Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

The Punic Wars

Steve Muhlberger
The three Punic Wars -- so called because the Latin word for Phoenician was "Punic" -- were a very long process, lasting over a century, with breaks:  265-146 B.C.  In that process, the merchant republic of Carthage was destroyed.  Even more important, to us at least, is that Rome defeated its only serious rival in  the Western Mediterranean.  Even before Carthage was destroyed in 146, by
202 B.C., Rome had become the undoubted master of the west, and in a good position to dominate the east too.

The Punic Wars were a formative experience for Rome.  Rome went into the wars as the leader of a
confederacy, and as a purely Italian power.  She came out as the mistress of an empire, an empire that was much different from the confederacy -- and not just in size and strength.

In the 260s, Rome and Carthage they had a long tradition of cooperation behind them. In the very first year of the Republic, Carthaginian ambassadors had recognized Rome as the paramount power in Latium, an agreement that must have been very welcome to the new regime.  In 348, there had been a new treaty, like the first built on the assumption that the two powers had separate spheres of interest and lots of room for cooperation.  In the 270s, when King Pyrrhus of Epirus was marching his Macedonian phalanx and his elephants around southern Italy and Sicily, Rome and Carthage had
cooperated to put him in his place.  But in the 260s, this tradition broke down, and a savage war resulted.

Why the conflict?

First, now that Rome had control of all of South Italy, it was in direct contact with Sicily.
Carthage, who disputed the island with a number of Greek colonies, did not want any outside powers involved themselves on the island.  So Carthage was perhaps a little suspicious of Rome once Pyrrhus had been beaten and Rome had taken over the rest of Greater Greece.

Second, in 265, a mere ten years after Pyrrhus returned to Greece, Rome quite deliberately
stuck its nose into Sicily.

Here is the situation in 265.  The city of Messana, now Messina, was controlled by a group of Italian mercenaries who called themselves Mamertines, followers of Mars, the war god.  They had set up shop on their own, and were using the city as a base for raids all over the island.   In 265, the king of Syracuse attacked Messana in an effort to get rid of the Mamertines.  The Mamertines appealed to both Carthage and Rome for help.  Both responded. The Mamertines accepted a Roman garrison and rejected the Carthaginians. Carthage, worried that Messana was about to become a foothold for Rome in Italy, allied itself with Syracuse and attacked Messana.  And soon the war was on.

This dispute had little intrinsic importance, like those that began the Second Peloponnesian War or the First World War of this century.  But a small dispute became a huge war because neither side was willing to back off.

The early stages of the war involved land operations in Italy, in which the Romans did reasonably well.  It soon became clear to the Romans that if they were serious about the war, a fleet would be necessary.  The consequent decision to build a fleet was a momentous one.  Rome, until
now entirely a land power, was moving into its rival's maritime arena.

The decision  shows the determination or perhaps the bull-headedness of the Romans at this stage in their history. Likely it was a reluctance to admit defeat, rather than prospects of profit, that motivated..  You will remember that when faced by a victorious Pyrrhus, the Senate refused, despite a recent bloody defeat at his hands, to negotiate with him while he stayed on Italian soil.  The same stubbornness plunged Rome into its greatest war yet.

In antiquity, the First Punic War had the reputation of being the biggest and most costly war fought down to that time.  True or not,  the war was certainly very destructive. There were big campaigns in Sicily, an unsuccessful Roman invasion of the Carthaginian homeland in Africa, and many fleet actions.  In 255, the Roman army in Africa was defeated and both Rome and Carthage lost fleets:
the Carthaginian one was lost to enemy action, the Roman one to a storm. We are told that the Roman fleet went down with 95,000 men.  That winter the Romans built a new fleet; two years later, in 253, 150 of those ships went down in a second storm.  In 249, after a few years of success, two
different Roman fleets were destroyed, totaling over 200 ships.  By 247, Rome, which had not been directly attacked, had lost 17% of its citizenry in the war, which was not yet over.  (We know this because the Roman censor, among his other duties, kept track of the number of citizens and thus of military and tax resources.)  Carthage probably suffered worse, since there was fighting on its home territory, and the Sicilians must have suffered worst of all.

By 243, both sides were in terrible shape.  Carthage, for some unknown reason, slipped into exhaustion and deactivated what was left of  its fleet -- probably because money was low and Carthage always depended heavily on mercenaries.  Rome, on the other hand, required its richest
citizens to loan enough money to the state to build another fleet of 200. Carthage was caught short.  Its hastily reactivated fleet was lost in 242, and she had little option but to make peace on Roman terms.  These involved a complete Carthaginian retreat from Sicily and a large war indemnity to be
paid over 10 years.

The first Punic war had several important consequences for the combatants.  It made Rome the paramount power in Sicily.  At first, Rome was not sure what to do with it.  Should the various Sicilian cities and tribes be treated as allies, as Italian peoples had been?  Rome decided against the traditional policy -- probably because Sicily was far from Rome and the Sicilians were
notoriously unreliable.  Instead Rome decided to collect tribute from Sicily, which would finance Roman dominance and provide a profit to the state.  This policy was the first step from the Roman Confederacy to the Roman Empire.

