The Punic Wars (264-241, 218-201, 149-146 B.C.)

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

The proximate cause of the first outbreak was a crisis in the city of Messana (Messina). A band of Campanian mercenaries, the Mamertini, who had forcibly established themselves within the town and were being hard pressed in 264 by Hieron II of Syracuse, applied for help to both Rome and Carthage. The Carthaginians, arriving first, occupied Messana and effected a reconciliation with Hieron. The Roman commander, nevertheless, persisted in forcing his troops into the city; he succeeded in seizing the Carthaginian admiral during a parley and induced him to withdraw. This aggression involved Rome in war with Carthage and Syracuse.

Operations began with their joint attack upon Messana, which the Romans easily repelled. In 263 the Romans advanced with a considerable force into Hieron's territory and induced him to seek peace and alliance with them. In 262 they besieged and captured the Carthaginian base at Agrigentum on the south coast of the island. The first years of the war left little doubt that Roman intentions extended beyond the protection of Messana.

In 260 the Romans built their first large fleet of standard battleships. At Mylae (Milazzo), off the north Sicilian coast, their admiral Gaius Duilius defeated a Carthaginian squadron of more maneuverable ships by grappling and boarding. This left Rome free to land a force on Corsica (259) and expel the Carthaginians, but it did not suffice to loosen their grasp on Sicily. A large Roman fleet sailed out in 256, repelled the entire Carthaginian fleet off Cape Ecnomus (near modern Licata), and established a fortified camp on African soil at Clypea (Kélibia in Tunisia). The Carthaginians, whose citizen levy was utterly disorganized, could neither keep the field against the invaders nor prevent their subjects from revolting. After one campaign they were ready to sue for peace, but the terms offered by the Roman commander Marcus Atilius Regulus were intolerably harsh. Accordingly, the Carthaginians equipped a new army in which cavalry and elephants formed the strongest arm. In 255 they offered battle to Regulus, who had taken up position with an inadequate force near Tunis, outmaneuvered him, and destroyed the bulk of his army. A second Roman fleet, which reached Africa after defeating the full Carthaginian fleet off Cape Hermaeum (Cape Bon), withdrew all the remaining troops.

The Romans now directed their efforts once more against Sicily. In 254 they captured the important fortress of Panormus (Palermo), but when Carthage moved reinforcements onto the island, the war again came to a standstill. In 251 or 250 the Roman general Caecilus Metellus at last staged a pitched battle near Panormus, in which the enemy's force was effectively crippled. This victory was followed by a siege of the chief Punic base at Lilybaeum (Marsala), together with Drepanum (Trapani), by land and sea. In the face of resistance, the Romans were compelled to withdraw in 249; in a surprise attack upon Drepanum the Roman fleet under the command of admiral Publius Claudius Pulcher lost 93 ships. This was the Romans' only naval defeat in the war. Their fleet, however, had suffered a series of grievous losses by storm and was now so reduced that the attack upon Sicily had to be suspended. At the same time, the Carthaginians, who felt no less severely the financial strain of the prolonged struggle, reduced their forces and made no attempt to deliver a counterattack.

In 242 Rome resumed operations at sea. A fleet of 200 warships was equipped and sent out to renew the blockade of Lilybaeum. The Carthaginians hastily assembled a relief force, but in a battle fought off the Aegates, or Aegusae (Aegadian) Islands, west of Drepanum, their fleet was caught at a disadvantage and was largely sunk or captured (March 10, 241). This victory, by giving the Romans undisputed command of the sea, rendered certain the ultimate fall of the Punic strongholds in Sicily. The Carthaginians accordingly opened negotations and consented to a peace by which they ceded Sicily and the Lipari Islands to Rome and paid an indemnity of 3,200 talents. The protracted nature of the war and the repeated loss of ships resulted in an enormous loss of life and resources on both sides.

The interval between the First and Second Punic Wars (241-218 B.C.)

