First Punic War

The First Punic War pitted Roman military forces against Carthage in an effort to expand Roman authority in the Mediterranean.

Summary of Event

The First Punic War was a milestone in Roman history. Modern scholarship rejects the old interpretation that entry into this conflict committed Rome to a policy of expansion on an altogether new scale. The Roman victory in 241 b.c.e. marked the emergence of Rome as the dominant power in the western Mediterranean. The policies Rome adopted in Sicily and elsewhere at the conclusion of the war had permanent repercussions both at home and in foreign affairs. Hieron II of Syracuse
Gaius Duilius
Appius Claudius Caudex

The Mediterranean world in the early third century b.c.e. consisted in the east of large territorial empires in areas conquered by Alexander the Great. In the west were three major states and numerous tribal peoples. Carthage, a merchant oligarchy, dominated the coast of Africa from modern Tunisia westward to Morocco, Spain, the western corner of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. Rome, the second state, controlled the southern two-thirds of Italy. The portion inhabited by Roman citizens was the ager Romanus; the rest belonged to nominally independent allies (socii), of whom the Latins were relatively privileged while the majority were subordinate to Rome. As of yet, Rome had no possessions and scant interest beyond the peninsula.

The small kingdom of Syracuse in the southeast corner of Sicily, the leading Greek power in the west, was the third state. Sicily was an anachronism, certain to attract efforts on the part of the Hellenistic monarchies to attach it to one or another of the eastern empires. Carthage and Rome were equally certain to resist the establishment of Hellenistic powers in the western Mediterranean. When Pyrrhus (319-272 b.c.e.), king of Epirus, led his armies into Italy and Sicily, he first met the resistance of Rome, then of Carthage. The failure of his Italian and Sicilian campaign between 280 and 275 b.c.e. left a power vacuum little different from that which existed before, and it was only a matter of time before Rome and Carthage could be expected to come into conflict there.

A Roman attack during the First Punic War.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The occasion of Roman involvement in Sicily, and the beginning of the First Punic War, may have seemed of relatively slight importance. The Mamertines, once mercenary soldiers of Syracuse who had seized the city of Messana and used it as a base of operations in northeast Sicily, found themselves threatened by the growing power of Hieron II, king of Syracuse. They called on the Carthaginians for aid, but then fearing domination by these traditional rivals, requested aid from Rome in order to expel the Carthaginian garrison. Rome was a land power with no navy.

The Roman senate, fearing overseas campaigns against a naval power, refused to accept the overture from the Mamertines. Rome had been almost continually at war for several generations (three Samnite Wars in 343-290 b.c.e., then the struggle against Pyrrhus). Further, Rome had no desire to get involved in Sicily, from which the Roman government occasionally purchased grain, and had long had good relations with Carthage, highlighted by treaties of friendship and trade in 507, 348, and 306 b.c.e. and a defensive pact against Pyrrhus in 279 b.c.e. Yet Rome did not want Carthage to control Sicily. The Roman assemblies, perhaps beguiled by thoughts of the prosperity to be gained from involvement in the rich territories of Sicily, perhaps merely failing to foresee the extent of the military operations they were initiating, voted to aid the Mamertines. Appius Claudius Caudex, a leader in the prowar faction, was elected consul for the year 264 b.c.e. and led an expedition to Sicily.

In the first phase of the war, the Roman forces aided Messana, while Carthage supported Syracuse. Yet this phase, and with it the original pretext for the war, was soon over. Hieron II of Syracuse had no interest in matching his power against Rome’s, nor in being dominated by his erstwhile allies. In 263 b.c.e., Hieron made peace with Rome on terms that left him extensive territories as well as his independence. Syracuse and Messana gained treaties (foedera) by which they became allied to Rome. Yet Carthage and Rome were now in a struggle that neither cared to give up.

