T HE next great war the Romans engaged in was with Carthage. It was about the possession of the island of Sicily, in the Mediterranean Sea. It began not long after Pyrrhus left Italy and was the first of three wars called the Punic Wars. Punic means Phœnician and the people who founded Carthage came from Phœnicia, so Carthage was called a Punic or Phœnician colony.
When the first Punic War began both Rome and Carthage were very rich and powerful. Rome had great armies and great generals. Its common soldiers, too, were remarkably brave and patriotic. It was very successful in its wars. Before it began to fight Carthage it had conquered nearly all Italy.
Carthage, also, had fine armies, but its greatest strength was in its navy. No other country in the world at that time had so many ships of war and trading ships. The ships of the Carthaginians went everywhere in the Mediterranean. Some of them even went past the Pillars of Hercules, as the rocky capes at the Strait of Gibraltar were then called, and sailed for some distance on the Atlantic Ocean.
The Carthaginian ships were small, but they were very strong. The warships were built to carry a good many soldiers, as well as sailors and oarsmen. They had great rounded iron prows, which could do much damage to an enemy's ships when run up against them. Each ship had a mast and large sail, but it was also rowed with oars by many oarsmen who sat on long benches, placed one above the other. With the sail and the oars the ship could be made to go very fast through the water.
Carthage was in North Africa, in the country now called Tunis. It stood at the head of a beautiful bay of the Mediterranean. It was a large and handsome city and had a great commerce.
M ANY years before the beginning of the first Punic War Carthage conquered a great part of Sicily and made it a Carthaginian colony. But the Romans wanted the island, and so under the pretence of protecting an Italian tribe that had settled there they sent an army into Sicily. This was how the first Punic War began.
Both Rome and Carthage fought fiercely, and for a long time neither had much advantage over the other. At first the Romans had no warships. Up to that time they did not need any, for all their fighting was on land. But when they began war with the Carthaginians they found that they must have ships to carry their soldiers to Sicily and to fight the Carthaginians at sea. So the Romans set to work to build ships and to train men to row them, and in a short time they had a great navy.
In the ninth year of the war the armies and fleets of Rome were put under the command of a general named Marcus Atilius Regulus. He was a great hero and patriot. He had been a general before the Punic War and had often led the Romans to victory. After years of good service, fighting and winning battles for his country, he went to live on his little farm and, like Cincinnatus, he cultivated it with his own hands. A story is told of him which well illustrates ancient Roman honor and patriotism.
Until Regulus took command the Punic War was carried on only in Sicily and on the Mediterranean. But he thought that Rome should fight the Carthaginians in their own country, and so he organized an immense army and navy to invade Carthage. He had three hundred and thirty warships of the largest size and about sixty thousand soldiers.
In those times, in fights at sea, they had an engine called a boarding bridge. One end of it was fixed to the deck of the ship. The other end, which was free, could be swung round and on to an enemy's ship, and it had a heavy iron spike underneath, so that when it fell on the deck it would sink into it and thus hold the enemy's vessel for the attacking party to board it.
When everything was ready Regulus set sail for Africa. Soon after starting he met a large Carthaginian fleet, and in a short battle he destroyed it. Then he sailed on and after landing in Africa began a march towards Carthage. On his way he captured several towns, and he met and defeated a Carthaginian army. He then continued his march until he met another army of Carthaginians. This army was commanded by Xanthippus, a famous general of Sparta, in Greece, who happened to be in Carthage at that time. In the battle that followed the Romans were defeated, and Regulus was made prisoner and taken off to Carthage.
B UT the Romans had other generals and other armies, and they carried on the war and defeated the Carthaginians in many battles.
At last the Carthaginians thought it better to try to make peace, and so they sent ambassadors to Rome to propose that the war should be stopped on certain terms, which they were ready to offer. They sent Regulus with the ambassadors, but they made him swear that he would return to Carthage if the Roman Senate should refuse to agree to their terms. They thought that in order to gain his own freedom Regulus would try to get the Senate to accept their proposals. Regulus agreed to go and made the promise required.
"I give you my word of honor," said he, "that I will return if your terms are not accepted."
Then he set out for Rome with the ambassadors. As he approached the gates of the city, thousands of people came forth to welcome him and to escort him through the streets. But he refused to enter.
"I cannot enter Rome," said he. "I am no longer a Roman officer, but a prisoner of Carthage. Do not urge me to enter the gates. I am not even worth exchanging for a Carthaginian prisoner."
The people, however, insisted that he should enter the city, and so amid shouts and cheers he was escorted to the Senate house.
In a little while the Carthaginian ambassadors presented their proposals, and the Senate began to consider them. After some discussion Regulus was asked to give his opinion whether the terms ought to be accepted or not.
Regulus at first was unwilling to speak in the Senate. He said that by becoming a prisoner he had lost the honor of being a senator.
"I am no longer a Roman senator," said he. "I am a prisoner of Carthage."
The Senate, however, insisted that he should speak. Then Regulus said that the Senate ought not to accept the terms of peace offered by Carthage. He thought that they were not good terms for Rome, and he advised the Senate not to agree to them.
But the Senate was inclined to accept the terms for the sake of Regulus himself. If peace were not made he would have to go back and remain a prisoner in Carthage, or perhaps he would be put to death. Therefore the Senate was for agreeing to the Carthaginian terms. But Regulus again spoke strongly against them, and at last the Senate decided to reject the Carthaginian proposals.
R EGULUS now prepared to return to Carthage, but his family and friends clung to him, saying:
"You must not go! You must not go!"
To all their appeals he made but one answer:
"I have given my word of honor to return, and I cannot break it."
REGULUS DEPARTING FOR CARTHAGE
So Regulus returned to Carthage with the ambassadors. When the people of that city heard that by his advice their terms had been rejected they were very angry. They had wished very much to make peace with Rome, for the long war had cost them a great many lives and a great deal of money, and they wanted to stop it. Therefore they were enraged against Regulus and they put him to death in a very cruel way.
The war between Rome and Carthage continued for some years more, but at last the Carthaginians were defeated in a great sea battle near the coast of Sicily. They were then obliged to give up Sicily and pay a large sum of money to the Romans as a fine. This was the end of the first Punic War (241 B.C.).