cavalryThe hoplite phalanx (vase-painting above) and the cavalry of the Archaic type (artwork below, by Giussepe Rava) were the two main army formations of the Siciliot and Italiot Greeks including the Geloans.
By Periklis Deligiannis
Gela completed her hegemonic march when eventually Gelon, her greatest son, made Syracuse his capital. Henceforth, Acragas substituted Gela as the second most powerful city-state of Sicily, a great rival for Syracuse.
Many readers accustomed to the History of World War II, must have known Gela, because her site was one of the main landing areas of the Allied assault on Sicily on the 10th of July 1943.
After this historical introduction, I am going to deal in greater detail with ancient Gela’s armed forces.
The main military disadvantage of Gela was the lack of natural harbours in her core territory. Because of this geophysical situation, the Geloans never had a navy of some account. When the Geloan tyrants formed the ‘Geloan Empire’, they exploited the ports and the warships of the subject naval city-states to establish a navy.
The limited occupation of the Geloans with shipping and the fertile plain around their city turned them into an agricultural and ranching life. Moreover the ancestors of most settlers, although all of them islanders, were more attached to the land occupations than to sea life: these were the Cretans, the Coans and the colonists from the city-states Hialysos and Kamiros of Rhodes; the Lindians were actually the exception to this ‘general rule’.

The small navy of Gela made the fighting men available for service in the land army. Other parameters that led to the formation of the powerful Geloan and Acragantine armies were the Doric origins of the colonists and the fertility of the plains of Gela and Acragas. The Dorians had a long military tradition, which remained undiminished when they settled in the Dodecanese and Crete (coming from mainland Greece, originally from the Pindus Ridge).
The fertility of the soil impacted in two ways, on the genesis of a powerful army. The fertile Geloan and Acragantine land could sustain a significant population. It was densely populated before the arrival of the Greeks. The formation of extensive and fertile allotments, cultivated by a lot of Sican serfs, and the income earned from them, led to the formation of a belligerent aristocracy which consisted of the descendants of the colonists and was kept constantly embattled for guarding the subjugated natives, as was the case for example in Argos and especially in Sparta. Thus was created a military force comparable to the Argive and Lacedaemonian armies of the archaic period. But the Geloans did not follow the path of Sparta (which retained its helot serfs and ‘perioikoi’ vassals down to the Hellenistic period) preferring the way of Argos. The Sican serfs, due to the decline of the aristocratic regime in favor of tyranny (which was favored by the common people) and their gradual Hellenization, were gradually emancipated and finally absorbed by the Greek colonists. Thereby the army of Gela was reinforced significantly with the Hellenized natives, and generally due to the large population who lived in the fertile flat country around the city.
When Gela was founded, the hoplite way of war had begun to prevail in mainland Greece. It is certain that it was adopted by the Geloans shortly after the foundation of their city or probably from the beginning. The phalanx formation was protected in the flanks by the ‘psiloi’ (light infantry) and other lightly armed troops (javeliners, slingers, archers, mace-bearers, stone-throwers and others), which in the case of Gela and Acragas probably originated mainly from the local Sican people. The cavalry and the hoplite phalanxes of the two city-states seemed to be staffed mostly by descendants of the original colonists. Furthermore, they were the only who could afford the acquisition and maintenance of the expensive hoplite and cavalry weaponry (which at that period did not differ significantly from each other with the exception of the shield), horse and harness.
Besides the typical archaic Greek hoplite arms and armour of the Geloans, the pottery depictions also denote their preference to the Corinthian-type helmet, as in mainland Greece. The anthropomorphic bull which represents a deity of the indigenous Ausones of Italy and of the Siculi/Sikels and the Sicani, appears often on the coins of Archaic Gela, as well as in the coins of other Sikeliot and Italiot cities. It was apparently a common emblem on the surfaces of the Geloan hoplites’ shields. The anthropomorphic bull generally was a popular symbol for the Italiotes, Sikeliotes, Etruscans and the native Italians and Sicilians.

2Typical archaic protective faceplates of horses, from Magna Grecia.


