Battle of Agrigentum

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Template:Infobox Battles The battle of Agrigentum (Sicily, 261 BC) was the first pitched battle of the First Punic War and the first large-scale military confrontation between Carthaginians and the Republic of Rome. The battle was fought after a long siege which started in 262 BC and resulted both in a Roman victory and the beginning of the Roman control of Sicily.

Contents

Prelude

In 288 BC, a group of Italian mercenaries, the Mamertines, occupied the city of Messina on the north-eastern tip of Sicily, killing all the men and taking the women as their wives. From this base, they ravaged the countryside and became a problem for the independent city of Syracuse. When Hiero II of Syracuse in 265 BC came to power, he decided to take definitive action against the Mamertines and besieged Messina. The Mamertines applied for help to two states: Carthage and the Roman Republic.

Eager to control the fertile island of Sicily, Carthage and Rome sent armies to the area. For the Romans, who did not possess a navy at the time, it was the first involvement in a campaign outside Italy. Soon, the Messina problem was forgotten and the real issue between these two super-powers, with Syracuse somewhat placed in the middle, became apparent. In the following years, there were a few skirmishes between the armies, with the two opponents testing the terrain and learning how to manoeuvre in the hilly grounds of Sicily.

Siege of Agrigentum

In 262 BC, the Romans sent a full-scale army to Sicily, commanded by the two consuls Lucius Postumius Megellus and Quintus Mamilius Vitulus, comprising the four consular legions and allied alae in a total of 40,000 men. This was the response to the major recruiting and training being held in the Carthaginian side. Supported by Syracuse, now an official ally of Rome, the consular army marched in June to Agrigentum on the south-western coast of Sicily. This city was intended to act as base camp for the expected Carthaginian army, but at the time was occupied only by the local garrison, commanded by Hannibal Gisco.

Gisco responded to the threat and barricaded the population of Agrigentum and his garrison within walls, along with all the supplies they could gather from the surroundings. The city was prepared for a long siege and all he had to do was to wait for the Carthaginian reinforcements already being prepared. At the time, siege engineering and the construction of assault devices such as towers was an art foreign to the Romans. The only way at their disposal to conquer a fortified city like Agrigentum was blockade. Thus the army camped outside the city walls, prepared to wait the necessary time for the city to surrender by starvation. With logistical help guaranteed by Syracuse, their own supplies were not a problem.

A few months later, Gisco was beginning to feel the strain of the blockade and appealed for urgent help from Carthage. The reinforcements landed in Heraclea Minoa in the beginning of the winter of 262-261 BC, comprised by 50,000 men, 6,000 cavalry and 60 war elephants were commanded by Hanno. The Carthaginians then marched south to rescue their allies and, after a few minor cavalry confrontation won by Hanno, they set camp very close to the Romans. Hanno immediately deployed his troops in battle formation, but the Romans declined the invitation. Instead they fortified themselves on the outer side, building a line of circumvallation. The Agrigentum blockade continued, but now the Romans were themselves besieged.

Battle of Agrigentum

But with Hanno camped outside their own base, the supplies from Syracuse were no longer available. Themselves in the risk of starvation, the consuls chose to offer battle. This time was Hanno's turn to refuse, probably with the intention of defeating the Romans by hunger. Meanwhile, the situation inside Agrigentum after more than six months of siege was close to desperate. Hannibal Gisco, communicating with the outside by smoke signs, sent urgent pleas for relief and Hanno was forced to accept a pitched battle. The details of the actual fighting are, as usual, confusing from the several sources.

Apparently, Hanno deployed the Carthaginian infantry in two lines, with the elephants and reinforcements in the second and the cavalry probably placed in the wings. The Romans battle plan is unknown but their possibly organized in the typical triplex acies formation. All the sources agree that the fighting was long and that were the Romans who managed to break the Carthaginian front. This provoked panic in the rear and the reserves fled the battlefield. It is also possible that the elephants also panicked and in their flight disorganized the Carthaginian formation. In any case, the Romans routed the enemy and were victorious. Their cavalry managed to attack the Carthaginian camp and capture several elephants. But this was not a complete success. Most of the enemy army fled and Hannibal Gisco, together with the garrison of Agrigentum, also managed to break the Roman line and escape for security.

Aftermath

Following this battle (the first among four land pitched battles fought in the First Punic War), the Romans occupied Agrigentum and sold the whole population into slavery. The two consuls were victorious, but possibly because of Gisco's escape were not awarded with a triumph on their return.

After 261 BC, Rome controlled most of Sicily and secured the grain harvest for their own use. Moreover, being this the first large scale campaign fought outside Italy, this victory gave the Romans an extra confidence to pursue overseas interests.

References

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