewhat of a mini-revolution at Syracuse and ended up acquiring the position of the General Plenipotentiary. This was a military dictatorship of sorts, but not quite. The General Plenipotentiary was given wide far reaching powers by the sitting People’s Assembly and was meant to be a temporary position, usually only open for the duration of a serious crisis. Also, theoretically, a General Plenipotentiary was supposed to command the field with the help of other generals, not make unilateral decisions.

Dionysius and his men were also accompanied by a contingent of cavalry, which was posted further upstream of the river. Their number ranges from 1,000 men, given by Timaeus, to 5,000 men, given by Diodorus. Diodorus doesn’t give us an exact number. Rather he tells us that the same cavalry that accompanied Daphaneus the last time, now accompanied Dionysius.

This discrepancy is significant and needs an explanation. One suggestion is that a significant chunk of the horse-owning class did not participate in the battle because they disliked Dionysius. The problem with this theory is that the Corps of Syracusan Knights, a contingent established by Diocles (remember him from Episode 1.11?) was most certainly there. And they were the most vociferous in their opposition to Dionysius and his mini-revolution. If they were there, then what was stopping the others from joining?

Some sources put the number of this Corps of Syracusan Knights at 600. Though this is doubtful, let’s assume this to be true. We also know that the mercenaries accompanying Dionysius provided 100 of their own horses as well. So if the 1,000 number is true, then the Italiots and Siceliots combined only provided 300 horsemen. This doesn’t sound right, either.

But if we assume that the true number is 5,000 horse, then what’s equally absurd is that Daphnaeus was accompanied by a cavalry that was four-fifths composed of Italiots & Siceliots. The only likely explanation is that the number of Syracusan knights was bigger than 600, and that the 1,000 number is just plain wrong.

Dionysius placed the hoplite division facing the Eastern walls of the city and the northern plain, from where they could see Himilco’s army. They were accompanied by a fleet of 50 ships that patrolled the coast to capture any marine aid being provided to Himilco. A small party of skirmishers also joined the Gelans at the gates to harass the Punic foraging parties.

The stage was now set for the final showdown.

[Title Music]

Before I begin today’s episode, I’d just like to plug Historyteller’s bonus episodes, available to those who contribute five dollars or more per month to Historyteller’s Patreon account. In the pre-amble to this episode you heard me talk just a tiny bit about how Dionysius came to power. Well, in the bonus episodes, I will cover Dionysius and his life in considerable detail. I intend to release about one bonus episode a month and the first one is already available, so if you head on over to patreon.com/Historyteller, you can immediately download this episode by making a pledge of five dollars a month. The first episode covers the events of Hermocrates’ shenanigans that I talked about in the last episode in much more detail. It is also the episode where I introduce Dionysius. The mini-revolution that made Dionysius General Plenipotentiary, I will cover in part two of that series, which I will release next month so watch out for that, too. I will put the link to the Patreon page in the show notes.

If you’re new to Historyteller, or for some reason have missed the previous two episodes, and for the life of my I can’t think of why you would miss any Historyteller episode, but just in case you have, I also have a survey ongoing to determine the future of Historyteller, asking, basically, two questions. One is about the length of the Punic Wars, whether you would like them long and detailed or short and brief. The second is about what you would like to listen to after Carthaginian history. Initially, I had laid out just two options, the history of Canada’s confederation and the history of the Great Seljuq Empire. It turns out that quite a few of you also want to hear about Mughal history for some reason. This is a bit uncanny, because I certainly did intend to cover Mughal history at some point in the future. Synchronicity. Weird how that works. So, now I’ve also added a third option for those who want to hear about Mughal history.

It may be premature to discuss the results of the survey thus far, but it seems like those who want me to cover the Punic Wars in a detailed manner are in the lead by a massive margin. The split is 65-35%. As for the new topic, the split is 39-31-23% between the Great Seljuq Empire, Canada’s Confederation and the Mughal Empire. The Seljuq Empire is in the lead, but not by much. You’ll notice that they don’t quite add up to 100. A tiny minority wants to cover a bunch of other stuff. One listener suggested the Arab Caliphates. Another suggested the Union of the Parliaments of England and Scotland. Intriguing choices, to say the least, especially the second one. I’m almost tempted to opt for it. In any case, the survey is open till October 31st. Don’t miss your chance to have your say. I will leave a link to the survey in the show notes.

