A Brutal and Bloody Affair: 6 Key Battles that Decided the First Punic War

A Brutal and Bloody Affair: 6 Key Battles that Decided the First Punic War

Patrick Lynch - May 5, 2017

The First Punic War (264 – 241 BC) was the first in a trilogy of wars between Rome and Carthage. At 23 years, it was the longest continuous war in history up to that point as the two nations ostensibly fought for control of Sicily. It was a brutal and bloody affair with both sides close to victory and defeat on several occasions before the Romans, with their seemingly limitless resources, ground their enemies down.

Rome and Carthage had co-existed peacefully since the formation of the Roman Republic with a total of four peace treaties signed from 509 BC to 279 BC. These agreements outlined each one’s territories but soon, Roman eyes greedily looked towards expansion in Magna Graecia. Rome had a special interest in Sicily, a prosperous island that was already the subject of disputes between Carthage and Greek city states. Things finally boiled over when Messana asked for help against the invading Syracusans.

Messana had been taken over by a group of mercenaries called the Mamertines in 288 BC. After losing a battle to Syracuse (ruled by King Hieron II, known as a tyrant), Messana appealed to Carthage for help in 265 BC. The Carthaginians stationed a garrison in the city but when Messana realized that Rome could help, they removed the Carthaginians and allowed two Roman legions into the city. The Carthaginians crucified the unfortunate garrison leader who had been kicked out and laid siege to Messana. The Roman consul at Messana asked for a peace deal but the Carthaginian commander, Hanno, rejected it. And so began a conflict involving over 1 million men. In this article, I will tell the story of the First Punic War featuring 6 of the most important battles.

A Brutal and Bloody Affair: 6 Key Battles that Decided the First Punic War
First Punic War map. Wikimedia

1 – Battle of Agrigentum (262 BC)

The conflict started well for Rome as it defeated the Carthaginian and Syracusan forces at Messana. Under a new commander, Messalla, the Romans built on the initial success by attacking Syracuse and forcing Hieron to surrender. He agreed to become Rome’s ally in exchange for keeping his throne. However, Rome sent half of its forces back to Italy; an action that emboldened the Carthaginians who then sent another army to Sicily.

In 262 BC, the Romans sent the consul Megellus to Sicily along with another commander named Vitulus. They surrounded the Carthaginians, led by Hannibal Gisco, who were stationed in the city of Agrigentum on the island of Sicily. Although there were 50,000 people in the city, the Carthaginian garrison was much smaller, and they faced 40,000 Romans. As a result, Gisco refused to leave the city and engage with the enemy. The Romans thought it was a sign of weakness and decided to harvest the crops in the area for food. However, Gisco seized the chance and attacked the unarmed Romans. Further skirmishes resulted in the loss of many men, and Gisco knew he couldn’t afford further losses.

Meanwhile, the Romans knew they had underestimated the enemy and decided on a strategy to starve the inhabitants of the city. After five months, and with supplies running out, Gisco sent word to Carthage asking for help. Hanno, who was possibly Gisco’s son, arrived with between 30,000 and 50,000 men including thousands of cavalry and at least 30 war elephants. Hanno cut off Roman supplies and after a couple of months, the Romans offered battle, but this time, the Carthaginians refused. However, Gisco and the population of the city were starving by now, so the two armies finally engaged.

Hanno probably set up his infantry in two lines with the elephants in the back and cavalry on the wings. The Romans likely adopted their preferred triplex acies formation. After a lengthy battle, the Romans broke through enemy lines and routed the Carthaginians. Gisco and Hanno fled and, after initially pursuing them, the Romans turned back to take the city of Agrigentum. They plundered the city and sold approximately 25,000 people into slavery. Although this was common practice, it was a miscalculation as it angered nearby towns that would otherwise have been friendly to Rome. While the enemy commanders escaped which took the gloss off the victory, it was Rome’s first large-scale military success outside of Italy and gave it the confidence to expand.

