The First Punic War was now dragging on for ten years. It was clear that neither side was even close to admitting defeat. The Romans needed only three months to construct a new fleet of 220 ships. The consuls for 254 BCE were Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Asina and Aulus Atilius Calatinus (or Caiatinus). Both had been consul before. Scipio had been captured by the Carthaginians in 260 BCE, while two years later Calatinus had failed to take Panormus and had almost lost his army. It should not come as a surprise to us that both magistrates were eager for glory.
The war continues
Scipio and Calatinus sailed to Messana and added the 80 ships that had survived last year’s disasters to their new fleet. The consuls now felt confident enough to attack a large city with a good port. Calatinus still had an axe to grind with Panormus, and that is where the consuls sent their land and naval forces to. The city was surrounded on all sides. Thanks to advice from their faithful ally Hiero of Syracuse, the Romans were now also capable of constructing siege engines and they managed to bring down the seaside defences. Legionaries fought their way into the city and quickly captured the lower city before starving the defenders of the citadel into submission. The capture of Panormus, which had been an important Carthaginian base, was a tremendous boost to Roman morale.
The consuls for 253 BCE, Gnaeus Servilius Caepio and Gaius Sempronius Blaesus, made an unsuccessful attack on Lilybaeum, one of the last Carthaginian strongholds on Sicily. They subsequently sailed to Africa again, but it is clear they never intended another full-scale invasion. Instead, the consuls landed raiding parties and did some damage, but none of these actions really hurt the Carthaginians. The Romans also landed on the island of Meninx (present-day Djerba off the Tunisian coast), the legendary island of the Lotus-Eaters from the Odyssey. Both commanders lacked the necessary naval experience and let the whole fleet run aground on a shoal when suddenly the low tide set in. The ships were freed again during the next high tide, but only after the crew had thrown much of the ballast overboard. The commanders then sailed back to Panormus. From there, they attempted to reach Rome by sailing across open sea. The result was that they were caught in another violent storm and lost over 150 ships. Thousands of lives must have been lost as well.
The Romans for the moment decided not to build a new fleet, relying on their land forces instead. They kept a fleet of some 60 ships to protect the Italian coast against raids and provide the legions with the necessary supplies. The consuls for 252 BCE, Gaius Aurelius Cotta and Publius Servilius Geminus managed to capture the city of Thermae, where their allies had suffered a humiliating defeat in 260 BCE. Cotta also managed to take Lipara in the Aeolian Islands after a siege. The precise chronology of events is difficult to reconstruct and it is also possible that both Thermae and Lipara were captured in 251 BCE, when Lucius Caecilius Metellus and Gaius Furius Pacilus were consuls.
Skirmishes at Panormus
In 251 BCE, an important confrontation took place before the walls of Panormus. Gaius Furius Pacilus had returned to Italy, taking half of the Roman troops with him. The other consul, Caecilius Metellus, had stayed at Panormus with the rest of the army, in order to protect the grain harvest by Rome’s allies. Polybius says it was “the height of the harvest”, so it must have been August or September. When the Carthaginian commander Hasdrubal became aware of this situation, he assembled his forces and marched north from Lilybaeum, eager to recapture an important city lost to the Roman three years previously. Hasdrubal had good reasons to be optimistic, as the Romans had been avoiding confrontations on open terrain in the last couple of years for fear of the Carthaginian battle elephants and superior cavalry.
Caecilius Metellus quickly realised his opponent was becoming overconfident and tried to lure his forces into a trap. He kept his own forces behind the city walls and let Hasdrubal destroy most of the harvest. When the Carthaginians had crossed the river not far from the city, he sent out his light troops – possibly already called velites – who harassed the enemy and pelted them with missiles. The Carthaginians were forced to deploy into battle order and then continued their advance on Panormus, while the velites kept showering them with missiles. The mahouts – the elephant riders – were eager for glory. They gave their animals the spur and pursued the velites back to the city walls, where the latter took shelter inside a ditch. Then troops positioned on the walls began showering the elephants from above with missiles and arrows.
Some of the animals were wounded, turned and charged into their own ranks. The Carthaginian infantry was thrown into disorder. This was the moment Caecelius Metellus had been waiting for. The consul led the pick of his infantry through a side gate and charged the Carthaginian flank. It was a complete Roman victory, although it seems likely the majority of the Carthaginians managed to get away. The next year, the victorious consul was awarded a spectacular triumph in which 13 Carthaginian officers and dozens of the captured elephants were paraded. Hasdrubal was severely punished for his defeat. If we are to believe Cassius Dio, he was summoned back to Carthage and impaled.
– Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 92-94 and 116;
– Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 133 and p. 189-190.