The First Punic War

A contest greater than with Pyrrhus and the Greek cities, more memorable

in its incidents, and more important in its consequences, now awaited the

Romans. This was with Carthage, the greatest power, next to Rome, in the

world at that time--a commercial State which had been gradually aggrandized

for three hundred years. It was a rich and powerful city at the close of

the Persian wars. It had succeeded Tyre as the mistress of the sea

We have seen, in the second book, how the Carthaginians were

involved in wars with Syracuse, when that city had reached the acme of its

power under Dionysius. We have also alluded to the early history and power

of Carthage. At the time Pyrrhus landed in Sicily, it contained nearly a

million of people, and controlled the northern coast of Africa, and the

western part of the Mediterranean. Carthage was strictly a naval power,

although her colonies were numerous, and her dependencies large. The land

forces were not proportionate to the naval; but large armies were

necessary to protect her dependencies in the constant wars in which she

was engaged. These armies were chiefly mercenaries, and their main

strength consisted in light cavalry.

The territories of Carthage lay chiefly in the islands which were

protected by her navy and enriched by her commerce. Among these insular

possessions, Sardinia was the largest and most important, and was the

commercial depot of Southern Europe. A part of Sicily, also, as we have

seen (Book ii., chap. 24), was colonized and held by her, and she aimed at

the sovereignty of the whole island. Hence the various wars with Syracuse.

The Carthaginians and Greeks were the rivals for the sovereignty of this

fruitful island, the centre of the oil and wine trade, the store-house for

all sorts of cereals. Had Carthage possessed the whole of Sicily, her

fleets would have controlled the Mediterranean.

The embroilment of Carthage with the Grecian States on this island

was the occasion of the first rupture with Rome. Messina, the seat of the

pirate republic of the Mamertines, was in close alliance with Rhegium, a

city which had grown into importance during the war with Pyrrhus. Rhegium,

situated on the Italian side of the strait, solicited the protection of

Rome, and a body of Campanian troops was sent to its assistance. These

troops expelled or massacred the citizens for whose protection they had

been sent, and established a tumultuary government. On the fall of

Tarentum, the Romans sought to punish this outrage, and also to embrace

the opportunity to possess a town which would facilitate a passage to

Sicily, for Sicily as truly belonged to Italy as the Peloponnesus to

Greece, being separated only by a narrow strait. A Roman army was

accordingly sent to take possession of Rhegium, but the defenders made a

desperate resistance. It was finally taken by storm, and the original

citizens obtained repossession, as dependents and allies of Rome. The fall

of Rhegium robbed the pirate city of Messina of the only ally on which it

could count, and subjected it to the vengeance of both the Carthaginians

and the Syracusans. The latter were then under the sway of Hiero, who, for

fifty years, had reigned without despotism, and had quietly developed both

the resources and the freedom of the city. He collected an army of

citizens, devoted to him, who expelled the Mamertines from many of their

towns, and gained a decisive victory over them, not far from Messina.

The Mamertines, in danger of subjection by the Syracusans, then

looked for foreign aid. One party looked to Carthage, and another to Rome.

The Carthaginian party prevailed on the Mamertines to receive a Punic

garrison. The Romans, seeking a pretext for a war with Carthage, sent an

army ostensibly to protect Messina against Hiero. But the strait which

afforded a passage to Sicily was barred by a Carthaginian fleet. The

Romans, unaccustomed to the sea, were defeated. Not discouraged, however,

they finally succeeded in landing at Messina, and although Carthage and

Rome were at peace, seized Hanno, the Carthaginian general, who had the

weakness to command the evacuation of the citadel as a ransom for his


On this violation of international law, Hiero, who feared the

Romans more than the Carthaginians, made an alliance with Carthage, and

the combined forces of Syracuse and Carthage marched to the liberation of

Messina. The Romans, under Appius, the consul, then made overtures of

peace to the Carthaginians, and bent their energies against Hiero. But

Hiero, suspecting the Carthaginians of treachery, for their whole course

with the Syracusans for centuries had been treacherous, retired to

Syracuse. Upon which the Romans attacked the Carthaginians singly, and

routed them, and spread devastation over the whole island.

