The first war between Rome and Carthage for the possession of Sicily – Battle of Agrigentum

Here we present selected excerpts from Polybius’ book ‘The Histories‘ (The Loeb Classical Library).


“The first crossing of the Romans from Italy with an armed force was decided after they faced disaster to Rome itself; this became the beggining of their progress to better fortunes.

We have first the incidents of the war between Rome and Carthage for Sicily. Next follows the war in Libya and next the achievements of the Carthaginians in Spain under Hamilcar and afterwards under Hasdrubal. At the same time occurred the first crossing of the Romans to Illyria and these parts of Europe, and subsequently to the preceding events their struggle with the Italian Celts.

The first war between Rome and Carthage for the possession of Sicily – Agrigentum

It is not easy to name any war which lasted longer, nor one which exhibited on both sides more extensive preparations, more unintermittent activity, more battles, and greater changes of fortune. The two states were also at this period still uncorrupted in morals, moderate in fortune, and equal in strength, so that a better estimate of the peculiar qualities and gifts of each can be formed by comparing their conduct in this war than in any subsequent one.

When news of the successes of Appius (263 B.C) and his legions reached Rome, they elected Manius Otacilius and Manius Valerius Consuls, and dispatched their whole armed force and both commanders to Sicily. The Romans have four legions of Roman citizens in all apart from the allies. These they enrol annually, each legion comprising four thousand foot and three hundred horse. On their arrival in Sicily most of the cities revolted from the Carthaginians and Syracusans and joined the Romans.

Hiero, observing both the confusion and consternation of the Sicilians, and at the same time the numbers and powerful nature of the Roman forces, reached from all this the conclusion that the prospects of the Romans were more brilliant than those of the Carthaginians. His conviction therefore impelling him to side with the Romans, he sent several messages to the Consuls with proposals for peace and alliance. The Romans accepted his overtures, especially for the sake of their supplies; for since the Carthaginians commanded the sea they were apprehensive lest they should be cut off on all sides from the necessities of life, in view of the fact that the armies which had previously crossed to Sicily had run very short of provisions. Therefore, supposing that Hiero would be of great service to them in this respect, they readily accepted his friendly advances. Having made a treaty by which the king bound himself to give up his prisoners to the Romans without ransom, and in addition to this to pay them a hundred talents, the Romans henceforth treated the Syracusans as allies and friends.

King Hiero having placed himself under the protection of the Romans, continued to furnish them with the resources of which they stood in urgent need, and ruled over Syracuse henceforth in security, treating the Greeks in such a way as to win from them crowns and other honours. We may, indeed, regard him as the most illustrious of princes and the one who reaped longest the fruits of his own wisdom in particular cases and in general policy.

When the terms of the treaty were referred to Rome, and when the people had accepted and ratified this agreement with Hiero, the Romans decided not to continue to employ all their forces in the expedition, but only two legions, thinking on the one hand that, now the king had joined them, the war had become a lighter task and calculating that their forces would thus be better off for supplies. The Carthaginians, on the contrary, when they saw that Hiero had become their enemy, and that the Romans were becoming more deeply involved in the enterprise in Sicily, considered that they themselves required stronger forces in order to be able to confront their enemies and control Sicilian affairs. They therefore enlisted foreign mercenaries from the opposite coasts, many of them Ligurians, Celts, and still more Iberians, and dispatched them all to Sicily. Perceiving that the city of Agrigentum had the greatest natural advantages for making their preparations, it being also the most important city in their province, they collected their troops and supplies there and decided to use it as a base in the war.

Meanwhile (202 B.C.) the Roman Consuls who had made  the treaty with Hiero had left, and their successors, Lucius, Postumius and Quintus Mamilius, had arrived in Sicily with their legions. On taking note of the plan of the Carthaginians, and their activity at Agrigentum, they decided on a bolder initiative. Abandoning therefore other operations they brought all their forces to bear on Agrigentum itself, and encamping at a distance of eight stades from the city, shut the Carthaginians up within the walls. It was the height of the harvest, and as a long siege was foreseen, the soldiers began gathering corn with more venturesomeness than was advisable.

