The final years of the First Punic War were dominated by low-level fighting and raids. The Romans shunned the sea and stuck to the war on land, but could not reduce the final Carthaginian strongholds of Drepana and Lilybaeum in Western Sicily. The Carthaginians, for their part, were unable to significantly hurt the Romans, even though they sent one of their ablest commanders to the island.
The consuls for 248 BCE, Gaius Aurelius Cotta and Publius Servilius Geminus failed to achieve anything on Sicily. They merely harried Drepana and Lilybaeum and prevented the Carthaginians from raiding the territories of the Roman allies. The Carthaginian commander Carthalo tried to raid Italy, but was unsuccessful. Perhaps because of this failure, but mainly because of trouble with the mercenaries in his army, Carthalo was later replaced by Hamilcar Barcas. Hamilcar commanded just a small army and fleet, but his troops were very experienced and highly motivated. The Carthaginian was a master at guerrilla warfare and the Romans never succeeded in defeating him. Hamilcar certainly lived up to his nickname ‘Barcas’, which means ‘lightning’ or ‘flash’.
Hamilcar probably assumed command in 247 BCE, the year in which the Romans and King Hiero of Syracuse made a treaty of eternal friendship. The Carthaginian first took his small fleet to Italy and raided the territory of Locris and the Bruttii. He then sailed back to Sicily and captured Mount Hercte (or Heirkte; possibly present-day Monte Pellegrino), north of Panormus. It was an excellent strategic position. The mountain is over 600 metres high and offers a panoramic view of Panormus (present-day Palermo), which was in Roman hands. The Carthaginians could make use of fertile pastures to grow their own crops, so they were in fact self-sustaining. The mountain dominated a harbour further to the north, which was used by Hamilcar and his troops for executing more raids on Italy. During some of these raids, the Carthaginian went north as far as Cumae in Campania.
The consuls Lucius Caecilius Metellus and Numerius Fabius Buteo stationed troops opposite the Carthaginian position. Both sides were evenly matched: neither could defeat the other. There were daily raids and counterraids, ambushes and skirmishes. These actions continued until Hamilcar decided to relocate some three years later. Polybius compared the conflict at Mount Hercte to a boxing match.
The Romans had for the moment retired from the sea, but they allowed private citizens to act as privateers and raids the coast of Africa. These pirate expeditions do not seem to have been very successful, although Zonaras mentions a spectacular raid against the city of Hippo, presumably Hippo Diarrhytos not far from Carthage itself. The consul Buteo captured the small island of Pelias near Drepana and used it to put further pressure on Drepana itself. That about sums up all the actions for the years 247-245 BCE, with even Zonaras remarking that “various persons became consuls, but effected nothing worthy of record”.
The situation changed in 244 BCE, when Hamilcar Barcas decided to leave Mount Hercte. The Carthaginian took his army and fleet, sailed west along the coast and managed to recapture the town of Eryx on the slopes of Mount Eryx. The Romans had positioned strong garrisons at the foot and at the sanctuary at the top of the mountain, but not in the city itself. Hamilcar simply bypassed the garrison at the foot, occupied the town (its citizens had already been moved by the Carthaginians in 260 BCE) and turned it into his new headquarters.
The Romans at the top of the mountain now suddenly found themselves under siege. Yet their position was a good one and they managed to fight off any attack by the Carthaginians. Somehow the Romans managed to get enough supplies to the troops defending the temple. Hamilcar’s troops were highly dependent on a small strip of land near the sea that they controlled. They defended the only road leading to this place with their lives. Again there were raids, skirmishes and ambushes. Soldiers on both sides were killed, wounded and captured, but like at Mount Hercte, both sides were evenly matched and they did not succeed in outsmarting or outfighting the other. The conflict would go on for another two years.
There were no armed conflicts between the Romans and the various peoples of Italy during the years discussed here. The Romans did found new colonies, which was an integral part of their strategy of expansion. Our sources mention colonies at Fregenae in Etruria and Brundisium (present-day Brindisi). A colony at Alsium is also mentioned.
– Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 95;
– Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 133 and p. 193-195.