Hamilcar Barca Arrives in Sicily

Rome Does Not Give Up

     249 BCE, while being a terrible year of military defeat, a third storm, and political disorder, was not enough to break the Roman Republic. Even when the dictator, Calatinus, appointed to take control of the situation in Sicily (and probably restore order in Rome), was said to have “accomplished nothing worthy of remembrance,” the next year the Romans dug in and went on with business as usual. (Zonaras 8.15)1 Granted, they “relinquished the sea” to Carthage, but they did not loosen their grip on Sicily at all. (Polybius 1.55)2 Carthage still only held a few minor coastal towns and the strongholds of Drepana and Lilybaeum of the entirety of the island. The latter was still being besieged by Rome and the consuls of 248 BCE threatened and harassed Drepana intermittently. The only real problem was that from now on Rome planned on supplying this army around Lilybaeum by overland transports since a new fleet was not going to be constructed any time soon. So, even though Rome decided to not to contest the high seas, the situation in Sicily was still rather grim for Carthage, though she had succeeded in this position before.

Rome and Syracuse

     Rome also made a very wise move diplomatically at this point in time as well. Early in the war, Syracuse and King Hiero had negotiated a peace settlement. And, as was common in the Greek world, this peace had been negotiated for a set duration. While Polybius tells us the terms of the peace, Diodorus Siculus informs us that the peace and tribute was set for fifteen years. (23.4)3 Since the peace was struck in 263 BCE it was technically set to expire in our current year of 248 BCE. While its expiration did not necessarily mean that Syracuse would have to do anything, it may be possible that Carthage could somehow give Syracuse something of a more favorable benefits package for legally switching sides. If anything Carthage could put pressure on Hiero to just not support the Roman war effort. This was of the utmost importance now that Rome’s supplies and logistics would almost be entirely overland. King Hiero had aided Rome many times in this regard during the war and would probably have to again in Rome’s tenuous situation. Be as it may, before Carthage was able to make something happen with this situation, Rome quickly stepped in and negotiated a permanent peace with Syracuse. “In the meantime the Romans had concluded a perpetual friendship with Hiero, and they furthermore remitted all the tribute which they were accustomed to receive from him annually.” (Zonaras 8.16)4 Rome was likely generous in ending any further tribute and cancelling any tribute that Syracuse owed because of Hiero and the Syracuse always being ready and aiding the Roman war effort successfully. Syracuse would remain a Roman ally until she defected in the Second Punic War under King Hiero’s young and rash grandson Hieronymus.

Drepana was located on the far western coast of Sicily.

Hamilcar Barca

     For Carthage’s part during this time, despite not doing much of anything else, she did at least send Hamilcar Barca to Sicily as a general. Zonaras’ chronology places Hamilcar’s arrival in late 248 BCE and Polybius indicates that he took full command in the following year. “The Carthaginians shortly afterwards appointed Hamilcar surnamed Barcas to the command and entrusted naval operations to him.” (Polybius 1.56)5 Even though Polybius states “naval operations,” the only other generals from here on out are those of the garrisons of the strongholds Drepana and Lilybaeum. It seems that Hamilcar either did have command or at least de facto command of all operations based in and around Sicily. Probably Hamilcar Barca’s first actions were housecleaning in nature. Namely, he picked up where Carthalo left off in regards to the rebellious mercenaries. While Carthalo was satisfied with marooning them on deserted isles, Hamilcar opted to “cut down many of them one night and had many others thrown into the sea.” (Zonaras 8.16)6 As we will see, Hamilcar was decisive in his operations.

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

     As for his first operation against Rome, if it is to be true, is found only in Zonaras’ account. In 247 BCE the two new Roman consuls were Lucius Caecilius Metellus (a former consul and the victor of the Battle of Panormus) and Numerius Fabius Buteo. Metellus was busy investing Lilybaeum while Buteo tried to make some headway against Drepana. In the classical age there were two islands nearby off the coast of Drepana (now known as Columbaia and Lazzaretto with the later actually connected to the mainland of Sicily now.) One of them, known as Pelias during the Roman age, was taken over by Carthage early in the war. Buteo, wanting to use it against Drepana, stormed the island in a successful night attack. The next day, “Learning this, Hamilcar at dawn attacked the troops who had crossed to it.” (Zonaras 8.16)7 Buteo was apparently unable to send reinforcements or evacuate his troops from the island (not having a navy can do that with island warfare) so he decided to assault Drepana itself with his remaining troops. Hamilcar could ill-afford to risk losing Drepana and decided to keep his forces together and defend the city proper and allowed the Romans to take Pelias. Buteo then built an earthen causeway to the mainland from Pelias since the water was shallow and not a great distance. This allowed them to focus on attacking a weak sector of Drepana’s seawards walls and defenses. This does seem rather a stretch though certainly not impossible. Mostly I feel that Hamilcar would have skirmished with the Romans enough to make it too difficult to fill in the water that much. However, Hamilcar may have been away raiding while the Romans were doing this as we will see.
     Even though Polybius doesn’t mention this action, both he and Zonaras confirm that Hamilcar did make some serious raids against Italy proper. Hamilcar used Carthage’s naval supremacy to “ravage the Italian coast… laying waste Locris and the Bruttii.” (Polybius 1.56)8 These areas were located in southern Italy around the peninsula that juts out towards Sicily. It has been suggested that some of the Roman citizen colonies founded in these same areas such as Alsium, Fregenae, and (a Latin colony) Brundisium in the following couple of years were in direct response to Hamilcar’s raids. (Oftentimes Roman colonies were indeed coastal defense towns known as coloniae maritimae and Ostia, essentially Rome’s de facto port, was one of these colonies originally.) If this is the case, it may demonstrate that Hamilcar’s raids could have been quite serious in nature as opposed to Carthalo’s meek showing a little bit earlier. 

     Next time, Hamilcar makes a bold move in Sicily while Roman citizens decide to try to take to the seas themselves in the absence of a navy managed by the state.

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