Siege of Tunis (Mercenary War)

At the Siege of Tunis in late 238 BC a rebel army under Mathos was besieged by a Carthaginian force under Hamilcar Barca and Hannibal. The Carthaginian army, which had served on Sicily during the First Punic War, mutinied in late 241 BC in the wake of Carthage's defeat, starting the Mercenary War. After three years of increasingly bitter war, the Carthaginians defeated the rebel field army at the Battle of the Saw, capturing its leaders. The Carthaginians then moved to besiege the rebels' strongest remaining stronghold at Tunis.

Siege of Tunis
Part of the Mercenary War
Datec. October 238 BC
Tunis, modern Tunisia
Result Carthaginian defeat
Carthage Rebels
Commanders and leaders
Hamilcar Barca
Approximately 20,000, not all engaged Approximately 20,000
Casualties and losses
Significant Unknown

The Carthaginian commander, Hamilcar, split his forces to blockade the rebels from both north and south. At the northern camp, commanded by his subordinate Hannibal, he had the ten captured rebels tortured to death and their bodies crucified before returning to his own base to the south of Tunis. Mathos organised a night attack against Hannibal's camp, which took the ill-disciplined Carthaginian defenders by surprise. It scattered their army, and Hannibal and 30 Carthaginian notables were captured. They were tortured, mutilated and crucified while still living. Hamilcar withdrew to the north with the remaining half of his army. Mathos in turn abandoned Tunis and withdrew south. Hamilcar and fellow general Hanno followed the rebels and in late 238 BC wiped them out at the Battle of Leptis Parva.


The First Punic War was fought between Carthage and Rome, the two main powers of the western Mediterranean in the 3rd century BC, and lasted for 23 years, from 264 to 241 BC. After immense materiel and human losses on both sides, the Carthaginians were defeated[1][2] and agreed the Treaty of Lutatius.[3] While the war with Rome was being played out, the Carthaginian general Hanno was leading a series of campaigns which greatly increased the area of Africa controlled by Carthage. Hanno was rigorous in squeezing taxes out of the newly conquered territory in order to pay for both the war with Rome and his own campaigns.[4] Half of all agricultural output was taken as war tax, and the tribute previously due from towns and cities was doubled. These exactions were harshly enforced, causing extreme hardship in many areas.[5][6]


Modern recreations of Carthaginian soldiers and a war elephant at the 2012 Arverniales re-enactment

The Carthaginian army of 20,000 men on Sicily was evacuated to Carthage. Rather than promptly paying the several years' back pay they were owed and hurrying them home, the Carthaginian authorities decided to wait until all of the troops had arrived and then attempt to negotiate a settlement at a lower rate.[7][8] Freed of their long period of military discipline and with nothing to do, the men grumbled among themselves and refused all attempts by the Carthaginians to pay them less than the full amount due. Eventually they forcibly took over the city of Tunis. Panicking, the Carthaginian Senate agreed to payment in full. The discontent seemed to have abated when discipline broke down. Several soldiers insisted that no deal with Carthage was acceptable, a riot broke out, dissenters were stoned to death, the Carthaginian negotiators were taken prisoner and their treasury was seized.[9][10][11]

Spendius, an escaped Roman slave who faced death by torture if he were recaptured, and Mathos, a Berber dissatisfied with Hanno's attitude towards tax raising from Carthage's African possessions, were declared generals. The news of a formed, experienced, anti-Carthaginian army in the heart of its territory spread rapidly and many cities and towns rose in rebellion. Provisions, money and reinforcements poured in; eventually an additional 70,000 men according to the ancient Roman historian Polybius, although many would have been tied down in garrisoning their home towns against Carthaginian retribution.[9][10][11][12] The pay dispute had become a full-scale revolt. The three years of war that followed are known as the Mercenary War and threatened Carthage's existence as a state.[13][14]


