The Punic Wars


David L. Silverman
The Punic Wars

The Carthaginian presence in Sicily was of long standing. Carthage had been fighting on behalf of other Phoenician colonies, which were continually under pressure from the Greek colonies in the east to withdraw westward, since 480. The Carthaginians suffered a major setback in 480, when Hamilcar's invasion of Sicily was repulsed by Gelon, the tyrant of Syracuse, at Himera. This attack was alleged by Diodorus to have been timed to coincide with the subjugation of Greece by Xerxes through a secret pact between the Persians and Carthaginians, and the allegation is at least plausible, considering that the Phoenicians themselves led Xerxes' naval force. But even then the Carthaginians controlled (in addition to a large swath of coastline on either side of their own city) not only Southern Spain, but also Corsica and Sardinia. And they won much of western Sicily back in a series of campaigns which took advantage of the weakened state of Syracuse in the aftermath of the Athenian blockade (410-405 BC). It is a clue to the nature of the Carthaginian empire that they kept close control over passage through the Straights of Gibraltar (which the Greeks and then the Romans called the Pillars of Heracles). That much could have been inferred also from the earlier two of the treaties mentioned by Polybius (3.22-3.23): Romans who find themselves beyond the Fair Promontory may not transact any business except in the presence of a representative of the Carthaginian government, obviously so that an excise tax may be imposed. But the same does not hold in the other direction; clearly the Romans, at least before the third century BC, showed little awareness of the mutually sustaining relationship possible between commerce and empire.

Like the Roman system, the Carthaginian government combined elements of oligarchy and democracy (and was praised for this by Aristotle, Politics II 127b), but it leaned more to the former. The highest magistrates in the state were the two shophets (or judges), but the real power rested with a subset (104) of the 300 senators, who formed a high court or executive. The nobility was hereditary but, as also at Rome, entry was granted to a few newly wealthy families (and the Barcids, the ancestors of Hannibal, seem to have been among these). The army, which had originally been citizen, relied increasingly on mercenaries and also conscripts from among the subject peoples, especially the Numidian cavalry which are ubiquitous in Roman accounts of land battles with Carthaginian forces. The navy, for which the Carthaginians (as befits Phoenicians) were famous, depended upon tribute. In antiquity naval warfare was high-tech warfare; a navy was relatively expensive compared to a land force, in which combatants would ordinarily supply their own weapons.

Culturally, a fuller picture of Carthage is only gradually beginning to emerge from excavations. Although there must have been Carthaginian histories, they all perished completely (a phenomenon perhaps connected with the Roman insistence upon stamping out every last vestige of Carthaginian life, in 146 BC). Of poetry and other literature we have nothing. Oddly, given the importance of wealth in the state, the Carthaginians were slow to begin coining money (around 410). Moderns have for the most part tended to share the cultural stereotypes of the Carthaginians held by the Greeks and Romans in antiquity. For all that Carthage was wealthy and well governed, the Greeks and Romans viewed them as bejeweled, perfumed, effeminate, sybaritic easterners. Nor has it helped their reputation to have it confirmed, by the excavations on the site of Carthage itself, that the Carthaginians routinely performed human sacrifice; not only do inscriptions mention it, but numerous urns containing the burnt bones of sacrificial victims (some animal, some human) have been found. In times of crisis the gods would get the choicest sacrificial victim of all: human babies. In 310, after a disastrous defeat at the hands of Agathocles, the Carthaginians are supposed to have sacrificed 500 babies to Baal.

For all that the Roman senate appeared reluctant to commit to the war on the side of the Mamertines, the ex-mercenaries of Agathocles, once the consul of 264, Appius Claudius Caudex, had driven the Carthaginian contingent out of the town of Messana Rome pursued the war with vigour. Caudex faced a blockade by the combined forces of Carthage and king Hieron of Syracuse; this same Hieron, however, only a few years later, switched sides and thereafter remained one of Rome's staunchest allies until the end of his long reign, in 215. Rome responded by sending an additional 40 thousand troops under the consuls of the next year, 263, and going on the offensive, marching south from Messana taking towns along the way. Hieron was cowed into alliance with the Romans. More Roman successes followed in the next year (262) as the consuls took Segesta (NW) and besieged Agrigentum (aka Akragas, on the southern coast), the Carthaginian stronghold in Sicily. At last after a long siege and a bloody battle Agrigentum fell; the town was sacked and most of the inhabitants sold into slavery. Polybius believed that this success inspired the senate to the goal of expelling the Carthaginians entirely from Sicily (1. 20), but it is worth noting that by this time the Romans had become accustomed to accepting nothing less than total surrender.

