Battle of Drepana

From Academic Kids

Template:Infobox Battles The battle of Drepana or Drepanum (offshore modern Trapani, western coast of Sicily, 249 BC) was a naval battle between the fleets of Carthage and the Roman Republic, fought during the First Punic War. The result was the only naval battle won by Carthage in the conflict.



The string of Roman naval victories, such as Mylae and Ecnomus, gave confidence to make a direct attack to the Carthaginian stronghold of Lilybaeum governed by Himilco. The city was blocked by a fleet commanded by the year's consuls Publius Claudius Pulcher and Lucius Junius Paullus. However, despite the acquired Roman naval experience, the Carthaginians were still superior in open sea manoeuvring. A small squadron led by Hannibal the Rhodian managed to break the siege in broad daylight and deliver supplies to the garrison of Lilybaeum. In the night, Hannibal left the city carrying the useless cavalry horses and ran to the harbour of Drepana, before the Romans knew what was happening.

The success of the enterprise was so stunning that the Carthaginians repeated it several times. For the Romans, this was more than a humiliation: it was annulling the whole effect of the siege, since the garrison was being fed and kept in contact with Carthage. Something had to be done.

Not listening to chicken and its consequences

Pulcher, the senior consul then decided to launch a surprise attack on the harbour of Drepana, where the defiant ships were garrisoned. The fleet sailed north from Lilybaeum in a moonless night. Carthaginian scouts did not spot the Roman ships but the low visibility conditions compromised the battle formation. When they reached Drepana at sunrise, the fleet was scattered in a long, disorganised line with Pulcher's ship in the rear. Punic scouts saw the clumsy approach and the surprise effect lost.

Meanwhile in the flagship, Pulcher performed the inspection of the omens for the battle, according to Roman religious tradition. The method ascribed for the situation was investigating the feeding behaviour of the sacred chicken, on board for that purpose. If the chicken accepted the offered grain, then the Gods would be favourable to the battle. However, in that particular morning of 249 BC, the chicken refused to eat a terrible omen. Confronted with the unexpected and having to deal with the superstitious and now terrified crews, Pulcher quickly figured an alternative interpretation. He threw the sacred chicken overboard, directly onto the Mediterranean, proclaiming: They don't eat, so let them drink! (Ut biberent, quoniam esse nollent).

In the harbour, the Carthaginians did not wait to see what the Romans intended. Admiral Ad Herbal had similar, though less controversial, quick thinking and ordered the evacuation of Drepana before blockade was unavoidable. Carthage's ships thus sailed out of Drepana, passing south of the city and around two small islands in the coast to open ocean. Seeing the plan of a surprise attack fail, Pulcher ordered a regroup for battle formation. However. by then, everything was against him. The coast of Sicily was at his back and the Punic fleet ready for battle at his front.

Ad Herbal saw chance for victory and ordered the attack. Specially, he ordered his right flank to attack the Roman rearmost ships. The result was an utter Roman defeat, with almost all boats commanded by Pulcher sunk.


Publius Claudius Pulcher managed to escape and returned to Rome in shame, where he faced charges of treason. Unlike the Carthaginians, Romans did not execute generals for incompetence (cf. Hannibal Gisco), what brought Pulcher to the court was an accusation of sacrilege due to the chicken incident. He was convicted and sentenced to exile, with his political career finished.

In the same year, Hamilcar Barca (general Hannibal's father) had a successful campaign in Sicily and a storm destroyed the other half of the Roman fleet, commanded by consul Junius Paullus. The situation was so desperate that Aulus Atilius Caiatinus was appointed dictator and sent to the island to control the land warfare. The Drepana defeat so demoralized Rome that they waited seven years to build another fleet.



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