Ancient History & Civilisation

Sicily 215-210 BC

Sicily was divided into two, the west and north being governed directly by Rome and the remainder under the control of Hiero's Syracuse. In 218 Sempronius Longus had been sent there to prepare the planned invasion of North Africa and had been involved in some naval fighting as the Carthaginian fleet began to raid the island, before he was recalled to face Hannibal in Cisalpine Gaul. In subsequent years the Senate maintained a garrison, usually of at least two legions, and strong naval forces in Sicily. In late 216 the two legions formed from the survivors of Cannae replaced the existing garrison of the island, their ranks later replenished by the troops defeated in the two battles at Herdonea. In 215 a Carthaginian attempt to reclaim Sardinia failed due to a mixture of bad luck, when storms delayed the fleet, and the rapid response of the Roman Senate, who sent an army to the island under the command of one of its original conquerors, Titus Manlius Torquatus. Manlius had first been consul in 235 and was another of the experienced men, like Marcellus and Fabius Maximus, who were given commands despite their advanced years during the crisis of the Hannibalic War. The Punic fleet returning from Sardinia was harried by Roman squadrons operating from Sicily.19

Another reminder of the past was Rome's old ally, Hiero, who was in his seventies at the beginning of the Second Punic War, but proved just as loyal as he had in the First War, sending a strong force of mercenary light infantry, including Cretan archers, and supplies of grain to support the

Roman war effort in 217 or 216. Either in late 216 or early 215, the old man died and with him perished the political stability which had endured for over fifty years during his tyranny. His son having died some years before, Hiero was succeeded by his 15-year-old grandson, Hieronymus, guided by a council of advisers. Almost immediately the fierce factionalism which so often bedevilled the internal politics of Greek cities gripped Syracuse. Hieronymus was young, lacked the experience, achievements and ability of his grandfather and failed to control events. His advisers competed to control the youth, whilst other groups plotted to end the monarchy and restore some sort of Republic. It is tempting but mistaken to characterize these groups primarily on the basis of their attitude towards Rome and Carthage, since it is unlikely that this was the dominant factor in these disputes. More often a group simply sided with the opposing group to rival factions. In 215 Hieronymus began negotiating first with Hannibal and then with the authorities in Carthage itself, his demands increasing so that eventually he demanded the rule of all Sicily once the combined might of Syracuse and Carthage had driven the Romans from the island. However, no formal break with Rome actually occurred and, after a thirteen-month reign, Hieronymus was murdered by a faction at Leontini, one of the cities controlled by Syracuse. His uncle Adranodoros became one of the elected magistrates which replaced the monarchy, but he too, along with most of the rest of Hiero's descendants, was murdered by another group bidding for power.20

Active at the time were two brothers, Hippocrates and Epicydes, descended from a Syracusan exile who had settled in Carthage. They had been sent as part of Hannibal's delegation to Hieronymus, having served with his army in Spain and Italy. In 214 the brothers were elected to two of the senior magistracies left vacant by the massacre of the royal family, but their power was challenged by other leaders more disposed to maintain the treaty with Rome. Hippocrates was sent to garrison Leontini with 4,000 troops, a mixture of mercenaries and deserters from the Roman army in the west of Sicily who were fiercely opposed to Rome and threatened the stability of the state. Later joined by his brother, Hippocrates declared the city independent and began raiding the Roman province. The recently arrived Roman commander, Marcellus, currently holding his second consulship, was informed by Syracuse that they no longer controlled Leontini, so advanced and stormed the city in his first assault. Most of the garrison was captured. The Roman deserters suffered the traditional punishment of citizens who had turned against the State, being first flogged and then beheaded. Hippocrates and Epicydes escaped from the disaster and met up with a body of 8,000 Syracusan soldiers, who had been sent to support the Roman attack on Leontini on the condition that the rebellious city should be returned to their rule. Aided by rumours of widespread massacre of Leontini's entire population, the brothers were able to win over these troops and led them back to Syracuse where, after a brief fight, they killed their rivals and gained unchallenged control of the city. War with Rome was now inevitable.21