The loss of naval supremacy not only deprived the Carthaginians of their predominance in the western Mediterranean but exposed their overseas empire to disintegration under renewed attacks by Rome. Even the Greek historian Polybius, an admirer of Rome, considered the subsequent Roman actions against Carthage aggressive and unjustified. A gross breach of the treaty was perpetrated when a Roman force was sent to occupy Sardinia, whose insurgent garrison had offered to surrender the island (238). To the remonstrances of Carthage the Romans replied with a declaration of war and only withheld their attack upon the cession of Sardinia and Corsica and the payment of a further indemnity.

From this episode it became clear that Rome intended to use the victory to the utmost. To avoid further infringement of its hegemony, Carthage had little choice but to respond with force. The recent complications of foreign and internal strife had indeed so weakened the Punic power that the prospect of renewing the war under favourable circumstances seemed remote. Yet Hamilcar Barca sought to rebuild Carthaginian strength by acquiring a dominion in Spain where Carthage might gain new wealth and manpower. Invested with an unrestricted foreign command, he spent the rest of his life founding a Spanish empire (237-228). His work was continued by his son-in-law Hasdrubal and his son Hannibal, who was placed at the head of the army in 221. These conquests aroused the suspicions of Rome, which in a treaty with Hasdrubal confined the Carthaginians to the south of the Ebro River. At some point Rome also entered into relations with Saguntum (Sagunto), a town on the east coast, south of the Ebro. To the Carthaginians it seemed that once again Rome was expanding its interests into their sphere of hegemony. In 219 Hannibal laid siege to Saguntum and carried the town in spite of stubborn defense. The Romans responded with an ultimatum demanding that the Carthaginians surrender Hannibal or go to war. The Carthaginian council supported Hannibal and accepted the war.

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

It seemed that the superiority of the Romans at sea ought to have enabled them to choose the field of battle. They decided to send one army to Spain and another to Sicily and Africa. But before their preparations were complete, Hannibal began the series of operations that dictated the course of the war for the greater part of its duration. He realized that as long as the Romans commanded the resources of an undivided Italian confederacy, no foreign attack could overwhelm them beyond recovery. Thus he conceived the plan of cutting off their source of strength by carrying the war into Italy and causing a disruption of the league. His chances of ever reaching Italy seemed small, for the sea was guarded by the Roman fleets and the land route was long and arduous.

But the very boldness of his enterprise contributed to its success; after a six months' march through Spain and Gaul and over the Alps, which the Romans were nowhere in time to oppose, Hannibal arrived (autumn 218) in the plain of the Po with 20,000 foot soldiers and 6,000 horses, the pick of his African and Spanish levies. At the end of the year, Hannibal, by superior tactics, repelled a Roman army on the banks of the Trebbia River, inflicting heavy losses, and thus made his position in northern Italy secure.

In 217 the campaign opened in Etruria, into which the invading army, largely reinforced by Gauls, penetrated via an unguarded pass. A rash pursuit by the Roman field force led to its being entrapped on the shore of Lake Trasimene (Trasimeno) and destroyed with a loss of at least 15,000 men. This catastrophe left Rome completely uncovered; but Hannibal, having resolved not to attack the capital before he could collect a more overwhelming force, directed his march toward the south of Italy, where he hoped to stir up the peoples who had formerly been the most stubborn enemies of Rome. The Italians, however, were slow everywhere to join the Carthaginians. A new Roman army under the dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus ("Cunctator") dogged Hannibal's steps on his forays through Apulia and Campania and prevented him from acquiring a permanent base of operations.

The eventful campaign of 216 was begun by a new, aggressive move on the part of Rome. An exceptionally strong field army, variously estimated at between 48,000 and 85,000 men, was sent to crush the Carthaginians in open battle. On a level plain near Cannae in Apulia, Hannibal deliberately allowed his centre to be driven in by the numerically superior Romans, while Hasdrubal's cavalry wheeled around so as to take the enemy in flank and rear. The Romans, surrounded on all sides, were practically annihilated, and the loss of citizens was perhaps greater than in any other defeat that befell the republic.

