Battle of Agrigentum – 261 BC

After seven months of minimal skirmishing the Roman besiegers (and besieged) were ready to accept battle head on before they suffered more and more losses from prolonging the siege. Hanno was likely willing to go to battle believing that his men were essentially fresher (and the fact that Hannibal inside the city was likely giving him fire signals or something similar regarding the dire situation inside Agrigentum). In early 261 the two forces clashed in the countryside beyond the walls of Agrigentum. Unfortunately, there are multiple accounts and references of the battle but all have rather divergent accounts of what actually took place. I will attempt to list what the different sources have stated for this battle and then give my thoughts on the matter afterwards.


According to Polybius (1.19)1 the Carthaginian order of battle seems to be mercenaries in front and Carthaginians in the rear, with the elephants formed up in between them. This is indeed a strange formation in regards to the elephants as they would not be effective (it is hard to image how they were going to be used at all). He also omits any mention of the Numidian cavalry in the battle, which, from his earlier remarks on the successful cavalry skirmish, seems to be odd. With the Roman cavalry diminished to some degree it does seem like they could have been used to great effect. Be as it may, what seems to have occurred based on Polybius’ account is that there was a close struggle between the Romans and Carthaginians on the front lines, but when the Romans were able to push the mercenaries backwards the mercenaries became tangled with the elephant line behind them. This created some confusion, perhaps causing the elephants to run rampant and sowed disorder among the remaining infantry units. With Roman pressure put on the disorganized battle lines the Carthaginians routed and retreated back to Heraclea Minoa. Polybius also states that the Carthaginian supplies were captured as well as many of the elephants.

Diodorus Siculus

The description of the Battle of Agrigentum as recorded by Diodorus Siculus has not survived but he does give some remarks on the outcome of the battle – though they really are not reliable. First, he gives the Roman force as being 100,000 strong. (Diodorus Siculus 23.8)2 Though it was possible for consuls to raise a double strength army consisting of four Roman legions and two double allied legions (this occurred in the Second Punic War), there is no evidence that the two consular armies employed at Agrigentum were more than normal strength. This means that the force besieging Agrigentum was approximately on the order of 40,000 men (each consular army would have been about 20,000). His casualty figures are also curious. For Hanno’s force (and this seems to include the cavalry skirmish mentioned earlier) he gives the losses as 3,000 infantry, 200 cavalry, and 41 elephants taken out of action. This is entirely realistic. For Roman losses (apparently for the entire siege) he tallied 30,000 infantry along with substantial cavalry losses. (23.9)3 This would perhaps make sense if there were indeed 100,000 Romans, but 30,000 losses of 40,000 would be utter destruction for the Romans. Plus, it is unclear how, based on the casualty figures, the Romans would have won the battle with upwards of ten times the losses.


Sextus Julius Frontinus was an interesting man to say the least. He was a general during the Roman Empire in Germania, but he is usually most remembered for his work as the curator aquarum (the man who made sure the aqueducts in Rome were working properly) and his treatise On Aqueducts. This was probably one of the first engineering reports ever written. For our purposes he also wrote a book known as Strategems. One of the anecdotes in the work regards the consul Lucius Postumius Megellus and his strategy fighting the Carthaginians in this battle at Agrigentum. It reads as follows:

When Postumius was in Sicily in his consulate, his camp was three miles distant from the Carthaginians. Every day the Punic chieftains drew up their line of battle directly in front of the fortifications of the Romans, while Postumius offered resistance by way of constant skirmishes, conducted by a small band before his entrenchments. As soon as the Carthaginian commander came to regard this as a matter of course, Postumius quietly made ready all the rest of his troops within the ramparts, meeting the assault of the force with a few, according to his former practice, but keeping them engaged longer than usual. When, after noon was past, they were retreating, weary and suffering from hunger, Postumius, with fresh troops, put them to rout, exhausted as they were by the aforementioned embarrassments. (Frontinus 2.1.4)4


Zonaras’ summary of Cassius Dio’s historical work contains yet another brief and different description of how the battle occurred. Here Hanno was able to somehow coordinate with Hannibal in the city a joint attack on the Romans. The Romans, however, came to knowledge of this plan and were able to somehow lay an ambush against Hanno’s forces as the approached the entrenchments. All that is actually described of the fighting is that the Romans “wrought a great slaughter of the enemy and of the elephants besides” (Zonaras 8.10)5 and that Hannibal’s sortie was ineffective.

Conclusion of Agrigentum

None of the sources that have survived to us offer a detailed description of this particular battle and reconciling them is likely impossible. Zonaras’ account of the ambush seems extremely unlikely due to the vantage point on the Toros hill that the Carthaginians commanded and the short distances involved between the armies. However, his account is the only one that mentions a joint effort with Hannibal and his garrison which does seem like the logical maneuver to surround the Romans. Frontinus’ anecdotal style of Strategems generally makes it hard to know if the account was historically accurate or rather a useful literary device to explain the principles that he wanted. In this case however, it does seem to be a plausible explanation for a general rout which all the sources seem to agree upon.

In any case, the lack of mention of any use of Carthage’s Numidian cavalry is the most telling. After the first major skirmish between the two cavalry forces, Carthage should have had cavalry dominance, if not supremacy, and could have wielded this to great effect but the Numidian cavalry seem to have played no important role. Also, the positioning of the elephants was an awkward one where they could have been employed into a more critical role. What seems to me is that Rome gained the upper-hand in the pre-battle phase and that Carthage did not play to her strengths. All the sources do agree that Hanno had to retreat after being defeated and that Agrigentum fell to the Romans and was sacked (and the inhabitants sold into slavery). However, the night after the battle, perhaps due to disorder, mush of the Carthaginian garrison was able to escape past the Romans and their fortifications and into the darkness.

In the aftermath of the battle Hanno was recalled back to Carthage and was fined heavily for his failure. (At least he wasn’t literally crucified as many other Carthaginian commanders had been and would be.) The two consuls on the other hand, Lucius Postumius Megellus and Quintus Mamilius Vitulus, did not celebrate triumphs. This indicates that the victory won over the Carthaginians maybe was not as one sided as many of the sources seem to tell that it was. Still, this decisive victory over Carthage in southern Sicily may have sown the ideas in the Roman Senate that Carthage could be completely forced out of Sicily and not just contained.

1. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
2. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.
3. Ibid.
4. Frontinus. Strategemata. Translated by Charles E. Bennett. 1925.
5. Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.