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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 48

[250 BCE] The besieged were still counterbuilding energetically though they had renounced their effort to spoil or destroy the enemy's works, when there arose a turbulent storm of wind, blowing with such violence and fury on the actual apparatus for advancing the engines, that it shook the protecting penthouses from their foundations and carried away the wooden towers in front of these by its force.

During the gale it struck some of the Greek mercenaries that here was an admirable opportunity for destroying the works, and they communicated their notion to the general, who approved it and made all suitable preparations for the enterprise. The soldiers in several bodies threw fire on the works at three separate points. The whole apparatus being old and readily inflammable, and the wind blowing very strongly on the actual towers and engines, the action of the flames as they spread was most effective, whereas the efforts of the Romans to succor and save the works were quite the reverse, the task being most difficult.

The defenders were indeed so terrified by the outbreak that they could neither realize nor understand what was happening, but half blinded by the flames and sparks that flew in their faces and by the dense smoke, many of them succumbed and fell, unable even to get near enough to combat the actual conflagration. The difficulties that the enemy encountered for these various reasons were immense, while the exertions of the incendiaries were correspondingly facilitated.

Everything that could blind or injure the enemy was blown into flame and pushed at them, missiles and other objects hurled or discharged to wound the rescuers or to destroy the works being easily aimed because the throwers could see in front of them, while the blows were most effective as the strong wind gave them additional force. At the end the completeness of the destruction was such that the bases of the towers and the posts that supported the battering-rams were rendered useless by the fire.

After this the Romans gave up the attempt to conduct the siege by works, and digging a trench and erecting a stockade all round the city, at the same time building a wall round their own encampment, they left the result to time. But the garrison of Lilybaeum rebuilt the fallen portions of the wall and now confidently awaited the issue of the siege.

 
to book 1, chapter 49
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