Himera, currently known as Termini Imerese on the north coast of Sicily, was a Greek city founded in 648 B.C. by colonists from Zancle (Messina). Its location, the westernmost of all Greek cities on the island, made it a strategic point at the edge of the territory controlled by Carthage, which occupied the west.

The city of Himera was founded by the people of Zancle, who, under the leadership of Euclides, Simo, and Sacón, settled it with a number of their people. Shortly thereafter, many Chalcidians and a large number of Syracusans, exiled from their city by opposing factions, known as Miletians, joined. Through the mingling of these two groups, a language was formed that was half Chalcidian and half Dorian. Their way of life followed the laws and customs of the Chalcidians.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War VI–1

The first conflict with the Carthaginians occurred in 480 B.C., known today as the First Battle of Himera, and it reportedly happened on the same day the Greeks were battling the Persians at Salamis.

Location of Himera
Location of Himera. Credit: Cristiano64 / Wikimedia Commons

In this battle, Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, and Theron, tyrant of Agrigentum, defeated the Carthaginian army led by Hamilcar the Magonid, which allegedly had a force of about 300,000 men, though no evidence supports this.

Gelon went to aid Theron in Himera with no fewer than 50,000 infantrymen and over 5,000 cavalry, which is why he couldn’t help the Greeks resisting Xerxes.

Seven decades later, the Carthaginians took revenge, and in 409 B.C., under the command of Hannibal the Magonid, completely destroyed Himera, which was never rebuilt. A new city, Thermae, was erected west of the ruins, repopulated with Phoenicians and Greeks.

Remains of the Temple of Victory at Himera
Remains of the Temple of Victory at Himera. Credit: Clemensfranz / Wikimedia Commons

Hannibal also ordered the plundering of the temples, forced the people who had taken refuge there to leave, and burned them down, razing the city to its foundations 240 years after its founding.

Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History XIII–62

The remains from these two battles were discovered between 2008 and 2011, marking one of the most important archaeological finds in recent decades. During work to expand a railway line, a necropolis with more than 12,000 nearly intact burials from the archaic and classical periods was discovered, with abundant funeral artifacts.

Up to nine mass graves—seven associated with the 480 B.C. battle and two with the 409 B.C. battle—and numerous individual graves contain thousands of human skeletons, curiously arranged in a neat line, side by side.

Alongside them, about thirty horse burials, likely from the first battle, were also placed in mass graves.

Common Grave from the 409 B.C. Battle and a Horse Burial
Common Grave from the 409 B.C. Battle and a Horse Burial. Credit: Superintendence of Archaeology of Palermo

Among the objects found in these graves are Iberian-style bronzes, confirming the presence of mercenaries from various parts of the western Mediterranean in the Carthaginian army:

Despite the previous accounts, it is said among the inhabitants of Sicily that Gelon would have assisted the Greeks, despite his reluctance to obey the Lacedaemonians, had it not been for the fortune that the tyrant of Himera, Terilus, son of Crinipo, expelled earlier by Theron, ruler of Agrigentum, led an army of 300,000 combatants to Sicily. This force consisted of Phoenicians, Libyans, Spaniards, Genoese, Heliscs, Sardinians, and Corsicans, under the command of Hamilcar, son of Hanno, king or general of the Carthaginians.

Herodotus, History VII–CLXV

The tombs were found three meters below ground level, covered by a very compact and homogeneous layer that protected the necropolis for centuries. This might have been due to flooding from the nearby sea or river.

Another of the Mass Graves
Another of the Mass Graves. Credit: Superintendence of Archaeology of Palermo

The high concentration of males in these graves links most of them to the battles. They are individuals aged between 15 and 57 years who show signs of severe injuries caused by cutting or projectile weapons. Some of these, like arrows, spearheads, swords, or daggers, were still embedded in the skeletons because they weren’t removed before burial.

Furthermore, evidence of the massacre in 409 B.C., affecting a large portion of the civilian population, appeared in the eastern part of the necropolis, near the city’s old walls, especially in the upper layers.

General View of the Necropolis
General View of the Necropolis. Credit: Superintendence of Archaeology of Palermo

Here, hundreds of skeletons of men and women of all ages were buried in a haphazard manner by the survivors.

All these remains from the largest Greek necropolis discovered in Sicily, which have been kept for ten years in sixteen boxes in a storage facility, were moved to Palermo and finally be displayed to the public at the Royal Albergo dei Poveri.

However, this is a temporary solution until a museum is built in Termini Imerese for them.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 26, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en Los restos de la Batalla de Himera, uno de los mayores descubrimientos arqueológicos de las últimas décadas


Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War | Herodotus, History | Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History | Fame di Sud | Wikipedia

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