Rome Changes Strategy… and Another Storm

     The year 254 BCE proved to be a good year for Rome, despite suffering from a cataclysmic storm that sank over 250 warships in the prior campaigning season. Panormus had fallen from good strategic combined arms use of the army and navy. This had been one of Carthage’s strongest possessions in Sicily. Only Lilybaeum and Drepana remained as formidable strongholds, with a few other small possessions. One would think that Rome would continue on and try to capture these last settlements in the same manner as the successful campaign against Panormus. However, you would be wrong as Rome didn’t do much to match the strategy of 254 in the next campaigning season.

The Not So New Strategy

     253 BCE brought in new consuls to command the Roman forces, Gnaeus Servilius Caepio and Gaius Sempronius Blaesus. It seems that one of the consuls from the previous year also stayed in Sicily as a proconsul. Polybius states that they returned to Rome, but Diodorus Siculus states that they retired to Messana, which seems more likely. Since Scipio Asina didn’t celebrate his triumph until 252 for his efforts in 254, it is fairly certain that he was the one to remain in Sicily while Calatinus was able to head back to Rome.
     Blaesus appears to have commanded the fleet while Scipio Asina and Caepio likely each commanded a consular army. This would bring Roman ground forces to about roughly 40,000 men in Sicily. Yet, they did not make full efforts to take any Carthaginian strongholds in Sicily this year, unlike when they succeeded at overwhelming Panormus. The only mention of an attack by the Romans in Sicily is a half-hearted attempt where the consuls “made an attempt upon Lilybaeum, where they were repulsed.” (Zonaras 8.14)1 No other details are given. Perhaps Hasdrubal and his 140 elephants finally arrived on the scene.

     Instead, in the place of taking Carthaginian cities in Sicily, the official strategy appears to have been to once again use the fleet to attack Carthage’s African possessions despite all that occurred in 255. Polybius describes that the raiding that Blaesus did was “nothing of importance” (1.39)2 until they reached the island of Meninx. (Though he did celebrate a triumph so he must have done something in Africa.) This is the modern day Djerba and would have been over three hundred miles south of the city of Carthage. Interestingly, this large island was known in antiquity as the island where the lotus-eaters dwelt that Odysseus stumbled into on his journey. However, instead of finding peace and tranquility that Odysseus’ men did, the Romans ran into disaster at Meninx.

The Island of Meninx was several hundred miles south of Carthage.

The Romans Are Not Masters of the Sea

      It was off this island that the relatively novice Roman seafarers showed how green they were upon new waters. Polybius describes the situation. “Owing to their ignorance of these seas, they ran on to some shoals, and, on the tide retreating and the ships grounding fast, they were in a most difficult position.” (1.39)3 Diodorus Siculus also implies that Carthaginian ships may have also been present, making the situation even stickier for the Romans. Eventually, they managed to unground their ships through a combination of jettisoning much of the cargo on the ships and the tide rising back up again. As soon as they were able to, the Roman fleet bailed out of African waters and back to Sicily. 

     This demonstrates that, while Rome was victorious largely so far in naval battles, they did not yet have mastery over the sea. The Romans also did hold complete naval supremacy over Carthage either, as an incident in the previous year reveals otherwise. After the successful capture of Panormus, the ransom money and victory spoils were sent to Rome. However, “the Carthaginians kept watch for their ships homeward bound, and captured several that were full of money.” (Zonaras 8.14)4 Clearly, even though Rome had the largest fleet, skilled Carthaginian captains and ships had to be reckoned with. These successful Carthaginian pirating raids also don’t seem to be part of the fleet assembling at Carthage which may further indicate that Carthage had naval spread out among her naval bases in the western Mediterranean. Perhaps these ones were operating out of the Lipari Islands.

The Romans suffered from another storm in 253 BCE en route to Rome from Panormus.

     Besides these incidents, the Roman fleet was devastated by yet another storm this year, only two years after the Camarina storm. After withdrawing from Africa the fleet sailed back to Panormus safely. It was from here that they headed straight to Rome. Most seafarers of the time sailed along coastlines, but, for whatever reason, the fleet this time sailed across the open water between Sicily and Rome. It was here that another storm smashed the Roman fleet, with all the sources agreeing that at least 150 warships went under.
     Losing another 150 ships and crews, along with whatever treasure was gained in the African raiding,5 was disastrous for Rome. A new ship building project was not commissioned and what was left of the fleet was brought down to sixty warships. It seems that the Romans were finally getting the picture that they could not force their will upon Neptune and his dominion of the seas.  

     When we return, we will see Rome largely abandon naval affairs and the First Punic War once again turns into a contest for Sicily.


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