Ancient History & Civilisation


The Land War

THE OPERATIONS OF armies and fleets were intimately related in the ancient world, especially in a conflict like the First Punic War when much of the righting occurred on or around islands or near coastlines. However, it is easier to understand the events of the war if we deal separately with the actions of the navies and armies involved, and concentrate in turn on the activity in each theatre of operations. This chapter will describe the campaigns fought on land.

Sicily, 262-258 BC

Syracuse provided the Roman armies with a secure base for their operations, where grain, fodder and other supplies could be massed. Messana was now secure and the ostensible objectives for Rome's going to war had been achieved, but our sources do not suggest that either side attempted to begin peace negotiations. The Carthaginians saw no reason why their initial reverses should force them to accept a permanent Roman presence in Sicily and began to build up a powerful army for use there. Large numbers of mercenaries were enlisted in Spain, whilst other contingents were provided by the Gauls and Ligurians. For the Romans, hostilities could not end until the Carthaginians admitted defeat and were willing to come to terms favourable to Rome, as Hiero had done. The prospects of glory and plunder from the rich Sicilian cities which had first attracted the Romans to the area provided a further incentive for continuing the struggle. Polybius claims that after the capitulation of Hiero the Romans had reduced their forces from four to two legions, trusting to the king's aid to ease their supply problems. Subsequently, in reaction to the Carthaginians' preparations, both consuls and four legions were dispatched to Sicily in 262.1

The Carthaginians intended to use Agrigentum (also known by the Greek name Acragas), roughly midway along the coast of Sicily nearest to Africa, as their main base. However, by the summer of 262 when the Romans moved against the city few, if any, of the newly raised troops had arrived. The consuls, Lucius Postumius Megellus and Quintus Mamilius Vitulus, marched together, their combined armies theoretically giving them around 40,000 men, and arrived outside the city at harvest time (probably in about June). Hannibal, son of Gisgo, the commander at Agrigentum, had gathered many people from the surrounding area within the city walls, so that Polybius tells us that its population had swollen to 50,000, but his garrison appears to have been relatively small. His refusal to contest the area outside the city walls may well have been interpreted by the Roman consuls as weakness, for, at least in the western Mediterranean, it was normal for a confident defender to fight for some time outside his fortifications even against a numerically superior attacking force. Once the Romans had built their camp about a mile from the city, a large proportion of the army dispersed to harvest the ripened crops in the surrounding fields. For an army recruited mainly from small farmers and agricultural labourers, the task must have been a familiar one. Nevertheless it is striking that once again the logistical arrangements of a Roman army seem to have been inadequate. Roth, in his excellent study of the army's logistics, argues that the army at this time was simply unprepared to feed large forces campaigning so far afield for long periods of time.2 It had been very rare for four legions to take the field together in the past. Only the small picket placed outside the camp, following a practice which was to remain standard in the Roman army for several centuries to come, was composed of formed and equipped troops. These men were oath-bound not to leave their position and the Roman army's harsh discipline punished with death any man who did so.3

Hannibal seized the opportunity and launched a vigorous sally. The foragers, scattered and probably largely unarmed, could offer no effective resistance and fled. A major Roman disaster appeared likely as Carthaginian troops advanced on the Roman camp. The only resistance came from the picket guarding the Roman camp and these men, despite being heavily outnumbered, put up a fierce fight. The Roman losses were heavy, but in the end they routed the attacking troops, defeated another group which had begun to penetrate the camp and pursued them all back to the city. Both sides were chastened by this experience, and their behaviour was subsequently more circumspect. Hannibal could not risk further losses to his garrison and became reluctant to risk further attacks, whilst the Romans ceased to underestimate their enemy and in future took care to forage in a more organized way, posting larger numbers to troops as a covering force.

The easiest way to take a city in this period was by surprise or stealth, attacking at night or from an unexpected direction. Such sudden attacks were most likely to succeed if aided by treachery amongst the defenders. The frequently bitter internal politics of the city state often provided disaffected elements willing to open a gate and admit an enemy force, which could then seize key points before the defenders were aware of their presence. Almost as many cities fell to treachery as to conventional means during the Punic Wars, but it was difficult for an attacker to plan for this, and he could merely act on the opportunity if it was offered. Treachery was even harder for the defender to guard against, although considerable efforts were made to do so and this was the main theme of the fourth century BC Manual on Siegecraft written by Aeneas Tacticus. No opportunity occurred at Agrigentum for the Romans to take the city through treachery or surprise, which left them with a choice between the other two options for a besieging force, assault or blockade.

