Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

The War in Sicily and on the Sea

We have heard more than once of Campanians among the mercenaries who were accustomed to fight both for Greece and for Carthage in the Sicilian wars. They seem to have been particularly unscrupulous, for they would change sides when changing sides seemed likely to give them better pay or better prospects of victory. And this habit of theirs agrees with the bad account we get of them in other ways. These Campanians let out their swords for hire, not so much because they were poor (as did the Arcadians in ancient times, and the Swiss and Scotch in modern Europe), as because they liked the life of a soldier of fortune. They were the youth of a dissolute people, and, not able to find the career they liked at home, where they would have had to deal with the Romans, they sought it abroad, and, as we have seen, especially in Sicily. We shall not be surprised, therefore, to find some of these Campanians behaving in a most cruel and unscrupulous way to one of the Greek cities. After the death of Agathocles, who, tyrant as he was, was a man of energy, affairs in Sicily had fallen into a state of great confusion. Among other causes of trouble was a corps of Campanian mercenaries, who had been in the service of the tyrant, and who, after his death, asserted their independence, and set up in the trade of brigands. They seized the city of Messana, slew or drove out the citizens, and divided among themselves everything that they possessed. For a time the Mamertines, or "Servants of Mars" (for this was the name that the robbers had assumed), prospered greatly, spreading their power over the neighbouring portion of the island. Then came a check. Syracuse had again fallen into the hands of an able ruler, one Hiero, of whom we shall often hear again. Hiero reduced the Mamertines to great straits, and they looked about in despair for someone who could help them.

There were two parties among them, one favouring Carthage, the other Rome. At first the latter prevailed. An embassy was sent, offering submission and begging for help. The request perplexed the Romans not a little. It was quite a new thing for them to look beyond the limits of Italy. There they were now supreme; but they dreaded undertaking conquests outside it. And to grant this request would of course embroil them with Carthage. On the other hand, Carthage would become a dangerous enemy if it were allowed to possess itself of Messana. It would only have to conquer Syracuse to make itself master of Sicily. The Senate debated the question more than once without coming to any decision.

Besides their fear of a new enterprise, they had, we may hope, some scruple about taking to themselves such very discreditable allies. From the Senate the matter was referred to the people, and the people felt neither the fear nor the scruple, but resolved that help should be sent, and that the Mamertines should be received as allies.

Meanwhile the other party at Messana had been busy. They applied for help to Carthage; and Carthage at once sent it. A peace was made with Hiero, who was besieging the city. A fleet sailed into the harbour, and a body of troops under Hanno occupied the citadel. When the Romans, who were under the command of Appius Claudius, one of the Consuls of the year, arrived, they found themselves anticipated. Unfortunately for Carthage, both the officers in charge of the fleet and Hanno were wanting in foresight or resolution. The former was seized at a meeting of the citizens to which he had gone in the hope of keeping the peace; the latter consented to give up the citadel if he were permitted to withdraw with his garrison. Then the Romans became masters of Messana without having to strike a single blow for it.

The Carthaginians were not disposed to accept this state of things. Hanno they crucified as having shown in his conduct neither courage nor good judgment. Then, in concert with Hiero, they closely invested the city. Claudius attempted to make terms; he was even willing to depart, if the Mamertines might be allowed to remain. When these terms were rejected he resolved to act. He marched out of the city and offered battle. Hiero accepted it, but after a long fight was driven back into his camp. The next day he returned to Syracuse. Appius followed up his victory, attacking and routing the Carthaginian army, which immediately raised the siege of the city. The next year a larger army was sent; Hiero, who had the sagacity to see with whom the victory was most likely to be, submitted to Rome, becoming one of its most constant and useful allies. Many other cities, both Sicilian and Carthaginian, followed this example. Carthage, on the other hand, increased her forces in the island, making Agrigentum the base of her operations and the place in which her military stores were kept.

The next year the Romans besieged Agrigentum, and kept the garrison closely within the walls. After a blockade which lasted five months, Hannibal, one of the Suffetes, who was in command, found himself sorely pressed by famine, and sent urgent entreaties to Carthage for help. In answer to these requests, a considerable body of troops, with a number of elephants, was sent to Sicily. Hanno, who commanded the Carthaginian army in the field, was rendered superior in force to the Romans by this reinforcement. He cut off their supplies and reduced them to great straits. Indeed, but for the help of Hiero they could not have held out. Hanno now thought it time to attack the enemy. He sent on his African light-horse in advance, with orders to provoke the Roman cavalry to an engagement, and by retiring before them to draw them within reach of his whole army. The stratagem succeeded. The Romans sallied furiously from their camp, drove the Africans before them, and then, finding themselves in presence of Hanno's army, were themselves driven back.

For two months the two armies lay quiet, with a space of about a mile between them. Meanwhile the famine in the city grew worse, and Hannibal, by fire signals from the city (for the Carthaginians seem to have had some system of telegraphing), and by messengers, made his colleague aware that he could hold out no longer. The Romans were scarcely less in need, so that both parties were eager to fight. The battle that followed was long and obstinate. At last the Carthaginian mercenaries, who composed the front line, gave way, fell back upon the elephants behind them, and threw the whole army into disorder. Only a small part of the troops escaped. But Hannibal with the garrison of Agrigentum was more fortunate. Seeing that the Romans, rejoicing in their victory, were guarding their lines very carelessly, he made his way through undiscovered. The next day the Romans marched into Agrigentum, where they found abundance of spoil and many prisoners of war.

