Siege of Motya

Siege of Motya

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict= Siege of Motya (398 BC)
partof=The Sicilian Wars
campaign=The Second Sicilian War

caption=Siege of Motya 398 BC. Political boundaries and path of troop movements are inexact because of lack of primary source data. Source file is the Map of Sicily designed by [ Prins-Jona Lendering] with all the Phoenician and Greek settlements and modified as per permission given.| date=Summer, 398 BC
place=Motya|SicilyResult=Carthaginian Defeat
casus=Syracusan attack on Motya
territory= Phoenician city Motya sacked
Sicilian Greeks | combatant2=Carthage
commander1=Dionysius I of Syracuse
strength1= 80,000 infantry, 3,000 Cavalry, 200 ships, 500 transports
strength2=unknown number of troops, 100 Triremes

The Siege of Motya took place either in 398 or 397 BC in Western Sicily. Dionysius, after securing peace with Carthage in 405 BC, had steadily increased his power and tightened his grip on Syracuse. He had fortified Syracuse against sieges and had created a large army of mercenaries and a large fleet, in addition to employing the Catapult and Quinqueremes for the first time in history. In 398 BC he attacked and sacked the Phoenician city of Motya despite the Carthaginian relief effort led by Himilco. Carthage also lost most of her territorial gains secured in 405 BC after Dionysius declared war on Carthage in 398 BC.


Carthage had stayed away from Sicilian affairs for 70 years after the defeat at Himera in 480 BC. However, Carthage, responding to the appeal for aid of Segesta against Selinus, had sent an expidition to Sicily resulting in sack of Selinus and Himera in 409 BC under the leadership of Hannibal Mago. [Kern, Paul B., Ancient Siege Warfare, p163-168] Responding to Greek raids on her Sicilian domain, [Freeman, Edward A., Sicily, p144-147] Carthage launched an expedition that captured Akragas in 406 BC and Gela and Camarina in 405 BC. [Kern, Paul B., Ancient Siege Warfare, p168-172] The conflict ended in 405 BC when Himilco and Dionysius, leaders of the Carthaginian forces and tyrant of Syracuse respectively, concluded a peace treaty.

Peace of 405 BC

Exactly why Himilco agreed to peace is unknown, it is speculated that a plague outbreak in the Punic army may have been the reason. Dionysius, as future events indicate, merely chose peace as an opportunity to gather strength and renew the war later.

The treaty secured the Carthaginian sphere of influence in Western Sicily, and made the Elymians and Sikans part of Carthaginian sphere of influence. The cities of Selinus, Akragas, Gela and Camarina (Greeks were allowed to return to these cities) became tributary to Carthage. Both Syracuse and Carthage pledged to respect the independence of the Sicels and the city of Messene. [Church, Alfred J., Carthage, p44-45]

A Tyrant Triumphs

Dionysius, who had obtained his power by condemning and executing his fellow Greek generals, faced discontent when he had evacuated both Gela and Camarina after the Battle of Gela in 405 BC. Some Syracusans had tried to stage a coup, but he managed to defeat it through speedy action and enemy bungling. [Kern, Paul B., Ancient Siege Warfare, p174] After the treaty with Carthage was signed, Syracuse was hemmed in by the territories of Camarina and Leontini, the former a vassal of Carthage and the latter hostile to Syracuse, while the Syracusan rebels settled in the city of Aetna. [Freeman, Edwrad A., Sicily, p153-54]

Between 405 BC and 397 BC, Dionysius took steps to increase the power of Syracuse, dealt with attempts to overthrow him and made Syracuse best defended city in the whole Greek world. His activities, briefly, were as follows:

*’’Enhancing Syracusan Defenses’’: Dionysius populated island of Orytiga (where the old city of Syracuse stood), with loyal mercenaries and close supporters, and built a wall on the isthmus connecting it with the mainland. Two forts were built, one on the isthmus and one on the far end Epipolae plateau at Euryalos. [Freeman, Edward A., Sicily, p158] He incorporated the walls built during the Athenian Expedition for settling the people in Achradina. Finally in 402 BC, Dionysius started work building a wall that would enclose the whole Epipolae Platue, which was completed by 399 BC. [Diod., 15.13.5] Employing tens of thousands of workers working in different sections of the wall, with Dionysius working alongside and offering prizes to the best workers, the wall was speedily completed. [Kern, Paul B., Ancient Siege Warfare, p174-75] Syracuse became the best fortified city of the Greek wall and Dionysius ensured his own security by building fortress filled with loyal supporters within the city walls.

