Battle of Panormus

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Battle of Panormus
Part of the First Punic War
Date250 BC
Panormus (present-day Palermo)
38°07′N 13°22′E / 38.117°N 13.367°E / 38.117; 13.367Coordinates: 38°07′N 13°22′E / 38.117°N 13.367°E / 38.117; 13.367
Result Roman victory
Rome Carthage
Commanders and leaders
Lucius Caecilius Metellus Hasdrubal
2 legions (8,000–10,000 men) 30,000
60–142 elephants
Casualties and losses
Unknown, but light Heavy
All elephants captured
Panormus is located in Sicily
Location of Panormus, on the north coast of Sicily

The Battle of Panormus was fought in Sicily in 250 BC during the First Punic War between a Roman army led by Lucius Caecilius Metellus and a Carthaginian force led by Hasdrubal. The Roman force of two legions defending the city of Panormus defeated the much larger Carthaginian army of 30,000 men and between 60 and 142 war elephants.

The war had commenced in 264 BC with Carthage in control of much of Sicily, where most of the fighting took place. In 256–255 BC the Romans attempted to strike at the city of Carthage in North Africa, but suffered a heavy defeat by a Carthaginian army strong in cavalry and elephants. When the focus of the war returned to Sicily, the Romans captured the large and important city of Panormus in 254 BC. Thereafter they avoided battle for fear of the war elephants which the Carthaginians had shipped to Sicily. In late summer 250 BC Hasdrubal led out his army to devastate the crops of the cities of Rome's allies. The Romans withdrew to Panormus and Hasdrubal pressed on to the city walls.

Once he arrived in Panormus, Metellus turned to fight, countering the elephants with a hail of javelins from earthworks dug near the walls. Under this missile fire the elephants panicked and fled through the Carthaginian infantry. The Roman heavy infantry then charged the Carthaginian left flank, which broke, along with the rest of the Carthaginians. The elephants were captured and later slaughtered in the Circus Maximus. This was the last significant land battle of the war, which ended nine years later in a Roman victory.

Primary sources[edit]

A monochrome relief stele depicting a man in classical Greek clothing raising one arm
Polybius – "a remarkably well-informed, industrious, and insightful historian".[1]

The main source for almost every aspect of the First Punic War[note 1] is the historian Polybius (c. 200c. 118 BC), a Greek sent to Rome in 167 BC as a hostage.[3][4] His works include a now lost manual on military tactics,[5] but he is best known today for his Histories, written sometime after 146 BC, or about a century after the end of the war.[3][6] Polybius's work is considered broadly objective and largely neutral as between Carthaginian and Roman points of view.[7][8]

Carthaginian written records were destroyed along with their capital, Carthage, in 146 BC and so Polybius's account of the First Punic War is based on several, now-lost, Greek and Latin sources.[9] Polybius was an analytical historian and wherever possible personally interviewed participants in the events he wrote about.[10][11] Only a part of the first book of the forty comprising Histories deals with the First Punic War.[12] The accuracy of Polybius's account has been much debated over the past 150 years, but the modern consensus is to accept it largely at face value, and the details of the battle in modern sources are almost entirely based on interpretations of Polybius's account.[12][13][14] The modern historian Andrew Curry considers "Polybius turns out to [be] fairly reliable";[15] while Dexter Hoyos describes him as "a remarkably well-informed, industrious, and insightful historian".[16] Other, later, histories of the war exist, but in fragmentary or summary form.[4][17] Modern historians usually take into account the later histories of Diodorus Siculus and Dio Cassius, although the classicist Adrian Goldsworthy states "Polybius' account is usually to be preferred when it differs with any of our other accounts".[11][note 2] Other sources include inscriptions, coins and archaeological evidence.[19]


A monochrome relief stele depicting two figures dressed as Roman legionaries
Detail from the Ahenobarbus relief showing two Roman foot-soldiers from the second century BC