After this success the Romans began to think that then it was within their power to make themselves masters of the island. But the great obstacle was that Carthage was still mistress of the sea, and that even their own coasts were not safe from the ravages of her fleet. If their hope was to be fulfilled they must have a fleet of their own. Ships of course they had, for the treaties with Carthage, made hundreds of years before, had set limits beyond which they should not go; possibly they had ships of war; but they had nothing which they could match against the great five-banked vessels of the enemy. Fortunately one of these came into their possession, stranded by a storm or in an attack made upon their transports. This they used as a model for their shipbuilders. In the course of a few weeks, a, hundred five-banked and twenty three-banked vessels were built—of green wood, it is said, and not likely to last, but still sufficient for their purpose.

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


The first attempt of the new force was not fortunate. A squadron of seventeen ships was taken at Lipara, with one of the consuls, who was in command. But the Carthaginians soon found that the Romans were quite as formidable by sea as by land. Their admiral, Hannibal, who was reconnoitring with fifty ships, fell in unexpectedly with a superior force of the Romans, lost the greater part of his fleet, and barely escaped himself. Still, the greater experience of their seamen would have given them the advantage but for the device by which their enemies contrived to make a sea-fight very much like a fight on dry land. Every Roman ship was filled with a boarding apparatus. It was like a gangway, eighteen feet long and four feet broad, and was attached to a pillar of wood set up by the bowsprit, from which it was dropped when the two ships came in contact. The further end was furnished with a sharpened bar of iron, which was driven by the force of the fall into the enemy's deck, and held it fast. If the ships were laid broadside to broadside, the boarders jumped from all parts of their own ship on to that of the enemy; if prow only touched prow, they went two and two along the gangway.

The new apparatus was soon brought into use. Hannibal (the same commander who had escaped from Agrigentum) encountered the Roman Consul Duilius, and despising his enemy, bore down upon him without taking the trouble to form his fleet in order. The front ships, as soon as they came near the Romans, were grappled by the new machines, and the boarding parties poured in from the Roman vessels. The Carthaginians were taken by surprise and overpowered, and lost all the thirty ships that composed the van. The rest of the fleet fared little better. Whenever they tried to approach, the grappling-irons hung over them. In the end they fled with the loss of fifty more ships; Hannibal escaping in an open boat. This battle of Mylae was one of the turning points of the long struggle between the two powers. Carthage had ruled the sea for centuries, and now it was beaten by a foe who had first taken to it only a few months before.

It is needless to give all the details of the long struggle that followed. Hannibal met with his end in the year of his defeat at Mylae. He had sailed to Sardinia, and was there surprised by the Roman fleet, losing many of his ships. As usual he escaped, but this time in vain. He was seized by the survivors and crucified. The next two years the war dragged on in Sicily without any decisive event, though the advantage was for the most part with Rome. But in 256 a great battle was fought. The Roman Government, weary of these tedious campaigns, resolved to carry the war into Africa, and attack their enemy at home. With this end in view they collected a fleet of as many as three hundred and thirty decked ships. On these they embarked their best troops. Each vessel had a crew of three hundred seamen, and carried a complement of one hundred and twenty soldiers. The Carthaginian force was still larger, numbering three hundred and fifty ships, and one hundred and fifty thousand men. The two fleets met at Ecnomus, a promontory of the southern coast of Sicily.

The Roman fleet was formed in the shape of a triangle, with the apex or point towards the enemy. At this point were the two huge ships, each rowed by six banks of oars, in which sailed the two Roman Consuls—Atilius Regulus, of whom we shall hear again, and Manlius. Each side of this triangle was made up of a squadron; a third squadron, which held the transports containing the cavalry in tow, formed the base; and there was yet a fourth, a reserve, ranged in one long line so as to cover both flanks of the squadrons before them.

The Carthaginians adopted very different tactics. They arranged their ships in what may be called open order, extending their line from the shore far out to sea with the view of surrounding the enemy. The shore squadron, or left wing, was under the command of Hamilcar; the rest of the fleet was led by the Hanno whose army had been defeated before Agrigentum. The Roman fleet began the attack. Seeing that the enemy had but a weak line of single ships, they bore down upon the centre. Hamilcar had foreseen this, and had given orders to his officers to retreat as soon as the attack should be made. This was done, and with the expected result. The Romans eagerly pursued the flying enemy; their order of battle was broken, the two squadrons in advance being separated from the third (that which had the transports in tow) and from the reserve. Then the retreating Carthaginians turned upon their pursuers. An obstinate fight followed; the Carthaginians had the advantage in seamanship and in the speed of their ships. But do what they might, they hardly dared to come to close quarters. The Roman ships were fitted with the dreaded grappling and boarding machines. If these were once brought into use the battle had to be fought by the soldiers, and there was no chance of standing against the soldiers of Rome.

While this struggle was going on, another commenced in the rear of the Roman fleet. Hanno bore down with his ships upon the reserve squadron and threw it into confusion. And then began a third, the left or in-shore wing of the Carthaginian fleet attacking the squadron which had the transports attached to it. But the Roman superiority was maintained everywhere. At close quarters the Carthaginians could not hold their own, and though here and there they might sink a ship by a sudden skillful charge, to close quarters they were bound sooner or later to come. Hamilcar was the first to retreat; then Hanno, who had been pressing hard on the transport squadron and the reserve, was attacked in his turn and forced to fly. Thus the Romans won the second great naval victory. Twenty-six of their ships had been sunk, but none were taken. The Carthaginians lost about a hundred, as many as sixty-four having been captured with all their crews. Those that escaped were scattered in all directions, and there was now nothing to prevent the Romans from invading Africa.