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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.

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Polybius. Museo nazionale della civiltÓ romana, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Polybius; cast from a lost monument in Cleitor (Greece) (Museo nazionale della civiltÓ romana, Rome) 

Book 1, chapter 59

[243 BCE] But, in spite of all, the Romans, as if fighting for their lives, although they had for nearly five years utterly withdrawn from the sea owing to their disasters and their belief that they would be able to decide the war by the aid of their land forces alone, now, when they saw that chiefly owing to the bold action of the Carthaginian general they were not making the progress on which they had reckoned, decided for the third time to court the prospect of using sea-forces. They thought that this course, if they could but strike a deadly blow, was the only way of bringing the war to a favourable conclusion. And this they finally accomplished.

It was yielding to the blows of Fortune that they had retired from the sea on the first occasion; the second time it was owing to their defeat at Drepana, but now they made this third attempt, and through it, by gaining a victory and cutting off the supplies from the sea of the Carthaginian army at Eryx, they put an end to the whole war.

The attempt was indeed of the nature of a struggle for existence. For there were no funds in the public treasury for this purpose; but yet, owing to the patriotic and generous spirit of the leading citizens, enough was found to carry out the project; as either one, two, or three of them, according to their means, undertook to provide a quinquereme fully equipped on the understanding that they would be repaid if all went well. In this way a fleet of 200 quinqueremes was rapidly got ready, all built on the model of the "Rhodian's" ship.

[242 BCE] They then appointed Gaius Lutatius [Catulus] to the command and dispatched him at the beginning of summer. Suddenly appearing off the coast of Sicily, he seized on the harbor of Drepana and the road-steads near Sicily, the whole Carthaginian navy having retired to their own country.

First of all he constructed works round the city of Drepana and made all preparations for its siege, but while continuing to prosecute this by every means in his power, he foresaw that the Carthaginian fleet would arrive, and was not forgetful of the original motive of the expedition, the belief that it was only by a sea battle that the war could be decisively finished. He did not, then, allow the time to pass uselessly and idly, but every day was spent in exercising and practising the crews properly for this purpose. He also paid unremitting attention to the matter of good food and drink, so that in a very short time he got his sailors into perfect condition for the anticipated battle.

 




to book 1, chapter 60




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