A Look at How the Punic Wars Between Rome and Carthage Began

The Punic Wars loom large in the history of Rome. Before the Punic Wars, Rome had gained great experience in conflict with other Italian states, and even some experience fighting foreigners, such as Pyrrhus of Epirus. Never before, however, had they fought an opponent as mighty as Carthage. To the Romans, the Punic Wars took on a scale comparable to the World Wars in the modern world. And just as modern World Wars have erupted in response to fairly local problems, such as the fates of Serbia or Poland, so too did the First Punic War begin over the control of a single city in Sicily.

In the historiography of the Punic Wars, Carthage seems to almost to be self-evident as an opponent of Rome. Some explanation is needed to make its role in the conflict clearer. Carthage was a city, rather than a country; it was a Phoenician city built in North Africa by colonists from the Phoenician (Canaanite) city of Tyre. It was one of several such cities built by the Phoenicians along the north African coast, but over time it prospered more than the others and assumed a leadership role, partly through trading ties, partly through military advantages, and partly through diplomacy. For convenience, all of the Phoenicians of the western Mediterranean under the leadership of Carthage are known as Carthaginians.

By temperament, the Phoenicians were traders more than conquerors, and from their adoptive homeland near modern Tunis the Carthaginians set up commercial ties throughout the western Mediterranean, linking Carthage and its neighbors with Spain, Italy, Sicily and even southern France. Many of these trading partners were actually Greek colonies, but this facilitated commerce rather than hindering it: the Phoenicians had been acculturating themselves toward the Greeks ever since the Golden Age of Athens, and by the beginning of the third century B.C., they were thoroughly Hellenized.

Commercial ties often led to the establishment of local colonies of their own, and soon the Carthaginians had satellites in Spain and Sicily. Of course, the maintenance of satellites sometimes requires the use of force to protect them. Near the end of the fourth century B.C., a man named Agathocles usurped the throne of the Greek city of Syracuse in southeastern Sicily. He undertook a war of conquest to bring all of Sicily under his control, and that meant war with Carthaginian cities. For a short time, the Carthaginian cities of Sicily were terrified by the threat posed by Agathocles, but in the end, a negotiated settlement was reached. Carthage retained control of western Sicily, and Agathocles remained in power.

The death of Agathocles in 289 B.C. unleashed a series of events that would bring Rome, a new local power in Italy, into conflict with the great power that was Carthage. Agathocles had employed the services of Mamertine mercenaries from Campania, an Italian region south of Latium that had recently been incorporated into the Roman system. With his death, the Mamertines went out in search of plunder, and took control of the city of Messana near the northeastern tip of Sicily. Desperate for assistance, the people of Messana sought aid from both Carthage and Rome in evicting the Mamertines.

Syracuse remained interested in Messana. The commander of its forces, Hiero, campaigned against the Mamertines, and after winning a key victory against them, he had the opportunity to become king of Syracuse. While he was laying siege to Messana, the Carthaginians arrived by sea and took control of Messana themselves. Some of the Mamertines turned to Rome for aid, and in 264 B.C., Rome agreed to take on the Mamertines as a protected people. Rome began to ferry troops across what is now known as the Straits of Messina to intervene in this conflict.

Within the city, the Mamertines were able to force out the Carthaginians, and the Roman expeditionary force occupied it. The Carthaginians and King Hiero of Syracuse besieged the city together, but the following year brought Roman reinforcements, and soon the Romans made significant headway in the conquest of territory controlled by Syracuse. King Hiero sued for peace, and then made common cause with the Romans. When the campaigning season opened in 262 B.C., Rome’s objectives were the Carthaginian cities of western Sicily.

It is at this point that a local conflict for hegemony in Sicily became a regional power struggle over dominance of the sea. Fighting in western Sicily was largely inconclusive. Rome had a powerful army, but little in the way of a fleet, and that limited the flow of its troops through the Straits of Messina. Carthage had to buy its army in the form of mercenary troops, but its fleet was first-rate, and that allowed it to reinforce coastal areas at will. Whenever Roman forces won a battle, the Carthaginians were able to bring in new troops, postponing any serious decision.

Rome realized that it needed a powerful navy of its own if it wanted to win the war, and so it began a massive naval construction program. In part, Rome began by imitating Carthaginian ships, but soon, Roman planners happened upon an innovation that would change the course of the war: the corvus. The corvus is a long bridge, tethered at one to the Roman vessel and left hanging in a vertical pose when the battle begins. When an enemy ship came within range, the corvus was allowed to fall, the spike at the far end hooked on the enemy ship, and Roman soldiers were then free to run across the bridge and seize the enemy ship.

It was not a tactic that could devastate the Carthaginian navy as a whole. It was, however, a tactic capable of giving the Romans an even chance at victory, and naval engagements around Sicily resulted in victories and losses alike. Strategically, it diverted Carthaginian naval strength away from the reinforcement of Sicilian cities. A similar effect was created by a Roman expeditionary attack in 256 into the heart of Carthaginian territory in North Africa. The war would continue to be very long and bloody, but gradually the Romans were able to take control of Sicily, and in 241, Carthage capitulated, ceding its presence in Sicily to Rome.

Like the World Wars of the 20th Century, the peace of the first war carried the seeds of a second. The First Punic War began as a local conflict among four parties over the control of a single city. As it progressed, it escalated by degrees into a war for the control of the island of Sicily, and then to a war for control of the surrounding seas. The failure of either side to achieve a decisive breakthrough led one combatant, Rome, to undertake a diversionary attack into the heartland of its enemy. From that point on, the First Punic War could no longer be a limited engagement; it became a battle for Carthage’s life. Even though the Roman force in North Africa was too small to prevail in the long run, it diverted much-needed Carthaginian resources from Sicily and inspired a revolt among the Numidians. The revolts that Carthage had to face became even more widespread after the war was over and Carthaginian mercenaries discovered that their masters could not pay them. Carthage would need many years to recover, and it would not forget.


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