Mercenaries from Mainland Capture Messina

The chain of events that led to the loss of Sicilian independence and the supremacy of the Roman Empire began innocuously. Upon the end of its century of warfare with Carthage, Syracuse disbanded a force of mercenaries--soldiers for hire--that it had recruited on the Italian mainland. Displeased at the prospect of unemployment, the mercenaries seized the Greek city at Messina. They renamed the city Mamertina and styled themselves Mamertines--children of Mars.

Location MapBy itself, the incursion of the Mamertines would have been only a thorn in the side of the Greeks of Sicily. In fact, however, their occupation foreshadowed the much greater territorial hunger that was stirring the Roman city-state further north on the Italian penninsula. The power structure of the Mediterranean world was beginning a seismic shift. The Greek city-state of Tarentum on the southern coast of the Italian peninsula found herself lying in the path of Rome's expansion. Tarentum prudently appealed to Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, to join in the impending struggle as her ally. Pyrrhus' Greek army decisively defeated the Romans in 281 BC at the battle of Heraclea (though with tremendous losses to his own forces--a "Pyrrhic victory") and again at Apulia in 279 BC.

Pyrrhus then conceived the misguided idea of solidifying his support among the Greeks of Sicily by crossing to the island and launching a campaign to drive Carthage from her stronghold there. In fact, he succeeded only in uniting Carthage and Rome in an alliance against him, while arrogantly alienating the Greek cities of Sicily that he had hoped to charm. After three years on the island, he returned to the Italian mainland with even less support from Greek Sicily than when he began his Sicilian campaign. The Romans soon achieved a climactic victory at Beneventum. Pyrrhus was forced to evacuate his army and abandon his Italian adventure.

Now the stage was cleared for the First Punic War, the epic struggle between Rome and Carthage with Sicily as both battlefield and prize.


2000 C. I. Gable