The First Punic War
The Mamertine/Syracuse Conflict
The Mamertines were Italian mercenaries who had been hired by Agathocles of Syracuse. When Agathocles died in 289 BC the mercenaries were left idle and unemployed in Sicily. The peaceful town of Messana on the north-eastern tip of the island welcomed the mercenaries into their homes.
A common problem with soldiers in peacetime is that idleness breeds restlessness and soon enough the Mamertines plotted the capture of the city. In one night they betrayed and murdered their hosts and threw the survivors out of the city. Their property and women were divided amongst the conquerors.
Over the course of the next twenty years Messana changed from a bustling trade centre into a base for raiders and pirates. The Mamertines, named after the Campanian war-god Mamers (Mars to the Romans), looted nearby settlements and captured passing trade ships. They struck coins in this period and became rich and powerful.
In 275 BC Pyrrhus of Epirus departed from Sicily. Syracuse was not a kingship at this time due to the actions of the previous king, Agathocles, who left democracy in his place after realising that his potential heirs were not worthy of replacing him. The Syracusan army and citizens appointed as their commander Heiro II. His position was strengthened when he married the daughter of the leading citizen, Leptines.
Word of the Mamertine's exploits reached Syracuse at about this time and Heiro began to mobilise an army of citizens and mercenaries. As the Mamertines neared Syracuse, Heiro marched his troops out for battle. He sent his front line of undisciplined mercenaries forward with the intention of allowing them to be butchered. With the unruly part of his army disposed of Heiro set to work on training the citizens and drilled them to fighting condition. With a suitably disciplined and confident army Heiro marched north in search of the Mamertine troops. He encountered them at the Longanus River and confronted them in a pitched battle on the plain of Mylae. Since the Mamertines were overconfident from their earlier engagement with the Syracusans and because they were not accustomed to this style of battle they were easily defeated and their leaders captured.
In 265 BC Heiro returned to Messana to besiege the city and eradicate the threat of pirate raids in the area. Unknown to the Syracusan forces a fleet of Carthaginian ships were moored up in the harbour of Messana. The Mamertines requested help from the Carthage and Heiro, not wanting to come into conflict with the Carthaginians, retreated.
Unhappy with the idea of a Carthaginian garrison in their city the Mamertines appealed to Rome for protection. Rome's senate debated on the Mamertine question and were not impressed with the Mamertine's actions in stealing Messana from it's rightful possessors. They were also recovering from insurrection in Rhegium and were reluctant to enter another war so soon, which seemed almost inevitable if they sided with the Mamertines. However, they were mindful of the increasing Carthaginian presence on Sicily and feared her growing power. Unable to decide through debate the Romans put the decision before the popular assembly. They voted in favour of an alliance with the Mamertines. The Roman consul Appius Claudius Caudex, an avid supporter of the Mamertine cause motivated by the very Roman virtue of personal glory, was given command of the invasion of Sicily.
In response, Syracuse, fearing Mamertine retribution with Roman support, allied herself with Carthage.
A military tribune, Gaius Claudius, uncle to the consul, was sent in advance to Rhegium with a few ships. Gaius Claudius began negotiations with Hanno, the commander of the garrison occupying the citadel of Messana, but talks broke down and Gaius retreated back across the strait where the pursuing Carthaginian fleet captured some Roman triremes.
Hanno, not wanting to be responsible for starting a war with Rome, returned the triremes in a gesture of good will. Gaius ignored the gesture and successfully sailed back to Messana. The Mamertines persuaded Hanno down from the citadel to continue negotiations with Gaius. Again talks failed. Hanno was forced to leave Messana with his army. He was crucified by the Carthaginians on charges of cowardice.
The First Punic War had begun.