Ancient History & Civilisation


Ancient war was a brutal business, and the First Punic War certainly had its moments of savagery. Nevertheless, it had been the hapless Sicilian cities which had borne the brunt of such atrocities, and not the Romans or the Carthaginians themselves. Both sides had aimed largely at securing Sicily, and the total destruction of the other had not been a strategic goal. Yet, within a year of signing a humiliating peace, Carthage would be fighting for its very survival in a conflict that was brutal even by ancient standards. This conflict became a fight to the death with no mercy shown by either side. For Polybius it was polemos aspondos–quite simply, war without a chance of a truce.20

Through poor decision-making, the Carthaginians had allowed a pay dispute to escalate into full-blown rebellion, the avowed aim of which was nothing less than the overthrow of Carthaginian hegemony in North Africa. This revolt highlighted in the most harsh way just how over-reliant Carthage had become on the efforts and resources of others. The funds that Gisco had brought with him to pay off the mercenaries had probably represented the last vestiges of good-quality silver coinage left at Carthage’s disposal.21 Now the Libyan revolt had cut off another important source of revenue. Polybius, with his customary adroitness, articulated the precariousness of the Carthaginians’ situation:

Neither had they a sufficient supply of arms, nor a proper navy, nor the material left to construct one, so many had been the battles in which they had been engaged at sea. They had not even the means of providing supplies and not a single hope of external assistance from friends or allies. So it was now that they thoroughly realized how great is the difference between a war against a foreign state carried on overseas and civil discord and disturbance.22

Desperate times warranted desperate measures. The Carthaginians had no option but to mobilize and train a citizen army. Some money was scraped together to pay for new mercenaries, and the few ships that remained were also made ready for service. Command of this modest force was handed over to Hanno, who, like Hamilcar, had also escaped the blame for the series of debacles that had brought defeat on Carthage in the First Punic War, by winning several important military victories on the home front. This appointment soon proved a costly mistake. Polybius would judge that Hanno may have had enough talent to defeat Libyans and Numidians (who would turn and run once defeated), but an enemy of well-trained professional soldiers was a different proposition.23

Hanno’s military expertise was no match for a well-drilled army which had spent years honing its skills on the battlegrounds of Sicily. On the rebel side one might have expected a lack of leadership skills, for the Carthaginians had always supplied their own senior officers for the Sicilian army. In fact the Libyan Mathos showed himself to be an excellent military strategist. Hanno gained the advantage of surprise by attacking the rebels while they were occupied in besieging the city of Utica, which was allied to Carthage. However, instead of capitalizing on the rebels’ disarray, Hanno had then complacently gone into the city to celebrate his victory. The rebels quickly rallied, and launched an attack which caught the Carthaginians completely unawares. Killing many Carthaginian soldiers, they captured all the baggage and siege artillery that Hanno had brought from Carthage to use against them.

This sort of carelessness characterized virtually the whole campaign, with Hanno snatching defeat from the jaws of victory on several further occasions. In contrast, Mathos quickly proved a dangerous opponent. First, he divided his large army into several smaller, more mobile, forces. His aim seems to have been to try to cut the Carthaginians off from their supplies and allies. As well as besieging Utica and Hippacritae, two of the largest cities in the region, a rebel force also seized control of the head of the isthmus that Carthage was situated on, thereby effectively blocking off the city from its African hinterland, and putting it under siege. Although the Carthaginians were not yet ready to get rid of the ineffectual Hanno, Hamilcar Barca was given a small army of 10,000 men and some 70 elephants with which to try to repel the rebels.24

The campaign started well for Hamilcar. First he managed to beat the rebel blockade by sneaking out of the city at night with his force and fording the river Medjerda. He then captured the one bridge over the river, even though his forces were heavily outnumbered. To achieve this victory he used a tactic that his famous son, Hannibal, would later use to great effect. Feigning retreat, Hamilcar provoked the enemy into ill-disciplined pursuit. Once the enemy had completely lost their formation, the Carthaginians turned on them in battle order and a rout ensued.25

Over 8,000 of the enemy were either killed or captured. However, this initial morale-boosting success was followed by a near-disaster brought on by Hamilcar’s impetuosity. The rebels, knowing that they stood little chance against the superior Carthaginian cavalry and elephants in open battle, used their old general’s own guerrilla tactics against him. Thus Hamilcar found himself being continually harried from the foothills, making progress very difficult. Eventually, he and his army found themselves surrounded by enemy forces on a mountainous plain where they had set up camp. Total destruction loomed. Yet it was now that all those dashing but futile raids in Sicily would pay off in spectacular and unexpected style. Among the massed enemy ranks closing in for the kill was a Numidian chief, Navaras, who had long admired the Carthaginian general.26 This high regard and other family loyalties ensured that Hamilcar and his army lived to fight another day when Navaras and his 2,000 horsemen switched sides.27

