Pyrrhus in Sicily

Two new warlike prospects now invited Pyrrhus. Both offered him the opportunity-which he always coveted – of championing Greek civilization. One opportunity lay in Greece itself, where an eruption of Celtic hordes from the north had produced turmoil; the other lay in Sicily, where the Greek cities, lacking a military successor to Agathocles, were again menaced by the Carthaginians. Pyrrhus chose the Sicilian venture. Certainly, it looked less like a retreat from his present unsatisfactory situation. To the disgust of the Tarentines, after unsuccessful peace overtures to Rome, he suspended operations in Italy, placed a garrison in Tarentum, and sailed for Sicily with 30,000 infantry and 25,000 cavalry. His consequent success was quite unequivocal; he swept the Carthaginians before him, soon reaching Eryx, their strongly fortified city at the western extremity of the island.

Eryx was taken by storm. A trumpet blast gave the signal for a missile barrage which dispersed the defenders on the walls. Scaling ladders were swiftly brought up and Pyrrhus was himself the first man to mount the battlements, dealing death to left and right of him and emerging at last unscathed. This was a victory after his own heart and he celebrated it, as he had vowed to do, with athletic events and displays in honour of Heracles.

The Carthaginians having been thus subdued and already inclined to negotiate terms, Pyrrhus found himself in the role of a keeper of the peace. A community of Italian brigands, originally hired from Campania as mercenary troops by Agathocles, had been in the habit of extorting payments from Sicilian cities. These lawless and violent men, who styled themselves Mamertini (“The War God’s Men” in their dialect), were to play a crucial part in later history; but for the time being Pyrrhus managed to suppress them, defeating them in pitched battle and capturing many of their strongholds. Even here, however, his achievement was incomplete. The Mamertines survived to embarrass the Mediterranean world at a later date.

As for the Carthaginians, Pyrrhus refused them the peace they asked and required that they should totally evacuate Sicily. But by this time he had himself begun to quarrel with the Greek Sicilian cities, some of whom were ready to support the Carthaginians, while others rallied surviving Mamertines to their aid. News that the people of Tarentum and other Greeks of the Italian mainland were hard pressed by the Romans in his absence now gave him the opportunity of extricating himself from yet another deadlock, and he took it.

In Sicily, Pyrrhus’ reputation, both as a triumphant war-leader and as a liberal ruler, had ultimately suffered. He had failed to capture the remaining stronghold of Lilybaeum, which the Carthaginians had established on the westernmost point of Sicily after the destruction of Motya at the beginning of the previous century. Planning the invasion of Africa, in imitation of Agathocles, he had made himself unpopular by what amounted to pressgang recruitment of rowing crews. But at the same time it must be admitted that the Greeks were never an easy population to deal with. Every successful champion of their liberties was sooner or later bound to be suspected as a potential tyrant.

It is related that Pyrrhus left Sicily conscious that it would become a battlefield for hostilities between Rome and Carthage. Perhaps the remark attributed to him on this occasion was the invention of historians who enjoyed the advantage of hindsight. But Sicily had always been a cockpit and it was easy to see here an area in which any widely expanding power must be challenged.

Rome and Carthage as Allies

At the time of Pyrrhus’ operations in Italy and Sicily (281-275 BC), Rome and Carthage were in fact associated by a series 6f treaties which dated from very early times. The precise number of these treaties is a subject on which neither ancient historians nor modern scholars agree. Polybius, the Greek historian of Rome’s wars against Carthage, paraphrases these treaties, the earliest of which was preserved at Rome in an archaic form of Latin. According to Polybius, the treaty forbade the Romans to sail south of the “Fair Cape” (just north of Carthage) unless driven there by weather or warfare. A Roman finding himself accidentally in this area was not allowed to carry anything away with him save what was necessary for repairs to his ship or sacrifice to the gods, and he was obliged to leave the country within five days. Any business contracts in the scheduled zones were to be concluded in the presence of a herald or notary. Such contracts could be enforced by law in Libya and Sardinia. In Sicily, a Roman was to enjoy equal rights with others. Carthage, for her part, was bound to maintain friendly relations with Rome’s Latin satellites, and this applied even to other Latin cities, though rather equivocally: if the Carthaginians captured such a city, they were obliged to hand it over to Rome without sacking it. The Carthaginians, moreover, were forbidden to build any fort in Latin territory, and if Carthaginians by chance entered the territory under arms, they were not to pass the night there.

At a later date, says Polybius, another treaty was made. Areas in which the Romans might neither trade nor practise piracy were more specifically defined. If the Carthaginians captured any Latin city, they could retain valuables and captives but must surrender the city itself to the Romans. There are detailed provisions relating to the taking of slaves, and again a reference to Sardinia and Libya as sensitive Carthaginian zones. The Romans were not to trade or found settlements in either of these territories.

The last of the three treaties mentioned by Polybius was occasioned by Pyrrhus’ invasion and may confidently be assigned to 279 BC. It provided that, should either the Romans or Carthaginians subsequently reach terms with Pyrrhus, these should be subject to a reservation: namely, that if either of the two parties became a victim of the king’s aggression, they might both collaborate within the resulting theatre of war. In any such case, the Carthaginians would provide ships for transport and hostilities, but each government would pay its own troops. The Carthaginians would assist in war at sea but could not be obliged to land any forces. The representatives of the contracting parties swore solemnly to this agreement, each by his own gods, and the terms of the treaty, inscribed on bronze tablets at Rome, were preserved at the temple of Jupiter. Polybius expressly denies the assertion of the pro-Carthaginian Greek historian, Philinus. that another treaty existed according to which the Romans and Carthaginians were respectively forbidden to enter Sicily and Italy.

It is not always easy to distinguish between the commercial and strategic activities of the ancient world. A major sector of commerce was the slave trade and the capture of slaves was necessarily accompanied by violence and warlike action. Nor was piracy regarded as an infringement of any international code, although one might be obliged to refrain from it locally under treaty pledges. However, the first two of the above-mentioned treaties seem to have been mainly commercial in scope; the third, military and naval. The underlying principle seems to have been that Carthage should offer naval aid in return for Roman military support.

It is indeed on record that, hoping to hinder Pyrrhus’ intervention in Sicily, a Carthaginian admiral arrived with 120 ships to dissuade Rome from making peace with the king. The Romans were not at first willing to commit themselves. The Carthaginians then sailed off to negotiate with Pyrrhus. These negotiations also led to nothing. but when the Carthaginian mission returned again to Rome, the Romans were more amenable. The Carthaginian negotiators had made their point. The 120 ships could be thrown into either scale; Rome continued its war against Pyrrhus’ allies in Italy. In fact, the Carthaginian commander, on his way back to Sicily, The Carthaginian diplomatic initiative against Pyrrhus certainly seems to have borne fruit. Moreover, the Carthaginian navy attacked the king’s forces as they returned from Sicily and destroyed a substantial number of his ships. About 1,000 Mamertines had also crossed into Italy to afflict Pyrrhus with guerrilla warfare. Their crossing had no doubt been much facilitated by the Carthaginian fleet.

1 thought on “Pyrrhus in Sicily

  1. Pingback: Pyrrhus in Sicily – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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