Most male Roman citizens were eligible for military service, and would serve as infantry, with a better-off minority providing a cavalry component. Traditionally, when at war the Romans would raise two legions, each of 4,200 infantry[note 3] and 300 cavalry. A small number of the infantry served as javelin-armed skirmishers. The balance were equipped as heavy infantry, with body armour, a large shield, and short thrusting swords. They were divided into three ranks, of which the front rank also carried two javelins, while the second and third ranks had a thrusting spear instead. Both legionary sub-units and individual legionaries fought in relatively open order. It was the long-standing Roman procedure to elect two men each year, known as consuls, to each lead an army. An army was usually formed by combining a Roman legion with a similarly sized and equipped legion provided by their Latin allies.[21]

Carthaginian citizens only served in their army if there was a direct threat to the city of Carthage. In most circumstances Carthage recruited foreigners to make up its army. Many were from North Africa which provided several types of fighters including: close-order infantry equipped with large shields, helmets, short swords and long thrusting spears; javelin-armed light infantry skirmishers; close-order shock cavalry carrying spears; and light cavalry skirmishers who threw javelins from a distance and avoided close combat.[22][23] Both Iberia and Gaul provided small numbers of experienced infantry; unarmoured troops who would charge ferociously, but had a reputation for breaking off if a combat was protracted.[22][24][note 4] The close-order African infantry would fight in a tightly-packed formation known as a phalanx.[23] Slingers were frequently recruited from the Balearic Islands.[22][25] Roman and Greek sources refer to these foreign fighters derogatively as "mercenaries", but the modern historian Adrian Goldsworthy describes to this as "a gross oversimplification".[26] They served under a variety of arrangements; for example, some were the regular troops of allied cities or kingdoms seconded to Carthage as part of formal treaties.[26] The Carthaginians also employed war elephants; North Africa had indigenous African forest elephants at the time.[24][27][note 5]


Start of the war[edit]

A map of the western Mediterranean showing the territory controlled by Carthage and Rome at the start of the First Punic War.
Territory controlled by Rome and Carthage at the start of the First Punic War

The Roman Republic had been aggressively expanding in the southern Italian mainland for a century before the First Punic War.[29] It had conquered peninsular Italy south of the River Arno by 272 BC.[30] By this time Carthage, with its capital in what is now Tunisia, had come to dominate southern Spain, much of the coastal regions of North Africa, the Balearic Islands, Corsica, Sardinia, and the western half of Sicily in a military and commercial empire.[31] In the 3rd century BC Carthage and Rome were the preeminent powers in the western Mediterranean.[32] In 264 BC the two cities went to war over the city of Messana (modern Messina) in the north-eastern tip of Sicily.[33]

Much of the war was fought on, or in the waters near, Sicily. Away from the coasts its hilly and rugged terrain made manoeuvring large forces difficult and favoured defensive over offensive operations. Land operations were largely confined to raids, sieges and interdiction. Garrison duty and land blockades were the most common operations for both armies; only two full-scale pitched battles were fought on Sicily during the 23-year-long war; Panormus was one of these.[34][note 6] After several Roman successes[36] the war on Sicily reached a stalemate, as the Carthaginians focused on defending well-fortified towns and cities; these were mostly on the coast and could be supplied and reinforced without the Romans being able to use their superior army to interfere.[37][38]

Invasion of Africa[edit]

From 260 BC the focus of the war shifted to the sea.[39][40] The Romans won naval victories at Mylae (260 BC) and Sulci (258 BC), and their frustration at the continuing stalemate in Sicily led them to develop a plan to invade the Carthaginian heartland in North Africa and threaten the city of Carthage (close to modern Tunis).[41] After defeating the Carthaginians at the Battle of Cape Ecnomus, possibly the largest naval battle in history by the number of combatants involved,[42][43][44] the Roman army landed in Africa on the Cape Bon Peninsula and began ravaging the Carthaginian countryside.[45]

Most of the Roman ships returned to Sicily, leaving 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry to continue the war in Africa. A Carthaginian army which was strong in cavalry and elephants and approximately the same size as the Romans' was defeated after the Carthaginians positioned it on a rocky hill and the Roman infantry stormed it. The Carthaginian's losses are unknown, although their elephants and cavalry escaped with few casualties.[46] The Carthaginians gave charge of the training of their army to the Spartan mercenary commander Xanthippus.[47] In early 255 BC Xanthippus led an army of 12,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 100 elephants against 15,500 Romans, offered battle to them on an open plain, and decisively defeated them at the Battle of Tunis. The elephants played a prominent part in this victory. Approximately 2,000 Romans retreated to Aspis; 500 were captured; 13,000 were killed. The Romans evacuated the survivors by sea, but the Roman fleet was devastated by a storm while returning to Italy, with 384 ships sunk from their total of 464 and 100,000 men lost[48][49] – the majority non-Roman Latin allies.[50]


