First Punic War

First Punic War

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=First Punic War
partof=the Punic Wars

date=264– 241 BC
casus= dispute between Carthage and Rome over the Mamertine city Messana
place=Mediterranean Sea, Sicily, Sardinia, North Africa
territory=Roman seizure of Sicily
result=Roman victory
combatant1=Roman Republic
commander1=Marcus Atilius Regulus
Gaius Lutatius Catulus
Gaius Duilius
commander2=Hamilcar Barca
Hanno the Great
The First Punic War (264 to 241 BC) was the first of three major wars fought between Carthage and the Roman Republic. For 23 years, the two powers struggled for supremacy in the western Mediterranean Sea. Carthage, located in what is today Tunisia, Africa was the dominant Western Mediterranean power at the beginning of the conflicts. Eventually, Rome emerged the victor, imposing strict treaty conditions and heavy financial penalties against Carthage.

The series of wars between Rome and Carthage were known to the Romans as the "Punic Wars" because of the Latin name for the Carthaginians: "Punici", derived from "Phoenici", referring to the Carthaginians' Phoenician ancestry.


By the middle of the 3rd century BC the Romans had secured the whole of the Italian Peninsula and the enemies which had once threatened their very existence had been overcome. Over the course of the preceding one hundred years, Rome had crushed every rival that stood in the way of their domination of the Italian peninsula, first the Latin league was forcibly dissolved during the Latin War, then the power of the Samnites was decisively broken during the three prolonged Samnite wars, and most dramatically the Greek cities of Magna Graecia who were unified under the powerful and ambitious Pyrrhus of Epirus finally submitted to Roman authority at the conclusion of the Pyrrhic War.

Carthage considered itself the dominant naval power in the Western Mediterranean. It originated as a Phoenician colony in Africa, near modern Tunis, and gradually became the center of a civilization whose hegemony reached along the North African coast and deep in its hinterland, covering large parts of the islands of the Western Mediterranean and influencing the Iberian peninsula. The conflict began after both Rome and Carthage intervened in Messana, the point of Sicily closest to Italy.


In 288 BC the Mamertines -- a group of Italian (Campanian) mercenaries originally hired by Agathocles of Syracuse from 317 to 289 BC -- occupied the city of Messana -- modern Messina-- in the northeastern tip of Sicily, killing all the men and taking the women as their wives. At the same time a group of Roman troops made up of Campanian "citizens without the vote" also seized control of Rhegium, which lies across the straits in Italy. In 270 BC the Romans regained control of Rhegium and severely punished the survivors of the revolt. In Sicily the Mamertines ravaged the countryside and collided with the expanding regional empire of the independent city of Syracuse. Hiero II, tyrant of Syracuse, defeated the Mamertines near Mylae on the Longanus River and besieged Messana. Following the defeat at the river Longanus the Mamertines appealed to both Rome and Carthage for assistance, and acting first the Carthaginians approached Hiero to take no further action and convinced the Mamertines to accept a Carthaginian garrison in Messana. Either unhappy with the prospect of a Carthaginian garrison, or convinced that the recent alliance between Rome and Carthage against Pyrrhus reflected cordial relations between the two, the Mamertines petitioned Rome for an alliance, hoping for more reliable protection. At first, the Romans did not wish to come to the aid of soldiers who had unjustly stolen a city from its rightful possessors, and were still recovering from the insurrection of Campanian troops at (Rhegium, 271). Most likely unwilling to see Carthaginian power spread farther over Sicily and get too close to Italy, Rome responded by entering into an alliance with the Mamertines. In 264 BC, Roman troops were deployed to Sicily (the first time a Roman army acted outside the Italian Peninsula). Under the command of Appius Claudius Caudex two Roman legions were transported across the straits on pentekonters (ships with 25 oars on each side) and triremes borrowed from allies in Southern Italy. Following minor skirmishes, during which Hiero withdrew back to Syracuse, the Romans sent both consuls and two more legions to Sicily in the years 263 and 262 BC. The arrival of these troops influenced many towns to defect to the Roman side and eventually even Hiero decided to conclude a peace with the Romans. Under the initial 15 year agreement Syracuse was allowed to stay independent under the rule of Hiero but was forced to pay an indemnity of 100 talents (according to the historian Polybios). Soon enough the only parties in the dispute were Rome and Carthage and the conflict evolved into a struggle for the possession of Sicily.

