The First Punic War had been a costly, but ultimately resounding victory for the Roman Republic. From a regional power that dominated much of the Italian peninsula it had suddenly become a maritime force to be reckoned with as well. Sicily – save the territories of Rome’s local ally King Hiero of Syracuse – had become a Roman province and Carthaginian influence in the western Mediterranean had suffered a serious blow. Carthage had been humiliated by the peace treaty that had been signed after the Roman victory at the Battle of the Aegates Islands. More misery was to follow. A new conflict in Africa soon saw Carthage fighting for her very survival.
Prelude to the Mercenary War
In 241 BCE, Hamilcar Barcas, the undefeated Carthaginian commander, had marched his forces from Mount Eryx to Lilybaeum and had laid down his command there. A certain Gisgo had been charged with repatriating the troops, one detachment at a time, to Africa where they would be paid and subsequently discharged. But there was a problem: Carthage was desperately short of funds at the time, a predicament no doubt exacerbated by the indemnity of 3.200 talents that she had to pay Rome. The Carthaginian authorities had hoped that the troops would settle for less than their usual wages. To be able to address them all at the same time, the soldiers were billeted in Carthage itself, where they awaited the arrival of more of their comrades from Sicily. This was not a good idea. Soon the behaviour of the men got out of hand. The Carthaginian authorities then decided to order the soldiers to take their families and move to Sicca, now the city of El Kef in Tunisia. This was another bad idea. Not only were the soldiers again concentrated on one location, the authorities could now no longer use their wives and children as hostages.
Hanno, commander of the Carthaginian army in Africa, was sent to the troops to appease them. What he found was a ragged band of Spaniards, Celts, Ligurians, Balears, Greeks from Italy and Sicily and native North Africans (‘Libyans’ in sources like Polybius). Many would have been mercenaries, but the North-Africans were troops supplied by Carthage’s allies, the Berber cities and villages subjugated and dominated by the Carthaginians. So although the ensuing conflict is usually called the Mercenary War, not all of them were hired soldiers. All of them wanted to be paid, however, and none of them wanted to listen to Hanno. The mercenaries – some 20.000 if we are to believe Polybius – now marched on Carthage itself and made camp near Tunis, the site of Regulus’ defeat against Xanthippos in 255 BCE. They were just 20 kilometres away from Carthage and the situation for the Carthaginians was grave indeed. They had always relied on mercenaries and allied troops to fight their wars, and were now dependent on hastily conscripted citizens with very little combat experience.
All Carthage could do was negotiate, but the mercenaries had become overconfident and kept making new and disproportionate demands. Things were beginning to look a bit brighter when, probably in 240 BCE, Gisgo arrived in Africa to settle the dispute. He was held in high regard by the mercenaries and was obviously a brave man. Gigso harangued the mercenaries and ultimately proceeded to pay them their wages, one ethnic group at a time. The rebellion could now easily have petered out, had not a runaway slave from Campania named Spendius and a Libyan named Matho intervened. The latter was afraid that once the rebel army had dispersed, the Carthaginians would exact revenge against the native Berber population for their participation in the rebellion. This conflict was not just about honour and pay. For many North-Africans, the Carthaginians were still invaders from Phoenicia, who had occupied their lands. They probably had good reasons to be angry. During the First Punic War half of their harvest had been claimed by the Carthaginian authorities and their cities had been subjected to double taxation without exemptions. The North-Africans were livid, and the desire to rid Africa of a foreign oppressor became part of the Mercenary War.
Suddenly, Gisgo was accused of having postponed the compensation for the horses and corn. It was a flimsy pretext, but Gisgo and his attendants were taken prisoner and the rebels appointed Spendius and Matho as their leaders. Matho now sent envoys to other cities in North-Africa, calling upon them to liberate themselves from Carthaginian oppression. Many cities joined the rebellion, but Utica and Hippo Diarrythos initially remained loyal to Carthage. Carthage itself now began recruiting new mercenaries, arming citizens, training cavalry squadrons and equipping whatever was left of the fleet. But the Carthaginians were hopelessly outnumbered by the rebel forces who, according to Polybius, had an army of several thousand mercenaries augmented by some 70.000 North-Africans.
These numbers are no doubt inflated, and although the rebels were capable of simultaneously laying siege to Utica and Hippo Diarrythos and keeping a tight grip on Tunis as well (see the map above), most of their soldiers – especially the North-Africans – were probably raw recruits. Spendius and Matho may have been experienced, but they had never held high command. The Carthaginians on the other hand, although outnumbered, were vastly superior as regarded cavalry and elephants and these would play a vital role in the upcoming war. But most of all, Carthage would soon see the return of its ablest commander to Africa.
