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The naval Battle of Drepana (or Drepanum) took place in 249 BC during the First Punic War near modern Trapani, western Sicily between the fleets of Carthage under Adherbal and the Roman Republic under Publius Claudius Pulcher. The Roman fleet was destroyed with the loss of 93 ships and 8,000–20,000 men in Carthage's greatest naval victory of the war. The Carthaginians exploited their victory by raiding the coasts of Roman Italy in 248. The Romans did not mount a major naval effort until 242 BC.

Battle of Drepana
Part of the First Punic War
Date249 BC
Off Drepana (modern Trapani), Sicily
Result Carthaginian victory
Carthage standard Carthage Vexilloid of the Roman Empire.svg Roman Republic
Commanders and leaders
Adherbal Publius Claudius Pulcher
130 ships 123 ships
Casualties and losses
None 93 ships captured or sunk
8,000–20,000 men



The string of Roman naval victories, such as Mylae and Ecnomus, gave them the confidence to make a direct attack on the Carthaginian stronghold of Lilybaeum governed by Himilco. The city was blockaded by a fleet commanded by the year's consuls Publius Claudius Pulcher and Lucius Junius Pullus. However, despite the acquired Roman naval experience, the Carthaginians were still superior in open sea manoeuvring. A small squadron led by a commander named Hannibal, son of Hamilcar, managed to break the siege in broad daylight and deliver supplies to the garrison of Lilybaeum. In the night, Hannibal left the city carrying the useless cavalry horses and sailed to the harbour of Drepana, before the Romans knew what was happening.[1]

The success of the enterprise was so stunning that the Carthaginians repeated it several times. For the Romans, this was more than a humiliation: it was annulling the whole effect of the siege, since the garrison was being fed and kept in contact with Carthage. Something had to be done.[2]

Shortly after, a brave sailor, identified as Hannibal the Rhodian, openly defied the Roman fleet by sailing around the fleet in order to spy on the town and relay the news of the goings on inside of Lilybaeum to the Carthaginian Senate and the Carthaginian commander at the battle, Adherbal.[1]

Actions and consequencesEdit

Pulcher, the senior consul, then decided to launch a surprise attack on the harbour of Drepana, where the defiant ships were garrisoned. The fleet sailed north from Lilybaeum in a moonless night. Carthaginian scouts did not spot the Roman ships but low visibility conditions compromised the battle formation. When they reached Drepana at sunrise, the fleet was scattered in a long, disorganized line with Pulcher's ship in the rear. Punic scouts saw the clumsy approach and the advantage of surprise was lost.[2]

Meanwhile, on the flagship, some sources state that Pulcher, as the senior magistrate in command, took the auspices before battle, according to Roman religious requirements. The prescribed method was observing the feeding behaviour of the sacred chickens, on board for that purpose. If the chickens accepted the offered grain, then the Roman gods would be favourable to the battle. However, on that particular morning of 249 BC, the chickens refused to eat – a horrific omen. Confronted with the unexpected and having to deal with the superstitious and now terrified crews, Pulcher quickly devised an alternative interpretation. He threw the sacred chickens overboard, saying, "If they won't eat, let them drink!" (Latin "Bibant, quoniam esse nolunt!)[3][2]

However, it is not entirely clear if this actually occurred. The contemporary historian Polybius fails to mention it, instead crediting the victory to the superior maneuverability of the Carthaginian warships, making the incident of drowning the chickens at least dubious, although the auspices almost certainly would have been taken.[4][2]

In the harbour, the Carthaginians did not wait to see what the Romans intended. Adherbal had similar, though less controversial, quick thoughts and ordered the evacuation of Drepana before the blockade was unavoidable. Carthage's ships thus sailed out of Drepana, passing south of the city and around two small islands in the coast to the open sea. Seeing his plan for a surprise attack fail, Pulcher ordered his fleet to regroup into battle formation. However, by then, everything was against him. The coast of Sicily was at his back and the Punic fleet ready for battle at his front.[5][2]

Adherbal saw a chance for victory and ordered his right flank to attack the rear-most Roman ships. The result was an utter Roman defeat, with 93 of the ships commanded by Pulcher sunk or captured with the loss of 8,000 or 20,000 men and only 30 ships escaping to safety.[2][6][7]


Publius Claudius Pulcher managed to escape and returned to Rome in shame, where he faced charges of treason. Unlike the Carthaginians, Romans did not execute generals for incompetence (cf. Hannibal Gisco); what brought Pulcher to the court was an accusation of sacrilege due to the chicken incident. He was convicted and sentenced to exile, with his political career finished.[8]

In the same year, Hamilcar Barca (general Hannibal's father) led a successful campaign in Sicily and a storm mostly destroyed the other half of the Roman fleet, commanded by consul Junius Paullus.[8] The situation was so desperate that Aulus Atilius Calatinus was appointed dictator and sent to the island to control the land warfare.[8] The Drepana defeat so demoralized the Romans that they waited seven years before building another fleet.[9]


  1. ^ a b Rankov 2011, p. 160.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Rankov 2011, p. 161.
  3. ^ Cicero, M. Tullius. De natura deorum. Perseus Digital Library. p. 2.7. Retrieved 17 February 2016. The comment is reported in indirect discourse, so the Latin here reflects what Pulcher's actual words would have been.)
  4. ^ Lazenby 1996, pp. 133–134.
  5. ^ Lazenby 1996, p. 134.
  6. ^ Polybius, The Histories, 1:49
  7. ^ Diodorus, Library of History, 24:1
  8. ^ a b c Rankov 2011, p. 162.
  9. ^ Rankov 2011, p. 163.


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Coordinates: 38°01′00″N 12°31′00″E / 38.0167°N 12.5167°E / 38.0167; 12.5167