Siege of Lilybaeum 250 BCE – Part 1

Setting the Stage

     The remnants of the Carthaginian army in Sicily retreated to its last two strongholds of Lilybaeum and Drepana after its defeat at the Battle of Panormus. It was here that they decided to regroup and try to hold out against the inevitable Roman advance. Rome’s victory at Panormus also allowed the Roman armies to move throughout almost all of Sicily uncontested as Carthage was now confined to the far western coast of the island. However, Carthage had been in this position before in her history and had not yielded.


     A brief discussion of Lilybaeum is now in order. This city was probably the strongest and most fortified of Carthage’s major bases in Sicily. Drepana was one of the other historically strong positions for Carthage along with Panormus, though, as we have seen, this fortified city had already fallen into Roman hands. The city of Lilybaeum was founded in the year 396 BCE. Essentially, it was a replacement of another city, Motya. This city, located on a small island of the same name just off the mainland near the settlement of Lilybaeum, was besieged and destroyed by the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse. The population was also largely executed after the siege. As a side note, this is probably one of the earliest battles in history that definitively used large catapults. Even though Motya was later recovered, it was not resettled, but Lilybaeum was founded nearby on Sicily proper. 

     Lilybaeum was well fortified and was a strong and convenient harbor for Carthage in her Sicilian affairs. In Carthage’s several Greco-Punic Wars, Lilybaeum had never fallen. Neither Timoleon, Agathocles, nor even King Pyrrhus was able to overcome the city’s defenses. In this way, even when Carthage lost most of her Sicilian territories and was pushed back to the west coast of Sicily, she was able to hold out at Lilybaeum and eventually lead out a successful counterattack to regain the lost possessions. So even though currently in the First Punic War Carthage may seem against the ropes, it would be foolish to count Carthage out so long as Lilybaeum remained under her control.

Lilybaeum was located on the far western coast of Sicily.

Rome Prepares Another Fleet

     The new consuls entering office in 250 BCE were Gaius Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso. Both of these men had previously held a consulship. Gaius Regulus held office in 257 and Vulso in 256. Both had also been involved with actively using the navy. Gaius Regulus had been victorious at the Battle of Tyndaris and Vulso had been an admiral in the Battle of Ecnomus. It was clear that they wanted the fleet to be built up into a formidable force once again. (After the second devastating storm, the fleet had been reduced to a mere sixty ships probably for transportation purposes only.) As Polybius states, the two were busy “building fifty ships and actively enrolling sailors and getting a fleet together.” (1.39)1

     Once Gaius Regulus and Vulso were ready to set sail, they had brought the number of ships in the fleet up to 200. (Polybius 1.41)2 The newly constructed ships were combined with the existing fleet and it seems likely that some of the decommissioned ships after the storm of 253 BCE were repaired and recommissioned to arrive at the current total. Diodorus Siculus mentions a slightly higher number of this in this fleet at “two hundred and forty warships,” but also including, “sixty light vessels, and a large number of transports of all types.” (24.1)3 This ends up seeming to be quite higher than Polybius’ 200 ship fleet, but Diodorus Siculus’ number of actual men involved betray the ship count in his fleet. He states that, “the Roman host numbered one hundred and ten thousand.” (24.1)4 The only way to make the numbers work would be to assume that no “marines” were present on the 240 warships at all and that the legions of the consular armies served as the marines (which would be highly unconventional and not likely.) This is to say nothing of the light vessels and transports. However, Diodorus Siculus’ 110,000 total manpower figure does seem to corroborate Polybius’ fleet strength of 200 ships. 200 quinqueremes with a normal compliment of rowers and marines would total about 68,000 men (340 rowers and marines multiplied by 200 ships.) When two consular armies at roughly 40,000 men are added into the mix, we get a grand total of 108,000 total men. This is a remarkably close figure to Diodorus Siculus’ 110,000.

The Siege Begins

     Anyways, with her newly formed fleet, Rome headed to Lilybaeum. This attack on the city seems to have been using the First Battle of Panormus as an example by using both the fleet and the army in conjunction with each other. Carthage, anticipating the advance of the Romans, evacuated her now exposed positions in isolated towns. Selinus to the southeast of Lilybaeum had been torn down on purpose and its population evacuated into Lilybaeum’s fortifications. (Diodorus Siculus 24.1)5 Positions such as Selinus were probably felt to be untenable and the population could be better used to bolster the garrison of Lilybaeum. This would be especially true if Lilybaeum’s garrison only amounted to about 10,000 men at this time. (Polybius 1.42)6 When the Roman army did arrive, it was likely two consular armies and the siege began as each consular army settled in on two opposing sides of the city.

     Next time, we will continue the story of the Siege of Lilybaeum as the city receives reinforcements and heavy skirmishing breaks out on multiple fronts.

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