The First Punic War: Prelude

PunicThe First Punic War between Rome and Carthage was, at the time, the largest conflict the Classical World had ever seen. The war lasted an almost unprecedented 23 years. Some of the largest naval battles in history took place during this conflict and there was a tremendous loss of life, especially at sea and mostly because of Roman inexperience in nautical affairs. Before the First Punic War, Carthage was “undisputedly the greatest power in the western Mediterranean”, as military historian Adrian Goldsworthy states in his excellent The Fall of Carthage. Was it even possible that a mere regional power like the Roman Republic could challenge this position? The answer, of course, was yes. Despite suffering horrendous losses, Rome came out on top and coerced its opponent into a harsh peace treaty which, in a way, set the stage for the Second Punic War some twenty years later, a conflict that would entail even more casualties and destruction.

The two opponents: Rome

When war with Carthage broke out in 264 BCE, the Roman Republic was not yet a superpower. Rome had, however, become the dominant power on the Italian peninsula. The Roman policy of turning defeated enemies into loyal allies worked very well. The allies (socii) provided the Roman armies with troops to fight Rome’s wars. To ensure their loyalty, the Romans usually confiscated some land from defeated opponents and used it to found colonies for Roman and Latin citizens. These colonies were the eyes and ears of Rome and her first lines of defence.

Rome had always had a special relationship with the cities of Latium. Although the Latin League, which had already been dominated by Rome anyway, had been disbanded after a conflict in 340-338 BCE, Rome retained close ties with most of the cities. The Roman Republic concluded separate treaties with all of its Latin allies, so that they continued to provided Rome with soldiers in times of conflict. Some Latin communities were granted full Roman citizenship, other received citizenship without the vote (civitas sine suffragio). Communities with merely Latin status still profited from their alliances with Rome, as this status ensured they had the rights of intermarriage and commerce with Roman citizens.

Dying Gaul (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

Dying Gaul (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

In time, Roman citizenship and Latin status were also granted to communities outside of Latium. The Romans for instance granted citizenship without the vote to many members of the nobility (equites) of Campania. Roman and Latin colonies were founded all over Italy. Of course, this was not without a struggle. In the late fourth and early third century, Rome was embroiled in conflicts with various Celtic tribes (called Galli or Gauls by the Romans), with the warlike Samnites and with the Etruscans, a people organised in a loose confederacy that had once dominated Rome herself. Although the Romans suffered setbacks, they ultimately prevailed and defeated their opponents.

Roman armies won important victories over the Etruscans at Lake Vadimo in 310 BCE, then defeated a coalition of Celts and Samnites in the Battle of Sentinum in 295 BCE, before smashing a joint Etruscan-Celtic force at Lake Vadimo again in 283 BCE. The Battle of Sentinum was, in a way, the culmination of a larger conflict which saw the forces of Rome and her Latin and Campanian allies pitted against a coalition of Etruscan cities, Celtic tribes like the Boii and Senones, Samnites and Umbrians. During the conflict with the Samnites – usually called the Third Samnite War (298-290 BCE) – the Romans came to the aid of the Lucanians, a people in Southern Italy. The territories of the Lucanians bordered on the area that had seen extensive Greek colonisation in the previous centuries and is therefore known as Magna Graecia.

Pyrrhus of Epirus (photo: Catalaon).

Pyrrhos of Epirus (photo: Catalaon).

The Greek cities states in Southern Italy and on Sicily suffered from political disunity, but many of them feared the Romans’ southward expansion. When the Greek city of Tarentum (Taras in Greek, a Spartan colony) came into conflict with Rome in 282 BCE, it requested aid from King Pyrrhos of Epirus, one of the greatest generals of the Ancient World. Pyrrhos and his army twice defeated the Romans and their allies, but suffered so many casualties themselves (‘Pyrrhic victories’) that they were forced to withdraw from Italy after a tactical defeat in 275 BCE. The Romans subsequently took Tarentum and added all of Southern Italy to their zone of control. The fact that the Romans had not collapsed after suffering two major defeats against Pyrrhos and had not even opened peace negotiations gave them a formidable reputation. They became known and respected for their tenacity and resilience, two traits which would serve them well in the upcoming conflict with Carthage.

The two opponents: Carthage

Carthage was a Phoenician colony in Northern Africa, in what is now Tunisia. The city was – at least according to tradition – founded in 814 BCE and soon eclipsed all the cities in the Phoenician motherland itself and the other Phoenician colonies in Northern Africa, Sicily and Spain in size and wealth. The Carthaginians dominated the Libyan tribes in the area and controlled most of the fertile areas of modern-day Tunisia, thus providing themselves with a solid agricultural base for further expansion. Carthage entered into diplomatic relationship with the Numidians to the west and there seem to have been close ties between the Carthaginian nobility and the royal houses of the Numidian kingdoms, although there were conflicts and wars as well.

Although the dominant power in this part of Northern Africa, Carthage was first and foremost a mercantile giant and it controlled all the major naval trade routes in the Western Mediterranean. The city was at the centre of an extensive trade network that relied on Phoenician settlements founded in Spain and on Sardinia and Sicily. It was especially settlement on Sicily that led to a prolonged conflict with the Greek world.

Head of Baal Hammon, one of the most important deities in Carthage.

Head of Baal Hammon, one of the most important deities in Carthage (Musée National de Carthage).

