Ancient History & Civilisation


The Outbreak of War

THE LONG-TERM CAUSES of great wars have fascinated historians since Thucydides attempted to explain the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War by tracing Athenian ambition in the years after the victory over Persia, but they are seldom easy to isolate.1 This is especially true of conflicts in the ancient world, when we rarely know when, by whom and acting under what information and preconceptions the decisions were taken which eventually led to war. It is tempting but highly dangerous to employ hindsight and attempt to reconstruct the causes of a war from its course. No Roman or Carthaginian could have dreamed in 264 that their states were about to embark on a twenty-four-year struggle which would involve huge casualties, still less that it would be the first of three wars between the two peoples. It is extremely unlikely in the case of the First Punic War that either side believed that they were even about to begin a full-scale conflict with the other. Prior to 264 relations between Rome and Carthage had generally been good.

However difficult it may be to trace the deeper causes of a conflict, the incidents which provide the sparks to ignite the greater conflagration are usually more obvious, as with Princip's assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in AD 1914 which plunged Europe into a World War. In the case of the war between Carthage and Rome these events occurred at Messana (modern-day Messina) in Sicily and had their origins in the career of the Syracusan tyrant Agathocles, who had captured the city sometime around 315-312. Agathocles had relied heavily on mercenary soldiers to fight his long conflict with the Carthaginians and in his efforts to expand his city's dominion. Amongst his forces was a band of soldiers recruited from Campanians, Oscan-speaking descendants of the hill tribesmen who had overrun that fertile plain in the last quarter of the fifth century. After Agathocles' death in 289 this group failed to find an employer in the confused political situation at Syracuse. At some point in the next few years the Mamertines were admitted freely into the city of Messana, but treacherously massacred the citizens, taking their wives and property for their own.2 Using the city as base they raided the neighbouring territories, forcing other communities to pay them tribute and exploiting the confused situation on the island. Emphasizing their martial strength, the mercenaries styled themselves Mamertines, followers of Mamers the Italian war god whom the Romans worshipped as Mars.

Messana lay on the north-eastern coast of Sicily, commanding one side of the narrow Straits between the island and Italy. On the Italian shore lay Rhegium, a Roman ally which had requested a Roman garrison to defend it against Pyrrhus.3 The Romans duly despatched 4,000 men led by one Decius, an officer of uncertain rank. Although Roman citizens in every respect save that they lacked the right to vote at Rome (civites sine suffragio), these soldiers were also Oscan-speaking Campanians. Inspired by their kindred at Messana, they too turned upon the city they were supposed to protect, killing or expelling its male citizens and stealing their possessions. At the time, the Romans were occupied by the wars with Pyrrhus and Tarentum, and were unable to avenge this breach of their faith, so that it was not until 271 that an army went south and began the siege of Rhegium.

The defeat of Tarentum had confirmed Roman control over the predominantly Greek southern Italy, making it all the more important to demonstrate to their new allies that such abuses of Rome's fides (faith) would not escape punishment. Rhegium was captured after a long siege and the 300 Campanians taken alive were sent to Rome for public punishment. There, as befitted citizens who had turned against the State, they were flogged and beheaded in the Forum. One source claims that Decius, who had lost his sight, was negligently guarded and managed to commit suicide before enduring this punishment.4 As yet the Romans had no connection or contact with Messana.

The Mamertines had not joined Pyrrhus' campaign against Carthage when he answered the call of Syracuse to defend the Greeks cities on the island and made his short, spectacular, but ultimately unsuccessful foray into Sicily. However, deprived of their allies across the Straits they came under increasing pressure as a new leader emerged at Syracuse. Hiero was a skilled soldier and a shrewd politician whose popularity was based upon his campaigns against the Italian raiders. Initially elected to power by the army, Hiero made his position more stable by marrying the daughter of one of the city's leading politicians. The precise chronology of Hiero's campaigns against the Mamertines is very uncertain, but need not concern us here. In an initial battle at the River Cyamosorus he seems to have checked them, as well as allegedly taking the opportunity to sacrifice a contingent of unreliable mercenaries. Later, probably sometime between 268 and 265, Hiero won a decisive victory at the River Longanus, an action in which a body of the original citizens of Messana and a picked unit from Syracuse were concealed in ambush behind the enemy line.5

