IV -- Punic War Overview

The Romans fought three Punic Wars with Carthage between 265-146 BCE. The two great historical sources about this series of wars are Polybius a Greek historian attached to staff of Scipio Africanus, the Roman hero of the second Punic War, and Livy, a Roman historian who wrote in the late first century AD, using as his sources Polybius and other sources that have since been lost. Polybius was apparently present for some of the military action and interviewed participants. Livy, on the other hand, is later and clearly presents a propagandistic version of events. There are no sources that give the Carthaginian side of the story. Adrian Goldsworthy (The Punic Wars, Adrian Goldsworthy, 1902, ISBN: 030435967X -- available from online bookstores in paperback) relies on the writings of Polybius and Livy, Roman Senate records, other extant material such as Cato's writing on agriculture, as well as archeological findings from various excavations to describe the hundred years war that ended with the destruction of Carthage.

The first war between Rome and Carthage was fought over and about Sicily and ended with a Roman victory and possession of Sicily. This was the war during which the Romans invented the "Corvus" (Latin for "crow"), the ramp with a big spike on the end -- like the hooked beak of a crow -- that allowed Roman land troops to fight at sea. The Romans thereafter ruled the waves, and the later Punic wars were fought on land.

The second Punic War was dominated by the Carthaginian, Hannibal, who conquered Italy with elephants and controlled the peninsula for a very long time. Unfortunately for Carthage, the Romans never acknowledged Hannibal's conquest. As Goldsworthy puts it, comparing the Romans to the British in WWII, "He who conquers is not the victor unless the loser considers himself beaten." Although Hannibal beat the Romans in all the Italian battles, the Romans regrouped and attacked -- not Hannibal, but Spain. Then Scipio Africanus took another Roman army to North Africa and won several significant battles. Finally, when his home town was threatened, Hannibal left Italy, went home to Carthage, engaged the Romans in battle there, and lost.

The third Punic war is still considered by some historians to have been unnecessary. Rome, they say, had defeated Carthage in the second Punic War and Carthage appeared not to have posed a new threat to Rome. We don't really have enough information to judge, but this is what we think happened. The terms of the Carthaginian surrender at the end of the Second Punic War required Carthage to disarm and to refrain from any actions beyond its own borders. These conditions emboldened the local enemies of Carthage to raid across the Carthaginian borders and then retreat with their loot into their own territories, secure in the belief that Rome would prevent any Carthaginian retaliation. Eventually, Carthage started to re-arm to prevent cross border raids, and this alarmed Rome and especially Cato. Day after day Cato harangued on the Senate floor that the Carthaginians were rearming and cooperating with Rome's other enemies, especially the Macedonians (probably true), and should therefore be invaded and destroyed. Cato eventually persuaded his fellow Senators to declare war. Rome attacked Carthage and destroyed it. In the end, the civilization founded by the Phoenicians was in ruins and Rome had become undisputed master of the Mediterranean.

The legacy of the Punic wars may have been the end of the Roman Republic. In the beginning, the Roman military was composed of yeomen farmers who volunteered for service along with members of the other classes. The upper classes taxed themselves to support the first and second Punic wars. By the third Punic war, yeomen farmers had been replaced with large agricultural farms held by wealthy men like Cato. Roman citizens from the upper classes disdained military service, and the army was largely composed of mercenary forces -- professional soldiers -- made up of the dispossessed. This professional army eventually dominated the country though Gaius Marius, Sula, and the Caesars.


Rome's Punic and other concurrent wars

264-241BC - First war with Carthage (First Punic War)

238BC - Conquest of Sardinia

229-228BC - First Illyrian War (Balkans)

219BC - Second Illyrian War

218-201BC - Second Punic War (Hannibal crossed the Alps)

215-205BC - First Macedonian War

200-197BC - Second Macedonian War

200-191BC - Gaul invasion of northern Italy

192-189BC - Syrian War

171-168 - Third Macedonian War

149-148BC - Fourth (and final) Macedonian War

149-146BC - Third Punic War and final defeat of Carthage


8th Century BC Carthage founded by Phoenician colonists

3rd Century The Carthaginian Empire stretches across north Africa, the Belearic Islands, Sardinia, Corsica, and most of Sicily.