It was now that the war between the Carthaginians and their rebel troops was dramatically transformed into a conflict infamous for its brutality. Ironically, this butchery was provoked by an act of calculated clemency. After his surprise victory, Hamilcar had cannily offered positions in his own army to the 4,000 mercenaries whom he had captured; those who declined this overture would be set free and allowed to return home. This had the potential to break up the potentially fragile coalition between the mercenaries and the Libyans, for if the rebels knew that they could swap sides with no recriminations then this might have led to mass desertions.

Spendius, Mathos and the other rebel leaders, knowing that they would not be included in the amnesty, took a course of action that was guaranteed to ensure that their troops stayed loyal to their cause. Through persuasion and coercion, a motion was passed at a rebel assembly that Gisco and the other Carthaginian prisoners should be executed. In order that no further avenue for rapprochement with Carthage remained, the rebel leaders had the men tortured to death in the most hideous way. Their hands were cut off, they were castrated, and their legs were then broken. While they were still breathing, they were flung on top of one another in a big pit and buried alive. The rebel leaders then declared that all Carthaginian prisoners could expect the same repulsive fate. The time for compromise was now truly over.28

This atrocity had the desired effect, for Hamilcar responded by killing all his prisoners. Now no rebels could expect any mercy if they fell into the clutches of the Carthaginians. They had to stand and fight. There is, however, little reason to think that many of the mercenaries would have defected, for the war was going well for them, and Carthage had been hit by successive misfortunes. A number of its ships carrying essential supplies had been lost in a terrible storm, and news had then come that Sardinia, which it had held for over three centuries, was in revolt. Finally and most seriously, Carthage’s Punic allies began to turn against it: the cities of Hippacritae and Utica had massacred their Carthaginian garrisons and defected to the rebels.

The situation was not helped by Hamilcar and Hanno, who were long-standing political rivals, not agreeing on military strategy. Yet succour now came from the most unlikely source, for Syracuse agreed to provide much-needed supplies.29 Polybius explained this development purely in terms of political pragmatism: for Hiero, the removal of Carthage from the central-Mediterranean power equation might have led to his status as a key strategic ally of Rome (and hence his independence) being called into question.

The response of Rome is at first more difficult to understand. During the years of the revolt, it had refused to capitalize on a number of opportunities that would have very probably led to the complete demise of Carthage as a regional power. An offer from the citizens of Utica to turn their city over to Rome was rejected. In addition, Italian merchants were banned from trading with the rebels but permitted to export vital supplies to Carthage, while the Carthaginians were even allowed to recruit fresh mercenaries from Italy.30 This was despite there having recently been some tension between the two cities. Rome had sent an embassy to North Africa to protest after the Carthaginian authorities had arrested some 500 Italian merchants delivering supplies to the rebels. The matter had been resolved amicably, however, and as a token of goodwill the Romans had freed all remaining Carthaginian prisoners of war from the Sicilian campaigns. This release of 2,743 fighting men without ransom was an unexpected boon for Carthage, and allowed it to maintain the war effort.31

The reasons for Rome’s supportive stance towards Carthage are complex. It has been argued that, after such a long and debilitating conflict, Rome was in no shape to embark on yet another war. Although much of the expense of the First Punic War had been met by Rome’s Syracusan and Italian allies, Polybius clearly states that both Carthage and Rome were financially exhausted by the conflict.32 In fact it is very unlikely that there was much appetite in Rome for further pressure to be brought to bear on Carthage. Much of Sicily may now have been nominally under Roman control, but two decades of war had severely damaged the local economy of the island. It would naturally take time for Rome to assert itself politically there, and it was unlikely that Rome wanted to create even more of a reputation for itself as a state that habitually supported mercenary uprisings.33

Outside assistance for Carthage marked a crucial turning point. The rebels now found themselves short of supplies, and were forced to raise their siege of the city. They had been previously relying on both the funds that had been collected from the Libyans and the coinage that they had seized from the Carthaginians. It was probably now, with their stocks of silver and bronze exhausted, that the rebels started using arsenic to make their debased, copper-alloy coins look like valuable silver money.34 Hamilcar had by this time been given sole command of the Carthaginian army, after consultation with the troops. This seems to have greatly improved military performance, as decisions could now be swiftly made and executed. The policy of total war was continued, with all those rebels who were captured being trampled to death by Hamilcar’s troop of elephants.

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