The power of the Mamertines was broken, and seeing no prospect of salvation without external aid, their leaders, or different factions within the leadership according to Polybius, sent embassies appealing for assistance to both Carthage and Rome in 265. Once again the precise chronology of these events is unclear. What we do know is that the Carthaginians were the first to respond, one of their commanders in Sicily dispatching a token force to occupy Messana's citadel. In one version of the story, this officer, Hannibal, happened to be with a naval squadron off the nearby Lipari Islands. He rushed to Hiero's camp, ostensibly to congratulate him on his victory, but in fact to delay his advance for long enough to persuade the Mamertines to accept an alliance and insert a Carthaginian garrison. Hiero was not willing to commence open hostilities with the Carthaginians, so returned to Syracuse. This may be just another tale of Punic cunning and is not mentioned by Polybius, although it is not necessarily incompatible with his version. That intervention in this dispute was attractive to the Carthaginians is unsurprising. Throughout the Carthaginians' centuries-long struggle to control Sicily the chief opposition from the Greek cities had always been led by Syracuse, the wealthiest and most powerful of them all. Allowing another strong tyrant to emerge there, his power based on the glory of having destroyed one group of foreigners who had attacked the Greeks of Sicily, was clearly undesirable. Controlling Messana, and with it the most direct route to Italy, increased Punic power. Whether it would inevitably have led to their eventual subjugation of Syracuse and complete conquest of all Sicily, as was claimed by some later sources, is more questionable.6

The intervention at Messana was no great initiative on the part of the Carthaginians, for they had long been active in Sicily. It was a very different matter for the Romans. Whilst their dominion had been steadily expanding for over a century, until this time they had never fought outside the Italian Peninsula. Polybius tells us that the Senate was divided over how to respond to the appeal from the Mamertines, and although it may be questioned whether he or his sources knew precisely what was said in the subsequent debate, the arguments he presents are plausible enough. The similarity between the actions of the Mamertines at Messana and Decius' troops at Rhegium must have been obvious and the hypocrisy of punishing the latter and making an alliance with the former blatant. The opposing argument was that it would prove advantageous for Rome to intervene, and dangerous for her not to. Carthage already controlled North Africa, parts of Spain, Sardinia and the lesser islands of the western Mediterranean. Control of Messana might well lead to the conquest of all Sicily and gave them command of an easy route to Italy. Rome's recently acquired dominion of southern Italy may have appeared especially vulnerable, for the Hellenic cities there and the Greeks of Sicily had always enjoyed close links.7

Polybius claims that the Senate was unable to make up its mind, but that the consuls for 264 were eager to seize the opportunity for intervention and persuaded the People to vote in favour of sending an expedition to Sicily, winning them over with the promise of rich booty in addition to the arguments already rehearsed in the Senate. One of the consuls, Appius Claudius Caudex, was appointed to the command and it is distinctly possible that he was the driving force behind this move, for his colleague Marcus Fulvius Flaccus may already have been in Etruria suppressing a disturbance amongst the Volsinii, an operation for which he received a triumph in the following year. For Claudius the Mamertines' appeal offered an opportunity to achieve in his year of office the glory which all senators craved, made especially attractive because he would be the first man to lead a Roman army across the sea. Although Polybius presents the People as more interested than the Senate in plunder and profit, it is important to remember that when the Roman people were called upon to vote they did so in Assemblies heavily favouring the wealthiest citizens. This was especially true of the Comitia Centuriata, where this particular vote probably occurred. The motion could not have been passed unless a good proportion of the more prosperous citizens, including the equestrian order, were in favour. These men would profit more from receiving the State contracts to supply and equip the army, or from handling the massed sale as slaves of prisoners captured during the war, than from plunder picked up on the battlefield.8

It is highly unlikely that the People voted for a formal declaration of war with Carthage. The potential for confrontation with the Carthaginians clearly existed, and a clash with Syracuse was almost certain, but the Romans may have felt that their military power was strong enough to deter, if not swiftly defeat, any opposition in Sicily. Polybius criticized the pro-Carthaginian historian, Philinus, for maintaining that the Roman decision to send an expedition to Sicily violated a treaty between the two states which recognized Roman sovereignty in Italy and Carthaginian control of Sicily. Polybius lists the three treaties made between Rome and Carthage before 264, which he had seen still preserved on bronze tablets in the Treasury of the Quaestors beside the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus at Rome. The numerous scholarly disputes over the details of these treaties and their reliability need not concern us here, for no good evidence has been put forward to make us reject them. The earliest, dated to the first year of the Roman Republic (508-507) and written in archaic Latin, placed heavy restrictions on Roman traders in Libya and Sardinia, granted Romans equal trading rights in the Carthaginian territories in Sicily, and offered protection to Rome's power and allies in Latium. A second treaty, undated by Polybius, but probably the one mentioned by Livy and Diodorus for 348, extends the area allied to Carthage in Libya, repeats the restrictions on the Romans trading there and in Sardinia and the clauses protecting Roman interests in Latium, and confirms their trading status in Sicily. Polybius does not mention the treaty listed by Livy for 306, and his final treaty is dated to 279-278 and was mainly concerned with mutual support during the wars of both states against Pyrrhus, although it seems that nothing practical actually came of this. (It is difficult to discern the truth behind the stories of the intervention of a Punic fleet in the latter stages of the Roman siege of Tarentum in 272, for the narratives are clearly distorted by later propaganda.) There is no good reason for rejecting Polybius' judgement and accepting Philinus' treaty. However, it is possible that one or both sides, either at the time of the treaties or with hindsight, felt that each state recognized the other's sphere of influence. What the treaties do appear to confirm is the long tradition of relatively friendly relations between the two, and the apparently widespread trade taking place, something which was to be renewed after hostilities in the First and Second Wars ended.9

