The Punic Wars

By 350 BC there were three great powers in the Mediterranean area, Rome, Carthage and Greece. The Carthaginians had originally come from the area we now call the Lebanon. Later they moved to North Africa where they built their capital city, Carthage. The Carthaginians were skilful farmers and produced large quantities of food. As well as North Africa, the Carthaginians also controlled Hispania, Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia. The people of Carthage were more interested in trade than war. As they needed to protect their foreign trade, they usually paid others to do their fighting for them. Most of these soldiers came from Hispania and Africa.

To protect their trade with other countries, Carthage also developed a very good navy. The Romans knew that before they could challenge the Carthaginians for control of the Mediterranean they needed to build up their own navy. When a Carthaginian ship became stranded on the Italian coast, it was captured and Roman craftsman were told to build 120 ships like it.

After these ships had been made, the Roman Senate sent an army of 40,000 men to capture Carthage. Rome's first effort to expand its empire overseas was a complete failure, and in 255 BC Rome was forced to send another fleet of ships to rescue its defeated army.

The Romans decided to go for an easier target and the following year they took Sicily from the Carthaginians. For the next seven years the Carthaginians attempted to recapture the island but the vastly improved Roman Navy made this impossible. Hamilcar Barca was the commander of the Carthaginian land forces. He kept his army intact and led a successful guerrilla war against the Romans in Sicily.

In 241 BC Carthage signed a peace treaty bringing the first Punic War to an end (Punicum was Latin for Carthaginian). By signing the peace treaty, Carthage agreed that Rome should keep Sicily. Rome had its first overseas territory. Sicily was now a province of Rome (provincia was Latin for an area under military command). Rome installed its own governor and imposed taxes on the people of Sicily. In the next few years Rome went on to take the islands of Corsica and Sardinia from Carthage.

Hamilcar Barca died in battle in 228 BC. Hannibal's brother-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair succeeded to his command of the army with Hannibal serving as an officer under him. Hasdrubal signed a treaty with the Romans where Carthage promised not to expand north of the Ebro River. Hasdrubal also endeavored to consolidate Carthaginian power through diplomatic relationships with native tribes. This included arranging the marriage between Hannibal and an Iberian princess named Imilce.

Hasdrubal the Fair was assassinated by a Celtic assassin in 221 BC and Hamilcar Barca's son, Hannibal was now proclaimed commander-in-chief by the army.

In 218 BC Carthage decided to hit back. Defeated at sea, the Carthaginians decided this time to attack Italy by land from their base in Hispania. Hannibal, their military commander, led an army made up of 30,000 Spanish infantrymen, 9,000 African cavalry and a team of elephants. To attack Rome from Spain meant that Hannibal had to take his soldiers and animals over the snow-covered Alps.

The Romans did not believe it was possible and were taken by surprise. However, the journey had taken its toll and by the time Hannibal reached Italy, he only had 26,000 men left alive.

The first battle between the two sides took place at Trebia. Although they had many more men, the Romans were heavily defeated by the Carthaginians. One of the reasons for this was that the Romans had trouble coping with Hannibal's elephants. The elephants were used at the front of the Carthaginian forces (similar to the way tanks were used in the First World War). Because of the elephants' size and trumpeting, the Romans had great difficulty in persuading their horses to charge Hannibal's forces.

The Romans tried several different tactics against elephants. They were extremely difficult to kill, so the main aim was to make them panic and run amok amongst the Carthaginians. They tried to do this by killing their driver or by stabbing them with javelins in the soft skin under the tail. The Romans also discovered that elephants were frightened of the sound of squealing pigs. Therefore pigs were covered in tar, set alight and let loose amongst the elephants. The Carthaginians attempted to counteract this tactic by giving wine to the elephants before battle and stabling them with pigs so that they would get used to the squealing.

Although Hannibal's elephants survived the Battle of Trebia, most of them died soon afterwards from the cold weather. However, the lack of elephants did not stop Hannibal inflicting a series of defeats on the Romans. The most important of these was at Cannae where over 50,000 Roman soldiers were killed and a further 19,000 were captured. Hannibal, on the other hand, lost less than 6,000 men.

Even though they suffered these losses, the Romans refused to surrender. As Hannibal was never strong enough to attack Rome itself, he failed to obtain a total victory over the enemy.