Theron’s Tomb in Acragas. Theron though a tyrant, turned Acragas into a formidable military power.
The armed forces of the Sikeliotes and the Italiotes had a significant difference from those of the metropolitan Greeks: they had a real cavalry. The lack of extensive flat areas in southern Greece and Epirus, and their native breed of small-sized horses (actually ponies) prevented the development of an effective cavalry. On the other hand, the northern Greek states of Macedonia and Thessaly and also Boeotia in the Central mainland had extensive plains for the breeding of many vigorous horses, and therefore they maintained a formidable cavalry (consisted of cavalrymen and horsemen). Similarly, the extensive and fertile plains of Sicily (the plains of Leontini, Syracuse, Gela, Acragas and others) and Magna Graecia/South Italy (the plains of Sybaris, Tarentum, Croton and others) enabled the establishment of an adequate aristocratic cavalry. The formidable Geloan cavalry under the commander (hipparchos) Gelon was possibly the decisive military factor for Hippocrates’ victories.
Soon the Geloan cavalry became the strongest among the cavalry forces of the Western Greeks. Acragas similarly had a dreadful cavalry. Some researchers studying the ancient references and the depictions in the archaeological finds, had estimated that in the case of Gela and other Sikeliot and Italiot cities (Sybaris and others), the cavalry enjoyed antecedence over the hoplite phalanx: I do not agree with this theory. In my point of view, the much more frequent attendance of the cavalry in the literary sources and the findings comparing to the phalanx, does not denote any actual advantage of the cavalrymen against the hoplites. This attendance is due to the lasting oligarchic-aristocratic regimes of those cities, which finally fell because of the tyrannies and later the establishment of democracy in many of those city-states. The aristocrats staffed the cavalry, thereby this traditional Weapon would appear more frequently in the literary sources and the archaeological finds, even for some time after the loss of power by the nobles (in 505 BC in Gela’s case). The view that the hoplite phalanx was greatly reduced in the archaic Sikeliot and Italiot cities is clearly excessive. This theory is refuted by the fact that at the same time, the Etruscan cities of Italy were ruled by aristocrats and warlords (‘lukumonae’ and military ‘makstarnae’: Latin magisters) but the hoplites appear frequently on Etruscan art depictions, despite the existence of strong aristocratic cavalries.
In 480 BC, Gelon and Theron had at their disposal a war fleet of 200 vessels (triremes, biremes and penteconteres), mostly from Syracuse, Acragas and the Chalkidean city-states. Their fleet was one of the most powerful in the Mediterranean, equal in size and efficiency to the fleet of neighbouring Carthage and her West Phoenician allies. Sometimes it is considered that the 200 vessels of the Geloan-Acragantine navy were almost all of them triremes but in my point of view this is wrong: the biremes and penteconteres were still active enough in the navies of the Western Mediterranean including the Punic and the Etruscan ones. The Etruscans specifically went on using the bireme as their main warship, adopting the trireme in its place only after their sounding defeat by the Syracusan fleet in the sea battle of Cumae (474 BC)
Acragas’ army went through the same evolution and had almost the same composition as the Geloan army. The country of Acragas was very much alike the one of Gela. It was an extensive and fertile coastal plain which could feed a large population, but had no harbour suitable for the development of a strong navy. Although the Acragantine fleet was much stronger than the Geloan one, it was always small compared to the Syracusan one. That was the main reason because of which Syracuse was usually more powerful than Acragas. The Corinthian origins of the Syracusans were definitely a decisive factor for their skilfulness on naval warfare.
The tyrants Hippocrates and Theron added a number of mercenaries to the armies of Gela and Acragas. These mercenaries consisted of Greek hoplites and light infantry, and some lightly armed Sicans, Sikels and Italics (Italians from the mainland). Maybe the mercenary hoplites had overtaken the phalanxes of the citizen-soldiers (whom the tyrants did not trust) but they had not overtaken the aristocratic cavalry.

Periklis Deligiannis



(1)               Diodorus  of  Sicily,  Historical  Library.

(2)               Herodotus,  Histories.

(3)               Griffo  P.  and  Von  Matt  L.:  Gela:  The  ancient  Greeks  in  Sicily,  Genova:  Stringa,  1963  (Πρώτη  έκδοση)

(4)               Cambridge  ancient  History,  Cambridge  University  Press.