Stories from Ancient Rome - Alfred J. Church

The Beginnings of Empire

We must not suppose that when the Romans had made themselves undisputed masters of Italy they began to think of conquering other lands. This is not the way in which empires begin. This or that citizen may have had ambitious schemes, but, probably, the nation as a whole would have been content to stay within the boundaries which seemed to have been so conveniently arranged.

Circumstances were, however, too strong for it. There came a call which it seemed unwise to refuse. So were taken the first steps of a movement which was to extend over the whole of Western Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia as far as the Euphrates; and this call came from very near, from a land which might almost be said to be a part of Italy, from the island of Sicily.

Something must be said of the power with which Rome thus came into collision. Carthage was a Phœnician city, the last of the colonies founded on the shores of the Mediterranean by Tyre. The date of the foundation is doubtful. The beginning of the city was probably in the same century as that of Rome. At the time of which I am now writing the Carthaginian power had spread over much of the Western Mediterranean. She was mistress of all the Phœnician colonies in Northern Africa and ruled the native tribes for some distance inland, she owned the islands of Corsica, Sardinia and Malta, and had gradually extended her sway over three-fourths of Sicily. It is with this part of her Empire that we are now concerned.

The eastern portion of Sicily was still possessed by Greek cities. At the time of which I am writing Syracuse was the only one out of the whole number which was of importance. Most of the other cities had fallen into the hands of Carthage, which, after more than two centuries of conflict, now seemed likely to acquire the whole island.

On the Sicilian side of the strait which divides Sicily from the mainland stood the town of Messana. In 289 B.C. it had been treacherously seized by some mercenary troops who had been in the pay of Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse, and had been thrown out of employment by his death. They lived mainly by plunder, raiding the country and levying toll on the traffic that passed through the strait. For a time this business flourished, but when Syracuse fell into the vigorous hands of Hiero, the freebooters, who called themselves Mamertines, from Mamers, one of the forms of the word Mars, found themselves in difficulties.

Accordingly they began to look about for help. One party looked to Rome, another to Carthage, and each sent envoys to put their request before the power which they invoked. Carthage, or rather the Carthaginians, had the advantage of being close at hand. One of their generals, Hanno by name, was in command of a force in the neighbourhood. He marched to Messana at once, came to terms with the Syracusans who were besieging the town, and occupied the citadel. The news reached Rome, where the envoys were pleading their cause before the Senate.

That body was not a little perplexed. It saw that Rome was not called upon to meddle with the internal quarrels of a Greek city, and it knew that it was no light matter to provoke the hostility of so great a power as Carthage. It handed the matter over to the decision of the people, and the people, knowing little of the facts of the case, and naturally jealous of seeing Carthage firmly established within so small a distance from Italy, determined to send help to the Mamertines.

This business was very soon concluded. The Carthaginians had not made themselves liked in the town, and when the Roman admiral, a member of the great Claudian family, arrived there, he was heartily welcomed. A conference was arranged at which the leader of the Mamertines, Hanno, and Claudius were to be present. Hanno was arrested; the garrison in the citadel agreed to leave it, and together with their commander was permitted to depart.

When he reached home Hanno was put to death for having brought about the fall of Messana. Though war had not been formally proclaimed, it had practically commenced. It lasted altogether for about twenty-three years and was succeeded by a peace of about equal duration. The struggle was renewed in 219 B.C. and came to an end in 202 B.C. For nearly half a century after this Carthage was permitted to exist, but only because political factions at Rome could not agree as to what should be done with her.

Of one of the three parties concerned in the Sicilian quarrel little need be said. The Greek cities in the Island had shown the want of unity which was characteristic of the race, and had fallen one by one.

To Syracuse, in which at the last all that remained of Greek strength and energy was centred, another great vice of the Greek character, the fury of party spirit, proved fatal. For a time it was saved by the energy and prudence of its King, Hiero II. Hiero began with the very natural error of thinking that Carthage had the better chances of success. He soon found reasons for changing his opinion, and concluded an alliance with Rome. To this alliance he remained faithful for nearly half a century.

