The great festival of Hammon, with all its lurid splendours, did not fail to produce something at least of the effect which the authorities had expected from it. The flagging zeal of the Carthaginian people regained its old energy; the hope that their country might yet be saved to them, a hope almost abandoned during the last few months, began to revive. Hammon, they thought, must be propitiated by a piety so devoted, must interfere to save so dutiful a city.
There was, indeed, need of all the encouragement that could be had, for the situation of the civil population of Carthage was precarious in the extreme. The Senate had not neglected to lay up in the time of peace such provisions for the war that they knew to be impending as it had been possible to collect. But the work had had to be done almost by stealth. Rome had watched with suspicion anything that looked like preparations for war, and had remonstrated more than once against the purchase of unnecessary stores. What was done in this way had to be done without the knowledge of her regularly appointed agents and of residents who were secretly in her pay. Something had been accomplished; the garrison had ample supplies; the houses of the upper class were, for the most part, well furnished. But the poor, who had no room for stores in their dwellings, even if they had the means to purchase them in advance, were dangerously near to want. It is for the needs of this class that public provision has to be made in any city that expects to be besieged, and it was in respect of this public provision that the action of the Carthaginian government had been hampered.
Things had grown rapidly worse since the building of the walled camp across the isthmus. Nothing could now be brought into the besieged city by land. The sea was still partly open. The Roman fleet kept up a blockade, but it was not really effective. As soon as the wind began to blow from the sea the war-ships had to stand off from the shore, and the blockade-runners had their opportunity. Prices ruled so high in the city that a trader who contrived to take safely to its destination one cargo out of two made a very handsome profit.
All the fishing population of the African coast for a hundred miles on either side of the besieged city was busily employed in the traffic. Light vessels drawing but little water were chiefly used, for they could be safely navigated in places where a war-ship would inevitably have grounded. So rudely and cheaply were they built that the loss, if they were wrecked, was insignificant. The great difficulty was the weather; if this continued to be fine for ten days together, a large part of the besieged population came within an easily measurable distance of starvation.
Scipio now resolved on making a great countermove—he would block up the approach to the harbour. He had, in fact, for some time past foreseen the necessity of taking this step, and had prepared a vast amount of material for the work, employing great numbers of the native population in quarrying stone and cutting timber. So much had been accomplished in this way that when the time came for executing the work little more than the actual construction remained to be done. This was not so difficult as it had seemed. The harbour mouth was not very far from the shore occupied by the Romans.
The first thing was to lay a foundation for the mole that it was proposed to build. This was done by sinking huge blocks of roughly-hewn stone, chiefly during moonless nights. During this stage of the work the besieged took little heed of what was going on, or, anyhow, took no pains to interrupt or hinder it. There was a suspicion, and more than a suspicion, of Scipio's purpose, but Hasdrubal, himself indolent and incompetent, haughtily refused to listen to any suggestion from his subordinates. But even Hasdrubal was roused when the structure reached the surface of the water. What he saw was a mole, more than thirty yards broad, stretching across the mouth of the harbour, and shutting off every channel available even for the smallest craft.
Hasdrubal now developed, or accepted, a plan which for a time at least was a virtual check to Scipio's move. He kept up a brisk discharge of missiles on the men employed in building the mole. So sharp and continuous was it that the besiegers had little attention to give to what was being done on the opposite side of the harbour. It was a surprise, and a very unwelcome surprise to them, that no sooner had they stopped up one mouth of the harbour, than they found that another exit had been created. The whole population, every man, woman, and child in the city, that could ply a spade or a pick, wheel a barrow-load or carry a basket of earth, had been working night and day at excavating another mouth to the harbour.
Nor was this all; a still greater surprise, so great, indeed, as to be almost overwhelming, remained behind.