The effect of the battle on morale was no less momentous. The southern Italian peoples seceded from Rome, the leaders of the movement being the people of Capua, at the time the second greatest town of Italy. Reinforcements were sent from Carthage, and several neutral powers prepared to throw their weight into the scale on Hannibal's behalf. But the great resources of Rome, though terribly reduced in respect to both men and money, were not yet exhausted. In northern and central Italy the insurrection spread but little and could be sufficiently guarded against with small detachments. In the south the Greek towns of the coast remained loyal, and the numerous Latin colonies continued to render important service by interrupting free communication between the rebels and detaining part of their forces.

In Rome itself the crisis gave way to a unanimity unparalleled in the annals of the republic. The guidance of operations was henceforth left to the Senate, which, by maintaining a persistent policy until the conflict was brought to a successful end, earned its greatest title to fame. But it also produced a severe strain, released through cruel religious rites, which were an embarrassment to later Roman authors. The disasters were interpreted as evidence of divine wrath at Roman impiety, to be propitiated by punishment (burial alive) of two offending Vestal Virgins and by the human sacrifice of a Gallic and Greek man and woman.

The subsequent campaigns of the war in Italy assumed a new character. Though the Romans contrived at times to raise 200,000 men, they could spare only a moderate force for field operations. Their generals, among whom the veterans Fabius and Marcus Claudius Marcellus frequently held the most important commands, rarely ventured to engage Hannibal in the open and contented themselves with observing him or skirmishing against his detachments. Hannibal, whose recent accessions of strength were largely discounted by the necessity of assigning troops to protect his new allies or secure their wavering loyalty, was still too weak to undertake a vigorous offensive. In the ensuing years the war resolved itself into a multiplicity of minor engagements, which need not be followed in detail. In 216 and 215 the chief seat of war was Campania, where Hannibal, vainly attempting to establish himself on the coast, experienced a severe repulse at Nola.

In 214 the main Carthaginian force was transferred from Apulia in hopes of capturing Tarentum (Taranto), a suitable harbour by which Hannibal might have secured his overseas communications. In 213-212 the greater part of Tarentum and other cities of the southern seaboard at last came into Hannibal's power, but in the meantime the Romans were suppressing the revolt in Campania and in 212 were strong enough to place Capua under blockade. They severely defeated a Carthaginian relief force and could not be permanently dislodged even by Hannibal himself. In 211 Hannibal made a last effort to relieve his allies by a feint upon Rome itself, but the besiegers refused to be drawn away from their entrenchments, and eventually Capua was starved into surrender. The Romans in 209 gained a further important success by recovering Tarentum. Though Hannibal still won isolated engagements, he was slowly being driven back into the extreme south of the peninsula.

In 207 the arrival of a fresh invading force produced a new crisis. Hasdrubal, who in 208-207 had marched overland from Spain, appeared in northern Italy with a force scarcely inferior to the army that his brother had brought in 218. After levying contingents of Gauls and Ligurians, he marched down the east coast with the object of joining his brother in central Italy for a direct attack upon Rome itself. By this time the steady drain of men and money was telling so severely upon the confederacy that some of the most loyal allies protested their inability to render further help. Nonetheless, by exerting a supreme effort, the Romans raised their war establishment to the highest total yet attained and sent a strong field army against each Carthaginian leader. Before reaching Hannibal, Hasdrubal was met in northern Italy by the army of Marcus Livius Salinator, reinforced by part of Gaius Claudius Nero's army. The battle on the banks of the Metaurus (Metauro) River was evenly contested until Nero, with a dexterous flanking movement, cut off the enemy's retreat. The bulk of Hasdrubal's army was destroyed, and he himself was killed. His head was tossed into his brother's camp as an announcement of his defeat.

The campaign of 207 decided the war in Italy. Though Hannibal still maintained himself for some years in southern Italy, this was chiefly due to the exhaustion of Rome. In 203 Hannibal, in accordance with orders received from home, sailed back to Africa; and another expedition under his brother Mago, which had sailed to Liguria in 205 and endeavoured to rouse the slumbering discontent of the people in Cisalpine Gaul and Etruria, was forced to withdraw.

