Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

In Sicily Again

The Romans still retained their superiority at sea. It is, indeed, a very strange thing that the Carthaginians, though they had been sailors, and adventurous sailors too, for centuries, should have been beaten almost at once on their own element by a people that had had little or nothing to do with it. But so it was. News of the disaster that had happened to the army of Regulus was brought to Rome, and a fleet was sent to carry off the garrison of Clypea, which, it was said, still held out against the enemy. It met and defeated the fleet of Carthage, taking, we are told, as many as one hundred and fourteen vessels out of a total of two hundred, and carried the troops. But though the Romans seem to have fought as well by sea as by land, still they were not sailors. We shall hear several times in the course of the next few years of terrible losses by shipwreck, losses which we know to have been increased, if not caused, by the obstinacy and ignorance of the officers in command. So it seems to have been in the case of the relieving fleet. The pilots warned the consuls that the south coast of Sicily was dangerous, but warned in vain. The result was a calamity of which Polybius, a sober and sensible writer, says that "history can scarcely afford another example of so great and general a disaster." Out of four hundred and sixty-four vessels little more than a sixth part escaped. The Carthaginians were proportionately encouraged, and, fitting up a new fleet and levying another army, resolved to have another struggle for Sicily. In the first campaign, indeed, they lost Panormus, but in those that followed they had a clear advantage. Again the weather helped them. The Romans lost another fleet, and for a time gave up all hope of being masters of the sea, contenting themselves with keeping only so many vessels afloat as were wanted to carry supplies to their army. In the field, too, Carthage more than held her own. The havoc which the elephants had wrought in the army of Regulus had not been forgotten, and the Roman armies did not venture to offer battle in any place where the ground was suitable for the action of these formidable creatures. It was not till they found out that it was easy to make them as dangerous to their friends as they could be to their foes that they dared to face them. One of the Carthaginian generals was rash enough to use the animals in attacking a town. The archers showered arrows upon them from the walls till, driven to madness by their wounds, they turned round and broke down their own ranks. Many fell into the hands of the Romans on this occasion. A still greater gain was that they were no longer feared.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


And now began one of the most obstinate sieges recorded in history. Lilybaeum was a strongly fortified town near the Cape of the same name. Its wall was unusually high, and its ditch unusually deep, while the harbour could be approached only by a channel through shallow lakes which stretched between it and the sea. The Romans began by attacking a fort on the southwestern wall, and battered down six of the towers upon the wall. Himilco, who was in command of the garrison, was unceasing in his efforts, repairing the breaches, digging countermines, and watching continually for a chance of setting fire to the Roman works. And he averted a worse danger in the threatened treachery of the mercenaries. The leaders of these troops were actually in treaty with the Romans, when Himilco heard of what was going on, and contrived to break it off. A few days afterwards came help from Carthage. No news of the garrison at Lilybaeum had reached the city, and it was feared that they were in distress. A fleet of fifty ships was hastily fitted out and dispatched to Sicily, with a relieving force of ten thousand men on board. The admiral in command waited for a favourable wind, and then, with all his ships ready for action, sailed straight into the harbour, the Romans being so surprised by their boldness that they did not attempt to oppose. Himilco, encouraged by this reinforcement, resolved to attack the besiegers. Sallying forth with nearly his whole force, he fell on the Roman works; but he just missed his object: his troops were on the point of setting fire to, the engines and towers when he found that they were suffering heavier loss than he could afford, and withdrew them. But a few weeks afterwards he succeeded. The works had been injured by a violent gale, and some of the mercenaries saw in the confusion thus caused an opportunity for destroying them. Himilco approved their scheme. These bands sallied from the gate and set fire to three different places. The Romans were taken by surprise; and the wind blew such volumes of smoke into their faces that they could see and do nothing. In the end everything was destroyed, the towers being burnt to the ground, and the metal heads of the rams melted. After this loss they gave up all hopes of taking the place by storm, and resolved to trust to a blockade.

Meanwhile the Carthaginian fleet lay at Drepanum; and this the new consuls who came into office in the year 249 resolved to attack. Publius Claudius, who was in command, managed to reach Drepanum unobserved. Adherbal, the Carthaginian admiral, was taken by surprise, but did not lose courage. He manned his ships at once, and sailing out of the harbour by the opposite side to that by which the Romans were entering, formed his line on the open sea outside. Claudius had to recall his ships; such as had entered the harbour came into collision in backing out with those that followed them, and there was great confusion. Still the captains ranged them as well as they could along the shore, with their prows turned towards the enemy. But they had lost the choice of ground; the Carthaginians had the open sea and plenty of room to manoeuvre. They could retreat when they were hard pressed, and turn again when the opportunity occurred. When the Roman vessels ventured to advance they were attacked in front, on the side, and in rear. But a Roman ship that was in difficulties had nothing behind it but the shore. If it retired, it either grounded in the shallows or was actually stranded. Nor was this disadvantage of place counterbalanced by any superiority in the build of the ships or in seamanship. The ships were clumsy, the seamen unskillful. In the end Claudius suffered a crushing defeat. He made his own escape with thirty ships; but all the rest, nearly a hundred in number, were captured. The crews, too, were taken prisoners, excepting a few who beached their ships and jumped ashore.

Junius, the other consul, was even more unfortunate. He had a hundred and twenty ships of war, with which he had to convey a fleet of eight hundred transports. The Carthaginian admiral forced him to cast anchor on a lee-shore (near Camarina), where there was no harbour within reach. When it came on to blow the blockading squadron put out to sea, and doubling Cape Pachynus escaped the worst of the storm. The Roman fleet had not time, or perhaps was not wise enough, to follow them. Anyhow, it was completely destroyed. "Scarcely a plank remained entire," says the historian. As a few days before most of the ships in the harbour of Lilybaeum had been burnt, Rome was now without a fleet.

