Siege of Lilybaeum 250 BCE – Part 3

Questionable Mercenaries


         Before we begin, if you are just joining now in the story of the Siege of Lilybaeum, you can click here for part 1 and part 2 of the story if you would like to read up on what has happened so far.
     As we know, Carthage usually relied on mercenary forces for a substantial portion of her armies, especially those that served abroad. This was true before the earlier in her history as well as currently in the First Punic War and afterwards. Mercenary forces were fairly common around the Mediterranean in classical times, so, if one could afford it such as Carthage, it was fairly reliable means of mustering an army quickly with high quality soldiers. But, of course, usually there are some bad apples in every bunch and the following is an example of one such case.
     The siege of Lilybaeum was clearly dragging on, probably longer than either side anticipated. In fact it would go on into the next year, 249 BCE, before being lifted. Even though the city was fortunate enough to have access to the sea, allowing a means to receive supplies and foodstuffs (see Zonaras 8.15),1 sieges have always been brutal affairs even in good situations. The bulk of the garrison defending Lilybaeum appears to have been mercenaries of Greek and Celtic origin. This also means, presumably, these mercenaries were also taking the bulk of casualties against the Romans as the siege continued on for months on end.
     With this in mind, some of the captains and officers of the mercenary bands began to have some serious doubts regarding the situation they were in. They held some sort of meeting to discuss matters and eventually came to a consensus. These commanding officers, “in the full conviction that their subordinates would obey them, sallied from the town by night to the Roman camp and made proposals to the Consul for the surrender of the city.” (Polybius 1.43)2 The plan was likely to either allow the Romans into the city by opening the gates for them or that they would switch sides, which would have effectively rendered the city empty of manpower. It is also interesting to note that it is stated that the officers spoke to “the consul” in the singular.
     This singular usage may have been just a convenience of writing, but it likely indicates that this potential scheme took place after one of the consuls and his consular arm had left. Remember that the Romans were suffering from disease due to eating the only food that they had on hand which was infected meat according to Diodorus Siculus. (24.1)3 Zonaras indicated this as the reason for the sudden departure, “Pestilence and famine, however, came to harass them, and these caused one of them [on of the consuls] to return home with the soldiers of his division.” (8.15)4 This means that the mercenary plot may have been in either the late fall or early winter of 250 BCE, perhaps due to worsening winter conditions in the city or just coming to the conclusion that the Romans were not going to give up the siege.

Lilybaeum was located on the far western coastline of Sicily.

Alexon Saves the Day (Again)

     It appears that the mercenary officers’ secret meeting wasn’t kept as much of a secret as they assumed it would be. While they slyly headed out to the Roman camp in the night, their rendezvous was betrayed by man named Alexon. Hardly anything is known about Alexon, but he referred to as “the Achaean,” so it is likley that he was from mainland Greece in the northern Peloponnese. There is probably a good chance that he was some sort of subordinate officer under the mercenary captains who had departed in the night.
     Once the mercenary leaders were out of the city, Alexon informed Himilco, the Carthaginian commander over everyone in Lilybaeum, about their departure and plans. Himilco did not hesitate and immediately, “summoned the remaining officers and urgently implored their aid, promising them lavish gifts and favours if they remained loyal to him.” (Polybius 1.43)5 While this may have ended up costing much in treasure, he could less afford having his entire mercenary host simply walk out on the job, let alone join the Roman cause. 
     Once Himilco had received assurance from the rest of the remaining officers, he sent Hannibal, the son of the Hannibal that was killed in Sardinia, to make sure that Celtic mercenaries stayed content. This was because the Celts were “were well acquainted with him.” (Polybius 1.43)6 Alexon appears to have been promoted to become the leader of the Greek mercenaries he went to speak with them. Hannibal and Alexon made sure that their respective mercenaries would remain loyal to Carthage and honor their agreements. This was easily done “partly by entreating them, partly moreover by assuring them that each man would receive the bounty the general had offered.” (Polybius 1.43)7 Himilco probably slept a little bit better that night knowing that his forces wouldn’t abandon him the following day. 
     The following morning arrived and the mercenary officers that had parlayed with the Roman consul came strolling along out in the open towards the walls of Lilybaeum. They then began shouting to the defenders about the deals and promises that they had struck with the Roman consul during the night. Unfortunately, we do not know which consul negotiated with the mercenary captains, nor do we know what kind of deal was made between the two parties which could have been quite interesting. It may have involved land as Zonaras 8.158 states that is what these men received afterwards (though this seems doubtful as they were unsuccessful.)
     Instead of enthusiastically abandoning their posts like the officers had wanted, the scheming captains received a much different response at the walls. “Not only did they pay no attention but would not lend ear to them at all, and chased them away from the wall with stones and other missiles.” (Polybius 1.43)9 Zonaras, as mentioned above states that these men went back to the Roman consul “and received from them land in Sicily and other gifts,” (8.15)10 but seeing as they didn’t convince their men to switch sides or let the city fall, I doubt that the Romans actually rewarded them with anything. 
     What is interesting in this case as well is that this instance in Lilybaeum isn’t the only time Alexon the Achaean had prevented mercenaries from not being faithful to their employers. Several years earlier in the war Alexon had essentially done the same thing during the Battle of Agrigentum. “The Achaean Alexon, who had on a former occasion saved the Agrigentines, when the Syracusan mercenaries had formed a project of breaking faith with them…” (Polybius 1.43)11 Perhaps Alexon was acting as something of a double agent for Carthage to ensure the loyalty of the mercenaries that they employed?
     At any rate, Alexon the Achaean really salvaged Carthage’s situation in Lilybaeum. As Polybius puts it, [Alexon] by his loyalty… now was the cause of the Carthaginians being saved from total ruin.” (Polybius 1.43)12 And he isn’t joking. If Lilybaeum were to fall, Drepana would likely quickly capitulate as well. Sicily would be completely in Roman hands, which would theoretically end the war as the primary war objective for both sides. Potentially it could be even worse with Rome simply using Sicily to continue sending invasions into Africa. Now, however, Lilybaeum’s defenders had their morale boosted and not considering surrendering the city as an option.
     When we return for part 4, we will look at the naval aspect of what was occurring during the siege, both at Lilybaeum and from Drepana.

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