Punic Wars

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Editor: Trevor N. Dupuy
Date: 1993
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,682 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1230L

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The Punic Wars were the three wars fought between Republican Rome and Carthage in the third and second centuries B.C. Originally an ancient Phoenician trading post on the northern coast of Africa, Carthage had become the dominant maritime and commercial power in the western Mediterranean by the third century B.C. Rome, which had consolidated control of the Italian peninsula by 265 B.C., could not ignore the imperialistic growth of Carthage, which had colonized Corsica, Sardinia, the Spanish coast, and western Sicily (the adjective Punic comes from Poeni, the Latin name for the Carthaginians).

First Punic War (264-241 B.C.)

The first war evolved from the growing political and economic rivalry between the two states over Sicily. The crisis that initiated the conflict was the seizure of the Sicilian city of Messana (Messini) by the Mamertini mercenaries of Campani. When the mercenaries were besieged by the armies of King Hiero II of Syracuse, they appealed to both Rome and Carthage for aid. The Carthaginians, who arrived first, occupied Messana and made peace with Syracuse. Rome, after some political vacillation, crossed the strait separating Sicily from Italy and in three campaigns drove the Carthaginians back into western Sicily, which they had occupied prior to the hostilities. The Romans could not expel the Carthaginians from western Sicily because of their excellent fortifications, which were easily supplied by their superior seapower.

Realizing their weakness, the Romans decided to challenge Carthage for control of the seas. Rome rapidly built its first great fleet while simultaneously training its oarsmen on the shore. Doubting their ability to outmaneuver the Carthaginians, the Romans equipped their ships with erect gangways with spiked ends. At close quarters, these gangways could be dropped onto the decks of enemy ships and serve as boarding bridges for the Roman soldiers, who excelled at hand-to-hand combat. In 260 B.C., the Roman admiral Gaius Duilius defeated a superior Carthaginian fleet at Mylae, off the northern Sicilian coast.

In 256 a large Roman fleet repelled the main Carthaginian fleet at Cape Ecnomus and went on to establish a Roman base at Clypea (Keliba in Tunisia). In 255, the Greek mercenary, Xanthippus, defeated the Romans commanded by Marcus Atillius Regulus near Tunis. A Roman fleet withdrawing the troops from Africa perished in a storm with a loss of nearly 100,000 men and 250 vessels. The remaining years of the war were fought in the area of Sicily as both sides began to feel the financial strain of the prolonged conflict. The only noteworthy feature of the land war was the emergence of Hamilcar Barca, who won several victories over Rome in Sicily. Rome rebuilt her navy and in 241 B.C. inflicted a disastrous defeat on the Carthaginian navy off the Aegates Islands near Sicily.

The Battle of Aegates gave Rome undisputed naval superiority and forced Carthage to open negotiations that led to the Romans exacting an indemnity of 3,200 talents and the cession of Sicily and the Lipari Islands. Sicily was the first Roman overseas province and the initial step toward empire. During a mutiny in 238 B.C. by Carthaginian mercenaries in the "Truceless War," Rome seized Corsica and Sardinia from a politically divided Carthage.

Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.)

Carthage resented Rome's victory in the first Punic War and the subsequent seizures of Corsica and Sardinia. Under the leadership of the powerful Barca family, Carthage consolidated new sources of wealth and potential mercenaries in Spain. The Romans became concerned about the continued Carthaginian exploitation of Spain and negotiated a treaty in 255 B.C., establishing the Ebro River as a demarcation line between the rival nations. In 221 Rome supported an anti-Carthaginian party in the city of Saguntum, which was well within the Carthaginian sphere of influence. Carthage interpreted this as aggression and its military response opened the Second Punic War.

In 220 Hannibal, the 25-year-old son and successor of the deceased Hamilcar, attacked and took Saguntum. Rome officially declared war in 218. Anticipating Rome's response, Hannibal left his brother Hasdrubal as commander in Spain and marched a large army through Spain and Gaul, attacking the Romans in Italy before they could launch offensives into Carthage and Spain.

