In 264 B.C. Rome embarked upon a mortal struggle with Carthage that threatened its existence and ended only after more than a century of bitter conflict. The former Phoenician colony had become the dominant naval power in the western Mediterranean. Like their ancestors, the Carthaginians were great merchants and colonizers, but unlike them, they gradually assumed direct control of the colonies they had planted in western Sicily, Spain, Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic islands. Theirs was a true empire, financed by trade with three continents and defended by a magnificent fleet. Because Rome was still an agrarian state with few commercial interests, the Carthaginians did not regard it as a threat. For centuries the two powers had enjoyed a cordial if somewhat distant relationship.
The conflict known as the First Punic War (punic is the adjectival form of the Roman word for Phoenician) started in Sicily. A nest of pirates and mercenaries, the Mamertines, had established themselves at Messana (Messina), which controls the strait between Sicily and the Italian mainland. The Syracusans sent an army to root them out, whereupon one faction among the Mamertines appealed to Carthage, the traditional enemy of the Sicilian Greeks. When the Carthaginians gained control of the city, the other faction appealed to Rome. After long debate, the Senate agreed to help. The majority apparently felt that, if Carthage conquered Sicily, it could threaten the basis of Roman power in the south. No real evidence existed of Carthaginian interest in the mainland, however.
The resulting war was a long, drawn-out affair in which the Romans tried to besiege the Carthaginian towns in western Sicily. Though the Roman army won consistently in the field, it could do nothing to prevent the Carthaginians from bringing in supplies by sea. The Romans soon realized that only sea power could defeat Carthage and, for the first time in their history, constructed a navy. After some remarkable victories and one catastrophic defeat, they destroyed the main Carthaginian fleet in an epic battle off Drepanum (Trapani) in March 241 B.C. Knowing that it could no longer hold Sicily, Carthage sued for peace.
Rome was now a major naval power and the ruler of Sicily, but peace did not last, for the attitude of Rome's political elite was changing. After the First Punic War, Rome's intentions became more openly aggressive and expansionist when the possibility of achieving vast wealth through conquest began to dawn on even the most honorable of men.
Sicily became the first Roman province. Its people were granted neither citizenship nor allied status. Roman governors exercised full powers unlimited by local custom--or by interference from the capital. They raised taxes to ruinous levels and distributed large tracts of land to wealthy Romans who worked them with slaves captured in the war. When Carthage's army, composed largely of mercenaries, rebelled in 238 B.C., the Romans took advantage of the situation and annexed the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. The Carthaginians saw that Roman imperialism had to be stopped. . .
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