The Roman-Punic Wars

The Roman-Punic Wars

The greatest naval power of the Mediterranean in the third century BC was the North African city of Carthage near modern day Tunis - The Roman-Punic Wars introduction. (Hooker, 1996) The Carthaginians were originally Phoenicians and Carthage was a colony founded by the Phoenician capital city of Tyre in the ninth century BC; the word “Carthage” means, in Phoenician, “the New City.” (Hooker, 1996) The Phoenicians, however, were conquered by the Assyrians in the seventh century BC, and then conquered by the Persians; an independent Phoenician state would never again appear in the Middle East. (Hooker, 1996)  Carthage, however, remained. Since Phoenicia no longer existed as an independent state, that meant that Carthage was no longer a colony, but a fully functioning independent state. (Hooker, 1996) While the Romans were steadily increasing their control over the Italian peninsula, the Carthaginians were extending their empire over most of North Africa. (Hooker, 1996)  By the time that Rome controlled all of the Italian peninsula, Carthage already controlled the North African coast from western Libya to the Strait of Gibraltar, and ruled over most of southern Spainas well as the island of Corsica and Sardinia. (Hooker, 1996) Carthage was a formidable power; it controlled almost all the commercial trade in the Mediterranean, had subjected vast numbers of people all whom sent soldiers and supplies, and amassed tremendous wealth from gold and silver mines in Spain. (Hooker, 1996)

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            The Roman Republic and the Carthaginian Empire came into contact in the middle of the third century BC when Rome’s power had reached the southern tip of Italy. (Hooker, 1996) The Resulting wars, ultimately so disastrous for Carthage, were inevitable. Between Carthage and Italy lay the huge island of Sicily; Carthage controlled the western half of Sicily, but the southern tip of the Italian peninsula put the Romans within striking distance of the island. (Rickard, n.d.) When the Sicilian city of Messana revolted against the Carthaginians, the Romans intervened, and the first Punic War erupted. (Rickard, n.d.) Both sides were battling for ultimate control over the Mediterranean Sea and the profitable trading routes therein.

            The First Punic War broke out in 264 BC; it was concentrated entirely on the island of Sicily. (Rickard, n.d.)  Treaties between the two cities had existed for over two centuries, agreeing on their respective spheres of influence, Rome in Italy, Carthage in African and Sardinia, with Roman traders allowed equal access in Sicily. In the end it was Sicily that provided the trigger for war. (Rickard, n.d.) Control of the island was contested between the Greek city states and Carthage. Between 315 and his death in 289 BC the opposition to Carthage had been led by Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse. (Rickard, n.d.)  Amongst his troops was a contingent from Campania, the Mamertines. After his death, they were forced out of Syracuse, and eventually took control of Messana, facing the Straits of Messana and mainland Italy. (Rickard, n.d.)  From there they raided the surrounding areas. (Rickard, n.d.)

Eventually a new leader, Hiero, rose in Syracuse, and under his leadership the Mamertines were defeated. (Rickard, n.d.) Feeling themselves to be without hope in 265 BC they called on both Carthage and Rome for help. Carthage responded first, sending a small force to Messana, where they occupied the citadel. (Rickard, n.d.)  Rome too decided to intervene. The next year the Roman force under Appius Claudius arrived opposite Sicily. (Rickard, n.d.)  The Mamertines expelled the Carthaginian force from Messana, and allied with Rome. (Rickard, n.d.) Faced with this Hiero and the Carthaginians formed an alliance, and the war was started. (Rickard, n.d.)

Despite all the effort on land, it was the fighting at sea that decided the outcome of the war. (Rickard, n.d.) At the start of the war, Carthage was by far the greater naval power, with what was probably close to a standing navy, while Rome herself had no navy, instead relying on those of her allies that had a naval tradition. (Rickard, n.d.)  It was these allies that provided the navy used to transport the first Roman army to Sicily in 264. (Rickard, n.d.) Only in 260 did Rome decide to build her own fleet, of 120 ships. These ships were said to be copied from a captured Carthaginian ship, and the higher individual performance of Carthage’s ships was probably due to the superior quality of their crews. (Rickard, n.d.) The bulk of the ships on both sides were quinqueremes, or ‘fives’, probably with three banks of oars. (Rickard, n.d.)  The main tactic of naval warfare at this point was the boarding attack, after which marines crossed over to fight on the target galley, a tactic favoring the superior Romans combat marines. (Rickard, n.d.)  These ships had a very large crew, some 300 men plus marines on Roman ships, resulting in the very large numbers of men present at some of the naval battles of the war. (Rickard, n.d.)  The new Roman fleets were to win a series of great naval victories, but suffer a huge number of losses to storms and shipwrecks. (Rickard, n.d.)

