THE PUNIC WARS
ROME’S SEARCH FOR
SUPREMACY IN THE
• Carthage was a city-state on the Greek model that had been founded by
Phoenicians from Tyre in the 8th century. It was the strongest city in the
Western Mediterranean by the 3rd century and its wealth rested on trade.
Carthaginian merchants went from one end of the Mediterranean to the other,
the city's fleets were huge, and its army was one of the best in the ancient
• It was Carthage that pried loose the Greek hold on the western ports, and
Carthaginian merchants traded as far north as England (for Cornish tin) and
down the West African coast (for gold and ivory).
• Like Rome, Carthage learned how to make use of the manpower of its
conquered peoples, incorporating them into the Carthaginian army as
auxiliaries. Unlike Rome, but like the Greeks, the Carthaginians also made
extensive use of mercenaries.
• By the early 200s, Carthage had expanded not only across North Africa but
had control of the Belearic Islands, Sardinia, Corsica, and much of Sicily. She
took the goods from these regions, and her own fertile hinterland, and
shipped them to eastern ports.
• Once Rome had conquered most of Italy, it was only a matter of time before
these two ambitious and powerful empires came face to face with one
another. But both sides drifted unintentionally into hostilities, with drastic
consequences for both.
Origins of the First Punic War
• Carthage had, in the 260s, control of much of Sicily. This mattered little to Rome,
for it had few direct interests there. Thus, when a complicated little dispute
arose in the city of Messana in 264, and one side appealed to Carthage while the
other appealed to Rome, no one thought it was any more than a local quarrel.
• Messana was a port city controlling the Straits and so when a Carthaginian fleet
was invited in by one side, Rome felt it had to respond in some way. An
expeditionary force caused the Punic (the Roman word for Carthaginian) fleet to
withdraw and that could well have been that
• The Punic admiral's retreat was ill-received at home, and Carthage responded
with a larger force, prying out the Romans. Now the issue was more serious,
and Rome responded with a consular army. Again Rome won an easy victory--
so easy, in fact, that the consul decided to press into the interior in search of
• The line of this story should be obvious by now. Carthage responded with a
still-larger army, about 50,000. And Rome answered in kind, winning such
quick victories in 262 that they won nearly the entire island. Further victories,
however, were much harder to win, as it became apparent that Rome would
have to win control of the sea if it was to keep its gains in Sicily.
• The war, so thoughtlessly begun, would last 20 years. Neither side had sought a
major conflict, but neither side knew how to withdraw once the issue was
The First Punic War
• This was was fought on a scale much larger than Rome had before
attempted. The main battles were fought at sea, to support key sieges
and expeditions, for Carthage was a first-rate naval power. But land
battles were fought in Corsica, Sardinia, Africa and Sicily. Both sides
regularly kept fleets of 100 to 200 ships and armies of 50,000 to 70,000
in the field for year after year.
• Rome made many mistakes in this war, and suffered terrible losses for
it. Romans were not sailors, and they lost more ships in the war than
did Carthage--600 ships lost over the course of 20 years. Every time
Rome won a significant victory, the advantage was frittered away by
incompetent generals or a timid Senate. One of the great weaknesses of
the Republic was that it elected new generals every year, a system that
served well enough except in times of extended crises.
• Rome prevailed at last in 241. Carthage, exhausted more than beaten,
sued for peace and accepted harsh terms. The city itself, however,
remained unconquered. And her merchant fleets continued to generate
Results of the First Punic War
• Rome imposed a heavy indemnity on Carthage, to compensate her for
her losses. She also forced Carthage to give up all claims to Sicily. Thus,
as the result of this war, Rome won an easy income and a new
province. It was the first step in the creation of the Roman empire.
• Rome also learned some important lessons in this war. For one thing,
Romans learned how to make war at sea. It is too much to say they
learned to be sailors--even at the end of the Republic, they were still
hiring Greeks to captain their ships--but they learned how to conduct
naval warfare in an eminently Roman fashion.
• The Romans were not particularly good sailors, and they found
themselves outclassed by the Carthaginian navy. After suffering heavy
losses in sea battles, the Romans made adjustments, just as they did in
land warfare. They hired more Greek captains, for one thing, but one of
the more interesting adjustments was technological: the corvus.