Polybius represents the Roman decision to go to Sicily as shamelessly opportunistic, their awareness of the hypocrisy of assisting the Mamertines overcome by greed for plunder and glory, backed by a concern about the potential threat posed by a Carthage fully in control of Sicily and with easy access to Italy. Dio felt that the real reason for the First Punic War was the mutual fear in both Carthage and Rome of the other's growing power, now that the Roman conquest of southern Italy had brought their empires face to face. Each believed that their only long-term security lay in weakening the other's power.10 For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries AD it was believed that Rome had never really been an aggressive power, but that her empire was the result of a long series of primarily defensive wars. Time after time she had gone to war to protect her interests and defend her allies (causes which were considered unimpeachably just), only conquering her enemies to ensure future peace. Therefore Roman expansion appeared haphazard and spasmodic with little sense of forward planning, the rule of the many provinces of this accidentally acquired empire a burden and a problem to which the Republic only slowly began to adapt. It was an appealing idea for German scholars, notably the great Theodore Mommsen, for whom the creation of the Roman empire was a distraction from the far more important absorption of Italy into a single culture, a trend foreshadowing the union of German peoples into a single state in his own day. It was even more attractive to the many scholars working in those countries such as Britain which themselves controlled vast colonial empires. These scholars were produced by a society which believed that the rule of civilized peoples of the world over the uncivilized was beneficial, almost as much to the conquered as the conqueror. Given that the great empires were an improving force, spreading education, the rule of law, and Christianity to the dark corners of the world, it was unappealing to believe that they had been created out of aggression or greed. The idea that the British Empire had been created 'out of a fit of absent-mindedness' was readily extended to the Roman, especially since its culture, once allied to the best of the Greek civilization, was so clearly superior to the rest of the world at that time.11

The rapid demise of the European empires following the end of the Second World War led to an almost equally rapid condemnation of all that they had stood for amongst the new generations of historians, an unquestioned assumption that empires were, by their very nature, wrong. These scholars emphasized the greed and brutality of the imperial powers, the oppression of indigenous peoples and the destruction of their rich cultures. Eventually ancient historians began to examine Roman imperialism from a similarly critical standpoint. The assumption that Roman war-making was primarily defensive had always lacked plausibility in view of the eventual conquest of most of the known world. Some emphasized the economic motivation for conquest, in particular the acquisition of large numbers of slaves to work the great estates purchased by the noble families from the profits of successful wars. Others concentrated on the elements within Roman society which made them prone to expansion, focusing in particular on the senatorial quest for glory which could best be won by leading the armies of the state in a successful foreign war, so that each year a new set of magistrates were installed who were eager to wage war. There were also advantages and profits to be gained by all classes in Roman society through military service. Rome's network of alliances throughout Italy, for almost all of whom the chief bond was the obligation to provide soldiers to serve the Romans in war, has also been seen as encouraging further expansion. According to this theory the only means for the Romans to confirm the loyalty of their allies was to fight constant wars. That the Romans were frequently willing to fight wars and extend their power, even if not the physical extent of their territory, is undeniable, but the emphasis on Roman aggression can be taken too far. Too often this is studied in isolation with little account being taken of the targets of imperialism, many of whom were themselves highly aggressive. It has recently been pointed out that Roman expansion did not occur at a steady, constant rate. Its intensity varied immensely, with bursts of expansion being followed by relative lulls, when fewer wars were fought and only a small proportion of citizens enrolled to serve in the legions. Nor can the fear of strong neighbours entirely be dismissed as a motive for some of Rome's wars, even if with hindsight we may suggest that a people or state were not a genuine rival to Rome's power. If the Romans were as aggressive as some scholars have suggested, it would be unsurprising if they in turn expected other peoples to behave in a similar way and treated them accordingly.12

