Rome

The Punic Wars





Carthage

Mesopotamia
The Persians

Rome Atlas
The Carthiginian Empire 215 BC
   The greatest naval power of the Mediterranean in the third century BC was the North African city of Carthage near modern day Tunis. The Carthaginians were orginally Phoenicians and Carthage was a colony founded by the Phoenician capital city of Tyre in the ninth century BC; the word "Carthage" means, in Phoenician, "the New City." The Phoenicians, however, were conquered by the Assyrians in the sixth century BC, and then conquered by the Persians; an independent Phoenician state would never again appear in the Middle East. Carthage, however, remained. Since Phoenicia no longer existed as an independent state, that meant that Carthage was no longer a colony, but a fully functioning independent state. While the Romans were steadily increasing their control over the Italian peninsula, the Carthaginians were extending their empire over most of North Africa. By the time that Rome controlled all of the Italian peninsula, Carthage already controlled the North African coast from western Libya to the Strait of Gibraltar, and ruled over most of southern Spain—and the island of Corsica and Sardinia in Europe as well. Carthage was a formidable power; it controlled almost all the commercial trade in the Mediterranean, had subjected vast numbers of people all whom sent soldiers and supplies, and amassed tremendous wealth from gold and silver mines in Spain.


   These two mighty empires came into contact in the middle of the third century BC when Rome's power had reached the southern tip of Italy. The two peoples had been in sporadic contact before, but neither side felt threatened by the other. The Romans were perfectly aware of the Carthaginian heritage: they called them by their old name, Phoenicians. In Latin, the word is Poeni, which gives us the name for the wars between the two states, the Punic Wars. These conflicts, so disastrous for Carthage, were inevitable. Between Carthage and Italy lay the huge island of Sicily; Carthage controlled the western half of Sicily, but the southern tip of the Italian peninsula put the Romans within throwing distance of the island. When the Sicilian city of Messana revolted against the Carthaginians, the Romans intervened, and the first Punic War erupted.



The First Punic War: 264-241 BC

   The First Punic War broke out in 264 BC; it was concentrated entirely on the island of Sicily. Rome beseiged many of the Carthaginian cities on Sicily, and when Carthage attempted to raise the seige with its navy, the Romans utterly destroyed that navy. For the first time since the rise of the Carthaginian empire, they had lost power over the sea-ways.

   The war ended with no particular side winning over the other. In 241 BC, the Carthaginians and Romans signed a treaty in which Carthage had to give up Sicily, which it didn't miss, and to pay an indemnity to cover Roman costs for the war, which it could well afford. But Carthage soon faced rebellion among its mercenary troops and Rome, in 238 BC, took advantage of the confusion by seizing the island of Corsica. The Romans greatly feared the Carthaginians and wanted build as large a buffer zone as possible between them and the Carthaginians. By gaining Sicily, the Romans had expelled the Carthaginians from their back yard; they now wanted them out of their front yard, that is, the islands of Corsica and Sardinia west of the Italian peninsula.

   The Carthaginians were furious at this action; even Roman historians believed it was a rash and unethical act. The Carthaginians began to shore up their presence in Europe. They sent first the general Hamilcar and then his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, to Spain to build colonies and an army. Both Hamilcar and Hasdrubal made allies among the native Iberians, and their armies, recruited from Iberians, grew ominous as Carthaginian power and influence crept up the Iberian peninsula.



The Second Punic War: 218-202 BC

   By 218 BC, Carthage had built a mighty empire in Spain and grown wealthy and powerful as a result. Growing increasingly anxious, the Romans had imposed a treaty on Carthage not to expand their empire past the Ebro river in Spain. However, when a small city in Spain, Saguntum, approached Rome asking for Roman friendship and alliance, the Romans couldn't resist having a friendly ally right in the heart of the Carthaginian Iberian empire.

   A few years later, however, in 221 BC, a young man, only twenty-five years old, assumed command over Carthaginian Spain: Hannibal. At first, Hannibal gave the Saguntines wide berth for he wished to avoid coming into conflict with Rome. But the Saguntines were flush with confidence in their new alliance and began playing politics with other Spanish cities. Hannibal, despite direct threats from Rome, attacked Saguntum and conquered it.

   The Romans attempted to solve the problem with diplomacy and demand that Carthage dismiss Hannibal and send him to Rome. When Carthage refused, the second Punic War began in 218 BC. Rome, however, was facing a formidable opponent; in the years following the first Punic War, Carthage had created a powerful empire in Spain with a terrifyingly large army. Hannibal marched that terrible army out of Spain and across Europe and, in September of 218, he crossed the Alps with his army and entered Italy on a war of invasion. Although his army was tired from the journey, he literally smashed the Roman armies he encountered in northern Italy. Within two months, he had conquered the whole of northern Italy, with the exception of two cities. These spectacular victories brought a horde of Gauls from the north to help him, fifty thousand or more; his victory over Rome, as he saw it, would be guaranteed if he could convince Roman allies and subject cities to join Carthage.