A Brutal and Bloody Affair: 6 Key Battles that Decided the First Punic War
Early Roman Warships. Weapons and Warfare

2 – Battle of Mylae (260 BC)

Victory at Agrigentum inspired Rome, and it wanted to conquer the whole of Sicily but realized it needed naval power. In true Roman fashion, no time was wasted as 100 quinqueremes, and 20 triremes were built in approximately 60 days. They probably used Greek and Carthaginian ships as the basis for the design. The rowers trained on specially-made benches on dry land during construction and the Romans added extra touches to their ships.

They added a rotating platform with a giant spike called the corvus which was around 11 meters long. It was designed to be loaded onto an enemy ship, and up to 120 men could board. As the Romans had little experience of naval warfare, they wanted to make sea battles similar to land conflicts to negate the Carthaginian advantage in knowledge. Its first naval battle at Lipari Islands was a disaster as Rome lost 17 ships and surrendered to Gisco. The corvus was only added after this defeat, and some sources suggest it could have been designed by the legendary Archimedes.

Rome finally experienced success at the Battle of Mylae in 260 BC when its fleet (ranging from 90 to 145 ships depending on the source) comprehensively defeated the Carthaginian fleet of 130 ships. The corvae worked brilliantly as it enabled Roman soldiers to board the first 30 enemy ships that got close. The Carthaginians tried to attack from the sides but couldn’t handle the mobile Roman ships and, after another 20 ships had been boarded, Gisco retreated. In total, Carthage lost 50 ships compared to just 11 Roman vessels and the Roman commander, Gaius Dullius, received a triumph.

Rather than following the retreating enemy, Dullius went to Sicily and saved the city of Segesta which was under attack from a Carthaginian army led by Hamilcar. Some historians believe Dullius should have pursued the enemy, but he probably made the right decision because a second encounter could have resulted in defeat. For the next couple of years, Rome consistently raided Sardinia and Corsica. In 258 BC, they met the enemy in another naval battle at Salcis and secured another victory. Gisco was arrested by his own men and crucified as punishment for his failure.

A Brutal and Bloody Affair: 6 Key Battles that Decided the First Punic War
Battle of Bagradas. Pinterest

3 – Battle of Bagradas (Tunis) (255 BC)

The Carthaginians were in danger of losing the war because they had no idea how to combat the Roman tactic of using corvii to board ships. After yet another significant Roman naval victory at Ecnomus in 256 BC, they landed on Carthaginian soil at Clupea. Defeat seemed inevitable until Rome inexplicably recalled half its army and fleet; an act that mystifies historians and proved costly. Perhaps the Senate felt that any attack on Carthage could wait until winter ended.

Regardless, a Roman army under the command of Regulus won a land battle near Tunis and occupied the city in 256/255 BC. By now, Carthage was ready to surrender, and negotiations commenced between the two combatants. However, according to Polybius, the Romans demanded terms so harsh that the Carthaginians decided they would be better off taking their chances and fighting on. The terms included Carthage completely giving up Sicily. The Carthaginians built up its army over the winter of 255 BC; it included Greek mercenaries. After the Spartan general Xanthippus criticized the Punic commanders, he was given leadership of the army.

Xanthippus quickly proved his worth and trained the army to the high Hellenistic standard. By spring, he had an army equal to that of the Romans and the two enemies met once again, this time at the Battle of Bagradas, also known as the Battle of Tunis. Xanthippus made use of his superior cavalry by overwhelming the Roman equivalent after a successful war elephant charge. Eventually, the Carthaginian forces defeated the Romans on both sides and forced a retreat. According to Polybius, 12,000 Romans died at Bagradas against just 800 Carthaginians.

It was a crushing defeat for Rome, and Regulus died soon afterward; ancient historians disagree as to the cause. Some writers suggest he was captured and had his eyelids cut off before execution. Polybius does not mention this and Diodorus says Regulus died from natural causes. From the verge of victory, Rome was once again embroiled in a fierce conflict that lasted for another 14 years.

