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Sicilian and First Punic Wars: The Fight for Sicily

Updated on November 4, 2014
Symbol of the Greek-Punic Wars
Symbol of the Greek-Punic Wars | Source

The Greek-Punic (Sicilian) Wars

In 264 BC, Sicily was an independent island in the Mediterranean Sea, the football to Italy's boot. It was largely controlled by Carthage, a nation at the northern edge of Africa that is modern day Tunisia. Carthage formed as a Phoenician colony. They had a large naval presence and were the strongest power in both the Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian Seas that included Sicily and the nearby islands.

Originally, the Carthaginians got along with the natives and the Ionian Greeks who had also formed a colony on the island of Sicily. When the Dorian Greeks arrived, however, they were not satisfied with their portion of the island. Initial battles resulted in Carthage gaining majority control over the entire island. For more information on the Dorian's see Collapse of the Bronze Age. Prince Dorieus, the brother of King Leonidas of Sparta, was even killed during the fighting in 510. By 505, however, Greek tyrants started to regain power. Carthage attacked the Greeks using the strategic timing of the Persian attacks on the Greek homeland to weaken support for the Sicilian Greeks. Carthage lost the Battle of Himera and their leading general Palermo Hamilcar on the same day the Persians lost the Battle of Salamis according to some historians. See Persian Wars for details. Despite the loss, no land changed hands between Carthage and Greece. .

While the Ionian and Dorian Greeks continued to fight among themselves over Sicily, Carthage set about taking control of most of northern Africa thereby building their own powerbase. Finally, Carthage had to get involved to settle the Greek dispute and defeated the Dorian Greeks in 409 BC. The Carthaginians had grown so powerful they were able to gain control of most of Sicily including Syracuse, a Greek stronghold they had never controlled before. The Syracuse Greeks, under the control of the tyrant Agathocles, then took the fighting to northern Africa for the first time. Despite an initial defeat of the Carthage army, the city remained safe behind its massive walls. Two years later, the Greeks were defeated, but regained control of Syracuse while Carthage maintained control of the rest of Sicily.

Western Mediterranean before First Punic War
Western Mediterranean before First Punic War | Source

The Sicilian Wars had an important impact on the Punic Wars. This is because of the help Agathocles received during the Third Sicilian War. Knowing he could not do it alone, Agathocles bought the help of mercenaries from Campania. These men were called Mamertines, meaning sons of Mars, and following the war, many of them decided to remain in Sicily because of the nice climate. These roughhousians took control of Messana by kicking out all of the men and divvying up the women and property among themselves. Eventually, these men became pirates and brought havoc to the waters all round the Western Mediterranean. When word got back to Syracuse that the Mamertines were out of control, Syracuse set out the stop them. The Mamertines, who were too afraid of Carthage to attack them during their exploits, begged the Carthaginians for protection. This drove Syracuse back, but the Mamertines did not want Carthaginian protection to become a long-term solution and went to Rome asking for assistance. At first, Rome said no, after all, the Mamertines had stolen their land, but not wanting Carthage to gain even more control over Sicily, Rome eventually agreed. This drove the Greeks in Syracuse to align themselves with Carthage fearing that with Roman support,the Mamertines would take their land. This taking of sides, led to the First Punic War.

Sight of the Battle of Agrigentum in the First Punic War
Sight of the Battle of Agrigentum in the First Punic War | Source

The First Punic War

Once the Romans sent men to Messena/Messina, it did not take long before Syracuse, under the rule of Hiero II, started to fight causing all-out war to begin. Though the Mamertines and the Greeks of Syracuse started it, the war became a contest between Carthage and Rome, and the winner would take Sicily. In 262 BC, the two giants fought the first major battle at the city of Agrigentum.

When the Romans initially laid siege of the city, Carthage was successful in picking off Roman troops a few at a time. Hannibal Gisco, not to be confused with the famous Hannibal Barca, attacked Roman troops as they tried to harvest their fields. After their initial victory, the Carthaginians attempted to attack the Roman camp just outside the city's walls. This time the Romans were victorious, but the Roman's had been put on notice that defeating Carthage would not be easy. Hannibal then sent to Carthage for help. The assistance arrived on shore 25 miles away in the form of 60 elephants, 50,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry.

The Carthage military, under the control of Hanno the Navigator, took control of the Roman supply camp. This left the Romans without food and without any way to communicate with their backup. Now Hanno sent troops to initiate action with the Romans, but the plan was to retreat and bring the Romans in chase. The Romans fell for it and were caught in a trap by the larger Carthaginian force that surrounded them. The two sides fought off and on for two months causing the siege of Agrigentum to last for half a year.