A relief map of Sicily showing the main cities at the time of the First Punic War
Sicily, the main theatre of the war

Having lost most of their fleet in the storm of 255 BC, the Romans rapidly rebuilt it, adding 220 new ships,[51][52] and launched a determined offensive in Sicily; their entire fleet, under both consuls, attacked Panormus early in 254 BC.[53] Panormus was a large-for-the-time city on the north coast of Sicily, the site of the modern Sicilian capital Palermo.[note 7] It had a population of approximately 70,000 and was one of the largest Sicilian cities still loyal to Carthage and the most important economically.[55][56] The city's prosperity was based on trade and fishing, which resulted in an unusual lack of agriculture and the area immediately around the city was thickly forested, even close to the gates.[56] The city was surrounded and blockaded, and siege engines set up. These made a breach in the walls which the Romans stormed, capturing the outer town and giving no quarter. The inner town promptly surrendered. The 14,000 inhabitants who could afford it ransomed themselves and the remaining 13,000 were sold into slavery.[53]

Much of western inland Sicily then went over to the Romans: Ietas, Solous, Petra, and Tyndaris all came to terms.[53] In 252 BC the Romans captured Thermae and Lipara, which had been isolated by the fall of Panormus.[57] In late 253 BC or early 252 BC Carthaginian reinforcements were sent to Sicily under Hasdrubal, who had taken part in the two battles against the Romans in Africa.[53] The Romans avoided battle in 252 and 251 BC; according to Polybius because they feared the war elephants which the Carthaginians had shipped to Sicily.[58][59] The historian Nigel Bagnall suggests that survivors of the battle against Xanthippus passed on "horrific stories" of the effectiveness of the Carthaginian cavalry and elephants in open battle. In consequence the Carthaginians, probably with a smaller army than the Romans, dominated the plains; while the Romans stayed on higher and broken ground, where much of the effect of the cavalry and elephants would have been nullified. Both sides declined to face the other on their favoured terrain.[60]


In late summer 250 BC[61] Hasdrubal, hearing that one consul (Gaius Furius Pacilus) had left Sicily with half of the Roman army, marched out from the major Carthaginian stronghold of Lilybaeum towards Panormus with 30,000 men and between 60 and 142 elephants.[62] Halting some distance away, he devastated the harvest in the territories of Rome's newly allied cities, in an attempt to provoke the Roman commander, Lucius Caecilius Metellus, into battle.[57][59] The Roman troops amounted to two legions,[57] and they had been dispersed to gather the harvest. Metellus withdrew them in front of the advancing Carthaginians and they retreated into Panormus. This timidity was what Hasdrubal had come to expect, and he advanced down the Oreto valley, continuing to despoil the countryside. The Oreto reached the sea immediately south of Panormus, and once there Hasdrubal ordered part of his army to cross the river and advance up to the city wall.[63][64]

Once the elephants had crossed, or were crossing, the river, Metellus sent his light infantry to skirmish with the Carthaginians and impede their passage. These light troops hurled javelins at the Carthaginians, and had been instructed to concentrate on their elephants. Panormus was a major supply depot, and townspeople were employed in carrying bundles of javelins from stocks within the city to the foot of the walls so the Roman skirmishers were constantly resupplied.[63] The ground between the river and the city was covered with earthworks, some constructed during the Roman siege and some part of the city's defensive works, which provided cover for the Romans and made it difficult for the elephants to advance, or even manoeuvre. The elephants' mahouts, eager to demonstrate their charges' prowess, nevertheless drove them forward. Some accounts also have missiles being hurled down from the city walls at them. Peppered with missiles and unable to retaliate, the elephants panicked and fled through the Carthaginian infantry behind them.[64][65]