A Brutal and Bloody Affair: 6 Key Battles that Decided the First Punic War
Illustration of one of the Many First Punic War Naval Battles. Dickinson College Commentaries

4 – Battle of Panormus (251 BC)

The Romans returned to Sicily and captured Panormus (modern day Palermo) in 254 BC. The population of 70,000 was offered the chance to buy its freedom for 200 drachmas; those who couldn’t pay were sold into slavery. After yet another raid in North Africa, disaster hit Rome when storms ravaged one of its fleets and resulted in the sinking of 150 ships. Ironically, the much-vaunted Corvus was possibly to blame for its added weight was a factor in the disaster. Interestingly, there are no further mentions of the device after the calamity.

As many as 90,000 men died in the storms and Carthage used the opportunity to attack Agrigentum. Since they didn’t think they could hold on to the city, they burned it instead. Rome created another 140 ships and once again, began picking off enemy locations on the coast of Sicily. It attacked Lilybaeum in Sicily and raided North Africa but once again, a storm ravaged the Roman fleet and destroyed some ships. Despite this setback, the Romans continued with their forward momentum and captured Thermae in 252 BC. The following year, they took Kephalodon and advanced towards Panormus.

The Carthaginian commander, Hasdrubal, sensed an opportunity as the year 251 BC came to a close. He knew that the Romans changed consuls every year which meant a changeover period before new consuls arrived at Sicily. Hasdrubal was correct in his assertion as one of the Roman consuls returned home with half the troops, leaving Metellus with a reduced army at Panormus. Hasdrubal advanced on the city, so Metellus planned to use the city’s defenses to hold the enemy at bay. The defenses included large walls surrounded by a ditch and a river close to the city.

Metellus cleverly lured Hasdrubal into a trap, and as his enemy approached after crossing the river, the Romans harassed them with light infantry while other light troops went in front of the city’s defensive trench. Hasdrubal sent his elephants after these men, but it was part of Metellus’ plan. He knew the men would be forced into the ditch but used the opportunity to send his troops on the wall into the fray against the now vulnerable animals. The combined attack from the men on the wall and those in the ditch caused the elephants to panic, and they fled. Metellus ordered his heavy troops to attack the enemy left wing and, with the Carthaginians already in a state of confusion, the Romans won a decisive victory as Hasdrubal’s army was almost destroyed. As well as capturing 60 elephants, the Romans killed 11,000 Carthaginians at Panormus.

It was probably a turning point in the First Punic War because the Romans lost much of their fear of elephants. Before this battle, many soldiers refused to face the animals in open combat. Carthage made a peace offer which was rejected by the Romans. As was the tradition, Hasdrubal was executed for his failure. Buoyed by their success, the Romans attacked Lilybaeum once again but were unable to take the city after a lengthy siege. There was still plenty of work for them to do.

A Brutal and Bloody Affair: 6 Key Battles that Decided the First Punic War
Roman Naval Warfare. Ancient History Encyclopedia

5 – Battle of Drepanum (249 BC)

Despite early success at sea, the Romans didn’t have much luck with their navy during the First Punic War although they were routinely victorious in land combat. The Carthaginians were able to easily withstand the siege of Lilybaeum, so the Roman consul Pulcher elected to launch a surprise naval attack on the enemy fleet at Drepanum in 249 BC. The Roman fleet equaled the Carthaginian force of 120 ships, but Pulcher made a crucial mistake by remaining at the rear of the fleet.

Unfortunately for the Romans, the Carthaginian admiral, Adherbal, reacted swiftly once he saw the enemy fleet on the horizon. He ordered an immediate attack so while the ships were no longer sitting ducks in the harbor, they were out of formation. Had Pulcher been in position, he could have taken advantage and avoided the catastrophe that followed. The ships at the front of the Roman fleet suffered from a lack of leadership and sailed directly into Drepanum. Several Roman ships collided in the harbor and damaged morale before the battle even began.

