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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 40

[250 BCE] The Carthaginian commander-in-chief, Hasdrubal, had noted the lack of courage which the Romans exhibited, on the occasions when they were in presence of the enemy, and when he learnt that while one of the consuls with half the whole force had left for Italy, Caecilius [Metellus] and the rest of the army remained at Panormus with the object of protecting the grain of the allies -it now being the height of the harvest- removed his forces from Lilybaeum and encamped on the frontier of the territory of Panormus.

Caecilius, observing Hasdrubal's aggressive spirit and wishing to provoke him to attack, kept his own soldiers within the gates. Hasdrubal gained fresh confidence from this, thinking that Caecilius did not venture to come out, and boldly advancing with his whole force, descended through the pass on the territory of Panormus.

Caecilius, adhering to his original plan, let him ravage the crops up to the walls, until he had led him on to cross the river that runs in front of the town. Once the Carthaginians had got their elephants and other forces across, he kept sending out light-armed troops to molest them, until he had compelled them to deploy their whole force. When he saw that what he had designed was taking place he stationed some of his light troops before the wall and the trench, ordering them, if the elephants approached, not to spare their missiles, and when driven from their position, they were to take refuge in the trench and sallying from it again shoot at those elephants which charged at them.

Ordering the lower classes of the civil population to bring the missiles and arrange them outside at the foot of the wall, he himself with his maniples took up his position at the gate which faced the enemy's left wing and kept sending constant reinforcements to those engaged in shooting.

When this latter force more generally engaged with the enemy, the drivers of the elephants, anxious to exhibit their prowess to Hasdrubal and wishing the victory to be due to themselves, all charged those of the enemy who were in advance and putting them easily to flight pursued them to the trench. When the elephants charged the trench and began to be wounded by those who were shooting from the wall, while at the same time a rapid shower of javelins and spears fell on them from the fresh troops drawn up before the trench, they very soon, finding themselves hit and hurt in many places, were thrown into confusion and turned on their own troops, trampling down and killing the men and disturbing and breaking the ranks.

Caecilius, on seeing this, made a vigorous sally and falling on the flank of the enemy, who were now in disorder, with his own fresh and well-ordered troops caused a severe rout among them, killing many and compelling the rest to quit the field in headlong flight. He took ten elephants with their mahouts, and after the battle, having penned up the others who had thrown their mahouts, he captured them all. By this exploit he was universally acknowledged to have caused the Roman land forces to pluck up courage again and gain the command of the open country.






to book 1, chapter 41




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