By the mid-Third Century BC two states of the central Mediterranean
were experiencing dynamic economic growth: Rome on the Italian peninsula
and Carthage on the North African coast. A major territorial clash
was bound to erupt at some point as their interests collided. As events
unfolded, the precipitating confrontation occurred at the city-state
of Messina [Messana] on Sicily, where the
Greek leadership had been overthrown in 282 BC by a band of former
mercenaries from the Italian peninsula. The Messinans (or Mamertines,
as they now called themselves), under sharp attack by Syracuse in
264 BC, appealed to both Carthage and Rome for help. Unfortunately
for Messina, both responded positively.
Carthaginians arrived first. They occupied the city and soon made
peace with Syracuse, which had no stomach for renewing the 100 years
of wars with Carthage that had consumed
their energies in the prior century. However, the fact that Messina
no longer needed their help did not deter the Romans, who ejected
the occupying Carthaginians and took their place.
Carthaginians soon returned in force. Allied now with the Syracusans,
who did not want a Roman stronghold in Sicily, the Carthaginians launched
an attack on Messina. The 23-year year known in history as the First
Punic War had begun. (The name "Punic," meaning "Phoenician"
in Latin, alludes to Carthage's origin as a colony of Phoenicia.)
Syracuse herself was to become the first victim
of the great power struggle.