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Campanian mercenaries, ruthless, elite and highly sought-after throughout the period 400 - 241 B.C., were a mainstay of the army that sustained the power of the ruthless Agathocles 'King of Sicily. ' Following the death of Agathocles in 289 BC, these unemployed mercenaries agreed to depart Sicily and return to Italy.

En route back to Italy, on the north-eastern tip of Sicily, the band of desperadoes came across the walled Greek settlement of Messana (now Messina). The peaceful townspeople allowed the travelling mercenaries into their homes. The Campanian mercenaries treacherously betrayed their hosts, killed most of the population, divided the women and property, and made Messana their new home. They named themselves the Mamertines, the sons ' of the Oscan war-god Mamers(often translated to 'Children of Mars ' in English). The Mamertines held Messana for over 20 years, turning it into a raiding base, spreading mayhem and terror, looting nearby towns, capturing ships, taking prisoners and demanding tribute. Their exploits made them rich and they even struck their own coins.

The Mamertines ' disturbing presence in Messana did not go unchallenged forever. In 265 B.C., Hiero II, king of Syracuse, attacked them, laid siege to their city, and reduced them to such an extremity that they felt obliged to look for help. The Mamertines called for help from a nearby fleet from Carthage, which then occupied the harbor of Messana. Hiero II withdrew, not wishing to confront Carthaginian forces.

In 264 B.C., uncomfortable under the Carthaginian "protection," the Mamertines appealed to Rome. At first, the Romans did not wish to come to the aid brigands who had stolen a city. Soon, however, Rome agreed, unwilling to see Carthaginian power spread further over Sicily and get too close to Italy. In response, Syracuse allied itself with Carthage. At that point, the Mamertines and Syracuse became nearly insignificant, the conflict had escalated into the First Punic War.

After the First Punic War, the Mamertines as a power are lost to history, but centuries later the inhabitants of Messana were still called Mamertines. Julius Caesar served Mamertine wine, his favorite, at a feast celebrating his third consulship.

In his novel Salammb, Gustave Flaubert 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."

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