Hasdrubal, the Carthaginian commander in Iberia, after fitting out during the winter the thirty ships his brother had left him, and manning ten others, put out at the beginning of summer from New Carthage with his fleet of forty decked ships, appointing Hamilcar his admiral. At the same time he collected his troops from their winter quarters and took the field. His fleet sailed close to the shore and his army marched along the beach, his object being to halt with both forces near the Ebro Gnaeus, conjecturing that this was the plan of the Carthaginians, first of all designed to quit his winter quarters and meet them both by land and sea, but on learning the strength of their forces and the extensive scale of their preparations he renounced the project of meeting them by land, and manning thirty-five ships and embarking on them as marines the men from his army most suited for this service, appeared off the Ebro two days after sailing from Tarraco. Anchoring at a distance of about eighty stades from the enemy he sent on two swift Massaliot ships to reconnoitre, for these used to head the line both in sailing and in battle, and there was absolutely no service they were not ready to render. Indeed if any people have given generous support to the Romans it is the people of Marseilles both on many subsequent occasions and especially in the Hannibalic War. When the scouts reported that the enemy’s fleet was anchored off the mouth of the river, he weighed anchor and advanced rapidly, wishing to fall upon them suddenly.
Hasdrubal, to whom his lookout men had given early notice of the approach of the enemy, drew up his land forces on the beach and ordered his crews to embark. The Romans being now close at hand, he gave the signal for battle, having decided on a naval action. The Carthaginians on meeting the enemy contested the victory only for a short time and then began to give way. For the covering military force on the beach did not benefit them so much by the confidence it inspired as it damaged them by ensuring an easy and safe retreat.
After losing two ships with all their crews and the oars and marines of four others, they fell back on the shore. On the Romans pursuing them vigorously they ran their ships aground and leaping out of them took refuge with the troops. The Romans very boldly approached the shore, and taking in tow such ships as were in a condition to float, sailed off in high spirits, having beaten the enemy at the first onslaught, established their supremacy at sea and possessed themselves of five and twenty of the enemy’s ships.
Owing to this success the prospects of the Romans in Iberia began thenceforth to look brighter. But the Carthaginians, on the news of their defeat, at once manned and dispatched seventy ships, regarding the command of the sea as necessary for all their projects. These ships touched first at Sardinia and then at Pisa in Italy, the commander believing they would meet Hannibal there, but on learning that the Romans had at once put to sea from Rome itself with a hundred and twenty quinqueremes to attack them, they sailed back again to Sardinia and thence to Carthage. Gnaeus Servilius, the commander of this Roman fleet, followed up the Carthaginians for a certain distance, believing he would overtake them, but on being left a long way behind, he gave up the chase. He first of all put in at Lilybaeum in Sicily and afterwards sailed to the African island of Cercina, which he quitted after receiving from the inhabitants a sum of money on condition of his not laying the country waste. On his return voyage he possessed himself of the island of Cossyrus, and leaving a garrison in the small town returned to Lilybaeum. After laying up his fleet in harbour there, he very shortly went off to join the land forces.
The Senate on hearing of Gnaeus Scipio’s success in the naval battle, thinking it advantageous or rather imperative not to neglect the affairs of Iberia but to keep up the pressure on the Carthaginians and increase their forces, got ready twenty ships, and placing them, as they had originally decided, under the command of Publius Scipio, dispatched him at once to join his brother Gnaeus and operate in Iberia together with him. For they were very apprehensive lest the Carthaginians should master that country, and, collecting abundance of supplies and soldiers, make a more serious effort to regain the command of the sea and thus support the invasion of Italy by sending troops and money to Hannibal. Treating this war, then, also as of great moment they dispatched Publius with his fleet, and on reaching Iberia and joining his brother he rendered great service in their joint operations. For the Romans, who had never before dared to cross the Ebro, but had been content with the friendship and alliance of the peoples on its north bank, now crossed it, and for the first time ventured to aim at acquiring dominion on the other side, chance also greatly contributing to advance their prospects in the following manner.
