In 249 BC, according to Cicero, Publius Claudius Pulcher, consul of the Roman Republic and commander of its fleet at the Battle of Drepana, performed one of the most significant duties of a commander: He sought an omen prior to engaging in battle. Sacred chickens, carried on board Roman ships for this very purpose, were brought out and offered food. They refused to eat, however, which was considered a bad sign. Undaunted, Claudius tossed the sacred chickens overboard, declaring, “Since they do not wish to eat, let them drink!” He would go on to suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Carthaginian admiral, Adherbal, with 93 of his 123 ships either sunk or captured, and approximately 20,000 sailors and marines lost. Cicero would later write, “He only ridiculed the gods in jest, but the mockery cost him dear, for his fleet was utterly routed.”1
The First Punic War (264–41 BC) was the longest continuous war of the ancient world (23 years) and the first in a series of three wars between the two great powers of the Western Mediterranean, although it receives much less attention than the Second Punic War made famous by Hannibal. The competition would last more than a century (264–146 BC) and pit the established maritime power, Carthage, against the rising continental power, the Roman Republic. By the conclusion of the Third Punic War, Rome would have mastery over the Western Mediterranean. In the subsequent two decades, it would sweep the remaining Hellenic kingdoms from the sea and establish dominance over the entire Mediterranean. Meanwhile Carthage was so utterly destroyed that its historical record only comes down through Greek and Roman sources, leaving a very Romano-centric view of the epic struggle.
At the height of the Cold War, American strategic thinkers turned to the lessons of history to inform their understanding of great power conflict. Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian Wars became required reading at the service academies and war colleges, serving as a cautionary tale. Yet the Punic Wars, chronicled primarily by Polybius (c. 208 – c. 125 BC), are very germane to the current competition with China. It was the first conflict in a larger “great power” competition that would require control of the sea to achieve victory.
Carthage, founded around 750 BC as a colony of the Phoenician city Tyre, acquired a maritime empire by expanding into the central and western Mediterranean, from Sicily to the Atlantic side of Spain, trading as far north as Ireland. Rome, also founded in the mid-8th century BC, expanded into the interior and south of Italy between 509–265 BC.2 The two powers had been in friendly contact and traded with one another for centuries. Carthage was even an ally to Rome during the recent Pyrrhic War (280–75 BC).3
Like so many great power wars, the combatants would be drawn in by minor states. In 264 BC, a group of Italian mercenaries from Campania took control of Messana (modern Messina) after the death of its king. Hieron, king of Syracuse, responded by seeking to bring Messana under his control. The mercenaries appealed first to Carthage, then to Rome, for aid. While the Romans debated what to do, Carthage installed a garrison in Messana and Hieron withdrew, not wishing to make war on his Carthaginian ally.4
With Carthage in control of the Messina Strait separating Italy from Sicily—a principle food supply source for Italy—a threatened Rome sent an army of 40,000 to Messana in 263 BC. Syracuse switched sides to Rome after the landings and would remain there for the duration of the conflict.5
Carthage used its fleet to raid nearby Italy, hoping to bring over to its side the Greek cities in southern Italy that had recently allied with Rome. Many Greek cities on Sicily’s coast had defected to Carthage, so they thought others might join.6 Carthage assumed its command of the seas would keep the conflict at a distance.7
The object of the war for Rome, however, quickly evolved from assisting an ally to conquering Sicily. While expansion and glory were certainly in the minds of the Romans, they also understood that a peace settlement at this juncture would leave much of Sicily and their newfound allies at the mercy of Carthage.8 Since 480 BC, Carthage had been fighting to incorporate Sicily into its empire. The Romans would prove a different opponent compared to Carthage’s experience in Sicily, able to draw upon an endless reservoir of resources and resolve, unlike the smaller city-states it had been fighting the previous decades. It was clear by the end of the first year of the war that Rome would accept only a complete Carthaginian withdrawal.9 Carthage continued to prosecute the war, yet with only half measures.
