The Defenders Rally
The First Attempt
If you are just joining us now, you can check out parts 1, 2, 3, or 4 to read up on what happened earlier in the siege.
While the mercenaries were trying to defect and blockade runners were supplying Lilybaeum with what it needed, the Roman besiegers and garrison of the city were not idly sitting by. The siege was constantly active with both sides building siege-works and counter-works to gain the upper hand in the struggle. There was also constant skirmishing around the walls of Lilybaueum. As we cited earlier, Polybius describes, “that at times more men fell in these encounters than usually fall in a pitched battle.” (Polybius 1.42)1 While the Romans had some success at destroying some of the city’s outer defenses, such as guard towers and parts of the outer wall, the defenders had equal success in creating counter-walls and defensive works.
The Carthaginian commander Himilco was doing an excellent job of managing the siege from inside the city. When we last left what was going on in the field, Himilco had successfully slaughtered a Roman contingent that had forced its way through a breach in the defenses according to Diodorus Siculus. (24.1)2 However, after rereading the sources, this may have been Diodorus Siculus’ version of what we will look at in a little bit.
Be as it may, after Himilco had received reinforcements from both Adherbal and Hannibal, the son of Hamilcar (once again not the Barcas), he may have felt that he had the strength to lead a counterattack. This was especially true since he knew his men “were full of spirit and confidence.” (Polybius 1.45)3 Apparently this was because of ships being able to run the blockade and bring reinforcements as well as the newly arriving reinforcements not yet fully realizing how dire the situation was in Lilybaeum. Himilco then summoned his forces in order to give them a speech to further bolster their morale. Also, similar to his negotiating with the loyal mercenaries, Himilco gave those assembled, “lavish promises of reward to those who distinguished themselves personally, and his assurance that the force as a whole would be duly recompensed by the Government.” (Polybius 1.45)4 With these promises fresh in their minds, the men then demanded a chance to earn these rewards at once. Himilco, pleased with the enthusiasm and the eagerness of the men, then conferred with his officers to explain his plan.
Before dawn, all of the Carthaginian army was arrayed throughout different points along the defenses. When the sun was beginning to rise he ordered a general advance and the Carthaginians sallied out of the city to assault the Roman siege-works. The Romans had either been forewarned or were simply prepared for the attack however. Essentially, something of a pitched battle began to form all around the cities walls, considering Lilybaeum’s garrison had swollen to over 20,000 men with the reinforcements that had arrived. If both consular armies were still besieging the city, Rome would have had roughly twice this amount. Interestingly, Polybius describes the manner of fighting “was something of the keenness of single combat in the whole contest.” (1.45)5 This was due to the fierceness of the fighting, but also because of the general lack of order to the battle because it was spaced out so much all around the outskirts of the city.
The Carthaginians at many points also began targeting the Roan siege-works and the Roman held their ground defending them. Fire was also used to try and burn the structures, but before much damage was caused to the engines Himilco ordered the trumpets to sound a retreat. He was observing the battle and knew that even though many Romans were falling, he could not sustain as many losses. They fell back safely into the city to fight another day, but the Romans were still in command of their siege works.
Seizing an Opportunity
Himilco, though he had given up the assault, was still determined to protect Lilybaeum as best he could. Instead of focusing on destroying the Roman siege-engines, he shifted the defenders’ focus onto counter-building to thwart the Romans. This led to the creation of an inner wall that also protected the city and also probably employed counter-mining to sabotage the Roman works. It was during this construction standoff that some sort of storm or tempest racked Lilybaeum and the Roman camp. Unfortunately for the Romans, the wind was so overpowering that many of the protective coverings of the siege-engines and even toppled some of the assault towers.
Accordingly, some of Lilybaeum’s garrison saw this as a remarkable opportunity to gain an advantage over the Roman besieging force. “During the gale it struck some of the Greek mercenaries that here was an admirable opportunity for destroying the works, and they communicated their notion to the general, who approved it and made all suitable preparations for the enterprise.” (Polybius 1.48)6 It should here be noted that Himilco was good general that was willing to hear out solid plans, even from subordinates and mercenaries as well as not being afraid to go on the offensive, even when outnumbered and besieged.
The plan was then so carried out. It seems to have been more of a surgical strike as opposed to the general assault earlier in the siege. The Carthaginians set fire to the Roman siege-works successfully at three strategic points along the Romans’ constructions. These structures were largely made of wood and the timbers had dried out substantially during the long siege. When this was combined with the wind continually blowing back into more of the Roman works and towards their camps, it created a devastating firestorm that spread rapidly. The inferno grew so intense that the few Romans who did try to put out the flames were quickly thrown back by the brightness, smoke, and sparks that the fire spewed forth. The Carthaginian forces also shot or hurled missiles at the Romans when they could see them through the flames since they were upwind of the smoke and fire. The Romans, unable to fight the Carthaginians or the fire were forced back and largely gave up trying to salvage the situation.
When the flames had died down, the Roman siege-works were a complete ruin. Without these, and apparently either lacking the resources or motivation to rebuild, the Roman army was not really capable of taking Lilybaeum by force. Instead they decided to wait the city out. The major problem with this course of action however was that their own supply line was tenuous and Lilybaeum was repaired and probably fairly well stocked due to the efforts of the earlier blockade runners.
Still, waiting out the city probably would have worked, albeit after a good long while, if it were not for what was to happen in the next campaigning season. Here we will largely end the Siege of Lilybaeum, though it well yet last for more years to come. But the remainder of the siege is largely uneventful as much else begins to unfold around Sicily. These events we will turn to next time.
- Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
- Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.
- Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.