images or on the links below the images to enlarge them.
Greek and Punic positions in the Mediterranean -- getting ready to
Basic early Greek warship reconstructed and crewed by Greek students.
The domain of infant Rome: thatched huts on the Palatine hill and
surrounded by Etruscans. This is the time of the Roman "Monarchy"
(actually a gang of outlaws with a "king" who was a gang leader.)
The last four kings (of the total seven) were Etruscans, it it was they
who brought Rome into the "modern" world.
Map said to have been made by Herodotus around 450 BC. (Really a 12th
century copy with lord knows how many intermediate copies, mis-copies,
additions and subtractions.)
A detail of the Herodotus map. By the time Herodotus made his
map, Rome and Carthage had been in a treaty relationship for 50
years. In Early days, the treaty just said that Rome had a right
to trade in Carthage and the western Mediterranean islands and to hold
territory on the Italian mainland. Later revisions of the treaty
put more restrictions on Roman trade, but still allowed trade at
Carthage. Clearly, the Carthaginians were the major power
dealing with an upstart. The treaty relationship lasted about
250 years -- until Rome broke it with an unprovoked attack on Messana,
Sicily in 264 BC.
By 380 BC, Rome had a small part of central Italy. Carthage
had spread out on the North African coast and had a foothold on Sicily
and had control of the southern half of Sardinia.
Things had changed dramatically by 270 BC. Carthage had Sardinia
and Corsica and the Western half of Sicily -- and looking greedily at
the eastern half where feuding Greek city-states had hired Campanian
mercenaries to fight amongst themselves. Rome, meanwhile, had
taken over all of the Italian Peninsula south of the Rubicon (it didn't
take Cis-Alpine Gaul in the North until Julius Caesar conquered
it. All those Campanian mercenaries in the Greek side of Sicily
were now Roman or at least from Roman territory.
The Greek city states in eastern Sicily were all that separated the
expanding militaristic Roman republic (they had thrown out the last
Etruscan king years before) from the Carthaginians. This is the
Greek Temple of Apollo in downtown Siracusa, Sicily (ancient Syracuse)
Carthage had developed a solid agricultural economy and combined
wealth from its traditional Mediterranean trade with new money from
agricultural exports. A "war party" in the popular assembly and
among the leadership thought that some of that money should be invested
in expansion of Carthaginian territory in Sicily.
Greek and Carthaginian towns had always been mostly on the coast of
Sicily. The indigenes had gone to the hills (where they remain to
this day.) Support from Greece for the Greek colonies on the
island had withered away -- the cities that had sent out colonists were
too embroiled in their own local wars to continue to support their
colonists. The Greek towns in Sicily also wasted their resources
fighting among themselves. Syracuse, in particular, was a local
power with ambitions.
Acragas (later Agrigentum) was a Greek town in the middle of Sicily's
southern coast. Syracuse (in the center of the eastern coast) in
alliance with Acragas hoped to take over all the Greek towns of
At the same time, King Pyrrhos from Epiros (back in Greece) tried to
make inroads in both southern Italy and in Sicily. He was king of
the Greek tribe of Molossians, of the royal Aeacid house (from ca.
297 BC), and later he became King of Epirus (306-302, 297-272 BC) and
Macedon (288-284, 273-272 BC). He was one of the strongest opponents of
early Rome. He won some
battles, but they were the proverbial "Pyrrhic victories" -- he used up
his resources and went back home. The image is of a Greek temple
near modern Agrigento.
The excuse for war. Campanian mercenaries, who called
themselves Mamertines (i.e., servants of the Oscan Mars), had taken
Messana (now Messina) after being discharged when Agathocles of
Syracuse died in 289 BC. They used Messana as a base for raiding
other towns and for piracy at sea, and they had an informal alliance
with Carthage. King Pyrrhus had defeated the Mamertines outside
their town in 278 (at the request of Syracuse) but instead of taking
Messana and eliminating the Mamertine thorn in the side of Syracuse,
Pyrrhus attacked Lilybaeum, a town on the far western tip of Sicily
which belonged to Carthage. Eventually Pyrrhus left the area
leaving the Mamertines to resume their raiding and piracy.
