First Contact: Rome and Carthage

Rome’s war against that infamous Hellenistic condottiere King Pyrrhus of Epirus in 280 to 275 that finally brought Rome fully into the purview of Hellenistic international relations. Pyrrhus at the battle of Ausculum.

The Carthaginians had commercial interests in Etruria (low-cost iron and copper) and had combined with the Etruscans to challenge the Greeks of Massalia (Latin Massilia, modern Marseilles) in a naval engagement off Corsica in 535 BC, thereby preventing them from establishing themselves at Alalia (Aleria) on the east coast of the island. This was also the end of the Greek dream of tapping into the Iberian copper and silver trade, with the river the Greeks knew as the Iber (Latin Iberus, modern Ebro) becoming the effective dividing line between Carthaginian and Greek (i.e. Massiliote) spheres. Archaeological excavations in a sanctuary at Pyrgi (Santa Severa), the port of the Etruscan city of Caere, have uncovered three gold plaques inscribed, two in Etruscan and one in Punic, with a dedication made to the Semitic mother-goddess Astarte and her Etruscan equivalent, Uni, by the ruler of Caere. They can be dated early in the fifth century BC.

This evidence gives us the context for the first of three treaties made between Rome and Carthage before the First Punic War. Dated, according to Polybios, to the beginning of the Republic and twenty-eight years before Xerxes’ invasion of Greece (i.e. 508 BC), our Greek historian had difficulty reading this fascinating document on which he found the date because of its archaic Latin, which ‘differs from the modern so much that it can only partially be made out’. To the best of his understanding it said the Romans and their allies must not sail beyond the Fair Promontory unless forced to do so by storm or by enemies, and that they must follow certain regulations if they want to trade in Africa or Sardinia, though not with Carthaginian Sicily, where they enjoyed equal rights with others. The Carthaginians, for their part, agreed not to injure any Latin community or to establish a fort in Latin territory. Polybios tells us that the Fair Promontory, Pulchri Promontorium to the Romans, was on the African coast, lying ‘immediately to the front of Carthage to the north’, in other words the modern Cap Farina or Rass Sidi Ali el Mekki, the western horn flanking the Gulf of Tunis, the eastern one being Cap Bon or Rass Adder, the ancient Hermaia Promontory.

Polybios says the treaty names praetors but neither a king nor two consuls, while the spheres of influence defined for both Carthage and Rome only fit this period (viz. the first years of the Republic) and Carthaginian interest in the area has been confirmed by the Pyrgi inscriptions. So the treaty of 508 BC was precisely drawn up to delimit the sphere of commercial activities of the Romans, who were excluded from trading along the African coast west of Carthage. More important, the actual conditions of the treaty give us a vivid glimpse into the way that the Carthaginians tried to exercise economic control in the western Mediterranean.

In 348 BC the Romans and their allies made a second treaty with Carthage and its allies, also reported but not dated by Polybios. The terms of this treaty bound both sides not to harm the friends or allies of either, and again regulated the circumstances in which the Romans could trade in Carthaginian territory, but also adds southern Iberia to the original exclusion zone. The Romans are also prevented from marauding along the North African coast, implying those Phoenician cities such as Utica was now within the Carthaginian sphere, and if the Carthaginians capture any city in Latium, which is not subject to Rome, they may keep the captives and the booty, but must hand over the city. The advantage in the treaty again seems to lie with Carthage as the dominant power.

All this time the real enemies of the Carthaginians were the Greeks, and the real reason for this, as we shall soon discover, is not difficult to appreciate, namely the island of Sicily. A third and final treaty reported by Polybios was made at the time of the Pyrrhic War (280-275 BC) and ‘before the Carthaginians had begun their war for Sicily’. This probably places the signing of the treaty after Pyrrhus’ two victories at Herakleia (280 BC) and Asculum (279 BC) when the Carthaginians must have feared that the ‘elephant king’ would cross to Sicily, as he would in the following year when he would almost drive them out of the island. In the treaty both sides confirmed their previous agreements, and added that if they should make an alliance against Pyrrhus each side shall provide help to the other, the Carthaginians especially by sea. The chief interest of the treaty, from our point of view, is the total lack of Roman naval forces it implies. This situation continued until the outbreak of the First Punic War.

