The battle of Panormus came at the end of three years of stalemate on Sicily (First Punic War). After capturing Panormus in 251 B.C. the Romans had become the dominant force on Sicily, but lacking a fleet they unable to successfully besiege the remaining Carthaginian strongholds on the west coast, while the Roman troops were reported as being unwilling to face elephants in open battle.
Towards the end of 251 B.C. the Carthaginian command on Sicily, one Hasdrubal, sensed an opportunity. The chief military commands in Rome were held by the two Consuls for the year, with the result that every year there would be a changeover period, before the new consuls could arrive on Sicily. At the end of 251 B.C. one outgoing Consul, with half of the Roman army on Sicily, had already returned to Rome, leaving the second Consul, Caecilius Metellus, with a reduced force, at Panormus.
Hasdrubal advanced towards Panormus with the main Carthaginian army from Lilybaeum, pausing at the end of the territory associated with Panormus. Caecilius decided to draw Hasdrubal into a trap outside the walls of Panormus, and so he kept his troops inside the city. Hasdrubal fell into the trap, and advanced towards Panormus.
Caecilius planned to use the defences of Panormus against Hasdrubal. The town was defended by walls, surrounded by a ditch. A little further away a river ran close to the town. Caecilius waited for Hasdrubal’s troops to cross the river, and then used his velites (light armed troops) to harass them. Another force of light troops was placed in front of the trench. Hasdrubal’s elephant troops responded by attacking these light troops. As Caecilius had expected, his light troops were driven back into the ditch by the elephants. However, this left the elephants vulnerable to attack from troops on the walls, and from the troops in the ditch. Under fire from two directions the elephants panicked, and fled back through the Carthaginian lines.
This was the moment Caecilius had been waiting for. He had massed the heavy troops of his legions behind a gate that faced Hasdrubal’s left wing. With the Carthaginian troops already in some confusion, Caecilius sallied against them. The disciplined Roman legions inflicted a serious defeat on Hasdrubal, almost destroyed his army, and captured sixty elephants, many of which appear to have been sent back to Rome.
Although the war dragged on for another ten years, the battle of Panormus marked something of a turning point in the fighting. Hasdrubal was recalled to Carthage, and executed for his failure. In the aftermath of the battle Carthage actually made a peace offer, which was turned down by the Romans. The capture of the elephants greatly encouraged the Roman troops on Sicily, who are said to have lost much of their fear of them. The Roman Senate decided to build a new fleet, and make a more determined attempt to finish the war on Sicily. Finally, in 250 the Romans began a siege of Lilybaeum, the main Carthaginian stronghold left of Sicily that would last almost to the end of the war. Despite a major defeat at sea (battle of Drepanum, 249 B.C.), for the next ten years the fighting on Sicily was almost entirely confined to the western end of the island.