The Annalist: The Years 262-261 BCE

PunicLucius Postumius Megellus and Quintus Mamilius Vitulus were the new consuls for 262 BCE. With Italy still at peace, they were both sent to Sicily with a full consular army. Their prime target was the important city of Agrigentum (Akragas) in the south of the island. Although it was a Greek city, founded by colonists from Gela (also on Sicily), Agrigentum had sided with Carthage early in the conflict. It became an important base for Carthaginian operations.

The siege of Agrigentum

After losing their Syracusan ally Hiero the previous year, the Carthaginians had begun recruiting large numbers of Ligurians, Celts and fresh troops from Iberia. Not all of these troops proved to be reliable. Polybius claims a group of Celtic mercenaries even pillaged Agrigentum, the city they were supposed to protect. Even more importantly, most of these reinforcements had not yet arrived on the island when the Romans appeared before the walls of Agrigentum. The garrison was much too small to risk an open battle, and the defenders were trapped inside their city while the Romans camped about a mile away. The Romans at this time were not yet particularly skilled at siege warfare – much unlike the later Imperial legions – so they simply resorted to blockading Agrigentum and waited for the city to surrender because of starvation.

Polybius claims that “it was the height of the harvest”, so it must have been at the very least June, perhaps even July, August or September (remember that in this period, new consuls took up their office in March).[1] The Romans sent out foraging parties to collect the grain that was now ripe. Most of these men were spread out over a large area and were probably not even armed. The defenders noticed the carelessness of their opponents and made a daring sortie, which could only be stopped by the bravery of the pickets, who managed to foil the attack despite being outnumbered and suffering heavy losses.

264 map

Map of Sicily (image/map: © TerraMetrics/Google)

The Romans now began to operate more carefully. One camp was established at the Sanctuary of Asclepius (Asklepios), while a second camp was constructed on the other side of the city, “that side of the city that is turned towards Heraclea” according to Polybius. The name ‘Heraclea’ refers to Heraclea Minoa, which was some 25 kilometres west of Agrigentum. The Romans had strengthened their positions with a wall facing the city (circumvallatio) and had also constructed a wall facing outward, to protect them from attacks by a Carthaginian relief force (contravallatio). The siege went on for some five months and the people inside the city – some 50.000 according to Polybius – were beginning to feel the effects. The Romans had sealed off the city very well, and no food could be brought into Agrigentum, which was on a plateau and lacked a port. People were beginning to die of hunger and the desperate Carthaginian commander Hannibal sent several messages to Carthage begging for help.

Diodorus Siculus – citing the pro-Carthaginian historian Philinus – claims that Carthage ultimately amassed a relief force of some 50.000 infantry, 6.000 cavalry and 60 war elephants. Although the force may have been smaller, it must certainly have been large enough to confront the roughly 40.000 Romans besieging Agrigentum. The Carthaginians were commanded by another Hanno, who set out from Heraclea and captured the Roman supply base at Herbesus. This was an important blow to the Romans. They were soon suffering from food shortages as well and to add insult to injury, an epidemic broke out in the camp which claimed many lives. The Romans would probably have been forced to break off the siege had not their faithful ally King Hiero used everything within his means to supply them with the bare necessities.

Battles

Numidian cavalry (source: Europa Barbarorum).

Numidian cavalry (source: Europa Barbarorum).

Hanno now advanced on Agrigentum and the Roman camp west of the city. He sent his Numidian cavalry forward to provoke and draw out the Roman horsemen. Roman cavalry usually relied on a headlong charge and the Romans were unfamiliar with the Numidian hit-and-run tactics. The Roman horsemen rode out of their camp and chased off their opponents. Of course this was all part of the plan, as the Numidians only feigned retreat, before rallying again and attacking their pursuers, who by now were tired and had lost all formation. The Romans were chased back to their camp and suffered heavy losses.

After his tactical victory, Hanno pitted his camp on a hill called Torus, about 1,8 kilometres from the Roman positions. The siege dragged on for another two months. Although all parties were suffering, the situation in the city was truly desperate. Hardly any food was left and troops from the garrison were beginning to desert to the Romans. Hannibal sent signals to Hanno, urging him to attack the Roman lines. Ultimately, both sides marched out of their camps and joined battle on the plain between the two camps. Although sources like Polybius and Cassius Dio give different accounts of the battle, the result was clearly a decisive Roman victory. Another sortie from the city was also defeated.

After his defeat, Hanno was forced to march whatever remained of his army back to Heraclea. He was severely punished by the Carthaginians, who stripped him of his civil rights, ordered him to pay a fine of 6.000 gold pieces and replaced him with Hamilcar. The Romans probably suffered substantial casualties during the battle and they certainly lost many men during the siege. They may have been exhausted and were anyway celebrating their victory, which provided Hannibal and his remaining forces with an opportunity to sneak out of the city during the night. Agrigrentum was now an easy prey for the Romans. They quickly captured the city and plundered it. Many of the inhabitants were led away to be sold as slaves. The siege had lasted over seven months and the city was probably taken early in 261 BCE.

Aftermath

Temple of Concordia, Agrigentum (photo: Evan Erickson).

Temple of Concordia, Agrigentum (photo: Evan Erickson).

The new consuls Lucius Valerius Flaccus and Titus Otacilius Crassus continued the war on Sicily. There were many raids, skirmishes, small battles and sieges of walled towns. Most towns in the inland parts of Sicily were small, but situated on strategic hills and very well fortified. Roman sieges were not always successful. For instance, the Romans failed to take the stronghold of Myttistratus or Myttistraton after a seven-month siege. Nevertheless, most cities in the interior were under Roman control.

The problem for the Romans was that the Carthaginians still controlled many of the (larger) cities in the coastal regions and – more importantly – that they dominated the sea. The Romans still had no fleet to speak of and were heavily dependent on their Greek allies. But if they wanted to win the war with Carthage, having a fleet of their own was essential. The Romans were landlubbers. Now they needed to get themselves sea legs.

Sources

Primary

– Cassius Dio, Roman History, Fragments of Book XI;
– Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Fragments of Book XXIII;
– Polybius, The Histories, Book 1.17-18, Book 2.7;

Secondary

– Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 76-84;
– Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 179-180.

Note

[1] Donna R. Gabaccia writes that “peasants harvested grain from June to September, depending on altitude”. Her statement is about the situation ca. 1900, but it would not have been very different in Antiquity.

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  1. Pingback: The Annalist: The Year 260 BCE – Corvinus

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