Miliatry Battles

The First Punic War

Page 1 of 4By Lord_Morningstar


The following is the product of my interest in history and the fact that I have too much time on my hands. I seek to take a fairly detailed look at the first war between Rome and Carthage, its context, its players, and its repercussions. It makes for a fairly dramatic tale as the powers being pitted against each other were former friends and matched very equally; the Western Mediterranean had never seen anything like the First Punic War. I claim no expertise, but with access to the internet and a university library becoming an expert on a subject is becomingly increasingly easier.

So, let’s go to the Ancient World. Ahead of us lies a great journey, from the marble halls where the Roman Senate sits to the windswept plains of North Africa. We will ride Carthaginian Elephants into battle at the Bagradas River, Lie in ambush in shrubby woods in the hills above Barcelona with the fierce warriors of the Iberian Celts, sit in luxury in a palace in Syracuse, take part in exciting Consular elections, and pull at the oar of a galley rounding the Sicilian Coast (try not to get blisters). We are going to the world of the young Roman Republic, the Greek Colonies in Italy, known as Magna Graecia, and the height of Carthaginian power.


It is misleading to think of the Roman Republic as a unified nation. The Romans did not extend their territory by marching legions into enemy lands, raising an eagle on a pole, and installing a complete Roman system of laws, architecture and religion overnight. In reality, the Roman Republic was a confederation of city-states, little kingdoms and tribes, each bound to Rome and its Senate by a treaty. To understand the nature of Rome at this time, it’s worth taking a closer look at its political structure. Rome’s own territory stretched in a diagonal belt across Italy, from southern Tuscany to the Adriatic. This land was occupied by the 35 Roman ‘tribes’. In addition to that, there was the motley assembly of Umbrian, Sabine, Etruscan and Greek Cities that made up the rest of the ‘confederation’. The old maxim of ‘divide and conquer’ was already apparent in Roman thinking; as each ‘ally’ was bound to Rome by its own treaty, it was hard for them to co-ordinate a revolt. Most readers will probably have some familiarity with the Roman Republic, but the details are worth a mention. The Republic was run by two Consuls; elected each year, who also had command of the army, a Senate, and a people’s assembly. The Roman Republic adhered to certain values that we can consider liberal or democratic; for example, the ability of magistrates to arrest and detain people was limited. Overall, though, it was still a very conservative nation whose strings were pulled from behind curtains by the powerful families. The Romans themselves, known as the Senate and People of Rome, or S.P.Q.R, were in a superior position to the allies, who had little say in the running of the Republic yet still had to pay taxes and provide soldiers. However, the Roman allies were better off than many subjugated peoples around the world at the time. For example, their social and political structures were usually left in place, and their aristocracy could sometimes gain influence in Rome.

The Roman army was the best in Italy, but it was still essentially a glorified town militia and not up to the standard of the best Hellenized forces. Its basic unit was the legion, consisting of some 4,500 men, and legions could be recruited from among the citizens or the allies. Legionaries had to buy their own equipment, and so the army tended to be divided up according to class. Poorer recruits would serve as skirmishers, or velites, slightly richer ones as sword-and-javelin armed legionaries, or hastatii and princeps, richer ones still as armored spearmen, or triarii, and the richest as cavalry, or equites. It was an effective fighting force; suited to the hilly terrain of Italy, and disciplined by the standards of the time. Even so, Roman tactics before the Punic Wars were not advanced. The dominant part of the army was the infantry, with skirmishers and cavalry reduced to a minor role. Roman commanders had a limited notion of combined arms, generally engaging the different troop types, front on, one after the other. The Romans almost always attacked in the same battle order of velites-hastatii-princeps-triarii with equites on the wings, and almost always head on. There was none of the tactical finesse of Alexander and his successors, who sought to pin enemies with phalanxes and then attack them in the flanks or rear with other troop types, and nor was there the same balance between the different arms. Thanks to the good quality of their soldiers and their manpower, the Romans usually won their battles, but it wasn’t too hard for a skilled commander to outwit them.