Land warfare

Sicily is a semi-hilly island, with geographical obstacles and rough terrain making lines of communication difficult to maintain. For this reason land warfare played a secondary role in the First Punic War. Land operations were confined to small scale raids and skirmishes, with few pitched battles. Sieges and land blockades were the most common large-scale operations for the regular army. The main blockade targets were the important ports, since neither Carthage nor Rome were based in Sicily and both needed continuous reinforcements and communication with the mainland.

The land war in Sicily began with the Roman landing at Messana in 264 BC. Despite the Carthaginian pre-war naval advantage, the Roman landing was virtually unopposed. Two legions commanded by Appius Claudius Caudex disembarked at Messana where the Mamertines had expelled the Carthaginian garrison commanded by Hanno (no relation to Hanno the Great). Rome's initial strategy was to eliminate Syracuse as an enemy. From Messana, the Romans marched south attacking Hadranon and Kentoripa. These two towns were on the road around Mt. Etna. Taking these towns thus protected the right flank of the Roman advance. The town of Catania immediately made peace with the Romans, who continued south to Syracuse. After a brief siege, with no Carthaginian help in sight, Syracuse made peace with the Romans. The towns of Halaesa, located on the north shore of Sicily, and Enna, located in central Sicily on the Catania-Agrigentum road and the Thermae-Gela road, also made peace with the Romans.

With Enna joining the Roman side, the road to the important coastal city of Agrigentum lay open. In 262 BC, Rome besieged the city of Agrigentum, an operation that involved both consular armies - a total of four Roman legions - and took several months to resolve. The garrison of Agrigentum managed to call for reinforcements and a Carthaginian relief force commanded by Hanno came to the rescue and destroyed the Roman supply base at Erbessus. With supplies from Syracuse cut, the Romans were now besieged and constructed a line of contravallation. After a few skirmishes, and the battle of Agrigentum the city fell to the Romans.

The Roman advance now continued westward from Agrigentum to relieve in 260 BC the besieged cities of Segeste and Makella, who had sided with Rome, and were attacked by the Carthaginians for doing so. In the north, the Romans, with their northern sea flank secured by their naval victory at Battle of Mylae, advanced toward Thermae. They were defeated there by the Carthaginians under Hamilcar (a popular Carthaginian name, not to be confused with Hannibal Barca's father, with the same name) in 260 BC. The Carthaginians took advantage of this victory by counterattacking, in 259 BC, and seizing Enna. Hamilcar continued south to Camarina, in Syracusan territory, presumably with the intent to convince the Syracusans to rejoin the Carthaginian side.

The next year, 258 BC, the Romans were able to regain the initiative by retaking Enna and Camarina. In central Sicily, they took the town of Mytistraton, which they had attacked twice previously. The Romans also moved in the north by marching across the northern coast toward Panormus, but were not able to take the city.

After their conquests in the Agrigentum campaign, Rome attempted (256/255 BC) the second large scale land operation of the war. Following several naval battles, Rome was aiming for a quick end to hostilities and decided to invade the Carthaginian colonies of Africa, to force the enemy to accept terms. A major fleet was built, comprised of transports for the army and its equipment and warships for protection. Carthage attempted to intervene with a fleet of 350 ships (according to Polybios), but was defeated in the battle of Cape Ecnomus. As a result, the Roman army, commanded by Marcus Atilius Regulus, landed in Africa and began ravaging the Carthaginian countryside. At first Regulus was victorious, winning the battle of Adys and forcing Carthage to sue for peace. The terms were so heavy that negotiations failed and, in response, the Carthaginians hired Xanthippus, a Spartan mercenary, to reorganize the army. Xanthippus managed to cut off the Roman army from its base by re-establishing Carthaginian naval supremacy, then defeated and captured Regulus at the battle of Tunis.

Roman misfortunes did not end then, however. The survivors of the African debacle, sailing home, were caught in a storm, and most of their fleet was destroyed. The Carthaginians took advantage of this to attack Agrigentum. They did not believe they could hold the city, however, so they burned it and left.

The Romans were able to rally, however, and quickly resumed the offensive. Attacks began with naval assaults on Lilybaeum, the center of Carthaginian power on Sicily, and a raid on Africa. Both efforts ended in failure. The Romans retreated from Lilybaeum, and the African force was caught in another storm and destroyed. The Romans made great progress in the north. The city of Thermae was captured in 252 BC, enabling another advance on the port city of Panormus. The Romans attacked this city after taking Kephalodon in 251 BC. After fierce fighting, the Carthaginians were defeated and the city fell. With Panormus captured, much of western inland Sicily fell with it. The cities of Ieta, Solous, Petra, and Tyndaris agreed to peace with the Romans that same year.