So in 279 BC relations between Rome and Carthage (more friends than rivals) were reasonably good, albeit under a common threat. But following Pyrrhus’ withdrawal from Italy after his defeat at Malventum (275 BC), the Romans planted two Latin colonies, Cosa and Paestum, on the west coast of the peninsula (273 BC). Was Rome afraid of Carthaginian seapower? To return to the third treaty, according to Justin, the Carthaginians despatched one Mago with 120 ships (Valerius Maximus says 130) to aid the Romans, but the Senate, while expressing their thanks, rejected the aid, whereupon Mago sailed away to negotiate with Pyrrhus6 This treaty between Carthage and Rome would thus appear to have been negotiated after these events; ‘perhaps’, as Lazenby says, ‘after Pyrrhus had rejected some offer by Mago’. It appears Mago had made his point. The 120 warships could be thrown into either scale.

North from Carthage, across 140km of water, lay the triangular-shaped island of Sicily, the key to the western Mediterranean as it commanded the narrow sea between the toe of Italy and the northernmost tip of the North African coast. Initially, Carthage had not been strong enough nor even interested in acquiring the island, despite its good harbours and its fecundity. To quote Thucydides on the pre-Greek settlers of Sicily:

There were also Phoenicians living all around Sicily. The Phoenicians occupied the headlands and small islands off the coast and used them as posts for trading with the Sicels. But when the Greeks began to come in by sea in great numbers, the Phoenicians abandoned most of their settlements and concentrated on the towns of Motya, Soleis, and Panormus, where they lived together in the neighbourhood of the Elymi, partly because they relied on their alliance with the Elymi, partly because from here the voyage from Sicily to Carthage is shortest.

From his account, despite its brevity, we learn that the early Phoenician traders in Sicily were not forcibly driven to the western end of the island by an advancing tide of Greek colonists, as some scholars have held, but merely abandoned what were no more than trading stations. The value and accuracy of Thucydides’ passage, in the light of archaeological discoveries, has become increasingly evident.

However, sometime after 580 BC, Carthage was finally enticed into what would become troubled waters for it. As we have discussed elsewhere, the first Carthaginian army to land in Sicily was possibly under a general named Malchus. Anyway, whatever he did or did not achieve there, for the first hundred years Carthage was happy to maintain a low-key approach to Sicily, but the year 480 BC saw its first large-scale attempt at imperial expansion. Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, was making moves to unite the island under his military leadership, and in doing so was menacing the Phoenician inhabitants of the south and west. Carthage responded, and despatched an expeditionary force under Hamilcar, son of Hanno, to meet this threat. In fact the Carthaginian armada was so formidable that contemporaries compared it with the host of Xerxes then being marshalled in the east. It was to suffer a similar fate. Hamilcar landed at the Punic city of Panormus (Palermo), only to be resoundingly defeated by Gelon near Himera on, it is said, the same day as the Persians were licked at Salamis.

So great was the loss for Carthage at Himera (Hamilcar himself had died fighting), it seems to go into a decline over the next few decades. The war was ended by this one blow. Carthage sued for peace, paid a large indemnity, and in the event, despite consistent rumours of invasions, left Sicily alone for seventy years. Meantime back home, the ruling Magonid dynasty was ousted from the executive and the aristocracy seized power. Relations with sub-Saharan Africa were strengthened, a region known for its gold-bearing rivers, and, most especially, Carthage fell back on the flat, fertile seaboard of North Africa, taking over a vast surrounding area for livestock-raising and fruit groves.