With this episode, I’ll be going on a hiatus for a month and a half. Currently, I am in the middle of moving to another home. By the time you hear this, though, I will already have finished the move. But being busy with that has meant that I couldn’t dedicate as much time to the podcast as much as I would have liked. In this episode we will come to an end of the first part of the Dionysian Wars era of Punic history. Now, I need to begin work on the rest, and for that I will need some time. So the next episode that you will hear, will be on October the 16th, as opposed to September the 16th.

Now this episode, that is the October the 16th episode, won’t be a regular episode. It occurred to me that some of you may have questions about Punic history that you’d like answered. To that end, I will make this episode a Q&A episode. I will wait until September the 30th for the questions to pile up before I begin recording it. In the event that there are no questions or very few questions for me to answer, I will release a regular episode and just answer those questions as a part of that episode. You can send in your questions to ahsan.irfan@historytellerpodcast.com

With those announcements out of the way, let’s get back to Himilco’s siege of Gela.

For three weeks, minor skirmishes continued between the Greeks and the Carthaginians. Dionysius probably realized that the there was no way Himilco could be starved into raising his siege. As I mentioned a few minutes ago, his pantries were well-stocked with the grain he ravaged from the outskirts of Gela and Camarina, and, despite the Greek cavalry continually harassing them, Himilco’s supply lines to Western Sicily were still open. As long as these lines were open, and as long as Himilco’s mercenaries could be enticed into staying with him via the prospect of plunder, Himilco was going nowhere. Since the Greeks were loath to do winter campaigns, he only needed to hold out until then and Gela would be his.

But prolonging the siege till the winter was anathema to the Greeks, even though Gela could be supplied from the east all summer and autumn, via the sea or the eastern road. They just wanted a quick war. They hated the intense Sicilian heat. And, more importantly, they wanted to get back to their farms. Certainly, there was agitation in the camp to do something, and to do it quick.

Clearly, Dionysius’ options were limited. He could wait it out till beyond winter. But he’d run out of supplies before the next harvest season came. If he wanted more supplies to hold out beyond the winter, he had to let his men go back to their farms. In both scenarios Himilco was the clear winner.

The only option left to Dionysius was to offer battle. If he didn’t, his men would revolt. The advantage here, though, was that if he did, Himilco couldn’t refuse it. He would have to fight, otherwise his mercenaries would begin deserting.

But offering battle came with a massively disastrous downside, for Dionysius personally. If he won, there would be jubilation, off course. But the odds of winning, simply based on the number of men on either side, were stacked 3-to-5 against Dionysius. Besides, Himilco had professional veteran soldiers, while Dionysius had homegrown militiamen. Which means that there were more chances that Dionysius would lose. And if he lost, the home team would not look so kindly upon him. After all, he was chosen General Plenipotentiary at Syracuse just because he promised to deliver the Greeks from the Carthaginians. Offering battle was a gamble. And Dionysius didn’t play, until the odds were stacked heavily in his favor.

Dionysius’ plan was quite elegant in its simplicity, and quite simple in its elegance. Truth be told, though, this was all he could really do anyway. He decided to attack the Punic camp directly. Had he done this in the normal manner, he would have risked losing his entire army, given the odds. What I mean by that is, that if he had sent in his entire army to face-off against Himilco’s whole army in the northern plain, then Dionysius would have soundly been defeated. What he needed was to make Himilco think that he was attacking with his entire army. He would make his main hoplite division, composed of 20,000 Siceliots, march across the plains north of Gela and directly face-off against Himilco’s Libyan contingent. He would have hoped that the dust and the early morning darkness would hide the fact that this was not his entire force. These guys would be accompanied by the Corps of Syracusan Knights and the rest of the cavalry. Their job would be to provide support to the hoplites, as and when required. I believe the correct military term for this kind of cavalry is dragoon. In order to create the element of surprise, he would have the light infantry on his ships land to the south of the Punic camp and attack the Iberians and Oscans stationed there. This was where the defenses of the camp were the weakest. These guys would be supported by the 8,000 Italiots who would have marched to the front line, perhaps single file, along the coast, beneath the cliffs of Gela, and the Gelans, who would issue forth from the gates at the same time that the Italiots arrived. Dionysius himself would march with his elite mercenary force, numbering about 2,000, through the city. Once at the gates, he would give the signal for everyone to attack. He would emerge from the walls and attack Himilco’s centre, which was commanded directly by Himilco himself and operated his siege engines. At worst, the siege engines would be destroyed. At best, Himilco himself would be killed. But the plan could only be successful if everyone attacked at the same time. The lynchpin of the entire plan was simultaneity.

