Between the years 2000 and 2010 a total of three Roman ship rams were discovered off the coast of the Aegadian Islands, between Levanzo and Marettimo. These discoveries lead to a research campaign in 2017 carried out by the Soprintendenza del Mare in collaboration with Altofondalisti divers from the Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) which has gone on to yield a great number of artefacts. These relics aren’t just an interesting find though, they are in fact the remains of the Battle of the Aegates, the final battle of the First Punic War, a war that determined the future of the Roman Empire and in turn the fate of the western world. And if that wasn’t impressive enough it’s also the first ever ancient naval battle site ever discovered and it’s right here between the Egadi Islands.
The First Punic War took place between 264-241 BCE and was the first of three wars between the Roman Republic and Ancient Carthage, a pairing that has since become one of ancient history’s most well known rivalries. The second of these wars is perhaps the most famous, with its inclusion of elephants and flaming pigs. Though it is the first that began this historic grudge match and it was in fact the longest continuous conflict in antiquity at a total of 23 years.
The Carthaginian Empire encompassed much of the Mediterranean and most of the coast of Northwest Africa. Before the war they had recently been allied with the Roman Republic however as they became more powerful, tensions rose between the two and the union ended. Carthage occupied a large portion of Sicily which was an important island as it was the base of valuable trade routes in the Mediterranean.
The conflict began when a group of Italian mercenaries named the Mamertines (sons of Mars) seized the city of Messana, they began terrorising the surrounding countryside which marked them as a threat to other leaders. Hiero II, the ruler of the independent city of Syracuse took action and defeated them in battle. Despite this the Mamertines’ efforts of expansion were not put to a halt, they petitioned help from both the Roman Republic and the Carthaginian Empire. The Carthaginians saw this as a chance to seize further land and instead of helping them attack they convinced Hiero II to halt any further actions and placed a garrison of their own troops in Messana.
The Mamertines were not pleased with this arrangement and once again petitioned Rome for aid. Unhappy with the Carthaginians growing presence in Sicily, the Romans accepted the petition and marched on Syracuse. They defeated Hiero and as Romans were wont to do, turned Syracuse into a sub state of Rome. From here they had a foothold in the island and would begin their campaign against the Carthaginians.
With the war taking place throughout the Mediterranean Sea much of the conflict relied on the use of naval warfare. Carthage, thanks to centuries spent on the waters with their sea based trade system had become highly experienced at sea, Rome however were not so, though they quickly realised how important it was and work soon began on the first ever Roman fleet.