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First Punic War

(264 - 241 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Sicily during the First Punic War
Sicily during the First Punic War

First Punic War was fought between Carthage and Rome in 264-241 BCE. It was the first battle for dominion on the Mediterranean Sea.

Background of events

Ancient historiography could not clearly determine which side was responsible for the Punic wars, or what was the direct reason for the outbreak of the conflict. The most famous story of the beginning of the Punic War is the story quoted by Polybius, a historian of Greek origin, residing in Rome in the 2nd-century BCE and associated with the Scipio’s family. His interpretation indicates a desire to defend the Roman case.

The Mamertines had previously, as I above narrated, lost their support from Rhegium and had now suffered complete disaster at home for the reasons I have just stated. Some of them appealed to the Carthaginians, proposing to put themselves and the citadel into their hands, while others sent an embassy to Rome, offering to surrender the city and begging for assistance as a kindred people. 3 The Romans were long at a loss, the succour demanded to be so obviously unjustifiable. For they had just inflicted on their own fellow-citizens the highest penalty for their treachery to the people of Rhegium, and now to try to help the Mamertines, who had been guilty of like offence not only at Messene but at Rhegium also, was a piece of injustice very difficult to excuse. But fully aware as they were of this, they yet saw that the Carthaginians had not only reduced Libya to subjection, but a great part of Spain besides, and that they were also in possession of all the islands in the Sardinian and Tyrrhenian Seas. They were therefore in great apprehension lest, if they also became masters of Sicily, they would be most troublesome and dangerous neighbours, hemming them in on all sides and threatening every part of Italy. That they would soon be supreme in Sicily if the Mamertines were not helped, was evident; for once Messene had fallen into their hands, they would shortly subdue Syracuse also, as they were absolute lords of almost all the rest of Sicily. The Romans, foreseeing this and viewing it as a necessity for themselves not to abandon Messene and thus allow the Carthaginians as it were to build a bridge for crossing over to Italy, debated the matter for long, and, even at the end, the Senate did not sanction the proposal for the reason given above, considering that the objection on the score of inconsistency was equal in weight to the advantage to be derived from intervention. The commons, however, worn out as they were by the recent wars and in need of any and every kind of restorative, listened readily to the military commanders, who, besides giving the reasons above stated for the general advantageousness of the war, pointed out the great benefit in the way of plunder which each and everyone would evidently derive from it. They were therefore in favour of sending help; and when the measure had been passed by the people they appointed to the command one of the Consuls, Appius Claudius, who was ordered to cross to Messene. The Mamertines, partly by menace and partly by stratagem, dislodged the Carthaginian commander, who was already established in the citadel and then invited Appius to enter, placing the city in his hands.

Polybius, The Histories, I, 10-11

Polybius tried to explain the intervention of Rome in Messana with fear of the expansion of Carthage. His story, however, is not entirely convincing, contains many understatements and misrepresentations, and above all, he does not mention the will of Rome itself to extend its influence to Sicily. The Romans sent troops to help Memertinians, despite the fact that they were not bound by any treaty and that they were in no way provoked by the Carthaginians.

The ratio of the armed forces was similar. Rome had a much larger population than Carthage, and hence a larger army had very well developed agricultural production and had allies with a strong mining and craft economy (Greeks, Etruscans).

Carthage, in turn, had a well-developed and trained naval fleet and had large financial resources. Her army, however, consisted of mercenaries (Celts, Ibers, Balearians) who were not as disciplined and trained as Roman soldiers.

Rome found the most difficult solution to the maritime problem. This country did not need to expose a large fleet and train a large number of rowers. In addition, the state had a faulty command system at sea, which resulted mainly from a lack of knowledge of the topography of foreign countries and sea maps. Thus, in the event of a defeat at sea, the Roman army on land threatened to be cut off.

Carthage before the first Punic War.

So the Romans decided to attack the position of Carthaginians in the western part of Sicily and at the same time proceed to build their own fleet, which was possible only thanks to property taxes (tributum) imposed on citizens. Because the Romans did not have much experience in combat at sea, they began to model themselves on the Greeks. In sea battles, they introduced movable platforms with hooks, placed on the beaks, which they threw onto the enemy ship, to then conduct melee combat. They were called “crows”. Thanks to this, the Romans began to win at sea. The great battle of Mylae in 260 BCE has gone down in history, which proved the correctness of Roman tactics. Another clash took place under the cape Ecnomos, which also ended in the loss of Carthaginians. It was probably one of the largest sea battles in the history of the world. Over 600 ships and nearly 250,000 people clashed at sea. Ecnomos was later called inverted Cannae.

