What if you are a great army but your enemy is a great navy?
You know how to march with fine discipline over hill and dale. You pitch a dandy camp, a real fortress with high walls and a ditch, that nobody is fool enough to attack. On the field, man to man, with your spear, your sword and your shield, you can beat any enemy that is brave enough to stand up to you. But your enemy is out there on the sea, floating on big ships, and just laughing at your predicament. You don’t have any warships, only a few barges and ferries. You can’t go out there and get him—you don’t even know how to swim.
That happened to Rome. The enemy out there calling him a landlubber was Carthage; and if anybody was a sailor, it was a Carthaginian. Those fellows had been sailing around the Mediterranean for hundreds of years. They had even been brave enough to push on past the Pillars of Hercules into an unknown ocean, and south down the coast of Africa. They loved the mist and the smell of the salt-sea . At night when they lay down on the rolling deck, they felt as cosy as the Roman soldier in his square camp and tent. They looked up at the same sky, though the Carthaginian liked to imagine the old heroes and figures he saw in the constellations, and the Roman wondered how he could organize that mess of stars a little.
Rome had been fighting its neighbors for five hundred years and chasing them around the peninsula. Rome was busy with the Gauls, the Etruscans, the Latins, the Sabines, the Samnites, and the occasional Greek. She worked her way south on the Boot and finally came to its toe. When the soldiers lifted their heads after the last battle, they saw the sea. No more Italy, no more neighbors to fight—they had conquered them all. They saw the sea and of course those grinning Carthaginian ships.
Map of the western Mediterranean Sea in 264 BC, focusing on the states involved in the First Punic War (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Jon Platek)
They knew Carthage controlled the Mediterranean but up till then they didn’t care about the Mediterranean. “You stay out of my hair and I’ll stay out of yours,” the Romans had told the Carthaginians, who signed a treaty or two with them about staying out of waters where Carthage had no intention of going anyway. “When we feel like it, we’ll go anywhere we want to,” the Carthaginians said to themselves, even while they signed the treaties and shook hands with those rude Romans who didn’t seem to understand the world.
The Romans weren’t sailors but they had always done some trade along the coast with the Greek colonies in the sole and the heel of their Boot and with Greece itself. Roman ships were barely sea-worthy—just barges and transport vessels like wooden boxes; but they were good enough to haul the goods as long as they watched for storms and hugged the coast and went slowly. The boats left Ostia, the port nearest Rome, sailed down the west side of the Boot, slipped between the toe and Sicily, which it kicks, and then headed east for the heel, Tarentum, or right on to Greece. And back.
That route, if it can be called a route, was the one Rome had taken for centuries. It was a very low-profile route: no one had ever tried to block it. Rome knew there was one very vulnerable point—just the place somebody COULD cause trouble if he wanted to. That was Messana—or rather, the Straits of Messana—the narrow sea between the tip of the Boot and Sicily. Block that and all trade would stop. No ship would get by. Life in Rome could get hard if the Straits were blocked for long. Every time the Romans looked out to sea and saw those cocky Carthaginian ships jumping up and down, they worried a little. “If we ever get into war with Carthage and Carthage blocks those straits, we’re going to have big trouble,” they warned each other. “What kind of sacrifices do you make to Pluto? Have to check up on those.” They knew what to do to make Mars happy; but, to be honest, they had neglected Pluto, who was the sea-god.
Reader: Where is the crow? I keep waiting for the crow to appear.
The crow will appear in a minute. First you need background. You saw that the Straits of Messana were the Achilles’ Toe of the Boot of Italy, if you will; and that the worst thing that could happen to Rome was a war with Carthage, who controlled the seas. Guess what is going to happen.