What was the Battle of the Saw (238 BC)?

Introduction

The Battle of the Saw was a major event, mostly a protracted siege rather than a battle in the Mercenary War between Carthage and her former mercenary armies from the First Punic War. It takes its name from its location: a box-like canyon known as “The Saw” because of its shape.

Background

In 238 BC, Hamilcar Barca managed to destroy the supply lines of the armies besieging the city of Carthage, forcing them to withdraw. The mercenary armies proceeded to fight a running battle with Hamilcar’s forces, attempting to engage and destroy them with their superior numbers. Hamilcar managed to avoid direct confrontation, outmanoeuvring the mercenaries.

The Battle

Having lured the mercenary armies near “The Saw”, he managed to ambush them and the panicked mercenaries fled into the canyon. He then besieged the canyon, and waited. Polybius speaks of thousands of the mercenaries starving, and reports of cannibalism: first they ate the flesh of their prisoners, then, their slaves. After this, the rank-and-file broke out into mutinous threats against their officers. Knowing they could not win, the mercenary commanders Spendius, Autaritus, Zarzas, and seven others were permitted to meet Hamilcar as ambassadors, and they concluded a surrender agreement.

Aftermath and Legacy

According to their treaty, Hamilcar could choose any 10 men to imprison, and the rest of the mercenaries would be permitted to leave with only their tunics. Hamilcar immediately announced that he chose the ten ambassadors, and had them seized and imprisoned. Meanwhile, the mercenary army witnessed their officers being arrested. Not knowing about the treaty, and believing that they were being trapped, the remaining weakened mercenaries seized their arms and attempted to break the siege. The remaining 40,000 starving rebels were swiftly and easily wiped out to a man. The rebels under Spendius had previously tortured and executed some 700 Carthaginian prisoners, so this action was probably a form of revenge.

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