Thursday, March 10, 2005

On March 10th in military 241 BC

On this day in military history….in 241 BC. The Roman fleet defeats the Carthaginians at the Battle of the Aegates Islands which ends the First Punic War. Before the rise of the Roman Empire, the Carthaginian Empire ruled the Mediterranean. From Carthage (in present day Tunisia), Carthaginian trading ships roamed throughout the Mediterranean. As such, Carthage was extremely powerful and wealthy. After the Romans had finished conquering the assorted peoples of the Italian peninsula, they naturally set their sites on Sicily. This brought them in direct conflict with the Carthaginians since Sicily was firmly in Carthage’s sphere of influence. The First Punic War was mostly fought in and around Sicily and lasted for 23 years. Since the island of Sicily is very hilly, most of the land warfare was limited to besieging the various ports and strongholds. The decisive battles were conducted at sea where the Carthaginians were the strongest. However, the Romans showed that they were quick learners who were able to overcome their shortcomings as a seafaring nation against the Carthaginians.

The decisive battle during the First Punic War was the Battle of the Aegates Islands. The Aegates Islands (now known as the Egadi Islands) are located to the west of Trapani between Tunisia and Sicily. After the Carthaginian naval victory over the Romans at the Battle of Drepana (now Trapani), the Roman fleet was more or less destroyed. The Carthaginians ruled the seas around Sicily, but instead of pressing home their advantage, they sat back and were content to slowly build up their land forces under General Hamilcar Barca (the father of famous General Hannibal) on Sicily. The Romans knew that they would have to gain control of the seas before being able to defeat the Carthaginians, so they set about to build another naval fleet from scratch. Because of the length of the war (up to that point, 20 years), the Republic’s treasury was empty, so to show their patriotism, wealthy citizens banded together to finance the construction of the needed ships. As a result, 200 ships were built, equipped and manned without the use of public money.

The Roman consul Gaius Lutatius Catulus was entrusted with this fleet and he quickly set out to put it to its best use. His first move was to blockade the port of Lilybaeum (now Marsala) and cut Hamilcar Barca’s lines of communication and supplies with Carthage. The Carthaginians raised a fleet to relieve the city of Lilybaeum under the command of Hanno the Great and set sail for Sicily. The wind was in the Carthaginians favor when they arrived at the Aegates Islands. The direction of the wind put the Roman fleet at a disadvantage but Catulus decided that it was better to attack the Carthaginian fleet in unfavorable wind conditions rather than allow Hanno to relieve Lilybaeum and Hamilcar’s army. Perhaps due to the superior training of the Roman crews or the overloaded condition from all the supplies of the Carthaginian ships, whatever the reason, the Romans were able to destroy more than half the Carthaginian fleet and prevent the relief of Lilybaeum. After the battle, Catulus was able to conquer Lilybaeum, thereby isolating the rest of Hamilcar’s army on Sicily. Carthage did not have the resources to build another fleet or reinforce Hamilcar’s army, so they sued for peace. As a result, Carthage was forced to give up Sicily to the Romans and pay a large indemnity for 10 years to Rome, but like Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I lead directly to World War II, the peace treaty terms that Rome imposed on Carthage lead directly to the Second Punic War and that scourge of Roman armies, Hannibal.


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