Ancient History & Civilisation


Rome did not despair or slacken her efforts. In the winter of 255–254 taxes were raised to build a new fleet. By the spring she had at least 220 ships and could be confident that Carthage was not in a position to challenge her at sea. As further activity in Africa was impracticable, four legions were sent to storm western Sicily. Cn. Cornelius Scipio, who had regained his freedom and reputation, led an attack by land and sea on the Punic base at Panormus (Palermo), which was divided into two settlements. The Old City lay between two streams which ran into the harbour (the modern Cala) and was thus strongly protected. The Romans first stormed and captured the New City with the help of Greek engineers and then turned to the Old City, which capitulated. Thirteen thousand citizens who could not raise the requisite ransom were sold into slavery. Other towns, such as Tyndaris and Solus, were soon captured. Little resistance had been offered by the Carthaginians because they were busy suppressing a rising of Numidians in Africa, and because since the recall of Hamilcar they had not enough forces in Sicily to offer battle. Their general, Carthalo, made one counter-attack by storming Agrigentum; but fearing that he was not strong enough to hold it, he burnt the city to the ground. The Carthaginians now only held a few towns in Sicily: Drepana, Lilybaeum, Selinus, Heraclea Minoa, and the isolated Thermae, together with the Lipari and Aegates Islands.

After a vain attempt upon Lilybaeum the consuls of 253 raided Tripolis, an unwise dispersal of effort; they got into difficulties on the shallows of the Syrtes. In returning to Italy the fleet encountered a storm off Cape Palinurus and suffered considerable damage (150 ships lost, according to Polybius). This fresh disaster caused some discouragement at Rome: clearly the fleet, which had achieved such unexpected success in war, could not face the elements. The Carthaginians too were tired; they had to deal with the Numidians, and though their communications with Sicily were now safer and they sent over an army and many elephants under Hasdrubal (probably in 253 or even 251 rather than 255–254), they made no attempt to regain their lost ground. The next two years passed uneventfully, except that in 252 the Romans captured Thermae and the Lipari Islands.

This lull in hostilities was followed by a period of renewed effort lasting for two years (250–249). The Romans built 50 new ships which they intended to send under the two consuls of 250 BC against Lilybaeum, while Caecilius Metellus advanced against the town by land from Panormus. But before they moved Hasdrubal took the offensive by marching against Panormus and ravaging the surrounding plain, the Conca d’Oro. Metellus lay low and thus enticed the enemy over the Oreto up to the trenches which he had dug near the city wall. Here the Punic elephants were met with a shower of weapons and stampeded back on their own lines. A sally on Hasdrubal’s flank completed the confusion, and his army was nearly destroyed. His dreaded elephants were all captured, while he himself fled to Lilybaeum, whence he was recalled to face death at Carthage.17

After this victory the Romans could blockade Lilybaeum by land and sea. The city, which was strongly fortified, lay on a promontory; its harbour, facing northwards, was small but difficult of access. Within the city were the expatriated inhabitants of Selinus, and a garrison of 10,000 mercenaries. The consuls of 250 BC advanced with (probably) 120 ships and four legions and laid siege to the town, cutting it off from the mainland by a wall and trench which connected their two camps. By sea Hannibal ran the blockade and landed reinforcements; he then sailed out again in safety to join the main Punic fleet under Adherbal at Drepana. Thanks to the occasional success of another blockade-runner, Hannibal the Rhodian, to the loyalty of the garrison, and to a successful attempt to burn the Roman siege works, Lilybaeum withstood the blockade; the Roman supplies were threatened by Punic cavalry from Drepana and only Rome’s determination and the loyal help of Hiero secured the continuance of the siege. Lilybaeum did not fall till eight years later.

