The Second Illyrian War and the Fate of Saguntum: The Years 220-219 BCE


  • Gaius Flaminius is elected censor and has the Circus Flaminius and the Via Flaminia built (220 BCE);
  • Rome’s former ally Demetrios of Faros resumes his piratical activities, prompting a Roman campaign against the Illyrians (219 BCE);
  • The Second Illyrian War ends in a decisive Roman victory. The consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus is awarded a triumph;
  • Hannibal captures the city of Saguntum in Spain after an eight-month siege.

The year 220 BCE started with a constitutional conflict which has unfortunately been poorly documented and is not easily explained. It seems that the comitia centuriata first elected Marcus Valerius Laevinus and Quintus Mucius Scaevola as the new consuls, but they either did not take up their offices or may have abdicated after a short while. The reason is unknown, but elections could be declared invalid because of fraud (which was rare at this time) or if they had been held under bad omens. Quintus Lutatius Catulus and Lucius Veturius Philo were elected as the new consuls. Their military campaigns are also badly documented, but Dio asserts that they “went as far as the Alps, and without any fighting won over many people”.

The censors in action

The most important politician of 220 BCE was obviously Gaius Flaminius. No doubt immensely popular because of his successes against the Celts three years previously, he had been elected censor. His colleague was Lucius Aemilius Papus, the victor of Telamon. Although censors were supposed to work together, Flaminius easily outshone his colleague. One of the censors’ most important tasks was letting contracts for public works such as temples and roads. In his capacity as censor, Flaminius had the Circus Flaminius built near the river Tiber and also began construction of the Via Flaminia, the road that connected Rome to her important colony of Ariminum on the Adriatic Sea.

Remains of the Via Flaminia at Carsulae in Umbria.

The censors also registered 270.212 Roman citizens in the census and subsequently performed the lustrum ceremony, the ritual cleansing of the Roman people. A more controversial measure was the fact that freed slaves (liberti) were enrolled in the 4 urban tribes (tribus).[1] This diminished their political influence, as these urban tribes were much larger than the rural tribes, of which there were 31. If Flaminius was indeed a “populist”, this measure must have been proposed by his patrician colleague Papus. It is not impossible that, in return, Flaminius got a reform of the comitia centuriata, in which the power of the wealthiest class of citizens was slightly reduced (see 241-238 BCE). However, this remains pure speculation.

The Second Illyrian War

By 220 BCE, Rome had grown dissatisfied with her erstwhile ally Demetrios of Faros. He had been set up as a client ruler after the First Illyrian War, but now, according to Polybius, he “was sacking and destroying the Illyrian cities subject to Rome, and, sailing beyond Lissus, contrary to the terms of the treaty, with fifty boats, had pillaged many of the Cyclades.” His piratical activities were clearly unacceptable, and early in 219 BCE, the consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus was sent against him. Paullus certainly did not lose any time. His first target was the city of Dimale in Epirus. It had been heavily fortified by Demetrios and provided with a strong garrison, but turned out to be far from impregnable. It took Paullus’ army just seven days to breach the walls and capture the city. Seeing their strongest city in Roman hands, most of the other cities under Illyrian control chose to surrender.

Map of Epirus and Illyria (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

The Roman commander now set sail for the island of Faros (present-day Hvar, part of Croatia) to confront Demetrios himself. The eponymous city on the island was also strongly fortified, and Demetrios had stationed some 6.000 of his best fighters here. The Illyrians also had plenty of supplies. Paullus realised that a siege would be difficult and take a lot of time. He therefore devised a clever ruse. During the night, the consul landed most of his troops on a densely forested part of the island. The next day, he took just twenty of his ships and a small force to the port of the island to stage a landing there. The Illyrians fell for the trap. They assumed it was just a small landing party that was threatening their port and rushed out of the city to repulse it. As more and more troops from the city joined the sortie, the main force of the Roman army appeared on a strategic hill between the city and the port.

Attacked from both sides, the Illyrians were cut to pieces. Demetrios managed to escape and fled to the court of the young King of Macedonia, 19-year-old Philippos V. Paullus now took the city of Faros, razed it to the ground and started to settle affairs in all of Illyria. Towards the end of the war season, he returned to Rome where he was awarded a triumph. The Romans were obviously glad they had tranquillity in their backyard again, because soon they would be faced with a much larger problem, caused by a much more formidable opponent: probably in November 219 BCE, the Carthaginian commander Hannibal took the city of Saguntum in Spain after an eight-month siege.