The Romans captured Messana and in 262 BC defeated a large Carthaginian army to take Agrigentum.10 Despite these early successes, the Romans experienced acute difficulty feeding and provisioning their forces due to Carthaginian control of the sea. Sicily’s geography was well suited for defense and guerilla war, and maneuver of large land forces was problematic. Even when defeated, the Carthaginian generals were well skilled in retreating to strong points and coastal cities where they could carry on the fight. Land operations during the First Punic War were mostly confined to raids, sieges, interdictions, and garrison duty on both sides.11 The war became a stalemate—one that Rome would break by building a fleet.
Rome Builds a Fleet
Ancient naval strategy had a logistic purpose: control the sea to secure commerce, deny the same to the enemy’s traders, move and provision armies, and prevent the movement and support of adversary forces. Naval operations had a great effect on land warfare and provided the most efficient means of communication.12 Executing this strategy required skill, resources, and experience in ship building and seamanship. These factors are equally important today, despite vast differences in ancient naval combat (shock action combined with nightly rest on land to forage for supplies), vessel design (for boarding or ramming), strategic range, and size of crew compliments.13
When the First Punic War commenced, Carthage was the dominant sea power. It had been decades since that power had been tested, however, and nothing about Rome—a land power with no fleet—suggested it could challenge them.14 It never occurred to the Carthaginians that the Romans would be capable of taking to the sea, and even as the war dragged on, Carthage always assumed its legacy as a sea power would prevail.
Polybius would marvel at the Romans undertaking such an endeavor. They “nevertheless handled the enterprise with such extraordinary audacity, that, without so much as a preliminary trial, they took upon themselves there and then to meet the Carthaginians at sea, on which they had for generations held undisputed supremacy.” It was only through chance that the Romans were successful in learning to build a fleet. According to Polybius, a Carthaginian quinquereme had run aground near the Roman landings at Messana.15 The Romans captured it and reversed engineered it to learn how to build naval vessels. If this had not happened, the Romans “would have been completely hindered” in their lack of naval construction.16 In a sense, it was an early form of technology transfer and conversion that gave the Romans the knowledge they needed to build a fleet.
The Romans excelled not only at adopting naval technology; they adapted it to their comparative strengths on land. They understood their lack of a naval tradition and seamanship training would place them at a disadvantage, so they introduced the corvus on their warships—a bridge approximately 4 feet wide and 36 feet long with a heavy spike on the underside designed to pierce and anchor to the enemy ship when lowered.17 Instead of emphasizing ramming actions, they preferred boarding as it allowed them to leverage their land combat skills. This new innovation, used to devastating effect in the Battle of Mylae on the northern coast of Sicily in 260 BC, gave Rome its first major naval victory of the war and would be repeated at the Battles of Sulci (258 BC) and Tyndaris (257 BC).
The Contest for Naval Supremacy
Despite early naval success, the Romans continued to be frustrated in their attempt to expel Carthage from Sicily. Both Carthage and Rome began to invest large resources into increasing fleet production. The Romans also prepared to take the war to North Africa in the hopes of forcing Carthage to withdraw.18
In 256 BC, a Roman fleet of 330 warships and transports commanded by the consuls Marcus Atillus Regulus and Lucius Maniulius Vulso Longus set sail from Ostia. They embarked approximately 26,000 legionnaires from Sicily and planned to cross to Tunisia. Carthage caught wind of the plan and marshalled a fleet of 350 warships to intercept them. A combined total of 680 warships with 290,000 sailors and marines engaged in the largest naval battle in history at Cape Ecnomus. Rome emerged victorious after a long, confusing day of battle and was able to get its forces to Apsis in Tunisia, eventually capturing it.19
The Roman invasion advanced to within 10 miles of Carthage. Ultimately Carthage would rally under the services of a Spartan mercenary general, Xanthippus, who beat back the invasion and even captured Regulus.20
A Roman fleet was sent to evacuate survivors and the Carthaginians opposed them at Cape Hermaeum. Once again, Carthage was defeated at sea, losing 114 ships. Yet on the return trip to Italy, the victorious Roman fleet encountered a major storm, losing 384 of the total 464 ships and well more than 100,000 men. It is possible that the corvus had made the ships unseaworthy, and despite their advantages in battle, there is no record of them remaining in use after the disaster.21
After the storm, Rome was forced to again rebuild a fleet, adding 220 ships.22 In 254, Carthage would attack and raze Agrigentum, but Rome would commit to a general offensive laying siege and capturing Panormus (modern Palermo). While much of western Sicily would come under Roman control, Carthage maintained its grip on Lilybaeum and Drepana, keeping them supplied by sea despite Roman blockade attempts. In 249, at the aforementioned Battle of Drepana, Claudius Pulcher (after throwing the chickens overboard) would attempt a night action, but his fleet became scattered in the dark. Carthaginian Admiral Adherbal seized the initiative and counterattacked, pinning the Romans against the shore and delivering a stinging defeat. Carthage pressed the offensive, intercepting the Romans off Phintias and defeating them again. After the battle, the Carthaginians retired to the east, having been warned by their ship pilots of approaching weather. The Romans, however, failed to take precaution and the remainder of its fleet again was destroyed by storms.23
Carthage once again controlled the seas around Sicily, and it would be seven years before Roman would again rebuild its fleet. However, in this intervening time, Carthage would lay up most of its fleet in reserve to save resources and manpower, engaging only in occasional raiding of the Italian coastline.24 The failure to follow up on its superiority at sea and press its advantage highlights the propensity for Carthage to follow tactical success with strategic failure.