On the morning of the attack, Dionysius would have given a motivational spiel to each one of his contingents, before sending them off. The Siceliots marched about three miles across the plains north of Gela to meet Himilco’s Libyan contingent. They stood there waiting for the signal from Dionysius. The Italiots marched along the shore to the start-line of the assault, also awaiting Dionysius’ command. And Dionysius, with his mercenaries, marched through the city as her citizens were getting ready to start their day.

The head of the Italiot column would have been at the front line in less than an hour, while the Siceliots, would have not been too far behind despite having to march through ruined farms and destroyed olive trees. The skirmishers in their ships would have been ready to disembark upon a moment’s notice. Everyone was ready. Everyone was waiting for the signal from the commander-in-chief.

There was only one problem. Dionysius was late. No signal came. This lack of word from Dionysius would have caused a very fateful chain of events to play out. Without the signal, the Italiots would have been getting impatient. Though the Punic attention would have been directed at the Siceliot lines in the north, the Italiots would have been inching to get a begin the action. Perhaps because the morale of the men would suffer, or perhaps because reports from the men on the walls were confusing, or perhaps because of both, the Italiot generals would have decided to attack. Seeing the Italiot attack underway, the skirmishers on the ships would have disembarked. The archers from the ships would have begun attacking the Punic camp, under the cover of whom the light infantry would have made their way to the palisade. Seeing the two divisions attack, the Gelans would have decided to throw in their lot with the Italiots, and issued forth from the gates. All this, despite having no orders from Dionysius to assault.

At least, that’s one possible reconstruction of how the attack started. The second is slightly different. In this one, somehow the skirmishers on the ships begin the assault, and seeing them the Italtiots and Gelans begin their assault as well. The thing is that it isn’t really clear how the attack started. But once the attack started, the lack of coordination between the different divisions meant that the day was not going to end well.

Since the contingent of Iberians and Oscans was being attacked on two fronts, the skirmishers from the south and the Italiots and the Gelans from the East, the skirmishers were able to break into the Punic camp. However, with only minimal effort, they were kicked out of the camp by the Oscans. By now, Himilco could see what was going on, too. Since the Siceliots in the north had been faithfully waiting for Dionysius’ command to attack, Himilco could afford to detach a few of his own troops and support the Iberians and Oscans. This detachment concentrated their efforts against the Italiots. The fighting in this area became fierce and lasted a while. It got so bad that the Italiots had to beat a hasty retreat under the cover of the archers from the shore. The Italiots lost a 1000 men in the fighting. The Gelans, seeing the Italiots being cut down, retreated to within the walls. With the Italiots and Gelans out of the picture, the Iberians and the Oscans now pushed the skirmishers back, too, who retreated aboard their ships.

It was also a while before the Sicleiots could clue into what was happening on the shore. In fact, it took so long for them to attack the Libyan contingent, that Himilco’s troops fought a long battle against the Italiots and regrouped, the Iberians and Oscans pushed the skirmishers back and regrouped, then everyone on the shore marched three-quarters of a mile up to where the Libyans were and still got there before the Siceliots could break into the Punic camp. Needless to say, in a battle between a grand army of 50,000 men against 20,000 Siceliots, the bigger army was going to have the upper hand. As a result, the Siceliots along with the cavalry retreated to within the city’s walls.

And all of this happened before Dionysius could even set foot out of Gela’s gates. No one mentions what delayed him, but it’s not terribly difficult to speculate. He was marching through an ancient city, in the morning. Marching from one gate to the other, he would have encountered the ancient equivalent of a traffic jam during the morning rush hour. Everyone would have been out and about going about their business in the morning. That he was late is not surprising. Not in the least.

Following the events of the day Dionysius held a council. It should come as no surprise that Dionysius was accused of treason. Why was he late? Was he really marching through the city, or just biding his time? Did he want to keep himself and his elite mercenary bodyguard safe, while the Greeks outside the city’s walls were being slaughtered?

