Helmet and Spear - Alfred J. Church

The Servants of Mars

I have had to speak more than once of mercenary troops employed by the Greek cities in Sicily to help them in their long struggle with Carthage. The use of such troops was a regular practice with Carthage; it was only on great occasions that this State put its own citizens in the field. With the Greeks, on the contrary, it was the exception to employ any but citizen soldiers. The mercenary was suspected, and not without reason, of being a ready instrument in the hands of any unscrupulous person who might be seeking to establish a tyranny. As time went on, however, he became more and more a necessity. As society became more complex, the citizen found himself less willing to bear arms and less capable of doing it. And the exhaustion caused by almost incessant wars made it necessary to seek elsewhere for men who should fill up the depleted ranks. Hence the employment of mercenaries even by free cities. Whatever their use in time of war, these auxiliaries were naturally difficult to manage or dispose of when peace had been restored. Such certainly the Syracusans found to be the case with a body of Italian mercenaries whom Agathocles had had in his service. They were paid off and peremptorily ordered to return home. This prospect was not agreeable; it meant a return to regular and not very profitable labour; they greatly preferred to live by the sword. They professed, however, to be willing to obey the command, and accordingly marched in the direction of Italy, intending, it appeared, to be ferried across the Straits of Messana. Whether they had fixed on any settled plan, or yielded to the sudden attraction of a chance that seemed to offer itself, cannot be determined. What we know is that when they reached Messana, from which they were to have embarked, and had been imprudently invited within the walls by its citizens, they seized the town with all that it contained. Here they established themselves, taking the name of Mamertini, or "Servants of Mars" (Mamers  was the Oscan name for the deity known to the Romans as Mars. A similar body held the adjacent mainland, and the two, joined as they were by an informal alliance of interests, became a formidable power. They practically lived by robbery by land and sea, and their existence became an intolerable nuisance to the two powers that shared Sicily between them. For once the interests of Syracuse and Carthage were identical. The Syracusan troops inflicted a severe defeat on the Mamertini, and, with the help of their new allies, closely besieged their town.

The Mamertini had for some time perceived that they could not stand alone, but must take sides either with Rome or with Carthage. They were divided as to the choice, but circumstances inclined them to Rome, and they sent envoys asking for protection and help. The Senate, to whom this application was addressed, were not a little perplexed. They had just inflicted a severe punishment on a body of mercenaries who had done at Rhegium exactly the same thing that the Mamertini had done at Messana. They postponed the matter more than once, possibly in the hope that the necessity of deciding might pass away. But the General Assembly of the People, to whom the Senate referred the matter—this dual government had at times its convenience—was not disposed to be so indifferent. A resolution was passed that the Mamertini were to be helped, and Appius Claudius, one of the Consuls of the year, was sent in command of an expedition.

When he arrived, he found the situation considerably changed. There was a Carthaginian as well as a Roman party among the Mamertini, and the former had now gained the upper hand. A Carthaginian fleet was in the harbour and a body of Carthaginian troops in possession of the citadel. Fortunately for Rome, there was no one of energy or determination to manage affairs. The officer in command of the fleet was seized by the pro-Roman faction, and Hanno, who was in charge of the citadel, consented to evacuate it, if he were allowed to withdraw with the honours of war. Rome became possessed of Messana without having to strike a blow. She never lost it—it was not her way to lose what she had once gained—and she found it a most valuable position. But the acquisition of Messana meant war with Carthage. Carthage began by crucifying the unlucky general who had abandoned the citadel, and then, entering into close alliance with Hiero, invested the city. Appius Claudius made proposals for peace, which were not accepted. Then he made a sally from the town and inflicted such a defeat on the enemy that they raised the siege. The next year Hiero, who had the sagacity to see that Rome would be a more useful ally than Carthage, changed sides. Rome had its foot down in Sicily and never took it up.