The Roman Republic had expanded its control throughout Italy by conquest and forced treaties to create a potent confederation. Sicily, just beyond the tip of southern Italy, lay as a foreign land ruled by tyrants from powerful Syracuse and smaller cities in alliance with the Mediterranean naval power Carthage. The Greek king Pyrrhus attempted to carve out an empire in Southern Italy and Sicily, but the allied efforts of the Romans and Carthaginians managed to defeat him. In the wake of the war, mercenaries left behind in Sicily called Mamertines ("Sons of Mars") seized the northeastern city of Messana and sparked a war with Syracuse. The Mamertines called for aid from both Carthage and Rome hoping to secure themselves, but instead they caused the two superpowers to declare war upon one another in 264 BC.
The Romans were expert warriors in the field, and they landed their legions at Messana to begin a siege against Syracuse. The Carthaginians, meanwhile, maintained their navy and depended on holding a few key fortresses on the island with a small mercenary force to ensure control of the island. When the Romans stormed Syracuse, however, and caused it to switch sides, the Carthaginians lost their historical grip on the island. A relief force arrived to stop the Roman advance as they besieged Agrigentum, but the Carthaginians were stolidly defeated in the resulting battle. Meanwhile, the Romans adapted themselves to naval warfare, creating the corvus, a spiked plank that could grip enemy ships and allow foot soldiers to overwhelm opposing sailors. At the Battle of Mylae in 260 BC, the Romans shocked and defeated the Carthaginian fleet. The Carthaginian commander, Hannibal, was seized by his men and crucified for incompetence.
Over the next five years, Rome continued to advance, even raiding Africa itself. In 255, the Carthaginians hired Spartan general Xanthippus, who drove off the Romans at Tunis. The fleeing Roman ships were devastated in a sudden storm, wiping out the victorious Roman fleet. Still invigorated, the Romans built a new fleet of some 140 ships and continued to roll across Sicily until another storm destroyed that fleet, too. Storms destroyed ship after ship and raids on Africa proved ineffectual, stalling any great advantage of Roman naval superiority. The corvus was blamed and abandoned.
In 249 BC at Drepana, the war turned toward the good of Carthage. They won an overwhelming naval victory by pinning the Romans against the shore, and the newly arrived infantry general Hamilcar Barca ended Roman advantages on land. For years, Sicily would become a stalemate with sieges and counter-sieges giving neither empire a chance for a victory in the field.
In 244 BC, seeing the war with Rome as an unnecessary drain on the public wealth, Carthaginian leader Hanno the Great (who had earned his epithet with victories in Africa) pushed to decrease the navy. There had not been a naval battle in years, and most of the assembly agreed with him. As Carthage minimized its fleet, Rome determined in 242 to build up a new force and besiege the ports in Sicily that kept Barca in supply.
Carthage responded in haste by rebuilding their fleet. While most concerned themselves more about the number of ships involved, equating numerical might to victory, it became clear that the ships were undermanned. The two fleets met at the Aegates Islands as Carthaginian commander Hanno (not to be confused with Hanno the Great) was en route to relieve Barca's fortresses. Seeing the stripped-down Roman fleet had left its sails on shore and relying fully on rowers, Hanno recalled his defeats at Agrigentum and Cape Ecnomus and the Romans' impressive use of maneuverability. Using the favorable wind, Hanno ordered his fleet to feign retreat. The Romans, ready for final victory, gave pursuit. After several miles, when the Roman rowers became exhausted, the Carthaginians turned back with fresh rowers and annihilated the Roman fleet by ramming and fire ships.
Victory celebrations rang through Carthage, but word also trickled back about the grand promises Hamilcar had made to keep the mercenary army from rebelling. They had largely gone unpaid, living on rations and visions of great wealth from conquests. The years of stalemate had taken a toll, and already Hamilcar had to put down revolts. It became clear to the assembly that even taking a draw in the war would have severe consequences.
Hanno the Great’s antiwar faction capitulated, and Carthage began to launch raids on the Italian coast to incite revolt from among the newly conquered Etrurians in the north and Greek city-states in the south. Rome found itself in a pincer as well as cut off from Sicily, which slid back under Carthaginian influence as mercenaries won their prizes. Worried about security at home, the Romans finally agreed to a truce with Carthage and returned to solidifying their control over the Italian peninsula.
Wars in the next years with Illyricum and Gaul caused expansion northward and east across the Adriatic Sea. Rome became embroiled with another Mediterranean power, Macedon, in wars through the second century BC that eventually gave Rome control over Greece. Carthage, meanwhile, continued to expand into Iberia and southward along Africa’s western coast with their mighty navy and managed to avoid being pulled into the Roman-Macedonian conflicts. The two empires continued side-by-side until inevitable disputes arose over Gaul as Romans expanded past the Alps.
The Second Punic War (121-70 BC) would again see drawn-out sieges and bids for naval superiority with the Romans at last achieving domination over the western Mediterranean in addition to conquests in the east by the general Sulla in the 80s. The war proved a solidifying force for the Republic, whose heroes exhibited humility as well as glory. Necessity cleansed the bureaucracies, and Rome became effective at ruling its provinces. After the war, a younger set of would-be heroes, Crassus and his general Caesar, would march on Germania in a disastrous campaign in 54 BC. Largely the Republic wished for peace under leaders such as the military-minded Pompey, civic Cicero, and philosopher Cato. Centuries later, the peace would end as Germanic and Celtic hordes sacked and broke up the empire.
In reality, the Roman fleet destroyed the Carthaginians at the Aegates Islands. Cut off from supply, Hamilcar was forced to sue for peace. The terms were humiliating, and Carthage could not afford to pay its mercenaries, who revolted and nearly toppled the empire. Hamilcar again defeated them and began a campaign to expand Carthaginian power in Iberia, creating a force that his son, Hannibal, would lead into Italy itself in the Second Punic War. Eventually Rome defeated Carthage and then destroyed it fully in the Third Punic War (149-146 BC).