The Punic wars were a sequence of military conflicts fought between the Roman Republic and Carthaginian Empire taking place from 264 BCE to 146 BCE. At the outset of the wars Rome was not the power we think of, it had only just achieved dominance of the Italian peninsula; Carthage, in contrast, was the dominant authority in the Western Mediterranean, her influence spread from Libya, to the coasts of Iberia. Rome in this sense, was initially the underdog. These wars were of such geopolitical importance that the victor would go on to establish a pan-Mediterranean hegemony that would last the next half millennium. Across the 118-year period in which these wars occurred, there were forty-three years of direct conflict, and an estimated 1.5 million killed; making it, not only one of the longest wars fought by Rome, but also one of its bloodiest.
“Carthago delenda est” – "Carthage must be destroyed"
The First Punic War
The origins of these wars can largely be attested to an aggressive Roman expansion in Southern Italy, following the Pyrrhic Wars, and Carthaginian meddling on the island of Sicily. Inevitably, competition between the two powers over the Island turned into outright warfare. The First Punic war dragged on for 23 years and saw Rome begin its first venture into large-scale maritime warfare. Through a series of land and sea battles Rome emerged triumphant, forcing Carthage into a humiliating peace, annexing Sicily, and finally, occupying Corsica and Sardinia following a Carthaginian mercenary revolt.
The Second Punic War
The calamity that followed the end of the First Punic war, ingrained a bitter hatred of Rome within the bellies of the Carthaginian people, none more so than the great Hannibal Barca. His mission was simple, the restoration of Carthaginian pride, and the completed destruction of Rome. Carthage, having lost its dominant foothold within the Mediterranean, turned its eyes northwest, to the Iberian Peninsula. Expanding her sphere of influence beyond mere coastal cities would provide access to silver and manpower that could once again pose a threat to her greatest rival. Aware of this danger, Rome signed a formal treaty with the North Iberian city of Saguntum, before pressing Carthage not to extend her boundaries beyond the river Ebro. Ironically this offered Hannibal the pretext for war he had so craved; in 219 BCE the Punic general besieged and sacked Saguntum, twisting Rome’s arm to a declaration of war.
Crossing the Alps
Hannibal's next move is well known; in one of history’s most preposterous military manoeuvres, he marched his men across the Alps. Over the fifteen-day slog, Hannibal lost over half his army, mostly through desertion and exposure. He emerged with little over 20,000 infantry, 6000 cavalry and a single elephant of the original 37; nonetheless, he had not only succeeded in eluding the now dominant Roman navy, but had circumnavigated Rome’s legions. Planting himself at the open doorway of the Italian Peninsula, Hannibal prepared to face off against the leviathan that was the Roman army.
Rome in peril
What followed, was the complete devastation of Roman manpower and confidence. Over a fifteen-year period Hannibal rampaged across the Italian Peninsula, eradicating army after army sent to end his terror. The crushing defeats inflicted by Hannibal include battles such as: Trebia (218 BCE), Trasimene (217 BCE) and Cannae (216 BCE), the latter resulting in the death of up to 50,000 Roman soldiers in a single day. If ancient sources are to be trusted, Rome may have lost as many as 300,000 men throughout this period, or, in other words, one-sixth of the adult male population. Perhaps more startling, the revelation that the majority of these casualties occurred within the first three years of Hannibal’s Italian campaign. Never again would Rome undergo such desolation in so dense a period.
Map showing Hannibal's victories in Italy. The Carthaginian forces are depicted in blue, the Romans in red.
Rome strikes back
In spite of these horrific losses, Rome persevered, and eventually went on to attack the ‘soft under-belly’ of the Carthaginian Empire, first in Spain and then in Africa. Led by a young general who had survived the horrors of Cannae, the Roman army reinvented itself. Utilising the tactics previously employed by Hannibal, the young Scipio understood that cavalry superiority was essential, a deal with the Numidian King Massinissa, provided Rome with access to the famous Numidian cavalry previously used by Hannibal. Scipio travelled to Iberia and inflicted staggering defeats on Carthaginian forces led by Hannibal’s brothers. Following this, a successful push into Africa forced Hannibal’s withdrawal from Italy and led to the final showdown of the war, the decisive battle of Zama.
Carthaginian defeat at Zama
The battle of Zama saw Carthage defeated for the final time in the Second Punic War. It is where Scipio and Hannibal finally met in battle, the two greatest general in one final showdown. Unusually, the Roman army found itself with cavalry superiority whilst the Carthaginian army had the better infantry. Hannibal began by ordering his elephants forward, hoping to disrupt the Roman frontline and exploit breaches created by the elephants. Scipio, expecting this, ordered his soldiers to blast their trumpets, startling the elephants into a rout; those that made it to the Roman lines were effectively funnelled between the maniples of the army and killed. With the prelude over, the two armies engaged, fighting to a stalemate. This lasted until the dominant Roman cavalry managed to encircle the Carthaginian main line. This spelled doom for Hannibal's forces, as many as 20,000 were killed and 20,000 captured, Hannibal was one of the few Carthaginians to escape the battle. This marked the end of the Second Punic War. Carthage would never again be able to challenge Rome.
