First Punic War (218-201 B.C.): Rome and Carthage Vie to Be the Major Mediterranean Power

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Carthagninian hoplite

The First Punic War (264-241 B.C.) was fought over control of the strategic islands of Sicily and Corsica. The Sicilians embroiled the rising republic of Rome in their squabbles with Carthage and transformed a minor dispute into an armed conflict fought largely at sea. “When the Carthaginians had to fight, they hired mercenaries, though they had their own elite commanders,” Bill Mahaney, a professor emeritus at York University in Toronto, told Smithsonian magazine.

The ambition and the resources of Rome were not exhausted with the conquest of Italy. It was a short distance from Italy to the Greek cities of Sicily and military power of Carthage across the Mediterranean in north Africa. When Rome launched a campaign to Sicily it set in motion a series of events that lasted over a hundred years and did not end until Rome controlled the Mediterranean and was a major world power. The strength and skill that Rome had acquired in its wars with the Latins, Etruscans and Samnites, were now put to use in greater conflicts with more at stake in Carthage, Macedonia and Syria. The first foreign power with which Rome came in contact, outside of Italy, was Carthage. This city was originally a colony of Tyre, and had come to be the capital of a great commercial empire on the northern coast of Africa. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

The Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage were pivotal in making Rome a great empire. They began in 264 B.C., and lasted for 118 years with Rome ultimately prevailing. There were three Punic wars. They are regarded as the first world wars. The number of men employed, the strategies and the weapons employed were like nothing that ever been seen before. "Punic" come from the Roman word for "Phoenician, " a reference to Carthage.

When the wars began Rome and Carthage were the two most powerful states in the Mediterranean. They both began as small cities and emerged as major powers around the 5th century B.C. They were briefly allied against the Greeks but later fought one another over lucrative trade routes. Rome became the major power of the Mediterranean after it defeated Carthage, annexing territory in Sicily, North Africa and Spain. While fighting against Carthage the Romans also amassed large amounts of territory as spoils from wars against Macedonia, the home of Alexander the Great.

Franz Lidz wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “ During the final years of the conflict, their leader in Sicily was Hamilcar Barca, from a prominent family of Carthaginian aristocrats. Alas, the Romans pulled an upset victory and eventually Carthage not only lost its claims to Corsica and Sardinia, but was left saddled with a debt, which the Barcas helped to pay off by establishing a Carthaginian empire in silver-rich Spain. Determined to see Carthage restored to its former glory, Hamilcar made his eldest son, Hannibal, swear lifelong enmity to the republic. [Source: Franz Lidz, Smithsonian magazine, July-August 2017]

Book: The Punic Wars by Andrian Goldworthy

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Carthaginian Presence in Sicily and the Mediterranean

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “The Carthaginian presence in Sicily was of long standing. Carthage had been fighting on behalf of other Phoenician colonies, which were continually under pressure from the Greek colonies in the east to withdraw westward, since 480. The Carthaginians suffered a major setback in 480, when Hamilcar's invasion of Sicily was repulsed by Gelon, the tyrant of Syracuse, at Himera. This attack was alleged by Diodorus to have been timed to coincide with the subjugation of Greece by Xerxes through a secret pact between the Persians and Carthaginians, and the allegation is at least plausible, considering that the Phoenicians themselves led Xerxes' naval force. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

Carthage ruins today

“But even then the Carthaginians controlled (in addition to a large swath of coastline on either side of their own city) not only Southern Spain, but also Corsica and Sardinia. And they won much of western Sicily back in a series of campaigns which took advantage of the weakened state of Syracuse in the aftermath of the Athenian blockade (410-405 B.C.). It is a clue to the nature of the Carthaginian empire that they kept close control over passage through the Straights of Gibraltar (which the Greeks and then the Romans called the Pillars of Heracles). That much could have been inferred also from the earlier two of the treaties mentioned by Polybius (3.22-3.23): Romans who find themselves beyond the Fair Promontory may not transact any business except in the presence of a representative of the Carthaginian government, obviously so that an excise tax may be imposed. But the same does not hold in the other direction; clearly the Romans, at least before the third century B.C., showed little awareness of the mutually sustaining relationship possible between commerce and empire. ^*^

Carthaginian Attack on Sicily in 480 B.C.

