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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.

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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 18

[262 BCE] After this the Carthaginians were more inclined to be cautious in taking the offensive, while the Romans were more on their guard in foraging.

As the Carthaginians did not advance beyond skirmishing range, the Roman generals divided their force into two bodies, remaining with one near the temple of Asclepius outside the walls and encamping with the other on that side of the city that is turned towards Heraclea. They fortified the ground between their camps on each side of the city, protecting themselves by the inner trench from sallies from within and encircling themselves with an outer one to guard against attacks from outside, and to prevent that secret introduction of supplies and men which is usual in the case of beleaguered cities. On the spaces between the trenches and their camps they placed pickets, fortifying suitable places at some distance from each other. Their supplies and other material were collected for them by all the other members of the alliance, and brought to Herbesus, and they themselves constantly fetching in live stock and provisions from this city which was at no great distance, kept themselves abundantly supplied with what they required.

So for five months or so matters were at a standstill, neither side being able to score any decisive advantage, nothing in fact beyond incidental success in their exchange of shots; but when the Carthaginians began to be pressed by famine owing to the number of people cooped up in the city -50,000 at least in number- Hannibal, the commander of the besieged forces, found himself in a difficult situation and sent constant messages to Carthage explaining his position and begging for reinforcements. The Carthaginian government shipped the troops they had collected and their elephants and sent them to Sicily to Hanno, their other general.

Hanno concentrated his troops and material of war at Heraclea and in the first place surprised and occupied Herbesus, cutting off the enemy's camps from their provisions and necessary supplies. The result of this was that the Romans were as a fact both besieged and besiegers at the same time; for they were so hard pressed by want of food and scarcity of the necessities of life, that they often contemplated raising the siege, and would in the end have done so, had not Hiero, by using every effort and every device, provided them with a moderate amount of strictly necessary supplies.


to book 1, chapter 19

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