In 264 the consul Appius Claudius Caudex was sent with two legions to announce Rome’s acceptance of Messana’s request for alliance and to garrison the town. His advance guard under his relative C. Claudius forced the Straits with little opposition: after a slight skirmish the Carthaginian admiral merely returned some ships, which he had captured, with the threat that he would not let the Romans so much as wash their hands in the sea. The attitude of the Punic commander in Messana was equally cautious. On the arrival of C. Claudius and under pressure from the Mamertines he evacuated the citadel, only to be crucified later for his lack of initiative and pour encourager les autres. The scrupulous behaviour of these Punic generals who, wishing to avoid any openly hostile acts, refused either to contest the passage of the Straits or to hold Messana, contrasts strongly with the decisive vigour of the Roman leaders.
The Roman occupation of Messana stung the Carthaginian government to action. War had not yet been formally declared, but the time was ripe. Further, Hiero of Syracuse was willing to forget the age-long hostility of Carthage to the Sicilian Greeks and to co-operate with the erstwhile enemy. This unnatural alliance was brought about mainly because both parties saw their common interests threatened by the rising power of Rome. Punic troops were sent to Sicily under Hanno, son of Hannibal, who garrisoned Agrigentum and encamped at Messana. Hiero also arrived there and camped further south of the town, while the Punic fleet anchored to the north. Seeing Messana thus blockaded, Appius Claudius succeeded in transporting his troops across the Straits by night. Then, or possibly before crossing to Sicily, he sent an embassy to the Carthaginians and Hiero, ordering them to raise the siege of a town which was allied to Rome. On their refusal he formally declared war and the First Punic War had officially started.10
Claudius acted quickly. Taking advantage of the distance between the two enemy camps, he assailed first Hiero’s and then Hanno’s. The result of these engagements is not certain; both sides according to their own historians claimed them as victories. But Hiero, who was displeased with his allies for allowing the Romans to cross to Sicily so easily, fell back on Syracuse soon afterwards (or perhaps not until the following year). Hanno also withdrew to garrison and protect the Carthaginian cities in Sicily.11 The next year both consuls, M’. Valerius and M’. Otacuius, were sent to Sicily with about 40,000 men. Though the retreat of Hiero and Hanno freed Messana, Rome must advance further in Sicily, not to conquer the island, but to force her enemies to recognize her Messanian alliance. When Valerius marched southwards many towns around Aetna submitted to him, yet he could have had little hope of taking Syracuse itself without control of the sea. Hiero, however, who could look for little support from his allies after abandoning them at Messana, began to make friendly overtures, to which the Romans readily responded. He was granted an alliance (renewed in 248) and the control of some thirty miles of territory around Syracuse in return for an indemnity of 100 talents (Diodorus’ reference to an annual tribute of 25 talents may be due only to a misunderstanding of a first instalment of the indemnity); he remained Rome’s loyal ally till his death in 215. His most immediate service was to help the Romans with supplies.
In March 262, Valerius celebrated a triumph over the Carthaginians and Hiero, and decorated a wall of the Curia Hostilia with a painting of his success. The Senate proposed to send out only two legions this year, but learning that the Carthaginians were recruiting in Spain, Liguria and Gaul, they despatched instead both consuls. These won the support of Segesta in the Punic province in Sicily, and advanced against the Carthaginian headquarters at the Greek city of Agrigentum, which lay on a hill whose steep sides made attack possible only from the south. Here they pitched two camps, joined by a double line of trenches, and besieged the city for five months. Before starvation forced the Punic commander Hannibal to capitulate, strong reinforcements arrived under Hanno who, ensconced on a neighbouring hill, cut off the Roman supplies, which the loyal Hiero supplemented with great difficulty. After two months Hanno gave battle in a desperate attempt to relieve the city. Though he was defeated, the Roman losses were so heavy that Hannibal and his garrison were enabled to escape from the doomed city. The next day Agrigentum was sacked and its inhabitants were sold into slavery; an act of clemency, which might have won over the Sicilians, would have proved a better investment for the future than this barbarity. As the fall of Agrigentum did not bring Carthage to her knees and the consuls of 261 achieved little in Sicily, the Senate realized that peace could only be attained by conquering the whole island and driving out the Carthaginians. This could never be done while the Punic fleet threatened the seaboard towns of Sicily and even ravaged the coast of Italy. So Rome had to face the task of challenging the naval supremacy of her enemy.
