What Was the First Punic War? | History Hit

What Was the First Punic War?

18th century depiction of the Battle of Ecnomus (256 BC) during the First Punic War
Image Credit: Public Domain

Fought between Rome and Carthage over the course of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, the Punic Wars were a series of conflicts which raged across the western Mediterranean on both land and sea. They began in 264 BC as the interests of the two powers converged on the island of Sicily.

Rome, the younger of the two powers, had found that the best way to deal with people who stood in their way was by attacking first.

The rise of Rome

For nearly 250 years Rome had been sparring with its city-state neighbours. Veii, Neapolis, Tarquinia and Tarentum were all once-mighty cities that, by 264 BC, found themselves in the shadow of Roman power. The Romans plundered these defeated cities before welcoming them into a military alliance.

To achieve this, the Romans would annex a portion of the defeated polity or tribe’s territory for Latin colonists who could keep a watchful eye for any revolts. These socii states were forbidden to fight one another and had to provide Rome an annual tribute consisting of equipped troops.

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By the time the Roman and Carthaginian spheres of influence collided, these allies of Rome had the capability to raise a seemingly endless supply of troops. This self-replenishing army was the template for Roman expansion. Whether you consider it a preclusive defence strategy or simply greed, this tactic won Rome the Italian peninsula. These socii state allies raised the majority share of troops compared with Rome itself.

The rise of Carthage

Unlike the land-based power of Rome, Carthaginian supremacy lay in its Phoenician origins and maritime culture. The Carthaginians were the senior power compared to Rome. By 264 BC, It had been almost 400 years since they had gained independence from Tyre, their mother city. This event was over 140 years prior to Rome becoming a Republic.

Eager to expand its power, Carthage established numerous colonies along much of the African and Iberian coastlines converging on the Pillars of Hercules. Further Punic colonies followed, with Carthaginians settling on Sardinia, Corsica, Malta, and most significantly, Sicily. This trade network, protected by the Carthaginian capital’s central location between Tunisia and Sicily, was the foundation of Carthage’s economic success.

Ruins of ancient Carthage

Image Credit: Shutterstock

It was the ensuing wealth that allowed Carthage to resort to local mercenaries rather than depending on an expensive standing army. With a powerful navy, using mercenaries was a financially dynamic policy for the Carthaginians to deal with local insurgency. So long as they kept the money flowing, these hired professional soldiers were more than a match for most opposing armies. But going up against Rome was in a different league altogether.

What caused the First Punic War?

Until 264 BC relations between Rome and Carthage had been largely amicable. So much so that when the Molossian king, Pyrrhus, came knocking, they struck a defensive pact with each other – both desperate to rid themselves of the Epirote army. Yet within a decade of Pyrrhus’ departure, Rome and Carthage would be at war.

At the heart of this falling out was the island of Sicily. With Pyrrhus defeated and his Greek allies in Sicily dwindling in status, there was no common enemy to bridge the gap between Rome and Carthage’s differences.  A conflict of interests was about to erupt into full scale war.

The Mamertine affair

Two empires expanding into each other’s domains is always a recipe for disaster. So it would seem the Punic Wars were inevitable. Yet this epic conflict started out as a relatively minor tussle between the prestigious Siciliote-Greek city of Syracuse and one of the most bellicose peoples inhabiting Sicily at the time: the Mamertines.

The Mamertines were Campanian mercenaries who had occupied Messana, a city on the north-eastern tip of Sicily, after brutally slaughtering most of its inhabitants. Outclassed by Syracuse, these ruthless killers sought aid. Keen to gain the advantage in an enduring struggle with Syracuse and expand further into Sicily, Carthage intervened first, offering the Mamertines naval assistance and a garrison.

However, when Syracuse launched an attack against the Mamertines, for reasons best known to themselves, the latter spurned Carthaginian help and appealed to Rome. Perhaps the Mamertines had more confidence in Roman military backing? The ensuing debate in the Roman Senate about whether to grant the Mamertines support or not ended in stalemate. Some would question how Rome could rightfully help mercenaries who had effectively stolen Messana, committing an atrocious genocide in the process.

Detail from the Ahenobarbus relief showing two Roman foot-soldiers from the late Republic, c. 122 BC.

