Punic wars

1. 1st War (264- 241 BCE)
2. 2nd War (218-201 BCE)
3. 3rd War (149-146 BCE)

Open interactive map of the Punic Wars





16th century painting depicting the Battle at Zama
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16th century painting depicting the Battle at Zama



Carthaginian catapult stones - the largest the size of footballs
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Carthaginian catapult stones – the largest the size of footballs. Carthage, Tunisia.

Collective name on the wars between the Punic (the Romans used the name Poeni on the people of Carthage) city-state of Carthage (now outside TunisTunisia) and Rome, the first war starting in 264 BCE, and the last ending in 146.

The wars were fought between the two strongest contenders for control over the central Mediterranean Sea of the time. For a long time during the second Punic war, it could seem that Carthage would become the victor.

The wars ended with the strong destruction of Carthage, which ended the city’s period as an independent powerhouse and an important trade center. However, the city would later become an important trading center inside the Roman Empire.

1st Punic War (264-241 BCE)
In the first half of the 3rd century BCE, Carthage held many territories that made it easy for them to control and dominate the western Mediterranean Sea, but when they conquered Messana (now Messina) on the northeastern tip of Sicily in 264, they faced the Romans for war for the first time.

The locals of Messana had requested Rome for aid, and for many different reasons Rome came to their rescue. The fear of a powerful neighbor was only one out of several motivations by the Romans. The promise of glory and plunder was also of great importance.

This war was fought mainly at sea around Sicily, and Carthage was by far the strongest of the two in this field. This supremacy was met by a large scale Roman construction of a naval fleet. After some years this brought its results, and it was reflected in the fightings, where Rome became stronger and stronger.

In 256 Carthage was besieged, but the Romans were defeated. Then for some years, Carthage was the most successful, notedly under the leadership of Hamilcar, but with the battle at the Aegates Islands in 241, the Carthaginians were beaten so painfully that they requested peace. This agreement involved leaving Sicily and paying a huge indemnity. Rome now controlled Sicily.

2nd Punic War (218-201 BCE)
The most important of the three wars was the second, and also the most fascinating. It was the Carthaginian’s bitterness over both the agreement from the first war and the Roman expansion following the next years (Corsica and Sardinia were taken from Carthage in 237), that brought it on.

From 237 to 219 Hannibal, son of Hamilcar, and Hasdrubal, Hamilcar’s son-in-law, conquered parts of Spain. In 226 an agreement with Rome set the northern border of the Carthaginian conquest to Ebro river (in northern Spain). But then the Romans themselves crossed the Ebro river, heading south on a conquest train, Hannibal decided to face them. This was at Saguntum (Sagunto, north of modern Valencia) in 219.

It was the same multiplicity of reasons as in 264, that made Rome declare war in 218. Then Hannibal did the totally unexpected: he set off in the northern direction and brought with him large troops including elephants. He crossed the Alps as much as 300 km inland from the Mediterranean Sea. The crossing of the Alps was hazardous, and large parts of the troops, as well as the elephants, were lost.

Hannibal could after the crossing enjoy a high star and had for some time success in recruiting locals to his troops. This was especially the truth for the Gauls in today’s northern Italy.

Even if Hannibal made alliances, and won several battles in the early years, he did not succeed in winning decisive battles. To some extent it could be suggested that he avoided a couple of them.

The Romans used a tactic of delaying, and they had a stronghold on the communications over both land and sea. This would eventually result in declining morals in Hannibals troops, and a fast falling star among local peoples of what is today’s Italian peninsula. After some time, Hannibal’s troops had become like a state without land, drifting around, always looking for new alliances and weak points in the Roman defense, but never finding it.

In 209 Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal Barca, repeated Hannibal’s Alp adventure, bringing reinforcements, but he was beaten in 207 at Metaurus river (near today’s Pesaro). The following year the Carthaginians were driven completely out of Spain.

In 204 the Roman sunder the leadership of Scipio invaded Ifriqiya (today’s Tunisia), and despite strong resistance, a peace was almost arranged in 203, when Hannibal returned.

Hannibal was beaten in Zama (near today’s Maktar, Tunisia) in 202. Peace was signed in 201. All claims on Spain were given up, and the Punic fleet was reduced to ten ships.

3rd Punic War (149-146 BCE)
The third war was entirely provoked by the Romans. After the second defeat, Carthage managed once again to return to much of its former glory, the economy prospered, and the fleet increased.

But the memory of the former Punic wars was strong in Rome; many hated the Carthaginians especially because there seemed to be nothing that could force them on their knees. Many Romans wanted to gain glory, and no enemy was more attractive than Carthage, even if the city-state now longer aspired to become an empire.

Rome used their ally, Masinissa, who ruled over Numidia to the west of Carthage, to bring forward a pretext for going to war.

Masinissa deliberately provoked Carthage, and in 149 Carthage attacked him. Rome came to aid for their ally, through declaring war on Carthage. The difference in military force was now to Rome’s advantage, and few battles were fought to decide who was the strongest.

At first a peace was agreed upon, but then Rome increased their demands, decreeing a total abandonment of the city. Facing these claims, the Carthaginians returned to fighting, and soon Carthage fell under what would become a 3 year-long siege.

When the Romans finally breached the walls, one week of fighting inside the city followed, then the city was burned, and the locals were either executed or sold into slavery.


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