ElAnt v5n1 - Review - A modern view of Carthageís ëTruceless Warí (241ñ237 b.c.)

Volume 5, Number 1
February 1999


A modern view of Carthage’s ‘Truceless War’ (241–237 b.c.)

Hoyos, Dexter
Department of Classics
University of Sydney
NSW 2006

Loreto, L.: La Grande Insurrezione Libica contro Cartagine del 241–237 a.C.: una Storia Politica e Militare (Collection de l’École Française de Rome, 211: Rome 1995): x + 238 pp.

The so-called ‘Truceless’ or Mercenaries’ War of 241–237 B.C. was both an intensely dramatic conflict and one of the most fully recorded episodes in Carthage’s history, though many details remain unclear. The saviour of Carthage from its domestic foes, Hamilcar Barca, exploited his victory to make himself and his family the virtual rulers of the city and its growing empire. The war thus repays study; yet detailed studies are few. Loreto’s monograph is thus unusual and welcome.

L. is also thorough, with detailed discussion of the extant sources (5-41) and the causes and preliminaries (43-113, the ‘archeologia’ as L. terms it) followed by treatment of the fighting (115-99). He concludes with an account of what he calls Hamilcar’s ‘colpo di stato’ just after the war (201-10), plus a discussion of the war’s difficult chronology (211-13; difficult because even Polybius, our chief source, provides minimal guidance).

Sources L. follows the rules of orthodox Quellenanalyse. If Polybius at times suggests criticism of Hamilcar (as at 1.68.12) or praise of his colleague and rival Hanno (e.g. 1.73.1, 74.1), but in other passages shows admiration for Barca or passes lightly over items that might not add to his lustre (e.g. 1.77.6, 87.9-10), L. sees respectively an anti-Barcid, ‘philo-Hannonian’ source and a pro-Barcid one (80, 128-29, 153, 188).

When Polybius and Diodorus refer to the same event in slightly different wording — as at Pol. 1.81.3-4 and Diod. 25.3.1; Polybius for instance writes edogmatopoiesan, Diodorus enomothetesan) — this is a ‘divergenza che conferma la non derivazione del secondo dal primo’ (104 n. 91; similarly 167 n. 30). Even when they coincide virtually word for word (25.5.3, 1.88.2-3) this ‘obbliga a ritenere che questi [sc. Polibio] qui citi dalla sua fonte’ (189 n. 27). Diodorus cannot simply be quoting direct from Polybius because L. holds that he did not draw directly from Polybius but from an earlier author, whom Polybius also used but adapted with items from a different account (16-21).

These reasonings conform both to the dogma that Diodorus regularly follows a single source for extended sections of text (L., 16; citing for instance J. Hornblower’s Hieronymus of Cardia and V. La Bua’s Filino-Polibio Sileno-Diodoro) and to the broader quellenkritisch dogma that extant writers reproduce earlier sources more or less mechanically. The second is obviously frail. As to the first, notice L. (31) inferring that not only Diod. 24.10.1, on Hanno’s exploits in the 240s, but also Diod. 25.8 (largely a criticism of Hamilcar’s politics) come from an anti-Barcid and pro-Hanno source; and (20-21) that 25.2.1 draws on an anti-Hanno, pro-Barcid one. L. does not deal with 24.5–9, 24.10.3 and 24.13 which are, by quellenkritisch norms, favourable to Hamilcar. It should follow that Diodorus switched often from his ‘Hannonian’ to his ‘Barcid’ source and back again, disobedient to the Quellendogma.

Similar criteria used (24-26) with Appian’s brief notices of the war conjure a Roman source for Iberica 4.15 and 5.19–22 (Punic actions criticised) but a Punic source for Iber. 5.18 and 21 (sections with details uninteresting to a Roman or favourable to Carthage); similarly at Libyca 5.18 (the Libyans being termed ‘subjects’ of Carthage) as against Iber. 4.15 (‘allies’). The only Roman author to deal with the insurrection was probably Fabius Pictor its contemporary — because the silence of Velleius, Eutropius and other résumés ‘diviene rivelatore del disinteresse sostanziale della storiografia romana alla vicenda’ — so Fabius was Appian’s Roman source and drew his own account from the Punic author whom Appian also used (28-29).

