The year 249 BCE was undoubtedly the most disastrous year of the entire First Punic War for the Romans. Two Roman fleets were almost annihilated and the loss of lives in these tragedies was simply horrendous. In spite of these serious setbacks, the Romans recovered and continued the war.
The Battle of Drepana
One of the year’s consuls, Publius Claudius Pulcher, was involved in the ongoing siege of Lilybaeum. He had received some 10.000 sailors as reinforcements and decided to take the fleet and attack the city of Drepana, a little bit further to the north. Zonaras claims that Carthaginian cavalry from Drepana were cutting the Roman supply lines and raiding the territories of Rome’s allies, and this may have been one of the reasons for Pulcher to attack the city. It was one of Carthage’s last strongholds on the island, and prima facie not as tough a nut to crack as Lilybaeum. If the consuls could defeat the sizeable Carthaginian fleet anchored there and subsequently take the city, this would reduce the Carthaginian presence on Sicily to just a tiny corner of the island. It would certainly shorten the war and perhaps lead to the end of it. Like any other Roman magistrate leading an army, the consul was eager for glory as well.
Publius Claudius Pulcher was from an ancient patrician Roman gens. The male members of this family or clan were known for their good looks – ‘Pulcher’ could be translated as ‘pretty boy’ – but also for their arrogance and their disdain for the common people. The consul sailed along the coast with his fleet of some 120 ships. Although the ships lost some of their formation – Pulcher had started his operation after midnight – the Romans initially managed to achieve total surprise. Victory was within their grasp, but the Carthaginian commander Adherbal quickly recovered his senses and responded adequately. Adherbal managed to rally his sailors and marines and get them all on board of the ships. The first Roman ships were already sailing into the harbour of Drepana, but the Carthaginian commander managed to get all of his ships out by sailing close along the cliffs on the opposite side of the harbour.
Now the Romans were thrown into confusion. The Carthaginian ships could easily form up in battle formation out in the open sea, where they had lots of space to manoeuvre. The Roman situation, on the other hand, was far from ideal. Some of their ships were already in the harbour, some were in the harbour mouth and others were still sailing along the coast. The ships in or near the harbour had to turn around to sail out again and face their enemies. In doing so, many collided with other Roman ships. Oars were sheared off and hulls were damaged.
The Romans stumbled to form some sort of battle line, but their position was far from advantageous. The Carthaginian ships were of better quality and their crews more experienced, while the 10.000 reinforcements in the Roman ranks were still awfully green. The Carthaginian position allowed them to charge forward into the Roman ranks and then retire to open sea if hard-pressed. The Romans had no room for such manoeuvres. The backs of their ships were too close to the shore, and they risked running aground on the shoals or being dashed to pieces against the rocks.
The Romans did put up a stubborn fight, but they were outclassed by their adversaries. In the end, the consul Pulcher fled with just 30 ships. The Romans had lost 93 ships and casualties must have been heavy, with thousands of sailors and soldiers killed or captured. Diodorus Siculus gives a figure of 20.000 casualties, but it is not clear whether these include sailors and marines that were captured, and he also claims the Romans lost 117 out of 210 ships. Some of the crews simply let their ships run aground and tried to escape by land. Carthaginian losses are unknown, but they are unlikely to have been significant. Overall, the Battle of Drepana was an ignominious defeat for Rome. It was also the only decisive victory at sea for the Carthaginians during the entire war.
More naval disasters
Unfortunately for the Romans, worse was yet to come. The Carthaginian commander Carthalo made an attack on the Roman ships that participated in the siege of Lilybaeum. It was probably just a small attack, but large enough to cause panic in the Roman camp. Carthalo then sailed to Heraclea. He had heard rumours that a Roman supply fleet was on its way to Lilybaeum, carrying provisions for the Roman army. His orders were to intercept that fleet. The army besieging Lilybaeum was at this time probably led by Claudius Pulcher’s legates, while the supply fleet of hundreds of transports and some 120 warships was under the overall command of the other consul, Lucius Junius Pullus.
Pullus himself had initially stayed behind in Syracuse and had ordered two quaestors to sail around Cape Pachynus with half of the transport ships and a few escorts. Light ships – lemboi – sailing ahead of the quaestors warned their superiors of the approaching Carthaginian fleet. The quaestors decided not to risk a confrontation, but to sail into a bay near a fortified town that was allied to the Romans. They collected a few ballistae and other pieces of artillery from the town and waited for the enemy to come. Carthalo only managed to capture a few of the transports, before sailing off again and waiting at a safe place for the Romans to emerge from their hideout.
