The three Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome took place over nearly a century, beginning in 264 B.C. and ending with the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C. By the time the First Punic War broke out, Rome had become the dominant power throughout the Italian peninsula, while Carthage–a powerful city-state in northern Africa–had established itself as the leading maritime power in the world. The First Punic War broke out in 264 B.C. when Rome interfered in a dispute on the Carthaginian-controlled island of Sicily; the war ended with Rome in control of both Sicily and Corsica and marked the empire’s emergence as a naval as well as a land power. In the Second Punic War, the great Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Italy and scored great victories at Lake Trasimene and Cannae before his eventual defeat at the hands of Rome’s Scipio Africanus in 202 B.C. left Rome in control of the western Mediterranean and much of Spain. In the Third Punic War, the Romans, led by Scipio the Younger, captured and destroyed the city of Carthage in 146 B.C., turning Africa into yet another province of the mighty Roman Empire.
Background and First Punic War (264-241 B.C.)
Tradition holds that Phoenician settlers from the Mediterranean port of Tyre (in what is now Lebanon) founded the city-state of Carthage on the northern coast of Africa, just north of modern-day Tunis, around 814 B.C. (The word “Punic,” later the name for the series of wars between Carthage and Rome, was derived from the Latin word for Phoenician.) By 265 B.C., Carthage was the wealthiest and most advanced city in the region, as well as its leading naval power. Though Carthage had clashed violently with several other powers in the region, notably Greece, its relations with Rome were historically friendly, and the cities had signed several treaties defining trading rights over the years.
In 264 B.C., Rome decided to intervene in a dispute on the western coast of the island of Sicily (then a Carthaginian province) involving an attack by soldiers from the city of Syracuse against the city of Messina. While Carthage supported Syracuse, Rome supported Messina, and the struggle soon exploded into a direct conflict between the two powers, with control of Sicily at stake. Over the course of nearly 20 years, Rome rebuilt its entire fleet in order to confront Carthage’s powerful navy, scoring its first sea victory at Mylae in 260 B.C. and a major victory in the Battle of Ecnomus in 256 B.C. Though its invasion of North Africa that same year ended in defeat, Rome refused to give up, and in 241 B.C. the Roman fleet was able to win a decisive victory against the Carthaginians at sea, breaking their legendary naval superiority. At the end of the First Punic War, Sicily became Rome’s first overseas province.
Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.)
Over the next decades, Rome took over control of both Corsica and Sardinia as well, but Carthage was able to establish a new base of influence in Spain beginning in 237 B.C., under the leadership of the powerful general Hamilcar Barca and, later, his son-in-law Hasdrubal. According to Polybius and Livy in their histories of Rome, Hamilcar Barca, who died in 229 B.C., made his younger son Hannibal swear a blood oath against Rome when he was just a young boy. Upon Hasdrubal’s death in 221 B.C., Hannibal took command of Carthaginian forces in Spain. Two years later, he marched his army across the Ebro River into Saguntum, an Iberian city under Roman protection, effectively declaring war on Rome. The Second Punic War saw Hannibal and his troops–including as many as 90,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry and a number of elephants–march from Spain across the Alps and into Italy, where they scored a string of victories over Roman troops at Ticinus, Trebia and Trasimene. Hannibal’s daring invasion of Rome reached its height at Cannae in 216 B.C., where he used his superior cavalry to surround a Roman army twice the size of his own and inflict massive casualties.
After this disastrous defeat, however, the Romans managed to rebound, and the Carthaginians lost hold in Italy as Rome won victories in Spain and North Africa under the rising young general Publius Cornelius Scipio (later known as Scipio Africanus). In 203 B.C., Hannibal’s forces were forced to abandon the struggle in Italy in order to defend North Africa, and the following year Scipio’s army routed the Carthaginians at Zama. Hannibal’s losses in the Second Punic War effectively put an end to Carthage’s empire in the western Mediterranean, leaving Rome in control of Spain and allowing Carthage to retain only its territory in North Africa. Carthage was also forced to give up its fleet and pay a large indemnity to Rome in silver.
Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.)
The Third Punic War, by far the most controversial of the three conflicts between Rome and Carthage, was the result of efforts by Cato the Elder and other hawkish members of the Roman Senate to convince their colleagues that Carthage (even in its weakened state) was a continuing threat to Rome’s supremacy in the region. In 149 B.C., after Carthage technically broke its treaty with Rome by declaring war against the neighboring state of Numidia, the Romans sent an army to North Africa, beginning the Third Punic War.
Carthage withstood the Roman siege for two years before a change of Roman command put the young general Scipio Aemilianus (later known as Scipio the Younger) in charge of the North Africa campaign in 147 B.C. After tightening the Roman positions around Carthage, Aemilianus launched a forceful attack on its harbor side in the spring of 146 B.C., pushing into the city and destroying house after house while pushing enemy troops towards their citadel. After seven days of horrific bloodshed, the Carthaginians surrendered, obliterating an ancient city that had survived for some 700 years. The surviving 50,000 citizens of Carthage were sold into slavery. Also in 146 B.C., Roman troops moved east to defeat King Philip V of Macedonia in the Macedonian Wars, and by year’s end Rome reigned supreme over an empire stretching from the Atlantic coast of Spain to the border between Greece and Asia Minor (now Turkey).