Probably in early spring 213 the Romans launched a full-scale assault on Syracuse. Marcellus as proconsul was in overall charge, supported by the propraetor Appius Claudius Pulcher. Marcellus had four pairs of galleys specially prepared, removing the starboard oars from one and the port from the other, before lashing the two together. On their bows were mounted solid scaling ladders which could be lowered against a wall by pulleys attached to the mast, earning the devices the nickname sambuca after their similarity to the musical instrument. With these the Romans were able to attack the city walls from the sea, whilst another assault was mounted from the landward side. This was to be one of the very few attempts to take a well-fortified major city by direct attack during the course of the three wars. The result was an utter failure. The walls of Syracuse had been strengthened over the years by various tyrants, and the city had a tradition of producing some of the most advanced siege engines in the world. Many of those used to repulse the Romans had been designed by Archimedes, the renowned geometrician. A relative of Hiero, the ageing philosopher played a major role in organizing the deployment of his artillery and other machines. As the Romans approached the city walls they were bombarded with missiles fired with great power, catapults of different sizes firing at each range. Archimedes had also designed other machines, which lowered hooks to lift the Roman ships out of the water and then drop them, shaking the crewmen out and dashing the ship to pieces. Much later sources even claimed that he invented some sort of mirror device to concentrate the rays of the sun and direct them onto an enemy ship, setting it on fire. However, Plutarch tells us that Archimedes did not bother to write down the details of his designs, considering the practical uses of his studies far less important than theory itself, so it is hard to know how accurate the descriptions of his engines are, but Polybius writing less than a century later certainly believed in the devices called 'claws' which smashed the sambucae and others which lifted ships out of the water. Plutarch tells the highly plausible story that the Roman besiegers became so nervous of Archimedes' contraptions that the sudden appearance of any beam or pole on the city walls was liable to cause a panic. Eventually, after suffering heavy casualties, Marcellus abandoned any hope of direct assault and resolved to blockade the city into submission. There is no doubt that the genius of Archimedes had contributed significantly to the successful defence of Syracuse, but it is worth remembering that direct assaults on strong fortifications were so rare precisely because they seldom succeeded and risked heavy casualties.22

Appius Claudius kept two thirds of the Roman army to invest the city, whilst Marcellus led the remainder to attack the other communities which had followed Syracuse into rebellion. The situation changed dramatically when a strong Carthaginian army of 25,000 foot, 3,000 horse and twelve elephants under the command of Himilco landed at Heraclea Minoa on the south coast. He soon moved east to occupy Agrigentum, which may well have welcomed the invader. Other cities followed its example and declared for the invader. Marcellus failed to reach Agrigentum in time to prevent its loss, but chanced upon a Syracusan army led by Hippocrates which was moving to join their new allies. In a surprise attack on the enemy camp, Marcellus killed or captured the bulk of the enemy's 8,000-10,000 foot, so that only Hippocrates and his 500 cavalry escaped to join Himilco. The Roman column then returned to Syracuse, followed soon afterwards by the Carthaginian army.

The ability of Hippocrates to break out from the Roman blockade of Syracuse emphasizes just how insecure the blockade was at this stage. This was confirmed soon afterwards when a Punic fleet of fifty-five galleys led by Bomilcar was able to sail into Syracuse's harbour. However, around this time Marcellus was reinforced by another legion, giving the Romans a total of three or four legions as well as allied contingents. Himilco did not stay long outside Syracuse. He may now have been outnumbered, but there is no record of either side challenging the other to battle. The Carthaginian army moved off in an attempt to persuade more of Rome's Sicilian allies to rebel and so draw their forces away from Syracuse. Several communities responded, especially after the Roman garrison commander at Enna massacred a population he suspected of disloyalty. The Romans had a pragmatic attitude to such atrocities, believing them acceptable if likely to be effective, but in this case it turned other communities against them. Despite this, and the loss of a major supply depot at Murgantia, the Romans continued their blockade up to and throughout the winter, whilst Himilco withdrew to winter quarters at Agrigentum.23

Syracuse was a large city by ancient standards, divided into several sections each protected by its own line of defences. Direct assault had failed to make any impression on the defences and a faction within the city plotting to betray it to the Romans was discovered and suppressed. However, early in 212 Marcellus resolved upon attempting a surprise attack. A series of negotiations concerning the ransom of prisoners had taken place outside the city wall near a tower called Galeagra. One of the Roman negotiators calculated the height of the fortifications by counting the number of courses of stone, which in this area happened to be of even size. With this information the Romans were able to work out the height needed for ladders to scale the wall. The opportunity came when it was reported that the Syracusans were celebrating a festival dedicated to the goddess Artemis, for which Epicydes had distributed large amounts of wine, in part to compensate the citizens for the scarcity of bread. On the third night of the feast a Roman storming party crept up to the wall near the Galeagra tower. Their information proved correct and the ladders were high enough. The sentries were keeping a poor watch and most had gathered in the towers, where they were surprised and quickly overpowered. The storming party then made their way to the Hexapylon Gate and seized it, admitting the bulk of Marcellus' force at dawn. Epicydes made some attempt to repel the incursion, but did not realize the scale of the Roman attack until too late. Within hours, the Romans controlled the entire area of the city on the high ground known as the Epipolai. Shortly afterwards another stronghold of the defences, the fort of Euralus, was surrendered by its commander. In spite of these successes, the area known as Achradina, the harbours and the peninsula citadel of Ortygia remained firmly in Syracusan hands, so Marcellus settled down to continue the blockade.24

