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First Punic War

History -- Military History -- War

The First Punic War was fought between Carthage and Rome from 264 BC to 241 BC. It was the first of three major wars fought between Carthage and the Roman Republic.

Table of contents
1 Background
2 Chronology
3 Notable Leaders
4 Results


The First Punic War broke out when the Romans intervened in Sicily. In the city of Messana (present-day Messina), a group of Campanian mercenaries (the Mamertines) who had seized control of the city from its native inhabitants sought military aid against King Hiero II of Syracuse. They appealed simultaneously to Rome and Carthage, the two greatest powers in the Western Mediterranean. The Romans disrelished the idea coming to the aid of soldiers who had unjustly stolen acity from its rightful possessors, but they feared to see Carthaginian power spread further over the island, and so chose to form an alliance with the Mamertines. Carthage had long possessed a foothold in Sicily, and the war turned into a struggle for for possession of the island.


265: The Mamertines appeal to both Rome and Carthage. Carthage quickly sends a small garrison, while Roman debates intervention. The Roman Senate refuses to deal with the matter so the matter is passed to the Assembly.

264: The Carthaginians begin reconciliation efforts with Hiero. Many Mamertines feel this is a mistake, and request Roman assistance against the Carthaginians. The Mamertines send a diplomatic mission to Rome, requesting aid in removing the Carthaginian garrison that is now established in Messana. Part of their appeal to the Romans is that they, as Campanians, are fellow Latins.

The Senate failing to act, the Roman Assembly votes to accept a new alliance with Messana and move an army to Sicily. Appius Claudius Caudex is dispatched to Sicily to guard Messana from the Carthaginians.

The Mamertines dislodge the Carthaginian garrison in their citadel and allow Appius to enter. The nearby city of Acragas then enters into an alliance with Carthage. Carthaginians and Syracusans combine to lay siege to Messana.

Appius Claudius arrives in Sicily, and conducts negotiations with the Carthaginians. Claudius declares war against the Carthaginians and Syracusans, marking the start of the First Punic War. Appius defeats first the Syracusans and then the Carthaginians, then lays siege to Syracuse.

263:When news of the success of Appius reaches the Romans, they elect Manius Otacilius and Manius Valerius consuls, and dispatch them with their whole armed forces, 40,000 men, to Sicily. When the Romans arrive, 67 Sicilian cities revolt from Carthage.

Hiero has to decide whether to side with Rome or Carthage. To aid the Carthaginians is to lend aid to the eastern Greeks. However, with Roman protection, Syracuse and all western Greeks would become safe. A Roman victory would mean the removal of the Phoenicians from Sicily.

Hiero offers the Romans the possession of Messana and a subsidy of one hundred talents annually for fifteen years on condition they guarantee his 'kingship' of Syracuse. The Romans agree to this. As a result of Hiero's switch of allegiance, several other Greek cities in Sicily switch over to the Roman camp.

Carthage, meanwhile, raises fresh troops and begins concentrating them at the city of Agrigentum.

262: Lucius Postumius and Quintus Mamilius arrive as new consuls in Sicily. Seeing the Carthaginian operations, they decide to besiege Agrigentum. The Carthaginians send Hanno with the fresh mercenaries they have collected to relieve the siege. Hanno surrounds the besieging Romans. After a stand-off of several months, Hanno attacks but the Romans rout his army. The Carthaginian garrison flees Agrigentum and the Romans enter.

When news of the success at Agrigentum is received at Rome, the Roman government decides to advance beyond the immediate aims of its alliances with Heiro and the Mamertines. It now proposes to expel Carthage utterly from Sicerly.

261: Seeing that many Sicilians seaports side with Carthage due to its naval powr, the Romans decide to construct a fleet - something Rome has never possessed. They clumsily copy the design of Carthaginian ships. In order to compensate for their lack of naval combat experience, they used a cunning new device called a corvus ("crow" in Latin). This device allows the Romans to board the ship and use their superior infantry against the enemy. This will prove to be a very successful tactic, as Rome wins every major naval engagement against the veteran navy of Carthage.

260: The Romans win the naval battle of Mylae using their new ships. During Mylae (Milazzo), off the northern Sicilian coast, the Roman admiral Gaius Duilius defeated a Carthaginian squadron of more maneuverable ships by employing the corvus. This is the first time the Carthage fleet had been defeated in battle by the Romans.