In any case, such a goal could never be accomplished without ships; Carthage was a naval power but in 262 Rome had perhaps only 40 ships, 20 of her own and 20 allied. In a very short period the Romans built 20 triremes and 50 quinqueremes, these latter on the model of Carthaginian vessels. The significance of this can not be understated; a fleet is the sine qua non of a Mediterranean empire. Incredibly, the fledgling Roman navy won its first naval battle with the new fleet under C. Duilius, off of Mylae (NW corner of Sicily); to compensate for the lack of skilled rowers, the Romans relied on a technological innovation, the corvus (a kind of grappling hook or boarding bridge; see image). While the land war in Sicily dragged on without significant results, the Romans kept on building ships, until by 257 their navy numbered 250 warships and 80 transport vessels, and they were emboldened to strike against Africa itself. A major victory at sea off of Cape Ecnomus in 256 (Polyb. 1. 27-28) opened the way.

The Romans did not have a suitable naval base close to Carthage. So, instead of keeping their ships in the region, they dropped of M. Atilius Regulus with a small but significant force and instructions to try to win allies among the Numidians, the discontented subject/allies of Carthage. Regulus did not acquit himself well. He managed to occupy Tunis (uncomfortably close to Carthage itself, across the bay to the west), but in negotiations with the Carthaginians he demanded terms of surrender which the military situation did not yet warrant. The Carthaginians hired a Spartan named Xanthippus to train their troops, then used his advice to defeat the Romans in 255 near Aspis (on the eastern side of Cape Bon); Regulus had packed his troops very deep to counter the charge of the elephants, but this resulted in a narrower line, so that the Punic horse was able to outflank the invaders. This was the end of the Roman force in Africa. A huge fleet sent to rescue the survivors was smashed on the rocks by a storm off of NW Sicily (Cape Panormos).

Momentum shifted back in Rome's favor in the next year. They quickly built a new fleet and began making inroads in western Sicily, while Carthage was occupied with the revolt of the Numidians. Another 150 ships were lost to a storm in 253, but finally in 250 C. Caecilius Metellus won a huge victory in a land battle fought in defense of Panormos (taken in 254). A key was his use of missiles to frighten the onrushing elephants into turning around and charging back into their own lines. On this occasions some of the elephants were even captured and taken back to Rome, to be paraded through the streets in the triumphal procession; nor did their propaganda value end there, as they appeared also on coins minted under the auspices of the Caecilii Metelli.

The Graeco-Roman stereotype about the Punic national character seems to have a grain of truth in it, at least if one compares the contrasting fortunes of the two navies. Carthage had been slow to reclaim a naval presence in Sicily after the shock of the first defeat at the hands of Duillius; Rome, on the other hand, threw all available resources in to the rapid construction of new fleets, even when it seemed that the gods were bent on destroying them. So in 249 the Roman navy suffered its first defeat of the war, losing 93 ships after being trapped in the harbor while attacking Drepana (NW corner of Sicily), and in the same year a mighty fleet of transports (the number 800 was traditional) was destroyed by a storm. The Roman navy was destroyed; this time, it took longer to rebuild. But by 242, thanks to what Polybius describes (1. 59) as a kind of Roman symmory system, whereby groups of wealthy persons paid for individual ships, the navy was back up to strength with 200 new light quinqueremes. In the meantime, though, an able Carthaginian general named Hamilcar Barca had taken up the war in Sicily, and he was making things hard on the troops which were besieging Drepana and Lilybaeum. The decisive battle came in 241 off the Aegate Islands (NW corner of Sicily), and the overwhelming Roman victory ended the war. The Carthaginians agreed, more than twenty years after Rome intervened on behalf of the Mamertines, to evacuate Sicily completely and to pay 3,200 Talents as a war indemnity. Carthage had not given up, of course. The family of Barca turned its attention to Spain, still very much within the Carthaginian sphere of influence.

