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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 39

[253 BCE] Their successors, Gnaeus Servilius [Caepio] and Gaius Sempronius [Blaesus], put to sea with Sicily whole fleet as soon as it was summer and after crossing to Sicily proceeded thence to Africa, and sailing along the coast, made a number of descents in which they accomplished nothing of importance, and finally reached the isle of the Lotus-eaters, which is called Meninx and is not far distant from the lesser Syrtis.

Here, owing to their ignorance of these seas, they ran on to some shoals, and, on the tide retreating and the ships grounding fast, they were in a most difficult position. However, as the tide unexpectedly rose again after some time, they managed with difficulty to lighten their ships by throwing overboard all heavy objects. Their departure now was so hasty as to resemble a flight, and having made Sicily and rounded Cape Lilybaeum they anchored at Panormus. As they were rashly crossing the open sea on the way hence to Rome they again encountered such a terrific storm that they lost more than a 150 ships.

[252 BCE] The Roman government upon this, although in all matters they are exceedingly ambitious of success, still on the present occasion, owing to the magnitude and frequency of the disasters they met with, were obliged by the force of circumstances to renounce the project of getting another fleet together. [251 BCE] Relying now solely on their land forces, they dispatched to Sicily with some legions the consuls Lucius Caecilius [Metellus] and Gaius Furius [Pacilus] and only manned 60 ships to revictual the legions.

The above disasters resulted in the prospects of the Carthaginians becoming once more brighter; for they had now undisturbed command of the sea, the Romans having retired from it, and they had great hopes of their army. These hopes were not unjustified, for the Romans, when the report circulated regarding the battle in Africa that the elephants had broken the Romans' ranks and killed most of their men, grew so afraid of the beasts that for the two years following this period, though often both in the district of Lilybaeum and in that of Selinus they were drawn up at a distance of about a kilometer from the enemy, they never dared to begin a battle, and in fact never would come down at all to meet the enemy on flat ground, so much did they dread a charge of the elephants.

[252 BCE] During this period all they accomplished was the reduction by siege of Therma and Lipara, keeping as they did to mountainous and difficult country. Consequently the government, observing the timidity and despondency that prevailed in their land forces, changed their minds and decided to try their fortunes at sea again.

[250 BCE] In the consulship of Gaius Atilius [Regulus] and Lucius Manlius [Vulso] we find them building 50 ships and actively enrolling sailors and getting a fleet together.






to book 1, chapter 40




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