The fighting around Messana in 265-264 BC was the first military clash between Rome and Carthage. It marked the start of the First Punic War, and a series of wars that lasted for over a century. Recent successes in southern Italy meant that the situation in Sicily became of increasing importance to Rome. Three powers dominated that island. Carthage held the west coast. In the south east was the city of Syracuse, ruled by Heiro II. In the north east the city of Messana was ruled by the Marmertines, mercenaries who had originally been brought to Sicily by Agathocles of Syracuse. After his death in 289, the Marmertines had seized Messana, retaining control of the city for the next twenty five years.
The crisis that led to war was triggered by Heiro II, who decided to recapture Messana. At some time between 270 and 265, he inflicted a major defeat on the Marmertines, and came close to capturing the city. In response they invited in a Carthaginian garrison, who succeeded in fending off Heiro.
The Marmertines had defeated one threat to their power, but now realised that they had exposed themselves to an equal threat of Carthaginian domination. To prevent that, the Marmertines (or at least a sizable faction amongst them) called on Rome, asking for an alliance. After a closely fought debate in Rome, the request was granted. Rome was now committed to send an army to Sicily.
Responsibly for this first campaign of the Punic Wars fell to the Consul Appius Claudius Caudex. His first response was to send a small force under C. Claudius (a relative) to Messana. Once it arrived, the Marmertines felt secure enough to force the Punic garrison out of Messana. The accuracy of their fears was demonstrated by the execution of the garrison commander (one of many Hannos) on his return to Carthage.
Both Rome and Carthage was sent major armies to Sicily. The Punic army, under Hanno son of Hannibal, arrived first, landing at Lilybaeum, in the west of Sicily. From there he marched along the south coast, making an alliance with Agrigentum, and then more significantly with Hiero II of Syracuse. The new allied then marched north and laid siege to Messana.
Appius Claudius now arrived opposite Messana at the head of a standard Consular army of two legions. Although Rome did not yet possess a fleet of its own, several of its allies did. Using their ships, Claudius was able to ferry his army across the Straits of Messana and into the city. The lack of Punic opposition to this move suggests that Carthage was still hoping to avoid open war with Rome.
A short period of negotiations followed. Claudius appears to have concentrated on persuading Heiro to withdraw, but without much enthusiasm. There does not appear to have been much trust between the allies. They were camped separately outside Messana, allowing Claudius to defeat them in turn.
Negotiations over, Claudius decided to attack Heiro first. The attack itself was not a great success, and the Legions failed to break into the Syracusan camp. However their attack discouraged Hiero, and he withdrew back to Syracuse. Claudius then turned against the Punic camp. Once again the resulting fighting was inconclusive, but it became clear to Hanno that without Heiro he was no longer strong enough to besiege Messana. He too withdrew from Messana, ending the siege.
Claudius was unable to follow up on his victory. He did march south, capturing the Carthaginian fort at Echetla, west of Syracuse, and briefly threatening Syracuse itself. However, his army was not large enough to storm that city, and without a fleet he could not impose a siege. With his term of office as Consul coming to an end, Appius Claudius withdrew from Sicily, leaving a strong garrison in Messana. His expedition to Sicily was a partial success – Rome’s new allies at Messana had been saved from Punic domination – but he had failed to make a peace. The result was a war that lasted for over 20 years.