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Hamilcar Barca

Posted April 3rd, 2011 at 12:32 AM by markdienekes
Updated April 30th, 2011 at 04:47 PM by markdienekes

Hamilcar Barca
275-228 BC


Click the image to open in full size.
Coin minted at Carthagena C.230 BC, showing the bearded head of Melqart, generally regarded as a portrait of Hamilcar Barca



In respect of individual courage the Romans were far superior, but the general who must be acknowledged as the greatest on either side, both in daring and in genius, was Hamilcar, surnamed Barca.
(Polybius, 1.64)

Part 1 Birth, Family and Sicily
275 -244 BC


Hamilcar Barca was born in around 275 BC to a ruling elite family, both rich and socially prominent. The family was said to have descended from a brother of Dido, the exiled princess of Tyre who, according to legend, founded Carthage in 814 BC. His father was called Hannibal, and in traditional custom, would also be the name of Hamilcar's first born son. We do not know if they were related to the other numerous Hamilcars and Hannibals in Punic history.

By the late 250s he had already become a father, and by 238 one of his daughters was already married to a Numidian prince, while a few years later another was married to Hasdrubal, a political ally. It is thought that his wife was expecting a child when he left for Sicily in 247 BC, a child that would be his first born son, Hannibal. To be appointed at a young age in command of Sicily reveals Hamilcar had strong political connections. Aristotle says that in order to attain Punic office, one was chosen because of birth and wealth.

After the Roman naval disaster of the Battle of Drepana in 249 BC, which brought about the lowest ebb for the Romans during the First Punic War (264-241 BC), they once again focused on their land forces. From 255 to 249 BC, Roman losses at sea were 550 ships and around 200,000 men. Despite Carthaginian success at sea, this victory had been nullified by their impotence on land. They could not break the sieges of Lilybaeum and Drepana nor Roman mastery of the countryside.

When Hamilcar Barca was appointed command in Sicily in 247 BC, he was in an unenviable position. He had limited funds due to Carthage's expensive maintenance of the navy, her efforts of subduing the Numidians and extending their Libyan conquests. He had limited forces and only two surviving strong points in which to face a well supplied Roman force which consisted of two consular armies amounting to some 40,000 Romans and allied troops. The force in which Hamilcar had to work with is thought to have been around 10,000 infantry, and a few hundred cavalry, while the garrisons of Lilybaeum and Drepana also reached about 10,000 men. With such little to work with, he could not directly raise the siege of Drepana, nor mount an attempt to capture Panormus. Large scale battles and campaigns were simply not doable, and he would have to make do with simply fighting to keep the war effort going, and not lose the war. At best, he could wear them down to make peace.

In Sicily, he found widespread disaffection amongst the mercenaries in Carthage's employ who, under the passive command of Carthalo, had been trapped in the defence of the towns of Lilybaeum and Drepana. In order to gain control, he quickly set about punishing the malcontents using very harsh measures, cutting many down in one night and throwing others into the sea. Through this and his leadership, injecting a sense of purpose into the men, he won the loyalty of the mercenaries throughout the remainder of the war.

According to Zonaras, he then tried to recapture an islet just outside the harbour of Drepana, but was drawn off by a Roman attack on the town, which reveals Hamilcar's problems with manpower and may explain his coming strategy.

With Roman naval power extinguished, he began to ravage the southern Italian coast, devastating the territory of Locri and the Brutti. Hiero of Syracuse, Rome's recent ally, made no move to stop them with his own fleet. After his ravaging, which the Romans countered by founding three new colonies and garrisoning them with local troops, Hamilcar crossed to Siciliy and found the sieges of Lilybaeum and Drepana had continued, while the Roman consul Buteo had captured the island of Pelias at the mouth of the Drepana harbour and held it firmly. Hamilcar landed on the north coast and took possession of a stronghold near Heircte which Polybius describes as the best situation to establish a well-protected and permanent camp. (Polybius, 1.56) The heights of Heircte were most probably the broad mountains five miles west of the city of Panormous, with the fort laying in a pass to the south.

