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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 46

[250 BCE] As for Hannibal, he sailed out with his ships after the affair while it was still night, unobserved by the enemy, and proceeded to Drepana to meet the Carthaginian commander there, Adherbal. Owing to the convenient situation of Drepana and the excellency of its harbor, the Carthaginians had always given great attention to its protection. The place lies at a distance of about 21 kilometers from Lilybaeum.

The Carthaginians at home wishing to know what was happening at Lilybaeum, but being unable to do so as their own forces were shut up in the town and the Romans were active in their vigilance, one of their leading citizens, Hannibal, surnamed the Rhodian, offered to sail into Lilybaeum and make a full report from personal observation. They listened to his offer eagerly, but did not believe he could do this, as the Romans were anchored outside the mouth of the port. But after fitting out his own ship, he set sail, and crossed to one of the islands that lie before Lilybaeum, and next day finding the wind happily favorable, sailed in at about ten o'clock in the morning in full sight of the enemy who were thunderstruck by his audacity.

Next day he at once made preparations for departure, but the Roman general, with the view of guarding the entrance more carefully, had fitted out in the night ten of his fastest ships, and now he himself and his whole army stood by the harbor waiting to see what would happen. The ships were waiting on either side of the entrance as near as the shoals would allow them to approach, their oars out and ready to charge and capture the ship that was about to sail out.

But the "Rhodian," getting under weigh in the sight of all, so far outbraved the Romans by his audacity and speed that not only did he bring his ship and her whole crew out unhurt, passing the enemy's ships just as if they were motionless, but after sailing on a short way, he pulled up without shipping his oars as if to challenge the enemy, and no one venturing to come out against him owing to the speed of his rowing, he sailed off, after thus having with one ship successfully defied the whole Roman fleet.

After this he several times performed the same feat and was of great service by continuing to report at Carthage the news of most urgent importance, while at the same time he kept up the spirits of the besieged and struck terror into the Romans by his venturesomeness. 

 
to book 1, chapter 47
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