In 275 BC, a separate group of Campanians, who were mostly deserters
from the Roman army, took Rhegium (now Reggio di Calabria) on the
Italian mainland, opposite Messana. A Roman legion took back
Rhegium and stayed in the area -- about two miles from Messana.
In 265, Hiero II of Syracuse tried to rid eastern Sicily of the
Mamertine bandits. The Mamertines asked both Carthage and Rome
for help against Hiero. Carthage reacted first to aid their
informal allies -- and also to expand into eastern Sicily and to keep
Hiero from becoming too powerful. They sent a military force to
Messana. The Mamertines quickly realized they had made a mistake
-- the Carthaginians had chased off Hiero, but they they wouldn't go
back home. After some fast negotiations with Rome, a deal was
made, and a Roman force arrived under the command of Apius Claudius
Caudex (the last part of whose name meant either "tree-trunk" or
"Blockhead") to save the
"Roman" Mamertines from the Carthaginian menace. This
broke and ended permanently the 250 year old alliance
between Rome and Carthage. (If this sounds similar to the
beginning of the Mexican War after the founding of the Republic of
Texas, it's because it is similar.)
Carthage then rapidly formed an (un-natural) alliance with Hiero, and,
as they say, the rest is history.
The Roman force that crossed the narrow straits into Sicily easily took
the port of Messana. But the Carthaginians under one of their
many commanders named Hanno and the Syracusans besieged the
town. Apius Claudius sent them an ultimatum: stop
the siege or go to war. The Carthaginians wouldn't lift the
so Apius declared war. The First Punic War would last 23 years.
Another Greek remnant. A theater, still in use, in Taormarina
near Messina. Roman theaters were free-standing and Greek
theaters were built into hillsides. This one has a a "Romanized"
The First Punic War was all about Sicily. Neither side really
needed any resources from Sicily, but each side feared the strategic
advantage the other side would have by controlling the island.
Most of the major battles of this first war were fought on or around
the island, and (as was also the case in the Second War) Rome was
and able to commit more resources to the effort. Rome was always
able to come up with more men and, most importantly, more ships after
inexperienced Roman naval commanders lost fleet after fleet -- mostly
to storms and faulty navigation. By the last years of the First
Punic War, Carthage was leaving Hamilcar Barca un-reinforced on the
Island. Toward the end of the 23 year war, Carthage just
failed to keep up the pace that Rome set. Although history has
concentrated on the Second Punic War, this first war war the one that
made the difference and that made the Second War impossible for the
Carthaginian side to win.
[Why does the Second Punic War win out in historical coverage and
continuing public interest? Two reasons: first, there were
great leaders on both sides, Hannibal and Scipio Africanus, with the
latter pulling out a victory after long years of Carthaginian
dominance. Second, Polybius, the first and greatest historian of
the Punic Wars, was actually present for the Second Punic War but was
writing from other sources about the first. In his multi-volume History,
he writes one book about
the first war and three about the second. We simply know have
more information about the personalities and the battles of the second
When the First Punic War started, the Carthaginians had quinqueremes
and the Romans had smaller ships. By good fortune (according to
legend) the Romans acquired a wrecked Carthaginian quinquereme and
quickly reverse-engineered it. Roman shipyards, almost certainly
manned by experienced shipwrights from the former Magna Graecia
churning out quinqueremes at a much faster rate than the Carthaginians
could match. Despite heavy losses to storms and mischance --
several hundred ships, more than were lost in all the battles against
carthaginians -- the Romans always were able to float replacements, and
sometimes in very short periods of time. Modern historians long
doubted that Roman shipyards could really build 200 ships over a two
month period, but builders marks on timbers of ancient ships recovered
in the 1970s showed that it was common to build fleets of
standardized prefabricated parts -- "weapons of mass production".
