Prior to the Punic Wars, Rome was not seen as a major power in the Mediterranean. However, by the outbreak of the first Punic War, Rome had fairly secure control over most of mainland Italy, although not without resentment. What made Rome unusual was the nature of the relationship between the city and it's conquests. Each individual community fell into one of several clearly defined categories. Some were direct colonies, placed on confiscated lands. Pre-existing communities agreed to supply Rome with soldiers, in return for either full Roman citizenship, Roman citizenship without the right to vote at Rome, or Latin citizenship. This attitude meant that Rome absorbed her conquests in a way that other ancient states did not.
This absorption played a part in the enduring strength of Roman arms. The Roman army of this period was a citizen militia, paid for the duration of their service. As the citizenship expanded in various forms, the number of men eligible for the army thus also increased. Command of the army was vested in the elected officials of the city of Rome. In times of great crisis the command went to the highest officials of the city, the two consuls. The main weakness of this army was that it lacked any permanence. Each time a new legion was raised, it had to be trained almost entirely from scratch, while under normal circumstances the command of the army changed every year.
At the start of the Punic Wars, Carthage had a higher profile than Rome. Phoenician traders, based at Tyre or Sidon, in the modern Lebanon, had been crossing the Mediterranean for hundreds of years, and like the Greeks had established colonies, both in Spain and north Africa. Carthage was probably founded during the 8th century BC, and unusually for a Phoenician colony soon grew to be a power in it's own right. Carthage quickly began to found it's own colonies, which inevitably came into conflict with the Greek colonies. While the Greek colonies were normally larger, the Carthaginian colonies were politically united, and the conflict continued for centuries, eventually triggering the first Punic War.
Carthage's armies lacked the citizen element of the Roman forces. Instead the bulk of them were composed of what are often referred to as mercenaries, although this is not entirely fair. Carthage was able to raise troops amongst her subjects in Africa, from both Numidia and Lybia, and from Spain. Unlike Rome, the commanders of Carthaginian armies often served for long periods of time, but their armies were made up of so many different contingents that command was often very difficult. One of Hannibal's main achievements in the second Punic War was to turn one of these disparate armies into a united fighting force. Carthage was more famous for it's navy, needed on a permanent basis to protect the long shipping lanes to her colonies. The remains of the great military harbour at Carthage are still impressive to this day, although her naval performance during the wars was less so.
War between Rome and Carthage was not inevitable. Treaties between the two cities had existed for over two centuries, agreeing on their respective spheres of influence, Rome in Italy, Carthage in African and Sardinia, with Roman traders allowed equal access in Sicily. In the end it was Sicily that provided the trigger for war. Control of the island was contested between the Greek city states and Carthage. Between 315 and his death in 289 BC the opposition to Carthage had been led by Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse. Amongst his troops was a contingent from Campania, the Mamertines. After his death, they were forced out of Syracuse, and eventually took control of Messana, facing the Straits of Messana and mainland Italy. From there they raided the surrounding areas.
Eventually an new leader, Hiero, rose in Syracuse, and under his leadership the Mamertines were defeated. Feeling themselves to be without hope in 265 BC they called on both Carthage and Rome for help. Carthage responded first, sending a small force to Messana, where they occupied the citadel. Rome too decided to intervene. The next year the Roman force under Appius Claudius arrived opposite Sicily. The Mamertines expelled the Carthaginian force from Messana, and allied with Rome. Faced with this Hiero and the Carthaginians formed an alliance, and the war was started.
Most of the fighting on land during the first Punic War took place on Sicily. Appius Claudius was able to get his troops into Messana. From there, he attacked first Hiero's camp and then the Carthaginian camp, driving both forces off and securing his base. After a brief march towards Syracuse, his time as Consul was up and he returned to Rome.
The fighting in Sicily over the next two decades was often confusing. The Sicilian cities proved unstable allies, willing to change sides depending on who was stronger at the time. This was clearly demonstrated in 263 BC, when both Consuls were sent to Sicily, with a force of some 40,000 soldiers. This army was enough to intimidate many cities and capture others. At Syracuse, Hiero decided to change sides faced with this overwhelming strength. By this he effectively gained success in his aim of removing the threat from Messana. Syracuse remained a loyal ally of Rome throughout the rest of the war, and her aid was invaluable in maintaining supplies to the Roman forces on the island.
Although Rome had now succeeded in her war aims on Sicily, neither side appears to have considered peace. Rome would not leave an enemy undefeated, while Carthage saw no reason why Rome could not be expelled from Sicily. Carthage planned to use the city of Agrigentum, midway along the southern coast of Sicily as their base. However, Rome's preparations came to fruit quicker, and when their two consul army moved on Agrigentum in 262 BC very few of the Carthaginian reinforcements had reached the island. Despite their relative weakness, the defenders nearly defeated the Romans in a surprise attack on their camp, but after the failure of this attack, the defenders were forced on the back foot. The siege of Agrigentum lasted for five months without incident before a relief army from Carthage arrived. This force engaged the Romans in battle (battle of Agrigentum), but were defeated. The night after the battle, the garrison escaped across the weakened Roman lines. Despite this, the Roman capture of Agrigentum was a major Roman triumph, and according to Polybius led to the Roman decision to expel the Carthaginians from Sicily and also to the building of the first Roman fleet.
