Young Folks' History of Rome HTML version

17. The First Punic War, 264-240
We are now come to the time when Rome became mixed up in wars with nations beyond
Italy. There was a great settlement of the Phoenicians, the merchants of the old world, at
Carthage, on the northern coast of Africa, the same place at which Virgil afterwards
described Æneas as spending so much time. Dido, the queen who was said to have
founded Carthage when fleeing from her wicked brother-in-law at Tyre, is thought to
have been an old goddess, and the religion and manners of the Carthaginians were
thoroughly Phoenician, or, as the Romans called them, Punic. They had no king, but a
Senate, and therewith rulers called by the name that is translated as judges in the Bible;
and they did not love war, only trade, and spread out their settlements for this purpose all
over the coast of the Mediterranean, from Spain to the Black Sea, wherever a country had
mines, wool, dyes, spices, or men to trade with; and their sailors were the boldest to be
found anywhere, and were the only ones who had passed beyond the Pillars of Hercules,
namely, the Straits of Gibraltar, in the Atlantic Ocean. They built handsome cities, and
country houses with farms and gardens round them, and had all tokens of wealth and
luxury—ivory, jewels, and spices from India, pearls from the Persian Gulf, gold from
Spain, silver from the Balearic Isles, tin from the Scilly Isles, amber from the Baltic; and
they had forts to protect their settlements. They generally hired the men of the countries,
where they settled, to fight their battles, sometimes under hired Greek captains, but often
under generals of their own.
The first place where they did not have everything their own way was Sicily. The old
inhabitants of the island were called Sicels, a rough people; but besides these there were a
great number of Greek settlements, also of Carthaginian ones, and these two hated one
another. The Carthaginians tried to overthrow the Greeks, and Pyrrhus, by coming to help
his countrymen, only made them more bitter against one another. When he went away he
exclaimed, "What an arena we leave for the Romans and Carthaginians to contend upon!"
so sure was he that these two great nations must soon fight out the struggle for power.
The beginning of the struggle was, however, brought on by another cause. Messina, the
place founded long ago by the brave exiles of Messene, when the Spartans had conquered
their state, had been seized by a troop of Mamertines, fierce Italians from Mamertum; and
these, on being threatened by Xiero, king of Syracuse, sent to offer to become subjects to
the Romans, thus giving them the command of the port which secured the entrance of the
island. The Senate had great scruples about accepting the offer, and supporting a set of
mere robbers; but the two consuls and all the people could not withstand the temptation,
and it was resolved to assist the Mamertines. Thus began what was called the First Punic
War. The difficulty was, however, want of ships. The Romans had none of their own, and
though they collected a few from their Greek allies in Italy, it was not in time to prevent
some of the Mamertines from surrendering the citadel to Xanno, the Carthaginian
general, who thought himself secure, and came down to treat with the Roman tribune
Claudius, haughtily bidding the Romans no more to try to meddle with the sea, for they
should not be allowed so much as to wash their hands in it. Claudius, angered at this,
treacherously laid hands on Xanno, and he agreed to give up the castle on being set free;
but he had better have remained a prisoner, for the Carthaginians punished him with
crucifixion, and besieged Messina, but in vain.
The Romans felt that a fleet was necessary, and set to work to build war galleys on the
pattern of a Carthaginian one which had been wrecked upon their coast. While a hundred
ships were building, oarsmen were trained to row on dry land, and in two months the fleet