Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The First Punic War (264-241)

The Romans referred to the Carthaginians as Phoenicians and to things Phoenician as Punic. This is why the series of wars between Rome and Carthage are referred to as the Punic Wars.

In 275, the Romans finally defeated Pyrrhus and his best Hellenian armies in southern Latinia. By 272 they had taken complete control of all the Hellenian cities in Latinia and controlled all of Latinia south of the Arno River.

Being the devout Olympians they were, and understanding the meaning of life in terms of power as they did, the Romans next turned against their most powerful rival in the western Mediterranean, Carthage, because they thought they could beat them.

Initial hostilities (264)
This lethal competition between Rome and Carthage started in 264. In response to a request for help from the rulers of Messana (today’s Messina) in Sicily, a Roman army went to that city, defeated the Carthaginian and Syracusan soldiers laying siege to it, then marched south and laid siege to Syracuse. With no help coming from the Carthaginians, Syracusan leaders smartly made peace with the Romans.

Some Roman advances in Sicily (262-258)
Two years later (262), the Romans laid siege to the Carthaginian city of Agrigentum. Just as supplies within the city were becoming dangerously low, disease broke out in the Roman camp. Both sides decided an open battle would be best but only the Romans were right. They defeated their opponents and captured the city.

After that major victory on land, the Romans decided to build their first fleet of fighting ships to challenge Carthaginian control of the sea. Since Carthaginians sailors were weaker than Roman infantry, the Romans outfitted all their ships with small portable bridges. They planned to get their ships alongside enemy ships, hook them so they couldn’t pull away, drop the portable bridge across the gap between ships, then have their infantry quickly cross to the enemy ships and easily defeat their sailors and take control.

In 260, off the northwest coast of Sicily at Mylae, the Romans first tried this new strategy. It worked quite well. The Carthaginians started with 130 ships but lost all 50 the Romans boarded. The remaining 80 quickly sailed away.

Later in 260 the Romans attacked the Carthaginian city of Thermaeon on the northern coast of Sicily but the Carthaginians defeated them. The Romans, however, did succeed in saving two Sicilian cities from Carthaginian sieges. In 259, the Carthaginians captured two cities in central Sicily allied with Rome. In 258, the Romans took them back.

Interlude (258-256)
The Romans decided that fighting Carthaginians over Sicilian cities made no sense. They decided to take the fight straight to Carthage. To do so they constructed a huge fleet of warships and transports.

Triumph and disaster in Carthaginia (256-255)
The Romans sent their huge new fleet toward Carthage in 256. The Carthaginian fleet met them in battle off the coast of Sicily at Cape Ecnomus. In a decisive victory, the Romans sank or captured half of the Carthaginian fleet.

After making repairs, the Roman army proceeded to Carthaginia, landed, and started trashing the countryside on its way to Carthage. In early 255 the Romans won their first major land battle in Carthaginia at Adys about 40 miles (64 km) southeast of Carthage.

After this disastrous loss, with refugees pouring into the city, food supplies running short, and outbreaks of disease starting, Carthaginian rulers decided to stop fighting and asked for terms of peace. Marcus Regulus, the Roman leader in Carthaginia, demanded they surrender all control in Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, give all their ships to Rome, pay in silver a heavy penalty for starting the war, and accept the Roman rule of Carthage.

Carthaginian rulers found these conditions less acceptable than continuing to fight. They hired the Spartan general Xanthippus to lead their troops against the Roman army. It was money well spent. A few short weeks after their defeat at Adys, Xanthippus lead the Carthaginians to an overwhelming victory over the Romans and even captured Marcus Regulus.

Interlude (255-253)
The Romans sent a fleet to rescue their surviving troops in Carthaginia. On its return voyage to Rome, a storm sank the entire fleet. Tens of thousands of Romans drowned. Hostilities between Rome and Carthage quieted.

More Roman advances in Sicily (253-249)
Nonetheless, after two years, the Romans restarted the fight. Here lies the secret to Roman success after Celts looted and burned their city in 390: stubborn persistence despite heavy losses.

The Romans started with an attack on a Carthaginian city in Sicily and a raid in Carthaginia. Both failed. The raiders again drowned on their return voyage.

The Romans took Thermae in 252 and then Panormus (today’s Palermo) in 251. After its fall, numerous smaller cities switched their loyalty to the Romans. Some cities that didn’t got burned to the ground.

In 250 the Romans attacked the western Sicilian city of Lilybaeum, Carthaginian military headquarters, but failed to take control of it. In 249 a Roman fleet sailed to nearby Drepana to punish the Carthaginian ships moored there for supplying the Carthaginians in Lilybaeum and contributing to their success. It shouldn’t have bothered. The Carthaginians sank almost every ship. The Romans didn’t have the heart or the money to build another fleet for seven long years.

Lull in Sicily and Carthage(249-242)
By now war had seriously drained the vitality of both Rome and Carthage. The Carthaginians could no longer mount serious attacks against established Roman positions in Sicily. They settled for guerilla attacks against Roman soldiers in Sicily and naval raids against Roman cities in Latinia.

A different group of politicians took power in Carthage in 244. They believed that enough money had been wasted in the war against Rome. To start saving money, they began reducing the number of ships in the Carthaginian navy.

Rome’s final victory (242-241)
In sharp contrast, in 242 wealthy citizens of Rome agreed to finance the construction of 200 ships for a new Roman fleet. These ships were used to blockade the two most important Carthaginian cities remaining on Sicily: Lilybaeum and Drepana. Carthaginian rulers sent what fleet remained to break the Roman blockade. The Romans met them in battle in March 241 and destroyed or captured half their ships. With no money left to finance armies or fleets in Sicily, Carthage surrendered to Rome.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.