Punic Wars:

First Punic War

By the mid 3rd century BC, the Roman Republic had secured its position on the Italian peninsula with victories over the Etruscans, the Latin League, the Samnites, and Pyrrhus. Victory, though valiantly contested by all foes, bred confidence with the Romans and while conflict with regional powers like Carthage was daunting, Rome was up for the challenge. Carthage, meanwhile, a former Phoenician colony and now and independent Mediterranean power, was already established as a naval superpower and commercial trade giant.

Background for the first conflict between Rome and Carthage would begin in Sicily, and the island would remain the main battleground and objective throughout the long war. At the time Sicily was divided between three ruling parties. Carthage had a firm grip on the western part of the island including the important cities of Agrigentum, Panormus and Lilybaeum. The King of Syracuse held sway in the southeast controlling that city and several neighboring towns. The northeast was the source of contention between these various rivaling groups. Italian mercenaries from Campania, who had previously been in the service of Syracuse, had seized the town of Messana, thereby gaining control of the northeast.

In 288 BC these mercenaries, who called themselves Mamertines (sons of Mars), while returning home from service with Syracuse, took Messana through treachery. In so doing, they generally murdered a good deal of the native population and took the women as their own wives and used the city as a base to raid the surrounding countryside. By 265 BC, when Heiro II came to power in Syracuse, the situation had become worse and he immediately focused on his troublesome northern neighbors. Heiro laid siege to the Mamertines and Messana in an attempt to stop the raiding, but also to win back the city for Syracuse. At some point the siege was so successful that the Mamertines had no choice but to call for help, and did so, first to Carthage and later to Rome. Rome at first was unwilling to aid the troublesome mercenaries who had treacherously stolen Messana from Syracuse, in consideration of its friendly relations with Syracuse. The recent war with Pyrrus under similar circumstances probably added to their reluctance to get involved. Carthage, however, as one of the occupying forces on Sicily, felt more obliged and had ulterior motives to get involved. Carthage sent troops to the area, and Rome, now fearing Carthaginian dominance of Sicily, quickly changed their minds and entered into an alliance with the Mamertines. In 264 BC, Roman legions crossed out of Italy for the first time, landed in Sicily, and opened the first Punic War.

The Roman force, expeditionary at this point, was dispatched under Appius Claudius Caudex and they moved immediately upon Messana. There is some evidence that the crossing was contested by Carthage, but invariably, the Roman delay had allowed the Carthaginians to get there first. The Mamertines, eager for help against Syracuse from anyone, allowed the Carthaginians to garrison the city, but soon regretted the decision. The Romans, upon arriving at Messana offered to parlay with the Carthaginian commander. Hanno in agreeing to negotiate with the Romans, was promptly seized by Claudius, and in order to win his freedom, agreed to abandon Messana. He would eventually give his life as penalty for this failure, but the Carthaginians were not so willing to accept defeat. They immediately broke their ties with the Mamertines and turned to Syracuse for allied operations. Heiro, still eager to return Messana to his domain and agreed to help send the Romans home. A Syraceusan navy along with a Carthaginian army promptly besieged the town. Both would be repulsed by Claudius, and Messana belonged firmly to Rome.

From the opening conflict in Messana, the situation soon escalated. Rome sent two Consular armies to Sicily under M. Valerius and M. Otacilius Crassus, with the intention of gaining control of the entire island. Roman success was abundant early on in this stage. Several Carthaginian towns fell to Roman dominance and attention was focused on Syracuse. Valerius led a large contingent against Heiro, fearful of Roman strength, immediately entered into negotiations. In switching sides from Carthage to Rome, he offered uncontested control of Messana to Rome and paid tribute of one hundred talents for 15 years in order to secure his Kingship of Syracuse and remain 'independent'. With Heiro's defection from Carthage, several other smaller Greek cities in Sicily also switched to Roman allegiance and Valerius, in light of his successful negotiations received the cognoment "Messalla" from the Senate.

With the eastern part of Sicily mainly under Roman control, they pushed west into the strongholds of Carthaginian territory. In 262 BC, the now Roman Consuls Lucius Postumius Megellus and Quintus Mamilius Vitulus met a Carthaginian relief force at the important town of Agrigentum. The Romans were victorious, while details are sketchy, and forced the enemy within the city walls. After seven months, a siege that stretched into 261 BC, the Romans sacked the city, selling the residents as slaves. Focus was shifted to Greek cities that had been allied with Carthage and the same treatment was given to the defeated in each location. The departure for Rome, from simply absorbing conquered cultures, to sacking and enslavement only inspired anger and hatred among the Sicilian residents. Carthage with its powerful fleet was still the dominating power of the sea and would soon be back under Hamilcar Barca. Rome knew the only way the war would end in their favor was to try to match Carthage at sea.

