Quora Qestion: Why did Carthage do so Well in Their War Against Rome

If you are referring to the Second Punic War, Carthaginian success was entirely due to one military genius, Hannibal. Hannibal introduced a style of warfare that the Romans had never before experienced and were unprepared for. In the two years after Hannibal crossed the Alps into Italy, Hannibal won four battles, three of them major. Hannibal was a master of strategy and tactics, ambushes, outflanking and double envelopments. He developed extensive networks of spies and became aware of this opposing general’s weaknesses before engaging them in battle.

In the battle of Trebia, for example, he was aware that the Roman Consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus was impatient and impulsive so he goaded him to battle by sending his Numidian horsemen to harass his camp early in the morning. Sempronius sent his unfed soldiers wading across the icy river, and they were easy prey for Hannibal’s warm and well-fed troops, and for the ambush led by Hannibal’s brother Mago. Sempronius managed to escape with his cavalry, but most of the infantry were killed.

Six months later, one of the new Consuls, Gaius Flaminius marched his army right into a trap that Hannibal had set for him. Result: 15,000 Romans killed and another 15,000 captured. Gaius Falminius was killed in the battle.

The Romans appointed a wise leader dictator. Quintus Fabius Maximus Cuntator realized that it was far better not to confront a military genius in the field, but to deprive him of food, harassing his foragers and enforcing scorched earth policies on the populace.

These Fabian tactics might have worked is allowed to continue, but the Romans grew impatient. After Fabius’ dictatorship expired they elected two Consuls, Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro. Varro was a demagogue who urged a military confrontation with Hannibal. The Consuls led an army of 80,000 to Cannae in Apulia where Hannibal was camped with some 40,000 infantry and ten thousand cavalry. Hannibal slowly withdrew his center of Hispanic and Gallic warriors, as the Roman infantry advanced. He advanced his his heavy African infantry and his cavalry until the entire body of Roman infantry was surrounded, then he slaughtered nearly all of them. Result: around 55,000 Roman deaths and at least ten thousand captured.

Why did Hannibal not march on Rome after this stunning victory? Hannibal knew how lengthy sieges could be since he had taken Saguntum in Spain by Siege. That had taken eight months and he had had control of southern Spain and reliable sources of food and materials. In Italy he had no siege equipment and no reliable source of sustenance for his army. Instead, he set about trying to alienate both Rome’s traditional allies and her traditional enemies from Rome and was largely successful. Capua went over to Hannibal’s side as well as a number of the Greek cities in the South, including Metapontum, Arpi, Locri and eventually, Tarentum. Many of the tribal peoples such as the Samnites and Lucanians joined him as well. He styled himself as a liberator.

After Cannae, the Romans largely reverted to the Fabian Strategy and the war became one of attrition. They would no longer meet Hannibal in open battle. They regained Capua by siege and Tarentum and Arpi by ruses. By 205 B.C. they had Hannibal bottled up in Bruttium at the southern end of the Italian peninsula.

Aside from Hannibal’s victories, the Carthaginians had only one significant victory in the Second Punic War, the Battles of the Upper Baetis, in which both the father and uncle of Publius Cornelius Scipio were killed, along with some twenty-four thousand Romans. The following year, Scipio got himself appointed commander in Spain and avenged his father and uncle, capturing New Carthage, and defeating the Carthaginian armies, one by one, in the field. After four years, Spain was entirely in Roman hands.

I believe that the defeat of ultimate Carthage was pretty much inevitable. Rome relied upon its citizens and allies for soldiers, Carthage relied upon mercenaries. Wars are expensive and money to pay mercenaries is eventually depleted. That’s what happened in the first Punic war. In addition, the Carthaginians did not give Hannibal much support, they were more concerned with holding on to Spain where they had rich gold and silver mines, and they concentrated their forces there.

After Scipio defeated Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, at the battle of Baecula, Hasdrubal gathered up an army and crossed the alps into Italy intending to join with Hannibal. He was killed and his army destroyed at the battle of the Metaurus River in 207 B.C.

Although the Romans were not prepared for Hannibal’s genius at the beginning of the war, they were quick learners and Hannibal was a superb, if unwitting, teacher. Publius Cornelius Scipio was his star pupil. He adopted a number of Hannibal’s strategies and added some of his own, and he defeated Hannibal’s much depleted army at the battle of Zama in 202 B.C.

If interested in the Second Punic War, my books, The Death of Carthage, In the Wake of Hannibal, and Maximus, Warts and All, are all available on Amazon. If interested in the Third Punic War, in which Rome destroyed Carthage, my book The Last Carthaginian is also available on Amazon.

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