Hamilcar Barca Gets Serious (and Roman Privateers)
After Hamilcar had finished his raids against southern Italy he returned to Sicily to try and make something of Carthage’s dismal situation there. He seems to have tried to retake Panormus back from the Romans, and perhaps seeing that it wasn’t possible at the moment, ended up seizing a nearby vantage point. This was known contemporarily as Hercte and is likely the modern Monte Castellaccio. It was a rather large hill and, according to its description, a highly favorable position to hold on the island. Here is Polybius’ lengthy description of what turned out to be Hamilcar’s first major stronghold in Sicily.
It is an abrupt hill rising to a considerable height from the surrounding flat country. The circumference of its brow is not less than a hundred stades and the plateau within affords good pasturage and is suitable for cultivation, being also favourably exposed to the sea-breeze and quite free of animals dangerous to life. On the side looking to the sea and on that which faces the interior of the island, this plateau is surrounded by inaccessible cliffs, while the parts between require only a little slight strengthening. There is also a knoll on it which serves for an acropolis as well as for an excellent post of observation over the country at the foot of the hill. Besides this Hercte commands a harbour very well situated for ships making the voyage from Drepana and Lilybaeum to Italy to put in at, and with an abundant supply of water. The hill has only three approaches, all difficult, two on the land side and one from the sea. (Polybius 1.56)1
Engraving from Ward, Lock, & Co.’s Illustrated History of the World
As you can see, this fortified hill of Hamilcar’s would prove to be a great strategic base for Hamilcar to defend and launch operations from. Perhaps the Romans, since they had taken control of Panormus several years earlier, should have garrisoned this position themselves or tried to contest its occupation. It was also located in a fairly good position tactically for Hamilcar if he wanted to harass the Romans as it lay between Panormus and Eryx, probably on a major northern road running west to east near the coast.
This isn’t to say that it wasn’t a bold move on Hamilcar’s part for occupying this position or that it wasn’t dangerous. Even though it was highly defensible, Hamilcar and his force based out of Hercte would be quite isolated in Sicily. He would be inside enemy territory and surrounded on the landward fronts by the Romans. His only real supply line was through the harbor, though with no Roman fleet Hamilcar wouldn’t have to worry too much about supplies not arriving by sea. Still, despite these risks, Hamilcar was decisive and knew that he had to try to do something to loosen Roman control over Sicily and Hercte would be the best means of achieving this (even if it put his own forces in a precarious situation.)
As we have seen, Rome decided not to contest control of the seas after sustaining horrific losses largely by the forces of nature. What little remnant of a navy that was kept (if any) was probably put up in dry dock for the time being. However, despite the state’s official policy of not commanding a naval force, there may have been some Romans who wanted to risk life and limb on the high seas and put the fight to Carthage. Essentially, if this account is accurate and I do have some reservations with it, Rome allowed privateers to try their luck against Carthage on the water.
As Zonaras puts it, “the Romans refrained officially from naval warfare, because of their misfortunes and expenses, but some private individuals asked for ships on condition of restoring the vessels but appropriating any booty gained.” (8.16)2 Essentially, enterprising Roman citizens would borrow quinqueremes from the government and use them to pirate Carthaginian assets and would be allowed to keep any plunder so long as they returned the ships. Perhaps in retribution for Hamilcar’s successful raids against southern Italy squadrons of these Roman privateers tried to do likewise against Carthaginian territory. If Zonaras’ account is true, they were able to sail to Hippo (probably Hippo Acra, a city just little northwest up the African coast from Carthage) and raze some buildings and ships.
Apparently the inhabitants of the area had been raided before or were prepared for such an occasion and had defensive measures in place. They had a chain that was already in the water pulled taught across the opening of the harbor. This strange action does have historical parallels (as well as in Game of Thrones.) However, how the Romans escaped this precarious situation does seem like a grand stretch in my opinion.
The invaders [the Roman privateers] found themselves in an awkward situation, but escaped by cleverness and good fortune. They made a quick dash at the chains, and just as the beaks of the ships were about to catch in them, the members of the crews moved back to the stern, and so the prows were lightened and cleared the chains; and again, when all rushed into the prows, the sterns of the vessels were lifted high in the air. (Zonaras 8.16)3
This seems a little bit fantastical to me, but I do suppose it would be physically possible to do such a feat. Maybe. Zonaras then has these privateers hightail it back to Sicily where it is implied that they won a pitched naval battle against Carthaginian ships. This battle, however, is surely incorrect.
On a more interesting note, Frontinus records in his Strategemata on the chapter “On Escaping from Difficult Situations” an almost identical story. However it seems to be a garbled account of these privateers and their chain as well as the First Punic War in general. This is because the general and consul Gaius Duilius is commanding a fleet attacking Syracuse which is completely absurd. Here is Frontinus’ interesting parallel in full.
When the consul Gaius Duellius was caught by a chain stretched across the entrance to the harbour of Syracuse, which he had rashly entered, he assembled all his soldiers in the sterns of the boats, and when the boats were thus tilted up, he propelled them forward with the full force of his oarsmen. Thus lifted up over the chain, the prows moved forward. When this part of the boats had been carried over, the soldiers, returning to the prows, depressed these, and the weight thus transferred to them permitted the boats to pass over the chain. (1.5.6)4
Be as it may, if the privateers really did any raids, they don’t seem to have persisted in their activities or caused any serious trouble. Next time, we will examine Hamilcar’s initiatives in Sicily against Rome.
- Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
- Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.
- Frontinus. The Strategemata. Translated by Charles Bennett. 1925.