The Mamertines (Mamertini "sons of Mars") were mercenaries of Italian origin who had been hired from their home in Campania by Agathocles, the king of Syracuse. But when Agathocles died in 289 BC he left many of these mercenaries idle and unemployed in Sicily. Most of them returned to their homes, but some, liking the climate and the prospect of adventure on a foreign island, remained.

Capture of Messana

The small band of desperados came across on their travels the walled Greek settlement of Messana (now Messina). Messana was a key strategic point, built on the north-eastern tip of Sicily, and it, along with the fort Rhegium on the toe of Italy, made the crossing points of the straits between Italy and Sicily. Being a peaceful people, the inhabitants allowed the travelling mercenaries into their home. After a time the mercenaries became restless and plotted to capture the town. One night the mercenaries betrayed their hosts and killed most of the population who were completely unprepared. In this way they claimed Messana for themselves. The surviving Messanians were thrown out and the property and women divided up. After their victory, the mercenaries named themselves the Mamertines after the Oscan war-god Mamers.

Mamertine dominion over north-eastern Sicily

The Mamertines held the town of Messana for over 20 years. They changed it completly from being a bustling town of farmers and traders to a raiding base. The Mamertines became pirates on land and sea. Taking advantage of the peacefulness of the Sicilians they looted the nearby settlements and captured unwary trade ships on the strait, carrying their plunder back to their base. They captured prisoners and demanded tribute. In this time they struck their own coins on which their name is printed and images of their gods and goddesses. Their exploits made them rich powerful and they began travelling further inland, even as far as Gela.

The decline of the Mamertines

The Mamertine presence did not go unnoticed forever. In around 270 BC, the Mamertine exploits came to the attention of Syracuse, by word of the refugees from the tormented settlements. Hiero II of Syracuse began to gather an army of citizens with which to rid the land of the destroyers of the peace and rescue his Greek kinsmen.

Hiero met with the Mamertines when they were nearing Syracuse. Marching out his troops he first sent his unruly mercenaries forward and allowed them to be butchered by the Mamertines. Since the faithless part of his army was disposed of, Hiero marched his citizen soldiers back to the city where he trained them to a better fighting condition. Leading his confident army north he found the Mamertines again at the Longanus River on the plain of Mylae. There he easily defeated them as the Mamertines were not accustomed to large pitched battles and had become reckless after beating Hiero's mercenaries. In the battle Hiero captured the Mamertine leaders and the remnants fled back to the safety of Messana. Hiero had restricted the Mamertine activity and placed them in a dire situation.

When Hiero returned to besiege their base in 265 BC the Mamertines called for help to both Rome and Carthage bringing together the two Mediterranean giants. From then on the Punic Wars began. The Mamertines could be considered as the spark that began those wars.

Legacy of the Mamertines

After the First Punic War the Mamertines are lost in history, although their name was not quite forgotten in the ancient world as Mamertine wine from the north-eastern tip of Sicily was still known and enjoyed in the first century AD. It was the favourite of Julius Caesar himself and it was he who made it popular after serving it at a feast to celebrate his third consulship.

Even centuries after the Mamertine occupation the inhabitants of Messana were still called Mamertines.

In Gustave Flaubert's novel Salammb├┤ he writes of the Greeks singing the 'old song of the Mamertines': "With my lance and sword I plough and reap; I am master of the house! The disarmed man falls at my feet and calls me Lord and Great King."


Mamertines by Jona Lendering

Mamertine Coins

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