March 10 – Roman Holiday

Today’s Factismal: The First Punic War ended in 241 BCE with Rome’s decisive defeat of Carthage’s navy.

In 264 BCE, there were two major powerhouses in the Mediterranean: the old, established empire of Carthage and the newer, rapidly-expanding republic of Rome. Carthage traced their heritage to the Phoenicians (which is why the Romans called them “Punici” or “Phoenician” and why we call these the Punic wars). From their sea-loving forebears, the Carthaginians had inherited a wide-spread empire that used trade and a strong navy to dominate the known world.

The Mediterranean balance of power in 264 BCE (Image courtesy Jon Platek)

The Mediterranean balance of power in 264 BCE (Image courtesy Jon Platek)

The Roman Republic was a newcomer to the world stage. The earlier Roman kingdom had transmogrified into a republic with a strong senatorial caste. The privileged senators were also burdened with many duties, chief among them being the continued expansion of Rome’s borders. Naturally, this soon brought Rome and her army into conflict with Carthage and her navy. (A similar situation was responsible for the War of 1812.)

The First Punic War (there were three) started with a Roman invasion of Sicily. Starting with Messina, the Romans soon seized control of the entire island (a tactic that Patton would advocate more than 2200 year later). Though Syracuse remained a nominal free state, it was effectively turned into a Roman possession, which allowed Rome to turn its sights farther away from home.

The Romans then developed a new weapon to use against the Carthaginians. Because they knew that Rome could never match Carthage in pure sea craft but the Carthaginians could never defeat the Roman army, Roman generals devised a way to use army tactics on the high seas. They added a boarding plank onto Roman triremes so that the Roman ship could lock onto Carthaginian ones and force them to fight hand-to-hand, where the Romans excelled.

The Med after the First Punic War (Image modified from Jon Pal)

The Mediterranean after the First Punic War (Image modified from Jon Platek)

The tactic was overwhelmingly successful. Within eight years, Roman forces had landed on Africa and brought the fight to the walls of Carthage. Though the African campaign soon bogged down, it forced Carthage to split its attention. Not only did the Carthaginians have to retake Sicily, they had to defend their home turf. But Rome was seriously over-extended, which prevented them from being able to exploit their advantage and bring the war to a conclusive ending. It wasn’t until the Battle of the Aegates Islands on March 10, 241 BCE, that the Romans were able to destroy a large enough portion of the Carthaginian navy to force a peace. The war had dragged on for 23 years, but Rome was the victor. And the rest was history.

We know the history of the Punic wars because the Romans were meticulous note-takers and record-keepers. But archeologists have only scratched the surface of the pile of manuscripts left behind by the Romans. If you’d like to help them discover more about how the Romans lived, then why not join the Ancient Lives project?

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