Rome vs. Carthage: The First Punic War and the Birth of a Superpower
The First Punic War was a brutal conflict that pitted two of the greatest powers of the ancient world against each other. With the might of Rome on one side and the naval supremacy of Carthage on the other, the war was an epic struggle that would shape the destiny of the Mediterranean world for centuries to come. From the towering warships of the Carthaginian fleet to the unstoppable Roman legions, this was a war that tested both heavyweight powers to their limits. At its end, Sicily became the first foreign Roman province and Carthage stepped back to lick its wounds, ready for the Second Punic War. This is the fascinating story of the First Punic War, a tale of heroism, sacrifice, and unimaginable cruelty that still resonates to this day.
The First Punic War Pre-War Warmup
In the centuries and decades running up to the First Punic War, the relationship between Rome and Carthage had been a cautiously peaceful if not completely friendly one. Each of the two powers had been well aware of how dangerous the other was, and signed peace treaties in 509, 348, 306, and 279 BC.
In these treaties, the two powers laid out their exact territories and spheres of influence and agreed not to step on each other's toes. Things began to go wrong when Rome began to renege on its side of the deal.
Carthage became concerned when it noticed Rome setting its sights on Magna Graecia, the name given by the Romans to the coast of Southern Italy. At the center of this territory lay Sicily, a strategically important island that the Carthaginians and Greek city-states had been fighting over for decades. Carthage could not allow it to fall into Roman hands.
Carthage’s concerns were confirmed when Rome took Rhegium (a Greek town on the strait that separates Italy and Sicily) and Agesil (another strategically important harbor town) allied itself with Rome against Carthage and Hieron II of Syracuse.
Hieron II of Syracuse, tyrant of ancient Greece. (Sailko/CC BY 3.0)
It was the loss of Messana that really upset the Carthaginians and made it clear Rome was not to be trusted. The town had been taken over by a group of untrustworthy mercenaries known as the Mamertines, who hailed from Italy, in 288 BC.
In 265 BC these mercenaries lost a battle to Hieron II of Syracuse and realized they needed outside help. At first, they approached the Carthaginians, who, keen to keep a foothold in the region, agreed to build a garrison in Messana.
Unfortunately, these mercenaries were not to be trusted and decided that Rome would make a better ally shortly afterward. From there things escalated quickly. The Mamertines removed the Carthaginian garrison and expelled its commander from the city.
Carthage responded by crucifying the unfortunate commander and forming an alliance with Acragas, a town in southern Sicily, and the Mamertine's enemies, Syracuse. At the same time, Rome sent one of its consuls, Appius Claudius Caudex, and two of its finest legions to Sicily.
The Carthaginians beat the Romans to Messana and with the help of Hieron II took back control of Messana. The Romans hadn’t been expecting such a strong response from Carthage. As they approached the town, they were greeted by the might of the Carthaginian fleet, led by Commander Hanno. They were essentially told to go home; Carthage wasn’t messing around.
Claudius Caudex responded by offering a peace deal, but Hanno was confident in his naval supremacy and rejected it. It proved to be a mistake.
Rome was not to be trifled with, and on its second attempt, the Roman ships backed by 16,000 troops managed to land at Messana and break the siege, defeating the Carthaginian and Syracuse occupying forces.
Roman legions during the First Punic War. (Public Domain)
The Romans then went on the offensive. Led by a new commander, Manius Valerius Maximus Messalla, they took the fight to Syracuse. The Carthaginian fleet was too slow in aiding their ally and before they could help, Hieron II had not only surrendered but agreed to ally himself with Rome.
This was the spark that ignited the first Punic War. Undeterred by the loss of an important ally, Carthage sent a second army to Sicily in 262 BC. The fighting had only just begun.
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Round 1 - Rome Starts Strong
In the war's beginning engagements, it looked like Carthage had bitten off more than it could chew. The Romans sent four legions, led by consuls L. Postumius Megellus and Q. Mamilius Vitulus, to Acragas (Agrigentum) in 262 BC. The Carthaginians rushed to their ally’s aid but were defeated.
