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


Book 1, chapter 27

[256 BCE] About the same time the Carthaginian commanders briefly addressed their forces. They pointed out to them that in the event of victory in the battle they would be fighting afterwards for Sicily, but that if defeated they would have to fight for their own country and their homes, and bade them take this to heart and embark. When all readily did as they were ordered, as their general's words had made clear to them the issues at stake, they set to sea in a confident and menacing spirit.

When the commanders saw the enemy's order, they adapted their own to it. Three quarters of their force they drew up in a single line, extending their right wing to the open sea for the purpose of encircling the enemy and with all their ships facing the Romans. The remaining quarter of their force formed the left wing of their whole line, and reached shoreward at angle with the rest. Their right wing was under the command of the same Hanno who had been worsted in the engagement near Acragas. He had vessels for charging and also the swiftest quinqueremes for the outflanking movement. The left wing was in charge of Hamilcar, the one who commanded in the sea-battle at Tyndaris, and he, fighting as he was in the center of the line, used in the fray the following stratagem.

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

The battle was begun by the Romans who, noticing that the Carthaginian line was thin owing to its great extent, delivered an attack on the center. The Carthaginian center had received Hamilcar's orders to fall back at once with the view of breaking the order of the Romans, and, as they hastily retreated, the Romans pursued them vigorously. While the first and second squadrons thus pressed on the flying enemy, the third and fourth were separated from them, the third squadron towing the horse-transports, and the triarii remaining with them as a supporting force.

When the Carthaginians thought they had drawn off the first and second squadrons far enough from the others, they all, on receiving a signal from Hamilcar's ship, turned simultaneously and attacked their pursuers. The engagement that followed was a very hot one, the superior speed of the Carthaginians enabling them to move round the enemy's flank as well as to approach easily and retire rapidly, while the Romans, relying on their sheet strength when they closed with the enemy, grappling with the corvi every ship as soon as it approached, fighting also, as they were, under the very eyes of both the consuls, who were personally taking part in the combat, had no less high hopes of success. Such then was the state of the battle in this quarter.

to book 1, chapter 28

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