Main manoeuvres during the Mercenary War

Mathos ordered two groups of rebels north to blockade the two main cities  other than Carthage  that had not already come over: the major ports of Utica and Hippo (modern Bizerte).[15] Hanno, as the commander of Carthage's African army, took the field with an army of 8,000–10,000 men and 100 war elephants.[16] Most of the Africans in his force remained loyal; they were accustomed to acting against their fellow Africans. His non-African contingent also remained loyal. An unknown number of Carthaginian citizens were incorporated into this army.[17]

In early 240 BC Hanno was defeated while attempting to raise the siege of Utica at the Battle of Utica.[18] For the rest of the year Hanno skirmished with the rebel force, repeatedly missing opportunities to bring it to battle or to place it at a disadvantage; the military historian Nigel Bagnall writes of Hanno's "incompetence as a field commander".[19][20] At some point during 240 BC the Carthaginians raised another army, of approximately 10,000. It included deserters from the rebels, 2,000 cavalry, and 70 elephants, and was placed under the command of Hamilcar Barca,[note 1] who had previously led the Carthaginian forces on Sicily.[19]

Hamilcar defeated a large rebel force at the Battle of the Bagradas River and then brought various towns and cities which had gone over to the rebels back to Carthaginian allegiance with varying mixtures of diplomacy and force. He was shadowed by a superior-sized rebel force under Spendius, which kept to rough ground for fear of the Carthaginians' cavalry and elephants, and harried his foragers and scouts.[22][23] Meanwhile, Hanno manoeuvred against Mathos to the north near Hippo.[24] South west of Utica Hamilcar moved his force into the mountains in an attempt to bring the rebels to battle,[6] but was surrounded. He was only saved from destruction when an African leader, Naravas, who had served with and admired Hamilcar in Sicily, swapped sides with his 2,000 cavalry.[25][26] This proved disastrous for the rebels, and in the resulting battle they lost 10,000 killed and 4,000 captured.[27]

Truceless War

Since leaving Carthage, Hamilcar had treated rebels he had captured well and offered them a choice of joining his army or free passage home. He made the same offer to the 4,000 captives from the recent battle.[27] Spendius perceived this generous treatment as the motivation behind Naravas's defection and feared the disintegration of his army; he was aware that such generous terms would not be extended to the rebel leaders. To remove the possibility of any goodwill between the sides, he had 700 Carthaginian prisoners tortured to death: they had their hands cut off, were castrated, their legs broken and were thrown into a pit and buried alive.[25][28] The Carthaginians, in turn, killed their prisoners. From this point, neither side showed any mercy, and the unusual ferocity of the fighting caused Polybius to term it the "Truceless War".[25][28] Any further prisoners taken by the Carthaginians were trampled to death by elephants.[29][30]

At some point between March and September 239 BC the previously loyal cities of Utica and Hippo slew their Carthaginian garrisons and joined the rebels.[31] Mathos and the rebels previously operating in the area moved south and joined their comrades in Tunis.[31] Having a clear superiority in cavalry, Hamilcar raided the supply lines of the rebels around Carthage.[28] In early 238 BC the lack of supplies forced Mathos to lift the close siege of Carthage; he maintained a more distant blockade from Tunis.[32][28]

While Mathos maintained the blockade, Spendius led 40,000 men against Hamilcar. After a period of campaigning, the details of which are not clear in the sources, the Carthaginians pinned the rebels in a pass or against a mountain range known as the Saw. Trapped in the mountains and with their food exhausted, the rebels ate their horses, their prisoners and then their slaves, hoping that Mathos would sortie from Tunis to rescue them. Eventually, the surrounded troops forced their leaders, including Spendius, to parley with Hamilcar, who, on a thin pretext, took them prisoner. The Carthaginians then attacked the leaderless, starving rebels with their whole force, led by their elephants, and massacred them to a man in the Battle of the Saw.[33][34]

Opposing armies

Carthaginian armies were nearly always composed of foreigners; citizens only served in the army if there was a direct threat to the city of Carthage. Roman sources refer to these foreign fighters derogatively as "mercenaries", but the historian Adrian Goldsworthy describes this as "a gross oversimplification".[35] They served under a variety of arrangements; for example, some were the regular troops of allied cities or kingdoms seconded to Carthage as part of formal arrangements.[35] The majority of these foreigners were from North Africa.[13]