Regardless of the accusations, everyone agreed that there was no way Himilco could be defeated. It was now unsafe to inhabit Gela. Winter was approaching, and soon, all the roads leading to Gela would be impassable and the Gulf of Gela would become unsuitable for shipping. There were many mouths to feed and better to feed them at Syracuse as refugees then let them starve as citizens. It was time to evacuate the city.

Dionysius sent a herald to Himilco to negotiate a truce to collect the bodies of the dead. As soon as the sun set, however, he began an evacuation of the city, leaving the dead unburied. He did the same thing that Daphnaeus did the last time and have soldiers light torches all over the walls to provide cover for the torrent of refugees now flowing out of the doomed city. At dawn, Himilco entered another dead city. He let his men plunder the city and kill any who was left behind. When the Greeks arrived at Camarina, they convinced the Camarinans to evacuate their city, too, since their defences were weak. A few days later, Himilco entered another dead town.

Dionysius was now in a tough spot, politically. He was accused of being in cahoots with Himilco to save his own skin and cement his own power. His tardiness at Gela and the fact that Himilco didn’t chase the retreating Greek columns was proof enough of that. Discontented, the Corps of Syracusan Knights detached themselves from the main army and rode straight to Syracuse. The unsuspecting guards let them in, from whence they proceeded to ransack Dionysius’ house and so mistreated his wife that she committed suicide.

Dionysius, along with 600 of his bodyguard and 100 cavalry chased the Knights. He and his cavalry got there first. When he arrived, he found the gate closed shut. So he set it on fire. By the time it burnt down, the rest of his bodyguard also arrived. He made it straight to the agora. Here he found the people getting ready to resist, being egged on by Dionysius’ opponents. Fighting commenced in the agora, and Dionysius’ men cut down all opposition. That same night, he either killed or drove away anyone who he thought would be an obstacle to his rule. The remnants of this opposition escaped to the city of Aetna. When the main army reached Syracuse in the morning, they found that Dionysius had taken complete control of the city.

At this point, there is a gap in our story. We don’t know what either party is doing during this lacuna. But the gap isn’t long because Diodorus picks the story up at the point where Himilco offers Dionysius peace. Diodorus tells us that this was because at Camarina, Himilco’s army picked up the plague again, which finished off half of his men. This is certainly plausible. Camarina was located in a very marshy region of Sicily, and though it was autumn, this was Sicily, not exactly a place where snow falls. The heat and the marshy conditions, combined with the fact that the Iberians were primitive tribesmen, and thus probably possessed no immunity to whatever disease it was, meant that the visitation of the plague was all but a reality.

Even then, though, Himilco could have actually carried out a siege. Could he not? Himilco would have known that Dionysius’ support at Syracuse would have been low, what with all the refugees from, not one, but two cities flowing in. Not to mention the aristocrats that had escaped to Aetna. Would it not be possible to subject Syracuse to a siege with their help? Himilco could offer them peace if they helped him bring Dionysius to heel. Then they would come to power and be indebted to Himilco for helping them do that. Could this not happen?

Syracuse was a formidable settlement, with plenty of defenses to go around. Besieging her would be no mean feat. These were the walls that had kept the Athenians at bay for two whole years. There was no way Himilco was getting in without help. The escaped aristocrats, even if we generously assume that they would accept Himilco’s help, at best numbered two to three thousand. That was peanuts. Not to mention that Syracuse army was still in tact, and despite morale issues, could still pose a threat. And Himilco had just lost half his men, so he certainly needed outside help. The only help he could count on in some measure, though, was Athens. And Athens’ struggle against Sparta was just coming to an end, with the eventual result that she would be defeated. More importantly, Athens’ defeat would also disengage Sparta from the Peloponnesian theatre and come to Syracuse’s aid should there be a siege. And Sparta would bring along her fleet, too. No, sir! Himilco could not risk it. So Himilco offered peace.