The Second Punic War

Hannibal's father Hasdrubal had (together with his father-in-law Hamilcar) began the conquest of Spain in the south, supposedly with his little boy (Hannibal) at his side. When Hamilcar died in 228 Hasdrubal took over the war effort. When Hasdrubal died in 221, the 21 year old Hannibal took over. The climax of his pushes to the west and north was the successful assault on Saguntum, which occurred while Rome was busy in Illyria. Carthage rejected the Roman embassy demanding Hannibal be given up in reparation for Saguntum, and the war was on. Initially the Roman strategy was to contain the Carthaginians in northern Spain and southern Gaul from their base at Pisa, while simultaneously campaigning in Africa, where an expeditionary force was to gather local support and block the lines of resupply (probably not, as Polybius believes, to attack Carthage itself). Needless to say, Hannibal had other ideas. He began his crossing of the Alps with 38,000 foot and 8,000 horse; Polybius (3.33 = SB 62) says he saw the exact number recorded on a bronze tablet set up by Hannibal. In ancient warfare surprise was sometimes possible at the tactical level, almost never at the strategic level. A Roman force (under P. Cornelius Scipio) set out to prevent Hannibal's crossing of the Rhone, but was distracted by a Gallic uprising, so that by the time it got to the river Hannibal and his army had already crossed. Rather than chase Hannibal, Scipio chose to send his troops on to meet up with his brother Gn. Scipio's forces in Spain; but it was not long before P. Scipio himself was recalled to Italy to deal with the immediate threat.

Hannibal crossed the Alps in 218 BC (there is a debate of long standing over what precisely was his route). The crossing was extremely hard both on his army and his animals; when it was completed, not much more than half of the original army remained (Polyb. 3. 60). But the losses were partly made good by the addition of several Gallic tribes, including one contingent of some 2,000 men which was actually under arms in the Roman camp before turning on the Romans and defecting to Hannibal's side.

Hannibal's first major test in Italy was the battle at the Trebia river (218 BC). The Carthaginian general used a small contingent of his best cavalry, the Numidian riders, to lure the Romans out of their camp and into a crossing of the river, for which they were ill prepared. When battle was joined on the other side, the Carthaginian cavalry had a decisive influence, opening the flanks of the Roman legions to an oblique attack, whereupon a further contingent of horsemen hidden to the rear of the Roman forces completed the encirclement. In winning this great victory Hannibal is said to have lost all but one of his elephants; more important than the number of Roman dead was the support gained for his cause among the Cisalpine Gauls.

Rome responded in Spring 217 by raising 11 legions; the command of P. Cornelius Scipio was extended (prorogatio) and the popular leader C. Flaminius was elected consul. Shades of the Allia (ater dies), Hannibal lured Flaminius' army into a narrow defile then fell on them from the heights, wiping out two legions (Battle of Lake Trasimene, 217 BC). Flaminius' legacy was his command during the disaster at Lake Trasimene, which provided a good opportunity for his political enemies to attack his memory. Livy reproduces a tradition which has Flaminius ignoring unfavorable auspices before the battle. Polybius is more restrained, but still in the same camp: "[Hannibal made his plan] on learning that Flaminius was nothing but a rabble-rouser and a demagogue, without any ability for the conduct of actual military operations...." (Polyb. 3.80, M. Chambers tr.). Note that Hannibal allowed the allied contingents (socii) to go free, part of his grand strategy for splitting the Italian alliance. But no town of Etruria or Umbria welcomed him, so he went east through Umbria to Picenum, then south into Apulia.

Now (in 217) the comitia centuriata elected Q. Fabius Maximus as dictator; ordinarily a dictator would be appointed by the consuls, but the consuls of 217 were both dead. Possibly the appointment of M. Minucius Rufus as second in command (magister equitum) was an attempt to limit the power of Fabius. Fabius followed Hannibal west through Samnium into Campania, avoiding a major battle but allowing Hannibal to ravage the land; Hannibal's attempts to get the allies of Rome to defect, however, continued to be almost completely unsuccessful. fabius tried to block Hannibal from crossing into Apulia for the winter, but the attempt failed and Fabius returned to Rome, leaving Minucius in charge. After the eager Minucius won a small victory over the unprepared Carthaginian forces at Gerunium in Apulia, the comitia appointed him co-dictator. This action nearly had disastrous consequences, because in the spring of 216 Fabius and Minucius split their troops between them, and Hannibal nearly succeeded in luring Minucius into a fatal trap.