Libyans provided close-order infantry equipped with large shields, helmets, short swords and long thrusting spears; as well as close-order shock cavalry carrying spears[note 2] (also known as "heavy cavalry")  both were noted for their discipline and staying power. Numidians provided light cavalry who threw javelins from a distance and avoided close combat, and javelin-armed light infantry skirmishers.[37][38] Both Spain and Gaul provided experienced infantry; unarmoured troops who would charge ferociously, but had a reputation for breaking off if a combat was protracted.[37] Specialist slingers were recruited from the Balearic Islands.[37][39]

The close-order Libyan infantry and the citizen militia would fight in a tightly packed formation known as a phalanx.[38] Sicilians and Italians had also joined up during the war to fill the ranks.[16] The Carthaginians frequently employed war elephants; North Africa had indigenous African forest elephants at the time.[note 3]

At Utica the Carthaginians had approximately 20,000 men and the rebel army was roughly the same size.[42]


An illustration by Victor-Armand Poirson which envisages the crucifixion of Spendius and his lieutenants in front of Tunis.

After their victory at the Saw the Carthaginians marched on the main rebel force at Tunis around October 238 BC, accepting the surrender of many towns and villages on the way.[43] The city was difficult to access as to its east was the sea while to the west was a large salt marsh. Hamilcar occupied a position to the south with half the army, and his deputy Hannibal[note 4] was to the north with the balance. The historian Dexter Hoyos notes that this is difficult to explain: Hamilcar was dividing his forces in the face of an equally large enemy army and he risked defeat in detail. In addition, the rebels' camp was outside of Tunis to the north and the salt marsh and the hilly terrain made speedy mutual support by Hannibal and Hamilcar impossible. Hoyos suggests that situated in fortified camps and fresh from their victory at the Saw, Hamilcar and Hannibal were confident of victory, and that they believed that their elephants and their cavalry superiority would continue to deter any rebel attack.[44]

Hamilcar then travelled to the northern camp with the ten rebel leaders captured at the Saw. There they were tortured and mutilated in a similar way to the 700 Carthaginian prisoners and their bodies crucified to the south of the camp, in clear sight of the rebels' camp.[45] Observers were encouraged to travel from Carthage to view the bodies, a concrete sign of the successes of their generals. Hamilcar, satisfied that the constant sight of their dead leaders would complete the demoralisation of the rebels, returned to his camp to the south.[45]

Instead, the reminder that they would receive no mercy from the Carthaginians steeled the rebels for desperate measures. Hamilcar kept his force at a high state of readiness, in case of a rebel assault. Hannibal was more confident and laxer in ensuring that his men were effective in their patrols and sentry duties. Observing this, Mathos determined to strike north in an attempt to break the siege. He organised a large-scale night attack, which surprised the Carthaginians and their northern camp was overrun. They suffered heavy casualties in dead and captured and lost all of their baggage and most of their troops' personal equipment.[46] In addition, Hannibal and a delegation of 30 Carthaginian notables who were visiting the army were captured.[47]

Mathos removed his colleagues' bodies from their crosses for burial. Hannibal and the 30 senior Carthaginians were brutally tortured and then crucified, still breathing; Hannibal was nailed to the cross previously occupied by Spendius.[47] They were then killed as part of Spendius's funeral rites.[47] When news reached Hamilcar of the attack, he set out to support Hannibal, but returned once he heard that the northern camp had been overrun. With half of his army lost and no blocking force to the north of the rebel camp his position was untenable. He abandoned the siege and withdrew to the north.[48][49] Mathos let him go unmolested.[50]


