The Roman Annexation of Sardinia and Corsica 238–231 BC

Carthaginian Mercenaries

The example of Sicily stands in stark contrast to that of the western Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica. Unlike Sicily, when the First Punic War ended these islands remained under Carthaginian control. In reality, this control was tenuous at best as the islands were garrisoned by mercenary forces whose control was unlikely to have spread much beyond the coastal regions. Nevertheless, officially Carthage remained in control of the two islands off the coast of Italy. Whilst on the face of it, it does seem odd that the Roman Senate allowed their enemy to maintain two strategic bases off their coast, there were good reasons for the Romans not to become entangled with controlling these islands. Unlike Sicily, the islands held little in the way of natural resources, and beyond the coastal areas were mountainous territories populated by native tribes who had proved adept at resisting outside forces. Pacifying the islands was beyond the resources of the Carthaginians and would not be as easy a task as securing Sicily was. Furthermore, of the two regions, Sicily presented the perfect staging ground to attack Italy, whereas Sardinia and Corsica had fewer resources to host an invading army and was further away from Africa, requiring control of the seas for any invading force to reach it.

Despite these factors, within just a few years the Senate reversed its earlier decision and in 238 BC Rome annexed the islands of Sardinia and Corsica from Carthage, in an apparent breach of the original peace treaty. This incident originated during the Mercenary War in 240 BC, when the mercenary garrison on Sardinia turned on their Carthaginian paymasters and seized control of the island. Reinforcements sent by Carthage to restore control of the island promptly deserted to the mercenary side, leaving the mercenaries in control of the island. They in turn, however, clashed with the natives, who took this opportunity to rise up and drive all the foreign occupiers from the island. Polybius reports that the surviving mercenaries fled to Italy.

We do not know how much time elapsed between the expulsion of the rebellious mercenaries from Sardinia and the Senate’s decision to invade. Even more importantly, we do not know what prompted the Senate to change their original decision and become involved. If anything, the native revolt had rendered Sardinia neutral territory, with the Carthaginian presence expelled. The Roman expedition of 238 BC was led by one of the Consuls, Ti. Sempronius Gracchus, ancestor of the infamous Tribune of the same name. Gracchus’ activities in 238 BC may shed some light on possible Roman intentions, as he began by leading an invasion of Sardinia but then moved on to campaign in Liguria in north-western Italy (as seen in Chapter Three). Thus we must question whether the move to invade Sardinia formed part of an overall grand strategy for Roman expansion into northern Italy and whether the strategic value of Sardinia lay not in stopping it being used by the Carthaginians to invade Italy, but in allowing the Romans to invade northern Italy themselves, opening up a fresh point of attack.

Naturally, the Romans faced two major obstacles in invading Sardinia. The first, and easiest to deal with, were the Carthaginians, whose empire Sardinia formally remained part of. Polybius says the following:

When the Carthaginians objected on the ground that the sovereignty of Sardinia was rather their own than Rome’s, and began preparations for punishing those who were the cause of its revolt, the Romans made this the pretext of declaring war on them, alleging that the preparations were not against Sardinia, but against themselves.

Thus when Carthage raised a formal objection to the Roman breaking of the peace treaty, the Romans responded by an actual declaration of war against them, which technically meant that the Second Punic War started in 238 BC, not 218 BC. Even though Carthage was winning the war against their rebellious mercenaries, they were clearly in no condition to face Rome once again, and so it seems that the Carthaginians backed down and agreed to Roman demands, amending the original peace treaty, as noted again by Polybius:

Later, at the end of the Libyan War, after the Romans had actually passed a decree declaring war on Carthage, they added the following clauses, as I stated above: “The Carthaginians are to evacuate Sardinia and pay a further sum of twelve hundred talents.”

Interestingly, later sources such as Appian and Eutropius have Sardinia ceded to Rome at the end of the First Punic War, thus reflecting an evolved tradition that exonerates Rome for their actions. Another variant tradition has the Romans taking Sardinia in compensation for Carthaginian attacks on Roman shipping during the Mercenary War. Clearly the lack of a detailed contemporary source, such as Fabius Pictor, denies us the opportunity to fully understand the circumstances behind this phoney Second Punic War. However, what is clear is that faced with no other practical option, Carthage backed down and Sardinia (and Corsica) fell into the Roman sphere of influence.