After establishing his base here, Polybius says he left and ravaged the coast of Italy as far north as Cumae at the Bay of Naples before returning to harass the Romans encamped in front of Panormus with a variety of attacks and offensive patrols that lasted three years, involving ambushes, sorties and counter-attacks, but Polybius does not go into any detail here, but does describe the encounter as a boxing match: Hamilcar's campaign in Sicily against the Romans might be compared to a boxing match in which two champions, both in perfect training and both distinguished for their courage, meet to fight for a prize. (Polybius. 1.57) Diodorus adds he attacked Italium, a fort of Catana's near Longon, thought to be the town of Longane held by the Marmertines. Hoyos believes he may have, from time to time, sailed over to the besieged towns on the coast to keep up the defence and occasionally to Carthage as he had another son in the 240s and it is not plausible that his wife was with him in his mountain camps. (Hoyos, p.14)

His sound strategic aims of occupying Heircte were to obstruct Roman forces and supplies moving to the sieges of Lilybaeum and Drepana. His position by Panormus had already prevented the Romans from using the coast road while the inland route was mountainous and zigzagging and perfect for ambushes. The alternative route would have been a long detour via Agrigentum and the south coast. Hamilcar hit at ships too, preventing the Romans supplying them from the sea.

It is thought that this guerilla warfare strategy earned him his nickname of Barca, the Punic word for lightning, and one can imagine his swift sorties from sea and land garnering him this name. Sadly, despite all his efforts, the war was still a stalemate. He could not lift the sieges, and the Romans could not take the towns either. In 244 BC however, Hamilcar made an audacious move to capture Mt Eyrx, and the Romans awoke one morning to find Hamilcar's camp at Heircte deserted, his ships gone. He had struck like a lightning bolt near Drepana.



Part Two: Mt Eyrx and Rome victorious
244 241 BC


Mt Eyrx was said by Polybius to be the second highest mountain in Sicily. Upon the crest stood a famous temple of the goddess known to Phoenicians as Astarte, while a little town below was also named Eyrx. The Romans had captured it in 249 BC, and marked their only success of that year. Hamilcar sailed at night to a small bay north of the mountain, then led his men towards the town, slaughtered the garrison and seized Eyrx. The captured townsfolk he sent to Drepana. The summit however, had a garrison of Roman troops. If Hamilcar made plans to capture the summit, he failed, as it remained in possession of Rome.

Hamilcar's capture of Eyrx is puzzling, as the advantages he had in Heircte were now lost, but perhaps he deemed Heircte too remote and Drepana too hard pressed. If he could not get replacements for his losses it would lead to a loss of impact of his actions. We hear no more of naval raids and by 242 BC, there were no Carthaginian ships in Sicilian waters. Whatever his reasons for abandoning Heircte, at Mt Eyrx he was now wedged half-way up a mountain, between two enemy garrisons with only one route to the anchorage. It is clear that the Romans on the summit could be supplied and reinforced, while on the plain below a consular army was encamped. Hamilcar's fleet was also recalled from Sicily and no effort was made to replace them which proved costly indeed. However precarious his new position was, Hamilcar would now operate here for the next two years while the wheel of fortune turned in Rome's favour.

From Mt. Eyrx he still managed to give the besiegers plenty of trouble. We hear of a likely attack on a Roman siege-camp from an excerpt of Diodorus in 243-2. He mentions an action by a Punic officer named Vodostor followed up a victory by allowing his men to plunder against the orders of Hamilcar, which led to the Carthaginans suffering heavy losses. Hamilcar managed to save the total loss of his infantry only by the discipline of his 200 horse. Hamilcar sought a truce with the Roman consul C. Fundanius to bury his dead, conceding defeat, a request the consul refused. Fundanius however, was forced to make a similar request shortly afterwards following heavy losses in which Hamilcar accepted by stating 'he was at war with the living, but had come to terms with the dead.' (Hoyos, p.15-16)

There is mention of a certain number of Celts deserting Carthage and plotting the betrayal of the town of Eyrax to the Romans, but the plot was foiled and the Celtic deserters were sent to reinforce the Roman garrison on the summit. This further reduced Hamilcar's shrinking force by about a thousand men.

