Ancient Romans and Carthaginians had known of each other for centuries before they ultimately clashed in the fateful Punic Wars of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. The governments of the two cultures were known to have interacted as early as 507 BCE, when both agreed to a mutual treaty for peace and trade. This document, witnessed by the historian Polybius (210-131 BCE), included a promise that the Romans would behave themselves around Carthaginian ports in Libya and Sardinia, in exchange for Carthage staying clear of all Latin lands.
In those earliest days of the burgeoning Roman state, apparently neither Rome nor Carthage considered Sicily to be within Rome’s sphere of influence, and the Carthaginian presence in Sicily caused no eyebrows to be raised among the Roman senators. Although Carthaginians (or at least Phoenicians related to them) were already battling against Greeks for control of Sicily in the 6th and 5th century BCE, the ancient Romans paid little, if any, attention to Carthage’s operations on the large island.
Livy, a Roman historian who lived from 59 BCE to 17 CE, was visibly baffled and amused with his early Republic ancestors’ inability to recognize the threat posed by Carthage. According to Livy’s sources, Rome only began to make records about the increasing Carthaginian involvement in the events of Sicily as late as 431 BCE, during the consulships of Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus and Cnaeus Julius Mento—and from whatever document the historian was reading, the ancient Romans showed no concern about Carthage’s actions. Livy wrote, “the Carthaginians—destined one day to be our bitterest enemies—crossed for the first time into Sicily to take sides in a local dispute. This seemed at the time to have no significance for Rome!” (History of Rome, 4.29). For the sake of clarity, it should be restated that Livy was wrong to say that 431 BCE was the first time Carthage made a foothold in Sicily, because the Phoenicians had been on the island for decades by that point. Yet, the mistake by Livy or his source only adds further light to how little thought Rome paid to Carthage’s earliest expansion into Sicily.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- The Beginnings of Rome by T. J. Cornell. New York: Routledge, 1995.