Siege of Lilybaeum 250 BCE – Part 4

Blockade Running

The Blockade

     Before we begin, if would like to, click here for parts 1, 2, and 3 of the Siege of Lilybaeum to read up on what has occurred so far.
     The citizens of Lilybaeum were able to stay relatively comfortable, at least as much as you could during a siege, in large part due to blockade runners. These were ships that sailed into the harbor at Lilybaeum despite the Roman ships anchored offshore. Even though the Romans seem to have plenty of ships at hand (though I doubt all 200 were just idly waiting on the water for months on end), the ancient capabilities at managing a blockade were meager with any navy. 
     It was this lack of capability in enforcing a blockade on a port or harbor that allowed many Carthaginian ships to simply run into Lilybaeum’s harbor. Quinqueremes, even if the Romans had many of them, were powered by oar for the most part just as most of all ships of the time were. Even though they had sails these were taken whenever combat was possible and were fairly basic affairs in the ancient world. For the majority of the time, the Roman blockading ships would have been stationary under oar power. This meant that if enemy ships came in already at full speed it would basically be impossible to match their speeds from an immobile start. It was due to these blockade runners that Carthage was able to bring in news, reinforcements, money, and food to the town of Lilybaeum. The most prominent of these blockade runners, Hannibal the Rhodian, we will address in a moment.

Roman Defenses

     The Romans probably knew that their ships alone would not prevent many ships that tried to force a passage into the harbor. So, to improvise, they decided to make an already rocky and shallow harbor even more dangerous. As mentioned in an earlier post, “the entrance of the harbour [the Romans] blocked with fifteen light vessels, which they had loaded with stones.” (Diodorus Siculus 24.1).1 I’m assuming that these light vessels than either sank or were purposely sunk with these stones. These would create obstacles in shallow water that a ship could easily fetch up on just beneath the water’s surface. Diodorus Siculus also mention further machinations of the Romans in Lilybaeum’s harbor. They “again blocked the mouth of the harbour with stones and jetties, and barred the channels with huge timbers and anchors.” (24.1)2 Again, these were meant to create almost an artificial barrier to prevent other ships from getting too close to the city or else risk running aground.

Lilybaeum was situated on the far western coast of Sicily.

     Yet, despite Carthage losing many naval battles in this war, Carthage was historically a naval power with a rich naval tradition and had many competent sailors and captains. As Polybius puts it, even before the Romans added their creations into the mix, “the passage through which into the harbour requires great skill and practice,” (1.42)3 and many captains had experiential knowledge of how to negotiate difficult waters such as these. (Also note that we don’t hear of any Carthaginian fleets getting caught and destroyed in any storms.)
     The first ships that were able to negotiate passage into the harbor seem to be those bringing Lilybaeum reinforcements that we have mentioned earlier. These would be the contingents commanded by Adherbal and his friend Hannibal. The sources agree on the Carthaginians waited for favorable weather and winds, usually at the Aegates Islands off the coast near Lilybaeum. With the wind carrying them they were able to rush past the Romans and into the harbor. The obstacles and traps that Rome had placed in the waters earlier appeared to have been somewhat ineffective. The sunken ships are not mentioned in particular afterwards and the other obstacles appear to have not lasted long, “when a strong wind arose, the sea grew turbulent and broke everything up.” (Diodorus Siculus 24.1)4 However, Zonaras does imply that the Roman blockade measure may have worked at least some of the time as “many others likewise attempted a landing, and some succeeded, while others were destroyed.” (8.15)5 But even with this, it means that Carthage felt that whatever losses she incurred were acceptably minor in order to keep the city of Lilybaeum from falling to the Roman siege.

Hannibal the Rhodian

     We now turn to the most famous blockade runner of the siege, Hannibal the Rhodian. It started out when one of Carthage’s “leading citizens, Hannibal, surnamed the Rhodian, offered to sail into Lilybaeum and make a full report from personal observation.” (Polybius 1.46)6 He may have earned his name because of his adeptness at sailing the seas. Rhodes during this era was prominently known for its seafaring traditions and Rhodes was even known for sort of being the pirate hunters of the Mediterranean. However he had earned his name, Hannibal the Rhodian certainly lived up to it. On his first trip to Lilybaeum he first sailed to the nearby islands (presumably the Aegates) and then “finding the wind happily favourable, sailed in at about ten o’clock in the morning in full sight of the enemy who were thunderstruck by his audacity.” (Polybius 1.46)7 
     The Roman consul, of course, was probably looking pretty bad right now since Hannibal the Rhodian is implied to be a private citizen, probably a wealthy merchant who owned his own ships, and was able to negotiate his way into the harbor. While Hannibal was in Lilybaeum on his mission, the consul decided to take extra measures to prevent him from leaving the harbor. This took the form of having his ten best ships set to guard the exit passage out of the harbor with the oars at the ready. The next day, Hannibal the Rhodian did prepare to leave the Lilybaeum and report back to Carthage as the Roman ships waited for him. But the Roman trap was set to no avail.
     But the ” Rhodian,” getting under weigh in the sight of all, so far outbraved the Romans by his audacity and speed that not only did he bring his ship and her whole crew out unhurt, passing the enemy’s ships just as if they were motionless, but after sailing on a short way, he pulled up without shipping his oars as if to challenge the enemy, and no one venturing to come out against him owing to the speed of his rowing, he sailed off, after thus having with one ship successfully defied the whole Roman fleet. (Polybius 1.46)8
     He easily made it out of the harbor and was able to bring word of the situation to Carthage. Not only was this information valuable to Carthage in sending the right forms of aid to Lilybaeum, it also inspired the defenders of the city to fight on while at the same time demoralizing the Roman besieging forces. Hannibal the Rhodian would continue performing this feat several more times during the siege and others began emulating Hannibal. 
     The Romans, quite perturbed by this, continued trying to block the entrance to the harbor, but with little luck until one Carthaginian ship leaving the city (probably a quadrireme) grounded itself on what of Rome’s traps. Apparently this ship was built for speed and was of much better quality than any of the Roman ships. Because of this, the Roman consul fitted it with his best marines and his best oarsmen to counter the blockade runners. In this endeavor the Romans were successful. Hannibal the Rhodian was departing Lilybaeum when he noticed that this Carthaginian ship had fallen into Roman hands. He was unable to outrun this quadrireme and decided to fight it out, but the Roman boarders overcame the Rhodian’s ship. It is said that Hannibal the Rhodian “fell into the enemy’s hands,” though it isn’t clear if he was captured or killed. (Polybius 1.47)9
     Hannibal the Rhodian’s ship was also of outstanding quality and, later on in the war, it was used as the model for Roman shipwrights to try and duplicate. Even though he was eventually captured and likely the other blockade runners either stopped or met a similar fate, Hannibal the Rhodian’s efforts were extraordinary. As a private citizen volunteering to undergo dangerous missions risking his own ship and life, he and the crew he commanded were largely the reason why Lilybaeum did not fall into Roman hands. As we will see in our next post, the Siege of Lilybaeum never resulted in the capture of the city and without blockade runners such as Hannibal the Rhodian this would not be the case.

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