The First Punic War: A Clash of Cultures

The First Punic War would last for over two decades and set two powers on a path that would change the ancient Mediterranean forever.

Feb 17, 2024By Christopher Nelson, MSc Ancient History, BA Classical Archaeology, BA Anthropology
first punic war


Today, the exploits of the Punic Wars are often retold as the springboard that propelled the Romans from city-state to hegemon of the entire Mediterranean. The result of this is that we lose the Carthaginian perspective, seeing them only as a foil of Rome. If we are to understand the First Punic War, what caused it, why it was conducted the way it was, and how it was concluded, we must remember the geopolitical context in which it was fought and the motivations of two very different peoples.


Before the War: Carthaginian Foreign Policy

punic gilded bronze cuirass
Campanian cuirass found in the Punic tomb, 3rd-2nd century BCE. Source: the Bardo National Museum


Carthage’s experience on the island of Sicily had been defined by the seven wars it fought with the Sicilian Greeks. However, what gets overshadowed is why they would continue to send waves of multinational mercenaries aboard huge fleets into Sicily. The short answer is: shipping lanes.


After the subjugation of their mother colony, Tyre, by the Babylonians, the Carthaginians inherited a massive, trans-Mediterranean trade network running from southern Iberia in the west to the Levant in the east. If we look at the whole Mediterranean as an intricately interconnected commercial highway in the 6th century BCE, it becomes easier to understand why Carthage came to dominate the central Mediterranean.


If the Carthaginians were to ensure the security of these routes, they must control both lanes of traffic. Thus, the western tip of Sicily was paramount. Smaller Phoenician colonies had been established there centuries back and as Carthage grew in power, they soon fell under her sphere of influence.


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Multiple attempts by Greek colonists (including the Doreius and Pentathlos affairs) to settle in the western third of Sicily drew quick and decisive reactions from the Carthaginians. Their entrance into multiple conflicts with the Sicilian Greeks were largely caused by Carthaginian distrust of Siculo-Greek coalitions and the ambitions of unpredictable tyrants in Syracuse. They were keen observers of the geopolitical situation in eastern Sicily, often intervening on behalf of smaller city-states as a check to Syracusan power. They were often quick to mobilize forces, but also receptive to parlay that initial aggressiveness into an advantageous peace treaty. They preferred intimidation tactics to open conflict.


The Carthaginians were not interested in territorial gains in and of themselves. More land required more of a martial commitment, but did provide the stability which the Carthaginians sought. The Romans, as we shall see, were their complete antithesis.


The Casus Belli 

Coin minted under the Mamertines, showing a striding warrior, minted in Messana circa 264 BCE. Source: the British Museum.


According to Polybius, several treaties had been made between the Carthaginians and the Romans in the preceding centuries, and while these agreements demarcated their respective spheres of influence, commerce between them seemed robust, and relations amicable overall. That all changed in 264 BCE.


The Mamertines were a group of mercenaries that had once been under the employ of the Syracusans. Now, they had gone rogue and taken the cities of Messana and Rhegium for themselves. Rhegium sat in the very toe of the Italian, boot-shaped peninsula and Messana sat just across the water in Sicily. Two cities, sitting on either side of a vital shipping lane, were now in the hands of unpredictable mercenaries. The Romans besieged Rhegium while, separately, the Syracusans crushed the devious Mamertines in battle.

The Mamertines’ desperation would lead to a near-comedic twist of factionalism in which both the Romans and Carthaginians were courted for their support. The latter were the first to respond. Enticed by the Mamertines’ control of the Messenian strait, and the fact that they were also enemies of the Syracusans, Carthage agreed to help.


map mediterranean
The spheres of influence of Rome (red) and Carthage (purple) at the outset of the First Punic War. Source: Dickinson College Commentaries


The Romans, on the other hand, were conflicted on how to respond. The consul of that year, Appius Claudius Caudex, called for direct intervention, seeking the glory associated with being the first man to lead a Roman army outside of Italy. Their willingness to fight the Mamertines of Rhegium, but aid them in Messana, was a glaring hypocrisy that did not go unnoticed by Polybius.


The Romans were aware that if they answered the Mamertines’ call, conflict with the Carthaginians was likely. Just as the Carthaginians did not want a powerful Syracuse, the Romans, Polybius tells us, were fearful of the Carthaginians, who already had territory in Africa, Iberia, Sardinia, and Corsica, gaining dominion over the entirety of Sicily. The stage was set.


The Battle of Agrigentum 

map sicily
Battle Map of Sicily. Source: Dickinson College Commentaries


The opening years of the war, which had begun in 264 BCE, saw relatively little fighting. In fact, throughout the course of the multi-decade war, pitched battles in Sicily were rare. Agrigentum  (Akragas) was the exception.