This was the commencement of the first Punic war, in which the Romans were

plainly the aggressors. Two consular armies now threatened Syracuse, when

Hiero sought peace, which was accepted on condition of provisioning the

Roman armies, and paying one hundred talents to liberate prisoners.

The first Punic war began B.C. 264, and lasted twenty-four years. Before

we present the leading events of that memorable struggle, let us glance at

the power of Carthage--the formidable rival of Rome.

As has been narrated, Carthage was founded upon a peninsula, or

rocky promontory, sixty-five years before the foundation of Rome. The

inhabitants of Carthage, descendants of Phoenicians, were therefore of

Semitic origin. The African farmer was a Canaanite, and all the Canaanites

lacked the instinct of political life. The Phoenicians thought of commerce

and wealth, and not political aggrandizement. With half their power, the

Hellenic cities achieved their independence. Carthage was a colony of

Phoenicians, and had their ideas. It lived to traffic and get rich. It was

washed on all sides, except the west, by the sea, and above the city, on


a hide, according to the legend that Dido, when she came to Africa, bought

of the inhabitants as much land as could be encompassed by a bull's hide,

which she cut into thongs, and inclosed the territory on which she built

the citadel. The city grew to be twenty-three miles in circuit, and

contained seven hundred thousand people. It had two harbors, an outer and

inner, the latter being surrounded by a lofty wall. A triple wall was

erected across the peninsula, to protect it from the west, three miles

long, and between the walls were stables for three hundred elephants, four

thousand horses, and barracks for two thousand infantry, with magazines

and stores. In the centre of the inner harbor was an island, called

Cothon, the shores of which were lined with quays and docks for two

hundred and twenty ships. The citadel, Byrsa, was two miles in circuit,

and when it finally surrendered to the Romans, fifty thousand people

marched out of it. On its summit was the famous temple of AEsculapius. At

the northwestern angle of the city were twenty immense reservoirs, each

four hundred feet by twenty-eight, filled with water, brought by an

aqueduct at a distance of fifty-two miles. The suburb Megara, beyond the

city walls, but within those that defended the peninsula, was the site of

magnificent gardens and villas, which were adorned with every kind of

Grecian art, for the Carthaginians were rich before Rome had conquered

even Latium. This great city controlled the other Phoenician cities, part

of Sicily, Numidia, Mauritania, Lybia--in short, the northern part of

Africa, and colonies in Spain and the islands of the western part of the

Mediterranean. The city alone could furnish in an exigency forty thousand

heavy infantry, one thousand cavalry, and twenty thousand war chariots.

The garrison of the city amounted to twenty thousand foot and four

thousand horse, and the total force which the city could command was more

than one hundred thousand men. The navy was the largest in the world, for,

in the sea-fight with Regulus, it numbered three hundred and fifty ships,

carrying one hundred and fifty thousand men.

Such was this great power against which the Romans were resolved to

contend. It would seem that Carthage was willing that Rome should have the

sovereignty of Italy, provided it had itself the possession of Sicily. But

this was what the Romans were determined to prevent. The object of

contention, then, between these two rivals, the one all-powerful by land

and the other by sea, was the possession of Sicily.

During the first three years of the war, the Romans made themselves

masters of all the island, except the maritime fortresses at its western

extremity, Eryx and Panormus. Meanwhile the Carthaginians ravaged the

coasts of Italy, and destroyed its commerce. The Romans then saw that

Sicily could not be held without a navy as powerful as that of their

rivals, and it was resolved to build at once one hundred and twenty ships.