Second Punic War: Campaigns in Sicily and Spain

Concurrently with the great struggle in Italy, the Second Punic War was fought on several other fields. To the east King Philip V of Macedon began the First Macedonian War (214-205) in concert with the Carthaginians, when the Roman power seemed to be breaking up after Cannae. Although this compelled the Romans to stretch their already severely strained resources still further by sending troops to Greece, the diversions Roman diplomacy provided for Philip in Greece and the maintenance of a Roman patrol squadron in the Adriatic Sea prevented any effective cooperation between Philip and Hannibal.

Agriculture in Italy had collapsed, and the Romans had to look to Sardinia and Sicily for their food supply. Sardinia was attacked by Carthaginians in 215, but a small Roman force was enough to repel the invasion. In Sicily the death of Hieron II, Rome's steadfast friend, in 215 left the realm of Syracuse to his inexperienced grandson Hieronymus. The young prince abruptly broke with the Romans, but before hostilities commenced he was assassinated. The Syracusan people now repudiated the monarchy and resumed their republican constitution. When the Romans threatened terrible punishment, the Syracusans found it necessary to cooperate with the Carthaginians.

The Roman army and fleet under Marcus Claudius Marcellus, which speedily appeared before the town, were completely baffled by the mechanical contrivances that the Syracusan mathematician Archimedes had invented in 213 for the defense of the city. Meanwhile, the revolt against Rome spread in the interior of the island, and a Carthaginian fleet gained control of towns on the south coast. In 212 Marcellus at last broke through the defense of Syracuse and, in spite of the arrival of a Carthaginian relief force, took control of the whole town in 211. By the end of 210 Sicily was wholly under the power of Rome.

The conflict in Spain was second in importance only to the Italian war. From this country the Carthaginians drew large supplies of troops and money that might serve to reinforce Hannibal; hence it was in the interest of the Romans to challenge their enemy within Spain. Though the force that Rome at first spared for this war was small in numbers and rested entirely upon its own resources, the generals Publius Cornelius and Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio, by skillful strategy and diplomacy, not only won over the peoples north of the Ebro and defeated the Carthaginian leader Hasdrubal Barca in his attempts to restore communication with Italy but also carried their arms along the east coast into the heart of the enemy's domain.

But eventually the Roman successes were nullified by a rash advance. Deserted by their native contingents and cut off by Carthaginian cavalry, among which the Numidian prince Masinissa rendered conspicuous service, the Roman generals were killed and their troops destroyed (211).

Disturbances in Africa prevented the Punic commanders from exploiting their success. Before long the fall of Capua enabled Rome to transfer troops from Italy to Spain; and in 210 the best Roman general of the day, the young son and namesake of Publius Scipio, was placed in command by popular vote, despite his youth and lack of the prerequisite senior magistracies. He signalized his arrival by a bold and successful coup de main upon the great arsenal of Carthago Nova (Cartagena) in 209. Though after an engagement at Baecula (Bailen; 208) he was unable to prevent Hasdrubal Barca from marching away to Italy, Scipio profited by his opponent's departure to push back the remaining hostile forces the more rapidly. A last effort by the Carthaginians to retrieve their losses with a fresh army was frustrated by a great Roman victory at Ilipa, near Sevilla (Seville), and by the end of the year 206 the Carthaginians had been driven out of Spain.

Second Punic War: The war in Africa

In 205 Scipio, who had returned to Rome to hold the consulship, proposed to follow up his victories by an attack on the home territory of Carthage. Though the presence of Hannibal in Italy deterred Fabius and other senators from sanctioning this policy, Scipio gradually overbore all resistance. He built up a force, which he organized and supplemented in Sicily, and in 204 sailed across to Africa. He was met there by a combined levy of Carthage and King Syphax of Numidia and for a time was penned to the shore near Utica. But in the spring he extricated himself by a surprise attack on the enemy's camp, which resulted in the total loss of the allied force by sword or fire.

