What Were the Main Reasons for the Roman Victory over Carthage in the Second Punic War?

There were several reasons.
Rome relied on citizen and allied soldiery while Carthage relied largely on mercenaries. Mercenaries have to be paid and are not as reliable as citizen soldiers and can be bought off.

Carthage during the Second Punic War did not support its military to the same degree that Rome supported theirs. Carthage’s support of the war was lukewarm as compared to Rome, which went all out to win.
After the Battle of Cannae in which Hannibal killed 55,000 Roman and allied soldiers, Hannibal expected the Romans to sue for peace. Instead, the Roman Senate made it a crime even to mention the word “peace.”

The year after the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal sent his younger brother Mago to Carthage to plead for reinforcements and supplies. Hannibal had collected over two hundred gold signet rings from upper class Roman dead on the battlefield at Cannae. He put them in an urn. Mago dramatically poured them out onto the floor of the Carthaginian Senate. At that time the Carthaginian Senate largely supported the war and appropriated substantial assistance to Hannibal. But then they got word that Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal had been badly defeated at the Battle of Dertosa in Spain, and, rather than send these reinforcements and supplies to Hannibal, they sent them to Spain to shore up their defenses there-they did not want to lose the very productive gold and silver mines they had in Spain. Hannibal received only a token force of 4000 Numidian mercenaries and twenty elephants. This was the last assistance Hannibal would receive for the duration of the war, either because Carthage didn’t send any or because the Roman blockade was very effective.

After the Battle of Cannae, under the leadership of Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator, the war became largely one of attrition. The Romans largely refused to confront Hannibal on his own terms, and they concentrated on dealing with the allies Hannibal had won over after Cannae. They gradually clawed back nearly all of the territory Hannibal had gained through alliances after Cannae. By 206 B.C., Hannibal and his army were confined to a small territory in Bruttium. Without reinforcements and supplies from Carthage, Hannibal could not go back on the offensive. In 207 B.C., Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal crossed the Alps with a goodly army, but the Romans annihilated his forces at the Battle of the Metaurus River, and Hasdrubal perished along with his army. In 205 B.C. Hannibal’s other brother Mago invaded northern Italy and took the city of Genoa. But the presence of Roman legions prevented him from joining up with Hannibal.

In the meantime, Rome developed a military genius of its own. Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus went to Spain to take his deceased father and uncle’s place commanding the troops there, and, in four years he cleared the entire peninsula of all Carthaginian forces. Then he went back to Rome and was elected Consul. He then organized an invasion of Africa. He defeated the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal Son of Gisco and his ally Syphax and began laying waste to the Carthaginian countryside. The Carthaginians summoned both Hannibal and Mago back to Africa to defend the city. Mago had been wounded in a battle and died in transit. Hannibal landed at Hadrumetum and began to organize his veterans and recruiting local forces for the coming battle, but Hannibal’s veterans were depleted, the local forces he could recruit were inexperienced, and he was considerably inferior in cavalry. It was probably the Roman superiority in cavalry that carried the day for them at the Battle of Zama. They won the battle and forced Carthage into a treaty on Roman terms.

So, the basic factors in Rome’s defeat of Carthage during the Second Punic War were:

  1. Carthage’s failure to support Hannibal.
  2. Reliance upon mercenary forces.
  3. Carthage’s lack of good generalship-it takes more than one military genius to win a war.
  4. Rome’s stubbornness and unwillingness to concede defeat.
  5. The effectiveness of a war of attrition in the long run.


  1. Edward Blume-Poulton says

    One should add the Carthaginian failure in Sicily, a usually overlooked theatre of the war. If the Carthaginians had been successful there they would have had the considerable resources of the Island to supply and reinforce Hannibal and largely neutralised the Roman blockade.

    Considerable resources in the form of supplies and soldiers were invested in Sicily by Carthage and they had the upper hand in control of the island until 212. The Roman success there was more down to good luck (internal betrayals) than military success despite having five legions and, variously, about half the fleet stationed there.

    Scipio invaded North Africa from Sicily and the supply of men and materials from there played a large part in his success. I don’t think you can write a fully accurate history of the war without a more thorough study of Sicily. I have been undertaking such a study for several years and it is much more complex than the overly casual references in most, arguably all, histories of the war.

  2. That is very true. The role of Sicily is often overlooked. Sicily was a key bone of contention in both the First and Second Punic Wars. In the Second Punic War the problem was Syracuse which went from a Roman ally under Heiro, to a Carthaginian ally under his grandson Hieronymus, a boy of fifteen who was influenced by the Carthaginians. It became a priority for the Romans to conquer the city which Claudius Marcellus did in 212 B.C. despite the best efforts of Archimedes. Possession of the island was, indeed, key to Scipio’s invasion of Africa.

  3. Edward Blume-Poulton says

    The account of the war in Sicily (mostly Livy) does centre on Syracuse – and Marcellus – but there is more to be read into the account. The Carthaginians took control of a large part of the Island and had very obvious local sympathy. They were able to raid quite feely even after the capture of Syracuse in 211 (I date to 211 for different reasons to De Sanctis – too long a story for here). We tend to view the war from a Roman viewpoint and overlook the Carthaginian interests, aims and tactics. There is much more to be done to get a fully accurate understanding of this most significant war.

  4. History tends to be written by the winners, and there are no surviving Carthaginian accounts of the Punic Wars that I am aware of. Two of my books, In the Wake of Hannibal and The Last Carthaginian tell the story from the Carthaginian point of view, but neither says much about Sicily because none of my characters go there.

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