During this time the scarcity of provisions in the citadel of Tarentum was almost intolerable; the Roman garrison there, and Marcus Livius, the prefect of the garrison and the citadel, placing all their dependence in the supplies sent from Sicily; that these might safely pass along the coast of Italy, a [p. 1069]
fleet of about twenty ships was stationed at Rhegium.
Decius Quinctius, a man of obscure birth, but who had acquired great renown as a soldier, on account of many acts of bravery, had charge of the fleet and the convoys.
At first he had five ships, the largest of which were two triremes, given to him by Marcellus;
but afterwards, in consequence of his spirited conduct on many occasions, three quinqueremes were added to his number;
at last, by exacting from the allied states of Rhegium, Velia, and Paestum, the ships they were bound to furnish according to treaty, he made up a fleet of twenty ships, as was before stated.
This fleet setting out from Rhegium, was met at Sacriportus, about fifteen miles from the city, by Democrates, with an equal number of Tarentine ships. It happened that the Roman was then coming with his sails up, not expecting an approaching contest;
but in the neighbourhood of Croto and Sybaris, he had supplied his ships with rowers, and had his fleet excellently equipped and armed for the size of his vessels;
and it also happened, that just at the time when the enemy were in sight, the wind completely fell, so that there was sufficient time to furl their sails, and get their rowers and soldiers in readiness for the approaching action. Rarely elsewhere have regular fleets engaged with so much spirit, for they fought for what was of greater importance than the fleets themselves.
The Tarentines, in order that, having recovered their city from the Romans after the lapse of almost a century, they might also rescue their citadel;
hoping also to cut off the supplies of their enemy, if by a naval battle they could deprive them of the dominion of the sea. The Romans, that, by keeping possession of the citadel, they might prove that Tarentum was lost not by the strength and valour of their enemies, but by treachery and stealth.
Accordingly, the signal having been given on both sides, they charged each other with the beaks of their ships, and neither did they draw back their own, nor allow the ships of the enemy with which they were engaged to separate from them, having thrown their grappling irons;
and thus the battle was carried on in such close quarters, that they fought not only with missile weapons, but in a manner foot to foot even with their swords. The prows joined together remained stationary, while the sterns were moved round by the force of their adversaries' oars.
The ships were crowded together in so small a com- [p. 1070]
pass, that scarcely one weapon fell into the sea without taking effect. They pressed front against front like lines of troops engaging on land, and the combatants could pass from one ship to another.
But the contest between two ships which had engaged each other in the van, was remarkable above the rest.
In the Roman ship was Quinctius himself, in the Tarentine, Nico, surnamed Perco, who hated, and was hated by, the Romans, not only on public grounds, but also personally, for he belonged to that faction which had betrayed Tarentum to Hannibal. This man transfixed Quinctius with a spear while off his guard, and engaged at once in fighting and encouraging his men, and he immediately fell headlong with his arms over the prow.
The victorious Tarentine promptly boarded the ship, which was all in confusion from the loss of the commander,
and when he had driven the enemy back, and the Tarentines had got possession of the prow, the Romans, who had formed themselves into a compact body, with difficulty defending the stern, suddenly another trireme of the enemy appeared at the stern.
Thus the Roman ship, enclosed between the two, was captured. Upon this a panic spread among the rest, seeing the commander's ship captured, and flying in every direction, some were sunk in the deep and some rowed hastily to land, where, shortly after, they became a prey to the Thurians and Metapontines.
Of the storeships which followed, laden with provisions, a very few fell into the hands of the enemy; the rest, shifting their sails from one side to another with the changing winds, escaped into the open sea. An affair took place at Tarentum at this time, which was attended with widely different success;
for a party of four thousand men had gone out to forage, and while they were dispersed, and roaming through the country, Livius, the commander of the citadel and the
Roman garrison, who was anxious to seize every opportunity of striking a blow, sent out of the citadel Caius Persius, an active officer, with two thousand soldiers, who attacked them suddenly when widely dispersed and straggling about the fields;
and after slaying them for a long time on all hands, drove the few that remained of so many into the city, to which they fled in alarm and confusion, and where they rushed in at the doors of the gates, which were half-opened that the city might not be taken in the same attack.
In this manner affairs were equally balanced [p. 1071]
at Tarentum, the Romans being victorious by land, and the Tarentines by sea. Both parties were equally disappointed in their hope of receiving provisions, after they were within sight.