The conquest of Sicily: the First Punic War, 264–241 BC

‘From 405 until the Roman conquest, which began in 264 BC, the history of Sicily has to be written around the careers and fortunes of five rulers of Syracuse, punctuated by periods of civil war, dynastic strife and anarchy’(6): thus wrote the ancient historian Moses Finley. A succession of thunderous wars starting in 416 BC – against Athenians, Carthaginians and, increasingly, one another – destroyed the city-state system among the Sicilian Greeks. ‘Henceforth Sicilians were to be subjects rather than citizens. All further political action took the form of destructive dynastic struggles, conspiracies and civil wars. From time to time the people were still summoned to meet, and there were even elections and decrees. But they were mere pawns in the power game, pulled about by adventurers when it suited their purposes. These adventurers and their armed mercenaries made the real decisions, not voters in the assembly.’(7)

Like dictators of a later age, the tyrants of Syracuse played the popular card when opportune, but any sign of real democracy was crushed. Tyrant (turannos) was the word used by Greeks for an autocratic ruler who held power by force rather than constitutional right; and the difference between a mercenary-captain and a tyrant was simply that one remained at large while the other had control of a city. Tyrants were the military strongmen who, in an age of blood and iron, ruled through control of fortresses, soldiers, warships and artillery. They filled the space left by the decay of city-state, citizen-militia and popular assembly.

The city of Syracuse was unable, however, to establish a stable imperium. The wars of Dionysius I (405–367 BC) exhausted Sicily, and Syracuse overreached itself attempting to extend its empire into mainland Italy. Civil war between rival successors in the mid 4th century further impoverished the city and left the island as a whole open to intervention by military adventurers. Thereafter, periods of order were fragile and brief; by the time the last of Finley’s five rulers was assassinated in 289 BC, Hellenistic Sicily was little more than an anarchy of mercenary enclaves. It was one of these – the Mamertine enclave at Messina – that became the focus of a crisis which would draw Rome into the affairs of the island.

The Mamertines were a corps of Italian mercenaries built up over the years by the tyrants of Syracuse (the name means ‘followers of Mars’ in Oscan). Conflict broke out between them and the citizens of Syracuse in the 280s BC, and the Mamertines were offered and accepted haven at Messina – where they promptly massacred the old inhabitants and divided up their possessions among themselves. The Mamertine city-state – an anomalous barbarian-mercenary polity symbolic of Sicily’s descent into anarchy – extended its control over much of the north-eastern part of the island, using this as a base for banditry and piracy. By the 260s BC the Syracusans had had enough: they resolved to extirpate the pest. They were now ruled by a new tyrant, Hiero II, one of King Pyrrhus’s henchmen, who had been installed during the king’s campaigns in the island in 278–275 BC. The Mamertines were quickly defeated and rolled back to the city of Messina itself; at which point they appealed for help – at first to the Carthaginians.

Though most of the Sicilian coastal plain had been settled by Greeks long before, in the far west of the island there were Phoenician cities equally old. The Phoenicians were traders from the Levant who spoke a Semitic language and worshipped Near Eastern gods. They had established a string of settlements in the western Mediterranean in archaic times, of which the most important was – or became – the city of Carthage, situated on the coast of North Africa at a site close to modern Tunis. The threat represented by Greek colonization had caused the Phoenicians to federate and put themselves under the protection of the most powerful of their number. Carthage thereby became an imperial city; but, composed of Mediterranean merchants and African landowners, the Carthaginian ruling class exercised only loose authority over its subject cities, charging modest harbour dues and tribute merely to support the mercenary armies and fleets on which security depended. At home, too, Carthaginian government was moderate: though dominated by the aristocracy – which supplied the two ruling suffetes, a 30-strong council of elders, and a high court of 104 judges – the final power of decision rested with a popular assembly of all citizens. And, somewhat in contrast to the Roman Republic and Hellenistic Greece, military authority remained wholly subordinate to civil. Though there was a fleet of warships in a protected inner harbour at Carthage, there was no standing army or regular militia; instead, generals were appointed and mercenaries recruited when needed.

