The First Punic War – Rome’s rise to world power

22 Nov

The First Punic War Depiction of a Roman legionary end of 3rd century

In the 70s of the 3rd century BC, Rome had reached dominance on the Italian peninsula. From all cities and peoples belonged as allies to the Roman Empire. The republic was stable, powerful and ambitious. On the opposite side of the Mediterranean, Carthage, not much older than Rome itself, had a position as a naval and trading power. Many colonies of Carthage moved along the Mediterranean coasts of Sicily, Spain, North Africa and Sardinia. His fleets ruled the western Mediterranean unchallenged. Carthage was satisfied with its extent; in contrast to Rome, it pursued no major expansive tendencies, but wanted to secure and expand its previous position. In Sicily, however, Hero had seized power over the great city of Syracuse and sought to strengthen the city’s power and develop it into a regional factor. It should be the ambitions of this Hero that tore Rome and Carthage into the longest coherent war of antiquity.

Sicily around 270.

The conflict ignited in the place Messina at the northern tip of Sicily, separated by scarcely more than ten miles of water from the Roman ally Rhegulum. Hiero defeated the local Mamertiner at the Battle of Longanus and then set about besieging the city. Probably not coincidentally at the same time a Carthaginian fleet was in the waters. The Mamertines requested help from the Carthaginians. The Carthaginians entered the city, and Hiero withdrew. To protect their new friends, the Carthaginians established a small garrison. At the same time, however, the Mamertines also asked Rome for help, probably because they did not quite feel well with their new armed friends in the city. It is a basic constant of the early Roman expansion phase that the republic almost always took an initiative from the outside. Also in this case, the Senate debated the request of the Mamertiner and sent two legions under Claudius Caudex. When these landed and the Carthaginians requested to forgive themselves, the Carthaginian commander came in the face of the numbers of this request. The unfortunate was crucified in his homeland as a punishment for his “cowardice”. Carthage now allied with Hiero and opposed the Romans, who were operating outside the Italian peninsula for the first time. It comes to the conflict – henceforth there is war between Carthage and Rome.

This event is probably quite unexpected for the combatants. The two cities share a long history of friendly relations; numerous contracts were closed. So far you did not get into the enclosure. The Roman republic was notoriously water-shy, even the translation across the Strait of Messina was an adventure in itself, the supply for the troupe is endangered. The Carthaginian fleet enjoys a reputation like the Athenian one and a half centuries earlier. It is worth taking a look at the different systems of Carthage and Rome. First of all, a word about the source situation: concerning the first two Punic wars, we rely on the oldest surviving source of Polybius, which, however, was very friendly to the Romans; his stories are accordingly colored and distorted. The pro-Carthaginian authors that existed are lost. We only know about them from the polemic with which Polybius infuses her theses. Since Carthage was completely destroyed in the Third Punic War, there are no written testimonies that have been handed down from her, which is why one relies on the little information of the Roman sources and archaeological reconstruction.

Schematic representation of the Roman Republic

Rome was a republic at that time, ruled by the Senate and a number of popular assemblies. All of these decision-making bodies were strongly aristocratic, although theoretically all Roman citizens had suffrage. Since this was organized as a census suffrage, their votes were relatively meaningless; in the Senate you could anyway only from a certain basic assets (one million sesterces) are chosen. The possession in Rome was at the same time bound to military service: since the soldiers put their equipment on their own (although they were meanwhile paid because of the size of the empire growing duration of the campaigns) and therefore the owners carried a larger load of military duty. The Roman army was called up on special occasions, ie wars, and after that dismissed, there were no professional soldiers. The troops were commanded by the consuls, the two annually elected heads of the republic or by special mandate carriers if the campaigns lasted longer. In this case, the consuls often received an “imperium proconsul are” and continued to function. However, since glory and honor were achievable in the field (and triumphal marches), new consuls usually wanted to take command. In addition, one had a deep distrust of too long commands. More than half of the Roman army was provided by the allies of Rome, who were then subordinate to Roman command.