First Punic War -- 265-241 BC

264 A dispute erupts in the Sicilian city of Messina. Sicilians on one side call for the help of Carthage. The other side gains support of Rome. First Punic War begins

262 Rome gains control of most of Sicily after laying siege to Agrigentum

260 As the Romans were inexperienced at naval warfare, they were defeated in the Lipara Islands. At the Battle of Mylae the Romans gained a victory by outfitting their ships with hinged planks. This allowed them to make use of their excellent infantry in naval engagements.

256 Naval Battle of Cape Economus- Roman force lead by M. Atilius Regulus and L. Manlius defeat Carthaginians lead by Hamilcar Barca. Roman army invades Africa.

255 Battle of Tunis - Romans in Africa defeated.

254 Carthaginian Army returns to Sicily

251 Battle of Panormus - Roman victory

249 Battle of Drepanum - Carthaginian victory on land and sea.

247-242 Romans continue attacks on Sicily repulsed by Hamilcar.

242 Lilybaeum and Drepanum captured by the Romans

241 Battle of Aegates Islands - Carthaginian fleet defeated. The peace treaty forces Carthage to give up Sicily and to pay retribution money to Rome.

238 Carthage loses Sardinia to the Romans

Second Punic War -- 219-202 BC

(225-222 The Gauls, having invaded Italy as allies of Carthage, are pushed out by the Romans.)

220's Corsica is taken by the Romans

219 Hannibal, Hamilcar's son, lays siege to the Spanish city of Saguntum. The city was a Greek colony allied to Rome. This sparks the Second Punic War. Legions are sent to deal with Hannibal, but the Carthaginians escape.

218 Hannibal leads an army over the Pyrenees and the Alps into Italy. He brought 34 elephants with him, but only 7 survived the journey through the mountains. November: Battle of Ticinus - Romans lead by consul Scipio defeated. December: Battle of Trebia - Hannibal defeats Ti. Sempronius Longus and his Romans

217 April: Battle of Lake Trasimene - Carthaginians soundly beat the army of consul, C. Flaminius. Summer: Battle of Geronium - a draw

216 August: The Battle of Cannae - Although vastly superior in numbers, the Romans under C. Terentius Varro suffer a terrible defeat. Roman city of Capua defects. Battle of Nola - Hannibal repulsed.

215 Second Battle of Nola. Hannibal is pushed back again.

215-205 Macedonia becomes allied with Carthage. First Macedonian War begins.

214 Third Battle of Nora results in a stalemate

213-211 M. Claudius Marcellus Roman legions lay siege to Syracuse and is victorious

212 Hannibal takes Tarentum, the largest port in Italy. Capua is put under siege by the Romans. At the battles of Capua and Herdonia the Praetorian armies are defeated.

211 Carthaginian forces defeat two roman armies, thus gaining control of all of Spain south of the Ebro. Hannibal marches on Rome without much effect. In Italy, Capua is retaken by the Romans

210 Battle of Herdonia - Hannibal destroys two Roman consular armies (roughly 3 legions each) At the Battle of Numistro the Romans are defeated again.

209 In Spain, Scipio Africanus captures new Carthage. Roman forces under M.Claudius Marcellus are defeated by Hannibal. Raerntum is retaken by Rome.

208 Hannibal's younger brother, Hasdrubal Barca is defeated by Scipio at the battle of Baecula.

207 Hasdrubal Barca crosses the Alps into Italy. Hannibal marches north to meet him. Before they could join, Hasdrubal's army is stoppped at the Metaurus River and is defeated by the Romans under M. Livius Salinator and C. Claudius Nero. Hasdrubal is killed and Hannibal flees south again.

