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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 21

Now, however, those to whom the construction of ships was committed were busy in getting them ready, and those who had collected the crews were teaching them to row on shore in the following fashion. Making the men sit on rowers' benches on dry land, in the same order as on the benches of the ships themselves, they accustomed them to fall back all at once bringing their hands up to them, and again to come forward pushing out their hands, and to begin and finish these movements at the word of command of the fugle-man.

When the crews had been trained, they launched the ships as soon as they were completed, and having practiced for a brief time actual rowing at sea, they sailed along the coast of Italy as their commander had ordered. [260 BCE] For the consul appointed by the Romans to the command of their naval force, Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio [Asina], had a few days previously given orders to the captains to sail in the direction of the straits whenever the fleet was ready, while he himself, putting to sea with seventeen ships, preceded them to Messana, being anxious to provided for all the urgent needs of the fleet.

While there a proposal happened to be made to him with regard to the city of Lipara, and embracing the prospect with undue eagerness he sailed with the above-mentioned ships and anchored off the town. The Carthaginian general Hannibal, hearing at Panormus what had happened, sent off Bo÷des, a member of the Senate, giving him twenty ships. Bo÷des sailed up to Lipara at night and shut up Gnaeus in the harbor. When day dawned the Roman crews hastily took refuge on land, and Gnaeus, falling into a state of terror and being unable to do anything, finally surrendered to the enemy.

The Carthaginians now set off at once to rejoin Hannibal with the captured ships and commander of the enemy. But a few days later, though Gnaeus' disaster was so signal and recent, Hannibal himself came very near falling into the same error with his eyes open. For hearing that the Roman fleet which was sailing along the coast of Italy was near at hand, and wishing to get a glimpse of the numbers and general disposition of the enemy, he sailed towards them with fifty ships. As he was rounding the Cape of Italy he came upon the enemy sailing in good order and trim. He lost most of his ships and escaped himself with the remainder, which was more than he expected or hoped.


to book 1, chapter 22

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