The next year the Romans shifted their attention to the southwest. They sent a naval expedition toward Lilybaeum. En route, the Romans seized and burned the Carthaginian hold-out cities of Selinous and Heraclea Minoa. This expedition to Lilybaeum was not successful, but attacking the Carthiginian headquarters demonstrated Roman resolve to take all of Sicily. The Roman fleet was defeated by the Carthaginians at Drepana, forcing the Romans to continue their attacks from land. Roman forces at Lilybaeum were relieved, and Eryx, near Drapana, was seized thus menacing that important city as well.

At this point, (249 BC), Carthage sent general Hamilcar Barca (Hannibal's father) to Sicily. His landing at Heirkte (near Panormus) drew the Romans away to defend that port city and resupply point and gave Drepana some breathing room. Subsequent guerilla warfare kept the Roman legions pinned down and preserved Carthage's toehold in Sicily, although Roman forces which bypassed Hamilcar forced him to relocate to Eryx, to better defend Drepana. Nevertheless, Carthaginian success in Sicily was secondary to the progress of the war at sea; the stalemate Hamilcar produced in Sicily became irrelevant following the Roman naval victory at the battle of the Aegates Islands in 241 BC. As a result of this naval victory, the Carthaginians sued for peace and agreed to evacuate Sicily.

Naval warfare

Due to the difficulty of operating in Sicily, most of the First Punic War was fought at sea, including the most decisive battles. But one reason the war bogged down into stalemate on the landward side was because ancient navies were ineffective at maintaining seaward blockades of enemy ports. Consequently, Carthage was able to reinforce and re-supply its besieged strongholds, especially Lilybaeum, on the western end of Sicily. Both sides of the conflict had publicly funded fleets. This fact compromised Carthage and Rome's finances and eventually decided the course of the war.

At the beginning of the First Punic War, Rome had virtually no experience in naval warfare, whereas Carthage had a great deal of experience on the seas thanks to its centuries of sea-based trade. Nevertheless, the growing Roman Republic soon understood the importance of Mediterranean control in the outcome of the conflict.

The first major Roman fleet was constructed after the victory of Agrigentum in 261 BC. Some historians have speculated that since Rome lacked advanced naval technology the design of the warships was probably copied verbatim from captured Carthaginian triremes and quinqueremes or from ships that had beached on Roman shores due to storms. Other historians have pointed out that Rome did have experience with naval technology, as she patrolled her coasts against piracy. Another possibility is that Rome received technical assistance from its seafaring Sicilian ally, Syracuse. Regardless of the state of their naval technology at the start of the war, Rome quickly adapted.

Perhaps in order to compensate for the lack of experience, and to make use of standard land military tactics on sea, the Romans equipped their new ships with a special boarding device, the "corvus". Instead of maneuvering to ram, which was the standard naval tactic at the time, corvus equipped ships would maneuver alongside the enemy vessel, deploy the bridge which would attach to the enemy ship through spikes on the end of the bridge, and send legionnaires across as boarding parties.

The new weapon's efficiency was first proved in the battle of Mylae, the first Roman naval victory, and continued to prove its value in the following years, especially in the huge Battle of Ecnomus. The addition of the "corvus" forced Carthage to review its military tactics, and since the city had difficulty in doing so, Rome had the naval advantage. Later, as Roman experience in naval warfare grew, the "corvus" device was abandoned due to its impact on the navigability of the war vessels. In a single storm off Camarina (Sicily) the Romans are said to have lost all but 80 ships, due perhaps to the instability caused by the corvus. According to Polybius the fleet comprised 364 ships while the historian Eutropius states that there were 464. Under these assumptions it could be true that upwards of 100,000 Romans were killed in the disaster, making it the greatest maritime disaster in history, and a possible reason why the Romans abandoned the use of the very effective corvus.

