(ROME STAGGERS to EMPIRE – continued)

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The First Punic War and a New Spirit for Empire

The greatest power near Rome was Carthage, 240 kilometers (150 miles) southwest from Sicily, on the coast of North Africa, a city founded around 815 BCE by Phoenicians from the city of Tyre. It was a commercial power surrounded by rich farmland and ruled by an oligarchy of men of wealth. It dominated the coast of North Africa as far as Egypt, the southern coast of Spain and the western half of Sicily. And it dominated the islands of Corsica and Sardinia.

While Rome had been expanding on the Italian mainland, it had made an agreement with Carthage, acknowledging that Carthage was the dominant power in Sicily. Carthage, in turn, promised Rome that it would stay off the Italian mainland. Rome abided by its treaty during its wars for the domination of Italy.

On the island of Sicily just across the channel from the toe of the Italian peninsula, the city of Messana felt threatened by another city on the island: Syracuse. One faction in Messana requested help from Carthage. Another faction, apparently distrusting or disliking Carthage, requested help from Rome. Respecting its treaty with Carthage, Rome's Senate chose not to send help to Messana. But one of Rome's two consuls was eager for action that would give him distinction. He spoke of reluctance to send help to Messana as weakness. He aroused the people of Rome, many of whom were filled with pride over Rome's power. The Senate gave in to the aroused emotions of the public, and it sent a force to Messana, violating to the spirit of its treaty with Carthage. The world was turning – as it would in the twentieth century – on demagoguery and the passions of common people.

At Messana the force from Rome came face to face with a force from Carthage. Carthage saw Rome's move as a threat to its interests in Sicily but it attempted conciliation. Carthage asked that Rome withdraw its troops. But proud Romans called on their city to stand up to Carthage. Some claimed that Carthage's control over the strait between Italy and Sicily was a danger to Rome's security. And, as with the Athenians at the outbreak of the Great Peloponnesian War, there was little reluctance and caution about going to war, including among the civilian farmer-soldiers who would fight the war. With this swagger and willingness to war, a new era was beginning.

Rome chose war, and it brought a number of Italian allies into the war on its side. And, shortly into the war, Rome extended its war goals beyond securing the strait between Italy and Sicily – the "mission creep" that would be common in history. The contest against Carthage became a war for plunder. Then it became a war for driving Carthage out of Sicily, and then a war for all of Sicily. And Rome's enlarged goals would create a war that was to last twenty-three years.

Many of those who fought for Carthage were Greek mercenaries, and the unreliability of these men led Carthage to wage war with minimum risks and half measures. Rome was more aggressive. During the war it built its first great navy, which won spectacular victories, first in 260 and then in 241. With Rome as master of the Mediterranean, Carthage decided that the price it had to pay for ending the war was better than the cost of continuing it. Carthage agreed to pay Rome a huge sum of money and to give Rome the islands of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia.

Despite Rome's heavy losses in treasure and life, its citizens fantasized that they had won a great victory. Many were pleased by the additional prestige their city had gained, and for many Romans victory confirmed that their city had been called on by the gods for a special destiny.

Romans emerged from this first Punic War also with an enhanced concern for national security, and some saw added security in their city having won control over Corsica and Sardinia. It was an early step in creation of the Roman Empire. Roman soldiers were sent to Corsica and Sardinia, and people there resisted. Some of the islanders retreated inland, but Roman soldiers with trained dogs hunted them down and carted great numbers of them to Italy for sale as slaves.

Romans were also concerned about the security of their northern border. They had heard a prophecy that the Gauls would come south again and overrun their city. City authorities allayed the fears of the public by reviving an old religious ritual. In the city's Forum they publicly buried alive a Gallic man and woman. Rome sent forces north to secure a barrier against the Gauls, and these forces extended Roman authority across Cisalpine Gaul as far as the Alps.

Next, Rome addressed its concern for security eastward. Italian traders had been calling on Rome to do something about pirates along the coast of Illyricum on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea. Rome launched a drive against these pirates, and as a part of this campaign they established friendly relations with numerous small, coastal powers. One of these powers, the island of Pharos, was attempting to expand against its neighbors. Rome made itself the protector of the neighbors of Pharos, and it conquered Pharos – the beginning of Roman intervention eastward across the Adriatic.


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