Ancient History & Civilisation

THE WAR ON SICILY

It was in part this tremendous inequality between respective naval strengths that lay behind Carthage’s bullish attitude, despite recent reverses. If a land war on Sicily went the way of all the other Sicilian campaigns, then it would prove bloodily inconclusive, but Carthage would continue with its control of the seas. Carthage could survive, indeed prosper, indefinitely while its merchant ships had the free run of the Mediterranean. As long as there was gold and silver to pay them, there would never be a shortage of military adventurers willing to enter service in the Carthaginian army. Hence Carthage’s confidence as a new army was hired and transported to Sicily after the defection of Syracuse in 263 BC.

Acragas was chosen as the new Carthaginian headquarters, owing to its strategic location as a transport hub, and the easy access that it offered to enemy-held eastern Sicily. Alert to the danger that a Carthaginian-held Acragas posed, the Roman commanders on the island quickly besieged the city. After five months, and with the defenders growing increasingly desperate, a substantial Carthaginian relief force, reported to have consisted of 50,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry and 60 elephants, landed in Sicily. Its commander, Hanno, son of Hannibal, swiftly marched the army to Acragas.

However, any hope that the defenders of Acragas may have had of decisive action was quickly dashed. After a skirmish against the Roman forces, Hanno–who appears to have had little confidence in his as yet untried troops–simply camped on high ground nearby and waited. The ensuing stand-off dragged on for two months, until eventually even Hanno could procrastinate no longer, and prepared for open battle. In another clear sign of his lack of faith in his soldiers, he placed his elephants behind his infantry in the battle line. This meant that, when the Roman forces managed to drive the Carthaginians back, the elephants panicked and stampeded on to their own men. In the resulting rout, the Carthaginians lost not only a considerable number of men and elephants, but also the whole of their baggage train.

The commander of the Carthaginian garrison in Acragas was now left with little option but to attempt a breakout. The night after the battle, he and his mercenaries crept out of the city and escaped, according to Polybius and Diodorus, by coming up with the ingenious ruse of filling up the Roman trenches with either straw or earth so that they could safely cross. Most of the Carthaginians got away; however, the hapless citizens of Acragas were left to their collective fate. The Romans quickly took the undefended city and promptly sacked it, before selling its 25,000 citizens into slavery.8 Diodorus would report that Hanno was eventually recalled to Carthage in disgrace for failing to relieve the city. In addition to losing his command, he was punished with the loss of his civil rights and a fine of 6,000 gold pieces.9

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