City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

Rome and the Carthaginians

Now that the Romans had become masters of almost the whole of the peninsula of Italy, you might expect that their wars would cease, and that they would be left to govern peaceably what their arms had won. But this was not to be the case. As you will see, the Romans had soon to prepare for a struggle which was to prove the longest and hardest that they ever went through. This was due to the fact that right across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy, there was another people who had also been able to make themselves rulers over other lands and nations; and, after the Romans had conquered the Greeks of southern Italy, there was no longer any state to stand between these two proud and powerful peoples.

This other people dwelt in the city of Carthage, and were called Carthaginians. Their city was founded more than a hundred years before Romulus began the first settlement on the Palatine hill; and now Carthage was a larger and richer, as it was an older, city than Rome; and its people ruled a great part of the coast of Africa, of Spain, and of Sicily, and most of the islands of the western Mediterranean.

The people of Carthage were Phoenicians, and their mother country was along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. They were of the same race as the Jews, who dwelt near by the mother land in Palestine; and in speech and religion they were more different from the people of Rome than any other people that the Romans had ever come in contact with, except the Etruscans. They were a nation of sailors and traders, and their ships were the best then known to men. They were the first to discover that they could steer their vessels, when out of sight of land, by using the North Star to guide them; so, while other nations still kept safely in sight of the shores of the Mediterranean in their voyaging, the Phoenicians pushed boldly out into the broad Atlantic, and sailed as far as the island of Great Britain on the north, and on the south a good distance down the coast of Africa. They were the discoverers and traders of that long-ago time; and they made settlements, too just as the English, and French, and Spanish did in later days, wherever they could find a good harbor, with a fertile country around it, or with mines of gold or silver or tin to work. And they did more, even, than this. In order to keep their records and accounts, they invented the alphabet which we use to-day; and they taught these letters to the Greeks and the Romans, though the languages which these people wrote with them were different from that which the Phoenicians used.

So, when the Phoenicians left their old home to found a new city in the west, they brought with them much useful knowledge. Their children, too, and their children's children, made good use of what their fathers had brought. By the time this story begins, Carthage had become a great city, which was said to cover twenty-three miles of country; and the sails of its ships dotted the waters of the western Mediterranean. The Carthaginians were good builders, also, as well as good sailors and traders. They had protected their city on the land side by three great walls, one inside of the other, and these walls were far stronger and better built than the walls which surrounded Rome. The space between the walls was taken up with stables for the elephants and war horses, and here were kept three hundred of the one and four thousand of the other. And to shelter the many ships of the Carthaginians, two great harbors had been dug out, in addition to the natural bay on which the city was built, one for the trading vessels, and one for the ships of war.

The Carthaginians were not only a powerful people; they were also very jealous of their power, and wished to prevent any other people from sharing in it. They looked upon the sea, on which their many vessels came and went, as belonging to themselves alone; and when they found the ships of other nations sailing in their waters, they did not hesitate to capture the vessels and to drown the men that they found on them. They are even said to have boasted once that, without their permission, the Romans could not even wash their hands in the waters of the sea.

The struggle between the Romans and the Carthaginians began in Sicily. The Carthaginians had long had possession of the western part of the island, while the eastern part was ruled by a number of Greek cities. It was to take the part of these Greek cities against the Carthaginians that. Pyrrhus had gone to Sicily; so the Carthaginians were friendly to Rome until the Romans had driven Pyrrhus back to his eastern home. As soon as he was disposed of, however, the friendship between Rome and Carthage began to cool. Pyrrhus had foreseen that this would be so; and as he had left the island of Sicily he had looked back at its shores and exclaimed:

"What a field we are leaving for the Romans and the Carthaginians to contend in!"

Just across the strait which separates Italy from Sicily, was a Greek city which soon after this got into very serious trouble with one of its neighbors. The people in the city were divided as to what they should do for help; so one party sent to Rome for aid, while the other invited the Carthaginians in. Now, the Romans could not permit the Carthaginians to become settled so near to Italy as that was, and, rather against their will? the Romans were forced to send the aid which had been asked. The result was the first war between Rome and Carthage.

Although the Carthaginians were masters of the sea, they were not prepared to fight the Romans on land. They had no army of citizens to depend on, such as Rome had. They hired their soldiers, as you will remember the Tarentines did, and gathered them together from many different countries. So it took them a long time to get a strong army ready to fight in Sicily; and in the meantime the Romans won many victories and took many important towns from them.

But the Romans soon discovered that they could make few lasting gains in fighting against the Carthaginians, without a navy to help them. They might conquer all Sicily with their armies, but when the war vessels of the Carthaginians came sailing around the island, the cities on the coast which had given themselves to the Romans would have to go back to the Carthaginian side once more. Besides this, the Romans—who had almost no war vessels and very little experience in managing them even if they had had them—seemed to be unable to get at Carthage itself to do it any serious harm. But the ships of Carthage could dash in from the sea upon the coast of Italy, and destroy a city or ruin a whole stretch of country before the Italians could make a move to defend themselves.

When the Romans saw this, they did one of the most daring things that we read of in their history. They determined to build a fleet, and go out and meet the Carthaginians on the sea, where they had so long been masters. They took for their model a Carthaginian ship that had been wrecked on their shores, and within sixty days, the old writers say, a growing wood was changed into a fleet of one hundred and twenty ships.