No Roman consul could match Hamilcar Barca's tactical skills however and it had become apparent that the war could not be won by a military land campaign alone. The Senate then, decided upon building a new fleet whose goal would be to aid in starving out the tenacious Carthaginian towns into submission. This would be difficult with little funds however. Instead of a new levy of taxes on the population, they would loan money from the wealthiest families, to be paid back with the war indemnity. With this money, they raised a new fleet of 200 light and manoeuvrable quinqueremes. In 242, the consul C. Lutatitius Catulus arrived with the fleet on the western coast of Sicily and apparently, this was the first the Carthaginians had heard of the renewed Roman naval effort. If that is so, it really does suggest a shutdown on overseas contact. With the fleet, Catalus gained control of the ports of Lilybaeum and Drepana, before pressing the siege at Drepana hard. The Roman fleet had cut off all supplies to Sicily, and the only way to regain it would be to take control of the water.

For the last four years, Hamilcar had been denied supplies from Carthage, and only now, with this new naval threat did Hanno hastily assemble ships and supplies to attempt to achieve maritime supremacy. The position of Hamilcar and the besieged towns was truly desperate. This hastily assembled force was an enormous undertaking, and they built many new ships and recruited about 75,000 rowers that needed training, which proved costly as Catalus had not wasted his time and had been training his rowers extensively. This new Carthaginian fleet sailed towards Sicily eight months later.

Hanno's intentions were to drop off supplies at Eyrx and pick up Hamilcar with some of his best troops and sail back to engage the Roman fleet at Drepana. However, all did not go to plan. After putting in at Hiera, a small island of the Aegates group waiting for a favourable wind so he could dodge a Roman blockade to reach Eyrx, the consul Catalus got wind of Hanno's movements and sailed to an island that lay opposite Lilybaeum.On the morning of 10 March 241 BC, Hamilcar Barca watched from his mountain stronghold as the Romans decisively beat the Carthaginian fleet. The Romans sank or captured 120 ships, and took 10,000 prisoners and lost only about a dozen vessels. Hanno escaped with 50 ships back to Carthage and met a grisly fate, being crucified for his failure.

This defeat made the war impossible to win, despite many writers maintaining Hamilcar's romanticised determination to maintain the struggle. He could see from his position the hopelessness of Carthage's war in Sicily. He is said to have fought off a Roman attack on his fort, but shortly after the defeat of Hanno's fleet, the Carthaginian's sought peace, with Hamilcar appointed to negotiate with full powers, which he no doubt approached with mixed feelings. He had commanded for a longer period than any other officer in Sicily and had caused the Romans such grief that he earned their respect all this achieved with a small budget and soldiers that had not been paid for years.

The Roman terms were Punic withdrawal from Sicily, the return of all Roman prisoners without ransom while Carthage would have to pay ransom for theirs, a guarantee not to make war on Hiero of Syracuse and an indemnity of 2,200 Euboric talents to be paid over the course of twenty years. Nothing was mentioned of the Punic fleet or Sardinia, which may well have come as a surprise to Hamilcar.

This treaty however, was not ratified by the Senate who sent a commission of ten senators to examine the whole question. However, on arrival they made no major changes and only introduced a few minor alterations that would impose a few harsher conditions on Carthage. They reduced the time to repay the indemnity to ten years instead of twenty and added a further 1,000 talents to the total, along with the removal of Carthaginian power from the islands between Sicily and Italy.

With the treaty ratified and accepted, Hamilcar led his veteran troops from Mt. Eyrx, picked up the garrison from Drepana and marched to Lilybauem, where he left about 20,000 troops in the care of the Lilybaeum commandant Gisco to organise transport to Africa, while he set sail ahead of them to face official scrutiny at home for having not won the war and achieving no particular major success. His political situation at home was weaker than it had been when he set sail to Sicily in 247 BC, but, according to Hoyos, he had picked up valuable lessons on leadership, politics and resources that would be useful to an ex-general in his prime (Hoyos, p.20) These lessons would have been put to the test in the coming struggles with the Mercenary Revolt that was to follow Carthage's loss of the First Punic War.

(couldn't fit it all in here, continued in part 2 http://www.historum.com/blogs/markdi...r-barca-2.html
and 3
http://www.historum.com/blogs/markdi...r-barca-3.html)
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