The success with which the land-lubbers of Rome created a navy and defeated the Queen of the western Mediterranean naturally led later ages to embellish with legendary adornments what was undeniably a magnificent achievement. It was said that having no fleet of their own the Romans took a wrecked Punic vessel as a model and built 120 ships within sixty days from the hewing of the timber; meanwhile crews were taught to row on great wooden stages erected on land. The speed of this achievement has often been regarded with some scepticism, but the recent discovery of a Punic warship off Marsala shows methods of prefabrication and mass-production which the Romans may well have imitated. Although since 311 BC duoviri navales had commanded a squadron of 20 ships (for example, in 282, a duovir with 10 ships had been attacked by the Tarentines), such squadrons were probably only fitted out when required and were then laid up; thus Appius Claudius had to cross to Sicily in ships from allied Italian towns, because there was no Roman squadron ready equipped. Further, after the Pyrrhic War various southern Italian towns were perhaps liable by treaty to furnish ships, but these would not number more than 25 vessels all told. When Rome determined to challenge Carthage at sea, she built 20 triremes and 100 quinqueremes. The former represented the old type of duumviral squadron, the latter were built on a new model like the Punic vessels. More difficult than the construction was the manning of the new fleet. Many men could be drawn from the socii navales of the seafaring towns of southern Italy; but others would have to be trained to handle an oar instead of a plough, men who had no experience of the sea. To counteract their lack of skill the Romans determined to turn sea battles into land battles by avoiding the manoeuvring and ramming tactics of the enemy, and by adopting boarding tactics. This was achieved by the use of some kind of device which Polybius describes as a complicated boarding-bridge, known to the soldiers colloquially as a ‘crow’ (corvus) because its ‘beak’ was an iron spike which grappled the enemy’s deck. Thus the Romans intended to thwart their enemy’s superior naval skill, while they made doubly sure by outbuilding the Carthaginians. In all they probably raised 160 vessels, while the enemy had only 130 at sea. Rome was then ready to contest the sea, and when every allowance has been made for patriotic exaggeration in the traditional account, the plain fact is a magnificent tribute to her adaptability and resolve.12
While the new fleet was mustering at Messana the commander Cn. Cornelius Scipio sailed off with seventeen vessels to negotiate for the surrender of Lipara, but he was surprised and captured by a Punic squadron; this exploit gained for him the suitable cognomen, Asina. Thereupon the other consul of 260, C. Duilius, took over the command and relieved Segesta, which was besieged by Hamilcar, Hanno’s successor. But Duilius had greater claim to fame. Encountering the Punic fleet off Mylae near the north-east corner of Sicily he overcame the enemy’s tactical skill by grappling their vessels with his ‘crows’, so that his men soon swept the decks clear. With their superior numbers (perhaps 140 against 130) the Romans accounted for some 50 vessels, including the admiral’s flagship. Thus Rome in her first venture on the sea defeated a nation whose seafaring traditions were centuries old. Well might Duilius celebrate the first naval triumph in Rome and be honoured by the erection in the Forum of a column ornamented with the bronze rams of the vessels he had captured.13
The Punic fleet had been defeated, but not destroyed; and Rome did not attempt to blockade by sea the Carthaginian strongholds of Panormus or Lilybaeum, still less to attack her enemy in Africa. Instead, one consul of 259, L. Cornelius Scipio, led an expedition against Sardinia and Corsica. This could have little effect on the main issues of the war, but it trained the Romans in the idea of sending expeditionary forces abroad and reduced the possibility of Punic or piratical raids on the Italian coast. Scipio captured Aleria in Corsica and won the island, but he failed to take the Punic fortress of Olbia in northern Sardinia. The appearance of Hannibal with reinforcements terminated his activity, but the next year his successor, C. Sulpicius, defeated the enemy’s fleet off Sulci in Rome’s second naval victory.
Meanwhile Hamilcar had made good progress against the one consular army operating in Sicily. After a successful engagement near Thermae he advanced as far as Enna and Camarina and fortified Drepana. To make good these losses the Romans prolonged Aquillius’ command as proconsul through the winter and sent out another consular army to join him in 258. Together the Roman generals advanced towards Panormus, where Hamilcar declined battle, and then by capturing Camarina and Enna they confined the enemy once more to the western end of the island. In 257 all effort in Sardinia was abandoned and little was achieved in Sicily, except that the consul. C. Atilius Regulus, after raiding Melita (Malta) fell in with the Punic fleet off Tyndaris and sank 18 vessels (Rome’s third naval victory).