Dionysius, for his part, had issues of his own. His cavalry had revolted and escaped to Aetna, so he needed to reconstruct this before any new adventure began. And he’d just taken power forcibly, so he couldn’t really call another assembly of citizens, which he needed to do if he had to issue another call-to-arms. Also, if he were to call on Sparta and Corinth for help, they’d take over the command of the defences, since they had done the same the last time, too. He also knew that Himilco could throw in mercenary after mercenary into the meat grinder that was war. The Siceliots and the Italiots, however, were militiamen. In terms of both, effectiveness and number, they were no match for the Punic War Machine. In order to fight the Carthaginians, Dionysius needed time and money. Gelon was able to defeat the Carthaginians because Gelon had vast resources at his disposal. He was master of an empire that stretched from the east of Sicily, almost to its Western end, and incorporated big chunks of the north as well. And before Dionysius could engage the Carthaginians again, he needed to do the same thing. But he needed time. So Dionysius accepted Himilco’s peace.

The terms agreed to were as follows. The Phoenicians, the Elymians and the Sicans were now officially subjects of Carthage. Residents of Selinus, Acragas, Gela & Camarina could return to their cities if they tore down their walls and paid a yearly tribute to Carthage. Everyone else, Greek or Sicel, was to be independent. There also were clauses for the repatriation of prisoners and captured ships. Dionysius was recognized as the official monarch of Syracuse in the treaty and representatives from both sides made oaths to uphold it.

Himilco then left the 800 Oscans in the Epikrateia, just in case any marauders came back, sailed back to Carthage and disbanded his mercenaries. Unfortunately, though, he brought the plague back with him to Carthage, which, as Diodorus tells us, ravaged the Carthaginian population and that of the surrounding countryside. Beyond that, though, Diodorus gives us no details.

Himilco got almost all of what his predecessor, Hannibal, had gone to war for. Recall that, when the conflict began with Hermocrates’ raids into Punic territory, Hannibal had rebuffed Syracuse’s protestations that Hermocrates had nothing to do with official Syracusan policy. This was a clear indication that this wasn’t just about ensuring the safety of Epikrateia anymore. Perhaps, had conditions been more favorable after the sack of Camarina, Himilco might have pursued a siege of Syracuse, too. Despite not being able to do so, though, he came pretty darn close. Almost the entire island was his. The expanded Epikrateia now came within 50 miles of Syracuse in the south, and within 70 miles of the Straits of Messina in the north. They also probably founded the colony of Halasea in the north as a buffer zone between the Greek and the Punic territories.

As compensation for not being able to take Syracuse as well, Himilco would have hoped that the tribute-paying Greek cities would be content paying tribute to Carthage as a price for keeping their cities. Himilco did not want them to forget what they had suffered when they tried to defy Carthage. That, and, the sound of ka-ching would have surely pricked the ears of men as morose as those that sat in the Punic senate. And those cities that remained independent would, out of gratitude to Carthage, make sure that Syracuse went on no further adventurous empire-building campaigns again. Having been discredited, Syracuse, and especially Dionysius, would now be isolated. The new bully on the block now was Carthage. She had all the credibility in the world to be able to act as an arbiter in Sicilian affairs.

Though Himilco’s goal wasn’t necessarily to eradicate Hellenism per se, Hellenism did decline in the years following this war. Both Segesta and Selinus stopped minting coins, while the archaeology shows that Selinus, a Greek city, gradually became Punicized. Conversely, however, Carthage started becoming more Greek. One can imagine a steady trickle of Greek influence flowing into Motya and Panormus, who became conduits of that influence back to Carthage herself.

What remains puzzling is Carthage’s foreign policy volte-face. Within five years, from 410 to 405, Carthage had gone from being totally uninterested in Sicilian affairs to becoming Sicily’s mistress. How did that happen? The true answer is that we don’t know. To me, it is a complete mystery. Recall that the Punic Senate was actually reluctant to make war against Selinus back in 410. They only agreed to let Hannibal go to Sicily, as long as he kept it to a minimum. At that time, it was about protecting Carthage’s trade. Given that logic, then, why did the Punic Senate not reign in Hannibal when the Syracusan protest embassy came? Did Hannibal just run roughshod over them and financed the war himself? But then, why does Diodorus say that they assigned him an assistant? Surely, if Hannibal was financing the war himself, then he didn’t really need the Senate to tell him that he needed an assistant? No, I think that the Senate itself was convinced. The only problem is that we don’t know why they were convinced.

Alright, folks. That’s all that I have for you today.

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