Episode 1.14 – The Death of Motya

Motya was going to die. And Motya knew it. In the intense heat of the summer of 397, the Motyans stood behind their defensive walls, which they had just fortified using the stones from the ruins of an ancient temple nearby. And they had also taken the bold decision of backing themselves into a corner, by destroying the causeway that connected the almost land-locked island to mainland Sicily.

Awaiting their inevitable destruction, the Motyans mustered up all the courage that they could find within themselves. And courage they did need, for they had much to lose. Thoughts of their families, their wives & their children must have been on the defenders minds. But more than those around them, it was what Motya stood for that must have mattered the most. At this point, Motya was more than two hundred years old. And for all of those two-hundred years, she had been the centre of Phoenician trade on Sicily. This is where all the Greek & Italian cash flowed into Phoenician coffers. Motya was also from where the Carthaginians projected their power onto Sicily. Most Punic armies that landed on Sicily, marched from here. Most Punic territory on Sicily was administered from here, too. Most Greek tribute was collected here,as well. If Motya were to go down, a lot would go down with her. And thus the Motyans waited. It was not a matter of “if,” or even “when.” It was a matter of “how.” It was a matter of how they would eventually meet the grim reaper.

Seven years ago, after Himilco humiliated Dionysius with a treaty that reduced Syracuse to almost nothing, Dionysius found himself in a precarious situation. Syracuse controlled no territory other than her own. Neither did she have any allies. All thanks to this treaty. To say that the Syracusans were unhappy with Dionysius would be an understatement. How long would it be before the Syracusans led a putsch to overthrow the one who humiliated them? Clearly, Dionysius’ days were numbered.

Or so everyone thought. Dionysius himself still had his mercenaries that were loyal to him and him alone. And as I cover in the latest Bonus Episode on Patreon, right after the war with Himilco, he became quite busy granting favours to anyone who had even half a mind to suck up to him. He did not, ostensibly, at least, change Syracuse’s existing laws, but he really didn’t need to. Everyone at Syracuse was subservient to his will anyway. He was content with the “general plenipotentiary” title, as long as everyone obeyed him. He regularly called the popular assembly, retaining the illusion that Syracuse was still governed by liberal institutions. Whereas, in reality, their only purpose was to clothe Dionysius’ decisions in the cloak of a formal approval. He did face a revolt of his own citizens, as would be expected, and for a moment, it looked as though he would fall. But by using the gifts that had been bestowed upon him, he came through and retained his hold on the city.

After tightening his grip on his city, Dionysius began a systematic conquest of the areas around her. He destroyed the ancient city of Naxos, forced her population to move to Syracuse and then let the local Sicel communities in to settle there. After the last war, Himilco had released the 800 Oscans from his service. Dionysius enticed them to join him by allowing them to settle at Catane after conquering her. He also conquered Leontini again, and forced her population to move to Syracuse as well. Though he had forcibly moved the populations of Naxos, Catane & Leontini to Syracuse, he did grant them full Syracusan citizenship and the rights that nominally came with such a title. He, then, also took over the Sicel stronghold of Enna, which enticed the Sicel communities to recognise his suzerainty, as well.

By attacking Naxos, Catane, Enna & Leontini and having the Sicel communities marshal under him, Dionysius was in clear violation of the treaty with Carthage. But Carthage, as always, did not retaliate. They were still suffering from the effects of the plague that Himilco had brought back from the last war. Not to mention that the Punic oligarchy was reluctant to spend any money unless their direct interests were threatened. In their minds, as long as Dionysius was not directly attacking the Epikrateia, all was good. Had they chosen not to ignore Dionysius when he was out and about subjugating the territories surrounding Syracuse, things may have gone the way the Carthaginians wanted it. Motya may not have had to undergo the terrible suffering that she did.

Dionysius also built an impregnable fortress on the Ortygia peninsula (where Syracuse’s harbour was), where only men of proven loyalty were admitted. This was to be his personal stronghold. He built another one in the district known as the Epipolae, the Epipolae being the main city where everyone lived and worked. He connected this fort to the main walls of the city. The fortress on Ortygia, the fortress on the Epipolae and the new walls became some of the most formidable defences in all of antiquity. This connected system of walls, at its greatest extent, was just a shade under 17 km long.