Image Credit: Public Domain

On the other hand, if Rome did nothing the Carthaginians would take over Sicily. Eventually, Rome’s popular assembly resolved the issue by agreeing to assist the Mamertines. In 264 BC, two legions were despatched to Messana and the Mamertines expelled the Carthaginian garrison.

The First Punic War 264-241 BC

Carthaginian retaliation was inevitable. Sicily was an island they viewed as rightfully theirs. Who else could they ally with but the other major power on Sicily, Syracuse, their old enemy? The new alliance set out to capture Messana. But before they could arrive the city had already fallen to the Roman legions. The Romans had landed and they were here to stay.

Swiftly, the Roman army moved on Syracuse. With no Carthaginian reinforcements on the horizon, Syracuse sued for peace. Rome granted a relatively lenient peace treaty but insisted Syracuse provision their army as the strong Carthaginian navy would threaten Roman supplies from the Italian mainland. This prompted other smaller Sicilian allies of Carthage, mostly those inland, to defect to the Romans.

Even with the help of these new allies, Rome could not hope to win the whole of Sicily by besieging every defiant city. Indeed, in 262 BC it took the combined effort of both consular armies just to sack the city of Agrigentum on Sicily’s southern coast.

Like Agrigentum, Sicilian coastal cities resolutely sided with the Carthaginians because of their supreme navy. They maintained a sea supremacy that ensured a steady supply of troops and supplies for the Carthaginian defence. Defeating these cities was therefore crucial to Roman strategy.  But to do that Rome would have to master the art of naval warfare.

Naval warfare

Rome needed a navy, or at least one capable of standing up to the Carthaginian fleet. The Romans were not a seafaring people. Up until the First Punic War, the extent of their maritime experience was limited to repelling pirates who raided the Italian coasts. Using a shipwrecked Carthaginian ship as a model, the Romans began building the navy which would one day enable them to call the Mediterranean mare nostrum (‘our sea’).

But the Romans did not just copy the Carthaginian fleet: they made a quintessentially Roman addition to their ships – the corvus – a pivoting bridge which would be secured to enemy ships. This new weapon allowed the Romans to bring their significant strengths in land-based warfare to the open sea. Instead of just ramming enemy ships, the corvus was used by parties of legionaries to board and capture Carthaginian ships.

Roman quinquereme vessel with the Corvus boarding bridge.

Image Credit: Uploaded by Lutatius, user on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

In 260 BC, off the coast of Mylae in northern Sicily, Roman ships equipped with the corvus proved triumphant. Roman confidence at sea grew and swift victories followed. So much so that by 256 BC Rome dared to attempt an invasion of Africa. As the Romans assembled more than 200 ships to make the crossing, Hanno the Great and the Carthaginian fleet rowed out to intercept them. The resulting battle off Cape Ecnomus was one of the largest naval battles ever fought.

Although the Romans emerged victorious, its consequences proved a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allowed a Roman expeditionary force to land in Africa. Very quickly however, the expedition was repelled and the fleet was destroyed in a storm. The Carthaginians and Romans had reached a stalemate.


For the next eight years the Romans enjoyed a string of naval victories but twice lost their entire fleet due to storms. By 244 BC both the Romans and Carthaginians, exhausted and close to bankruptcy, were unable to engage in such costly naval encounters every year.

The Carthaginians, whose aristocracy was unwilling to contribute more to the war effort, were forced to demobilise most of their navy to save money. But Rome, bolstered by investments from wealthy citizens, built yet another fleet. Its construction would prove decisive. In 241 BC, this new Roman fleet procured a conclusive victory off the west coast of Sicily near the Aegates Islands. Carthage sued for peace. The First Punic War was over.

The ensuing peace treaty – the treaty of Lutatius – was painful for the Carthaginians to swallow. As well as expensive indemnities they had to pay, the Romans forbade Carthage recruiting any mercenaries in Italy or Sicily. These were territories the Romans now considered as theirs. Rome specifically designed the treaty to prevent Carthage’s economy from recovering and thereby, from challenging Rome again. The Carthaginians would return in time, their resurgence epitomised by one man: Hannibal Barca.

Tristan Hughes