Assault was the one aspect of ancient warfare most affected by technological advances. It involved the attacker finding a way over, through or under the defender's fortifications. The simplest method was escalade, when the attacking infantry carried ladders up to the walls and attempted to scale them, but this invariably involved heavy casualties and was rarely successful unless the walls were denuded of defenders. Mobile siege towers which dropped a drawbridge onto a rampart and allowed men to cross, whilst providing covering fire from archers or artillery on top, were essentially an extension of this same basic idea. The main alternative was to create a breach in the walls by battering ram or tunnelling underneath to undermine them. This required extensive preparation, scientific knowledge and labour to create siegeworks allowing engines such as a battering ram to pass over any defensive ditches and reach the wall. All the time the defender would be employing artillery to hinder this activity, countermining to thwart the attacker's tunnelling, and launching sallies to burn his engines. The ingenuity of both sides was severely tested as they struggled to find measures to counter the moves of the enemy. Once the defences had been breached then ingenuity and technical skill counted for little as the assaulting infantry had to storm their way inside. Casualties might still be heavy, and failure was a real possibility. Such was the massive effort and the uncertainty of the outcome that assaults on major cities were not contemplated lightly. Convention decreed that a defender would normally only be permitted to surrender on terms if he did so before the first battering ram touched the wall, otherwise the city would be subject to a sack. At this period the Roman army lacked the technical skill to undertake such a project on a city as large as Agrigentum with any real prospect of success.4

This meant that the only viable option available to the consuls in 262 was blockade, cutting off the city from the outside world until its food supplies ran out and starvation forced a surrender. If the enemy had had time to prepare for the siege by massing stocks of essentials, then this might well take a very long time. However, the Romans had a large enough army to blockade Agrigentum effectively, and began by throwing up a system of ditches and small forts which completely surrounded the city. Each of the consular armies constructed its own camp to support this line of circumvallation and a second line facing outwards, or line of contravallation, was built to prevent supply columns from trying to break in. Unlike many Carthaginian strongholds, Agrigentum did not have its own port and was situated on a plateau several miles inland. The Romans would have found it virtually impossible to seal off a harbour without ships of their own. The long duration of a blockade imposed severe burdens on the logistic arrangements of the besiegers, since a large army which remained stationary swiftly consumed all the food available locally. Rome's allies provided grain and cattle, which were massed at the supply dump created at an unidentified place called Herbesus a short distance away.5

After five months of siege, Hannibal began to become concerned about the city's resources of food and began to make urgent appeals for aid. The Carthaginians shipped the bulk of their recently raised forces over to Sicily, concentrating them at Heraclea Minoa, about 20 miles up the coast from Agrigentum, where they were placed under the command of Hanno. Polybius does not give a figure for the strength of this force, although he subsequently mentions that it included around fifty elephants. Diodorus, explicitly citing Philinus, gives their total as sixty elephants, 6,000 cavalry and 50,000 infantry. This gave Hanno at least parity, and possibly a slight advantage, in numbers over the two consular armies and any allies besieging Agrigentum. His first move was to mount a surprise attack on Herbesus, capturing the Roman supply dump and severing their lines of communication. The legions outside Agrigentum soon began to suffer from food shortages. In their weakened state the men became prone to disease which spread rapidly through the crowded camps. Confidently the Carthaginian advanced his main force from Heraclea Minoa, sending his Numidian light horsemen on ahead, with orders to engage the Roman cavalry and then feign retreat. The Roman cavalry took the bait and too rashly pursued the Numidians when they turned to flee. Reaching the main Carthaginian column, they rallied and turned on the blown and disorganized Roman horse, routing them and chasing them back to the Roman lines with heavy loss. It was with similar tactics that these superb light cavalry would play such a prominent role in the Second War with Rome.6 After this success, Hanno moved his army to within a mile and a quarter (10 stades) of the Romans and built a fortified camp on a hill known as Torus. Zonaras says that Hanno deployed his army and challenged the Romans to battle, but that they declined, chastened by the defeat of their cavalry. As time passed and their food shortage became more severe, the Roman consuls decided to march out and offer to fight, but their sudden apparent rise in confidence deterred Hanno from a direct encounter. The tentative nature of this manoeuvring and the reluctance of generals to risk a battle unless convinced that they held every possible advantage, as well as the difficulty of forcing an enemy to fight even when he was camped only a mile or so away, are typical of the warfare of this period. Polybius does not discuss this period in detail, merely saying that for two months the armies were camped close together without any direct conflict apart from periodic exchanges of missiles. Ultimately, it was only because of a constant flow of messages and fire-signals from Hannibal, stressing the desperate food shortages in the town and the growing rate of desertion to the enemy, that Hanno was forced to fight. The Romans, themselves close to starvation, readily accepted and deployed in the plain between the camps.7