From 248–43 BC, the war was again reduced to stalemate on land. Fighting consisted of small-scale engagements and guerilla warfare that kept the Romans off balance.25 Yet Carthage still misjudged Roman resolve, believing that exhaustion would drive Rome to the negotiating table.
Both sides were nearly bankrupt in terms of finances and fighting men.26 Undaunted, the Roman Senate raised private money to build a fleet of another 200 quinqueremes. Once again, Rome benefited from a newly captured vessel of improved quality upon which to model their ships. This time the corvus was abandoned, enhancing speed, maneuverability, and ship handling. With vastly improved ship building and crew training, the Romans no longer had to rely on boarding actions. Carthage, in the meantime, had hurriedly produced a new fleet to meet the Roman challenge. This new fleet was laden with supplies, intended to be offloaded so that Carthaginian soldiers could be taken on board as marines. The Romans caught the Carthaginian relief fleet on 10 March 241 BC among the Aegates Islands off the west coast of Sicily. Now the roles reversed, with the Roman fleet better trained and well-built and the Carthaginians ill-prepared. The Carthaginian fleet was soundly defeated.27
Despite still holding the cities of Lilybaeum and Drepana and maintaining a sizable force, the Carthaginians decided to abandon Sicily. The Treaty of Lutatius brought the First Punic War to a close. Carthage evacuated Sicily, handed over all prisoners, and agreed to an indemnity of 3,200 talents (about 81 tons of silver) over ten years.28
The First Punic War is generally considered a Roman victory since Rome gained all of Sicily. This is debatable. The losses on both sides were staggering. Polybius calculated that the Romans lost 700 quinqueremes and the Carthaginians 500 to fighting and storms.29 The official census of Rome declined by 140,000 from 263–43. The losses among the poor and allied auxiliaries would be at least three times that number, perhaps more. This is a casualty rate that approaches the First World War.30
It can be argued that Carthage grew in strength after the war. It expanded in North Africa, secured Libya, and turned its attention to Spain conquering much of the Iberian Peninsula. The wealth from Spanish silver mines would pay off the indemnity to Rome early and fill Carthage’s coffers.31 Carthage’s growth in Spain would ignite the second conflict between the two great powers in 218 BC.
Most importantly, the foundation of Roman maritime power had been laid. The Romans built over 1,000 galleys and in two decades became experts in building, manning, training, supplying, and maintaining massive fleets of ships. This set the stage for control over the entire Mediterranean for the next 600 years.32
The ancient world is quite different from today and analogies of the sort “Rome is China” and “Carthage is America” are not helpful. But carefully developed and properly applied, the First Punic War especially has many lessons for today’s maritime strategists.
The First Punic War was largely expeditionary, with most of the fighting taking place in Sicily and its littorals, as well as Corsica, Sardinia and North Africa. It represents a classic example of a land power engaged in conflict with a maritime power, much like the Peloponnesian Wars 140 years prior. Both conflicts ended with the traditional land power (Sparta, then Rome) emerging victorious – something that should sober the assumptions of today’s maritime strategists.
The conflict was decided by the side that remained committed to sea control. It would be Carthage’s inability—and unwillingness—to secure its lines of communication to remaining footholds in western Sicily that would force its commander on the ground to sue for peace.