• Rome learned, too, how to conduct war on a massive scale. The Senate
learned how to finance such a war, how to find the men for the armies,
how to find the supplies, how to build fleets (over and over), how to
conduct politics on the home front in times of war. All these were
lessons it would apply again in later struggles.
• Rome was now a Mediterranean power, though it perhaps did not yet
recognize the fact. She still had no real interest in trade, but her Greek
allies in southern Italy certainly did. She had not looked beyond Sicily
when she started the war, but her ambition was certainly whetted by
Origins of the Second Punic War
• The peace treaty had put Carthage in an
impossible position. Carthage had to fight
to regain her position or wither away to
insignificance, a fate she would not accept
willingly. Moreover, Rome continued to be
aggressive, acquiring Corsica in the 220s.
• Not long after the end of the First Punic
War, Carthage acquired a genuine hero:
Hamilcar Barca. This member of a noble
Carthaginian family conquered much of
Spain, acquiring in the process great
quantities of Spanish bullion, gaining
Spanish cavalry as auxiliaries, and forging
in the process a field army of great skill and
• Hamilcar hated Rome and longed to be the
man who would avenge the shame of the
First Punic War. As the years went by,
however, he began to realize it was not
fated for him, and he taught his son both his
skill in battle and his hatred of Rome.
• Hamilcar’s son's name was Hannibal.
• Hamilcar died when Hannibal was still a young man. The son
spent some time dealing with the inevitable rebellions, but
quickly established himself as an even greater leader than his
father. Hannibal was, by all accounts both ancient and modern,
a military genius. Because he eventually was on the losing side,
he is also rather a figure of tragedy.
• When he marched on Rome, at the age of twenty-five, he cast a
shadow over the entire history of the Roman Republic.
Outbreak of War
• War came in 218, when a
quarrel broke out over the
Roman colony of
Saguntum. The Romans
believed they could easily
contain Hannibal in
Spain, but he gave the
Roman army the slip and
was across the Pyrenees
almost before the Romans
knew what had
Hannibal Crosses the Alps
• Hannibal's march into Italy is legendary. The Roman Senate felt
secure from land invasion and took too few precautions. Their
confidence is understandable. There was Hannibal in Spain. He
had to fight his way through a Roman army, cross the Pyrenees
(themselves a difficult range of mountains), then fight his way
across southern France, for this area was under Roman control,
then cross the formidable Alps.
• The scope of the accomplishment is sometimes overlooked in
survey textbooks. Crossing the Alps was remarkable, but
Hannibal did much more than that.
• When word came that Hannibal had escaped from Spain, Rome
was concerned but not panicked. The Senate sent a second army
to hold the bridges at the Rhone River. This river is deep and
swift in its lower courses. The Romans were sure they could
prevent Hannibal from crossing, then defeat him in their own
good time in southern Gaul.
• Again Hannibal fooled them. He slipped northward, avoiding Roman
sentries, and crossed the river on pontoons and by swimming. The
crossing was treacherous; not only was the river in spring flood, but if
he were discovered by the Romans during the crossing, his army
would have been destroyed on the spot. Most remarkable about the
crossing was the elephants. The river was too deep for the elephants to
wade, and no pontoon bridge would hold them. So he had bladders
filled with air -- elephant water wings -- and floated the beasts across,
not without loss.
• Once across, Hannibal marched quickly south again and caught the
Roman army entirely by surprise. He won a resounding victory, and
now nothing stood between him and Italy. Except the Alps.
• The crossing of the Alps was a heroic effort. Many classical authors
told the story; the account by Livy is as good as any. The mountains
themselves were dangerous, of course, but they were made even more
dangerous by the fact that local tribes cheerfully fought anyone who
entered their mountains, so Hannibal had to fight his way over the
mountains. He arrived in Italy with only 26,000 men and about two
dozen elephants. So, while it is true that Hannibal brought his
elephants across the Alps, he did so only at great loss. Most died either
at the Rhone or in the Alps.
