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First Punic War

History -- Military History -- War

The First Punic War was fought between Carthage and the Roman Republic from 264 BC to 241 BC. It was the first of three major wars between these two ancient world super powers for supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea and control of Sicily. After 23 years of conflict, Rome won and imposed heavy conditions to sign a peace with Carthage.


The beginning

In the middle of the 3rd century BC, the Republic of Rome was on a winning streak. Following centuries of internal rebellions and disturbances, the whole of the Italian Peninsula was tightly secured under Roman hands, with all enemies, like the Latin league or the Samnites defeated and the invasion of king Pyrrhus of Epirus surpassed. Rome was used to success and had an enormous confidence in the current political system and army organization. On the other side of the Mediterranean, Carthage was already an established naval and commercial power, controlling most of the maritime routes in the Sea. Originally a Phoenician colony, the city had become a wide commercial empire reaching the Iberian Peninsula and the coast of Northern Africa.

In 288 BC, a group of Italian mercenaries (the Mamertines ) occupied the city of Messina in the north-eastern tip of Sicily, killing all the men and taking the women as their wives. From this base, they ravaged the countryside and became a problem for the independent city of Syracuse. When Hiero II, tyrant of Syracuse, came to power in 265 BC, he decided to take some definitive action against the Mamertines and besieged Messina. The Mamertines then appealed for help simultaneously to Rome and Carthage. At first, the Romans did not relish the idea coming to the aid of soldiers who had unjustly stolen a city from its rightful possessors. Moreover, Rome had recently dealt with an insurrection of mercenaries following the defeat of Pyrrhus of Epirus (Rhegium, 271) and was probably reluctant to help this faction now. Carthage was the first city to respond the plea and sent troops to the area soon enough. This was probably the reason that forced Rome into the conflict: they were afraid to see Carthaginian power spread further over Sicily and get too close to Italy. And so Rome chose to form an alliance with the Mamertines. In the following year (264 BC) Rome sent troops to Sicily (the first time a Roman army acted outside the Italian Peninsula) and forced Syracuse into an unwanted alliance. Soon enough the only parties in the dispute were Rome and Carthage and the conflict evolved into a struggle for the possession of Sicily.

Land warfare

As Sicily is a hilly island, with geographical obstacles and a terrain where lines of communication are difficult to maintain, land warfare played a secondary role in the First Punic war. Land operations were mostly confined to small scale raids and skirmishes between the armies, with hardly any pitched battle. Sieges and land blockades were the most common operations for the regular army. The main targets of blockading were the important naval ports, since neither of the belligerent parties were based in Sicily and both needed a continuous supply of reinforcements and communication with the mainland.

Despite these general considerations, at least two large scale land campaigns were fought during the First Punic War. In 262 BC, Rome besieged the city of Agrigentum, in an operation that involved both consular armies in a total of four Roman legions, and would take several months to resolve. The garrison of Agrigentum managed to call for reinforcements and a relieving force commanded by Hanno came to the rescue. With the supplies from Syracuse cut, the Romans found themselves also besieged and constructed a line of circumvallation. After a few skirmishes, a battle was fought and won by Rome, and Agrigentum fell (see battle of Agrigentum for the full account). This victory inspired Rome into bolder actions (see below).

Later on in the war (256/255 BC) Rome attempted another large scale land operation, this time with different results. Following several naval battles, Rome was aiming for a quick end of the war and decided to invade the Carthaginian colonies of Africa, to force the enemy to accept terms. A major fleet was built, both of transports for the army and its equipment and warships for protection. Carthage tried to intervene but was defeated in the battle of Cape Ecnomus. As a result, the Roman army commanded by Marcus Atilius Regulus landed in Africa and started to ravage the Carthaginian countryside. This campaign had mixed results. First, Regulus was victorious in the battle of Adys , and forced Carthage to sue for peace. The terms were so heavy that negotiations failed and in response, the Carthaginians hired Xanthippus, a Spartan mercenary to reorganize the army. Xanthippus was successful in the attempt of stopping Rome in her route to Carthage, defeating and capturing Regulus after the battle of Tunis . The Roman invasion of Africa was thus over with a Carthaginian victory.

