The Islands and Italy, 210–207 BC: The Romans Defeat the Carthaginian Fleet


Marcus Valerius Laevinus sailed to Rome in 210 to report that the war for Sicily was over and that a deserted land was again in cultivation. However, it is obvious that the Carthaginians had not given up and that the Romans still had to defend the islands. The consul sent praefectus classis Marcus Valerius Messalla to Africa to make a plundering and espionage expedition. He approached the coast with fifty ships before daybreak and made an unexpected landing on the territory of Utica. He ravaged it far and wide, captured many people and much booty, returned to his ships and sailed back to Lilybaeum. Livy does not relate any Carthaginian resistance during this two-week operation, so it seems that the Romans were able to sail without being stopped. The captives were interrogated and the information was reported to Laevinus:

That five thousand Numidians were at Carthage under Masinissa, son of Gala and a most impetuous young man; and that other soldiers were being hired everywhere in Africa, to be sent over to Hasdrubal in Spain, so that he should cross over into Italy with the largest possible army as soon as he could and join Hannibal; … furthermore that a very large fleet was being made ready, for the purpose of recovering Sicily.

Consequently, Quintus Fulvius Flaccus was appointed dictator to hold the elections and Marcus Valerius Laevinus continued in Sicily as proconsul. The Carthaginian naval attack on Sicily never took place. Nevertheless, the Carthaginians attacked Sardinia with a fleet of forty ships. First they laid waste to the region of Olbia; then, after the praetor Publius Manlius Vulso appeared there with the army, the Carthaginian fleet sailed to the other side of the island and ravaged the territory of Carales. The fleet returned to Africa with a large amount of booty.

In 210, the Tarentines intercepted the Roman convoy that was sailing from Sicily along the Italian coast to bring supplies to the garrison in Tarentum. Democrates defeated Decimus Quinctius’ fleet of about twenty ships with an equal number of ships at Sapriportis, about 22 kilometres west of Tarentum. The transport ships escaped to the sea. The Romans prevailed on land and kept the citadel. Here we have some rare information about how ships were collected from the cities that were under obligation to supply them. To begin with, Decimus’ fleet at Rhegium consisted of triremes and smaller ships and some quinqueremes. Livy states: ‘By personally demanding from the allies and from Rhegium and Velia and Paestum the ships due under the treaty, he [Decimus Quinctius] formed a fleet of twenty ships … in the neighbourhood of Croton and Sybaris he had fully manned the ships with oarsmen, and had a fleet remarkably equipped and armed considering the size of the ships.’

In 209, the Romans took advantage of the absence of the Carthaginian fleet as it had sailed to the Greek coast and recovered Tarentum. Quintus Fabius Maximus pitched his camp in the mouth of the harbour to besiege the city. Here we see a plan to use some of the ships as a naval siege unit, carrying artillery for shooting missiles at a long range:

Of the ships which Laevinus had had to protect his supplies, the consul loaded some with devices and equipment for attacking city walls, while some of them he fitted out with artillery and stones and every kind of missile weapon. And so also with the merchantmen, not merely those propelled by oars, in order that some crews should carry engines and ladders up to the walls, and others from ships at long range should wound the defenders of the walls. These ships were equipped and made ready to attack the city from the open sea. And the sea was unmolested by the Punic fleet, which had been sent over to Corcyra, since Philip was preparing to attack the Aetolians.

As this was taking place, the city was betrayed to the Romans by the commander of the group of Bruttians that Hannibal had put in place to protect the city. The Romans took a huge amount of booty and 30,000 slaves. Hannibal marched to Tarentum but realized that nothing could be done and retired to Metapontum; his plot to make Fabius follow him there failed.

Lack of resources became an issue in the same year when twelve Latin colonies informed that they were no longer able to send soldiers or money to support the war effort. The senate could do nothing to change their refusal but made sure that the remaining eighteen colonies fulfilled their duty.

In 208, there was another report of naval preparations being made at Carthage with the intention of blockading the whole coast of Italy, Sicily and Sardinia with 200 ships. We cannot pay too much attention to the number of ships, which we have from one source only; what matters is the fact that the Carthaginians could have put pressure on the ports and interrupted shipments, a problem the Romans had faced since the beginning of the war. Consequently, the Romans repositioned their ships. Publius Scipio was ordered to send over to Sardinia for the defence of the island fifty of the eighty ships that he had either brought with him from Italy or captured at New Carthage. The imperium of Marcus Valerius Laevinus was continued in Sicily and the seventy Roman ships there were increased with the addition of the thirty ships that had been stationed at Tarentum the preceding year. With this fleet he was to cross over into Africa and collect booty, if he thought the time was suitable. The praetor urbanus was given the task of preparing the thirty old warships that were in Ostia and of manning twenty new ships with crews, so that he could defend the coast near Rome.