Still, the siege of Lilybaeum was pushed on. The blockading army had now most of Sicily to draw upon for stores, and was well supplied, while the town could be provisioned from the sea. Though the Romans gained possession by surprise of the strong post of Eryx, the second highest mountain in Sicily the war for some time dragged on without much advantage to either side.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


And now appeared upon the scene one of the few great men that Carthage produced. Hamilcar, surnamed Barca, was a very young man when he was appointed to the command of the Carthaginian fleet and army. But he had already made himself a name, and he soon showed that he was fit for his post. He established himself in a strong place in the northwest of the island, between Panormus and Drepanum. It was a lofty rock called Hercta (now Pellegrino), and seems to have united every kind of advantage. It was so difficult of approach from the land that it could be defended by a very small force. There was some productive land in the neighbourhood. The climate was cool and healthy; and there was a deep and spacious harbour. In this place, though the Roman forces held all the neighbourhood, he maintained himself for three years. His fleet—for Rome had given up for the present the attempt to command the sea—ravaged the southern coasts of Italy, and helped to furnish him with supplies. On land he kept his enemies engaged by perpetual surprises and stratagems. He won, indeed, no great victory over them, but he kept them from doing anything else, and the siege of Lilybaeum made no progress.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


So anxious were the Romans to drive him out of this stronghold, that they at one time assembled as many as forty thousand men to carry on their attacks upon him. All, however, was in vain, and it was of his own free will that at the end of three years he took up another position. This was Eryx, the capture of which by the Romans has been mentioned above. He put his army, on board the fleet, and suddenly carried it to the place which he had fixed upon, and though the enemy still held the fort upon the top of the hills, got possession of the town. Here he maintained himself for two years, getting little help, it would seem, from home, for one of his chief difficulties was with his mercenaries, who were clamouring for the pay which he could not give them, and whom he was obliged to put off with promises. Still the Romans could make no impression on him, and of course made no advance in the siege of the Carthaginian fortresses.

If Hamilcar could have been everywhere the war might have had a different result, or, in any case, might have been prolonged still more than it was. But he could not be sure that his lieutenants would be as able as himself. In 241 Rome made a great effort to recover her supremacy at sea. The public treasury was exhausted, as it might well be after nearly five and twenty years of war, but private citizens came forward to supply what was wanting. Some of the richest undertook to build each a ship; or two or three of smaller means would join together. Thus a fleet of two hundred five-banked vessels were got together, and these of the very best construction. With this Lutatius Catulus, the consul, sailed to Sicily. The Carthaginians seem to have been unprepared, not expecting indeed that the enemy, who had abandoned the sea for several years, should now seek to recover the command of it. Catulus was therefore able to possess himself unopposed of the harbours of Lilybaeum and Drepanum. He pressed the siege of the latter place with much vigour, and meanwhile kept his crews busy with training and exercise, till he made them expert and ready.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


The Carthaginians, on the other hand, prepared to act. The plan of Hanno, who was in command of the fleet, was this. To take stores for the supply of Hamilcar's army at Eryx, and, after landing these, to take on board some of the best troops and Hamilcar himself, who alone was equal to an army; and thus engage the Romans. It was the object of the Romans, on the other hand, to force an action before this could be done. Catulus accordingly put some of his best troops on board his ships and sailed to Aegusa, an island opposite Lilybaeum. Hanno was at Hiera, another island, a little further out to sea, The whole front was known by the name of the Aegates (a word that has probably something to do with the Greek word for a goat). Catulus intended to give battle at once. Then, when the day for action came, he began to doubt. The wind was stormy, and was blowing from the west, and so would help the movements of the enemy and hinder his own. On the other hand, there was much to be lost by delay. At present the Carthaginian ships were burdened with the stores which they were carrying. If he did not engage them at once they would rid themselves of these, would take on board some first-rate troops from the army at Eryx, and, above all, would have the presence of the dreaded Hamilcar himself. These thoughts made him resolve on battle. The Carthaginians were already on their way eastward when he put out to sea. His crews, become strong and dexterous by practice, got their ships between the enemy and the point for which he was making, and, ranged in a single line, prepared to receive them. The conflict was short and decisive. Hanno's ships were encumbered with stores; his crews were unskilled, for the fleet had been neglected, and the troops on board were nothing better than raw levies. In all these points the Romans were superior; they had nothing on board but what was wanted for the battle; their rowers were well trained, and their fighting men of the best quality. At the very first meeting they showed their superiority. Fifty of the Carthaginian ships were sunk and seventy more taken with all their crews; the rest were saved by a sudden change of the wind to the east which took them back to their anchorage at Hiera.

The battle of the Agates Islands brought the war to an end. Carthage could no longer provision her army in Sicily, and felt that it was useless to prolong the struggle. Accordingly, Hamilcar was empowered to make peace. The Romans were ready enough to meet him, for they too were exhausted by the long struggles, and after some negotiations a treaty was made. The chief condition was that Carthage was to give up all her positions in Sicily, and engage to leave the island alone for the future. She had had a hold on the island for at least four centuries, and for nearly two had cherished hopes of winning it. Sometimes she had been very near their accomplishment. Now they had to be finally given up. This was undoubtedly a great blow. We may call it the first great step downward. A war indemnity of nearly 800,000 was imposed. But Hamilcar was resolved to save his honour. The Romans demanded that the troops at Eryx should surrender. This demand he resolutely refused, and it was given up. They marched out with all the honours of war and were carried back to Carthage; and so, after a duration of four and twenty years, the First Punic War came to an end.