The Mercenary War begins
The Mercenary War was a horrible affair, with atrocities committed on both sides. Often the rebels had the upper hand, but always the Carthaginians somehow managed to bounce back. Hanno proved to be a poor commander, suffering a defeat against the rebels at Utica in 240 BCE. The tide turned when Hamilcar Barcas returned from Sicily. With a small force of some 10.000 men and 70 war elephants, the new commander set out from Carthage in early 239 BCE. Hamilcar managed to defeat Spendius’ army at the Bagradas River, but then pursued his opponent too carelessly and suddenly found himself trapped in a valley, surrounded on all sides by forces led by Spendius and a Celtic commander by the name of Autaritos. Fortunately, the Carthaginians were saved by the defection of a Numidian prince named Naravas. Naravas and 2.000 of his horsemen joined Hamilcar’s ranks, who was so grateful that he offered the prince one of his daughters in marriage. With the aid of their new ally, the Carthaginians managed to turn a certain defeat into a crushing victory. Thousands of rebels were killed, but Spendius and Autaritos managed to escape.
Up until this time, Hamilcar and the other Carthaginian commanders had shown clemency towards prisoners of war. Captured rebels were given a choice: they were allowed to fight for Carthage again or to go home, in which case they had to swear that they would never take up arms against Carthage again. The Carthaginian attitude soon changed when Matho, Spendius and Autaritos decided to torture and murder Gisgo, still their prisoner, and some 700 of his men. The poor men were marched out of the camp, their hands, noses and ears were cut off and their legs were broken. Finally, they were thrown into a ditch, completely mutilated but still alive, to bleed to death. The rebel commanders now also stipulated that in future, every captured Carthaginian would be executed immediately. Hamilcar’s reaction was swift and remorseless: from now on, captured rebels would be trampled to death by elephants. These actions ushered in the ugliest phase in the entire war, where clemency was seen as a weakness.
Towards the end of 239 BCE, the tide seemed to turn against Carthage again. The previous year, she had effectively lost control of Sardinia when mercenaries stationed there had rebelled and a new force of mercenaries sent to quell the revolt had defected as well (see below). Supplies sent from Emporia had been lost at sea during a storm and the all-important cities of Utica and Hippo Diarrythos had defected to the rebels. Some 500 Carthaginians had been executed there, while Hamilcar and Hanno – who held joint command – were constantly quarrelling over which strategy to adopt. Carthage soon found herself under siege.
End of the Mercenary War
But Carthage still had Hamilcar, who became sole commander after Hanno had been sacked. Together with one Hannibal (not his famous son!) and prince Naravas, Hamilcar successfully attacked the rebel supply lines. And what is more, even her former enemy the Roman Republic began sending aid. The Romans refused requests by the rebels to help them and even to take Utica under their protection. They also prohibited all trade with them. As a result of the peace treaty of 241 BCE, all Roman prisoners of war had been released without ransom. The Romans now generously released all remaining Carthaginian captives and allowed Carthage to recruit new mercenaries in territories under Roman control. Finally, Rome decided to send grain to Carthage, where the granaries were almost depleted by this time.
By 238 BCE, Hamilcar had succeeded in cutting the rebel supply lines. The mercenaries were now forced to give up the siege of Carthage. As they marched away, Hamilcar followed them and ultimately managed to trap some 50.000 rebels at a place known as “The Saw” (Prion in Greek). The rebels were desperately short of supplies and ultimately had to resort to cannibalism. Spendius, Autaritos and a Libyan named Zarzas offered to negotiate with Hamilcar, but were captured. When Hamilcar attacked the now leaderless rebels, some 40.000 of them were killed. It proved to be a decisive victory. Hamilcar, aided by prince Naravas, now began to recapture cities and parts of the countryside that had been lost in previous years. The ultimate prize was Tunis, where the Carthaginian general managed to besiege Matho, the last remaining rebel commander. At Tunis, Spendius, Autaritos and Zarzas were crucified in plain sight, obviously to instil fear into the hearts of the rebels.
But Hamilcar’s fellow-commander Hannibal was careless. His reinforcements were attacked and routed, and he himself was captured. Abiding by the old law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, the Carthaginian commander was nailed to the same cross that had previously held Spendius. The loss of so many reinforcements forced Hamilcar to give up the siege. He reconciled with Hanno and together they managed to defeat Matho in a battle near Leptis Parva (not to be confused with Leptis Magna in present-day Libya). Matho was captured alive and later paraded through Carthage and executed. His defeat was the death blow for the rebellion. All of North-Africa was subjugated again and brought back under Carthaginian control. The cities of Utica and Hippo Diarrythos, wary of Carthaginian repercussions, at first refused to submit, but ultimately they were brought back into the fold by skilful diplomacy. After some three years and four months, the dreadful Mercenary War was finally brought to a close.
So what, in the meantime, had the Romans been doing? While Carthage was locked in a genuine death struggle, her very existence at risk, the Romans fought a brief and easy war against a former ally. In 241 BCE, the Etruscan city of Falerii, probably angry because of heavy taxation during the First Punic War, rebelled against Roman domination. Livius claims that the Faliscans were subdued in just six days and Polybius asserts that the city was taken “in a few days”, but Cassius Dio’s excerptor Zonaras mentions an actual campaign by the consul Aulus Manlius Torquatus. Details of the campaign are scarce, but there seem to have been two battles. In the first, the consul’s infantry was defeated while his cavalry prevailed. The second battle was a complete Roman victory. Falerii, situated on a steep hill, was destroyed and later rebuilt as the city of Falerii Novi (new Falerii) some five kilometres away.