Between 262 and 256 b.c.e., Rome pressed hard, driving the Carthaginians into a limited number of military strongholds, and mounting the first Roman fleet, which under Gaius Duilius met with surprising success against the experienced Carthaginian navy. In 256, under Regulus, Rome transported an army into North Africa; it had initial successes, but the Carthaginians, directed by the Greek mercenary Xanthippus, succeeded the next year in destroying the forces of Rome. Regulus and his Carthaginian captors passed into legend as models of Roman adherence to their sworn word (fides) and Punic perfidy. Back in Sicily, the fortunes of war took many turns. Rome won most of the island but Carthage kept its naval bases in the west. At sea, the Roman navy was often victorious even though the loss of one fleet in battle and of others in storms weakened its position. By 247 b.c.e., both powers were fatigued. Peace negotiations stalled, but military efforts were at a minimum for some years.

In 244 b.c.e., the Roman government, too exhausted to build a new fleet, allowed a number of private individuals to mount one with the understanding that they should be repaid if the war were brought to a successful conclusion. In 242, this fleet arrived in Sicily. When a convoy of transports bringing supplies to Carthage’s troops was captured, Carthage came to terms. The Carthaginians agreed to evacuate Sicily and pay an enormous indemnity over a long period of time.

Rome now confronted the consequences of victory. Skeptical of the volatile Sicilians’ military capacities, Rome deemed it unwise either to include them among the Italian allies or to leave them free to stir up troubles among the Greeks of southern Italy, who resented their recent subordination to Rome. Nor would Rome permit Syracusan expansion throughout all Sicily. The easiest course of action was to rule Sicily directly, which Rome did by decreeing that taxes previously paid to Carthage or the Greek cities would henceforth go to Rome. Three years later, Rome evicted Carthage from Sardinia and Corsica and adopted the same policy. In 227 b.c.e., Rome increased the number of praetors from two to four, making the new ones governors of Rome’s first possessions beyond Italy, Sicily and Sardinia-Corsica. A governor’s “assignment” was his provincia; gradually this term became a geographical concept, corresponding to the modern word “province.”

Early in the Second Punic War, Hieron’s grandson and successor Hieronymus switched sides and supported Carthage. Turmoil followed. Rome captured the city of Syracuse (the mathematician Archimedes was killed in the fighting) and incorporated it into the province in 211 b.c.e. All Sicily was a Roman province except for treaty-bound Messana and several other cities made “free and immune” (autonomous and exempt from the Roman taxes) as rewards for joining Rome.


Rome’s annexation of these islands as subject, tribute-paying territory, marked the start of the Roman Empire. By annexing a Hellenistic territory, Rome became, in a sense, a Hellenistic state, a fact that had a profound effect on Roman cultural life as well as on foreign relations. Rome’s development of naval capacity made possible commercial and military involvement with all the Mediterranean world. Its need to govern conquered territory caused it to modify city-state institutions and begin constitutional developments that in the end undermined the republican form of government in Rome.

Further Reading

  • Bagnall, Nigel. The Punic Wars, 264-146 b.c.
    New York: Routledge, 2003. A concise history of the Punic Wars, primarily focusing on the military strategies. Includes very useful maps.
  • Cornell, T. J. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 b.c.e.). New York: Routledge, 1995. This detailed history of early Rome analyzes expansion in Italy and relations with Carthage before the war.
  • Goldsworthy, Adrian. The Punic Wars. Cassell, 2002. A thorough history combining military analysis and biography of the main participants. Explains the military aspects clearly for nonspecialists.
  • Harris, W. V. War and Imperialism in Republican Rome, 327-70 b.c.
    2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. The thrust of Harris’ work is Rome’s almost constant aggression and readiness to annex.
  • Hoyos, B. D. Unplanned Wars: The Origins of the First and Second Punic Wars. New York: De Gruyter, 1998. Analyzes the events leading up to the first two Punic Wars. In addition to discussing the historical context of the wars, Hoyos also analyzes the inherent biases in the major sources. Includes maps, bibliography, and indexes.
  • Lazenby, J. F. The First Punic War. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996. The sources for the First Punic War are scarce and frustratingly opaque; Lazenby does his best to reconstruct the reality of the war in clear terms for the nonspecialist reader.

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Archimedes; Hamilcar Barca; Polybius. Punic War, First (264-225 b.c.e.)