While the naval technology of both sides was similar, decisive results were achieved through innovation and adaptation. Carthage enjoyed early qualitative superiority, excellent tacticians, better built ships with highly trained and experienced crews, and a long naval tradition. Yet as time would pass and Roman resolve grew, these advantages would slip away.
Chance and weather became the unseen force on the trajectory of this (and every) conflict. It was chance that a Carthaginian vessel would run aground early in the war, providing the Romans a template upon which to construct a fleet. Storms would inflict massive carnage on three separate occasions. Yet Rome seemed better prepared than Carthage to seize opportunities and overcome adversity and hubris.
Rome eventually triumphed by becoming a maritime power itself, and its control of the Mediterranean remained a central fixture of its economic and security strategy. Carthage was the traditional maritime and commercial power with a long seafaring history. Rome up to that point was a land power with no navy to speak of. It would never occur to the Carthaginians that the Romans could build a fleet, let alone learn to use it. Yet Rome knew its weakness and recognized that if it wanted to take Sicily it would have to control the surrounding waters. This would require it to do something it had no history of – building, operating, and supporting a large navy. It made a conscious, political choice and backed it up with resources. Even when defeated at sea or sustaining massive losses from storms, Rome would build another fleet. One is reminded of American attitudes toward the PLA Navy, for decades considered nothing more than a “brown water” force. The assumption was that China’s extensive land borders with historic enemies would force it to remain continental in outlook. Now China boasts one of the largest navies in the world.
To be a sea power requires sustained commitment and resources. The Carthaginians began to draw down their fleet at the end of the war instead of redoubling their construction to seize the initiative at sea. They gave the Romans breathing space rather than pressing their advantage. Building a navy is hard—keeping it is even harder. The Carthaginians got stingy, lost the Punic Wars, and ultimately, their civilization.
1. R. G. Grant, Battle at Sea: 3,000 Years of Naval Warfare (New York: DK Publishing, 2011), 44–45.
2. Barry Strauss, “The War for Empire,” in Great Strategic Rivalries from the Classical World to the Cold War, ed. James Lacey (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 81–82.
3. John Grainger, Hellenistic & Roman Naval Wars: 336–31 BC (South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2011), 80.
4. Grainger, 81.
5. Grainger, 83.
6. Grainger, 84.
7. Richard Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization (London: Penguin Books, 2010), 179.
8. Grainger, Hellenistic & Roman Naval Wars: 336–31 BC, 84.
9. Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization, 197.
10. Carthaginian armies were led by a Carthaginian general but manned principally with mercenaries, while Roman armies were manned by citizens and auxiliaries drawn from allies. This may have had an impact on each side’s public reaction to battlefield losses.
11. Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2003), 82.
12. Archer Jones, The Art of War in the Western World (Chicago: Univeristy of Illinois Press, 2001), 89–91.
13. Jones, 88–89; Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, 103.
14. Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization, 177.
15. Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, 98. Quinqueremes, meaning "five oared" were the ubiquitous warship of the period.
16. Polybius, The Histories of Polybius, vol. 1, chap. 20.
17. Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, 100–3.
18. Goldsworthy, 110.
19. Goldsworthy, 112–13.
20. Goldsworthy, 87.
21. Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization, 188–89.
22. Miles, 189–90.
23. Polybius would chide the Roman proclivity for constantly exposing themselves “to the full fury of the open sea.” He would write, “But to contend with the sea and sky is to fight against a force immeasurably superior to their own: and when they trust to an exertion of sheer strength in such a contest the disasters which they meet with are signal. This is what they experienced on the present occasion: they have often experienced it since; and will continue to do so, as long as they maintain their headstrong and foolhardy notion that any season of the year admits of sailing as well as marching.” (1:37)
24. Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, 121–22.
25. Goldsworthy, 95.
26. Goldsworthy, 131.
27. Goldsworthy, 124; Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization, 196.
28. Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization, 196–97.
29. Polybius, The Histories of Polybius, vol. 1, chap. 63.
30. Grainger, Hellenistic & Roman Naval Wars: 336 - 31 BC, 97.
31. Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, 136–38.
32. Goldsworthy, 128–29, 358–60.