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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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Coin of Hiero II
A horseman on a coin of Hiero II (!!)

Book 1, chapter 19

[261 BCE] In the next place Hanno, perceiving that the Romans were weakened by disease and privation, owing to an epidemic having broken out among them, and thinking that his own troops were in fit fighting condition, took with him all his elephants, about 50 in number, and all the rest of his force, and advanced rapidly from Heraclea. He had ordered the Numidian horse to precede him, and approaching the enemy's fortified camp to provoke him and attempt to draw his cavalry out, after which they were to give way and retired until they rejoined himself. The Numidians, acting on these orders, advanced up to one of the camps, and the Roman cavalry at once issued forth and boldly attacked them. The Libyans retreated as they had been ordered until they joined Hanno's army and then, wheeling round and encircling the enemy, they attacked them, killing many and pursuing the rest as far as the camp.

After this Hanno encamped opposite the Romans, occupying the hill called Torus, at a distance of about two kilometers from the enemy. For two months they remained stationary, without any action more decisive than shooting at each other every day: but as Hannibal kept on announcing to Hanno by fire signals and messengers from the city that the population could not support the famine, and that deserters to the enemy were numerous owing to privation, the Carthaginian general decided to risk battle, the Romans being no less eager for this owing to the reasons I stated above. Both therefore led out their forces to the space between the camps and engaged.

 
The Tomba di Terone: monument for the fallen Roman soldiers at Acragas. Photo Jona Lendering.
"Tomba di Terone":  monument for the fallen  Roman soldiers at Acragas

The battle lasted for long, but at the end the Romans put to flight the advanced line of Carthaginian mercenaries, and as the latter fell back on the elephants and the other divisions in their rear, the whole Phoenician army was thrown into disorder. A complete rout ensued, and most of them were put to the sword, some escaping to Heraclea. The Romans captured most of the elephants and all the baggage.

But after nightfall, while the Romans, partly from joy at their success and partly from fatigue, had relaxed the vigilance of their watch, Hannibal, regarding his situation as desperate, and thinking for the above reasons that this was a fine opportunity for saving himself, broke out of the city about midnight with his mercenaries. By filling up the trenches with baskets packed tightly with straw he managed to withdraw his force in safety unperceived by the enemy. When day broke the Romans became aware of what had happened, and, after slightly molesting Hannibal's rear-guard, advanced with their whole force to the gates. Finding nobody to oppose them they entered the city and plundered it, possessing themselves of many slaves and a quantity of booty of every description.






to book 1, chapter 20




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