With their city under threat from Hiero and the Syracusan army, the Mamertines of Messena sent envoys to both the Carthaginians and the Romans to ask for military aid. The Carthaginians seem to have responded first. Although the Mamertines were little more than brigands, they were the enemies of Syracuse and Syracuse was a traditional rival of Carthage on Sicily. In this light, the decision to send a garrison commanded by one Hanno to the citadel of Messana seems quite logical.
The Roman response
The Romans now faced a difficult situation. Coming to the aid of the Mamertines would entail the first Roman intervention outside Italy. It was also clear that such a step would be seen as highly opportunistic. As Adrian Goldsworthy sharply puts it, “the similarity between the actions of the Mamertines at Messana and Decius’ troops at Rhegium must have been obvious and the hypocrisy of punishing the latter and making an alliance with the former blatant”. Relations between Rome and Carthage had always been quite good, so getting involved in a conflict with this powerful city involved serious risks, both militarily and economically.
The matter was discussed in the Senate, which was unable to reach a conclusion. The magistrates, most likely the consul Appius Claudius Caudex, then brought the question before the popular assembly. This was probably the comitia centuriata, the assembly that elected the senior magistrates and decided on matters of war and peace. It was dominated by the wealthier Romans, and these ultimately voted in favour of helping the Mamertines. Their motives may have been a combination of wariness of further Carthaginian expansion – Messana was very close to Italy and especially to the parts of Magna Graecia only recently put under Roman control -, appetite for a foreign adventure and the desire to collect plunder and slaves from the upcoming war.
Crossing the Straits
But the problem was how to get to Sicily in the first place. The Romans had no fleet to speak of and had to rely on transport ships provided by their allies, the Greeks cities of Tarentum, Locris, Elea and Neapolis. The Romans may have sent ahead an advance party led by one Gaius Claudius, a military tribune. He had great difficulty crossing the Strait of Messana and some of his ships and men were captured by the Carthaginians, who were guarding the narrow Strait with their superior navy.
Claudius was unable to reach Messana and was forced to return to Rhegium, but apparently the Carthaginian commander Hanno generously returned the ships and the prisoners and advised his Roman opponent not to meddle with the sea. Claudius, however, would not listen, and thereupon Hanno reportedly remarked that “he would never allow the Romans even to wash their hands in the sea”. The story is reported by Cassius Dio and Zonaras, who both wrote hundreds of years later. It is impossible to determine whether it is true or not.
In any case, the second attempt to cross the Strait was successful and upon arriving in Messana, Claudius may have convinced the Mamertines to eject the Carthaginian garrison. Hanno and his troops were kicked out of the city and the former was crucified by the Carthaginians as a punishment for his failure. The Roman actions on Sicily briefly united the two natural rivals Carthage and Syracuse, who formed an unusual alliance and marched their armies towards Messana.
The Roman advance party was clearly much too weak to fight the combined forces of the Carthaginians and Hiero’s Syracusans, but now the consul Appius Claudius landed his consular army of some 20.000 men on the island. The consul decided to confront the Syracusans first. Although his cavalry was defeated, Claudius nevertheless won the battle thanks to his superior infantry. After a sharp fight, Hiero was forced to withdraw his army and return to Syracuse. The consul then turned his attention to the Carthaginians and managed to defeat them as well. The blockade of Messana by its enemies was now lifted, and the Roman intervention on the island was a resounding success.
Appius Claudius now ordered his troops to conduct raids into enemy territory. It is difficult to assess how successful these raids were, but Diodorus Siculus claims the consul was checked at a town named Echetla and lost many men there. The Romans were probably operating in difficult terrain and were rapidly running out of provisions. Cassius Dio also claims that disease had broken out in the army. In the end, the consul marched back to Messana, left a garrison there and returned to Italy. The war season ended in October and it was up to next year’s consuls to continue the war on Sicily.
The situation in Italy
The Romans could not send their entire army to Sicily, as they were also engaged in a conflict with the Etruscan city of Volsinii (on the shore of Lake Bolsena). The city itself seems to have been a Roman ally, having been defeated in battle long ago. However, internal disturbances had broken out between the original citizens of Volsinii and former slaves, who had obtained citizenship and formed a new plebeian class. The situation had prompted the Romans to intervene in this power struggle on the side of the autochthonous Volsinians. In 265 BCE, they sent an army north under the command of the consul Quintus Fabius Gurges.
Gurges defeated the former slaves in open battle and drove them back to Volsinii, but things went horribly wrong when he tried to assault the city itself. Apparently the consul refused to stay safely in the rear: leading his men in storming the city, he was mortally wounded and died a little later. The Romans had to send the second consul of 264 BCE, Marcus Fulvius Flaccus, to replace him and continue the siege. Flaccus starved the city into submission, razed Volsinii to the ground and relocated the original Volsinians and some of their loyal servants to a new site where a new city was founded.
Another important event also took place in Italy this year. The former consul Decimus Junius Brutus was the first to organise gladiatorial games in Rome on the occasion of the death of his father. We should keep in mind that gladiatorial fights were not originally staged for public entertainment, but to celebrate the masculine and martial virtues of the deceased.
– Cassius Dio, Roman History, Fragments of Book X and of Book XI;
– Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Fragments of Book XXIII;
– Livius, Periochae, Book 16;
– Polybius, The Histories, Book 1.10-12a; 1.15;
– Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 65-75;
– Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 171-173.