After the Battle of Panormus
As promised, we will now look into the results of the Battle of Panormus and what the consequences were. Also, if you don’t like hearing about animal abuse, you probably should skip over the part regarding the elephants.
While there are many sources that briefly cover the Battle of Panormus, none of them really give good figures for determining either the size of the opposing armies or the casualties sustained on either side. The only hard number given regarding troop numbers is from Eutropius at 20,000 Carthaginians slain, though he does not state the original size of the army. (2.24)1 This number is likely exaggerated coming from a late source. Polybius gives the most vivid picture of the end of the battle with the Carthaginians suffered a “severe rout among them, [the Romans] killing many and compelling the rest to quit the field in headlong flight.” (1.40)2
With regards to the original strength of the forces, it is hard to say how many Hasdrubal commanded. Presumably, he had most of the Carthaginian forces stationed in Sicily under his command, though some sizable garrisons were likely left in Lilybaeum and Drepana. Earlier in the war the Carthaginian presence on the island could be quite large, though many were likely back in Africa finishing up dealing with the Numidian revolt. Still, Hasdrubal likely had some tens of thousands; perhaps his army was somewhere around 20,000 to 30,000? The Roman army under Metellus also is not clearly defined. Here, however, we can probably assume that he had a consular army. This would amount to about 20,000 total men derived from to Roman and two allied, or socii, legions.
In any case, the Carthaginians suffered a decisive defeat, though many were likely to have been able to escape (except for the elephants, see below), despite Zonaras’ account of the Carthaginians being stuck and cut down on the beach. (8.14)3 This would be due to the Romans’ fairly limited cavalry usually being unable to pursue the enemy to a great extent. Still, even if a majority escaped the battle, it does seem that a substantial number of Carthaginians were indeed taken as prisoners as prisoner exchanges were at least proposed at this time. (Zonaras 8.15)4 We need to be careful with this, though, because this is the place in the narrative of the war where Regulus’ negotiations would take place if they actually did occur (which seems unlikely.)
The one part of the aftermath that we have good source material on pertains to the elephants that were in Hasdrubal’s army. Most sources roughly agree with Polybius’ earlier remark of Hasdrubal arriving in Sicily with 140 elephants. Most of the sources also agree that all or nearly all of the elephants were captured by the Romans after the Battle of Panormus. Only Diodorus Siculus gives a diverging account with only sixty of the elephants being taken alive. Zonaras gives an interesting account of how the elephants were captured after the Battle of Panormus.
For when the beasts, bereft of the men to whom they were used, became infuriated, Metellus made a proclamation to the prisoners, offering safety and pardon to such as would hold them in check; accordingly, some of the keepers approached the gentlest of the animals, which they subdued by the influence of their accustomed presence, and then won over the remainder. (8.14)5
Polybius mentions that at least ten mahouts (elephant riders/trainers) were among those initially captured by the Romans. Metellus’ renown was to increase greatly, perhaps even more than from the achievement of winning the Battle of Panormus, from these elephants as he sent them to Rome as an exotic spectacle.
They way that these hundred and some elephants made it to Italy is remarkable and parallels the story of how Hannibal transported his elephants across the Rhone river. Essentially, they were goaded onto giant rafts, perhaps also landscaped some to look like the ground as in Hannibal’s case, and sent across the straights of Messana.6 I do admit that this seems rather bizarre and I, for one, would like to have seen elephants going across a few miles of open water on nothing but rafts.
Even if this part of the story is hard to believe (traversing the ocean does seem a bit more daunting than crossing a river) the elephants, by whatever means, did somehow arrive in Italy. Pliny the Elder relates the fate of the creatures in Italy. As a forewarning, it is unfortunately an unpleasant one.
Verrius informs us, that they fought in the Circus, and that they were slain with javelins, for want of some better method of disposing of them; as the people neither liked to keep them nor yet to give them to the kings. L. Piso tells us only that they were brought into the Circus; and for the purpose of increasing the feeling of contempt towards them, they were driven all round the area of that place by workmen, who had nothing but spears blunted at the point. The authors who are of opinion that they were not killed, do not, however, inform us how they were afterwards disposed of.7
After the Battle
Lucius Caecilius Metellus was well regarded among other Romans for both his victory and gifts of elephants to the people for entertainment. He would go on to celebrate a triumph for his victory at Panormus in the following year. In later generations coins would be struck with elephant imagery in his honor as well. This was a common way that those in charge of minting money would glorify their ancestors and increase their family’s prestige. He would later become a consul for the second time as well as being appointed to the office of dictator for a largely ceremonial role. Metellus would also go on to become the pontifex maximus in Rome. This was probably the most powerful or influential religious position in Roman religion, though technically four other priests ranked higher than the pontifex maximus.
Once again turning to Pliny the Elder, we can see that Metellus really was worthy of these roles through an incident that occurred later in life as he rescued one of Rome’s most sacred objects.
Metellus passed his old age, deprived of his sight, which he had lost in a fire, while rescuing the Palladium from the temple of Vesta; a glorious action, no doubt… The Roman people, however, granted him a privilege which no one else had ever obtained since the foundation of the city, that of being conveyed to the senate-house in a chariot whenever he went to the senate: a great distinction, no doubt, but bought at the price of his sight.8
Unfortunately, not the same can be said of the opposing general at the Battle of Panormus. Hasdrubal, likely knowing what was going to happen, seems to have accepted his fate and did not try to flee or escape the situation. He was summoned by Carthage, likely the Council of 104, and was sentenced to death as Carthage was prone to do to generals that failed in their tasks. A difference with his execution was that, instead of being crucified (the usual punishment for generals), Hasdrubal may have died by being impaled.9
With the dust settling after the Battle of Panormus, the Carthaginians were forced into a very precarious position. Roman morale had vastly increased just as fast as Carthaginian morale plummeted. Though Rome had only a small fleet now, it was starting to be rebuilt (again.) Also, the majority of their land army in Sicily had been crushed in battle leaving pretty much all of Sicily open to the Romans uncontested. The only remaining strongholds of importance left on the island were Lilybaeum and Drepana. From here on out, Carthage would likely be on the defensive trying to maintain these positions, though with the advantage of hindsight, we now know that the Battle of Panormus was the last major pitched battle of the land aspect of the First Punic War.
Next time, we will see Rome make an attempt at one of these last Carthaginian strongholds.
- Eutropius. Abridgment of Roman History. Translated by John Selby Watson. 1853.
- Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
- Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.
- Pliny the Elder. Natural History. Translated by John Bostock. 1855.
- Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.