The First Battle of Panormus – 254 BCE

     Aulus Atilius Calatinus and Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Asina sailed out from Italy with the new Roman fleet early in 254 BCE. After rendezvousing at Messana in order to refit and add to the fleet the ships that had miraculously survived the Camarina storm, the combined fleet numbered now at least 250 ships, perhaps 300 according to Polybius. On land, it seems likely that there was an army, to keep the Carthaginians in check, though it would have been commanded by a praetor whose name has not come down to us.

The Start of the Campaign

     The first order of action was the capture of Cephaloedium, a town located roughly near the middle of the norther coast of Sicily. Diodorus Siculus relates that the town was captured by treason. (23.18)1 There are no more details on the matter, not making it clear whether “treason” meant some treacherous actions on the Roman part or defection on the town’s part. In any case, Cephaloedium was en route to what the primary target of the campaign: Panormus.
     The city of Panormus was one Carthage’s primary strongholds in Sicily, the other two being Lilybaeum and Drepana. Panormus was located on the western portion of Sicily’s northern coast and boasted an excellent harbor, this probably being the reason for its original founding as a Phoenician colony. There were two parts to the city, apparently, a “new town” and an “old town.” It may have been the physical changing of the harbor or just the town simply morphing over time that led to this arrangement.
     There may have been one other action before the Romans set upon Panormus though. Diodorus Siculus seems to imply that Drepana was meant to be the the consuls’ originally intended target this year. “They went on to Drepana and put it under siege, but when Carthalo came to its aid they were driven off and went to Panormus.”2 However, this really doesn’t make very much sense. Drepana was further west, on the northwestern corner of Sicily, and would have been difficult to hold if it was indeed captured. It may be that this was a diversionary tactic or that the Romans may have thought or had false information that Drepana was lightly defended and would be easy pickings before Carthalo warded them off. Or Diodorus Siculus might simply be incorrect here.

Panormus is located on the western side of the north coast of Sicily.

The First Battle of Panormus

     Arriving at Panormus, the consuls Calatinus and Asina immediately began conducting a siege against the city. Earthworks were raised and siege engines were built. According to Polybius, “the tower on the sea shore was easily knocked down.” (1.38)3 It isn’t clear what this “tower” was. It may have just been a defensive tower, but, since Panormus was a major harbor city, it could have been a lighthouse that was the weak link in Panormus’ defenses. At any rate, whatever it was, fell to Roman battering rams and created a breach into the New Town. 
     The Roman legionaries immediately poured into the breach and stormed the New Town. After fighting within the city, the New Town fell under Roman control. The Old Town sector of Panormus soon capitulated and surrendered without resistance after witnessing the loss of the New Town. Polybius only further mentions that a garrison was installed, before the consuls left.4
     Diodorus Siculus elaborates much more on this battle. In his account the Roman ships anchored in Panormus’ harbor. The army was then able to surround Panormus with a palisade and trench. Since the area around the city was heavily forested, these could be made easily along with the siege engines and earthworks. This also allowed “the earthworks and trenches [to be] made to extend from sea to sea.”5 This likely meant from one side of the harbor then all the way inland to the other side of the harbor. Clearly the Romans were heavily invested in taking this Carthaginian city.
     In his account, the inhabitants and garrison that surrender from inside the New Town pay a heavy price. After negotiating for a deal rather than end up fighting the Roman army, those remaining in Panormus agreed to steep terms. Diodorus Siculus records these terms as follows.

    An agreement agreement was made that those who paid two minas apiece should go free, and the Romans then took over the city; at this price fourteen thousand persons were brought under the agreement upon payment of the money, and were released. All the others, to the number of thirteen thousand, as well as the household goods, were sold by the Romans as booty. (23.18)6


     Panormus had fallen to the Romans and the city’s former inhabitants paid dearly, nearly half being sold into slavery. The losses are unknown for either side in this battle, though it ended up paying dividends in the political realm for Rome. The nearby town of Iaetia forced out the Carthaginian forces garrisoned there because of the fall of Panormus. This then led to a domino effect of defections to the Roman cause. These included Tyndaris, Solus, Petra, and Enattaros, though not all of these locations are known to us today.7 After this mass defection, north-central Sicily largely fell into Roman hands leaving Carthage with only the far west and southwestern Sicily in her sphere of influence. 
     What is interesting to note with these actions is how quick Rome seemingly recovered from the storm the year before. Even though they had lost an enormous percentage of their collective manpower, the Romans did not surrender the war as lost but actually went on the offensive. Scipio Asina seems to have redeemed himself from his showing at the Lipari Islands years before and earned himself a triumph for the capture of Panormus. This contrasts heavily with the Carthaginian response which seems lackluster. Carthalo seemed to be busy, perhaps his taking of Agrigentum was around this time. However, if Hasdrubal was indeed in Sicily with his army (which included 140 elephants), he was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he was doing drills and practicing away from the fight as he was known to do.
     Next time, we will look at how Rome, after seeing success in this campaign, adopted a completely different strategy.

  1. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Ibid.