The desire for glory on the part of a Roman consul was the main reason why he incited the people with promises of profit and persuaded them to vote in favour of aiding the Mamertines. This is a clear case where the factors within the Roman political system seen as favouring expansion did come into play and were the prime cause of a war. However, at least one scholar has gone further and argued that a clash between Rome and Carthage became inevitable after the Roman conquest of southern Italy, citing the establishment of colonies in Paestum and Cola in 273, the alliance with Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt and the acquisition of a supply of timber ideal for shipbuilding when much of the Sila forest was confiscated from the Bruttians. Yet, as supporters of this theory admit, there were also opportunities for potential Roman expansion in northern Italy. It is dangerous to imply too high a level of forward planning on the part of the Roman Senate. Perhaps we might fairly say that after the defeat of Tarentum the potential for a clash between Rome and Carthage existed, but not claim inevitability. Once again it is worth recalling that it is highly unlikely that anyone at Rome expected more than a brief confrontation with the Carthaginians in 264.13

Once the Romans had made the decision to send an expedition to Sicily there was a long delay before they could actually move. It took time to enrol and muster a consular army and in addition to this, triremes and pentekonters to carry them across the Straits of Messina from Rhegium had to be requested from Rome's naval allies at Locri, Tarentum, Elea and Naples. In the meantime the Carthaginians moved a squadron of their galleys to a position near Cape Pelorias, from where they could observe the Straits and oppose any ships trying to cross. The precise chronology is once again unclear, but at some stage the small Carthaginian garrison of Messana was evicted from the city by the Mamertines. Their commander Hanno was subsequently crucified by his own side for this failure. Dio tells the story of how an advance party of Romans led by the tribune Gaius Claudius preceded the main force to Rhegium. Attempts to cross the sea in daylight were intercepted by the Carthaginian ships and repulsed. However, eager to avoid open conflict and perhaps confident that a display of naval power would deter the Romans from the folly of campaigning on an island without the support of a fleet, the Carthaginians returned the ships and prisoners they had taken. Claudius twice crossed at night in a small boat and began negotiations with the Mamertines, encouraging them with the direct promise of Roman support to evict the Carthaginian garrison. Finally Claudius was able to bring his main force over under cover of darkness.14

Polybius mentions none of this, and it may all be a later Annalistic invention or a confused version of the actions of Appius Claudius, for the coincidence of the tribune's name is highly suspicious. Appius Claudius also had difficulty in crossing the Straits in the face of the Punic ships. At a later point in the narrative Polybius mentions that one Carthaginian quinquereme ran aground and was captured when it too recklessly attempted to head off the Roman ships. Finally, Appius Claudius also managed to bring most of his force across to Messana at night. All sources attest to a good deal of negotiation between the various parties during these early stages. Dio records the famous threat made by Hanno to Gaius Claudius following the return of the prisoners and captured ships, urging them to seek peace rather than confront Carthaginian naval might and claiming that he would not allow them even 'to bathe their hands in the sea'. In Diodorus' version, Appius Claudius sent envoys to Hiero and the Carthaginians stressing the Romans' need to fulfil their fides (faith) to their allies the Mamertines. The Romans were understandably condemned as self-seeking, the need to maintain an obligation to the criminal Mamertines dismissed. The only concrete result of these rounds of negotiation was the alliance between Hiero's Syracuse and the Carthaginians to capture Messana and, presumably, oppose Roman intervention. The ease with which Hiero agreed to co-operate with the Carthaginians who had so recently duped him over Messana emphasized the degree to which all parties were acting out of self-interest.15

Hiero led an army from Syracuse which camped near a Carthaginian force and began the blockade of Messana. When negotiations had failed, the Romans made the next move, Appius Claudius attacking Hiero's camp. A sharp encounter ensued before the Romans were victorious, remaining in command of the field and despoiling the dead, an important mark of success in the ancient world. Hiero abandoned the siege and withdrew back to Syracuse. Polybius righriy demonstrated the implausibility of Philinus' claim that it was Hiero and not the Romans who won this action, but Zonaras does claim that the Syracusan cavalry initially defeated their Roman counterparts and that the day was only saved by the legionary infantry. Given the difficulties of transporting horses by sea and the specific problems encountered by Claudius in running the Punic blockade, it is quite possible that the Roman horse was not numerous, but it is also worth recalling that historically the Syracusan cavalry had a good reputation, unlike the city's hoplites. On the next day Claudius attacked the Carthaginians at dawn and drove them off. Zonaras says that after an initial repulse the Carthaginians pursued carelessly and were in turn routed by the Romans. It is highly unlikely that either of these actions was anything more than a large skirmish, but through them the Romans had broken the league around Messana.16