Of Carthage something has been already said. To all appearance she was much more powerful than her antagonist. A greater command of material strength she certainly had. A wide dominion, large and well-manned fleets, and a highly disciplined army was hers. In public spirit, in the higher kind of patriotism, she was deficient. She found her chief aim in the accumulation of wealth; she fought her battles with mercenaries. Gauls, Spaniards, Moors served in her army.

It was seldom that a native Carthaginian was found among the troops, except, indeed, in the higher ranks. Here they showed much military skill. One of the Carthaginian generals, the famous Hannibal, stands in the first rank of the great soldiers of history. Had he and others who were not far inferior to him been adequately supported by their countrymen, the issue of the conflict might well have been different from what it was.

I shall not attempt to tell in any detail the story of a war that lasted for nearly a quarter of a century. It will be sufficient to select some important and characteristic events.

The first is a story of how Rome became a naval power. Ships of war she had possessed for some time. An early treaty with Carthage, supposed to date from the end of the kingly or the beginning of the republican period had defined a limit beyond which a Roman fleet should not pass. There had been, as we have seen, a similar compact with Tarentum and no small trouble had followed the action of the Roman squadron which violated it. But there are ships and ships. At the present day there are junks in the Far East and the powerful battleships and the thirty-knot cruisers of Europe.

The Roman vessels, we may be sure, were rude in form and feeble in armament. The Carthaginians on the other hand had invented a highly developed art of construction and equipment from their Phœnician ancestors. In point of seamanship there could be no comparison between the two nations. One of them gained her knowledge of naval matters from coasting voyages only. The other was familiar with the Mediterranean from the coast of Palestine to the Straits of Gibraltar.

The Romans were soon convinced that they must do their best to correct this inequality. As long as Carthage commanded the sea, no real progress could be made. They could neither acquire the coast towns of Sicily, nor protect those of their own country. But the difficulty which they had to face was enormously great. They had to build ships which could meet the Carthaginian fleets on equal terms, and they had to raise a great force of seamen, with which to man them.

In the first matter a lucky accident helped them. It so happened that a Carthaginian "first-rate," as we should call it, was stranded somewhere on the coast of Southern Italy. It was taken as a model, and a number of vessels of a similar pattern were constructed. It was a bold undertaking, and a further illustration of Roman courage and tenacity of purpose, and it met with a success that could hardly have been expected. The manning of the new fleet was, in some respects, we may suppose, less difficult. A country with so long a coast line as Italy must necessarily have a considerable seafaring population, and from this a sufficient number of men could be impressed or induced to serve by good pay. That the new service was found to be very costly we know.

The first operation by sea was disastrous. One of the consuls sailed in advance of the main fleet with a squadron of seventeen vessels. On reaching Messana, he was advised to take possession of the island of Lipara, the chief of a volcanic group, near the north coast of Sicily. There he was surprised by the Carthaginian admiral, lost all his ships, and was himself taken prisoner.

The next incident in the campaign was of a very different character. The Carthaginians with fifty ships sailed northward to intercept the Roman fleet, fell in with it unexpectedly, and met with a complete defeat. It is very probable that they despised their enemy, neglected the usual precautions, and suffered accordingly.

It is likely that the same cause at least helped to produce the strange catastrophe that followed. It occurred to some ingenious person among the Romans that a combatant to whom the sea was unfamiliar would do well to make the conditions of a naval battle as similar as possible to those of a battle on land. Whether this person was Duilius or no we cannot say—he seems not to have joined the fleet till the idea had been carried out—but he gained the credit of it.

The Romans themselves did not feel able to manœuvre their ships like the enemy, but they could fight hand to hand better, they believed, than anyone else. If they were not skilful sailors who could accommodate themselves to changes of wind and weather, and use oar and rudder to the best advantage, yet, once put on the enemy's deck, they would more than hold their own.

Punic Wars


To be able then to board an adversary's ship was what they aimed at. Each vessel was furnished with a boarding-bridge—they called it a "crow" (corvus ), from the iron hook or grappling iron, which was not unlike a crow's beak. A pole was set up in its prow; to this a long ladder, broad enough for two men to pass abreast upon it, was attached in such a way that by means of a rope and pivot it could be swung round to any place where it could be used.

