Ancient History & Civilisation


The catalyst for hostilities between Carthage and Rome was a group of troublesome mercenaries who had decided to make Sicily their home once their services were no longer required by Agathocles. The Mamertines, or ‘followers of Mamers’ (the Italian god of war), had originally hailed from Campania, but on demobilization they had made a new home for themselves by massacring the citizens of the Sicilian city of Messana and taking over their wives and property. However, by the mid 260s they were themselves under sustained pressure from Syracuse, which was enjoying a resurgence under the dynamic leadership of a new populist leader, Hiero. In 265, with their future in serious jeopardy, the Mamertines hedged their bets by appealing for assistance not only to Carthage but also to Rome.

This diplomatic initiative achieved the desired result. The Carthaginian military command on the island eagerly took up the invitation and sent a small force to garrison Messana.58 Later Greek and Roman sources, hostile to Carthage, made the erroneous claim that this was just the first stage of a new attempt by the Carthaginians to seize control of Sicily, after which they had designs on Italy.59 However, the real attraction for the Carthaginian army was most likely to have been that Messana gave them a base in an area that was traditionally considered to be a Syracusan zone of influence. Indeed, this episode was probably nothing more than another of the frequent Sicilian defections between Carthage and Syracuse that occurred on the island. Nevertheless, in Rome a fierce debate took place in the Senate as to how they should respond to the Mamertine plea. If help was provided then it would almost certainly lead to some kind of diplomatic confrontation with Syracuse–which, as we shall see later, may have been the very hope of some senators.60

In an account clearly coloured by historical hindsight, the Greek historian Polybius described the opposing points of view put forward during the debate. The Roman consuls, anxious for the chance to earn military glory, were said to be in favour of sending a force to provide help. However, other senators reminded their colleagues of the unsavoury nature of the Mamertines’ seizure of Messana and the charge of hypocrisy that would be justifiably levelled at Rome after the harsh treatment that they had meted out to the Campanians who had attempted to seize Rhegium. With the Senate deadlocked, the consuls now turned to the Popular Assembly, who were easily convinced by the promise of war booty. It was decreed that a force should be sent to aid the Mamertines, with the consul Appius Claudius Caudex at its head.61

Clearly aware that the Romans were raising an army and arranging transport among their new allies in Magna Graecia, the Carthaginians stationed a naval squadron to block any crossing of the Strait of Messina from Rhegium. However, rather than risk a naval battle against the much stronger Carthaginian navy, Appius Claudius covertly sent one of his tribunes, Gaius Claudius, across in a small boat to persuade the Mamertines to eject the Carthaginian garrison from their city.

After a second visit, during which he received enthusiastic assurances from the Mamertines, Gaius Claudius attempted a crossing with several ships. However, weather conditions and a Carthaginian attack forced the Romans back to Rhegium. In a conciliatory gesture, Hanno, the commander of the Carthaginian garrison at Messana, sent the ships that he had captured back to the Romans, and even offered to release the men that had been seized once hostilities had ceased. When these overtures were rejected, Hanno then boasted that he would not allow the Romans even to wash their hands in the sea. He was soon to be made to regret such a bold statement. Gaius Claudius attempted the crossing again, and this time was successful. After calling an assembly of the Mamertines in the city, he managed to persuade them to request a meeting with Hanno, who had by then taken refuge in the citadel. After reluctantly agreeing to this assignation, Hanno was promptly seized, but was then allowed to leave the city unharmed with his men. He was later crucified by the Carthaginians ‘for both his lack of sense and his lack of courage’.62

The Roman occupation of Messana, although a limited operation, sent shock waves through the island. With their bloody diarchy now under threat from a third force, Carthage and Syracuse quickly forged an alliance of convenience against Rome.63 The Carthaginian forces under the command of another Hanno, son of Hannibal, blockaded Messana in conjunction with the Syracusans. In a deliberate stalling tactic, Appius Claudius, who was waiting in Rhegium with the main body of the Roman army for an opportunity to cross into Sicily, sent envoys to both Hiero and the Carthaginians offering a ceasefire. These overtures were quickly rebuffed, with Diodorus–possibly once more armed with historical hindsight–presenting Hiero as mocking the Romans’ justification of their actions as merely maintaining the bond of fides that they owed to their new allies, the Mamertines.64 However, soon Carthaginian confidence in their naval supremacy was undermined when Appius Claudius and his army managed to cross the Strait of Messina in a ragbag flotilla of ships largely borrowed from Rome’s allies in southern Italy. A later historical tradition stated that Appius Claudius had managed to hoodwink the Carthaginian naval command by feeding false information to their agents (who hung around the harbour at Rhegium on the pretext of trade).65 The situation was made worse by the fact that one of the Carthaginian warships detailed to halt the crossing ran aground and fell into Roman hands, with serious future consequences.66

