War and Social Upheaval: The Punic Wars (264-146 BC)

Figure 1.--The Hanibal legend begins with two version of an oath. An early version recounts how Hamilcar made his 9-year old son swear that he would never become friend to the Romans. A later vervion claims that Hanibal had to swear to Apollo that he would always be an enemy yo the Romans.

One of the great struggles of the clasical world was the Puinc Wars. The Punic Wars were the epic struggles conducted from 264 BC to 146 BC between Rome and Cathage over control of the Mediterrean Sea. These wars began with Carthage the dominant force in North Africa and the western Mediterran an Rome a rising but still limited power in Italy. By the end of the wars, Carthage was in ruins and Rome emerged as the dominant Mediterrean power. The Punic Wars were a series of three wars between Carthage and Rome. The best know period of the conflict was the Second Punic War in which Cartheginisan forces were led by the military genius Hanibal. The greates, but not the dessive battle of the War was Hanibal's victory over the Roman at Carrae.


One of the great struggles of the clasical world was the Puinc Wars. The Punic Wars were the epic struggles conducted from 264 BC to 146 BC between Rome and Cathage over control of the Mediterrean Sea. These wars began with Carthage the dominant force in North Africa and the western Mediterran an Rome a rising but still limited power in Italy. The name of the wars in history (Punic) comes from the Roman term for the Carthaginians--"Poeni". This was the Roman term for the Phoenicians in general. As a result of the brutal Pelopenesian War ( ), Greek power in the Western Mediterrean was fundamentally undermined. Carhage was left in control of the western Mediterrean, but Rome challenged that control, launching a life and death struggle that would continue for more than a century.

The Protaganists

The Punic Wars were the epic cointest between two great city states, Rome and Carthage. Rome during its long history faced many antagonists. It was Carthage, however, thast posed a mortal danger to the Roman state.


The impact of Rome on western civilization is incaluable. The Roman legacy in art and sculpture, architecture, literature, philosophy, political organization and law, and religious is extensive. Rome was the conduit through which many aspects of Greek culture were passed on to our modern age. Today the power of media has obscured the great legacy of Rome to that of gladitorial spectacle. Many scholars are convinced that perhaps with the exception of Jesus, the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero is the most important single voice in Western civiliztion. It was Cicero that was a key influence in British political thought and the American and French Revolutions and thus all modern democracies. It was an idealized Roman Republic that inspired the founding fathers. Roman legends like Cicinatus who volutarikly gave up power inspired thge founding fathers. Many of the key Revolutionary leaders had read Cicero's works like De Officius. Even Washington, who unlike many of the other founding fathers had not studied classuical history, acted out a scene in a play about Cato that he had seen to defuse a mutiny of the Continental Army. The American Republic is in large measure a Ciceronian Republic. The legacy of Rome can be found throughout the American Republic. A Senate was created to limit the passions of the majority. Executive authority is limited by checks and ballances. It was Cicero's heroic, but ultimately failed effort to save the Roman Republic that enspired political thinkers of the 18th century to device a system that could prevent despotism. This effort motivated many of the debates over the American Constitution.


The Carthiginians were a Phoenicians people. The Phoenicians were a seafaring trading people centered in what is now Lebanon. The Phoenicians established trading colonies throughout the Mediterrean. The two major Phoenicians cities became Tyre and Carthage. Tyre was conquered by Nebuchadnezzer. Carthage was one of the key trading cities of the Mediterrean world. The city was located near modern Tunis on the Bay of Tunis. It was a Phoenician city, by tradition founded by Dido, a priestess expelled from Tyre. (9th century BC). Its strategic location and poweful fleet helped it to dominate Mediterrean trade. Carthiginian traders were legendary, Some Cartheginian vessels ranged as far as the Gulf of Guina to the south and Ireland to the north. The city's wealth grew from the fact that the major Mediterrean cities were in the east and imprtant resoures such as metals were located in the west (especially Spain). Carthage by its location and powerful fleet dominated the narrow passage between North Africa and Sicily that controlled trade between east and west. The city was governed by a powerfull oligarchy. The religion included child sacrifice which became an accepted part of Cartheginian culture. It also may have been a factor in limiting the population, a critical factor in the ensuing Punic Wars with Rome.

