This paper presents a new method for gauging the cost of waging the naval struggle of the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.E.). Scholars have tended to be sharply critical of Carthaginian strategy, presented as passive and sluggish in the face of Roman boldness and willingness to endure losses (Thiel 1954; Lazenby 1996, 2004; Grainger 2011; Hoyos 2015). This paper presents a reassessment of this view in three main parts, beginning with an effort to estimate the cost of naval operations during the war. For this purpose, it proposes a year-to-year reconstruction of the fleet strengths of both navies, closely following Polybius’ narrative of the war.
In the second part, this reconstruction is then combined with comparative evidence for the costs associated with the Athenian navy to produce a rough estimate of the total cost of building, maintaining, and crewing both of the navies of the First Punic War. The ample body of literary and epigraphic evidence for the financing of the Athenian navy (Gabrielsen, 1990; Prichard, 2015), although it pertains primarily to the classical period, provides the best tool for approaching the question of cost. The comparison of estimated Roman and Carthaginian costs considers not only ship construction, but also crew costs and ship maintenance. This comparison shows that the total cost of Carthaginian naval activity likely equaled or perhaps even exceeded the total Roman cost. This outcome is quite contrary to the established impression of Carthage being overmatched by Roman resources, boldness and loss-tolerance.
Finally, in the third part, Carthage’s strategy is reassessed in light of these new conclusions on cost. Instead of the negative modern reception, this paper argues that Carthage’s strategy in the First Punic War should be read with an eye towards the strategies that had previously led to Punic success in Sicily. Stubbornly defensive Carthaginian warfare had enabled the Punic holdings in Sicily to outlast a war with Agathocles (317-307) and another with Pyrrhus (278-276). Moreover, the inherent limitations of ancient naval warfare, which offered few opportunities for decisive action but entailed tremendous costs, must be considered. Although Carthage needed a navy in order to project power in Sicily, ancient navies generally had few options to force a decisive conclusion to any war, because of their limited range and operational endurance. Based on this analysis, the paper concludes, to the contrary of the established impression, that defensive and reactive Punic strategy was not overly passive or feckless. Instead, Carthaginian strategy should be reckoned as reasonable and cost conscious, fitting within a tradition of successful Carthaginian wars in Sicily.