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

Book 1, chapter 26

[256 BCE] The plan of the Romans was to sail to Africa and deflect the war to that country, so that the Carthaginians might find no longer Sicily but themselves and their own territory in danger. The Carthaginians were resolved on just the opposite course, for, aware as they were that Africa is easily accessible, and that all the people in the country would be easily subdued by anyone who had once invaded it, they were unable to allow this, and were anxious to run the risk of a sea-battle. The object of the one side being to prevent and that of the other to force a crossing, it was clear that their rival aims would result in the struggle which followed.

The Romans had made suitable preparations for both contingencies - for an action at sea and for a landing in the enemy's country. For the latter purpose, selecting the best men from their land forces, they divided into four corps the total force they were about to embark. Each corps had two names; it was called either the First Legion or the First Squadron, and the others accordingly. The fourth had a third name in addition; they were called triarii after the usage in the land forces. The whole body embarked on the ships numbered about a 140,000, each ship holding 300 rowers and a 120 marines. The Carthaginians were chiefly or solely adapting their preparations to a maritime war, their numbers being, to reckon by the number of ships, actually above one 150,000. These are figures calculated to strike not only one present and with the forces under his eyes but even a hearer with amazement at the magnitude of the struggle and at that lavish outlay and vast power of the two states, if he estimates them from the number of men and ships.

First phase of the battle of Ecnomus. Design Jona Lendering.
First phase of the battle of Ecnomus

The Romans taking into consideration that the voyage was across the open sea and that the enemy were their superiors in speed, tried by every means to range their fleet in an order which would render it secure and difficult to attack. Accordingly, they stationed their two six-banked galleys, on which the commanders, Marcus Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius [Vulso Longus], were sailing, in front and side by side with each other. Behind each of these they placed ships in single file, the first squadron behind the one galley, the second behind the other, so arranging them that the distance between each pair of ships in the two squadrons grew ever greater. The ships were stationed in column with their prows directed outwards.

Having thus arranged the first and second squadrons in the form of a simple wedge, they stationed the third in a single line at the base, so that when these ships had taken their places the resulting form of the whole was a triangle. Behind these ships at the base they stationed the horse-transports, attaching them by towing-lines to the vessels of the third squadron. Finally, behind these they stationed the fourth squadron, known as triarii, making a single long line of ships so extended that the line overlapped that in front of it at each extremity.

When all had been put together in the manner I have described, the whole arrangement had the form of a wedge, the apex of which was open, the base compact, and the whole effective and practical, while also difficult to break up.

to book 1, chapter 27
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