Describing the Carthaginian Attack on Sicily in 480-81 B.C., Herodotus wrote In “Histories” Book VII.165-167: around 440 B.C: .“ They, however, who dwell in Sicily, say that Gelo, though he knew that he must serve under the Lacedaemonians, would nevertheless have come to the aid of the Hellenes, had not it been for Terillos, the son of Crinippos, king of Himera; who, driven from his city by Thero, the son of Ainesidemos, king of Agrigentum, brought into Sicily at this very time an army of three hundred thousand men — Phoenicians, Libyans, Iberians, Ligurians, Helisykians, Sardinians, and Corsicans, under the command of Hamilcar the son of Hanno, king of the Carthaginians. Terillos prevailed upon Hamilcar, partly as his sworn friend, but more through the zealous aid of Anaxilaos the son of Cretines, king of Rhegium; who, by giving his own sons to Hamilcar as hostages, induced him to make the expedition. Anaxilaos herein served his own father-in-law; for he was married to a daughter of Terillos, by name Kydippe. So, as Gelo could not give the Hellenes any aid, he sent (they say) the sum of money to Delphi. [Source: Herodotus, “Histories,” translated by George Rawlinson, (New York: Dutton & Co., 1862)]

“They say too, that the victory of Gelo and Thero in Sicily over Hamilcar the Carthaginian fell out upon the very day that the Hellenes defeated the Persians at Salamis. Hamilcar, who was a Carthaginian on his father's side only, but on his mother's a Syracusan, and who had been raised by his merit to the throne of Carthage, after the battle and the defeat, as I am informed, disappeared from sight: Gelo made the strictest search for him, but he could not be found anywhere, either dead or alive.

“The Carthaginians, who take probability for their guide, give the following account of this matter: Hamilcar, they say, during all the time that the battle raged between the Hellenes and the barbarians, which was from early dawn till evening, remained in the camp, sacrificing and seeking favorable omens, while he burned on a huge pyre the entire bodies of the victims which he offered.

“Here, as he poured libations upon the sacrifices, he saw the rout of his army; whereupon he cast himself headlong into the flames, and so was consumed and disappeared. But whether Hamilcar's disappearance happened, as the Phoenicians tell us, in this way, or, as the Syracusans maintain, in some other, certain it is that the Carthaginians offer him sacrifice, and in all their colonies have monuments erected to his honor, as well as one, which is the grandest of all, at Carthage. Thus much concerning the affairs of Sicily.

First Punic War (264-241 B.C.)

Carthage challenged Rome for domination of the Mediterranean. One of the consequences of this was three Punic Wars. Bertolt Brecht once wrote: Great Carthage made war three times. After the first, she was powerful. After the second, she was rich. After the third no one knew where Great Carthage had been."

In the First Punic War, 264-241 B.C., Carthage initially had the upper hand. They controlled the seas with 98-foot war galleys, outfit with up to 170 oars and battering rams that could sink any Roman ship, and made advances on land with a mercenary force made up of Gauls, Numidians, Iberians, black Africans and Mauritanians.

Rome began to make inroads against the Carthaginians after salvaging one of their ships and copying the design for their own ships. The Romans added a devise called a “ corvus” , a special boarding ramp with a point that could be driven into enemy ships. With the corvus, superior Roman soldiers were able to board the Carthaginian ships and slaughter their crew.

In 240 B.C., the Romans defeated the Carthaginians at sea off Mylae in the Aegates Islands using ships outfit with corvuses to board the Carthaginian ships. It was the first Roman naval victory of the Punic Wars. Several dozen warships that went down during the battle off the coast of Sicily have been discovered under fine sand in the Stagnone Lagoon at Marsala. Instead of raising them to the surface, and risk damaging them by exposing them to the air, scholars hope to create a unique underwater museum. Archaeologists and looters working around the Aegates Island have found artifacts possibly connected with the battle.

After Mylare a peace treaty was signed that gave Rome some of Carthage's former territories: Sardinia, Corsica and Sicily. They became the first Roman provinces. When the war was over 20,000 Carthaginian mercenaries were stranded in Sicily. After Carthage paid Rome huge reparation the mercenaries were sent home but Carthage didn't have enough money left to pay them. The mercenaries went wild and nearly destroyed Carthage. This is now known as the Revolt of the Punic Mercenaries (241-237 B.C.). Sicily officially became the first Roman province after the Carthaginians were defeated there in 227 B.C.