These complex and fragile reasonings, and others on the lesser sources like Zonaras’ epitome of Dio and Nepos’ Life of Hamilcar (27-29), lead L. to infer three main initial accounts of the war: the pro-Hanno source and two pro-Barcid ones whom he tentatively identifies as Hannibal’s historian-followers Sosylus and Silenus — only one of them used, he thinks, by Polybius (29-30); though why Polybius should have so rationed himself is not asked.

The outcome of all this intense theorising is limited. One gets the impression that it is pursued rather for its own sake. Of course, with Polybius supplying most of the details of the war, the opportunities for comparing discrepancies and evaluating supposed ultimate sources are limited anyway. But L.’s efforts are not very compelling.

Fabius Pictor earns mention only in the chapter on sources, not in any discussion of military or political issues later in the book. Nepos, Hamilcar 2.4, in writing that during the campaign culminating at The Saw more rebels died by famine than by the sword, supposedly reveals a longer ‘guerra di posizione’ than Polybius admits (175) because Nepos used good Punic sources (30). In Diod. 25.8, which first praises Hamilcar as saviour of Carthage but then condemns his post-insurrection conduct, ‘questa struttura doppia fosse nel suo autore’, who must have been pro-Hanno (208 n. 37): an insecure ratiocination to buttress the argument (207-8) that after the insurrection Hamilcar finally ejected his old colleague Hanno from office — hence the ‘pro-Hanno’ author’s changes in tone. Scarcely a compelling conclusion.

Origins The ‘mercenaries’ in fact consisted of foreign mercenaries plus Libyan conscripts. L.’s book-title underlines his argument (developed at 87-113) that it was not really a mercenaries’ war but an insurrection of the downtrodden Libyan subjects of Carthage. The way this was organised, financed and kept going for three years is tantalisingly obscure: L. does what he can (96-101) with the coinage, with its often-found legend LIBUWN (‘[coin] of the Libyans’), and occasional passing items in the written sources — notably Polybius’ description of the Libyan’s grievances and their enthusiasm for revolt (1.72). The claim by Appian, Sicelica 2.9, and Dio (in Zonaras 8.17) that slaves took part L. sensibly dismisses (91). He equally sensibly argues against inferring a social and ethnic revolution or clash of cultures as causes of the rising rather than the attested political and financial exploitation by Carthage (94-105). It was ‘una insurrezione con finalità secessionistiche, con lo scopo cioè di creare una entità politica autonoma da Cartagine’ (104-5, cf. 127).

L. is on firm ground, thanks to Polybius’ account, in holding that the army of Sicily did not wish to mutiny, only to put pressure on the Carthaginians to pay them off and send them to their various homes (56, 72). But on very unfirm ground in trying to show that the back pay owed to the men ‘difficilmente poteva eccedere al massimo i due mesi’, 260 talents at most (49-50), and that Polybius’ report of their extravagant escalation of other claims is unfounded (61, 65-66).

He holds that the troops must have been regularly paid, including for provisions and horses, during the war and during the peace-talks — ‘un corriere con i fondi poteva facilmente raggiungere la Sicilia’ — or they would have mutinied then (48-49, 64-66). But our sources are unanimous that large arrears were owed and this chimes with evidence for Punic penury in the 240s — for instance the Carthaginians’ failed attempt around 247 to borrow 2000 talents from Ptolemy II, which L. has to explain away (Appian, Sic. 1.1; L., 53). But Hamilcar had to make substantial promises to them when the war ended (Pol. 1.66.12; Appian, Iber. 4.15; Lib. 5.18; L., 67, discounts these). At best a trickle of funds had got through from time to time, enough to keep the men obedient — and fed. That is a quite different situation.

