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First Punic War

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The First Punic War was the first of the three Punic Wars fought between the Roman Republic and the city-state Carthage. The war lasted from 264 BC until 241 BC as the two powers confronted each other mainly for control over Sicily.


The origins of the First Punic War date back to 289 BC when the tyrant of Syracuse, Agathocles, died. At his death a mercenary band of Mamertines (Oscans who saw themselves as favored by the god of war Mamers,) whom he had employed to help seize the city, were expelled from Syracuse by its citizenry. In the next few years the Mamertines found a welcoming home in the city of Messana, a Greek colony on the north east end of Sicily, sometime between 288 and 283. Soon after being taken in by the citizens of Messana the Mamertines seized control of the city, killing many of its leaders in the dead of night and sending the rest into exile. Then they divided amongst themselves, the property and wives of the dead and exiled.

The Roman garrison in Rhegium, which is directly across the straits from Messana, and was comprised of citizens sine suffragio (citizens without voting rights) from Capua. Soon after the Mamertine seizure, the garrison seized the city, under the command of a Decius Vibellius, and with the aid of the Mamertines. The Mamertines and the rogue garrison became allies as they spoke the same language, came from nearby regions of Italy, and were in very similar situations in their respective cities.

At the same time Syracuse fell to the rule of a new tyrant, Hicetas, who engaged in a war with the city of Acragas and its ally Carthage. With the two major powers on the island distracted the Mamertines extended their influence over most of north eastern Sicily. Soon after this Hicetas died and the Carthaginians laid siege to Syracuse and were poised to put the entire island of Sicily under their direct control. Desperately seeking help, the citizens of Syracuse sent a messenger to Pyrrhus of Epirus. Pyrrhus sought to be seen as defender of Greek culture, also he was Agathocles' son-in-law. He was more than willing to aide them. Fearing retribution from a victorious Syracuse the Mamertines in Messana entered into an Alliance with the Carthaginians and resisted Pyrrhus until he abandoned his Sicilian expedition in 275 BC.

In 275 a young army officer, Hiero, led an army coup in Syracuse and had himself appointed as general, a position which gave him executive control over the city. In 270 BC the Romans finally retook Rhegium from the rebellious garrison, and marched the surviving members of the group back to Rome where they were beheaded in the forum. Hiero then stabilized relations with the Carthaginians, and marched against the Mamertines to re-establish Syracusan hegemony over the region. His first campaign, suffered a setback on the River Cyamosorus wherein he lost most of his merecenary contingent (Polybius says that this defeat was intentional, with Hiero trying to remove unruly and untrustworthy troops) and Hiero returned to Syracuse where he raised a large citizen army. However in his second campaign, which took place around 265 BC, he was able to force the Mamertines back into the region surrounding Messana and dealt a disastrous defeat to their army on the River Longus.

Seeing this "Hannibal son of Gisgo", who commanded the Carthaginian naval detachment based in Lipara , and acting to prevent Syracusan dominance over the entire eastern half of Sicily, sailed to Hiero and convinced him to delay his march on Messana. He then went to Messana and convinced the Mamertines to take in a small Carthaginian garrison so as to effectively become a protectorate of Carthage. The Mamertines agreed and when Hiero was faced with this, and with the fact that the end of the campaigning season was at hand, he was forced to return to Syracuse.

The Mamertines were now trying to secure their long term security as Carthage was notoriously slow to act in defense of an ally. They sent a delegation to Rome seeking to place Messana under their protection (deferunt se in fidem). After serious deliberation the Romans granted the request, most likely fearing that if Hiero were no longer occupied with Sicily, he might rally to the cause of the Greek cities of Magna Graecia and invade Italy as Pyrrhus had done in 280 BC.

Earlier Carthago-Roman Treaties

To Come

Opening Stages of the War

The Mamertines then, with the ink on the treaty still damp, returned to Messana and through unspecified means expelled the Carthaginian force (which was apparently merely a token force and not sufficient to force the Mamertines to bend to Carthaginian will). This was an error for which the Carthaginians then crucified the garrison commander. In response Hiero and Carthage came to a diplomatic agreement to put aside their differences and besiege Messana together, and most likely burn it. Considering that the Carthaginian commander was given only the provincial garrisons to use as troops indicates that the Carthaginians, at least, did not envision a long war. They probably hoped to use their strong navy to keep the Romans (who had no real central navy) from reinforcing Messana in time. Syracuse and Carthage then advanced on Messana, with the Carthaginians using Cape Pelorias as a naval base to blockade the port at Messana. In response the Romans sent a Consular Army under Appius Claudius Caudex to relieve the siege. And though he faced trouble getting his force across the straits into Messana, one story has the Carthaginians capturing a Roman trireme, who was trying to move an advance force into Messana to return it to the main Roman force unharmed in the hopes of avoiding a war. By the summer of 263 there was a Roman force in Messana.

The Carthaginians and Syracusans continued their siege of Messana in 263 and the Roman army then forced a battle with the besiegers. The historical sources are contradictory on the details of the engagement, however it is definite that Hiero withdrew his forces first, either after an engagement with the Roman Army or fearing that the Carthaginians and Romans had allied and that was how the Roman fleet had gotten across the straits despite the Carthaginian blockade. The day after their retreat the Appius Claudius lead an attack against the Carthaginian forces who, greatly outnumbered by the Romans, retreated from the field leaving the siege broken. Claudius then made a demonstration of force by raiding a number of towns that had been allied with Carthage and Syracuse before returning to Messana for the winter.

The next year both Roman consuls, Marcus Valerius Maximus and Manius Otacilius Crassus, were sent to Sicily to continue the campaign there. Once there the Roman force marched on Syracuse, with most of the credit going to M. Valerius, and forced a peace treaty from Hiero where, in return for recognition of Syracuse's territorial integrity, he acknowledged Roman supremacy and promised peace, friendship and assistance on demand to Rome and her allies, along with returning all Roman prisoners he held and promising payment of a punitive indemnity of one hundred talents. While this would secure Hiero a long, and mostly peaceful, rule in Syracuse and would secure Syracuse's position of power in the southeastern portion of Sicily it would effectively end the grand dreams that Syracuse once held under Agathocles and Dionysus I.

War with Carthage

At the end of 263 B.C. affairs in eastern Sicily were largely settled. Rome's ally, Messana, was secure from attack, Syracuse was now an ally in Sicily and would no longer threaten to raise revolt in Magna Graecia while at the same time being secure in the control of its territories in Sicily. However, a number of subject cities and towns had switched allegiance from Carthage to Rome when Appius Claudius had launched his punitive expedition, and Carthage felt that it could not let its honour be diminished by this or by the military reversal at Messana. Therefore the Carthaginians hired a large mercenary force and sent it to Acragas in South Western Sicily. In response Rome once again sent both consuls with their consular armies to Sicily to deal with this threat.


  • Caven, Brian (1980). The Punic Wars. Barnes & Noble Books. ISBN 0-88029-892-8. 
  • Polybius (1987). The Rise of the Roman Empire. Penguinn Books Ltd, London. ISBN 0-14-044362-2. 
  • Lazenby, J. F. (1996). The First Punic War. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-2674-4. 
  • Goldsworthy, Adrian (2000). The Punic Wars. Cassell & Co, London. ISBN 0-304-35284-5.