In 335 BC, the Romans had just subjugated the Latin League to their growing list of aggressively-obtained friends. This left them sandwiched between the remaining Etruscan City-States and the Samnites, to the north and south respectively. Not the sort of people to wait for a potential enemy to attack them, the Romans invaded Samnium over a border dispute. The Etruscans, who did not seem to share that philosophy, only came to the Samnite’s assistance in 311; just in time to be crushed with them. This made the Romans sufficiently powerful to warrant Carthaginian attention.

Carthage was a Phoenician Colony, founded in about 750 BC. Politically, it was very similar to Rome. It had undergone periods of Monarchy, Republic and Oligarchy, and it, too, consisted of a confederation of allied peoples. At the time of the Punic War, it was essentially an Oligarchy. Power was held by the wealthy landowning families, and was concentrated in a Senate-like body known as the Council of One Hundred and Four. Carthage also had a King and a People’s Assembly, but neither played much part in the events described. The Romans called the Carthaginians ‘Poeni’ and as such I will sometime refer to the Carthaginians as the Punic Confederation. Not an entirely accurate name, but, like the Italian Confederation, it will do. Despite political similarity to their Italian counterparts, the Carthaginians were economically different for the Romans. The latter were still an agricultural society; the idea of wealth through trade was looked on with suspicion. By contrast, the Carthaginians plied the length and breadth of the great blue Mediterranean for trade and commerce, and they tended to use their subject peoples as cash cows, while, to the Romans, they were sources of troops. Around the time that the Romans and Carthaginians first began having dealings with each other, Carthage ruled a large swathe of North Africa, along with Sardinia, Corsica, and a sizeable part of Sicily.

The Carthaginians had a strong navy, and were accustomed to fighting at sea. They were a partially Hellenized people, bought about by the Macedonian conquest of their homeland and contact with the local Greeks, a fact which reflected in their architecture, culture and warfare. Generally, Carthage used its wealth to hire mercenaries to fight for it, as, unlike the Romans, they did not levy troops from their subject peoples. In Spain there could be found javelin-and-sword infantry, in Africa, cavalry and skirmishers, while the Gauls and Ligurians of northern Italy could provide infantry warbands to fight for Carthage. Heavy Carthaginian infantry fought in phalanx, and they made use of cavalry and elephants. This army would soon to get some use, as the result of the first Roman-Punic contact was, after all, an alliance; an alliance against a common enemy.

Greeks. By the third century BC they were everywhere. Alexander had just completed his murderous trans-Persian rampage, and Greek rulers sat on thrones from Egypt to Italy and from Thrace to the Indus. The Greek city states in Italy and Sicily, known as Magna Graecia, were quite old by this stage, extensive, and powerful. Greeks from a number of city-states first came to Southern Italy around 750 BC. Finding only scattered hill tribes, they quickly settled and built many cities, the chief of which was Tarentum in the south. As the Romans advanced down the Italian peninsula, they ran into the Italian Hellenes, and the two peoples were not destined to be friends.

The city of Syracuse, in Eastern Sicily, was founded in 734 BC by Greeks from Corinth. They didn’t seem to be too impressed by the place initially, naming it after the Greek word for ‘swamp’ (sirako) but as the locals were fairly hospitable and the region fairly rich, the city grew to prosper. It had to endure an Athenian invasion during the Peloponnesian War, but overall the Sicilian Hellenes had it fairly good. In 491 BC Syracuse passed under the rule of a line of Tyrants, some of who had some ideas about extending their power. As such, it was inevitable that they would run into problems with Carthage, who also had ambitions on their Island.

The war between the two powers in Sicily was nothing major, but in 310 an ambitious Sicilian tyrant named Agathocles landed at Cape Bon in Africa and threatened Carthage itself. He was turned back eventually, and so he campaigned in Italy instead, uniting all of the Greeks in the Italian-Sicilian area into a single Syracusian Empire (with a little help from the Etruscans). The Empire deteriorated, but the Greek-Carthaginian hostilities did not. Continued...

1 2 3 4 Next »