The Roman fleet seemed safe for the moment, but now the consul, unaware of what had happened to the quaestors and their ships, sailed around Cape Pachynus as well. When he saw the Carthaginian fleet approaching, Pullus was loath to risk battle and anchored all of his ships near a dangerous part of the coast. Carthalo and his captains were well aware of the dangers. They had intimate knowledge of the south coast of Sicily and knew full well about the storms in this part of the Mediterranean. The Carthaginians managed to get all of their ships safely around Cape Pachynus, but both Roman fleets were caught in a violent storm and smashed to pieces on the rocks. The Romans again lost thousands of men, most of their ships and all of their supplies, none of which ever reached the troops at Lilybaeum.
Fate of the consuls
A later tradition blamed the Roman defeat at the Battle of Drepana on the arrogance of Publius Claudius Pulcher and his lack of respect for the gods. Before the battle, the consul had fed the holy chickens on his flagship. The chickens refused to eat, which was a bad omen. Disregarding this warning, the consul reportedly grabbed the chickens and threw them overboard, exclaiming: “If they don’t want to eat, let them drink!”. Whether or not this story is true (it is not mentioned at all by Polybius), there can be no doubt that Claudius Pulcher was an arrogant man, although it seems unlikely that other Roman commanders would have acted differently and more cautiously at Drepana.
The defeat and the loss of yet another fleet did cause the Senate to lose confidence in the consul. Claudius Pulcher was recalled to Rome, forced to lay down his office and later put on trial. The popular assembly ordered him to pay a heavy fine for his part in the disaster at Drepana. A few years later, his sister Claudia was also fined. A haughty patrician lady, when her litter was blocked by the masses in the streets of Rome, she is said to have remarked: “Oh, that my brother were still alive and commanded a navy!” The remark was completely in line with her family’s attitude towards the plebs. It also make clear that her brother was no longer alive at that time. He may have killed himself soon after his condemnation, although his ultimate fate is not entirely clear.
The fate of Pullus, the other consul, is even more obscure. Polybius claims he survived the disaster and fought in the land war on Sicily again. Pullus even went on the offensive and managed to capture Mount Eryx near Drepana, which was a very important strategic position. The Phoenician town of Eryx was about halfway up the slope. At the summit was the Temple of Aphrodite or Venus Ericana, or rather to Astarte or Tanit, as the Carthaginians called her. Polybius calls it “indisputably the first in wealth and general magnificence of all the Sicilian holy places”. The temple was probably not just a place of worship, but a heavily fortified complex that offered a good view of Drepana and even of Africa on a clear day. Pullus stationed troops at the foot and at the summit of the mountain.
So what happened to Pullus after his successful actions at Mount Eryx? His name disappears from Polybius’ account of the war, but Cicero – writing some 200 years after the facts – claims that Pullus committed suicide because of the disaster with his fleet. Diodorus Siculus, on the other hand, writes that after taking Mount Eryx, Pullus was captured by Carthalo. The two stories are not necessarily incompatible, as the consul may have committed suicide in captivity. In the end, we just do not know what happened to Pullus.
The situation after Drepana and the loss of the entire transport fleet was bad enough for the Romans to appoint a dictator, a magistrate with almost unlimited powers who was only nominated in times of dire need. The Senate and People no longer trusted Claudius Pulcher and he was forced to lay down his office. But before he did that, he was ordered to nominate a dictator. A consul was needed to do that and Pulcher was the only one present, with Pullus still in Sicily. To spite the Senate, Pulcher nominated one Claudius Glicia who was apparently a plebeian of very humble origins. Glicia was not acceptable for the Senate and forced to lay down his office. Then Aulus Atilius Calatinus was appointed, although our sources do not explicitly state by whom. Calatinus had been consul in 258 and 254 BCE and was very experienced. He became the first dictator to lead a Roman army outside Italy, but he did not accomplish anything in Sicily.
In the now lost Book 19 of his Ab urbe condita, Livius mentioned an exchange of prisoners with the Carthaginians that may have taken place this year. There were no peace negotiations, however, and both sides decided to continue the war. Rome was not prepared to give in, although she did again decide to avoid the sea and not to construct a new fleet. The Carthaginians were elated because of their victory at Drepana. There would be a lot more bloodshed before the war was finally ended.
– Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 118-122;
– Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 133 and p. 191-193.
 Coincidentally, the Latin word for chicken is pullus, which was also the cognomen of Pulcher’s consular colleague.