Claudius followed up his success by making a foray down towards Syracuse, raiding and devastating its territory. It is unlikely that this was anything more than a demonstration of force, since he had neither time nor resources to contemplate the siege of, or assault on, the city. Zonaras claims that several skirmishes were fought with Hiero's soldiers, before Claudius withdrew, his term of office having expired. It is notable that despite his successes, Claudius was not awarded a triumph on his return to Rome. It is possible that this was a result of personal unpopularity in the Senate, but more likely that it is confirmation of the small scale of the actions he had fought. In 263 the Romans decided to send both consuls, Marcus Valerius Maximus and Manius Otacilius Crassus, to Sicily, each at the head of the standard consular army of two legions and two alae, so that something like 40,000 Roman soldiers would campaign in the area. This display of force persuaded many Sicilian cities to defect from Carthaginian or Syracusan control and others were captured by surprise assaults. The attitude of most cities throughout the war was to be openly pragmatic, seeking to ally themselves with the strongest power as the only way to prevent the devastation of their fields and homes. There is little sign of much affection for any of the sides in the conflict. Marcus Valerius Maximus gained the most credit for ending the war with Hiero and celebrated a triumph in the next year. It is possible that he received the cognomen Messala as a result of winning a victory on behalf of Messana.17

Syracuse was the main target for the Roman offensive and clearly perceived as the prime enemy. Faced with the overwhelming force of both consuls, Hiero decided to make peace. His approach was readily accepted by the Romans, whose large army was already facing major supply problems. In part this was a result of the continued Carthaginian blockade of the Straits, their only active participation in this phase of the campaign, but also a product of the Romans' unpreparedness for fighting a campaign so far away. A direct assault on a large and well-defended city was always dangerous and the army could not have fed itself for the duration of a long siege, even if they could have preserved a blockade and prevented supplies from reaching the city, which was probably impossible without a Roman fleet to seal off the harbour. By the terms of the subsequent treaty Hiero became a friend and ally of Rome, returned without ransom all the Roman prisoners in his hands, presumably taken in the skirmishes with Claudius, and paid them 100 talents. The alliance, confirmed in perpetuity in 248, allowed Hiero to control an independent Syracuse and extensive territories, ruling in a way that earned praise from Polybius which, he claims, was reflected by Hiero's Greek subjects. Hiero's loyalty to Rome was to remain staunch even at the lowest ebb of their fortunes and without his aid, in particular in ensuring the supply of provisions to the Roman armies, the campaigns in Sicily would not have been possible.18

Syracuse was the weakest of the three states, which explains Hiero's easy shift in alliance from Carthage to Rome. In this way he achieved his original objective of removing the threat of raiding by the Mamertines, even if he could not conquer the city. The short-lived alliance between Syracuse and Carthage had always been a strange one, given the fact that they were natural rivals and the recent Carthaginian insertion of a garrison into Messana. It is interesting to speculate, but impossible to know, what they expected to happen if they had taken Messana together. The Carthaginians' actions were merely a continuation of their long-term attempt to dominate Sicily. They disliked the prospect of a reinvigorated Syracuse capturing Messana, but were even less willing to see the Romans establish themselves on the island. In the past the Carthaginians had endured the onslaught of various foreign armies which had come to Sicily to fight them on behalf of the Greek cities, the most recent example being Pyrrhus. Though such leaders had achieved notable successes the Carthaginians had always weathered the storm and eventually repulsed them. Whatever the details of earlier treaties, the Roman landing in Sicily was a direct challenge to Carthaginian power in an area where they had long had a presence. The contrast between Carthage's great naval power and Rome's lack of a fleet can only have encouraged them in their belief that the Romans would have extreme difficulty in maintaining a presence in Sicily. There seemed no reason for them to admit the Romans to the island in the first place, or to believe that the initial reverse was anything other than temporary.

Syracuse, Carthage and Rome all acted out of self-interest, but it is important not to judge their actions by modern standards. It was considered proper in the Graeco-Roman world for states to seek to increase their hegemony over others, a view which did not conflict with the importance of freedom as a political ideal. Yet Rome had no tradition of a presence in Sicily to mitigate their opportunistic actions and the Mamertines were clearly undeserving allies. Both Rome and Carthage were supremely self-confident, probably rather naively inclined to assume that their strength was great enough to overawe any opposition, or swiftly overcome it if force proved necessary. It was in this light mood that they were to enter upon twenty-three years of war.

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