Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Asina
Now that Rome had a fleet to speak of in 100 quinqueremes and twenty triremes it was put to sea in the year 260BC. The annual consuls were now Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio as the patrician and Gaius Duilius as his plebian counterpart, the latter actually being a novus homo. Duilius took command of the consular army in Sicily while Scipio received the honor of being Rome’s first real admiral. After the rowers had practiced on land they had a brief stint of training on open water before the fleet began to head south to Messana.
Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio advanced ahead of the main fleet with a squadron totaling seventeen ships in order to take care of the logistics of supplying the fleet while in Sicily. It was during this time that Scipio became aware of the intentions of Lipara, the main port town of the Lipari Islands just north of Sicily, to defect to the Roman cause. For some time now Lipara had been some sort of naval base for Carthaginian fleets. Not wanting to let any opportunity slip through his grasp, Scipio took his squadron to Lipara and anchored at its harbor.
Now it isn’t clear whether Lipara actually had any real intentions to betray Carthage or whether this was a setup from the get go. According to Diodorus Siculus, Lipara had likely been friendly to Rome for some time as the embassy bringing offerings to Delphi after the Siege of Veii was rescued by the Liparan authorities. (See Diodorus Siculus 14.93 to read the whole incident, and also keep in mind this would be around the year 396BC.)1 So it may be possible that it seemed reasonable to Scipio for Lipara to cast its lot with the Rome instead of Carthage. If the town indeed was going to join the Roman cause, unfortunately for Scipio, the Carthaginian general Hannibal Gisgo (the one who was able to escape from Agrigentum) also received word of Lipara’s intentions. He immediately sent Boödes, a leading Carthaginian magistrate (perhaps a member of the Council of 104 or some other ranking Carthaginian senator), with twenty ships to handle the situation.
While the Romans were anchored within Lipara’s harbor, Boödes and his squadron arrived at night and hemmed the Roman ships in. By morning, the Roman ships were trapped. Some of them tried to hastily disembark on the shore, but, seeing as there no way of putting up any purposeful resistance, Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio surrendered. The consul and presumably the crews and marines as well were taken prisoner and the seventeen ships were also likely captured. And with that, the first naval encounter of the First Punic War was over without any actual naval combat.
Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio earned what was likely a humiliating nickname from this episode, that of “Asina.” This literally means a female ass/donkey and perhaps had the intentions of how jackass is used today. The female form of the name may also be intended as salt on the wound with such a name. However, despite now being known as Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Asina and being a hostage of the Carthaginians, he would still have an important role to play (which will be discussed later on). At some point later in the war, he must have been part of a prisoner exchange and/or ransom, which ancient authors describe as occurring during the Punic wars, though the specifics aren’t specified. (Livy 22.23) 2 We know this because Scipio Asina became consul yet again later in the war in 254. Apparently he was able to somehow rise above his newly acquired name and this debacle, likely with his Scipionic patrician pedigree and influence. In any case, he was sidelined for the time being which left Duilius as the sole consul with command at the time.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the successful Liparan ambush, Hannibal Gisgo apparently wanted to determine more about the Roman fleet and decided to scout ahead with fifty ships. In doing so, he accidentally met the main Roman fleet that was rendezvousing at Messana. Here the sources state that the Hannibal Gisgo was defeating in an impromptu battle that neither side was prepared for, losing many ships, but was able to easily escape with his remaining ships due to their advantage in speed over the Romans’. While there may have been a small skirmish of some sort, I find it hard to believe that it was on the magnitude of, “[Hannibal Gisgo] lost most of his ships and escaped himself with the remainder, which was more than he expected or hoped.” (Polybius 1.21.11)3 If this was actually the case, this battle would likely be considered the first true naval engagement of the Roman fleet and not the Battle of Mylae, which will soon be discussed. Also, suffering nearly all of his ships would have made the losses for the Carthaginians on par with Mylae and of a greater proportion, which would be an even more crushing defeat for the Carthaginians if this was true.
In all likelihood, this “battle” was likely a very brief and unintentional skirmish between the ships as they accidentally rowed in the vicinity of each other (not uncommon before the modern era). It may have been embellished to sort of counterbalance the disaster that occurred under Scipio Asina at Lipara. Still, even if the Carthaginians “lost” the skirmish it is clear that they were able to slip away quickly in their ships whether that be from better ship design, seamanship, or a combination of these. After the skirmish was over, the Roman fleet continued on to Sicily where the consul controlling the land forces, Gaius Duilius, was informed of the events that had occurred on the trip to Sicily. At once, Duilius decided to take command of the fleet himself.
- Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957. Print.
- Translated by B. O. Foster. 1929. Print.
- The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.