The three Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome took place over nearly a century, beginning in 264 B.C. and ending in Roman victory 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 North Africa–had established itself as the leading maritime power in the world. The Second Punic War saw Roman troops, led by Scipio Africanus, defeat Hannibal after his stunning invasion of Italy. In the Third Punic War, the Romans destroyed the city of Carthage in 146 B.C., turning North Africa into yet another province of the all-powerful Roman Empire.
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Carthage and Rome
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.
First Punic War (264-241 B.C.)
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, Hannibal 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 elephantine invasion of Rome reached its height at the Battle of 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 their hold on Italy as Rome won victories in Spain and North Africa under the rising young general Scipio Africanus.
In 203 B.C., Hannibal’s troops were forced to abandon the struggle in Italy in order to defend North Africa, and the following year Scipio Africanus and his troops routed the Carthaginians in the Battle of 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 in silver to Rome.
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.
Cato is remembered for his rallying cry, “Carthage must be destroyed!” which some historians have cited as an early support for genocide.
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.
Fall of Carthage
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, on February 5, the Carthaginians surrendered, obliterating an ancient city that had survived for some 700 years.
According to legend, as Scipio Aemilianus watched the once-mighty city fall into utter ruin, he broke down in tears. When asked why by his teacher Polybius, he replied, “A glorious moment, Polybius; but I have a dread foreboding that some day the same doom will be pronounced on my own country.”
Imagining the eventual fall of Rome, he then quoted an ancient line from Homer: “A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish, and Priam and his people shall be slain.”
As the Punic Wars ended, 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).
Warfare in the Hellenistic Age: The Punic Wars. Pennsylvania State University.
The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic. Mike Duncan. PublicAffairs.
The Punic Wars: (264-241, 218-202, 149-146 B.C.). The Latin Library.
The First Genocide: Carthage, 146 BC. Ben Kiernan. Diogenes. Yale University.