The first war that broke out between Rome and Carthage lasted twenty-four years (264–241 BC), almost without interruption. This conflict opposed two empires, each of which had its allies, adversaries and interests. Each also had its strengths and weaknesses. In this article, we will see what were the differences between these two powers.

On the eve of the First Punic War, the Roman Republic finished imposing its domination on the Italian peninsula, with the exception of the Po plain. In addition to its territory (ager romanus ) Rome exercises its control through bilateral alliances over a mosaic of Italian city-states, ranging from total integration ( civitas cum suffragio ) to submission via a theoretically equal treaty ( fœdus æquum ) with the Greek city-states in particular, Taranto excepted. Military colonies spread over the peninsula reinforce this system. Any hint of rebellion was stifled, and the Italian cities collaborated with Rome in the same military policy, without failure as shown by their loyalty during the recent war against Pyrrhus.

A strong land military power

Roman military power is based on a large population of citizen soldiers, 292,234 men of military age are counted in 264. Each year, the consuls mobilize two to four legions, 4,500 men each. These numbers were supplemented by the contingents that Rome requisitioned from the cities that were allied to it (the socii ). Each consul commands two legions during his one-year term. The Roman command was therefore not permanent and its effectiveness depended on variable and not always proven competence. Strategy is often influenced by the consul’s desire for military glory, 10 triumphs are celebrated between 263 and 252, and by the lure of spoils. The lootings of Taranto and Volsini show that war can be very profitable. On the other hand at the maritime level, the Romans only have two squadrons of ten ships devoted to the surveillance of the Italian coasts.

Carthage, the maritime empire

The situation of Carthage is very different: its establishment inherited from the Phoenician counters allows it to constitute a real maritime empire. From the shores of North Africa to a good part of Hispania, the Punic city has many territories. But, above all, all the islands of the Western Mediterranean are Carthaginian: Corsica, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands, Malta and the north, west and south-west coasts of Sicily. Only the coasts of Gaul and northern Spain are beyond its control, and belong to the Marseille sphere of influence based on Massalia, which, although allied with Rome, remains outside the conflict.

A powerful army and fleet

The opposition between the national Roman army and the Carthaginian forces made up of mercenaries, experienced but versatile fighters, is a pattern to be nuanced. Indeed, Carthaginian citizens were mobilized on several occasions, as well as contingents from cities or allied peoples, such as Numidian horsemen. The war elephants, so often evoked for the Second Punic War, were employed on several occasions in combat, often to the advantage of the Carthaginians. Finally, on the eve of war, the fleet is powerful and efficient. It was the most modern navy of the time, with its decked quinqueremes and triremes. According to Dio Cassius, the Carthaginian general Hanno claimed that “without our permission, the Romans cannot even wash their hands in the sea” .




Christophe Burgeon

Photography :

carthaginian ship

Source of the photograph:

By MM at Italian Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,