The first encounter between the two fleets gave little evidence of Roman dominance. The consul (Rome’s Republican Leader) Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio, in command of the fleet, took part of the fleet south, hearing of a chance to capture Lipara. (Rickard, n.d.)  The battle of Lipara was a complete Carthaginian victory, against little effective resistance. In a second skirmish, the main Roman fleet destroyed a raiding force, but it was still clear that Carthage had the better fleet. (Rickard, n.d.) The Roman response was to invent the corvus, a type of boarding bridge. (Rickard, n.d.)  Its first was used was at the battle of Mylae (260), where two roughly equal fleets fought. The corvus gave the Romans the advantage, and the consul Caius Duilius was able to win the first major naval contest in Roman history. (Rickard, n.d.)  The Roman fleet could then be used to support operations on the ground on Sicily, which resulted in another minor battle at Tyndaris (257). (Rickard, n.d.)  Rome won that engagement as well. (Rickard, n.d.)

Rome besieged many of the Carthaginian cities on Sicily, and when Carthage attempted to relieve the siege with its navy, the Romans utterly destroyed that navy. (Rickard, n.d.)  For the first time since the rise of the Carthaginian Empire, they had lost power over the Mediterranean Sea. (Rickard, n.d.)

The war ended with no clear victory for either side. (Rickard, n.d.) In 241 BC, the Carthaginians and Romans signed a treaty in which Carthage had to give up Sicily, and to pay an indemnity to cover Roman costs for the war. (Rickard, n.d.)  But Carthage soon faced rebellion among its mercenary troops and Rome, in 238 BC, took advantage of the confusion by seizing the island of Corsica. (Rickard, n.d.)  The Romans feared the Carthaginians and wanted build as large a buffer zone as possible between them and the Carthaginians. (Rickard, n.d.)  By gaining Sicily, the Romans had expelled the Carthaginians from their immediate Southern Frontier; they now wanted to remove a perceived threat to their western frontier, the islands of Corsica and Sardinia west of the Italian peninsula. (Rickard, n.d.)
The Carthaginians were furious at this action and even Roman historians believed it was a rash and unethical act. (Rickard, n.d.) The Carthaginians began to shore up their presence in Iberia (Modern Spain and Portugal). (Rickard, n.d.)  They sent first the general Hamilcar and then his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, to Spain to build colonies and an army. (Rickard, n.d.)  Both Hamilcar and Hasdrubal made allies among the native Iberians, and their armies, recruited from Iberians, grew powerful and reliable, unlike the hired mercenaries of the first Punic War. (Rickard, n.d.)

            Growing increasingly anxious, the Romans imposed a treaty on Carthage not to expand their empire past the Ebro River in Spain. (Second…n.d.) However, when a small city in Spain, Saguntum, approached Rome asking for Roman friendship and alliance, the Romans couldn’t resist having a friendly ally right in the heart of the Carthaginian Iberian Empire. (Second…n.d.)
A few years later, however, in 221 BC, the twenty-five year old Hannibal, assumed command over Carthaginian Spain. (Second…n.d.) At first, Hannibal gave the Saguntines wide berth in order to avoid coming into conflict with Rome. (Second…n.d.)  But the Saguntines were confident in their new alliance with Rome and began interfering politically with other Spanish cities. (Second…n.d.) Hannibal, despite direct threats from Rome, attacked Saguntum and conquered it. (Second…n.d.)
The Romans attempted to solve the problem with diplomacy and demand that Carthage dismiss Hannibal and send him to Rome. (Second…n.d.)  When Carthage refused, the second Punic War began in 218 BC. Rome, however, was facing a formidable opponent. (Second…n.d.) In the years following the first Punic War, Carthage had created a powerful empire in Spain with a large and loyal army. (Second…n.d.)  Hannibal secured Spain with an army of about 16,000 men under the command of Hasdrubal and took 80,000 infantry, 12,000 Numidian and Iberian cavalry and a number of elephants with him on his march. (Second…n.d.) During the crossing of the Rhone, Hannibal and his army finally started to meet some resistance. (Second…n.d.)  Gauls appeared on the opposite bank to disrupt the crossing, but Hannibal was ready. (Second…n.d.) A force under Hanno was sent further upstream to cross and attack the Gauls in the rear. The successful maneuver ended the threat, and peaceful crossing resumed. (Second…n.d.) With the hostile Celts disposed, only friendly tribes remained on either side of the Alps and Rome’s only chance to stop Hannibal was to meet him at the Rhone. (Second…n.d.)