P. Claudius Pulcher, consul of 249, realizing the inefficiency of the naval blockade at Lilybaeum, resolved to attack the Punic fleet which was stationed at Drepana, some sixteen miles to the north. Trusting in his superior numbers and in the fact that Adherbal was as yet unaware that the Roman losses of the previous year had been made up by the arrival of 10,000 socii navales, Claudius hoped to surprise the enemy with success. But his tactical skill did not support his strategic plan. Drepana was situated on a sharp spit of land, with the harbour on the south side protected by the islet of Colombaia. Hither Claudius sailed with 123 vessels. But while his leading ships were entering the harbour, Adherbal succeeded in manning his fleet (about 100 vessels), and by sailing round the island he fell on the flank of the Roman line. Claudius quickly ordered a retreat, which led to much confusion, and when the enemy attacked he was driven inshore with the loss of 93 vessels, though a large part of the crews swam to land and ultimately reached Lilybaeum. This was the first and only defeat which Rome suffered at sea during the war. Claudius was recalled and condemned to pay a heavy fine. The pious attributed his defeat to his insistence on fighting when the omens were unfavourable: learning that the sacred chickens would not eat, it is said, he contemptuously dropped them overboard, remarking ‘Well, let them drink’. But his plan was not ill-conceived, had his naval skill been greater; while the fact that he probably knew that Adherbal was about to receive a reinforcement of 70 ships explains his haste and his impatience with the chickens.

The other consul, L. Junius Pullus, meanwhile was preparing to bring supplies to the troops at Lilybaeum. He sailed from Syracuse with 800 transport ships escorted by 120 warships in two divisions, but fell in with a Punic fleet of 100 vessels commanded by Carthalo, who after attacking the 30 surviving Roman ships at Lilybaeum now came to intercept the reinforcements. Without fighting, Carthalo skilfully forced ashore each of the Roman detachments in turn, one near Phintias (Licata), the other near Camarina; then, anticipating a storm, he doubled Cape Pachynus and left the Roman ships exposed to the fury of the tempest on a lee shore. The entire fleet was wrecked and Rome was left without a navy; some 20 ships alone survived of the 240 with which she had started the year. It was now impossible to continue the blockade of Lilybaeum by sea, but, nothing daunted, Junius, who had escaped with two ships, landed there and marched to Drepana, behind which rises Mount Eryx. Here he surprised the guard and seized both the Temple of Aphrodite, the most splendid of all temples in Sicily (where lies the modern village of Mte San Giuliano), and the old city of Eryx; he thus commanded all the roads to Drepana. It was a shrewd counterblow. Though Rome had lost control at sea, the only two towns still held by Carthage in Sicily were now cut off from the rest of the island.

Once again the position was one of stalemate. Each side required or took a breathing space. Rome faced her recent disasters by appointing a dictator, but she lacked generals of real distinction, and the annual change of magistrates continued to hamper efficiency in the field. The consuls elected for 248 were the cautious consuls of 252, and though no thoughts of peace were entertained, Rome was too exhausted to raise another navy, especially when the dangers of her Junior Service were becoming so obvious; she merely held on for the next six years. Carthage also let sleeping dogs lie. Instead of taking the offensive by sea and attacking Panormus or Syracuse, she concentrated on expeditions in the interior of Africa as far as Theveste. This policy arose partly from the prominence of Hanno the Great, the opponent of the Barcids and representative of the landed interests, partly from the desire to secure internal peace and prosperity before venturing further abroad. Carthage thus let slip a good opportunity of pressing home her success. In fact the only incident of note during 248 was that Rome renewed her treaty with the loyal king of Syracuse on easier terms; any tribute was remitted, his kingdom extended, and the treaty was made for all time.