In the campaign of 203 a new Carthaginian force was destroyed by Scipio on the Great Plains 75 miles from Utica, their ally Syphax was captured, and the renegade Masinissa was reinstated in the kingdom from which Syphax had recently expelled him. These disasters induced the Carthaginians to sue for peace; but before the very moderate terms that Scipio offered could be definitely accepted, a sudden reversal of opinion caused them to recall Hannibal's army for a final trial of war and to break off negotiations. In 202 Hannibal assumed command of a composite force of citizen and mercenary levies reinforced by a corps of his veteran Italian troops.

After negotiations failed, Scipio and Hannibal met in the Battle of Zama. Scipio's force was somewhat smaller in numbers but well trained throughout and greatly superior in cavalry. His infantry, after evading an attack by the Carthaginian elephants, cut through the first two lines of the enemy but was unable to break the reserve corps of Hannibal's veterans. The battle was ultimately decided by the cavalry of the Romans and their new ally Masinissa, who by a maneuver recalling the tactics of Cannae took Hannibal's line in the rear and destroyed it.

The Carthaginians again applied for peace and accepted the terms that Scipio offered. They were compelled to cede Spain and the Mediterranean islands still in their hands, to surrender their warships, to pay an indemnity of 10,000 talents within 50 years, and to forfeit their independence in affairs of war and foreign policy.

The Second Punic War, by far the greatest struggle in which either power engaged, had thus ended in the complete triumph of Rome, although not because of any faultiness in the Carthaginians' method of attack. Carthage could only hope to win by invading Italy and using the enemy's home resources against him. The failure of Hannibal's brilliant endeavour was ultimately due to the stern determination of the Romans and to the nearly inexhaustible manpower from their Italian confederacy, which no shock of defeat or strain of war could entirely disintegrate. Although Rome and its allies suffered casualties of perhaps one-fifth of their adult male population, they continued fighting. For Polybius, the Second Punic War illustrated the superiority of the strong Roman constitution over Hannibal's individual genius.

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

After the Second Punic War, Carthage had recovered to the point that in 191 it offered to repay the remainder of the 50-year tribute of 200 talents per year in one lump sum. Rome's refusal of the offer suggests that beyond its monetary value the tribute had the symbolic importance of signifying subjection. Carthage's neighbour, the Numidian king Masinissa, had been granted as a reward for his support of Rome at the Battle of Zama his paternal kingdom and the western Numidian kingdom ruled by Syphax. During the next half century Masinissa periodically tried to exploit his favour in Rome by encroaching on Carthaginian territory. Initially, the Carthaginians submissively sought the arbitration of Rome in these disputes, but more often than not Roman judgment went in favour of Masinissa. After a series of losses, the Carthaginians in 151 decided to act on their own and raised an army to ward off the Numidian attacks. When a Roman delegation observed the Carthaginian army raised in breach of the treaty of 201, Rome was provided with the casus belli for a declaration of war in 149; Polybius, however, claims that the Senate had decided on this war "long before." The elderly Cato had been ending his speeches in the Senate since 153 with the notorious exhortation that "Carthage must be destroyed." Carthage desperately and pathetically tried to make amends, executing the generals of the expedition against the Numidians, surrendering to Rome, and handing over hostages, armour, and artillery. Only then did the Romans deliver their final demand: Carthage must be abandoned and the population moved to a new site inland. Such extreme terms could not be accepted.

The war against Carthage, with its prospects of rich booty, presented no recruiting problems for the Romans: huge land and naval forces were sent out under both consuls of 149, Lucius Marcius Censorinus and Manius Manilius. The imbalance of resources meant that the outcome was never in doubt, but the fortifications of Carthage delayed the Roman victory. The young Scipio Aemilianus was elected consul for 147, and by popular vote he was assigned the task of bringing the war to an end. He blockaded the city by land and sea, inflicting terrible suffering. Finally, in 146, the Roman army took Carthage, enslaved its remaining 50,000 inhabitants, burned the buildings to the ground, and ritually sowed the site with salt to guarantee that nothing would ever grow there again. Carthaginian territory was annexed as the province of Africa. (Encyclopaedia Britannica Article)