The Punic Wars

There were three Punic wars fought between ancient Rome and Carthage. The first lasted from 263 to 241 B.C. The origins of the First Punic War are rather murky, and it would seem that the Romans and the Carthaginians blundered into it. The catalyst was the city of Messana which had been conquered by an Italian people who called themselves Mamertines (followers of Mamers, their god of war). Threatened by Syracuse they called on the Carthaginians and then on the Romans for assistance. Carthage formed an alliance with Syracuse and Rome took up the cause of the Mamertines and there ensued a war that lasted for 23 years. The Carthaginians were a merchant society who traded all over the known world and at first they were far stronger at naval warfare than the Romans, But the Romans found a way to copy Carthaginian nautical technology and even invented some of their own-the “corvus” which was a device used to attach to enemy ships and board them.

The advantage in the First Punic War went back and forth for years, but in 241 B.C. the Romans won a huge naval battle off the Aegetes Islands and Carthage sued for peace. They signed the Treaty of Lutatius, which brought peace on Roman terms. Rome took over the Carthaginian territory on Sicily, and a few years after the war ended, they wrested Corsica and Sardinia from the Carthaginians. This latter move may have sowed some of the seeds for the Second Punic War.

Arguably, the best Carthaginian General in the First Punic War was a man named Hamilcar Barca. He fought in Sicily and never lost a battle. He was not in favor of peace, and only reluctantly gave up the fight.

Carthage did not have a large native military and had to rely largely on mercenaries. After the First Punic War the Carthaginian treasury was depleted and the Carthaginians couldn’t or wouldn’t meet the mercenaries’ demands for payment. A brutal three year war ensued and it was Hamilcar Barca who ultimately destroyed the mercenary forces.

After that, Hamilcar Barca went to Spain to develop a Carthaginian province there, and he brought along his nine year old son, Hannibal. He indoctrinated Hannibal in the belief that the Romans were an enemy people who needed to be subdued. Hannibal grew up a child of the camp, and was educated by Greek scholars in his father’s employ. He learned the various dialects of Spain and developed a close rapport with both the Carthaginian and the Spanish soldiers under his father’s command.

After nine years Hamilcar Barca was killed in a battle against one of the Spanish tribes he was trying to subdue. His place was taken by his son-in-law, Hasdrubal the Fair. Hasdrubal founded the city of New Carthage (Cartagena) and tried to establish rapport with the Spanish Tribes. He had no interest in war with Rome. In 220 B.C., however, Hasdrubal was assassinated, and Hannibal, now 26, assumed command of Carthaginian forces in Spain. He was intent on avenging Carthage’s defeat in the First Punic War. In order to arouse the Romans, he laid siege to Saguntum, which was an ally of Rome. After an eight month siege he conquered the city and killed the men and sold the women and children into slavery. The Romans sent a diplomatic mission to negotiate with him but he sent them away, and they went on to Carthage to address the Carthaginian Senate. The Carthaginians, however, supported Hannibal and the Romans declared war.

In 218 B.C. Hannibal assembled an army of some 70,000 consisting of Carthaginians, Liby-Phoenicians, Numidians, Balearic Islanders and Spanish tribesmen and crossed the Pyrenees into Gaul. He then took them eastward and over the Alps. He brought with him 23 elephants. Desertions, harsh conditions, and battles with barbarian tribesmen along the way thinned their ranks and only about half of the original number made it to northern Italy, but Hannibal rapidly began recruiting forces form the Gallic tribes who inhabited northern Italy and who were hostile to Rome.

During the first two years of the War there were four note-worthy battles between Hannibal and the Romans. The Battle of Ticinis, took place in November of 218 B.C, with the Romans under the command of their Consul Publius Cornelius Scipio, a mostly cavalry engagement which was a decisive victory for Hannibal. A month later Hannibal lured the other Consul, Tiberius Sempronius Longus into an engagement at the Trebia River and severely mauled his legions. Six months later Hannibal trapped the new Consul, Gaius Flaminius and his legions in a defile along Lake Trasimene and killed the Consul and some 25,000 of his men, taking some 6000 prisoner.

After this, the Romans elected a dictator, Quintus Fabius Maximus. Fabius believed that the best way to deal with the Carthaginian invaders was to deprive them of sustenance. He avoided battle and concentrated on disrupting their foraging. This might have worked after a year or two, but the Romans lost patience with this plan and elected a Consul who said that he would destroy the enemy on the very day he got sight of him. This was Gaius Tarentius Varro. The Romans assembled an army of 80,000 Romans and allies and went out to Apulia to confront Hannibal. Hannibal had about 45,000 men under his command. Hannibal managed a double envelopment maneuver and by the end of the day some 50,000 Romans lay dead on the battle field.

Any other society in ancient times would have sue for peace, and Hannibal did, indeed, offer terms. The Romans weren’t having it, however and the Roman Senate actually declared it a crime to even mention the word “peace.”

Under the leadership of Fabius Maximus the war became largely a war of attrition. After Cannae Hannibal formed alliances with Capua and a number of the cities of Magna Graecia, but the Romans gradually clawed back his territorial gains over the next ten years. The Carthaginians provided Hannibal with very little material assistance as they were more concerned with maintaining their province in Spain.

In 211 B.C. the three Carthaginian generals in Spain, Hannibal’s brothers Hasdrubal and Mago, and Hasdrubal Son of Gisco, soundly defeated the Roman Proconsuls, the brothers Publius and Gneius Scipio at the Battles of the Upper Baetis. The Roman presence in Spain was reduced from about 32,000 to 8,000, but these eight thousand managed to hang on to their corner of north eastern Spain. In 209 B.C. the Romans elected Publius Cornelius Scipio, the son of one of their fallen Proconsuls, then aged 25, to command the Roman forces in Spain. Scipio first conquered New Carthage, and within four years he cleared Spain of all Carthaginian forces. Rome had finally developed a military genius of its own to be a match for Hannibal.

Scipio returned to Rome in 206 B.C. and was elected Consul. In 202 B.C. he and Hannibal met at the battle of Zama and Scipio was victorious. The Carthaginians sued for peace which was granted on Roman terms.

The Third Punic War took place from 149 to 146 B.C. After fifty years the Carthaginians had paid off the 10,000 talent war indemnity they had agreed to. The Romans had never really forgiven them for the previous two wars, and they had a leader named Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder who, every time he gave a speech in the Roman Senate he declared “Ceterum Censeo Cartaginem esse delendam”-”And furthermore I advise that Carthage should be destroyed.” The precipitating event was a war between Carthage and her Numidian neighbor Masinissa who had invaded Carthaginian territory. Carthage was badly mauled, losing 50,000 men. Rome declared war on the grounds that the treaty that ended the Second Punic War forbade Carthage from going to war without Roman permission.

By this time Carthage, although prosperous through trade, was weak militarily and no longer had access to mercenaries. Even so, they were able to hold out for three years because the Roman Consuls sent against them were corrupt and incompetent. However Rome did find a competent Consul in the person of Scipio Aemilianus, the adoptive son of Scipio Africanus’ elder son and biological son of the Consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus. Scipio Aemilianus laid siege to the city and eventually breached the walls. All resistance was crushed within a week and fifty thousand survivors were sold into slavery. The city was razed to the ground but was eventually refounded during the Principate of Augustus.

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