257: The Romans invasion of Africa was necessary to end the war, and gathered a large task force of 230 warships and 100 transports. After defeating the Carthaginian fleet in Sicily they moved into Africa. The Romans arrived late in the summer. The Romans could not win an all out victory over Cartage. The Carthaginians sued for peace, but M. Atilius Regulus, insisted upon overly harsh surrender terms. The Carthaginians rejected peace and continue to battle against the Romans. With the onset of winter the Romans split their forces with one half resturning to Rome. The remaning forces were under the command of Regulus.

256: Following a victory at Cape Ecnomus, the Romans land in Africa and advance on Carthage.

255: The Carthaginians defeat the Romans at Tunis and the Roman survivors are shipwrecked on their way back to Sicily.

The Carthaginians employ a Spartan general, Xanthippus, to organize their defenses. In the spring of 255 he engaged the Romans in battle with a force equak to theirs. Regulus mistakenly places his soldiers in tight ranks. The Carthaginian elephants broke through the Roman ranks, and the Roman army was decimated. 500 soldiers were captured along with Regulus, 3000 more escaped, and the remainder killed.

A Roman fleet later arrives with reinforcements and defeats the Carthaginian fleet and rescues the survivors. During the return trip home, the fleet is caught in a terrible storm, and 184 of the 264 ships are destroyed on the rocks near Camarina in southern Sicily. Many tens of thousands of Romans were drowned. Polybius calls it the greatest naval disaster known to him.

254: The Romans win a victory at Panormus on Sicily, but fail to make any further progress in the war.

During the winter the Romans construct another 140 ships. The Romans also raise a considerable army. The Carthaginians failed to keep up with Romans construction efforts. Later in the year the Romans capture the strategic Carthaginian port of Panormus in northeastern Sicily. Carthaginian prestige was weakened around Panormus and resulted in the defection of five Greek cities from Cartage to Rome.

253: The Romans then pursued a policy of raiding the African coast east of Carthage. After an unsuccessful year the fleet head for home. During the return to Italy the Romans are again caught in a storm and lose 150 ships.

251: The Romans again win at Panormus over the Carthaginians. The Carthaginians are lead by Hasdrubal. The Roman military are lead by Lucius Caecilius Metellus. As a result of the diminshed threat in Northern Africa, Carthage manages to strengthen its garrisons in Sicily and recapture Agrigentum.

A Carthaginian army attempted to retake Panormus Caecilius defeats the Carthaginian army Panormus, resulting in the death or capture 20,000 of the 30,000 Carthaginians as well as elephants. Hasdrubal is later summoned back to Carthage and executed for his failure.

249: During the siege of Lilybaeum, at Drepanum the Carthaginians win a naval victory over the Romans. The Carthaginians are lead by Ad Herbal. The Romans by Publius Claudius Pulcher who commanded 123 galleys in the Roman fleet. Claudius was defeated, resultign in the loss of 93 ships, 8,000 soldiers killed and 20,000 soldiers captured by the enemy. The Carthaginians lost no ships.

246: Hannibal is born

241: On March 10, 241 BC at the Battle of Aegates Islands (Battle of Aegusa) off the coast of Sicily the Romans destroy the Carthaginian fleet, effectively ending the war.

The Roman fleet consisited of 200 quinquiremes under the command of Gaius Lutatius Catulus. The fleet was sent to restart the blockade of Lilybaeum. The Romans appeared off the coast of Sicily durng the summer months and so surprised the Carthaginian fleet that it was forced to sail for Carthage. This allowed the Romans to capture the harbor at Drepana.

The Carthaginians mustered their fleet and managed to send 170 ships to aide Hamilcar's troops in Eryx. The commander of the Punic fleet, Hanno, had intended to covertly enter Eryx, unload supplies and load the mercenaries of Hamilcar Barca and then pursue the Roman fleet.

Lutatius' spies intercepted the information. Acting with foreknowledge Lutatius set sail towards the island of Aegusa (Aegates Islands) close by Lilybaeum to engage the Punic fleet. Shortly after dawn, Lutatius saw that the winds favoured Carthage and the seas were rough. Upon seeing the enemy at full sail, he put to sea immediately, maneuvering his fleet into a single column facing towards the enemy.

After seeing the Romans formation, the Carthaginians lowered their masts and closed ranks. The Romans ships were lighter and had better training while the Carthaginian galleys became difficult to maneuver and their marines were mere novices. The end result was the Carthaginian ships were soundly defeated. Fifty of their galleys were sunk outright and another seventy were captured. The rest fled the battle after a change in winds. The Romans had captured almost 100,000 prisoners, effectively ending the war and after 24 years Carthage is forced to settle for peace.

The historian Polybius comments that the First Punic War was the most destructive war in terms of casualties in the history of warfare, including the battles of Alexander the Great.

Notable Leaders