Many people have surely heard of names like “Hannibal” and “Carthage” from high school history, but the colossal legacy of the Punic Wars has been lost in introductory Roman history.
The three conflicts led to the destruction of Carthage’s ancient city and led to the rise of Rome as the superpower of the Mediterranean.
In this article, we will explore the roots of the conflict and how its outcome transformed the power dynamic of the ancient Mediterranean.
What Are the Punic Wars?
The Punic Wars are remembered today as an example of ancient warfare at its most brutal. These conflicts saw the two superpowers of the Mediterranean, Rome and Carthage, in the battle for supreme control of the region.
The military tactics used throughout the wars are still taught in many military academies today. Many of the conflicts’ generals have become known as some of history’s most outstanding military leaders. These conflicts serve as a brutal example of ancient warfare and explain the rise of Rome in the Mediterranean.
What Caused the Punic Wars?
In the early 9th century B.C., Phoenicians settled in Carthage on the Mediterranean coast of modern-day Tunisia. Princess Dido of the Phoenician city-state of Tyre is credited with creating the city. The Carthaginians soon showed themselves to be excellent sailors and became a significant power in Mediterranean trade networks.
The Carthaginians were primarily known for their clothing colored with purple dye along with iron carvings and glass. Purple translates to “punic” in Latin, which would be the name given to the series of conflicts between Carthage and Rome to control the Mediterranean.
Before the Punic Wars, Rome was the dominant regional power of the Italian peninsula, while Carthage was the dominating naval power of the Mediterranean Sea. Carthage not only boasted the greatest navy of the Mediterranean but also controlled many trade routes and colonies throughout the region. Carthage controlled much of the northern coast of Africa, southern Iberia, and a large portion of Sicily.
Despite this Mediterranean rivalry, Carthage had historically remained friendly with Rome, as both saw each other as important trade partners. The causes of the Punic Wars did not stem from the confrontation between the two powers but the control of the island of Sicily.
In 264 B.C., a conflict broke out in a Carthaginian province on the island of Sicily involving the cities of Syracuse and Messina. Carthage chose to ally with Syracuse, while Rome supported Messina. The conflict soon escalated from a localized civil war to a power struggle between Carthage and Rome to control the island.
While both Carthage and Rome had been friendly before the unrest on Sicily, both had competing interests and security concerns in the island. Carthage did not want to lose its influence on the island, and Rome saw a worrying security threat in expanding Carthaginian influence only two miles off the coast of the Italian Peninsula.
First Punic War
When the First Punic War began, Rome had an impressive army. But its navy was inferior to the superior Carthaginian navy, which boasted one of the most prominent maritime fleets in the world. However, Rome began quickly building up its navy in 260 B.C., largely modeling its ships from captured Carthaginian warships.
The Romans added a decisive addition to the Carthaginian-style warship: a moveable bridge that could drop onto enemy ships. Roman troops would then board the ship and engage in hand-to-hand combat. This mechanism allowed the Romans to turn an exclusively naval battle against a superior maritime power into a Roman advantage. Over time as the Roman navy became more experienced and refined, this bridge was no longer needed.
At the Battle of Mylae in 260 B.C., the Roman navy won its first victory against the Carthaginian fleet off the northern coast of Sicily. Roman admiral Gaius Duilius defeated the superior Carthaginian ships by using the new boarding tactic. This victory gave Rome the naval security to successfully invade the island of Corsica, though the island of Sicily remained heavily contested.
At the Battle of Ecnomus in 256 B.C., a large Roman fleet defeated the Carthaginian navy off the southern coast of Sicily and established a fortified position on the North African coast in modern-day Tunisia. This clash caused mass panic throughout Carthage, which immediately reached out to Rome to sue for peace. However, Roman General Marcus Regulus gave exceedingly harsh surrender terms, which convinced the Carthaginian government to keep fighting.
Carthage hired a Greek Spartan named Xanthippus, who brought a band of mercenaries into Carthage to lead its defense against the Roman troops in North Africa. Xanthippus used cavalry and war elephants in 255 B.C. to destroy the majority of the Roman troops.
After the defeat in North Africa, Rome then turned its focus to Sicily, taking the Panormus fortress in 254 B.C. Four years later, a Roman victory near the fort delivered a decisive blow to Carthage’s Sicilian troop strength.
In 249 B.C., a Carthaginian surprise naval attack sank 93 Roman ships, which would be the only Roman maritime defeat of the entire war. With Rome’s navy in shambles and Carthage facing severe financial troubles because of the conflict, a stalemate ensued until several years later when Rome’s navy could fully launch a wide-scale attack.
In 241 B.C., the Romans won a decisive battle at sea off the coast of the Aegates Insulae, where much of the Carthaginian navy was sunk. This victory gave the Roman navy undisputed dominance in the Mediterranean. Trade was completely cut off from Africa to Sicily, which prompted the stranded Carthaginians fighting on the island to sue for peace.
The First Punic War ended as Rome claimed its first overseas province with its acquisition of Sicily.
