Punic Wars > Mercenary War

Mercenary War

Punic Wars - Punic Wars Decoration


The Mercenary War, also known as the Libyan War or the Truceless War according to the Greek historian Polybius was a conflict that served as an interlude between the First and Second Punic War. Following the harsh terms imposed by the Roman Republic on the Carthaginians, they were unable to maintain their mercenary army and thus attempted to discharge them along with reduced pay due to the war reparations owed to the Romans. However, the mercenaries along with some Libyan cities rebelled against Carthage.

The war itself would break out when the mercenaries who were left disenfranchised by the sudden loss of wealth in Carthage would seize the city of Tunis in what is known as the Blockade of Tunis.

The conflict would have ended there, had not two of the mercenary commanders, Spendius and Mathos, persuaded the Libyan conscripts 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, and various Libyan towns and cities to back the revolt. What had been a hotly contested "labour dispute" exploded into a full-scale revolt.Heavily outmatched in terms of troops, money, and supplies, an unprepared Carthage fared poorly in the initial engagements of the war, especially under the generalship of Hanno the Great. Hamilcar Barca, general from the campaigns in Sicily and father of Hannibal Barca, was given supreme command, and eventually defeated the rebels in 237 BC.In 241 BC the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage came to an end with Carthaginian defeat.[1] As part of the terms of the treaty, Rome demanded that Carthage give up "all islands lying between Sicily and Italy", immediately pay Rome a sum of 1,000 talents of gold, and pay a further 2,000 talents over a period of 10 years.[2] After meeting the Roman demands, a destitute Carthage now found itself in a quandary: it had employed numerous mercenaries in the First Punic War and now found it difficult to pay them.[3] During the First Punic War the Carthaginians had recruited mercenaries from diverse sources, including Iberians, Celt-Iberians, Balearic Islanders, Ligurians, Celts and Greeks.[4]This was a problem, as some 20,000 mercenaries, formerly under the command of Hamilcar Barca (who had resigned his command at the end of the First Punic War[5]), would shortly be returning from Lilybaeum (modern Marsala in Sicily) to Carthage. Concerned about the possibility of a large, disgruntled, mercenary force encamped near Carthage, Gesco (Gisco), the Carthaginian commandant responsible for transporting the mercenaries from Sicily, attempted to deploy the mercenaries throughout Carthaginian territory. It was his plan to 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, 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 (modern El Kef), 170 km south-west of Carthage, taking their families and baggage trains with them.[6]Once in Sicca Veneria, the mercenaries collaborated on a list of demands and "submitted that this was the sum they should demand from the Carthaginians".[7] When Hanno the Great met with officers from the mercenary companies, he rejected their demands, claiming that Carthage could not possibly pay such an exorbitant sum due to her post-war indemnities to Rome.[8]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. 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.[9]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.[10]Not willing to deal with Hanno again, and feeling insulted by Hamilcar for not having met with them in the first round of negotiations, the mercenaries agreed to negotiate with Gesco. Given their newly strengthened bargaining position, the mercenaries vastly inflated their original 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.[11]Despite the more generous settlement, two mercenaries, 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 BC Gesco and other officials were taken prisoner by the mercenary leadership and open warfare ensued.The Libyan population, discontent with Carthaginian rule, supported the rebels. Carthage still had some mercenaries quartered in Tunis, and was also able to deploy the mercenaries still in Sicily and to hire fresh troops. Carthage initially organized an army consisting of mercenaries and citizens to which Hanno was given command.[12] By the time Hanno moved onto the attack, the rebels had already blockaded Utica and Hippakra.[13] Hanno engaged the rebels in the Battle of the Bagradas River which ended with a Carthaginian victory. Hamilcar then won a further victory with the aid of Navaras who had defected from the rebels.[14]As the war progressed, Hamilcar Barca was first given joint command with Hanno, and finally 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 eventually won over a portion of the mercenary armies to Carthage's side, and at the decisive Battle of "The Saw", Hamilcar destroyed the bulk of the rebel army, cunningly routeing them into a steep ravine and blockading them there until they starved to death. With the aid of a Carthaginian general Hannibal (not the famous Hannibal, son of Hamilcar Barca), and reinforcements under the command of Hanno the Great, the remnants of the mercenaries were finally put down.The conduct of the war was barbaric even by the standards of the time. Polybius called it a "truceless war", without any concept of rules of warfare and exceeding all other conflicts in cruelty, ending only with the total annihilation of one of the opponents.The conflict escalated when the mercenary leadership tortured and killed its Carthaginian prisoners and in response the Carthaginians committed similar actions. At the instigation of the mercenary leader Autaritus, Gesco and 700 of his men had their arms and legs broken, their hands cut off, were castrated, and were thrown into a pit to die, according to Polybius. These atrocities were intended to prevent any possibility of a negotiated settlement, contributing to the "most impious war in history."After the Battle of "The Saw" Spendius and Autaritus were captured and crucified. Matho was finally captured as well, and executed at Carthage after various tortures inflicted on him by a mob.


