Battle of Panormus : Rome & Carthage Clash Over Sicily

Battle of Panormus : Rome & Carthage Clash Over Sicily

Roman Empire

Detail from the Ahenobarbus relief showing two Roman foot-soldiers from the second century BC

“The survivors of Bagradas River shared horrific stories of the Carthaginian cavalry and elephants.”

Emboldened by Roman losses, Carthage decided to take the initiative again in the First Punic War and resume campaigning in Sicily. They recaptured Akragas in 255 BC but, not feeling confident about defending the city, razed it instead. The Roman fleet was rapidly rebuilt, with 220 new quinqueremes exhausting the treasury. This new fleet set sail to attack Panormus (modern Palermo), one of the largest island cities still loyal to Carthage. Based on the northern coast, this important city of 70,000 people relied on trade and fishing, and as such had a lack of cultivated agricultural land surrounding it. Surrounded by dense forest, the legions were able to get close to walls and build the siege engines needed to breach them. As was the savagery of antiquity, once that breach was made, there could be no quarter. The inner town (citadel) surrendered after the outer fell, with 14,000 survivors paying their ransoms and the remaining 13,000 sold into slavery. 

Much of inland western Sicily now defected to Rome: Ietas, Solous, Petra, and Tyndaris all came to terms.

In 252 BC the Romans captured Thermae and Lipara, which had been isolated since Panormus fell. In response, Carthage landed reinforcements on the island under Hasdrubal, who had previously fought against the legions in Africa. 252 and 251 BC saw the Romans avoid battle, largely out of fear of the war elephants which had been shipped to Italy, following the awful tales from the survivors of Bagradas River. Despite having a smaller army than the Romans, it was Carthage who thus dominated the plains, while the legions stuck to the higher and broken up ground which would nullify the threat posed by the vaunted cavalry and elephants. 

As summer turned to autumn in 250 BC, Hasdrubal was emboldened by the news that the Consul Gauius Furius Pacilus, assuming the campaigning season had ended, had left Sicily with half of the Roman army. Hasdrubal thus marched out of his stronghold at Lilybaeum for Panormus with 30,000 men, and between 60 and 142 war elephants. Halting short of the city, he wrecked the harvest of Rome’s new allies to provoke the remaining Consul, Lucius Caecilius Metellus, to battle. Metellus had a pair of legions, both of which had been scattered to help gather in the harvest. Hasdrubal had him outnumbered three to one.

Metellus withdrew into Panormus, though Hasdrubal had anticipated this timidity.

He advanced down the Oreto Valley, ruining the countryside as he went, and upon reaching the sea he forded the river and advanced to the city walls. Once the elephants began fording the river, Metellus sent his light infantry skirmishers out to hamper their passage, concentrating their javelins on the elephants. Being a major supply depot, the remaining townspeople were deployed to carry bundles of javelins forward, providing the velites with an inexhaustible supply to bombard the elephants with.

Moreover, the ground between the river and city was covered in earthworks leftover from the Roman siege.

As a result, this both shielded the Romans while impeding the elephants’ advance further still.

Roman statuette of a war elephant

The mahouts, eager to demonstrate their skills, pushed the beasts on, and soon were being pelted with missiles from the city walls too. Peppered with missiles and unable to retaliate, the elephants soon panicked and fled through the Carthaginian infantry which was following them.

Metellus himself was hiding with the bulk of his legions in the thick forests near the city gate, or just behind the gate ready to launch a sortie. When the elephants broke, they threw the Carthaginian army into disarray, disorientating it and demoralising the troops. Metellus seized the opportunity to attack its left flank, quickly folding the line and causing the Carthaginians to rout. Those who tried to fight were cut down in isolated and disorganised units, though there was no pursuit ordered of the fleeing army. Ten elephants were captured, and several more were added to the Roman forces in the following days.

The Battle of Panormus was an unexpected victory for Rome, further asserting the republic’s hold over Sicily.

The victory, and especially the removal of the Carthaginian elephants, emboldened the Romans to manoeuvre freely around Sicily, with their enemies unwilling to proffer battle anew. Metellus received a triumph, in which he paraded his captured elephants, which were then slaughtered in the Circus Maximus. The elephants was adopted of the emblem of the Metelli family, featuring it on the coins they minted until the end of the republic. Later members of this family would play key roles as the republic collapsed, including being stripped of command in the Jugurthine War to enable the rise of Gaius Marius, supporting Sulla in his rise to the dictatorship, and winning the Sertorian War in Hispania which both thrust Pompey Magnus into the spotlight finished off the rogue state which had been the last refuge of the Marians. 

The battle played a key role in helping the Romans to overcome their fear of elephants. The huge beasts were a formidable foe, and a daunting one to Italian soldier farmers who had likely seen nothing larger than a bear. Elephants would be trained to stamp on their enemies, and use their trunks and steel-clad tusks to kill them, while their sounds and smells could disrupt the most formidable cavalries – as Alexander had discovered at the Hydaspes. Bull elephants were often charged during must, further adding to their aggressive behaviour. Despite that, they were but animals themselves, and with careful planning and coordination could be overcome. Loud noises, unfamiliar animals like pigs, and missile weapons were ideal for thwarting elephants, or accepting a charge but providing a passage through the ranks – no animal will choose to charge into spears rather than an open corridor. If elephant charges could be halted, and the beasts panicked, they were liable to turn around and stampede through their own soldiers, wreaking havoc and providing an opportunity for a swift rout.

The Romans would be deploying elephants themselves against the Greeks within 50 years, though within two centuries the unruly beasts would have been abandoned in the west as a weapon of war. Becoming more of an entertainment novelty, such as when the Emperor Claudius shipped forty elephants to Britannia to awe the native Celts.

After the Battle of Panormus, Hasdrubal was recalled to Carthage and – as was their wont – was swiftly executed. His successor Adhubal decided that the large, fortified city of Selinus could no longer be garrisoned, so evacuated and razed the settlement. Emboldened by their victory, the Romans had a fresh belief that the end of the war was in sight – even if it would be settled in Sicily, rather than Africa. Most of the island was now aligned to Rome, and the only major base remaining for Carthage was the large, fortified city of Lilybaeum. The Carthaginians would not even have a Sicilian beachhead from which to land troops on the island. In 249 BC, the Consuls Publius Claudius Pulcher and Lucius Junius Pullus besieged the city. Their rebuilt fleet of 200 quinqueremes blockaded the city, and they knew that taking it would end the war in Sicily. But the Carthaginians were not ready to surrender yet, and their navy set sail to lift the blockade to ensure they would remain as the masters of Sicily.

Battle of Panormus : Rome & Carthage Clash Over Sicily

Written by Jack Tappin

Written by Jack Tappin

Roman Empire