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Rome and Carthage ~ The Punic Wars (264 - 201 BC)



Though far from evident, Rome’s rise to prominence in the Mediterranean region happened surprisingly fast. The Roman Republic crushed the Latin League in 338 BC, thereby annexing and subduing all of Latium. Shortly before 300 BC, Rome defeated the Samnite people in southern Italy, gaining most of Campania and the Apennine mountain lands. Simultaneously, the Romans managed to stabilise the situation in Rome itself: since 367 BC, the plebeians were allowed to hold the offices of consul, praetor and censor, causing Rome to be ruled by an assorted plebeian-patrician nobility; the nobilitas. This new elite drove Roman expansion in Italy to the limit, thereby ensuring that even the poorest among the Roman plebeians could be given a strip of conquered territory. However, this system could only survive if the Roman expansion continued and no Roman commander developed the idea to stir the dormant political tensions in Rome for his own purposes. Despite these two requirements being quite contradictory and therefore likely to conflict, a state of internal political stability in the Roman Republic lasted until around 133 BC.

Shortly after 300 BC, essentially all the peoples of Italy united to stop Rome once and for all – among them the Samnites, Umbrians, Etruscans and Celts. The Romans obliterated the coalition in the decisive Battle of Sentinum in 295 BC and undeniably became the strongest power in Italy by 290 BC. Only the ancient Greek colony of Tarentum (Taras) in the heel of the Italian peninsula now actively resisted Rome. Tarentum called for help from King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who invaded Italy in 280 BC. Despite two victories against Rome, these came at such great costs (‘Pyrrhic victories’) that Pyrrhus wisely retreated in 275 BC. Three years later, Tarentum was subdued by Rome. From around 270 BC onward, Rome effectively controlled the Italian peninsula almost to the Po in the north. Roughly a quarter of this land was directly ruled from Rome while the rest was bound to the Republic through a complex network of alliances and treaties. Around this time, the Romans also concluded their first treaties with foreign powers, namely Carthage and Ptolemaic Egypt, thus entering into the international diplomacy of the Mediterranean world.

Aside from Rome, the Western Mediterranean was home to another power with ambitions to dominate these lands and waters: Carthage. Once a Phoenician colony, Carthage had made enormous progress. Throughout the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Carthaginian power had cut off Greek colonisation in the west, taken over the coastline of North Africa, increasingly dominated the waters of the Western Mediterranean and successfully expanded into southern Spain. By 270 BC, Carthage had gained the upper hand against the Greeks of Syracuse on Sicily, intensified its cultivation of the Carthaginian hinterland in Africa and expanded its fleet and army to the norms of a power-hungry empire.

The Punic Wars were unleashed unexpectedly and on trivial grounds. Rome generally favoured consolidating its empire in Italy before expanding further while Carthage wanted to focus on defeating Syracuse and taking over Sicily. Fate decided otherwise. In 264 BC, the Italic people of Messana in northern Sicily called on Rome for protection from both Carthage and Syracuse, a request which was surprisingly quickly accepted. It is likely that many members of the ambitious Roman elite had foreseen the possibility of a major war with Carthage in the near future and probably even wished for a sufficient excuse as soon as possible, despite the ongoing consolidation of Italy. Thus began the First Punic War (264 – 241 BC), so-called after the Latin word Poeni, used by the Romans to indicate Carthaginians.

In the open field, the Roman legions seemed nigh invincible, rapidly securing eastern Sicily and creating an alliance with Syracuse. However, the Romans had great difficulty in taking over the Carthaginian strongholds in western Sicily and at sea, Carthage commanded the best fleet of its era. Rome did not have a single battle ship when the war began but built and assembled its own war fleet in a record time of two months, with help from its Greek allies. The Romans threw fleet after fleet at Carthage, meeting defeat at Lipara in 260 BC but narrowly winning the largest naval battles of Antiquity at Mylae in 264 BC and Ecnomus in 256 BC. Rome had never lost so much manpower and resources in a war, but fought on nonetheless. In 241 BC, Carthage was at last decisively defeated in the naval Battle of the Aegates Islands, ending the First Punic War. Rome forced Carthage to pay huge financial compensations and took over the island of Sicily. Syracuse had fought alongside Rome and remained an ally, but the rest of Sicily fell under Roman rule. Carthage’s defeat sparked uprisings amongst its army, which consisted largely of mercenaries it could no longer pay. In the ensuing chaos, Rome seized both Sardinia and Corsica in 238 BC.