Despite the Roman victories at sea, the Roman Republic lost countless ships and crews during the war, due to both storms and battles. On at least two occasions (255 and 253 BC) whole fleets were destroyed in bad weather; the disaster off Camarina in 255 BC counted two hundred seventy ships and over one hundred thousand men lost, the greatest single loss in history. [Trevor N. Dupuy, "Evolution of Weapons and Warfare"] One theory for the problem is the weight of the "corvus" on the prows of the ships made the ships unstable and caused them to sink in bad weather. Following the conclusive naval victory off Drepana in 249 BC Carthage ruled the seas, as Rome was unwilling to finance the construction of yet another expensive fleet. Nevertheless the Carthaginian faction that opposed the conflict, led by the land-owning aristocrat Hanno the Great, gained power and in 244, and considering the war to be over, started the demobilization of the fleet, giving the Romans a chance to again attain naval superiority. However, during this period, Hamilcar Barca orchestrated a number of coastal raids in Italy. Perhaps in response, Rome did build another fleet paid for with donations from wealthy citizens and the First Punic War was decided in the naval battle of the Aegates Islands (March 10 241 BC), where the new Roman fleet under consul Gaius Lutatius Catulus was victorious over an undermanned and hastily built Carthaginian fleet. Carthage lost most of its fleet and was economically incapable of funding another, or to find manpower for the crews. Without naval support, Hamilcar Barca was cut off from Carthage and forced to negotiate peace. It should be noted that Hamilcar Barca had a subordinate named Gesco conduct the negotiations with Lutatius, in order to create the impression that he had not really been defeated.


Rome won the First Punic War after 23 years of conflict and in the end became the dominant naval power of the Mediterranean. In the aftermath of the war, both states were financially and demographically exhausted. Corsica, Sardinia and Africa remained Carthaginian, but they had to pay a high war indemnity. Rome's victory was greatly influenced by its persistence. Moreover, the Roman Republic's ability to attract private investments in the war effort to fund ships and crews was one of the deciding factors of the war, particularly when contrasted with the Carthaginian nobility's apparent unwillingness to risk their fortunes for the common good.Fact|date=February 2007


The exact number of casualties on each side is always difficult to determine, due to bias in the historical sources, normally directed to enhance Rome's value.

According to sources (excluding land warfare casualties):
*Rome lost 700 ships (to bad weather and unfortunate tactical dispositions before battle) and at least part of their crews.
*Carthage lost 500 ships (to the new boarding tactics and later to the increasingly superior training, quantity and armarment of the Roman navy) and at least part of their crews.

Although uncertain, the casualties were heavy for both sides. Polybius commented that the war was, at the time, the most destructive in terms of casualties in the history of warfare, including the battles of Alexander the Great. Analyzing the data from the Roman "census" of the 3rd century BC, Adrian Goldsworthy noted that during the conflict Rome lost about 50,000 citizens. This excludes auxiliary troops and every other man in the army without citizen status, who would be outside the head count.

Peace terms

The terms of the Treaty of Lutatius designed by the Romans were particularly heavy for Carthage which had lost bargaining power following its defeat at the Aegates islands. Both sides agreed upon:

*Carthage evacuates Sicily and small islands west of it ( Aegadian Islands ).
*Carthage returns their prisoners of war without ransom, while paying heavy ransom on their own.
*Carthage refrains from attacking Syracuse and her allies.
*Carthage transfers a group of small islands north of Sicily ( Aeolian Islands and Ustica ) to Rome.
*Carthage evacuates all of the small islands between Sicily and Africa ( Pantelleria, Linosa, Lampedusa, Lampione and Malta ).
*Carthage pays a 2,200 talent (66 tons) indemnity in ten annual installments, plus an additional indemnity of 1,000 talents (30 tons) immediately. [Polybius, [*.html#62 1:62.7-63.3] ]

Further clauses determined that the allies of each side would not be attacked by the other, no attacks were to be made by either side upon the other's allies and both sides were prohibited from recruiting soldiers within the territory of the other. This denied the Carthaginians access to any mercenary manpower from Italy and most of Sicily, although this later clause was temporarily abolished during the Mercenary War.

Political results

In the aftermath of the war, Carthage had insufficient state funds. Hanno the Great tried to induce the disbanded armies to accept diminished payment, but kindled a movement that lead to an internal conflict, the Mercenary War. After a hard struggle the combined efforts of Hamilcar Barca, Hanno the Great and others the Punic forces were finally able to annihilate the mercenaries and the insurgents. However, during this conflict, Rome took advantage of the opportunity to strip Carthage of Corsica and Sardinia as well.

Perhaps the most immediate political result of the First Punic War was the downfall of Carthage's naval power. Conditions signed in the peace treaty were intended to compromise Carthage's economic situation and prevent the city's recovery. The indemnity demanded by the Romans caused strain on the city's finances and forced Carthage to look to other areas of influence for the money to pay Rome.

