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Evidence of Rome's decisive victory over Carthage is discovered in the waters off Sicily

the research vessel Hercules

Scholars aboard the research vessel Hercules have identified the site of the third-century B.C. Battle of the Egadi Islands.
(Courtesy RPM Nautical Foundation, Derek Smith)

In his work The Histories, the second-century B.C. Greek historian Polybius chronicles the rise of the Romans as they battled for control of the Mediterranean. The central struggle pits the Romans against their archenemies the Carthaginians, a trading superpower based in North Africa. For 23 years, beginning in 264 B.C., the two rivals fought what became known as the First Punic War.

As Polybius tells it, the war came to a head in 242 B.C., with both powers exhausted and nearly broke after two decades of fighting. The Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca—the father of a later adversary of Rome, Hannibal—was pinned down on a mountaintop above the city of Drepana, now the Sicilian town of Trapani. As the Carthaginians assembled a relief force, the Romans scraped together the money for a fleet to cut them off. According to Polybius, in March 241 B.C., the two sides met in between the Egadi Islands, a trio of rocky outcrops a few miles off the coast of Sicily. The clash brought hundreds of ships and thousands of men together in a battle that helped shape the course of history.

A string of discoveries just a few miles off the coast of western Sicily are now supplying new evidence of that war and the battle that brought it to a close. Working from a well-equipped research vessel, a team from the United States and Italy has located what can only be artifacts from what is now known as the Battle of the Egadi Islands.

It's the first time archaeologists have gone looking for and successfully uncovered evidence of a particular ancient naval battle. While ancient accounts often exaggerate the numbers of men or weapons involved in a battle, or are vague about their exact locations, Polybius turns out to have been fairly reliable. His basic report about the Battle of the Egadi Islands has been confirmed. "Ships met in a battle, and ships sank," says Jeff Royal, the director of the Florida-based nonprofit RPM Nautical Foundation, which is leading the work.

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Andrew Curry is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.