*’’Enhancing Combat effectiveness’’: Dionysius continuously increased the size of his army by hiring mercenaries and building new ships. Greek citizen soldiers normally supplied their own arms and armor, but Dionysius hired workmen from Italy, Greece and Africa to supply his soldiers with arms. Over 140,000 sets of arms, helmets and mails were made. By supplying soldiers with standard issue arms and opening recruitment to all social classes, Dionysius managed to increase the size of his army (prior to this, only merceneries and citizens able to supply their own arms were the backbone of the army). These workmen also created the Catapult and Quinqueremes, giving him the edge in battlefield for a while. [Kern, Paul B., Ancient Siege Warfare, p177] Dionysius also built 200 new warships, refitted 110 old ones, and also 160 transports were commissioned. A secret harbor at Laccium covered with screens and able to house 60 triremes, were erected. [Diod., 14.7.2-3]

*’’Expanding Syracusan domain’’: Dionysius broke the city in 404 BC by attacking the Sicel city of Herbessus. [Freeman, Edward A., Sicily, p157] Carthage did nothing, but part of Syracusan army joined the Syracusan rebels from Aetna, with help from Messene and Rhegion, managed to besiege Dionysius in Syracuse. Dionysius thought about quitting, and only the bungling of the rebels and the help of some Italian mercenaries saved the day for him. [Freeman, Edward A., Sicily, p158-59] Between 403 and 398 BC, Dionysius destroyed the Ionian Greeks cities of Catana, which was given to the Campanians and Naxos, whose Greek citizens he sold into slavery, was given to the Sicels. Lastly, he conquered Leontini, which surrendered without resistance. Dionysius also increased his ties with the Italian Greeks by marrying a Locrian lady. [Freeman, Edward A., Sicily, p160-163]

In 398 BC, Dionysius sent an embassy to Carthage to declare war unless they agreed to give up all Greek cities under their control. Before the embassy returned from Carthage, he let loose his mercenaries on Carthaginians living on Syracusan lands, putting the population to the sword and plundering their property. The he set out for Motya with his army, accompanies by 200 warships and 500 transports carrying his supplies and war machines. [Kern, Paul B., Ancient Siege Warfare, p178]

iege of Motya: Initial steps

As Dionysius and his army marched west along the southern coast of Sicily, Greek cities under Carthaginian domain rebelled, killed Carthaginians, looted their property and sent soldiers to join Dionysius. Sicels, Sikans and the city of Messene also sent contingents so by the time Dionysius reached Motya, his army has swelled to 80,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. [Whitaker Joseph I.S., Motya, p75-76] Dionysius sent his navy under his brother Leptines of Syracuse to blockade Motya, [Diod., 14.48.4] and himself moved with the army to Eryx, which surrendered. Even the city of Threame declared for him, leaving only the cities of Panormus, Solus, Ancyrae, Segesta and Entella loyal to Carthage in Sicily. Dionysius raided the areas near the first 3 towns, put Segesta and Entella under siege. [Whitaker, Joseph I.S., Motya, p78]

Fortifications at Motya

The Phoenician city of Motya was situated on a small island in the middle of a lagoon. The island was surrounded by a wall with 20 towers, the walls often rose from the waters edge to a thickness of 6 meters, and a height of 8/9 meters. Lack of space had compelled the citizens to construct houses often 6 floors high in the city. It seemed that Motya had no standing navy, [Whitaker, Joseph I.S., Motya, p77] and may have had a Carthaginian garrison stationed in the city. The Island was connected to the mainland by a mole (1500 meters long and 10 meters wide) on the northern side of the island, with a gate flanked by two towers on the island end. The citizens cut up the mole and prepared for a siege. [Kern, Paul B., Ancient Siege Warfare, p180]

A Lesson for Alexander

The siege Dionysius undertook is in many ways similar to the one Alexander would later face at Tyre in 332 BC, minus the interference from weather conditions and native naval activity. The Greeks beached their warships on the northern part of the lagoon and the transports near the future site of Lilybaeum. Workers, rowers from the ships and soldiers set about rebuilding the mole to reach the city walls of Motya.

