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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 47

[250 BCE] What tended most to give him confidence was that from experience he had accurately noted the course to be followed through the shoals in entering. For as soon as he had crossed and come into view, he would get the sea-tower on the Italian side on his bows so that it covered the whole line of towers turned towards Africa; and this is the only way that a vessel running before the wind can hit the mouth of the harbor in entering.

Several others who had local knowledge, gaining confidence from the "Rhodian's" audacity, undertook to do the same, and in consequence the Romans, to whom this was a great annoyance, tried to fill up the mouth of the harbor. For the most part indeed their attempt was resultless, both owing to the depth of the sea, and because none of the stuff that they threw in would remain in its place or hold together in the least, but all they shot in used to be at once shifted and scattered as it was sinking to the bottom, by the surge and the force of the current.

However, in one place where there were shoals a solid bank was formed at the cost of infinite pains, and on this a four-banked ship which was coming out at night grounded and fell into the hands of the enemy. This ship was of remarkably fine build, and the Romans, after capturing it and manning it with a select crew, kept watch for all the blockade-runners and especially for the "Rhodian."

It so happened that he had sailed in that very night, and was afterwards sailing out quite openly, but, on seeing the four-banked vessel putting out to sea again together with himself and recognizing it, he was alarmed. At first he made a spurt to get away from it, but finding himself overhauled owing to the good oarsmanship of its crew he had at length to turn and engage the enemy. Being no match for the boarders, who were numerous and all picked men, he fell into the enemy's hands. His ship was, like the other, very well built, and the Romans when they were in possession of her fitted her out too for this special service and so put a stop to all this venturesome blockade-running at Lilybaeum.

 
to book 1, chapter 48
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