Between the Punic Wars

In 241 BC the first epic struggle between Rome and Carthage came to an end. Carthage had evacuated Sicily, after some 500 years on parts of it, and was now forced to pay Rome a considerable war indemnity. Before long, its government would be plunged into a bloody and shameful debacle when Carthage’s war-weary and penniless mercenary troops mutinied, believing, like many a frontline fighting man returning home to Germany after the 1918 Armistice, that they had received a ‘stab in the back’. Having been handed over to a general named Gesco and evacuated back to Africa in small staggered batches, Hamilcar Barca’s veterans were left to rot on the streets of Carthage. Wisely, Gesco had reasoned that the authorities back home could pay the mercenaries their arrears as they landed and then pack them off to their own places of origin before the next batch arrived. Unwisely, the authorities chose to ignore these very sensible arrangements and refused to pay anyone until the whole army had collected in Carthage in the mistaken conviction that the mercenaries would let them off part of their arrears of pay. Anyway, after numerous disturbances in the city the 20,000 ill-disciplined but well-equipped mercenaries were shifted to Sicca (El Kef), the authorities even allowing them to take their baggage and their families.

At Sicca, with nothing to do and with discipline sliding from bad to worse, the mercenaries, money-hungry and violent by nature, began to murmur and tot up what was due to them. When told by Hanno the Great, the man responsible for military affairs in Africa, that Carthage could not pay, those who talked of taking matters into their own hands gained the upper hand. Polybios makes the shrewd observation that the Carthaginian practice of hiring troops of various ethnic origins (in this case the military mosaic was made up of Iberians, Celtiberians, Gauls, Ligurians, Balearic islanders, Campanians, a good many Greeks and, of course, a great number of Libyans) though it made it difficult for them to combine, also had its disadvantages. Since no Carthaginian could know all their languages and it was too laborious to address each group through a different interpreter, the only way to explain matters was through their own officers, and these frequently told them, either through misunderstanding or malice, something quite different. It also did not help that this great mixed army with its Babel of alien tongues had not served under Hanno, but under his political rival Hamilcar. Eventually, all 20,000 of them marched on Carthage, pitching camp at Tunis. Their purpose, however, was not revolution but retribution.

‘Such then was the origin and beginning of the war against the mercenaries’, says Polybios, ‘generally known as the Libyan War’, clearly because, as he goes on to explain, ‘nearly all the Libyans had agreed to join in the revolt against Carthage and willingly contributed troops and supplies’. The Greek soldier-historian strongly emphasized the implications of a conflict between an organized state on the one hand and an anarchic barbarian mass of mixed race, owing respect to neither gods nor men, on the other. Polybios cites this as the perfect example of a ‘truceless war’ and stresses that the savagery and monstrous cruelty on both sides clearly appalled even contemporaries. Ironically Carthage, which had always relied upon hired soldiery to one degree or another and was now reaping the consequences of such a dangerous policy, still had to enrol mercenaries so as to quash the mutiny. Though it won in the end (237 BC), due mainly to the military skills and inflexible determination of Hamilcar, it was not before it had been brought to the brink of destruction, and Polybios unequivocally asserts that its citizens, who were compelled to take up arms in order to snuff out the mutiny, came near to losing their liberty and land.

The intimate details of the obscure campaigns of the mutiny do not concern us here, suffice to say the mutiny was the result of Carthaginian arrogance, insensitivity, careless mismanagement and gross stupidity, and Hamilcar preferred a war of mobility and small-scale action rather than full-blown battles. However, the wider repercussions do, and chiefly the effects on Carthaginian relations with Rome. It was during these internal troubles for Carthage that Rome intervened in the valuable Carthaginian dependency of Sardinia, despatching its armies to the island, and later also to Corsica.

Sardinia had not been included in the recent peace treaty as due to be ceded to Rome, but the pretext was that if the island had continued to be in Carthaginian possession, it would have been a perpetual menace to the western seaboard of Italy. The means was handed to Rome on a plate, for in 238 BC, the mercenaries stationed in Sardinia, no less disaffected towards Carthage than their brethren in Africa, invited the Romans to take over the island. At first Rome refused, and we would not be too cynical in thinking that the Senate hesitated because poaching was a game that two could play. However, the situation in Sardinia turned from bad to worse. Having killed their officers, the mutineers there had been joined by another force shipped over to deal with them, and had proceeded to systematically cleanse the island of all Carthaginians. The mutineers, now in forcible possession of Sardinia, fell out with the locals only to be driven out by them to Italy. A second appeal was delivered, and Rome began to prepare an expeditionary force to sail to the island.