Meanwhile, The Celts were eager to help Hannibal cross the Alps, and their aid, knowing the safe passages, likely was a major factor in his successful march through them. (Second…n.d.)  When he crossed the Alps with his army Hannibal met several challenges of his own. The Allobroges offered the first challenge by attacking the rear of his column. Other Celts harassed Hannibal’s baggage trains, rolling large boulders from the heights onto the Carthaginian columns, causing panic and death among the victims. Fierce resistance throughout the march debilitated Hannibal’s army. (Second…n.d.) The cold altitudes of the Alps certainly were no benefit to some under-dressed tribal warriors in his forces. (Second…n.d.)

By the fifteenth day, Hannibal stepped down into the foothills of northern Italy. (Second…n.d.)  With only 20,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry and only a few remaining elephants, his army was decimated by the journey. (Second…n.d.) Fortunately for Hannibal, the Celts on the Italian side of the Alps were far friendlier and Gallic recruits pushed the Carthaginians back up to between 30,000 and 40,000 men. (Second…n.d.)

Meanwhile, the Romans were waiting in Cisalpine Gaul under Scipio the Elder. With a small force already positioned to keep the Gauls in check, Scipio moved to intercept Hannibal. (Second…n.d.) At the Battle of Ticinus, in late 218 BC, the 2 forces were first engaged in a small confrontation. Light troops send by Scipio to scout the enemy were met by Numidian cavalry and soundly defeated. (Second…n.d.)  As only a prelude of things to come, the most significant result was the wounding of Scipio and the opening of additional Gallic recruitment to Hannibal. (Second…n.d.) The Romans were forced to withdraw to Placentia, under Manlius, to plan for another attack.

Sempronious’ Roman army then came forward to engage Hannibal at Trebbia. (Second…n.d.)  When the main armies met, the Romans were routed, cut down as they fled. In the end, nearly half of Sempronius’ force was lost, about 15 to 20,000 men. (Second…n.d.) The remainder of the Roman army managed to escape to Placentia. (Second…n.d.)

Hannibal released the bulk of any prisoners captured with the intention of securing favor among Rome’s allies throughout Italy. (Second…n.d.)  He continued to hope that the Italian allies would rebel against Rome. (Second…n.d.)

After Hannibal’s victory at Trebbia and in the following spring’s campaign season, the Romans appointed a new command for the Consul Flaminius. (Second…n.d.) Flaminius was brash and eager to meet the Carthaginian force and exact revenge for previous Roman losses. (Second…n.d.)  The armies met again at Trasimenus, and the Roman army of 25,000 lost as many as 15,000 including Flaminius himself. 4,000 cavalry reinforcements, sent late under Gaius Centenius, were also intercepted and finished off in the complete Carthaginian victory. (Second…n.d.)

            To counteract Hannibal’s methods, the Romans elected Fabius Maximus as dictator. Fabius’ tactics of delay and harassment did just enough to keep the Roman allies of central Italy from switching sides to Hannibal, but he began to lose popularity in Rome. The people removed Fabius Maximus from his dictatorship and returned to the Consular elections. Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus were elected in his place and it was their mission to remove Hannibal for good.