The Carthaginians, observing that the enemy were dispersed about the country, made a sortie and attacked the foragers. Having easily put these to flight, some of them pressed on to plunder the fortified camp while others advanced on the covering force. But on this occasion and often on previous ones it is the excellence of their institutions which has saved the situation for the Romans; for with them death is the penalty incurred by a man who deserts the post or takes flight in any way from such a supporting force. Therefore on this occasion as on others they gallantly faced opponents who largely outnumbered them, and, though they suffered heavy loss, killed still more of the enemy. Finally surrounding them as they were on the point of tearing up the palisade, they dispatched some on the spot and pressing hard on the rest pursued them with slaughter to the city.

After this the Carthaginians were more inclined to be cautious in taking the offensive, while the Romans were more on their guard in foraging. As the Carthaginians did not advance beyond skirmishing range, the Roman generals divided their force into two bodies, remaining with one near the temple of Asclepius outside the walls and encamping with the other on that side of the city that is turned towards Heraclea. They fortified the ground between their camps on each side of the city, protecting themselves by the inner trench from sallies from within and encircling themselves with an outer one to guard against attacks from outside, and to prevent that secret introduction of supplies and men which is usual in the case of beleaguered cities. On the spaces between the trenches and their camps they placed pickets, fortifying suitable places at some distance from each other. Their supplies and other material were collected for them by all the other members of the alliance, and brought to Herbesus, and they themselves constantly fetching in live stock and provisions from this city which was at no great distance, kept themselves abundantly supplied with what they required. So for five months or so matters were at a standstill, neither side being able to score any decisive advantage, nothing in fact beyond incidental success in their exchange of shots; but when the Carthaginians began to be pressed by famine owing to the number of people cooped up in the city fifty thousand at least in number Hannibal, the commander of the besieged forces, found himself in a difficult situation and sent constant messages to Carthage explaining his position and begging for reinforcements. The Carthaginian government shipped the troops they had collected and their elephants and sent them to Sicily to Hanno their other general. Hanno concentrated his troops and material of war at Heraclea and in the first place surprised and occupied Herbesus, cutting off the enemy’s camps from their provisions and necessary supplies. The result of this was that the Romans were as a fact both besieged and besiegers at the same time; for they were so hard pressed by want of food and scarcity of the necessities of life, that they often contemplated raising the siege, and would in the end have done so, had not Hiero, by using every effort and every device, provided them with a moderate amount of strictly necessary supplies.

In the next place Hanno, perceiving that the Romans were weakened by disease and privation, owing to an epidemic having broken out among them, and thinking that his own troops were in fit fighting condition, took with him all his elephants, about fifty in number, and all the rest of his force, and advanced rapidly from Heraclea. He had ordered the Numidian horse to precede him, and approaching the enemy’s fortified camp to provoke him and attempt to draw his cavalry out, after which they were to give way and retire until they rejoined himself. The Numidians acting on these orders advanced up to one of the camps, and the Roman cavalry at once issued forth and boldly attacked them. The Libyans retreated as they had been ordered until they joined Hanno’s army and then, wheeling round and encircling the enemy, they attacked them, killing many and pursuing the rest as far as the camp. After this Hanno encamped opposite the Romans, occupying the hill called Torus, at a distance of about ten stades from the enemy. For two months they remained stationary, without any action more decisive than shooting at each other every day; but as Hannibal kept on announcing to Hanno by fire-signals and messengers from the city that the population could not support the famine, and that deserters to the enemy were numerous owing to privation, the Carthaginian general decided to risk battle, the Romans being no less eager for this owing to the reasons I stated above. Both therefore led out their forces to the space between the camps and engaged.

The battle lasted for long, but at the end the Romans put to flight the advanced line of Carthaginian mercenaries, and as the latter fell back on the elephants and the other divisions in their rear, the whole Phoenician army was thrown into disorder. A complete rout ensued, and most of them were put to the sword, some escaping to Heraclea. The Romans captured most of the elephants and all the baggage. But after nightfall, while the Romans, partly from joy at their success and partly from fatigue, had relaxed the vigilance of their watch, Hannibal, regarding his situation as desperate, and thinking for the above reasons that this was a fine opportunity for saving himself, broke out of the city about midnight with his mercenaries. By filling up the trenches with baskets packed tightly with straw he managed to withdraw his force in safety unperceived by the enemy. When day broke the Romans became aware of what had happened, and, after slightly molesting Hannibal’s rear-guard, advanced with their whole force to the gates. Finding nobody to oppose them they entered the city and plundered it, possessing themselves of many slaves and a quantity of booty of every description.”


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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