The Carthaginian fleet quickly recovered lost Sicilian coastal cities and ravaged the Italian coast line. Their dominance made it difficult to even reinforce the Sicilian garrisons. Contrary to some popular notions, the Romans had even at this time a small navy. The ships however, were only smaller triremes that were no match for the larger and more experienced crews of the Carthaginian quinquiremes. Rome had no choice but to surrender or match the enemy's vessels. According to Polybius, an opportunity presented itself in the form of a beached quinquireme on the Italian coast that the Romans could copy to build a new fleet. The Senate ordered the construction of a hundred vessels like it in sixty days and soon the Romans were ready to try their hands at the sea.

In early engagements, the Romans found that their seamanship would never be up to the task and the only way to gain victory would be to use their traditional strength of land power to their advantage. The corvus or "crow" was developed from a similar device used by Syracuse. This device functioned as a 35 foot long swiveling bridge that could be attached to enemy vessels. Rather than attempting to ram, sink or outmaneuver the superior Carthaginian navy, the Romans could board the vessels and use there land warfare assets. The two fleets met in the first such battle under these conditions in 260 BC. Carthaginian forces were plundering the Sicilian coast and the new Roman fleet, under the Consul Duilius, met them near Mylae. 143 Roman ships defeated 130 Carthaginian ones, capturing 31 and sinking 14, and opened a new phase in Roman power. Duilius was awarded a triumph and a column (Columna Rostrata), adorned with the prows of captured vessels, was erected in the Forum in his honor.

The next several years, 259 to 256 BC, saw several Roman victories at sea and the invasions of Corsica and Sardinia. In 259 BC, the first of many Scipios (Lucius Cornelius Scipio) to lead an army in the Punic Wars invaded Corsica and quickly captured the town of Alalia. Attempts to do the same in Sardinia failed and complete subjugation of Corsica would take another century, but result was the loss of Carthaginian control of both islands. 258 BC saw a victory at sea by C. Sulpicius off Sulci and in Sicily, Atilius Regulus attacked the city of Panormus and captured Mytistratus. The following year Regulus followed up his successes in Sicily with naval victories off of Tyndaris and the coast of Malta. In 256 BC the Roman fleet continued its successes, under L. Manlius Vulso and Atilius Regulus, in naval action off the coast of Sicily. Despite their victories, stalemate reigned in western Sicily and Rome felt the only way to achieve victory was to invade North Africa itself. In preparing to sail, the two fleets met at the Battle of Ecnomus off of Southern Sicily. Rome again won a decisive victory and the path was clear all the way to Carthage.

Led by Manlius Vulso and Atilius Regulus the Romans landed at Aspis in 256 BC and established a fortified campe at Clypea. At Adys, early in the campaign, Rome won a major engagement, but was unable to finish the Carthaginians before the onset of winter and the end of the campaigning season. The rising cost of the war and depleted treasury of the Republic forced on consul, Vulso to return to Italy with part of the army to ease the financial burden, leaving Regulus with between 15,000 and 20,000 men. In the spring of 255 the campaign was renewed with the Romans moving to Tunes, just a day's march from Carthage. Local populations were incited to revolt by the invaders and Carthage sued for terms. Regulus, however, offered unacceptable terms (seemingly at the time) and Carthaginian citizen levies having proved ineffective looked to mercenaries to expel the invaders. The looked to the legendary Spartans, under Xanthippus and he would prove to be an effective hire. The Spartans along with Carthaginian elephants met the Romans will equal force at the Battle of Bagradas and utterly destroyed the army of Regulus. Of the 20,000 or so Romans, only 2,000 to 3,000 escaped to Aspis and the rest, along with Regulus were killed or captured.

A naval relief force sent to retrieve the survivors, under M. Aemilius Paullus and Fulvius Nobilior reached Africa after defeating the full Carthaginian fleet off Cape Hermaeum in a large scale naval effort. With control of the African coast secured, they were able to withdraw all the remaining troops at Aspis. However, in what Polybius called the greatest naval disaster known, the same fleet was caught in a storm off of Camarina in southern Sicily. Nearly 70 % of the 264 ship fleet and approximately 100,000 rowers, marines and the rescued legionaries were lost when the ships were dashed against the rocks in coastal waters. The Romans, however, despite the incredible loss to available manpower, showed their resiliency, rebuilt the fleet and retrained crews.

The invasion of Africa turned out to be a major failure for Rome, but its undertaking proved Roman entrance into the field of major players in the ancient world. Despite the disaster, Carthage could never really regain the advantage, but the war languished on in Sicily. In 254 BC, the Romans captured the fortress town of Panormus and pressed on with its naval operations. A raid along the African coast was interrupted by another storm in 253 BC, the resulted in the loss of another Roman fleet at Cape Palinurus. The Senate and the Roman allies, nearly bankrupt and depleted of manpower changed their tactics in the short term to one of strictly land warfare. Gallic invasions in northern Italy and the Numidians in Africa declaring war on Carthage certainly must've contributed to this. By 252 BC this change brought about more success in Sicily with the capture of Lipara and Thermae, the defeat of a Carthaginian relief effort at Panormus, and the onset of a lengthy siege of Lilybaeum. In 252 or 250 BC, the Romans regained confidence and decided to venture back to the sea.

