The Annalist: The Year 213 BCE

The consular elections of this year were again somewhat special. Quintus Fabius Maximus the Younger was elected consul under the presidency of his father. The other consul was Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, who had also been consul in 215 BCE. Both men were elected in absentia. The new consuls were both charged with fighting the war against Hannibal in Southern Italy. Gracchus was given the territory of the Lucani as his province while Fabius marched off to Apulia. The latter was accompanied by his father, who served as one of his legates.


According to Livius, the consul Gracchus “fought several trifling actions in Lucania, none of which are worth recording, and took some unimportant towns belonging to the Lucanians”.[1] The achievements of the other consul are more worthy of note. Fabius managed to retake Arpi, an important city in Apulia that had defected after Cannae. The Romans stormed the city at night, during a heavy rainstorm. They chose to attack the strongest part of the wall, since this section was only lightly guarded and the guards had anyway gone off to find shelter from the rain. The attackers managed to break open the city gate and let in the rest of the army. There was some fighting in the narrow streets, but soon the Arpini sent their chief magistrate to Fabius to negotiate. The Arpini swore an oath of loyalty, renewed their allegiance to Rome and then turned on the Punic garrison.

Roman triarius (source: Europa Barbarorum).

A detachment of Spaniards that were part of the garrison defected to the Romans and the rest of the Carthaginian troops made a deal with Fabius and were allowed to go free. They re-joined Hannibal, who was in Salapia. Hannibal did not achieve much this year. He had set his sights on Tarentum, but again the city was not betrayed to him and its fortifications were too strong to risk a direct assault. Hannibal therefore confined himself to convincing the Sallentini – a people living in the heel of Italy – to join his side. In this he was successful, but there were no grand prizes for Hannibal this year.


The most important actions of this year took place on Sicily, where the Romans fought the new rulers of Syracuse, the brothers Epicydes and Hippocrates. The proconsul Marcus Claudius Marcellus – his command had been prolonged – attacked Syracuse itself. The city would prove to be a tough nut to crack.

Map of Syracuse (copyright: see bottom right corner).

Syracuse had been founded in the eighth century BCE by colonists from Corinth who first settled on the island of Ortygia. The island was later connected to the mainland by a causeway and the colonists then started to occupy more territory that was added to the city. In the east there was the district of Achradina, which was the commercial and administrative centre. To the west lay the districts of Neapolis (‘new city’) and Tyche (‘luck’), the former being the cultural centre and the latter a residential area. The westernmost part of the city was the dry plateau of Epipolai, which had been included within the walls for strategic purposes and which was protected by the fortress of Euryalos. The city walls were strong and measured some 31 kilometres in circumference. The Romans had made their camp near the Olympium, the temple of Zeus, which was located some 2,5 kilometres south of Syracuse.

Marcellus decided to attack the city immediately. Appius Claudius Pulcher was ordered to lead the land assault and capture the Hexapylon[2], a large gatehouse with six portals in the northern part of the city. Marcellus himself directed the naval assault on the Achradina district with 60 quinqueremes. The Romans tried a novel tactic during the attack. Eight of the quinqueremes had been paired and fixed together to get so-called sambucae to the walls. A sambuca was a harp-shaped musical instrument, and in this case the term refers to a new type of siege equipment. It is probably best to allow Polybius to tell us what it looked like and how it was used:

“A ladder was made four feet [1.2 metres] broad and of a height equal to that of the wall when planted at the proper distance. Each side was furnished with a breastwork, and it was covered in by a screen at a considerable height. It was then laid flat upon those sides of the ships which were in contact and protruding a considerable distance beyond the prow. At the top of the masts there are pulleys with ropes, and when they are about to use it, they attach the ropes to the top of the ladder, and men standing at the stern pull them by means of the pulleys, while others stand on the prow, and supporting the engine with props, assure its being safely raised. After this the towers on both the outer sides of the ships bring them close to shore, and they now endeavour to set the engine I have described up against the wall. At the summit of the ladder there is a platform protected on three sides by wicker screens, on which four men mount and face the enemy resisting the efforts of those who from the battlements try to prevent the sambuca from being set up against the wall. As soon as they have set it up and are on a higher level than the wall, these men pull down the wicker screens on each side of the platform and mount the battlements or towers, while the rest follow them through the sambuca which is held firm by the ropes attached to both ships. The construction was appropriately called a sambuca, for when it is raised the shape of the ship and ladder together is just like the musical instrument.”[3]

