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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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The ports of Carthage, seen from the Byrsa. Photo Jan van Vliet.
The ports of Carthage

Book 1, chapter 32

[256/255 BCE] Just about this time there arrived at Carthage one of the recruiting officers they had formerly dispatched to Greece, bringing a considerable number of soldiers and among them a certain Xanthippus of Lacedaemon, a man who had been brought up in the Spartan discipline, and had had a fair amount of military experience.

On hearing of the recent reverse and how and in what way it occurred, and on taking a comprehensive view of the remaining resources of the Carthaginians and their strength in cavalry and elephants, he at once reached the conclusion and communicated it to friends that the Carthaginians owed their defeat not to the Romans but to themselves, through the inexperience of their generals.

Owing to the critical situation Xanthippus' remarks soon got abroad and reached the ears of the generals, whereupon the government decided to summon him before them and examine him. He presented himself before them and communicated to them his estimate of the situation, pointing out why they were now being worsted, and urging that if they would take his advice and avail themselves of the level country for marching, encamping and offering battle they could easily not only secure their own safety, but defeat the enemy.

The generals, accepting what he said and resolving to follow his advice, at once entrusted their forces to him. Now even when the original utterance of Xanthippus got abroad, it had caused considerable rumor and more or less sanguine talk among the populace, but on his leading the army out and drawing it up in good order before the city and even beginning to maneuver some portions of it correctly and give the word of command in the orthodox military terms, the contrast to the incompetence of the former generals was so striking that the soldiery expressed their approval by cheers and were eager to engage the enemy, feeling sure that if Xanthippus was in command no disaster could befall them. Upon this the generals, seeing the extraordinary recovery of courage among the troops, addressed them in words suitable to the occasion and after a few days took the field with their forces. These consisted of 12,000 foot, 4,000 horse and very nearly a 100 elephants.

to book 1, chapter 33
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