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That time Greeks invaded Africa: Carthage’s struggle against Agathocles (311 – 306 BC)

In June 310 BC, a fleet under the command of Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse, set sail to Africa, in order to attack Carthage. After six days of sailing, once encountering and driving away a carthaginian fleet, Agathocles landed somewhere near Cape Bon (in modern day Tunesia). He ordered his ships to be burned, so no one could leave untill they seized Carthage itself. Today’s guest blogger K. Victory Klimecka tries to anwers these questions: Why did this unknown ruler of Syracuse want to attack a state, which lay all the way across the sea? And how did this invasion go?

Fig. 1 – Sicily at the end of 4th century BC – map by K. Victory Klimecka

Carthage was originally built as a Phoenician trade colony in the west, yet it quickly spread its influence over the rest of these colonies, which in turn became a base of the Carthaginian empire – a Roman predecessor in the west.

The Phoenicians had also founded several colonies in the western part of Sicily, making  it a Carthaginian province. The east of this island was occupied by Greek city states. The most influencial of these was a former colony of Corinth – Syracuse.

From the beginning of the 5th century BC, the Greek city states on Sicily waged multiple wars on Carthage with various results. Lots of these were started by the tyrants of Syracuse as a means to solidify their rule over the Greek city states and Syracuse in particular. both This is why Dionysios I and Timoleon picked a fight with the Carthaginians in the 4th century BC. The likelyhood of an attack on the Carthaginian province was certainly not diminished by the fact that they kept almost no garrison there.

In 316/15 BC, after a bitter civil war, another tyrant came to power in Syracuse – Agathocles. Agathocles was not exactly the most peaceful person out there, so he first attacked the rest of Greek cities on the island. Yet, Carthage kept a very close eye on him and while Agathocles was sieging Messana (today Messina), they sent envoys to him with a warning that he was violating a treaty from the last war with the Carthaginians. This intervention saved Messana and helped other Greeks to stand up against Agathocles and so the Carthaginians were able to mediate peace.

Fig. 2 – Representation of the Punic city in the Carthage National Museum

However, the peace did not last for long and in 311 BC, Agathocles renewed hostilities. First, he attacked the Greek city states once again and when this did not work out, he turned his attention to the Carthaginian parts of the island. Hamilcar, the commander-in-chief of the Carthaginian army, was sent to Sicily and was able to win quite a decisive battle over Agathocles. Seeing the trouble the Syracusan tyrant caused, he decided to put an end to Agathocles’ threat by sieging Syracuse itself. 

But what about Agathocles? He formed his own plan: to invade Africa and attack the city of Carthage itself. Agathocles thought that in Africa he would be able to convince the Libyans and dissatisfied Phoenician cities to rise against Carthage and thus make it easier to defeat his enemy. After landing in Africa in the summer of 310 BC, Agathocles went on to attack cities and pillage the countryside.   

Meanwhile, Carthage was caught in panic. The Carthaginians were fairly inexperienced in warfare and now there was a foreign coqueror at the gates of their city. On top of that, news reached the city from Sicily that Hamilcar had been killed in an attack on Syracuse. Pressed both in their city and abroad, Carthage had to act and so they built an army and assigned it to two political rivals – Hanno and Bomilcar.  After the battle against Hanno and Bomilcar, Agathocles’ troops were in control of most of Carthage’s hinterland. But because Carthage was a stong and fortified city, so Agathocles did not have the means to siege such a city. Therefore, the city itself was safe, but the countryside around was not.

Fig. 3 – Gold coin depicting Agathocles? – Ancient Greek coins in Palazzo Blu (Pisa)

However, while Agathocles was away from Sicily, some of the conquered Greek cities declared their independence from Syracuse.  To curb this revolt in its tracks, Agathocles had to return to Syracuse and his son Archagathus was left in charge of the Syracusan troops in Africa, who did not share his father’s talent for military operations. In his absence, the Carthaginians settled their affairs and built a new army, which was then able to ambush and defeat parts of the Greek army, a result of the poor strategical decision of Archagathus. The Carthaginians were slowly taking back their land from the Greeks.

After that, Archagathus treid calling his father back to Africa to save the situation, but this proved to be impossible. After several defeats, Agathocles was able to slip away and return to Sicily. The deserted troops then quickly negotiated peace with Carthage, which put an end to Greek invasion and on Sicily, the siege of Syracuse failed. So the final peace between Carthage and Agathocles was settled in 306 BC. The Greek invasion of Africa was a new thing for Carthage. Never before, had ther been a foreign army landing on their soil to attack them nor would this be the last. 

Further reading:

DIODORUS SICULUS, Bibliotheca historica (The Library of History), Book XX, translated to english by: C. H. Oldfather, C. L. Sherman, C. Bradford Welles, R. M. Geer, F. R. Walton, G Booth, published in: Complete Works of Diodorus Siculus, Hastings: Delphi Classics, 2014

HOYOS, Dexter, Carthage’s Other Wars: Carthaginian Warfare outside the „Punic Wars“ against Rome, Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books Limited, 2019

HOYOS, Dexter, The Carthaginians, London and New York: Routledge, 2010

MELLITI, Khaled, Carthage: Histoire d’une métropole méditerranéenne, Paris: Tempus, 2016

MILES, Richard, Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise And Fall of an Ancient Civilization, London: Penguin Books, 2010

PAULUS OROSIUS, Historiae adversus paganos libri VII, book IV, translated to czech by: B. Mouchova, B. Marek, published as: Dějiny Proti Pohanům, Praha: Argo, 2018

The author of this blog is Victory: ”Salve, my name is Victory and I am quite in love with ancient and naval history. My research mostly focuses on Carthage, its international policy and its political and economical relationship to sea. I am also trying to convince people that Carthage was actually more important than they think though. I am never wary of trying different historical things, therefore I ended up wearing ancient tunics, which I sewed, and playing an ancient music on an ancient greek lyre.”

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