Despite Carthaginian efforts to sue for peace, Rome rebuilt its fleet once more to protect its siege of Lilybaeum from an approaching Carthaginian fleet. Under Publius Claudius Pulcher, the roman fleet of 123 ships was sent to engage the Carthaginian Adherbal lying near Drepanum. Pulcher, completely inexperienced, was trounced by Adherbal losing over ninety ships to less than 10 by Carthage. Another Roman fleet, including the few survivors from Drepanum, under L. Junius Pullus was shipwrecked shortly after near Camarina. The crews mostly survived, however, and they marched on Mt. Eryx to take a strategic position there. Back in Rome, the naval situation looked so bleak (3 fleets destroyed in 3 consecutive campaigns), that the Senate elected Aulus Atilius Caiatinus as dictator. The chance to accept Carthaginian negotiations thereby end the war had passed, and the stalemate fighting in Sicily would resume once again.

247 BC saw the entry of Hamilcar Barca into the war. The father of future Roman nemesis Hannibal arrived in Sicily and defeated all Roman attacks over a period of 4 years. While unable to spread Carthaginian influence, or bring the fight to the Italian mainland, he seemingly ended Rome's ability to dominate the war on the ground. As the cause seemed near to being lost, or gains untenable, the ever present Roman resiliency continued to flourish and prosper. With a loss of one sixth of their population and the liquidation of a vast treasury, they still persisted in the attempt to conquer Sicily. Wealthy citizens again advanced their own money to build a new fleet two hundred new ships were built and placed under the consul C. Lutatius Catulus.

In 241 BC, Catulus met the Carthaginian fleet in a decisive victory at the Aegates Islands, off the western extremity of Sicily. The Carthaginian ships were laden with grain and supplies for Hamilcar's army holed up on Mt. Eryx, and the 170 ship fleet lost its maneuverability edge. In the resulting battle, it was recorded that fifty of the Carthaginian galleys were sunk outright and seventy captured. The remaining vessels were only saved by a fortuitous change in wind direction allowing them to escape back to Africa. The Romans took nearly 100,000 prisoners and Hamilcar with no way to be re-supplied, and after 23 years of war, was forced to sue for peace.

Results of the First Punic War

While the Roman "victory" was achieved at a terrible cost, they did receive complete control of Sicily through Carthaginian withdrawal, and the assurance that Syracuse would be unmolested in the future. Carthage was forced to pay 3,200 gold talents in total over a period of 10 years while also paying heavy ransoms for its prisoners. As a direct result of this compensation, Carthage found itself unable to pay her mercenary army leading directly to a devastating revolt. Sicily was organized into Rome's first province soon after the end of the war, and a veritable gold mine in grain wealth was secured.

Casualties for both sides must have been devastating. Polybius suggested that the war was the most destructive in the history of warfare. Rome lost at least 50,000 actual citizens, with Latin rights, allied and auxilia numbers higher exponentially. In the end, Rome lost over 600 ships while Carthage at least 500. Rome never having been a sea power only used the navy as needed in warfare and not as a permanent institution, so its vessel losses were less significant. Carthage, however, by virtue of losing its sea advantage had to find other means to regain its strength and position.

In another direct result of the war, Rome was able to secure both Sardinia and Corsica as a second Roman province. While Carthage, under the leadership of Hamilcar, was busy fighting off its own 'mercenary war', Rome was able to snatch Sardinia away and secure its position on Corsica by 238 BC. Carthage protested, but in its current state, could do nothing more than that, and in fact, was forced to pay more tribute. An additional 1200 talents were sent to Rome while it also took control of the 3 major western Mediterranean Islands. Carthage would be forced to seek ways to expand and pay Rome though other means than the navy, and led to the eventual colonization of Hispania. Lingering animosity wouldn't take long to resurface, and the emergence of the Barca (Hamilcar, Hasdrubal and Hannibal) family in Carthage would have a lasting and horrific impact on the new masters of the Mediterranean.

The Romans were able to shift attention to the North and the troublesome Gauls and Illyrians while Carthage dealt with its own internal affairs. They learned some important lessons in this war including the use of the sea in strategic warfare. While never becoming great sailors themselves, they used technology, the corvus, to their advantage and included more sea adept Greek officers and crews whenever possible. More importantly, Rome learned how to conduct war on a massive scale and to survive the turmoil it could cause. The Senate became masters of financing these expansionist activities, while the areas of legion recruiting, logistics, political espionage and fleet building all were part of the invaluable knowledge and experience gained. This already lengthy and costly war, while greatly beneficial to Rome was only the beginning of a longer and bloodier conflict by far, and both sides knew it.

continue to the First Illyrian War

Did you know?

It was Rome's clever invention of the corvus that inflicted the most damage during the earlier stages of the war. The corvus provided an instant bridge between ships, allowing Roman troops to quickly board Carthaginian vessels.

The Truceless War