It was now that Rome acted as a swaggering bully set to run a blade through the vitals of any who opposed him. Indeed, Polybios pulls no punches when he says that the seizure of Sardinia was ‘contrary to all justice’. Earlier he had related to his Greek readership how Rome lifted Sardinia from Carthage and acquired what would effectively become its second overseas possession:

The mercenaries waged war on the Carthaginians for three years and four months, a war that far exceeded any I have heard of in savagery and lawlessness. At this moment the Romans received an appeal from the mutinous mercenaries on Sardinia, and decided to sail against the island. When the Carthaginians objected that dominion over the Sardinians belonged to them rather than to the Romans and that they were making preparations to hunt down those who had been responsible for the rebellion of the island, the Romans took this as an excuse and voted for war against the Carthaginians, claiming that their preparations were against themselves and not the Sardinians. The Carthaginians, who had just survived the war [against the mercenaries] I have described against all expectation, were in no state at the time to take up hostilities again against the Romans, and, yielding to events, not only abandoned Sardinia, but agreed to pay an additional 1,200 talents to the Romans to avoid undertaking a war at this time. And this is how all these things happened.

The Roman occupation of Sardinia would cast a long shadow. While Roman arms were confined to Italy, the conquered became incorporated in some capacity into the Roman led confederation and acquired a share in the confederacy, subject to Rome but retaining a certain degree of autonomy, paying no tribute, but supplying men for the army. With Sardinia this all changed. The prolonged resistance of the warlike islanders required an almost continuous military presence, and this meant also the presence of a Roman magistrate with imperium: one or both consuls in 238 BC and from 235 BC to 231 BC. As a result, in 227 BC the number of praetors was raised from two to four, one, in future, being assigned to Sicily, the western part of the island being the spoils of the First Punic War, and one to Sardinia. Power may preserve that possession, which justice cannot ratify, and from now on, the provincia of these two praetors became not merely a ‘sphere of duty’, but a ‘province’ in the modern sense. Rome had its first extensions outside of Italy; its imperialism had truly begun.


The ringleaders of the mercenary army were Spendios, a Campanian, a runaway slave and a deserter from the Romans whom he had perhaps served, because of his ‘great physical strength and remarkable courage in war’, by pulling an oar in their navy; a Libyan named Mathos; and a Gaulish gentleman, Autaritos the war chief of the 2,000 Gauls, a man who owed his influence to his excellent command of the Punic tongue, which many in the ranks of this polyglot, but long-serving army, seemed to understand. At this point Carthage came temporarily to its senses and arranged for one of the generals who had served in Sicily to act as a mediator. It seems Hamilcar Barca was not acceptable to the mercenaries as they felt he had handed over his command too precipitously and thus, in a way, was responsible for their present fate. Gesco, on the other hand, having handled their departure from Sicily with due care and consideration, was acceptable. Gesco sailed to Africa and, after explaining the straitened circumstances of their employer, he then appealed to their loyalty and started to hand out the money he had brought with him. The majority of the mercenaries would probably have called it a day there and then.

But it was Mathos who bred sedition amongst his fellow Libyans, and once the sedition broke out, it was the Libyans who persisted in carrying the affair to a decision of arms, for the obvious reason that, should a compromise be effected, the other mercenaries might depart in safety to their homes, but their own homes and persons would be at the mercy of the wrath of the Carthaginians. When they succeeded in preventing a reconciliation by way of a reign of terror, they had no difficulty in effecting a revolt of all the Libyan subject communities, who managed to put as many as 70,000 men into the field, though we have no real idea of their fighting value. As well as their menfolk, these Libyan communities, in the cause of their freedom, willingly donated their money, which more than made up the sum owed to the mercenaries by Carthage. In the meantime, poor honest Gesco and his cortege had been seized and clapped in irons. All hope of a compromise was at an end.

Now firmly in control, Mathos and Spendios divided the renegade army between them: while maintaining their entrenched camp at Tunis, Mathos mounted assaults on Utica and Hippo Acra, and Spendios blockaded Carthage. As for the tragedy of the bloody events that came after, these may be best summarized by way of a quick précis. Hanno’s defeat at Utica; Hamilcar’s recall and his victory over Spendios on the banks of the Macar (using his observation of a quirk of tide and wind to choose the time and place of fording an otherwise impassable obstacle); the false message sent to persuade the wavering mercenaries to fight on; their brutal butchering of Gesco and the other prisoners; tit-for-tat policy of no mercy; siege of Carthage; Hamilcar’s ruse of luring the mercenaries into the defile of the Saw; their reduction to cannibalism and then starvation; dispatch of ten emissaries, among them Spendios and Autaritos, later to be crucified before Tunis, where Mathos and the remainder of the mercenaries were still holding out; the retaliatory crucifixion of the general Hannibal with thirty companions; and the final triumphal procession through the streets of Carthage, with Mathos suffering all kinds of horrendous torture at the hands of the jubilant people.