At this time Carthage had a large fleet and were the major traders in the western Mediterranean and this, in turn, strengthened their fleet. Also at this time the Romans were conquering the Greek cities in southern Italy. Though the Romans had a well trained army they were not seafarers and had only a small and poor navy.
The Romans needed grain shipments from the island of Sicily, which was still not in their empire. Both Rome and Carthage responded when one faction in the Sicilian city of Messana (now Messina) asked for Roman help against another faction which asked help from the Carthaginians.
The Romans were rather inexperienced in naval warfare. At that time ships were rowed in battle and manuvered to either ram one another or to side-swipe an enemy vessel and shear off its oars. The Carthaginian ships were triremes (they had three tiers of oars per ship). Each oar needed at least one man to be skilled in timing the stroke and the rest of the oarsmen would only need to supply muscle. The Roman navy did not have enough skilled oarsmen relative to the Carthaginians so the tactic that the Romans used to counter the Carthaginian advantage in trained men was to use quinqueremes. These were ships which had only one tier of oars per ship but with five men to each oar. Thus the Romans needed only one skilled seaman per five oarsman to the three needed by their enemy.
The better known tactic used by the Romans and probably more important to their naval success was their invention of a secret weapon, the corvis (the crow or raven). This was a long bridge on a swivel that could be swung and dropped down on the deck of an enemy ship. A spike at the end would dig into the wooden deck and the two ships would be joined. Not only would this prevent the Carthaginian ship from ramming or shearing the Roman ship but the Romans could fill their ships with a large number of marines which could then storm across the bridge and overpower the surprised enemy. The Romans thus could turn a naval battle into a series of land style skirmishes, a type of fight at which they excelled.
In 260 B.C. the first major naval battle of the war occurred off the Sicilian port of Mylae (now Milazzo) west of Messana. The Carthaginian admiral Hannibal (not the man of elephant fame) had been plundering the Sicilian coast. He drew out the Roman fleet commanded by the Roman admiral Duilius and attacked. The Romans' secret weapon was a huge success. Hannibal lost 50 ships including his flagship. The admiral was to lose many other vessels off Sardina the next year in another battle. That was to be his last defeat though as the Carthaginians then crucified their admiral for his failures.
According to the American HeritageŽ Dictionary of the English Language
the word Punic refers to "ancient Carthage, its inhabitants, or
their language." It is derived from the Greek word for Phoenician
after passing through Latin. Carthage was originally a Phoenician
colony, by legend it was founded by Queen Dido.
[See Bulfinch synopsis for Aeneas and Dido.]
By the way, it was the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) that the Carthaginian general Hannibal fought with the elephants.