A while ago, we dedicated an article to the long siege that the Romans subjected Lilybaeum to, the last Carthaginian stronghold in Sicily. We then pointed out that this episode, which determined Rome’s victory in the First Punic War, was marked by a series of land and naval battles and that in one of them the Carthaginian fleet achieved its last triumph at sea against the consul Publius Claudius Pulcher. It happened in 249 BC and has gone down in history as the Battle of Drepana, with the curious anecdote that the defeated could have avoided it if they had heeded some chickens. The Roman fleet was practically annihilated and did not recover until seven years later.

Drepana is the English version of Drepanum, the name the Romans gave to a promontory in western Sicily where the city of the same name was, today Trapani. Etymologically, the word derives from the Greek drepànē, which means “sickle”, referring to the shape of the bay it overlooks (in fact, the local patron deity was Saturn, whose iconography often shows him carrying a sickle because he was the god of agriculture—along with Ceres—and time).

The founders of the place were the Elymians, a people established there during the Bronze Age who shared land—and surely blood ties—with the native Sicanians and Phoenicians, maintaining friendly relations with Carthage since the 5th century BC to curb the expansionism of the Greek colonies, especially Selinus. However, when the First Punic War broke out, they sided with the Romans, who granted them privileged status with tax exemption for believing they were descendants of the survivors who fled when Troy fell, guided by the hero Acestes, as Virgil recounted; something due to the Elymians probably coming from Anatolia.

The characteristic sickle shape of Trapani
The characteristic sickle shape of Trapani. Credit: Myke Bryan / Wikimedia Commons

The main cities of the Elymians were Eryx, Entella, Halicyae, Halyciae, Jaitas, Elima, Hyppana, and Drepana, the latter being the one of interest here. What was originally a small village, settled on a tongue of land almost insular in the sea, grew into a walled city, with a perimeter of one kilometer and a rectangular plan, protected by the sea except on the eastern side, where a wall with two entrances completed this excellent defense. Archaeological records also show that around 260 BC its old towers were demolished to build better ones by order of Hamilcar Barca.

Its strategic location, having a good maritime port, and the initial alliance with Carthage ensured that Drepana remained within its orbit. When the war against Rome broke out in 264 BC, a Punic force was concentrated there under the command of General Adherbal. To defend the site, he had a series of fortifications that Hamilcar had preemptively ordered to be built, as we saw, particularly the Pali and Peliade towers; the latter—with an obvious reference to Troy—is better known as Colombaia Castle for the castle the Aragonese built on it in the Middle Ages, later expanded by Charles V.

The Roman-Punic conflict was due to the struggle for hegemony in the western Mediterranean. Rome had just achieved territorial unity of the Italian peninsula and its subsequent expansion pointed to Sicily, which was largely in Carthaginian hands. This led to an attempt by the former to seize the island, which prolonged over time without the desired results, while Carthage, which gradually saw how it was losing the initiative in the naval war to the same extent that its enemy grew in it, followed a strategy of attrition to try to force a negotiation.

The medieval castle of Colombaia, which owes its name to the colony of pigeons that nested in it, was built on the old Punic fortress built by Hamilcar Barca
The medieval castle of Colombaia, which owes its name to the colony of pigeons that nested in it, was built on the old Punic fortress built by Hamilcar Barca. Credit: Archenzo / Wikimedia Commons

Between 262 and 254 BC, the Romans managed to take the Sicilian cities of Agrigentum and Panormus, the present Agrigento and Palermo, thanks to the powerful fleet they had built (with technological advances such as the corvus, for example) which allowed them to prevail in battles like Mylae, Sulci, Ecnomus, and Hermaeum. On land, they also proved superior, repelling a Punic attempt to reconquer Panormus in 250 BC, which gave them an extra dose of morale because in that engagement they had defeated the Carthaginian war elephants.

Taking advantage of the crest of the wave, the Senate set the next ambitious target: Lilybaeum, the main base of the enemy. It was a big bite because fifty Carthaginian ships had just disembarked between four thousand and ten thousand men with abundant supplies, so it was necessary to allocate substantial resources to the operation and coordinate the land siege with a maritime blockade. Thus, a powerful fleet of two hundred triremes was assembled and given to the consuls Publius Claudius Pulcher and Lucius Junius Pullus.

As usual in large sieges, the Romans surrounded the city with camps equipped with earth walls and wooden palisades, but bad weather prevented them from blocking the port access with logs, allowing the defenders to continue receiving supplies. The main person responsible for these daring missions was a sailor named Hannibal the Rhodian, who knew the tides and shoals of the area by heart, skillfully entering and leaving with his swift quinquereme until one day he finally ran aground, and the Romans used the captured ship as a model to replicate it in their fleet.

