Punic-Roman Treaties Prior to the Punic Wars

Before we go into too much detail about the actual outbreak of the First Punic War in 264, the historic diplomatic relations between the powers of Rome and Carthage should be examined. Four treaties are known to us from the historical record (with one treaty in dispute).

Treaty #1 – About 509 BC

The first treaty seems to have been established as soon as the Roman Republic emerged after the overthrow of the monarchy. Carthage, as a commercial superpower, likely kept tabs on any emerging state along the western Mediterranean coastline so that trade would continue to run smoothly. Polybius records what he believes the treaty to have been.

The treaty is more or less as follows: “There is to be friendship between the Romans and their allies and the Carthaginians and their allies on these terms The Romans and their allies not to sail with long ships beyond the Fair Promontory unless forced by storm or by enemies it is forbidden to anyone carried beyond it by force to buy or carry away anything beyond what is required for the repair of his ship or for sacrifice, and he must depart within five days. Men coming to trade may conclude no business except in the presence of a herald or town-clerk, and the price of whatever is sold in the presence of such shall be secured to the vendor by the state, if the sale take place in Libya or Sardinia. If any Roman come to the Carthaginian province in Sicily, he shall enjoy equal rights with others. The Carthaginians shall do no wrong to the peoples of Ardea, Antium, Laurentium, Circeii, Terracina, or any other city of the Latins who are subject to Rome. Touching those Latins who are not subjects, they shall keep their hands off their cities, and if they take any city shall deliver it up to the Romans undamaged. They shall build no fort in the Latin territory. If they enter the land in arms, they shall not pass a night therein.” (Polybius 3.22)1

This treaty essentially enforced a non-aggression pact between the two powers. Carthage imposed some commercial stipulations against Rome and prevented Roman vessels from direct contact with official Carthaginian territory. Rome, as a small city-state worried about survival, prohibited military encroachments in the surrounding territories.

Treaty #2 – 348 BC

The second treaty came during a time of conflict for the Romans. They were fighting numerous wars with the local tribes around Latium and Etruria, as well as seeing the emergence of the Samnites as a threat. Carthage meanwhile had been in numerous wars with the Greeks in Sicily (and it would break out again in 345). Polybius also records this treaty.

This treaty is more or less as follows: “There is to be friendship on the following conditions between the Romans and their allies and the Carthaginians, Tyrians, and the people of Utica and their respective allies. The Romans shall not maraud or trade or found a city on the farther side of Fair Promontory, Mastia, and Tarseum. If the Carthaginians capture any city in Latium not subject to Rome, they shall keep the valuables and the men, but give up the city. If any Carthaginians take captive any of a people with whom the Romans have a treaty of peace, but who are not subject to Rome, they shall not bring them into Roman harbours, but if one be brought in and a Roman lay hold of him, he shall be set free. The Romans shall not do likewise. If Roman gets water or provisions from any place over which the Carthaginians rule, he shall not use these provisions to wrong any member of a people with whom the Carthaginians have peace and friendship. The Carthaginians shall not do likewise. If either do so, the aggrieved person shall not take private vengeance, and if he do, his wrongdoing shall be public. No Roman shall trade or found a city in Sardinia and Libya nor remain in a Sardinian or Libyan post longer than is required for taking in provisions or repairing his ship. If he be driven there by stress of weather, he shall depart within five days. In the Carthaginian province of Sicily and at Carthage he may do and sell anything that is permitted to a citizen. A Carthaginian in Rome may do likewise.” (Polybius 3.24)2

This treaty strengthened Carthage’s prohibitions on Roman expansion by adding more prohibited territories and the restraint of making colonies in certain territories. It also shows that Carthage likely did not fear Rome as commercial competitor (even if it was wary of Rome as a growing military power), by allowing free trade between the capitals.

Treaty #3 – 306 BC

This is the only treaty out of the four that is under any dispute. Philinus, a pro-Carthaginian historian of the First Punic War, asserted that there was indeed a treaty between Rome and Carthage at this time. While we do not have Philinus’ writings, we do have Polybius’ attack against him and his claim of the 306 treaty. Philinus apparently claimed that this treaty had a clause that “there was treaty between Rome and Carthage by which the Romans were obliged to keep away from the whole of Sicily and the Carthaginians from the whole of Italy…” (Polybius 3.26)3 While Polybius claimed that this treaty didn’t exist and couldn’t be found, he may be showing his pro-Roman bias by covering this up as it would make Rome seem as the guilty party. Livy seems to support Philinus’ account of the existence of the 306 treaty. “In this year also the treaty with the Carthaginians was renewed for the third time, and their ambassadors, who had come for the purpose of arranging it, were treated with courtesy and given presents.” (Livy 9.43)4 His wording, however, does not seem to indicate that there was mutual exclusivity to the wholes of Italy and Sicily, but was simply a renewal of the basic terms of the two prior treaties. This may show that both Philinus and Polybius were mistaken. I tend to believe that this third treaty existed but did not mutually exclude Rome from Sicily and Carthage from Italy, but perhaps, as in the previous two treaties, demarcated basically spheres of influence and likely barred each other from directly controlled territory. (If this was the case, war guilt from the First Punic War wouldn’t fall much on either Carthage or Rome. Carthage would have thought that because they had control of Messana’s citadel that they technically owned it as their territory, while at the same time, Rome believed the Mamertines were their own sovereign state and therefore they were not exclusively denied access from this independent Sicilian power.)

Treaty #4 – 279 BC

The last treaty between Rome and Carthage before the Punic Wars came as a result of the threat of King Pyrrhus of Epirus and his interference in Italy (and then to continue on later to Sicily) at the request of the Tarentines in southern Italy. Polybius also relates this treaty as essentially the same as the prior two (that he believes existed), but that the following clauses were also added to the terms.

“If they make an alliance with Pyrrhus, both shall make it an express condition that they may go to the help of each other in whichever country is attacked. No matter which require help, the Carthaginians are to provide the ships for transport and hostilities, but each country shall provide the pay for its own men. The Carthaginians, if necessary, shall come to the help of the Romans by sea too, but no one shall compel the crews to land against their will.” (Polybius 3.25)5

These clauses do seem strange compared to most as a defensive alliance against a common foe in Pyrrhus. If one was attacked the other did not necessarily have to assist the other. However, if there was joint cooperation, Carthage was to provide naval power (as Rome really didn’t have any naval forces) and pay for the ships and logistical supplies of both sides. Rome and Carthage would each pay for its own manpower. These clauses show both the strength and weakness of Carthage. On the high seas Carthage was a first rate power and economically Carthage was dominant due to its mercantile ventures. However, its relative lack of manpower (or willingness to implement it) is seen. As Carthage usually had very limited forces in Sicily, and unless Pyrrhus invaded North Africa itself (I suppose if there was a golden opportunity Pyrrhus would have been bold enough to attempt such a feat), the vast bulk of ground forces would inevitably be Roman.

Now, with the political background set, let’s continue to the spark that ignited the First Punic War in the siege of Messana.

1. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922. Print.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Livy. Translated by B. O. Foster. 1919. Print.
5. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.