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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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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 63

[241 BCE] But when these terms were referred to Rome, the people did not accept the treaty, but sent ten commissioners to examine the matter. On their arrival they made no substantial changes in the terms, but only slight modifications rendering them more severe for Carthage: for they reduced the term of payment by one half, added a 1000 talents to the indemnity, and demanded the evacuation by the Carthaginians of all islands lying between Sicily and Italy.

Such then was the end of the war between the Romans and Carthaginians for the possession of Sicily, and such were the terms of peace. It had lasted without a break for twenty-four years and is the longest, most unintermittent, and greatest war we know of. Apart from all the other battles and armaments, the total naval forces engaged were, as I mentioned above, on one occasion more than 500 quinqueremes and on a subsequent one very nearly 700. Moreover the Romans lost in this war about 700 quinqueremes, inclusive of those that perished in the shipwrecks, and the Carthaginians about 500. So that those who marvel at the great sea-battles and great fleets of an Antigonus [Monophthalmus], a Ptolemy [Soter], or a Demetrius [Poliorcetes] would, if I mistake not, on inquiring into the history of this war, be much astonished at the huge scale of operations.

Again, if we take into consideration the difference between quinqueremes and the triremes in which the Persians fought against the Greeks and the Athenians and Lacedaemonians against each other, we shall find that no forces of such magnitude ever met at sea. This confirms the assertion I ventured to make at the outset that the progress of the Romans was not due to chance and was not involuntary, as some among the Greeks choose to think, but that by schooling themselves in such vast and perilous enterprises it was perfectly natural that they not only gained the courage to aim at universal dominion, but executed their purpose.


to book 1, chapter 64

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