One of the conditions of the peace granted to Carthage after the fatal defeat of Zama
And, marvellous to relate, all this had been done without the knowledge of the besiegers. There was a constant flow of deserters from the city, increasing as time went on and the prospects of Carthage became less and less hopeful. Yet none of them had any definite information to give. That something was going on they knew; they had heard for some time a great sound of hammering—that, indeed, had been audible in the Roman camp when the wind blew from the dockyard—but the restrictions on admission to the arsenals had been rigidly enforced. So there ended the information which they were able to give.
Nothing, then, could have exceeded the astonishment of the besiegers when a new fleet, the existence of which no one had suspected, issued from a harbour mouth which no one had ever seen. A thin bank of earth had been kept to the last, so that to observers from outside, as also to the Roman ships as they cruised backwards and forwards along the coast, nothing appeared to have been changed. When everything else was ready, all the available labour in Carthage was set to work to clear this bank away. The task was finished by dawn. At sunrise the new fleet, magnificently equipped, for there had been a lavish expenditure on the ornament as well as the armament of the ships, sailed out of the harbour by its new exit.
Unfortunately for Carthage there was no one to make the most of the opportunity. A vigorous attack on the Roman fleet—scattered as it was, and altogether unprepared for action, some of the ships being under repair, and nearly all of them but half-manned, their crews being largely employed on shore—might have been successful, and have even postponed the fate of Carthage. But it was not to be. Hasdrubal, self-opinionated and incapable, paralysed everything and everybody. The fleet paraded for a while along the coast, and had the barren honour of holding without dispute, for that day at least, the possession of the sea.
"The crews must be exercised first," said Hasdrubal, who was on board what we may call the flag-ship, to the veteran who directed its navigation; "but in a few days—"
"There's no exercise like fighting," growled the old man as he turned away.
And this was the common opinion of Carthage. So strong and so general was it, and so vigorously expressed, that Hasdrubal could not afford to disregard it. Word was passed round to the captains that they must be ready to engage the next day. In the morning, accordingly, the fleet sailed out again. Every one was in high spirits, for it is an immense relief for those who have been long cooped up within walls, occupied with the tedious task of a protracted defence, to renew the more adventurous and interesting experience of attack. Some victories were won. One of the Carthaginian ships contrived to ram two antagonists in rapid succession. This vessel was a present to the state by one of the merchant companies, and no expense had been spared in making it of the strongest build and furnishing it with an effective crew of freeborn, well-paid rowers. Another captured one of the Roman ships by boarding. Cleanor was serving in this, and, owing to the death of one and the disablement of the other of his superior officers, had the unexpected honour of leading the boarders. There was a sharp struggle, but ultimately the Roman crew was over-powered and compelled to surrender.
On the other hand, there were counterbalancing, or almost counterbalancing losses, for towards the end of the day the Romans had recovered from their surprise, and more than held their own.
Scipio was everywhere, conspicuous in the scarlet cloak of the general-in-command. Once as he passed he was well within a javelin-throw of our hero. Cleanor, as he doubted whether he ought not to do his best to rid Carthage of a formidable enemy, fancied that he saw a smile of recognition on his face. When it grew dark, the struggle was suspended by mutual consent.
The next morning it was renewed. This time fortune declared itself unequivocally against Carthage. It was not that there was any marked falling-off in the efficiency or courage of the crews. It was the ships themselves that began to fail. Many, as has been said, were old hulks patched up to serve again. Two days of incessant use, with occasional collisions with friends and enemies, had not improved them. The seams began to open and old leaks to show themselves, so that by noon at least a score were more or less water-logged. Those that had suffered most, about half the number, fell into the hands of the enemy. Five other ships were sunk.
The Roman loss was less than half of this amount. It was not a crushing defeat, but it was sufficient to show that Carthage could not hope for deliverance from her fleet. Still, some advantage remained to the besieged. It would be impossible to close up the new mouth of the harbour, so deep was the water into which it opened. On this side, therefore, the Roman blockade could never be made complete. Notwithstanding this gain, the whole result was a heavy discouragement.