The city itself was huge. A mighty citadel – the Byrsa Hill – towered over it. The commercial harbour was one of the busiest in the Mediterranean. The residential districts were filled with elegant, tall, narrow-fronted houses of uniform size and layout, each with its own underground cistern fed with winter rainwater piped off the roofs. On the rolling prairies beyond the city lay the estates of the Carthaginian elite, producing the grain, meat, hides, fleeces, vines and olives that supplied the city and filled its cargo ships. Carthage was powered largely by merchant profit; it was a city and an empire much like Renaissance Venice. Foreign wars were fought, if at all, to protect and advance trade; they were limited wars for commercial advantage; Carthaginian imperialism was a means to an end, not, like Roman imperialism, an end in itself. Sicily, unfortunately, had been especially expensive. Many had been the expeditionary forces dispatched there during the 4th century BC in an effort to contain the territorial ambition of the tyrants of Syracuse. Now, it seemed, the new tyrant Hiero II had restored Syracusan power and was attempting to regain control of eastern Sicily. If he succeeded, a renewed onslaught on the Carthaginian west was likely. The Mamertine enclave at Messina looked like being a useful ally. So the Carthaginians obligingly sent a garrison to help defend the city against the Syracusans.

Once there, however, they were reluctant to leave, even though their arrival had at once discouraged further Syracusan operations. The Mamertines then cast around for help in ejecting guests who had rather overstayed their welcome; and they chose the Romans. Their appeal arrived just as opportunities for military aggression in peninsular Italy were becoming exhausted. The dynamic of Roman imperialism was operating more frenetically than ever before. We can measure this in several ways. The size of the ager Romanus(land held by the Roman state or its citizens, as opposed to that of Latins and allies) had increased fivefold in the period 338–264 BC. The number of cives Romani (Roman citizens) had increased threefold in the same period, and at least 21 new (mainly Latin) colonies had been founded. The literary record attests 14 temple foundations between 302 and 264 BC (always a reliable indicator of successful warfare, since public monuments were financed by spoils). Roman pottery had become far more widely distributed – a measure of trade – and official state coinage was introduced for the first time – to make it easier to pay soldiers and share out booty. Rome itself was growing fast and probably already contained 100,000 people – far too many for the hinterland to support, making the city dependent on its Empire for basic subsistence.

This imperialism was inflationary. As Rome became more of a heavyweight in the struggle between states, the enemies she had to face were more formidable – first the Samnite Confederation; then King Pyrrhus and the cities of Western Greece; and soon the Carthaginian Empire. Geopolitical competition on a wider global stage put a premium on conquests rich enough to maintain Rome’s advantage. And as the Empire’s social base increased – as more former victims were ‘enrolled in the gang and invited to share the proceeds of future robberies’ – hauls of booty had to be bigger if there was to be enough to go round. Thus, as the Empire expanded, so did the appetite for more. Rome had become one of history’s monster states, a polity whose very essence was robbery with violence, whose predatory aggression endlessly fed and enlarged itself. The immediate expressions of this were the ambition of its politician-generals and the city’s permanent state of war.

Thus, when the Mamertines finally asked the Carthaginians to leave, the Romans were happy to underwrite the request – and the Carthaginians on the spot were too weak to argue. But this new intervention in the affairs of Sicily alarmed both Carthaginians and Syracusans, who formed an unprecedented military alliance and marched together to suppress the Mamertine bandit-city before it could evolve into a fully-fledged Roman client. The Romans immediately invaded with a consular army and broke the siege of Messina. Their opponents seem to have been stunned by the scale of the Roman reaction and the speed with which the crisis had spiralled out of control. The Syracusans retreated southwards, the Carthaginians westwards, both abandoning the struggle for Messina. The Carthaginians then attempted to open peace negotiations. They promptly received a second shock: the Romans refused either to talk or to present any specific demands; they simply geared themselves up for allout war, landing a double consular army in Sicily the following year.

