Hamilcar Barca (c. 275–228 BC

Hamilcar Barca (c. 275–228 BC) – Leader of the Barcid family and father of Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago. He was father-in-law to Hasdrubal the Fair. Barca means ‘thunderbolt’.

In 247 BC, in an effort to break the deadlock, a new commander was sent from Carthage to take over the troops in Sicily. Hamilcar would live up to his nickname, ‘Barca’, which appears to have meant ‘Lightning’ or ‘Flash’. The situation that faced him was grim. Carthage was confined to just two strongholds, while the remainder of the island was controlled by Rome and its allies. What was more, Hamilcar had few troops and no money to hire any fresh mercenaries. As one historian has recently put it, ‘Realistically then, his [Hamilcar’s] task was not so much to win the war as to avoid losing it.’

After first bringing his mutinous troops into line by executing the ringleaders, Hamilcar was ready to make his presence felt. After a first attack on an island close to Drepana was easily rebuffed, he wisely switched to softer targets with which to boast his own prestige and his troops’ morale. He launched a naval raid on the southern toe of the Italian peninsula, where there were no Roman forces. But Hamilcar Barca’s real genius lay not on the battlefield, where he appears to have been a proficient but not exceptional tactician, but in knowing how to generate an appropriate public image for himself. Faced with the overwhelming military superiority of the enemy, a hit-and-run strategy was to some extent forced upon him, but that strategy nevertheless suited a man who appears to have appreciated profoundly the symbolic capital which could accrue through a series of eye-catching, if strategically pointless, raids.

On the way back from the successful but ineffectual Italian expedition, he seized the height of Heircte, which most scholars now think was the mountain range centred around Monte Castellacio to the west of the Roman-held city of Panormus. From this easily defended point, which had access to fresh water, pasturage and the sea, Hamilcar planned a series of lightning strikes against enemy-held territory. His initial raid on the Italian mainland delivered morale-boosting booty and prisoners; thereafter things settled down to a ‘cat-andmouse’ war of attrition with the local Roman forces. By launching swift raids from his mountain refuge, Hamilcar was able to disrupt Roman supply lines and tie down a large number of Roman soldiers who could have been well used elsewhere. However, this strategy also tied down much-needed Carthaginian troops too. Thus, under Hamilcar, the Carthaginians came no closer to re-establishing their control of their old possessions on the island, let alone capturing new territory. Recognizing this, Hamilcar withdrew from Heircte in 244 BC and planned an even bolder venture: the recapture of Eryx.

Sailing in under the cover of night, Hamilcar led his army up to the town and massacred the Roman garrison there. The civilian population was deported to nearby Drepana, one of Carthage’s last outposts, but curiously Hamilcar seems to have made no initial attempt to capture a further Roman garrison stationed on the summit of Mount Eryx. The town, which lay just inland from Drepana, certainly had strategic advantages, for, at over 600 metres, it provided an incomparable view over the coastal plain and the sea. Yet taking it was a odd choice, since it left Hamilcar and his force perched halfway up a mountainside between Roman forces at the top and at Panormus. The one route to his anchorage, following a narrow twisting path, only added to his problems.

In terms of military strategy, Eryx would prove as fruitless as the heights of Heircte had done. Although Hamilcar continually harried the Roman forces who were besieging Drepana, his own side suffered as many losses as his opponents. Once again Hamilcar’s military strategy yielded a high profile for the dashing leader, but mixed results. At one point he was even forced to ask his Roman opposite number for a truce so that he could bury his dead. This was followed by a thousand-strong group of Gallic mercenaries in his army, fed up with the unrewarding war of attrition in which they were involved, attempting to betray Eryx and the Carthaginian army to the Romans. What Eryx lacked in strategic advantage, however, it more than made up for with its strong association with those halcyon days when the Carthaginians had been the dominant force on the island, rather than a defeated contender desperately clinging on to its last few enclaves. What could be better for the burgeoning reputation of a young ambitious general than seizing back a town which the Carthaginians had held for so long and in which they had such emotional investment? Eryx was the holy site where the goddess Astarte had for centuries held sway under the protection of her divine companion Melqart.

In fact matters were soon taken out of Hamilcar’s hands. In Rome, it had been decided that the only way of breaking the deadlock was to rebuild the fleet. As treasury funds were low, much of the money for this ship-construction programme had to be borrowed from private individuals. The result was a fleet of 200 quinqueremes modelled on the superior design of Hannibal the Rhodian’s ship. In a conscious attempt to create a confrontation, the blockade of Lilybaeum and Drepana was tightened, thereby forcing the Carthaginians to act. It took the Carthaginians nine months to assemble a fleet of 250 ships. Although they outnumbered the Romans, the ships were poorly prepared and the crews lacked training. Furthermore, the admiral, Hanno, hardly had a distinguished record against the Romans, having presided over previous defeats at Acragas and Ecnomus. The plan was to drop off supplies for the army in Sicily before taking on troops to serve as marines.

In 241 the fleet crossed over to the Aegates Islands, just to the west of Sicily, and waited for a favourable wind to carry them to Sicily itself. But the Roman fleet, already aware of their location, caught up with the Carthaginians as they were preparing to cross. For the first time, the Roman fleet had no need of the corvi, as it was superior in all areas of seamanship and naval warfare. The Carthaginian crews–poorly trained, with too few marines, and burdened down with supplies– stood no chance. The Romans sank 50 Carthaginian ships and captured 70 before the remainder managed to escape.

The disaster broke the Carthaginians’ resolve, and they sued for peace. The terms agreed in 241 were harsh, but not unexpected. The Carthaginians were to evacuate the whole of Sicily, to free all Roman prisoners of war, and to pay a ransom for their own. Lilybaeum, which had held out to the bitter end, was surrendered to the Romans. A huge indemnity of 2,200 talents was to be paid to Rome over a period of twenty years. Lastly, neither Carthage nor Rome was to interfere in the affairs of the other’s allies nor recruit soldiers nor raise money for public buildings on the other’s territory. When the treaty was put before the Roman Popular Assembly to be ratified, the terms were made even stiffer. The indemnity was raised to 3,200 talents, with 1,000 due immediately and the remainder within ten years. Carthage was also to evacuate all the islands between Sicily and North Africa, but was allowed to hold on to Sardinia. Faced with ruin if the war continued, the Carthaginians had little option but to accept.

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