Roman Empire > Roman Empire History > The First Punic War - b.C. 264-241

The First Punic War - b.C. 264-241

Rome, now mistress of Italy, entered upon a long and arduous straggle with Carthage, which ruled without a rival the western waters of the Mediterranean. This great and powerful city was founded by the Phœnicians of Tyre in B.C. 814, according to the common chronology. Its inhabitants were consequently a branch of the Semitic race, to which the Hebrews also belonged. Carthage rose to greatness by her commerce, and gradually extended her empire over the whole of the north of Africa, from the Straits of Hercules to the borders of Cyrene. Her Libyan subjects she treated with extreme harshness, and hence they were always ready to revolt against her so soon as a foreign enemy appeared upon her soil.

The two chief magistrates at Carthage were elected annually out of a few of the chief families, and were called Suffetes. There was a Senate of Three Hundred members, and also a smaller Council of One Hundred, of which the latter were the most powerful, holding office for life, and exercising an almost sovereign sway over the other authorities in the state. The government was a complete oligarchy; and a few old, rich, and powerful families divided among themselves the influence and power of the state. These great families were often opposed to each other in bitter feuds, but concurred in treating with contempt the mass of the people.

In her foreign wars Carthage depended upon mercenary troops, which her great wealth enabled her to procure in abundance from Spain, Italy, and Greece, as well as from Libya. Sardinia and Corsica were among her earliest conquests, and Sicily was also one of the first objects of her military enterprise. The Phœnician colonies in this island came under her dominion as the power of Tyre declined; and having thus obtained a firm footing in Sicily, she carried on a long struggle for the supremacy with the Greek cities. It was here that she came into contact with the Roman arms. The relations of Rome and Carthage had hitherto been peaceful, and a treaty, concluded between the two states in the first years of the Roman republic, had been renewed more than once. But the extension of Roman dominion had excited the jealousy of Carthage, and Rome began to turn longing eyes to the fair island at the foot of her empire. It was evident that a struggle was not far distant, and Pyrrhus could not help exclaiming, as he quitted Sicily, "How fine a battle-field are we leaving to the Romans and Carthaginians!"

The city of Messana, situated on the straits which divide Sicily from Italy, was occupied at this time by the Mamertini. They were a body of Campanian mercenaries, chiefly of Sabellian origin, who had served under Agathocles, and after the death of that tyrant (B.C. 289) were marched to Messana, in order to be transported to Italy. Being hospitably received within the city, they suddenly rose against the inhabitants, massacred the male population, and made themselves masters of their wives and property. They now took the name of Mamertini, or "Children of Mars," from Mamers, a Sabellian name for that deity. They rapidly extended their power over a considerable portion of the north of Sicily, and were formidable enemies to Syracuse. Hiero, having become king of Syracuse, determined to destroy this nest of robbers, advanced against them with a large army, defeated them in battle, and shut them up within Messana. The Mamertines were obliged to look out for help; one party wished to appeal to the Carthaginians, and the other to invoke the assistance of Rome. The latter ultimately prevailed, and an embassy was sent to implore immediate aid. The temptation was strong, for the occupation of Messana by a Carthaginian garrison might prove dangerous to the tranquillity of Italy. Still the Senate hesitated; for only six years before Hiero had assisted the Romans in punishing the Campanian mercenaries, who had seized Rhegium in the same way as the Mamertines had made themselves masters of Messana. The voice of justice prevailed, and the Senate declined the proposal. But the Consuls, thirsting for glory, called together the popular assembly, who eagerly voted that the Mamertines should be assisted; in other words, that the Carthaginians should not be allowed to obtain possession of Messana. The Consul App. Claudius, the son of the blind Censor, was to lead an army into Sicily. But during this delay the Carthaginian party in Messana had obtained the ascendency, and Hanno, with a Carthaginian garrison, had been admitted into the citadel. Hiero had concluded peace with the Mamertines through the mediation of the Carthaginians, so that there was no longer even a pretext for the interference of the Romans. But a legate of the Consul App. Claudius, having crossed to Sicily, persuaded the Mamertines to expel the Carthaginian garrison. Hiero and the Carthaginians now proceeded to lay siege to Messana by sea and land, and the Romans no longer hesitated to declare war against Carthage. Such was the commencement of the first Punic War (B.C. 264).