Equally unconvincing is the view that the mercenaries, forced into mutiny by an extremist element, took service simply as professional employees with the Libyan rebels (92, 99, 110). True, these were far more numerous, and true, the mercenaries were paid their dues in full once the Libyan insurrection got going (Pol. 1.72.6). But at least half of the mutinous army itself consisted of Libyan veterans (cf. L., 117-18) who presumably received their dues too. If the veterans of Sicily, or the mercenaries proper among them, felt that they were being dragged into a war they could do without, they could have stuck with the Carthaginians who had, after all, begun paying them their claims. Some did in fact desert to them once the revolt got going (1.75.2).

The veterans of Sicily may have been forced into mutiny by the extremists around Mathos and Spendius, but they then threw themselves into it with a vengeance. Moderates real or suspect were liquidated (1.80.9-10; L., 158-59). The non-Libyan leaders Spendius and Autaritus were as keen on ‘frightfulness’ as Mathos and the Libyans (e.g. 1.69.5-14, 70.5, 79.11–80.13). The veterans very likely hoped for wealth and maybe territory from a defeated Carthage and the grateful Libyans.

In his archeologia (43-77) L. argues that the Punic government planned to re-employ the army of Sicily for expansionist operations in the interior, which is somewhat at odds with his view that from the moment peace was signed with Rome the Carthaginians, notably Hamilcar, aimed to launch a revanchiste war as soon as they could (82-84, 128, 201-2, 203). After all, the obvious military core for a renewed Roman war would be the experienced veterans from Sicily: it would have been farcical for the Carthaginians to confront the Romans afresh using not them but new recruits. L. (85) holds that Hanno was the one wanting Numidian expansion, in contrast to Hamilcar, but at the same time that the two leaders were not opponents till long afterwards (84, 137, 160-61, 205), another uncomfortable combination of notions.

To support his view that a guerre de revanche was intended, L. insists on the availability of troops, equipment and funds to the Carthaginians (83-84, 128-29). This sits uncomfortably again beside his view that the Carthaginians were at least temporarily short of money to meet the two months’ arrears of pay which alone, he thinks, were owed to the army of Sicily (49-55). Nor does it conform with the sources’ stress on how impossible it was for the Carthaginians to fight on after the disaster at the Aegates (e.g. Pol. 1.62.2) and what straits they were in when the mercenaries mutinied (1.71.6; Appian, Sicelica 2.8). Not that the Carthaginians were literally destitute or disarmed: like their oppressed and embittered Libyan subjects (1.72.4-6) they no doubt put everything they had into the struggle. But L.’s venturesome inferences are not persuasive.

Hamilcar L. tempers Polybius’ admiring treatment of Hamilcar Barca. At times Hamilcar got himself into serious military trouble: in his first campaign in the hinterland, pursued by Spendius and the Gallic warlord Autaritus, he was finally manoeuvred into a virtual box — as Polybius makes clear — and saved only by the defection of the Numidian prince Naravas with his cavalrymen (L., 152-56). Much later, when he and a subordinate general laid the main rebel encampment at Tunes under siege from opposite sides, a rebel sortie routed the subordinate’s forces and executed the general himself without any counter-attack from the inconveniently distant Hamilcar, who was forced to give up the siege (182-85). He then had to accept the reappointment of Hanno, with whom he had quarrelled furiously earlier on. Hanno, L. suggests, was not as hopeless a commander as Polybius would like us to believe: the two leaders from then on co-operated smoothly, despite their frictions, and Polybius’ complete absence of detail for the last battle ‘è tuttavia indice del fatto che il ruolo di Amilcare dovette essere se non inferiore pari a quello del collega’ (188).