In addition, the Romans probably built ships in ports of former Magna
towns all along the southern coasts of Italy.
there was the vast Roman supply of good shipbuilding wood, which the
Carthaginians couldn't match. Their best supply was actually in
Sardinia, and the relatively small Roman naval victory at Sulci Island
off the southwest Sardinian coast cut Carthaginian supply from Sardinia
early in the war (258 BC). By the end of the War, Rome had more
and bigger ships. The theory that Carthage went back to smaller
models because they were more maneuverable doesn't hold up. They
just didn't have the wood and wouldn't/couldn't spend the money to
The corvus, Rome's "secret weapon" was no real secret -- just a new
idea. It's hard to keep secret an 8 to 10 meter ramp with a huge
spike on the end, especially when it has just crashed down on the deck
of your ship and there are hundreds of Roman marine infantry pouring
over it. After... no, during the battle of the Lipari Islands,
first naval battle of the war (260 BC), the Romans realized that they
were no match for Punic naval skills (yet). At the second battle
(Mylae, same year), they deployed the Corvus and won decisively,
capturing 30 Carthaginian ships. And the operative word is
"capture" -- those ships were soon back in other battles on the Roman
side. The Carthaginians did learn one lesson: station have
on any ship that might encounter Romans. This somewhat limited
Roman success in later battles, but the Romans, from here on,
had the advantage at sea -- if they had a competent admiral, which was
not always the case.
The Romans also had to learn a lesson about the corvus. It
made already top-heavy ships even more unstable. Veering (coming
about with the wind astern) could be harrowing, and moving through a
storm without capsizing could be well nigh impossible. As usual,
Roman engineers had an answer. The fleet abandoned the corvus and
mounted instead large catapults, which shot heavy barbed darts into
enemy ships. A chain that flew out behind the dart was attached
to a shorter mast (forward, where the corvus mast had stood), and the
enemy could be reeled in for boarding by those same
marines. The object of the Roman game was always to turn a
sea battle into an infantry charge. The Romans kept their
advantage but no longer destabilized their ships.
The stern of a Punic warship was protected for more than two
millennia by the mud off the shore of Lilybaeum (modern Marsala) on the
western end of Sicily). The ship is thought to be a casualty of
the Battle of Lilybaeum, the last naval battle of the war. Only
a small part of the wreck was recovered, the rest having been destroyed
long ago by wave and tide, but the part that was brought up showed two
things: the Carthaginians, by this time, were also using
prefabricated parts (Punic inscriptions were found giving instructions
-- "tab A in slot B" -- and Punic ships were being launched
prematurely, i.e., before the caulking putty had time to set.
The rostrum (plural = rostra), the bronze ram at the front of
was the most expensive part of the vessel. Captured rostra were
war booty and were reused or put on display, mounted on the front of
speakers' platforms. During the Punic wars, bronze was still a
metal of coinage in Rome.
If you needed to attack a fortified port, you might build or buy
one of these.
Rome routinely contracted shipbuilding out to former Magna Graecia
shipyards. As Rome took over territories in the Italian
Peninsula, she inherited both their shipbuilding facilities and their
owners, who were integrated into the Roman plutocracy. War was
Mediterranean warships just kept growing. The Roman deceris was
like a quinquereme on steroids. Height at the gunwale was a major
consideration -- it was important to have a height advantage when
approaching your enemies so that you could shoot down at them while
your marines were preparing to swarm onto their decks. But these
ships had no deep keel, and the more you had above the waterline the
more weight in ballast you needed to keep your ship upright. Ship
size increased over the centuries, and Ptolemy of Egypt eventually had
impractical) "forty" -- forty rowers per position. It's thought
that it was twin-hulled (like the siege tower above ) with two banks of
oars and ten rowers per oar. Even after classical times, rowing
was, with sail, a standard means of moving cargo and of fighting in the
Mediterranean. Renaissance galleys fought their last great sea
battle at Lepanto in 1571. (See http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi303.htm
for more info.) Galley builders found that the greatest practical
number of rowers per oar was eight.
In the naval Battle of Ecnomus, off the southern coast of Sicily, the
Carthaginians tried to draw off the two leading Roman squadrons.
The plan was that the Carthaginian flanks would the attack the third
Roman squadron which was towing transports. The Carthaginians
hadn't reckoned with the Roman capability of pursuit. When the
Carthaginian center fell back, the Romans did surge forward, but it
quickly overtook and heavily damaged the retreating Carthaginian
center. The two leading Roman squadrons then quickly came about
and trapped the Carthaginian flankers. The Carthaginian strategy
was essentially the same as the strategy used later on land by Hannibal
in the Second Punic War, but Hannibal had the hugely dominant Numidian
cavalry on his flanks, and they were not about to be trapped even if
the Roman infantry had been able to turn about to engage the
Carthaginian flanks. As we will see, at the Zamma battle that
ended the Second Punic War, Massanissa's Numidians
defected to the Romans, and that was the end of Hannibal's army.
