The series of wars between Rome and Carthage were known to the Romans as the "Punic Wars" because of the Latin name for the Carthaginians: Punici, derived from Phoenici, referring to the Carthaginians' Phoenician ancestry.
Carthage considered itself the dominant naval power in the Western Mediterranean. It originated as a Phoenician colony in Africa, near modern Tunis, and gradually became the center of a civilization whose hegemony reached along the North African coast and deep in its hinterland, covering large parts of the islands of the Western Mediterranean and influencing the Iberian peninsula. The conflict began after both Rome and Carthage intervened in Messana, the point of Sicily closest to Italy.
Sicily is a semi-hilly island, with geographical obstacles and rough terrain making lines of communication difficult to maintain. For this reason land warfare played a secondary role in the First Punic War. Land operations were confined to small scale raids and skirmishes, with few pitched battles. Sieges and land blockades were the most common large-scale operations for the regular army. The main blockade targets were the important ports, since neither Carthage nor Rome were based in Sicily and both needed continuous reinforcements and communication with the mainland.
The land war in Sicily began with the Roman landing at Messana in 264 BC. Despite the Carthaginian pre-war naval advantage, the Roman landing was virtually unopposed. Two legions commanded by Appius Claudius Caudex disembarked at Messana where the Mamertines had expelled the Carthaginian garrison commanded by Hanno (no relation to Hanno the Great). Rome's initial strategy was to eliminate Syracuse as an enemy. From Messana, the Romans marched south attacking Hadranon and Kentoripa. These two towns were on the road around Mt. Etna. Taking these towns thus protected the right flank of the Roman advance. The town of Catania immediately made peace with the Romans, who continued south to Syracuse. After a brief siege, with no Carthaginian help in sight, Syracuse made peace with the Romans. The towns of Halaesa, located on the north shore of Sicily, and Enna, located in central Sicily on the Catania-Agrigentum road and the Thermae-Gela road, also made peace with the Romans.
With Enna joining the Roman side, the road to the important coastal city of Agrigentum lay open. In 262 BC, Rome besieged the city of Agrigentum, an operation that involved both consular armies - a total of four Roman legions - and took several months to resolve. The garrison of Agrigentum managed to call for reinforcements and a Carthaginian relief force commanded by Hanno came to the rescue and destroyed the Roman supply base at Erbessus. With supplies from Syracuse cut, the Romans were now besieged and constructed a line of contravallation. After a few skirmishes, and the battle of Agrigentum the city fell to the Romans.
The Roman advance now continued westward from Agrigentum to relieve in 260 BC the besieged cities of Segeste and Makella, who had sided with Rome, and were attacked by the Carthaginians for doing so. In the north, the Romans, with their northern sea flank secured by their naval victory at Battle of Mylae, advanced toward Thermae. They were defeated there by the Carthaginians under Hamilcar (a popular Carthaginian name, not to be confused with Hannibal Barca's father, with the same name) in 260 BC. The Carthaginians took advantage of this victory by counterattacking, in 259 BC, and seizing Enna. Hamilcar continued south to Camarina, in Syracusan territory, presumably with the intent to convince the Syracusans to rejoin the Carthaginian side.
The next year, 258 BC, the Romans were able to regain the initiative by retaking Enna and Camarina. In central Sicily, they took the town of Mytistraton, which they had attacked twice previously. The Romans also moved in the north by marching across the northern coast toward Panormus, but were not able to take the city.
After their conquests in the Agrigentum campaign, Rome attempted (256/255 BC) the second large scale land operation of the war. Following several naval battles, Rome was aiming for a quick end to hostilities and decided to invade the Carthaginian colonies of Africa, to force the enemy to accept terms. A major fleet was built, comprised of transports for the army and its equipment and warships for protection. Carthage attempted to intervene with a fleet of 350 ships (according to Polybios), but was defeated in the battle of Cape Ecnomus. As a result, the Roman army, commanded by Marcus Atilius Regulus, landed in Africa and began ravaging the Carthaginian countryside. At first Regulus was victorious, winning the battle of Adys and forcing Carthage to sue for peace. The terms were so heavy that negotiations failed and, in response, the Carthaginians hired Xanthippus, a Spartan mercenary, to reorganize the army. Xanthippus managed to cut off the Roman army from its base by re-establishing Carthaginian naval supremacy, then defeated and captured Regulus at the battle of Tunis.
Roman misfortunes did not end then, however. The survivors of the African debacle, sailing home, were caught in a storm, and most of their fleet was destroyed. The Carthaginians took advantage of this to attack Agrigentum. They did not believe they could hold the city, however, so they burned it and left.
The Romans were able to rally, however, and quickly resumed the offensive. Attacks began with naval assaults on Lilybaeum, the center of Carthaginian power on Sicily, and a raid on Africa. Both efforts ended in failure. The Romans retreated from Lilybaeum, and the African force was caught in another storm and destroyed. The Romans made great progress in the north. The city of Thermae was captured in 252 BC, enabling another advance on the port city of Panormus. The Romans attacked this city after taking Kephalodon in 251 BC. After fierce fighting, the Carthaginians were defeated and the city fell. With Panormus captured, much of western inland Sicily fell with it. The cities of Ieta, Solous, Petra, and Tyndaris agreed to peace with the Romans that same year.
The next year the Romans shifted their attention to the southwest. They sent a naval expedition toward Lilybaeum. En route, the Romans seized and burned the Carthaginian hold-out cities of Selinous and Heraclea Minoa. This expedition to Lilybaeum was not successful, but attacking the Carthiginian headquarters demonstrated Roman resolve to take all of Sicily. The Roman fleet was defeated by the Carthaginians at Drepana, forcing the Romans to continue their attacks from land. Roman forces at Lilybaeum were relieved, and Eryx, near Drapana, was seized thus menacing that important city as well.
