Hamilcar's mountain

“What was the name of the mountain on Sicily held against the Romans for several years by Hamilcar Barca?” A straightforward question, one might think, and those with an interest in the Punic Wars might even recall the answer as “Mt. Eryx” (now known as Monte San Guiliano) – but matters of ancient history are seldom that simple or straightforward! Those who gave such an answer might well be deemed wrong.

The thing to do, as all serious students know, is to go back to the primary sources, In this case Polybius at I.56 where we find the following (translation courtesy of Lacus Curtius):

“(Hamilcar Barca) […] descended with his whole fleet on the territory of Panormus. Here he seized on a place called Herikte lying near the sea between Eryx and Panormus (Palermo), and thought to possess peculiar advantages for the safe and prolonged stay of an army. It is an abrupt hill rising to a considerable height from the surrounding flat country. The circumference of its brow is not less than a hundred stades (20,000 yards) and the plateau within affords good pasturage and is suitable for cultivation, being also favourably exposed to the sea-breeze and quite free of animals dangerous to life. On the side looking to the sea and on that which faces the interior of the island, this plateau is surrounded by inaccessible cliffs, while the parts between require only a little slight strengthening. There is also a knoll on it which serves for an acropolis as well as for an excellent post of observation over the country at the foot of the hill. Besides this Herikte commands a harbour very well situated for ships making the voyage from Drepana and Lilybaeum to Italy to put in at, and with an abundant supply of water. The hill has only three approaches, all difficult, two on the land side and one from the sea. Here Hamilcar established his quarters, at great risk indeed […] and harassed them by delivering during almost three years constant and variously contrived attacks by land”.

So not Mt. Eryx then, but somewhere between there and Roman occupied Panormus, close to the coast. This place used to be thought by scholars to be Monte Pellegrino, a plateau a couple of miles north of Palermo/Panormus. This is readily visible on Google Earth as an ‘open’ area, with the sea to the east. Unfortunately, it does not match Polybius’ description, being rather smaller than 11 miles/18 km in circumference, being too close to Panormus, and critically no harbour (just open sea to the east).

Six or so miles north-west of Palermo can be seen a larger open area or plateau, Monte Castellachio, which is the right size, with the sea to the north, and a good harbour near Isola delle Femmine (island of women). To the north and south are the steep cliffs Polybius describes, and in fact from Google Earth and its accompanying photographs it is apparent just how rugged this thousand foot (300 metre) plateau is. That this is correct has been all but confirmed by archaeology, for the remains of a camp, with the correct 3rd century BC pottery have been found there and Herikte will have been the fort guarding the pass between Monte Castellachio itself and Monte Gallo, above and to the south of the present village of Sferracavallo.

So “Monte Castellachio” is the correct answer, then? Yes, but with a caveat! The reader who carries on will discover this at Polybius I.58 (translation courtesy of Lacus Curtius):

[After 3 years on Mt Castellachio] “The Romans, as I said, had garrisons at Eryx on the summit of the mountain and at the foot. Hamilcar now seized the town which lies between the summit and the spot at the foot where the garrison was. The consequence of this was that the Romans on the summit — a thing they had never expected — remained besieged and in considerable peril, and that the Carthaginians, though it is scarcely credible, maintained their position though the enemy were pressing on them from all sides and the conveyance of supplies was not easy, as they only held one place on the sea and one single road connecting with it.”

So, although he did not wrest the peak of Mt. Eryx from the Romans, where there was a large and very rich temple complex to Venus, and did not ‘hold’ the mountain as per the question, Hamilcar did manage to maintain himself on the slopes, sandwiched between the Romans, until the end of the war.

Mt. Eryx is now Monte San Guiliano, so named by the Normans, much further west along the coast from Palermo, at the modern Erice/Trapani.

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