Adherbal Reinvigorates Carthage


     Even though the Carthage was unable to break the Roman Siege of Lilybaeum, she still had other options for conducting the war. The Roman army was largely tied down at Lilybaeum, along with half of the fleet, in a half-hearted siege effort that it would ultimately fail at. It was also the failed blockade of Lilybaeum that allowed the Carthaginians to start a new strategy based out of Drepana. This other remaining Carthaginian stronghold also lay on Sicily’s western coast; Drepana being just being farther north of Lilybaeum.
     During the siege of Lilybaeum reinforcements, at least for the most part, were able to enter the city at will. But it seems that not all of these reinforcements remained in Lilybaeum. The other nearby harbor city of Drepana was also in Carthage’s interest to protect. The first reinforcement contingent commander, Adherbal, left Lilybaeum quickly to take command at Drepana and leaving Himilco in charge of Lilybaeum. Here he began consolidating his forces in order to harass the Roman supply lines and also prepare for the raids he was going to conduct later on.
     The second contingent of reinforcements that Lilybaeum received was under the command of Hannibal, a “friend of Adherbal.” (Polybius 1.44)1 Hannibal likewise did not permanently stay for the siege of Lilybaeum. It was after Himilco’s first concerted sortie outside the walls, when he had to call the retreat after failing to burn the Roman siege-works, that Hannibal slipped out of Lilybaeum’s harbor under the cover of darkness. He too was sailed for Drepana. Once there, he was able to meet up with Adherbal so that they could combine their forces for Drepana’s protection. Though not explicitly stated, it was likely this Hannibal with his numerous ships that transported the cavalry force stationed originally in Lilybaeum to Drepana. As Diodorus Siculus notes, “Perceiving, however, that their cavalry was of no service to them in the confined space, the Carthaginians dispatched them to Drepana; there they greatly assisted the Carthaginians.” (24.1)2 This force was about 700 strong and aided in fast hit-and-run maneuvers around the countryside and probably contributed to Rome’s logistical problems regarding the large encamped army outside Lilybaeum. As Zonaras relates, “[The Carthaginian] cavalry, setting out from Drepanum, prevented the Romans from getting provisions and overran the territory of their allies.” (8.15)3

Adherbal conducted his raids from his base at Drepana.
     Eventually, Himilco had been successful at destroying the Roman siege-works and engines outside Lilybaeum, forcing the Romans to simply try to outlast the city. One of the consular armies also had to withdraw to either eastern Sicily or even Italy as well due to the famine and disease wracking the camp. With these Roman failures, Adherbal saw his chance. Not just content at raiding the countryside of Sicily, Adherbal sensed Rome’s weakness, especially at sea. Probably from late 250 BCE and on through the winter into 249, “Adherbal also ravaged the shores now of Sicily, now of Italy, so that the Romans did not know what to do.” (8.15)4 This proves just how far the Roman navy had fallen from its height just a handful of years before. Now they couldn’t even defend or patrol their own waters around Italy. When this is combined with her land army completely bogged down outside Lilybaeum, it placed Rome in a dangerous position.

Rome Seeks to Reclaim the Seas

     Carthage had been able to successfully harass not just the Sicilian coastline, but the Italian coastline as well without retribution. Adherbal, based out of Drepana, was also successfully hamstringing the Roman siege effort at Lilybaeum. By 249 BCE one of the consular armies had to withdraw out of the siege and much of the manpower of the fleet in the harbor was also depleted. The Roman strategy of 249 seems to be one of taking the seas back from Carthage and eliminating Carthage’s base at Drepana since she had yet to take Lilybaeum. The problem lay, not in Rome’s number of ships, but of their positions. About half of the fleet, Polybius’ account will add up to 123 ships, was at Lilybaeum at this point and the remainder appear to be stationed on the eastern coast of Sicily or southern Italy. In between these fleets lay Adherbal’s fleet at Drepana.
     I estimate Adherbal’s fleet to be around 130 ships as, years before, Carthage was on a building program to create a 200 ship fleet. Even if delayed it was likely done by now and later in Polybius’ account Adherbal meets up with another Carthaginian fleet of seventy ships. (1.53)5 It may be that Rome felt for a while that she would only risk a battle if she outnumbered this Carthaginian fleet, which neither fleet alone did. Adherbal’s fleet is also the only plausible reason why the Romans were not supplying the army besieging Lilybaeum by sea and instead leaving them to struggle logistical by land supply lines. (Though one of the consuls of 249 BCE, Lucius Junius Pullus, would later on finally try to supply the army by ships and we will examine this in another post.)
     By the time the new consuls of 249 BCE were elected, one of them, Publius Claudius Pulcher, was determined to change this situation. He immediately head for Lilybaeum to take command there. Either just before, or perhaps at the same time, 10,000 rowers and sailors also marched to Lilybaeum overland across Sicily. This was because, “the greater part of the crews of their fleet [in Lilybaeum] had perished in the works or in the siege operations in general.” (Polubius 1.49)6 Pulcher was going to need full compliments of crews for his ships before he even began to think about naval engagements. Once again, Pulcher and the reinforcements were forced to go overland because Adherbal lay in wait with his fleet in between the two positions. (I’m also guessing the southern route of Sicily was largely out of the question for now due to the severity of the first storm that destroyed the Roman fleet.)
         A description of Publius Claudius Pulcher is now in order. He was not highly esteemed by the ancient historians and time really hasn’t improved his condition either. I’ll let Diodorus Siculus speak here.

     When Claudius arrived in Sicily he took command of the forces at Lilybaeum, and calling an assembly bitterly assailed the consuls who had just handed over the army to him, charging that they had been remiss in their handling of the war, drunkards who lived lives of licence and luxury, and that on the whole they had been the victims of a siege rather than the besiegers. Since he was naturally hot-blooded and mentally unstable, his conduct of affairs often verged on the lunatic. In the first place, he repeated the mistake of those whose leadership he had denounced, for he likewise reconstructed the jetties and barriers in the sea [which were destroyed by winds and tides]; his witlessness, however, outdid theirs in so far as the error of not being able to learn from experience is greater than that of being the first to try and fail. He was also a born martinet, and applied the traditional punishments unmercifully to soldiers who were Roman citizens and flogged the allies with rods. In general, the distinction of his clan and the reputation of his family had so spoiled him that he was supercilious and looked down on everyone. (Diodorus Siculus 24.3)7

     Obviously Diodorus Siculus is allowing himself some characterization here, but it does seem unlikely that Pulcher’s entire character is simply made up in order to demonstrate for his failure later on. Polybius 1.52 also, more soberly, records the harsh criticism Pulcher would face back in Rome for his “rashness.”8 As for his current command, the men, who were likely not in the highest spirits after unsuccessfully besieging Lilybaeum for so long, probably did not have their morale improved by the imposition of far stricter and more punishing order. At any rate, he shared his plan of taking Drepana by surprise since Adherbal would be unaware (which seems unlikely) of the fact that the Lilybaeum fleet was operational again. Marines were selected to board the ships and the fleet of 123 ships left out at nightfall.
     When we return we will look at another incident revealing Publius Claudius Pulcher’s character – the incident dealing with the sacred chickens.

  1. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  2. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.
  3. Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.
  8. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.