Ancient Greece
The Three Empires
   The Romans were divided as to whether they could beat Hannibal in open warfare and they knew that he and his army were alone and far from any supplies. Despite Hannibal's certainty that Roman allies would join him, the allies remained faithful to Rome. So on the eve of his invasion of Rome, Hannibal steered south. The Romans, desperate because of their losses, asked Quintus Fabius Maximus to become absolute dictator of Rome. Fabius determined to avoid open warfare at any cost and simply shadowed and harassed the Carthaginian army until they were weak enough to be engaged with openly. His instinct was to wait out Hannibal; he was hated for this policy—the Romans called him "The Delayer" and eventually removed him from power. But when Hannibal marched into Cannae in southern Italy and started decimating the countryside in 216 BC, the two inexperienced consuls which had replaced Fabius as generals of the army sent an army of eighty thousand soldiers against him. This army, vastly outnumbering the Carthaginian army, was completely wiped out by Hannibal' "pincer" strategy: the largest defeat Rome ever suffered. The battle had proven that Fabius was right all along to avoid direct battles, so the Romans went back to his strategy of waiting out Hannibal. Roman allies in the south of Italy literally ran to Hannibal's side; the whole of Sicily allied itself with the Carthaginians. In addition, the king of Macedon, Philip V, who controlled most of the mainland of Greece, allied himself with Hannibal and began his own war against Roman possessions in 215 BC.


   The situation looked bad for the Romans; however, none of the central Italian allies had gone over to Hannibal's side after Cannae. The Romans had been chastened by their defeat and absolutely refused to go against Hannibal, whose army moved around the Italian countryside absolutely unopposed. Hannibal, however, was weak in numbers and in equipment. He didn't have enough soldiers to lay seige to cities such as Rome, and he didn't have either the men or equipment to storm those cities by force. All he could do was roam the countryside and lay waste to it. In 211, he marched right up the walls of Rome, but he never laid siege to it. So confident were the Romans, that on the day that Hannibal marched around the walls of Rome with his cavalry, the land on which he had camped was sold at an auction in Rome, and it was sold at full price!


   The Romans, however, very shrewdly decided to fight the war through the back door. They knew that Hannibal was dependent on Spain for future supplies and men, so they appointed a young, strategically brilliant man as proconsul and handed him the imperium over Spain. This move was unconstituional, for this young man had never served as consul. His name: Publius Cornelius Scipio (237-183 BC). Scipio, who would later be called Scipio Africanus for his victory over Carthage (in Africa), by 206 had conquered all of Spain, which was converted into two Roman provinces. Hannibal was now left high and dry in Italy.


   Scipio then crossed into Africa in 204 BC and took the war to the walls of Carthage itself. This forced the Carthaginians to sue for peace with Rome; part of the treaty demanded that Hannibal leave the Italian peninsula. Hannibal was one of the great strategic generals in history; all during his war with Rome he never once lost a major battle, although he had lost a couple small skirmishes. Now, however, he was forced to retreat; he had, despite winning every battle, lost the war. When he returned to Carthage, the Carthaginians took heart and rose up against Rome in one last gambit in 202 BC. At Zama in northern Africa, Hannibal, fighting against Scipio and his army, met his first defeat. Rome reduced Carthage to a dependent state; Rome now controlled the whole of the western Mediterranean including northern Africa.


Rome
The Conquest of the Hellenistic Empires
   This was the defining historical experience of the Romans. They had faced certain defeat with toughness and determination and had won against overwhelming odds. Their system of alliances had held firm; while Hannibal had depended on the allies running to his side, only the most remote Roman allies, those in the south and Siciliy, left the Roman alliance. For the rest of Roman history, the character of being Roman would be distilled in the histories of this seemingly desperate war against Carthage. The Second Punic War turned Rome from a regional power into an international empire: it had gained much of northern Africa, Spain, and the major islands in the western Mediterranean. Because Philip V of Macedon had allied himself with Hannibal and started his own war of conquest, the second Punic War forced Rome to turn east in wars of conquest against first Philip and then other Hellenistic kingdoms. The end result of the second Punic War, in the end, was the domination of the known world by Rome.



The Third Punic War: 149-146 BC

   In the years intervening, Rome undertook the conquest of the Hellenistic empires to the east. In the west, Rome brutally subjugated the Iberian people who had been so vital to Roman success in the second Punic War. However, they were especially angry at the Carthaginians who had almost destroyed them. The great statesman of Rome, Cato, is reported by the historians as ending all his speeches, no matter what their subject, with the statement, "I also think that Carthage should be destroyed." Carthage had, through the first half of the second century BC, recovered much of its prosperity through its commercial activities, although it had not gained back much power. The Romans, deeply suspicious of a reviving Carthage, demanded that the Carthaginians abandon their city and move inland into North Africa. The Carthaginians, who were a commercial people that depended on sea trade, refused. The Roman Senate declared war, and Rome attacked the city itself. After a seige, the Romans stormed the town and the army went from house to house slaughtering the inhabitants in what is perhaps the greatest systematic execution of non-combatants before World War II. Carthaginians who weren't killed were sold into slavery. The harbor and the city was demolished, and all the surrounding countryside was sown with salt in order to render it uninhabitable.

Richard Hooker



The Conquest of the Hellenistic Empires

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-2-97