Dionysius’ shipyards also set to work. They added 200 warships, along with 500 transports, to Syracuse’s naval arsenal. Dionysius is also credited with having designed a new ship that appears in the wars to follow: the quinquireme. The trireme was a ship that manned each row on it with three men. The quadrireme had four men to a row. The quinquireme, however, had five, and was, thus, intended to be a much faster boat than the earlier versions.

The literature also attributes Dionysius with the invention of the catapult, which appears, for the first time in history, in the upcoming war. Though at this point, the catapult was only capable of lodging small stones and bolts instead of the larger boulders that became its common fodder in medieval times.

After seven years of preparation, Dionysius deemed himself ready. In 398 BC, he made a powerful speech in the Syracusan People’s Assembly. At this point in time, Dionysius found that all resistance to him had melted away. By acquiring the lands surrounding Syracuse, he had returned to the Syracusans their dignity. And by building fortifications, gathering new levies, acquiring more weapons and building a new navy, he had brought Syracusan power back into the limelight. He had turned Syracuse into something all Syracusans could be proud of. In his speech to the people, he declared the Carthaginians the common enemy of the Greeks in general and the Siceliots, in particular. He recalled the suffering of the five Greek cities currently under nominal Carthaginian control. He argued that since the Carthaginians had been suffering from the plague for years, they would be in a terribly weak position. And being in a terribly weak spot meant that time was now ripe to liberate the five Greek cities.

Following his speech, Dionysius sent heralds to Carthage. They read Dionysius’s letter to the Carthaginians in front of the Punic Senate. The letter demanded that the Carthaginians immediately evacuate the five Greek cities, otherwise they would be subject to a terrible war. As a result, two factions arose in the Senate. One faction demanded that they respond to Dionysius’ fire, with more fire. The anti-war faction, however, was in a different mind. They thought that Dionysius had no ambition other than the liberation of the Greeks. Therefore, the Punic response should just be to do as Dionysius had asked. And all would be well. The pro-war faction’s counter-response was that if those cities were liberated, Dionysius would come to within striking distance of the Epikrateia, directly threatening Punic safety on Sicily. They accurately perceived Dionysius to be an ambitious man. Liberation of the Greek cities would only be the beginning. The Epikrateia would be next. And, goodness forbid, Carthage herself would be the end of that trajectory. Neither party was able to win the Senate, however, so, the matter was referred to the Punic People’s Assembly. They duly ratified the motion to fight fire with fire.

[Title Music]

Before we return Motya’s destruction, I’d like to mention a couple of things.

First, in the next episode I will be ready to announce the results of my little survey. As you all know I have had a survey going on for a couple of months now, in which I ask how you guys would like to see Historyteller evolve. The results of the survey so far are that a substantial majority, that is more than 75% of you, would like to hear a detailed account of the Punic Wars. And as far as what topic I should cover after that is concerned, The Mughal Empire is winning by a small margin. And to think that I didn’t even include it when I first set up the survey. I’ll leave a link to the survey in the show notes in case any of your have not had a chance to provide your input, yet.

Second, the second Bonus Patreon episode, “The Road to Dictatorship” should now be up. In it, I talk in considerable detail about how Dionysius legally acquired the dictatorship at Syracuse. It is available on Patreon to those who pledge five-dollars a month. If you want to give it a listen, head on over to patreon.com/historyteller. And as with all the other links, I will leave this one in the show notes, too.

Lastly, I was quite disappointed to see no questions trickle into my mailbox. I was hoping that this episode would be a Q&A episode as I had mentioned last time, but no one ever did mail me any questions. And that’s why I have a regular episode out, now.

Well, that’s actually a lie. I did get two questions. But the answers to both are small enough, that I can cover them as part of a regular episode, rather than dedicate a full one to them. So, here goes.

