A Brief History of the Punic Wars

I wrote a historical novel about the Second and Third Punic Wars. Someone asked me what the book was about, and I said, “The Punic Wars.” He gave me a blank look and I said, “The wars between Rome and Carthage, Scipio versus Hannibal.” His eyes lit up and he said “Hannibal! I’ve heard of him! Didn’t he cross the Alps with Elephants?” And that’s all he knew about it. That’s all the vast majority of American know about it.
I would explain, briefly, that there were three wars fought between Rome and Carthage during the third and second centuries B.C.
The First Punic war started in 264 B.C. and lasted for 23 years. Rome and Carthage were fairly evenly matched at that point. In the beginning, Carthage was far stronger in naval forces, but the Romans gradually caught up. In fact, the decisive battle which compelled Carthage to sue for peace was the naval battle of the Aegates Islands in 241 B.C. This brought about the Treaty of Lutatius on Roman terms.
The problem with Carthage in both the First and Second Punic Wars was that they relied upon mercenaries to do their fighting. After the end of the First Punic War, Carthage could not pay their mercenaries what they demanded, and the mercenaries besieged the city for three years. The Romans took advantage of this situation to wrest the Islands of Corsica and Sardinia from Carthage, and, according to the historian Polybius, this was factor in provoking the Second Punic War. The mercenary revolt was eventually put down by a Carthaginian general named Hamilcar Barca, arguably the best general Carthage had fielded during the First Punic War.
After putting down this revolt, Hamilcar Barca went to Spain to develop Carthage’s colony there. Spain was rich in mineral wealth which would help Carthage pay off the huge indemnity that the treaty of Lutatius had imposed upon the city. Hamilcar brought along his nine-year-old son Hannibal, whom he firmly indoctrinated to hate the Romans.
Hannibal grew up a child of the camp and learned military strategy from his father. He was tutored in military history by Greek tutors, including the Spartan Sosylus. When Hannibal was eighteen, his father was killed in a conflict with the Carpetani, a Spanish tribe. Hannibal’s brother-in-law, Hasdrubal the Fair took over Carthaginian military leadership in Spain. Hasdrubal the Fair had little interest in conflict with the Romans, and even treated with them, giving them a sphere of influence north of the Iberus River.
Some eight years later, however, Hasdrubal the Fair was assassinated and the Hannibal, aged 26, was elected military commander by the Carthaginian forces in Spain. The post was ratified by the Carthaginian Senate. Hannibal was intent upon war with Rome, and, after putting down revolts by the tribes of Spain, he besieged Saguntum, a Spanish city allied with Rome. The Carthaginian Senate did not act on Roman demands that Hannibal be restrained, and the Romans declared war.
This was when Hannibal gathered up 70,000 mostly mercenary soldier and started his trek over the Pyrenees and the Alps and invaded Italy. Yes, he had thirty-six elephants with him, some 23 of which made it all the way. About half of his original contingent made it to Italy, the rest died or deserted.
Hannibal was spectacular in warfare against the Roman for the first two years of the war, soundly defeating them at the Battles of Ticinus, Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae. The latter cost the Romans 55,000 Roman and allied lives. Hannibal sent an emissary to the city with peace terms after the Battle of Cannae, but the Romans were having none of that. They would not allow the emissary to enter the city, and the Roman Senate declared it a crime to even mention the word “peace.”
Under the leadership of Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator, the Romans generally made a policy of declining battle with Hannibal and the war became one of attrition. Over the next ten years the Romans clawed back Hannibal’s territorial gains and punished his allies. They conquered Capua and Tarentum and sold the survivors into slavery. Other polities and tribes, seeing these examples, rejoined the Roman fold. by 206 B.C., Hannibal was bottled up in a small territory of Bruttium.
In Spain, the Proconsuls Publius and Gneius Scipio fought against the Carthaginian generals Hasdrubal Barca, Mago Barca and Hasdrubal son of Gisco. The former two were brothers of Hannibal. In 211 B.C. both Scipios were defeated and killed in the Battles of the Upper Baetis. But Publius Scipio had a son, also named Publius who was about 25 years old, who had distinguished himself at the Battles of Ticinus and Cannae. He was elected commander for Roman forces in Spain. He went to Spain and promptly conquered the Carthaginian city of New Carthage. Within four years he eliminated the Carthaginian military presence in Spain, defeating Hasdrubal Barca at the Battle of Baecula and defeating Mago Barca and Hasdrubal Son of Gisco at the Battle of Ilipa.
Hasdrubal Barca raised a mercenary army from the Carthaginian-allied tribes of Spain and crossed the Alps hoping to join up with Hannibal, but the Romans annihilated his army at the Battle of the Metaurus river in 207 B.C. He died in a suicidal charge.
Having cleared Spain of Carthaginian military forces, Scipio returned to Rome in 206 B.C. and ran for Consul. He proposed to invade Africa. During the next three years he raised and Army and trained them on Sicily. He carefully planned the logistics of the invasion. In 203 B.C. he invaded north Africa and began wreaking havoc. He burned the camps of Hasdrubal son of Gisco and his Numidian ally Syphax destroying two-thirds of their forces. Then he defeated them at the Battle of the Great Plains. The Carthaginian Senate summoned Hannibal and his brother Mago back from Italy. Hannibal and Scipio confronted each other at the Battle of Zama, and it was a decisive victory for Scipio. Carthage was forced into a treaty on Roman terms.
The Third Punic War was the brainchild of the Roman politician Cato the Elder who had fought in the Second Punic War and passionately hated Carthage. Alarmed by Carthage’s growing prosperity, he ended every speech in the Senate or the Forum, no matter what the subject, with the words, “Cetera censeo Cartagine esse delendam”,”And furthermore I advise that Carthage must be destroyed.” The Romans declared war on Carthage in 150 B.C. on the pretext that Carthage had gone to war with Numidia without Roman permission, in violation of Scipio’s treaty. In 146 B.C., the Romans under Scipio Aemilianus (Scipio Minor) breached the walls of Carthage and destroyed the city. 50,000 survivors were sold into slavery. And no, the Romans did not salt the lands around Carthage. That is a 20th century myth with no support in the ancient literature.
If you want to know more details about the Punic Wars, I suggest reading Livy and Polybius. Or read my historical novels The Death of Carthage, In the Wake of Hannibal, and The Last Carthaginian. They are available on Amazon and Kindle.

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