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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 war elephant. Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam (Holland). Photo Jona Lendering.
A war elephant (Allard Piersonmuseum, Amsterdam)

Book 1, chapter 33

[255 BCE] When the Romans saw that the Carthaginians were marching through the flat country and pitching their camps on level ground, they were surprised indeed and somewhat disturbed by this in particular, but yet were anxious on the whole to get into contact with the enemy. On coming into touch they encamped on the first day at a distance of about ten stades from him.

On the following day the Carthaginian government held a council to discuss what should be done for the present and the means thereto. But the troops, eager as they were for a battle, collecting in groups and calling on Xanthippus by name, clearly indicated their opinion that he should lead them forward at once. The generals when they saw the enthusiasm and keenness of the soldiers, Xanthippus at the same time imploring them not to let the opportunity slip, ordered the troops to get ready and gave Xanthippus authority to conduct operations as he himself thought most advantageous.

Acting on this authority, he sent the elephants forward and drew them up in a single line in front of the whole force, placing the Carthaginian phalanx at a suitable distance behind them. Some of the mercenaries he stationed on the right wing, while the most active he placed together with the cavalry in front of both wings. The Romans, seeing the enemy drawn up to offer battle, issued forth to meet them with alacrity. Alarmed at the prospect of the elephants' charge, they stationed the velites in the van and behind them the legions many maniples deep, dividing the cavalry between the two wings.

In thus making their whole line shorter and deeper than before they had been correct enough in so far as concerned the coming encounter with the elephants, but as to that with the cavalry, which largely outnumbered theirs, they were very wide of the mark. When both sides had made that general and detailed disposition of their forces that best suited their plan, they remained drawn up in order, each awaiting a favourable opportunity to attack.


to book 1, chapter 34

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