** war and social upheaval: Punic Wars

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 greatest, but not the dessive battle of the War was Hanibal's victory over the Roman at Carrae. Hanibal proved able to defeat Roman armies, but not to destroy Rome. Here the formiable Roman Walls proved a significant factor. In the end the economic strength of Rome proved decisive. Hannibal's brother andother Catheginian commanders were not ascompentent asHannibal. And Roman sea power was a huge advantage. The Catheginians proved unwilling or unable to continue the Second Punic War which broke Carthage as a major military power.


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.

The Punic Wars

The Punic Wars were the series of three epic struggles between anciuent superpowers for control of the Mediterranran waged over more than a century. It involved both naval and land combat. Surprisinly Rome which before the first Punic War did not have a navy defeated the Cartheginian Navy that had dominated the eastern Mediterranean. It demonstrated more than anything the resiliancy and capability to adapt of the Roman state. The conflict was decided by the first two conflicts. Separated by THE Mediterranean, it might be thought that Carthage as the fdominant seapower had the advantage. The ability of Rome to adapt to the suituation and acquire maritime technology is the fundamental development of the War and showcases Rome' fundamental strength. The Third Punic War in which Rome absolutely obilterates Carthage was a foregone conclusion.

First Punic War (264�241)

The first Punic War was fought for control of the strategic islands of Sicily and Corsica. It wasthe Scilians that that involved the rising Roman Republic in their relatively minor squables with Cartahage. The conflict morphed into one of the great warsofthe ancient world. Carthage for years had struggled with Syracuse and other Greek city states for control of Sicily. There were also conflicts 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. When the Casrtheginians had to fight on land, they hired mercenasries. Their leader in Sicily as the war continued was Hamilcar Barca from aprominent Carheginian aristocratic family. The Roman Republic had a powerful citizen army. Rome was not yet a major naval power, but as the war developed, it becme primarily a naval war. Cartheginian fleets destroyed weak Roman 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 defeated a Roman effort to seize the rich agricultural lands of Lilybaeum on icily. 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. Rome saddled Cartahage with huge reparations. The merchant families who were hurt by the peace settlement attempted to seize control of Carthage. Intercine fighting continued for some time (240�238 BC). Hamilcar Barca supressed the revolt. Spain at the time was an important source of wealth in the Mediterrraean world, especially metals, primarily silver. This helped pay off the debt to Rome. Carthage had coastal trading colonies in Spain, but did not control 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 andthe silver mines there were especially important to Carthage's recovery. We know a great deal about the Second Punic War thanks to Roman historians. [Polybius} There are no surviving Cathegenian histories to give us Hanibal's assessment. 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. By this time, Hamilicar had been killed in battle and his som Hanibal commanded the army. Hannibal at the onset of the War expanded the Casrtheginian control of Spain. He built up an army largely composed of mnercimnries. Rome felt itself protected from Hannibal's army in Spain by the Alps. As Rome now controlled the seas, the Romans thought there was no way for Hannibal to get to Italy, especially the 'impregnable' north. Hannibal surprised the Romans by making the crossing. It was an epic feat of military movement. Actually there were two mountain ranges to cross. Hanibal's army executed a 5-month march from Catalonia in what is now northeast Spain, across the Pyrenees, through Languedoc in southern France, crossing the Rhone River, and then over the towering Alps before reaching the plains of northern Italy. Historians still debate the exact route. [Mahaney] Not only did the Catheginians faced the rigors of the Alpine snow and ice, but asttascks from the Allobbroges, a mountain tribe thast set asmbushes. A Roman writes, "Hanibal could see that the hardship that they had experienced and the anticipation of more to come, had saped morale througout the army. He convened an assembly and tried to raise their spirits, though his only asset was the visibility of Italy, which spread out under the mountains in such away that that, from a panoramic perspective, the Alps form the acropolis of Italy." [Polybius] Hanibal brought 37 war elephants with him, hoping that they would terrify the Romans. Only few survived the trek. The logistical challenge was massive. The elephants alone required 400 lbs of vegetation daily. Although losing a substantial portion of his army, enough made it to defeat the realtively weak and poorly led Roman armies in northern Italy. Hannibal's forces were strengthened by Celtic forces. The Celts in northern Italy hated the Romans and readily joined him. 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 Roman Walls were a factor in Hanibal's failure to march on Rome. 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 military 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 prevented 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 divisions 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 leathaly deliver cold steel was the deciding factor. This proved to be the deciding factor in Rome's subsequent wars. The impact of the Punic Wars cannot be overemphasized in how it impacred Roman society. The destruction of Carthage left Rome without any powerful resistance in the West and expanded poweer to take on states to the east. While Rome was able to overwhealm foreign powers, overseas expansion caused an increase in social tensions. Domestic conflict and class struggles becme the main danger to the Roman Republic.


Livy. (about 145 BC).

Mahaney, Bill. Hannibal's Odessey: The Environmental Background to the Alpine Invaion of Italia.

Polybius. Histories (about 195 BC).

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


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Created: July 14, 2003
Last updated: 2:47 AM 1/29/2019