Timeline of the Mercenary War 240 – 238 BC

The main source for the Mercenary War of 240 to 238 BC is Polybius’ “The Histories”. I used him for the detail but used Wikipedia: Mercenary War for the chronology of events given Polybius is a bit vague on dates.

This war had lasted for three years and four months and featured atrocities by both protagonists, hence Polybius’ description as the “Truceless War”. The war was also called the Libyan War given it involved a revolt of Carthage’s Libyan subjects.

241 BC: Labour Dispute

In 241 BC Carthage and Rome signed terms to bring the First Punic War to an end. The terms of the treaty dictated that Carthage:

  • give up “all islands lying between Sicily and Italy”
  • immediately pay Rome 1,000 talents of gold
  • pay a further 2,000 talents over a 10 year period

These conditions left Carthage short of cash to pay the mercenaries – some 20,000 of them – who had fought under Hamilcar Barca during the just finished war. They were a mixed bag including Iberians, Celts, Ligurians, Balearic islanders, Greek half-breeds (mostly deserters and slaves), but with the largest group consisting of Libyans.

Hamilcar Barca transferred his forces from Eryx to Lilybaeum and then resigned his command. Another Carthaginian General, Gisco, transported the army back to Carthaginian territory in Africa. Gisco sent the mercenaries in batches for demobilization, payment, and repatriation. Unfortunately the government procrastinated and the entire army, accompanied by their families and baggage train, ended up near Carthage. With discipline crumbling they caused some disturbances. The alarmed Carthaginian government persuaded the mercenaries to withdraw to Sicca Veneria (Modern El Kef) 170 km south-west of Carthage. The payment of a gold stater for pressing expenses helped but the mercenaries were disturbed that they had to take their women and baggage with them – normally these would be left at Carthage for the impending demobilisation. At Sicca Veneria the mercenaries demanded a large sum from Hanno the Great as payment of their contracts. Carthage’s impoverished post-war condition meant Hanno rejected their demands and even asked the mercenaries to accept a lower payment. The veterans weren’t keen on this and negotiations broke down.

The mercenaries took up arms and seized Tunis 21 km from Carthage. Given their strong military position the mercenaries felt able to increase their demands and sought payment for the Libyan conscripts, Numidians and escaped slaves in the army as well as the mercenaries. Given the threat the Carthaginians gave in to all demands. Gisco was the main Carthaginian negotiator.

240 BC

Two mercenaries, Spendius and Mathos, had personal motivations for wanting the negotiations to fail. Spendius was a runaway Roman slave from Campania; He was afraid of his master would claim him if he was returned to Italy and he would by Roman law be tortured and put to death. Mathos was a free Libyan but as he had taken a leading part in the recent disturbances he was concerned the Carthaginians would single him out for punishment. These two convinced the Libyan conscripts that once the foreign mercenaries were paid and sent home Carthage would seek revenge on the conscripts for their part in the revolt. The phrase “Stone him” became universal in the army as anyone who might speak against Spendius and Mathos were stoned. With no one willing to oppose them Spendius and Mathos were appointed as generals and the mercenaries captured Gisco thus starting the Mercenary War.

The mercenaries then persuaded most Libyan towns to join the revolt and about 70,000 Libyans joined the mercenary forces. Utica and Hippacritae refused to join the mercenary cause and Mathos sent Libyan forces to besiege these towns and to occupy Tunis.

Battle of Utica

Hanno the Great assumed command of the Carthaginian army including mercenaries and citizens. The loyal mercenaries were those still quartered in Tunis, or still in Sicily, and freshly hired troops. He had over 100 elephants and catapults. Hanno the Great led his force to Utica to break the siege. Hanno camped near the city he assaulted the mercenaries’ entrenched camp. The Carthaginian elephants forced their way into the enemy camp, killing many of the defenders, and driving the rest out. Hanno thought he’d won the day, left his army and entered the city. He then sent out the cities artillery to his own camp. Meanwhile the surviving mercenaries had sought shelter on a nearby steep hill that was overgrown with brushwood. Seeing Hanno enter Utica, and his troops at their ease, the mercenaries on the hill formed up and attacked the Carthaginian camp. They killed many, drove others to the city, and captured all the baggage and artillery. So ended the Battle of Utica.