The First Punic War began, like most wars, in a squabble over a secondary objective. But usually there are great matters at issue. Not so here: both Syracusans and Carthaginians felt they could let Messina go. What drove the war was Roman aggression, and this, as the Carthaginians were to discover each time they sued for peace, appeared to have no finite limits. Carthage found herself trapped in a no-holds-barred conflict for the highest possible stakes with a relentless predator who refused to negotiate. The waste of men and resources was to be prodigious – in Polybius’s view, for whom it was ‘the greatest war in history’ up to that time, unprecedented. Such a conflict found Carthage militarily, politically, and indeed culturally ill-prepared; and so traumatizing was it that it would cause her transformation from a cautious merchant city-state into a military dynamo.

In another sense, too, there was an imbalance between the principal protagonists. Carthage was a mercantile empire protected by a large and experienced fleet. Rome was a land-based empire with a powerful army and a huge pool of reserve manpower. The result – until the imbalance could be rectified – was to be an asymmetrical war of whale and elephant. This quickly became apparent in the event. The massive Roman invasion army of 263 BC rolled down the east coast to threaten Syracuse and secure Hiero’s surrender. He was required to pay an indemnity and to supply the Roman army in its further campaigns. In return, however, he got the protection of his new ‘ally’ against more traditional enemies – not only the Carthaginians, but also other Greeks who might wish to challenge Syracusan pre-eminence. He became, in fact, Rome’s first ‘client king’: a puppet ruler buoyed up by Roman diplomatic, financial and military support, whose nominal independence spared Rome the expense and trouble of formal occupation. The Roman blitzkrieg had other consequences, too: some of Carthage’s Sicilian allies deserted, and Carthage herself again made peace overtures. When the Romans still refused to negotiate – despite now having effective control of eastern Sicily – it was apparent that her tacit war aims had expanded into a threat to the whole Carthaginian lodgement in Sicily. The Carthaginian government was left with no choice but to send an expeditionary force to Sicily.

This decision brought the land war rapidly to its climax in 262 BC. With a large force besieged by the Romans in Agrigento, the main Carthaginian army, more than 50,000-strong, marched along the coast in an attempt to relieve the city. At the Battle of Heraclea Minoa it was decisively defeated, losing 7,000 men, and forced to fall back westwards. Agrigento was promptly captured and put to the sack: 25,000 were enslaved and the city was emptied of everything of value. ‘When the news of the events at Agrigento was received in Rome, the Senate was almost beside itself with rejoicing,’ reports Polybius. ‘In this exultant mood their aspirations soared far above their original designs, and they were no longer content with having rescued the Mamertines nor with what they had gained in the fighting. They now cherished the hope that they could drive the Carthaginians out of Sicily altogether …’(8)

Easier hoped than done. The ruthlessness and greed displayed at Agrigento had shocked some of Carthage’s erstwhile allies back to their former allegiance. This further shored up an already strong defensive position in the far west: though they had lost the land war, the Carthaginians were securely ensconced at Lilybaeum and other coastal fortresses, the garrisons now heavily reinforced, and supply from the sea assured by the power of the fleet. By 261 BC there was stalemate.

Rome could not win the war – or rather, could not win all that she wanted, which was the whole island – without maritime supremacy. The Carthaginian coastal fortresses were impregnable to land assault and could be taken only by blockade; and since they were supplied by sea, that meant naval blockade. Ancient naval warfare can seem to us a curious business. The battleships of the age were quinqueremes: galleys with three banks of oars, the two on top, where the hull was wider, each pulled by two men, the short one at the bottom, where the curve of the hull narrowed the space, by just one (thus quinqueremis from quinque meaning ‘five’ and remus meaning ‘oar’). Though the vessels were quite small – perhaps 6 m wide and 40 m long – because they depended for speed and manoeuvrability on muscle-power, some 270 rowers were packed on to the benches. These men powered not only the ship, but also its main armament: a metal-headed ram projecting from the prow, designed to shear off oars and smash holes in enemy vessels. Another 30 men crewed the ship, and as many as 120 marines crowded the upper deck, some fighting as archers, others as armoured spearmen. The marines constituted the quinquereme’s secondary armament: close-up they could shower the upper deck of an enemy vessel with missiles, and, if grappled, could cross over to capture it in hand-to-hand fighting.

