The First Punic War: The Years 242-241 BCE


  • The number of praetors is increased from one to two (242 or 241 BCE);
  • Once again, the Romans build a new fleet from scratch (242 BCE);
  • The consul Gaius Lutatius Catulus besieges Drepana with his army and fleet;
  • Catulus wins a decisive victory over the Carthaginians at the naval Battle of the Aegates Islands (241 BCE);
  • Rome and Carthage sign a peace treaty, end of the First Punic War;
  • Sicily becomes the first Roman province.

On 15 March 242 BCE, two new consuls assumed their respective offices. Their names were Gaius Lutatius Catulus and Aulus Postumius Albinus. It seems the latter, a patrician, was initially charged with taking the lead in the war on Sicily, but there was a problem with his religious status. Albinus was also the flamen Martialis, the priest of Mars. This was an ancient priesthood that could only be held by male members of patrician Roman families. Being the flamen Martialis entailed several taboos. The most important of these was that the priest was not allowed to leave the city of Rome. The pontifex maximus, Lucius Caecilius Metellus (the consul of 251 BCE), was not inclined to grant dispensation, not even in times of war. So command of the Roman armies devolved to Catulus, a plebeian and a new man (homo novus).

A new man and a new fleet

Probably around this time the Romans also decided to increase the number of praetors from one to two. Originally, the magistrates that we call ‘consuls’ were also called praetors, but the praetorship I am talking about here was created by the Lex Licinia Sextia of 367 BCE. The praetor was a magistrate charged with the administration of justice in the city. Later, he seems to have been given military duties as well if an extra commander was required, and we often see him commanding one legion and an ala of allied troops, about half a consular army.

Baal Hammon, one of the chief deities in Carthage (Bardo Museum).

Baal Hammon, one of the chief deities in Carthage (Bardo Museum).

Zonaras, the excerptor of Cassius Dio’s work, mentions the Carthaginian commander Carthalo breaking off a raid on Italy because of the approach of the praetor urbanus with an army. This incident is set in 248 BCE and suggests the second praetor was created around this time, or perhaps a few years later (Zonaras may be using the term praetor urbanus anachronistically). The second praetor was called the praetor peregrinus, who was charged with the administration of justice in affairs in which non-Romans (peregrini; ‘strangers’) were involved. In 242 BCE, the praetor peregrinus Quintus Valerius Falto[1] was given a military assignment as well and sent to Sicily as a second-in-command to the consul Catulus.

On Sicily, the Carthaginians were still clinging on to Drepana, Lilybaeum and Hamilcar’s positions on Mount Eryx. In order to force a breakthrough of the stalemate, the Romans again realised they needed ships, and for the third time, they decided to construct a new fleet from scratch. The state coffers were empty by now, but wealthy Roman citizens were prepared to provide the necessary means or securities. Polybius claims that:

“there were no funds in the public treasury for this purpose; but yet, owing to the patriotic and generous spirit of the leading citizens, enough was found to carry out the project; as either one, two, or three of them, according to their means, undertook to provide a quinquereme fully equipped on the understanding that they would be repaid if all went well.”

In this way, a new fleet of 200 quinqueremes was constructed in a short time. Polybius states that the new ‘fives’ were based on the design of Hannibal the Rhodian’s ship, which had been captured in 250 BCE. Whether or not this story is true, it is clear that the Roman ships were of better quality and much faster than the ships used in previous fleets.

The Carthaginians, in the mean time, had neglected their fleet and had withdrawn all their ships to Africa. They were completely taken by surprise when Catulus appeared in Sicilian waters and quickly captured the port of Drepana and some docks or roadsteads near Lilybaeum. Catulus began besieging Drepana, but also closely monitored Carthaginian naval activity, as the Carthaginian fleet would surely return. The consul subjected the crews of his ships to daily drills and exercises, turning them into disciplined and experienced sailors and marines within a short period of time.