The first question was, and I am paraphrasing: How much can we trust Greco-Latin claims about Carthaginian child sacrifice rituals? Could it not be said that the Greeks and Romans were just making this claim up due to their hostility to the Carthaginians? This is an excellent question. I will be dealing with this question in a future episode. I have been planning a few episodes on Carthaginian culture, religion, politics, naval tradition and what have you. So I will deal with the question at length, then. For now, though, my answer is that the child sacrifice most likely did happen. Child sacrifice was a very common element in Semitic religion. The Phoenicians in mainland Phoenicia did engage in it. Some of you may know this from the Bible as the Moloch or Melech sacrifice. And even though the practice had died out in Phoenicia herself, perhaps due to Israelite influence, there is no reason to suppose that the Carthaginians had stopped doing it themselves. On top of this, there is not one source in the Greco-Latin tradition that defends the Carthaginians upon this point. There is certainly a sizeable amount of literature that gives a more objective view of the Carthaginians, but none of it refutes the charges made by those hostile to Carthage. Besides, had the claim been made by one source, it would have been easier to dismiss it. That’s where I’ll leave the issue for now. I’ll revisit the question when I cover Punic religion in more depth later.

The second was a multi-part question, from a high school student. I’ll take all his questions in turn.

He says: What was the state of the Punic colonies before Carthage’s supremacy? Were they organised into Greek style city states that sent a tribute to Tyre?

Tyre’s colonies weren’t colonies, initially. They were resting stops or bartering stations and nothing more. If certain bartering stations did grow to a substantial size, they were directly subordinate to Tyre, and they did send back a tenth of their revenues back to the mother city. This is very different from the Greek colonies, which, by and large, were not subordinate to their mother cities. When Greek colonists left their mother cities, it was mostly due to internal conflicts to begin with. Given that, the question of subordination to the mother cities doesn’t even arise.

He then says: As far as I know, Carthage didn’t suddenly absorb the other colonies; there would have been some kind of political or social change that allowed them to gain power over the rest.

This is true. The problem though is that we have no written record, at least in explicit terms, that tells us how Carthage was able to do it, except in the case of Gades and Sardinia. What we do know is that Carthage was able to take over pretty much every Phoenician colony in the Mediterranean because the archaeology shows a very distinct shift to the use of Punic artefacts. Specifically, use of the Symbol of Tanit, a sign that represents the chief Punic goddess shows up almost everywhere, except perhaps in Iberia.

He then asks: Were they given some kind of special power by Tyre, or did they conquer the rest over time?

Some historians have speculated this and I allude to this in one of the earlier episodes. But there is no way to be certain. The fact that the most lucrative colony of Gades, that directly reported to Tyre, asked Carthage to intervene in a war against the local Iberians, points to just that. But then, again, we can’t really be certain.

He then says: Personally, I think Malchus’s “Great exploits in Africa” were conquest of other city states, but I couldn’t find any confirmation for this.

This is possible, but, again, we can’t really be certain. But it also may have been the conquest of the Libyan tribes. We just don’t have any hard evidence either way.

With those announcements & questions out of the way, let’s get back to the action.

With Dionysius’ embassy and Carthage’s response, Greek rage against their enemy reached a fever pitch. Phoenicians resident at Greek cities were driven out of their homes and had their properties confiscated. Any that remained were subjected to the most gruesome torture. Some cities even saw wholesale massacres of their Phoenician populations. And when, in midsummer, Dionysius began his liberation march, the Greeks really turned up the heat. They cared not whether the ones they were meting such treatment to was a man, woman or child. If they were Phoenician, they had to die.

As Dionysius marched through each city, the Greeks, thus empowered, and having just massacred their resident Phoenicians, overthrew or massacred their Punic mercenary garrisons as well. All the liberated Greeks, then flocked to join the marching Dionysian army. The pro-war faction at Carthage was right. The Greek cities were just pit stops. Dionysius’ real target was Motya.

Dionysius arrived at Motya with upwards of about 80,000 men. While it is difficult to believe in such a number, it isn’t necessarily out of the realm of possibility. Whatever number of old and new Syracusan citizens joined him, a good number of the soldiery of the five liberated Greek cities would have joined him as well. Dionysius had also sent for some Italian and Greek mercenaries, too. At almost the same time as he did, his fleet of 200 warships and 500 transports, having sailed around the south of the island under the command of his brother, Leptines, also arrived. Upon Dionysius’ arrival, the Elymians of Eryx went over to him, since they’d been embroiled in a land dispute with the Motyans for the last little while, which, in turn, had been the result of the Motyans owning quite a bit of property on the mainland. He ordered his warships to beach on the lagoon-facing side of a narrow peninsula, the other side of which faced the open sea. Since the Motyans had already destroyed the causeway that Dionysius could have used to get to the city, he also ordered his men to start building a mole to connect the city back to the mainland.

