Mercenary War

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Mercenary War
Guerra mercenaria.png
Date240 BC – 238 BC
Northwest Africa, Carthage, Utica, Tunisia, Sicca Veneria (modern El Kef).
Result Decisive Carthaginian victory
Roman annexation of Sardinia and Corsica
Carthage Carthage's mercenary army of the First Punic War.
Commanders and leaders
Hanno the Great
Hamilcar Barca
Hannibal *
Mathos **
Unknown 90,000–100,000. 20,000 mercenaries transported from Sicily and assaulted Tunis. A further mention of "about 70,000 Libyans" later in the war. Naravas' Numidians stated at "about 2,000".
Casualties and losses
Unknown High. Some 50,000 were reported killed at the Battle of "The Saw" alone. Some defected to the Carthaginians.
  • Not Hannibal Barca, but a different general of the same name.
    **Presumed executed. His death is not explicitly mentioned in the sources, but his capture and torture are.

The Mercenary War (240 BC – 238 BC), also called the Libyan War and the Truceless War by Polybius, was an uprising of mercenary armies formerly employed by Carthage, backed by Libyan settlements revolting against Carthaginian control.

Polybius Ancient Greek historian

Polybius was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period noted for his work The Histories, which covered the period of 264–146 BC in detail. The work describes the rise of the Roman Republic to the status of dominance in the ancient Mediterranean world and includes his eyewitness account of the Sack of Carthage and Corinth in 146 BC, and Roman annexation of mainland Greece after Achaean War.

Mercenary soldier who fights for hire

A mercenary, sometimes known as a soldier of fortune, is an individual who takes part in military conflict for personal profit, is otherwise an outsider to the conflict, and is not a member of any other official military. Mercenaries fight for money or other forms of payment rather than for political interests. In the last century, mercenaries have increasingly come to be seen as less entitled to protections by rules of war than non-mercenaries. Indeed, the Geneva Conventions declare that mercenaries are not recognized as legitimate combatants and do not have to be granted the same legal protections as captured soldiers of a regular army. In practice, whether or not a person is a mercenary may be a matter of degree, as financial and political interests may overlap, as was often the case among Italian condottieri.

Ancient Carthage Phoenician city-state and empire

Carthage was a Phoenician state that included, during the 7th–3rd centuries BC, its wider sphere of influence known as the Carthaginian Empire. The empire extended over much of the coast of Northwest Africa as well as encompassing substantial parts of coastal Iberia and the islands of the western Mediterranean Sea.


The war began as a dispute over the payment of money owed to the mercenaries between the mercenary armies who fought the First Punic War on Carthage's behalf, and a destitute Carthage, which had lost most of its wealth due to the indemnities imposed by Rome as part of the peace treaty. The dispute grew until the mercenaries seized Tunis by force of arms, and directly threatened Carthage, which then capitulated to the mercenaries' demands. 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.

First Punic War First war between the Roman Republic and Carthage, fought between 264 and 241 BCE

The First Punic War was the first of three wars fought between Ancient Carthage and the Roman Republic, the two great powers of the Western Mediterranean. For 23 years, in the longest continuous conflict and greatest naval war of antiquity, the two powers struggled for supremacy, primarily on the Mediterranean island of Sicily and its surrounding waters, and also in North Africa.

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.

Hanno the Great may refer to any of three different leaders of ancient Carthage, according to Gilbert Charles-Picard and Colette Picard: Hanno I the Great, Hanno II the Great, and Hanno III the Great. According to Warmington, there were three elders of Carthage called Hanno who were given the same nickname but he conjectures that it was a family nickname or a term not well understood by the ancient Greek or Roman writers. Warmington discusses only two of them but he does not use Roman numerals for them. Lancel mentions only one Hanno the Great, the Picards' "Hanno I". He references "Hanno II" but calls him simply "Hanno".

Hamilcar Barca Carthaginian general

Hamilcar Barca or Barcas was a Carthaginian general and statesman, leader of the Barcid family, and father of Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago. He was also father-in-law to Hasdrubal the Fair.

Sicily Island in the Mediterranean and region of Italy

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and one of the 20 regions of Italy. It is one of the five Italian autonomous regions, in Southern Italy along with surrounding minor islands, officially referred to as Regione Siciliana.


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]

Roman Republic Period of ancient Roman civilization (509–27 BC)

The Roman Republic was the era of classical Roman civilization beginning with the overthrow of the Roman Kingdom, traditionally dated to 509 BC, and ending in 27 BC with the establishment of the Roman Empire. It was during this period that Rome's control expanded from the city's immediate surroundings to hegemony over the entire Mediterranean world.