Area of ​​power of Carthage around 270 BC.

The Carthaginians did not know such concerns. They too had a republican mixed constitution, albeit more strongly oligarchic, and elected two chiefs each year, the so-called sufetes. In contrast to the consuls, these had no military power. This was also the responsibility of elected army leaders, who usually held office for a very long time. This gave them, in contrast to the Roman consuls, the opportunity to gain experience. The Carthaginian army, unlike the Roman one, was not made up of citizens. Here, too, the allies provided over half of the troops; In general, Carthage relied mainly on hired mercenaries to fight the wars and fight battles. With a network of bases and colonial towns, and a desire to conquer fewer tracts of land, Carthage struggled to win any of its warrants, rather than subjugating its opponents. Unfortunately, they believed that the Romans thought that was similar and that they could negotiate with them after a few victories.

That was a momentous mistake. The Romans did not think in the same categories as the Carthaginians, whose logic was alien, not even conscious. The Senate quickly decided on a strategy: the Carthaginian bridgehead in Sicily, Agrigentum, was to be taken. In addition, you had to build a fleet, secure the sea route to Africa, translate and beat Carthage there. The plan was maddeningly megalomaniac. The Romans, struggling to properly feed their troops over ten miles of water, wanted to beat the born naval power of Carthage in the treacherous waters of Sicily, and overcome the vast distance to the utterly foreign North Africa. Only if they wanted to win the war did they have to do this. They did not seriously consider the possibility of compromise or even defeat. Carthage’s goals, however, are not very clear. Presumably, they wanted to bring Sicily under their control and, above all, banish the influence of the Romans and possibly shake their alliance system. But they did not have a strategy for that. They probably relied on the fact that the Romans, no chance against their fleet, would someday be small.


However, while the Romans were at war in Sicily, surprisingly quickly bringing Hiero to a peace treaty and thus gaining a secure supply base from which they could soon besiege agrarian property, Carthage responded only to acute threats. Even active, it was rare. In 261 her fleet invaded the Italian coast, though it is not clear where and to what extent; it could not have been too threatening for Rome. The Senate decided in the same year to build up its own fleet. This new fleet beats at Ecnomus the Carthaginian fleet in the first great naval battle of the war. What happened? It was clear to the Romans that their clumsy, stodgy ships with the inexperienced crews had no chance against the abilities of the Carthaginians, who were masterful in flanking and ramming enemy ships. So the Romans stationed considerably more marines than usual on their ships and built large boardwalks at their bow, the so-called ” corvi ” (from corvus , raven). These boardwalks could be swung around and lowered onto enemy ships, where they hooked up at the end thanks to a heavy iron spur and thus rendered them unable to maneuver – thereby nullifying the advantage of the Carthaginians. What followed was effectively the transformation of the naval battle into a land battle. The Carthaginians had no answer to this unorthodox maneuver. After victorious battle, the Romans gathered their troops and put under the command of Attilius Regulus’ to Africa.

Roman trireme

They probably did not realize how shamelessly lucky they were. Their already not very seaworthy ships were buglastig by the corvi and even heavier. But no storm caught the fleet, neither on the way to Ecnomus nor on the passage from there to Africa. As planned, the Romans set up a base at Adys and then marched on the nearby Tunis to cut Carthage from the supplies of his allies. After taking this city he leads peace negotiations with Carthage, but fail, probably due to the arrogance of the Romans. These will soon pay for it, because Carthage now brings to the counter-attack. Regulus is defeated at Tunis, the Romans returned to Adys. The Senate is sending a new fleet (!) To rescue and bring back the survivors, who are still taking some islands off the African coast and then returning. Here ends the Roman streak of fortune. At Cape Hermiae the fleet gets into a storm. What follows is the largest shipwreck of known history to date. Almost the entire fleet is sinking, over 100,000 sailors find death.

