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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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The Eryx. Photo Jona Lendering.

Book 1, chapter 58

[244 BCE] But Fortune, like a good umpire, unexpectedly shifted the scene and changed the nature of the contest, confining both in a narrower field, where the struggle grew even more desperate. The Romans, as I said, had garrisons at Eryx on the summit of the mountain and at the foot. Hamilcar now seized the town which lies between the summit and the spot at the foot where the garrison was.

The consequence of this was that the Romans on the summit -a thing they had never expected- remained besieged and in considerable peril, and that the Carthaginians, though it is scarcely credible, maintained their position though the enemy were pressing on them from all sides and the conveyance of supplies was not easy, as they only held one place on the sea and one single road connecting with it.

However, here again both sides employed every device and effort that the siege demanded: both endured every kind of privation and both essayed every means of attack and every variety of action. At length not, as [the Roman historian] Fabius Pictor says, owing to their exhaustion and sufferings, but like two uninjured and invincible champions, they left the contest drawn. For before either could get the better of the other, though the struggle in this place lasted for another two years, the war had been decided by other means.

Such then was the condition of affairs at Eryx and as far as regarded land forces. We may compare the spirit displayed by both states to that of game cocks engaged in a death-struggle. For we often see that when these birds have lost the use of their wings from exhaustion, their courage remains as high as ever and they continue to strike blow upon blow, until closing involuntarily they get a deadly hold of each other, and as soon as this happens one or the other of the two will soon fall dead. So the Romans and Carthaginians, worn out by their exertions owing to the continual fighting, at length began to be despairing, their strength paralyzed and their resources exhausted by protracted taxation and expense. 

to book 1, chapter 59
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