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Polybius: the First Punic War

Map of ancient Sicily. Map design Jona Lendering. According to the Greek historian Polybius of Megalopolis (c.200-c.118), the First Punic War (264-241) between Carthage and Rome was "the longest and most severely contested war in history". And indeed, it lasted almost a quarter of a century and probably, a million people lost their lives. In the end, Rome had conquered the island of Sicily, and had become a Mediterranean superpower.

Polybius' World History was translated by W.R. Paton.

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Polybius. Museo nazionale della civiltÓ romana, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Polybius; cast from a lost monument in Cleitor (Greece) (Museo nazionale della civiltÓ romana, Rome) 

Book 1, chapter 15

The truth of what I have just said is evident from what follows.

Philinus, in commencing his narrative at the outset of his second book, tells us that the Carthaginians and Syracusans were besieging Messana, that the Romans, reaching the city by sea, at once marched out against the Syracusans, but after being severely handled returned to Messana. They next sallied out against the Carthaginians and were not only worsted but lost a considerable number of prisoners. 

After making these statements, Philinus says that Hiero -after the engagement- so far lost his wits as not only to burn his camp and tents and take flight to Syracuse the same night, but to withdraw all his garrisons from the forts which menaced the territory of Messana. The Carthaginians, likewise, he tells us, after the battle at once quitted their camp and distributed themselves among the towns, not even daring to dispute the open country further: their leaders, he says, seeing how dispirited the ranks were, resolved not to risk a decisive engagement, and the Romans following up the enemy not only laid waste the territory of the Carthaginians and Syracusans, but sat down before Syracuse and undertook its siege.

This account is, it seems to me, full of inconsistencies and does not require a lengthy discussion. For those whom he introduced as besieging Messana and victorious in the engagements, he now represents as in flight and abandoning the open country and finally besieged and dispirited, while those whom he represented as defeated and besieged are now stated to be in pursuit of their foes, and at once commanding the open country and finally besieging Syracuse. It is absolutely impossible to reconcile the two assertions, and either his initial statements or his account of what followed must be false.

But the latter is true; for as a fact the Carthaginians and Syracusans abandoned the open country, and the Romans at once began to lay siege to Syracuse and, as he says, even to Echetla too, which lies between the Syracusan and Carthaginian provinces. We must therefore concede that Philinus' initial statements are false, and that, while the Romans were victorious in the engagements before Messana, this author announces that they were worsted.

We can trace indeed the same fault throughout the whole work of Philinus and alike through that of Fabius, as I shall show when the occasion arises. Now that I have said what is fitting on the subject of this digression, I will return to facts and attempt in a narrative that strictly follows the order of events to guide my readers by a short road to a true notion of this war.


to book 1, chapter 16

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