Second Punic War
In the years following the First Punic War, Rome emerged as the dominant naval power of the Mediterranean Sea. Carthage was forced to fund large war indemnities to Rome, which meant that it could not pay the mercenaries that fought in the war. General Hamilcar Barca, a Carthaginian general who had many military successes in Sicily, was put in charge of putting down a revolt of the mercenaries.
Rome took advantage of this unrest and took control of the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, which further hurt Carthaginian trade routes and influence in the Mediterranean. When Carthage objected to Rome’s invasion of Sardinia, Rome responded by threatening to declare war.
After putting down the mercenary revolt, General Barca began spreading Carthaginian influence into Iberia. The Carthaginian government knew it had to reestablish its power in the Mediterranean. While Carthage would not be able to fight a naval battle against Rome, establishing Carthaginian influence in Iberia would give General Barca the necessary base of operations to eventually lead an attack on Rome.
The Carthaginian defeat in the First Punic War instilled intense hatred for Rome in General Barca. Barca instilled hatred for Rome in his son, Hannibal Barca, throughout his youth and made him take an oath to fight a lifelong battle to defeat Rome.
The conquest into Iberia was continued by Barca’s son-in-law Hasdrubal. Upon Hasdrubal’s death in 221 B.C. Hannibal Barca took over control of the Carthaginian forces in Iberia.
In 219 B.C. Hannibal led his forces to the Iberian city of Saguntum, which was allied with Rome. After successfully besieging and taking the city, Hannibal led his troops across the Ebro River, a direct violation of the Roman- Carthaginian peace treaty of the First Punic War. Rome soon declared war on Carthage and sent troops to Iberia, Sicily, and North Africa.
An overseas invasion of Rome seemed impossible to many military strategists, as Roman warships controlled the entire Northern Mediterranean. Nearly all of Italy consisted of tribes and communities that were loyal to Rome. Hannibal planned to win over these tribes and spread disarray throughout the Italian Peninsula.
Hannibal appointed his brother to defend Iberia and led around 90,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry, and 37 war elephants on a route to Rome that many thought was impossible: through the Alps. Thousands of men died on this perilous six-month journey, but Hannibal emerged from the Alps with his army largely intact.
After successfully completing the journey and reaching the Italian Peninsula in 218 B.C., Hannibal enlisted some local Gallic tribes to join his cause and pushed the Roman defenders to the Apennines. Hannibal scored several victories against Roman forces at Ticinus, Trebia, and Lake Trasimene.
The victory at Lake Trasimene meant that Rome was left vulnerable, but Hannibal, realizing he did not yet have the troop strength to assault the city fully, chose to march to Southern Italy to enlist former enemies of Rome. However, these Italian forces were not as enthusiastic about the toppling of Rome as Hannibal anticipated and only joined the Carthaginian ranks in small numbers.
The string of Carthaginian victories culminating with Lake Trasimene began to worry Rome, who appointed Fabius’s wartime dictator. Instead of fighting the Carthaginians head-on, Fabius used the strategy of avoiding direct battles to rob Hannibal of resources, as his supply lines were severely overstretched.
– Battle of Cannae
In Southern Italy, the Battle of Cannae proved to be Hannibal’s most notable victory of the Second Punic War. Despite being outmanned by a Roman force nearly twice his size, he outmaneuvered the Romans and scored a decisive victory.
Leading up to the battle, Rome’s military leadership decided to break away from the Fabian retreating tactics and sent 80,000 troops and 6,000 cavalries to face Hannibal head-on at a field near the village of Cannae on August 2, 216 B.C. Hannibal met the Roman soldiers with 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalries.
The Romans set up in their traditional block formation, with a mass of infantry in the center of their lines and cavalry on their wings. The Roman general Varro hoped to use his mass of troops to smash through the Carthaginian army. However, Hannibal expected this tactic and pulled one of the most revered tactical maneuvers of military history.
Hannibal allowed the Roman troops to push through and form a bulge in the center of his lines, where he had placed many of his weaker Gallic and Iberian soldiers. The more experienced veteran Carthaginian troops were put on both sides of the weak center, while the cavalry was put on the very end of their flanks.
As the Roman center increasingly gained momentum in pushing into the Carthaginian center pocket, Hannibal ordered the two flanks to pivot inwards, trapping the Roman troops. He then sent cavalry to the flanks and rear of the Roman formation. The Romans were slaughtered from all sides, with an estimated 50,000 casualties by the end of the day. Hannibal only lost 6,000 men during the battle.
When the surviving Romans that escaped the encirclement reached Rome and spread the news of the defeat at Cannae, widespread panic spread across the city. However, the Roman government refused a peace treaty from Hannibal and immediately ordered its citizenry to build fortifications to defend the city.
Though he had brought a devastating blow to the Roman army, Hannibal knew that he still did not yet have sufficient troop strength to attack Rome successfully. So instead of attempting to take Rome, Hannibal planned to keep trying to enlist Rome’s allies to join his cause. However, the overwhelming majority of the Italian Peninsula stayed loyal to Rome.
