- James Houser
March 10, 241 BC - First Punic War & Battle of the Aegates Islands
Updated: Jun 2, 2021
March 10, 241 BC. After 23 years of war, the first great war between Rome and Carthage is about to come to its conclusion. As two great fleets of enormous galleys, each 200 ships strong and crewed by almost 100,000 men, face off at the Aegates Islands, the fate of Western Civilization hangs in the balance.
It’s important to get one thing straight, at this point, Rome was not *Rome.* As in, Rome was not a great empire with gleaming marble, wise men in togas, and mighty legions tramping across the world. Rome was an Italian city. An important and powerful one, yes, and they had recently conquered most of southern Italy – but they were hardly the big power of the Ancient World. They were certainly on the rise, though, and they were bound to come into conflict with someone who had an issue with this upstart little hill tribe that called itself a Republic.
That someone was Carthage. A great trading city with its cultural roots in Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon), Carthage was centered in North Africa in the modern country of Tunisia. It was a vibrant, rich city, worshippers of Tanit and Ba’al and traders across the whole Mediterranean. It was also an expansionist power, pushing its imperial reach throughout Africa, Spain, and especially the island of Sicily. Carthage had been trying to conquer Sicily for a century and a half, its main competitor being the Greek city of Syracuse.
The Romans, too, had their eyes on Sicily. Rome was ever-vigilant for threats from the outside world since their sack by the Celts in the 400s BC and more recently an invasion by King Pyrrhus from Greece. Sicily, right off the southern tip of Italy, was an obvious staging ground for any invasion and Rome feared that it would fall into the hands of a hostile power.
In 264 BC the seizure of the Sicilian town of Messina by a group of rogue mercenaries brought both Carthage and Rome angling to take possession of the critical town. Carthage still sought to dominate Sicily for the security of its maritime trade routes, while Rome wanted to prevent a possible threat to its existence. When Rome won the initial contest, she incurred the wrath of powerful Carthage and jump-started a war no one had expected. It would be known as the First Punic War.
Rome was fundamentally unprepared to battle Carthage. It had long been a land power relying on citizen militias for its armies, and those armies had proved remarkably effective against many opponents. Now, though, they faced a great naval power. Carthage had a very strong fleet that dominated the sea between the two great cities; in the first few years of the war, the Romans won every battle on land but found it impossible to take Carthaginian cities or permanently defeat their armies without a fleet of their own. The Romans had never had a fleet, and they had no experienced seamen.
The Romans were special. Confronted with a brick wall, they would smash their heads against it, and everyone would laugh until Rome came crashing through like the Kool-Aid Man. So Rome decided to build a fleet. When a Carthaginian quinquereme – the usual type of seagoing vessel in this era – ran aground on the coast of Italy, the Romans rolled it back to Rome and copied it exactly. Whenever the Carthaginians designed a better ship from now on, the Romans would just capture an example and shamelessly replicate it. They built dozens, then hundreds of ships, and practiced rowing on land for years before putting their navy to sea.
Of course, the Romans got routed the first few times. With no experience on the ocean, Carthage ran rings around Roman fleets, even as the Roman armies in Sicily won multiple victories. The tide turned, however, when the Romans decided to turn their advantage in land battles into an advantage on the water. The Romans designed a bridge called the *corvus* with a heavy spike on the underside that would be mounted on all their ships. Instead of fighting a traditional galley battle – attempting to ram the enemy ships and pelt their foes with missile weapons – they would put their armed legionaries on ships, board the Carthaginian vessels, and attack them that way. The Romans began winning battles – the lightly armed Carthaginian sailors were no match for what was essentially a floating army. Brute force has a quality all its own.
The Romans were still not good at some things, though – they were not great at reading the storms and tides of the sea like the experienced Carthaginians were. On multiple occasions, the Romans lost enormous numbers of men to storms. The corvus, which had gained them their victories, severely unbalanced the ships and made them uncontrollable in a great swell. At one point the entire battle fleet was wrecked by a single ferocious storm where 100,000 men perished. The Romans, bullheaded as ever, built another fleet and sent it back out, undeterred.