The Carthaginians commanded the sea with a powerful fleet, while the Romans had no ships of war worthy of the name. But the Consul App. Claudius, having contrived to elude the Carthaginian squadron, landed near the town of Messana, and defeated in succession the forces of Syracuse and Carthage. In the following year (263) the Romans followed up their success against Hiero. The two Consuls advanced to the walls of Syracuse, ravaging the territory of the city and capturing many of its dependent towns. The king became alarmed at the success of the Romans; and thinking that they would prove more powerful than the Carthaginians, he concluded a peace with Rome. From this time till his death, a period of nearly fifty years, Hiero remained the firm and steadfast ally of the Romans.

The Romans, now freed from the hostility of Syracuse, laid siege to Agrigentum, the second of the Greek cities in Sicily, which had espoused the cause of the Carthaginians at the commencement of the war. The siege lasted seven months, and numbers perished on both sides. But at length the Romans gained a decisive victory over the Carthaginian army which had been sent to raise the siege, and obtained possession of the town (B.C. 262).

Columna Rostrata
Columna Rostrata

The first three years of the war had already made the Romans masters of the greater part of Sicily. But the coasts of Italy were exposed to the ravages of the Carthaginian fleet, and the Romans saw that they could not hope to bring the war to a successful termination so long as Carthage was mistress of the sea. They had only a small number of triremes, galleys with three banks of oars, and were quite unable to cope with the quinqueremes, or large vessels with five banks of oars, of which the Carthaginian navy consisted. The Senate, with characteristic energy, determined to build a fleet of these larger vessels. A Carthaginian quinquereme, which had been wrecked upon the coast of Italy, served as a model; and in the short space of sixty days from the time the trees were felled, 130 ships were launched. While the ships were building, the rowers were trained on scaffolds placed upon the land like benches of ships at sea. We can not but feel astonished at the daring of the Romans, who, with ships thus hastily and clumsily built, and with crews imperfectly trained, sailed to attack the navy of the first maritime state in the world. This was in the fifth year of the war (B.C. 260). One of the Consuls, Cn. Cornelius, first put to sea with only 17 ships, but was surprised near Lipara, and taken prisoner with the whole of his squadron. His colleague, C. Duilius, now took the command of the rest of the fleet. He saw that the only means of conquering the Carthaginians by sea was to deprive them of all the advantages of manœuvring, and to take their ships by boarding. For this purpose, every ship was provided with a boarding-bridge 36 feet in length, which was pulled up by a rope and fastened to a mast in the fore part of the ship. As soon as an enemy's ship came near enough, the rope was loosened, the bridge fell down, and became fastened by means of an iron spike in its under side. The boarders then poured down the bridge into the enemy's ship. Thus prepared, Duilius boldly sailed out to meet the fleet of the enemy. He found them off the Sicilian coast, near Mylæ. The Carthaginians hastened to the fight as if to a triumph, but their ships were rapidly seized by the boarding-bridges, and when it came to a close fight their crews were no match for the veteran soldiers of Rome. The victory of Duilius was complete. Thirty-one of the enemy's ships were taken, and fourteen destroyed; the rest only saved themselves by an ignominious flight. On his return to Rome, Duilius celebrated a magnificent triumph. Public honors were conferred upon him; he was to be escorted home in the evening from banquets by the light of torches and the sound of the flute, and a column adorned with the beaks of the conquered ships, and thence called the Columna Rostrata, was set up in the forum.