Looking to make a point, the Romans sacked the city, showing the other city-states of Sicily what would happen to those who allied with Carthage. Segesta, another important ally of Carthage, got the message and joined the Romans a few months later in 261 BC.
Sicily became the first Roman province in the First Punic War. (romas_ph /Adobe Stock)
The next two years saw a spate of minor engagements with no definitive victors. Acragas got the brunt of it, during this period it was sacked for a second time and much of its population was enslaved by Rome.
By 261 BC it had become clear that Rome dominated on land but Carthage’s domination on the sea was stopping Rome from landing a knockout blow. Rome needed a navy that was capable of preventing the constant enemy reinforcements if it wanted to control Sicily in its entirety.
Luckily for Rome, it had the people and the resources to build such a navy. In just 60 days Rome managed to build 20 triremes (high-speed galleys with three banks of oars) and 100 quinqueremes (powerful warships). By the spring of 260 BC Rome had its navy.
How did the Romans, who traditionally had little naval experience, manage this? By learning from their enemies. It’s likely the designs for the Roman ships were copied from captured Carthaginian ships.
But the Romans weren’t content to just copy their enemies. As was so often the case, they improved existing designs with their own technology. They added the Corvus, a rotating platform, to the ships. This 11-meter (36 ft) bridge was a boarding device that could be lowered onto enemy ships to allow a heavy infantry unit of around 100 men to board them.
The Corvus, the Roman ship boarding device. (Chewie/CC BY-SA 2.5)
The thinking was inspired. The Romans knew that their lack of experience meant the Carthaginians had the advantage at sea. The corvus made sea battles more like land battles, where the Romans held most of the cards.
The tactic was a major success. It was first used at the battle of Mylae, during which Rome's 145 ships, led by Duilius, defeated the Carthaginian fleet of 130 ships.
Despite this success, the next two years saw a continuous stalemate between the two powers. Rome’s next big naval win came at the battle of Sulcis in 258 BC. The defeat was so bad that the Carthaginians crucified their commander.
Another two years went by before the next major Roman victory. A large Roman fleet (said to be 330 ships strong) beat the Carthaginians at the Battle of Economus. It was abundantly clear that the Carthaginians, initially overconfident in their naval supremacy, hadn't come up with a countermeasure to the fearsome corvus.
The battle ended with consul Marcus Regulus Atilius landing four legions at Clupea in what is today Tunisia. The fighting had moved from Sicily to the Carthaginians’ front door.
Round 2 - Carthage Punches Back
This last major victory led to some classic Roman overconfidence. Shortly after landing in Tunisia, Rome recalled half of its army and fleet, leaving 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry units to continue the war effort on enemy soil. As it turned out, this was more than enough to give Carthage a bloody nose.
Led once again by Regulus, the Roman army thrashed Carthage south of Tunis, where, despite their home advantage, rocky terrain meant Carthage couldn’t use their super-weapon, the elephant. The battle resulted in Regulus occupying the city. In 255 BC both sides attempted peace talks but these quickly ended thanks to Rome’s demands, which included Carthage abandoning Sicily altogether.
The war elephant gave Carthage a high advantage over its opponent. (Public Domain)
Just as the Romans had learned to rework their navy, Carthage realized they needed to mix things up. They used Xanthippus, a legendary Spartan mercenary, to reorganize their army, and with 12,000 men and 4,000 cavalry units now at their disposal, decided to start landing counterblows.
It was almost a knockout for the Romans. Xanthippus combined his massive cavalry with 100 war elephants to completely decimate his enemy. In the resulting battle, the Carthaginians lost just 800 units compared to Rome’s 12,000. They even managed to capture the Roman commander. If only Rome hadn’t sent half of its forces home.
What was left of the Roman army, around 2000 men, fled and managed to unite with a freshly dispatched Roman fleet. This is where mother nature decided to stick the boot in. Most of this fleet was destroyed in a massive storm that, according to the historian Polybius, drowned up to 100,000 men.
Round Three - Back to Sicily
Having been knocked to the mat in Africa, Rome decided in 254 BC it was best to return its focus to Sicily. They started things off by capturing Panormus (Sicily’s capital today). The Romans made its 70,000-strong population a deal. If they could pay Rome 200 drachmas each, they would be spared. Anyone who couldn’t pay would be enslaved.
