Siege of Agrigentum – 262-261 BC
As we have seen, the Carthaginians mustered a force under Hannibal the son of Gisgo to the fortified city of Agrigentum. This move was a relatively large escalation of Carthaginian power in Sicily. (Accounts say that the town’s population surged to over 50,000 men, though the fighting force was probably not nearly that large even with the various mercenary troops.) At this point in time Carthage and Rome had not actually engaged each other and Carthage’s acquiescence to the entire Mamertine situation may have shown that reconciliation talks may have been possible at this juncture. Be as it may, Carthage was likely alarmed by the extent Roman interference in eastern Sicily and especially of the submission of Syracuse to Roman terms.
Agrigentum (also more famously known as Acragas in Greek history) was a wise choice for Carthage to choose as a stronghold. It was only a few miles from the southern coast of Sicily and was a major transportation hub on key roads not only leading east and west, but also north through central Sicily. A natural fortress, Agrigentum was inaccessible on three sides by rugged inclines with only the western route available to enemy forces. With a sizable garrison inside the city, the Romans knew they could not leave Agrigentum as it were if they wanted to remain in control of the eastern part of the island.
And so it was, with no peace talks amounting to anything, the Romans decided that the consular army that had returned to Italy must be brought back to Sicily. Both elected consuls of the year 262, Lucius Postumius Megellus and Quintus Mamilius Vitulus, positioned their armies just a short distance from Agrigentum. At this point it was harvest time for the grain in Sicily, putting the season sometime in the middle of summer. Of course, since the Romans were planning to besiege the city into submission, they began to harvest and plunder the surrounding countryside for themselves. While they were doing this they apparently became reckless because Hannibal led a sortie out into the fields. In this advance the Carthaginians killed and put to flight many of the Romans, but they were repulsed as they attempted to raid the Romans encampment. The Romans, however, were experienced enough to place a guarding force at the camp, and although they were outnumbered they were able to fight off the Carthaginians with heavy losses on both sides. Here Polybius notes that Romans in covering or guarding forces would suffer the death penalty for deserting such a crucial position. (Polybius 1.17)1
Rome realized that the Carthaginians would fight hard to defend the city and a direct assault would likely result in terrible losses. At the same time, Carthage couldn’t afford to lose any more men sallying out of the city either as its garrison was likely much lower than that of the two consular armies. With both sides now cautious of the other, the stalemate turned into a siege that would drag on for many more months.
Carthage was able to keep informed of the situation probably from messengers sent out by Hannibal as he appealed for assistance. Carthage was able to respond my mustering a force under a Hanno (not “the Great”) who landed at Lilybaeum with a considerable force, though the sources are contradictory as to its size. Polybius only states the components of the army, namely mercenaries, Numidian cavalry, and elephants. (There were also likely actual Carthaginian soldiers as well.) Diodorus Siculus states that Hanno’s force was 50,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and 60 elephants. (23.8)2 Paul Orosius (a writer during the late Roman Empire) gives somewhat lower figures at 30,000, 1,500, and 30. I am inclined to side with Diodorus Siculus on this matter for the reason that he explicitly states after he gives the composition of the army that “Philinus of Acragas, the historian, has recorded this.” (23.8)3 While Philinus was an über pro-Carthaginian source, Carthage was going to lose this battle so that lying and inflating the Carthaginian force would make them look even worse. Also, he was from Agrigentum and perhaps was able to know more about this particular episode of the war in particular detail.
While Hanno’s force was assembling, the Romans decided to split the two consular armies. One was to remain on the western side of the city while the other based itself at the nearby temple of Asclepius (unknown location but likely in the surrounding area to the southeast). The two forces then proceeded to dig two trenches to connect and defend their locations. The inner trench was for defending against sorties by Hannibal from the city, while the second outer ditch was for protection against a relieving force (which they may have guessed was on the way). They also garrisoned strongpoints along the way between the two positions as well. The Romans kept themselves well supplied during this time by way of a base at the town of Herbesos (location unknown but was probably somewhere along the roadway leading west from Agrigentum). While small scale skirmishing was constant, attrition by way of lack of supplies was likely taking its toll on the population and garrison of Agrigentum.
After approximately five months since the start of the siege Hanno’s force was established at the town of Heraclea Minoa (a town on the southern coastal route between Agrigentum and the Carthaginian stronghold of Lilybaeum on the western coast). Hanno was able to overtake Herbesos handily cutting the main supply artery off from the Romans. Before he came into contact with the Roman forces he initiated a ruse that worked perfectly. Using his superb Numidian cavalry, Hanno was able to bait the Roman cavalry contingents into the field. The Numidians fell back as the Romans pursued until they approached the main Carthaginian host, at which time they fell back upon the Romans. The Roman cavalry was worsted and had to hastily retreat back to their base.
At this point Hanno was able to take a vantage point on some nearby hills near where the Romans were besieging Agrigentum. Essentially he was able to largely cut off the Romans from the outside and force them under a siege of their own. We are told that it was only by great effort that the Romans were able to be resupplied somewhat by the aid of Hiero of Syracuse. (Perhaps the Carthaginians couldn’t contain both Roman forces effectively enough and the Syracusans were able to relieve the eastern Roman position, which could then resupply the other.) This situation created another stalemate which would last another two months, likely bring us into the beginning of the year 261. Both sides eventually decided to engage in battle as the Romans were likely suffering substantial attrition while at the same time Agrigentum was on the verge of capitulating. This would become the first real pitched battle of the war and the first major engagement between the two powers.
1. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
2. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.