Leaving his brother, Leptines, in charge, he went off on a tour of North Western Sicily. His objective was to obtain the submission of the cities of the region. The Sican communities submitted to him immediately, since they had felt the brunt of Punic oppression, too. The Phoenician cities of Panormus and Solus, naturally defied him, as did the Elymian city of Segesta, Carthage’s old ally, and the military colonies of Halicyae and Entella. He ravaged all their territories and tried to put Entella and Segesta under siege. Not having his siege engines at hand, though, he was unsuccessful. Upon his return, he redoubled his efforts to build the mole and assigned thousands more to finish it.

When Dionysius’ heralds had come to Carthage, the Senate took it upon itself to send a representative to Iberia to gather necessary mercenaries, while they assigned Himilco to get the levies from Libya together. The Iberian mercenaries took their own sweet time in gathering for duty, but the Libyan levies had gathered up just in time for Himilco to put up some sort of a resistance to Dionysius. His opening volley was to send 10 warships on a night raid of the Syracusan harbour, which though successful, failed to draw Dionysius away from his siege of Motya, as was Himilco’s aim.

Later in the summer, Himilco received word that Dionysius had beached his ships on the shore near Motya. Judging this to be the opportunity this could have been, he set sail with a hundred of his best ships, aiming to arrive in the bay at daybreak. Upon arrival, he found Dionysius’ anchored transports unguarded. So he, unwisely, proceeded to attack them, sinking several of them. He, then, entered the lagoon, and proceeded to attack the beached galleys. Dionysius made good use of the time Himilco had wasted in attacking the transports. By the time Himilco got to the galleys, Dionysius had arrived on shore with a great chunk of his infantry. They proceeded to haul the galleys over the beach, perhaps on rollers, so that they could launch them on the open sea. Himilco saw his opportunity. As the ships entered the water one by one, Himilco proceeded to attack them. However, Dionysius had lined up this side of the peninsula with his catapults, while archers and slingers occupied the decks. And soon as Himilco opened his attack on the Greek galleys, a monstrous hail of missiles greeted him. Knowing now that the launching of the Greek galleys was well protected, he could do nothing to prevent it. In turn, this meant that he would be facing a fleet that was double his. And so, much to the shock of the Motyans, who were watching all this happen from atop their walls, Himilco turned tail and left the Motyans to their fate.

When the mole was complete, Dionysius moved his siege train up along it. It consisted of not only his catapults and battering rams, but also copy-cat versions of the same tall siege towers that Hannibal had used to great effect in his sieges. Their purpose was to grant the besiegers on the ground below some cover from the Phoenicians soldiers who had climbed to the top of the tall buildings closest to the walls and rained down upon the Greeks all manner of projectiles and missiles.

In response to this, the Motyans had tall masts built, to whose tops they attached containers that could hold people, rather like the masts of ships. From these positions the Phoenicians threw down upon the soldiers below wooden implements which they had set on fire, their aim being to set fire to the Greeks’ siege equipment. The Greeks, whoever, quickly quenched this fire.

It was not long, however, before the Greeks breached the walls. Once the breach was made, though, the Greeks found themselves against a very desperate enemy. Here’s how Diodorus puts it: “The Motyans, as they took account of the magnitude of the peril, and with their wives and children before their eyes, fought the more fiercely out of fear for their fate. There were some whose parents stood by entreating them not to let them be surrendered to the lawless will of the victors who had been brought to such a state of mind that they now set no value on life. Others, as they heard the lament of their wives and helpless children, sought to die like men rather than see their children dragged off into slavery. Flight, of course, from the city was impossible, since it was entirely surrounded by the sea, which was controlled by the enemy. Most appallingly for the Phoenicians and the greatest cause of their despair was the thought of how cruelly they had used their Greek captives and the prospect of their suffering the same treatment. Indeed, there was nothing left for them but fighting bravely, either to conquer or to die.”

Despite desperate circumstances, the Motyans were not to be outdone. Their streets were narrow, so they barricaded them. When the Greeks entered the city and tried to navigate their way through these narrow streets, the barricades made it all the more difficult for them to do so. And with knowledge of local geography, the Motyans knew when to strike, when any Greeks came stumbling into the streets after having vaulted themselves over the barricades. On top of this, the Motyans in the upper stories of their homes continued to throw stones and rocks at the Greeks below, severely hampering their advance into the city. In several quarters, the Greeks were reduced to hand-to-hand combat.

