Battle Of Bagradas River

Battle Of Bagradas River

Roman Empire

“Hanno displayed great incompetence as a field commander.”

Hanno took to the field as commander of Carthage’s African army. Hanno trusted his African mercenaries to remain loyal, as they were accustomed to fighting against fellow Africans. His non-Africans who had remained in Carthage when the bulk of the Sicilian army was expelled also remained loyal. Those troops still in Sicily were paid their outstanding wages and deployed to support Hanno, while a number of Carthaginian citizens joined his force now that their homeland was threatened. While he was assembling this army, the rebels had blockaded Utica and Hippo (modern Bizerte).

In early 240 BC Hanno set off to relieve Utica, taking with him 100 elephants and a siege train. He approached from the south east, and his arrival surprised the rebels. His camp was reinforced by the city’s siege train, with the rebels just using makeshift barricades for their defences, rather than trenches and ramparts. After a bombardment with siege weapons, Hanno stormed the enemy camp, using his elephants to smash through the barricades. The infantry followed behind and routed the rebels, with Hanno himself wounded in the fighting. The Battle of Utica was a decisive victory for Carthage, and an excellent start for them in the Truceless War. 

Hanno entered Utica in triumph!
Utica columns

Although his army chose to loot the rebel camp and forage the countryside rather than continue their pursuit of the fleeing rebels. Used to the fighting of the Numidian militia, the Carthaginians expected a defeated foe to scatter in all directions, not escape only to regroup days later. However, the Sicilian veterans reassembled in the surrounding hills, and advanced again on the city.

Archaeological site of Utica, Tunisia

Hanno’s army was still in the drunken stupor of celebration when the rebels counter-attacked and were now themselves routed, with many killed, and their own baggage and siege engines now seized by the rebels. However, the rebels too failed to build on their victory by chasing the defeated Carthaginian army, likely deterred by the elephants. Hanno would spend the rest of the year skirmishing with the rebel force, repeatedly missing opportunities to bring it to battle or otherwise disadvantage his enemy.

Rome initially declined to take advantage of Carthage’s woes, with Italians prohibited from trading with the rebels but encouraged to trade with Carthage – after all, the Punic state needed to maintain a healthy economy to pay its annual indemnity.

Amazingly, some 2,743 Carthaginian prisoners were released without ransom to join their army, with the Syracusan king Hiero was allowed to supply their army with the food it needed now access to its own agricultural lands was cut off.

In early 239 BC the Carthaginian garrison on Sardinia mutinied, killing its officers and the island’s governor.

When a relief force arrived it too mutinied, joining the existing mutineers and killing all the Carthaginians on the island. The mutineers applied to Rome for protection, but this was refused. Rome had no money to wage another war, and after its backing of the Mamertines feared acquiring a reputation of supporting mutinies and uprisings. 

Carthage began to raise another force, around 10,000 strong, with 2,000 cavalry and 70 elephants. Furthermore, an infantry including deserters from the rebels.

This force was placed under the command of Hamilcar, leader of the Carthaginian resistance in Sicily. The rebels held the line of the Bagradas River, with a similar number of men commanded by Spendius, necessitating Hamilcar to force a fording of the river to maneuver in open country.

Battle of Bagradas, triple column scenario.

Moreover, wanting to make use of his numerical superiority, Spendius called in 15,000 rebels from the siege of Utica. Hamilcar knew of an underwater sandbar that was usually too deeply submerged to cross, though knew a strong easterly wind could keep back the flow of the river to make it possible to ford. Waiting for such a wind, Hamilcar then marched his army out at night and crossed the sandbar, covering ten miles in that night to appear on the opposite bank of the Bagradas, undetected by the rebels. He was not ready to engage the rebel army and deliver Carthage to victory in the war.

Written by Jack Tappin

Roman Empire

Battle Of Bagradas River