Despite the siege being lifted, few supplies were getting through and Mathos decided that he could not maintain his position. He led the army 160 km (100 mi) south to the wealthy port city of Leptis Parva (just south of the modern city of Monastir, Tunisia). This was the capital of the prosperous Byzacium region and had risen against Carthage earlier in the war.[48] Hanno and Hamilcar marched after the rebels with an army totalling over 25,000 men and a large number of war elephants,[51] including every Carthaginian citizen of military age.[52] At the ensuing Battle of Leptis Parva the rebels were crushed, with few losses to the Carthaginians.[52][53] In a change of policy, prisoners were taken, which probably helped to ensure that there was no desperate last stand. Captives were sold into slavery.[54] Mathos was also captured, and he was dragged through the streets of Carthage and tortured to death by its citizens.[55]

Most of the towns and cities which had not already come to terms with Carthage now did so, with the exceptions of Utica and Hippo, whose inhabitants feared vengeance for their massacre of Carthaginians. They attempted to hold out, but Polybius says that they too "quickly" surrendered, probably in late 238 BC or very early 237 BC.[56] The surrendered towns and cities were treated leniently, although Carthaginian governors were imposed on them.[57]

Notes, citations and sources


  1. Father of Hannibal Barca, who won fame during the Second Punic War by crossing the Alps to invade Roman Italy.[21]
  2. "Shock" troops are those trained and used to close rapidly with an opponent, with the intention of breaking them before or immediately upon contact.[36]
  3. These were typically about 2.5-metre-high (8 ft) at the shoulder, and should not be confused with the larger African bush elephant.[40] The sources are not clear as to whether they carried towers containing fighting men.[41]
  4. Not to be confused with Hannibal Barca, of Second Punic War fame.


  1. Lazenby 1996, p. 157.
  2. Bagnall 1999, p. 97.
  3. Miles 2011, p. 196.
  4. Hoyos 2015, p. 205.
  5. Bagnall 1999, p. 114.
  6. Eckstein 2017, p. 6.
  7. Bagnall 1999, p. 112.
  8. Goldsworthy 2006, p. 133.
  9. Bagnall 1999, pp. 112–114.
  10. Goldsworthy 2006, pp. 133–134.
  11. Hoyos 2000, p. 371.
  12. Hoyos 2007, p. 94.
  13. Scullard 2006, p. 567.
  14. Miles 2011, p. 204.
  15. Warmington 1993, p. 188.
  16. Hoyos 2015, p. 207.
  17. Hoyos 2007, p. 88.
  18. Hoyos 2000, p. 373.
  19. Bagnall 1999, p. 115.
  20. Hoyos 2007, pp. 92–93.
  21. Miles 2011, pp. 240, 263–265.
  22. Bagnall 1999, p. 117.
  23. Miles 2011, pp. 207–208.
  24. Hoyos 2007, p. 137.
  25. Miles 2011, p. 208.
  26. Hoyos 2007, pp. 150–152.
  27. Bagnall 1999, p. 118.
  28. Eckstein 2017, p. 7.
  29. Miles 2011, p. 210.
  30. Goldsworthy 2006, p. 135.
  31. Hoyos 2000, p. 374.
  32. Hoyos 2000, p. 376.
  33. Bagnall 1999, pp. 121–122.
  34. Hoyos 2007, pp. 217–218.
  35. Goldsworthy 2006, p. 33.
  36. Jones 1987, p. 1.
  37. Goldsworthy 2006, p. 32.
  38. Koon 2015, p. 80.
  39. Bagnall 1999, p. 8.
  40. Miles 2011, p. 240.
  41. Scullard 1974, pp. 240–245.
  42. Hoyos 2007, pp. 220, 229–230.
  43. Hoyos 2007, p. 220.
  44. Hoyos 2007, pp. 220–222.
  45. Hoyos 2007, p. 222.
  46. Hoyos 2007, p. 223.
  47. Hoyos 2007, p. 224.
  48. Bagnall 1999, p. 122.
  49. Hoyos 2007, pp. 225–226.
  50. Hoyos 2007, p. 227.
  51. Hoyos 2007, p. 240.
  52. Scullard 2006, p. 568.
  53. Hoyos 2007, p. 241.
  54. Hoyos 2007, pp. 241–242.
  55. Miles 2011, p. 211.
  56. Hoyos 2000, p. 377.
  57. Hoyos 2015, p. 210.


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