Siege of Lilybaeum 250 BCE – Part 2

Heavy Skirmishing

Carthage Sends Reinforcements

     The situation for Lilybaeum was not looking all that great. Even though its defenses had never fallen to an opposing army, they had not yet fought against Rome. To make matters worse, Lilybaeum’s garrison was severely outnumbered. Polybius states that there about 10,000 mercenaries in the city and there may have been a small civilian garrison as well. (1.42)1 Diodorus Siculus is more specific stating that there was about 7,000 infantry and 700 cavalry in the city. (24.1)2 Even if there was indeed a citizen garrison to go along with these numbers, the Roman besieging force was roughly 40,000 men in two consular armies. The fleet, which could supply more manpower if needed, was also anchored nearby in and around the harbor. 
     Clearly, with the success Rome had at Panormus, this was a very precarious situation for Carthage. Fortunately for Lilybaeum, Carthage did understand the gravity of the situation. “Shelving all other projects, they devoted their whole attention to the relief of this city and were ready to undertake every risk and burden for this purpose.” (Polybius 1.41) In order to save Lilybaeum from falling to the Romans, Carthage decided to send in some reinforcements.
     The sources are not in complete agreement with each other on this matter. While they all pretty much agree that reinforcements were sent, they offer several different variations of what occurred. Part of the problem may be that it seems that there were actually two different reinforcing operations that took place and most sources include one but not the other. 
     The first wave of reinforcements was brought into the city by Adherbal. Also, before we go any further, it should be noted that Lilybaeum was able to receive reinforcements by way of ships that were able to sail into the city’s docks. Ancient ships really were incapable of actually enforcing a blockade of a coastal city and the Romans seem to be especially bad at it. Also, Lilybaeum’s waters were fairly notorious and difficult to negotiate, but we will discuss more on this later. Anyways, Adherbal, we are told, was able to bring in a “very large number of ships carrying grain and money to Lilybaeum.” (Zonaras 8.15)3 Diodorus Siculus also adds that 4,000 men were brought in with these supplies. Carthage clearly was covering all of her bases in this siege. Manpower was obviously of the utmost importance, but also food to feed the men and the inhabitants of the city meant that that they were willing to undergo a protracted siege if necessary. Lastly, money to pay the mercenary forces would be a smart move to keep them loyal during a long siege (we will discuss something along these lines in more detail in a later post.)

Lilybaeum was a major port city located on the far western coast of Sicily.

     Polybius relates that more reinforcements arrived to bolster Lilyabaeum’s defenses. Fifty warships under the command of a Hannibal, the son of a Hamilcar (no not the Barcas) initially made their way to the Aegates Islands. From there they waited for a good wind which allowed them to sail right into Lilybaeum’s harbor. This Hannibal was a “most intimate friend of Adherbal,” which may be how he received his command. (Polybius 1.44)4 The Romans’ lack of capability of preventing these relieving fleets was noted by the Carthaginians as they watched when Roman ships “made no effort to prevent the entrance of the relieving force, but stood out at sea amazed at the audacity of the Carthaginians.” (Polybius 1.44)5 It seems that all the Romans really did was to fill a few smaller ships with stones (presumably sinking them just under the waterline) in order to fetch up the Carthaginian ships, but the Carthaginians simply avoided the obstacles.

Fighting Breaks Out

     The Carthaginian situation in Lilybaeum, though not ideal by any means, was in a much stronger position with the reinforcements. The general in charge of defending the city, Himilco, now had a much larger army consisting of some Carthaginian troops with the bulk of the mercenaries seemingly being Greeks and Celts. Of course, Rome was not sitting by twiddling her thumbs during this time but was actively conducting a siege of the city itself. Each consular army had encamped on opposing sides of Lilybaeum and had quickly built trenches and stockades that encircled the city and connected the two camps.
     The Roman armies also began building siege engines to deal with the fortifications they were up against. Many rams and catapults were built as well as protective coverings to shield the engines and the men who operated them from projectiles. The Romans also used earthworks and sapping as a means to undermine Lilybaeum’s defenses. It seems that the Roman army was trying to create a breach by destroying some of the city’s guard towers which they eventually succeeded in doing. However, Himilco successfully managed the situation through planned sorties and “by counter-building and counter-mining caused the enemy no little difficulty.” (Polybius 1.42)6 The Carthaginians were able to burn and destroy some of the engines and siege-works created by the Romans, stalling their progress significantly. At one point the Romans had successfully captured one of the outer defensive walls. But, “[Himilco] fell upon them, killed large numbers in a single place, and forced the others to flee. And with the aid of a strong gale they set fire to all the Roman engines of war,” and the Romans were unable to hold the position. (Diodorus Siculus 24.1)7 
     Indeed, the fighting took place at many points around the city and both sides had determined to not back down. Polybius describes the siege as it began to drag on. The armies “engaged by night and day in combats of so desperate a character, that at times more men fell in these encounters than usually fall in a pitched battle.” (Polybius 1.42)8 It seems that Lilybaeum was holding on to its historically perfect track record of never falling into Roman hands. Also, as the siege stretched out, which surely strained Lilybaeum’s population; the Romans seem to have suffered more. Usually it is the besieged party that has a hard time managing supplies, especially food, but like Athens in the Peloponnesian War, Lilybaeum’s open harbor allowed fresh supplies to come into the city for the most part. On the other hand, Rome’s supply lines were stretched thin and they seemed to have either mismanaged or underestimated the resources needed in conducting a lengthy siege against Lilybaeum. 
     The Roman situation was getting out of hand according to Diodorus Siculus. They were suffering under “short rations and pestilence, for since they and their allies fed solely on flesh they were so infected that large numbers died in a few days.” (24.1)9 Disease always had a chance of breaking out in the ancient world whenever large armies were settled in the same location for a long period of time such as during a protracted siege. The Romans at first considered lifting the siege altogether, but it seems that in the end it was decided to have only one of the consuls disengage with his army. (Zonaras 8.15)10 It isn’t stated which of the consuls remained to continue the siege against Lilybaeum. This may have mitigated some of the food shortage that was occurring, but, once again, King Hiero of Syracuse seems to have come in to honor his alliance to Rome. Much like at the Siege of Agrigentum, “Hiero, the king of Syracuse, dispatched an abundant supply of grain, and gave them fresh courage to resume the siege.” (Diodorus Siculus 24.1)11 With a fresh supply of foodstuffs the Romans were able to conduct the siege with new vigor, though the force besieging the city was now significantly smaller.
      The fighting continued around the walls and defenses of Lilybaeum with substantial casualties occurring on both sides. When we continue on further in the Siege of Lilybaeum, we will take a close look at a rare instance of Carthage’s mercenaries plotting against their masters.

  1. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  2. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.
  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. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.
  8. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  9. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.
  10. Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.
  11. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.