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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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Relief of the tomb of Lucius Cartilius Poplicola, Ostia Antica (Photo Jona Lendering.
Relief of the tomb of Lucius Cartilius Poplicola, Ostia Antica (©**

Book 1, chapter 51

[249 BCE] When the two fleets approached each other, the signals for battle were raised on both the admirals, and they closed. At first the battle was equally balanced, as the marines in both fleets were the very best men of their land forces; but the Carthaginians gradually began to get the best of it as they had many advantages throughout the whole struggle. They much surpassed the Romans in speed, owing to the superior build of their ships and the better training of the rowers, as they had freely developed their line in the open sea.

For if any ships found themselves hard pressed by the enemy it was easy for them owing to their speed to retreat safely to the open water and from thence, fetching round on the ships that pursued and fell on them, they either got in their rear or attacked them on the flank, and as the enemy then had to turn round and found themselves in difficulty owing to the weight of the hulls and the poor oarsmanship of the crews, they rammed them repeatedly and sunk many. Again if any other of their own ships were in peril they were ready to render assistance with perfect security to themselves, as they were out of immediate danger and could sail in open water past the sterns of their own line.

It was, however, just the opposite with the Romans. Those in distress could not retire backwards, as they were fighting close to the land, and the ships, hard pressed by the enemy in front, either ran on the shallows stern foremost or made for the shore and grounded. To sail on the one hand through the enemy's line and then appear on the stern of such of his ships as were engaged with others (one of the most effective maneuvers in naval warfare) was impossible owing to the weight of the vessels and their crews' lack of skill. Nor again could they give assistance where it was required from astern, as they were hemmed in close to the shore, and there was not even a small space left for those who wished to come to the rescue of their comrades in distress.

Such being their difficult position in every part of the battle, and some of the ships grounding on the shallows while others ran ashore, the Roman commander, when he saw what was happening, took to flight, slipping out on the left along shore, accompanied by about 30 of the ships nearest to him. The remainder, 93 in number, were captured by the Carthaginians, including their crews, with the exception of those men who ran their ships ashore and made off.

to book 1, chapter 52
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