The consuls for 216 were the aristocratic L. Aemilius Paulus and the popular leader C. Terentius Varro. It fell to the latter to command the legions at the next Roman disaster, at Cannae in Apulia (216). There is some dispute about the topography of the battle: was it on the north or south bank of the river? Were the Romans facing east (towards the sea) or west (towards the land)? Best to follow Kromayer (Schlachtfelder): the battle was on the south bank, with the Romans facing west (contra Polybius 3. 116). The Romans had a numerical advantage, but this was squandered by concentrating their troops in the center for a massed attack. The lesson of the Trebia had not been learned. Hannibal's troops were arranged in a crescent formation, the wings curving away from the Roman lines; while the Carthaginian center fell back, luring the Romans forward, again Hannibal's cavalry was victorious on the wings, and the crescent then turned inside-out to complete the encirclement. Roman and allied casualties were very high, though Polybius' figure of 70,000 dead is too high -- perhaps as many as 25,000.

The results of this major catastrophe were immediate. Hannibal's previous attempts to pick up where Pyrrhus had left off, by winning over southern Italy, had failed before. Now he appeared the likely winner, and received into alliance the regions of Lucania and Bruttium, much of Samnium and Apulia, and (worst of all) the rich port city of Capua, which became his base). Emergency measures followed. Slaves were trained to serve in the army (Livy 23.14); the tributum was doubled, and the state borrowed from wealthy individuals who had grown rich farming the ager publicus (Livy 23. 48-49 = SB 92).

At this point we can take a quick glance at what had been happening on other fronts. In Spain, the Scipio brothers Gnaeus and Publius ( duo fulmina belli, "the two thunderbolts of war") had fought continually against Hasdrubal. The main thing to know about this theater is that the efforts of the Scipios prevented the Carthaginians from reinforcing Hannibal in Italy; in 212, for example, a force prepared by Carthage to join with Hannibal had to be diverted to Spain after the victory of the Scipios on the Ebro (215) and their recapture of Saguntum (212). Meanwhile in the east Hannibal accepted an alliance with Philip V of Macedon, who promised to invade Italy by sea, but the Roman commander in Illyria managed to keep Philip tied up so that he, too, was unable to take an active rô le in Hannibal's Italian campaign [more on Philip V, Attalus of Pergamum, and the Aetolians on 9/27). Meanwhile Sicily had threatened to go over to carthage after the death of Hieron of Syracuse, a friend of Rome, in 215. This was prevented chiefly by two factors: (a) the Carthaginians failed to give adequate support to the Sicilian revolt with naval power, and (b) the heroic efforts of M. Claudius Marcellus, who managed to retake Syracuse in 212 and 211 after a long siege, despite the best efforts of the genius Archimedes, an innovator in defensive weaponry.

We left Hannibal in 216 having just won over Capua, among other places. He and his men wintered there, and according to Livy (23.18) the soft life at Capua had a deleterious effect, though Polybius says they wintered in the open. The years 215-212 in Italy are taken up by Hannibal's attempts to secure his stronghold in the south. Notable holdouts against Hannibal included Nola, Cumae (heroically defended by Ti. Sempronius Gracchus), Rhegium, and Tarentum. In 212 the Romans took the war to Hannibal by besieging his base at Capua. Hannibal tried to relieve Capua by marching through Samnium and across the Anio up to the very gates of Rome, hoping to draw off the besieging force at Capua. The strategy failed, and Capua fell in 211. Livy gives a vivid account of the extremely harsh measures taken by Rome to make an example of Capuan perfidy: the leaders were executed and the rest sold into slavery. Capua and its environs became ager publicus (Livy 26. 16 = SB 64). Still, Hannibal's efforts to weaken the Roman network of alliances in Italy continued to bear fruit. In 212, twelve Latin colonies refused to send troops for the levy. But by 209 things were looking up; Tarentum, which Hannibal had taken in 213, was recaptured. The following year saw the death of Marcellus, the hero of Sicily, then consul for the fourth time, and in 207 Hasdrubal (Hannibal's brother) finally managed to cross the Alps with 30,000 troops. The plan was for the brothers to link up in Apulia, but this design was thwarted by the bold action of the consul C. Claudius Nero.

Nero left Hannibal unopposed in Apulia and raced north to intercept Hasdrubal, whom he met at the battle of the Metaurus River (207). This time the Roman numerical advantage (both consular armies had combined for the occasion) was put to better use, and Nero was able to outflank Hasdrubal, who died on the field. Another attempt to reinforce Hannibal followed, with Mago landing at Genoa in Cisalpine Gaul; but he was turned back at Ariminium, and Hannibal simply hung on in the south, losing one town after another. Finally in 203, after 15 years on Italian soil, Hannibal returned to Africa to face the younger Scipio (later to be called Africanus).

