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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 53

[249 BCE] At about the same time Adherbal sent the prisoners from the naval battle and the captured ships to Carthage, and giving Carthalo his colleague 30 vessels in addition to the 70 with which he had arrived, dispatched him with orders to make a sudden descent on the enemy's ships that were moored near Lilybaeum, capture all he could and set fire to the rest. When Carthalo acting on these orders made the attack at dawn and began to burn some of the ships and carry off others, there was a great commotion in the Roman camp.

For as they rushed to rescue the ships with loud cries, Himilco, on the watch at Lilybaeum, heard them, and as day was just beginning to break, he saw what was happening, and sent out the mercenaries from the town to attack the Romans also. The Romans were now in danger from all sides and in no little or ordinary distress.

The Carthaginian admiral, having made off with a few ships and broken up others, shortly afterwards left Lilybaeum, and after coasting along for some distance in the direction of Heraclea remained on the watch, as his design was to intercept the ships that were on their way to join the army. When his look-out men reported that a considerable number of ships of every variety were approaching and at no great distance, he got under weigh and sailed towards them eager to engage them, as after the recent success he had great contempt for the Romans.

The approach of the enemy was also announced by the light boats that usually sail in front of a fleet to the quaestors who had been sent on in advance from Syracuse. Considering themselves not strong enough to accept a battle, they anchored off a certain small fortified town subject to the Romans, which had indeed no harbor, but a roadstead shut in by headlands projecting from the land in a manner that made it a more or less secure anchorage. Here they disembarked, and setting up the catapults and mangonels procured from the fortress, awaited the enemy's attack.

The Carthaginians on their approach at first thought of besieging them, supposing that the crews would be afraid and retreat to the city, and that they would then easily possess themselves of the ships; but when their hopes were not realized, the enemy on the contrary making a gallant defense, and the situation of the place presenting many difficulties of every kind, they carried off a few of the ships laden with provisions and sailed away to a certain river where they anchored, and waited for the Romans to put out to sea again.

to book 1, chapter 54
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