The Battle of Cape Hermaeum – 255 BCE

Carthage Recovers Africa

     With Regulus and the majority of the Roman invasion force out of the way, Carthage was able to reclaim the Libyan territory lost to the Romans in the previous year. They managed to retake everything except Aspis. The 2,000 or so survivors of the Battle of Tunis had holed up in this first Roman foothold in Africa. Even though the Carthaginians besieged the town, the Roman garrison was making it just difficult enough for Carthage to not want to pay the price of storming the city. Carthage did end up leaving Aspis alone; the Roman force there being too small to cause any serious damage.
     Carthage also had to deal with some Numidian incursions as well. As mentioned in an earlier post, some of the Numidian tribes took advantage of Carthage’s weakness after the Battle of Adys and began raiding into the countryside. Orosius provides some details where others do not, for whatever they’re worth. A Hamilcar, it’s not clear if this is the same Hamilcar we’ve been dealing with for a while now, took an army into Numidia and Mauretania to exact tribute. This was provided in silver and cattle. Some of the leaders and chiefs of the tribes were also “fastened to the patibulum” (meaning they were crucified) as examples. (Orosius 4.9)1 All in all, despite having to deal with the Numidians and Aspis, the Carthaginians were in good spirits. As Polybius puts it, “there was no extravagance of rejoicing in which they did not indulge, paying thank-offerings to the gods and giving congratulatory entertainments.” (1.36)2 

The Battle of Cape Hermaeum – 255 BCE

     Even more difficult than at the Battle of Ecnomus, trying to figure out the number of ships that Rome used after rescuing the remnants of her African expeditionary army is a real mess. Many sources give different numbers of ships and most of these numbers are disputed and we will just try to deal with it as we go along. Polybius tells us that Rome sent an initial fleet of 350 ships under the command of the consuls of 255 BCE to evacuate the garrison at Aspis. (Presumably a ship had been dispatched to inform Rome of the disaster at Tunis.) The consuls this year were Servius Fulvius Paetinus Nobilior and Marcus Aemilius Paullus. 
     On their way, it may be that the Romans were blown off course somewhat. Zonaras records that en route to Africa they “were overtaken by a storm and carried to Cossura.” (8.14)3 This Cossura is Cossyra, the modern day island of Pantelleria. Deciding to make the best of the storm the Romans conquered the island and subsequently left a garrison there. The consuls would celebrate a triumph later for this undertaking. This little episode aside, they then continued back onward to Africa.

The Battle of Cape Hermaeum took place in 255 BCE.

     As the Romans headed towards Aspis to evacuate the Roman contingent there, Carthage was able to intercept them with her fleet. Unfortunately for Carthage, they were only able to assemble a fleet of 200 ships in this effort. Some scholars also use this number as a way to argue for the invalidity of our sources. Carthage, after the Battle of Ecnomus, still withdrew with at least 250 ships. How could Carthage, while recovering African territory, “set to repairing the ships they had and building other entirely new ones, and having soon manned a fleet of two hundred sail…” (Polybius 1.36)4 only set off a fleet of 200 if they already had more than that and created new ships? I believe that the answer is twofold. First, Carthage may have not concentrated all of her ships in one fleet and may have dispersed them to other sectors of war. Second, Polybius does state that 200 were manned. It may be possible that Carthage was having a tough time continually finding the manpower to operate all of these quinqueremes. 
     Be as it may, Carthage and Rome clashed once again in the Mediterranean, this time near Cape Hermaeum (Cape Bon today.) Rome had a substantial numerical advantage this time and routed the Carthaginian fleet. Carthage lost, according to Polybius, 114 ships with their crews, but no mention of sunk vessels is given. (1.36)5 This number does seem like an extraordinarily high percentage of losses for the Carthaginian fleet.
     Another source, Zonaras, describes that the Roman garrison at Aspis sailed out and aided their fellow Romans at sea. (8.14)6 This really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for a couple reasons. First, it is unclear how the garrison at Aspis would have known when and where to go to coordinate its attack unless the opening of the Battle of Cape Hermaeum was within sight of the city. This may have been possible, due to the battle’s location, but it still seems unlikely that the garrison would be able to mobilize quickly enough. Secondly, if the garrison had access to ships, presumably the forty left with Regulus, it isn’t clear why the remnants of Regulus’ forces didn’t just head back home on these ships. It seems more likely that these ships were for some reason unavailable, perhaps being destroyed in the absence of the main force.

The Fleet that Left Africa

     After the successful Battle of Cape Hermaeum, the Romans successfully landed again in northern Africa. It does seem likely that Rome may have raided a little or took part in some skirmishes. Livy mentions that, at this point, “Roman commanders pursued the war successfully on land and sea.” (18)7 However, this clearly was not another attempt to invade Africa and was primarily a rescue mission. Eutropius certainly gets out of hand when he mentions that all of “Africa would then have been subdued” from the consuls campaigns, had it not been for a food supply shortage. (2.22)8
     At any rate, the Roman garrison at Aspis was able to be recovered by the fleet. Now, there is a debate over the size of this fleet that now left Africa and bound back to Sicily and Rome. Polybius clearly states that on this voyage back that Rome’s fleet numbered 364 ships. The problem occurs when we take the facts already stated by Polybius that Rome had 350 ships and just added 114 from the Battle of Cape Hermaeum. I will disregard the forty ships left in Africa as it seems in all likelihood that they were not available, otherwise the garrison could have left before Carthage even mustered a fleet. Still, that grants us a total of 464 ships instead of the 364 given by Polybius. 
     While there are many theories milling about around this problem and I will go over a few of them here. Eutropius states that there was indeed 464 ships in the returning fleet. The problem with Eutropius’ account is that it makes no sense how he arrives at this number seeing as he gives the Romans initially 300 ships and then only thirty captured at the Battle of Cape Hermaeum. Where other ships come from is a mystery. There is a good line of argument that just because the Romans had plenty of ships, not all were used in the return crossing and were likely burnt at Aspis. Some ships could have been damaged, particularly the captured ones, plus finding willing crews to man all of the extra ships would have been difficult so only 364 were in the end used. The theory that I personally think might be the correct one is to go with Diodorus Siculus’ account of the Battle of Cape Hermaeum where Rome only captured twenty-four Carthaginian ships. (23.18)9 If the Roman fleet had suffered any losses, this would bring its numbers in the ballpark of 364 ships. 
     This explanation may also explain something else. If the Romans truly had captured and sunk well over one hundred Carthaginian vessels at the Battle of Cape Hermaeum, this would have been the largest and greatest victory of the entire war. All of our sources, though, barely mention this battle, usually passing over it in a few words. Surely, Polybius or someone would have written more on this battle or that later generations would have referenced this battle, but this is not the case. This silence is good evidence that this battle was likely only the minor skirmish of the kind Diodorus Siculus mentions. 

     I promise we won’t be dealing with numbers like that for a while to come. We will now leave off with Rome sailing back to Sicily and Italy with about 364 ships with the remnants of the African invasion force on board. In our next post, we will see that the storm that accidentally sent the fleet to Cossyra was just a forewarning of what was to come.

  1. Orosius. Seven Books of History Against the Pagans.
  2. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  3. Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.
  4. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.
  7. Livy. Periochae. Translated by Jona Lendering. Latin and English translation found at
  8. Eutropius. Abridgment of Roman History. Translated by John Selby Watson. 1853.
  9. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.