Polybius gives few details of this battle, but it seems that the Carthaginian army was deployed in more than one line, with a front line of infantry supported by a second containing more infantry and the elephants. It is possible that the intention was to tire out the Roman infantry, weakening their formation and destroying the impetus of their advance, but this is no more than conjecture. Presumably the cavalry formed the wings and the Romans were in their usual triplex acies. After a long struggle it was the Romans who drove back and routed the Carthaginian first line. As these mercenaries retreated, the panic spread to the reserve formations and these fled. The Romans captured the Punic camp and most of the elephants. Diodorus claims that Hanno lost 3,000 infantry and 200 cavalry killed, and 4,000 men captured, whilst eight elephants were killed outright and thirty-three disabled, but includes in this total the losses of the earlier cavalry victory. However, he also says that Roman losses in the siege and battle amounted to 30,000 foot and 540 horse, but this is from the total of 100,000 which he claims the besiegers mustered. Both the size of the army and the casualties seem too high, although the latter may well have been substantial.8

Zonaras provides a different version of the battle in which Hanno hoped to co-ordinate his attack with a sally by Hannibal's garrison, but was thwarted when the Romans learned of the plan and ambushed the main force, whilst easily defeating the garrison's raid with the outposts guarding the camp and siege lines. Zonaras implies that the battle began late in the day, and the same thing is claimed by Frontinus who attributes to the consul Postumius the strategem of refusing battle and remaining close to the camp as he had done for several days. When the Carthaginians decided that the Romans were unwilling to fight and began to withdraw, satisfied that they had demonstrated their greater fighting spirit, the Romans suddenly attacked and defeated them. It is impossible to know how accurate these traditions are, but all our sources at least agree that the battle ended in a clear Roman victory. Hanno's use of his elephants has often been criticized, given their failure to support the first line. It has been suggested that the Carthaginians were still unused to employing elephants and unaware of correct tactics, this being the first recorded instance of their use by a Punic army.9 However, lacking a more detailed narrative we cannot be certain what Hanno's battle plan was, or precisely what went wrong. The failure of the different elements in his army to support each other effectively may be a reflection of its composition. Most of the troops were recently raised and had not had much time to learn to manoeuvre as an army or become familiar with their commanders.10

Aware that relief was no longer possible, Hannibal led the garrison in a daring breakout during the night, filling the Romans' ditch with baskets of earth and evading the vigilance of an army which was resting or celebrating after its victory. A pursuit the next morning failed to catch many of his men, but the Romans were able to enter Agrigentum unopposed after a siege lasting about seven months. The city was plundered and its inhabitants sold into slavery. It was a significant Roman victory, but the campaign had come close to disaster on several occasions, especially once the besieger's supply lines were cut, when the army had only survived because Hiero with great resourcefulness had been able to ensure that the barest minimum of supplies got through to them. The escape of the garrison also detracted from the success and it is notable that neither of the Roman consuls received a triumph. However, according to Polybius the fall of Agrigentum did encourage the Senate to extend their war aims to include the total expulsion of the Carthaginians from Sicily. As a result they made the critical decision to construct a fleet. Walbank criticizes Polybius' portrayal of events as being too schematic, but it is at the very least highly likely that the capture of the main Punic stronghold greatly encouraged the Romans.11

The defeat of Hanno outside Agrigentum was one of only four massed battles fought on land throughout the twenty-three years of war, a marked contrast with the Second Punic War where pitched battles were far more common. Two of these battles occurred in the relatively brief African campaign of Regulus, and only two in Sicily, despite the deployment of large numbers of soldiers there by both sides for much of the war. Part of the reason is topographic, for the rugged terrain of most of central Sicily does not favour the movements of large armies. With so many good defensive positions, it was difficult for a commander to force a battle on an unwilling adversary. More importantly, the bulk of the island's population lived in the numerous walled cities or their dependent villages. These were the key to Sicily and only through controlling these communities could the island be secured. The territories controlled by Syracuse and Carthage had little unity, being composed of a patchwork of these small city states, most of whom still enjoyed local autonomy. From the earliest actions to break the blockade around Messana, the operations of the armies were dominated by the need to secure each individual town and city. The outcome of a pitched battle was always uncertain and a defeat might well involve very high casualties and the demoralization of the rest of the army. Even a victory merely left the successful army to pursue its main task of subduing cities more freely. Under normal circumstances the potential gains were insufficient for both sides to be willing to risk joining battle. It is significant that both the major battles to occur in Sicily were fought outside, and for the control of, cities. A high proportion of the troops deployed in Sicily were probably dispersed in small garrisons to hold the various cities.

