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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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Map of Motya and the siege of Lilybaeum during the First Punic War. Design Jona Lendering.
The siege of Lilybaeum

Book 1, chapter 42

[250 BCE] Sicily, then, as a whole occupies the same position with regard to Italy and its extremity that the Peloponnese occupies with regard to Greece and its extremity, the difference lying in this, that the Peloponnese is a peninsula whereas Sicily is an island, the communication being in the one case by land and in the other by sea.

Sicily is triangular in shape, the apices of all three angles being formed by capes. The cape that looks to the south and stretches out into the Sicilian Sea is called Pachynus, that on the north forms the extremity of the western coast of the strait; it is about 2¼ kilometers distant from Italy and is called Pelorias. The third looks towards Africa itself, and is favorably situated as a base for attacking the promontories in front of Carthage, from which it is distant about one 180 kilometers. It is turned to the south-west, separating the African from the Sardinian Sea, and its name is Lilybaeum.

On the cape stands the city of the same name, of which the Romans were now opening the siege. It is excellently defended both by walls and by a deep moat all round, and on the side facing the sea by shoaly water, the passage through which into the harbor requires great skill and practice.

The Romans encamped by this city on either side, fortifying the space between their camps with a trench, a stockade, and a wall. They then began to throw up works against the tower that lay nearest the sea on the African side, and, gradually advancing from the base thus acquired and extending their works, they succeeded at last in knocking down the six adjacent towers, and attacked all the others at once with battering rams.

The siege was now so vigorously pursued and so terrifying, each day seeing some of the towers shaken or demolished and the enemy's works advancing further and further into the city, that the besieged were thrown into a state of utter confusion and panic, although, besides the civil population, there were nearly ten thousand mercenaries in the town.

Their general, Himilco, however, omitted no means of resistance in his power, and by counter-building and counter-mining caused the enemy no little difficulty. Every day he would advance and make attempts on the siege works, trying to succeed in setting them on fire, and with this object was indeed engaged by night and day in combats of so desperate a character, that at times more men fell in these encounters than usually fell in a pitched battle.

 
to book 1, chapter 43
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