The boldness of Hannibal's strategy contributed to his success. After crossing the rugged Alps, he scored his initial victories on the banks of the Ticinus and the Trebbia in 218 B.C. In 217, with his 30,000 men reinforced by Gauls, he penetrated into Etruria and defeated a Roman force on the shores of Lake Trasimene. This disaster cost Rome over 15,000 men and opened the way for Hannibal to push deeper into Italy. Rome sent consuls Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paulus with 80,000 men to destroy Hannibal. This decision to depart from the successful delaying tactics of Quintus Fabius Maximus ("Cunctator") in 216, resulted in the bloodiest defeat in Roman history. On a level plain near the small fortress of Cannae in Apulia, Hannibal deployed his center, composed mainly of Spaniards and Gauls, in a convex formation. He posted his Carthaginian veterans behind the center. He permitted the superior Roman forces to push in his center until it was stabilized by his Carthaginians while his cavalry wheeled around to attack the Roman rear and flanks. The Romans, wedged into a tight pocket, could not use their weapons and were caught in a horrible massacre. Hannibal's classic victory at Cannae tactically depended on an unorthodox disposition of troops and careful timing and coordination. Seventy thousand Romans, including several senators, nobles, and the Consul Aemilius Paulus were killed at Cannae by Hannibal's double development tactics.

Despite his military successes, Hannibal failed in his efforts and strategy to win over enough dissatisfied defectors from Rome. In addition, his requests for reinforcements and supplies were often ignored. Roman resumption of the Fabian strategy deprived Hannibal of additional victories. Hasdrubal valiantly crossed the Alps to reinforce his brother only to be defeated and killed at the Metaurus River in northern Italy in 207 B.C. Meanwhile, the Roman forces under Publius Cornelius Scipio, later named Scipio Africanus, had defeated the Carthaginians in Spain at Carthago Nova in 209. His victory at Ilipa, near Seville, in 206 resulted in the expulsion of Carthage from Spain. Having already defeated the Carthaginian forces in Sicily after several battles in 210, Rome had turned the war to its favor.

In 204 B.C., Scipio sailed a large force across to Africa. Initially pinned down on the coast, Scipio broke away to win several decisive battles over the Carthaginians and their ally, King Syphax of Numidia. Scipio restored King Masinissa to the throne of Numidia, from which Syphax had expelled him. Carthage was induced by these events in 203 to sue for peace, but before the negotiation could be concluded a reversal of opinion led to a resumption of the war.

Hannibal was recalled from Italy to defend Carthage. He had maintained his army and the military initiative in Italy for fifteen years. In Africa, he faced a formidable Roman army with a force of his veteran troops combined with mercenary and citizen levies. At the decisive Battle of Zama in 202, Scipio's infantry evaded an attack by the Carthaginian elephants and cut through the first two lines only to be stymied by Hannibal's veterans. The Romans, in a move recalling the tactics of Cannae, won the battle by attacking the Carthaginian rear with cavalry supplemented by Masinissa's troops.

The defeat at Zama forced Carthage to accept a Roman peace treaty in 201. Carthage surrendered its navy, ceded Spain and the Mediterranean islands, and paid an indemnity of 10,000 talents to Rome. Restricted in size, Carthage was no longer a great military or commercial power.

Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.)

During the second century B.C., Carthage again grew commercially powerful, which only served to irritate the Romans. The Roman censor Cato the Elder became obsessed with the belief that Carthage had to be eliminated. Again and again over the years, he voiced the phrase "Delenda est Carthago" ("Carthage must be destroyed"). During this time, Masinissa of Numidia took every opportunity available to encroach on Carthage, whose complaints to Rome resulted only in judgments in favor of Masinissa. The leadership of Carthage became exasperated by Numidian aggression. In 151 B.C., they exiled several of Masinissa's supporters and even attacked forces led by his sons when they tried to restore order. This led to war between Carthage and Numidia in 150. A more important result was that the Carthaginian war with Masinissa violated the terms of the Treaty of Zama and gave Rome a pretext for war.

Rome dispatched an army to Africa, where the desperate Carthaginians agreed to surrender their arms and make general reparations. They were goaded into war when the Romans added the further stipulation that they must renounce their commercial policies, abandon the coast, and immigrate to the African interior. The Roman siege of Carthage lasted three years. During the first two years the poorly disciplined Roman army was led by incompetent commanders. In 147 the command was given to Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, the adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus and a newly elected consul. The consul took Carthage in the spring of 146 in a six-day battle that raged from street to street and house to house until the city was razed. The surviving 50,000 people were sold into slavery and Carthage's ruins were included in the province of Africa Proconsularis. The story that Carthage was plowed under and the ruins covered with salt is based on exaggerated accounts by later writers. The impressive ruins remained for centuries, although they were constantly reduced for their quarried and dressed stones.


The issue between Rome and Carthage had been decided at the conclusion of the Second Punic War. The destruction of Carthage in the third war was simply primitive and brutal aggression by Rome. With the conclusion of the struggle with Carthage, Rome, the once small agricultural village of central Italy, became the master of a significant portion of the ancient world and the undisputed commercial power in the Mediterranean Sea.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2342200579