A small group of unemployed mercenaries that seized a city in the island of Sicily. That managed to provoke a series of wars that were incredibly large, costly and bloody and would consume the western Mediterranean. This is a story of Greek tyrants, Italian pirates and Carthaginian sea-muscle.
Sometimes the biggest wars are caused by the smallest incidents. Look, for example, at how World War 1 started: because of the assassinating of an Austrian archduke in Serbia. Amazingly, the war that followed would involve all the great powers of the world. The incident that started the Punic Wars initially directly involved neither Rome nor Carthage, but instead a regional power, Syracuse in Sicily, and a group of Campanian mercenaries called the Mamertines: ‘the sons of Mars’.
Unemployed, the Mamertines had previously been paid for by a now-dead Greek tyrant. Now that they had no job, however, they were free to make trouble. Near the strait between Sicily and Italy laid the city of Messana, a bustling town of traders and farmers, walled and peaceful. The Mamertines decided to seize it and, being incredibly good house-guests, killed the majority of the inhabitants and turned the place into a raiding base, a headquarters for their piratical exploits. The Mamertines would rule Messana for twenty years.
This brought the attention of the new tyrant, now king, of Syracuse: Hiero II, who, after finding the activity of the Mamertines intolerable, he decided to gather troops for a confrontation to rid his land of the troublesome ex-mercenaries once and for all. On the plains of Mylae, Hiero II defeated the Mamertines, who had not fought in a pitched battle for long and had been confident of victory. The triumphant Sicilian king moved on to besiege Messana. The Mamertines were in a horrible position. Besieged, and near defeat- they called for help on the closest great power they had: Carthage, whose fleet happened to be sailing close. The Carthaginians swiftly went in to occupy the harbor of Messana; Hiero would be forced to withdraw.
One would expect the Mamertines to be happy, but they also found the Carthaginian occupation intolerable. (Pretty picky ex-mercenaries if you ask me). They were, however, originally Italians, and since the Italian peninsula was now ruled by Rome, perhaps the master of Italy would come to help them? An appeal was sent to the Republic to request for protection against the alien Carthaginians. It was a great dilemma for Rome, this request. Should they leave a band of pirates who had stolen a city from its rightful owner to their fate, or would they intervene to ensure that Carthage would not be able to expand its power in Italy? Both sides of the debate had their points- Rome was still recovering from a Campanian insurrection from not too long ago, but if Carthage defeated Syracuse, no one would be left standing on the island to block it from taking over the whole place. The senate failed to come to a conclusion, but the popular assembly voted to accept the request and it was decided that Rome would land its legions on Sicily.
Pound the war drums!
Rome swiftly sailed two armies across to Sicily and defeated the Carthaginians, before moving on to Syracuse to force the hand of its king to supply the Roman army; this was one of Rome’s expeditions across the sea, after all. Carthage’s response to all this? They crucified the general who had allowed Rome to take over Messana, and prepared for war.
And this is how the Punic Wars managed to start: a series of three huge wars, ending in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Roman and Carthaginian troops and culminating with the complete destruction of an empire, started with a band of troublesome pirates in a small city in Sicily. Ironically, we do not know the fate of the Mamertines, the cause of the whole series of wars. They would be lost from the pages of history now that the major powers had got themselves involved.
Next week, we’ll continue looking at the early stages of Rome and Carthage’s struggle in the First Punic War.