Hamilcar Alone Fights Against Rome

Hamilcar at Hercte

     As we saw in our last post, Hamilcar was able to take hold of Hercte near Panormus. After fortifying his position he was able to use this stronghold as his base of operations for the next three years. Rome, with no more stories of adventuring privateers being recorded, was content to send armies into Sicily and contest the war solely by land. This was in Hamilcar’s favor for two reasons. First, he would be able to conduct raids from Hercte easily without having to worry about a Roman fleet. Second, and probably more importantly, his base at Hercte (as well as the besieged cities of Drepana and Lilybaeum) would be able to be resupplied much more easily by sea. This was especially true for Hamilcar as he was essentially inside Roman controlled territory and his force’s only means of being resupplied was by a single route to the sea.
     Stemming from his base at Hercte, Hamilcar began launching raids against Roman possessions both in Sicily and Italy itself. As Polybius writes, “he would sally out with his fleet from this place, and devastate the coast of Italy as far as Cumae.” (1.56)1 This was substantially the most extensive and northern raiding operations Carthage conducted during the war. To try and counter Hamilcar the Romans built their own fortified camp near Hercte. (Polybius states that it was about five stades which would be less than a mile away.) For the next three years Hamilcar would raid against Roman possessions with some of his forces and the fleet while also defending Hercte and harassassing the Roman camp.

Hamilcar Barca engraving from Ward, Lock, & Co.'s Illustrated History of the World.

Engraving from Ward, Lock, & Co.’s Illustrated History of the World

The Boxers

     Unfortunately not much detail at all is given about these three years. Polybius himself states that he will not go into detail on the matter. Instead, he gives us a chapter that vividly describes the two factions as competing champion boxers where neither one can outdo the other. Even though he does not give a narrative of the following years we can infer at least something of what may have happened. The fighting seems to be largely guerrilla type combat with heavy skirmishing constant throughout the period. It may be that neither side dared to risk a major pitched battle. Rome was likely fighting conservatively because forces had to be spread out to contain Hamilcar’s activities while also besieging the major cities of Drepana and Lilybaeum; all without the assistance of naval fleet. Carthage, on the other hand, was probably dedicated most of her resources in Africa rather than in Sicily with Hamilcar (he could thank Hanno the Great for that.) Without any actual troop reinforcements, Hamilcar’s position could only get weaker by attrition as time went on, placing him in no position to risk his entire army at once.
     Here is the aforementioned passage in full and it is one of Polybius’ excellent asides written in great prose.
     For as in a boxing-match when two champions, both distinguished for pluck and both in perfect training, meet in the decisive contest for the prize, continually delivering blow for blow, neither the combatants themselves nor the spectators can note or anticipate every attack or every blow, but it is possible, from the general action of each, and the determination that each displays, to get a fair idea of their respective skill, strength, and courage, so it was with these two generals. The causes or the modes of their daily ambuscades, counter – ambuscades, attempts, and assaults were so numerous that no writer could properly describe them, while at the same time the narrative would be most tedious as well as unprofitable to the reader. It is rather by a general pronouncement about the two men and the result of their rival efforts that a notion of the facts can be conveyed. Nothing was neglected; neither traditional tactics nor plans suggested by the occasion and by actual pressure of circumstances, nor those strokes which depend on a bold and strong initiative. Yet there were several reasons why no decisive success could be obtained. For the forces on each side were evenly matched; their trenches were so strong as to be equally unapproachable, and the camps were at a quite small distance from each other, this being the chief reason why there were daily conflicts at certain points, but no decisive engagement. The losses in these combats consisted only of those who fell in the hand-to-hand fighting, while the side which once gave way used to get out of danger at once behind their defences, from whence they would issue again and resume the fight. (Polybius 1.57 in its entirety.)2

Other Sources

     Even with the great symbolism of Polybius, it is regrettable that these three years are largely unknown in any detail. Some of the other sources have only passing remarks on this section of the war. Zonaras mentions that there was a prisoner exchange around this time and that Hamilcar “caused the Romans much annoyance also by sailing over to Sicily and making trips across into Italy.” (8.16)3 He then goes on to criticize the Romans’ conduct in managing the war. “In the period that followed various persons became consuls, but effected nothing worthy of record… It looked as if they were choosing them for practice and not for service.” (8.16)4 He is actually making a very good point in that the Roman generals were the two consuls, but since they only held office for one campaigning season they never seemed to get much done. Just when they were starting to get comfortable or at least figure out what they should really be doing they would be replaced by new consuls with no real generalship experience.

Hamilcar's base at Hercte was near Panormus.

     Diodorus Siculus’ account at this point in the First Punic War is extremely fragmentary though we are fortunate for at least a couple of lines relating to Hamilcar Barca. As we can see Diodorus Siculus sings high praise of Hamilcar and not just for his military genius. This is echoed by other writers of antiquity, even from pro-Roman authorities.
     Even before he became general, Hamilcar’s nobility of spirit was apparent, and when he succeeded to the command he showed himself worthy of his country by his zeal for glory and scorn of danger. He was reputed to be a man of exceptional intelligence, and since he surpassed all his fellow citizens both in daring and in ability at arms, he was indeed “Both a goodly prince and a brave warrior.” (Diodorus Siculus 24.5)5
     Diodorus Siculus’ quote at the end is from the Iliad (3.179) and is in reference to Agamemnon. Diodorus Siculus also includes one fragmentary line about Hamilcar’s operations during these three years. Namely, Hamilcar was able to raid or assault a fort called “Italium.” Presumably this was a fortification built by the Romans based on its name. More interestingly, Italium is stated to have been located “near Longon” and “belonging to Catana.” (Diodorus Siculus 24.6)6 Longon seems to be a still unknown location today, but Catana (sometimes Catania) was (and still is) located on the eastern coast of Sicily. This indicated that his raids really were far reaching, even in Sicily itself.
     And that is pretty much all we know of the campaigns that took place in the years 247 to 244 BCE in the First Punic War. The next time we return, we will look at Hamilcar’s daring operation of 244 BCE as well as look at an infamous band of mercenaries under his command.

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