In 409 BC, however, Carthage had recovered enough to intervene once more in Sicilian affairs. Under Hannibal, grandson of Hamilcar, a Carthaginian punitive force was successful in capturing Selinous (Selinunte) while the Greek relieving force was still at the stage of preparation. Next Hannibal broke into Himera, and having destroyed the city and slaughtered 3,000 Greek captives at the scene of his grandfather’s death, took his army home to Carthage laden with much booty. The principal foe, Syracuse, was however still untouched, and three years later, a second Carthaginian expedition, again led by Hannibal, landed on the island to spread terror anew through the Greek cities. The Carthaginians, however, soon found themselves dogged by ill fortune. A ‘plague’ decimated their ranks, even killing Hannibal as his besieging army lay rotting below the walls of Akragas (Latin Agrigentum, modern Agrigento). Although his successor, Himilco, son of Hanno, succeeded in capturing both that wealthy city and Gela and defeating a Syracusan relief attempt, a return of the pestilence left his command so weakened that in 405 BC he signed a peace accord with Dionysios of Syracuse. The newly established tyrant was more than happy for the respite. Equally contented with the outcome, Himilco sailed back to Carthage with the survivors of his anaemic army.

Seven years later Dionysios felt strong enough to renew hostilities with Carthage. The war was popular, and the Greeks began it with a massacre of all the Carthaginians and Phoenicians in their cities. Dionysios secured Greek Sicily and, the following year, marched on the Punic stronghold of Motya (Mozia). This well walled offshore island fell with the help of a formidable array of siege machinery, including recently invented non-torsion catapults. But this sparked off a new Carthaginian effort, in which Himilco not only retook Motya but also sacked Messina on the other side of the island and finally, after a decisive naval victory, drove Dionysios back to face a siege in Syracuse itself. This expedition, however, also ended in a complete disease-ridden disaster and the loss of the entire army, which in turn sparked off a revolt by Carthage’s African subjects.

An agreed frontier was drawn up between the two spheres and an uneasy truce was to last over the next half century. But by now Sicily was an obsession. The astonishing seesaw continued when a third major attempt at its conquest was launched in 341 BC, and once again it ended in disaster and defeat. Yet despite this, the lack of unity amongst the Sicilian Greeks enabled Carthage to hold tight the extreme western end of the island. ‘No land was more productive of tyrants than Sicily’, wrote Justin, and it is generally agreed amongst modern commentators that the Sicilian tyrannies owed their outmoded existence at least in part to the need of a strong hand and central control against the Carthaginians. Nonetheless, after the breakdown in the second generation of the tyranny established by Dionysios, the Corinthian Timoleon sought to purge the island of its larger-than-life warlords and their roughneck private armies, and revive the autonomy of the Greek city states. But though he was successful in beating the Carthaginians more decisively than they had been since Gelon’s time, no long-term political stability was achieved for the war weary island. The liberty Timoleon offered was liberty in the old city-state style, and Greek Sicily had no longer the vitality to make use of it. Tyranny reappeared on the island.

In 311 BC Agathokles, whose dream was the complete unification of Sicily under thef aegis of Syracuse, attacked the last of these Punic possessions, but was heavily defeated and driven all the way back to Syracuse, most of the island falling into Carthaginian hands. In an act of sheer desperation, though others would argue this was true strategic insight, the tyrant loaded 14,000 troops, mercenaries mostly, onto 60 ships, slipped out of the harbour, and set course for Africa, hoping by this bold counterstroke to save the situation. In this he was successful. Having literally burnt his boats, he defeated a Carthaginian army, conscripted in haste, which stood against him and thus was able to move at will through the fertile countryside and the undefended cities. Thence caught on the back foot, Carthage had to recall troops from Sicily to deal with the invader. However, Agathokles failed to take well-walled Carthage itself and eventually peace was made in 307 BC, which left the Carthaginians in control of most of western and southern Sicily. Although Agathokles’ daring African expedition failed, later it was to influence the Romans in the Punic wars.