A Carthaginian quinquereme, wrecked on the Bruttian shore, furnished the

model, the forests of Silo the timber, and the maritime cities of Italy

and Greece, the sailors. In sixty days a fleet of one hundred and twenty

ships was built and ready for sea. The superior seamanship of the

Carthaginians was neutralized by converting the decks into a battle-field

for soldiers. Each ship was provided with a long boarding-bridge, hinged

up against the mast, to be let down on the prow, and fixed to the hostile

deck by a long spike, which projected from its end. The bridge was wide

enough for two soldiers to pass abreast, and its sides were protected by


The first encounter of the Romans with the Carthaginians resulted

in the capture of the whole force, a squadron of seventeen ships. The

second encounter ended in the capture of more ships than the Roman

admiral, Cn. Scipio, had lost. The next battle, that of Mylae, in which the

whole Roman fleet was engaged, again turned in favor of the Romans, whose

bad seamanship provoked the contempt of their foes, and led to

self-confidence. The battle was gained by grappling the enemy's ships one

by one. The Carthaginians lost fourteen ships, and only saved the rest by

inglorious flight.

For six years no decided victories were won by either side, but in

the year B.C. 256, nine years from the commencement of hostilities, M.

Atilius Regulus, a noble of the same class and habits as Cincinnatus and

Fabricius, with a fleet of three hundred and thirty ships, manned by one

hundred thousand sailors, encountered the Carthaginian fleet of three

hundred and fifty ships on the southern coast of Sicily, and gained a

memorable victory. It was gained on the same principle as Epaminondas and

Alexander won their battles, by concentrating all the forces upon a single

point, and breaking the line. The Romans advanced in the shape of a wedge,

with the two consuls' ships at the apex. The Carthaginian admirals allowed

the centre to give way before the advancing squadron. The right wing made

a circuit out in the open sea, and took the Roman reserve in the rear,

while the left wing attacked the vessels that were towing the horse

transports, and forced them to the shore. But the Carthaginian centre,

being thus left weak, was no match for the best ships of the Romans, and

the consuls, victorious in the centre, turned to the relief of the two

rear divisions. The Carthaginians lost sixty-four ships, which were taken,

besides twenty-four which were sunk, and retreated with the remainder to

the Gulf of Carthage, to defend the shores against the anticipated attack.

The Romans, however, made for another point, and landed in the

harbor of Aspis, intrenched a camp to protect their ships, and ravaged the

country. Twenty thousand captives were sent to Rome and sold as slaves,

besides an immense booty--a number equal to a fifth part of the free

population of the city. A footing in Africa was thus made, and so secure

were the Romans, that a large part of the army was recalled, leaving

Regulus with only forty ships, fifteen thousand infantry, and five hundred

cavalry. Yet with this small army he defeated the Carthaginians, and

became master of the country to within ten miles of Carthage. The

Carthaginians, shut up in the city, sued for peace; but it was granted

only on condition of the cession of Sicily and Sardinia, the surrender of

the fleet, and the reduction of Carthage to the condition of a dependent

city. Such a proposal was rejected, and despair gave courage to the

defeated Carthaginians.

They made one grand effort while Regulus lay inactive in winter

quarters. The return of Hamilcar from Sicily with veteran troops, which

furnished a nucleus for a new army, inspired the Carthaginians with hope,

and assisted by a Lacedaemonian general, Xanthippus, with a band of Greek

mercenaries, the Carthaginians marched unexpectedly upon Regulus, and so

signally defeated him at Tunis, that only two thousand Romans escaped.

Regulus, with five hundred of the legionary force, was taken captive and

carried to Carthage.

The Carthaginians now assumed the offensive, and Sicily became the

battle-field. Hasdrubal, son of Hanno, landed on the island with one

hundred and forty elephants, while the Roman fleet of three hundred ships

suffered a great disaster off the Lucanian promontory. A storm arose,

which wrecked one hundred and fifty ships--a disaster equal to the one

which it suffered two years before, when two-thirds of the large fleet

which was sent to relieve the two thousand troops at Clupea was destroyed

by a similar storm. In spite of these calamities, the Romans took Panormus

and Thermae, and gained a victory under the walls of the former city which

cost the Carthaginians twenty thousand men and the capture of one hundred

and twenty elephants. This success, gained by Metellus, was the greatest

yet obtained in Sicily, and the victorious general adorned his triumph

with thirteen captured generals and one hundred and four elephants.