• Hannibal was now (early 217) in Italy. This was the first crucial test of
his war strategy: he proclaimed the liberty of the Gauls, those
Germanic tribes who had settled in northern Italy and who had not
been long under Roman rule. Few rallied to Hannibal's call. This did
not dismay him, for he knew that he would have to prove his ability to
defend them before they would risk Rome's wrath.
• The Romans were now thoroughly alarmed. Hannibal had escaped
from one trap after another and was earning for himself a reputation
among the Romans for almost superhuman cunning. So the Senate sent
both consuls north to meet the Carthaginian.
• Each Roman consul had at his command an army of 20,000, and
Hannibal was outnumbered almost two to one. Moreover, the Romans
took up a position along the Trebbia River. Hannibal did not dare to
cross the river in the face of superior forces, but neither did he have the
luxury of long maneuvering. He had to win victories, quickly and
decisively, if the political side of his strategy was going to work.
• Hannibal again out-foxed the Romans.
He tricked them into crossing the
Trebbia by sending skirmishers across
the river. As soon as the Romans
attacked, these began retreating, luring
the Romans across the river. It was
winter, it was raining and the river was
chest-high, so the Romans emerged on
the other side half-frozen. Hannibal had
attacked early in the morning and the
Roman commander did not give his men
time to eat. The Carthaginians, on the
other hand, had eaten well, been
warmed by their fires, and had oiled
their bodies to protect from the cold.
• Moreover, Hannibal had taken a •The result was a stunning
thousand hand-picked cavalry and a victory for Hannibal. Of the
thousand hand-picked infantry and had 40,000 Roman soldiers, barely
hidden them in the brush. After the 10,000 were able to return to
battle was deeply engaged, Hannibal Rome. A number of Gallic tribes
sprang his trap and the concealed troops
appeared behind the Roman position.. now came over to Hannibal. Both
aspects of his strategy were
• The Romans quickly fielded another
army, for the heart of Roman strength
was in central and southern Italy. This
second army met Hannibal at Lake
Trasimene (217). Once again Hannibal
outfoxed them, destroying another
• In a single year, Hannibal had
destroyed two full Roman armies. But
the political side of his equation was
not in fact working. The Italian allies
did not leave the side of the Romans.
Many of the Italian cities had made
war with Rome and been defeated.
They knew Rome's strength and
would not lightly test it. Roman
armies were still in the field and
Rome itself was unconquered.
Hannibal still had to prove himself.
Battle of Cannae
• The losses at the Trebbia River and Lake Trasimine were devastating.
In the crisis, the Senate chose Fabius Maximus to be dictator. Fabius
Maximus undertook an entirely different strategy toward the invader.
He avoided pitched battles and instead kept his army at Hannibal's
heels. In the meantime, he worked fervently to keep the allies loyal,
promising that Rome would protect them.
• So, in 216, once again Roman consuls led Roman armies against
Hannibal. The Senate voted them double armies; with a normal
consular army nominally at 20,000, a double army would be 40,000.
Since both consuls were operating together, this should have produced
80,000 men; the promise of the consuls was that overwhelming force
would carry the day. It is a measure of how badly Hannibal had hurt
Rome that the double consular armies numbered only 70,000
• Nevertheless, the odds were better than 2 to 1 in favor of the Romans.
Moreover, the consuls were sure they had learned a valuable lesson.
Hannibal was notoriously tricky; indeed, Carthaginians could not beat
a Roman army in open combat but could succeed only by ruses. So,
this time, they would bring the fox out into the open where he could
not trick them.
• Near Cannae, in central Italy, Hannibal obliged the Romans.
The field was indeed wide open - there was no possibility of
surprise. The Roman front was much wider than the
Carthaginian front, and Hannibal must surely be flanked.
• The fox still knew some tricks, though. When the Romans
advanced, with most of their strength in the center, Hannibal
gave way before them. The Roman front closed around the
Carthaginian infantry and it indeed looked as though Rome
• But on the flanks were the cavalry for both contestants, and the
Punic cavalry defeated the Roman. Once they won the field,
they were able to attack the rear of the advancing Roman
infantry. Thus, even though the Roman infantry nearly
surrounded the Carthaginian, the Romans were in turn
surrounded by horsemen.
