What was the Battle of the Aegates (241 BC)?

Introduction

The Battle of the Aegates was a naval battle fought on 10 March 241 BC between the fleets of Carthage and Rome during the First Punic War. It took place among the Aegates Islands, off the western coast of the island of Sicily. The Carthaginians were commanded by Hanno, and the Romans were under the overall authority of Gaius Lutatius Catulus, but Quintus Valerius Falto commanded during the battle. It was the final and deciding battle of the 23-year-long First Punic War.

The Roman army had been blockading the Carthaginians in their last strongholds on the west coast of Sicily for several years. Almost bankrupt, the Romans borrowed money to build a naval fleet, which they used to extend the blockade to the sea. The Carthaginians assembled a larger fleet which they intended to use to run supplies into Sicily. It would then embark much of the Carthaginian army stationed there as marines. It was intercepted by the Roman fleet and in a hard-fought battle, the better-trained Romans defeated the undermanned and ill-trained Carthaginian fleet, which was further handicapped by being laden with supplies and having not yet embarked its full complement of marines.

As a direct result, Carthage sued for peace and agreed to the Treaty of Lutatius, by which Carthage surrendered Sicily to Rome and paid substantial reparations. Henceforth Rome was the leading military power in the western Mediterranean, and increasingly the Mediterranean region as a whole.

Background

By 248 BC, the war had lasted 15 years, with many changes of fortune. It had developed into a struggle in which the Romans were attempting to decisively defeat the Carthaginians and, at a minimum, control the whole of Sicily. The Carthaginians were engaging in their traditional policy of waiting for their opponents to wear themselves out, in the expectation of then regaining some or all of their possessions and negotiating a mutually satisfactory peace treaty. Rome had gained control of most of Sicily and the Carthaginians retained only two cities on the island: Lilybaeum and Drepana; these were well-fortified and situated on the west coast, where they could be supplied and reinforced without the Romans being able to use their superior army to interfere.

When Hamilcar Barca took command of the Carthaginians on Sicily in 247 BC he was only given a small army and the Carthaginian fleet was gradually withdrawn. Hostilities between Roman and Carthaginian forces declined to small-scale land operations, which suited the Carthaginian strategy. Hamilcar employed combined arms tactics in a Fabian strategy from his base at Eryx, north of Drepana. This guerrilla warfare kept the Roman legions pinned down and preserved Carthage’s foothold in Sicily.

Early in the blockade of Lilybaeum and Drepana, 50 Carthaginian quinqueremes gathered off the Aegates Islands, which lie 15-40 kilometres (9-25 miles) to the west of Sicily. Once there was a strong west wind they sailed into Lilybaeum before the Romans could react. They unloaded reinforcements – either 4,000 or 10,000 according to different ancient sources – and a large quantity of supplies. They evaded the Romans by leaving at night, evacuating the Carthaginian cavalry. The Romans had sealed off the landward approach to Lilybaeum with earth and timber camps and walls, and now made repeated attempts to block the harbour entrance with a heavy timber boom; due to the prevailing sea conditions they were unsuccessful. The two Carthaginian garrisons were kept supplied by blockade runners. These were light and manoeuvrable quinqueremes with highly trained crews and pilots who knew the shoals and currents of the difficult waters. Chief among the blockade runners was a galley captained by Hannibal the Rhodian, who taunted the Romans with the superiority of his vessel and crew. Eventually the Romans captured Hannibal, and his well-constructed galley.

By 243 BC, after more than 20 years of war, both states were financially and demographically exhausted. Evidence of Carthage’s financial situation includes their request for a 2,000-talent loan from Ptolemaic Egypt, which was refused. Rome was also close to bankruptcy and the number of adult male citizens, who provided the manpower for the navy and the legions, had declined by 17% since the start of the war.

