It wasn’t the Carthaginians that seized Messana. It was a bunch of silly mercenaries.
Topography of Sicily (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Zamonin)
Messana is in Sicily. And just down the island is the city of Syracuse, which was an old Greek colony run by a king or what the Greeks called a tyrant.
Not long after the Romans had eliminated their last enemy on the peninsula, a band of mercenaries who had been working for that tyrant of Syracuse got the bright idea to take Messana on their own, for themselves. They massacred a lot of people and set themselves up in the citadel. The tyrant immediately tried to get Messana free and laid siege. The mercenaries, who hadn’t planned too far ahead, now realized they couldn’t hold out and called for help. Some called to Rome and some called to Carthage.
Location of Carthage (version 2 and version 3 of the GNU General Public License photo)
Both Rome and Carthage showed up with forces; Carthage, because it didn’t want Rome in Sicily; and Rome, because it didn’t want Carthage to grab any more of Sicily than it already had, which was about half. Carthage already ruled Africa and the best part of Spain and all the islands in the Sardinian and Tyrrhenian Seas. If they got hold of Messana they would soon take the rest of the island. And once they had Sicily, they would strangle Rome. They could close the whole Mediterranean to Roman shipping.
At one moment there were three armies parked out in front of Messana. Seeing the trouble that was ahead, the Syracusan tyrant decided to let the giants slug it out and took his troops home. That left Carthage and Rome facing each other. That is how the First Punic War began. The fight was about Sicily.
The First Roman Fleet
The first thing a Roman commander always did was to get his troops off the water as fast as he could. He was helpless against those Carthaginian ships, which came on with great speed and rammed a Roman transport and sank it with all its soldiers. The Romans didn’t have a single warship. They didn’t even know how to build one. They had never paid attention to ships. A ship was just a floating container, wasn’t it?
But now if they were going to fight Carthage they needed warships. “So let’s build a fleet of warships and go out there and get those bastards.”
“This fact illustrates better than any other the extraordinary spirit and audacity of the Romans,” says Polybius, the Greek historian who went to see Rome just after the wars with Carthage. “It was not a question of having adequate resources for the enterprise, for they had in fact none whatsoever, nor had they ever given a thought to the sea before this. But once they had conceived the idea they embarked on it so boldly that without waiting to gain any experience in naval warfare they immediately engaged the Carthaginians, who had for generations enjoyed an unchallenged supremacy at sea.”
How do you make a warship? “See if you can’t get hold of one of those Carthaginian quinqueremes,” the Roman consuls told their engineers, “and discover how the darned things are constructed.”
Quinquereme and Corvus (A Roman warship and an assault bridge, First Punic War) Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license photo by Lutatius
What is a quinquereme? Warships couldn’t depend on the wind so they had oarsmen to make them go. The bigger the ship and the faster you wanted it to go, the more oarsmen. Carthaginian ships liked to ram an enemy; so they needed a lot of oarsmen to get up speed. And they were outfitted with a brass beak just under water-level to pierce the enemy hulls. Quinqueremes had long rows of oars with five [quinque=five] men to an oar. This gave them the strong motor they needed.
Lucky Rome. One day a Carthaginian quinquereme ran aground while trying to sink a Roman transport and the Roman soldiers captured it and called their engineers to come and study it. Now they had a model. Right away they set about building one hundred quinqueremes on this model.
Next problem: Rome was going to have a fleet of quinqueremes but where would it get all the sailors to row them?
The Carthaginians heard about Rome’s shipbuilding fantasies and scoffed.
“In the first place,” they said, “we’d be awfully surprised if their ships were as good as ours. And even if they were, it isn’t ships that make a fleet, but sailors. We’ve been sailors all our lives and for generations. You don’t become a sailor overnight. And what about oarsmen? Do they think they can learn to row a quinquereme in a month or two? It’s going to be fun to see that fleet of theirs on parade—we can hardly wait.”
Reader: I don’t think I can wait either. I have been waiting too long for the crow and there is no crow. I started to read this post because of your title and now I feel tricked.
Thank you for staying. The crow will appear in Part Three. When you see it you will be glad you held out through the history lesson.
Reader: I wonder.