206 Battle of Ilipa - Scipio Africanus defeats the Carthaginians commanded by Mago Barca and Hasdrubal Gisgo in Spain.

204 P.Cornelius Scipio Africanus lands troops in Africa.

203 Battle of the Great Plains - Two Carthaginian armies under Syphax (a Numidian) and Hasdrubal Gisgo are defeated. Hannibal manages to sneak his army out of Italy and arrives to defend of Carthage.

202 Battle of Zama - After a failed elephant charge, Hannibal's army is completely defeated. Carthage surrenders. Rome requires the Carthaginians to give up Spain, the islands, North Africa, her navy, and her army.

Third Punic War -- 149-146 BC

149 Carthage had recovered economically from the penalties placed on her. Jealous of this and fearing Carthaginian re-armament, the Roman Senate decided that Carthage had broken the treaty, and the third Punic War was declared. A descendant of Scipio Africanus, Scipio Aemilianus ("Africanus the Younger") blockades Carthage.

146 The walls of Carthage were breached and the starving defenders were slaughtered. The city was burned to the ground and its civilians were sold into slavery.

Carthage / Punic War Links

Image -- Alphonse Mucha, Salammbo, The Incantation:

Gustave Flaubert's Salammbo (1862) -- full English Text (in purple prose)

Flaubert describes, for example, what is clearly an erotic encounter between Salammbô and the serpent, her partner in rituals she performs as a priestess of Baal, a god representing the male exterminating principal:

"The moon rose; then the cithara and the flute began to play together.

"Salammbo unfastened her earrings, her necklace, her bracelets, and her long white simar; she unknotted the band in her hair, shaking the latter for a few minutes softly over her shoulders to cool herself by thus scattering it. The music went on outside; it consisted of three notes ever the same, hurried and frenzied; the strings grated, the flute blew; Taanach kept time by striking her hands; Salammbo, with a swaying of her whole body, chanted prayers, and her garments fell one after another around her.

"The heavy tapestry trembled, and the python's head appeared above the cord that supported it. The serpent descended slowly like a drop of water flowing along a wall, crawled among the scattered stuffs, and then, gluing its tail to the ground, rose perfectly erect; and his eyes, more brilliant than carbuncles, darted upon Salammbo.

"A horror of cold, or perhaps a feeling of shame, at first made her hesitate. But she recalled Schahabarim's orders and advanced; the python turned downwards, and resting the centre of its body upon the nape of her neck, allowed its head and tail to hang like a broken necklace with both ends trailing to the ground. Salammbo rolled it around her sides, under her arms and between her knees; then taking it by the jaw she brought the little triangular mouth to the edge of her teeth, and half shutting her eyes, threw herself back beneath the rays of the moon. The white light seemed to envelop her in a silver mist, the prints of her humid steps shone upon the flag-stones, stars quivered in the depth of the water; it tightened upon her its black rings that were spotted with scales of gold. Salammbo panted beneath the excessive weight, her loins yielded, she felt herself dying, and with the tip of its tail the serpent gently beat her thigh; then the music becoming still it fell off again."

Salammbo, Ch. 10, The Serpent
Roman Territorial Expansion
Cathaginian Founding Myths -- Dido and Aeneas Kit Marlowe's Elizabethan play Chaucer on Dido and Aeneas
Ancient History Sourcebook -- the War with Carhage -- Primary Sources
Punic Wars
Texts by Christopher S. Mackay eighteen short linked pages on the wars from Professor Knox at Boise State U.
Hannibal -- not the cannibal. (But some sources claim that the word cannibal was derived from his name and fearsome reputation)
Livy on the Punic Wars
( Rome: Major Historians: Complete Texts)
Polybius Rome at the End of the Punic Wars Cannae Third Punic War
Cato and Scipio