Roman Motives in the First Punic War

Ellen Miech, Dickson College, 2011

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This essay was submitted as part of the Roman Republic unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2011. It was written in response to the question: "Assess the Roman objectives over the course of the First Punic War. Were the Romans engaging in self-defence or expansionist aggression?"


The First Punic War (264-241 BC) is often described as a classic example of a matter that got out of hand. To understand how such a seemingly insignificant conflict began Roman expansion into an international power, the motives for their initial involvement must be analysed. They justified their involvement by claiming it was pre-emptive defence, however, their actions present themselves as rather more aggressive.

Defending the Mamertines was inconsistent and hypocritical as the Romans had, in the very similar case of Campanians sieging Rhegium, publicly scourged and beheaded the invaders and returned the city to the citizens, “their object being to recover as far as possible by this punishment their reputation for good faith with the allies.” (Polybius, Book 1, Chapter 7). In the case of Messana, however, the Romans weren't just considering the 'good faith' that might be won, but the whole of Sicily and the power that came with it. The Romans saw that it would be difficult to justify getting involved in Messana after making such an example of the invaders of Rhegium, “... and now to try to help the Mamertines, who had been guilty of like offense not only at Messana but at Rhegium also, was a piece of injustice very difficult to excuse.” (Polybius, Book 1, Chapter 10) The Mamertines themselves, being inexcusably violent, had few sympathisers.

Also to be considered is the argument that it was a defensive move, for if Carthage got a foothold in Messana they would be in a strategic place to attack the Italian Peninsula which would then be surrounded by Punic settlements. It would be difficult for the Romans to use this as a just reason to claim their motives as self-defence, however, as at the time the two powers had a cordial relationship and Rome really had no need to fear an invasion force from Carthage. Since 279 BC the Carthaginians had offered two treaties in the form of military alliances against Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, and so they had a good relationship with the Etruscan towns on the Italian coastline. The Romans, in any case, had built coastguard colonies between 350 and 270 BC, in the fear that the Carthaginians might want to take control of their coasts; there's no reason, however, to believe that these defences were ever actually needed. Any fears the Romans had, seem ill-founded.

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Polybius, it would appear, thought that the first Punic War advantageously drew out Rome's influence and that this was hardly an accident. He believed that they had been intent on ‘universal dominion’ and that their success was premeditated.

This confirms the assertion I ventured to make at the outset that the progress of the Romans was not due to chance and was not involuntary, as some among the Greeks choose to think, but that by schooling themselves in such vast and perilous enterprises it was perfectly natural that they not only gained the courage to aim at universal dominion, but executed their purpose. (Polybius, Book, 1, Chapter 63)

The Romans had something to gain from entering this conflict but could not really justify doing so. The Senate was;

... so evenly balanced that they referred the matter to the Comitia (Centuriata) without any positive recommendation...who showed equal hesitation at first... but were eventually won over to action by presiding consuls... an expedition to Sicily might bring in large ‘benefits’.” (Cary and Wilson, 1965, p. 71).

The fact that the People's Assembly was won over by the promises of war plunder, one of the few ways a plebeian could acquire wealth, is confirmed by Polybius in Book 1, Chapter 11. So we can see that the Roman people took that action which was most likely to benefit them; in the case of Rhegium they self-righteously punished the wrong-doers, but they involved themselves in protecting Messana because of the potential war-booty.

While the original motives of the Romans can be debated, it cannot be argued that it did not in fact become an aggressive war of greed as it progressed. “Agrigentum was a turning point... Henceforth the Romans frankly allowed their policy to be dictated by military ambitions.” (Cary and Wilson, pg. 72) The Battle of Agrigentum took place in 261 BC and up until that point there had been no serious military involvement between the two. It signified the first real battle between Carthage and Rome and it was won by the Romans who lay siege to the city. This victory boosted Rome’s confidence and also gave them control of most of Sicily. This could be considered their first taste of power beyond their own borders.

The Romans now had the upper hand and a chance to make peace, an opportunity which they would have perhaps realised if peace and defence had been their only objective. A continued conflict with Carthage, however, would yield more rewards.

The Carthaginians entered into peace negotiations with Regulus... but by laying down conditions such as only an utterly defenceless enemy could have accepted, he goaded the Carthaginians into a last minute defence. (Cary and Wilson, 1965, p. 73)

It would seem the Romans avoided making peace while there was still more profit to be had from continuing the war. Peace was only reached when Rome had won Sicily and had all it wanted. This would indicate that it was a war driven by greed for benefits and power. Hamilcar Barca, the general of the Carthaginian army when they made peace, could see when the cities of Lilybaeum and Drepana were beyond any hope of rescue. It was now, when both sides were exhausted and the Carthaginians had no other real choice, that their governments negotiated peace.

The steep terms on which peace was imposed by the Romans is described by Polybius.

The Carthaginians to evacuate the whole of Sicily and not to make war on Hiero or bear arms against the Syracusans or the allies of the Syracusans. The Carthaginians to give up to the Romans all prisoners without ransom. The Carthaginians to pay to the Romans by installments in twenty years 2200 Euboean talents. (Polybius, Book 1 Chapter 62)

The original terms, probably demanded with compensation and some desire for riches in mind, were hard enough. They were made harder, however, by the people of Rome who demanded, in 237 BC, that the Carthaginians leave all islands between Italy and Carthage as well as adding 1000 talents to their indemnity and halving the time in which they were given to pay it. Such an increase in demands can only be explained by greed and are not consistent with a people who entered a war purely in self-defence.

The Romans entering into the conflict in Messana cannot be excused as an act of self-defence. The evidence suggests it went against their own ethics and that they had difficulty justifying it at the time, even to themselves. The Senate and the People's Assembly, however, did decide to help the questionable Mamertines in the aim of expanding their power and bringing the people wealth which must undoubtedly come with war. It is clear then that the First Punic War came about because of the desire of Rome, driven by greed, to expand its territory to Sicily and this must be considered an act of aggression.

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Annotated Bibliography



Bradley, P, 1990, Ancient Rome Using Evidence, Cambridge Printing Press, Cambridge
A senior secondary text book covering the beginnings and history of the Roman Republic and Empire. Bradley extensively uses both ancient and modern sources.

Cary, M and Wilson, John, 1965, A Shorter History of Rome, Macmillan and Co LTD, Great Britain
An abbridged version of Cary's A History of Rome. It comprehensively covers the Punic wars amongst the rest of Rome's history.

Morey, William P, 1901, Outlines of Roman History, American Book Company, USA, accessed March 2, 2011 <http://www.forumromanum.org/history/morey14.html>
This particular article is an easy to understand overview of the First Punic War, including relevant background information and covering it's lead-up. Also included are useful directions towards other useful material on the topic by other modern authors.

Polybius, World History (translated by W.R. Paton), accessed April 13, 2011 <http://www.livius.org/ps-pz/punic_war/polybius_1_07.html>
A faithful translation of the historian Polybius, who lived during the time of the First Punic War and had access to many documents and interviews thanks to his high standing. Important to remember though is that he confesses himself to be a patriot and while he believed in presenting the truth, his work may show some bias to Rome.

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