Artistic recreation of a Roman quinquerreme
Artistic recreation of a Roman quinquerreme. Credit: James Bikie / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

They had already done the same thing when they captured a quadrireme some time ago, and now, with these new and larger ships, Pulcher deemed the time had come to launch an attack on the enemy fleet, anchored at Drepana, about twenty-five kilometers from Lilybaeum. For this, he requested and obtained ten thousand more rowers, with whom he hoped to surpass the Punic ships in speed, especially since he would set sail at night to surprise them without the lookouts being able to warn them. However, the omens were not favorable, a real problem for the Romans, who used to start their campaigns and actions based on them.

But Pulcher was not willing to delay what he considered an almost certain victory and the solution he devised has gone down in history as one of those classic anecdotes, probably closer to legend than reality; since the most important documentary source does not even mention it (the Roman History by Polybius), it may have been an invention of a later author to discredit the gens Claudia. In any case, it is worth telling because in the long run, it served to seal the personal fate of the consul.

The auspices were obtained in multiple ways, the most accepted being those related to animals: observing the flight of a bird, analyzing the appearance of the entrails of a sacrificed animal… In the case of military expeditions, especially aboard a ship, birds were the most practical due to their small size, which allowed them to be carried in cages without hindering seafaring activities. Pulcher carried the sacri pulli or sacred chickens, with which the ex tripudiīs was practiced: a person in charge, the pullarius, released them on deck and fed them the offa (a kind of cake) to see how they reacted.

Situation of the war in Sicily in 249 BC: territory of Syracuse (in green); territory occupied by Rome (in pink); and last Carthaginian strongholds (in yellow)
Situation of the war in Sicily in 249 BC: territory of Syracuse (in green); territory occupied by Rome (in pink); and last Carthaginian strongholds (in yellow). Credit: Red Tony / Vercingetorix / Wikimedia Commons

If they pecked at the food and a part fell on the deck, it was considered a tripudium solistimum (or tripudium quasi terripavium solistimum), that is, a favorable omen. On the other hand, refusing to leave their enclosure or not wanting to eat (or flapping their wings to try to fly away) was interpreted as an unfavorable sign. Normally, they would throw themselves at the offa because the pullarius had kept the chickens without food for a long time for that purpose, but Pulcher and his officers must have been stunned when they saw that the birds did not move. Suddenly, his plan was in jeopardy.

Enraged by this, he exclaimed that if they were not hungry, at least they would be thirsty, and ordered all the chickens to be thrown overboard. Thus, he had a clear path and ordered anchors to be raised, but soon realized that his fit of anger would have disastrous consequences. The new rowers were inexperienced, disrupting the formation, stretching the fleet into an irregular line that forced the flagship to fall to the rear to ensure no one was left behind. To that same end, the vanguard had to slow down its pace and this caused it to arrive after dawn, ruining the surprise effect.

It also allowed the fleet to be spotted by the lookouts stationed on the coast, who raised the alarm. Adherbal, the Carthaginian leader, quickly and efficiently embarked his troops—composed mostly of mercenaries, whom he encouraged to fight by promising them loot and avoiding a siege—and went out to meet the enemy. He was at a numerical disadvantage, as the Romans had several dozen more galleys (one hundred twenty-three units—although some sources raise it to two hundred—compared to approximately one hundred), but, as we said, it was a new type of ship for them, the quinquereme, which the Carthaginians handled with veteran skill.

Disposition of the two fleets in the battle of Drepana
Disposition of the two fleets in the battle of Drepana. Credit: Augusta 89 / Rowanwindwhistler / Wikimedia Commons

When half of the attacking ships reached the mouth of the harbor, they encountered Adherbal’s vanguard blocking their way. Pulcher, who may have already realized the ineptitude of his men, feared that his fleet would be split in two and ordered a retreat, an operation carried out with manifest clumsiness, with the ships obstructing each other and sometimes even colliding. Adherbal, on the other hand, bypassed the enemy vanguard and went out to open sea, so his galleys had plenty of space to maneuver.

He then formed a line parallel to the adversary, with a small squadron of five quinqueremes positioned to the south to prevent the Romans from retreating towards Lilybaeum. Pulcher was caught between a rock and a hard place, with the Carthaginians at the bow and land at the stern—very close, moreover—which forced him to maintain formation without being able to move. And Adherbal gave the order to attack. At first, the Romans were able to withstand the onslaught, but as time went by, they began to give way: the Carthaginian sailors were much more skilled, and the usual way to balance the scales, the use of the corvus, could not be applied because they did not have it.