Our now familiar satellite view of Carthage showing the location of the
Carthaginian ports. The outer rectangular port was commercial.
The inner circular naval port was also the headquarters of the
Carthage in Roman times. The image shows the location of the
The naval port was 330 meters in diameter and could hold about 220
ships, each in its own shed. The sheds appear to have had sand
bottoms and the ships were winched up onto the sand.
Artist's reconstruction of the naval port showing a cut-away view of
the admiralty island. Archeologists have partially reconstructed
one of the drydocks on the island.
Ostia was founded during the Roman monarchy period, long before the
Punic Wars. The town guarded the mouth of the Tiber River, and
the River itself was Rome's naval "port". Smaller vessels could
navigate the river up to the southern edge of Rome (i.e., outside the
Servian walls, but inside the present Aurelian walls). Ostia is
not explicitly mentioned in the history of the First Punic War
(southern naval facilities were probably used), but it is mentioned in
accounts of the second Punic War.
A map of the ruins of Ostia at the beginning of excavations in the
A labeled satellite view of Ostia.
A breast plate, now on display in the Bardo Museum in Tunis, is
sometimes misidentified as Carthaginian. It was found in the tomb
of a Carthaginian warrior, but it probably was captured as a trophy --
stripped from the body of a vanquished Campanian mercenary.
"Subjugation" was a ritual passing of prisoners under a real or
symbolic yoke. From Latin sub = under + jugatus = yoke. The
painting, a detail of which is shown, memorializes the defeat of one of
Caesar's Roman armies by a Gallic force. It has become a fixture
of the Swiss national mythology even though the actual defeat took
place in what is now France. The insert shows a textbook
illustration of a symbolic "yoke" of spears, under which barbarians are
forced to walk by victorious Roman troops (time and place
Samnites were from the mountainous area northeast of the Campanian
(around the Bay of Naples. Like the Campanians, they spoke an
"Oscan" language (as opposed to Latin or Etruscan) and it's not at all
certain that they were ethnically different from the Campanians -- the
divisions of Italic peoples are based on perhaps fallacious
distinctions that date back to the Romans who seemed to have felt a
need to categorize folks. Canpanians and Samnites generally
fought on the
Roman side of the Punic Wars. Notice this cavalryman's
Another Samnite, dressed differently. Auxiliaries didn't wear
uniforms -- in fact, at this period, the Roman army regulars were also
pretty much un-uniform.
A third Samnite.
The key to Carthaginian victory on land, when it occurred, was the
fierce Numidian mercenary cavalry. Their main weapon was a
throwing spear, and each always carried several into their attack.
Mauritanian archers fought on the side of the Carthaginians.
Artists impression of Maharbal, who was Hannibal's cavalry
commander during the Second Punic War, gives us a view of what
Carthaginian officers wore. His name indicates that he was
Carthaginian, but he probably commanded mercenary cavalry.
Although the officer corps of the Carthaginian army was actually
composed of Carthaginians, all the troops were usually foreign
Forward edge of the Carthaginian army. Cavalry, foreground,
then phalanges (singular = phalanx) of infantry, then, of in the
distance, more cavalry. The image is somewhat defective because
it shows a uniformity of costume that was never present in the
Iberian Scutari were light infantry (phalanx infantrymen were the
heavies) and were so called because of the kind of large oval shields
they used. Carthaginian army.
Celtiberian mercenaries -- more Carthaginian light infantry.
Iberian mercenary. Carthaginian army.
Iberian Caetrati carried a Caetra shield and often used the
slashing falcata sword.
Another of the Iberian Caetrati.
Hamilcar, the father of Hannibal, led the land forces of Carthage
in Sicily -- by the end of the First Punic War it was a ragtag guerilla
band. According to Polybius, it was Hamilcar who, in the period
between the First and Second Punic Wars, trained Hannibal in Spain and
inculcated Hannibal with a profound hatred of Rome.
