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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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Polybius. Museo nazionale della civiltÓ romana, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Polybius; cast from a lost monument in Cleitor (Greece) (Museo nazionale della civiltÓ romana, Rome) 

Book 1, chapter 45

[250 BCE] Himilco, the commander of the garrison, seeing that all were full of spirit and confidence, the original garrison owing to the arrival of relief, and the newcomers owing to their ignorance as yet of the perilous situation, desired to avail himself of this fresh spirit in both parties and make another attempt to fire the enemy's works.

He therefore summoned the soldiers to a general assembly, and addressing them at some length in words suitable to the occasion, roused them to great enthusiasm by his lavish promises of reward to those who distinguished themselves personally, and his assurance that the force as a whole would be duly recompensed by the
government. On their all applauding him and shouting to him not to delay but to lead them on at once, he dismissed them for the present after praising them and expressing his pleasure at their eagerness, ordering them to retire to rest early and obey their officers.

Soon afterwards he summoned the commanding officers and assigned to each his proper place in the assault, giving them the watchword and informing them of the hour. He ordered all the commanders with the whole of their forces to be on the spot at the morning watch, and his orders having been executed, he led the whole force out as it was getting light and attacked the works in several places.

The Romans, who had foreseen what was coming, were not idle or unprepared, but promptly ran to defend the threatened points and opposed a vigorous resistance to the enemy. Soon the whole of both forces were engaged, and a desperate fight was going on all round the walls, the salliers numbering not less than 20,000 and the force outside being rather more numerous. Inasmuch as they were fighting confusedly and in no order, each man as he thought best, the battle was all the more fierce, such a large force being engaged man to man and company to company, so that there was something of the keenness of single combat in the whole contest.

It was, however, particularly at the siege-works themselves that there was most shouting and pressure. For those on both sides whose task from the outset was on the one hand to drive the defenders from the works, and on the other not to abandon them, exhibited such emulation and resolution, the assailants doing their very best to turn the Romans out, and the latter refusing to give way, that at last owing to this resolute spirit the men remained and fell on the spot where they had first stood.

Yet, in spite of all, the bearers of pine-brands, tow, and fire intermingled with the combatants, attacked the engines from every side, hurling the burning matter at them with such pluck that the Romans were in the utmost peril, being unable to master the onset of the enemy.

But the Carthaginian general, observing that many were falling in the battle, and that his object of taking the works was not being attained, ordered his trumpeters to sound the retreat. Thus the Romans who had come very near losing all their siege-material, at length were masters of their works, and remained in secure possession of them.


to book 1, chapter 46

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