Carthage had one more foe to face before the curtain went up on the struggle with Rome. In 280 BC the Italian-Greek city of Taras (Latin Tarentum, modern Taranto), under threat from the Romans, had called in Pyrrhus of Epeiros, an outstanding mercenary warrior-king, to assist them. His first bloody victory over Roman troops was near Taras’ colony, Herakleia, after which he dashed northwards to Rome and sent his trusted diplomat Kineas to extend terms to the Senate. He offered to restore all prisoners and to end the war, if the Romans would make peace with Taras, grant autonomy to the Italian Greeks, and return all territory taken from the Samnites and Lucanians, Oscan peoples recently conquered by Rome. These terms would have severely limited the spread of Roman involvement in the south and have created a Tarentine supremacy there. He was refused bluntly and sent packing by the Senate, and he was said to have reported to his king that Rome was like a many-headed monster whose armies would keep on being replenished. If this was true, then Kineas, erstwhile pupil of the great Athenian orator and democrat Demosthenes, was a shrewd judge of Roman manpower.

After this refusal Pyrrhus won a second bloody victory at Asculum, a ferocious two-day engagement, in which his elephants of war played a major role. Each one carried a tower, or howdah, strapped to its back as a fighting platform protecting two men armed with javelins. This is our first reliable reference to the howdah, and Pyrrhus may have invented it. In any event, only when a heroic (or foolhardy) legionary hacked off the trunk of one elephant were the Romans said to have realized that ‘the monsters were mortal’. Nonetheless, they still terrified the enemy cavalry. Once again, the casualties on both sides were heavy. ‘Another such victory’, Pyrrhus is said to have remarked, ‘and we shall be lost’, whence our saying ‘a Pyrrhic victory’ for any success bought at too high a price. As was becoming painfully clear, the Romans could afford such losses better than Pyrrhus could, as they had much of Italy from which to recruit, whereas the highly skilled professionals of Pyrrhus’ Macedonian-style phalanx were irreplaceable.

In 278 BC Pyrrhus faced a choice: either to turn to Macedonia, where recent events gave him hope of the throne there, or else to Sicily, in keeping with his former marriage to a Syracusan princess, none other than the daughter of Agathokles, Lanassa. While continuing to protect Taras, he chose to go south to Sicily where he now promised ‘freedom’ from the Carthaginians, who had high hopes of winning the whole of the island. For three years he showed no more commitment to real freedom than any true Hellenistic king and failed in his hopes. The plans of Carthage were indeed thwarted, the Carthaginians having been swept out from the island except for the one stronghold Lilybaeum (Marsala), but the autocratic Pyrrhus overstayed his welcome, and his Sicilian-Greek supporters, who were no keener to surrender their freedom to Pyrrhus than to Carthage, turned against him. On his return voyage to Italy he lost several of his precious elephants when he was soundly trounced by the Carthaginian navy, losing 70 out of his 110 ships, and he failed to win the third crucial encounter against the Romans at Malventum. So Pyrrhus left a substantial garrison at Taras and sailed back across the Adriatic.

In the meantime the status quo in Sicily was restored, and the Carthaginians and Greeks were once again at each other’s throats, oblivious to the world around. Pyrrhus’ meteoric career there had prevented it from becoming a Carthaginian province, and on his departure he is said to have described the island as the ‘future wrestling-ground for Rome and Carthage’. At first, Rome and Carthage had reasserted their old alliances in the face of the new invader. But within a dozen years they would be locked in war, as Pyrrhus predicted. On and off, it was to last for more than six decades. As for Taras, its days of freedom were to be over. Three years after Malventum, in 272 BC, the Romans took control of troublesome Taras, allowing the garrison that Pyrrhus had left there to withdraw on honourable terms. Definitely crushed, its territory was confiscated and made ager publicus, state land. The plunder of Taras, according to the Hadrianic author and poet Florus, was enormous and its acquisition would be a turning point in the Republic’s history:

So rich a spoil was gathered from so many wealthy races that Rome could not contain the fruits of her victory. Scarcely ever did a fairer or more glorious triumph enter the city. Up to that time the only spoils that you could have seen were the cattle of the Volsci, the chariots of the Gauls, the broken arms of the Samnites; now if you looked at the captives they were Molossians, Thessalians, Macedonians

