The First Punic War is irrevocably associated with sea battles. However, the conflict began in Sicily and this region together with Africa became a theater of land army operations. It should be noted that the island’s mountainous terrain made it difficult for larger groups of troops to maneuver, and the majority of Sicily’s population lived inside the walls of the metropolis or not far from them. Hence, during the whole conflict only two great battles were fought here and they were fought mainly for the control over larger urban centers. One of such battles took place at the city of Panormus on the northern coast of Sicily in 250 BCE.
Military operations carried out on Sicily in the years 259-258 BCE were conducted by both sides with changing fortunes. Although Rome maintained its advantage on the island, the Punics occupied its four most important cities. Soon the Carthaginians had to go on the defensive, as part of their troops was withdrawn from Sicily to fight the Numidians in Africa. That is why in the years 254-253 BCE they lost several important Sicilian cities. In 254 BCE the Roman fleet and land army jointly launched a successful attack against Panormus, one of the largest centers in Sicily. Despite this, the pace of Roman conquests dropped markedly. According to Polybius, on many occasions both armies camped less than a mile apart for months and Roman commanders did not want to risk a battle with the enemy. So they kept their troops on the hills, afraid of war elephants. These sentiments resulted from the recent defeat inflicted on the Republic, when elephants contributed to the destruction of Regulus’ army. After the Carthaginians dealt with the Numidians in 252 B.C, they sent new forces under the command of Hasdrubal to Sicily.
Battle of Panormus (250 BCE)
Hasdrubal, commanding an army of 30,000 soldiers and 140 elephants, took advantage of the separation of Roman forces on the island. When one of the consular armies was withdrawn to Italy, the Carthaginian marched from Lilybeum to Panormus, where the second army was stationed to protect Roman allies during the harvest. Its commander, L. Cecyliusz Metellus kept his people behind the walls of this city, waiting for his opponent’s mistake. He hoped that he would be able to drag Hasdrubal into unfavorable terrain by pretending to be reluctant to fight. In line with his expectations, the Punic commander swallowed the bait. Convinced of the weakening of the Romans’ fighting spirit, resulting from their passive attitude to the last campaigns, he advanced up to the city walls of Panormus. He hoped that he would convince Republic’s allies of the weakness of legions through taking offensive action. Fortunately for the Romans, the city was separated from the besiegers with a river, which made action easier for the defenders. To begin the siege, Hasdrubal’s army had to move to the other side of the river, where it had limited ability to maneuver and a possible retreat was more difficult. Metellus took advantage of the circumstances, eagerly preparing to repel the attack. The inhabitants of Panormus were ordered to stockpile missiles at the walls inside the city and part of the light infantry (velites) was placed on the walls to shoot the enemy from above. The main part of the velites was placed in front of the city walls to establish fire contact with the advance Hasdrubal units when they cross the river. In this way, the velites were to lure the entire army of Hasdrubal to the walls of Panormus. In the event of a strong attack by the enemy, they were to hide in a ditch in front of the walls specially dug for them, from where they would continue to throw missiles at the Punics. The Roman commander ordered them to concentrate fire on enemy elephants under favorable circumstances. The city gate was opposite the left wing of the incoming Punic army. It is here – at the exit from the city – where Metellus deployed a heavy infantry of legions that was to launch a sally against the enemy at the right time. It is probable that some legionaries were to enter the battle at an earlier stage – as support for the velites fighting in front of the city, creating a battle line together with them and contributing to prolonging the fight.
The battle developed in a way expected by the Romans – over time most of Hasdrubal’s troops crossed the river and formed a battle line. In the end, encouraged by the success in the fight against light-armed Romans, the Punics sent elephants to attack the weak line of the enemy, easily defeating and forcing it to retreat. The velites took refuge in the ditch, from where they bombarded with missiles the attacking animals, onto which an additional hail of missiles was falling from the walls. Unable to withstand such heavy fire, elephants with their crews panicked and began trampling their troops, causing great confusion in their battle line. At that moment, the Roman maniples which had left the city through the gate, attacked its left flank, dramatically worsening the situation of Hasdrubal’s already confused troops. The Punics rushed to flee, which was made more difficult by the river behind them. Their losses had to be significant, although later sources, according to which the number of killed Carthaginian soldiers amounts to 20,000 / 30,000 people, should not be believed. It is also difficult to determine the losses suffered by elephants, these “tanks of the ancient world”, although they had to be particularly large. Some of them survived the battle, 10 were captured by the Romans at once. Diodorus gives the number of the thick-skinned animals killed or captured as 60, according to Zonaras this number amounts to 120 captured elephants, Pliny the Elder estimates this number at 140-142. One source even mentions captured elephant drivers, whose life was spared by Metellus in exchange for continuing to control the elephants, which were later sent to Italy and died in celebratory games.
The importance of the battle
The battle of Panormus was the last major battle on land during the First Punic War. The victory at the city of Panormus lifted the morale of the Roman armies operating on the island and spurred the Quirites to take military action planned for the next fighting season in 250 BCE. After Panormus, especially two port cities – Lilybeum and Drepana were the object of Romans’ actions. Despite the disasters at sea in 249 B.C and failures in the blockade of Lilybeum, they brought the war to a victorious close. It was Roman determination as well as military exhaustion of Carthage (forced to suppress the Libyan rebellion) that decided the outcome of the war.
The clash at Panormus was testimony to the perfect battle plan made by the Romans. Metellus skillfully chose the place of the battlefield, which gave him a definite advantage over Hasdrubal and used it at the decisive moment of the clash. His opponent’s plan was good at the initial stage, because it was calculated to weaken the faith of Rome’s allies in the power of their “patron” and enabled the Punics to get supplies taken from the enemy. However, one must assess his way of command in battle differently. He recklessly let himself be led to the city walls and exposed his excellent weapon – elephants to fire from many sides. He did not see the danger of an attack from the city walls on his flank. In view of these circumstances, it was easy to foresee the result of the battle. However, even the capture of Panormus by Hasdrubal would no longer affect the outcome of the war.