Embittered by its humiliation, Carthage desired vengeance upon Rome but was smart enough to think twice about it. Rebuilding its military, Carthage refrained from provoking Rome and instead invaded Spain. The Carthaginians subdued tribe after tribe, quickly regaining both their economic power and self-confidence. To appease Rome, a treaty was subsequently concluded which marked the Ebro as the boundary of the Roman and Carthaginian spheres of influence in the west.

Meanwhile, the Romans smashed the Celtic invaders of Italy at the Battle of Clastidium in 222 BC and temporarily neutralised the Celtic threat in the north. Rome became increasingly frustrated at Carthage’s renewed power and despite Carthaginian efforts to appease the Romans, war became seemingly inevitable. Though Carthage wished for nothing more than to avenge its defeat in the First Punic War, it wanted to postpone a new war until its economy and military had expanded further. On the other hand, the Romans hoped for a new war as soon as possible, now actively seeking an excuse. This came in 218 BC, when the besieged people of Saguntum in Spain called on Rome to help them against Carthage. Despite Saguntum being located on the Carthaginian side of the Ebro as concluded in the earlier treaty, Rome immediately accepted the request and prepared two invasion forces, one for Spain and one for Africa.

However, the Romans had little idea that their eagerness to go to war was about to give them a serious setback. It just so happened that in 221 BC, a young man named Hannibal had been appointed supreme commander of the Carthaginian forces in Spain. Unlike the Carthaginian aristocracy in Carthage itself, Hannibal was as confident and eager to go to war as the Romans were. More than that, he had already prepared an army. Taking the Romans by complete surprise, Hannibal marched north and crossed the Ebro in 218 BC with an army numbering over 50,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry and even a handful of well-trained war elephants. He conquered the tribes north of the Ebro, crossed the Pyrenees Mountains and reached the Rhône before the Roman consul Publius Cornelius Scipio arrived there on his route to Spain. Hannibal then quickly crossed the Alps, which cost him most of his elephants and a sizeable number of soldiers. Additionally, Hannibal had left troops in Spain to keep the tribes there under control. Thus, of all the forces Hannibal had departed with, only half ultimately descended into the Po Valley. But Hannibal offered the Celtic chieftains in northern Italy to join him and avenge their defeat by the Romans in 222 BC, thus bolstering his forces significantly.

A brilliant leader, Hannibal’s journey into Italy alone made his name immortal. The fact that he managed to hold an army of very different peoples together for over a decade, often under difficult circumstances, proves that he must have been a man of untold charisma. In this regard, he is one of the very few leaders in Antiquity who can stand in the shadow of Alexander the Great. On the battlefield, he proved nearly invincible and as long as he lived, his name made the Romans tremble in fear, let alone the sound of his army approaching. Rome was astounded at Hannibal’s invasion of Italy and quickly sent out forces to stop him.

Still in 218 BC, Hannibal marched south and ambushed the Romans at the Trebia, resulting in a crushing Carthaginian victory that cost Rome over 30,000 soldiers. Hannibal now invaded the Roman Republic and in 217 BC, he again decimated the Roman armies, this time at Lake Trasimene. Rome then appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator and changed its strategy to one of low-level harassment of the enemy, avoiding open field battles. Simultaneously, a second front was opened in Spain, in hopes of defeating Carthage there and enforcing a peace treaty favourable to Rome before Hannibal managed to take over the Roman heartland. By 216 BC however, public opinion in Rome again called for an all-out offensive against Hannibal, which would prove to be a terrible mistake. The Roman legions, numbering nearly 70,000 soldiers, met Hannibal’s army at Cannae that same year. In the ensuing battle, Hannibal purposefully left his centre weak, luring the Romans into the Carthaginian frontline, while quickly engulfing them on the flanks with his best troops. The result was a complete encirclement and the battle turned into a bloodbath. By nightfall, over 50,000 Roman soldiers had been killed – the largest military loss in one day in any army until the First World War. Hannibal triumphed and Carthage’s final vengeance seemed there for the taking.

