Autaritus and His Treacherous Mercenary Band

Carthage and Mercenaries

     When we involve ourselves by sheer lack of judgement and with our eyes open in the depth of misfortune, everyone acknowledges that we have none to blame but ourselves… To begin with would not anyone who is aware of the general reputation of the Gauls, think twice before entrusting to them a wealthy city, the betrayal of which was easy and profitable? In the second place who would not have been cautious in the case of a company with such a bad name? (Polybius 2.7)1

     And so Polybius remarks regarding the conflict between the Epirots and Illyrians. What makes this important to our study of the First Punic War is that the aforementioned Gauls are some of the same Celts and Gauls in active service in the First Punic War. As we will see, the Epirots (and Illyrians) certainly made poor judgements in placing their trust.
     Mercenary companies were fairly company in the classical Mediterranean world. Carthage, as general policy, usually employed large quantities of mercenaries as a major part of her military force. These came from Africa, Italy, Spain, and Gaul, among many others. These mercenaries were usually supplemented in large part by the forces of client-states of Carthage, such as Numidians, Libyans, and Liby-Phoenicians. Carthaginian citizens proper rarely fought outside of their own territory or abroad. (For example, Carthaginian citizen-soldiers do not seem to have played much of a role at all in Sicily, but they did confront Regulus at the Battle of Tunis.)

     This particular Gallic band seems to have served Carthage for the much of the duration of the war. Originally from Gaul, they were “expelled from their own country by a general movement of their fellow-countrymen owing to their having betrayed their own friends and kinsmen.” (Polybius 2.7)2 Not a great start to their career, but mercenaries could often be of the rough and tumble type and they were eventually hired out by Carthage. They were at Agrigentum fairly early in the war, at the forefront of a conflict over pay. They may have done some looting inside the city, but apparently were appeased after a short time. They must have made their escape with much of the rest of the Carthaginian army under the cover of night to avoid the Roman host. It is not known whether or not Autaritus was the commander of this Gallic mercenary contingent this early on; however, he was in command by the time of Hamilcar’s generalship.

Autaritus and His Gauls

     From the fall of Agrigentum to Hamilcar’s capture of Eryx, Autaritus and his company behaved themselves enough at least to not be mentioned in the sources again. However, their activity in the following few years would elevate them to probably being considered the most treacherous and notorious of Mediterranean mercenary companies in the classical age. It started when Hamilcar led his successful raid against the town of Eryx on Mt. Eryx. As we have already seen, the Romans still had garrisons at the summit of the mountain in the temple complex as well as in a base at the foot of the mountain. Hamilcar would continue to lead attacks against these positions and others around Mt. Eryx, but he would naturally have to leave behind a decent garrison to ensure Eryx didn’t fall while he was absent.

     Apparently Autaritus and his Gauls were assigned to this garrison duty during certain periods of time. It may be that they were not being paid enough as the Carthaginians were strapped for cash by this point in the war. Or perhaps they simply were not enjoying Hamilcar’s frequent and demanding guerilla tactics against the Romans and constantly skirmishing all the time. In any case, at some point during their station at Eryx, “they attempted to betray the city and those who were suffering siege in their company, and when this plan fell through, they deserted to the Romans.” (Polybius 2.7)3 Much like the mercenaries who tried to hand the city of Lilybaeum over during its siege, Autaritus and his Gauls were willing to abandon the rest of their comrades to the will of the Romans. Fortunately for Hamilcar, for whatever reason, they were unsuccessful in their attempt. However, in lieu of handing Eryx over, they decided to join what they probably saw as the winning team (or at least the team who could pay them) and defected to the Romans.

Autaritus and his Gallic mercenaries tried to hand the town of Eryx over to the Romans when they defected to Rome in the First Punic War.

View from Mt. Eryx from Victor Duruy’s History of Rome.

     The Romans made quick use of Autaritus and his Gauls and had them reinforce the garrison at the temple on the summit of Mt. Eryx. It seems that they were just as discontent under Roman masters as they were under Carthaginian ones. While garrisoned there, this Gallic mercenary band looted and pillaged the area of the temple. The Romans, probably not wanting to risk losing the position by fighting them, put up with Autaritus and his men for the duration of the First Punic War, but then sent them away. “Therefore, no sooner was the war with Carthage over, than the Romans, having clear evidence of their infamous character, took the very first opportunity of disarming them, putting them on board ship and banishing them from the whole of Italy.” (Polybius 2.7)4

After the First Punic War

     Here the mercenary band split ways. About 800, without their leader Autaritus, headed east after the Romans disposed of them and it is in service to the Greek state of Epirus that Polybius narrates the devious history of this company. After Queen Teuta became ruler in Illyria, she sent raids against her neighbors. During the course of one of these raids, the Illyrians anchored at the Epirot city of Phoenice to resupply. It just so happened that our Gallic mercenaries were a major part of the garrison of this port city. Apparently the Illyrians and Gauls hit off and were able to come to some sort of deal. With the agreement in place, the Illyrians were able to capture the city “by assault with the help from within of the Gauls.” (Polybius 2.5)5 Presumably, the Gauls then defected to Illyria or at least took some money and ran after betraying Epirus. It is because of the Gauls’ prior ill-gotten reputation that Polybius rhetorically asks regarding the kingdom of Epirus, “How then can they be acquitted of the charge of causing their own misfortunes?” (Polybius 2.7)6
     As for Autaritus and the rest of his mercenaries after the First Punic War, they decided to head back to Africa and aid their brethren in the Mercenary War. This was a war fought between Carthage against many of her former mercenary forces being aided by Libyans. It took place just after the end of the First Punic War down to 238 BCE. In this war, Autaritus was one of the leaders of the rebel army. While all of the details of the Mercenary War do not concern us here, we can look at Autaritus’ fate.

     At one point in the war, Autaritus gave a rousing speech that directly resulted in some 700 Carthaginian captives having their hands cut of, legs broken, and limbs removed, followed by further mutilation and being thrown into a trench. (Polybius 1.80)7 However, Carthage eventually prevailed in the mercenary war with Hamilcar Barca himself (Hanno the Great obviously couldn’t get the job done by himself) delivering the important blow against the mercenaries at a rocky place known as “the Saw.” Tens of thousands of the rebellious mercenaries were slain in the battle and executed afterwards. Auritus and the other leaders of the revolt were captured before the battle and were later crucified in view of the resistance to Carthage that remained.

Hamilcar Barca engraving from Ward, Lock, & Co.'s Illustrated History of the World.

Hamilcar Barca engraving from Ward, Lock, & Co.’s Illustrated History of the World.

     Not all mercenary companies were as deceitful as Autaritus and his Gauls and, in fact, the vast majority of mercenaries could be counted on as long as the price was right. The story of this Gallic band, besides being interesting, demonstrates just how interconnected the Mediterranean was in the classical age. Next time, we will return to our narrative of the First Punic War and examine the developments to occur before the last battle of the war.

  1. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.