After 23 years at war, Carthage and Rome — the two powers of the Mediterranean Sea — met for one final conflict in the First Punic War. Cutting through the water off the coast of Sicily on March 10, 241 BCE, the two navies fought the Battle of the Aegates Islands. The resulting Roman victory signalled the end of combat between the two empires and crippled the Carthaginians for a generation.
In 300 BCE, Rome had only partial control of what is today modern Italy and its armies were out across the boot-shaped peninsula at war with tribes to the north and east. By comparison, the seafaring Carthaginians were the dominant force around the Western Mediterranean, with territory stretching along the coast of northern Africa into into southern Spain and across several islands, namely Sardinia, Corsica and most of Sicily.
Over the next 25 years, the Romans consolidated their power in Italy, defeating tribe after tribe and outlasting the Greek king Pyrrhus of Epirus. The armies of Rome repelled the invasion thanks to support from Carthage, creating at least the appearance of a respectful relationship between the two nations. Unable to mount enough military strength to overtake the Romans on their own soil, the Greek returned to his home in 275 BCE. The peace would not last long.
Trouble arose in 270 BCE, when a group of Roman subjects came under fire from Hiero II, the ruler of the independent city of Syracuse on Sicily. Known as the Mamertines, the mercenaries first occupied the city of Messana some two decades before, but found Hiero’s tactics indefensible. In need of help from more advanced military units, the besieged Mamertines sent word of their plight to both Carthage and Rome.
Perhaps taking advantage of a vast navy, the Carthaginians arrived with support first, negotiating a ceasefire with Hiero on behalf of the Mamertines in exchange for the establishment of an outpost in Messana. While all this was happening, the issue of providing aid remained up for debate in the Roman senate — a discussion interrupted by a second request from the Mamertines for an alliance. (The reason for the appeal, whether out of fear for a takeover by Carthage or a simple misunderstanding, is lost to history.)
In 264 BCE, the Romans arrived at Messana to support the Mamertines, methodically pushing back the soldiers of Carthage and Syracuse. With relatively little in the way of ships — and, surprisingly, no interference from the Carthaginian navy — the Romans regularly transported supplies back and forth between the island of Sicily and the mainland. Having seen Hieros conquered by the force from Italy, other nearby Sicilian tribes quickly flipped allegiance. Two years later, the Romans had gained control nearly half of the island after victory at the Battle of Agrigentum.
Back in the capital, the Romans realized the advantage Carthage owned on the water. Determined to mount a defense when the Carthaginians inevitably returned to Sicily for another round of warfare, designers came up with plans for ships that would give the Roman army an advantage on the seas — or, at the very least, minimize the benefits supplied by Carthage’s experience fighting in the Mediterranean. The solution, a special bridge called a corvus, would allow Rome’s soldiers to pull up alongside Carthaginian ships and board them, where Roman skill with spear and shield would be put to good use.
Returning in 260 under the command of Hamilcar, the Carthaginians attempted to regain the island in full. Through more than a decade of intense fighting, the Romans slowly marched to the northwest and reversed Carthage’s hold on Sicily. By 247 BCE, when Carthage sent a new general, Hamilcar Barca, to the island, Rome claimed all but a sliver of the important trading post.
After a series of victories over the piecemeal Roman navy, it seemed as if the Carthaginians were on their to victory — the hilly territory of Sicily negated the tactics Rome deployed on land, theoretically leaving them with no advantages to exploit as Barca’s armies moved forward. Convinced triumph would arrive soon, senators in Carthage opted to destroy much of the fleet in 244 BCE as preparation for peacetime. It was a fatal mistake.
With significantly less support from the seas, Barca was isolated. He used the group of ships at his disposal to attack the Italian mainland briefly, but the conflict settled into a stalemate. Realizing the threat to the capital was real after Barca’s raids, a number of wealthy Romans donated the funds to rebuild the navy. When the flotilla arrived at the Aegates Islands on March 10, 241 BCE, Carthage was caught off guard and thoroughly unprepared. The handful of newly-built Carthaginian boats in the water were no match for superior Roman numbers. Pinned on the island without hope of reinforcement, Barca was forced to surrender.
The Treaty of Lutatius brought the conflict to an end, imposing fierce financial and commercial terms on the defeated Carthaginians. Bankrupt after years of fighting and struggling to make required payments to Rome, Carthage was forced to expand into Spain in search of silver mines. Barca, conquering the Gauls as he moved up the Iberian Peninsula, founded a city bearing his name — known today as Barcelona — and groomed his eldest son Hannibal for military success. It worked: the younger Barca would terrorize Rome during the Second Punic War, beginning with his victory at Roman-allied Saguntum in 219 BCE.
Also On This Day:
1452 – Birth of King Ferdinand II of Aragon, financier of Christopher Columbus’ journey to the New World
1607 – Susenyos wins the Battle of Gol over Yaqob and Abuna Petros II, becoming Emperor of Ethiopia
1831 – King Louis-Phillipe of France establishes the French Foreign Legion for a war in Algeria
1969 – James Earl Ray pleads guilty to assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr., a confession he would later retract
1977 – Astronomers discover rings around Uranus
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