A few days later Hanno the Great faced the mercenaries at a place called Gorza. The somewhat incompetent Hanno apparently missed four opportunities of beating the mercenaries, twice in a pitched battle and twice by a surprise attack. Following Hanno the Greats failures Hamilcar Barca assumed joint command of the Carthaginian armies.

Battle of the Bagradas River

In Carthage Hamilcar had created an army of 10,000 men – citizens, new mercenaries and deserters from the enemy – and 70 elephants. Carthage sat on a peninsular with a chain of hills and the river Bagradas forming a barrier with Libya. Mathos had placed guards at the passes through the hills and at the single bridge across the otherwise unfordable Bagradas, effectively cutting Carthage off from the open country. In fact just under 10,000 mercenaries were encamped in a make shift town at the bridge. However, Hamilcar had noticed that at certain times the wind silted up the mouth of the river and made it shallow enough to cross just where it enters the sea. Without even letting his own side know his plan Hamilcar formed up his men one night when the wind was right and had crossed the river by day break.

Hamilar advanced across the plain towards the bridge with the elephants in front, then the cavalry and light-armed troops, and lastly the heavy infantry. Spendius tried to trap Hamilcar between 15,000 men from the camp outside Utica and the roughly 10,000 from the bridge. When they came within sight of the Carthaginians the mercenaries rushed to attack. Hamilcar had formed a battle line around his rearmost troops. He had the troops at the front of his line of march about face and withdraw at speed as he deployed his rear most troops to face the enemy. At the sight of the retreating Carthaginian cavalry and elephants the mercenaries broke ranks and charged headlong. When the Carthaginian cavalry and elephants approached their own heavy infantry they wheeled again to face the charging mercenaries. The most advanced rebels were so surprised they immediately broke and fled into their fellows behind. The Carthaginian cavalry and elephants then charged into the confused mass. At this, the battle of the Bagradas river, the mercenaries lost about 6,000 Libyans killed and 2,000 captured. The rest escaped back to the camp at Utica or the town at the bridge. Hamilar followed up closely and took the town at the bridge. The defenders fled to Tunis. Hamilcar then recovered other towns through intimidation or assault.

Another Hamilcar Victory ?? Name of Battle ??

Mathos continued to besiege Hippacritae but begged the Libyan towns and Numidians to send aid. In Tunis Spendius had about 6,000 Libyans from all the tribes and about 2,000 Gauls under Autaritus (these guys had stayed with the Carthaginians when the rest of their compatriots deserted to the Romans when encamped near Eryx in Sicily). Spendius began to shadow Hamilcar’s army from the protection of nearby hills, avoiding the plains given the Carthaginians superiority in cavalry and elephants. As Hamilcar built a palisaded camp in a plain surrounded by mountains Spendius got his Libyan and Numidian reinforcements. The Carthaginians found themselves facing a force of Libyans to their front, Numidians to their rear, and Spendius to their flank.

Naravas, a young rebel Numidian chieftan but with long standing family links to Carthage, saw an opportunity to ingratiate himself with Hamilcar. After a visit the Carthaginian camp Naravas brought his 2,000 men over to Hamilcar. With these reinforcements Hamilcar offered battle. Spendius had joined up with the new Libyans force and decided to descend into the plain and attack the Carthaginians. The battle was long but the elephants fought well and Naravas did excellent service and Hamilcar took the victory. Spendius and Autaritus escaped but lost about 10,000 killed and 4,000 prisoners. Hamilcar pardoned the rebel prisoners, accepted those who would return to Carthaginian service into his army, and exiled the rest.