Veles (source: Europa Barbarorum)

Others ships were loaded with archers, slingers and velites, whose job was to shower the enemy with missiles. The Roman attack was fierce, but the Syracusans fought back and were very much aided by several devices designed by their most famous inhabitant, the mathematician and engineer Archimedes. His stone throwers and catapults were very accurate, even at a large distance. Archimedes had also made loopholes in the city walls, allowing the defenders to shoot arrows at the advancing Romans from safety and pepper them with light artillery (skorpidia). The sambucae were quickly put out of action by machines that dropped heavy rocks or lumps of lead and smashed them to pieces.

A lifting beam with an iron grappling hand – or perhaps a hook – on a chain was used against the quinqueremes. The hand was lowered and somehow clutched the prow of the ship. Then a heavy counterweight was released and the ship was lifted from the water by its prow, put on its stern and then released again, causing it to hit the water very hard and to capsize, make water or sink. The Romans became so scared of Archimedes’ devices that even the appearance of ordinary beams or poles on the walls caused them to panic. After several attempts, mostly at night, Marcellus gave up the assault. The land attack was also repulsed, with the defenders using all sorts of artillery to keep Claudius Pulcher’s troops at bay.[4]

Equipment of a Republican military tribune.

Now that the direct assault on Syracuse had failed, the Romans decided to besiege the city and block all access to it, either by land or by sea. Syracuse was to be starved into submission, but this was easier said than done. Claudius Pulcher was given command of two thirds of all the troops and ordered to surround the city, while Marcellus took the remaining soldiers and advanced on the Sicilian cities that had defected. At about the same time, the Carthaginian commander Himilco landed at Heraclea Minoa with some 25.000 infantry, 3.000 horsemen and 12 elephants. He quickly captured Heraclea and then advanced on Agrigentum, which he took after a couple of days. Marcellus had hurried to Agrigentum as well, but arrived too late to preserve it for Rome. On his way back to Syracuse there was some success, however, as the proconsul stumbled upon on an army led by Hippocrates and easily cut it to pieces. Hippocrates had managed to break through the Roman blockade of Syracuse, which indicates that the Roman lines of fortifications were still far from complete at this stage of the siege.

More cities on Sicily rose up in revolt, massacring their Romans garrisons, while in Henna, the Roman garrison massacred the local population after the garrison commander began suspecting the citizens of disloyalty. This bloodbath did nothing to quell the rebellions on the island. On the contrary, many of the native Siculi and Sicani were appalled, since Henna was a famous centre for the cult of Demeter and Persephone (Ceres and Proserpina in Latin).[5] At the end of the war season, Marcellus again took charge of the siege of Syracuse. He sent Claudius Pulcher, who was a candidate in next year’s consular elections, back to Rome. Titus Quinctius Crispinus was given command of the fleet and the old Roman camp near the temple of Zeus, while Marcellus himself made his winter quarters some eight kilometres from the Hexapylon.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 228-229 and p. 262-264.


[1] Livius 25.1.

[2] Or Hexapyla, ‘six gates’.

[3] Polybius 8.4.

[4] Contrary to popular belief, the Syracusans did not use mirrors invented by Archimedes to reflect the sunlight and use it to set the sails of the Roman ships ablaze. Marcellus is said to have made the joke that “Archimedes uses my ships to ladle sea-water into his wine cups, but my sambuca band is flogged out of the banquet in disgrace.” (Polybius 8.6).

[5] Persephone was said to have been abducted by Hades here, at Henna (present-day Enna, the ‘navel of Sicily’).


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