First Punic War Begins as a Battle Over Sicily

The first conflict between Rome and Carthage, which is known as the first Punic war, began in Sicily in 264 B.C.; and really came to be a contest for the possession of that island. Sicily was at this time divided between three powers. 1) Carthage held all the western part of the island, with the important cities of Agrigentum on the south, Panormus on the north, and Lilybaeum at the extreme point. 2) The southeastern part of the island was under the control of the king of Syracuse, who ruled not only this city, but also some of the neighboring towns. 3) The northeastern corner of the island was in the possession of a body of Campanian soldiers, who had been in the service of the king of Syracuse, and who, on returning home, had treacherously seized the city of Messana. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

These Campanian mercenaries, who called themselves Mamertines, or Sons of Mars, murdered the inhabitants and ravaged the surrounding country. The king of Syracuse attacked them, laid siege to their city, and reduced them to such an extremity that they felt obliged to look for help. The choice lay between Rome and Carthage. They finally decided to call upon Rome for help. The Roman senate hesitated to help these robbers against Syracuse, which was a friendly power. But when the question was left to the assembly, the people fearing that Carthage would be called upon if they refused, it was decided to help the Mamertines, and thus prevent the Carthaginians from getting possession of this part of Sicily. In this way began the first Punic war. \~\

Capture of Messana and Agrigentum: A Roman army, under Appius Claudius, was dispatched to Sicily, and gained a foothold upon the island. But the Mamertines, during the delay of the Romans, had already admitted a Carthaginian garrison into the city. This seemed to the Roman general to be a breach of faith. He accordingly invited the Carthaginian commander, Hanno, to a friendly conference, and then treacherously ordered him to be seized. Whereupon the latter, in order to regain his liberty, agreed to give up the city. Thus the Romans got possession of Messana. The king of Syracuse then formed an alliance with the Carthaginians to drive the Romans out of the island; but both their armies were defeated. When the Romans had thus shown their superiority, the king of Syracuse changed his policy and formed an alliance with the Romans to drive the Carthaginians out of the island. Town after town fell before the Roman army; and in the second year of the war, the important city of Agrigentum was captured, after a siege of seven months (262 B.C.). \~\

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “The Roman senate appeared reluctant to commit to the war on the side of the Mamertines, the ex-mercenaries of Agathocles, once the consul of 264, Appius Claudius Caudex, had driven the Carthaginian contingent out of the town of Messana Rome pursued the war with vigour. Caudex faced a blockade by the combined forces of Carthage and king Hieron of Syracuse; this same Hieron, however, only a few years later, switched sides and thereafter remained one of Rome's staunchest allies until the end of his long reign, in 215. Rome responded by sending an additional 40 thousand troops under the consuls of the next year, 263, and going on the offensive, marching south from Messana taking towns along the way. Hieron was cowed into alliance with the Romans. More Roman successes followed in the next year (262) as the consuls took Segesta (NW) and besieged Agrigentum (aka Akragas, on the southern coast), the Carthaginian stronghold in Sicily. At last after a long siege and a bloody battle Agrigentum fell; the town was sacked and most of the inhabitants sold into slavery. Polybius believed that this success inspired the senate to the goal of expelling the Carthaginians entirely from Sicily (1. 20), but it is worth noting that by this time the Romans had become accustomed to accepting nothing less than total surrender. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class]

Rome Becomes a Naval Power

The Romans now learned that Carthage, to be overcome, must be met upon the sea, as well as upon the land. When the Carthaginian fleet first appeared, it recovered most of the coast cities which had been lost to the Romans. It ravaged the coasts of Italy, and by its command of the sea made it difficult for Rome to send fresh troops to Sicily. The Romans had, it is true, a few ships; but these were triremes, or ships with only three banks of oars, and were unable to cope with the great Carthaginian vessels, which were quinquiremes, or ships with five banks of oars. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

