Battle of Drepana
|Battle of Drepana|
|Part of the First Punic War|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Publius Claudius Pulcher|
|About 120 ships||About 120 ships|
|Casualties and losses|
|None||93 ships captured or sunk|
The string of Roman naval victories, such as Mylae and Ecnomus, gave them the confidence to make a direct attack on the Carthaginian stronghold of Lilybaeum governed by Himilco. The city was blockaded 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 a commander named Hannibal, son of Hamilcar, 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 sailed 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.
Shortly after, a brave sailor, identified as Hannibal the Rhodian, openly defied the Roman fleet by sailing around the fleet in order to spy on the town and relay the news of the goings on inside of Lilybaeum to the Carthaginian Senate and the Carthaginian commander at the battle, Ad Herbal.
Actions and 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 low visibility conditions compromised the battle formation. When they reached Drepana at sunrise, the fleet was scattered in a long, disorganized line with Pulcher's ship in the rear. Punic scouts saw the clumsy approach and the advantage of surprise was lost.
Meanwhile, on the flagship, some sources claim that Pulcher performed the inspection of the omens before battle, according to Roman religious tradition. The prescribed method was observing the feeding behaviour of the sacred chickens, on board for that purpose. If the chickens accepted the offered grain, then the Roman gods would be favourable to the battle. However, on that particular morning of 249 BC, the chickens refused to eat – a horrific omen. Confronted with the unexpected and having to deal with the superstitious and now terrified crews, Pulcher quickly devised an alternative interpretation. He threw the sacred chickens overboard, saying, Let them drink, since they don't wish to eat. (Bibant, quoniam esse nolunt. Cicero, De Natura Deorum, where it is reported in "indirect discourse". The Latin here reflects what Pulcher's actual words would have been.)
However, it is not entirely clear if this actually occurred. The contemporary historian Polybius fails to mention it, instead crediting the victory to the superior maneuverability of the Carthaginian warships, making this incident at least dubious.
In the harbour, the Carthaginians did not wait to see what the Romans intended. Admiral Ad Herbal had similar, though less controversial, quick thoughts and ordered the evacuation of Drepana before the 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 the open sea. Seeing his plan for a surprise attack fail, Pulcher ordered his fleet to regroup into 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.
Herbal saw a chance for victory and ordered his right flank to attack the rear-most Roman ships. The result was an utter Roman defeat, with almost all the ships 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) led a successful campaign in Sicily and a storm mostly destroyed the other half of the Roman fleet, commanded by consul Junius Paullus. The situation was so desperate that Aulus Atilius Calatinus was appointed dictator and sent to the island to control the land warfare. The Drepana defeat so demoralized the Romans that they waited seven years before building another fleet.