Ancient History & Civilisation


The Camp Comes to Carthage: The Mercenaries’ Revolt


Despite having been charged with negotiating Carthage’s surrender, Hamilcar Barca emerged from the end of the disastrous conflict with his reputation not merely intact but enhanced.1 In an early sign of his political astuteness, he had sent the governor of Lilybaeum, Gisco, to discuss terms with the Roman consul Lutatius, thereby distancing himself from Carthage’s capitulation.2 Hamilcar was reportedly furious that the Carthaginian Council had surrendered in such meek fashion.3

In fact the Council had, by its actions, probably saved him from further defeat and the steady diminution of his already overblown reputation as a military commander. Hamilcar’s own actions, although undoubtedly publicly impressive, had done little to help the Carthaginian war effort, and there is little indication that he would have been a saviour if he had been given more time. But, while he skilfully avoided association with a surrender which seemed to many Carthaginians overly swift, he would not be able so adeptly to avoid the chaos that followed in its wake.

The greatest problem facing the Carthaginian government at this time was what to do with its army in Sicily. A catastrophic defeat in Sicily might have excused Carthage of its financial obligations to these men, but the fairly orderly end to the First Punic War had paradoxically put Carthage in a very dangerous situation. Its Sicilian army was more or less intact, and one of the terms of the peace was that Carthage should evacuate all its forces from Sicily. Carthage was faced with the threat of a large mercenary army returning to North Africa, and demanding to be paid.

The economic situation could not have been bleaker. At a time when revenues had been cut by the loss of Sicily and disruption in Sardinia, Carthage was expected not only to pay off the mercenaries, but also to meet the huge war reparations owed to Rome. The amount owed to the mercenaries has been the subject of much scholarly speculation, but the ancient sources are clear that the arrears were substantial, and may have amounted to as much as 4,368 talents or 26 million drachmas –an astronomical sum, which the Carthaginians could not pay easily.4

The best option open to the Carthaginians was to evacuate the mercenaries in a piecemeal fashion and thereby perhaps avoid negotiating a collective pay deal. Their erstwhile commander, Hamilcar Barca, washed his hands of the problem by resigning his command and quickly leaving the island. In fact the policy of shipping the mercenaries in smaller groups seemed at first to be successful. It was nevertheless soon undone by allowing the troops then to recongregate in Carthage, where they quickly began to misbehave.

Unwilling to pay the whole sum owed, the Carthaginian authorities stalled for time by paying a small proportion of what was due in order to persuade the mercenary captains to take their troops, camp followers and baggage train to the town of Sicca, a good distance from Carthage, where they should wait to receive the balance. This was a disastrous mistake. At Sicca, the troops, with time on their hands, calculated the exorbitant sums that they thought were owed them.

In Sicily, their generals, in order to maintain morale, had promised rewards that now, in defeat, could simply not be delivered. The Carthaginian envoys who arrived to negotiate the necessary pay cut, led by Hanno, were understandably given a very hostile reception when their intentions became clear, and the argument that the Carthaginians themselves were suffering under the heavy financial exactions placed on them by Rome was not received with much sympathy.5 Furthermore, the folly of not sticking to the original plan of dealing with the mercenaries in smaller groups soon became apparent when negotiations were hampered by serious communication problems.

Polybius, who is the main source for this conflict, explains that the Carthaginian practice of hiring troops of many different nationalities was ‘well calculated to prevent them from combining rapidly in acts of insubordination or disrespect to their [Carthaginian] officers’.6 However, this inability to communicate with one another was a serious setback in this situation. As Polybius recounts:

It was therefore impossible to assemble them and address them as a body or to do so by any other means; for how could any general be expected to know all their languages? And again to address them through several interpreters, repeating the same thing four or five times, was, if anything, more impracticable. The only means was to make demands or entreaties through their officers, as Hanno continued to attempt on the present occasion, and even these did not understand all that was told them, or at times, after seeming to agree with the general, addressed their troops in just the opposite sense either from ignorance or from malice. The consequence was that everything was in a state of uncertainty, mistrust and confusion.7

It was at this juncture that the rebels, sensing the weakness of their employer’s position, marched en masse to the town of Tunes near Carthage itself, and there tried to increase the back pay that they were owed by adding on the cost of their equipment, horses and backdated corn rations, as well as recompense for those of their number who had been killed in service.

Now that 20,000 disgruntled mercenaries were camped just a few kilometres away from their capital city, the Carthaginians understood that they had made two major blunders. First, they should never have mustered such a large group of mercenaries in one place, when they had no citizen force to oppose them. Second, they should have held on to the wives and children of the mercenaries, to serve as hostages for their menfolk’s good behaviour and as potential bargaining chips in the pay negotiations. Despite the growing mistrust between the mercenaries and the Carthaginians, both sides now sought some kind of compromise solution, and indeed the former’s exaggerated claims may have been an opening ploy to obtain the best deal possible.8

In an attempt to retrieve the situation, the Carthaginian authorities sent food and other supplies to the mercenary camp, and envoys from the Council of Elders promised to meet all the mercenaries’ demands if it was in their power to do so. It was agreed between the parties that Gisco, late of Lilybaeum, the Carthaginian commander who had successfully evacuated the mercenaries to North Africa, should negotiate with them, on the grounds that they had some trust in him.

Gisco brought money with him, and started to pay the mercenaries off. Perhaps in an effort to create divisions within the ranks of the rebels, he paid off each ethnic group separately.9 Among the mercenaries, however, there were runaway slaves and army deserters who proved to be very difficult to deal with, because they feared retribution from the Romans. The punishment for runaway slaves under Roman law was harsh in the extreme: torture and then usually crucifixion. Many may have hoped to start a new life in Punic Sicily as soldier settlers, but the Carthaginian ejection from the island had put an end to such aspirations.10

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