Obviously the indigenous population of Sicily – peoples called the Sicans, the Sicels and the Elymians in the sources – was none too happy about Phoenician colonisation attempts either, but there seem to have been important differences between Greek and Phoenician colonisation policies. The former were mostly about settling people from overpopulated mother cities in foreign territories, which often (but not always) involved the expulsion of indigenous communities. Carthaginian colonisation policy was first and foremost about establishing coastal trading posts, which were usually much smaller than Greek colonies and much less likely to annex the territories further inland as well. Still, it would certainly be wrong to describe Phoenician expansion as largely peaceful. Richard Miles, for instance, discusses the Phoenician colonisation of Sardinia and describes how it was far from beneficial for the indigenous Nuragi, who were increasingly pushed into the mountainous areas of the island.

Since the majority of historians who wrote about Carthaginian activity on Sicily were Greek, we know most about the wars between Carthage and the Greek city states on the island. The most powerful of these city states was undeniably Syracuse (Syrakousai). Syracuse, founded by colonists from Corinth, was strong enough to defeat an Athenian invasion (415-413 BCE) during the Peloponnesian War. But long before that, Gelo, the tyrant of Syracuse had allied with Agrigentum (Akragas) and had smashed the forces of the Carthaginians at the Battle of Himera in 480 BCE. At other times, the Carthaginians emerged victorious. Carthage laid siege to Syracuse on four occasions, but never succeeded in taking the city. The Syracusan tyrant Agathokles sailed to Northern Africa in 310 BCE, defeated a much larger Carthaginian force, but failed to take Carthage itself.

While cities like Tarentum feared the ever growing power of Rome, it was the Greek cities on Sicily that requested help from Pyrrhos of Epirus against the advancing armies of Carthage. Pyrrhos, fresh from his unsatisfactory victories against the Romans, sailed to the island in 278 BCE. The Epirote king was very successful. He managed to drive the Carthaginians all the way back to Lilybaeum (Lilibeo) in Western Sicily. However, Pyrrhos ended up alienating his own Greek allies by showing despotic behaviour. In the end, the king was forced to leave the island and return to Italy, where he was again confronted by the Romans and then forced to sail back to Epirus.

Punic cuirass, made of bronze (Bardo Museum).

Punic cuirass, made of bronze (Bardo Museum).

Carthaginian and Roman armies differed like day and night. While the Roman army was a conscript army, the Carthaginians generally relied on others than their own citizens to fight their wars for them. Carthage’s armies were a mix of mercenaries, troops provided by allied kingdoms (such as the Numidians) and forces conscripted among the subjugated Libyan peoples. Carthaginian citizens served as high-ranking officers, but they only fought themselves if their city was under threat. Furthermore, the Carthaginians, much unlike the Romans, seem to have been loath to grant citizenship to foreigners. Of course the Romans were also heavily reliant on troops provided by their allies: over half of the infantry and most of the cavalry was provided by the Latins and the socii. Nevertheless, the Roman citizen body was an important recruitment pool for the army, while the much smaller citizen body of Carthage was not.

The Mamertines

Pyrrhos’ retreat left Carthage in control of most of the west and south of Sicily, while the Greek cities dominated the eastern part of the island. A third power emerged in 289 BCE when Agathokles, the tyrant of Syracuse who had tried to capture Carthage, died. Campanian mercenaries from his army suddenly found themselves without an employer and forced their way into the prosperous city of Messana in the northeast corner of Sicily. They killed or chased away part of the population and took possession of the women and children in the city. The mercenaries called themselves the Mamertines, after their war god Mamers, the Campanian equivalent of Mars. From Messana, the Mamertines began raiding the neighbouring territories and forced several other communities to pay them tribute.

Sicily and Italy are separated by the narrow Strait of Messina, which is only a few kilometres wide. While Messana dominated the western shore, the city of Rhegium (Rhegion) was located on the other side. Although a Greek colony, it seems to have been alarmed by Pyrrhos’ expedition to Italy. A Roman ally, it asked the Romans for extra troops to defend it against a possible Epirote attack (and perhaps against raids by the native Bruttii as well). The Romans sent a contingent of 4.000 men under the command of one Decius Vibellius. These men were Roman citizens without the right to vote, but they were also Campanians and thus the kindred of the Mamertines on the other side of the Strait. Decius’ men decided to follow the example set by their kinsmen, and with a little help from the Mamertines they treacherously captured the city they were supposed to protect and massacred part of the population.

Map of Sicily (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

As always, the Roman reaction was determined and harsh. When they had their hands free again after Pyrrhos had left Italy, and Tarentum had been subjugated, the Romans sent their consul Lucius Genucius Clepsina south and laid siege to Rhegium. The Romans managed to take the city in 270 BCE and sent the 300 Campanians that had survived the fighting to Rome to be scourged and decapitated in the Forum as a warning. A people’s tribune (tribunus plebis) reportedly tried to stop the execution, and the case of the Campanians, who were, after all, Roman citizens, was brought before the popular assembly. Eager for revenge, the people voted in favour of the death penalty and the Campanians were led away to be flogged and beheaded.

Meanwhile, the situation for the Mamertines in Messana was rapidly deteriorating. They had lost their allies on the other side of the Strait and began suffering military defeats at the hands of the Syracusans. A new leader had emerged in Syracuse. His name was Hiero and he was both an able commander and a shrewd politician. Hiero inflicted a severe defeat on the Mamertines near Mylae (modern Milazzo) somewhere in the 260s, captured some of their leaders and locked up the survivors in Messana. These actions bought Hiero a crown and he was subsequently proclaimed King of Syracuse. The Mamertines were now desperately looking for new allies. There were basically just two potential allies: Carthage and Rome.




  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 25-67;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 90-91, p. 113 and p. 149-154.

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