By 241 BC, however, the Carthaginians had regained control of the sea. Roman losses in naval battles had increased since they could no longer use the unseaworthy corvus, and their storm losses had remained high. On land, though, the Carthaginians had had worse luck. They were reduced to only two major footholds – Lilybaeum (modern Marsala) and Drepana (modern Trapani) - on the west side of Sicily, and these cities were under constant siege by the Romans.
Only the lifeline of supplies that trickled in by sea from Carthage kept the army of Hamilcar Barca alive, and the Roman Army was forced to watch these convoys come in unhindered. Hamilcar had waged a brilliant guerrilla campaign for years and kept the Romans from taking the two cities, but could not advance farther. Both Rome and Carthage were nearly broke after over 20 years of war, and Rome was running short on manpower after its catastrophic losses. The next battle might well decide the war.
Realizing they could not take Lilybaeum and Drepana without cutting them off from the sea, the penniless Roman Senate ponied up for a new fleet by browbeating its richest citizens into paying for a ship each. 200 ships led by Consul Gaius Lutatius Catulus were soon sailing from Rome – the last round in the Republican revolver. They would be faced by the 250 Carthaginian ships under Admiral Hanno, of whom little is known. Hanno had been running supplies to Hamilcar’s army in Sicily, and was caught by surprise when the Roman fleet arrived. The Romans weren’t supposed to have a fleet anymore. Trying to reach Lilybaeum around the Aegates Islands, on March 10, 241 BC, Hanno turned to face Catulus.
Catulus had his ships toss aside everything that could weigh them down – even the anchors. As the seas grew choppy, this meant that his ships would be more maneuverable in the fierce swell. The Carthaginians, on the other hand, had their ships full of food and equipment for Sicily. Even without the corvus, the Romans had learned to fight on the sea, and their well-armed marines were still a greater match for Carthage’s lightly armed seamen. The Carthaginians were ultimately outmatched. They lost 50 ships sunk and 70 captured, but the battle was hard fought – the Romans lost 30 of their own sunk. Nevertheless, the Carthaginians were forced to retreat without delivering their provisions.
With the garrisons starving, Carthage saw no way to save them, and they had no money to build another fleet. The First Punic War was for all intents and purposes over. Rome demanded the seizure of Sicily and a high tribute for the next ten years, and Carthage was forced to accept.
The peace nearly ruined Carthage. They employed mostly mercenary troops; broke already, and forced to pay tribute to the Romans, they had no money to pay their mercenaries. The Mercenary War that followed peace with the Romans was honestly a greater threat to Carthage than the Romans had ever been. Since Carthage was unable to pay its tribute during this period, the Romans snatched the islands of Corsica and Sardinia from their beaten opponent as well; when Carthage protested this violation of the truce, they were basically told where to shove it.
Rome had triumphed and had risen to become the major power of the Western Mediterranean – but that might not last forever. When the general Hamilcar Barca came home, witnessing his city in near ruin and confronted with evidence of Roman treachery in their violation of the truce, he burned with anger. In the Temple of Ba’al, he had his sons swear eternal enmity and a lifelong quest for vengeance against their nation’s sworn enemy – Rome.
The eldest of these children would be the one to truly make Rome shake. His name was Hannibal.
(P.S. modern archaeologists have actually found the site of the Battle of the Aegates Islands and recovered multiple artifacts, including anchors, ship rams, helmets and multiple amphorae, or earthen pots. It was from the large numbers of amphorae that historians have concluded the Carthaginian ships were still loaded with supplies.)
Book Recommendation: For the Punic Wars as a whole, go right to Adrian Goldsworthy's The Punic Wars (London: Cassell, 2000).