The two sides eventually entered into a standoff. Rome offered to fight because their men were starving and they wanted to put an end to the stalemate, but Hanno refused. Inside the city walls, however, the people of Agrigentum were starving. Hannibal, apparently using smoke signals, begged Hanno to do something. What happened next is unclear. Polybius, a Greek historian from the third century BC, recorded that after a long hard battle, Rome finally defeated Hanno and his army killing most of them. Zonaras, a Byzantine monk from the twelfth century AD, claimed that the Romans maneuvered some of their troops behind Hanno resulting in an attack from the front and the back ending the fight rather quickly. Regardless of how it actually went down, Carthage lost though Hanno retreated and Hannibal escaped with some of his troops. After the defeat, the Carthaginians vowed to take the battle to the sea where they were considerably stronger.

Roman quinquereme with a corvus
Roman quinquereme with a corvus | Source
Roman Trireme
Roman Trireme | Source

Rome had, to this point, done most of its fighting on land and a navy was basically non-existent. When it became clear that Carthage, with this extensive navel history, intended to take this fight to the sea, Rome had to hustle and build a fleet. Most historians believe that Rome simply copied the design of other ships when building their own. They might have captured a ship from Carthage or used the remains of shipwrecks to guide their work.

The Romans build 100 quinqueremes, copied from a Carthage model. The ship was so named as it had three rows of oars with two men each on the top two rows and one man at the bottom oar, hence quinque or five. They also built 20 triremes that were small enough for their three rows of oars to be used one man each. Still they wanted to give themselves some type of an edge in a naval battle. Believing their soldiers would win in hand-to-hand combat, what they needed was a way to get men from their ship to an enemy ship in short order. What the Romans came up with was a bridge attached at the front of their ship that could be lowered onto an enemy ship when they got close enough. The devise was called a corvus.

At the start of the first naval battle, at Mylae, the Carthaginians fully expected to win because of their superior sailing ability, but the Romans quickly put their new corvus devise to work, and it was very effective, despite causing them to lose two fleets of ships to storms prior to the fist major sea battle. Every time a Carthage ship came close enough to try to ram the Romans, they would drop the bridge and swarm the enemy ship. Hannibal Gisco, who was back in the lead of the Carthage fight, tried to adjust strategy and come at the Romans from the side, but the corvus would swing on its post making an attack from the rear the only possible way to get close to a Roman ship without getting invaded. After losing about 50 ships, Hannibal had to retreat.

Battles of 259 BC
Battles of 259 BC | Source
Battles of 258 BC
Battles of 258 BC | Source

The Roman fleet did not give chase, instead sailing on to Sicily to assist the Roman troops on land that were losing a battle for the city of Segesta to Carthage. When the Roman general Duilius arrived after his victory at Mylae, things turned for the Romans who took the city, but do not think that the war was one sided. Carthage had set its sights on the city of Macella because they sided with the Romans. After a victory there, they took Enna and Camarina in 259 BC.

While 259 was a good year for Carthage, 258 BC saw a turn of fortune. Another battle was fought for both Enna and Camarina with Rome taking the cities from Carthage. Although Carthage maintained control of Panormus. The Romans also won naval battles at Sulci using the corvus. The Romans now believed that victory was close at hand, since they had shown their ability to win at sea. They attempted to put an end to the whole war by taking the battle to Africa and Carthage itself attacking the colonies of Carthage. Rome had continued to build ships numbered at 200, and in 256, they loaded up with soldiers and headed for Africa. Carthage launched an equal fleet of ships to stop them. They met at the Cape of Ecnomus off the tip of Africa. Since the beginning of the Punic War, the Romans had gotten better at sea, and even did away with the corvus, as it proved impossible to use in rough seas. Despite an initial victory at Ecnomus and Adys, Rome was not able to get Carthage to agree to a peace treaty, largely because the cost was too high. Carthage then hired a Spartan general named Xanthippus to help them get back on track. The Roman general, Regulus, was taken at the Battle of Tunis and put Rome out of commission by cutting off their naval support.