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]

Marsala Comune in Sicily, Italy

Marsala is an Italian town located in the Province of Trapani in the westernmost part of Sicily. Marsala is the most populated town in its province and the fifth in Sicily.

El Kef Place in Kef Governorate, Tunisia

El Kef, also known as Le Kef, is a city in northwestern Tunisia. It serves as the capital of the Kef Governorate.

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]

Course of the war

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. Mathos was finally captured as well, and executed at Carthage after various tortures inflicted on him by a mob.


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.

Consequences of the War

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. The seizure of Sardinia and the outrageous extra indemnity fuelled resentment in Carthage. The loss of Sardinia, along with the earlier loss of Sicily meant that Carthage's traditional source of wealth, its trade, was now severely compromised, forcing them to look for a new source of wealth. This led Hamilcar, together with his son-in-law Hasdrubal and his son Hannibal to establish a power base in Hispania, outside Rome's sphere of influence, which later became the source of wealth and manpower for Hannibal's initial campaigns in the Second Punic War.

Chronology of the War

241 BC

240 BC

239 BC

238 BC

Salammbô is a novel by Gustave Flaubert set before and during the revolt. It portrays Mathos' obsessive desire for the fictional Carthaginian Salammbô, the daughter of Hamilcar. A number of other works are based on Flaubert's novel.

In Manga Ad Astra Scipio to Hannibal, glimpse of this war was shown, and the aftermath of the deals between Hamilcar and the Roman Republic.


A note on the sources

Finding historical sources for The Mercenary War suffers from the same problem as any history of Carthage: Few primary sources of Carthaginian history exist, except as fragments in translation quoted by Roman and Greek historians. The main extant account of the Mercenary War is that of Polybius, a Greek historian writing many years after the events portrayed here. While it is likely that he based much of his account on now-lost works of prior Greek and Roman historians, it is unlikely that they had an unbiased view of Carthage and its history.




  1. Appian, History of Rome: The Sicilian Wars, 2.4-2.6; Livy, History of Rome, 21:18.10, 21:19.2-19.4, 21:41, 30:44.1-44.2, Perioche, 19.12-19.13; Naevius,41-43; Nepos, 21:1.4-1.5; Polybius, 1:62.4-63.3, 3:27.1-27.6, and 3:29.2-29.10; Silius, 6:687-697; Victor, 41.2; Walbank, 565.
  2. Polybius, 1:62.7-63.3
  3. Polybius, 1:66.5
  4. Terrence Wise, page 9 "Armies of the Carthaginian Wars 265-146BC
  5. Polybius, 1:66.1, 1:68.12; Zonaras, 17.c.
  6. Polybius, 1:66.1-66.9
  7. Appian, The History of Rome: The Sicilian Wars, 2.7; Diodorus, 25.6'1; Polybius, 1:66.10-67.12; Walbank, 567.
  8. Polybius, 1:67.1-67.2.
  9. Polybius, 1:67.3-67.13.
  10. Polybius, 1:68.1-68.3.
  11. Appian, The History of Rome: The Sicilian Wars, 2.7; Polybius, 1:68.4-68.13.
  12. Trueceless War, Dexter Hoyos p88
  13. Trueceless War, Dexter Hoyos p93
  14. Trueceless War, Dexter Hoyos p150-52
  15. Polybius 1:68.13-69.3.
  16. Polybius 1:69.1-69.14
  17. Polybius 1:70.1-71.7, 1:88.7, and 3:9.6-9.10; Diodorus, 25.2'1-2, 6'1; Livy, 21.2; Appian, History of the Sicilian Wars, 2.9
  18. Polybius, 1:73
  19. Polybius, 1:74
  20. Polybius, 1:79.1-79.7; Pausanias, 17.9; Walbank, 567
  21. Nepos 21:2.1-2.3; Polybius 1:75.1-75.2
  22. Polybius, 1:75.3-76.11; Walbank, 567
  23. Polybius, 1:78.1-78.9
  24. Polybius, 1:78.10-78.11
  25. Polybius, 1:78.13.
  26. Polybius, 1:79.8-81.11.
  27. Polybius, 1:82.1-82.7; Diodorus, 25.3'1.
  28. Polybius, 1:82.8-82.13; Diodorus, 25.3'2.
  29. Polybius, 1:83.1-83.4.
  30. Polybius, 1:83.5-83.11, and 3:28.3; Nepos, 22:2.3; Livy, History of Rome, 21.41; Appian, History of Rome: The Sicilian Wars 2.10, History of Rome: The Punic Wars 5'a; Walbank, 671; .
  31. Appian, History of Rome: The Sicilian Wars 2.11, History of Rome: The Punic Wars 5'b; Zonas, 17.g-17.h.

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