A Roman Last Stand of 300?
For whatever reason, later Roman historians really propped up Aulus Atilius Calatinus and embellished his record with tremendous feats. This also includes a story found in multiple sources about a Roman 300 final stand that saved the rest of the Roman army from complete disaster. Perhaps, if there is some semblance of truth to the matter, that may be why other Roman historians remembered Calatinus in such a positive light.
First, let’s look at an account that makes Calatinus look like the greatest commander Rome had yet seen. It is taken from De Viris Illustribus, perhaps written by Sextus Aurelius Victor in the 4th century AD, of which there is no English translation that I can find. The Loeb Classical Library does not even have it in any of their volumes unless I am overlooking it. Anyways, I won’t quote it directly as I barely know any Latin here are the main points it provides in its brief entry on Calatinus.
According to this source Aulus Atilius Calatinus was able to take Enna. So far so good. But then it states that he then became master of Drepana, Panormus, and even Lilybaeum. If these three strongholds were to all fall simultaneously, the war would have likely ended immediately and Sicily would have easily been taken over by Rome. All three of the fortified towns would be major challenges to Rome. Lilybaeum, especially, was Carthage’s historical foothold in Sicily and as long as it held Carthage could always later regain ground.
Still, the account in De Viris Illustribus goes on with Calatinus’ achievements. Not settling for just victories on land, Calatinus took command of the fleet as well. Apparently, he took his small fleet and sailed around Sicily looking for Hamilcar and his fleet. When he found Hamilcar, he of course defeated the Carthaginian fleet. With the enemy fleet gone, Calatinus returned to Sicily, because, despite having lost Drepana, Panormus, the fleet, and Lilybaeum, the Carthaginians are still fighting and laying siege to, of all places, Camarina of course. And this is where things begin to get interesting as we will encounter a Roman 300.1
Sacrifice of the Roman 300
While it might be easy enough to brush off this last stand of the Roman 300 as being from a zealous author making any Roman general from the past look tremendous, there are many other authors who also record the incident. These are Florus (Lucius Annaeus Florus, not the Gaius Aquillius Florus we just covered), Frontinus, Cassius Dio/Zonaras, and also Livy. Here is how the account roughly goes.
While on route to Camarina, Calatinus marches into a Carthaginian ambush where the Carthaginians have command of the heights all around the Romans. (This ambush also somehow occurs after the fall of Drepana, Panormus, and Lilybaeum in some sources.) Understanding the situation, a certain tribune comes up with a plan. With Calatinus’ approval this tribune, usually Calpurnias, takes 300 picked men and takes control of a nearby hill. This force then stands off against the entire Carthaginian host in order to allow the rest of the Roman army to make good their escape. In this final stand all of the 300 Romans die except for Calpurnias, who is wounded, but usually recovers. Calatinus is then free to take Camarina afterwards without any other troubles.
Some of the details differ in the sources. The tribune’s name is usually some form of Calpurnias (Calpurnias Flamma, Marcus Calpurnias, Marcus Calpurnias Flamma, but Laberius and Quintus Caedicus are also mentioned.) The location of the ambush isn’t really described, one states that it was in a forest, another a valley, most just imply a tight space. Usually Calpurnias and the Roman 300 fight atop some sort of steep hill, but in one account it is in the center of the valley.
It is difficult what to make of all of this. It should be noted that the author of De Viris Illustribus and Florus are both purposely writing extravagantly as was their genre of writing. Florus also attributes the absurd capture of Drepana, Panormus, and Lilybaeum to Calatinus (as dictator, though that wouldn’t be for several more years) as well. With the Roman 300 incident Florus literally compares the situation to Thermopylae and King Leonidas and declaring Calatinus as the greater of the two. In his words:
In the dictatorship of Calatinus the Romans expelled almost all the Carthaginian garrisons — from Agrigentum, Drepanum, Panormus, Eryx and Lilybaeum. On one occasion there was a panic in the forest of Camarina, but by the extraordinary bravery of Calpurnius Flamma, a military tribune, we extricated ourselves. He, with a chosen band of three hundred men, seized a knoll, which was beset by the enemy, and so delayed them long enough to give the whole army time to escape. By the glorious result of his action he equalled the fame of Leonidas at Thermopylae, the Roman hero being more illustrious in that he survived his great exploit, though he did not write anything in his own blood. (Florus 1.18.12-14)2
Obviously Florus is just hyping up the Roman cause here. As an aside the comment about writing “in his own blood” shouldn’t be referring to Leonidas. That, instead, is referring to Othryades of Battle of the Champions fame who wrote that he was victorious against the Argives on his shield with his blood before he took his own life. Anyways, to compare Calatinus and Calpurnias to Leonidas and the 300 Spartans is rather bizarre.
On the other hand, even though Polybius is silent on the matter, his silence does not mean it didn’t happen. This would be especially true if in reality it was only a minor incident or skirmish. Polybius’ account of the First Punic War is a summary and doesn’t include all that it could. It seems that Livy’s account in his periochae of book 17 resembles what most likely happened. Here, the Romans ran into an ambush but were able to escape because the tribune Marcus Calpurnias and 300 Romans led a sortie that distracted the enemy without mentioning that it was a last stand. (Livy Periochae 17)3 This seems likely; a tribune led some men to create a diversion enough for the army to either get in better position or withdraw. Of course, it is possible that heroic last stand akin to Thermopylae did happen, but I feel that Polybius would have been inclined to include such an event rather than omitting a small (though still quite important) skirmish.
We will now move on to the next year which will include the next major naval clash of the war.
- Aurelius Victor. De Viris Illustribus Urbis Romae. Latin translation found at ForumRomanum.org.
- Florus. Epitome of Roman History. Translated by E.S. Forster. 1929.
- Livy. Periochae. Translated by Jona Lendering. Latin and English translation found at Livius.org.