The Battle of Tyndaris – 257 BCE

     As promised, we will now go into some more detail on the Battle of Tyndaris. (You can click here to read up on the rest of the year before and after.) In all reality this was not a large planned set piece pitched battle. In one tradition it was literally one fleet sailing past another and haphazardly engaging. At best there was much hesitation in engaging in the battle and the results also demonstrate this. What we do know is for sure is that the admiral of the Roman fleet was Gaius Atilius Regulus.

The Battle of Tyndaris took place off the northeastern coast of Sicily south of the Lipari Islands.

The Battle of Tyndaris

     There are three general variations of this battle that have come down to us. Polyaenus, a writer of the Roman Empire who wrote a book on military strategy, includes this battle as one of his instructional stratagems. 

While the Carthaginian fleet, consisting of eighty large ships, lay at Tyndaris, Gaius with two hundred triremes endeavoured in vain to bring them to a engagement, because they were deterred by the superior number of his fleet. Furling therefore the sails of one hundred of his vessels, and setting those of the rest, he concealed one half on his fleet behind the expanded sails of the other half; and, his line thus formed, showed himself to the enemy, who, supposing the number of his ships to be only in proportion to the number of sails they saw, advanced against him, determined to hazard a battle. Gaius lay by, until they had approached too near him to escape; and then bearing down upon them with all his force obtained an easy victory. (8.20)

Zonaras’ version is somewhat similar in that the Roman fleet was divided into two parts. Hamilcar, “thinking them to be an isolated force,” (8.12)2 attacked one of the smaller Roman fleets but was then overrun when the reinforcements engaged. It seems clear from both of these accounts that the Romans knew that Carthage would not engage the full Roman with their own. It is likely that some attempts may have been made at this and when they failed Gaius Atilius Regulus resorted to these plans of deception. 
     However, these accounts are certainly not without flaws. First, it is hard to believe that Rome would have 200 ships at their disposal at this time. Even with captured ships it seems unlikely that it would reach 200, unless this includes small craft that would not be used for combat. These could have been transports used to ferry the army across the straights to Sicily for example. Polyaenus’ use of triremes instead of quinqueremes is forgivable due to the fact that when he was writing the Mediterranean Sea was the “Roman Lake” and the Roman navy largely consisted of triremes which was sometimes used as a term for warships in general. The worst flaw that Polyaenus makes, which seems strange for a book on strategy and tactics, is the ruse he records of hiding towed ships behind the full sails of the others. On one hand, it doesn’t seem likely that this would really work anyway, but, more importantly, ships in this era never engaged in combat with their sails and rigging up. Instead, they were stored aboard if combat ever seemed likely. To fight with full sails would have been extremely dangerous, unwieldy, and difficult to manage during the inherent chaos of a naval battle. They would have been a major hindrance and would have likely led to a catastrophe.

Polybius’ Version

     Polybius, who had been heavily skimming over the events occurring in this year and the ones preceding it, does briefly mention the Battle of Tyndaris. His version is quite different from the ones above. In this account it is the Roman navy anchored off of Cape Tyndaris, not the Carthaginians. As they were floating there the Carthaginians happened to sail by in the vicinity. Polybius describes that the Carthaginians were in “disorder.” Yet, I think that it would only be considered “disorderly” in that they weren’t arranged in a battle formation.
     In any case, Regulus pounced on an opportunity. He ordered the fleet to advance and meet the enemy. The problem is that getting a whole fleet to advance suddenly without prior warning in an age without reliable communication is really, really difficult. It is likely that different patterned or colored flags were used to convey signals to other captains in the fleet (hence the admiral’s ship was usually a “flagship.”) As you may have guessed, this isn’t the greatest mode of relaying orders throughput a fleet. Even in the modern era, iron battleships at the Battle of Jutland in World War One partially used flags to relay commands and it proved rather unreliable.
     So what happened was that Gaius Atilius Regulus himself was in derangement. He was leading a squadron of just ten ships out against the Carthaginian fleet. Presumably, the rest of Regulus’ fleet was still getting ready to row and weighing anchor and lagged behind the ten out ahead. Hamilcar and the Carthaginians, “observing that some of the enemy were still embarking, and some just getting under weigh, while those in the van had much outstripped the others, turned and met them.” (1.25)3 So it seems that the Carthaginians were not as disorderly as might be imagined. 
     Conveniently for Regulus, and sadly unfortunately for the other sailors and marines, only Regulus’ ship out of the ten with the head start was not sunk. His men apparently were somehow quick enough to row just enough out of harm’s way when the rest of the Roman fleet showed up. When they did it was in “close order” and able to successfully engage the Carthaginians, whose formation was likely somewhat out of whack by now. Presumably the Romans were still using the corvus, though it is not explicitly mentioned. It seems that the battle was brief with Carthage withdrawing to the Lipari Islands. They had lost eight ships beneath the waves and another ten (with the crews) being captured.

Follow-up of the Battle

     It is hard to say which tradition more accurately describes the Battle of Tyndaris. I lean towards Polybius’ authority usually and his account does seem more natural with how a naval engagement at this particular time may have gone down. There may have been some sort of division of forces on the Roman side, which may have led to the early Roman setback in the battle in Polybius’ version. Though that may have just been a cover for Regulus and his supporters for messing up in the first place. 
     In any event, Rome had lost nine ships to Carthage’s retreat and loss of eighteen ships so the Battle of Tyndaris was a very minor Roman victory. Yet, if Rome was preparing to take over Lipara, this was successfully countered, at least for the most part. With both sides having avoided disaster, Regulus continued to raid elsewhere and was awarded a triumph for these efforts. I know, it does seem that the Romans were very lenient in awarding triumphs in the First Punic War. Perhaps this was due to the overall stalemate between the two sides in Sicily, so that if anything out of the norm did happen it was seen in a much greater light. 

     It does seem that both sides began to think that naval matters were going to be a very important, if not the most important, facet of the war. This is born out in the size of the fleets in the next confrontation, 300+ on both sides. Even Carthage would have to work hard to supplement its fleet to this size. Rome would have to undergo yet another shipbuilding program of sorts to achieve these numbers. That program likely started about this time in 257 when their confidence in their navy was increased with another victory to pair with Mylae. As Polybius states, “The result of this battle was that both sides thought that they had fought now on equal terms, and both threw themselves more thoroughly into the task of organizing naval forces and disputing the command of the sea…” (1.25)4 We will meet with these fleets next time, making the Battle of Tyndaris seem rather small.

  1. Polyaenus. Stratagems of War. Translated by R. Shepherd. 1973. From
  2. Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.
  3. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  4. Ibid