L. is all the same better disposed towards Barca than another recent scholar, Jakob Seibert, whose survey of the Truceless War is scathing about his performance (Forschungen zu Hannibal [Darmstadt 1993] 95-106). L. not only sees Hamilcar’s manoeuvres at the battle of the River Bagradas, early in the war, as anticipating Hannibal’s tactics of feigned retreat and cavalry envelopment at Cannae (140-47) but offers a neater reconstruction of the battle than W.E. Thompson’s (Historia 1986, 111-17). Hamilcar’s negotiations with Spendius and the other rebel field commanders before the battle of The Saw, climaxing in his arresting them and then annihilating their army, smack to most readers of sharp dealing if not plain treachery, but not so to L.: ‘in realtà per ciò manca ogni base’ and Hamilcar was really pursuing a policy of pacification (176). This comes dangerously close to implying that it was the rebels who forced him to slaughter all of them.

Again, his later retreat to the mouth of the Bagradas river after the defeat of his subordinate outside Tunes — a move that Seibert judged ‘kopflos’ (Forsch. zu H., 105) — is more effectively accounted for by L. (185): since Utica and Hippou Acra, both of them on the coast north of Carthage, had by now joined the revolt it was important to block the Tunes rebels’ access to them for resupply (and perhaps reinforcements). The rebels instead headed in the opposite direction, but Hamilcar could not predict that.

Campaigns and fighting Hanno, soon after hostilities opened, led the first available Punic army over to help Utica, under siege by Spendius, but his early successes were negated by a stalemate which prompted the Carthaginians to appoint Hamilcar general too. L., 135-37, infers that Hanno had led his troops back to Carthage and that Hamilcar then formed his own army from some of them: this on the ground that Polybius’ description of the two forces is almost identical and no trace can be found of Hanno’s after this. But Hanno’s newly hired mercenaries, citizen foot and horse, and 100 elephants (1.73.1-2, 74.3) are not compellingly identical with Hamilcar’s 70 elephants, ‘additionally recruited’ ( episynegmenous) mercenaries, enemy deserters, and citizen foot and horse (1.75.2), as the second and third elements in particular indicate.

Now Polybius (1.75.3) summarises Hamilcar’s achievements before going into their details, and reports that he raised the siege of Utica — a feat not mentioned in the aftermath of the battle of the River Bagradas but not contradicted either (1.76.10). Many a modern scholar rejects the claim, L. included (151 and n. 9, 163), because it is not so confirmed and because Utica later went over to the rebels along with the continuously-besieged Hippou Acra; hence L. can suppose that Hanno had marched back to Carthage before Hamilcar sortied (cf. 138, 164). But Utica just as likely was left in the lurch later, when Hamilcar and Hanno joined forces in the hinterland. Hanno more probably had remained throughout in the Utica area, or between Utica and Hippou; once the siege of Utica was raised — something Hanno may even have contributed to, unsung by Polybius — he quite probably continued to cover the town and to keep an eye on the besiegers of Hippou, until requested some time later by Hamilcar to join him in the interior (Pol. 1.82.1).

As mentioned earlier L. claims (140-47) that at the battle of the Bagradas Hamilcar used essentially the same tactics that his son was to use at Cannae; and he sees similar tactics, assisted by Naravas, both in the victory over Spendius and Autaritus (156) and in the famous battle at The Saw (176-77), so that here we have ‘matrici tipiche delle tattiche barcidi’. Indeed, ‘che esistesse una tradizione militare di ambito familiare, una vera e propria scuola barcide, ci pare difficile negare’ (147). This runs a good way beyond the evidence. First, tactics in the later battles are too sketchily recorded: that in the second one Hamilcar’s elephants and cavalry played important parts (Pol. 1.78.11), and in the third he surrounded the enemy with the elephants and his other forces (85.7), is not enough for reconstructing tactics. Second, feigned retreat before battle and then a sudden realignment to throw the enemy into confusion — as at the Bagradas — hardly matches what the Punic army did at Cannae or indeed in any of Hannibal’s major battles.

