The Mercenary War

By Punic Hoplite

The First Punic War had been terrible and bloody, but never directly threatened the existence of Carthage itself. Though Marcus Regulus' African campaign had enjoyed initial success, it ultimately resulted in a military disaster for Rome. Soon after the war, Carthage would be faced with a far greater threat to its existence than the Romans. This threat was the revolt of its army from the First Punic War. The rebels would take three years to defeat, and the war clearly showed the Carthaginians the risks of employing a mercenary army.

The revolt began when Hamilcar Barca's Sicilian army from the previous war was ordered to the town of Sicca in 241 BC, in order to keep the roaming mercenaries from making life in Carthage difficult. Originally only small groups were supposed to travel to Carthage to receive their pay and back wages, in order to spread out the financial burden on their depleted treasury. But the Carthaginians thought that if all the mercenaries were in one location, they might accept a lower payment in light of the unsuccessful war and the economic situation. The Carthaginians would soon regret this decision.

When the twenty thousand mercenaries arrived at Sicca, they had no officers or duties with which to keep them busy, and their hard earned discipline broke down. They felt betrayed when they were asked to accept a lower payment for their services. They even became angry with Hamilcar, who had promised them great rewards when the end of the war came, only to have that promise taken away by people they neither trusted nor knew. The Carthaginians, knowing that their attempt at getting a better deal with the mercenaries was gone, agreed to pay the original sum of money. But the mercenaries, seeing this move as an act of weakness on the part of the Carthaginian state, recognized the full extent of their power. Like all Punic armies, they were made up of many races: Gauls, Libyans, Ligurians, Greeks, slaves and deserters. The Libyans were the majority, and it was this ethnicity that would make the rebellion so deadly. The reason for this, is that the Libyans, being the closest thing to a recruitment base, were generally the most numerous in Carthaginian armies.

The Libyans then went into open revolt and seized Gesgo, the man who had negotiated the peace with the Romans in the Punic War, as he was the only man they trusted to negotiate with the Carthaginians. Soon the Libyans had gained the support of some Numidian princes, with whom the Carthaginians had been fighting, who saw an opportunity for vengeance and plunder. All of these troops formed an army much larger than that of Regulus, but it was part disciplined, part mob. This army then began to blockade Carthage itself. They elected Mathos, a Libyan, Spendius, an escaped slave, and Autariatus the Gaul, as leaders of this army. The move proved clumsy, as not one of the leaders had any experience in moving an army and as a result the march was poorly executed. This was one of only a handful of advantages the Carthaginians had during the war, since they could not raise another army quickly and their situation worsened as more and more Libyans, upon whom Carthage relied heavily for its armies, went over to the side of the rebels. The only army the Carthaginians had remaining was composed of any recently levied citizens and those mercenaries who had no connection with the rebels. Even so, the Carthaginians were still outnumbered by a large margin.

Soon another problem arose, as the command was divided between two generals: Hanno, and Hamilcar Barca. Hamilcar's skills from his operations in Sicily were clearly evident as he consistently outmaneuvered the rebel army. And his skill in diplomacy, displayed alongside his military skill, got one Numidian prince to defect with his men in exchange for a marriage to Hamilcar's daughter.

It was not just a war of words. Hamilcar defeated the rebels once in the Battle of the Bagradas River, which allowed him to break the Siege of Utica. Utica had been under siege by the rebels, and its relief gave Hamilcar the political clout to replace his rival Hanno with another general. Hanno's failure to relieve Utica himself, and the loss of confidence his army had in him, were the final straws in his dismissal. This was along side atrocities committed by both sides. Some incidents involved cutting the hands and feet off of prisoners and throwing them into a ditch to die, while another involved groups of men being trampled to death by elephants. These acts of cruelty were to make the opponent less eager in battle, and even Polybius called this war 'The Truce-less War' for its barbarity.

With the victories at Bagradas and Utica, Hamilcar was able to cut the supply lines of the rebels who were besieging Carthage, and the rebels were forced to break the siege. They began a fighting withdrawal with Hamilcar in pursuit, trying to win by using their numbers. They eventually made their way to a canyon called 'The Saw' because of its shape. Hamilcar then besieged the rebels in the canyon, and they began to starve. Some figures state thousands starving, and cannibalism appearing. The leader of the rebel army, Spendius, tried to negotiate a surrender with Hamilcar, but Hamilcar took him prisoner. Without a leader, the rebel army dissolved into a mob and tried to break out. They were soundly defeated.

Soon after this victory, Hamilcar marched on Tunis, where the most of the remaining rebels were located. During this siege, Hamilcar ordered crucifixions in plain view of the rebels, an attempt to demoralize the enemy into surrendering. Included in the deaths was Spendius. Matho, horrified at the sight of his colleague's crucifixion, launched a surprise attack on Hannibal's camp, which was to the north of Tunis, and captured Hannibal*, forcing Hamilcar to a nearby river to protect the communities to the north. The rebels, not able to go north, were forced south. A long drawn out process began of eliminating the Libyan communities which had joined the rebels. While this had been going on, another group of mercenaries had mutinied on Sardinia and seized control of the island. When the war in Africa had turned in favor of Carthage, the rebels on the island appealed to Rome for help. The Romans, wanting their money from Carthage to continue, turned down the offer, but in 238 B.C. the Romans declared war on Carthage, which swiftly surrendered, thus giving up Sardinia to the Romans. It is important to note that the Romans had also denied an alliance with Utica when it too rebelled, and even gave supplies to Carthage for the war effort. With the rebels on Sardinia finally crushed in 238, the last remnants of the Mercenary War were subdued.

* Hannibal seems to have been a fairly common name in the Punic world (as was Hanno), and this Hannibal is not, of course, the famous Hannibal Barca of the Second Punic War.