For Carthage, the war was a big setback.  Its traditional turf had been reduced and its prosperity harmed.  Worse,  the mercenary army it had maintained throughout the war revolted and almost destroyed it.  The Carthaginians had delayed paying the troops in the hopes that they could fob them off with less than they were owed.  Instead, they found themselves facing a savage rebellion.  And during the time that they were distracted by the Mercenary War, Rome sailed in and took Sardinia and Corsica away from them.

I have already compared the outbreak of the First Punic War to the outbreak of World War I.  Let me extent the comparison.  Like Germany in 1918, Carthage in 241 B.C. had lost territory and prestige, had been effectively demilitarized, and was saddled with indemnities.  But like Germany between the wars, Carthage had tremendous potential yet, and could not be counted out.  In fact, it soon became a major military power once again.

Carthage revived by pursuing a completely different tactic than before.  Previously its power had been based almost entirely on a maritime monopoly in the west.  This was now impossible.  So Carthage added onto what remained of its commerce a land empire -- specifically a land empire
in Spain.

What was Spain like at this time?  We should not visualize it as much more backward than Italy, at least on the south and eastern coasts.  Spain had been in contact with the eastern Mediterranean since 1000 B.C. or even before.  Because it was a source of metal, the country supported a number
of towns and cities, some of them old Phoenician or Carthaginian colonies, some originally Greek colonies, some settlements of native Iberians. Iberian cities were probably as impressive as any of the foreign colonies.

The country was disunited.  There were kingdoms, tribal federations, autonomous cities, and a good part of the coast was already controlled by Carthage.  In 237, Hamilcar Barca, the Carthaginian general who had put down the revolting mercenaries, took a large army to Spain with the intent
of subduing at least the valuable parts.

The Second Punic War is to some extent the story of two aristocratic families.  The Barca family of Carthage is the the first of these.  This Hamilcar was a cruel, determined warlord who succeeded in short order in conquering large parts of the peninsula.  His son-in-law Hasdrubal took over the command when Hamilcar died, and continued his work.  He married into an important native family, and arranged other important alliances to extend Carthaginian influence.  He also built a new Carthaginian capital for the country, New Carthage, a city that still survives today under the name of Cartagena.

Hasdrubal was eventually assassinated by a Celtic tribesman from the wild interior of Spain, and he was succeeded by Hamilcar's 25-year-old son, the famous Hannibal.  By the time Hannibal took over the Spanish command, in 221, a mere twenty years after the end of the first war, Carthage had its Spanish empire -- though how solid it was is another question.

The Barca family has the reputation of being determined opponents of Rome.  The story is that before Hamilcar died, he swore his young son Hannibal, only 9 years old, to never be a friend of Rome.  Whether or not their anti-Roman feelings were evident at the time, the Barca exploits in
Spain quickly attracted some worried attention in Italy.  At an early stage, the Senate sent emissaries to Hamilcar to express concern over his activities.  He replied that he was fighting in Spain to acquire the wealth to pay off Carthage's indemnity to Rome.  It was hard to argue with that.

Tension between the two powers was avoided for a while by an informal agreement that Hamilcar would not campaign north of the Ebro river.  This would keep the pressure of Massilia, a Greek colony that was a traditional friend of Rome and Rome's access point to trade in Gaul.

But eventually, as the power of Carthage and the Barca family continued to grow in Spain, some Romans began to get worried.  They looked for a way to rein in their enemy.  They found it in the city of Saguntum. It was an Iberian city well south of the river Ebro, the only important one
not controlled by young Hannibal yet.  Rome decided to accept an alliance with Saguntum and warned Hannibal to keep hands off.  Hannibal ignored the warning:  his view was that Saguntum was no concern of Rome's because it was within an area that Rome had acknowledged as within the Carthaginian sphere.

When he took the city in 219, Rome sent an embassy to Carthage to give an ultimatum.  Hannibal and his chief deputies should be surrendered to Rome.  This was refused.  The ambassador, Marcus Fabius Buteo, then asked the Carthaginian senate whether they wanted peace or war.  They replied "Whichever you wish."  Fabius replied:  "Then I give you war."

Actually Rome at this point was not dead set on war.  When the Senate heard what the Carthaginians had said, there was a debate on whether they should follow through on the threat of war.  One party, led by another Fabius, Quintus Fabius Maximus, argued for peace.  Another, led by the
Cornelius Scipio clan, were hot for war.  The Cornelius Scipio family, who are the second of the aristocratic families I referred to earlier, got their way:  perhaps no surprise, as Rome seldom backed down from a challenge.

The war began immediately.  Hannibal had not waited to hear the results of the debate in the Roman Senate:  he had marched immediately on Italy, and in September of 218, he made his famous crossing of the Alps. Besides his elephants, he had a huge army, much of it made up of Spaniards,
and when he got over the Alps he recruited the local Gauls, who were the traditional enemies of Rome.  At the same time, two members of the Cornelius Scipio family marched to Spain -- the armies just missed each other in southern France.

