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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 60

[241 BCE] When the unexpected news reached Carthage that the Romans were at sea with a fleet and were again disputing the naval supremacy, they at once got their ships ready, and filling them with grain and other provisions, dispatched their fleet on its errand, desiring that the troops at Eryx should be in no need of necessary supplies. Hanno, whom they had appointed to command the naval force, set sail and reached the Holy Isle from whence he designed to cross as soon as possible to Eryx, unobserved by the enemy, and, after lightening the ships by disembarking the supplies, to take on board as marines the best qualified mercenaries together with [Hamilcar] Barca himself and then engage the enemy.

[Proconsul Gaius] Lutatius [Catulus], learning of Hanno's arrival and divining his intentions, took on board a picked force from the army and sailed to the island of Aegusa which lies off Lilybaeum. There, after exhorting his troops as became the occasion, he informed the captains that the battle would take place next day.

In the early morning, just as day was breaking, he saw that a brisk breeze was coming down favorable to the enemy, but that it had become difficult for himself to sail up against the wind, the sea too being heavy and rough. At first he hesitated much what to do under the circumstances, but reflected that if he risked an attack now that the weather was stormy, he would be fighting against Hanno and the naval forces alone and also against heavily laden ships, whereas if he waited for calm weather and by his delay allowed the enemy to cross and join the army, he would have to face ships now lightened and manageable as well as the pick of the land forces and above all the bravery of Hamilcar which was what they dreaded most at that time. He therefore decided not to let the present opportunity slip.

When he saw the Carthaginian ships under full sail he at once got under weigh. As his crews easily mastered the waves owing to their good training, he soon brought his fleet into a single line with their prows to the enemy. 

 
to book 1, chapter 61
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