War returned to Sicily after Rome’s armies in Carthage’s African homeland was soundly defeated by the Spartan mercenary Xanthippus. Rome no longer wanted to take Carthage itself, but Carthage also failed to adopt an intensively aggressive strategy. The war would be confined to the island.
In fact, Carthage wanted an end to the war. It had taken numerous lives, both Roman and Carthaginian; what good would it do for Carthage if the war was to continue? Better a peace treaty than endless fighting. The Carthaginian government resolved that Marcus
Atillius Regulus, the captured Roman consul who had been defeated, was to go back to Rome to give his Senate Carthage’s peace terms. There was a condition: the ex-consul was to return to prison in Carthage if the Romans did not accept the peace terms. Regulus accepted, and duly went to his Senate and urged them not to accept the peace terms. He was tortured to death after his return to the enemy city. This story, whether true or not, has turned Regulus into a martyr for Rome ever since.
The war was still at a stalemate. Carthage transported war elephants to Sicily and humiliated the Roman navy by using their nimbler ships to sail supplies right past them, but during this time numerous cities would also be captured by Rome. The Carthaginian forces had been pushed into the extreme West of the region- and the consul Publius Claudius Pulcher resolved that the time had come for Carthage’s power in Sicily to be eliminated once and for all.
Pulcher’s battle was inauspicious, however; his sacred chickens refused to eat, and so the soothsayers could not predict the future, and in a fit of rage Pulcher had thrown the chickens down the sea. “If they will not feed, let them drink.” he said. But the waiting for omens had delayed the Romans fatally. The Carthaginian admiral Ad Herbal trapped the Romans against the coast and their fleet there would lose 90 ships. Only a few days later another entire fleet was destroyed in a storm. The new Roman fleet disappeared.
Carthage regained the offensive. Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal, began a successful guerilla campaign, who Rome tried to combat fruitlessly. Both sides were becoming exhausted. Huge financial resources had been poured into the war, and lost; huge numbers of men had been conscripted to fight, and lost. This was true for both sides. But Rome decided not to drop its aggressive stance. Carthage’s moves were simply responses to Rome’s; Rome would push on the offensive once more. The Senate, somehow, managed to raise up another fleet
And at the battle of the Aegates islands in 241 B.C, the Carthaginian fleet was disastrously defeated by Rome. Just a few days earlier, Carthage had lost another fleet in a storm. The Romans stormed into the Carthaginian western stronghold at Lilybauem, leaving the few other cities that Carthage still held in Sicily isolated from one another. The writer Polybius writes:
The fact is that, owing to their never having expected the Romans to dispute the sea with them again, they had, in contempt for them, neglected their naval force. So that immediately on engaging they had the worst in many parts of the battle and were soon routed, 50 ships being sunk and 70 captured with their crews. The remainder raising their masts and finding a fair wind got back to Holy Isle, very fortunate in the wind having unexpectedly gone round and helping them just when they required it.
Carthage was exhausted. It had to give up.
The final peace terms were bitter for Carthage, probably much more severe than what they had ever anticipated when they sent Regulus to Rome. Carthage was to evacuate the entire island of Sicily and avoid conflict with Roman allies, to release Roman prisoners without ransom, and to pay 100 tons of silver to Rome as a war indemnity. The Carthaginian economy, from which the city of merchants had depended on, would in fact be bankrupted, and their feared navy left in ruins.
This was only an ending to the first time Rome and Carthage crossed swords.
Next week, we’ll look at the years between the First and Second Punic Wars, and also the rise of Hannibal Barca, Carthage’s most famous general.