For the next few years the war languished, and nothing of importance was effected on either side; but in the ninth year of the struggle (B.C. 256) the Romans resolved by strenuous exertions to bring it to a conclusion. They therefore made preparations for invading Africa with a great force. The two Consuls, M. Atilius Regulus and L. Manlius, set sail with 330 ships, took the legions on board in Sicily, and then put out to sea in order to cross over to Africa. The Carthaginian fleet, consisting of 350 ships, met them near Ecnomus, on the southern coast of Sicily. The battle which ensued was the greatest sea-fight that the ancient world had yet seen. The boarding-bridges of the Romans again annihilated all the advantages of maritime skill. Their victory was decisive. They lost only 24 ships, while they destroyed 30 of the enemy's vessels, and took 64 with all their crews. The passage to Africa was now clear, and the remainder of the Carthaginian fleet hastened home to defend the capital. The Romans landed near the town of Clupea, or Aspis, which they took, and there established their head-quarters. From thence they laid waste the Carthaginian territory with fire and sword, and collected an immense booty from the defenseless country. On the approach of winter, Manlius, one of the Consuls, by order of the Senate, returned to Rome with half of the army, while Regulus remained with the other half to prosecute the war. He carried on his operations with the utmost vigor, and was greatly assisted by the incompetency of the Carthaginian generals. The enemy had collected a considerable force, which they intrusted to three commanders, Hasdrubal, Bostar, and Hamilcar; but these generals avoided the plains, where their cavalry and elephants would have given them an advantage over the Roman army, and withdrew into the mountains. There they were attacked by Regulus, and utterly defeated with great loss; 15,000 men were killed in battle, and 5000 men, with 18 elephants, were taken. The Carthaginian troops retired within the walls of the capital, and Regulus now overran the country without opposition. Many towns fell into the power of the Romans, and among others Tunis, which was at the distance of only 20 miles from Carthage. The Numidians took the opportunity of recovering their independence, and their roving bands completed the devastation of the country. The Carthaginians, in despair, sent a herald to Regulus to solicit peace; but the Roman general, intoxicated with success, would only grant it on such intolerable terms that the Carthaginians resolved to continue the war and hold out to the last. In the midst of their distress and alarm, succor came to them from an unexpected quarter. Among the Greek mercenaries who had lately arrived at Carthage was a Lacedæmonian of the name of Xanthippus. He pointed out to the Carthaginians that their defeats were owing to the incompetency of their generals, and not to the superiority of the Roman arms; and he inspired such confidence in the government, that he was forthwith placed at the head of their troops. Relying on his 4000 cavalry and 100 elephants, Xanthippus boldly marched into the open country to meet the enemy, though his forces were very inferior in number to the Romans. Regulus readily accepted battle thus offered; but it ended in his total overthrow. Thirty thousand Romans were slain; scarcely 2000 escaped to Clupea, and Regulus himself, with 500 more, was taken prisoner. This was in the year B.C. 255.

Another disaster awaited the Romans in this year. Their fleet, which had been sent to Africa to carry off the remains of the army of Regulus, had not only succeeded in their object, but had gained a victory over the Carthaginian fleet. They were returning home when they were overtaken off Camarina, in Sicily, by a fearful storm. Nearly the entire fleet was destroyed, and the coast was strewed for miles with wrecks and corpses.

The Romans, with undiminished energy, immediately set to work to build a new fleet, and in less than three months 220 ships were ready for sea. But the same fate awaited them. In B.C. 253 the Consuls had ravaged the coasts of Africa, but, on their return, were again surprised by a fearful storm off Cape Palinurus. A hundred and fifty ships were wrecked. This blow, coming so soon after the other, damped the courage even of the Romans; they determined not to rebuild the fleet, and to keep only 60 ships for the defense of the coast of Italy and the protection of the transports.

The war was now confined to Sicily; but, since the defeat of Regulus, the Roman soldiers had been so greatly alarmed by the elephants, that their generals did not venture to attack the Carthaginians. At length, in B.C. 250, the Roman proconsul, L. Metellus, accepted battle under the walls of Panormus, and gained a decisive victory. The Carthaginians lost 20,000 men; 13 of their generals adorned the triumph of Metellus; and 104 elephants were also led in the triumphal procession. This was the most important battle that had been yet fought in Sicily, and had a decisive influence upon the issue of the contest. It so raised the spirits of the Romans that they determined once more to build a fleet of 200 sail. The Carthaginians, on the other hand, were anxious to bring the war to an end, and accordingly sent an embassy to Rome to propose an exchange of prisoners, and to offer terms of peace.

Regulus, who had been now five years in captivity, was allowed to accompany the embassadors, with the promise that he would return to Carthage if their proposals were declined. This embassy is the subject of one of the most celebrated stories in the Roman annals. The orators and poets relate how Regulus at first refused to enter the city as a slave of the Carthaginians; how afterward he would not give his opinion in the Senate, as he had ceased by his captivity to be a member of that illustrious body; how, at length, when induced by his countrymen to speak, he endeavored to dissuade the Senate from assenting to a peace, or even to an exchange of prisoners; and when he saw them wavering, from their desire to redeem him from captivity, how he told them that the Carthaginians had given him a slow poison, which would soon terminate his life; and how, finally, when the Senate, through his influence, refused the offers of the Carthaginians, he firmly resisted all the persuasions of his friends to remain in Rome, and returned to Carthage, where a martyr's death awaited him. It is related that he was placed in a barrel covered over with iron nails, and thus perished. Other writers state, in addition, that, after his eyelids had been cut off, he was first thrown into a dark dungeon, and then suddenly exposed to the full rays of a burning sun. When the news of the barbarous death of Regulus reached Rome, the Senate is said to have given Hamilcar and Bostar, two of the noblest Carthaginian prisoners, to the family of Regulus, who revenged themselves by putting them to death with cruel torments.