Although both fleets lined up parallel to the coast, the Romans were too close to shallow water, and the enemy had far more room to maneuver. While the Carthaginians fought like a well-oiled machine, the Romans were a complete rabble and completely dismantled with the loss of 93 ships. Pulcher escaped, but further bad luck hit the Romans when yet more storms destroyed their ships. At this stage, Rome could no longer afford to build ships, and it would be another 8 years before they returned to sea in force.

It was a severe blow to the Romans who had no chance of capturing Lilybaeum or Drepanum without a fleet. There was a stalemate of sorts for around two years as the Romans focused on keeping the enemy pinned on the west coast. Eventually, the Carthaginian general, Hamilcar Barca (father of the legendary Hannibal Barca), gave fresh impetus to the war effort by landing near Panormus in 247 BC and forcing the Romans to defend the city and give Drepanum some breathing space.

Since Carthage couldn’t afford to fund the creation of a new army, Hamilcar resorted to guerilla tactics for a few years. He captured Enyx in 244 BC and used it as the new Carthaginian base. He was keen to attack the Italian mainland, but the lack of resources hampered his efforts. Meanwhile, Hanno the Great had success in unrelated campaigns in Libya; the booty he plundered helped fund the war effort. By now, the Romans knew the necessity of a fleet and began rebuilding yet again in an attempt to end the conflict once and for all.

A Brutal and Bloody Affair: 6 Key Battles that Decided the First Punic War
Drawing of Hamilcar Barca. Pinterest

6 – Battle of Aegates Islands (241 BC)

By 242 BC, Rome created a new 200 ship fleet with financial assistance from wealthy private citizens. The new fleet sailed to Sicily that summer under the command of Lutatius Catulus. He soon realized that there was no enemy fleet to contend with so he ordered his land troops to land at Drepanum intending to lay siege to the city. In the meantime, he spent the next nine months training his sailors in the art of naval warfare.

Carthage saw the threat and raised its own fleet which was ready for war in the spring of 241 BC under the command of Admiral Hanno. His main problem was the enormous amount of supplies the ships were carrying which slowed them down. Hanno planned to sail to the Aegates Islands, quickly make his way to Eryx to meet Hamilcar, unload the supplies, take Hamilcar’s experienced mercenaries with him and launch his attack on the Romans.

It was a good idea in theory, but in practice, he didn’t contend with the skill of Catulus who was determined to prevent Hanno from carrying out his plans. The nine months he spent training his sailors was time well spent as the Romans turned a potential disaster into total victory. When the two fleets met near the Aegates Islands, a west wind was blowing and heavily favored Hanno because it made it hard for the Roman ships to remain together. However, they held firm and didn’t allow bad weather to destroy them once again.

Although Hanno had around 250 ships to the 200 Roman vessels, the Carthaginian ships were heavily loaded with supplies and undermanned. The combination of greater mobility, well-trained sailors and excellent command from Catulus meant the Battle of the Aegates Islands was a devastatingly one-sided affair. 50 Carthaginian ships were destroyed, and another 70 were captured while only 30 Roman vessels were destroyed. Only a change in wind direction prevented total annihilation as it allowed the remaining Carthaginian ships to flee. You can probably guess what happened to Hanno when he returned home.

Hamilcar was given authority to negotiate peace and, perhaps mindful of what happened in 256 BC, the Romans offered reasonably generous terms. Carthage had to evacuate Sicily, both sides agreed not to make war on one another’s allies, and Carthage had to pay Rome a sum of 2,200 talents to cover the costs of the Roman fleet. These initial terms were deemed too generous back in Rome, so they added another 1,000 talent fee and Carthaginian war vessels were not allowed enter Italian waters.

Thus, the First Punic War came to an end in 241 BC, and Sicily became Rome’s first foreign province. Sardinia and Corsica quickly followed and for the next few decades, Rome more or less ignored Sicily. Meanwhile, thoughts of revenge were put to the back of Carthaginian minds as they had to deal with revolts and wars in Libya. However, Carthage would return to become a thorn in Rome’s side and deal it humiliating defeats in the Second Punic War, just 23 years later, under the leadership of the brilliant Hannibal Barca.