Meanwhile in Spain

In 220 BCE, Hannibal had continued his aggressive campaign against the tribes of the Iberian peninsula. He first crossed the river Tagus and made war upon the Vaccaei, a Celtic people, taking two of their cities. The survivors joined forces with the Olcades, who had been defeated the previous year, and the Carpetani. Together they attacked the rear of Hannibal’s army as it was approaching the Tagus again, laden with booty.

The Carthaginian commander now had a chance to demonstrate his tactical genius. Instead of fighting back, he ordered his troops to cross the river. The Vaccaei, Olcades and Carpetani, thinking they had their enemy on the run, pursued carelessly and also began fording the river. Hannibal then ordered his cavalry to ride into the water. The Iberians and Celts were all on foot, while the Carthagians fought on horseback and easily struck down their opponents, who were struggling to stay on their feet. Hannibal’s elephants pushed back anyone who tried to climb the opposite river bank and trampled to death many enemies. When the survivors retreated to their own side of the river again, Hannibal had his infantry cross the stream in close order. The remaining Vaccaei, Olcades and Carpetani were routed. After Hannibal had laid waste to their territories, the Carpetani sued for peace.

The castle of present-day Sagunto (photo: Pelayo2, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

Hannibal was now threatening the city of Saguntum. Saguntum – also named Arsé – was an Iberian city, although it had always had close ties with both the Greek and Phoenician settlements in Spain. It was large and prosperous, and Polybius informs us that its land “yields every kind of crop and is the most fertile in the whole of Iberia”. The exact relationship between Rome and Saguntum will probably always remain unclear. Livius claims that Saguntum had been mentioned in the treaty between Rome and Hasdrubal, signed in 226 BCE, and had been declared a free city. It is, however, doubtful that it was mentioned at all. Saguntum was way south of the river Ebro, the river forming the border between the Carthaginian and Roman zones of influence in Spain, so there does not seem to have been any reason to include it in the treaty and Polybius does not mention it. Nevertheless, it is certainly possible that Saguntum, fearing Carthaginian expansion, had put itself under Roman protection (one remembers how, during the Mercenary War, the rebels had tried to put Utica under Roman protection).

A passage in Polybius’ work suggests that Roman arbiters had already been active in Saguntum some time before Hannibal attacked the city, apparently to mediate in an internal dispute, perhaps between factions favouring Rome and Carthage. When Saguntum got into a conflict with a neighbouring tribe she accused of raiding her territory, Hannibal decided to intervene, as the tribe was allied to Carthage. The Saguntines immediately sent desperate calls for help to the Romans, who for their part sent an embassy to Hannibal, urging him to leave the city alone as it was under Roman protection. Hannibal ignored their warnings and a Roman mission to Carthage itself was unsuccessful. In the spring of 219 BCE, Hannibal directed his forces towards Saguntum.

The city was well fortified and lay on a steep hill, so it was a tough nut to crack. Hannibal chose not to try and starve the city into submission, but to adopt an aggressive approach. His troops attacked the city with all kinds of siege equipment, but the Saguntines defended themselves bravely. They made effective use of the phalarica, which Livius described as

“a javelin with a shaft smooth and round up to the head, which, as in the pilum, was an iron point of square section. The shaft was wrapped in tow and then smeared with pitch; the iron head was three feet long and capable of penetrating armour and body alike. Even if it only stuck in the shield and did not reach the body it was a most formidable weapon, for when it was discharged with the tow set on fire the flame was fanned to a fiercer heat by its passage through the air, and it forced the soldier to throw away his shield and left him defenceless against the sword thrusts which followed.”

Bust of Hannibal Barcas.

As the Carthaginians attacked the walls, they were beaten back time and time again. Their losses must have been heavy. During one attack, Hannibal himself was wounded. The Romans, in the meantime, did nothing. They were engaged in the war with the Illyrians and Saguntum as very far away. Although Polybius only mentions the consul Paullus, it is fairly certain that his colleague Marcus Livius Salinator[2] had been charged with fighting the Illyrians as well (Dio mentions him, and Livius was later convicted for embezzling some of the booty and retired to the countryside). With both of the consuls occupied elsewhere, there was little Rome could do. After an eight-month siege, Saguntum was finally captured by Hannibal, presumably in November 219 BCE. Since the city had resisted, it was looted and most of the inhabitants were sold as slaves. News travelled slowly in the Ancient World, but within about a month, the Romans would have been aware of the city’s fate. The question was now: how would they respond?




  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 144-145;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 228-232.


[1] Esquilina, Palatina, Suburana and Collina.

[2] He got his nickname ‘Salinator’ in 204 BCE, when as censor he was responsible for the introduction of a salt tax.