Although this victory gave Rome control of much of Sicily, the nature of the island, where much of the population lived in walled towns, and the relative weakness of both sides in siege warfare resulted in a long period of inconclusive warfare on the island. Cities changed hands repeatedly, often through treachery, although the Romans made most progress, and slowly forced Carthage back into the north western corner of the island. Despite their setback in Africa, the Romans were still successful on Sicily. In 254 they captured Panormus, one of the largest cities left to Carthage. When half of the Roman army was withdrawn in 251, the Carthaginian commander decided to make an attempt to retake the city. The resulting battle of Panormus was the last major land battle of the war, and a Roman victory. In 250, the Romans began their siege of Lilybaeum, one of the most active sieges of the war, but despite the best efforts of the Romans, the city did not fall, and the siege continued for the remaining nine years of the war. Very little of interest happened on Sicily during the rest of the war. The main event of note was the arrival of Hamilcar Barca, father of the famous Hannibal. However, even he was unable to make any real impact, and his fame is due in part to his son and in part to his own actions after the war. By the time peace was made, the area that had triggered the war had become a backwater.
Despite all the effort on land, it was the fighting at sea that decided the outcome of the war. At the start of the war, Carthage was by far the greater naval power, with what was probably close to a standing navy, while Rome herself had no navy, instead relying on those of her allies that had a naval tradition. It was these allies that provided the navy used to transport the first Roman army to Sicily in 264. Only in 260 did Rome decide to build her own fleet, of 120 ships. These ships were said to be copied from a captured Carthaginian ship, and the higher individual performance of Carthage's ships was probably due to the superior quality of their crews. The bulk of the ships on both sides were quinqueremes, or 'fives', probably with three banks or oars. The main tactic of naval warfare at this point was the boarding attack, after which marines crossed over to fight on the target galley, probably in part explaining why the Romans did so well. These ships had a very large crew, in the Roman case some 300 men plus marines, resulting in the very large numbers of men present at some of the naval battles of the war. The new Roman fleets were to win a series of great naval victories, but suffer a shocking level of losses to storm and wreck.
The first encounter between the two fleets did not show any evidence of this. The consul Cnaeus Cornelius Scipio, in command of the fleet, took part of the fleet south, and hearing of a chance to capture Lipara. The battle of Lipara was a simple Carthaginian victory, against little effective resistance. In a second skirmish the main Roman fleet destroyed a raiding force, but it was still clear that Carthage had the better fleet. The Roman response was the corvus, a type of boarding bridge. It's first apparent use was at the battle of Mylae (260), where two roughly equal fleets fought. The corvus gave the Romans the advantage, and the consul Caius Duilius was able to perform the first naval triumph in Roman history. The Roman fleet was now used to support operations on the ground on Sicily, with another minor battle at Tyndaris (257), which also resulted in a Roman victory.
The biggest naval battle of the war came in 256 as part of the Roman invasion of Africa. Carthage managed to gather together the biggest fleet yet, probably close to 350 ships, while the Roman fleet was 330 strong. The two fleets met at the battle of Ecnomus, probably the biggest naval battle in history, at least in terms of the numbers of men involved, and once again Rome was victorious. This allowed the unsuccessful invasion of Africa detailed above, after which the Roman fleet, now 350 strong, was sent to rescue the survivors, winning another battle at Cape Hermaeum (255 BC) on the way. However, on their return to Sicily, the consuls decided to attempt to intimidate the Carthaginians left on Sicily and attempted to sail along the south west coast. A storm promptly blew up, and perhaps as many as three quarters of ships and crew were lost.
In an impressive sign of the strength of Rome, the next year another fleet of 220 ships was constructed, which played a part in the capture of Panormus (254 BC), but after an raid to Africa the following year another 150 ships were lost to storms. This was followed by a period of quiet on the part of the Roman fleets, followed in 249 BC by the only major Roman naval defeat in battle, at Drepana, where a surprise attack on the city failed. This was followed once again by yet another fleet destroyed by storm, after which the Romans abandoned major naval activities until 243 BC.
It was a sign of the strain that Rome was under that the fleet of 253 BC was financed by private individuals rather than the state. A fleet of 200 ships, commanded by one of the consuls for 252, Caius Lutatius Catulus, was sent to Sicily with the apparent aim of forcing a naval battle. This fleet was give time to prepare, and after a year was probably in better condition than the slightly larger Carthaginian fleet sent against it. The resulting battle of the Aegates Islands (10 March 241) was everything the Romans wanted from it. Over half of the Carthaginian fleet was lost. Carthage lost the will to resist further, and gave their commander on Sicily full power to negotiate peace.