Incidentally, at the Bagradas L. assigns no combat at all to Hamilcar’s infantry, inferring that the action fell ‘soprattutto’ on the cavalry and elephants (145-46). But Polybius reports that when one of the enemy’s two corps collided with the other in confusion at Hamilcar’s sudden volte-face, ‘they destroyed both themselves and their comrades’ though the majority were crushed by the cavalry and elephant attack (1.76.8). Since he can hardly mean that the colliding forces started to slay one another, and since L.’s own reconstruction plausibly has the cavalry and elephants on either wing, it is more than likely that the other slaughter was the work of the infantry phalanx, taking advantage of the spreading chaos in rebel ranks. Another point not in L.: if the bulk of the slaying was due to the non-infantry arms it looks as though these were able to pin some (at least) of the enemy against the river, for elephants could scarcely keep up the sort of pursuit that cavalry could across country.

In these respects rather than the ones L. singles out, Hamilcar’s tactical flexibility and the skilful reliability of his variegated units do put us in mind of Hannibal’s. But the envelopment-tactics of Cannae look much closer to those used by the Spartan mercenary general Xanthippus in Punic service against the invading Regulus in 255 (Pol. 1.33–34), a comparison not in L.

Despite his post-Bagradas successes in the hinterland, Hamilcar eventually asked Hanno to join him there — L. (160) thinks from the environs of Carthage, but see above — thus exposing Utica as well as Hippou Acra to intolerable pressures until they defected. The rebels then concentrated on besieging Carthage itself. This was surely a major miscalculation by Hamilcar, which L. does not explore. He does think that the simultaneous and paralysing quarrel between the two Carthaginian generals was over military matters — unexplored again — and not personal ones (161, cf. 187); this is probably right. Hanno may have disagreed with Hamilcar’s harsh treatment of captured rebels or with his strategy of campaigning inland, on both of which issues he would arguably have been in the right for once.

L. convincingly analyses the campaign which followed Hamilcar’s election as sole commander and climaxed with the enemy’s entrapment at The Saw (169-78; he wisely declines to try identifying the site), save that he envisages The Saw as ‘una grande vallata [ove] gli sbocchi furono fortificati dai Cartaginesi’ (174) whereas Polybius’ report of the rebels being ‘entirely surrounded’ by the Carthaginian trench and palisade (1.84.9) suggests instead a hilltop or ridge — as does the place-name itself which he says reflected the topography ( ton Priona, 1.85.7).

L. is also good on the last stages of the war (179-89) except that he would like to interpret the ‘Lepcis’ region, where Polybius locates the final campaign, not as the generally-accepted Lepcis Minor near Hadrumetum south-east of Carthage but as the famous Lepcis Magna halfway between Carthage and Cyrene (187). He theorises that the surviving rebels under Mathos may have been trying to escape to Cyrene. This may certainly have been in their minds; but for them to have fled, and Hamilcar to have pursued, so far is not at all plausible. Nor do other details, e.g. the two sides’ summonses to their respective allies and remaining garrisons to join them for the last battle (Pol. 1.87.8), suit so distant a battleground.

Punic politics L. rather underplays the significance of the Punic authorities’ decision to let the Hamilcar-Hanno quarrel be decided by the troops: for him this simply ‘conferma la natura tecnico-militare del conflitto’ (165-66, 204-5). But generals were normally elected by the people of Carthage; and on the other hand we know that both Hasdrubal and Hannibal were later elected generals (in effect Carthage’s supreme generals) first by their troops in Spain and then by the citizens at home. Hamilcar’s election, whether or not confirmed by the citizens, thus set a momentous precedent and can even be seen as a sort of military-political coup.

When Hanno was recalled to share command, he showed his de facto even if not de jure subordination by going out to Barca with the delegation of senators that sought to reconcile the two: Barca did not come to him, and Polybius’ stress on how much effort it took to reconcile them must really mean that Barca, not Hanno, was hard to persuade (Pol. 1.87.3-5). L., however, wants to delay Hamilcar’s ‘colpo di stato’ to 237, so these implications are not noted and he follows Appian in having the two generals appointed, after the revolt, to a new command against the Numidians — then outdoes Appian by having them yet once more elected to further generalships, Hamilcar’s for Spain and Hanno’s for Libya (201-7). Hanno is then removed by a long-range missive from Hamilcar, then en route to Spain (207-8, reading a great deal into Iberica 5.17).

