Hannibal of Carthage


               The Mercenary War (240-237 B.C.)




          The Mercenary War (240-237 B.C.) — also called the Libyan War and the Truce-less War by Roman historians — was an uprising of mercenary  armies formerly employed by Carthage, many of whom had fought for Hamilcar Barca during his Sicilian campaigns against the Romans, backed by Libyan settlements revolting against Carthaginian control.

          The war began as a dispute over the payment of money owed the mercenaries between the mercenary armies, who fought the First Punic War on Carthage's behalf, and a destitute, defeated Carthage, which had lost most of its wealth due to the indemnities imposed by Rome as part of the peace treaty, as well as the fact that during the war, trade was put on the back burner, which caused less profits to flow into the city.  When the mercenaries returned to Carthage from Sicily they demanded the money that was owed to them. The Carthage leader, Hanno the Great, then attempted to pay them much less than what was promised to them, causing widespread outrage among the mercenaries.  The dispute grew until the mercenaries seized the city of Tunis by force of arms, and directly threatened Carthage, which then reluctantly, capitulated to the mercenaries demands. The conflict would have ended there, had not two of the mercenary commanders, Spendius and Matho, persuaded the newly-enlisted Libyan's in the army to accept their leadership, and then convinced them that Carthage would exact vengeance for their part in the revolt once the foreign mercenaries were paid and sent home. They also persuaded the combined mercenary armies to revolt against Carthage, unless Carthage would submit to their demands for a large increase in pay that they were demanding over the original that Carthage had already paid. Spendius and Matho were able to convince various Libyan towns and cities to back the revolt. Almost all the cities, save Utica and Hippakra, joined the revolt on Carthage. What had been a hotly contested "labor dispute" exploded into a full-scale revolt. This occurred at an inopportune time for Carthage, as this would further cripple her while Rome was rapidly expanding and recovering quickly from the war that she had just won.

          Heavily over-matched in terms of troops and supplies, as well as moral, an unprepared Carthage fared poorly in the initial engagements of the war, especially under the generalship of Hanno the Great.  This would change once Carthage empowered Hamilcar Barca, the undefeated general from the campaigns in Sicily, to supreme commander of all Carthage forces. Hamilcar would not disappoint and eventually defeated the rebels in 237 B.C.

          Originally concerned about the possibility of a large, disgruntled, mercenary force encamped near Carthage, Gisco, the Carthaginian commandant, second-in-command to Hamilcar in Sicily, was  responsible for transporting the mercenaries from Sicily, and attempted to deploy the mercenaries throughout Carthaginian territory, perhaps to garrison the numerous cities and towns throughout Carthage Africa.  It was his plan to then bring the mercenary units back to the capital one at a time, for demobilization and payment. However, delays by the Carthaginian government, and a belief that the mercenaries could be convinced to settle for less than their agreed wages, resulted in the eventual gathering of most of the mercenary armies near Carthage. Wary of such a large foreign army near the capital that was naturally ready to take up arms against them, and alarmed by the disruptive effects they were having on the city, the Carthaginian government convinced the mercenaries to withdraw to the nearby city of Sicca Veneria, 170 km south-west of Carthage, taking their families and baggage trains with them.

          Once in Sicca Veneria, the mercenaries collaborated on a list of demands in addition to what was originally promised and submitted to Carthage that this was the sum they should now be paid. When Hanno the Great met with officers from the mercenary army, he rejected their demands, claiming that Carthage could not possibly pay such an exorbitant sum due to her post-war indemnities to Rome and due to the fact that their treasury was empty from funding the failed war.        



                                                     Matho, one of the leaders of the mercenaries 

      The mercenaries were unhappy with the rejection of their demands, and were mistrustful of Hanno, much preferring to deal with the commanders they had served under in Sicily, such as Hamilcar, who had seen their worth and furthermore made promises to them. The relationship that was born between Hamilcar and his men was strong and Hamilcar was known by the mercenaries to have been furious at Carthage that they were not following through on his promise to pay the men who had served him and Carthage.   Unsurprisingly, due to the mistrust and difficulties in communication (the mercenaries were from many different nations, speaking many different languages), the negotiations quickly broke down. A force of mercenaries, about 20,000 strong, armed themselves and marched towards Carthage, seizing the town of Tunis, some 21 km from Carthage.