However, whilst removing Carthage’s claims to Sardinia was one thing, actually securing the territory was another. Neither Carthage nor their mercenaries had been able to secure the islands beyond the coastal regions and this proved to be the case with Rome. Carthage may have stepped aside without a fight, the Sicilians may have capitulated without much struggle, but the same cannot be said of the native inhabitants of Sardinia and Corsica, who were determined to resist any outside rule. Strabo provides us with a description of the natives of Sardinia and Corsica, though we do not know how anachronistic it is:

There are four tribes of the mountaineers, the Parati, the Sossinati, the Balari, and the Aconites, and they live in caverns; but if they do hold a bit of land that is fit for sowing, they do not sow even this diligently; instead, they pillage the lands of the farmers – not only of the farmers on the island, but they actually sail against the people on the opposite coast, the Pisatae in particular.

But Cyrnus is by the Romans called Corsica. It affords such a poor livelihood – being not only rough but in most of its parts absolutely impracticable for travel – that those who occupy the mountains and live from brigandage are more savage than wild animals.

It is unclear exactly what campaigning Gracchus undertook in Sardinia in 238 BC, but as his campaign seemed to be primarily focussed on the war in Liguria, we can only assume that he did little more than secure a coastal region as a secure base of operations from which to stage his attack on Liguria. In all probability, he most likely re-occupied the regions recently vacated by the Carthaginian garrison. There is no mention of Corsica in this campaign and we must assume that it was left alone this year. Therefore, the end of 238 BC saw Sardinia (and Corsica) Roman in name only; Carthage had been forced to cede their claim to the islands, but Rome had not yet been able to secure them.

This situation continued throughout 237 BC, with both Consuls too busy fighting against the Ligurians and the Boii to bother with the islands. It was only in the latter stages of 236 BC that the Consuls were able to turn their attention to the islands once more. Again both Consuls began the year campaigning in northern Italy against the Boii and Ligurians. It was only when these campaigns drew to a conclusion that the Consuls were free to return to the islands. In fact, 236 BC seems to mark the start of the Roman conquest of the islands proper. Given that the vast majority of the campaigning season had been taken with the Gallic Wars, it seems that the Romans decided to limit their conquest to the smaller of the two islands; Corsica, with a full-blown campaign in Sardinia only following in 235 BC.

The Corsican campaign of 236 BC was led by the Consul C. Licinius Varus, for which he won a Triumph. The campaign was not without incident, however, as the surviving sources preserve the story of one of Varus’ legates making a peace treaty with the Corsican tribes which the Senate refused to honour, leading to the legate’s disgrace and perhaps execution, though the details of the story vary from source to source:

Varus set out for Corsica, but inasmuch as he lacked the necessary ships to carry him over, he sent a certain Claudius Clineas ahead with a force. The latter terrified the Corsicans, held a conference with them, and made peace as though he had full authority to do so. Varus, however, ignored this agreement and fought the Corsicans until he had subjugated them. The Romans, to divert from themselves the blame for breaking the compact, sent Claudius to them, offering to surrender him; and when he was not received, they drove him into exile.

After Claudius had made terms with the Corsicans, and the Romans had then waged war upon them and subdued them, they first sent Claudius to them, offering to surrender him, on the ground that the fault in breaking the compact lay with him and not with themselves; and when the Corsicans refused to receive him, they drove him into exile.

The Senate surrendered M. Claudius [Clineas] to the Corsi because he had made a dishonourable peace with them. When the enemy would not take him, it ordered that he be put to death in the public jail.

Thus, despite Varus winning a Triumph for the campaign, it did not get off to a successful start. Given that he had been fighting in northern Italy, it does seem that the early conclusion to the campaign offered the Consul a window of opportunity to campaign in Corsica, but that he had not adequately prepared for this, due to the lack of ships. Varus’ legate Claudius was seemingly sent over with a smaller force to harry the native tribes, possibly until Varus himself could bring across his full forces. However, it seems that the tribes quickly offered terms, whether false or genuine, and Claudius, eager to secure a token victory, agreed. However, this token victory did not seem to be what the Consul had in mind, so he ignored the treaty and secured the tribes’ submission by military might, rather than diplomacy. Claudius himself does seem to have been made the scapegoat for this Roman volte-face, though we will never know whether he did exceed his orders in this matter.

However, despite Varus gaining a Triumph and nominally securing the submission of the Corsican tribes, we must question how secure Rome’s control was, especially when the army was withdrawn at the end of the campaigning season. Firstly, we do not know the scale of Varus’ campaigns or victories, or just how many of the island’s tribes he had defeated, or how severely. Another complete unknown is what, if any, measures had been taken to secure the defeated tribes’ allegiance to Rome and whether they were bound by treaty, as in Italy, or left in limbo, as with Sicily.

