First Punic War > Battles > Battle of Drepana

Battle of Drepana

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Battle of Drepana


Military Forces

  • 120 Ships
  • 120 Ships


  • None
  • 93 Ships Captured or Sunk


The Battle of Drepana or Drepanum was a naval battle during the First Punic War in 249 BC that occurred off the coast of western Sicily between the Carthaginians and the Roman Republic. This was followed by a series of successive victories by the Romans at the Battle of Mylae and the Battle of Cape Ecnomus.

These victories gave the Romans the confidence to directly besiege the Carthaginian stronghold at Lilybaeum which was governed by Himilco. The Romans under the consuls for the year named Publius Claudius Pulcher and Lucius Junius Pullus soon blockaded the city. However, the Romans were still inexperienced in naval blockades and combat and the Carthaginians under Hannibal, son of Hamilcar managed to run through the siege and deliver supplies to the city. Also in the middle of the night Hannibal took all of the cavalry horses and sailed to the harbor of Drepana before the Romans ever knew what happened.

Due to the success of the Carthaginian blockade running they repeated it several more times before the Romans caught on. This angered the Romans who were attempting to starve off the city and severe its communications, but were nonetheless being thwarted. At one point a Carthaginian sailor named Hannibal the Rhodian openly sailed around the Roman navy to intercept communications and relay them to the Carthaginian commander named Adherbal.


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 state that Pulcher, as the senior magistrate in command, took the auspices before battle, according to Roman religious requirements. 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." (Latin "Bibant, quoniam esse nolunt.) 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 the incident of drowning the chickens at least dubious, although the auspices almost certainly would have been taken.

In the harbour, the Carthaginians did not wait to see what the Romans intended. Adherbal 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. Adherbal 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.


In the aftermath of the battle Publius Claudius Pulcher managed to flee back to Rome where he was quickly facing charges of treason for deserting. However, the Romans did not execute their generals like the Carthaginians did and merely banished him into exile on account of the chicken bones incident.

This same year Hamilcar Barca would lead a land invasion of Sicily where a storm would destroy the rest of the Roman fleet that remained which was commanded by Juinius Paullus. The Romans were so demoralized by their defeat during the Battle of Drepana that they would appoint the dictator Aulus Atilius Calatinus to help settle the conflict on the island. The Romans would also wait another seven years before building another fleet and attempting to engage the Carthaginians in open combat.

First Punic War

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Naval Battles

Treaty of Lutatius



Primary Sources

The Rise of the Roman Empire, by Polybius.

Cicero, M. Tullius. De natura deorum. Perseus Digital Library. p. 2.7. Retrieved 17 February 2016. The comment is reported in indirect discourse, so the Latin here reflects what Pulcher's actual words would have been.

Secondary Sources

The Fall of Carthage, by Adrian Goldsworthy, Cassel

Sheridan, Paul (2015-11-08). "The Sacred Chickens of Rome". Anecdotes from Antiquity. Retrieved 2015-11-17.

Lazenby, J.F. (1996). The First Punic War: A Military History. Stanford: Stanford University Press. pp. 133–134. ISBN 0-8047-2674-4.

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