The Romans did not yet have a navy numerable or competent enough to compete with the Carthaginians, so they moved two consular armies (≈ 40,000 men) into Sicily and met a Carthaginian garrison at Agrigentum. Hannibal, son of Gisgo (not to be confused with Hannibal Barca), had mustered an equitable force from the surrounding hinterlands and attacked the foraging Romans. Although overextended and unsuspecting, the Romans beat back the attack and began preparations for a siege.


Hannibal alerted the Carthaginians to the oncoming danger, and with the Romans unable to blockade the port, a relief army was deployed to Sicily. The besiegers quickly turned into the besieged. Both sides were pressured into a confrontation as food was running low amongst the Carthaginian inhabitants of Agrigentum, as well as its Roman besiegers.


Deploying in their characteristic triplex acies (triple battle line), the Romans met the frontline of the Carthaginians, who were supported by war elephants. It may have been the case that the Romans, by way of fighting Pyrrhus, were more experienced with fighting war elephants than the Carthaginians were in using them. The Carthaginian line was routed and the advantage they held in elephants and Numidian cavalry was quickly negated by the aggressive Roman infantry. The Punic camp was captured, and soon, the Romans walked into the town of Agrigentum unopposed.


In typical Carthaginian form, they had been quite conciliatory in the first two years of the war, hoping that their immense wealth and resources would discourage the Romans from seeking actual battle. The Battle of Agrigentum marked the first significant meeting between the two powers and would ensure that the conflict would escalate.


The Battle of Cape Ecnomus 

battle ecnomus
The Roman Fleet Victorious over the Carthaginians at the Battle of Cape Ecnomus by Gabriel Jacques de Saint-Aubin (French, 1724 – 1780), Circa 1763. Source: Getty Museum


The ground war in Sicily descended into a stalemate. The rugged, mountainous terrain ensured progress was slow. Just as the Spartans realized in the Peloponnesian War, the Romans, Polybius tells us, realized there would be no decisive victory without a navy.


A Carthaginian shipwreck was confiscated by the Romans and reverse-engineered. Soon one hundred quinqueremes and twenty triremes had been constructed and put to sea. They could now seek a decisive end to the war by taking it to the Carthaginian homeland: Africa.


In 256 BCE, the Roman fleet numbering 350 warships and transports, commanded by both consuls, anchored outside the settlement of Ecnomus. Each ship carried 300 rowers and 120 marines. To counter the threat of Roman invasion, the Carthaginians mustered their armada, numbering 150,000 men.


Relying on the superior speed of their vessels, the Carthaginians were arrayed in a long, linear formation. The Romans’ arrangement was much more condensed: three lines with the transports in the middle and the famed triarii serving as the rear reserve.


The Punic vessels quickly gained the edge, flanking the Romans, while they ordered an attack on the Roman center in an attempt to lure and separate the Roman frontline from their densely packed formation. Three separate ‘theaters’ of the battle were formed.


What they underestimated was the Roman ability to effectively turn what was a naval battle into a fight between infantry. The famed corvus (Latin for “raven” or “beak”) was a spiked gangway that the Romans could lower onto the decks of enemy ships. Under this pressure, the Carthaginian center did not hold. Their line broke and soon the Roman ships that had penetrated it, wheeled around to attack the flanks. It was a rout. The Carthaginians were broken and the road to Africa now laid open.


The Invasion of Africa  

A corvus;a deck-mounted boarding device, circa mid-3rd century BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The victors of Ecnomus, the consuls Marcus Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso sailed on to Africa, landing their armies on the Cape Bon peninsula, laying siege to the town of Aspis. It soon fell, and 20,000 prisoners of war were taken.


Having recently been recalled from Sicily, Hamilcar, the Carthaginian commander, along with Hanno and Bostar, shadowed Regulus’ force and, much like at Agrigentum, they built a fort opposite the Roman’s besieging force. Polybius much maligns the Carthaginians’ decision. The high ground they occupied did not allow for them to use their superiority in numbers or the mobility of their units to the best effect. Noticing this error, Regulus immediately mounted an attack on the Carthaginian position. The hastily assembled Carthaginian army, under the command of three different generals, was not able to mount a sufficient defense against the dawn attack.


Using the momentum from his victory, Regulus seized Tunis and now threatened the walls of Carthage itself. Dejected by yet another defeat on African soil, the Carthaginians now sued for peace. However, Regulus’ terms for a peace treaty were so harsh that the Carthaginians had no other choice but to fight on.


Buoyed by the arrival of Spartan mercenaries in the spring of 255 BCE, the Carthaginians were able to field another army. Led by the Spartan Xanthippus, this force met the Romans at the Bagradas River where the Spartan utilized his cavalry and war elephants on open ground to overwhelm and annihilate the Romans. The consular army was completely wiped out and Regulus himself was captured. The Carthaginians would live to fight another day.


The Battle of the Aegates Islands 

regulus returning carthage
Regulus Returning to Carthage by Andries Cornelis Lens, 1791. Source: the Hermitage Museum


Despite the Carthaginians’ desperate victory over Regulus and the end of the immediate threat, the war would drag on for 14 more years.


