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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 20

[261 BCE] When the news of what had occurred at Acragas reached the Roman Senate, in their joy and elation they no longer confined themselves to their original designs and were no longer satisfied with having saved the Mamertines and with what they had gained in the war itself, but, hoping that it would be possible to drive the Carthaginians entirely out of the island and that if this were done their own power would be much augmented, they directed their attention to this project and to plans that would serve their purpose.

As regards their land force at least they noted that at progressed satisfactorily; for the consuls appointed after those who had reduced Acragas, Lucius Valerius Flaccus and Titus Otacilius Crassus, seemed to be managing Sicilian affairs as well as possible; but as the Carthaginians maintained without any trouble the command of the sea, the fortunes of the war continued to hang in the balance. For in the period that followed, now that Acragas was in their hands, while many inland cities joined the Romans from dread of their land forces, still more seaboard cities deserted their cause in terror of the Carthaginian fleet. Hence when they saw that the balance of the war tended more and more to shift to this side or that for the above reasons, and that while Italy was frequent ravaged by naval forces, Africa remained entirely free from damage, they took urgent steps to get on the sea like the Carthaginians. And one of the reasons which induced me to narrate the history of the war named above at some length is just this, that my readers should, in this case too, not be kept in ignorance of the beginning - how, when, and for what reasons the Romans first took to the sea.

When they saw that the war was dragging on, they undertook for the first time to build ships, a 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes. As their shipwrights were absolutely inexperienced in building quinqueremes, such ships never having been in use in Italy, the matter caused them much difficulty, and this fact shows us better than anything else how spirited and daring the Romans are when they are determined to do a thing. It was not that they had fairly good resources for it, but they had none whatever, nor had they ever given a thought to the sea; yet when they once had conceived the project, they took it in hand so boldly, that before gaining any experience in the matter they at once engaged the Carthaginians who had held for generations undisputed command of the sea.

Evidence of the truth of what I am saying and of their incredible pluck is this. When they first undertook to send their forces across to Messana not only had they not any decked ships, but no long warships at all, not even a single boat, and borrowing fifty-oared boats and triremes from the Tarentines and Locrians, and also from the people of Elea and Naples they took their troops across in these at great hazard. On this occasion the Carthaginians put to sea to attack them as they were crossing the straits, and one of their decked ships advanced too far in its eagerness to overtake them and running aground fell into the hands of the Romans. This ship they now used as a model, and built their whole fleet on its pattern; so that it is evident that if this had not occurred they would have been entirely prevented from carrying out their design by lack of practical knowledge. 

to book 1, chapter 21

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