The Punic Wars, also known as the Carthage Wars (264–146 BC), are a series of three military conflicts between the Roman Republic and the Carthaginian Empire that led to the destruction of Carthage, the enslavement of its population, and the transformation of Rome into the superpower of the Ancient World.
Carthage grew from a small port to the richest and most powerful city in the Mediterranean region. It had a powerful fleet, a mercenary army, and, thanks to tariffs and trade, enough wealth to do what it pleases. At the time before the First Punic War (264-241 BC), Carthaginians had forbidden Rome to trade in the Western Mediterranean by contract.
The Carthaginians wanted everything that could be bought, sold, or traded. The Punic Wars focused mainly on the question, “In whose yard will the Mediterranean be located?” The final answer was “Rome.
Hannibal: One of the Greatest Military Leaders in History
The most commonly remembered image and story of the Punic Wars is Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps with elephants. It really happened; it was a serious test to move an army of 50,000 men with horses and elephants through the passages between snowdrifts and landslides, across rivers, and across mountain ranges.
On top of that, the locals weren’t too hospitable either. Hannibal had to fight both the local people and nature in order to cross the Alps. The elephants did not do too well; along with almost half of Hannibal’s troops, many elephants died in this historical drama.
Hannibal is definitely the most exciting figure of the Punic Wars. The son of a great warlord, Hamilcar Barca, also a brother and son-in-law of other great Carthaginian warlords, Hannibal swears from his childhood to fight with Rome. When he made his first move, for fifteen years, young children had been frightened by the words, “Hannibal ad portas” – “Hannibal is at the city gate.”
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Hannibal is one of the greatest military leaders in all of history. In him, you can find all the characteristics that we associate with the military genius of people like Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Cortez, Robert Lee, or Douglas MacArthur. He was brave, with brilliant tactical ability, resourceful, cunning, insanely brave, ruthless, and most often successful.
He usually attracted Roman troops to a battlefield of his choice. In the battle of Lake Trebia, for example, a whole Roman army was trapped. In the Battle of Cannae, he succeeded flanking the Roman army from both sides as if it came from the pages of a military textbook. In this battle alone, he killed over 40,000 Romans.
Whether through bribery or threats, diplomacy or intimidation, cavalry raids or prepared battles, Hannibal is well versed in the art of war.
Years after the Punic Wars, Scipio Africanus (the only Roman who really defeated Hannibal on the battlefield) asked Hannibal who he thinks are the greatest warlords in history.
Hannibal gave the first place to Alexander the Great, the second, to the king of Epirus Pyrrhus, who invaded Italy in 280 BC, and the third to himself. Then, Scipio asked him “And if you had beaten me?” The answer Hannibal had was the following: “I would have been the first then”.
The First Punic War (264 – 241 BC)
In 264 BC, a conflict in Sicily involving Carthage prompted the Romans to intervene. By sending its troops, Rome started the First Punic War.
Initially, battles took place on land and the Roman legions crushed the Carthaginians. In the second phase of the war, the Carthaginians concentrated their actions mainly at sea, because they assumed that their superiority was palpable there. They managed to inflict a lot of damage on Rome.
Then Rome innovated in its newly formed fleet with a bridge that connected the two ships and allowed the soldiers to storm the enemy. This reversed the course of the war. The Carthaginians were left broken and seeking peace. Rome imposed a degrading treaty on them. The Carthaginian Empire lost Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and its commercial monopoly.
After a grueling civil war and conflicts with neighboring kingdoms, Carthage began to recover. In order to counterbalance their losses and restore the power of Carthage, Carthaginian commander Hamilcar Barca set off on a campaign in Spain and laid the foundations for a great Carthaginian rule in Spain.
New Carthage (now Cartagena) was founded on the southeastern coast of Spain, and within a few years, through the mining of Spain, re-filled Carthage’s treasury. This conquest inevitably led to a collision with Rome and in 218 BC, war broke out again.
The Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC)
The Second Punic War began disastrously for Rome. Led by the talented Commander Hannibal, the Carthaginians crossed the Alps and invaded Northern Italy. Hannibal went with his army across almost the entire peninsula and devastated the country.
In the Battle of Cannae, from 87,000 Romans only 14,000 survived. However, the distance from Carthage interrupted Hannibal’s supply lines and at the same time, the Romans transferred their armies to Africa, attacking Carthage itself.
The Grand Commander was forced to abandon his conquest and rushed to save his homeland. However, near Zama (in Tunisia today), Hannibal suffered his first defeat, which was so catastrophic that Carthage was forced to seek peace again.
This time, the contract was almost devastating. The trade empire was forced to part with all its overseas territories and surrender its fleet, had no right to wage war without the consent of Rome and had to pay a huge indemnity within 50 years. Hannibal later escaped into exile, and around 183 BC, committed suicide.
The Third Punic War (149 – 146 BC)
Peace brought a new period of prosperity to Carthage, and to such an extent that Carthage offered to pay Rome’s indemnity in ten years only. This enormous vitality, as well as the political reforms in Carthage, were regarded as an extreme threat by its relentless enemies.
For almost two years, until his death, an elderly member of the Roman Senate, Cato, completed his speech before the Senate with the sentence “Carthago delenda est!” meaning “Cartagena must be destroyed!”
Finally, in 150 BC, a minor violation of the peace gave the Romans the occasion they sought. A war was declared, described as a “war of destruction.” For three years, the Romans laid siege to the thirty-kilometer fortifications of the city, some of which were walls over twelve feet high. In 146 BC, they managed to break into the walls.
Roman soldiers advanced through the narrow streets in the rain of arrows and embarked on a fierce melee. In sad acknowledgment of the ancient historical chronicles, archaeologists have discovered human bones under scattered stone blocks.
After six horrifying days, some 50,000 hungry residents of the city who had sought asylum in a nearby fortress surrendered. Others, who wanted to avoid execution or slavery, locked themselves in Eshmun’s temple and set it on fire.
The Romans burned down the ruins of the city, Carthage was leveled to the ground, and cursed in a special ceremony, prohibiting its settlement.
Thus, in 120 years, Rome crushed Carthage’s pursuits of domination. As it turned out, the Punic Wars marked the emergence of Roman imperial rule, which eventually swept the world.