          Realizing their error in letting such a large foreign army gather in the first place, and also realizing that they had released the family and belongings of the mercenaries as well and thus had given up a bargaining position, the Carthaginian government had no choice but to capitulate to the mercenary demands. A special tax was developed which all citizens had to pay and eventually the amount was accrued to pay the mercenaries.  

          Not willing to deal with Hanno again, and feeling insulted by Hamilcar for not having met with them in the first round of negotiations in person, the mercenaries agreed to negotiate with Gesco. Given their newly strengthened bargaining position, the mercenaries vastly inflated their last demands, even requiring the extension of the payments to the Libyans whom Carthage had conscripted (and who were not mercenaries) as well as other Numidians and to the escaped slaves and the like who had joined their ranks against Carthage. Once again Carthage had no choice but to agree.

          Despite the more generous settlement,  Spendius and Mathos organized a rebellion, based on speculation that after the foreigners left Africa, Carthage would be unwilling, or simply unable, to pay those remaining. In 240 B.C. Gesco and other Carthaginian officials who were in negotiations with the mercenaries regarding the timetable of their departure,  were taken prisoner by the mercenary leadership and Carthage took up arms against the mercenaries. Open warfare ensued.

          Most of the Libyan population, discontent with Carthaginian rule, supported the rebels. Carthage still had some loyal mercenaries quartered near Tunis, and was also able to deploy the mercenaries still in Sicily and to hire a limited amount of fresh troops. Carthage initially organized an army consisting of the mercenaries as well as citizens to which Hanno was given command. By the time Hanno moved onto the attack, the rebels had already blockaded Utica and Hippakra, the two primary cities who at first had remained loyal to Carthage.  Hanno engaged the rebels at Utica and was soundly defeated.

          Hamilcar Barca was called out of retirement to replace the ineffective Hanno the Great, following his embarrassing defeat at Utica. Hamilcar put his displeasure with the Carthaginian government aside and reluctantly agreed to put down the revolt led by his former army. Intent on retaking the city of Utica, Hamilcar began moving his troops across the beach where they were quickly surrounded by a horde of insurgents from the city, as well as professional soldiers from a nearby castle they were passing. Charging his was elephants around the insurgent horde, Hamilcar was able to reach a nearly undefended Utica, thus securing Carthage's first victory of the war. The battle was known as the Battle of  Bagrade's River (239B.C.). The Carthage victory underscored the optimism that the Libyans and Numidians, whom had joined the rebels, had that they would be able to topple Carthage, as the Carthage army that Hamilcar led into battle was vastly smaller in numbers to their own. 

         As the war progressed, Hamilcar was first given joint command with Hanno, and finally, due to Hanno's lack of effective leadership and also due to the fact that he was growing more and more unpopular in Carthage due to the fact that many blamed the war on him for his failure to pay the mercenaries in a timely manner in the first place,  full command of Carthage's army. Even though he was vastly outnumbered and faced a hardened mercenary army which he himself had led against the Roman Legions, Hamilcar displayed superior military leadership and clever use of psychology in the conflict. His talents and the bond that he had once had with numerous members of the mercenary army eventually won over a portion of the mercenary armies to return to Carthage's side. Hamilcar had offered a full pardon for any mercenary who would re-join his army. He also promised that he would see to it personally that they were paid for their services, instead of relying on the Carthage government to do this. As many left the rebellion, Spendius and Matho, the two primary leaders of the rebellion, then committed atrocities to the Carthaginian prisoners they held, to anger Hamilcar to rescind his offer of pardon to their troops, which in turn would lessen the threat of desertion among their army, due to the fact that the repercussions from Carthage would be as equally horrid. The leaders of the revolt had a large hole dug and then, while allowing numerous Carthage prisoners to watch(they then turned these free so they could report to Hamilcar and Carthage what they had witnessed), the rebels cut the arms and legs off Gesco and 700 other Carthaginian prisoners, before tossing them, still alive, into the pit that they had dug. (Gesco would leave one son, referred to in history as, Hasdrubal son-of-Gesco, who would play a prominent role in the second Punic war along with Hamilcars three sons). This conduct that was attributed by the mercenaries was intended to prevent any possibility of a negotiated settlement, which contributed to this being often called one of the most heinous wars in history. The mercenary army then marched to Carthage and laid siege to her walls.

