The opening battles of the 1st Punic war

Messana (264 BC)

The First Punic War started with the battle of Messana. Messana (modern Messina) had been something of a rogue state since 288 BC when it was ruthlessly and mercilessly taken by a group of discharged and unscrupulous Campanian mercenaries who called themselves Mamertines, children of Mars, after the Oscan god of war, Mamers; they had originally been hired by Agathocles of Syracuse. The surviving Messanians were evicted, their property and women shared out between the mercenaries. In 264 BC an ambitious, expansionist King Hiero II of Syracuse laid siege to Messana with a promise to execute the inhabitants when it fell. The Mamertimes were notorious pirates with ‘mafiosi’ tendencies, so unsurprisingly had few genuine friends on Sicily. Nevertheless, a Carthaginian flotilla led by Hanno helped out by persuading Hiero to end the siege; the Mamertines were then stuck with Hanno and the Carthaginians. To get rid of them they enlisted the help of the Romans who were increasingly anxious over the proximity of Carthaginians to Italy. Hiero II then allied with Carthage.   However circuitous and accidental the route may have been that brought them to this point, the Romans and the Carthaginians were now potentially at loggerheads. The Senate and the popular assembly were divided over what action to take: war weariness and the unsettling prospect of a Carthage sitting on Rome’s doorstep opposite the very foot of Italy were equally powerful considerations. In the end, the Romans   were finally swayed into action by the consuls of the day and their desire for military kudos and the prospect of much booty. A timid commander sailed away in the face of Rome’s relief expedition but his government back home were somewhat angered at having lost Messana in such an undignified fashion. The Carthaginians accordingly sent their own force, supported by King Hiero; the Romans responded by sending a consular army and, in so doing, embarked on their first overseas military operation. Ennius, with charactersitic simplicity, described this momentous event: Appius indixit Karthaginiensibus bellum – ‘Appius declared war on the Carthaginians’ . Polybius later called the wars against Carthage ‘the longest and most hotly contested war in history’ .

Messana was now under siege from the Carthaginians and from Hiero but the Roman consul, Appius Claudius Caudex, easily put both armies to flight, helped no doubt by the mutual distrust which thrived between the two allies and which came to a head when the Carthaginians crucified Hanno for cowardice and poor judgement.   The Romans had achieved their military objective in invading Sicily; they were buoyed up by their easy victory here and, under the consul Manius Valerius, foolishly lay siege to Hiero in fortress Syracuse. Resorting to diplomacy, Valerius succeeded in winning Hiero over to the Romans’ side in exchange for territory in the east of the island from Cape Passaro to the foothills of Mount Etna. Syracuse was now a Roman ally paying an indemnity of 100 talents of silver, but , most crucially , would help supply the Roman army in Sicily, thus solving at a stroke Rome’s logistic problem of provisioning an overseas army. The Carthaginians were now isolated; they reacted by sending a force of 50,000 troops to Agrigentum, a city of major strategic importance on the south coast of the island and a trading partner . In the meantime Claudius consolidated his success by attacking and defeating the Carthaginians . His cognomen ‘Caudex’ means ‘blockhead’ or even ‘thick as a plank’ in Latin.


Agrigentum (262 BC)

Hanno procrastinated for two months but was eventually spurred into action to relieve his fellow general, Hannibal Gisco, whose army was starving to death in the besieged city of Agrigentum. The Romans, however, were able to repulse Hanno with his mercenaries and elephants, with great loss to the Carthaginians; the survivors stole away and lived to fight another day.  According to Polybius the Romans lost 3,000 infantry and 200 cavalry against Carthaginian losses of 30,000 foot and 540 horse with 4,000 men taken prisoner.     The Romans sacked the city and enslaved the inhabitants (25,000 according to Zonaras) – perhaps not the best advertisement for an invading army hoping to win over other strategic ports and cities on the island .

It is safe to say that now the Roman war machine and military policy was to some extent being dictated by personal military ambition, ambition which recognised no boundaries and which was increasingly fuelled by the prospect of military celebrity and lucrative plunder. The conquest of the whole island of Sicily now seemed a very real prospect.

The Carthaginians were descended from the Phoenicians who themselves had a long maritime and mercantile tradition, much of which was centered on the port of Tyre. We have seen how the Carthaginians maintained a sizable fleet to run its extensive overseas trade and to service its colonies up and down the Mediterranean. The Romans, on the other hand, had, by comparison, little foreign trade to speak of and, therefore no prior requirement for a standing fleet. However, they quickly realised the need for a navy in their new-found thirst for oveseas expansion.   The Carthaginian fleet in 262 BC comprised 120 or so quinqueremes crewed by 250 rowers working sixty large oars, and 120 fighting sailors; crucially the Romans resolved to become a naval power and build a fleet at least as large as the Carthaginians’. Ancient battleships carried no artillery; this lack of firepower was compensated for by using the actual vessel as weapon of destruction: naval battles were won by ramming and by boarding, what has been called a ‘a land battle on planks’ . The alacrity with which the Romans pursued their new naval policy can be partly explained by the sheer necessity now of being able to fight at sea, but also because land battles were what the Romans had been winning for centuries – the fact that they could now be fought within the confines of a ship’s deck posed no problems for them.