Towards the end of the conflict (249 BC), Carthage sent general Hamilcar Barca (Hannibal's father) to Sicily. Hammilcar managed to gain control of most of inland Sicily and force Rome to appoint a dictator to resolve the situation. But, at this time, the First Punic War was being fought on sea. Carthage assumed defeat in 241 BC, following the battle of the Aegates Islands, despite the fact that Hammilcar remained undefeated in Sicily. This shows the unimportance of land warfare in the First Punic War.

Naval warfare

Due to the difficulty of operating in Sicily, most warfare of the First Punic War was fought at sea, including the most decisive battles. Moreover, naval warfare permitted an efficient blockade of enemy ports, and consequently of reinforcement and supply for the inland troops. Both sides of the conflict had publically funded fleets. This fact compromised Carthage and Rome's finances and eventually decided the course of the war.

In the beginning of the First Punic War, Rome had virtually no experience in naval warfare. Nevertheless, the Republic soon understood the importance of Mediterranean control in the outcome of the conflict. The first large fleet was constructed after the victory of Agrigentum in 261 BC. Since Rome lacked naval technology, the design of the warships was copied in a straightforward manner from captured Carthaginian triremes and quinqueremes. Perhaps in order to compensate for the lack of experience, and to make use of standard land military tactics on sea, the Romans equipped their new ships with a special boarding device, the corvus. The new weapon's efficiency was first proved in the battle of Mylae, the first Roman naval victory, and continued to prove its value in the following years. The addition of the corvus forced Carthage to review its military tactics, and since the city had difficulty in doing so, Rome had the naval advantage. Later, as Roman experience in naval warfare grew, the corvus device was abandoned due to its impact on the navigability of the war vessels.

Despite the Roman victories in sea, the Republic was the side that lost most ships and crews during the war, largely due to the effect of storms. On at least two occasions (255 and 253 BC) whole fleets were destroyed in bad weather. The weight of the corvus on the prows of the ships was largely responsible for the disasters. Towards the end of the war Carthage ruled the seas, as Rome was unwilling to finance the construction of yet another expensive fleet. The Romans did however build another fleet paid for with donations from wealthy citizens. The First Punic war was decided in the naval battle of the Aegates Islands (March 10 241 BC), where the new Roman fleet under consul Gaius Lutatius Catulus scored a victory. Carthage lost most of its fleet and was economically incapable of funding another, or to find manpower for the crews. With no fleet, Hammilcar Barca was cut from Carthage and forced to surrender.


Rome won the First Punic War after 23 years of conflict and in the end replaced Carthage as the major power in the Mediterranean. In the aftermath of the war, both states were both financially and demographically exhausted. Rome's victory was mostly due to its persistence in not admitting defeat or accepting anything but total victory. Moreover, the Republic's ability to attract private investment in the war effort by playing on their citizens' patriotism to fund ships and crews was one of the deciding factors of the war, particularly when contrasted with the Carthaginian nobility's apparent unwillingness to risk their fortunes for the common good.


Specifics for the number of casualties of each side is always difficult to determine precisely due to bias in the historical sources, normally directed to enhance Rome's value. However, considering that (excluding land warfare casualties):

  • Rome lost 700 ships (mainly to bad weather) and at least part of their crews
  • Carthage lost 500 ships and at least part of their crews
  • Each ship's crew was of about 100 men

the conclusion is that, although uncertain, the casualties were definitely heavy for both sides. Historian Polybius commented that the war was, at the time, the most destructive in terms of casualties in the history of warfare, including the battles of Alexander the Great, which further enhances this idea. Looking at the data from the Roman census of the 3rd century BC Adrian Goldsworthy noted that during the conflict Rome lost about 50,000 citizens. This excludes auxiliary troops and every other men in the army without citizen status, who would be outside the head count.

