Punic Wars > First Punic War

First Punic War

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The First Punic War occurred between 264 BC and 241 BC and was the first of three major wars fought between the Carthaginians and the Roman Republic. This war would rage on for over twenty years and feature some of the most significant naval battles of the ancient world. Most of the First Punic War was centered around the island of Sicily and the territorial holdings there. Prior to the onset of fighting the territory was controlled by a mixture of Greeks and Carthaginians with ambitious Roman neighbors to the north. Sicily is located equidistant between Italy and North Africa so the island was bound to be fought over at some point by the two major powers in the western Mediterranean.

At the beginning of the First Punic War the Carthaginians were the dominant maritime power with the strongest navy in the region. The Romans were likewise the strongest land based forces with no navy to speak of so much like the Spartan and Athenian conflict centuries prior, adaptations were to occur over the ensuing centuries that would shape the ancient world. Rome would construct and train a navy from nothing, develop new naval innovations that allowed them to use land-based tactics at sea and also used diplomacy and political alliances to wrest control of Sicily.

The First Punic War would end with the Treaty of Lutatius that imposed massive war reparations on Carthage that would lead directly to the interluding Mercenary War as well as the Second Punic War. While the Second Punic War was marked by the great general Hannibal Barca, there were no major charismatic or great leaders during this period. However, the war was also plagued with incompetency and sloppy mistakes on both sides. It is easy to point out individual places where the Carthaginians or Romans could have done things differently that would have resulted in a different outcome.


The First Punic War began as a minor proxy conflict when the Mamertines who were a group of Italian mercenaries from Campania were hired by the king Agathocles of Syracuse to attack and occupy the city of Messana where they killed all the men and took the women as their wives. At the same time a group of Roman troops from Campania also seized control of the city of Rhegium which lay directly across the Strait of Messina on the peninsula of Italy itself. This prompted a swift Roman retaliation and then quickly retook the city of Rhegium.

However, in Sicily the Mamertines continued to plunder the countryside and expand their fiefdom until they bumped up into the borders of Syracuse which was an independent city-state at the time led by the tyrant Hiero II. The Mamertines would be crushed by Hiero II near Mylae on the Longanus River following a military engagement. The Mamertines after this appealed for aid from both Carthage and Rome.

The Carthaginians responded first and eventually sent a garrison to Messana to help protect the city. However, the Mamertines were either extremely fickle or indecisive so they also continued to petition Rome for aid as well. Perhaps the Mamertines were worried about a Roman-Carthaginian alliance like what happened against Pyrrhus but this was not likely to happen. According to the historian Polybius there was much debate in Rome as to accept the Mamertines request for aid and possibly enter into a larger war with the Carthaginians.

The debate in Rome at the time was that the Mamertines had stole the city from its rightful inhabitants. They were also recovering from the internal revolt of the Campian soldiers at the Battle of Rhegium in 271 BC. Other Romans were worried about the continued expansion of the Carthaginians into Sicily though, which soon enough would eventually threat Rome itself. If the Carthaginians managed to take over Syracuse, they would completely control the island. The issue was at a stalemate in the senate so therefore it was put in front of the Roman popular assembly. The Romans decided to accept the Mamertines request for aid and Appius Claudius Caudex was given command to capture the city of Messana from the Carthaginians. The First Punic War was on.

First Punic War Battles

See First Punic War Battles

The Romans intended to send two legions to Sicily in 262 BC, probably willing to negotiate peace with Carthage.[3] Since 264 BC, when they had declared war on Carthage, there had not been much serious fighting between the two except for a small fight in the straits of Messana. The Carthaginians also made conciliatory gestures at the start of the war, but in 262 BC, they started to increase their forces in Sicily. Once the Carthaginians started increasing their forces on the island, the Romans sent consuls there. The consuls were the generals of the Roman army, and with the consuls traveled several legions.[1] The Carthaginians hired Ligurian, Celtic, and Spanish mercenaries to induce their enemies in Sicily to attack the Romans on the half of the island which the Romans controlled. Agrigentum at this point became the main base for the Carthaginians.[1]The Carthaginians began sending forces to Sardinia using sea power, but most of their army was in Sicily. It seems that they were going to use the island as a base for attacks on Italy.

First Punic War Generals

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Ultimately after 23 years of fighting the First Punic War would conclude with the defeat of Carthage and the ascendence of the Roman Republic into the dominate power in the Mediterranean region. One of the largest impacts of the First Punic War was the loss of Carthage's dominate naval power in the Mediterranean. From here they would never fight large scale naval battles like were fought in this war ever again. Following the aftermath of the fighting both major powers would be economically and demographically weakened. Under the terms of the Lutatius, Carthage would lose control over Sicily but retain their holdings in Corsica and Sardinia.

The Carthaginians would also be forced to pay Rome massive amounts of wealth in war reparations which further destabilized the city. The First Punic War on the other hand marked the first time Rome acquired territory outside of their Italian domain. Sicily would be formally governed by a praetor and became the first Roman province. The city of Syracuse was granted nominal independent ally status for the lifetime of Hiero II and would not be brought into the Roman province of Sicilia until its capture by Marcus Claudius Marcellus during the Second Punic War.

One of the biggest differences noted between Carthaginians and the Roman Republic during this war was the amount of private investment that flowed from affluent Roman citizens to bolster the forces and fund the construction of the navy. Carthage on the other hand had an apathetic ruling elite who were more accustomed to making money rather than fighting wars. The Carthaginians were unwilling to risk their fortunes or status for the common war effort, and incompetency issues plagued both sides. Overall it is not to easy to say the outcome of any conflict was pre-determined by any forces or variables such as those mentioned above. If either power made different moves at many points during this conflict things would have turned out much differently.

Mercenary War

See Mercenary War

However, in the aftermath of the war the city of Carthage did not have enough money in the public treasury to pay all of the soldiers. Hanno the Great attempted to disband the mercenary armies that Carthage employed and negotiated for them to accepted a reduced payment. However, this did not go over well with the mercenaries who would fight the Mercenary War which would serve as an interlude between the First and Second Punic War.

Second Punic War

See Second Punic War

Following this, Carthage would seek new avenues to pay off its massive war debt and turned their focus towards Iberia and Hispania to mine silver. Leading this effort is the influential and militaristic Barcid family who under their patriarch Hamilcar Barca led a massive expedition to establish the Barcid Empire which was an independent-capitalistic venture that established an autonomous polity away from Carthage.


The total number of casualties is hard to estimate given the bias in historical sources much like any ancient conflict. However, casualties were heavy on both sides during this war and our best estimates guess that Rome lost around 700 ships with an unknown amount of crew. Carthage lost around 500 ships. The historian Polybius comments that the First Punic War was the most destructive of any ancient war up until that time, including the campaigns of Alexander the Great.

According to data from the Roman census, Adrian Goldsworthy notes that Rome may have lost at least 50,000 men which excludes any auxillar troops or any other soldier without citizen status that would not have been included in the official census. Overall many ancient accounts suggest this was a brutal battle, with losses very high on both sides.

Given this one would expect to see the area around the major battle sites strewn with ancient ships or at least the metal implements of them such as the massive bronze Carthaginian rams. However, to this day only a few Carthaginian or Roman ships have ever been recovered. What this means for our interpretation of the ancient war is still unknown as there is virtually no archaeological or historical investigative work done into this issue.

First Punic War

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