The Third Punic War
Having repaid reparations to Rome, Carthage once again posed a threat to the Republic. A political faction within Rome led by Cato the Elder played on this fear and in 149 BCE the Roman senate declared war on Carthage for a final time. The same year a Roman army landed at Utica on the North African coast. Carthaginian attempts at appeasement were ignored and the city prepared for a siege. Once besieged Carthage held out for three years before finally being taken in 146 BCE. The Roman army brutally slaughtered the inhabitants, sparing only 50,000 of the potential 800,000 citizens within the city. All buildings were then razed and the surrounding fields were sown with salt as to prevent resettlement. Carthage was no more.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Romano-Punic rivalry is how different the two factions were. First, Carthage, a trading behemoth and the dominant maritime power of the Western Mediterranean. The city state had been founded by Phoenicians, and her Empire had grown rich through the naval traditions instilled by her founders. At the outset of the wars, the Carthaginian navy was the dominant maritime force in the Western Mediterranean; her land forces were less efficient. The wealth accumulated by the Empire, and its distrust of a regular standing army, entrenched a reliance on mercenary troops, paid to battle on her behalf; Libyans, Numidians, Gauls, Iberians and the rest would happily fight for Carthaginian gold. True Carthaginian citizens only served in her army if there was a direct threat to the Empire’s capital. Unlike her army, Carthage’s navy was constantly manned, usually by her citizens. With the dawn of the Second War, Carthage found her navy weak and unable to match the now dominant Roman fleet. In spite of this Carthage possessed two advantages: a tactically flexible mercenary army, and an individual under the name Hannibal Barca. As history would prove, this frightful combination was more than a match for the legions of Rome.
Sometimes there are individuals who exceed all imaginings, true forces of (human) nature that offer us a glimpse at the startling genius possessed by a rare few. Hannibal Barca was one such man. His name, legend and his feats, astonishing. Hannibal led the main Carthaginian army throughout the Second Punic War. Through his daring tactical flare, he inflicted the worst defeats experienced in Roman history. Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae are just a few examples of his startling military acumen. Though he failed to win the war, Hannibal’s legacy remains untarnished. He became a ‘bogeyman’ to the Roman people and fear that another like him could emerge from Carthage led to Rome’s complete destruction of the city. Hannibal Barca remains one of the greatest military leaders in human history.
- Carthaginian Sacred Band/ Veterans- The Scared Band were Carthage’s elite force; these soldiers would have been the sons of noble Carthaginian families and would rarely have fought outside of Africa due to Carthage’s mercenary preference. As the elite of the army the sacred band would have used the most high-quality equipment. They likely fought in a breastplate and greaves however may have used chainmail too. Much like their Libyan counterparts, these troops would have fought as a phalanx, positioned at the centre of the army, often behind the elephants. They would have carried a heavy spear, sword, and aspis or scutum. These soldiers may have also fought on horseback as heavy cavalry.
- Libyan Spearmen- The core of the Carthaginian army comprised of allied Libyan spearmen; these soldiers would have been levied as auxiliaries from Carthage’s Libyan ally. These men would have fought in a similar fashion to the Greek phalanx; however, unlike the Greek hoplite, these men would have been armed with a shorter spear that could be thrown and an Iberian style sword. They would have worn linothorax armour, a bronze helmet and initially have carried an apsis shield, this may have later been replaced with the scutum more commonly used by Carthage’s mercenary allies.
- Libyan Javelinmen- Libya also provided effective skirmishers to the Carthaginian cause. These light troops would have not worn armour and have been armed with a number of javelin and buckler shield; they may have also carried short swords or daggers in case the need for close-quarter combat arose.
- Citizen Infantry- At times of great peril when the city of Carthage was directly threatened, such as in the Third Punic War, the citizens of Carthage would be armed and expected to fight. These conscript soldiers would likely have fought with a scutum, spear and, if available, sword and helmet. Armour would usually be reserved for professional soldiers hence these men may have simply worn tunics.
- Elephants- Perhaps the most feared weapon at the disposal of a Carthaginian general, the war-elephant was used regularly. These would have been the now extinct North-African Elephant, smaller than the Indian Elephant used by the Seleucids. Nonetheless, a howdah would have been mounted on the elephant’s back, from where troops could throw javelin. The main purpose of these creatures was psychological, an elephant charge could devastate an enemy frontline and cause even the most elite soldiers to break rank and flee.
- Numidian Cavalry- Described as, "by far the best horsemen in Africa." By Roman historian Livy, these so,ders would have been used as Hannibal’s primary mounted skirmishers. These warriors were truly skilled, riding without saddles or bridles, controlling their mounts with a simple rope around their horse's neck and a small riding stick. They would have been armed with javelins, a small leather shield and perhaps a short sword. These cavalry were experts in hit and run warfare, approaching, unleashing a flurry of javelins then retreating before the usually slower enemy could catch them. This was hugely effective at Cannae, where they routed the Roman cavalry before turning and completing the encirclement of the Roman army.
