By Periklis Deligiannis


Aerial view of the archaeological site of Selinus (Selinunte).

During the period when the ancient Greeks were colonizing the eastern coast of Sicily (late 8th century BC), the Phoenicians kept their own emporia (commercial stations) in the western part of the island. It seems that Panormos (modern Sicilian capital Palermo) was the oldest Phoenician colony. Motya was founded around 700 BC by the Phoenicians of Carthage. Her location was very strategic and well protected, having been founded on an island near the Sicilian coast. Simultaneously, the Carthaginians founded the emporia  of Mazara and Macara on the southwestern coast, whose Phoenician origin has been verified by their Canaanite names and by archeology. Macara was probably founded on the site of a former Minoan ‘emporion’ or naval base, because the Greeks called the town ‘Minoa’ and later ‘Heraclea Minoa’ (or just ‘Heraclea’). Some archaeologists have theorized that the subsequent town of Thermae Himeraiae, which was founded by the Carthaginians after the destruction of the nearby Greek city Himera (late 5th century BC), was in reality a Phoenician colony that existed before the foundation of the latter. According to this hypothesis, when the Greeks founded Himera, they drove off the Phoenicians from Thermae but when the Carthaginians destroyed Himera, they refounded the old Punic colony.

Reenactment of hoplites by the Spanish Historical Association Athena Promachos  (Αθηνά Πρόμαχος). The Siciliot Greek hoplites did not differ from those of mainland Greece, although they have developed some innovations in appearance.

The western part of Sicily was not unknown to the Greeks and generally to the navigators of the Aegean. The main people of the region (and loyal allies of the Phoenicians) were the Elymians (Elymi), a people who had early commercial and cultural relations with the Greeks. It is also considered that the ethnogenesis of the Elymian people and its organization in cities-states are due to the Phoenician and Greek influence in a part of the larger native people of the Sikani (Sicans), and possibly to the settlement of Anatolian refugees in their territory. The Greeks, who had already displaced the Phoenicians from the rest of Sicily, were not slow to appear as settlers in the western region as well. In 648 BC they launched an intense geostrategic struggle with the Phoenicians, when they approached dangerously the last Punic colonies on the island founding Himera (a common colony of Chalkideans and Syracusans) near them. It was possibly then that the Carthaginians were forced to evacuate their ‘emporion’ at Thermae, most likely after an attack by the Himeraeans.


Around 628 BC most of the Megarian Greeks who a century earlier had founded Hyblaea Megara in eastern Sicily (727 BC), left their unsuccessful colony and founded Selinus (modern Selinunte) in the western part of the island. Selinus was destined to become one of the most splendid Greek cities of Sicily. The settlers were strengthened with Megarians from the mother-city under Pamillos (oikistes, i.e. the official founder of the colony). Their colonizing attempt was rather foolhardy because they settled in a region under strong Punic military influence. However, soon the Carthaginians lost their two colonies near Selinunte, the aformentioned Mazara and Macara. Soon the two towns appear in the ancient sources as ’emporia’ of Selinus thereby it is likely that the Greek city conquered them. The Selinuntians renamed Macara calling it ‘Minoa’. Later Minoa was occupied by Spartan colonizers who renamed the town in ‘Heraclea Minoa’ or just ‘Heraclea’.
The explanation of the continuing decline of the Phoenician (and Carthaginian) settlers in favor of the Greek colonists in Sicily and in most of the Mediterranean coasts, lies with the numerical strength of the latter over the former. As it is calculated, the metropolitan Phoenicians (of modern Lebanon and Syria) numbered around 200,000 people in the 8th century BC, while at the same time the Greek populations amounted to several millions. Indeed, the Phoenicians were trying to boost the numbers of their colonists all over the Mediterranean coasts, adding to them Aramaeans, Israelites, surviving Amorrites and other Semitic relatives of them, and semi-Semitic Philistines as well. On the other hand, the Greeks did not use foreign settlers in their colonizing campaigns with the exception of the cities of Ionia (Miletus, Phocaea and others) who used to incorporate sometimes Carians and Lydians (non-Greek Anatolians).

Selinunte temple
Colonnade in Selinus.

The majority of the archaic Phoenician colonies were simply commercial stations (emporia) with a few tens or at most a few hundreds of residents. In contrast, the newly founded Greek colonies were extensive settlements with hundreds or thousands of people. Faced with this highly negative correlation, the Phoenicians were forced to evacuate a colony of them when a Greek colony was founded near it. Only later the Carthaginians (of Phoenician origin, from Tyre) reversed this situation by becoming defenders of the Phoenician colonies around the western Mediterranean over the Greek and Etruscan enemies. However, during the Archaic period there was a reaction to the Greek expansion in Western Sicily by the local Phoenicians. Shortly after the foundation of Himera, the Punic Panormus reacted by founding Soloeis (Solus) in the intermediate controversial region, as a buffer colony-fortress against Greek aggression. Moreover, the remaining Phoenician cities (Motya, Panormos, Soloeis) strengthened their populations with the refugees from the lost colonies while the Elymian city-states Eryx and Segesta (or Egesta) came under Punic/Carthaginian military protection.
The Selinountians continued their march, clashing with the Segestaians. The Greek colonists were trying to subjugate Segesta in order to gain a territorial outlet in the northern Sicilian coast, which would boost their trade with Etruria (modern Tuscany) and Iberia. The Selinountians were planning to establish a colony on the Gulf of Castellammare, of which the protected harbor would serve their profitable trade.  Some decades later, the Geloan and Akragantine Greeks had the same goals for territorial outlet on the north coast, leading their military effort for conquering Zankle (later Messena) and Himera respectively, which managed to occupy in 493 BC and 484 BC respectively.

The direction of the attack of the Selinuntian Greeks additionally indicates their goal to isolate the  two Phoenician city-states of Sicily (Motya and Panormos – the other Punic towns being their dependencies) from one another, and thereby to weaken them and conquer them putting the entire western Sicily under their sovereignty. But the Selinuntians failed encountering the stubborn resistance of the Segestaians who were reinforced by their Punic allies.

plan selinunte
A topographic diagram of Selinus. In the south lies the Acropolis and in the north the market (Agora).

At the same time, the Selinuntians were claiming the southern region of the island between the rivers Alykos and Southern Himeras, which was a dependency of Gela. In 583 BC the Geloans terminated this assertion of Selinus, by founding in the disputed region the strong colony of Acragas (modern Agrigento) which was meant to become the second most powerful city-state in Sicily (after Syracuse). Most likely a compromise occurred between Selinus and the Rhodian rulers of Gela and Acragas. The Selinountians finally resigned from claiming the disputed territory in return for aid by Dorian colonists (as were themselves) arising from Rhodes and Cnidos (mother-cities of Gela) who arrived in western Sicily through Gela in 580 BC. The ceramics of Selinus denote that the city had relations with Rhodes and possibly a part of her population had Rhodian origins.

Periklis Deligiannis


(1) Diodorus Siculus: HISTORICAL LIBRARY
(2) Herodotus: HISTORIES