Carthage comes calling

Little is known of the activities of Carthage during 405 -397 BC except that a plague had swept through Africa, which had been carried by the returning army in 405 BC, weakening Carthage. Himilco was again given the task to respond to the threat. While raising a mercenary army (Carthage did not maintain a standing army) Himilco sent 10 triremes to raid Syracuse itself. The raiders entered the Great Harbour of Syracuse and destroyed all the ships they could find. Lacking an army, Himilco was unable to pull a feat similar to the one Scipio African pulled at Carthago Nova in 209 BC: attack an almost undefended city while the main army was away and capture it. [Whitaker, Joseph I.S., Motya, p78 note-2]

Himilco next manned 100 triremes with picked crews and sailed to Selinus in Sicily, reaching Selinus at night. From there the Punic navy sailed to Motya the following day and fell on the transports beached near Lilybaeum, destroying all that lay at anchor. Then the Carthaginian fleet moved into the area between Motya and the peninsula to the west of the lagoon, trapping the beached Greek fleet on the northern shallows of the lagoon. [Whitaker, Joseph I.S., Motya, p78]

Trappers trapped

Himilco had managed to put the Syracusan navy in the position the Persians were in at Salamis: while the Carthaginian ships had room to maneuver, the Greeks did not, which nullified the numerical superiority and heavier composition (Greeks had Quinqueremes, the Carthaginians did not) of the Greek navy. Dionysius in response launched his catapult armed ships and lend supported to these with land based catapults. While these dueled with the archers and slingers on board of the Carthaginian triremes, taking a heavy toll and preventing Himilco from reaching the beached ships, Dionysius cooked up a brilliant scheme. He set his men to construct a road of wooden planks on the northern isthmus, and 80 triremes were then hauled to the open sea in the north of the isthmus using this road. Once properly manned, these ships sailed south along the peninsula. The Carthaginian fleet now faced encirclement, Himilco chose not to fight a two front battle against superior numbers, and sailed away to Carthage. [Whitaker, Joseph I.S., Motya, p80-84]

Assault on Motya

Without interference from the Carthaginian fleet, the work on the mole progressed smoothly. As Motya herself lacked ships, they could do little until the mole came within range of arrows from their walls. Once the mole was completed, Dionysius set forward his siege towers, which were taller than the walls of Motya and equaled the height of the tallest buildings of that city. A storm of arrows and missiles from archers and catapults cleared the wall of defenders and battering rams were employed.

The Phoenicians countered by putting men on ship masts, and protecting them with breastworks built on the walls. These “Crows’ nests” were then put beyond the walls, and from these, flax, covered in burning pitch, were dropped on the siege engines, burning them. However, the Greeks learned to douse the flames with fire fighting teams, and the engines finally reached the walls despite Carthaginian efforts. [Kern, Paul B., Ancient Siege Warfare, p181-82]

Urban warfare

Forcing holes in the wall itself was only the first step for reducing the city. As the Greek troops advanced, the Phoenicians sent down a storm of missiles (arrows, stones) from the rooftops and houses and took a heavy toll on the attackers. Greeks next pushed the siege towers next to the houses closest to the walls, and sent troops on the roofs using gangways, who forced their way into the houses. A fierce hand to hand struggle began, the desperate resistance of the Phoenicians (who expected no mercy from the Greeks) took a heavy toll on the attackers.

For several days the grim contest continued within the beleaguered city from dawn to dusk. Unable to gain anything in this slugging contest, Dionysius decided to change tactics. The battle usually started at daybreak and continued until nightfall, when the Greeks withdrew to rest. One day Dionysius sent a picked group of mercenaries under a Thruian named Archylus at night with ladders to secure vantage points. Under cover of darkness this commando detachment managed to take hold of the positions before the Phoenicians discovered what was going on. [Kern Paul B., Ancient Siege Warfare, p183] Thus the Greeks gained the advantage, and now the weight of numbers was enough to overcome all resistance. Dionysius had intended to secure as many prisoners as possible for the salve market, but the Greeks vented their frustrations by indiscriminant killing of the population. Dionysius could only save those seeking refuge in the temples.


Dionysius crucified all the Greeks who had fought on the side of Carthage. It is not known if these were mercenaries employed by Carthage or citizens of Motya. Dionysius sacked the city and divided the vast spoils among his troops. His next garrisoned the ruins with an army made mostly of Sicels under an officer named Biton, then marched away to continue the siege of Segesta and Entella. It is not know what he did there except the fact the cities continued to resist. Majority of the fleet sailed back to Syracuse, with Leptines staying back with 120 ships at Eryx. Motya as a city was never rebuilt. Himilco chose to resettle the survivors from Motya at Lilybaeum, which would become the main base of Carthage in future. That city would never fall to siege or assault by Greeks or Romans while in Carthaginian possession. Carthage, however, sent an army and fleet to Sicily under Himilco, who had been elected “king” in 397 BC. Himilco chose to sail to Panormus, from where the attack on Syracuse and her allies would take place, which would culminate with the siege of Syracuse.


*cite book | title = Hannibal | year = 1999 | author = Baker, G. P. | publisher = Cooper Square Press | id = ISBN 0-8154-1005-0


External links

* [ Diodorus Siculus translated by G. Booth (1814)] Complete book (scanned by Google)

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