Denarius of C. Caecilius Metellus Caprarius (125 BC). The reverse alludes to the triumph of his ancestor Lucius Caecilius Metellus which featured the elephants he captured at Panormus.[66]

Metellus had concealed himself and a large part of his army either in the woods just outside the city gate,[64] or immediately inside the gates;[63] in either case this meant he was upstream from where the Carthaginian army was fording the river. From here Metellus fed fresh troops into the large-scale skirmish under the city walls. When the elephants broke, disorganising a large part of the Carthaginian army and demoralising all of it, Metellus ordered an attack on its left flank. The Carthaginians fled; those who attempted to fight were cut down. Metellus did not permit a pursuit, but did capture ten elephants in the immediate aftermath and, according to some accounts, the rest of the surviving animals over the succeeding days.[64]

Contemporary accounts do not report the other losses of either side, although the Carthaginians' are thought to have been heavy. Modern historians consider later claims of 20,000–30,000 Carthaginian casualties improbable.[67] Similarly, later accounts that the large Celtic contingent in the Carthaginian army were drunk when the battle began are usually dismissed; as is the suggestion that a Carthaginian fleet took part in the operation, causing heavy casualties when many fleeing soldiers ran into the sea hoping to be taken off by their ships.[68][69]


The defeat, and especially the loss of the elephants, resulted in the Romans feeling freer to manoeuvre on the plains, and the Carthaginians no longer being willing to challenge them.[70] As was the Carthaginian custom after a defeat, Hasdrubal was recalled to Carthage to be executed.[71] After his success at Panormus, Metellus received a triumph in Rome on 7 September 250 BC, during which he paraded with the elephants he had captured at Panormus, who were then slaughtered in the Circus Maximus. The elephant was adopted as the emblem of the powerful Caecilii Metelli family, whose members featured an elephant on the coins they minted until the end of the Republic.[72][73]

Hasdrubal's successor, Adhubal, decided that the large fortified city of Selinus could no longer be garrisoned and had the town evacuated and destroyed.[64] Encouraged by their victory at Panormus, the Romans moved against the main Carthaginian base on Sicily, Lilybaeum, in 249 BC. A large army commanded by the year's consuls Publius Claudius Pulcher and Lucius Junius Pullus besieged the city. They had rebuilt their fleet, and 200 ships blockaded the harbour.[70] The city was still held by the Carthaginians when the war ended nine years later in 241 BC with a Roman victory.[74]

Tensions remained high between the two states, and both continued to expand in the western Mediterranean. When Carthage besieged the Roman-protected town of Saguntum in eastern Iberia in 218 BC, it ignited the Second Punic War with Rome.[75]

Notes, citations and sources[edit]


  1. ^ The term Punic comes from the Latin word Punicus (or Poenicus), meaning "Carthaginian", and is a reference to the Carthaginians' Phoenician ancestry.[2]
  2. ^ Sources other than Polybius are discussed by Bernard Mineo in "Principal Literary Sources for the Punic Wars (apart from Polybius)".[18]
  3. ^ This could be increased to 5,000 in some circumstances.[20]
  4. ^ The Spanish used a heavy throwing spear which the Romans were later to adopt as the pilum.[22]
  5. ^ These elephants were typically about 2.5-metre-high (8 ft) at the shoulder, and should not be confused with the larger African bush elephant.[28]
  6. ^ The other was the Battle of Agrigentum, a Roman victory in 262 BC.[35]
  7. ^ The classicist John Lazenby suggests that Panormus's outer town was on the site of modern Cassaro, and the inner town on that of Kalsa.[54]