Back at home, there were more serious developments. Also in 241 BCE, the temple of Vesta was destroyed by fire, but the pontifex maximus, Lucius Caecilius Metellus, managed to save the holy objects inside. Among the most important of these was the Palladium, the wooden statue of Pallas Athena that was always kept in the temple. Metellus had bravely thrown himself into the flames and had managed to get all the sacred objects out in time. Unfortunately, the fire had also destroyed his eyes and he was blind for the rest of his life. The grateful Senate granted him the privilege of coming to the Curia in a chariot.
Also of prime importance was the creation, again in 241 BCE, of two new tribus, the tribus Velina and the tribus Quirina. The Roman population had always been divided into ‘tribes’, a term which is best translated as ‘voting districts’. Tradition dictates that there had been 21 tribus in 495 BCE. This number was increased in later years until there were 35 tribus by 241 BCE. From then on, new Roman citizens were simply enrolled into one of the existing tribus by the censors. When electing magistrates, voting on legislation or issuing judgments, the Roman popular assembly usually voted as the assembly of the tribes, the comitia tributa. A notable exception was the election of the highest, most prestigious magistrates, the consuls, praetors and censors. For their election, the archaic comitia centuriata was called together, which was based on property qualifications and gave wealthier citizens disproportionate influence on the electoral results.
For the comitia centuriata, citizens were divided into 5 classes and 193 centuriae, with the equites (‘knights’) forming a class of their own and those without property (the capite censi) lumped together in one century. In Cicero’s time (106-43 BCE), the equites had 18 centuriae and the citizens of the first property class 70. Together they almost controlled a majority of the centuries – 88 of 193 – while obviously comprising just a small portion of the Roman population. Originally, and if we trust Livius’ account, the first class may even have had 80 centuriae, which meant that a candidate just supported by this class and the equites could win the election.
The later number of 70 centuries seems to be connected to the 35 tribus. There was always a junior century and a senior century, and the name of a tribus was added to that of the century. We for example read about a Voturian century of iuniores in 210 BCE. It has been speculated that a constitutional reform of the comitia centuriata took place between 241 BCE, when the final two tribus were created and the number was fixed at 35, and the beginning of the Second Punic War in 218 BCE. This reform would have reduced the power of the first property class, taking away ten of its centuries. It is anything but clear which magistrate initiated this reform. Our sources are unfortunately silent.
Above, I have already discussed the way that Rome aided Carthage during the Mercenary War. Roman behaviour in this conflict was commendable at first, but later became shamelessly opportunistic. In or around 240 BCE, Carthaginian mercenaries on Sardinia had rebelled and killed their commander and several Carthaginian citizens. A force sent from Carthage to crush the rebellion instead defected to the rebels and also murdered their commander. The mercenaries subsequently massacred most of the Carthaginians on the island and captured all of the cities. They tried to make an alliance with the Romans, but these flatly refused. The mercenaries’ occupation of the island did not last long. They got into conflict with the native population and soon the Sardinians managed to expel them.
Up until then, the Romans had mostly been occupied with consolidating their grip on Sicily, their first province. But when some of the mercenaries that had fled from Sardinia to Italy told the Romans that the island was ripe for the picking, they did not hesitate. In spite of their earlier refusal to intervene, in or around 238 BCE, the Republic sent an expeditionary force to Sardinia to annex the island. Obviously, the Carthaginians were unhappy with this move and even prepared for a punitive expedition, but when the Romans threatened to declare war again, Carthage had no choice but to give in. The Carthaginians were still licking their wounds from the Mercenary War and realised that they were no match for the Romans. The result was that Carthage agreed to cede Sardinia to Rome and even to pay an additional indemnity of 1.200 talents.
Carthage had been humiliated again and Hamilcar had had enough. The great general was sent to Spain to conquer new territories there. Whether his aim was to loyally serve the Carthaginian state or to carve out a semi-independent kingdom of his own is up for debate. However this may be, Hamilcar took his nine-year-old son Hannibal with him. Before departing for Spain, he took the boy to the temple of Baal Hammon to sacrifice an animal to the god. Putting the boy’s hand on the animal, Hamilcar made him swear “never to be the friend of the Romans” (according to Polybius) or even that “so soon as he should be able he would be the declared enemy of the Roman People” (according to Livius). Of course it is hard to tell how much of this is true. Most likely the story was made up later. It cannot, however, be denied that some twenty years later Hannibal became Rome’s most dangerous enemy ever. One that almost managed to destroy the Roman Republic.
- Cassius Dio, Roman History, Fragments of Book XII (including text by Zonaras);
- Livius, Periochae, Book 20;
- Polybius, The Histories, Book 1.65-1.88.
- Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 133-138;
- Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 200-225.
 The names of Quintus Fabius Maximus and Gaius Flaminius have been mentioned, although without solid evidence.
 Richard Miles correctly argues that he never returned to Carthage to answer for his actions, instead relying on members of the ‘Barcid clan’ to do this for his. He also recruited and paid his own troops. The Barcids “increasingly saw the Spanish territories as their own personal fiefdom, and any outside intervention, even from Carthage itself, was unwelcome”.