The Roman Senate responded to these military reverses by ordering an attack on Carthaginian held Spain. This was a success, and Scipio Africanus, who organised the campaign, became a national hero. Scipio now started to plan an attack on Carthage, and Hannibal was forced to abandon the territory he controlled in Italy in order to defend his homeland.

Scipio and his troops landed in Africa in 204 BC. Instead of attacking Carthage, Scipio visited King Masinissa of Numidia, whose cavalry had played such an important part in Hannibal's victories over the Romans. In exchange for promises of Carthaginian territory, King Masinissa agreed to join forces with Scipio.

The Battle of Zama took place in 202 BC. Hannibal had 40,000 men and 80 elephants while Scipio had 25,000 Romans and 11,000 Numidians. Hannibal started the battle by ordering an elephant charge. However, the Romans had learnt by bitter experience how to deal with elephants. Instead of pigs they now used men blowing trumpets. The noise frightened the elephants and many of them turned and stampeded, trampling to death large numbers of Carthaginians. Hannibal's troops were scattered and they were gradually hunted down by the Numidian cavalry.

The Romans were extremely harsh on the defeated Carthaginians. All but ten of their ships were destroyed, vast amounts of money had to be handed over and all overseas territories had to be abandoned. Carthage also had to promise that in future it would gain permission from Rome before forming alliances or going to war with other countries.

Initially, the main aim of Rome was to weaken its rivals for power in the Mediterranean. However, in 153 BC a Roman politician named Cato visited Carthage. He was tremendously impressed by the agricultural wealth of Africa. As Rome was having difficulty feeding its growing population, he suggested to the Roman government that Carthage should be forced to become part of the Roman Empire.

Some politicians disagreed. However, the majority of the Senate supported Cato and the Third Punic War began.

The Romans started their campaign by stopping all supplies from entering Carthage. After the blockade had weakened the Carthaginians, the Romans attacked. Although the Romans managed to break through the city walls, the people refused to surrender and seven days of street fighting took place.

When the Romans eventually won victory they set fire to the city. Afterwards what buildings remained were knocked down. The defeated people were sold into slavery and all the territory that once belonged to Carthage now joined the Roman Empire.

(C) Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire (c. 110 BC)

Xanthippus (the Carthaginian Commander) gave the order to the elephant-drivers to advance and break the enemy's line... The Roman army also moved forward, clashing their shields and spears together, as is their usual custom, and shouting their battle-cry. The Roman infantry... fell back before the weight of the elephant charge... they were trampled underfoot and perished in heaps in the fighting.

(D) Ammianus, Books of Deeds (c. AD 385)

Slowly marched the lines of elephants, frightful with their wrinkled bodies and loaded with armed men, a hideous spectacle, dreadful beyond every form of horror.

(E) In his book History of the Roman Conquests, the historian, Appian, described how Scipio Africanus, the Roman military commander, reacted to the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC.

Scipio looked over the city which had flourished for over seven hundred years since its formation, which had ruled over such extensive territories, islands, and seas, and been as rich in arms, fleets, elephants, and money as the greatest empires... It had withstood a great siege and famine for three years, and was now coming to an end in total destruction; and he is said to have wept and openly mourned the fate of his enemy. After reflecting a long time on the fact that not only individuals but cities, nations, and empires must all come to an end he said... "This is a glorious moment... and yet I am seized with fear and foreboding that some day the same fate will befall my own country."

1. Study source A. (i) Why do you think the elephant driver carried a mallet and chisel? Before you answer this question it will help if you re-read the section that explains the tactics used by the Romans against the elephants. (ii) Why is there a tower on the elephant's back?

2. Explain the connections between the following points about the Carthaginians: (i) they were good farmers; (ii) they were successful traders; (iii) they had a large navy; (iv) they often employed foreign mercenaries to do their fighting for them.

3. In 218 BC the Carthaginians defeated the Romans. In 202 BC the Romans defeated the Carthaginians. Give two reasons why the Romans were able to achieve victory over the Carthaginians in 202 BC.

4. Study the sources on this page. Do you think the people who produced these sources saw Hannibal's elephants in action? Before answering this question it will help you to read about Polybius and Ammianus.