The Carthaginians nonetheless failed to capitalize on these Roman setbacks. Although in North Africa the Numidians had been brought back into line, the situation in Sicily had begun to unravel.30 The key port of Panormus had fallen to the Romans in 254, followed by both Thermae Himerae and Lipara in 252. Compounding this growing crisis was the decision by a number of other small cities, calculating that the tide was turning against the Carthaginians, to defect to the Romans. Although Acragas had been retaken, the Carthaginian commander recognized that he did not have the forces to hold it, and simply burnt it to the ground, razing its walls and scorching its hinterland, while its citizens cowered in the temple of Zeus. A large force was sent to try to retake Panormus, but the attempt ended in debacle when Caecilius Metellus, the Roman commander, cleverly enticed the Carthaginian attackers to venture too close to the city walls.31
Once the Carthaginians had got their elephants and other forces across [the river], he kept sending out skirmishers to molest them, until he had forced them to deploy their whole force. When he saw that what he had planned was taking place, he stationed some of his light troops before the wall and the trench, ordering them, if the elephants approached, not to spare their missiles, and when driven from their position they were to take refuge in the trench and, sallying from it again, shoot at those elephants which charged at them. Ordering the lower classes of the populace to bring the missiles and arrange them outside at the foot of the wall, he himself with his maniples [divisions of legions made up of about 120 men] took up his position at the gate which faced the enemy’s left wing and kept sending constant reinforcements to those engaged in shooting. When this latter force engaged with the enemy, the drivers of the elephants, anxious to exhibit their prowess to Hasdrubal and wishing the victory to be due to themselves, charged those of the enemy who were in the vanguard and, putting them easily to flight, pursued them to the trench. When the elephants charged the trench and began to be wounded by those who were shooting from the wall, while at the same time a rapid shower of javelins and spears fell on them from the fresh troops drawn up before the trench, they very soon, finding themselves hit and hurt in many places, were thrown into confusion and turned on their own troops, trampling down and killing the men and disturbing and breaking the ranks. Caecilius, on seeing this, made a vigorous sally and falling on the flank of the enemy, who were now in disorder, with his own fresh and well-ordered troops he caused a severe rout among them, killing many and forcing the remainder to quit the field in headlong flight. He took ten elephants with their mahouts, and after the battle, having penned up the others who had thrown their mahouts, he captured them all. By this exploit he was acknowledged by all to have caused the Roman army to take courage again and gain control of the open country.32
Twenty to thirty thousand Carthaginian troops were lost, and Metelus made sure that the elephants, which were captured alive, were the centrepiece of his triumphal parade in Rome.33
While the defeated Carthaginians offered up various excuses for the disaster–including the accusation that the army’s Celtic mercenaries were drunk–it had nevertheless been a terrible mistake to engage the Romans in open warfare when the latter were so clearly superior. The Carthaginian authorities agreed–Hasdrubal, the commander of the army, was put to death.34
Since the capture of Panormus, Lilybaeum had become the chief Roman target, and in 250 a combined consular army with a fleet of 200 ships laid siege to the city. The ships were to blockade the harbour so that no reinforcements or supplies could be sent in, but in a series of daring Carthaginian missions the blockade was breached. On the first occasion 50 Carthaginian warships, loaded with supplies and 10,000 fresh mercenaries, raced into the harbour to replenish and reinforce the city. Contact with the Carthaginian commander in Lilybaeum, Himilco, was maintained through a series of smaller scale operations. Not only did these help to bring supplies into Lilybaeum, they also served as a morale-booster for its besieged population.