• At this point, the Carthaginians counter-attacked. Trapped, with
nowhere to retreat, the Roman lines dissolved into chaos.
Thousands of Romans died. The consul Paulus perished in the
battle. Fleeing Romans were hamstrung (that is, the pursuer
rather than trying to kill the fleeing enemy simply slashed at the
man's hamstring muscle, returning later to kill the crippled
man). Out of the 70,000 Romans to take the field, about 10,000
survived; the survivors were placed in two special legions that
were forced to remain under service for the duration of the war,
as a punishment for their failure.
• It was a terrible slaughter. When the first survivors staggered
back to Rome, they were met with disbelief. As more arrived,
disbelief changed to horror. Hannibal now had defeated the
equivalent of eight consular armies in the space of two years.
No one before or after him ever had such brilliant success
against Roman arms.
• The Battle of Cannae has served as a classic example of a
double-envelopment maneuver, a way for an inferior force to
defeat a superior force on open terrain. Hannibal's tactics at
Cannae are still studied in military academies.
Results of the Battle of Cannae
• the Roman Senate went into continuous session, in order to
demonstrate to the people that its leaders had not abandoned
the city and were tending to the public business. After the initial
panic, the Senate and people of Rome settled into a mood of
• Fabius Maximus was again given command of a Roman army
and he again employed his tactics of harassment; this is still
known as Fabian tactics. He played an important role in
keeping the allies close, for he used his much-reduced army to
protect cities from attack by Hannibal. The Carthaginian army
was too small to settle in for a long siege because they had
always to fear that Fabius Maximus would arrive and disrupt
the siege. The allies came to believe that Rome could indeed
protect them from the invader.
• Because the allies held, Rome was able to build up her strength
once again. By the year 212, Rome had twenty-five legions
(about eight consular armies) in the field.
• 212 was perhaps the height of Hannibal's strength in Italy, but in
reality he had lost when Rome did not collapse after Cannae. He
gained Tarentum in 212, the largest port in Italy, but in 211 Rome
recaptured Capua, more than offsetting Tarentum.
• During these years, both sides ravaged the countryside in an attempt to
starve the enemy. Hannibal, moreover, began to use force to terrorize
cities into alliance with him. He acquired a reputation for being
bloodthirsty and ruthless, to go with his reputation for cunning. In
some cases, just the rumor that Hannibal was in the neighborhood was
enough to make Roman troops retreat.
• The Romans, in their turn, took to burning fields themselves, trying to
starve Hannibal out, trying to weary his men. Since all the
campaigning was now in southern Italy, it being a Roman goal to keep
Hannibal confined to the south, the result was that certain districts
found themselves repeatedly plundered. Year after year the crops were
burned. Vineyards were destroyed, orchards chopped down or burned,
villages and even towns razed to the ground.
• It was a war of attrition now. Hannibal sought to stay alive long
enough to find a way of inflicting further major defeats on Rome. The
Romans, on the other hand, did all they could to avoid a pitched battle,
yet still keep Hannibal in check and keep him from escaping to the
north (where he had allies among the Gauls).
• The climax of this phase of the war came in 207, when Hannibal's
brother sought to join forces with him in Italy.
• Hannibal's younger brother, Hasdrubal, had been fighting in Spain.
Indeed, there had been fighting in Spain ever since Hannibal left there,
and the campaigns were tough and hard- fought. Even as the goal in
Italy was to keep Hannibal bottled up, so the goal in Spain was to keep
Hasdrubal bottled up.
• But by 208, Hannibal's position was becoming desperate. He sent word
to his brother that he had to come to Italy at all costs.
• Hasdrubal was forced to battle at the Metaurus River, and the Romans
won a resounding victory there. Hasdrubal himself was killed in the
battle. When Hannibal learned of this, he retreated south again,
unwilling to give battle in his turn.
• The Metaurus River was the last significant battle in Italy of the Second
Punic War. From 207 onward, Hannibal's only thought was how to
preserve his army and how to preserve Carthage itself.
• For a time, it seemed that the best way to protect Carthage was to
remain in Italy. If Rome mounted a major invasion of Africa, she would
have to so weaken Italy that Hannibal could again threaten Rome. The
situation was a standoff that neither side could afford to maintain.