Scipio had arrived in Spain in 210 at age 25 with an extraordinary and unconstitutional grant of proconsular imperium (an important precedent for later figures, especially Pompey). By 209 he had captured the Carthaginian stronghold in southern Spain, Carthago Nova (New Carthage). The local soldiers believed that the waters of the lagoon by the city, which they had forded at low tide, had miraculously receded for Scipio, who was believed to enjoy the special favor of the gods; on this occasion it was Neptune who helped Scipio, but he was most closely associated with Jupiter Capitolinus (see esp. Livy 26. 19). On a more practical plane, Scipio had carried out tactical innovations in the maniples, including the wider use of the javelin (pilum) and the Spanish short sword. In 207 the Carthaginian commanders accepted a pitched battle at Ilipa. Seeming to borrow a page from Hannibal's book, Scipio used a delaying tactic with his Spanish troops in the center while the Roman flanks surrounded the enemy. By 205 Scipio had subdued all of Spain, and returned to Rome in triumph to be elected consul.

Scipio was for attacking in Africa at once, but it took him over a year to overcome the opposition of the cautious Fabius Maximus. Having weathered the political opposition, he sailed for Africa in 204 from his consular province (Sicily). Landing at Utica, he joined forces with the Numidian king Masinissa, whose support he had wooed and won while in Spain (the beginning of a long and sometimes rocky relationship between Rome and Numidia). But Masinissa's rival, his nephew Scyphax, remained loyal to Carthage.

The first major encounter took place at the Great Plains (Campi Magni). The battle had three stages. Scipio began with his three divisions (hastati, principes, triarii) in line ahead and the cavalry bunched at the rear. The hastati then pressed ahead to engage the Celtiberians in the center while the other two files, ordinarily massed in the center in support of the hastati, held back long enough to allow them to advance along the sides of the infantry battle. As the hastati held the center, this produced an encirclement which needed only the rush of the cavalry to the rear to be completed. One main accomplishment here was the ouster of the loyalist Scyphax, which permitted Masinissa to make a substantial contribution of troops. the other was that the peace party at Carthage, acting before Hannibal and Mago could get back to Africa, made a treaty with Scipio on unfavorable terms: the Carthaginians were to evacuate Gaul and Spain, reduce their navy to a token 20 vessels, recognize Masinissa as the Numidian King, and give up their economic empire. At Rome the Senate was delighted, and favored ratifying the peace (contra Livy 30. 23); but in North Africa the return of Hannibal combined with an attack on some ambassadors from Scipio to dismantle it. Scipio was unwilling to force the issue until he could take advantage of Masinissa's Numidian cavalry, which at the moment (in 203) was at home. Hannibal was not unaware of this factor, and his move to Zama was an attempt to engage Scipio before the juncture with Masinissa could be effected. Unfortunately for Hannibal, Scipio and Masinissa managed to link up just in time.

For the battle at Zama there are two competing accounts, one reflected by both Appian and Dio Cassius, the other by Polybius (15. 9-14) and Livy (30. 32-35). As frequently, the latter is more coherent. Scipio thwarted the elephantine threat by leaving lanes in his ranks through which the beasts might pass, while Hannibal tried to guard against encirclement by keeping his best troops (the veterans from Italy) to the rear. According to Polybius many of the elephants panicked at the outset and charged back into Hannibal's lines; this probably has at least a grain of truth, but it also looks like the product of the popular superstition about Scipio' special favor in the eyes of the gods. The decisive move occurred late in the battle when the Numidian horse left off chasing the remnants of Hannibal's mounted troops (most of them also Numidians) and attacked his rear. After this decisive defeat on African soil Carthage was compelled to accept terms, which were substantially the same as the treaty of 204, except that now the indemnity was doubled to 10,000 talents (payable over 50 years), and the Carthaginians agreed not to wage war outside of Africa. Even within Africa they were to undertake campaigns only with the prior approval of the Senate and people of Rome.

The lasting effect which Hannibal's sojourn in Italy had upon the collective memory of the Romans may be inferred from the prophetic words, woven by Virgil in the early years of Augustus' principate, which the angry Dido shouts as a curse at the fleeing Aeneas (Aeneid 4. 625-629):

May some avenger arise from my bones,
To harass the Dardan settlers with fire and sword,
Now or in future, whenever the resources are there;
I pray, may our shores oppose their shores, our waves
Their waves, our arms their arms. May future generations
carry on the fight.

© 1996 David L. Silverman. All rights reserved.