Ancient History & Civilisation

CARTHAGINIAN ‘HIT-AND-RUN’ IN SICILY

Although the sea war had been a disaster for the Carthaginians, their land forces on Sicily were doing surprisingly well. The defeat at Acragas had convinced the Carthaginian high command that they should stick to the strategy of attrition that had been such a feature of their wars against the Syracusans. Sicily’s hilly terrain favoured such tactics, and the endemic violence and instability on the island meant that most of its population lived in heavily fortified towns. Indeed, the Sicilian wars between Carthage and Syracuse had mainly consisted of sieges interspersed by lightning raids.

This type of warfare did not suit the Romans. Their political system meant that their consuls/generals held their commands for only one year, so that there was considerable reason to force the pace of conflicts by decisive action. The Carthaginian generals, who were often kept in post for years, could afford to play a waiting game. Thus, in the land war at least, Carthage was able to dictate the pace and style of the conflict, and the Romans could do little about it.

A protracted campaign of attrition began with the Romans having to fight for each fortified town, sustaining heavy losses along the way. Indeed, a number of long sieges ended in defeat–that of Mytistraton, for example, which had to be abandoned after seven months. As had always been the case in Sicily, both sides found themselves favoured by different political factions within each city, which led to frequent changes of allegiance (the town of Enna, for example, changed hands three times in five years). Furthermore, frustration led to the harsh treatment of captured populations, which no doubt helped the Carthaginian cause. Although smaller towns such as Camarina and Enna did fall, the larger and more strategically important urban centres, such as Panormus and Lilybaeum, stayed in Carthaginian hands. The Carthaginian forces were also able to conduct a number of hit-and-run raids. The most successful of these, at Thermae Himerae in 260, led to the slaughter of 4,000 unsuspecting Syracusan troops, who were caught completely by surprise.20

In the war at sea, however, the much-vaunted Carthaginian navy chronically underachieved. After its unexpected victory at Mylae, the Roman fleet continued to perform well. Successful raids were launched against targets on Malta and the Aeolian Islands, and it scored another notable victory over the Carthaginians off Cape Tyndaris, on the northern coast of Sicily. Once more a Carthaginian admiral was at fault, underestimating the number of ships that the Romans had in reserve.21

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!