While the vessels were building, they had also to find rowers for their new fleet, and to train them for their work. To do this, rows of seats, arranged one above the other, like the benches of rowers in a ship, were built upon the ground; and on these the men took their places daily, and were taught to move their great oars all together, in obedience to the voice of the rowing master. Then, when the ships were done, the men were given a short time to practice on the water the movements which they had learned on the land; and after that the fleet sailed away to Sicily to seek out and fight their enemies.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


But for all their bold and determined spirit, the Romans knew very well that they could not, for some time, hope to be a match for the skillful Carthaginian sailors. Their hastily-made ships were clumsy and hard to manage, and the green wood of which they were built was already beginning to warp apart and let in the water. Their rowers and sailing-masters did not know how to make the best even of the poor ships they had; and for knowledge of the sea itself, and of its storms and currents, and of the harbors of its coasts, the Romans had to depend upon people of other cities, whom they hired to help them. The only way that the Romans could hope to win a sea-fight was by getting their vessels right up alongside the ships of the enemy, and then fighting it out with their spears and swords, just as they would a battle on the land.

To enable their vessels to do this, some clever Roman thought out a plan which all the ships adopted. A strong mast was planted in the prow of every Roman vessel, and about this was fastened a long plank or platform, in such a way that the outer end of the plank could be pulled up and let down, like the drawbridge of a castle, in front or on either side of the vessel. At the end of the plank, and pointing downward, a long spike was fixed, so that when the plank was let fall this spike would sink into the deck of the enemy's ship and hold it fast. When the platform was raised against the mast, this sharp piece of iron sticking out in front looked so much like the strong bill of a great bird that the Romans called the whole thing a "crow."

When the Carthaginians saw the Roman ships sailing up to meet them, they were puzzled at first by the strange structures in their bows; but they knew that the Romans were ignorant of everything that had to do with managing ships, so they supposed that they would have an easy victory. They rowed straight out to meet the Romans, therefore, and sought to ram the Roman vessels with the prows of their own ships. But no sooner did a Carthaginian vessel come within reach of a Roman one, than down fell the "crow" of the latter, and the two ships were held firmly together. Then Roman soldiers poured across the bridge thus made, and soon they had captured the vessel. In this way the Romans captured or destroyed fifty of the Carthaginian ships, and those that were left were glad enough to turn and flee from the terrible Roman "crows."

This was the first Roman victory on the sea, but after it they won many others. Now that they had a fleet, moreover, the Romans could take an army across the sea to Africa, and there fight the Carthaginians in their own land. This they did; and the Roman general, Regulus, was very successful there for a time, and, at last, brought the Carthaginians so low that they were forced to ask for peace.

Then Regulus showed how little he knew the brave people with whom he was fighting. He seemed to think that Carthage was as completely conquered as the little Italian towns which Rome had been taking, one by one, for so many years. The terms of peace which he offered were so hard that the Carthaginians concluded that they could not be left in a worse condition even if Carthage itself was captured; so they resolved to continue the war. Fortunately for them, the Carthaginians now found a good general, who knew how to use their cavalry and their elephants. Soon Regulus himself was defeated and taken prisoner; and for five years he was kept a captive at. Carthage while the war continued on land and sea.

It had been thirteen years since the Romans had first crossed over into Sicily, when ambassadors were again sent to treat about peace. According to the stories which have come down to us, Regulus was now taken from his prison and sent to Rome, along with the Carthaginian ambassadors, to assist them in bringing about the peace; and he was made to promise that if peace was not made he would return at once to Carthage.

The Carthaginians sent Regulus with the ambassadors because they thought that, for his own sake, he would do all that he could to help bring the war to a close. But when Regulus reached Rome, he was noble enough to forget himself in his love for his country. He advised the Senate not to make peace, and not to exchange their Carthaginian prisoners for the Romans who were in the hands of Carthage; and in the speech which he made in the Senate he is reported to have said:

"Let not the Senate buy with gold what ought to be won back only by force of arms; and let those Romans who surrendered when they ought to have died in battle, die at last in the land that saw their disgrace."

When Regulus said this, he knew that if he went back to Carthage after such a speech, the Carthaginians would put him to death. For a while the Senate hesitated, out of pity for him; but at last the peace which the Carthaginians asked was refused. Then Regulus went quietly back to Carthage, as he had promised; and if we may believe the story, the Carthaginians cruelly put him to death, as he had expected that they would do.

For ten years longer, the war dragged on, until at last neither Carthage nor Rome had money or men to spend in further efforts. Rome had been most unfortunate at sea. Fleet after fleet which she sent to Sicily and Africa was wrecked and destroyed by the terrible storms which rage there at certain seasons of the year, and which the Romans did not know how to guard against.

After this had happened several times, the Romans determined to make one more effort. Their ships were all gone, and there was no money in the treasury to build new ones; but the wealthy citizens of Rome joined together and built a fleet of two hundred vessels at their own expense; and they only asked, in return, that if the city could ever repay them, it would do so.

With this fleet the Romans again set out, and this time they were as successful as they had been the first time they took to the sea. They had now learned from their mistakes and misfortunes, while the Carthaginians had become careless; so, when the Romans came up with the Carthaginian fleet off the western coast of Sicily, they sunk fifty of the enemy's vessels and captured seventy more.

Then Carthage and Rome made peace, for they saw that neither city could wholly conquer the other, at that time. Carthage had got the worst of it in this first war; so she was obliged to give up all claim to Sicily, to release the Roman prisoners without a ransom, and besides this, to pay to Rome a large sum of money for the expenses of the war. Rome took possession of the part of Sicily which the Carthaginians had held, and set up a government over it; and before many years had gone by, the whole island had passed under her control. In this way arose Rome's first possession outside of Italy.