Who mourns for Motya?

The death of a Phoenician town

Thriving for centuries, the Phoenician settlement of Motya met its demise in a sudden attack by Dionysius I of Syracuse. This is an example of a fast-moving and well-organized campaign, as well as the fragility of ancient cities.

Joshua R. Hall

Tensions between Phoenician and Greek settlers in the central Mediterranean are portrayed by the ancient – Greek and Roman – sources as originating early in the “colonization” period. Supposedly, the Hellenic migrants chased Phoenicians that had settled around the coasts of Sicily into the western half of the island. While this may have been wishful thinking, or vaguely remembered stories about small-scale skirmishes, later generations certainly did come to blows with one another.

In 480 BC, the Carthaginians joined with – presumably – Phoenicians on Sicily in an alliance with the exiled Greek tyrant of Himera, and the sitting tyrant of Rhegion, also a Greek. This confederation was opposed by an alliance of Syracuse and Akragas, led by Gelon, tyrant of the former. The Puno-Greek army was defeated outside the walls of Himera, in a victory that the Deinomenid dynasty – that of Gelon – would go on to celebrate as a momentous triumph over the evil barbarians, akin to the victories of the mainland Greek alliance against the Persians in the same era.

Of course, when we hear of this victory, it was simply over the Carthaginians. It seems almost forgotten that it was an allied force which included Greeks. This was because war against the Carthaginians made for great propaganda (Prag 2010).

Not all of the wars between Phoenicians and Greeks on Sicily are known to us, and indeed there were probably many smaller-scale conflicts that we will never know about. That in which Aristogeitos, son of Arcadion, perished, “under the walls of Motya,” is one of these. We only know his name and that he died at Motya because his tombstone happened to survive (Rocco 1970).

Many of these wars were probably local disputes over rather mundane things. We know that the Elymian city of Segesta and the Greek city of Selinus regularly quarreled over their border, occasionally drawing in other powers. In 410 BC, this brought the Carthaginians back to Sicily, this time with a vengeance. In the initial stage of the conflict, they destroyed both Selinus and Himera, with a second attack a few years later sacking Akragas and Camarina.

During this second invasion, a man came to power in Syracuse through his military position named Dionysius. Though perhaps from a humble background, as he held an honorable command at the war’s start, he was almost certainly from a privileged class. Although he did not completely consolidate his power immediately, he took over the affairs of Syracuse and its hegemony in eastern Sicily.

A means to power

In the years after Dionysius seized power, he felt his position wavering. Greeks – presumably Syracusans – were upping roots and moving to the now Carthaginian controlled western bits of Sicily. He also needed an excuse to secure his status at the top of the Syracusan social ladder. To do this, he exploited the same pool of lingering animosity and tension that the Deinomenids did in their globally-aimed propaganda: the Phoenicians/Carthaginians.

Sometime around 398 BC, he began building one of the most lavishly equipped armies yet seen in the Mediterranean world. From all over Magna Graecia and the Greek mainland, he gathered craftsmen and engineers of all kinds (Diod. Sic. 14.41.3). The objective was to equip as many soldiers as he could, ordering that 140,000 shields and swords be created, along with helmets, and thousands of breastplates for his officers and cavalry (Diod. Sic. 14.43.2). His engineers also devised new tools of war, such as the catapult (supposedly) as well as ships larger than those used elsewhere, quinqueremes. All of this was to be used by both his domestic – Siceliote Greek – soldiers as well as mercenaries recruited from many places.

This massive arsenal was finally set against the Phoenician half of the island in a lightning campaign that saw Dionysius’ army rampage across Sicily. Eventually they found themselves on the other side of the lagoon from Motya. This island town had existed for a few hundred years by this point, and was fortified all around with high walls. Coupled with the natural barrier provided by the lagoon, and it must have been a formidable sight for Dionysius’ soldiers. While elements of the army and the fleet were busy building moles – artificial causeways – to get across the water, their general was leading sorties into the hinterland, raiding pro-Punic settlements far and wide.

Eventually, though, Dionysius and his men were able to get siege towers up against the walls of Motya, keeping the latter clear of defenders with the new catapults his engineers had devised. As the boarding bridges were placed, and the Greek and mercenary soldiers flooded onto the city’s walls, the Motyans put up a stalwart defense. Many of the houses in the city were built just about as high as the fortifications, so fighting raged in the skies. Defenders and attackers alike were thrown from the heights, and felled by the sword and spear. As the townspeople looked on, a rain of gore and corpses fell among them. Motyan archers sent volleys down upon the Greeks and their mercenaries.

Ultimately, none of this was sufficient to keep them from capturing the town (Diod. Sic. 14.50-52).

Who mourns for Motya?

While the attackers made their way through the town, they slew many of the people upon whom they came. It was only when Dionysius had men announcing to the inhabitants that their lives would be spared if they sought refuge in the temples that some found safety. (This wasn’t always a guarantee of safety against Greeks, though: cf. Hall 2016.)

Dionysius was unable to control the wonton bloodthirst of his men while they ravaged the settlement, despite ordering them to spare civilians. Of course, this was not out of any real kindness that Dionysius felt towards his victims, rather he wanted to profit by selling them into slavery (Diod. Sic. 14.53.1-2).

In the end, Motya as an important settlement died that day. The Motyans would be avenged by their Carthaginian cousins, but this probably came as little consolation to the people whose families were killed, and themselves enslaved, by Dionysius. Unlike other cities on Sicily that were “destroyed” according to our sources, Motya was not resettled.

The Phoenicians – probably as a unit by this point, led by Carthage – instead founded a new town called Lilybaeum, which incorporated the survivors from Motya. This left the island sitting lonely in its lagoon, devoid of people, and slowly stripped of much of its architecture and art.

What was once a shining jewel of the central Mediterranean became little more than a dusty speck of land, surrounded by salty water, and people who seemed either unwilling to mourn its fate, or simply undesiring of rebuilding its tall houses, and powerful walls.