Therefore, it was Adherbal’s men who imposed their superiority by applying the tactic of ramming with the prows, which avoided the need to board, where the legionaries could resist better. Moreover, if they failed the first time, they would turn around and try again, or a second ship would take over, something the Romans could not do as they were hindered by having the coast behind them. Paradoxically, this served to save some, as part of Pulcher’s galleys were intentionally beached by their captains to allow the soldiers to disembark and flee.

Main battles fought in Sicily during the First Punic War
Main battles fought in Sicily during the First Punic War. Credit: Hel-hama / Cristiano64 / Wikimedia Commons

In the end, however, the consul managed to escape the encirclement accompanied only by about thirty ships, with the rest being sunk or captured (ninety-three according to Polybius); Adherbal did not lose any. Roman casualties numbered around twenty thousand, between dead and prisoners, which meant suffering the greatest naval defeat of the war. But the epilogue was no better. The right-hand man of the Carthaginian commander, Cartalon, who was in command of a squadron of seventy galleys, was reinforced with some additional units and sent to relieve Lilybaeum. He was going to wreak real havoc on the enemy.

Indeed, during the route, he encountered a Roman supply convoy sailing towards the city under the command of Lucius Junius Pullus, the other consul. It was composed of nearly eight hundred cargo ships gathered between the mainland and Messina, escorted by one hundred twenty galleys. He stayed with the bulk of the fleet in Syracuse, where the tyrant Hiero II was an ally and could provide him with more provisions, while sending the rest to Lilybaeum to supply the legions besieging it and already short of resources.

These decisions seem to indicate that Pullus was unaware of the disaster suffered by his colleague, as the convoy was not adequately escorted and also followed a route that skirted Sicily to the south, with Drepanum along the way and thus the enemy fleet. In fact, Cartalon (not to be confused with Hannibal’s future lieutenant) had approximately the same total number of warships as the consul but had them all together, so he was in a superior position and launched the attack when the lookouts he had placed in Heraclea Minoa warned him of approaching Roman sails. Quickly, he set out to intercept the enemy, and from there, the two main sources, Polybius and Diodorus of Sicily, differ.

The former says that the Romans realized the danger and sought refuge on land, but as the nearest city, Phintias (modern Licata), lacked a port, they took shelter in the mouths of some rivers, placing catapults and onagers around. Cartalon, seeing that panic was not spreading as expected, could only capture some smaller straggling ships, and although he anchored, waiting for an opportunity, the risk of Pullus arriving to help his men dissuaded him from staying. His departure was just in time because a violent storm broke out, which he managed to escape, unlike the Romans, who were trapped and again suffered another catastrophe.

The Western Mediterranean at the end of the First Punic War
The Western Mediterranean at the end of the First Punic War. Credit: Harrias / Wikimedia Commons

Diodorus of Sicily also recounts this ending but gives a slightly different version of the previous events. He says it was the bulk of the Roman fleet that was sailing towards Lilybaeum when it was surprised by the Carthaginians and hurried to escape to Phintias, but, being overtaken due to the slowness of the cargo ships, the war galleys had to stay behind to cover the retreat and fared poorly due to being outnumbered. Then Pullus arrived with the other ships, but Diodorus recounts that Cartalon, having achieved victory and with the storm starting, left the area. The elements ended up destroying what was left of the Roman fleet, although the consul managed to survive and reach Lilybaeum.

Pullus joined the siege efforts and was captured, being released in an exchange in 247 BC and returning to Rome, where he took his own life to avoid standing trial. Pulcher was indeed prosecuted, partly for his defeat and partly for the scandal he caused when asked to appoint a dictator in light of his colleague’s captivity, arrogantly naming a freedman. The Senate prevented this absurdity and decided to get rid of the consul as well: the tribunes of the plebs Rullus and Fannius accused him of sacrilege for throwing the sacred chickens into the sea and he ended up being condemned to exile and fined one hundred twenty thousand asses (the as was a bronze coin equivalent to two and a half sesterces).

By way of epilogue, two things can be added. First, the anecdote involving Pulcher’s sister, who during a street tour found her litter obstructed by a crowd of beggars and loudly expressed the wish that he suffer another defeat so there would be fewer people in Rome. Second, Lilybaeum managed to hold out for several years because the Romans had to divert forces to deal with the island guerrillas led by Hamilcar Barca. But in 243 BC, Rome organized a new fleet which, two years later, this time indeed, defeated the Carthaginian one at the Aegates Islands. This effectively ended the First Punic War.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 16, 2024: La batalla de Drépano, la mayor derrota naval romana en la Primera Guerra Púnica, fue vaticinada por unas gallinas

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