As we have seen, the advantage in siege warfare lay with the defender. The Romans began the war lacking the technical experience required to take a strong city by direct assault. The Carthaginians lacked the manpower both to provide the labour force such operations required and to risk the heavy losses that were likely to be entailed. Sometimes a city might be forced to surrender by repeated raiding of its territory, and it was common for other cities in the locality to defect after a major success by one side. Diodorus claims that sixty-seven cities went over to the Romans after their successes in 263, a factor which contributed to Hiero's willingness to seek peace. Blockade was the most common and successful means of taking a city employed by both sides, but it was still a difficult task, requiring a sizeable force to remain in one area for a long period of time. Nor was success guaranteed. In 263 Appius Claudius failed to take Echeda and, following the peace with Syracuse, the Romans failed to achieve anything after long sieges of Macella and Hadranon, the latter described as only a village by Diodorus. In 261 a seven-month siege of Mytistratus also ended in the Romans being forced to abandon the enterprise. More spectacular successes could be achieved by treachery and, according again to Diodorus, it was by this means that Hanno had so easily taken Herbesus. His successor Hamilcar recaptured Camarina and Enna, which had probably defected to Rome in 263, when they were betrayed to him by a faction in the population in 259. The Romans were readmitted to Enna in the next year by rival groups within the city, although some of the garrison escaped. Camarina also fell to the Romans in 258 after a full-scale siege aided by siege engines - and perhaps experts - provided by Hiero. As the war progressed, the Roman armies steadily began to show more proficiency at siegecraft, but neither side ever rivalled the professional Hellenistic armies in these skills.12

Reliance on traitors within a community produced some startling successes, but was inevitably dangerous. The first commander of Rome's newly constructed fleet, the consul Cnaeus Cornelius Scipio, was captured in 260 when he recklessly led an expedition to Lipara, acting on the promise of the city's betrayal. Our sources conflict as to whether or not this was a deliberate Carthaginian trap. The planning and implementation of attacks to exploit offers of betrayal were also fraught with difficulties. Diodorus claims that in 253 a Roman column was secretly admitted to Thermae by a traitor, but that the small assault party closed the gate behind them, eager to keep the booty for themselves. They were massacred when the defenders realized how small their attackers' numbers were. Either Hanno or his successor Hamilcar is supposed to have disposed of a group of mutinous Gallic mercenaries by sending them to take possession of a Roman-held city under promise that it was to be betrayed to them. The Gauls, given permission to plunder freely once they were inside the place, departed enthusiastically. However, the Punic general sent men pretending to desert to reveal the plan to the Romans. The latter prepared an ambush and the Gauls were massacred. Plunder figures very heavily in the accounts of the First Punic War.13

It is both very difficult and unprofitable to attempt to provide a detailed, chronological narrative of the campaigns in Sicily, given the poor quality of our sources. Polybius concentrates more on the naval operations after 261 and other sources are fragmentary, consisting of anecdotes, many of which seem implausible. The very nature of the war made it difficult for them to provide a coherent account. Sieges, surprise attacks and acts of treachery were interspersed with frequent raiding, much of it probably very small-scale. Our sources tend only to mention the spectacular successes, such as Hamilcar's surprise attack on Rome's Syracusan allies when they were camped alone at Thermae in 260, in which 4,000 were killed. The Carthaginians enjoyed several advantages from the relative permanence of their commanders and armies. Once the mercenary forces were recruited and shipped to Sicily they served for long periods under the same officers and acquired considerable experience of the type of fighting there. It is exceptionally difficult to trace the deployment of Roman legions during the war. It is uncertain whether every new consul brought newly raised troops with him and what proportion of the army returned to Italy when each magistrate left. Yet overall the Romans deployed far more troops in the area and continually replaced their losses, whereas Carthaginian commanders received few reinforcements. However, the annual replacement of commanders may well have made Roman operations less concerted and led to minor setbacks as Zonaras claimed.14

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