This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
When war broke out between Rome and Carthage in 264 BC, few people likely thought that it would turn into the twenty-three year affair that would see Punic power in Sicily destroyed, and lead to Rome’s eventual domination of the Mediterranean basin. (The best treatment of the outbreak of the war is B.D. Hoyos 1998-book, Unplanned Wars: The Origins of the First and Second Punic Wars).
As it unfolded, however, the so-called First Punic War was a large-scale confrontation which saw battles fought mostly on Sicily, but also in Libya and on the waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea. (I describe it as the “so-called” First Punic War because this name engenders a Roman bias towards its analysis and discussion. I prefer the more cumbersome “The First War Between Carthage and Rome,” but this is impractically long for regular use.)
Carthage was often reactive, taking the initiative less often than Rome. This led to, for example, Regulus’ invasion of North Africa in 256 BC and the Siege of Lilybaeum, in 250 BC. Both of these examples, though, ended in spectacular Punic victories, and under different circumstances could have changed the outcome of the war. In the end, of course, this was not the case.
Despite the Siege of Lilybaeum resulting from vigorous Roman campaigning, it provides us with an interesting insight into how well Carthaginian armies performed in the field. A brief discussion of this Roman Stalingrad sheds some light on the often-overlooked loyalty and effectiveness of mercenaries in Punic armies.
The Siege and the soldiers of fortune
In 250 BC, the Romans launched the largest fleet they had set afloat in about three years, consisting of 200 ships. These carried to Sicily both consuls, Caius Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso, and their legions.
The target of this massive concentration of power was the Carthaginian fortress-city, Lilybaeum (modern Marsala). According to Polybius, “its capture would facilitate their taking the war to Libya” (1.41). Whether or not this was really the reason for the siege, and not simply because it was the most powerful Punic base left on the island, is unknown.
Roman investment of the city was great. The consuls settled their armies on both sides of the city and then ran both a trench and a palisade between their camps, in an effort to cut off the city from reinforcement and resupply by land. However, there were already around 10,000 Carthaginian troops inside the city, under the command of a man named Himilco (Polyb. 1.42).
Soon after establishing their siege camps, the Romans began to bring engines against the city’s fortifications. Their targets seemed to be the defensive towers which were part of the circuit. Seven in total were undermined (those which faced towards Libya). Against the rest of them, though, they were forced to bring up rams and other implements, perhaps the catapults, covered sheds, and siege-towers mentioned by Diodorus (24.1.1).
Himilco and his troops did not stand idle, however, and took up an active defense. They countermined the Romans, attempting to disrupt this very effective technique of bringing down defensive structures. The Punic troops also built improvised walls as the permanent fortifications were brought down.
More brazen, however, they launched a number of attacks against the Roman siege works. The objective of at least one of these was to set the engines aflame. But despite these efforts, they could not drive off the besiegers, and anxiety in the city began to grow.
A betrayal betrayed
With tensions running so high, a number of officers from the mercenary units in the garrison hatched a plan to defect to the Romans. This was a cabal of the “highest-ranking” captains from these groups (Polyb. 1.43.1). They were so bold as to leave the city to meet with Roman officials, thinking that their men would support them upon their return.
Unbeknownst to the conspirators, though, an Achaean mercenary officer named Alexon had discovered their plan and informed Himilco. This was not the first time that this man had saved a city from potentially traitorous mercenaries, having informed on a similar plot by a group of Syracusans in the city of Akragas.
The occasion of this is unknown, although modern historians have made a number of suggestions. It is also worth pointing out that the lengthy digression on Alexon and his deeds at Lilybaeum may have been down to Polybius’ desire to extoll the virtue of a fellow Achaean Greek (F.W. Walbank, A Historical Commentary on Polybius, vol. 1 (1957), p. 108).
In response to being informed of the plot against him and the city, Himilco summoned the remaining mercenary leaders in an effort to prevent a complete defection. He offered them rewards beyond the bounties that they were already owed. Monetary reward is an oft mentioned means of ensuring the loyalty of hired soldiers in the ancient world (Polyb. 1.43.3).