New Roman Fleet

In late 243 BC, realising they would not capture Drepana and Lilybaeum unless they could extend their blockade to the sea, the Roman Senate decided to build a new fleet. With the state’s coffers exhausted, the Senate approached Rome’s wealthiest citizens for loans to finance the construction of one ship each, repayable from the reparations to be imposed on Carthage once the war was won, and to donate slaves as oarsmen. The result was a fleet of approximately 200 quinqueremes, built, equipped, and crewed without government expense. The Romans modelled the ships of their new fleet on the vessel captured from Hannibal the Rhodian. By now, the Romans were experienced at shipbuilding and with a proven vessel as a model produced high-quality quinqueremes. Importantly, the corvus was abandoned, which improved the ships’ speed and handling but forced a change in tactics on the Romans; they would need to be superior sailors, rather than superior soldiers, to beat the Carthaginians.

The new Roman fleet was completed in 242 BC and the consul Gaius Lutatius Catulus, assisted by the praetor Quintus Valerius Falto, led it to Sicily. Arriving with the 200 quinqueremes and 700 transports laden with supplies and legionary reinforcements, Catulus seized the harbour of Drepana and the anchorages off Lilybaeum uncontested, as there were no Carthaginian ships to counter the Roman fleet. Catulus and Falto kept a strong squadron off each city whenever the weather permitted, to avoid any possibility of Carthaginian supplies getting past them, and to drill the crews in manoeuvres and exercises. They also ensured that the crews received good treatment, including an adequate diet, and created a fleet with crews at the peak of their ability. Impressed by the energy of Catulus and Falto, the Senate extended their terms of office beyond the normal one year, and they thus became proconsul and propraetor respectively.

The garrisons of Lilybaeum and Drepana – and Hamilcar’s army at Eryx – held fast, but without supplies from Carthage they could not hold out indefinitely. Carthage began to ready a fleet, fit out transports, gather supplies and train crews and marines to meet the Roman challenge. It took nine months to ready 250 warships and between 150 and 350 transports. Carthage was pressed for time as supplies in their blockaded strongholds were running out. They struggled to find the 100,000 men necessary to fully crew just the warships, and did not have sufficient time to provide the extended training necessary for the crews to work together effectively as teams.

The Battle

The Carthaginian fleet was led by a commander named Hanno; he is distinguished from other Carthaginians named Hanno by being known as the son of Hannibal. This is possibly the general who had lost the Battles of Agrigentum and Ecnomus; although the historian John Lazenby considers it likely that he had been executed for his earlier failures. It is not known why the victors of Drepana, Adherbal and Carthalo, were not in command. The Carthaginian plan was to assemble their fleet of 250 quinqueremes and a large but unknown number of transports in secret off Hiera (Holy Island), the westernmost of the Aegates islands. There they would wait for a following wind, and rely on surprise and numbers to take them the 45 km (28 milies) to Lilybaeum before the Romans became aware and concentrated their fleet.

This would have been a repeat of the successful Carthaginian feat with a smaller fleet several years before. They would then unload their cargoes, mostly grain, and embark much of the Carthaginian army to be used as marines on their quinqueremes. These would then configure themselves for fighting and seek out the Roman fleet. It is unclear, given the many transports available, why the Carthaginian warships were also laden with cargo; and why they were not already carrying marines taken from their forces in Africa. The Carthaginian fleet arrived off Hiera in early March 241 BC.

The Carthaginian fleet was spotted by Roman scouts and Catulus abandoned the blockade and took on board his 200 quinqueremes a full complement of marines from the soldiers of the besieging Roman army. The Roman fleet then sailed and anchored off the island of Aegusa, 16 km (10 miles) from Sicily. Next morning, 10 March, the wind was blowing strongly from the west, and the current was running the same way. Hanno immediately set sail for Lilybaeum. Catulus measured the risk of attacking with the wind in his bow versus the risk of letting Hanno reach Sicily to relieve Lilybaeum, Drepana and Hamilcar’s army. Despite the unfavourable conditions, the proconsul decided to intercept the Carthaginians and ordered his fleet to prepare for battle. He had the Roman ships stripped of their masts, sails and other unnecessary equipment to make them more seaworthy in the rough conditions. Catulus himself was unable to join the battle because of injuries suffered in an earlier engagement, so in the battle the ships were commanded by his second in command, Falto.

