Mercenary War

Mercenary War
Mercenary War
Part of the Punic Wars
(interlude conflict between the First and Second)
Guerra mercenaria.png
Date 240 BC - 238 BC
Location North Africa, Carthage, Utica, Tunisia, Sicca Veneria (modern El Kef).
Result Decisive Carthaginian victory
Carthage Carthage's mercenary army of the First Punic War.
Commanders and leaders
Hanno the Great,
Hamilcar Barca,
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 an unrelated 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 (c.240 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.

The war began as a dispute over the payment of money owed 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.

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, 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]

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[4]), 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, 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.[5]

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".[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

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 Gisco 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.[11] By the time Hanno moved onto the attack, the rebels had already blockaded Utica and Hippakra.[12] 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.[13]

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 routing 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. Gesco and 700 of his men had their 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 was captured and crucified. Matho 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 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 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

  • The First Punic War ends with the signing of terms between Carthage and Rome
  • Hamilcar Barca resigns his Sicilian command.
  • A mercenary army of some 20,000 is transported from Sicily to Carthaginian territory, by Gesco.
  • Mercenaries gather near Carthage, and are persuaded to withdraw to Sicca Veneria.
  • The mercenaries submit a demand to Hanno the Great for payment of their contracts.
  • Hanno attempts, unsuccessfully, to convince the mercenaries to accept less payment due to Carthage's impoverished post-war conditions.
  • Negotiations break down. The mercenaries take up arms, march on Tunis, occupy it, and threaten Carthage directly.
  • Given their position, the mercenaries inflate their demands and demand payment for the non-mercenary Libyan conscripts in the army as well. The Carthaginian government capitulates to all demands.
  • Gesco negotiates successfully with the mercenaries at Tunis.[14]

240 BC

  • Fearing personal legal penalties under the Romans and Carthaginians, Spendius and Mathos raise dissent among the Libyan conscripts, and are appointed generals.[15]
  • The mercenaries capture Gesco, starting the Mercenary War.[16]
  • The Mercenaries manage to convince the Libyan towns to join the revolt against Carthage. Libyan forces besiege the towns of Utica and Hippacritae, who refuse to defect to the mercenaries.
  • Hanno the Great is given command of the Carthaginian forces.[17]
  • The mercenaries defeat the Carthaginian armies under Hanno the Great at the Battle of Utica.[18]
  • The mercenaries capture Sardinia.[19]
  • Carthage awards to Hamilcar Barca joint command with Hanno.[20]
  • Hamilcar raises the siege of Utica.
  • Hamilcar's armies defeat the mercenaries at the Battle of the Bagradas River.[21]
  • Numidian mercenary leader Naravas defects to Hamilcar.[22]
  • With the Numidian reinforcements (about 2,000 men), Hamilcar engages the mercenaries again, and again defeats them.[23]
  • Hamilcar pardons his captured prisoners, accepting into his army anyone who will fight for Carthage, and exiling any who will not.[24]

239 BC

  • Concerned that Hamilcar's leniency will encourage others to defect, Mathos and Spendius order the mutilation and execution of "about seven hundred" Carthaginian prisoners, including Gesco. With the mercenaries jointly guilty of atrocities, defectors dare not face Carthaginian justice under Hamilcar.[25]
  • Hamilcar is appointed sole commander of the Carthaginian armies.[26]
  • Utica revolts, attempting to secede from Carthage.[27]
  • Carthage is besieged by the mercenary armies.
  • Carthage appeals to Hiero II of Syracuse for aid against the mercenaries.[28]
  • Carthage appeals to Rome for aid against the mercenaries.[29]
  • The mercenaries reject the efforts of the Roman mediators.[30]

238 BC

  • Hamilcar strikes at the supply lines of the mercenary army besieging Carthage, forcing them to withdraw from the siege.
  • Hamilcar fights a series of running engagements with the mercenary armies, keeping them off-balance.
  • Hamilcar manages to force the mercenary armies into a box canyon at the Battle of "The Saw". The mercenaries are besieged, and are forced to resort to cannibalism to survive.
  • The mercenary leadership including Spendius attempts to surrender and is imprisoned by Hamilcar. The mercenary army attempts to fight its way out of the siege, and is totally defeated. Hamilcar executes some 40,000 rebel mercenaries.
  • Hamilcar's armies, along with those of Hannibal, reduce the rebel Libyan cities.
  • Hamilcar and Hannibal besiege Mathos' army at Tunis, and crucify the captured mercenary leaders in sight of the mercenary battlements.
  • Mathos exploits a weakness in Hannibal's defences, and launches an attack against his army, capturing Hannibal, and several other high ranking Carthaginians. The mercenaries then remove the bodies of the crucified mercenary leaders and crucify the Carthaginians in their place.
  • Carthaginian reinforcements led by Hanno the Great join the war.
  • Mathos' forces defeated, and Mathos himself captured.
  • Libyan settlements surrender to Carthage, with the exception of Utica and Hippacritae.
  • Hamilcar's army besieges and reduces Utica, while Hanno's does the same with Hippacritae (or other way around. Sources are not clear which general reduced which city).
  • The Romans declare war on the Carthaginians, after a dispute over Sardinia, and Carthaginian military preparations against Sardinia.
  • Carthage surrenders to Rome once again, rather than enter into another war, giving up any claim to Sardinia, and adding another 1,200 talents to its debt to Rome.

In literature and popular culture

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


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. When reading such history it is wise to take this into account. We have the best historical reconstruction that we can derive, but we must also remember that its balance and objectivity is in question.


  • Harden, Donald (1962). The Phoenicians. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-14-021375-9. 
  • Warmington, B. H. (1969). Carthage. Robert Hale & Company. ISBN 0709109539. 
  • 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. 



  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. ^ Polybius, 1:66.1, 1:68.12; Zonaras, 17.c.
  5. ^ Polybius, 1:66.1-66.9
  6. ^ Appian, The History of Rome: The Sicilian Wars, 2.7; Diodorus, 25.6'1; Polybius, 1:66.10-67.12; Walbank, 567.
  7. ^ Polybius, 1:67.1-67.2.
  8. ^ Polybius, 1:67.3-67.13.
  9. ^ Polybius, 1:68.1-68.3.
  10. ^ Appian, The History of Rome: The Sicilian Wars, 2.7; Polybius, 1:68.4-68.13.
  11. ^ Trueceless War, Dexter Hoyos p88
  12. ^ Trueceless War, Dexter Hoyos p93
  13. ^ Trueceless War, Dexter Hoyos p150-52
  14. ^ Polybius 1:68.13-69.3.
  15. ^ Polybius 1:69.1-69.14
  16. ^ 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
  17. ^ Polybius, 1:73
  18. ^ Polybius, 1:74
  19. ^ Polybius, 1:79.1-79.7; Pausanias, 17.9; Walbank, 567
  20. ^ Nepos 21:2.1-2.3; Polybius 1:75.1-75.2
  21. ^ Polybius, 1:75.3-76.11; Walbank, 567
  22. ^ Polybius, 1:78.1-78.9
  23. ^ Polybius, 1:78.10-78.11
  24. ^ Polybius, 1:78.13.
  25. ^ Polybius, 1:79.8-81.11.
  26. ^ Polybius, 1:82.1-82.7; Diodorus, 25.3'1.
  27. ^ Polybius, 1:82.8-82.13; Diodorus, 25.3'2.
  28. ^ Polybius, 1:83.1-83.4.
  29. ^ 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; .
  30. ^ 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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