- Numidian Infantry- Much like their mounted counterparts these soldiers initially acted as skirmishers, armed with javelin and leather shield. They later adopted scutums, helmets and short swords so they could fight as frontline troops.
- Balearic Slingers- These island people were perhaps the best skirmishers in the Carthaginian army. They were trained to hunt with a sling from childhood and incidentally became highly proficient soldiers, hiring their service in exchange for silver, wine and women. The sling itself was a lethal weapon; It is said that a good slinger could propel his missile up to 400 metres, this being greater than the bow and arrow. Although ammunition in the form of stones could be found readily many slingers favoured lead missiles due to their smaller size hence, they were very difficult for the enemy to see with the naked eye. Some missiles would be cast from lead and feature fins that would aid flight and trajectory.
- Gallic Warriors/Iberian Warriors- As Hannibal marched across Iberia and Gaul, he enlisted the help of tribes. He tempted these soldiers with the promise of payment and, in the case of the North Italian Gauls, vengeance against Rome. These soldiers would have fought as auxiliaries within the Carthaginian army; however, they were very effective. As Hannibal’s campaigned dragged on, these men would have become veteran soldiers and may well have equipped themselves with the armour and weapons of fallen Romans.
In contrast the Roman Republic was an agricultural power, which relied on the power of its land forces to achieve victory. The Republican army of this period did not maintain standing or professional military forces, but levied them, by compulsory conscription of her citizens. The majority would serve as infantry, a small minority of wealthier citizens would go on to form the cavalry (equites). Nonetheless, Rome’s strength was her infantry, when assembled they would fight as four different unit types. First the skirmishers, known as the Velites, these were often the young or the poor, whom could not afford armour and instead acted as a screen to the main army that would launch javelins at an approaching enemy. Then came the frontline, these were known as the Hastati, young men, armed with pilum, a gladius and armour; these men, like the velites, tended to comprise of the young and the poor. The next two lines comprised of the Principes then Triarii. These would have been the older, wealthier citizens. Armed with gladius, thrusting spear and heavy armour, these men provided the steady backbone of a Roman fighting force. The Roman army would fight in a manipular formation three lines deep (triplex acies) behind a velite screen. This system offered greater tactical strength and flexibilty, allowing individual maniples to be mutually aid one another, however it was prone to being outmanoeuvred and struggled to respond to threats on its flanks; as demonstrated by Hannibal at Cannae.
Military historian Basil Liddell Hart lamented that; history is written by the victors but remembers losers. This could be none more evident than for Scipio Africanus, vanquisher of Hannibal. Despite the historical amnesia that clouds the great man’s name, he is an icon of history and a great amongst generals. Scipio recognised the faults within the Roman army, namely its lack of effective cavalry. Moreover he keenly studied the tactics of his rival Hannibal and employed them against the Carthaginian armies he would face in Iberia and Africa. Rome could attribute her victory to this individual; though following the end of the war he was later outcast by his enemies within the Senate. Scipio died in self-imposed exile in his Campanian villa, a sad ending for a great man.
- Hastati- The Hastati were the youngest and poorest men of the army. They would have fought in the first line of the Roman army and have been armed with two pila, a gladius, light armour and a scutum.
- Velites- Velites acted as the skirmishers of the Roman army. They carried javelins and a gladius in case the need to engage in close combat arose. These men did not wear armour as they were the youngest and poorest soldiers in the legion and could not afford much equipment. They did carry small wooden shields called parma for protection, and wore headdresses made from wolf skins so their brave deeds could be recognized.
- Principes/Triarii- This image depicts a Roman principes, these would have been he men in the prime of their lives, wealthy enough to afford decent armour and weapons. They would have been armed with two pila, a gladius, chainmail and a scutum. These soldiers would be positioned in the second line of the Roman army. The triarii would have looked similar, however they were armed with a two-meter spear called a hastae; these were the oldest and wealthiest soldiers who would have fought in the third and final line of the army.
- Equites- The wealthiest citizens of Rome fought on horseback, these men would have been from the property-based classes of Rome, ranking below the senatorial class. Within each legion one would find around 300 equites, indicating Rome’s disinterest in cavalry. Nonetheless, these soldiers would have been well armed, fighting with spear, sword and heavy armour.
- Italian Allies- Rome succeeded in subjugating various factions across the Italian peninsula; these “allies” were expected to supply Rome with taxes and soldiers. Here we can see a Samnite soldier that may have fought with the Roman army. Many of these allied cities switched sides once Hannibal invaded Italy, instead choosing to fight with the Carthaginians, these include the cities of, Capua, Tarentum and two Samnite tribes.
March 28, 2023
Thanks for a really succinct and helpful explanation of the Punic Wars.