In fact the Numidian campaigning, indirectly vouched for by Diod. 25.10.1 and Nepos, Hamil. 2.5, probably fitted into the final months of the insurrection while the two generals were re-establishing control over Libya and then blockading the diehard Utica and Hippou (L., 188, also accepts blockade rather than siege). For the revolt had started late in 241 — L., 211, rather fragilely specifies November 241 — and lasted 3 years 4 months (Pol. 1.88.7); Hamilcar’s sojourn in Spain began in early 237; and in between there occurred the crisis with Rome over Sardinia (B.D. Hoyos, Unplanned Wars [1998] 138-40, citing earlier discussions).

Hanno, nicknamed ‘the Great’ (for obscure reasons, cf. L., 78), went down in history as the inveterate foe of Hamilcar’s family, but L. rightly believes that the two men were not inimici when the war started (85, 137, 160-61, 205). Hamilcar is seen — less plausibly — as initiating the feud in 237 by engineering Hanno’s removal from his latest command (207-8).

In L., Hamilcar’s ‘colpo di stato’ is something of a puzzle. The general avoids prosecution by being elected general for Spain, which also guarantees him against ‘ogni ingerenza del senato’ (206-7): how a general was thus immune is not made clear, nor why the appointment should make Barca master of the state. L. does discuss the broad base of his political support (208-10), not altogether convincingly — he thinks for instance that one son-in-law, Bomilcar, was another Punicised Numidian prince like Naravas — but does not draw the obvious inference that it was this support which made Hamilcar dominant and in turn gave him the Spanish command, rather than vice versa. To term it a coup d’état is, in any case, too dramatic a verdict (L. would like to see it as ‘una sorte di 18 Brumaio cartaginese’, 205), especially as he rightly insists, contra for instance G.-C. Picard, that there was no social or political revolution involved (204-6).

The supposed prosecution-attempt in 237 is another Appianism, not in Diodorus’ discussion (25.8) of how Hamilcar attained dominance at that period and implicitly contradicted by Polybius’ remark that when the Sardinia crisis ended Hamilcar was ‘swiftly’ sent to Spain (2.1.5; L., 213 n. 17, strives to argue this away). If there were efforts to prosecute him for alleged offences in the First Punic War — which is how Appian describes the charges — they are much more likely during 241 and Appian or his source misdated them to after another war (cf. Walbank, Historical Commentary on Polybius 1 [1957] 141). Instead L. (205) blithely alters the charges: for him they concerned Hamilcar’s actions during the insurrection. This is scarcely to be believed.

L.’s monograph thus offers a great deal to disagree with, but this in itself underlines its interest. His arguments would admittedly be clearer to follow if his writing style had been less convoluted and jargon-prone. Near the start of the book he maintains that Polybius distinguishes between the causes of the insurrection and the causes of its origin — a complex proposition in itself — and continues: ‘Si coglie in ciò una discrasia [‘discrepancy’] logica, conseguente alla sua concezione generale di quest’ultima [sc. the arche of the war], quasi come evento minore già parte dell’evente maggiore, e che a Polibio pare sfuggire per le ragioni che vedremo; e cioè se la seconda sia o meno del pari determinante per il conflitto stesso, se cioè senza di essa, ossia con una gestione diversa della crisi, questo avrebbe potuto o meno essere evitato’ (8-9), a pronouncement almost impenetrable to this reader despite many tries. Even a simple idea may take time to come out. Hanno decided early in the war to march to Utica; L. remarks ‘Non si può fare a meno di chiedersene il perchè’ (129), which simply means ‘Why?’

This literary heaviness makes it harder to get at his ideas than it need be, but does not detract from the scholarship and breadth of the book. Overall La Grande Insurrezione Libica is a valuable if controversial contribution to a subject that deserves to be better known.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 5 Issue 1 - February 1999 Technical Editor, Terry Papillon:
ISSN 1320-3606

by Kaavya Giridhar