When after overawing the Iberian tribes dwelling near the crossing of the Ebro they reached Saguntum, they encamped at a distance of about five miles from the town near the temple of Venus, choosing a place well situated both as regards security from the enemy and facility for obtaining supplies from the sea, since their fleet was coasting down together with them.
Here a remarkable development of events occurred. When Hannibal was starting on his march for Italy he took as hostages from those cities in Iberia on which he did not rely the sons of their principal men, and all these he placed in Saguntum owing to the strength of the place and the loyalty of the officers he left in charge of it. Now there was a certain Iberian named Abilyx, second to none in Iberia in rank and wealth and with the reputation of being more devoted and loyal to the Carthaginians than anyone else. Reviewing the situation and thinking that the prospects of the Romans were now the brightest, he reasoned with himself in a manner thoroughly Iberian and barbarian on the question of betraying the hostages. For, being convinced that if he both rendered the Romans a timely service and gave them proof of his good faith, he would become very influential with them, he formed the scheme of playing the traitor to the Carthaginians and handing over the hostages to the Romans. The Carthaginian general, Bostar, whom Hasdrubal had sent to oppose the Romans if they tried to cross the Ebro, but who had not ventured to do so, had now retreated and encamped between Saguntum and the sea. Abilyx, perceiving that he was of a guileless and mild disposition and placed full confidence in himself, approached him on the subject of the hostages, saying that now the Romans had once crossed the river it was no longer possible for the Carthaginians to control the Iberians by fear, but that present circumstances required the goodwill of all the subject peoples. So now, when the Romans had approached and were encamped close to Saguntum and the city was in danger, if he brought the hostages out and restored them to their parents and cities, he would in the first place frustrate the ambitious project of the Romans, who were bent on taking just the same step if they got the hostages into their hands, and further he would elicit the gratitude of all the Iberians to the Carthaginians by thus foreseeing the future and taking thought for the safety of the hostages. This act of grace, he said, would be very much enhanced, if Bostar would let him take the matter in hand personally. For in restoring the children to the cities not only would he gain him the goodwill of their parents but that of the mass of the people, by thus bringing actually before their eyes this evidence of the magnanimous conduct of Carthage toward her allies. He told Bostar also that he could count on numerous presents to himself from those to whom their children were returned; for each and all, on thus unexpectedly receiving back their dearest, would vie with each other in heaping benefits on the author of the measure. By these and more words to the like effect he persuaded Bostar to assent to his proposal.
For the present he left to return home, fixing the day on which he would come with his followers to escort the children. At night he went to the Roman camp, and having found some of the Iberians who were serving in the army, gained access through them to the generals. Pointing out at some length how the Iberians if they recovered their hostages would with one impulse go over to the Romans, he undertook to give up the children to them. Publius, to whom the prospect was exceedingly welcome, having promised him a great reward, he now left for his own country, having fixed a day and agreed on the hour and place at which those who were to take over the hostages should await him. After this, taking his most intimate friends with him, he came to Bostar; and on the children being handed over to him from Saguntum, he sallied out from the town by night as if to keep the matter secret, and marching along the enemies’ entrenched camp reached the appointed place at the appointed hour and delivered all the hostages to the Roman generals. Publius conferred great honours on Abilyx, and employed him in the restoration of the hostages to their respective countries, sending certain of his friends with him. Going from city to city, and bringing, by the repatriation of the children, the gentleness and magnanimity of the Romans into manifest contrast with the suspiciousness and harshness of the Carthaginians, at the same time exhibiting the example of his own change of sides, he induced many of the Iberians to become allies of Rome. Bostar was judged in thus handing over the hostages to the enemy to have acted more like a child than became his years, and was in serious danger of his life. For the present both sides, as the season was now advanced, broke up their forces for the winter; chance in this matter of the children having materially contributed to assist the projects the Romans had in view.
(Source: Polybius, The Histories, Vol.II, Book III, Loeb Classical Library)
Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus