Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Introduction and Context
The Sicilian revolt was a revolt against the Second Triumvirate of the Roman Republic. Occurring between 44 BC and 36 BC, the revolt was led by Sextus Pompey and ended in a Triumvirate victory.
Sextus’ father, Pompey the Great, had been an enemy of Julius Caesar for many years, and this enmity finally boiled over in 49 BC with the beginning of Caesar’s Civil War. Pompey was executed in 48 BC by the Egyptians, but Sextus and his brother, Gnaeus Pompeius, continued fighting until 45 BC, when it was clear that Caesar was the victor. After Munda, Sextus’ brother was executed, but Sextus himself escaped to Sicily.
When Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 BC, Sextus’ name was placed on a proscription list formed by Marcus Lepidus, Marcus Antonius, and Octavian, the members of the Second Triumvirate. The list was designed not only to fill Rome’s treasury, but to help in the Second Triumvirate’s war on the Cassii and Bruti families, and listed all of Caesar’s other enemies and their relatives.
Upon finding his name upon this list, Sextus decided to pick up where his father had left off. He selected Sicily as his base, capturing several cities, including Tyndaris, Mylae, and the provincial capital, Messina. Other cities, such as Syracuse, gave in to Sextus’ revolt and joined his forces. Sextus soon became a serious force in the civil war following Caesar’s death. He amassed a formidable army and a large fleet of warships. Many slaves and friends of his father joined his cause, hoping to preserve the Roman Republic, which was quickly turning into an empire. The multitudes of slaves joining Sextus often came from the villas of patricians, and this desertion hurt the Romans so much that the Vestal Virgins prayed for it to stop.
With his large fleet of ships manned by Sicilian marines and commanded by capable admirals such as Menas, Menecrates and Demochares, Sextus stopped all shipments (especially that of grain) to Rome, and blockaded Italy so as to disable trade with other nations by sea. This blockade was severely crippling to the Roman army as well as to the Italian Peninsula. Finally, as the Roman people were rioting, the members of the Triumvirate decided to recognize Sextus as the ruler of Sardinia, Corsica, and Sicily as long as he agreed to end the blockade and begin sending shipments of grain again. Sextus agreed, and also agreed to stop accepting fugitive slaves to his cause. This treaty was called the Pact of Misenum after Misenum where it was negotiated.
In 42 BC, the Triumvirate defeated Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus at the Battle of Philippi. Once the blockade was ended (after a short and rocky peace), the Triumvirate, especially Octavian and his right-hand man Marcus Agrippa, were able to turn their energies to Sextus, and began an aggressive offensive. Octavian tried to invade Sicily in 38 BC, but the ships were forced to go back because of bad weather.
Agrippa cut part of Via Ercolana and dug a channel to connect the Lucrine Lake to the sea, in order to change it into a harbour, called Portus Julius. The new harbour was used to train the ships for naval battles. A new fleet was built, with 20,000 oarsmen gathered by freeing slaves. The new ships were built much larger, in order to carry many more naval infantry units, which were being trained at the same time. Furthermore, Antony exchanged 20,000 infantry for his Parthian campaign with 120 ships, under the command of Titus Statilius Taurus. In July 36 BC the two fleets sailed from Italy, and another fleet, provided by the third triumvir Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, sailed from Africa, to attack Sextus’ stronghold in Sicily.
In August, Agrippa was able to finally defeat Sextus in a naval battle near Mylae (modern Milazzo); the same month Octavian was defeated and seriously wounded in a battle near Taormina.
At Naulochus, Agrippa met Sextus’ fleet. Both fleets were composed of 300 ships, all with artillery, but Agrippa commanded heavier units, armed with the harpax and corvus. Agrippa succeeded in blocking the more manoeuvrable ships of Sextus and, after a long and bloody fight, to defeat his enemy. Agrippa lost three ships, while 28 ships of Sextus were sunk, 17 fled, and the others burnt or captured.
Some 200,000 men were killed and 1,000 warships destroyed in the fighting which followed, with many of the casualties being taken by Sextus and his army and navy. Tyndaris and Messina were particularly hard hit, and the area in between was ravaged.
In 36 BC, Sextus fled Sicily (effectively ending the revolt) to Miletus where, in 35 BC, he was captured and executed by Marcus Titius, one of Marcus Antonius’ minions, without a trial. This was illegal, as he was a Roman citizen, and therefore entitled to a trial. This malpractice was capitalized upon by Octavian when the relationship between him and Marcus Antonius became heated.
An ill-judged political move by Lepidus gave Octavian the excuse he needed and Lepidus was accused of usurping power in Sicily and of attempted rebellion. Lepidus was forced into exile in Circeii and was stripped of all his offices except that of Pontifex Maximus. His former provinces were awarded to Octavian.
Much of the vast farmland in Sicily was either ruined or left empty, and much of this land was taken and distributed to members of the legions which had fought in Sicily. What this accomplished was twofold: it served to fill Sicily with loyal, grateful inhabitants, and it promised to bring back Sicily’s former productivity.
30,000 slaves were captured and returned to their masters, with another 6,000 being impaled upon wooden stakes as an example.
- Si Sheppard: Actium 31 BC: Downfall of Antony and Cleopatra. Osprey Publishing, 2009.
- Spencer C. Tucker (ed.): A Global Chronology of Conflict. ABC-CLIO, 2009.
- Anthony Everett: Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor. Random House, 2006.
- Shelley C. Stone, III: Sextus Pompey, Octavian and Sicily. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 87, No. 1 (Jan., 1983), pp. 11–22 (JSTOR)
Originally published by Wikipedia, 06.05.2007, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.