home  :   index   :   ancient Carthage   :   ancient Rome   :   First Punic War   :   article by Polybius of Megalopolis

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
A modern reconstruction of a corvus by Martin Lokaj.
A modern reconstruction of a corvus by Martin Lokaj (©*)

Book 1, chapter 23

[260 BCE] As for Gaius Duillius, no sooner had he learnt of the disaster which had befallen the commander of the naval forces than handing over his legions to the military tribunes he proceeded to the fleet. Learning that the enemy were ravaging the territory of Mylae, he sailed against them with his whole force.

The Carthaginians on sighting him put to sea with a 130 sail, quite overjoyed and eager, as they despised the inexperience of the Romans. They all sailed straight on the enemy, not even thinking it worth while to maintain order in the attack, but just as is they were falling on a prey that was obviously theirs. They were commanded by Hannibal (the same who stole out of Acragas by night with his army) in the seven-banked galley that was formerly king Pyrrhus.

On approaching and seeing the corvi nodding aloft on the prow of each ship, the Carthaginians were at first nonplused, being surprised at the construction of the engines. However, as they entirely gave the enemy up for lost, the front ships attacked daringly. But when the ships that came into collision were in every case held fast by the machines, and the Roman crews boarded by means of the corvi and attacked them hand to hand on deck, some of the Carthaginians were cut down and others surrendered from dismay at what was happening, the battle having become just like a fight on land. So the first 30 ships that engaged were taken with all their crews, including the commander's galley, Hannibal himself managing to escape beyond his hopes by a miracle in the jolly-boat.

Copy of Duillius' victory inscription. Museo Nazionale della Civiltą Romana, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Duillius' victory inscription
(full text)

The rest of the Carthaginian force was bearing up as if to charge the enemy, but seeing, as they approached, the fate of the advanced ships they turned aside and avoided the blows of the engines. Trusting in their swiftness, they veered round the enemy in the hope of being able to strike him in safety either on the broadside or on the stern, but when the corvi swung round and plunged down in all directions and in all manner of ways so that those who approached them were of necessity grappled, they finally gave way and took to flight, terror-stricken by this novel experience and with the loss of 50 ships.

to book 1, chapter 24

 home   :    index    :    ancient Carthage    :    ancient Rome   :   First Punic War