  1. ^ Champion 2015, p. 102.
  2. ^ Sidwell & Jones 1997, p. 16.
  3. ^ a b Goldsworthy 2006, p. 20.
  4. ^ a b Tipps 1985, p. 432.
  5. ^ Shutt 1938, p. 53.
  6. ^ Walbank 1990, pp. 11–12.
  7. ^ Lazenby 1996, pp. x–xi.
  8. ^ Hau 2016, pp. 23–24.
  9. ^ Goldsworthy 2006, p. 23.
  10. ^ Shutt 1938, p. 55.
  11. ^ a b Goldsworthy 2006, p. 21.
  12. ^ a b Goldsworthy 2006, pp. 20–21.
  13. ^ Lazenby 1996, pp. x–xi, 82–84.
  14. ^ Tipps 1985, pp. 432–433.
  15. ^ Curry 2012, p. 34.
  16. ^ Hoyos 2015, p. 102.
  17. ^ Goldsworthy 2006, p. 22.
  18. ^ Mineo 2015, pp. 111–127.
  19. ^ Goldsworthy 2006, pp. 23, 98.
  20. ^ Bagnall 1999, p. 23.
  21. ^ Bagnall 1999, pp. 22–25.
  22. ^ a b c d Goldsworthy 2006, p. 32.
  23. ^ a b Koon 2015, p. 80.
  24. ^ a b Bagnall 1999, p. 9.
  25. ^ Bagnall 1999, p. 8.
  26. ^ a b Goldsworthy 2006, p. 33.
  27. ^ Lazenby 1996, p. 27.
  28. ^ Miles 2011, p. 240.
  29. ^ Miles 2011, pp. 157–158.
  30. ^ Bagnall 1999, pp. 21–22.
  31. ^ Goldsworthy 2006, pp. 29–30.
  32. ^ Goldsworthy 2006, pp. 25–26.
  33. ^ Warmington 1993, p. 165.
  34. ^ Goldsworthy 2006, p. 82.
  35. ^ Rankov 2015, pp. 151–152.
  36. ^ Bagnall 1999, p. 65.
  37. ^ Bagnall 1999, pp. 64–66.
  38. ^ Goldsworthy 2006, p. 97.
  39. ^ Miles 2011, p. 179.
  40. ^ Bagnall 1999, p. 66.
  41. ^ Rankov 2015, p. 155.
  42. ^ Goldsworthy 2006, pp. 110–111.
  43. ^ Lazenby 1996, p. 87.
  44. ^ Tipps 1985, p. 436.
  45. ^ Warmington 1993, p. 176.
  46. ^ Goldsworthy 2006, pp. 85–86.
  47. ^ Miles 2011, p. 188.
  48. ^ Tipps 1985, p. 438.
  49. ^ Miles 2011, p. 189.
  50. ^ Erdkamp 2015, p. 66.
  51. ^ Miles 2011, pp. 189–190.
  52. ^ Lazenby 1996, p. 114.
  53. ^ a b c d Bagnall 1999, p. 80.
  54. ^ Lazenby 1996, pp. 115–116.
  55. ^ Goldsworthy 2006, p. 92.
  56. ^ a b Bagnall 1999, p. 79.
  57. ^ a b c Scullard 2006, p. 559.
  58. ^ Lazenby 1996, pp. 27, 118.
  59. ^ a b Rankov 2015, p. 159.
  60. ^ Bagnall 1999, p. 82.
  61. ^ Morgan 1972, pp. 121, 129.
  62. ^ Lazenby 1996, pp. 120–121.
  63. ^ a b c Lazenby 1996, p. 120.
  64. ^ a b c d e Bagnall 1999, p. 83.
  65. ^ Goldsworthy 2006, p. 93.
  66. ^ Crawford 1974, pp. 292–293..
  67. ^ Goldsworthy 2006, pp. 93–94.
  68. ^ Lazenby 1996, p. 121.
  69. ^ Goldsworthy 2006, p. 94.
  70. ^ a b Miles 2011, p. 190.
  71. ^ Rankov 2015, p. 160.
  72. ^ Walbank 1957, pp. 102–103.
  73. ^ Crawford 1974, pp. 287–288, 292–293, 387–388, 390, 471.
  74. ^ Goldsworthy 2006, p. 133.
  75. ^ Collins 1998, p. 13.


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  • Rankov, Boris (2015) [2011]. "A War of Phases: Strategies and Stalemates". In Hoyos, Dexter (ed.). A Companion to the Punic Wars. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley. pp. 149–166. ISBN 978-1-4051-7600-2.
  • Tipps, G.K. (1985). "The Battle of Ecnomus". Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte. 34 (4): 432–465. JSTOR 4435938.

Further reading[edit]