Fresh life was again infused into the dreary struggle by the emergence of the energetic Hamilcar Barca, who raided the coast of southern Italy in 247. Rome replied by founding protective coastal colonies at Alsium, Fregenae and Brundisium; she abandoned the sea to the enemy, apart from the raids of some privateers on the African coast. In 246 Hamilcar struck at the rear of the Roman armies besieging Drepana and Lilybaeum by landing west of Panormus. He fortified a position on the mountain behind the city, named Heirkte,18 and anchored his fleet at its foot, so that he was in good communication with the two besieged ports. From this mountain eyrie like an eagle he held the Romans at bay for three years and harassed their forces in frequent skirmishes, again raiding the Italian coast as far as Cumae. Still maintaining this guerrilla warfare he advanced in 244 to Mount Eryx in order to relieve pressure from the siege of Drepana. He captured the old town of Eryx on the northern slopes of the mountain, but the Romans retained the Temple of Aphrodite at the top of the mountain together with a lower point between the Temple and the town of Drepana, and so cut him off from interfering with the siege. Details of the two-year tussle are not known, but it was only terminated by the conclusion of the war.

The long years of Hamilcar’s campaigns convinced Rome that the war could only be won at sea. As the treasury was exhausted, a loan was raised repayable only in event of victory. By this patriotic effort a fleet of 200 warships and many transport ships were constructed, the quinqueremes being of light build (without corvi). In the summer of 242 the new fleet sailed under C. Lutatius Catulus to Drepana, where he found no Punic navy to face him, partly perhaps because the home government was leaving the burden of war to Hamilcar, partly because they needed the crews for wars in Africa. An attack on Drepana failed, but provisions were running low in the besieged town. By March 241 the Carthaginians had with difficulty manned 170 to 200 vessels; they intended to land stores in Sicily and then, having embarked Hamilcar and his men in order to compensate for their lack of marines, to face the foe. But off the Aegates Islands they met the Roman fleet. Hampered by their inadequate equipment and heavy freights they were quickly defeated. The Romans sank 50 ships and captured 70 more. Further resistance was out of the question. Carthage had shot her bolt; the war was at an end.

The Carthaginian government gave Hamilcar full powers to negotiate for peace. The following terms were agreed upon by Lutatius, subject to ratification at Rome: Carthage was to evacuate Sicily, not make war on Hiero or his allies, return all prisoners, and pay 2,200 talents in twenty annual instalments. These terms were lenient: the indemnity was trifling in proportion to the wealth of Carthage and the war expenditure of Rome; but then Rome had won control of Sicily. They were flatly rejected by the Roman people. Ten commissioners were sent to consider the question on the spot, and they succeeded in tightening up the terms by adding 1,000 talents (to be paid immediately) to the indemnity and decreasing the time of payment of the rest to ten years; all islands between Sicily and Italy (these would be Lipari and the Aegates) must be evacuated by Carthage; neither side was to attack the allies of the other nor to recruit soldiers in the dominions of the other. Apart from the 1,000 talents the other clauses might seem advantageous to the ignorant populace at Rome, but they were in fact not a very serious addition. However, the alternative was to continue the war, and so the Roman people, doubtless heeding the authority of the Senate, accepted the terms, and peace reigned after twenty-four years.

So ended a struggle which was, wrote Polybius, ‘the longest, most continuous and most severely contested war known to us in history’. Like the coming struggle with Hannibal, it was won by the moral qualities of the Roman people, by the patriotism of a citizen army, by the loyalty of the allies in Italy and of Hiero in Sicily, and by the steadiness of the senatorial government. The men of Rome vanquished the mammon of Carthage. Only in the crisis of the invasion of Africa had the citizens of Carthage drawn a sword in her defence. Her officers might be efficient, her gold might procure reliable mercenaries, but in the last resort she failed. Neither side produced a general of genius except perhaps Hamilcar, but the long years of disciplined warfare in Italy had given Rome an excellent fighting machine. True, she did not adapt it to meet the cavalry and elephants of the enemy and thus suffered defeat near the walls of Carthage; that reform was only achieved during the next struggle. But she did show great adaptability in taking to the sea; it was the old story of the struggle of the elephant and the whale, and she succeeded by determination rather than by technical skill. But the courage of the legions would have proved fruitless had the Italian troops failed them. The war showed clearly what the struggle with Hannibal proved beyond all doubt, that Rome’s allies were bound to her by other ties than those of slave to mistress.19

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