Friday, September 24, 2010

The Histories discussion: Book Seven: Himera

So here I am within sight of the finish line of this project I semi-unwittingly tackled and I’m slamming on the brakes to post about a topic I glossed over in Book Seven. For this post I wanted to look at the battle of Himera in Sicily that was supposed to have occurred on the same day as the battle of Salamis. Himera takes up only three paragraphs/chapters in Herodotus (7.165-167), but in light of my recent post about Richard Miles’ book Carthage Must be Destroyed I wanted to tie the two sources together.

When envoys arrive on Sicily to request assistance in the common Greek cause (before the 480 BC invasion), Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, berates them for ignoring his earlier requests for aid. Gelon offers to supply troops and other resources if he is allowed to lead the Greek forces. Even after a counteroffer he is still rebuffed, so he informs the envoys that they will return home empty handed.

According to Herodotus, the Greek inhabitants of Sicily gave a different reason for not assisting the mainland Greeks:
Terillos, the tyrant of Himera, had been expelled from his city. He brought an army of 300,000 soldiers made up of Phoenicians, Libyans, Spaniards, Corsicans, and other areas around the Mediterranean, all led by Hamilcar, king of the Carthaginians. The battle turned into a major victory for Gelon. Herodotus looks at an explanation offered into Hamilcar’s disappearance after the battle which involved his immolation on the pyre he built for sacrifices and omens.

And that’s it for Himera in Herodotus. Yet this battle took on a life of its own (which could be said about all of the battles of this time). I’m going to summarize from Miles’ book going forward since he pulls from many sources. Terillos/Terillus, the Greek leader in Himera, makes a plea to his guest-friend Hamilcar of Carthage to help him reestablish his rule after he was run out of Himera by Gelon.

The expedition to help Terillos appears to have been privately funded instead of supported by the Carthaginian state. Even though Hamilcar attempted to advance to Himera under the radar, his letters laying out tactical plans were intercepted. Even worse, his troops had not been prepared sufficiently and the army was obliterated. There are several versions of Hamilcar’s death during the battle, but it seems clear he did not survive the attack.

Miles goes into detail on the impact of this colossal loss by the Carthaginians and the wealth that flowed Gelon’s way. But I’m more interested in the rehabilitation of history that is reflected in Herodotus, much like his description of the Greeks trying to include themselves in the battle of Plataea after the fact. This victory provided an opportunity for Gelon and the Syracusans to include themselves in the narrative surrounding the Persian invasion. As Miles puts it, Sicily’s enemies in Sicily were given “the opportunity to recast Himera in a grand narrative of how a barbarous invader had attacked and attempted to destroy the western Greeks, rather than the reality of a failed attempt by one of the Carthaginian political clans to come to the aid of a Greek ally” (Miles, page 117). So what better way to prove you deserve a seat at the head Greek table than to explain your absence in the ‘eastern’ invasion than by showing you were driving off a ‘western’ invasion. “Carthage could be linked to the Persians through the Phoenicians, who, as vassals of the Persian king, were obliged to provide a large number of levies and ships for the naval armada”(Miles, page 119).

The public relations campaign was moderately successful for a while since Herodotus (and others) presented the attack on Himera as a coordinated attack using the ‘same date’ device. Which, to some extent, was plausible. The attacks on Thermopylae and Artemesion probably had occurred on roughly the same days since the Persian army and fleet were supporting each other at that point. The circumstances surrounding Salamis, though, seem to be so arbitrary (instead of planned to occur there) that any coordination would probably be accidental rather than planned. Later Greeks, including Aristotle, dismissed the Persian connection for Himera.

Richard Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization, (London: Allen Lane, 2010), pp. 114–21.

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