The building of the fleet shows the serious intention of the Carthaginian government to continue the struggle for the islands. It should be seen as a reaction to the loss of New Carthage and Tarentum. There is no information of any Carthaginian attack taking place, apparently because the Romans did not give them any opportunity. Livy gives a frustratingly short description of what became the biggest sea battle in the Second Punic War:

The same summer Marcus Valerius crossed over from Sicily to Africa with a fleet of a hundred ships, and making a landing at the city of Clupea [Aspis], he ravaged the country far and wide, meeting hardly any armed men. Then the foragers were hurriedly brought back to the ships, because suddenly came the report that a Carthaginian fleet was approaching. There were eighty-three ships. With these the Roman fought with success not far from Clupea. After capturing eighteen ships and putting the rest to flight, he returned to Lilybaeum with a great quantity of booty from the land and from the ships.

Livy states that the Roman fleet ravaged the African coast again the following year. Despite the many similarities in stories from 208 and 207, they are not dupli cates of the same event. Marcus Valerius Laevinus was leading the fleet that sailed from Sicily and laid waste the territory of Utica and Carthage. When the Roman fleet was returning to Sicily, a Carthaginian fleet with seventy warships met them. Again, Livy does not give any details but only states that seventeen Carthaginian ships were captured, four sunk at sea and the rest of the fleet routed and put to flight. We do not know the size of the Roman fleet. It returned to Lilybaeum with much booty. Livy adds that thereafter, since the enemy ships had been expelled from the seas, large supplies of grain were brought to Rome.

This information looks like any other story of raids on the enemy territory but the significance is that now there was a Punic fleet confronting the Romans and that it suffered serious losses. Consequently, the possibility of attacking the islands and the coast of Italy was lost. The Romans had taken the edge off the new Punic campaign before the fleet had had the chance to do anything. Now we see the Romans implementing the strategy they had in mind at the beginning of the war, when Titus Sempronius Longus was sent to Lilybaeum with the mission to prepare for the invasion of Africa. Because of the failure to defeat the Punic fleet then, the Romans had to defend the islands for a decade more but these two battles made the turning-point in the war and now the Romans could go back to their original plan. The Carthaginian losses probably explain why there was no attempt to stop Scipio from crossing to Africa in 204.

The Romans awaited the approach of Hasdrubal in Italy in 207 with great anxiety. The sea route from Spain to Italy was still unusable for the Punic fleet, as it had been in 218, and Hasdrubal took the same route that Hannibal had used. However, the Roman situation was now different from 218. The Romans had had experience and time to get ready. They were informed by the Massilians that Hasdrubal had passed over into Gaul. Once in Italy, Hadsrubal sent messengers to find Hannibal and give him instructions to link up with Hasdrubal’s army in Umbria. The Romans, however, caught the messengers – four Gauls and two Numidian horsemen – who had come all the way to Metapontum to find Hannibal. Livy’s narrative is difficult to follow and we cannot be sure of all the routes Hannibal took but he moved around southern Italy to break away from the Romans. The Romans made sure that the brothers could not meet. Livy explains the Roman strategy:

For they felt that Hasdrubal must be met as he came down from the Alps, to prevent his stirring up the Cisalpine Gauls or Etruria, which was already aroused to the hope of rebellion, and likewise that Hannibal must be kept busy with a war of his own, that he might not be able to leave the country of the Bruttii and go to meet his brother.

The pressure from the Punic fleet had eased and the Romans could prepare for Hasdrubal’s arrival by transporting troops from several fronts. Livy refers to some unnamed authors and states that Scipio sent 8,000 Spaniards and Gauls, 2,000 legionary soldiers and 1,000 cavalry of Numidians and Spaniards. Marcus Lucretius brought these in ships. Gaius Mamilius sent 4,000 archers and slingers from Sicily. Slave volunteers were recalled to their standards. The senate gave the consuls Gaius Claudius Nero and Marcus Livius Salinator unrestricted freedom to fill up their numbers from whatever source they pleased, of selecting men from whichever army they liked and of exchanging and removing men from one province to another. They also resorted to a resource so far unused: the settlers on the sea coast, who had been exempt from service. Alsium, Anxur, Minturnae, Sinuessa and Sena Gallica were compelled to furnish soldiers. Antium and Ostia were still exempt. The number of soldiers thus enrolled did of course not change the total significantly but all this shows the need to use exceptional methods to find men. The consuls destroyed Hasdrubal and his army in the Battle of the Metaurus in northern Italy in June 207. Livius celebrated a triumph and Nero an ovation. After the defeat, Hannibal withdrew to Bruttium.


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