The strategy on both sides was clear.  The Romans wanted to cripple Carthage by taking away its new empire, an important source of wealth and men.  Hannibal aimed at disrupting the main source of Roman strength, its Italian confederacy.  Throughout the war, which lasted from 218 to 202, there was a Carthaginian army in Italy and one or more Roman ones in Spain.  Though there was fighting elsewhere, these were the crucial theaters of war.  And the offensive leaders on each side came from their most warlike clans:  Hannibal and his brother Hasdrubal as representatives of the Barcas, and Publius and Gnaeus as representatives of the Cornelius Scipiones.

For the first few years, Hannibal won and won and won.  In the first three years of war, he won three major battles in Italy; after the last victory, Cannae, many of the southern allies of Rome defected to Hannibal, who had been treating them well.

But Rome held out.  There are several reasons for this.

First, Hannibal never quite had the troops nor the siege equipment to make a serious attempt on Rome itself.

Second, the central Italian allies never wavered in their allegiance to Rome.  These central allies were the ones who had been most generously rewarded by Rome over the years, and they saw no advantage in defecting.  The presence of many Gauls in Hannibal's army also stiffened their resolve.

Finally, Rome had far more fighting men than Carthage.  The Roman willingness to recruit outsiders and subjects into the citizen body paid off.  Rome kept large armies in existence not only in Italy, but in Spain and Sicily too.  Fabius Maximus, the man who had argued against war, commanded the Italian troops, and kept Hannibal from Rome by delaying tactics and a scorched earth policy.  Hannibal never had the resources to break through this strategy. Meanwhile, in Spain, the Scipios fought other Carthaginian armies and succeeded in keeping them from reinforcing Hannibal.

In 211, Rome suffered a serious setback -- both Scipio brothers were killed in battle in Spain.  Rather than the beginning of a collapse, it marked the emergence of Rome's great hero.  This man was a curious parallel to Hannibal.  Hannibal had got his first command at the age of 25.  So did
this Roman.  Hannibal took over an army created by his father.  So did this Roman.  And this Roman was also became the soul of his country's war effort.  He was Publius Cornelius Scipio, the son of the earlier man of the same name.  And he won the war in Rome.  For that reason he is usually called Scipio Africanus, Scipio the African.

He did not have an easy time of it, but by 208 Scipio had broken Carthaginian power in Spain.  In 204, with Hannibal still active in Italy, he convinced the Senate to send him to Africa.  By 203, Scipio had forced the Senate of Carthage to ask for peace.  This in turn forced Hannibal, after 15 years in Italy, to return to his homeland to put backbone into the resistance.  There was one final great battle, which Scipio won.  Though Hannibal survived, even he knew the jig was up.  Carthage accepted Roman terms in 202.

In broad outline, the terms are easy to describe.  Carthage lost all of its overseas empire.  It also lost most of its territory in North Africa.  Scipio drew a boundary that allotted only a portion of modern
Tunisia to Carthage, and forbade it to go beyond it.  Even if attacked by its neighbors -- tribes who were now Roman clients -- Carthage was forbidden to fight without Roman approval.  Carthage survived, but it was no longer an imperial power.

There was a Third Punic War, close to fifty years later, which did destroy Carthage.  But the Second War was the decisive one.  The first war had given Rome Sicily.  The second gave Rome title to most of Spain and the ability to dominate the entire western Mediterranean coast.  It would take very little effort, for instance, for this new, more powerful Rome to conquer Cisalpine Gaul (roughly the area now called Lombardy in North Italy) and the area we now know as Provence, on the other side of the Alps.  By treaty and by grace of its military capabilities it could arbitrate disputes in Africa.

The Rome that controlled so much overseas, and had spilled so much of its blood and treasure to acquire that territory, was a new entity.  No longer was Rome merely the leader of an Italian confederacy, which it treated with a great deal of calculated generosity.  It was now a conquering power, the ruler of many subjects, people with few or any rights, comparable to the subjects of Assyria, Persia, or Alexander.  It was a full-time war-machine.  To hold what it had taken, and to protect its now expanded sphere of interest, meant that armies raised to beat Carthage had to be kept in existence.

And they found plenty to do. Spain, a mountainous, varied country, gave the Romans trouble for generations before it was thoroughly subdued.  And finally Rome had become an ambitious state.  Long before 202 B.C., Rome had left the road of moderation and taken the fast lane.  There were no longer any obvious limits to its power, any limits to its desire to interfere in its neighbors affairs.

So -- as far as the Romans were concerned, war did not end in 202 B.C. with the final defeat of Hannibal.  The new great power looked around and found that it had other fish to fry.  The system of Hellenistic kingdoms, which neighbored it to the east, presented both threats and opportunities.


Tim Cornell and John Matthews,  Atlas of the Roman World.

B.H. Warmington, Carthage.

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.