Peace terms

The peace terms designed by the Romans were particularly heavy for Carthage, which was in no position to negotiate. They were:

  • Carthage to evacuate Sicily
  • Carthage to return their prisoners of war without ransom, while heavily ransom their own
  • Carthage to refrain from attacking Syracuse and her allies
  • Carthage to transfer a group of small islands north of Sicily to Rome
  • Carthage condemned to pay a 2200 talent indemnity in ten annual instalments, plus an additional indemnity of 1000 talents immediately

Further clauses determined that the allies of each side would not be attacked by the other, no attacks were to be made by either side upon the others allies and the prohibition for both sides from raising troops within the territory of the other. This prevented the Carthaginians access to any Roman mercenary manpower.

Political results

In the aftermath of the war, Carthage had virtually no funds and was not even able to pay the disbanded military armies. This lead to an internal conflict, the mercenary revolt, won after a hard struggle by Hammilcar Barca. Perhaps the most immediate political result of the First Punic War was the downfall of Carthage as a major naval power. Conditions signed in the peace treaty compromised Carthage's economic situation and prevented the city's recovery. The indemnity demanded by the Romans caused additional strain on the city's finances and forced Carthage to look to other areas of influence for the money to pay Rome. This lead to an increased aggressive Carthaginian occupation of the colonies of Hispania (modern Spain), which eventually led to the Second Punic War. An interesting comparison can be drawn with the politics of Germany following the defeat in World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, which then led into World War II.

As for Rome, the end of the First Punic War marked the start of the expansion beyond the Italian Peninsula. Sicily became the first Roman province governed by a former praetor, instead of an ally. Sardinia and Corsica were to be added (again, lost by Carthage) in 238 BC.

Notable leaders


  • 264 BC - The Mamertines plead assistance to both Rome and Carthage to deal with the attacks of Hiero II of Syracuse. Rome responds only after Carthage.
  • 262 BC- Roman intervention in Sicily. The city of Agrigentum, occupied by Carthage, is besieged.
  • 261 BC- Battle of Agrigentum, which results in a Roman victory. Rome decides to build a fleet to threaten Carthaginian domination in the sea.
  • 258 BC - Naval battle of Sulci: Roman victory
  • 257 BC - Naval battle of Tyndaris: Roman victory
  • 256 BC - Roman attempts to invade Africa and Carthage attempts to intersect the transport fleet. The resulting battle of Cape Ecnomus is a major victory for Rome, who lands in Africa and advance on Carthage. The battle of Adys is the first Roman success in African soil and Carthage sues for peace. Negotiations fail to reach agreement and the war continues.
  • 255 BC - The Carthaginians employ a Spartan general, Xanthippus, to organize their defences and defeat the Romans at the battle of Tunis . The Roman survivors are evacuated by a fleet to be destroyed soon afterwards, on their way back to Sicily.
  • 254 BC - A new fleet of 140 Roman ships is constructed to substitute the one lost in the storm and a new army is levied. The Romans win a victory at Panormus on Sicily, but fail to make any further progress in the war. Five Greek cities in Sicily defect from Cartage to Rome.
  • 253 BC - The Romans then pursued a policy of raiding the African coast east of Carthage. After an unsuccessful year the fleet head for home. During the return to Italy the Romans are again caught in a storm and loose 150 ships.
  • 251 BC - The Romans again win at Panormus over the Carthaginians, led by Hasdrubal. As a result of the recent losses, Carthage endeavours to strengthen its garrisons in Sicily and recapture Agrigentum. Romans begin siege of Lilybaeum.
  • 249 BC - Rome looses almost a whole fleet in the battle of Drepana. In the same year Hamilcar Barca accomplishes successful raids in Sicily and yet another storm destroys the reminder of the Roman ships. Aulus Atilius Caiatinus is appointed dictator and sent to Sicily.
  • 248-242 BC - Low intensity fighting in Sicily, no naval battles. Rome ventures the construction of another fleet in 242.


  • The Punic Wars, by Adrian Goldsworthy, Cassel
  • The First Punic War by J.F.Lazenby , 1996, UCLPress

Ancient Rome directory -- Military History of Rome -- First Punic War

Last updated: 11-07-2004 13:41:43