First Punic War (264–241)

Carthage for years had struggled with Syracuse and other Greek city states for control of Sicily. There were also cionflicts between city states on Sicily. The city of Messana besieged by Syracused appealed to both Carthage and Rome for assistance. The Carthiguans arrived first and negotiated a peace. Rome dispatched a substantial force to Sicily, ejected the Cartheginians and seized substantial areas of the island. Rome was not yet a major naval power. Cartheginian fleets destroyed weak naval forces at the beginning of the war. The Romans gradually learned from these defeats and built increasingly powerful fleets. Roman fleets achieved substantial naval victories at Mylae (260 BC) and Cape Ecnomus (256 BC). The Cartheginians defeated a Roman expedition to Africa. Hamilcar Barca defeated a Roman effort to seize the rich agricukltural lands of Lilybaecum. The Roman naval victory off the Aegadian Islands (241 BC) convinced the Catheginians to sue for peace. As part of the peace treaty, Carthage ceeded all its colonies in Sicily. The merchant families who were hurt by the peace settlement attempted to seize control of Carthage. Intercine figting continued for some time (240–238 BC). Hamilcar Barca supressed the revolt. Spain at the time was an important source of wealth in the Mediterrrean world, especially metals. Cathage had coastal trading colonies in Spain, but did not contyrol the interior. He then launched military expeditions in Spain to compensate for the loss of the Sicilian colonies. Another general, Hasdrubal, persued further expeditions in Spain.

Second Punic War (218–201)

Carthage soon recovered from the loss of Sicily. The conquests in Spain were especiaslly important to Carthage's recovery. Rome violating the peace treaty sought to seize Sardinia and Corsica. Cathage expanding its Spanish colonies took Saguntum (Sagunto) (219 BC). This caused Rome to declare war. The Second Punic War is sometimes referred to as the Hannibalic War. Rome felt itself protected from Hannibal's army in Spain. Hannibal sureised the Romans by crossing the Alps. Although losing a substantial prtion of his army, enough made it to defeat the realtively weak Roman armies in northern Italy. Hannibal's forces were strengthened by Celtic forces. Hannibal campaigned in Italy for more than a decade. He destroyed an emense Roman force at the epic battle of Cannae (216 BC), although it proved not to be the decisive battle of the War. The Cartheginians after major defeats sought to make Peace. Even after the huge defeat at Carrae Rome did not make peace and Hannibal did not believe he had the forces needed to invest Rome. Hannibal is one of the great milkitary commanders of all time. He proved unable to turn imprtant military victories into wa winnong strokes. nd he committed major strategic errors. He seems in the final stages of his campaign to have exhibited stuborness when flexibility and staremanship was required. [Strauss] Hannibal's campaign was weakened by divisions in Cartheginian society which prevent Hannibal from receiving the support need to take Rome. His brother was defeated by the Romans at the Metaurus (207 BC). After Scipio Africanus Major invaded Africa, Hanibal returned to Carthage to defend the city. He was defeated at Zama (202 BC). Carthage again sued for peace. It had to surrender its navy and Spain as well as all its other colonies outside Aftica. Carthage also had to agree to never again make war.

Third Punic War (149–146 B.C.)

More than a half century of peace followed Carthage's defeat in the Second Punic War. Without a navy, Carthage was no longer a threat to Rome. Carthage did recover commercially and regained some oif its former prosperity. Cartheginian society, however, remained deeply divided. Cato the Elder campaigned to destoy Carthage totally. The Mumidians began seizing territory south of Carthage. Cartheginians pleaded with the Romans to intervene. When the declined, the Cartheginians did resist with military force. Cato used this essentially as a pretext for war. A Roman army and naval force under Scipio Africanus Majorunder besiged Carthage. `After a long siege with the population near starvatioin, the Romans breached the city walls. Fighting in the city was housevto house. With onlyba small part of the population still alive, the Cartheginians surrendered. The survivors were sold into slavery and the city razed to the ground.

Historical Assessment

The Cartheginians were reviled by classical authors. This may be a example of how history is written by the victors. The Cartheginians fought both Greeks and Romans. There are no surviving Cartheginian accounts of the Punic Wars. One often cited condemnatioin of the Cartheginians was child sacrifice. Here it is difficult just how accurate the Greek and Roman actually are. The Carthegenians did practice child sacrifice and many modern historians believe that it was of some importance. There is some archeological evidence to support this view. One largely unanswered questioin is given the importance of seapower in the Punic Wars is how the Mediterrean's great naval power (Cathage) could have been defeated by a land power (Rome) which began the war with weak naval forces. Most historians assign great importance to the divusions in Cartheginian society. The relative size of the popuilation may be another important factor. Some militarian historians contend that in the end the Roman capacity to come to grips with the eneny and leataly deliver cold steel was the deciding factor. This proved to be the deciding factor in Rome's subsequent wars.


Strauss, Barry. Masters of Command: Alexabder, Hannibal, Caesar, and the Genius of Leadership (2012).


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Created: July 14, 2003
Last updated: 4:46 AM 8/3/2012