The (Second) Battle of Panormus

     After Gaius Aurelius Cotta’s campaigns, not much seems to have happened in the First Punic War for over a year. Carthage was likely trying to recover and must have been debating on some sort of change in strategy to conduct the war. Rome, on the other hand, was not getting a whole lot accomplished either, especially since the fleet was essentially stripped of any real power. Over the course of the year 252 BCE they had only been able to overcome to somewhat minor towns with both consular armies. This was largely due to the presence of Hasdrubal and his army actively patrolling the Sicilian countryside. The Romans would not meet him in a pitched battle as they “never would come down at all to meet the enemy on flat ground, so much did they dread a charge of the elephants.” (Polybius 1. 39)1 Hasdrubal eventually realized that he was going to have to force the situation.

Dating the Battle of Panormus

     Even though this would actually be the second Battle of Panormus in our narrative, the first battle is usually not figured in; thus making the following simply the Battle of Panormus. However, this Battle of Panormus is hard to exactly pin down when it occurs as it could be either 251 or 250 BCE and there are good arguments for both sides. Let’s start with the earlier date of 251. The Roman commander was Lucius Caecilius Metellus, one of the two consuls for 251 (though they didn’t start on January 1 until 153 BCE meaning that the tenure of the consulship in our time being discussed would include part of the following year.) Polybius also mentions that the time of the Battle of Panormus was near the height of the grain harvest. In Sicily in the ancient world this would have been roughly early summer time, perhaps June. This seems to place the battle in mid-251 BCE.

The Battle of Panormus took place in either 251 or 250 BCE.

     The problem is that Polybius does not come out and say what year it would been and he does not actually state that Metellus was a consul at this time. (Later sources do, but they also appear to not distinguish between consuls and proconsuls.) Just a sentence before, Polybius mentions actions that were taking place by the consuls of 250 BCE. These were Lucius Manlius Vulso and Gaius Atilius Regulus; both had been consuls before, in 256 and 257 respectively, and they were now trying to build the diminished fleet back up again. This is important because Polybius rarely deviates from the chronological order when staying in the same focused narrative and the Battle of Panormus takes place after Vulso and Regulus are mentioned as consuls. Lastly, Polybius does write, “while one of the Consuls with half the whole force had left for Italy, Caecilius and the rest of the army remained at Panormus.” (1.40)2 If the year was 251 BCE, the only other consul would have been Gaius Furius Pacilus. Yet, it would be difficult to believe that Pacilus would leave Sicily near the beginning of the campaigning Sicily for not real reason (admittedly Zonaras does say it was Pacilus who left for Italy). If, however, the consul that departed took place in 250 BCE, it could have been either Vulso or Regulus making more preparations for the fleet and Sicily would still have two consular armies available under the other consul and Metellus, who would now be acting as a proconsul. I find the arguments for the year 250 BCE the most compelling, though the majority of scholars do seem to date the Battle of Panormus as occurring in 251 BCE.

The Battle of Panormus

     As it was, then, after a year of year of unsuccessfully enticing the Romans into battle, Hasdrubal decided to advance upon Panormus and remained in the countryside. Metellus did not take the bait and remained within the walls of Panormus. In the meantime, there is an interesting story how Metellus weeded out Carthaginian agents from inside the city.

     Metellus learned that spies had come from the enemy, and assembling all the people of the city, he addressed them, and then bade them lay hold of one another; thus he was enabled to investigate who each one was and what his business was, and so detected the enemies. (8.14)3

     Whether on this is true, we will never know. At the same time Hasdrubal began ravaging his way towards the city until he came to a small river that ran a little bit in front of Panormus. As he sent some of his units across, including his elephants, Metellus began his strategy. He sent out “light-armed troops to molest them,”4 and these light troops were probably largely made up of leves. The leves were lightly armored, but carried many javelins that were used to throw at enemy forces. As the leves peppered the Carthaginians, in particular elephants do not like being harassed by thrown spears, Hasdrubal had no real choice but to form up the army for battle.
     The Romans had prepared for an attack from Hasdrubal and a large ditch was dug in front of the walls. It was in front of this ditch that the Roman light-infantry was arrayed. They were instructed to use their javelins at any elephant that charged too close to the line and if they had to retreat that they were to fall back into the ditch where the elephants would not fight them. They could then climb out and continue to throw javelins once the elephants retreated. As the elephants would lead the Carthaginian army, this is how the battle did indeed start out. 
     Metellus also used the citizens of Panormus during the battle. He “order[ed] the lower classes of the civil population to bring the missiles and arrange them outside at the foot of the wall.” (Polybius 1.40)5 In this way the light infantry harassing the Carthaginian lines would never run out of ammunition. At the same time, Metellus organized the heavy infantry under his command inside the city walls and arranged them to face the Carthaginian left wing. He then continued to reinforce and cycle troops along the trench to keep them relatively fresh.
     Eventually, the battle became more than skirmishing as more troops from both sides continued to engage each other. Soon enough the elephant drivers decided to coordinate an attack to break the Roman lines. They were successful in this by routing both the light infantry and regulars that Metellus had sent to support and defend them. The Romans in front of the trench that were not killed completely fell back to the trench. It was at this time, though, that the elephants seemed to have advanced too far. It was now the Romans turn to unleash a coordinated attack. They did so, both from javelins from the trench line and “those shooting from the wall,” (Polybius 1.40)6 which were presumably also javelin-men, but could have been legionnaires throwing their pila (a large javelin that the heavy Roman infantry each carried two of) or even possibly archers or slingers. 
     This “rapid shower” of projectiles proved to be too much for many of the elephants, even though the majority of these wounds were likely not lethal. The elephants “finding themselves hit and hurt in many places, were thrown into confusion and turned on their own troops, trampling down and killing the men and disturbing and breaking the ranks. ” (Polybius 1.40)7 This was always a potential drawback when using elephants as they could run amok with no heed given to commands if panicked too much. 
     Metellus, seeing an opportunity, seized the moment. He ordered the heavy infantry to charge out of the city gates. With the Carthaginian army falling into disarray, the fresh and orderly Roman troops were able to put them to flight. Zonaras doesn’t give many details on the fighting itself, but he does have a somewhat different narrative when it comes to the routing Carthaginians. Because of the elephants and terrain, much of the Carthaginian army was hemmed “in a narrow place through which they could now no longer retreat.” (8.14)8 Salt was added to the wound when the nearby Carthaginian fleet (that Polybius doesn’t mention) actually made the situation worse. It seems that many Carthaginian soldiers trying to escape the battle either drowned in the sea trying to reach the ships or were stuck on the beach where they were either struck down or captured.
     Seeing as this post has already become fairly lengthy, we will stop here with the Carthaginian army under Hasdrubal defeated. Next time, we will look at the different sources describing the aftermath of the battle, as well as what happened later to Hasdrubal and Metellus.

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