Hamilcar Barca
Hamilcar Barca
Location of the Battle of the Aegates Islands
Location of the Battle of the Aegates Islands | Source
Gaius Lutatius Catulus
Gaius Lutatius Catulus | Source

Rome eventually managed to collect their African troops, but the fleet was wiped out again on the way home by another storm. No wonder the Romans feared Neptune. When the Romans regrouped, they renewed fighting in Sicily without any clear dominance. Carthage would win a battle or two then Rome would win. In 247 BC, however, Carthage sent a new general to Sicily. His name was Hamilcar Barca and his tactics kept the Romans from gaining any more ground in Sicily. With Hamilcar shutting down Roman efforts on Sicily, Rome built one more fleet of ships to take a naval run at Carthage. It would have been Rome's final chance as they were running out of money. Lucky for them, Carthage was already spent. They no longer had the ships or troops needed to defeat the Romans who sent one of their two consuls Latatius Catulus to oversee the battle, which took place at the Aegates Islands.

Catulus had created a blockade of the Carthage ports in Sicily that lasted for months. Hamilcar was cut off from supplies until Hanno arrived with what was left of the Carthage fleet. Catulus learned that Hanno had arrived and had a decision to make, maintain the blockade or attack the Carthage fleet. He chose to attack despite wind conditions that favored Hanno. It was, in fact, the disadvantage that lead to a Roman victory, as Catulus had his ships strip down to the bare essentials needed for battle. This made his ships more maneuverable than Hanno's ships that were loaded with supplies for Hamilcar. Rome destroyed the Carthaginian fleet.

Carthage was defeated but they left it up to Hamilcar Barca to negotiate a peace treaty. This proved rather difficult for the Carthage general to swallow since he personally never lost a battle against Rome. In an effort to protect his legacy and keep his name out of the treaty, Hamilcar sent one of his men to negotiate with the Romans. The eventual terms for peace called for Carthage to give up all claim to Sicily and forgo any future actions there. They also had to pay Rome 56 tons of silver over the next twenty years, in addition to surrendering their weapons. Hamilcar balked at turning over their weapons, and the Romans had nothing left with which to force the issue. Catulus let Hamilcar and his men leave Carthage without any sign of surrender, which was unheard of for the Romans.

Once Rome learned of the terms, they were outraged that Catulus let Carthage off so easily. They changed the treaty to force Carthage to abandon any land between Sicily and Rome, the silver would be paid within ten years instead of twenty, Carthage would pay to get their POWs returned but would return Roman POWs for free, Carthage could not send their ships anywhere near the coastline of Rome or any of its allies, which now included all of Sicily, and neither Rome nor Carthage could attack any allies of the other or attempt to get those allies to switch sides.

Mercenary War locations
Mercenary War locations | Source

The Mercenary War

When Hamilcar returned with his troops, who were largely mercenaries, foreigners fighting just for the money, and not citizens, he presented a huge problem for the Carthaginian government. Hamilcar's troops had not been defeated so they suffered few losses. This meant he was returning home with more men than the government could afford to pay. Carthage began playing games instead of paying Hamilcar's men resulting in what is known as the Mercenary War. Hanno took troops in to battle the men who had once fought for Carthage, but after an initial success, he turned his back on the mercenaries. Things got so out of control that Hamilcar had to be called out of retirement to settle the matter. Hamilcar led troops to Utica and defeated the rebels there then continued on to Nepheris close to the Libyan border. Despite getting himself trapped at one point, Hamilcar managed to defeat his former men. The survivors were then given a choice, join Hamilcar's army or get out of Africa. Most of the men decided to join their former general.

While Carthage continued to have trouble with small pockets of rebels not involved in the fight against Hamilcar, life was returning to normal for its citizens. Under the lead of Hanno and the aristocrats, Carthage was starting to get chummy with Rome, but Hamilcar Barca would not join them, and he was not alone. The merchant class was losing money because they were no longer able to freely trade with many of their neighbors, after all if you cannot sail along the coast, you cannot enter port and unload goods for sale. This group was led by a man name Hasdrubal the Fair who would become Hamilcar's son-in-law.

Tyrrhenian Sear during Punic Wars
Tyrrhenian Sear during Punic Wars | Source

The rebel fighting turned nasty once again as captured soldiers from each side were being brutally killed and crucified. All along, Rome had been staying out of the fight despite requests from the rebel mercenaries for help, but when the rebels laid siege to Sardinia things changed. Hanno led troops to Sardinia, but they turned on him and killed the once great general. The local Sardinians were not ready to give up their land, however, and managed to drive the Carthage rebels from their home. When the mercenaries took refuge in Italy, Rome stepped in and took possession of Sardinia and Corsica. Carthage saw this as a break in the peace treaty and though they were not prepared to attack Rome at the time, they started to prepare for the future.

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