The Early Years:
After the beginning stages of the war, Rome and her allies controlled roughly the eastern and southern third of Sicily (including Messina and Syracuse), while Carthage had been in control of western Sicily for hundreds of years (including the regional capital of Lilybaeum, and their second city of Panorma/Palermo). The early years of the First Punic War would now focus on central Sicily, which Carthage now controlled. Additionally, important naval battles would occur around the island as well.
To this point, Rome and Carthage had not fought each other directly. An uneasy truce had settled over the island, similar to the delicate political balance that had often existed between Carthage and Greek powers for 400 years. Both sides made peaceful overtures towards each other, and it seemed as though conflict was avoidable, but negotiations broke down.
Roman forces: 40,000 plus allies
Carthaginian forces: 50,000+
Perhaps Carthage did not consider Rome a threat, and the Roman consuls were incentivized to only make satisfactory peace or war. There could be nothing in between, and in the end it would be war.
Rome took the initiative and struck first. The Carthaginians, lead by Hannibal Gisco (not that Hannibal) eventually retreated and took up a defensive position behind the secure walls of Agrigentum itself. The Romans laid siege to the city. In response, Carthage sent reinforcements to cut off Roman supply lines. They established a naval blockade as well.
The siege continued for 5-7 months. Both camps suffered from starvation and disease. Eventually the opposing commanders agreed that fighting in open battle would be preferable to the current situation. They met on the plain outside Agrigentum. The pitched battle was a long struggle, but superior Roman infantry carried the day and the Romans prevailed. The victory was not complete, however, as most of Carthage's forces were able to escape and retreat. Nevertheless, Rome took Agrigentum, and roughly half of Sicily was now under her control.
Rome and Carthage may have been weary of fighting each other at the start of the war, but now everything had changed. With their victory at Agrigentum, the Romans were convinced of the superiority of their infantry troops, and they became determined to defeat Carthage and take the entire island by force.
Once they consolidated more gains in central Sicily, the Romans realized they needed to build a navy, or they would never be able to take the bigger and more fortified cities in the west. As such, the Roman Senate funded construction of the Republic's first fleet. Important naval battles would soon follow, including the Battle of the Lipari Islands, a small Carthaginian victory.
Although the land war had been a debacle for Carthage so far, they still had the overwhelming advantage at sea. The first naval engagements had been small skirmishes but clear Carthaginian victories. Carthage controlled the Straits of Messina, and their fleet had set up an unchallenged blockade around Sicily and the southern Italian coast. At this point, Carthage probably considered the conflict not much different than all of the other Sicilian wars they had fought against Greeks for hundreds of years. That would soon change.
Naval Battle of Mylae:
Roman forces: ~100 ships
Carthaginian forces: ~130 ships
The entire Roman fleet departed Italy and set sail for Sicily, seemingly trying to break the blockade. Hannibal Gisco lead Carthage's entire Sicilian fleet to meet them in response. Undoubtedly, Gisco and the Carthaginians expected an easy victory; after all, Carthage had the best ships in the world and the best sailors in the world, while Rome's navy had not even existed the year before. The contrast between the two fleets could not have been more stark.
But that's why they play the game...
The Carthaginian ships planned to execute standard naval practice during those times: outmaneuver the other ships, gain an angle on them, and then ram them until they sunk. The Roman ships couldn't possibly defeat Carthage in such a battle, so they devised a solution: they invented the first known boarding device, called the corvus
, which allowed their marines to board the enemy ships at sea. Using this new invention, the Roman soldiers stormed the unsuspecting Carthaginian ships and killed them hand-to-hand. Carthage lost half of its ships before her fleet retired. Rome broke the blockade, and from this point forward she had naval supremacy over the Straits of Messina, between Italy and Sicily.
Hannibal Gisco was recalled to Carthage, where he was arrested and quickly executed.
The previous year, Rome had been close to taking all of central Sicily, but Gisco's replacement, Hamilcar (Drepanum) had turned the Roman legions back at the First Battle of Thermae.
This year's campaign saw Carthage counterattack and reclaim much of central Sicily, while the Romans were forced to retreat back towards Syracuse. It seemed as though the war had suddenly turned.
At this point, Carthage had reclaimed most of its prewar territory, with Agrigentum being the exception. The Romans were trapped in two defensive pockets, at Agrigentum in the south, and Messina in the northeast. Syracuse and Mt. Etna lay between the two points.
Feeling that they were close to victory, Carthage decided to invade Syracuse, in an attempt to pressure Hiero II back onto their side in the war. This proved to be an incalculable strategic blunder. Not only had Carthage and Syracuse been enemies for generations upon generations, but Rome had already guaranteed Syracuse's independence. Hiero II came to Rome's aid and, with that, the fortunes of the war reversed once more.
Following another reversal at Enna, Rome regained the initiative for the rest of the year. Hamilcar (Drupana) and the Carthaginians were once again forced to retreat back through central Sicily, and soon they relinquished all of their gains from the previous campaign.
After a second attempted Roman invasion of western Sicily had been repulsed, a general stalemate set in on both sides of the war.
Rome had gained control of roughly two-thirds of Sicily, with Carthage maintaining its centuries-old strongholds in the west and north. With neither side able to make further progress this year, strategic aims would change, and this lull in the fighting marked the end of the early years of the war.