The Battle of the Aegates Islands

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

The Carthaginians prepared their ships and sailed to Sicily. Many of their ships were loaded with grain and supplies for Hamilcar’s troops on Mount Eryx. This made the ships heavy and more difficult to control during a battle. Hanno, the Carthaginian commander, anchored his ships at the Holy Island in the Aegates Islands. His plan was to wait for a favourable breeze and then sail to the small strip of land near the sea that Hamilcar used as a natural harbour. There, the supplies could be unloaded and Hanno would take on board Hamilcar’s best soldiers as marines. Only then would the Carthaginian fleet confront the Roman ships.

Hanno’s plan relied on stealth and surprise, but it was discovered by Catulus, who immediately sailed to the island of Aigousa, opposite Lilybaeum. On 10 March 241 BCE, a favourable wind was blowing for the Carthaginians. Catulus was now facing a dilemma. If he intercepted and attacked the Carthaginian ships, his fleet would be hampered by the adverse wind and a rough sea. But if he did not attack, he gave the Carthaginians a chance to link up with Hamilcar and unload his supplies, only to return with experienced reinforcements on board. The Roman commander decided to risk battle and it was a good choice. The Roman crews were better trained and more experienced than their Carthaginian counterparts. The Roman deck soldiers were the pick of the legions, while the Carthaginian marines had only been recruited recently. The Carthaginian ships were furthermore overburdened because of the supplies.

The Battle of the Aegates Islands ended in a decisive victory for Rome. Polybius claims that 50 Carthaginian ships were sunk and 70 captured, before the rest raised their masts and made use of the changing winds to sail back to the Holy Island. The Romans took 10.000 men prisoner. Slightly different numbers are found in Diodorus Siculus’ summary account of the battle, who based his narrative in part on pro-Carthaginian historian Philinus’ work. Certainly the Romans lost ships and men as well during the battle, but the Roman victory was never in doubt.

The end of the war

The Carthaginians were now forced to make peace with the Romans. Dissatisfied with Hanno’s performance, they may have crucified him. Envoys were sent to Hamilcar on Mount Eryx, who was granted full powers to negotiate an armistice first and then a peace treaty. Catulus was prepared to make peace under the following conditions: the Carthaginians were to evacuate all of Sicily, they were not to make war against Hiero and the Syracusans or their allies, they would release all the Roman and allied prisoners of war without ransom and they would pay an indemnity to the Romans of 2.200 Euboean talents in 20 years.

The Forum Romanum today.

The Forum Romanum today.

These were harsh terms, but they were acceptable to Hamilcar. The Roman popular assembly, however, decided to squeeze the lemon a bit more. The comitia centuriata rejected the peace treaty and sent a commission of ten men (decemviri) to Sicily to get a better deal. Provisions were added to the treaty, stipulating that the indemnity was raised to 3.200 talents, which had to be paid within 10 years. The Carthaginians were to evacuate all islands between Italy and Sicily (but Sardinia was not mentioned!).

The Carthaginians had no choice but to accept these terms. The comitia centuriata subsequently ratified the treaty. The First Punic War was over. Sicily – minus the territories controlled by Syracuse – now became the first Roman province. It would later be administered by a praetor, and partly for this reason, the Romans increased the number of praetors to four in 227 BCE. Hamilcar was undefeated. He marched his troops to Lilybaeum and laid down his command, leaving it to others to repatriate the men. Soon the Carthaginians would be embroiled in a death struggle with these soldiers in a conflict known as the Mercenary War.

Gaius Lutatius Catulus and the praetor Quintus Valerius Falto were both awarded a triumph. A later tradition, mentioned by Valerius Maximus and Zonaras, claims that Catulus had been wounded during the siege of Drepana, and that it was actually Falto who held command during the Battle of the Aegates Islands. Falto therefore felt that he deserved the triumph more than the consul. The story is not mentioned by Polybius, who does not mention the praetor at all. However this may be, both men were allowed to celebrate a triumph for the conclusion of this seemingly endless war, which had cost the Romans so much.




  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 122-129;
  • Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 195-196.


[1] In Zonaras’ text, he is called Quintus Valerius Flaccus. Zonaras also claims he was the praetor urbanus.


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