• The deadlock was broken by another figure from the
Spanish theatre of the war: Scipio. Like Hasdrubal,
and indeed like Hannibal himself, Scipio had
learned generalship in the difficult campaigning in
Spain. Like them, he had built up an army that was
both battle-tested and fiercely loyal to their It took two years of
• In 205, Scipio ran for consul on the platform that he before he was able
could defeat Carthage and bring the long war to a to accomplish the
close. His success in Spain helped, and he won. He fleet. Much to the
gathered a large army of volunteers and landed in dismay of Rome, in
Africa in 204. 202 Hannibal
• From the time he landed, Carthage began appealing escaped from Italy
to Hannibal to return to Africa. This was no small with his army
trick, for the Romans were waiting for Hannibal to intact. He returned
do just that. Hannibal had to find a way to get his to Carthage and
20,000 men to a seaport undetected by Roman
raised more troops
armies. At the same time, a Carthaginian transport
fleet had to make its way to the port undetected by locally, then turned
Roman navies to meet Scipio.
The Battle of Zama
• The two met near Zama, about a hundred miles south of
Carthage. Both sides had about 25,000 men. For once, the
Romans had the better cavalry, for Scipio had brought with him
his superb Spanish horesement. But Hannibal, on home ground
in Africa now, had his elephants.
• These were war elephants, specially trained, and Hannibal
staked the battle on them. He ranged his elephants, perhaps a
hundred or so, in front of his infantry. When the battle began,
he sent them en masse against the Roman lines, like a cavalry
• It must have been terrifying to the Romans, but Scipio had
prepared them. He knew of Hannibal's plans and had his own
plan in place. He had his troops spread in normal battle
formation. When the elephants charged, the men re-formed into
columns, leaving wide alleys between.
• To aid the elephants, the men were instructed to shout, bang
metal on metal, and general make as much noise as possible,
causing the beasts to shy away from the noise and into the alley
ways. And as they went passed, archers shot at their riders.
• The Roman troops executed the plan perfectly. The elephants
passed right through the Roman lines.
• Now the real battle began. Scipio used much the same tactics at
Zama as Hannibal had at Cannae. He allowed his infantry to
give way while his cavalry executed a flanking maneuver. The
cavalry was almost immediately successful.
• The Carthaginian infantry fought hard, though, and the battle
lasted most of the day. In the end, Hannibal was defeated so
completely that he immediately returned to Carthage and
advised the city to surrender.
The End of the Second Punic War
• In 202 BC Rome's second war with Carthage came to an end.
• Carthage had to give up her entire empire. Spain, the islands,
North Africa, her navy, her army, all of it was either gone or
drastically reduced. All that was left to her was the city itself, a
hinterland of some thirty miles, and a miniscule army to protect
against desert tribes.
• Carthage was allowed no foreign policy but became a client of
• A ditch marked the limits of Carthaginian territory, and it was
part of the peace treaty that should armed Carthaginians cross
that border it automatically meant war with Rome.
• Hannibal himself went east; he took service with various eastern
kings, and for some years rumors shook Rome that Hannibal
was consipiring with this or that king to raise an army and
march again on Italy.
• When Hannibal finally died, somewhat mysteriously and before
his time, it was believed that he had been poisoned.
Results of the Second Punic War
• The Second Punic War was a turning point in Roman history, with
profound implications for the Republic. The most immediate and
obvious effect was the acquisition of empire: in the space of fifty years
Rome had acquired most of the western Mediterranean. The Republic
now had to adjust its finances, administration, foreign policy and
alliance system to rule these new territories.
• It seems self-evident, but it is worth stressing that these territories were
indeed conquered lands, and Rome had to keep large numbers of men
in the army in order to secure them. The army therefore continued to
play a crucial role in every aspect of Roman society, for it was the
keystone of the empire.
• The only power left in the Mediterranean was Greece, and it was only a
matter of time before these two clashed. Indeed, even as Rome fought
with Hannibal she found time to quarrel with Macedonia and to fight a
few skirmishes known as the First Macedonian War. As the name
implies, there would be more.