The Romans saw that they must either give up the war, or else build a fleet equal to that of the Carthaginians. Taking as a model a Carthaginian vessel which had been wrecked on the Italian shore, they constructed, it is said, a hundred vessels like it in sixty days. In the meantime their soldiers were trained into sailors by practicing the art of rowing upon rude benches built upon the land and arranged like the banks of a real vessel. The Romans knew that their soldiers were better than the Carthaginians in a hand-to-hand encounter. To maintain this advantage, they provided their ships with drawbridges which could be used in boarding the enemy’s vessels. Thus equipped with a fleet, Rome ventured upon the sea as a rival of the first naval power of the world. \~\

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “Carthage was a naval power but in 262 Rome had perhaps only 40 ships, 20 of her own and 20 allied. In a very short period the Romans built 20 triremes and 50 quinqueremes, these latter on the model of Carthaginian vessels. The significance of this can not be understated; a fleet is the sine qua non of a Mediterranean empire. Incredibly, the fledgling Roman navy won its first naval battle with the new fleet under C. Duilius, off of Mylae (NW corner of Sicily); to compensate for the lack of skilled rowers, the Romans relied on a technological innovation, the corvus (a kind of grappling hook or boarding bridge; see image). While the land war in Sicily dragged on without significant results, the Romans kept on building ships, until by 257 their navy numbered 250 warships and 80 transport vessels, and they were emboldened to strike against Africa itself. A major victory at sea off of Cape Ecnomus in 256 (Polyb. 1. 27-28) opened the way. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ]

Major Land Battles of the First Punic War

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “The Romans did not have a suitable naval base close to Carthage. So, instead of keeping their ships in the region, they dropped of M. Atilius Regulus with a small but significant force and instructions to try to win allies among the Numidians, the discontented subject/allies of Carthage. Regulus did not acquit himself well. He managed to occupy Tunis (uncomfortably close to Carthage itself, across the bay to the west), but in negotiations with the Carthaginians he demanded terms of surrender which the military situation did not yet warrant. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

The Carthaginians hired a Spartan named Xanthippus to train their troops, then used his advice to defeat the Romans in 255 near Aspis (on the eastern side of Cape Bon); Regulus had packed his troops very deep to counter the charge of the elephants, but this resulted in a narrower line, so that the Punic horse was able to outflank the invaders. This was the end of the Roman force in Africa. A huge fleet sent to rescue the survivors was smashed on the rocks by a storm off of NW Sicily (Cape Panormos). ^*^

“Momentum shifted back in Rome's favor in the next year. They quickly built a new fleet and began making inroads in western Sicily, while Carthage was occupied with the revolt of the Numidians. Another 150 ships were lost to a storm in 253 B.C., but finally in 250 B.C., C. Caecilius Metellus won a huge victory in a land battle fought in defense of Panormos (taken in 254). A key was his use of missiles to frighten the onrushing elephants into turning around and charging back into their own lines. On this occasions some of the elephants were even captured and taken back to Rome, to be paraded through the streets in the triumphal procession; nor did their propaganda value end there, as they appeared also on coins minted under the auspices of the Caecilii Metelli.” ^*^

Despite Setbacks Romans Seize the Initiative in Punic Naval War

Victory of Duilius at Mylae (260 B.C.): The new Roman fleet was put under the command of the consul Duilius. The Carthaginians were now plundering the northern coast of Sicily near Mylae. Without delay Duilius sailed to meet them. As the fleets came together, the Romans dropped their drawbridges upon the enemy’s ships and quickly boarded them. In the hand-to-hand encounter, the Romans proved their superiority. The Carthaginians were routed; and fifty of their vessels were either sunk or captured. This was a most decisive victory. The Romans had fought and gained their first great battle upon the sea. Duilius was given a magnificent triumph, and to commemorate the victory, a column was erected in the Forum, adorned with the beaks of the captured vessels (Columna Rostrata). \~\