Mylae (260 BC)

The engagement at Mylae (Milazzo) later that summer was Rome’s second naval success. Led by Gaius Duillius, the Roman general in Sicily who surrendered his army command to join the navy, the Romans took their fleet of 120 ships to meet the slightly larger Carthaginian force of 130 under Hannibal Gisco. The Carthaginians had expected a victory over the inexperienced Romans but they had not bargained for the corvus, or ‘raven’ – a grappling gang-plank carried vertically and hinged to the prow of each Roman boat; Polybius describes it in some detail: a bridge 4 f) wide and 36 ft long, with a small parapet on both sides. The engine was in the prow, where a pole and pulleys allowed the bridge to be raised and lowered. There was a heavy spike like a bird’s beak underneath the device. This was designed to pierce the enemy ship’s deck when the bridge was lowered giving a grip between the vessels and a route for the soldiers to cross to the enemy ship and do close battle. The Carthaginians turned and fled with the loss of fifty quinqueremes.

Duilius was rewarded with a victory column, columna rostrata, in the Forum – the first Roman decoration for victory in a naval engagement, and Rome’s first naval triumph . The inscription is now preserved in the Capitoline Museum:

‘. . . and the Segestaeans . . . he (Duilius) delivered from blockade; and all the Carthaginian hosts and their most mighty chief after nine days fled in broad daylight from their camp; and he took their town Macela by storm. And in the same command he as consul performed an exploit in ships at sea, the first Roman to do so; the first he was to equip and train crews and fleets of fighting ships; and with these ships he defeated in battle on the high seas the Punic fleets and likewise all the most mighty troops of the Carthaginians in the presence of Hannibal their commander-in-chief. And by main force he captured ships with their crews, to wit: one septireme, 30 quinqueremes and triremes: 13 he sank. Gold taken: 3,600 {and more} pieces. Silver taken, together with that derived from booty: 100,000 . . . pieces. Total sum taken, reduced to Roman money . . . 2,100,000 . . . He also was the first to bestow on the people a gift of booty from a sea-battle, and the first to lead native free-born Carthaginians in triumph’.

Later that year Hamilcar replaced Hannibal who was arrested and executed in Carthage; Hamilcar attacked an army of Roman allies at Thermae Himerienses, slaying 4,000 of them in a decisive battle . After Mylae Duilius, rather than follow up his victory, sailed round Sicily to relieve Segesta which had been under seige by the Carthaginians. The Romans then relieved Macella and proceeded to Thermae where they were defeated by Hamilcar; in 259 he followed this up by taking Enna in the centre of the island which the Romans regained in 258 BC.


Camarina (258 BC)

Two years later the Romans were locked into their objective of taking the whole of Sicily. The battle of Camarina (modern Kamarina) on the south coast is notable for two events at opposite ends of the military skills spectrum: first, the foolish decision by Aulus Atilius Calatinus, the consul and first Roman dictator to lead an army outside Italy in 249 BC, to march his troops into a steep valley where they were ambushed and all but massacred; secondly, the wisdom and bravery of the military tribune Marcus Calpurnius Flamma who identified the strategic advantage of a nearby hilltop and led 300 men to the top. In so doing he diverted the Carthaginians from Atilius, thus allowing the main force to escape from the ravine. All 300 of Calpurnius’ troops died on the hill; he himself was left for dead but survived and was taken prisoner by the Carthaginians. Livy gives these words to the courageous Calpurnius as he encourages his men before the suicide mission: ‘Let us,’ he cried, ‘die, my men, and in dieing,   save our trapped legions from their peril’. Pliny the Elder tells us that he was awarded the Grass Crown, the corona graminea or corona obsidionalis. He leaves us in no doubt about the importance of the decoration and the honour due to its bearer:

‘But as for the crown of grass, it was never conferred except at a crisis of extreme desperation, never voted except by the acclamation of the whole army, and never to any one but to him who had been its preserver. Other crowns were awarded by the generals to the soldiers, this alone by the soldiers, and to the general. This crown is known also as the “obsidional” crown, from the circumstance of a beleaguered army being delivered, and so preserved from fearful disaster. If we are to regard as a glorious and a hallowed reward the civic crown, presented for preserving the life of a single citizen, and him, perhaps, of the very humblest rank, what, pray, ought to be thought of a whole army being saved, and indebted for its preservation to the valour of a single individual?’

Strabo tells how Camarina had been destroyed by the Carthaginians in 405 BC: not long before, the city was plagued by a mysterious disease. The marshes of Camarina had protected it from attack from the north but it was suspected that the marsh was the source of the disease; draining the marsh to eradicate the disease was a popular option. The oracle was consulted: it advised against draining the marsh, saying that the plague would pass.   But the Camarinans were impatient and disobeyed the oracle.   Now there was nothing to stop the Carthaginians: they marched across the drained marsh and erased the city, killing all .


© 2015 Paul Chrystal