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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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Bust of Hamilcar
Bust of Hamilcar (©!!!)

Book 1, chapter 56

[247 BCE] The Carthaginians shortly afterwards appointed Hamilcar surnamed Barca to the command and entrusted naval operations to him. He started with the fleet to ravage the Italian coast (this, I should say, was in the eighteenth year of the war) and after laying waste Locris and the Bruttii quitted those parts and descended with his whole fleet on the territory of Panormus.

Here he seized on a place called Hercte lying near the sea between Eryx and Panormus, and thought to possess peculiar advantages for the safe and prolonged stay of an army. It is an abrupt hill rising to a considerable height from the surrounding flat country. The circumference of its brow is not less than 18 kilometers and the plateau within affords good pasturage and is suitable for cultivation, being also favorably exposed to the sea breeze and quite free of animals dangerous to life. On the side looking to the sea and on that which faces the interior of the island, this plateau is surrounded by inaccessible cliffs, while the parts between require only a little slight strengthening. There is also a knoll on it which serves for an acropolis as well as for an excellent post of observation over the country at the foot of the hill. Besides this Hercte commands a harbor very well situated for ships making the voyage from Drepana and Lilybaeum to Italy to put in at, and with an abundant supply of water. The hill has only three approaches, all difficult, two on the land side and one from the sea.

Here Hamilcar established his quarters, at great risk indeed, since he had neither the support of any of their towns nor any prospect of support from elsewhere, but had thrown himself into the midst of the enemy. Notwithstanding this, the peril to which he put the Romans, and the combats to which he forced them, were by no means slight or insignificant. For in the first place he would sally out with his fleet from this place, and devastate the coast of Italy as far as Cumae, and next, after the Romans had taken up a position on land in front of the city of Panormus and at a distance of about a kilometer from his own camp, he harassed them by delivering during almost three years constant and variously contrived attacks by land. These combats I am unable to describe in detail here.

 
to book 1, chapter 57
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