Invasion, of Africa by Regulus, (256 B.C.): Elated by this success, the Romans felt prepared to carry the war into Africa. With a still larger fleet, they defeated the Carthaginian squadron which attempted to bar their way on the southern coast of Sicily, off the promontory of Ecnomus. Two legions, under L. Manlius Vulso and Regulus, landed on the coast of Africa east of Carthage, and laid waste the country. So easily was this accomplished that the Romans decided that one consul, with his army, would be enough to finish the work in Africa. Vulso was therefore recalled, and Regulus remained. The Carthaginians attempted in vain to make peace; and in despair, it is said, even threw some of their children into the flames to propitiate their god Moloch. They then placed their army in the hands of a Spartan soldier named Xanthippus. This general defeated the Roman legions with great slaughter, and made Regulus a prisoner. A fleet was then sent from Italy to rescue the survivors, but this fleet on its return was wrecked in a storm. Thus ingloriously closed the war in Africa. \~\

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “The Graeco-Roman stereotype about the Punic national character seems to have a grain of truth in it, at least if one compares the contrasting fortunes of the two navies. Carthage had been slow to reclaim a naval presence in Sicily after the shock of the first defeat at the hands of Duillius; Rome, on the other hand, threw all available resources in to the rapid construction of new fleets, even when it seemed that the gods were bent on destroying them. So in 249 the Roman navy suffered its first defeat of the war, losing 93 ships after being trapped in the harbor while attacking Drepana (NW corner of Sicily), and in the same year a mighty fleet of transports (the number 800 was traditional) was destroyed by a storm. The Roman navy was destroyed; this time, it took longer to rebuild. But by 242, thanks to what Polybius describes (1. 59) as a kind of Roman symmory system, whereby groups of wealthy persons paid for individual ships, the navy was back up to strength with 200 new light quinqueremes. In the meantime, though, an able Carthaginian general named Hamilcar Barca had taken up the war in Sicily, and he was making things hard on the troops which were besieging Drepana and Lilybaeum. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

Battle of the Aegates Islands

Andrew Curry wrote in Archaeology magazine: “The Battle of the Aegates Islands in 241 B.C. was a naval battle fought between the fleets of Carthage and the Roman Republic during the First Punic War. It was a victory for the Romans that would lead to their domination in the years to come. Rome lacked a fleet — the ships it had possessed had been destroyed in a previous battle. Yet their enemies, the Carthaginian forces, did little to capitalise on this, allowing Rome to restore its strength and build a new stronger fleet. When the Carthaganians heard about this, they prepared their fleet for battle, and sailed to the Aegates Islands,” also called the Egadi Island, west of Sicily. “The Romans sailed out to meet them - but not before stripping their vessels of sails and masts to give them an advantage in rough sea conditions, By ramming into their enemy's ships and destroying half of the fleet, the Romans won a decisive victory. It was the last battle in the First Punic War, which had raged for 20 years as the two powers fought for supremacy over the western Mediterranean Sea. [Source: Andrew Curry, Archaeology , Volume 65 Number 1, January/February 2012]

“As Polybius tells it, the war came to a head in 242 B.C., with both powers exhausted and nearly broke after two decades of fighting. The Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca—the father of a later adversary of Rome, Hannibal—was pinned down on a mountaintop above the city of Drepana, now the Sicilian town of Trapani. As the Carthaginians assembled a relief force, the Romans scraped together the money for a fleet to cut them off. According to Polybius, in March 241 B.C., the two sides met in between the , a trio of rocky outcrops a few miles off the coast of Sicily. The clash brought hundreds of ships and thousands of men together in a battle that helped shape the course of history.

The battle lasted only a few hours.“While the Carthagnians were much more powerful on the water, the cunning Romans lay in wait trapping the Carthaginians and blocking off their sea route in a sudden victorious attack. Heather Ramsey of Listverse wrote: “With their 300 maneuverable ships, the Romans ambushed the enemy fleet and blocked their route. Only 250 of the 700 Carthaginian vessels were warships; the rest carried supplies. By the end of the swift battle, 70 Carthaginian ships were captured, 50 were sunk, and the remainder were able to escape.” Maybe 10,000 men were killed. [Source: Heather Ramsey, Listverse, March 4, 2015]

Battering Rams Maybe Key to Roman Victory at the Battle of the Aegates Islands

Roman battering rams are believed have played an important role in sinking the Carthaginian se ship. In waters around the islands where the battle took place archaeologist have found a dozen or so bronze battering rams, presumably used by ships to pummel each other. Some scholars had thought that ships were no longer ramming each other and that the rams were just for show. Jon Henderson, an underwater archaeologist at the University of Nottingham, told Archaeology magazine: 'But we have found bits of the enemy ships in some of the rams so it's very likely they were ramming each other.'

