The First Punic War (264 to 241 BC) was the first of three wars fought between Ancient Carthage and the Roman Republic. For more than 20 years, the two powers struggled for supremacy, primarily on the Mediterranean island of Sicily and its surrounding waters, and also in North Africa. The war signaled the beginning of a strategic transformation in the western Mediterranean. Carthage began the war as the great sea-power of the western Mediterranean, while Rome had but a small fleet of fighting ships. Over the course of the war, Rome built up a powerful navy, developed new naval tactics, and strategically used their navy, army, and local political alliances on Sicily in order to achieve a victory that expelled the Carthaginians from Sicily. The First Punic War ended with a treaty between Rome and Carthage, but years of bloodshed were to follow in the Second and Third Punic Wars before the strategic issue of power in the western Mediterranean was resolved in favor of Rome, and in the total destruction of Carthage.
The Romans called the series of wars between Rome and Carthage “Punic” because a Latin name for the Carthaginians was Punici. This is derived from Phoenicis (Phoenicians), and it refers to the Carthaginian heritage as Phoenician colonists. A Carthaginian
for the conflicts does not survive in any records.
Rome had recently emerged as the leading city-state in the Italian Peninsula, a wealthy, powerful, expansionist republic with a successful citizen army. Over the past one hundred years, Rome had come into conflict, and defeated rivals on the Italian peninsula, then incorporated them into the Roman political world. First the Latin League was forcibly dissolved during the Latin War, then the power of the Samnites was broken during the three prolonged Samnite wars, and then the Greek cities of Magna Graecia (southern Italy) submitted to Roman power at the conclusion of the Pyrrhic War. By the beginning of the First Punic War, the Romans had secured the whole of the Italian peninsula, except Gallia Cisalpina in the Po Valley.
Carthage was a republic dominant in political, military and economic affairs of the western Mediterranean Sea, especially on the North African coasts and islands, above all due to its navy. It originated as a Phoenician colony in Africa, near modern Tunis. Carthage had become a wealthy center for trade networks extending from Gadir (Cádiz) along the coasts of southern Iberia and North Africa, across the Balearic Islands, Corsica, Sardinia, and the western half of Sicily, to the ports of the eastern Mediterranean, including Tyre, its mother city, on the shores of the Levant. At the height of power, just before the First Punic War, Carthage was hostile to foreign ships (such as Roman and Greek vessels) in the western Mediterranean.
North African peoples such as the Berbers in the area around Carthage were loosely associated with Carthage. In the midst of the First Punic War some tribes would rebel against Carthage, opening a second front while the Carthaginians battled the Romans in Sicily.
Greek colonists were also a major presence in the western Mediterranean, following centuries of colonial settlement, trade and conflicts with Rome over Magna Graecia and with Carthage over places such as Sicily. The rich, strategically influential, and well-fortified Greek colony of Syracuse was politically independent of Rome and Carthage. Hostilities of the First Punic War began with developments involving the Romans, Carthaginians, and Greek colonists in Sicily and southern Italy.
In 288 BC, the Mamertines—a group of Italian (Campanian) mercenaries originally hired by Agathocles of Syracuse—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 on the mainland of 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. 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. However, the rivalry between Rome and Carthage had grown since the war with Pyrrhus; therefore, according to Warmington, an alliance with both powers was simply no longer feasible.
According to the historian Polybius, considerable debate took place in Rome on the question as to whether to accept the Mamertines’ appeal for help, and thus likely enter into a war with Carthage. While the Romans did not wish to come to the aid of soldiers who had unjustly stolen a city from its rightful possessors, and although they were still recovering from the insurrection of Campanian troops at the Battle of Rhegium in 271, many were also unwilling to see Carthaginian power in Sicily expand even further. Leaving the Carthaginians alone at Messana would give them a free hand to deal with Syracuse; after the Syracusans had been defeated, the Carthaginian takeover of Sicily would essentially be complete. A deadlocked senate put the matter before the popular assembly, where it was decided to accept the Mamertines’ request and Appius Claudius Caudex was appointed commander of a military expedition with orders to cross to Messana.
Meanwhile, Carthage had begun to build a mercenary army in Africa, which was to be shipped to Sicily to meet the Romans. According to the historian Philinus, this army was composed of 50,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and 60 elephants. According to Polybius, this army was partly composed of Ligurians, Celts and Iberians.
In past wars on the island of Sicily, Carthage had won out by relying on certain fortified strong-points throughout the island, and their plan was to conduct the land war in the same fashion. The mercenary army would operate in the open against the Romans, while the strongly fortified cities would provide a defensive base from which to operate.
At the beginning of the First Punic War, Rome had virtually no experience in naval warfare, whereas the strong and powerful 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.
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.
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. One theory is that the weight of the corvus on the prows of the ships made the ships unstable and caused them to sink in bad weather. Later, as Roman experience in naval warfare grew, the corvus device was made attachable and detachable due to its impact on the navigability of the war vessels.
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 war effort.
The exact number of casualties on each side is difficult to determine, due to bias in the historical sources.
According to sources (excluding land warfare casualties):
Rome lost 700 ships (in part to bad weather) with an unknown number of crew deaths.
Carthage lost 500 ships with an unknown number of crew deaths.
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 men. This excludes auxiliary troops and every other man in the army without citizen status, who would be outside the head count.
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 the small islands west of it (Aegadian Islands).
Carthage returns their prisoners of war without ransom, while paying a heavy ransom on their own.
Carthage refrains from attacking Syracuse and her allies.
Carthage transfers a group of small islands north of Sicily (the 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 tonnes/145,000 pounds) of silver indemnity in ten annual installments, plus an additional indemnity of 1,000 talents (30 tonnes/66,000 pounds) immediately.
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.
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 led to an internal conflict, the Mercenary War. After a hard struggle from 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.
Carthage, seeking to make up for the recent territorial losses and a plentiful source of silver to pay the large indemnity owed to Rome, turned its attention to Iberia; and in 237 BC, the Carthaginians, led by Hamilcar Barca, began a series of campaigns to expand their control over the peninsula. Though Hamilcar was killed in 229 BC, the offensive continued with the Carthaginians extending their power towards the Ebro valley and founding “New Carthage” in 228 BC. It was this expansion that led to the Second Punic War when Carthage besieged the Roman protected town of Saguntum in 218 BC, igniting a conflict with 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.