The First Punic War Begins
The First Punic War would be fought mostly on, and for, control of Sicily. Despite this restricted scope, it would also spill over into Africa, bringing in a plethora of changing alliances. Far from being a swift and conclusive war, it would drag on for over two decades. Along with its igniting; by a regional conflict in which major powers took opposing sides, there are a lot of similarities to draw between the First Punic and the First World Wars. Sadly, the ruinous impact on the belligerents, the catastrophic loss of life, and the crippling economic effect would be further similarities.
The Sicilian interior made maneuvering large armies away from the coast difficult, and the island’s rugged terrain favored defense over attack. There were few battles for such a long war – only two pitched battles over 23 years – with the course consisting largely of raids and sieges, with the war then moving to the waves. The war began with the Romans gaining a foothold on Messina, which they then used to press Syracuse into aligning with them. Rome then moved to besiege the main Carthaginian base on the south coast, Akragas.
The Romans sent two legions to Sicily in 262 BC.
However, still likely willing to negotiate peace with Carthage after two years of ‘war’ that had only seen a small battle in the Strait of Messina to hamper their crossing. Carthage looked to be making reconciliatory gestures, but then began to build up its land forces in Sicily. Rome responded by sending its Consuls and their legions, and Carthage responded by hiring Ligurian, Celtic and Celtiberian mercenaries to swell their own forces. Carthage kept most of its force on Sicily, with a small garrison on Sardinia, looking to use Sicily as a springboard to attack Italia.
The Carthaginian force coalesced at Akragas (also called Agrigentum) under Hannibal Gisco, swelling the city population to around 50,000.
With the Romans arriving with a force of 40,000 legionaries, he refused to leave the city to fight with his relatively small garrison. And the Romans took his willingness to be besieged as a sign of weakness.
Hannibal attacked the Romans while they were harvesting crops, routing them back to their camp.
An attempt to penetrate the camp failed, and Hannibal realized that he could not afford to lose more men. The Consuls now realised they had to cut off Akragas from the wide world and starve the city into surrender. Ditches were dug and forts thrown up to surround the city, and both sides sat in for the siege. After five months supplies were running low in Akragas, so Hannibal appealed to Carthage for aid.
A relief force arrived under Hanno, likely Hannibal’s son, which had around 50 elephants, 6,000 Numidian cavalry, and 50,000 infantry.
Hanno captured the legions’ supply base. Causing shortages in the Roman camp, and cut off their communication. A feigned retreat by his Numidian cavalry lured the Roman horse into his main column, where they suffered heavy losses. Placing himself atop a nearby hill, the siege continued. Given their own risk of starvation, the Consuls decided to proffer battle, but Hanno refused. The situation was no better inside the city. With Hannibal using smoke signals to pressure Hanno into accepting battle so the siege could be lifted.
After two months of facing one another, the Carthaginian mercenary army and Rome’s vaunted legions finally clashed in the Battle of Akragas. Hanno deployed his infantry in two lines, with the elephants and reinforcements in the second, and the cavalry on the wings. The legions used their traditional triplex acies of the maniples.
Attempts to coordinate the attack with a general sortie from the city failed.
And after a long fight the legions broke the Carthaginian front. This provoked panic in the rear, which swelled into a general rout, further compounded by the panicked elephants charging through the ranks.
The Roman cavalry captured several elephants in the enemy camp, killing 3,000 infantry, 200 cavalry and eight elephants, disabling 33 elephants and taking 4,000 prisoners.
Although the Carthaginians were routed. Hannibal managed to flee with the garrison of Akragas at night. The Romans seized the city the next day, selling its 25,000 remaining inhabitants into slavery. However, the long siege had taken its toll on the legions. And despite the victory in battle. Around a third of their number were lost over the course of the siege. Moreover, coupled with the escape of the garrison.
As a result, meant there was no triumph for either Consul.
While selling the whole populace of a vanquished city was commonplace, it was also counterproductive. Rome was essentially operating a war to conquer Sicily. And thus needed the islanders to embrace them as a viable alternative to Carthage. The legions’ brutality at Akragas hardened the hearts of many other towns and cities on Sicily. And as a result, prevented the locals and Greeks from welcoming them.
This was Rome’s first campaign outside of Italy, and the following year would see the republic consolidate its hold over the island, while not driving out Carthage entirely. Despite the continued Carthaginian presence, Rome now had access to the harvest from the Sicilian breadbasket, while its legions had gained confidence and experience.
The Battle of Akragas brought valuable lessons for both sides.
Rome became further convinced of its legions being indomitable. While Carthage moved to ensure the war focused on defending their well-fortified towns and cities on Sicily, rather than accepting pitched battle.
Being coastal settlements, these could continue with supplies arriving via the sea even when besieged by the legions. Realizing this critical shortcoming in its military, the war soon shifted to the sea. This would prove to be a huge obstacle for Rome. Which had no navy. See: Rome’s Woe on the Waves
Previously Rome relied on small squadrons from their Latin or Greek allies.
The war for the waves would bring some bitter lessons for the people who would go on to call the Mediterranean “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea). Though it would also evidence their key strength – the speed of their adaptability.
The First Punic War Begins Written by Jack Tappin
First Punic War Begins