Siege of Messana – 264 BC

After being crushed by Hiero at the Longanus River and with one of their leaders slain, the Mamertines were in a precarious position. A small Carthaginian garrison under the command of a certain Hanno (Messana commander) was now in control of the citadel in the city and Hiero would likely be back at the beginning of the next campaigning season in the spring. Even though they had been “swindled” by Hannibal Gisgo in letting this force in, it seems that the Mamertines were now rethinking this arrangement. Many in the city believed that going into the Roman fold would be a much better long term situation and so the appeals were sent.

The Mamertines pressed the Carthaginians to relinquish the citadel and Hanno (Messana commander) retreated out of the city. He only had a very small token garrison and likely had no real option if he came under force. The whole situation was in a way improvised by taking advantage of Hiero’s victory and Hanno (Messana commander) may not have been directed as to what to do in such a situation. Unfortunately for him, the Carthaginians crucified him later on for a “lack of judgment” (Polybius 1.11)1 in surrendering control of Messana’s strategic importance, though he was in a lose-lose situation for he and his men would have just been cut down within the city.

The Carthaginians responded by sending force against the city. Hiero, finally seeing an end to this whole Mamertine problem in Sicily, was able to set up an alliance with the Carthaginians. Both forces then agreed to lay siege to opposing sides of Messana. It is likely that they hoped to have dealt with the Mamertines before Rome had a chance to become involved in the conflict.

Meanwhile in Rome

The Mamertines’ appeal to Roman protection was met with a mixed response. The Romans had recently fought a bloody and costly way against Pyrrhus. Also, the many felt that it would not be moraly acceptable to extend protection to the Mamertines as they were essentially the same as those that were dealt with at Rhegium. Polybius records how the Romans retook Rhegium once they were free of Pyrrhus.

[The Romans] proceeded to lay siege to it as I have stated above. When Rhegium fell, most of the besieged were slain in the actual assault, having defended themselves desperately, as they knew what awaited them, but more than three hundred were captured. When they were sent to Rome the Consuls had them all conducted to the forum and there, according to the Roman custom, scourged and beheaded; their object being to recover as far as possible by this punishment their reputation for good faith with the allies. The city and territory of Rhegium they at once restored to the citizens. (1.7)2

Many senators argued that it would be hypocritical to bring the Mamertines at Messana under their protection while that had just slain the ones who had taken over Rhegium. Of course, there were also those who argued that Carthage could not be allowed to hold Messana. This would be a natural staging point for an invasion of Italy and it would also mean the inevitable fall of Syracuse. The senate apparently could not come to a decision and they offered the matter to the comitia centuriata. The people were persuaded by the military men that a campaign to bring the Mamertines under Roman protection would bring in much wealth and plunder. (However, at this time, the Romans rarely exacted tribute from their clients so the plunder may have come from sacking Sicilian towns and maybe even Syracuse.) The people agreed and consented to protect the Mamertines. T. A. Dorey and D. R. Dudley, in their book Rome against Carthage, make some excellent points about a very strong pro-Mamertine faction that likely existed in the Roman aristocracy at this time. Many senators and consuls in the years before and during the war were from families (such as the Otacilii and Atilii) from Campania, the same region as the Mamertines. Campanians also had traditions as fighting as Italian and Sicilian mercenaries and were likely sympathetic to the Mamertines plight.

It was selected that the consul Appius Claudius Caudex (as the other was dealing with a minor insurrection) be sent to Messana to relieve the Mamertines. The consul sent ahead of him a military tribune by the name of Gaius Claudius to receive the city from Rhegium. However, the Carthaginians were still in the city and Hanno (Messana Commander) declared that the Romans would not even be able to wash their hands in the strait between the cities. He made good on this promise and repelled Gaius Claudius once, and as a gesture of good faith he returned the captured Roman ship (showing that Carthage likely did not want a large war with Rome). Gaius tried again and was successful and the Carthaginians relinquished the town. (Albeit, I’ve only found this in the writings of John Zonaras, who was a Byzantine monk writing his own history and summarized an epitome of Cassius Dio in which this event occurred. And even this seems to be a misquote of Diodorus Siculus’ remark about how the Romans should afraid to wash their hands and the sea because of Carthaginian naval prowess.) In any case Appius Claudius Caudex was able to enter the city with his two legions by crossing the strait at night and sneaking past the two besieging encampments.

Messana now had two consular legions defending it. However, the Syracusans and the Carthaginians were still besieging the city and Carthage had domination of the waters around the city. With none of the three sides backing down the chance of the conflict over Messana escalating into full conflict was realized. Before this event there was always a chance of coming to terms with one another.

Now the Punic Wars had begun.

1. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922. Print.