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The Sicilian Wars were a series of conflicts fought between Carthage and the Greek city-states of Magna Grecia, headed by Syracuse, over control of Sicily between the years 480 to 307 BC. Carthage's economic successes, and its dependence on shipping to conduct most of its trade, for the empire's southern border was surrounded by desert, led to the creation of a powerful Carthaginian navy to discourage both pirates and rival nations. They had inherited their naval strength and experience from the Phoenicians, but had increased it because, unlike the Phoenicians, the Punics did not want to rely on a foreign nation's aid. This, coupled with its success and growing hegemony, brought Carthage into increasing conflict with the Greeks, the other major power contending for control of the central Mediterranean.
The Greeks, similar to the Phoenicians, were expert sailors who had set up trade posts throughout the Mediterranean. This two rivals fought their wars on the island of Sicily, which lay at Carthage's doorstep. From their earliest days, both the Greeks and Phoenicians had been attracted to the large island, establishing a large number of colonies and trading posts along its coasts. Small battles had been fought between these settlements for centuries. No Carthaginian records of the war exist today, because when the city was destroyed in 146 B.C. by the Romans, the books from Carthage's library were distributed among the nearby African tribes, and none remain on the topic of Carthaginian history. As a result most of what we know about the Sicilian Wars comes from Greek historians.
By 480 BC Gelo, the tyrant of Greek Syracuse, backed in part by support from other Greek city-states, was attempting to unite the island under his rule. Carthage could not ignore this imminent threat. Carthage may have also chosen this time to attack because a Persian fleet attacked mainland Greece in the same year. The theory that there was an alliance with Persia is disputed, because Carthage neither liked foreign involvement in their wars, nor wanted to contribute in foreign wars, unless they strong reasons to do so. But because control of Sicily was a valuable prize for Carthage and because Carthage fielded its largest military force to date, under the leadership of the general Hamilcar, Carthage was eager to go to war. Traditional accounts give Hamilcar's army a strength of three hundred thousand men; This number seems unlikely because, even at its peak, the Carthaginian Empire would have only been able to muster a force of about fifty thousand to one hundred thousand men. It would have been difficult for Carthage to maintain an army of that size. If Carthage had allied with Persia, they may have supplied Carthage mercenaries and aid, which the Persians undoubtedly had, but there is no evidence to support this cooperation between the Carthaginians and the Persians.
En route to Sicily, however, Hamilcar suffered losses, possibly severe, due to poor weather. After landing at Ziz, the Punic name for Panormus, modern-day Palermo, he was then decisively defeated by Gelo at the Battle of Himera, which was said to have occurred on the same day as the Battle of Salamis , Hamilcar was either killed during the battle or committed suicide in shame. The loss severely weakened Carthage, and the old government of entrenched nobility was ousted, replaced by the Carthaginian Republic. The king still remained, but he had very little power and most was entrusted with the Council of Elders.
The Second Sicilian War (410 BC-340 BC)
By 410 BC Carthage had recovered after serious defeats. Just one year after its embarrassing defeat at Himera, Carthage had conquered the northern fertile half of modern day Tunisia, and strengthened and founded new colonies in North Africa, such as Leptis and Oea, modern Tripoli. Carthage had also sponsored Mago Barca's, not to be confused with Mago Barca, Hannibal Barca's brother, journey across the Sahara Desert to Cyrenaica, and Hanno the Navigator's journey down the African coast. Although the Iberian colonies had seceded in that year with the help of the Iberians, cutting off Carthage's major supply of silver and copper, Hannibal Mago, the grandson of Hamilcar, began preparations to reclaim Sicily. Meanwhile expeditions were venturing into Morocco and Senegal, and into the Atlantic, possibly as far as the Azores.
In 409 BC, Hannibal Mago set out for Sicily with his force. He succeded in capturing the smaller cities of Selinus, modern Selinunte, and Himera, where his grandfather had been defeated 79 years earlier, before returning triumphantly to Carthage with the spoils of war. But Carthage’s primary Sicilian enemy, Syracuse, remained untouched, and in 405 BCE Hannibal Mago led a second Carthaginian expedition, this time to claim the island in its entirety. This time, however, he met with fierce resistance and ill-fortune. During the siege of Agrigentum, the Carthaginian forces were ravaged by plague, and Hannibal Mago himself succumbed to it. Although his successor, Himilco, successfully extended the campaign by breaking a Greek siege, capturing the city of Gela, and repeatedly defeating the army of Dionysius I, the new tyrant of Syracuse, Hilimco, too, was weakened by the plague and forced to sue for peace before returning to Carthage.
In 398 BC, Dionysius had regained his strength and broke the peace treaty, striking at the Carthaginian stronghold of Motya. Himilco responded decisively, leading an expedition which not only reclaimed Motya, but also captured Messina. Finally, he laid siege to Syracuse itself. The siege met with great success throughout 397 BC, but in 396 BC plague again ravaged the Carthaginian forces, and they collapsed. Over the next sixty years, Carthaginian and Greek forces engaged in a constant series of skirmishes and several major plague outbreaks. By 340 BC, Carthage had been pushed entirely into the southwest corner of the island, and an uneasy peace reigned over the island.
The Third Sicilian War (315 BC-307 BC)
In 315 BC Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse, seized the city of Messene, present-day Messina. In 311 BC he invaded the last Carthaginian holdings on Sicily, which broke the terms of the current peace treaty, and he laid siege to Akragas. Hamilcar, grandson of Hanno the Navigator, successfully led the Carthaginian counterattack. By 310 BC he controlled almost all of Sicily and had laid siege to Syracuse itself.
In desperation, Agathocles secretly led an expedition of 14,000 men to the mainland Africa, hoping to save his rule by leading a counterstrike against Carthage itself. In this, he was successful: Carthage was forced to recall Hamilcar and most of his army from Sicily to face the new and unexpected threat. The two armies met in battle outside Carthage, and the Carthaginian army, under Hanno and Hamilcar, was defeated. Agathocles and his forces laid siege to Carthage, but its impregnable walls repelled him. Instead, the Greeks contented themselves with occupying Northern Tunisia until they were defeated two years later in 307 BC. Agathocles himself escaped back to Sicily and negotiated a peace treaty with the Carthaginians, which maintained Syracuse as a stronghold of Greek power in Sicily despite its loss of much of its power and the strategic city of Messene.
After Agathocles sued for peace, Carthage enjoyed a brief, unchallenged period of control of Sicily, which ended with the Pyrrhic War. In some respects, the Pyrrhic War (280 BC-275 BC) and Mamertime Revolt (288 BC-265 BC), which ultimately lead to the Punic Wars, can be considered part of the Sicilian Wars, but as they involved outside forces, namely Rome and Epirus, are are not considered as such. Rome, despite its close proximity to Sicily, was not involved in the Sicilian Wars of the 5th and 4th centuries BC due to its was pre-occupation with its liberation from the Etruscans of the 5th century BC and conquest of Italy in the 4th century BC. But Rome's later involvement in Sicily ended the indecisive warfare on the island.