• The war with Hannibal, and Hannibal himself, was viewed by
the Romans themselves in nearly mythic terms. Later Romans
saw this as Rome's heroic age, a time when the villains were
most villainous and the heroes most heroic. It was an age when
all Romans were virtuous and everything worked.
• Although Hannibal never again actually threatened Rome, his
memory did constantly. He became a monster, a cruel and
crafty invader who was stopped only by epic courage and
perseverance. It is a measure of the fear his name inspired that
long after he was dead and gone, parents would scold naughty
children with the warning that if they weren't good, Hannibal
would come to get them in the night.
• Italy itself suffered cruelly in the war. Hannibal spent fourteen
years there, mostly in southern Italy. During much of this time,
both sides ruthlessly burned fields and orchards, slaughtered
livestock, and destroyed villages. As the years went by, the
steep hillsides began to lose their topsoil. By war's end,
southern Italy was permanently impoverished.
Third Punic War
• The Third Punic War was a brief, tawdry affair, unworthy of the
heroism of the previous conflicts. If ever there was a war that
could be called unnecessary, this one would qualify.
• Despite all the penalties and all the impediments, Carthage
recovered economically. Rome had taken away her empire and
the financial burden that went with it, but had left her free to
pursue trade as she willed. Carthage paid off her war indemnity
and by the middle of the second century, was flourishing.
• This did not set well with many Roman senators. Rome had acquired a good
deal of fertile land along the coast of North Africa, and a number of senators
had invested in olives and grain there. But these were goods in which
Carthage traded as well, and Carthage was rather better at it.
• A faction within the Senate, led by Cato the Elder, began to agitate against
Carthage. Was it right, they asked, that Carthage should prosper while
Romans toiled? Was Carthage's new prosperity not potentially dangerous?
After all, the city had twice troubled Rome. And, in any case, Carthage was
harming Roman mercantile interests.
• Cato began to urge that the only sure defense against a resurgent Carthage
was to destroy it. Rome would never be safe so long as Carthage stood. He
made a campaign of it: Carthago delenda est! -- Carthage must be destroyed!
• The neighboring African tribes learned soon enough that the Carthaginians
did not dare to cross the Roman-imposed frontier. They learned to raid the
Punic hinterland, then race across the border to perfect safety. These raids
gradually became serious and Carthage chose finally to defend itself.
• Carthage re-armed. In 149 the tribesmen again raided, but this time a Punic
army followed them and destroyed their camps. With Cato's slogan ringing in
their ears, with their jealousy of Carthage's economic success, the Roman
senate decreed that the terms of the treaty had been violated and it duly
declared war.In a nice irony, it was a descendant of Scipio Africanus who led
the siege of Carthage.
• Even so, it took three years. The Romans
dithered and competed for the honor of
victory, while the people of Carthage
fought fiercely, knowing their fate. The
great city walls were not breached until
146, and it took a week of street fighting
for the Romans to work their way to the
citadel. After some further resistance, the
starving garrison surrendered.
• Cato's slogan was implemented in typical
thorough-going Roman style. The walls of
Carthage were torn down, the city put to
the torch. The citizens were sold into
slavery and the Senate passed a decree
that no one could live where Carthage
once stood. Scipio Aemelianus received a
triumph for his victory.
• So ended the Third Punic War. It had no
real consequences, other than the
destruction of the city became legendary
(among the legends was that the earth
around Carthage was salted so nothing
could grow -- not so).
Rome in 146 BC
• The first half of the second century also saw the wars with Macedonia,
by which parts of Greece also became a Roman province. Rome did not
really want to conquer Greece, for Romans generally admired Greek
culture, but once involved they could find no remedy for eternal Greek
disorder than conquest.
• The Fourth Macedonian War came to a conclusion in 146, the same
year as the Third Punic War. Rome by now was more than capable of
carrying on wars on multiple fronts, at least if they were not too large.
She was a true imperial power.
• By 146, Rome had been at war for nearly a hundred years, almost
without respite. The effort had taken its toll. The city now ruled an
empire that stretched from one end of the Mediterranean to the other,
but it ruled that empire with a government that had been designed to
rule a city-state.