In fact the first stages of the land war in Sicily appear to have been inconclusive, with both sides loudly claiming victory.67 The next year, 263, Rome sent the new consuls with a fresh army of 40,000 men to the island, and once again the Carthaginian fleet failed to prevent the Roman army from crossing. As a consequence, a larger number of Greek Sicilian cities defected to the Romans, and Hiero, now increasingly isolated and unsure of victory, sued for peace. The Romans, who had problems of their own in maintaining supplies for their troops on the island, were willing to offer extremely generous terms. Hiero was allowed to keep his throne and a large chunk of territory in eastern Sicily in exchange for becoming a friend and ally of Rome. Syracuse was also to hand over all Roman prisoners of war and a sum of 100 talents in war reparations. Most importantly for Rome, it now had a secure base in eastern Sicily from which to launch any future offensive.68

For Carthage the loss of Syracuse was a blow, but not a devastating one. After all, its alliance with the city had always been based on convenience, and it had long been a major competitor on the island. In fact it was the second-century-AD historian, and former Roman consul, Cassius Dio who appears to have best understood the underlying reasons for the outbreak of hostilities between the two powers:

As a matter of fact, the Carthaginians, who had long been powerful, and the Romans, who were now growing more rapidly stronger, kept viewing each other with jealousy; and they were led into war partly by the desire of continually acquiring more–in accordance with the instinct of the majority of mankind, most active when they are most successful –and partly also by fear. Both sides alike thought that the one sure hope for their holdings lay in obtaining also those of others. If there had been no other reason, it was most difficult, if not impossible, for two free peoples, powerful and proud, and separated from each other by a very short distance considering the swiftness of the voyage, to rule alien tribes and yet be willing to keep their hands off each other. But it was a chance incident of the following nature that broke their truce and plunged them into war.69

Most probably there was little political will on either side for war. But equally there was seemingly little will to stop the progression towards full-scale conflict. While Carthage was most probably now not a Roman target, it is difficult to read Rome’s intervention on the side of the Mamertines as anything less than a desire to be more closely involved in Sicilian affairs.70 Roman ambitions most likely now looked not to North Africa but to Syracuse, control over which might be justified as an extension of Roman military policy in southern Italy.71 Indeed, by this period the Roman people’s appreciation of the material benefits of conquest had become highly developed, as had the connection between the winning of military glory and elite status. Combined, these two motivations made for an ominous mix, and fears of a Carthaginian backlash may have been dampened by Carthaginian military complacency and the failure of Carthage’s navy to repel the Romans from the Strait of Messina.

The aggressive and acquisitive nature of Rome had been undeniably proven by its conquest of Italy.72 Yet, as Rome expanded its territory through its own aggression, it increasingly came to fear the greater proximity of its larger neighbours. The possibility that Carthage might intervene in southern Italy was probably a very real concern, fed by insecurities over Rome’s recent experience with Pyrrhus.73

For their part, however, the Carthaginians were probably concerned less about attacking southern Italy than with defending their territory in Sicily. Their original involvement there had been prompted by the pragmatic desire to control the lucrative Tyrrhenian and Ionian trade routes. However, after 150 years of a Carthaginian presence on the island, there was now a strong sense that Punic Sicily was their land, that Lilybaeum, Panormus and Solus were as Carthaginian as the farms of the Cap Bon peninsula or the olive groves of the Sahel. When war did break out, the pro-Carthaginian historian Philinus would accuse the Romans of breaking a treaty signed sometime after the 348 accord which explicitly debarred them from interference in Sicily, although Polybius, who claimed to have researched all such treaties, would hotly deny that such a treaty existed.74Whether that treaty existed or not, the claim of Philinus nonetheless demonstrates that Roman interference in Sicily was, for the Carthaginians, a legitimate cause for war.75

Initially, therefore, neither Rome nor Carthage planned to attack the other, but the respective strategies of Italian expansion and Sicilian defence boded ill for the maintenance of peace.76 In fact the main antagonists of the First Punic War drifted into the conflict less for reasons of grand strategy, and more for the lack of political will to prevent it.77 Those who predicted that this dispute would be settled swiftly with honours shared would prove hopelessly wrong. It was no accident that Timaeus chose to end his history in 264 BC with the start of the First Punic War. Looking back on events, he knew that the central-Mediterranean world was about to change for ever.78

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