The two maritime fortresses which still held out at the west of the

island, Drepanum and Lilybaeum, were now invested, and the Carthaginians,

shut up in these fortresses, sent an embassy to Rome to ask an exchange of

prisoners, and sue for peace. Regulus, now five years a prisoner, was

allowed to accompany the embassy, on his promise to return if the mission

was unsuccessful. As his condition was now that of a Carthaginian slave,

he was reluctant to enter the city, and still more the Senate, of which he

was no longer a member. But when this reluctance was overcome, he

denounced both the peace and the exchange of prisoners. The Romans wished

to retain this noble patriot, but he was true to his oath, and returned

voluntarily to Carthage, after having defeated the object of the

ambassadors, knowing that a cruel death awaited him. The Carthaginians,

indignant and filled with revenge, it is said, exposed the hero to a

burning sun, with his eyelids cut off, and rolled him in a barrel lined

with iron spikes.

The embassy having thus failed, the attack on the fortresses, which

alone linked Africa with Sicily, was renewed. The siege of Lilybaeum lasted

till the end of the war, which, from the mutual exhaustion of the parties,

now languished for six years. The Romans had lost four great fleets, three

of which had arms on board, and the census of the city, in the seventeenth

year, showed a decrease of forty thousand citizens. During this interval

of stagnation, when petty warfare alone existed, Hamilcar Burca was

appointed general of Carthage, and in the same year his son Hannibal was

born, B.C. 247.

The Romans, disgusted with the apathy of the government, fitted out

a fleet of privateers of two hundred ships, manned by sixty thousand

sailors, and this fleet gained a victory over the Carthaginians,

unprepared for such a force, so that fifty ships were sunk, and seventy

more were carried by the victors into port. This victory gave Sicily to

the Romans, and ended the war. The Roman prisoners were surrendered by

Hamilcar, who had full powers for peace, and Carthage engaged to pay three

thousand two hundred talents for the expenses of the war.

The Romans were gainers by this war. They acquired the richest

island in the world, fertile in all the fruits of the earth, with splendid

harbors, cities, and a great accumulation of wealth. The long war of

twenty-four years, nearly a whole generation, was not conducted on such a

scale as essentially to impoverish the contending parties. There were no

debts contracted for future generations to pay. It was the most absorbing

object of public interest, indeed; but many other events and subjects must

also have occupied the Roman mind. It was a foreign war, the first that

Rome had waged. It was a war of ambition, the commencement of those

unscrupulous and aggressive measures that finally resulted in the

political annihilation of all the other great powers of the world.

But this war, compared with those foreign wars which Rome subsequently

conducted, was carried on without science and skill. It was carried on in

the transition period of Roman warfare, when tactics were more highly

prized than strategy. It was by a militia, and agricultural generals, and

tactics, and personal bravery, that the various Italian nations were

subdued, when war had not ripened into a science, such as was conducted

even by the Greeks. There was no skill or experience in the conduct of

sieges. The navy was managed by Greek mercenaries.

The great improvement in the science of war which this first

contest with a foreign power led to, was the creation of a navy, and the

necessity of employing veteran troops, led by experienced generals. A

deliberative assembly, like the Senate, it was found could not conduct a

foreign war. It was left to generals, who were to learn marches and

countermarches, sieges, and a strategical system. The withdrawal of half

the army of Regulus by the Senate proved nearly fatal. Carthage could not

be subdued by that rustic warfare which had sufficed for the conquest of

Etruria or Samnium. The new system of war demanded generals who had

military training and a military eye, and not citizen admirals. The final

success was owing to the errors of the Carthaginians rather than military