As for Rome, the end of the First Punic War marked the start of the expansion beyond the Italian Peninsula. Sicily became the first Roman province (Sicilia) governed by a former praetor, instead of an ally. Sicily would become very important to Rome as a source of grain. Importantly, Syracuse was granted nominal independent ally status for the lifetime of Hiero II, and was not incorporated into the Roman province of Sicily until after it was sacked by Marcus Claudius Marcellus during the Second Punic War.

Notable leaders

*Ad Herbal, Carthaginian leading admiral
*Appius Claudius Caudex, Roman consul
*Aulus Atilius Calatinus, Roman dictator
*Gaius Duilius, Roman consul
*Gaius Lutatius Catulus, Roman consul
*Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Asina, Roman consul
*Hamilcar Barca, Carthaginian leading general
*Hannibal Gisco, Carthaginian general
*Hanno the Great, Carthaginian leading politician.
*Hasdrubal, Carthaginian general
*Hiero II, tyrant of Syracuse
*Lucius Caecilius Metellus, Roman consul
*Marcus Atilius Regulus, Roman consul
*Publius Claudius Pulcher, Roman consul
*Xanthippus, mercenary in the service of Carthage
*Hannibal the Rhodian, Carthaginian privateer


*264 BC - The Mamertines seek assistance from Rome to replace Carthage's protection against the attacks of Hiero II of Syracuse.

*263 BC - Hiero II is defeated by consul Manius Valerius Messalla and is forced to change allegiance to Rome, which recognizes his position as King of Syracuse and the surrounding territory.

*262 BC - Roman intervention in Sicily. The city of Agrigentum, occupied by Carthage, is besieged.

*261 BC - Battle of Agrigentum, which results in a Roman victory and capture of the city. Rome decides to build a fleet to threaten Carthaginian domination in the sea.

*260 BC - First naval encounter (battle of the Lipari Islands) is a disaster to Rome, but soon afterwards, Gaius Duilius wins the battle of Mylae with the help of the "corvus" engine.

*259 BC - The land fighting is extended to Sardinia and Corsica.

*258 BC - Naval battle of Sulci: Roman victory.

*257 BC - Naval battle of Tyndaris: Roman victory.

*256 BC - Rome attempts to invade Africa and Carthage attempts to intersect the transport fleet. The resulting battle of Cape Ecnomus is a major victory for Rome, who lands in Africa and advances on Carthage. The battle of Adys is the first Roman success in African soil and Carthage sues for peace. Negotiations fail to reach agreement and the war continues.

*255 BC - The Carthaginians employ a Spartan general, Xanthippus, to organize their defenses and defeat the Romans at the battle of Tunis. The Roman survivors are evacuated by a fleet to be destroyed soon afterwards, on their way back to Sicily.

*254 BC - A new fleet of 140 Roman ships is constructed to substitute the one lost in the storm and a new army is levied. The Romans win a victory at Panormus, in Sicily, but fail to make any further progress in the war. Five Greek cities in Sicily defect from Carthage to Rome.

*253 BC - 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 BC - The Romans again win at Panormus over the Carthaginians, led by Hasdrubal. As a result of the recent losses, Carthage endeavors to strengthen its garrisons in Sicily and recapture Agrigentum. Romans begin siege of Lilybaeum.

*249 BC - Rome loses almost a whole fleet in the battle of Drepana. In the same year Hamilcar Barca accomplishes successful raids in Sicily and yet another storm destroys the remainder of the Roman ships. Aulus Atilius Calatinus is appointed dictator and sent to Sicily.

*248 BC - Beginning of a period of low intensity fighting in Sicily, without naval battles. This lull would last until 241 BC.

*244 BC - With little to no naval engagements, Hanno the Great of Carthage advocates demobilization of large parts of the Carthaginian navy to save money. Carthage does so.

*242 BC - Rome constructs another major battle fleet.

*241 BC - On March 10 takes place the Battle of the Aegates Islands, with a decisive Roman victory. Carthage negotiates peace terms and the First Punic War ends.


*The Punic Wars, by Adrian Goldsworthy, Cassel
*The First Punic War, A military history by J.F. Lazenby, 1996, UCLPress
*World History by Polybius, 1.7 - 1.60
*Evolution of Weapons and Warfare by Trevor N. Dupuy.


External links

* [ Polybius on the First Punic War] The full text of Polybius's account of the war

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