During the sea battle at Mylae (260 BCE) a boarding bridge was first used. As it turned out, this was the deciding factor for the victory of the Romans.
Creative Commons license Attribution - On the same terms 3.0.

A small number of successes moved the Roman Senate, which then decided to transfer the fighting to Africa (256 BCE). The Carthaginians’ surprise was enormous when it turned out that there was a Roman army near the capital under the command of Consul Atilius Regulus. However, it turned out that the Carthaginians outweigh their enemies with technical knowledge. They built war machines unknown to the Romans and used by Hellenistic rulers to help defend cities. The defeat at Tunes led to the total destruction of strong Roman troops and the imprisonment of the Roman consul. Further Roman troops sent to Carthage were also defeated.

Military operations were again transferred to Sicily. The Romans who suffered heavy losses at sea decided to completely limit themselves to land combat. Thanks to the technical support given to them by Syracuse, the Romans possessed the technique used by Carthage. This allowed them to conquer the strong fortress, Panormus. At that time, the commanding of the Carthaginian army was taken over by the excellent commander Hamilkar Barkas from the Barkid family (Piorun), who temporarily stopped the progress of the Romans. He managed to take a fortified position on Mount Erice, from where he was able to harass Roman troops with excursions.

The failure of the powerful stronghold, Lilybaeum by the Romans, stopped the fighting, which now took the form of a stationary war. However, losses in the Roman army were quickly supplemented by huge population reserves.

The Roman state, which finally wanted to end the devastating conflict, decided on one more effort and with the money obtained from citizens in the form of a loan, issued a powerful fleet. Her victory in 241 BCE in the great naval battle of the Egadi Islands and the land army’s capture of the last Phoenician cities in Sicily forced Carthage to sign peace.

As a result of the First Punic War, Carthage gave Rome three islands: Sardinia, Sicily and Corsica, and was forced to pay compensation in the amount of 3200 talents.


Victory in the First Punic War greatly influenced the development of the Roman state. Defeating the strong Carthage, until now considered the strongest Mediterranean country, has definitely changed the perception of the world by the Romans. Everything outside the state was considered pagan and barbaric.

The idea of ​​expansionism has developed, which is certainly associated with the “birth” of the new political elite, nobilitas. It was mainly she who contributed to the spread of aggressor tendencies that ensured loot, and at the same time the development of the Roman state. The capture of new lands that did not belong to Italy allowed Rome to enter a new period of non-Italic conquests.

Important battles of the First Punic War

264 BCEbattle of Messana

  • Roman army of Claudius Caudex defeated Hiero’s forces from Syracuse. Hanno did not manage to lead Libyan soldiers with help, which caused Hiero’s retreat.

262 BCEbattle of Agrigentum

261 BCEbattle of Akragas

  • Carthaginians used elephants in the battle for the first time.

260 BCEbattle near the Aeolian Islands

260 BCEbattle of Thermai

  • the defeat of the Sicilian allies of Rome. Altogether around 4,000 allies died in a clash with forces

260 BCEnaval battle of Mylae

258 BCEbattle of Camarina

258 BCEBattle of Gela

  • 20 Roman ships defeat 18 Carthaginian

257 BCEnaval battle of Tyndaris

  • 200 Roman ships under the command of Consul Gaius Atylius Regulus defeated 80 Hamilkar ships

256 BCEnaval battle at Cape Ecnomos

  • 230 Roman ships under Regulus defeated 200 Carthaginian units near Hamilkrem

256 BCEbattle of Adys

  • Carthaginians of Hamilcar were defeated in the fight against Regulus forces

255 BCEbattle of Tunes (Bagradas)

  • Carthaginians (12,000 infantry, 4,000 rides, 100 elephants) defeated the Romans
    (15,000 infantry, 500 rides) under the command of Regulus, who was captured by Carthaginian.
    He died after a few years.

255 BCEnaval battle at Hermean Promontory

  • Roman victory

250 BCEbattle of Panormus

  • Romans led by proconsul Lucius Cecilius Metellus Denter broke Hasdrubal’s forces

249 BCEnaval battle of Drepanum

  • Carthaginians (100 ships) under the command of Adherbal won Romans (120 ships) under the command of Consul Publius Klaudius Pulcher

249 BCEnaval battle of Phintias

  • Roman defeat

241 BCEnaval battle near the Aegadian Islands

  • Roman victory

Second Punic War

  • Historia Powszechna t. 4. Konsolidacja hellenizmu. Początki Rzymu i przemiany świata klasycznego, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski
  • Lazenby John, Pierwsza wojna punicka

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