Carthage was a city-state on the Greek model that
had been founded by Phoenicians from Tyre in the 8th century. It was the strongest city in the Western Mediterranean by the 3rd century and its wealth rested on trade. Carthaginian merchants went from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, the citys fleets were huge, and its army was one of the best in the ancient world.
It was Carthage that pried loose the Greek hold on the western ports, and Carthaginian merchants traded as far north as England for Cornish tin and down the West African coast for gold and ivory.
Like Rome, Carthage learned how to make use of the manpower of its conquered peoples, incorporating them into the Carthaginian army as auxiliaries. Unlike Rome, but the Greeks, the Carthaginians also made extensive use of mercenaries.
By the early 200s, Carthage had expanded not only across North Africa but had control of the Belearic Islands, Sardinia, Corsica, and much of Sicily. She took the goods from these regions, and her own fertile hinterland, and shipped them to eastern ports.
Once Rome had conquered most of Italy, it was only a matter of time before these two ambitious and powerful empires came face to face with one another. But both sides drifted unintentionally into hostilities, with drastic consequences for both.
Carthage had, in the 260s, control of much of Sicily. This mattered little to Rome, for it had few direct interests there. Thus, when a complicated little dispute arose in the city of Messana in 264, and one side appealed to Carthage while the other appealed to Rome, no one thought it was any more than a local quarrel.
Messana was a port city controlling the Straits and so when a Carthaginian fleet was invited in by one side, Rome felt it had to respond in some way. An expeditionary force caused the Punic fleet to withdraw and that could well have been that.
The Punic admirals retreat was ill-advised at home, and Carthage responded with a larger force, prying out the Romans. Now the issue was more serious, and Rome responded with a consular army. Again Rome won an easy victory, so easy, in fact that the consul decided to press into the interior in search of more.
The line of this story should be obvious by now. Carthage responded with a still larger army, about 50,000. And Rome answered in kind, winning such quick victories in 262 that they won nearly the entire island. Further victories, however, were much harder to win, as it became apparent that Rome would have to win control of the sea if it was to keep its gains in Sicily.
The war, so thoughtlessly begun, would last 20 years. Neither side had sought a major conflict, but neither side knew how to withdraw once the issue was joined.
This war was fought on a scale much larger than Rome had before attempted. The main battles were fought at sea, to support key sieges and expeditions, for Carthage was a first-rate naval power. But land battles were fought in Corsica, Sardinia, Africa and Sicily. Both sides regularly kept fleets of 100 to 200 ships and armies of 50,000 to 70,000 in the field for year after year.
Rome made many mistakes in this war, and suffered terrible losses for it. Romans were not sailors, and they lost more ships in the war than did Carthage-600 ships lost over the course of 20 years. Every time Rome won a significant victory, the advantage was frittered away by incompetent generals or a timid Senate. One of the great weaknesses of the Republic was that it elected new generals every year, a system that served well enough except in times of extended crises.
Rome prevailed at last in 241. Carthage, exhausted more than beaten, sued for peace and accepted harsh terms. The city itself, however, remained unconquered. And her merchant fleets continued to generate wealth.
Rome imposed a heavy indemnity on Carthage, to compensate her for her losses. She also forced Carthage to give up all claims to Sicily. Thus, as the result of this war, Rome won an easy income and a new province. It