Nevertheless, in the eyes of the Senate, the island of Corsica had been secured for the Roman people and the following year their attention turned to Sardinia. The Sardinian campaign of 235 BC was led by one of the Consuls, T. Manlius Torquatus. Manlius is widely credited throughout Roman history as being the commander who conquered Sardinia, but details of the campaign have not survived:

…the Romans made an expedition against the Sardinians, who would not yield obedience, and conquered them.

Sardinia finally became subject to the yoke in the interval between the First and Second Punic War, through the agency of Titus Manlius the consul.

It is interesting that Zonaras (based on Dio) emphasised that the Sardinians had not submitted to Roman control, backing up our hypothesis that the events of 238 BC had brought Sardinia under Roman control in name only. Nevertheless, by the end of 235 BC Manlius was awarded his Triumph and the Senate considered that both islands had been brought under their control.

This, combined with the peaceful conclusion to the renewed war with Carthage and the ending of the Gallic War, saw the Senate take the extraordinary step of declaring the Republic at peace by ceremonially closing the gates of the Temple of Janus. This symbolic act of declaring the Republic at peace was the first time it had been undertaken in the whole Republican period, and had only supposedly happened on one prior occasion, during the reign of King Numa Pompilus (c.715–673 BC). It was not until 29 BC and the time of Augustus that the event happened again, making this occurrence in 235 BC unique in over 650 years of Roman history.

Unsurprisingly, however, the Gates of Janus had to be opened the following year (234 BC), and both Sardinia and Corsica were once again theatres of operation. As is common for this period, we do not know what caused the Senate to dispatch a Consul and a Praetor to Corsica and Sardinia respectively, and so soon after declaring peace, but we must assume that the tribes of the islands rose up against Roman rule once more. This again raises issues about how much control Rome actually had of both Sardinia and Corsica, and how comprehensive the victories in the preceding years actually had been.

Of the two theatres, it seems that Corsica represented the greatest challenge to Rome, as one of the Consuls, Sp. Carvilius Maximus, was dispatched there and one of the Praetors, P. Cornelius, was sent to Sardinia. We only have a brief note in Zonaras covering both campaigns:

The following year the Romans divided their forces into three parts in order that the rebels, finding war waged upon all of them at once, might not render assistance to one another; so they sent Postumius Albinus into Liguria, Spurius Carvilius against the Corsicans, and Publius Cornelius, the praetor urbanus, to Sardinia. And the consuls accomplished their missions with some speed, though not without trouble. The Sardinians, who were animated by no little spirit, were vanquished in a fierce battle by Carvilius; for Cornelius and many of his soldiers had perished of disease. When the Romans left their country, the Sardinians and the Ligurians revolted again.

Zonaras clearly ties all three campaigns (Corsica, Sardinia and Liguria) together, though whether this was the case in reality is unknown. Certainly it is possible that an uprising in one sparked off the others, even if they were uncoordinated. What is clear is that Carvilius was able to pacify Corsica, however temporarily, and was awarded a Triumph for his victory. As we can see, Sardinia proved to be a more difficult proposition, with the Roman Army and its commander succumbing to disease. This meant that Carvilius had to cross to Sardinia with his army, where he apparently won a battle.

The scale of his victory, however, must be judged by the fact the Sardinians rose up in revolt once the Roman Army had left the island, a common theme in these campaigns. The pattern continued in 233 BC, when again one of the Consuls, M. Pomponius Matho, was dispatched to Sardinia. Once again all we know is that Pomponius was awarded a Triumph for his campaigns, indicating a significant military victory over an element of the native tribes, but again the war continued into the following year.

In fact the situation in Sardinia seems to have deteriorated, as 232 BC saw both Consuls dispatched to the island, the fourth year in a row that a Consul had campaigned there. Once again we only have a brief note in Zonaras to cover these campaigns:

When the Sardinians once more rose against the Romans, both the consuls, Marcus [Publicius] Malleolus and Marcus Aemilius [Lepidus], took the field. And they secured many spoils, which were taken away from them, however, by the Corsicans when they touched at their island.

On this occasion, however, no Triumphs were awarded for the Consuls, mostly due to their blunder in losing the spoils they had won in Sardinia on Corsica. Thus it seems that the Consuls again met with some success in Sardinia and then decided to move their operations to Corsica, where they suffered some form of reverse.

It seems that this reverse and the knowledge that these supposedly straightforward campaigns of pacification were dragging on (now entering their sixth year across both islands) spurred the Senate into making a major push to end the wars. Once again, and for the second year running, both Consuls were dispatched to the islands; this time in a concerted effort. M. Pomponius Matho, kinsman of the Consul (of the same name) of 233 BC, was dispatched to Sardinia, whilst his colleague, C. Papirius Maso, was sent to Corsica.