The opposing fleets met to the west of the island of Phorbantia (modern Levanzo). Many fragments of lead anchors have been recovered from near the island of Levanzo, causing the archaeologist Sebastiano Tusa to speculate that the Roman fleet paused here and that its ships then deliberately cut their anchors, to reduce the weight they carried – each anchor weighed 270 kg (600 lb). The Romans formed a single line of ships and rowed into the wind, through a heavy swell, towards the Carthaginians. Having little choice, the Carthaginians lowered their sails and engaged.

In the ensuing battle the Romans enjoyed far greater mobility, since their vessels were carrying only the bare necessities, while the Carthaginians were burdened with the equipment necessary for sustained travel and provisions for the Sicilian garrisons. The Carthaginian crews had also been hurriedly levied and so were inexperienced, and their ships were short of marines, as it had been intended that these would be supplemented from Hamilcar’s soldiers. It was the second time that a Roman fleet had fought the Carthaginians without employing the corvus – the first time, at the Battle of Drepana, they were badly beaten – but they quickly gained the upper hand, using their ships’ greater manoeuvrability to ram the Carthaginian vessels. The Roman ships were a match for their opponents, modelled as they were on one of the best of the Carthaginians’, and their crews were superior. The Romans sank 50 Carthaginian ships, 20 of them with all hands, and 70 were captured along with 10,000 men. However, the battle was hard-fought, and the Romans lost 30 ships sunk and another 50 damaged. The rest of the Carthaginian fleet was saved only by an abrupt change in the direction of the wind, allowing them to flee; as the Romans had left their masts, sails and rigging ashore, they were unable to pursue. The Carthaginian remnants returned to Carthage, where their unsuccessful commander was crucified.

Aftermath and Legacy

Catulus was granted a triumph to celebrate his victory, while Falto was granted a separate and slightly junior triumph. To celebrate the victory, Catulus built a temple to Juturna in the Campus Martius, in the area of Rome currently known as the Largo di Torre Argentina.

After achieving this decisive victory over the Carthaginian fleet, Catulus continued the land operations in Sicily against Lilybaeum, Eryx and Drepana; which continued to be defended by Hamilcar Barca and his army. The Carthaginian Senate was reluctant to allocate the resources necessary to have another fleet built and manned. Carthage had taken nine months to fit out the fleet that was defeated, and if they took another nine months to ready another fleet, the Sicilian cities still holding out would run out of supplies and request terms. Strategically, therefore, Carthage would have to build a fleet capable of defeating the Roman fleet, and then raise an army capable of defeating the Roman armies in Sicily. Instead, the Carthaginian Senate ordered Hamilcar to negotiate a peace treaty with the Romans, which he left up to his subordinate commander, Gisco. The Treaty of Lutatius was signed in the same year as the Battle of the Aegates and brought the First Punic War to its end; Carthage evacuated Sicily, handed over all prisoners taken during the war, and paid an indemnity of 3,200 talents over ten years.

Henceforth Rome was the leading military power in the western Mediterranean, and increasingly the Mediterranean region as a whole. The Romans had built over 1,000 galleys during the war; and this experience of building, manning, training, supplying and maintaining such numbers of ships laid the foundation for Rome’s maritime dominance for 600 years.

Marine Archaeology

Since 2010 eleven bronze warship rams have been found by archaeologists in the sea within a 1 square kilometre (0.4 square miles) area off Phorbantia, along with ten bronze helmets and hundreds of amphorae. The rams, seven of the helmets, and six intact amphorae, along with a number of fragments, have since been recovered. Inscriptions allowed four of the rams to be identified as coming from Roman-built ships, one from a Carthaginian vessel, with the origins of the remaining two being unknown. It is possible that some of the Roman-built vessels had been captured by the Carthaginians earlier in the war and were crewed by them when they were sunk. It is believed that the rams were each attached to a sunken warship when they were deposited on the seabed. Six of the helmets were of the Montefortino type typically used by the legions, three with one or both bronze cheek pieces still attached; the seventh, badly corroded, was of a different design and may be Carthaginian.

The archaeologists involved stated that the location of artefacts so far discovered supports Polybius’s account of where the battle took place. Based on the dimensions of the recovered rams, the archaeologists who have studied them believe that they all came from triremes, contrary to Polybius’s account of all of the warships involved being quinqueremes. However, they believe that the many amphora identified confirm that the Carthaginian ships were laden with supplies.

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