The mercenaries agreed to stay loyal and gave their general assurances of this. This episode gives us a bit of insight into how Punic armies could be held together, even in the face of such adversity as a prolonged siege. Himilco’s ability to keep his mercenaries loyal, regardless of the means, is an example of the power of vertical unit cohesion. (On unit cohesion, generally, see J. MacCoun and W.M. Hix, “Unit cohesion and military performance,” in: B.D. Rostker et al., Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy: An Update of RAND’s 1993 Study (2010), pp. 137-65.)
We also see in this, though, the strength of peer cohesion, also known as the “buddy principle.” Modern studies of how military units function have emphasized the importance of this for small units in carrying out their duties. Amongst the mercenaries at Lilybaeum, a stronger force bound them to one another than bound them to their immediate commanders, the defectors. The strength of this force, as well as the vertical cohesion which kept them loyal to Himilco, led to the mercenaries attacking their former officers when they returned from the Roman camp (Polyb. 1.43.6).
The forces of cohesion which held these troops together within the city were also strong enough for them to perform an incredible feat of arms against the Romans. After having tried to destroy the Roman siege works for some time, only to be repulsed and suffer heavy losses, a group of Greek mercenaries did not give up. One night a strong wind began to blow towards the Roman engines, giving this group of hired-soldiers an idea; again attempt to burn the wooden constructs.
They took their idea to Himilco who gave it his approval, in spite of ordering his men back within the city walls some days before. At the appointed time, the mercenaries sallied forth from the city, undoubtedly rushing over the bodies of their previously fallen comrades; the stench must have been overwhelming, and the ground surely sodden with blood from the earlier fighting.
Once the attack was launched, their plan rapidly took hold. The siege engines had been in use for so long that the wood was dry, the attackers’ firebrands and torches easily igniting them. With such a strong wind at their backs, the mercenaries’ flames quickly spread. Embers and smoke furiously spread amongst the Roman siege line, causing confusion and dread. What Roman soldiers attempted to reach the flames and extinguish them were met with the usual perils of such a conflagration, as well as a hail of missiles from the Punic troops (Polyb. 1.48).
In the end, the Roman works were destroyed in this single, valiant, effort by Himilco’s Greek mercenaries. Their success in spite of earlier failures, and recent internal tumult, is striking, and may be due to another force of cohesion which is discussed by modern military theorists. This is “task cohesion,” meaning the cohesive force exerted on a unit by a shared goal of completing a given task. According to some of these commentators, this is the most important and strongest force of unit cohesion. (Rather than social cohesion or homogeneity, “what is important [for effective unit performance] is a shared commitment to the unit’s task-related goals”: MacCoun and Hix (2010), p. 157.)
Although the heroic sally by Himilco’s Hellenes was not enough to completely drive the Romans away from Lilybaeum, it, and the preceding circumstances, are an important vignette into the functioning of Punic armies. It shows that mercenaries were not simply loyal to their captains, and that forces of vertical, peer, and task cohesion all worked to keep these ethnically and linguistically varied troops together as a single fighting force.
This stands in stark contrast to the usual criticisms levelled against Punic armies. These date back at least to Polybius, who vehemently criticized the supposed mercenary character of Carthaginian forces (6.52). While it is right to point out that this should relate “at most to the 3rd century,” later historians took on this criticism in their own thinking about how Carthage waged war (B.D. Hoyos, The Carthaginians (2010), p. 154). Thus, we are able to point to Niccolò Machiavelli who used Punic armies as the primary example of the faults of multi-national forces (N. Machiavelli, The Prince, transl. G. Bull (1999), p. 41).
But even this relatively minor insight into how Carthaginian armies functioned, that we have just seen, should be enough to doubt this traditional view. Most modern scholars do question the idea that Punic armies were structurally weak, and especially the outdated (and anti-Semitic) view that the Carthaginians themselves were not a “warlike people.” Nevertheless, these myths are perpetuated in much modern, uncritical media.
The featured image used at the top of this article is a detail of a painted Greek-Punic funerary monument dated to the Roman Imperial age, from Marsala. Note the symbols representing the goddess Tanit on either side, near the top. Photo taken by Giovanni Dall’Orto in the archaeological museum of Palermo (source).