Heather Ramsey of Listverse wrote: “The underwater site is about 5 square kilometers and so far has yielded weapons, bronze helmets, tall Roman jars (called “amphorae”), and especially bronze battle rams. A ram is a part of a warship that extends from the bow to pierce the hull of an enemy ship. Until this site was discovered, only three rams had been found worldwide. Now, there are at least 14. [Source: Heather Ramsey, Listverse, March 4, 2015]

“Much of what we knew about ancient naval battles and ancient warships was based on historical text and iconography,” said archaeologist Jeffrey Royal. “We now have physical archaeological data which will significantly change our understanding. [These] rams were not just used as weapons, they were there to protect the ship. The discovery of these rams will help us learn more about the size of these ships, the way they were built, what materials were used as well as the economics of building a navy and the cost of losing a battle.”

“So far, we’ve learned that the warships were 30 percent smaller than originally believed. At only 28 meters (92 ft) long, it’s unlikely that they were triremes, warships propelled by three tiers of oarsmen on each side. The excessive height would have made the ships unstable. We’ve also discovered that a ram’s weight of 125 kilograms (275 lb) made it capable of slicing through a ship, not simply punching a small hole in its side. That means a damaged ship would shatter on the surface instead of sinking in one piece.”

First Punic War Ends with Rome Capturing All of Sicily

The War Confined to Sicily (255-241 B.C.): For several years after the Roman invasion of Africa by Regulus, (256 B.C.), the war languished in Sicily. The long series of Roman disasters was relieved by the capture of Panormus on the northern coast, which was soon followed by a second victory over the Carthaginians at the same place. It is said that the Carthaginians, after this second defeat, desired an exchange of prisoners, and sent Regulus to the Roman senate to advocate their cause, under the promise that he would return if unsuccessful. But Regulus, it is said, persuaded the senate not to accept the offer of the Carthaginians; and then, in spite of the tears and entreaties of his friends, went back to Carthage. Whether this story is true or not, it illustrates the honor and patriotism of the true Roman. \~\

After the Roman victories at Panormus, the Carthaginians were pushed into the extreme western part of the island. The Romans then laid siege to Lilybaeum, the stronghold of the Carthaginian power. Failing to capture this place, the Roman consul, P. Claudius, determined to destroy the enemy’s fleet lying near Drepanum; but he was defeated with the loss of over ninety ships. The superstitious Romans believed that this defeat was due to the fact that Claudius had impiously disregarded the auguries; when the sacred chickens had refused to eat, he had in a fit of passion thrown them into the sea. The consul was recalled by the senate, and a dictator was appointed in his place. After the loss of other fleets by storms, and after fruitless campaigns against the great Carthaginian soldier, Hamilcar Barca, the Roman cause seemed a failure. \~\

Victory at the Aegates Islands (241 B.C.): The decisive battle came in 241 B.C. off the Aegate Islands (northwest corner of Sicily). By this time Rome had lost one sixth of its population and a vast amount of treasure, but still they persisted in the attempt to conquer Sicily. Wealthy citizens advanced their money to build a new fleet. In this way two hundred ships were built and placed under the consul C. Lutatius Catulus, and the overwhelming Roman victory ended the war. See Below

The Carthaginians were unprepared for the terrible defeat which they suffered, and were obliged to sue for peace. The Carthaginians agreed, more than twenty years after Rome intervened on behalf of the Mamertines, to evacuate Sicily completely, pay 3,200 Talents as a war indemnity and release all the Roman prisoners without ransom. During the 23 years of the first Punic war, Rome showed its ability to fight upon the sea and had fairly entered the lists as one of the great powers of the world. But this first contest with Carthage, severe as it was, was merely a preparation for the more terrible struggle which was yet to-come. Carthage had not given up, of course. The family of Barca turned its attention to Spain, still very much within the Carthaginian sphere of influence. ^

After the First Punic War (241-218 B.C.)