            On August 2, 216 BC, in the Apulian plain, near Cannae and near the mouth of the Aufidus River, the Roman and Punic armies came face to face again. (Second…n.d.) The Consul Varro was in command on the first day for the Romans, as the consuls alternated commands as they marched. Paullus, it has been suggested, was opposed to the engagement as it was taking shape, but regardless still brought his force to bear. (Second…n.d.)  The two armies positioned their lines and soon advanced against one another. In the midst of the battle the Consul, Paullus, was wounded (either early or late depending on Livy or Polybius as the source). (Second…n.d.) He valiantly, but vainly attempted to maintain the Roman ranks. (Second…n.d.) While the commander of the day, Varro, fled the battle, Paullus stayed the course trying to save his army. (Second…n.d.)  In the end, it was a complete debacle and Paullus would be dead with the bulk of his men. (Second…n.d.) Romans trying to escape were hamstrung as they ran, so the Carthaginians could concentrate on those who were still fighting, but allow time to return and kill the crippled later. (Second…n.d.)  Estimates of Roman casualties ran as high as 60,000. Another 3,000 Romans were captured and more staggered into villages surrounding the battlefield. (Second…n.d.)  Hannibal, however, still trying to win the hearts of the Italian Roman allies, once again released the prisoners, much to the dismay of his commanders. (Second…n.d.)

Shortly after Cannae, the Romans rallied back, declaring full mobilization. (Second…n.d.) Another dictator, M. Junius Pera, was elected to stabilize the Republic. (Second…n.d.) After a failed attempt to besiege Rome itself, Hannibal began to lose support and allies. (Second…n.d.) He was eventually forced out of Italy into Africa, to counter the invasion of Scipio Africanus, while a second Roman army defeated Hasdrubal in Spain. (Second…n.d.)

            Marching towards Scipio, Hannibal and his army met Scipio’s forces met near Zama on the plains of the Bagrades River. (Second…n.d.) Sixteen years after his invasion of Italy, the army of Hannibal was destroyed and Carthage was defeated. As many as 20,000 men of his army were killed with an equal number taken as prisoners to be sold at slave auction. (Second…n.d.) The Romans meanwhile, lost as few as 500 dead and 4,000 wounded. Scipio, having defeated the master of all strategists of the time, now stood as the world’s greatest general (Second…n.d.). As a reward for his success, Publius Cornelius Scipio was awarded the cognomen (extra name) Africanus. Hannibal was allowed to live, and counseled against future war with Rome. (Second…n.d.)

            Rome undertook the conquest of the Hellenistic empires to the east. (Hooker, 1996) In the west, Rome brutally subjugated the Iberian people who had been so vital to Roman success in the second Punic War. (Hooker, 1996) However, they were especially angry at the Carthaginians who had almost destroyed them. (Hooker, 1996)The great statesman of Rome, Cato, is reported by the historians as ending all his speeches, no matter what their subject, with the statement, “Carthago Delando Est” (Cathage must be destroyed) (Hooker, 1996)Carthage had, through the first half of the second century BC, recovered much of its prosperity through its commercial activities, although it had not gained back much power. (Hooker, 1996) The Romans, deeply suspicious of a reviving Carthage, demanded that the Carthaginians abandon their city and move inland into North Africa. (Hooker, 1996)The Carthaginians, who were a commercial people that depended on sea trade, refused. The Roman Senate declared war, and Rome attacked the city of Carthage itself. (Hooker, 1996)After a seige, the Romans stormed the town and the army went from house to house slaughtering the inhabitants in what is perhaps the greatest systematic execution of non-combatants before World War II. (Hooker, 1996)Carthaginians who weren’t killed were sold into slavery. The harbor and the city was demolished, and all the surrounding countryside was sown with salt in order to render it uninhabitable. (Hooker, 1996) Rome became the dominant political, social and economic power and would eventually control territories ranging from Central Africa to the Kingdom of the Parthians in the East.


Hooker, R. (1996) “The Punic Wars”. Retrieved October 2nd, 2008 from Washington State University website:

Rickard, J., (n.d.) “First Punic War, 264-241 BC”. Retrieved October 2nd, 2008 from Military History Encyclopedia on the  Web:

“Second Punic War” (n.d.) Retrieved October 2nd, 2008 from United Nations of Roma Victrix website:


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