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This Week In History

First Punic War – March 10, 241 BC

The Romans and Carthaginians were engaged in what was called the First Punic War, beginning in 264 BC. Carthage was the superior force at the beginning of the conflict and the term “Punic” is Latin for the Carthaginians as it began as a Phoenician colony in North Africa. The conflict between the two powers was for control of the western Mediterranean Sea and began when they clashed in Messana, in Sicily, the closest city to the Italian peninsula.

Naval battle during the First Punic War

In 288 BC, Messana had been captured by the Mamertines, a group of mercenaries originially hired by Agathocles of Syracuse. While that was going on, rebel Campanian Romans took Rhegium. In 271-270 BC, Roman Republicans retook Rhegium and punished the rebels who still lived there. Meanwhile, the Mamertines were marauding across the countryside, until they collided with Syracuse. Hiero II of Syracuse defeated the Mamertines, who were forced to retreat back to Messana and appeal to Carthage and Rome for protection. The Carthaginians replied first, offering protection as long as a garrison would be installed in Messana. The Mamertines balked at the idea and petitioned Rome for an alliance. The Romans debated whether to get involved, since they were recovering from the retaking of Rhegium, as well as the moral decision of helping mercenaries who invaded someone else. However, to deny the petition would mean to allow the Carthaginians a solid foothold in Sicily to keep expanding and eventually challenge Syracuse. The Romans put it up for a vote and decided it was in their best interest to help the Mamertines, and sent Appius Claudius Caudex and a military expedition to Messana.

Since neither Carthage nor Rome had a strong base in Sicily, both forces needed constant supplies to engage there. The Romans were superior on land, while the Carthaginians had naval prowess from having been a sea-faring trade society for centuries. The land war began in 264 BC and the Romans quickly set up in Messana, where the Mamertines had already expelled the Carthaginian garrison. After securing Messana, the Romans advanced on Syracuse with two legions led by Caudex. A brief siege ensued and when it was obvious no help was coming from Carthage, Syracuse signed a treaty with Rome to be an ally and paid a mere 100 talents of silver for their previous opposition. With Syracuse defecting to the Romans, several other Carthaginian properties in Sicily turned sides as well.

Carthage didn’t take this sitting down and began to build an army in North Africa – 50,000 mercenaries, 6,000 cavalry and 60 war elephants – to be deployed to Sicily. Rome continued their takeover of the island while Carthage was building. In 262 BC, Rome besieged Agrigentum (Greek, Acragas) with four legions, which took months. The forces at Agrigentum were able to stall long enough for reinforcements to arrive from Carthage, which destroyed the Roman base at Erbessus. Supplies were running low in Agrigentum, but the Roman army was now dealing with disease. Both sides decided open battle in the field was the best way to resolve the siege, and the Romans won handily. The Carthaginians defending the city fled back home and the city fell to Rome.

Rome knew they were behind in the naval department, so after the Battle of Agrigentum in 261 BC, they began to build a strategic navy, employing a new feature on their ships called a corvus. It was essentially a bridge that was used as a boarding device so their troops could take on the Carthaginians in hand-to-hand combat, as the Carthaginians had superior ships. In 260 BC, the Romans had the opportunity to try out their new feature at the Battle of Mylae. The corvus was resoundingly successful and the first 30 Carthaginian ships to get close enough were grappled, boarded and seized. An additional 20 ships were taken by the Romans before the Carthaginians retreated.

Over the next 20 years, the Romans and Carthaginians fought on land and sea, on Sicily and North Africa, culminating in the Battle of Aegusa on March 10, 241 BC, where the Roman fleet sank 50 Carthaginian ships and brought to end the First Punic War. The Carthaginians were forced to sign the Treaty of Lutatius, which included heavy punitive fines. The 2,200 talents of silver to be paid to Rome, in ten equal annual payments, along with an immediate 1,000 talents (211,000 total pounds of silver) was more than Carthage could provide, forcing them to look for a source of silver. They invaded the Iberian Peninsula, which would eventually lead to the Second Punic War.

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