When news of the disaster at Cannae reached Rome, a mass panic broke out but the Roman Senate stubbornly refused to admit defeat or even consider negociating a truce. In little over two years, Rome had lost over 150,000 able-bodied men, one fifth of the entire male population over seventeen years of age in Italy. Furthermore, Hannibal now made an alliance with Phillip V of Macedon – another setback for the hard-pressed Romans. But the massive defeats and the increasingly possible scenario of Rome’s fall made the Romans all the more fanatical. A new dictator immediately raised as many new legions as possible, rallying every man who could carry a weapon into the army, even slaves. Simultaneously, orders were issued to avoid any open battle with Hannibal, to concentrate on the second front in Spain and to maintain the Roman framework of alliances and treaties in Italy. This would ultimately bring victory. Hannibal had made a significant mistake in not marching on Rome after his victory at Cannae, hesitant to attack Rome’s formidable defences without any siege engines to speak of. More importantly, Hannibal’s long-term strategy was to convince the subdued cities and peoples of Italy to defect to him, thus triggering Rome’s complete isolation and giving Hannibal sufficient manpower and resources to destroy Rome without difficulty.

However, this did not work. Rome’s alliances remained largely intact after Cannae, despite many cities in southern Italy switching sides to Carthage. Hannibal continued campaigning in Italy for thirteen years, pursued and contained by the Romans but failing to provoke them into a battle once more. At times, his forces were close enough to Rome to see the smoke of the city on the horizon. Much of the Italian countryside was now pillaged by Hannibal’s army, strengthening the loyalty of the Italic peoples to Rome. Since 210 BC, the Romans also made more and more progress in Spain under the leadership of Publius Cornelius Scipio. Hannibal’s successes thus melted away like snow in the sun while Rome defeated Carthaginian forces sent to help him and contained the threat of Phillip V of Macedon. In 204 BC, Rome’s victory in Spain was complete and Scipio crossed into Africa itself. Carthage realised too late that its own defeat was now at hand and hastily recalled Hannibal to defend the motherland. Hannibal’s exhausted forces indeed made it back to Africa and faced the armies of Scipio at Zama in 202 BC. The Roman legions soundly defeated Hannibal – avenging their countless fallen comrades – and at last secured Rome’s hard-fought victory in the Second Punic War, arguably the most important one in Roman history.

Carthage made peace with Rome in 201 BC. It gave up all its territory and claims in Spain, agreed to pay the enormous sum of 10,000 talents over a period of fifty years (two hundred per year), surrendered its fleets to Rome and was forbidden to wage war except in self-defence and with explicit Roman permission. Carthaginian power was reduced to the city of Carthage itself and its immediate hinterland, which would henceforth be under frequent attack by Roman-allied Numidia, which Rome mockingly allowed. Hannibal himself fled to Asia Minor, fearing the wrath of the victors.

The Romans returned in 149 BC for the symbolic destruction of Carthage after a three year siege in which the Carthaginian people heroically defended their city, a feat known as the Third Punic War (149 – 146 BC). Carthage was nevertheless destroyed by the overwhelming Roman forces, its people were murdered or enslaved and its hinterland was incorporated into the Roman Republic, leaving Rome unrivalled in the Western Mediterranean

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PersephoneEosopoulou's avatar
From what I've learnt wasn't a major part of Carthages trouble in all it's war it's noble family's bickering since it was an oligarchy/aristocracy. They didn't give Hannibal the support he needed and were to busy trying to undermine him and each other, kind of like the Roman Senate but without much to hold them back and restrain theme basically.