Too late to prevent these Roman successes Himilco and Hippocrates arrived to threaten the besieging army. After some ineffectual skirmishing, disaster struck the Punic army when virulent disease broke out in their camp. It was early autumn and the Carthaginians were camped in low-lying marshy ground, and according to Livy the soldiers were unused to the climate. The tighter organization of the Roman camps may have provided at least a basic level of sanitation and was perhaps another reason why the Roman army suffered less than their opponents. Both Hippocrates and Himilco died along with the bulk of the Carthaginian soldiers and the remainder were left in no state to fight. The Punic fleet had continued to run past the Roman blockade and take some supplies of food into the city. Late in 212 Bomilcar returned with a massive convoy of700 merchantmen protected by 150 warships. It is unlikely that the Roman fleet gathered by Marcellus to intercept the convoy was as large as this, although we cannot be certain of its numbers. It is possible that the Roman ships were more heavily provided with marines drawn from the besieging army than their Punic counterparts. The rival fleets waited on either side of Cape Pachynus down the coast on the southernmost tip of Sicily, whilst a storm which would have made fighting difficult blew itself out. Then, when the weather changed and Marcellus led his fleet towards the enemy, Bomilcar decided to avoid battle and, after sending the transports back to Africa, sailed instead to Tarentum, captured earlier in the year by Hannibal. The reason for Bomilcar's action will never be known, but he has often been accused of losing his nerve.25

The last hope of relief for Syracuse had gone. Epicydes escaped from the city and fled to Agrigentum. The Sicilian troops and the Syracusan population both favoured surrender to Rome, but they were opposed by the mercenaries and in particular the Roman deserters who feared the brutal punishment they would receive on capture. Ortygia was betrayed to the Romans by a Spanish officer called Moericus, who opened a gate to admit a party of Roman soldiers carried across the harbour in a merchant ship towed by a quadrireme. Soon afterwards Achradina surrendered and the Romans plundered the city. Marcellus had given orders for his men to take Archimedes alive, but the old man was killed by a legionary, according to the commonest tradition when he refused to be interrupted until he had solved the mathematical problem he had been sketching in the dust.26

Some cities had returned to Rome after the fall of Syracuse had demonstrated the difficulty of resistance. Resistance to Rome now centred around Agrigentum where Himilco's successor, Hanno, was supported by Epicydes. Still presumably weak in numbers the Carthaginians concentrated on raiding the territory of Rome's allies. Some reinforcement had come from Hannibal's army in Italy, including an officer called Muttines, a Liby-Phoenician rather than a pure-blooded Carthaginian. Put in charge of a force of Numidians he displayed great skill in ravaging the territory of states loyal to Rome, whilst protecting the lands of the cities which had joined Carthage. His successes encouraged the Carthaginians to advance from Agrigentum as far as the River Himera, where Muttines won several skirmishes with the outposts of Marcellus' army. He was then recalled to deal with the mutiny of 300 Numidians at Heraclea Minoa, and in his absence Hanno and Epicydes gave battle only to be utterly defeated. Livy claims that the Numidians still with the army had agreed with Marcellus not to take part in the fighting. Punic casualties in killed and captured numbered in thousands, and eight elephants were taken to be displayed in Rome. Late in 211 Marcellus returned to Rome to win the consulship for the next year. As the war in Sicily was still unfinished, he was not allowed to celebrate a full triumph and had to make do with an ovation. The booty from Sicily, including artworks stripped from temples and monuments, was more lavish than that ever displayed before by a Roman commander, and some later moralistic writers condemned Marcellus for encouraging a love of luxury in the hitherto austere Romans.27

