The Greek historian Polybius was mostly interested in the major events that shaped the history of the Ancient World. When discussing the events of the year 259 BCE, he notes that “the Roman troops in Sicily did nothing worthy of note during the following year”. This surely should not be interpreted in the sense that no fighting took place this year. There were still raids and skirmishes, sieges and naval confrontations. Cities changed hands and lives were lost, but there were no major land or sea battles like in previous years.
Sardinia and Corsica
One notable development was that the theatre of war was extended to include the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. There had long been Phoenician settlements on both islands and they formed ideal platforms for raiding the coast of Italy. It seems the Carthaginian commander Hannibal was given a second chance after his defeat at Mylae. In 259 BCE, he sailed to Sardinia with his fleet, presumably to plan an attack on the Italian mainland. But the Romans were aware of his movements and managed to block him inside one of the Sardinian harbours. A confrontation between the two fleets ensued. It was probably just a small skirmish, but Hannibal lost many ships and now the Carthaginians lost patience with him. The unfortunate commander was arrested and crucified.
While the consul Gaius Aquilius Florus campaigned against Hamilcar on Sicily, the other consul Lucius Cornelius Scipio engaged the Carthaginians on Corsica and Sardinia. He took the important city of Aleria on Corsica and captured most of the rest of the island as well. After these successes, Scipio sailed to Sardinia and forced a Carthaginian fleet to flee. The consul then sailed to Olbia on Sardinia. Apparently the Carthaginians had sent some reinforcements and Scipio was loath to confront their fleet, with Cassius Dio suggesting the consul had too few marines at his disposal to risk a full-scale sea battle.
There seems to have been trouble in Rome itself as well. A group of Carthaginian prisoners of war was conspiring with members of a large Samnite contingent that had been recruited for the Roman fleet. The Samnites had only been fully subjugated by the Romans a few decades ago after three bloody wars. Many would still have been quite willing to rebel. However, the plot was betrayed to the Senate and the conspiracy came to nothing.
Meanwhile, the war on Sicily was dragging on. The consuls of 258 BCE, Aulus Atilius Calatinus (or Caiatinus) and Gaius Sulpicius Paterculus, were unable to force a breakthrough. They tried to attack the important Carthaginian stronghold of Panormus, present-day Palermo. The consuls offered battle there, but since the enemy refused and hid behind their walls, the operation was a failure. The Roman commanders were apparently at this point unwilling to lay siege to such a strongly fortified city with an excellent port (the name Panormus actually means ‘complete port’).
The Romans did manage to capture smaller cities, such as Myttistratus, which had proved a tough nut to crack in previous years. But there were also setbacks. The consul Calatinus carelessly led his army through the countryside without properly reconnoitring first and suddenly found himself surrounded by a Carthaginian force. The Roman commander managed to escape with most of his troops because of the bravery of a military tribune named Marcus Calpurnius. Calpurnius managed to hold back the Carthaginians with a small detachments of soldiers and although most of his men were killed, the tribune himself survived. The fact that Calpurnius took 300 men with him who fought to the death is a little suspicious. It looks too much like the story of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. Yet there is no good reason to dismiss the entire story as fictional.
Calatinus’ colleague Sulpicius seems to have campaigned mostly on Sardinia and may also have sailed to Africa to raid the coastal regions there. It was probably just a small expedition, perhaps no more than a probing attack. The consuls of 257 BCE, Gaius Atilius Regulus and Gnaeus Cornelius Blasio, also failed to achieve much. Blasio was consul for the second time – he had also been consul in 270 BCE – and apparently his actions were so undistinguished that they have not been recorded anywhere. His colleague Atilius fought a confused naval battle with a Carthaginian fleet near Tyndaris. Atilius lost 9 ships when he attacked too rashly and was almost captured, but the Romans managed to retake the initiative, sink 8 Carthaginian ships and capture another 10. The Battle of Tyndaris ended in a draw.
The Romans realised they were not going to defeat the Carthaginians unless they took the war to Africa itself. And this is exactly what they did the next year.
– Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 105 and 109;
– Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 185.