What was the Battle of Panormus (250 BC)?

Introduction

The Battle of Panormus was fought in Sicily in 250 BC during the First Punic War between a Roman army led by Lucius Caecilius Metellus and a Carthaginian force led by Hasdrubal. The Roman force of two legions defending the city of Panormus defeated the much larger Carthaginian army of 30,000 men and between 60 and 142 war elephants.

The war had commenced in 264 BC with Carthage in control of much of Sicily, where most of the fighting took place. In 256-255 BC the Romans attempted to strike at the city of Carthage in North Africa, but suffered a heavy defeat by a Carthaginian army strong in cavalry and elephants. When the focus of the war returned to Sicily, the Romans captured the large and important city of Panormus in 254 BC. Thereafter they avoided battle for fear of the war elephants which the Carthaginians had shipped to Sicily. In late summer 250 BC Hasdrubal led out his army to devastate the crops of the cities of Rome’s allies. The Romans withdrew to Panormus and Hasdrubal pressed on to the city walls.

Once he arrived in Panormus, Metellus turned to fight, countering the elephants with a hail of javelins from earthworks dug near the walls. Under this missile fire the elephants panicked and fled through the Carthaginian infantry. The Roman heavy infantry then charged the Carthaginian left flank, which broke, along with the rest of the Carthaginians. The elephants were captured and later slaughtered in the Circus Maximus. This was the last significant land battle of the war, which ended nine years later in a Roman victory.

Background

Having lost most of their fleet in the storm of 255 BC, the Romans rapidly rebuilt it, adding 220 new ships, and launched a determined offensive in Sicily; their entire fleet, under both consuls, attacked Panormus early in 254 BC. Panormus was a large-for-the-time city on the north coast of Sicily, the site of the modern Sicilian capital Palermo. It had a population of approximately 70,000 and was one of the largest Sicilian cities still loyal to Carthage and the most important economically. The city’s prosperity was based on trade and fishing, which resulted in an unusual lack of agriculture and the area immediately around the city was thickly forested, even close to the gates. The city was surrounded and blockaded, and siege engines set up. These made a breach in the walls which the Romans stormed, capturing the outer town and giving no quarter. The inner town promptly surrendered. The 14,000 inhabitants who could afford it ransomed themselves and the remaining 13,000 were sold into slavery.

Much of western inland Sicily then went over to the Romans: Ietas, Solous, Petra, and Tyndaris all came to terms. In 252 BC the Romans captured Thermae and Lipara, which had been isolated by the fall of Panormus. In late 253 BC or early 252 BC Carthaginian reinforcements were sent to Sicily under Hasdrubal, who had taken part in the two battles against the Romans in Africa. The Romans avoided battle in 252 and 251 BC; according to Polybius because they feared the war elephants which the Carthaginians had shipped to Sicily. The historian Nigel Bagnall suggests that survivors of the battle against Xanthippus passed on “horrific stories” of the effectiveness of the Carthaginian cavalry and elephants in open battle. In consequence the Carthaginians, probably with a smaller army than the Romans, dominated the plains; while the Romans stayed on higher and broken ground, where much of the effect of the cavalry and elephants would have been nullified. Both sides declined to face the other on their favoured terrain.

The Battle

In late summer 250 BC Hasdrubal, hearing that one consul (Gaius Furius Pacilus) had left Sicily with half of the Roman army, marched out from the major Carthaginian stronghold of Lilybaeum towards Panormus with 30,000 men and between 60 and 142 elephants. Halting some distance away, he devastated the harvest in the territories of Rome’s newly allied cities, in an attempt to provoke the Roman commander, Lucius Caecilius Metellus, into battle. The Roman troops amounted to two legions, and they had been dispersed to gather the harvest. Metellus withdrew them in front of the advancing Carthaginians and they retreated into Panormus. This timidity was what Hasdrubal had come to expect, and he advanced down the Oreto valley, continuing to despoil the countryside. The Oreto reached the sea immediately south of Panormus, and once there Hasdrubal ordered part of his army to cross the river and advance up to the city wall.

Once the elephants had crossed, or were crossing, the river, Metellus sent his light infantry to skirmish with the Carthaginians and impede their passage. These light troops hurled javelins at the Carthaginians, and had been instructed to concentrate on their elephants. Panormus was a major supply depot, and townspeople were employed in carrying bundles of javelins from stocks within the city to the foot of the walls so the Roman skirmishers were constantly resupplied. The ground between the river and the city was covered with earthworks, some constructed during the Roman siege and some part of the city’s defensive works, which provided cover for the Romans and made it difficult for the elephants to advance, or even manoeuvre. The elephants’ mahouts, eager to demonstrate their charges’ prowess, nevertheless drove them forward. Some accounts also have missiles being hurled down from the city walls at them. Peppered with missiles and unable to retaliate, the elephants panicked and fled through the Carthaginian infantry behind them.

Metellus had concealed himself and a large part of his army either in the woods just outside the city gate, or immediately inside the gates; in either case this meant he was upstream from where the Carthaginian army was fording the river. From here Metellus fed fresh troops into the large-scale skirmish under the city walls. When the elephants broke, disorganising a large part of the Carthaginian army and demoralising all of it, Metellus ordered an attack on its left flank. The Carthaginians fled; those who attempted to fight were cut down. Metellus did not permit a pursuit, but did capture ten elephants in the immediate aftermath and, according to some accounts, the rest of the surviving animals over the succeeding days.

Contemporary accounts do not report the other losses of either side, although the Carthaginians’ are thought to have been heavy. Modern historians consider later claims of 20,000-30,000 Carthaginian casualties improbable. Similarly, later accounts that the large Celtic contingent in the Carthaginian army were drunk when the battle began are usually dismissed; as is the suggestion that a Carthaginian fleet took part in the operation, causing heavy casualties when many fleeing soldiers ran into the sea hoping to be taken off by their ships.

Aftermath and Legacy

The defeat, and especially the loss of the elephants, resulted in the Romans feeling freer to manoeuvre on the plains, and the Carthaginians no longer being willing to challenge them. As was the Carthaginian custom after a defeat, Hasdrubal was recalled to Carthage to be executed. After his success at Panormus, Metellus received a triumph in Rome on 07 September 250 BC, during which he paraded with the elephants he had captured at Panormus, who were then slaughtered in the Circus Maximus. The elephant was adopted as the emblem of the powerful Caecilii Metelli family, whose members featured an elephant on the coins they minted until the end of the Republic.

Hasdrubal’s successor, Adhubal, decided that the large fortified city of Selinus could no longer be garrisoned and had the town evacuated and destroyed. Encouraged by their victory at Panormus, the Romans moved against the main Carthaginian base on Sicily, Lilybaeum, in 249 BC. A large army commanded by the year’s consuls Publius Claudius Pulcher and Lucius Junius Pullus besieged the city. They had rebuilt their fleet, and 200 ships blockaded the harbour. The city was still held by the Carthaginians when the war ended nine years later in 241 BC with a Roman victory.

Tensions remained high between the two states, and both continued to expand in the western Mediterranean. When Carthage besieged the Roman-protected town of Saguntum in eastern Iberia in 218 BC, it ignited the Second Punic War with Rome.

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