Though the war on land had come to a standstill at the Trebia, engagements had in the meantime been fought by land and sea off Sicily and the islands near the Italian coast, not only by Sempronius the consul, but even before his coming thither.
Twenty quinqueremes with a thousand men at arms had been sent by the Carthaginians to lay waste the coast of Italy; nine of them reached Liparae and eight the Isle of Vulcan;1
three the current diverted from their course into the Straits.
These last were sighted by the people of Messana, and Hiero, king of the Syracusans, who happened to be in Messana at the time, waiting for the Roman consul, dispatched twelve ships, which captured the enemy's ships without a struggle and brought them into the harbour of Messana.
It was learned from the prisoners that, besides the fleet of twenty galleys to which they themselves belonged —which had sailed for Italy —five and thirty other quinqueremes were on the way to Sicily to rouse up the old allies;
the seizure of Lilybaeum was their prime object; but they supposed that the same storm by which they had themselves been scattered had struck this fleet as well and had driven it out of its course to the Aegatian Islands.
The king wrote a full account of these rumours, just as they had come to him, to Marcus Aemilius, the praetor,
who was in command in Sicily, and warned him to garrison Lilybaeum strongly. The praetor at once sent out his lieutenants and tribunes to the cities round about, and urged his people to be on their guard.
Above all, Lilybaeum [p. 147]
was kept in a state of readiness for war, an edict2
having been published directing the naval allies to bring to their ships cooked rations for ten days, so that, on the signal being given, there might be nothing to delay their embarkation. All along the coast men were sent to keep a look-out from the watch-towers for the coming of the enemy's fleet.
And so, notwithstanding that the Carthaginians had delayed their sailing on purpose that they might come up to Lilybaeum in the dark, they were nevertheless perceived, because there was a moon all night and they bore down under a spread of canvas.
The signal was at once displayed from the watchtowers, and in the town the call to arms was sounded and the ships were manned; some of the troops were at once on the walls or guarding the gates, some on the ships.
And the Carthaginians, seeing that they should have to do with men who were not unprepared, stood off from the harbour until dawn and employed the time in taking down their masts and sails and putting the fleet in fighting trim.
When the day broke, they withdrew into the open sea, to give room for the battle and to allow their enemy's ships a ready egress from the harbour. Nor did the Romans shun the encounter.
They remembered the victories that had been won in that same vicinity, and relied on the numbers and the bravery of their men.