As with all these campaigns, no record of the number of troops has survived for either side, but Zonaras does provide us with a more detailed account of the tactics involved:

Hence the Romans now turned their attention to both these peoples. Marcus Pomponius proceeded to harry Sardinia, but could not find many of the inhabitants, who as he learned, had slipped into caves of the forest, difficult to locate; therefore he sent for keen-scented dogs from Italy, and with their aid discovered the trail of both men and cattle and cut off many such parties. Caius Papirius drove the Corsicans from the plains, but in attempting to force his way to the mountains he lost numerous men through ambush and would have suffered the loss of still more owing to the scarcity of water, had not water at length been found; then the Corsicans were induced to come to terms.

In the scant descriptions we have of both campaigns, the problems facing Rome were laid bare. On both islands the Romans suffered from fighting a guerrilla war, with the native tribesmen retreating to the mountains, negating the superior tactical strength of the Roman military machine. Neither campaign seems to have been a resounding success, even though some measure of peace seems to have been brought to the islands. The nature of such a fragile peace meant that the Romans could never trust that either island would stay pacified for long, with the threat of a native rebellion ever present, especially in an era without a permanent Roman presence.

Again, and for the second year running, neither of the two Consuls celebrated a Triumph for their campaigns, though we do know that Papirius Matho requested one and was turned down, in retaliation for which he celebrated his own Triumph on the Alban Mount.³² Nevertheless, it seems that these six years of continuous campaigning, the final two of which saw both Consuls involved, achieved some measure of temporary peace on the islands as there is no further record of Roman military involvement until 225 BC.

The Roman Provinces of Sardinia and Corsica (227–218 BC)

It was during this lull in military activity that Rome undertook its reform of provincial administration and introduced two new Praetors, one for Sicily and one for Sardinia (and Corsica). Whilst the Praetor for Sicily would have been more of an administrative role, ensuring the regular exploitation of the island’s natural resources, the Praetor for Sardinia and Corsica would have been far more focused on entrenching Rome rule in the islands and preventing native uprisings. Again we are not told what size force the regular Praetor for Sardinia took with him each year. We do know that the first Praetor for Sardinia was M. Valerius (Laevinus), though no details of his activities survive.

The natives of the islands appear to have been quiescent until 225 BC, when the Senate felt it necessary to dispatch a Consul to Sardinia, C. Atilius Regulus, despite the presence of a serving Praetor. This indicates a level of severity akin to the expected Gallic invasion. Again we have no detail as to Regulus’ activities on Sardinia, and it is possible that he wanted to give his freshly assembled forces combat experience against a native enemy, but as will be detailed later, it was an unnecessary distraction that nearly cost Rome dear (see Chapter Six).

Aside from this one incident, which quite frankly we only know about thanks to its connection to the Gallic War, we are not told of any further military activity by Roman commanders on either Sardinia or Corsica for the rest of this period. Furthermore, we have no record of any further Triumphs being awarded for these theatres of operations. What we must assume is that after the large-scale military operations of the Consuls of 232 and 231 BC, the natives of both islands avoided full-scale and open conflict with their new Roman overlords. This does not mean that the annual Praetors were not engaged in operations to ensure compliance, merely that full-scale warfare did not break out to the same extent as the 230s.

Thus we can see that the aftermath of the Fist Punic War saw Rome take her first strides towards overseas empire, with the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. However, the two theatres of operations were quite different. On the one hand was the island of Sicily, with a significant degree of urbanization and a long history of undergoing foreign occupation. On the other were the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, composed of native tribes and mountainous terrain, which had only notionally been under foreign occupation.

It was not only these factors that accounted for the differing Roman experience in these islands. Sicily had fallen to Rome as a result of the First Punic War, and it made perfect strategic sense to hold onto the island. Sardinia and Corsica, however, represented something different; the Senate consciously decided to annex the islands, despite earlier leaving them in Carthaginian hands. They also invested heavily in pacifying the islands and bringing them under firm Roman control, despite offering limited material gain.

This move represented an evolution in Roman strategic thinking. From Rome’s earliest days, the territories they conquered allowed Rome to develop a strategic buffer to protect the core Roman territories. At first this buffer was no more than the territories such as Alba and Veii that lay within a few days of Rome itself; however, as Roman territory expanded then so would the buffer zone needed to protect it. With all of Italy under their control, it was only logical that the buffer zone, which the Romans felt they needed, expanded too. Thus Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica all lay within Rome’s outer zone of control, protecting Roman Italy itself, at least from the west and the south. Creating a ‘buffer zone’ of territories to the south and the west to protect Roman Italy raised obvious questions about the other regions; in particular the east and the north. However, it would not be long before the Senate sought to expand Roman control in these regions too.

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