The Carthaginian admiral did his best, so to speak, to give effect to the Roman device. He made no attempt to manœuvre, but dashed straight at the hostile line of ships. Then the "crows" were brought into play. Ship after ship was grappled, boarded, and captured. The admiral himself had to abandon his galley, a splendid vessel which had once belonged to King Pyrrhus. As many as thirty Carthaginian ships were taken, and when the action was renewed a little later in the day, the number of captures was increased to fifty.

Mylæ—this place is a city on the northern coast of Sicily—gave its name to what is certainly one of the most decisive sea-fights in history. Duilius was covered with distinctions by his grateful countrymen. The honour of a triumph, the first naval triumph, was accorded to him. Two columns, appropriately adorned with beaks of ships, were erected in his honour, and he enjoyed, for the rest of his life, the privilege of being attended when he returned to his home from an entertainment by a musician and a torch-bearer. It sounds strange in modern ears, but we must remember that the Romans looked with much jealousy on all that seemed to give social distinction to an individual citizen.

One immediate result of the victory of Mylæ was that the island of Corsica was taken, or, at least, whatever power Carthage had possessed over that island was at an end. Probably this power did not extend far beyond the sea-coast. The city of Aleria was certainly taken by the Consul Scipio, and the exploit was considered to be of sufficient importance to be mentioned in his epitaph. The tribes of the interior probably paid as little regard to their new masters as they had done to their old.

Four years after Mylæ, another great battle was fought at sea. The Romans had made up their minds to carry the war into Africa; the Carthaginians strained every nerve to prevent this being done. Nowhere, they knew, would they fight at a greater disadvantage than at home. The native tribes which they ruled were hostile at heart, suffering as they did from oppression and tyranny. The presence of a Roman army would certainly be a signal for rebellion.

The Roman fleet numbered 330 ships of war, manned by crews of nearly 100,000 men in all. It carried an army of nearly 40,000. The Carthaginian fleet was even more numerous and had the advantage of not being encumbered with a land force. The plan of the Roman admirals was to break the enemy's line. Both consuls were present, each having a squadron of the swiftest and strongest ships. They were to make their way through the enemy; the rest of the fleet was to follow them.

The plan was not carried out in anything like completeness. The Carthaginians on the left of their battle-line made a feigned retreat, and the Roman ships on the right pursued, and lost touch of their comrades. Meanwhile, the third and fourth divisions, those which intended to follow the advance of the consuls, were thrown into confusion by skilfully manœuvred attacks by the Carthaginian admirals. Nevertheless, the Romans won the day, and won it in the same way as at Mylæ. When it came to fighting at close quarters, there was no resisting them. When a Carthaginian ship was boarded, it was lost.

Sixty were taken in this way, but not a single Roman vessel suffered the same fate. In respect of ships sunk by ramming and in other ways, there was not much difference between the two, the Carthaginians lost thirty, and the Romans twenty-six. The immediate result of the victory was that an army was landed on the African coast.

Before I tell the story of this campaign, I will finish what has to be said about the Roman fleet. The victory of Ecnomus, for the battle described above is so named, was followed by great disasters. In the summer of 255 B.C. a fleet was sailing along the southern coast of Sicily when a fearful storm arose, and almost entirely wrecked about four-fifths of the ships. Another fleet was built, and some of the Carthaginian possessions on the Sicilian coast were taken. But of this, also, more than a half was lost by a second storm. This took place in 253 B.C.

The Romans were content for a while to borrow ships from their friend King Hiero of Syracuse. In 249 B.C., however, they had built another fleet, but only to lose three-fourths of it under the reckless mismanagement of the Consul Appius Claudius at the battle of Drepana (Trapani ). The fleet was again made up to a respectable force, only again to perish by a tempest in which every ship was wrecked—fortunately as many of the sailors were on shore, without any great loss of life.

