This year, the Romans changed their fleet policy again. Three years previously, they had decided to merely focus on the defence of Italy, for which only a small fleet was required, but in 250 BCE, they constructed another 50 warships and began recruiting new crews. The reason was obvious: the Romans were marching their armies against the main Carthaginian stronghold on Sicily, the great fortress-city of Lilybaeum (present-day Marsala). Lilybaeum had formidable defences, an excellent port and could be supplied by sea, so for the Romans to achieve any success here, a sizeable fleet was needed to block the harbour.
Actions at Lilybaeum
Gaius Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso Longus were the consuls for this year. They took a fleet of 200 ships and sent two consular armies west to besiege Lilybaeum. By this time, the Carthaginians on Sicily only controlled this large city and Drepana (present-day Trapani), and perhaps a few smaller towns. They had to prevent Lilybaeum from falling into Roman hands, otherwise the war would probably be over for them.
Lilybaeum was well protected by strong walls and a deep moat. It had a garrison of some 10.000 men, mostly mercenaries it seems, who were led by Himilco. The Romans built two camps on either side of Lilybaeum and then proceeded to surround the city with a ditch, rampart and palisade (circumvallatio). They had become quite good at siege warfare at this point in the war. Siege towers and battering rams were built and used to bring down parts of the city defences. But the defenders never sat still. They began building new walls and reinforced damaged walls, built trenches and frequently sallied out of the gates to try and set fire to the Roman siege engines. If the Romans dug a tunnel, the defenders dug a counter-tunnel. However, their situation became increasingly difficult every day, and an attempt was even made to betray the city to the Romans.
Back in Carthage, a relief fleet and army were assembled to come to the aid of Lilybaeum. 50 ships carrying 10.000 soldiers led by another Hannibal sailed to the Aegates Islands just off the coast of Sicily and waited there for a favourable wind. With a strong wind blowing in his ships’ sails, Hannibal sailed straight into the port of Lilybaeum. The Romans were completely taken by surprise and did not dare to intervene, as they feared being blown into the port as well.
The defenders were of course very happy to receive so many reinforcements, and Himilco decided to make use of the fresh soldiers as quickly as possible. Again he ordered the men to make a sortie and to set fire to the Roman siege engines. The Romans, however, had anticipated such an attack and were well prepared. Heavy fighting broke out and many men on both sides were killed, but when Himilco realised his men were unable to knock out the Roman machines, he ordered the trumpeters to sound the retreat.
Hannibal then sailed out of Lilybaeum again, unnoticed by the Roman fleet, which was clearly incapable of completely sealing off the harbour. The Carthaginian commander went to Drepana, a city some 25 kilometres further to the north which was commanded by Adherbal. Meanwhile, the authorities back in Carthage were eager for information about the situation in Lilybaeum. A volunteer presented himself and offered to sail into the city’s port with his fast ship and then report back to both Carthage and Adherbal in Drepana. The volunteer’s name was Hannibal, and he was nicknamed ‘The Rhodian’. This Hannibal was an exceptional sailor, who had intimate knowledge of the geographical situation near Lilybaeum. He managed to slip through the Roman blockade and reach the harbour. This he did time and time again, providing the authorities in Carthage and Drepana with valuable information and boosting the morale of the defenders.
The Romans were furious, especially since others began copying Hannibal’s tactics and were running the Roman blockade as well. They tried dumping rocks and other materials into the sea to seal off the harbour mouth, but the sea was much too deep in most places and they ultimately only succeeded in constructing a small mole in one place. It was just enough. One night, a quadrireme trying to run the blockade ran aground on the mole and was captured. It was an excellent ship and very fast. The Romans gave it an experienced crew and used it to hunt down Hannibal. The newly acquired Roman ship proved to be faster than Hannibal’s ship, and the latter was boarded and captured. His fate is unknown, but he completely disappears from our records.
The capture of Hannibal the Rhodian was a serious blow to the morale of the defenders in Lilybaeum. But once again, nature turned out to be their strongest ally. When a violent storm arose that even shook the Roman siege engines, some Greek mercenaries in the garrison realised that this was the moment to strike. Dozens of defenders ran out of the gates and hurled burning torches at the rams and towers. Some of these caught fire and the strong wind caused the fire to spread quickly. The Romans were unable to do anything, as they were blinded by the thick smoke. Before they even realised what was going on, most of the siege engines had already been destroyed. The Romans now retreated to their camps and decided to starve the city into submission, keeping it under a loose siege for the remainder of the war. They would never attempt another direct assault again.
– Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 94-95 and 117-118;
– Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 133 and p. 190-191.