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Rewriting one of the ancient world’s most dramatic battlefield accounts
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.