This initial success was once again dampened by mother nature. Shortly afterward, a Roman fleet led by C. Sempronius Blaesus was returning from an attack on North Africa when it was hit by another massive storm.
The Romans lost 150 ships and thousands of men. It’s believed the corvus, which added extra weight, may have been to blame since the tool was never mentioned again after this tragedy.
Over the next three years, things calmed down a little in Sicily as Carthage was forced to focus on problems closer to home, the war was dragging on and Carthage was struggling to maintain control of its African territories.
By 251 BC Carthage was ready to take the fight back to Sicily and the empire sent another expedition to the island. It didn’t go well. The Carthaginian army, led by Hasdrubal, was defeated by two Roman legions just outside of Panormus in June 250 BC. To add salt to the wound, the Romans captured many of Carthage’s elephants and shipped them back to Rome. The Romans then focused on sieging the various Carthaginian fortress cities.
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Running Out of Stamina
The war had become an irritating stalemate of the Romans winning on land and the Carthaginians at sea. In 249 BC the Carthaginian fleet defeated the Roman fleet at Drepana. They managed to capture 93 of Rome’s 120 ships. Before the Romans could bounce back a fleet of 800 Roman supply ships was sunk by yet another storm.
Both sides were beginning to buckle under the weight of war. The war was pretty much put on hiatus until 247 BC, by which time both sides had managed to fund more armies. During this time Carthage had even been reduced to approaching Egypt’s ruler, Ptolemy II, for money, which he refused.
The Carthaginian army recommenced its war effort under a new commander, Hamilcar Barca (the father of the infamous Hannibal). Hamilcar proved to be just what they needed. He led blazing-fast raids along the Italian coast in 247 BC, looking for money to pay his mercenaries.
Carthaginian coin, likely depicting Hamilcar. On its reverse is a war elephant (Unknown Author / Public Domain)
He soon landed in Sicily where he attacked the Roman rear while Carthage's enemy was busy attacking Drepana and Lilybaeum, the last of Carthage’s strongholds in Sicily. Hamilcar was an expert in guerilla tactics and despite the fact that Carthage could no longer field a large army, managed to capture Eryx in 244 BC.
It was beginning to look like Carthage was no longer on the ropes. While Hamilcar was busy fighting in Sicily, another leader, Hanno the Great, was expanding Carthage’s African territories, securing much-needed tax revenue for the war effort.
Going Out with a Whimper
Ultimately, the First Punic War ended with a whimper. By 242 BC the Romans had built a new fleet of 200 ships, paid for by loans from private citizens. This was a desperate measure, and the Romans knew they needed to end the war for good.
Led by Gaius Lutatius Catulus, Rome's new fleet laid siege on Drepana. The following year on 10th March 241 BC, the Romans defeated Hanno’s Carthaginian fleet.
The Romans sank 50 ships and captured 70, taking 10,000 prisoners. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a massive loss, but Carthage had run out of money. With no other choice, Carthage chose to seek peace terms.
Territory ceded to Rome by Carthage under the peace treaty is shown in pink. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The agreement was simple. Carthage had to leave Sicily for good and pay 3,200 talents of silver to Rome over the next ten years. Rome also took Sicily as its first foreign province with Corsica and Sardinia following soon after.
The First Punic War was both a pivotal moment in the history of the ancient world and a complete waste. On the one hand, it handed Rome a major victory over one of its biggest competitors and ushered in a new era of Roman expansion in the region.
But on the other hand, it took both empires a long time to fully recover. Carthage spent the next few decades dealing with rebellions and wars in its own lands while Rome largely ignored Sicily after fighting so hard to take it in the first place.
A generation later and the two old enemies were back at it with the Second Punic War of 218-201 BC. The Punic Wars were a time of triumph and tragedy, heroism and sacrifice that will always be remembered as one of the defining moments of human history. They are also a reminder of the utter futility of war.
Top image: Roman ship ramming a Carthaginian ship. Naval battles were key in the First Punic War. Source: Massimo Todaro/Adobe Stock
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