Hamilcar Seizes Eryx

Hamilcar’s Situation

     Three years came and went in the First Punic War from about 247 to 244 BCE. Hamilcar Barca based his operations out of his secure stronghold at Hercte and was able to harass Rome both throughout Sicily and even against the Italian coast. Lilybaeum was still holding out though it had been under siege for years now. Drepana likewise had not fallen to the Roman legions. Unfortunately for Hamilcar, he was unable to make any lasting inroads against Rome’s hold over Sicily. However, it is hard to blame him much for this. The fact that he was able to survive at all completely surrounded by Roman territory is a feat in itself. Hamilcar’s forces would only continue to dwindle down over time through attrition from the constant skirmishing. Without reinforcements sent by Carthage, Hamilcar and the garrisons in Sicily were essentially left to fend for themselves even though Rome was able to constantly replenish her forces with fresh men.

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

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

     Hamilcar could probably thank Hanno the Great for this state of affairs. Hanno was busy earning his epithet “the Great” as well as monopolizing much of Carthage’s resources in his campaigns against the neighboring African tribes. Still, even without reinforcements, Hamilcar knew his position at Hercte was only getting weaker as time went on. He decided to take another bold risk in a major change in operations. Here, we can take a look at an aspect of Hamilcar Barca’s generalship and perhaps why he was remembered as a great commander. Here are the words of Diodorus Siculus on Hamilcar’s secretiveness about his future plans.

     He revealed to no one what had been planned; for he was of the opinion that when such stratagems are imparted to one’s friends they either become known to the enemy through deserters or produce cowardice among the soldiers by their anticipation of great danger. (Diodorus Siculus 24.7)1

Mt. Eryx

     Mt. Eryx, as we have discussed earlier, was a small mountain that overlooked the city of Drepana. There was a town located partially up the mountain and a major temple complex on the summit. (Located there today is the Sicilian town of Erice as well as some Norman castles built upon the ruins of the ancient temple and town.) Eryx the town had been evacuated previously in the war and the temple complex is indicated to have at least decent fortifications. Lucius Junius Pullus, the consul who lost a fleet to the third storm, was able to seize both of these positions earlier in 249 BCE before being captured himself in fighting in the environs of the mountain. It was to this mountain that Hamilcar Barca turned to as a change in his fortunes of the war.

     The Romans had a fortified base at the foot of Mt. Eryx as well as a garrison stationed up in the temple complex. It was against these positions that Hamilcar made his move in 244 BCE. “Hamilcar now seized the town which lies between the summit and the spot at the foot where the garrison was.” (Polybius 1.58)2 Apparently the Romans had not garrisoned the former town of Eryx partly up the mountain and Hamilcar was able to stealthily occupy the position. This put the Roman garrison in the temple in a very awkward position. “The consequence of this was that the Romans on the summit – a thing they had never expected – remained besieged and in considerable peril.” (Polybius 1.58)3

View from Mt. Eryx from Victor Duruy's History of Rome.

View from Mt. Eryx from Victor Duruy’s History of Rome.

     It may be that the Romans were becoming complacent with the war dragging on as it did the previous three years. However, most of the credit should go to Hamilcar’s boldness. The reason that he was able to take the town of Eryx so easily was that he successfully led a night raid up the mountain. “Barca, after sailing in at night and disembarking his army, took the lead in person on the ascent to Eryx, a distance of thirty stades.” (Diodorus Siculus 24.8)4 Night maneuvers were no small feat in the ancient world and oftentimes they led to disaster or ruin. After successfully taking Eryx, Hamilcar was able to put the Roman garrison at the summit under pressure and force them on the defensive. Also, by taking a position of high ground, Hamilcar could survey the other Roman force at the foot of the mountain. Lastly, Mt. Eryx was right next to Drepana and this would allow Hamilcar to at least have the possibility of making moves against a Roman force besieging that city.

Mt. Eryx was located very close to the city of Drepana.

Hamilcar’s Position at Eryx

     Hamilcar’s positioning was still dangerous, much like at Hercte. His Carthaginian force was still essentially surrounded on multiple fronts by Roman forces. His line of supply was also very tenuous while at Eryx as he could still only be supplied by the sea. “The conveyance of supplies was not easy, as they only held one place on the sea and one single road connecting with it.” (Polybius 1.58)5 Clearly, if this route was compromised Hamilcar’s force would have no choice but to surrender after being starved out. To make matters worse, it seems to be implied that Hamilcar was not able to keep control of the fleet and this may have been one of his reasons for moving from Hercte to Eryx. No more raids seem to be conducted by Hamilcar other than areas around Mt. Eryx. Also Polybius, describing the Carthaginian fleet not much later, states that the navy was nowhere near Drepana and that “the whole Carthaginian navy having retired to their own country.” (Polybius 1.59)6 It seems as if Sicily was almost completely left alone once the pro-African faction back in Carthage had really taken hold of the government. Hamilcar and the other garrisons at Lilybaeum and Drepana would have to hold out on their own for the duration of the war.

     Next time, we will look at one of the most notorious mercenary bands of the classical era who were once under the command of Hamilcar Barca. We will examine this ignoble Gallic band along with its leader Autaritus in the upcoming post.

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