Most powers would probably try to reach an agreement with their opponent in such a situation. Undoubtedly, Carthage expected a relent. Nothing like that happened. The operations in Sicily just kept going, and Rome was equipping a new fleet, this time without corvi , which had proved to be too unseaworthy. In 253, this new fleet under the command of Sempronius Blaesius seizes the African north coast, before it comes with Syrtis to a lost naval battle and Cape Palinurus to another storm accident. Once again, Rome is building a new fleet, which then faces the Carthaginian at Drepana, where the Carthaginian fleet is victorious. The surviving Romans are on the run again in a storm and lose almost the entire fleet at Camarina. In Sicily, the Romans are now besieging the last major port of the Carthaginians Lylibaeum, while Hamilcar Barcas with a small force leads a tactically excellent, but ultimately inconsequential guerrilla war against the Romans across Sicily. During these years, the war is splashing before Rome builds another fleet and sends it against Carthage!

Carthage today

The Carthaginians must have been completely at a loss. Several times the Romans have suffered tremendous losses, but each time they have simply set up a new army. Their reserves of soldiers and oarsmen were many times larger than the Carthaginian, and they stubbornly followed the victory plan devised by the Senate. The determination of the Romans can probably be explained by a certain inherent stubbornness and the prospect of huge profits, which drove the poorer classes in particular. Through the popular assemblies, they put pressure to continue the war. They simply knew that the strategy was the right one and were not prepared to be discouraged by setbacks. The Carthaginians, on the other hand, were beginning to run out of money, and at home they were far from being as bellicose as in Rome. The Carthaginians finally decide to seek a decision in Sicily. For this purpose, a fleet will be equipped to bring troops to Sicily. But the Romans learn about it and catch it at the Aegate Islands, where it comes to the decisive battle. The Carthaginian fleet is not yet complete, and the Romans win thanks to superior tactics and now balanced technique and experience of the victory. The fleet commander, Lutatius Catulus, is negotiating a very lenient peace with Carthage, which foresees a retreat of the Punis from Sicily and the payment of reparations.

However, the contract is rejected by the People’s Assembly for ratification. The conditions are significantly tightened, in particular the amount of reparation payments is almost doubled. Carthage, however, accepted, probably because it urgently needs rest on the Roman front. The one-off payments imposed by the new treaty on Carthage make it impossible to pay off the mercenaries who then rehearse the insurgency and involve Carthage in an incredibly brutal struggle for existence. Rome behaves very Carthago-friendly and rejects Alliance offers of mercenaries, even as some insurgents in Sardinia offer the entire island. But after the Sardinians conquer their island in a bloody guerrilla struggle by the mercenaries and thus both their rule and the Carthaginian are going on, Rome annexes the island, from still unsolved motives. It was possible that they wanted to eliminate the threat to their own shores, since Sardinia had been the base from which the Carthaginians had launched their raids on the Roman mainland. In Carthage, however, one is furious and disappointed with the annexation and feels humiliated by the Romans, especially Hamilcar, “undefeated in the field”. He may pass on his hatred of the Romans to his son Hannibal, while teaching him the art of war by building the new Carthaginian Empire in Spain. The docile student of his father will put a heavy strain on Rome in the Second Punic War, but that’s another story.

Legionnaires around 70 AD

For Rome, the First Punic War was a decisive milestone. The republic was now the dominant naval power of the western Mediterranean and controlled trade routes. The further expansion of the empire thus opened the door, although the Gauls right on their own doorstep for the moment represented the greatest threat. Carthage, however, was less weakened than anticipated and, after crushing the mercenaries, experienced an unprecedented revival, even offering to pay off all reparations in one fell swoop, rather than over the agreed ten years. Rome refused to preserve Carthage’s dependency, but soon the Carthaginian power grew again through its new, rich empire in Africa. Rome, however, had greatly increased its empire with Sicily and Sardinia, and it would appear that this enlarged empire for the Republic contained the seeds of destruction. But in 241, when the long Punic War had ended, it was still a distant dream of the future.

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Posted by on November 22, 2018 in Historical


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