Regulus was one of the favorite characters of early Roman story. Not only was he celebrated for his heroism in giving the Senate advice which secured him a martyr's death, but also on account of his frugality and simplicity of life. Like Fabricius and Curius, he lived on his hereditary farm, which he cultivated with his own hands; and subsequent ages loved to tell how he petitioned the Senate for his recall from Africa when he was in the full career of victory, as his farm was going to ruin in his absence, and his family was suffering from want.

The Carthaginian dominion in Sicily was now confined to the northwestern corner of the island, and Lilybæum and Drepanum were the only two towns remaining in their hands. Lilybæum, situated upon a promontory at the western extremity of the island, was the strong-hold of the Carthaginian power; and accordingly the Romans determined to concentrate all their efforts, and to employ the armies of both Consuls in attacking this city. This siege, which is one of the most memorable in ancient history, commenced in B.C. 250, and lasted till the termination of the war. In the second year of the siege (B.C. 249), the Consul P. Claudius, who lay before Lilybæum, formed the design of attacking the Carthaginian fleet in the neighboring harbor of Drepanum. In vain did the auguries warn him. The keeper of the sacred chickens told him that they would not eat. "At any rate," said he, "let them drink;" and he ordered them to be thrown overboard. His impiety met with a meet reward. He was defeated with great loss; 93 of his ships were taken or destroyed, and only 30 escaped. Great was the indignation at Rome. He was recalled by the Senate, ordered to appoint a Dictator, and then to lay down his office. Claudius, in scorn, named M. Claudius Glycias, a son of one of his freedmen. But the Senate would not brook this insult; they deprived the unworthy man of the honor, and appointed in his place A. Atilius Calatinus.

The other Consul, C. Junius, was equally unfortunate. He was sailing along the coasts of Sicily with a convoy of 800 vessels, intended to relieve the wants of the army at Lilybæum, when he was overtaken by one of those terrible storms which had twice before proved so fatal to the Roman fleets. The transports were all dashed to pieces, and of his 105 ships of war only two escaped. Thus the Roman fleet was a third time destroyed. These repeated misfortunes compelled the Romans to abandon any farther attempts to contest the supremacy of the sea.

About this time a really great man was placed at the head of the Carthaginian army - a man who, at an earlier period of the war, might have brought the struggle to a very different termination. This was the celebrated Hamilcar Barca, the father of the still more celebrated Hannibal. He was still a young man at the time of his appointment to the command in Sicily (B.C. 247). His very first operations were equally daring and successful. Instead of confining himself to the defense of Lilybæum and Drepanum, with which the Carthaginian commanders had been hitherto contented, he made descents upon the coast of Italy, and then suddenly landed on the north of Sicily, and established himself, with his whole army, on a mountain called Herctè (the modern Monte Pellegrino), which overhung the town of Panormus (the modern Palermo), one of the most important of the Roman possessions. Here he maintained himself for nearly three years, to the astonishment alike of friends and foes, and from hence he made continual descents into the enemy's country, and completely prevented them from making any vigorous attacks either upon Lilybæum or Drepanum. All the efforts of the Romans to dislodge him were unsuccessful; and he only quitted Herctè in order to seize Eryx, a town situated upon the mountain of this name, and only six miles from Drepanum. This position he held for two years longer; and the Romans, despairing of driving the Carthaginians out of Sicily so long as they were masters of the sea, resolved to build another fleet. In B.C. 242 the Consul Lutatius Catulus put to sea with a fleet of 200 ships, and in the following year he gained a decisive victory over the Carthaginian fleet, commanded by Hanno, off the group of islands called the Ægates.

Plan of Mount Ercta
Plan of Mount Ercta. A. Ercta, now Monte Pellegrino. B. Panormus, the modern Palermo

This victory gave the Romans the supremacy by sea. Lilybæum, Drepanum, and Eryx might now be reduced by famine. The Carthaginians were weary of the war, and indisposed to make any farther sacrifices. They therefore sent orders to Hamilcar to make peace on the best terms he could. It was at length concluded on the following conditions: that Carthage should evacuate Sicily and the adjoining islands; that she should restore the Roman prisoners without ransom, and should pay the sum of 3200 talents within the space of ten years (B.C. 241). All Sicily, with the exception of the territory of Hiero, now became a portion of the Roman dominions, and was formed into a Province, governed by a Prætor, who was sent annually from Rome.

Coin of Carthage
Coin of Carthage
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