A fanciful Carthaginian war elephant. Elephants were native to
Africa during this period. They were smaller than the sub-Saharan
breed, but still plenty scary when they ran at you. Carthage did
not originate the use of elephants in Mediterranean warfare: they
had been used for a long time in areas further east. Their
trainers were imported from India. Hamilcar had elephants on
Sicily. It's highly unlikely that the Carthaginians ever put
howdahs on the back of thei elephants. The first use of elephants
in battle in the western Mediterranean was apparently by Pyrros, who
used them against both the Romans and the Carthaginians; they had,
however, already been used in the eastern Mediterranean before their
use by Pyrros.
An elephant trainer and driver -- probably an Indian -- carried his
goad and spears.
Hamilcar "on his elephant" in Sicily. The elephant's head
was practical: prevented sunburn
Roman infantry knew how to bring down an elephant, but the preferred
defensive strategy was to goad them into turning around and running
back where they came from. This image shows both the wrong kind
of elephant, and the wrong kind of goad in the hand of the mahout, and,
of course, another of those probavly non-existent howdahs..
Celtiberian light infantry carrying a scutum shield and a Celtic long
sword. The Iberian short sword, which the Romans adopted and
called a gladius
, was shorter
and therefore more useful for close
An individual member of a phalanx was something you would never see
on a battlefield. They bunched together in groups of 256:
16 abreast and 16 deep. Each of these heavy infantrymen carried a
shield and a 18 to 20 foot long lance called a sarissa.
This phalangist is wearing a linothorax -- body armor made of layers of
linen glued together with animal glue.
A phalange member wearing chain mail. Carthaginian soldiers soon
learned to strip the mail from the bodies of slain Roman
infantrymen. Mail was much more efficient at turning a blade than
was the linothorax. Note also that his sarissa lance has a bronze
counterweight above the butt spike. This allowed the member of
the phalanx to carry his weapon with much less fatigue.
The standard infantry formation of Mediterranean armies of this period
was this 256
man phalanx. It theoretically could move in any direction -- all
the men would raise their spears, turn, and put their spears down again
to move in a new direction. In practice, changing direction was
extremely difficult, and protecting your flanks was virtually
Commanders would pack their phalanges in side by side and
flank them with protecting cavalry. Armies would face each
other, and pointy shoving matches would ensue. Only the
first five ranks would point their spears downward toward the
enemies. This meant that between the front line of men in the
five spears would protrude. The next image shows what you faced
as a phalanx moved toward you.
The Phalanx was packed tighter than the opposing Roman maniple.
So individual Roman troopers (and they did fight as individuals) might
face ten advancing sarissae. Pretty tough duty.
So why did the Romans win on Punic War battlefields? At the
beginning, they didn't. Usually it was the Numidian cavalry that
gave the victory to Carthage. But in Sicily and in Italy (Second
Punic War) Roman maniples could beat the phalanx formations simply
because they could maneuver and were able to adapt to uneven ground,
obstacles, and even to dead men and horses on the field of
battle. Any of those things could cause gaps in the phalanges
that the Roman infantry could penetrate. Once inside, the
Carthaginian sarissae were useless against the deadly Roman short
swords (gladii, singular = gladius). That's what has
happened in this image. (Carthaginans, by the way, were never
that "uniform".) And once the Romans had learned how to panic and
turn charging elephants, things got really bad for the Carthaginian
phalanx formations. There was no way to get out of the phalanx
unless everyone dropped their lances and fled at the same time.
(In the Second Punic War, Hannibal began to adopt the Roman formation
but by that time the Romans had again changed tactics and were
completely avoiding set-piece battles in Italy. Instead,
Hannibal to wander around in southern Italy using up his ever more
scarce supplies and men in small skirmishes. Much more about that
about the big set-piece battle that the Romans finally did fight, at
be in a later unit.)
The final score at the end of the First Punic War was Rome 1, Carthage
0. Rome had beaten the much vaunted Carthaginian fleet and the
remaining Carthaginian coastal towns and ports, unable to be
resupplied, had to surrender. Hamilcar was allowed to take his
remaining land forces home. Unlike the Carthaginian admirals who
had failed and had therefore been crucified by their own people,
Hamilcar lived to fight another day. Carthage agreed to terms,
which included paying Rome an indemnity.
Shortly after the First Punic War, Hamilcar was called back to arms to
put down a revolt of unpaid mercenaries -- his own former troops.
Then he went to Spain and started to plan the next war against Rome.