Capture of the Carthage fleet

Sicily becomes the First Roman Province: In the interval between the first and second Punic wars, both Rome and Carthage sought to strengthen and consolidate their power. They knew that the question of supremacy was not yet decided, and sooner or later another contest must come. Rome found herself in possession of a new territory outside of Italy, which must be organized. She had already three kinds of territory: (1) the Roman domain (ager Romanus), where all were, generally speaking, full citizens; (2) the Latin colonies, in which the people had a part of the rights of citizens; and (3) the Italian land, in which the people were not citizens, but were half independent, having their own governments, but bound to Rome as allies in war. In Sicily a new system was introduced. The people were made neither citizens nor allies, but subjects. The land was generally confiscated, and the inhabitants were obliged to pay a heavy tribute. The whole island—except Syracuse, which remained independent—was governed by a praetor sent from Rome. By this arrangement Sicily became a “province”—which is another name for a conquered territory outside of Italy. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Annexation of Sardinia and Corsica: Besides Sicily, there were in the Mediterranean two other islands which seemed by nature to belong to Italy. These were Sardinia and Corsica. While Carthage was engaged in suppressing a revolt of her own soldiers, which is known as the “mercenary war” in Africa, Rome saw a favorable opportunity to get possession of Sardinia. Carthage protested against such an act; and Rome replied by demanding the cession of the island, and also the payment of a fine of 1200 talents (about $1,500,000). Carthage was obliged to submit to this unjust demand; but she determined to avenge herself in the future. As Sardinia came to her so easily, Rome proceeded to take Corsica also, and the two islands were erected into a second Roman province. Rome thus obtained possession of the three great islands of the western Mediterranean. \~\

Suppression of the Illyrian Pirates: The attention of Rome was soon directed to the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. An appeal came from the Greek cities for protection against the pirates of the Adriatic. These pirates were the people of Illyricum, who made their living by plundering the ships and ravaging the coasts of their Greek neighbors. With a fleet of two hundred ships, Rome cleared the Adriatic Sea of these pirates. She then took the Greek cities under her protection; Rome thus obtained a foothold upon the eastern coast of the Adriatic, which brought her into friendly relations with Greece, and afterward into hostile relations with Macedonia. Conquest of Cisalpine Gaul: As Rome began to be drawn into foreign wars, she became aware that her position at home could not be secure so long as the northern part of Italy remained unconquered. The Alps formed the natural boundary of Italy; and to this boundary she felt obliged to extend her power. She planted colonies upon the Gallic frontier, and in these towns made a large assignment of lands to her own citizens. The Gauls resented this as an encroachment upon their territory; they appealed to arms, invaded Etruria, and threatened Rome. The invaders were defeated and driven back, and the war was continued in the valley of the Po until the whole of Cisalpine Gaul was finally subdued. The conquered territory was secured by new colonies, and Rome was practically supreme to the Alps. Her people were made more devoted to her by the share which they received in the new land. Her dominions were now so well organized, and her authority so secure, that she felt prepared for another contest with Carthage. \~\

Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.)

Carthaginian naval ram

The Second Punic War, which occurred 23 years after the First Punic War, was arguable the most important of the Punic Wars. While the First Punic War was primarily an opening round battle primarily over the territory of Sicily, the Second Punic War was viewed as a test of Rome’s power over who would control Europe. At that time Rome and Carthage were struggling for supremacy in the western Mediterranean. The trigger for the conflict was the rapid growth of the Carthaginian dominion in Spain. While Rome was adding to her strength by the conquest of Cisalpine Gaul and the reduction of the islands in the sea, Carthage was building up a great empire in the Spanish peninsula, where it was raising new armies, with which to invade Italy. This policy was launched of the great Carthaginian military commander Hamilcar Barca and was continued by his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, who founded the city of New Carthage (Cartagena, Spain) as the capital of the new province. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

In 218 B.C., Hannibal left his base in base in Spain and led a force of mercenaries with elephants through the south of Gaul (France) and across the Alps in the winter. This marked the beginning of the Second Punic War. The elephants had little impact on the fight but they scored a psychological blow for the Carthaginians giving them an aura of power and invincibility.

In the Second Punic War, 218-201 B.C., Carthage was anxious to get revenge after the first Punic War. But in the end Rome supplanted Carthage as the predominate power in the Mediterranean. The war was a major milestone in evolution of Rome from a republic into an imperial power.

See Separate Article on the Second Punic War

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2024

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