[i.e. soldiers from Pyrrhus’ army who had remained in Taras]

, Bruttians, Apulians and Lucanians [i.e. Italic peoples and Italian Greeks]; if you look upon the procession, you saw gold, purple, statues, pictures and all the luxury of Taras. But upon nothing did the Roman people look with greater pleasure than upon those huge beasts [i.e. Pyrrhus’ elephants], which they had feared so much, with towers upon their backs, now following the horses [i.e. Roman citizen cavalry], which had vanquished them, with their heads bowed low, not wholly unconscious that they were prisoners.

With the taking and sacking of Taras, continues the baroque Florus, ‘all Italy enjoyed peace’. Peace, however, would be short lived, as the Romans soon afterwards occupied Rhegion (Reggio di Calabria) on the straits of Messina, opposite Sicily. As fate would have it, the rival powers of Rome and Carthage were now face to face and about to cross swords.


The restless career of Pyrrhus of Epeiros epitomizes the age of Alexander’s Successors. In spring 280 BC the king crossed into Italy and confronted the Romans for the first time with first-class professional soldiers who had been trained in the world-conquering tactics of Alexander the Great. He also brought another Hellenistic novelty: twenty war elephants.

But Pyrrhus was also a throwback; he was the last great rival of Homer’s heroes. Like his cousin Alexander, he matched himself with Achilles, his assumed ancestor, and set off to fight a new Trojan War against the Romans of ‘Trojan’ descent. The prince shone in the front line of battle in his ornamented armour and laurelled helmet. Yet he was no tinsel hero. He revelled in single combat and it is said that once, with a single swipe, he hacked a savage Mamertine mercenary in half. But he was not just a heroic hooligan either. He was the most famous general of his day He wrote a treatise on tactics and a set of personal memoirs, and was later admired for his siegecraft and diplomacy.

Nowadays, in the public imagination at least, it is Hannibal who is remembered as the celebrated user of pachyderms, probably first popularized as such when the embittered satirist Juvenal lampooned him as ‘the one-eyed commander perched on his gigantic beast!’ As we shall discover later, this is something of a paradox, since elephants figured only in his earliest victories, the Tagus (220 BC) and the Trebbia (218 BC), and then, damagingly, at Zama (202 BC). In point of fact, Pyrrhus deployed them in far more settings, including the Italian peninsula, throughout his full and eventful career. In the west, he, not Hannibal, is the true ‘Elephant King’, and it is interesting to note that the Carthaginian genius classed Pyrrhus as second only to Alexander in his hierarchy of top-flight generals. A similar sentiment was expressed by Antigonos Gonatas of Macedon, for when the king was asked who the best general of his day was, he replied, ‘Pyrrhus, if he lives to be old enough’ As Justin was to write later, ‘all Greece in admiration of his name and amazed at his achievements against the Romans and the Carthaginians was awaiting his return’ And return he did.

After Italy Pyrrhus ended up fighting first in Macedon, then in Sparta and Argos. In Macedon he replenished his elephants by a victory over Antigonos Gonatas, and then took them down to the Peloponnese. When Areus was chosen as king of Sparta, his uncle Kleonymos, who thought he had a better claim, went off to fight for Taras as a mercenary. Later, having seized Corcyra for himself, he signed on with the power most likely to help him to higher things, hence Pyrrhus’ invasion of the Peloponnese during the spring of 272 BC, but his attempt to place Kleonymos on the throne by force of arms failed. Later in the same year, while his stampeding elephants blocked the gates at Argos, he was knocked senseless by a roof-tile, apparently hurled from a housetop by the mother of an Argive he was trying to kill, and he toppled from his horse. In the confused street fighting, a soldier of Antigonos dragged him into a doorway and decapitated him. His head was brought to Antigonos, who was said to have rebuked its bearer, his son, and wept at the sight of the ashen visage. Pyrrhus’ head and trunk were soon reunited and cremated with full honours.


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