The Punic Wars fought between Rome and the Carthaginian Empire comprised three separate encounters over 118 years, starting in 264 B.C. and ending in 146 B.C. The first was a battle for control of Sicily, the second the famous war with Hannibal, and the third resulted in the destruction of the Carthaginians. The first war, which we will concentrate on here, saw the initial efforts by Rome to deploy naval forces and use them in battle. The fact that Sicily is an island made this war as much about navies as armies.
The Roman people were not seafaring by nature. The city was 16 miles from the coast and their focus had always been on agriculture rather than trade. Before the advent of the Punic Wars Rome did not possess navy or merchant marine because she did not need them. Her wars were fought on land and she relied on the Greek traders of Magna Graecia to carry her cargo. Carthage was the opposite -- a great seafaring nation of the western Mediterranean whose ships traveled the waters from England to Egypt. Not belligerent by nature, the Carthaginians maintained a substantial navy which was necessary to protect their trade interests in the Mediterranean and beyond.
The First Punic War began over a silly dispute. The Mamertines, Italian mercenaries from Campania, attacked and took control of Messana (Messina) Sicily. They were soon defeated by Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, and afterward appealed to Rome and Carthage for aid. The Carthaginian’s “helped” by placing a garrison there, which was not what the Mamertines were expecting. Angered by this offense, they requested a treaty with Rome. The Senate knew a treaty would mean war with Carthage so they debated long and hard before deciding to move forward.
After the first land skirmishes of the war, Rome realized that Carthage would not be a pushover and defeating them would depend on their ability to fight at sea. With that in mind, the Romans proceeded to build 100 fivers (quinqueremes) and 20 triremes during the winter of 261/0 B.C.
The fivers where probably adapted from a beached Carthaginian craft the Romans had captured. Construction was completed in 60 days and the ships were prepared to support the anticipated attack on Messana.
Although the Romans were inexperienced at sea, this lack of skill was partly offset when they fitted their ships with a corvus. This thirteen foot bridge was rigged to fall on the deck of an enemy ship, hold fast during battle, and allow soldiers to board and defeat the enemy.
Scipio immediately received a proposal to be handed the Carthaginian naval station at Lipara, but the information was also leaked to the enemy. While ashore there, he was surprised by a Punic attack force and captured with all of his ships, earning him the sobriquet Asina (ass) for his stupidity.
After the fall of Scipio, Duilius was put in overall command. He set out for the north coast of Sicily to intercept the armada of Hannibal (not the general) which had attacked the port of Mylae. As the Romans approached, the Punic navy put to sea. Overconfident, the Carthaginian commander allowed his battle formation to fall apart, making himself vulnerable to the Roman corvus. The thirty leading Punic ships were boarded and taken, while Hannibal escaped via longboat. In all 50 Carthaginian ships were captured in Rome’s first great naval victory.
Duilius did not pursue Hannibal because he had to rescue Segesta from a Carthaginian siege by deploying his marines from the Gulf of Termini. He returned to Rome for a triumph in 259 B.C. carrying with him the beaks of the captured Punic ships which went on display in the Forum. Oddly, he was never given another commission.