          Hamilcar responded by marching towards the mercenary army and met them at the "Battle of the Saw", which was mostly a protracted siege rather than a battle. It takes its name from its location: a box like canyon known as "The Saw" because of its shape.

          The battle which took place in 238 BC was set about by Hamilcar who had managed  to destroy the supply lines of the armies besieging the city of Carthage, forcing them to withdraw. The mercenary armies proceeded to fight a running battle with Hamilcar's forces, attempting to engage and destroy them with their superior numbers. Hamilcar managed to avoid direct confrontation, and outmaneuvered the mercenaries, striking them in guerrilla-like tactics..

          Having lured the mercenary armies near "The Saw", he managed to ambush them and the panicked mercenaries fled into the canyon. He then besieged the canyon, and waited. Sources speak of thousands of the rebel mercenaries starving, and even reports of cannibalism among their army once their food supply had been exhausted.

          Knowing they could not win, several mercenary commanders Spendius, Autaritus and Zarzas, met with Hamilcar in order to arrange a surrender, but Hamilcar had them seized and imprisoned. With no other options, the remaining weakened mercenaries attempted to break the siege and escape, but were swiftly and easily defeated. Matho, however, escaped with several thousand mercenaries and fled to the island of Sardinia, which had just began their own revolt against Carthage months earlier.

          Hamilcar then ruthlessly ordered the execution of 1,000 starving rebels in response to the 700 Carthaginian prisoners they had previously killed. He ordered them tied to stakes in the ground and trampled to death under the feet of his war elephants. This action was likely a form of revenge. As this transpired, Hamilcar organized his force to sail to Sardinia to deal with Matho and the remaining mercenaries, as well as the Sardinians who were revolting.

          Matho, however, sent a delegation to Rome begging for assistance against Carthage and Rome responded to his request and landed a consular army upon both Sardinia and Corsica, then proceeded to annex the two islands from Carthage. 

         The conduct of the war was barbaric even by the standards of the time. Roman historians called it a "truce-less war", without any concept of the rules of warfare and exceeding all other conflicts in cruelty, ending only with the total annihilation of one of the opponents.The conflict of course escalated when the mercenary leadership tortured and killed its Carthaginian prisoners and in response the Carthaginians committed similar actions.The war had repercussions for Carthage, both internally, and internationally. Internally, the victory of Hamilcar Barca greatly enhanced the prestige and power of the Barcid family, whose most famous member, Hannibal, would lead Carthage in the Second Punic War. Internationally, Rome used the "invitation" of the mercenaries that had captured Sardinia to occupy the island, as well as Corsica (238-237 B.C.). When Carthage prepared the force to pursue the remnants of the mercenaries there, Rome reported to Carthage that Sardinia had been annexed by Rome at the request of the island. Carthage still continued military preparations and sent envoys to Rome to denounce what was their unlawful seizure of the islands. Illegal as it may have been, the Romans rejected the Carthage outrage and declared war on Carthage. Carthage immediately surrendered rather than enter into a conflict with Rome again, giving up all claims on Sardinia and Corsica, and placing themselves in debt to Rome by another 1,200 talents.


   Carthage, already crushed from the loss of Sicily,  would soon see Sardinia and Corsica  illegally annexed by the Romans.

          The seizure of Sardinia and Corsica and the outrageous extra indemnity fueled high resentment in Carthage and set the boundaries for the hatred that Carthage would reflect towards Rome for the remainder of her existence.  The loss of Sardinia and Corsica also encouraged unstoppable hatred in Hamilcar towards Rome, which in turn he would pass down to his three sons. He would dedicate the remaining years of his life to punish Rome for what they had done. His plans that he would put in place would propel Carthage into the Second Punic War, even years after his death. His son's, Hannibal, Hasdrubal, and Mago would follow with their own hatred towards Rome, which was undoubtedly passed down to them by their father. Never in the history of Rome would they have to pay so dearly for a single, un-honorable act.  

                                                                                          Image of Hamilcar on Carthage Coin

 Hamilcar, with young son Hannibal, saying farewell to his wife before sailing to Spain to rebuild the Carthaginian Empire

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