The command of Carthaginian land forces would in the interim be turned over to Hamilcar Barca. Demonstrating his ability to competently lead a campaign, Hamilcar fought the Romans to a stalemate on land. He was, however, ill-equipped. The continued stalemate in Sicily and their recent successes at sea affirmed in the Roman’s minds that the war would be won on the waves. Hamilcar was trapped and he could do little more than watch as the climactic


battle of the war would be waged just off the coast of Sicily.


Growing short of manpower and funds to build a new fleet, Carthage mustered 250 more ships with the intention of first re-supplying Hamilcar and then collecting some of his men to serve as marines.


Fighting against strong winds, the Roman consul Gaius Catalus moved to intercept them before they were able to link up with Hamilcar. Sails raised and, laden down with supplies, the Carthaginian fleet was unprepared for an attack. The Roman fleet, 200-300 ships strong, crashed into their adversaries, ramming, boarding, and out-maneuvering them until over half of the Carthaginian ships sank into the sea.


It was a crippling defeat. Not only was Hamilcar’s prospect of continuing the war on land dashed, but so too was Carthage’s ability to defend at sea. The Carthaginian government was destitute from over two decades of war. Unwilling and unable to realistically carry on the war effort, Carthage ordered Hamilcar to begin the negotiation of a treaty.


A Carthaginian Peace

marsala shipwreck
The remnants of the Marsala Shipwreck; a Punic naval ship from the 3rd century BCE. Source: Museo Archeologico Regionale Lilibeo


Carthage ordered Hamilcar to begin the negotiation of a treaty. Incensed at the idea of capitulation and eager to avoid blame and prosecution at the hands of the Court of 104, he quickly distanced himself from the proceedings.


Rome too was nearly broke from the conflict. To finance the construction of another fleet and continue the war, they were forced to take loans from private citizens after the Battle of Drepana. These needed to be repaid. Yet, the Romans held all the leverage.


According to Polybius, the terms of the Treaty of Lutatius forced the Carthaginians to vacate Sicily, agree not to make war on Hiero or the Syracusans, return all Romans without ransom, and pay an indemnity of 2,200 Euboic silver talents.


For Rome, who typically annexed their defeated enemies, the treaty was an admission of Carthage’s power, as well as their lack of solvency. While not as harsh as the terms following the Second and Third Punic Wars, it did firmly establish Rome’s control over Sicily, a region Carthage had spent an innumerable sum of money and lives protecting over the past five centuries or so.


For Carthage (and particularly Hamilcar), it was seen as an insult, and in practical terms, an admission that they no longer dominated the central Mediterranean or retained the commercial benefits that came with it. This “Carthaginian Peace” would lead Polybius to relay the perhaps apocryphal story of Hamilcar forcing his son Hannibal to swear an oath upon an altar of Baal Hammon that he would always be an enemy of Rome.


First Punic War: Conclusion

hannibal oath
The Oath of Hannibal by Benjamin West, 1770. Source: The Royal Collection Trust


To the Carthaginians, a conflict with the Romans, begun after answering the call of a third party, would have felt very similar to the Sicilian Wars, conflicts which often ended in a peace treaty after a single battle or campaign. The course of the war was dictated as much by the precedent of Carthage’s experience fighting Greeks in Sicily as it did by the ingenuity and perseverance of the Roman aristocracy.


When the Romans lost their fleet after the Battle of Drepana in 249 BCE, the Roman aristocracy responded by providing the funds, interest-free, to the state to raise 200 new ships; an act which, according to British historian Adrian Goldsworthy, “should be interpreted as a gesture of genuine patriotism.”


Unarguably, the Romans were the more aggressive of the two peoples. While the Carthaginians clung to their strongholds and skirted the Italian coast looking for easy prey, the Romans were planning their knock-out blow. Although the invasion of Africa was ultimately unsuccessful, the resilience of the Roman people to pursue the war to its endgame proved to be too much for the Carthaginians to surmount.


Similarly, disastrous military affairs in Sicily over a century earlier had prompted Carthage’s own aristocracy to rise up and form the Court of 104, who would prosecute and crucify many of their own commanders for lack of competence, disavowing duty, or treason. Their response to adversity was factionalism, pointing fingers, and prosecution. Whereas the Romans, like Winston Churchill in 1940, would “never surrender.”


For one man, the mistakes the Carthaginians had made during the First Punic War were apparent. He had learned how his enemy fought, and he knew that if he were ever to beat them, he needed to fight like them. His name was Hannibal Barca, and his course was set for Italy.

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By Christopher NelsonMSc Ancient History, BA Classical Archaeology, BA AnthropologyChristopher holds a degree in Classical Archaeology from the University of Missouri and a Master’s degree in Ancient History from the University of Edinburgh. He is a Kansas City native where both of his parents worked as schoolteachers. They instilled in him a love of history that has manifested itself in countless travel excursions, stacks of books, and questions. He currently resides in New York City.