The story told of this unlucky or incompetent commander is curiously characteristic of Roman ways of thinking. The Claudian family, though characterised for many generations by an ability which kept it steadily at the front, was eminently unpopular at Rome. It had an evil reputation for incivilitas, a word which we may translate by "aristocratic insolence." It is the habit of mind which despises the rules by which the civis, the citizen, should model his language and demeanour.

Appius Claudius conceived a bold design of destroying the Carthaginian fleet, as it lay in the harbour of Drepana. But he had not the knowledge and ability to carry it into execution. He arrived at the scene of action too late, got himself into trouble by delivering a rash attack, and had not the skill to recover himself. His countrymen attributed the disaster to his impiety.

A fleet on active service carried with it a number of chickens, from which the course of future events might be learnt (the cries and movements of all birds were supposed to be significant, but the habits of the domestic fowl made it peculiarly suitable for the purpose).

The pullarius, as the keeper of these creatures was called, when the proper time was come, opened the cage and threw a certain kind of soft cake to the birds. If they refused to come out of their hutch and eat, if they uttered a cry, if they fluttered their wings, if they tried to fly away, the signs were bad. If, on the other hand, they ate greedily, so greedily that morsels of the food fell to the earth, all promised well. The pullarius  had reported to the consul that the chickens had refused to eat. The consul was not disposed to put up with the disappointment. "If they won't eat," he cried, "then at least they shall drink." And he ordered that they should be thrown into the sea.

Unfortunately, the ladies of the Claudian house were just as insolent as the men, and three years after this unlucky affair one of them more than justified their reputation. Her carriage was inconveniently delayed by a crowd as she was returning home from the public games. "How I wish," she cried, "that my brother could come to life again, and take command of another fleet! Then we should not have such crowds in the streets of Rome." The officials who were in charge of the games fined her for her audacious speech, which certainly showed the family characteristic of incivilitas.

That nothing was done for four years after this disaster need not surprise us; the wonder is that in 243 B.C. another fleet was built, largely at the expense of private citizens, the resources of the State being almost exhausted. Early in the following year it sailed, and met the Carthaginian force at Aegusa, an island on the western coast of Sicily. Carthage, believing that her enemy had definitely abandoned the sea, had suffered her fleet to fall into an ineffective condition, and the result of this battle was a complete victory for the Romans, who sank fifty and captured seventy of the enemy's ships. It was a magnificent effort and had the result which it deserved, for it practically ended the war. The whole of Sicily became virtually the possession of Rome, Hiero retaining Syracuse in reward for his steady loyalty.

The fate of Regulus is the second of the two incidents referred to in the beginning of this chapter. The result of the victory of Ecnomus had been that a Roman army had landed in Africa under the command of one of its consuls of the year, Atilius Regulus. His operations were very successful. The Carthaginian forces were utterly unable to hold the field against him. They lost all control over their native subjects, and by the beginning of the year 255 B.C. were besieged in their city. Regulus now offered conditions of peace. But these conditions were extremely severe. They amounted to a surrender of their whole Empire outside Africa. A compact to keep eight warships for the service of Rome, while they were to have but one for their own, and the payment of an annual tribute were the terms imposed.

The Carthaginians felt that it would be better to perish fighting, and their resolution met with its due reward. A Spartan officer of the name of Xanthippus had been engaged by one of the recruiting agents and now arrived. He criticised the military arrangements of the native generals with severity and gave an exhibition of his own tactical skill. He was put in supreme command, took the field, and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Roman army, taking a great number of prisoners, amongst whom was Regulus himself.

What was left of the Roman army quitted Africa, and the attempt to invade was not made again. For four years Regulus was kept in prison, in 251 B.C. he was sent to propose terms of peace on behalf of his captors.

What he did was to urge his countrymen to refuse the terms which were offered. If they held out, they would obtain much more favourable conditions. As for himself, he must not, he said, be considered. To make peace that he might be released from captivity would be monstrous. A man who had suffered the disgrace of capture should be left to perish. Wife, children, country were nothing to him now. He had lost them all. He put aside all attempts to detain him, returned to Carthage as he had taken oath to do, and died after suffering the most cruel tortures.



It was the indomitable energy of the nation and the patriotic self-sacrifice of the individual that decided the struggle between the two states.