Following the Battle of Cannae, the Roman military leadership once again employed Fabian tactics, only engaging in small skirmishes with Carthaginian forces. Hannibal’s army was increasingly weakened due to ever-decreasing supplies and allies.
Hannibal set his sights on the Southern Mediterranean coast of Italy to set up a base for communication and supplies with Carthage. After two years of fighting, in 212, Hannibal finally gained control of the coastal city of Tarentum. However, the Romans acted quickly by blockading the region with their navy and took back the city in 209.
As Carthaginian forces increasingly became short on supplies, Hannibal has driven further south away from Rome. A Carthaginian general marched a relieving force from Iberia to Northern Italy in 207 to launch a joint attack with Hannibal on Rome. However, the relieving force was intercepted in Northern Italy by a superior Roman army near the Metaurus River, where most of the Carthaginian troops were killed.
The destruction of the relieving force marked the end of Hannibal’s campaign of the Italian Peninsula. Unable to be resupplied or enlist new allies, Hannibal was soon called back to defend Carthage against a Roman invasion of North Africa.
– Battle of Zama
Despite the horrendous losses taken at the Battle of Cannae, the Roman army quickly regrouped and began to score numerous victories against Hannibal in Iberia and North Africa under the leadership of Publius Cornelius Scipio.
In 204, Scipio convinced the Senate that Hannibal was no longer a serious military threat to the security of Rome and sailed to North Africa to attack Carthage and draw Hannibal out of Italy. As Scipio began pushing the North African Carthaginian and Berber defenders back towards Carthage, the Carthaginian government sued for peace. However, they soon had a change of heart and called Hannibal back to North Africa to face Scipio head-on.
Hannibal and his forces were forced to abandon the Italian Peninsula after a 16-year campaign to defend Carthage.
At the Battle of Zama, Scipio led his Roman forces to a decisive victory against Hannibal’s forces due to his superior cavalry. Local Berber King Masinissa, who allied with Rome, played a crucial role in the battle. While Scipio’s infantry fought the Carthaginians head-on, the Roman and Berber cavalry attacked Hannibal’s flanks and decimated his army.
The Roman victory that finally brought an end to Hannibal’s military career mirrored his earlier success at Cannae. Following the Battle of Zama, Carthage had no other option but to sue for peace.
By the end of the Second Punic War, Carthage had been severely weakened by the conflict. It had lost its holdings throughout the Mediterranean and Iberia and was now only left with its small territory in North Africa.
Carthage also had to pay a significant sum to Rome and was forced to dismantle its army and navy, except for 10 ships that could be used to defend against pirates. It was also forbidden to raise a military force of any kind, even for its defense.
Third Punic War
Although the disastrous outcome of the Second Punic War, Carthage’s economy grew immensely in the years following the conflict. This dispute alarmed many Roman senators who foresaw future competition against Carthage in the Mediterranean.
The Third Punic War began when Carthage was invaded by Numidia, a neighboring Berber power in North Africa who helped defeat the Carthaginians at Zama. Carthage turned to its former enemy, Rome, for help, but the Romans refused to give military assistance. Finally, in desperation, Carthage raised an army to defend its city from Numidia.
Many members of the Roman Senate, who were adamant about destroying Carthage once and for all, used this as an excuse to declare war on Carthage, as it was forbidden to raise an army by the Second Punic War peace treaty. This difficult decision by the Senate was primarily centered around the Roman fear that Carthage would eventually rebound and exact its revenge on Rome.
The Fall of Carthage
Carthage successfully held off Roman forces in North Africa for two years, as the Romans tightened a blockade around Carthage that cut off all its overseas supply routes.
Scipio Aemilianus took control of the Roman forces and successfully broke through the city’s defenses in 146 B.C.. A brutal street-by-street battle commenced, as the Roman attackers were forced to fight for every section of the city. When the Romans finally took Carthage, it was burned to the ground, and the surviving Carthaginians were sold into slavery.
The results of the Punic Wars meant that Rome now had effectively uncontested superiority in its territory on the Mediterranean, which now ranged from the Iberian Peninsula to modern-day Turkey.
We have covered much about the three Punic Wars fought between Rome and Carthage.
Let’s go over the main ideas:
- The First Punic War was fought over control of the island of Sicily. The Roman steadily built up their navy during the conflict and defeated Carthage at sea.
- The Second Punic War began when Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca invaded the Italian Peninsula. Roman forces held off Hannibal in Italy and eventually forced Carthage to surrender by invading North Africa.
- The Third Punic War began when Carthage violated its peace treaty with Rome by defending itself against the Numidians. As a result, Carthage was destroyed in 146 B.C. after holding the Romans off for two years.
- The outcome of the Punic Wars resulted in the loss of Carthaginian influence in North Africa and gave Rome supreme control of the Mediterranean.
Rome may have destroyed Carthage, but the ancient city would have a lasting legacy in both the Mediterranean region and Rome’s legacy after the Punic Wars.