Archaeology Magazine: The Fight for Ancient Sicily

An interesting read about an ancient battle; once more, archaeology exposes the mythmaking inherent in ancient literature and historiographies.

Archaeologists uncovered the remains of dozens of soldiers who fought in the Battle of Himera. Evidence for mass burials of war dead is extremely rare in the ancient Greek world. (Courtesy Soprintendenza Archeologica di Palermo)

It was one of the ancient world’s greatest battles, pitting a Carthaginian army commanded by the general Hamilcar against a Greek alliance for control of the island of Sicily. After a fierce struggle in 480 B.C. on a coastal plain outside the Sicilian city of Himera, with heavy losses on both sides, the Greeks eventually won the day. As the years passed, the Battle of Himera assumed legendary proportions. Some Greeks would even claim it had occurred on the same day as one of the famous battles of Thermopylae and Salamis, crucial contests that led to the defeat of the Persian invasion of Greece, also in 480 B.C., and two of the most celebrated events in Greek history. Nonetheless, for such a momentous battle, Himera has long been something of a mystery. The ancient accounts of the battle, by the fifth-century B.C. historian Herodotus and the first-century B.C. historian Diodorus Siculus (“the Sicilian”), are biased, confusing, and incomplete. Archaeology, however, is beginning to change things. For the past decade, Stefano Vassallo of the Archaeological Superintendency of Palermo has been working at the site of ancient Himera. His discoveries have helped pinpoint the battle’s precise location, clarified the ancient historians’ accounts, and unearth new evidence of how classical Greek soldiers fought and died.

John W. I. Lee is a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His research specialty is classical Greek warfare.

via Archaeology Magazine – The Fight for Ancient Sicily (Volume 64 Number 1, January/February 2011).


I’ve also stumbled across this delightful post by Dorothy King dealing with just this battle and the archaeology thereof.


2 Responses

  1. Do you think the mass burials here are evidence of the battle of Himera, or another unrelated and unreported battle?

  2. The answer to this question is rather delicate. The archaeological evidence cannot be ignored, but as you suggest, we must ask why the bodies are there. It is easy to say ‘This is a result of the battle of Himera’ and be done with it. But historical investigations aren’t that easy. In this instance, we can go back to the historiographical evidence. But the question then asked is whether any of it is reliable, or if certain parts of it are, or if they were written with some other purpose in mind? The evidence suggests a battle, it’s at the location associated with the battle of Himera, so if the dating matches, then we can be confident with some level of probability that they might very well be the remains from that conflict. But is it certain? I would hesitate to say. I will say that, as far as the textual evidence goes, we cannot know more than what we already know with the data we currently have. So to speculate as to whether these remains are from an unreported battle might be just as dangerous as assuming they are definitely from the battle of Himera.

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