The star performer was a ship’s captain, Hannibal ‘the Rhodian’, who ran the Roman gauntlet on two occasions by using the element of surprise to speed into the harbour on a strong favourable wind before rowing out under the cover of nightfall. Hannibal further bolstered his heroic reputation by stopping and challenging the pursuing Roman ships to combat, an offer which they declined. Encouraged by this bravado, other sea captains also launched similar missions, meaning that Lilybaeum received sufficient supplies and remained in contact with Carthage. Eventually, however, the Carthaginians’ luck would run out, as one of their quadriremes ran aground at night on obstacles which had been laid for exactly that purpose by the Romans. Recognizing the superior speed and agility of this ship, the Romans remanned it, and used to it to hunt down other Carthaginian vessels attempting to break the blockade. The captured quadrireme would eventually snare the ultimate prize when it out-ran and captured Hannibal the Rhodian as he issued another of his proud challenges. His ship was recrewed and commissioned by the Romans to patrol the harbour. Lilybaeum was now effectively sealed off.35
While Roman naval power was thus in the ascendancy once more, the Carthaginian fleet enjoyed at least one success against its counterpart. In 249 BC the Roman consul Publius Claudius Pulcher–a man variously described as being mentally unstable, an arrogant snob and a drunk–decided to launch an attack on the Carthaginian-held port of Drepana. The mission got off to a rocky start when the sacred chickens used to gauge divine favour went off their feed, prompting the impetuous Claudius to throw them overboard with the pithy remark that perhaps they were thirsty. Setting out at night, the Roman fleet hugged the coast. Adherbal, the Carthaginian admiral in charge of the defence of Drepana, made the bold decision to confront the enemy in open combat, rather than endure a blockade. Claudius was apparently a poor commander, and the Roman ships do not appear to have been equipped with the corvus, allowing the Carthaginians to use their superior maritime skill to ram the Roman fleet. Only thirty Roman ships (including the flagship with Claudius on board) managed to escape. Claudius was later prosecuted for his part in this disaster, and heavily fined. His negligence indeed became proverbial–so much so that, according to several later writers, his sister was later punished for expressing the wish, when hemmed in by the populace on her way through Rome, that her brother would lose another battle (and thus clear the streets of Roman citizen soldiers).36
A further disaster quickly followed for the Romans when a fleet of 120 ships escorting 800 transport craft, bringing supplies to the Roman troops at Lilybaeum, was almost completely lost in a ferocious storm. The respective responses of the two powers were markedly different. On the model of previous wars between Carthage and Sicily, these mutual disasters would have provided a juncture at which to make peace and consolidate, but the Romans did not adhere to such diplomatic norms. While the Carthaginians did little to capitalize on Roman maritime disasters, the loss of almost their entire fleet prompted the Romans not to retreat but to redouble their efforts on land, and they soon captured the famous Carthaginian fortress at Eryx. The Roman troops at Lilybaeum continued to be supplied by overland routes, and pressure was thus relentlessly applied to a Carthage unused to such trial by endurance.
This unprecedented warfare without respite economically exhausted Carthage. The fighting in western Sicily, the capture of Panormus and, most importantly of all, Roman naval dominance must have severely disrupted its economy. Taxation from the hard-pressed cities of Punic Sicily would have been hard to collect, and the important centres of Drepana and Lilybaeum remained effectively blockaded despite desperate Carthaginian efforts to divert Roman forces by attacking Italy. In contrast, most of the Roman war effort had been paid for by Syracuse, where Hiero had been minting huge quantities of silver and bronze coinage.37 Much of the war had been fought in western Sicily, meaning that the Syracusan economic base had remained relatively undamaged.
Most of the Carthaginian coinage during the war was minted in either North Africa or Sardinia, probably because their security could be better guaranteed.38 The Sicilian mints produced only two series of heavy gold coins, in addition to high-value electrum and silver money, which were shipped over to Carthage during the Roman invasion of 256–255.39 The Punic superscription on the coins, b’rst (‘in the territory’), is probably a confirmation that the coins could be used throughout all Carthaginian territory in North Africa and overseas.40 After this huge effort to produce the money to pay for the war effort in North Africa, Carthage appears to have succumbed to economic exhaustion. The electrum coinage that was produced thereafter contained silver of very poor quality and was often underweight. 41 Indeed, Carthaginian mercenaries in Sicily would eventually mutiny because they had not been paid. In 247 Carthage would be reduced to asking for a loan of 2,000 talents from Ptolemy of Egypt –a request that was quickly rejected.42