Naval battles tended to be chaotic. Because of their vulnerability to ramming, fleets formed up in one or more closely spaced lines to deny the enemy opportunity to take vessels in the beam. On the other hand, a tight formation made ships vulnerable to collision, especially if an enemy attack caused some ships to veer off course and spread disorder down the line. At worst, a badly handled fleet could be reduced to a slow-moving jumble of vessels, highly vulnerable to ramming attacks and successful boarding operations. Tactical manoeuvres often amounted to attempts to bring an enemy fleet to such a condition while preserving the good order and effectiveness of one’s own vessels. In such manoeuvres the Carthaginians, an established naval power, began the war with a clear advantage. The Romans, assembling a fleet in the winter of 261–260 BC, were the Johnnies-come-lately.

Doubtful of their ability to outmanoeuvre a Carthaginian fleet, the Romans adopted a new device, a combined grappling hook and gangway known as a ‘raven’ (corvus). The device was held vertical against a round pole mounted with a pulley and capable of swivelling. Coming close to an enemy vessel, the raven could be swung into position and then allowed to drop down, the iron spike at the far end of the gangway (from which the device took its name) burying itself in the enemy’s woodwork with the force of its fall. Then the marines would swarm on to the hooked vessel. The raven was deployed for the first time at the Battle of Mylai in 260 BC. The Carthaginians, contemptuous of Roman seafaring, ‘steered straight for the enemy and thought they could risk an attack without keeping any formation, as though they were seizing a prize which was already theirs for the taking,’ explained Polybius. ‘Then, as they came into collision, the Carthaginians found that their vessels were invariably held fast by the ravens, and the Roman troops swarmed aboard them by means of the gangways and fought them hand-to-hand on deck. Some of the Carthaginians were cut down and others were thrown into confusion by these tactics and gave themselves up, for the fighting seemed to have been transformed into a battle on dry land.’(9) The Carthaginian fleet turned and fled with the loss of 50 of its 130 ships. A serious struggle for control of the waters around Sicily had begun.

In the next few years, however, though they made further gains on land and sea, the Romans failed to break through the Carthaginian defences. They responded with a bold lunge at Africa in 256 BC, hoping to draw the Carthaginians from their Sicilian fortresses by an attack on their homeland; and hoping too, no doubt, for richer plunder. At first all went well. An attempt by the main Carthaginian fleet to intercept the armada off the coast of Sicily was beaten off with heavy loss. A Roman army under Atilius Regulus was landed in Africa, established a secure base, and won an easy victory over local Carthaginian forces. Then the Romans overreached themselves. With Regulus at their gates, Carthage again sued for peace, this time offering to surrender the whole of Sicily; but the Romans demanded more, and thereby goaded their enemy into last-ditch resistance. They hired a Spartan mercenary general called Xanthippus as a consultant, and raised a new army of 12,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 100 elephants with which to confront Regulus’ 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry in pitched battle (255 BC). Anticipating the tactics of Hannibal in the Second Punic War, Xanthippus pinned the Roman infantry in the centre with his own infantry and elephants while smashing the Roman flanks with his greatly superior cavalry. He then unleashed an elephant charge which shattered the Roman infantry advance in the centre. The legions were then attacked frontally by the Carthaginian heavy infantry and in the flanks by cavalry and light infantry. The Roman mass disintegrated. Barely 2,000 succeeded in making their escape back to their camp.

The Roman invasion of Africa had been destroyed. But the agony was not yet over. The fleet, which had returned to Sicily for the winter, sailed back to Africa to pick up the survivors. It saw off the heavily outnumbered Carthaginian home fleet and completed the evacuation, but on the way home was struck by a violent storm off the coast of Sicily and lost all but 80 of its 350 ships.

