By Periklis Deligiannis
The city of Gela was founded in 688 BC on the south coast of Sicily, near the river Gelas, by Cretan, Rhodian and other Dodecanese Dorian settlers. This new Greek colony was originally named “the Lindians” from the “ethnic name” of Lindos, the most important city-state of Rhodes. Lindos had significantly higher shipping than any other city-state of Rhodes, Crete and the Dodecanese, and apparently supported the colonial mission with her navy. However, because most of the colonists had not Lindian origin, the name “Gela” finally prevailed originating from the indigenous Sicanian name of the nearby river (the Gelas River).
From the beginning the Geloans (the citizens of Gela) had a high level of militancy, seeking the expansion of their territory in the Sicilian mainland, at the expense of the natives of Sicily and other Greek colonists. The natives were the Sicani (Sicans), the Elymians (probably a Sicani tribal offshoot) and the Siculi or Sikels (actually of Italian mainland origins). The first phase of the impressive conquests of Gela, belongs to the wars against the neighboring Sicani. The Sican townships of Kakyron, Omphake (now Monte Desusino), Ariaiton (or Ariaitis), Inykon and others, succumbed to the army of Gela, despite their resistance. The strong resistance of the Sicani is demonstrated by the fact that the Geloans spent nearly two centuries until the subjugation of the last independent Sicani of their territory. The Greeks had a decisive military advantage against the natives, thanks to their hoplite phalanx and their cavalry.
The second phase of the wars of Gela involved the subjugation of Sican principalities in the neighboring hills. The anonymous Sican settlements in modern Capordaso, Sabucina and elsewhere, were subjugated to Gela and were gradually Hellenized because of the Geloan military colonists who settled there after the conquest. Parts of Cretan-style armour were excavated in some Sican townships of this period. They obviously belonged to Cretan-origin Geloan garrisons in these townships. The Geloans divided the conquered lands into allotments, and turned the Sicani into serfs, much like the helots of the Spartans. But at the time of the Geloan tyrants Hippocrates and Gelon (see below), they were emancipated. Until then, they were almost completely Hellenized, abandoning their native language in favor of Greek. The Geloans, especially the Geloan tyrants and their supporters, proved to be more advanced comparing to the Spartans (their Dorian cousins) concerning the treatment of their lower social strata. The last helots of Sparta were emancipated around the end of the 3rd century BC.
During the third phase of the Geloan wars, the Geloans confronted the Sikeliotes or Siciliotes. The latter names denoted the Sicilian Greeks, in contrast to the name of the Sikels or Siculi, being the native Sicilians). The foundation of the military threatening colony of Selinus by the Hyblaean Megarian Greeks (around 650-628 BC) close to the vital area of Gela, led to an historic colonial action by the Geloans: the foundation of Acragas by them (583 BC, modern Agrigento) that was destined to become a great politico-military power in Sicily. Very soon, the city became independent from Gela (570 BC), and immediately began fierce wars against the Sicani of its interior – more violent than the wars of Gela – and against the Selinountians as well. The anonymous town in modern Caltanisseta, the town of Kamikos (Camicos) and other Sican settlements were subdued to the Acragantine invaders, who sought to reach the northern Sicilian coast.
By 505 BC Gela completed the conquest and Hellenization of the flat country around her. Acragas had achieved the same in its own hinterland. Thus the “twin” Creto-Rhodian city-states subjugated the southern and central Sicily, but they would not stop there. The Geloan army was already the strongest in Sicily.
During the late sixth century, the Geloans crossed the Heraean mountains and clashed with the Chalkidean Greek settlers of northeastern Sicily (the Chalkiden city-states of Catania, Leontini, Euboea (township), Morgantina and others). Shortly after 505, Hippocrates became tyrant of Gela. He was proved to be a great military leader and finally became the founder of the subsequent “Geloan Empire.” At the same time in Acragas, one Theron took also power as a tyrant. Hippocrates attacked and subdued the last free highlander Sicani near Gela, marching in the valley of the modern River Maroglio. The excavated Sican sites of modern Monte Bubbonia and San Mauro were destroyed around 500 BC by fire, demonstrating the ferocity of the conquest. Soon the Geloan army under Hippocrates – spearheaded by the cavalry under its commandant (‘hipparchos’) Gelon – marched to the Northeast subjugating the Chalkidean city-states of Kallipolis, Katane (modern Catania) and Naxos (early 5th century BC). Next, Hippocrates subdued most of the native Sikels of the mainland and the Sikel township of Kale Akte (northeastern Sicilian coast) as well as the Chalkidean city of Zangle/Zankle (later Messina/Messana). Thereby Gela secured a territorial outlet to the north Sicilian coast. Finally, the Geloans managed to subjugate the powerful city of Leontini.
