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Battle of Aegates

(10 March 241 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman ship
Roman ship

The First Punic War was a clash between two Mediterranean powers – Carthage with a perfect navy and Rome being a master in the struggle on land. It was also an important moment in the history of the Roman military. This is the first time the Romans got to build and equip their own navy. After spectacular victories under Mylae and Ecnomos the senators realized the virtues of their armed forces and attacked the enemy on their own land. However, the calamities suffered by Rome at sea and the sea catastrophes bled the Sons of Wolf, causing a stalemate in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The Carthaginians also felt exhausted by the ongoing conflict. The real decision was made only in 241 BCE.

The defeat of the Roman fleet at Drepana in 249 BCE and maritime disasters in 255 and 254 BCE led to a depletion of the republic’s human resources. According to the census prepared by the Roman authorities, compared to the initial period of hostilities, the number of citizens entitled to serve in the legions in the years 247-246 was lower by 50,000. These data, however, do not take into account Rome’s allies, who are servants of the Roman fleet. Along with the personal losses, the Senate also struggled with the lack of funds depleted by the troublesome conflict at sea and land. Due to the defeats of the Roman fleet, the Kvirites stopped operating at sea for several years. This decision was also motivated by the belief that a land war was a more effective method of fighting.

However, military operations on land did not bring the Romans the desired successes due to the courageous attitude of the Carthaginian commander in Sicily, Hamilcar Barca. Thus, among the elite of Rome, there was a conviction that a better solution would be to inflict losses on the enemy in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Due to the lack of public funds, the initiative came from wealthy citizens who offered to allocate funds for the construction of warships. Generous donors decided to put up one five-row boat in small groups. In this way, it was possible to build 200 such ships, constructed on the basis of the model of Hannibal the Rhodian ship, captured by the Romans. The fleet was headed by consul Gaius Lutacius Catullus and praetor Quintus Valerius Falto. The new commander began with an attempt to capture Drepana and the Lilybaeum blockade from the sea to cut off the Carthaginian forces in Sicily from supplies. In this way, he wanted to provoke the enemy into a sea battle. The crews of Roman ships underwent thorough training, and the consul made sure they were in the good physical condition and their diet. In comparison with the earlier period of the fighting, the Roman fleet in 241 BCE already consisted of experienced and capable crews, and the ships were designed in a much more professional manner. The situation for the Punic fleet was completely different. In recent years, Carthage did not take advantage of the victory at Drepana and the weakening of the Romans after sea disasters. For the first time in history, the Punic crews were less well trained than the handling of Roman ships, and many of them may not have been fully manned.

Battle

Sea battle in antiquity

The opportunity to destroy the Carthaginian fleet came in 241 BCE, when the Punic squadron, loaded with grain supplies, moved towards the shores of Sicily to supply the army on the island, cut off by the Catullus fleet. The Carthaginian fleet was to take some mercenaries from the land army who would be useful for fighting on ships. The Punics circumnavigated the Aegadian Islands west of Sicily and waited for a favourable wind to set off unnoticed to meet their forces in Sicily. However, the Roman commander saw through their plans, strengthened his crews with selected soldiers from the army, and set sail to meet his opponent.

The next day, March 10, 241, was to become famous in ancient history. The wind was blowing from the west towards the Romans, which was beneficial to the Carthaginian fleet. Moreover, the rough sea made it difficult for the consul’s fleet to manoeuvre. So Catullus faced a dilemma – either he would sail towards the enemy and join the fight, or he would wait for more favourable weather conditions and lead the enemy fleet to join the ground forces from Sicily. The choice of the second option, however, involved strengthening Punic squadrons with the excellent troops of Hamilcar Barcaras and unloading supplies from their ships, which would therefore become lighter and more agile. So Catullus decided that it would be better to fight the enemy fleet before it merged with the ground army. However, the harsh sailing conditions could be compensated by the experience and skill of Roman rowers. The consul lined up the units in one battle line and engaged the enemy. From the very beginning, the battle left no doubt as to its outcome. The poorly trained Carthaginian crews could not match the perfect Roman sailors, supported by the legionaries who made up the ancient “marines”. Also, the Carthaginian soldiers, who made up the crew of the ships, were newly recruited recruits. To make matters worse, the Punic ships, burdened with grain supplies, lost their characteristic speed of manoeuvre. Right from the start, the Carthaginians suffered heavy losses at many points in the battle. Undoubtedly, their admiral should use the favourable wind from the very beginning and attack the enemy with all his strength, which could bring him victory. However, this was not possible due to a load of deliveries on his squadron.

According to Polybius, the defeat of the Carthage fleet also resulted from the attitude of the Punics, who underestimated the enemy’s capabilities at sea and were convinced of the reliability of their naval forces. According to the historian, Carthage’s losses amounted to 50 sunken ships and 70 captured by the Romans. According to another source by Diodorus Siculus, the number of sunken Punic ships was 117, Roman ships – 30 and 50 damaged consular ships. Both historians give a relatively small number of Punic prisoners, which may have resulted from the drowning of many Carthaginians in the stormy sea and the low manpower of their ships’ crews.

The importance of the battle

Aegadian Islands

Carthage’s defeat finally sealed the fate of her army in Sicily, which was eventually cut off from sea supplies and forced to give up fighting. Hamilcar Barkas, commanding troops on the island, seeing no prospects of further war, asked the consul Catullus to stop the hostilities. The battle also marked the end of more than 20 years of fighting. The Roman side agreed to the Punic chief’s proposal and proposed the terms of the peace treaty, which were then tightened by the senate. The Carthaginians were to evacuate the army from Sicily, pay a huge contribution in silver over the years, hand over Roman prisoners without ransom and deserters, liquidate their fleet and give up the islands between Sicily and Africa. However, these harsh conditions, dictated by Rome, sparked a new war known as the Second Punic War.

Author: Marcin Bąk (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
Sources
  • Goldsworthy Adrian, The Fall of Carthage. The Punic Wars 265-146 BC, London 2006
  • Nowaczyk Bernard, Kartagina 149-146 p.n.e., Warszawa 2008
  • Polybius, The Histories, 1.59-1.62

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