See Sardinia

Initially, a smaller mercenary revolt occurred on Sardinia, and the rebels took control of the island. When the conflict in Africa turned in favour of Carthage, the Sardinian rebels appealed to Rome for protection. However, it was in Rome's self-interest for Carthage to achieve stability and to recover economically so it could continue paying the indemnities imposed after the First Punic War. Rome rejected the appeal, and indirectly supported its former adversary by releasing Carthaginian prisoners and prohibiting trade with the mercenaries.Nevertheless, in 238 BC-237 BC, Rome annexed Sardinia and Corsica on the pretext that the Carthaginian navy had been preying on Roman shipping; this claim was probably a baseless excuse for expanding Roman influence in the Mediterranean Sea by seizing an island located in a strategic position. When Carthage prepared a force to pursue the remnants of the mercenaries there, Rome claimed that Carthage's military preparations were to be used against Rome, and declared war on Carthage. Weakened by both the First Punic War and the Mercenary War, Carthage immediately surrendered rather than enter into a conflict with Rome again, giving up all claims on Sardinia and Corsica, and agreed to pay a further indemnity of 1,200 talents.


In the aftermath of the Mercenary War the Barcid family would gain great prestige within Carthaginian society. However, the Carthaginians would also lose the island of Sardinia which greatly affected their trade network in the Mediterranean Sea. This forced them to look for new sources of wealth and pushed Hamilcar Barca and his son Hannibal Barca to establish the Barcid Empire in the area of Hispania. Hispania at this time was outside of Rome's sphere of influence and thus helped provide the initial resources with which Hannibal would launch the Second Punic War.

Mercenary War

+ Mercenary War Links


Primary Sources

Appian, History of Rome: The Sicilian Wars.

Appian, History of Rome: The Punic Wars.

Siculus, Diodorus, Universal History.

Livy (Livius, Titus), History of Rome.

Livy (Livius, Titus), Perioche.

Nepos, Cornelius, Lives of Eminent Commanders.

Pausanias, Description of Greece.

Polybius, The Histories.

Zonaras, Joannes, Epitome Historiarum (chiefly the epitome of the writings of Cassius Dio).

Naevius, "Bellum Punicum", published in Remains of Old Latin, Vol. 2, Loeb.

Secondary Sources

Harden, Donald (1962). The Phoenicians. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-14-021375-9.

Warmington, B. H. (1969). Carthage. Robert Hale & Company. ISBN 0-7091-0953-9.

F. W. Walbank, A. E. Astin, M. W. Frederiksen, R. M. Ogilvie, Assisted by A. Drummond (editors) (1984–1989). Cambridge Ancient History: Volume 7, Part 2, 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-23446-7.

Sabalico Logo
Sabalytics Logo
World Map Logo
rStatistics Logo
Time Zone Logo
Galaxy View Logo
Periodic Table Logo
My Location Logo
Weather Track Logo
Sprite Sheet Logo
Barcode Generator Logo
Test Speed Logo
Website Tools Logo
Image Tools Logo
Color Tools Logo
Text Tools Logo
Finance Tools Logo
File Tools Logo
Data Tools Logo
History of Humanity - History Archive Logo
History of Humanity - History Mysteries Logo
History of Humanity - Ancient Mesopotamia Logo
History of Humanity - Egypt History Logo
History of Humanity - Persian Empire Logo
History of Humanity - Greek History Logo
History of Humanity - Alexander the Great Logo
History of Humanity - Roman History Logo
History of Humanity - Punic Wars Logo
History of Humanity - Golden Age of Piracy Logo
History of Humanity - Revolutionary War Logo