Sicily had numerous Greek cities from very early times. These were colonial settlements that gradually grew into larger urban centers with the passage of years. But Sicily’s strategic position in the central Mediterranean meant that it was destined to become a battleground for regional powers. It was a pattern that would repeat itself down through the centuries.
The growing empire of Carthage cast its acquisitive eyes on Sicily around 410 B.C. It resolved to conquer the Greek cities there and reduce the island to the status of a protectorate. By 406 B.C., the objective of the Carthaginian army was the city of Acragas. The Punic army, commanded by Hannibal Mago, approached the city and encamped on the right bank of the river Hypsas, which was south-west of the city.
Hannibal began work on a large causeway towards the city’s walls; his objective was to reduce the city by an extended siege. But he perished soon after when a plague broke out in the Carthaginian camp, and was replaced by another general, named Himilco. A relief force sent by other Greek cities had some success against the enemy. The Acragantine people, unsatisfied with the progress of their generals in relieving the siege, had four of them stoned to death for insufficient aggressiveness in prosecuting the war. Such ingratitude did little to endear the defense forces of Acragas to the population they were defending.
But the Punic force seemed like it might wither away from disease, neglect, and mutiny. Himilco had good intelligence, however; he heard that a fleet of Greek relief ships was coming to supply the besieged city. So he had them intercepted at sea by forty triremes, and impounded all of the supplies. His forces grew stronger while Acragas grew weaker.
This was not all. Acragas had been relying heavily on mercenaries for its defense; and when food ran short, so did the mercenaries’ devotion to their jobs. Many of them deserted. There were even rumors that the leader of Acragas’s defense, a man named Dexippus, had been bribed by Himilco (though this seems unlikely).
And so it was that after eight months of siege, the city was left to its own defense: the mercenaries had deserted, the population was hungry, and the Carthaginians were getting stronger by the day. Finally, the people of the city made a decision, perhaps one unique in Greek history: they decided to abandon the city and walk away towards another city named Gela.
Crippled with defeatism and despair, and abandoning all their possessions, they simply walked out of the city walls in the dead of night. They lacked the moral fiber to fight for their city and their homeland. It was a truly disgraceful episode.
Himilco and his army entered the city the next day. They slew or enslaved any remaining citizens, plundered the habitations, and burned a good deal more. They would now turn their attentions to the city of Gela, the place where the Acragantines had just recently fled. So their flight did them no good at all; and their running from the fight had caused the fight to run to them. Their actions had only enabled the Punic forces to advance even faster.
The conquest of Acragas was complete; and it had been made possible by the skill of Himilco, combined with the weak will of his enemies. The reader may draw his own conclusions from this story with regard to the relative merits of resistance and capitulation.
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