Yet again, Dionysius rose up to the challenge, figuratively, and had his soldiers do the same, literally. He had his engineers equip his siege towers with foot bridges, packed them with soldiers and had them hauled into the city. This way, Dionysius took the fight to the Motyans themselves. Whenever a tower got close to a building, soldiers would walk over the foot bridges and attempt to jump over in. Most of the time, though, the Motyans got onto the foot bridges themselves and were successfully able to knock over the Greeks down to their deaths below. This is Diodorus, again, describing the scene:

“After the Siceliots had breached the walls and seemed to be masters of the city, they were raked by missiles from men in higher positions in the houses. They, accordingly, brought up their wooden towers to the houses and equipped them with foot bridges which they pushed out on to the houses and thus forced a passage, towers and buildings being the same height. Such a determination filled the defenders that the Siceliots were in a very difficult position. As they were fighting from the suspended foot bridges they suffered heavily, because of the lack of space and the desperation of the Phoenicians, who had given up hope of living. Some were killed in hand-to-hand combat, others pressed back by the defenders, fell to their death off the bridges.”

Fighting in the streets, with occasional attempts to scale the walls of the houses, continued for several days, with the Greeks, seemingly making no headway. Despite their resolution, however, the Phoenicians were no match for Dionysius. Dionysius realised that the fighting was occurring in a very specific pattern. The Greeks would charge into the city with their siege towers in the morning. All day the incumbents would continue fighting on the rooftops. At night, the Greeks would withdraw. Several days had passed and the Greeks made no headway. Realising that the Phoenicians were now used to this pattern, Dionysius decided to break it. He decided to launch an offensive at a time that the Phoenicians were least expecting: At night. He picked a body of elite mercenaries who entered the city at night and scaled some of the ruined houses using ladders. From atop these houses, these mercenaries provided cover to Dionysius who led the bulk of his army and successfully entered the city. The defenders rushed to meet these men, but were overwhelmed and overrun. That night, Dionysius’ superior numbers gave him the upper hand. Eventually, the Greeks, by their sheer volume and Dionysius’ genius, were able to overcome the Motyan soldiery, who, as bravely and as courageously as they could, fought down to the last man.

Once the city was clear of all Phoenician military presence, the Greek troops unleashed hell upon the civilian population. The soldiers ran through town, raging like bulls, releasing their pent up anger. Only orgies of the blood of Punic civilians could quench their thirst for the revenge that they had been waiting for; revenge for what Hannibal had done to Selinus and Himera, revenge for what Himilco had done to Acragas, Gela & Camarina. No Phoenician man, woman, child, or even god was spared.

Dionysius was a tyrant. But he was, by no means, a bloodthirsty one. Or, if you prefer to be cynical, Dionysius was worried about his bottom line and his troops’ unrelenting thirst for vengeance would mean that he’d be worse off financially after the victory than before. Whichever version you choose to believe, he, nevertheless, ordered his troops to stop. But to no avail. So used another trick up his sleeve. He knew that his troops would never dare to touch the temples of those gods that were worshipped by both sides. So he declared through his heralds that civilians looking for shelter should seek sanctuary in the temples dedicated to Melqart, or Heracles, Astarte, or Aphrodite, and Reshef, or Apollo. These civilians were rounded up and were later ransomed by Segesta and Panormus, as was custom. Some of those rounded up were Greeks. These were considered traitors and were executed by crucifixion.

Before leaving Motya, Dionysius’ last act was to raze the city to the ground. Sadly, it was never to be built again. Dionysius’ army was now tired and the campaigning season had far advanced. He left a small garrison here under the command of a Sican named Biton and a fleet of a hundred and twenty ships under his brother Leptines and marched back to Syracuse in triumph.

Revenge had been served. And it had been served cold.

In the next episode we will see how Himilco will respond to the destruction of his strongest city, how he will, at first, succeed, and how he will eventually be brought down low, very low, indeed.

If you have any comments or questions, please do email me at ahsan.irfan@historytellerpodcast.com.

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