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


Book 1, chapter 28

[256 BCE] At one and the same time Hanno with the right wing, which had held its distance in the first attack, sailed across the open sea and fell upon the ships of the triarii, causing them great embarrassment and distress. Meanwhile that part of the Carthaginian force which was posted near the shore, changing their former formation and deploying into line with their prows facing the enemy, attacked the vessels which were towing the horse-transports. Letting go their tow-lines this squadron met and engaged the enemy.

Thus the whole conflict consisted of three parts, and three sea-battles were going on at a wide distance from each other. As the respective forces were in each case of equal strength owing to their disposition at the outset, the battle also was fought on equal terms. However, in each case things fell out as one would expect, when the forces engaged are so equally matched.

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


Those who had commenced the battle were the first to be separated, for Hamilcar's division was finally forced back and took to flight. Lucius [Manlius Vulso Longus] was now occupied in taking the prizes in tow, and Marcus [Atilius Regulus], observing the struggle in which the triarii and horse-transports were involved, hastened to their assistance with such of the ships of the second squadron as were undamaged. When he reached Hanno's division and came into conflict with it, the triarii at once took heart, though they had had much the worst of it, and recovered their fighting spirit.

The Carthaginians, attacked both in front and in the rear, were in difficulties, finding themselves surrounded, to their surprise, by the relieving force, and giving way, they began to retreat out to sea. Meanwhile both Lucius, who was by this time sailing up and observed that the third squadron was shut in close to the shore by the Carthaginian left wing, and Marcus, who had now left the horse-transports and triarii in safety, hastened together to the relief of this force which was in grave peril; for the state of matters now was just like a siege, and they all would evidently have been lost if the Carthaginians had not been afraid of the corvi and simply hedged them in and held them close to the land instead of charging, apprehensive as they were of coming to close quarters.

The consuls, coming up rapidly and surrounding the Carthaginians, captured fifty ships with their crews, a few managing to slip out along shore and escape. The separate encounters fell out as I have described, and the final result of the whole battle was in favor of the Romans. The latter lost 24 sail sunk and the Carthaginians more than 30. Not a single Roman ship with its crew fell into the enemy's hands, but 64 Carthaginian ships were so captured.

to book 1, chapter 29
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