Sardinian Revolt

Meanwhile the small mercenary force in Sardinia revolted and took control of the island. They began but killing Bostar, the commander of the foreign contingent, and other Carthaginians in the citidel. Then Carthaginians then sent Hanno over in command of a fresh force, but Hanno’s men deserted and joined the mutineers. Hanno was crucified. The rebels then tortured and killed all the Carthaginians on the island. The mercenaries offered the island to Rome but at the Romans were keen to keep Carthage solvent and refused. Eventually the Sardinians quarelled with the mercentaries and evicted them; they mercenaries fled to Italy.

239 BC: Atrocities begin

Hamilcar’s leniency alarmed Mathos and Spendius who ordered the mutilation and execution of about seven hundred Carthaginian prisoners, including the General Gisco. These atrocities prevented further defections as the rebels didn’t care to face Carthaginian justice. From that point both protagonists killed all prisoners.

After falling out with his co-commander Hamilcar became sole commander of the Carthaginian armies.

Utica and Hippacritae revolted from Carthage. The inhabitants killed the 500 men Carthage had sent to their aid and threw all the bodies from the wall before surrendering the city to the Libyans.

The mercenaries besieged Carthage as Hamilcar sought to cut their supplies.

Carthage sought help against the mercenaries from Hiero II of Syracuse and Rome. The mercenaries rejected the efforts of the Roman mediators.

238 BC

Battle of “The Saw”

Eventually Hamilcar’s strategy of threatening the supply lines of the mercenary army besieging Carthage forced the mercenaries to break the siege. 70,000 Libyan tried the earlier strategy of shadowing Hamilcar from the hills. Hamilcar’s generalship proved superior in this skirmish war and he harried the mercenaries unil he had forced them into a box canyon. The Carthaginians besieged the trapped mercenaries who resorted to cannibalism to survive – starting with their prisoners and slave. The mercenary leadership, including Spendius but not Mathos, now fearing their men more than the enemy surrendered to Hamilcar. The remaining mercenaries tried to break out but were defeated at the Battle of “The Saw”. The battle got this name because of the terrain resembled the tool called a Saw. About 40,000 rebels were killed.

Defeat of Mathos

Carthaginian armies – one under Hamilcar and another under an unrelated Hannibal – proceeded to reduce the rebel Libyan cities. Hamilcar and Hannibal besieged Mathos’s army at Tunis. They crucified the captured mercenary leaders in sight of the city’s battlements. A sortie found a weakness in Hannibal’s camp defences. The mercenaries killed many and captured Hannibal and several other high ranking Carthaginians. The mercenaries then removed the bodies of the crucified mercenary leaders and crucified the Hannibal in place of Spendius and executed another 30 at his feet. Hamilcar could not reach the scene in time to intervene and subsequently broke the siege and moved to the beach at the mouth of the river Bagradas. Hanno the Great arrived with all the remaining Carthaginian citizens of military age and assume co-command with Hamilcar.

The Carthaginians then defeated Mathos’s army in a general engagement, killed most of the Libyans, and captured the man himself.

Reduction of Libyan Cities

The Libyan settlements surrendered to Carthage. Ironically it is Utica and Hippacritae, the cities that held out for Carthage originally, that now refuse to revert to Carthaginian rule. Hamilcar and Hanno’s armies each besieged and reduced one of the rebel cities (the sources are not clear which general reduced which city).


Carthage prepared a force to crush the mercenaries remnant from Sardinia. However Rome delared war on Carthage with the pretext that the Carthaginian navy had been preying on Roman shipping and that Carthage’s military preparations were to be used against themselves. Facing another war with Rome the Carthaginians quickly capitulated, abandoned all claims to Sardinia, and added another 1,200 talents to the indemnity owed Rome. Rome annexed Sardinia.


Polybius, The Histories.

Wikipedia: Mercenary War

Other sources to follow up

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. 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.

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