At this point, (249 BC), Carthage sent general Hamilcar Barca (Hannibal's father) to Sicily. His landing at Heirkte (near Panormus) drew the Romans away to defend that port city and resupply point and gave Drepana some breathing room. Subsequent guerilla warfare kept the Roman legions pinned down and preserved Carthage's toehold in Sicily, although Roman forces which bypassed Hamilcar forced him to relocate to Eryx, to better defend Drepana. Nevertheless, Carthaginian success in Sicily was secondary to the progress of the war at sea; the stalemate Hamilcar produced in Sicily became irrelevant following the Roman naval victory at the battle of the Aegates Islands in 241 BC. As a result of this naval victory, the Carthaginians sued for peace and agreed to evacuate Sicily.
At the beginning of the First Punic War, Rome had virtually no experience in naval warfare, whereas Carthage had a great deal of experience on the seas thanks to its centuries of sea-based trade. Nevertheless, the growing Roman Republic soon understood the importance of Mediterranean control in the outcome of the conflict.
The first major Roman fleet was constructed after the victory of Agrigentum in 261 BC. Some historians have speculated that since Rome lacked advanced naval technology the design of the warships was probably copied verbatim from captured Carthaginian triremes and quinqueremes or from ships that had beached on Roman shores due to storms. Other historians have pointed out that Rome did have experience with naval technology, as she patrolled her coasts against piracy. Another possibility is that Rome received technical assistance from its seafaring Sicilian ally, Syracuse. Regardless of the state of their naval technology at the start of the war, Rome quickly adapted.
Perhaps in order to compensate for the lack of experience, and to make use of standard land military tactics on sea, the Romans equipped their new ships with a special boarding device, the corvus. Instead of maneuvering to ram, which was the standard naval tactic at the time, corvus equipped ships would maneuver alongside the enemy vessel, deploy the bridge which would attach to the enemy ship through spikes on the end of the bridge, and send legionnaires across as boarding parties.
The new weapon's efficiency was first proved in the battle of Mylae, the first Roman naval victory, and continued to prove its value in the following years, especially in the huge Battle of Ecnomus. The addition of the corvus forced Carthage to review its military tactics, and since the city had difficulty in doing so, Rome had the naval advantage. Later, as Roman experience in naval warfare grew, the corvus device was abandoned due to its impact on the navigability of the war vessels. In a single storm off Camarina (Sicily) the Romans are said to have lost all but 80 ships, due perhaps to the instability caused by the corvus. According to Polybius the fleet comprised 364 ships while the historian Eutropius states that there were 464. Under these assumptions it could be true that upwards of 100,000 Romans were killed in the disaster, making it the greatest maritime disaster in history, and a possible reason why the Romans abandoned the use of the very effective corvus.
Despite the Roman victories at sea, the Roman Republic lost countless ships and crews during the war, due to both storms and battles. On at least two occasions (255 and 253 BC) whole fleets were destroyed in bad weather; the disaster off Camarina in 255 BC counted two hundred seventy ships and over one hundred thousand men lost, the greatest single loss in history. One theory for the problem is the weight of the corvus on the prows of the ships made the ships unstable and caused them to sink in bad weather. Following the conclusive naval victory off Drepana in 249 BC Carthage ruled the seas, as Rome was unwilling to finance the construction of yet another expensive fleet. Nevertheless the Carthaginian faction that opposed the conflict, led by the land-owning aristocrat Hanno the Great, gained power and in 244, and considering the war to be over, started the demobilization of the fleet, giving the Romans a chance to again attain naval superiority. However, during this period, Hamilcar Barca orchestrated a number of coastal raids in Italy. Perhaps in response, Rome did build another fleet paid for with donations from wealthy citizens and the First Punic War was decided in the naval battle of the Aegates Islands (March 10 241 BC), where the new Roman fleet under consul Gaius Lutatius Catulus was victorious over an undermanned and hastily built Carthaginian fleet. Carthage lost most of its fleet and was economically incapable of funding another, or to find manpower for the crews. Without naval support, Hamilcar Barca was cut off from Carthage and forced to negotiate peace. It should be noted that Hamilcar Barca had a subordinate named Gesco conduct the negotiations with Lutatius, in order to create the impression that he had not really been defeated.
According to sources (excluding land warfare casualties):
Although uncertain, the casualties were heavy for both sides. Polybius commented that the war was, at the time, the most destructive in terms of casualties in the history of warfare, including the battles of Alexander the Great. Analyzing the data from the Roman census of the 3rd century BC, Adrian Goldsworthy noted that during the conflict Rome lost about 50,000 citizens. This excludes auxiliary troops and every other man in the army without citizen status, who would be outside the head count.
Further clauses determined that the allies of each side would not be attacked by the other, no attacks were to be made by either side upon the other's allies and both sides were prohibited from recruiting soldiers within the territory of the other. This denied the Carthaginians access to any mercenary manpower from Italy and most of Sicily, although this later clause was temporarily abolished during the Mercenary War.
Perhaps the most immediate political result of the First Punic War was the downfall of Carthage's naval power. Conditions signed in the peace treaty were intended to compromise Carthage's economic situation and prevent the city's recovery. The indemnity demanded by the Romans caused strain on the city's finances and forced Carthage to look to other areas of influence for the money to pay Rome.
As for Rome, the end of the First Punic War marked the start of the expansion beyond the Italian Peninsula. Sicily became the first Roman province (Sicilia) governed by a former praetor, instead of an ally. Sicily would become very important to Rome as a source of grain. Importantly, Syracuse was granted nominal independent ally status for the lifetime of Hiero II, and was not incorporated into the Roman province of Sicily until after it was sacked by Marcus Claudius Marcellus during the Second Punic War.