But the ambitious Hippocrates coveted the rich city-state of Syracuse (Syracusae). In 492/1 BC, he defeated the Syracusan army in the battle of the River Elorus, but he was forced to retreat because of threats on him received from Corinth and Corcyra (modern Corfu). The latter two city-states of mainland Greece were associated with blood ties to Syracuse. Corinth was the mother-city of Syracuse, while Corcyra was also a Corinthian colony, a kind of “sister-city” to Syracuse. Hippocrates feared the formidable navies of the two city-states, being two of the strongest in the Mediterranean Sea of this era. The Corinthian or the Corcyraean navy could unleash amphibious raids (landings of marines) on any location of the long coastline of the Geloan territory. So Hippocrates decided to retreat without trying to besiege Syracuse. He only seized Camarina, Syracuse’s largest colony. Soon Hippocrates captured also the last two independent Sikel cities, Hybla Geleatis and Ergetion, in the region of Mount Etna (Aitna), but soon after he died (490 BC). Gelon, the Commander of the cavalry (hipparchos), became the new tyrant of Gela.
The Acragantine kinsmen of the Geloans, antagonized the latter in conquests. Under the tyrant Theron, they seized Heraclea Minoa (a colony of Selinous) and subdued additional Sican and Elymian townships. In 484 BC they managed to gain an outlet on the north coasts, capturing the Greek city-state Himera. Gelon and Theron took wives from each other’s family, ensuring the close alliance of Gela and Acragas. Although the states of Gelon and Theron were not joined officially, they formed a common state-unit against other forces. They were joined in a confederation.
In 485 BC, Gelon exploited a revolt in Syracuse against the aristocratic rulers of the city, and managed to conquer it. He was now strong enough to ignore the warnings of Corinth and Corcyra, six years earlier. But almost simultaneously Zangle has shaken off his control. Gelon settled permanently in Syracuse, leaving Gela to his brother, Hieron. Gelon now ruled over the entire eastern Sicily except Zangle. Theron ruled over the western Sicily except Selinus and the Phoenician and some Elymian city-states which were protected by Carthage. The River South Himeras formed the boundary between the states of the two close allies and associates.
Attack of an Archaic hoplite phalanx, identical to the one of Gela. A great variety of shield emblems can be seen (reenactment by the Australian Historical Association Ancienthoplitikon)
Original and restored part of Gela’s fortification wall (4th cent. BC).
Gela and Acragas formed extensive and solid states, such as those of the Thessalian Tetrarchy (Thessaly) and Sparta in Greece. The territory of Gelon comprised an area around 11,500 sq. Km (around 45% of Sicily’s area). The State of Theron of Acragas comprised an area of 6,500 sq. Km (around 25% of the island). In comparison, in the early 5th century BC the Thessalian Tetrarchy comprised an area around 16,000 sq. km with approximately 600,000 inhabitants, while the Lacedaemonian State of Sparta comprised an area of 8,400 sq. Km with approximately 330,000 inhabitants. The states of Gela and Acragas comprised a total area of approximately 18,000 sq. km. Km (70% of Sicily) with 700-800,000 inhabitants, while their troops were around 100,000 including the mercenaries, the guards of the conquered cities and the reserves, judging by the Greek forces pitched in the great battle of Himera (480 BC) and other data. In Himera, the united Geloan-Acragantine forces crushed the Carthaginian army and its allies (Sicelo-Phoenicians, Elymi and Selinuntians).
Within two centuries (688-484 BC), the warlike spirit of the original Doric colonists of Gela (just a few hundred people as estimated) achieved control of most of Sicily.
In 480 BC, the metropolitan Greeks faced the lethal Persian invasion. Before the conflict with the Persians, the Greek allies asked Gelon for military aid. Gelon agreed to help the motherland only under the condition that he would be the commander-in-chief of the allied forces. He knew that the Spartans and the Athenians would never accept this term. It was an oblique way to deny the appeal of his mainland kinsmen, because the Sicilian Greeks were also expecting at any moment the Punic/Carthaginian invasion (that actually occurred in just a few months). At the same time, the northern Italiotes (the Greeks of mainland Italy) were threatened by the Etruscan expansion.
CONTINUE READING IN PART II