The struggle resumed its course as an exhausting war of attrition centred on Sicily. The Romans built a new fleet of 300 quinqueremes and captured Palermo in 254 BC. The Carthaginians landed a new army – including no less than 140 elephants – but suffered defeat when they attempted to retake the city in 251 BC. The Romans put Lilybaeum under siege in 250 BC, but their attempted blockade was broken and their naval power obliterated in a double disaster the following year, as one fleet was outmanoeuvred and destroyed in battle, and a second driven on to the coast by a sudden gale and smashed to pieces. Both sides had repeatedly raised, equipped and fielded new armies of 50,000 men and new fleets of 300 quinqueremes. Both had suffered massive losses of men andmatériel. Both were groaning under the strain: Carthage faced mutiny in her Sicilian garrisons and revolt by her African subjects, the Romans growing resistance to the annual levy from her Italian allies. Yet the war was no nearer a conclusion: it remained a stalemate of elephant and whale – the Romans lacked a large enough fleet to blockade the western ports, the Carthaginians a field army with which to attempt reconquest of the island.

Carthage sent out a new commander in 247 BC. Hamilcar Barca was a maverick aristocrat – unconventional, populist in political orientation, a firm advocate of imperial expansion. He crushed a mutiny in the Carthaginian army as soon as he arrived, and then, with his albeit modest forces, went on to the offensive, raiding the Italian coast, encouraging Roman allies to desert, and establishing a strong, forward, mountain-top position near Palermo from which to wage guerrilla war. But while Rome continued to send large armies to Sicily, Carthage refused to send reinforcements to Hamilcar, and the Carthaginian’s offensive power gradually declined; soon, the coastal raids were suspended, and the army was pulled back westwards and became inert.

The Romans, meantime, were equipping themselves for another all-out strike. In 242 BC a new fleet of 200 quinqueremes and 700 transports sailed to Lilybaeum and established a blockade. The following year, to save the city, the Carthaginians dispatched a new fleet of their own, comparable in size with the Romans’, but, for once, less experienced and skilful. Roles were reversed: Roman sea-salts who had spent a year on blockade confronted raw Carthaginian crews just out of port. At the Battle of the Aegates Islands the Romans sank 50 enemy ships and captured 70 more. With the Roman blockade secure for at least another year, the Carthaginian garrisons at Lilybaeum and elsewhere were doomed. The home government authorized Hamilcar to secure whatever peace terms he could.

The terms imposed by Rome were heavy: all Sicily and the islands around it were to be abandoned; Hiero and the Syracusans were to be left alone; an indemnity of 3,200 talents was to be paid in ten annual instalments; no Italian or Sicilian mercenaries were henceforward to be recruited; no Carthaginian ships were to enter Italian or Sicilian waters; and all Roman POWs were to be returned without ransom. Nor was this all. When the Carthaginian government, financially crippled by war expenditures and the indemnity, refused to pay arrears of wages to its returning mercenaries, they mutinied, marched on the capital, and raised the Libyan subject population in revolt. The result was a bitterly fought, three-year war (240–237 BC). The Romans used the opportunity to grab more territory – Sardinia and Corsica – and, when challenged, responded first by threatening a war they knew the Carthaginians incapable of fighting, and then, when their victim backed down, demanding another 1,200-talent indemnity not to attack anyway.

The Phoenician cities in the western Mediterranean had existed for 500 years, surviving numerous great wars with the Greeks. Yet within 25 years of Carthage’s first military clash with Rome, the settlements on Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica had been liquidated, and the mother-city was paying out vast sums each year to fill the coffers of her victorious enemy. The First Punic War was the most shattering defeat in Carthaginian history. Politically traumatized, the Carthaginian ruling class split into opposing factions of doves and hawks. The doves were led by Hanno and supported mainly by the landowning aristocracy: they favoured peaceful co-existence with Rome, defence of the African empire, and an avoidance of costly and potentially disastrous foreign wars. They assumed – almost certainly wrongly – that they would be safe at home; that Rome would never come for them there. For the merchant aristocracy, however, there was not even temporary respite in prospect. Much of their trade was already crippled, and it took little imagination to picture the consequences for what remained if Roman expansion went unchecked. The hawks who represented them favoured a ship-building programme, overseas expansion, militant hostility to Romans, Italians and Greeks on all fronts, and preparations for a war of revanche to recover what had been lost. Their leader was the veteran general Hamilcar Barca, the former commander in Sicily. The Barca faction quickly established its political ascendancy. And Hamilcar already had a son who could be expected to succeed him as leader of the faction: his name was Hannibal.

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