Ancient History & Civilisation

Sicily 258-241 BC

The Carthaginian cause was resurgent in the late 250s, but the territory they controlled in Sicily had been steadily reduced to little more than an enclave in the north-western corner of the island. In 254 the combined Roman army and fleet took Panormus, one of the largest of the cities still loyal to Carthage. Polybius tells us that, whilst the two sides were frequently camped less than a mile apart for months on end, the Romans refused to risk battle or leave the high ground, such was their terror of the elephants. However, the Carthaginians made no attempt to copy Regulus' daring assault on the enemy army in its camp. The Romans took a few more cities, notably Lipara and Thermae, the latter having been lost when Hamilcar surprised their Sicilian allies, but this was a fairly poor return for the efforts of the two consular armies which were sent to Sicily most years.

The pace of their conquest of Sicily had certainly slowed. When one of the consular armies withdrew late in 250, the current Carthaginian commander, Hasdrubal, advanced from Lilybaeum against the other which was occupying the city of Panormus. The Romans were there to protect the local population against raids whilst they harvested their crops, since an inability to defend allies would swiftly lead to defections to the enemy. This was especially true given the fairly recent capture of the city. Yet the Roman commander, Lucius Caecilius Metellus, deliberately kept his troops within the fortifications, feigning a reluctance to fight in an attempt to lure the Carthaginians into an unfavourable position. Hasdrubal readily took the bait, since the recent campaigns in Sicily can only have led him to despise the Romans' lack of spirit, and in an effort to demonstrate to Rome's allies the impotence of her soldiers, advanced right up to the city walls.28

It was a bad position, for Hasdrubal had to cross a river to approach the city and this severely restricted his ability to manoeuvre and would make it difficult to retreat. Metellus had made careful preparations. The inhabitants of the city had been tasked with stockpiling missiles by the city walls, and part of the Roman light infantry were stationed on the walls ready to employ this ammunition. The main body of velites were sent out to harass the advance elements of the Punic army as they crossed the river, forcing them to deploy into battle formation. A ditch had been dug close to the walls, and the velites were ordered to withdraw and shelter in this if hard pressed. They were given specific orders to concentrate their missiles on the elephants if the opportunity arose. Metellus kept his maniples of heavy infantry waiting inside a gate facing the left of the Punic army, ready to sally out. The Roman commander was also careful to provide a steady stream of reinforcements to the skirmishers fighting outside, and it is probable that some maniples were used in this way to provide a semblance of a fighting line outside the city. The Carthaginians were still not faced with serious opposition to their entire army and Hasdrubal let himself be drawn further into an escalating action, which he was not controlling, as his main line advanced against the thin Roman one. The elephant crews, eager to live up to their high reputation, charged and easily punched through the weak Roman forces, pursuing them back towards the city. The velites followed their orders and withdrew to the trench, still bombarding with missiles the elephants, who also came under a barrage from the walls. Wounded elephants panicked and began a stampede back towards their own army, creating widespread disorder. Metellus saw the opportunity and gave the order for the waiting column to charge out of the gate. Struck unexpectedly by a flank attack, the Carthaginian disorder turned into a rout. Heavy casualties were inflicted, although no reliable figures have been preserved and the claims of 20,000 or 30,000 dead in later sources do not seem plausible. The elephants suffered especially badly, ten being captured immediately and the rest subsequently, but it is unclear whether all 140 which he tells us were landed in Sicily after the defeat of Regulus were present. Diodorus claimed that a total of sixty were killed or taken, but Zonaras says 120 were taken and Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, gives the far larger figures of 140-142. One story claims that Metellus offered the captured drivers their freedom if they would control the beasts, which were later shipped to Rome to be killed in celebratory games. Diodorus tells us that drunkenness amongst the Carthaginians' Gallic mercenaries was a major factor in the rout, but this is probably no more than a stereotypical tale of barbarian intemperance.29

This was the last massed land action of the war, although it scarcely warrants being classed as a pitched battle and it may be that our accounts exaggerate its scale. Its importance was undoubted, for the victory restored confidence to the Roman armies in Sicily and to the Senate. A major effort was planned for the next campaigning season in 250. Cities remained the key to Sicily, and the war continued to be dominated by sieges. Two strong cities with good port facilities remained in Carthaginian hands, Lilybaeum and Drepana which lay about 15 miles apart (120 stades). The Romans decided to attack Lilybaeum with both consular armies supported by a large fleet, a total of around 110,000 men according to Diodorus. The technical skills of the Roman forces had gready improved since Agrigentum, for from the beginning they planned the construction of siegeworks to carry battering rams up against the walls of Lilybaeum and open breaches through which the assaulting infantry could charge. Again one suspects that much of this knowledge may have been provided and learned from experts provided by Hiero. This was the first siege to rival the complex affairs of the wars of the Hellenistic world, with attacker and defender each thinking up counter-measures, responding in turn to the other's initiative. The garrison commander, Himilco, mounted a very active defence, his 10,000 mercenaries tunnelling under the attacker's works to undermine them, and launching vigorous sallies in an effort to put them to the torch. Roman casualties were heavy both from enemy action and privation. Carthaginian forces, including the cavalry from Lilybaeum which had been evacuated by sea early in the siege as unnecessary mouths to feed, raided the Roman lines of communication. The Roman fleet experienced great difficulty in maintaining a blockade around the harbour as we shall see in the next chapter. Finally, the labour of many weeks was destroyed by fire when a strong wind aided the incendiary efforts of a group of Greek mercenaries in the garrison. An earlier attempt by some mercenary officers to betray the city had been thwarted by another officer, the Greek Alexon, leaving the Romans no other option but to starve the defenders into submission. Despite staggering naval disasters in 249 and the small chance of success when they lacked control of the sea, the Romans persevered with the blockade throughout the remainder of the war. The Carthaginians lacked sufficient land forces to break the siege.30

It is in the last years of the war in Sicily that the most famous of all the Carthaginian generals of this conflict appeared on the scene, Hamilcar Barca. His name was a suitably dramatic one, probably derived from the Semitic word for lightning-, or perhaps sword-, flash, but his greatest achievements were to come after the war with Rome and it is doubtful whether he would have received so much attention had he not been the father of Hannibal. Nevertheless, Polybius considered him the ablest commander on either side throughout the first conflict. By the time that he landed in Sicily in 247 the Carthaginians had been hemmed into a small enclave. He established himself on a hill called Hercte not far from Panormus, a secure base with command of a good anchorage. For three years he skirmished with the Roman forces near the city, winning minor victories, but not achieving anything in the longer term. Then in 244 he withdrew at night and sailed to Eryx near Drepana. The Romans had captured the abandoned town in 248, installing a garrison there and on the mountain's summit. Hamilcar captured the town in a surprise attack, cutting off the force on the summit, which was occupying the Temple of Venus, from the main Roman forces at the foot of the mountain. He managed to maintain this position and besiege this force for the remaining years of the war, again winning minor successes in the frequent raiding and skirmishing pursued by both sides.31

Hamilcar achieved little during his operations in Sicily, but it is probable that he lacked the resources to do much more and certainly did not have enough troops to defeat the Romans in open battle. It is distinctly possible that by this time the Carthaginians were directing more resources to their campaigns against the indigenous peoples of North Africa. With a power other than Rome, the prolongation of the struggle in Sicily and the avoidance of defeat may eventually have persuaded them to negotiate a peace acceptable to Carthage. In the end the land operations in Sicily became almost an irrelevance and the war was decided at sea. It is to the naval side of the First Punic War that we must now turn.

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