The war was not quite over. More Punic reinforcements arrived from Africa, totalling 8,000 infantry and 3,000 Numidian light cavalry. Muttines continued to lead these light horsemen with great skill, moving rapidly, burning crops and farms. With Rome unable to defend them, more cities defected to the enemy. The Roman troops on the island felt neglected and ignored by their government, especially the Cannae legions, topped up with survivors of Herdonea, who were still barred from returning home in spite of their successes. In 210 Marcellus' consular colleague and the man who had directed the early years of the war with Macedonia, Marcus Valerius Laevinus, arrived to take command in Sicily. The province had originally been allocated to Marcellus, but this was changed after complaints against him from Rome's allies on the island. Mustering a strong army Laevinus mounted an offensive directly against the main Punic stronghold at Agrigentum. Rivalry amongst the Carthaginian commanders played into the Romans' hands and gave them a rapid and spectacular victory. Hanno had become jealous of Muttines' success and growing reputation, despising him for his origins, and had finally dismissed him and given the command of the Numidians to his own son. Muttines, whose men remained loyal to him, was outraged at Hanno's slight and began negotiations with Laevinus. When the Roman army arrived outside Agrigentum, Muttines' men seized one of the gateways and opened it to admit the enemy. Hanno and Epicydes escaped by sea, but the bulk of the garrison were captured by the Romans. Once again a major city had fallen to treachery. Livy mentions that in the aftermath of this success, forty towns and cities voluntarily surrendered, twenty were betrayed to the Romans and only six taken by direct assault. This illustrates not only the extent of the rebellion against Rome even at this late stage, but also the difficulty of storming well-fortified cities. Laevinus punished the leaders of defeated states and rewarded those who had returned to alliance with Rome before being compelled to do so. Muttines was rewarded with Roman citizenship and continued to serve as a commander of Roman auxiliary troops. The Iberian Moericus and his men who had betrayed Syracuse's citadel to Marcellus were likewise rewarded with citizenship and land taken from defeated rebels.28

The war in Sicily had ended in an outright Roman victory, the first achieved in the Second Punic War, encouraging the Romans after the major setbacks in Spain and the continued presence of Hannibal in Italy. A Carthaginian victory in Sicily might well have altered the course of the entire conflict. Since the conquest of the island its fertile lands had become an increasingly important source of grain for the growing population of Rome. Sicilian grain had played a major role in allowing the Romans to field so many legions during the war with Hannibal. Laevinus took great care to encourage the revival of agriculture before he left Sicily at the end of 210. The importance of Sicily as a naval base was noted in the discussion of the First War. One of the reasons for the unimpressive performance of the Punic navy in the Second Punic War was its lack of bases on the

Mediterranean islands. If the Carthaginians had managed to establish themselves firmly in at least part of Sicily then they might have been able to supply Hannibal with enough men and supplies to make a difference in Italy, assuming that there was the political will in Carthage to do this.29

Considerable resources were committed to the war effort in Sicily, with the dispatch of Himilco's army and its significant reinforcement in spite of the loss of Syracuse, whilst the Punic fleet operated in considerable strength around the island and did much to prolong the resistance of that beleaguered city. In spite of this they failed to inflict a major defeat on the Romans either on land or sea. The Romans seem never to have maintained more than four legions in Sicily, which may have given them a numerical advantage, although by no means an overwhelming one. The need to garrison allied and captured cities reduced the number of troops which both sides, and particularly the Romans who controlled most of the island, could concentrate in one place. The Carthaginian command lacked aggression in comparison to Marcellus, Laevinus and the other Roman generals in Sicily, who consistently and in classically Roman fashion adopted the offensive. Their behaviour was often lethargic, with the exception of Muttines, whose successes made him unpopular. It is by no means clear whether Himilco was capable of breaking the blockade of Carthage, even before his army was devastated by plague, whilst Bomilcar's refusal to risk battle was timid in the extreme. The desertion of such a senior officer as Muttines was unimaginable in the Roman high command.

Ultimately much depended on the choice of the communities in Sicily and, whilst many did rebel against Rome and join Carthage, the majority did not. Whether through fear of reprisals or loyalty to their ally, most communities did not risk rebellion and the Carthaginians never won enough local victories to persuade most states that it was in their interest to abandon Rome. Syracuse took over a year to break with Rome, allowing the Romans some time to recover from their losses in 216 and ensuring that there were legions available to go to the island. There, as in most other cities, the aristocracy were fiercely divided in their attitudes towards the rival powers. Throughout the war it was the Romans who benefited most from the willingness of elements within the rebellious cities to betray the defenders.

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