Uneasy bedfellows

Carthage and Athens at the end of the fifth century BC

A brief analysis of relationships between the Carthaginians and the Athenians shows that a more developed form of politics and warfare existed in the fifth century BC than is commonly thought.

Written by Joshua R. Hall on 23 November 2017

To most casual readers of fifth century BC Greek history, the Carthaginians may seem like an odd people to have entered into an alliance of any kind with Athens. The persistent characterization of them as enemies of Hellenism, and later of Rome, lurks as a spectre in the writings of historians through to our contemporary world.Show On the machinations used to make Carthage the “enemy” of Hellas, see Prag 2010.

Conflict in the fifth century BC

Much of the foundations for this were laid in the early fifth century BC. It was at this point that Carthage and the Greek inhabitants of Sicily first came to serious blows. In the years leading up to 480 BC, the Punic state was called to help return Terillos to his position as tyrant of Himera (Hdt. 7.165).

Although Carthage brought over a formidable army from Africa, supplemented by Terillos’ Greek allies, they were utterly defeated outside the walls of Himera by a combined army from Akragas and Syracuse. Not only were there high casualties amongst the soldiers, but Hamilcar, the Punic general, was killed.Show What actually happened to him is unknown, and there are a number of explanations, see for instance Krings 1998, pp. 282-284.

This victory was immortalized by the Greeks of Akragas and Syracuse in a number of ways. In the former, carved figures representing captured Carthaginian troops were added to the architrave’s columns of the Olympieum.Show Asheri 1988, 776-7. But more impressively, and more lasting in its influence, were the great works produced by the tyrannical Deinomenid dynasty of Syracuse. Gelon set up a temple to Victory at Himera, a permanent reminder of the Punic defeat. To advertise “his” victory more widely, he set up trophies at both Olympia and Delphi, one consisting of captured linen corselets and the other of a golden tripod (Paus. 6.19.7; Diod. Sic. 11.26.7).

It was also endeavoured, by someone, to synchronize this victory with great Hellenic victories during the war against Persia, in which Syracuse did not participate. It was said, variably, that the Battle of Himera occured either on the same day as that of Salamis, or, later, with the stand at Thermopylae (Hdt. 7.166; Diod. Sic. 11.24.1). Of course, not all Hellenes believed in these lies (Arist. Poet. 1459a.24-8), but we cannot discount that they had some effect in portraying a negative image of the Carthaginians to the parts of the Greek world which would have had relatively little interaction with them.

The anti-Punic message was also spread through the popular medium of poetry. Pindar’s First Pythian Ode equated the triumph at Himera (as well as the later naval battle at Cumae, undertaken by Hieron, Gelon’s successor) as having rescued the Greeks from “oppressive slavery” (Pind. Pyth. 1.71-80).

The anti-Carthaginian mindset continued at the end of the fifth century, and was actively exploited by Dionysius I of Syracuse in his seizure and consolidation of power. He claimed that they had plotted against the Greeks of Sicily from the earliest times and were an active threat (Diod. Sic. 14.45.3).Show Cf. Prag 2010, pp. 62-64. This, of course, at a time when Carthage had just withdrawn an army from the island and was suffering from a plague which her soldiers had brought home with them. The Punic wraith, however, was threatening enough that his agitation worked and the Sicilian Greeks were willing to go once more to war.

Friends of the Athenians?

Despite the somewhat successful efforts to brand the Carthaginians as enemies of Hellenism, this did not deter Athens from seeking them out as allies. During the Sicilian Expedition, Athens’ failed invasion of the island during the Peloponnesian War, an embassy of good will was sent to Carthage asking for their assistance in the conflict against Syracuse, the Athenians’ opponent (Thuc. 6.88). We do not hear of any reply from the Carthaginians; they do not appear to have helped the Athenians in any way.

Thucydides never again mentions Carthage, except in a speech attributed to Alcibiades. In this, the speaker claims, in front of the Spartans, that the Athenian “master plan” in the west had included an invasion and conquest of Carthage, after they had dealt with the other Hellenes, of course (Thuc. 6.90).

A formal relationship between Athens and Carthage, however, is known from 406 BC. An inscription from Athens honours the generals Hannibal and Himilco, who had travelled to the city and were shown hospitality and were described as “good men with regard to the Athenian people.”Show IG I3 123; the translation is from Attic Inscriptions Online.

We do not know what exactly this embassy accomplished, if anything. Brian Caven suggested that a pact resulted which ensured Corinth and Sparta were unable to join the war in Sicily and, presumably, that the Syracusans could not join the war in the Aegean.

It is telling of how he sees Carthaginians generally being received in Hellenic cities, that he write this pact was concluded inspite of “Athens’ vaunted Hellenism” which “was not strong enough to permit her at this juncture to throw away the opportunity of putting difficulties in the way of the Syracusans.”Show Caven 1990, p. 45.

Others have suggested that an agreement may have been made between Athens and Carthage that Leontini was to be given its independence in the event of a Punic victory.Show See this commentary at Attic Inscriptions Online.

Light on “ethnic” identity

I think that these two episodes of Athenian-Punic relations shows an important aspect of the ancient world which is often glossed over, that different “ethnic” groups were not divided to the point of not being able to cooperate with one another when it was pragmatic.

In this light, it is worth noting that when Athens sought Carthaginian help during their ill-fated invasion, they also sent embassies to the Etruscans, Sicels, and Elymians of Segesta. There is no indication that this was out of the ordinary, either. We should not assume that the Athenians felt guilty for doing it: the period of the Peloponnesian War was one which saw the Spartans allying themselves with the Persians, another “great enemy” of Hellenism.

If Caven’s assessment of the purpose of the Athenian-Punic pact in 406 is correct, it shows that both Carthage and Athens understood the complicated nature of grand strategy, at least to some extent. This is a more developed form of warfare than is generally presented for the fifth century BC and it is important for us to keep in mind the pragmatic, complex thinking of the peoples who inhabited the ancient Mediterranean’s shores.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Asheri, D., “Carthaginians and Greeks”, in Cambridge Ancient History IV (second edition, 1988), pp. 739-780.
  • Caven, B., Dionysius I: War-Lord of Sicily (1990).
  • Krings, V., Carthage et les Grecs c. 580-480 av. J.-C. (1998).
  • Prag, J., “Tyrannizing Sicily: the despots who cried ‘Carthage!’”, in: A. Turner, K. O. Chong-Gossard, and F. Vervaet (eds), Private and Public Lies: The Discourse of Despotism and Deceit in the Graeco-Roman World (2010), pp. 51-71.

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.