The Punic Wars

Learn of the conflicts between the mighty Rome and powerful Carthage, known as The Punic Wars, which featured the great leader Hannibal.

The Punic Wars were a series of conflicts many years ago between the eventually all-conquering Romans and the Carthaginians, a people from the great North African city of Carthage, descended from the Phoenicians. For many years the two powers had enjoyed a good relationship. After all, although both were very potent, they were markedly different - the Romans were essentially an agricultural orientated people, while the Carthaginians were seafarers.

The First Punic War started in 264 BC, and was in some ways inevitable. Carthage had answered the call for assistance from a city in Sicily, and as a result taken control of the island. Rome had taken note of this, and because its territory stretched to the southern tip of Italy, thus the great power from North Africa had become a little too close for comfort. The city of Messana in Sicily was discontented with Carthaginian rule and called to the Romans for help. Eager for an excuse to drive their rivals back and claim Sicily as an important outpost of their own, the Romans attacked, laying siege to the Carthaginian held cities on the island. Carthage countered this move by deploying its navy to break the siege. However, it was destroyed by a set of newly built Roman boats that were surprisingly effective. As a consequence Carthage was forced to retreat from Sicily, handing it to Rome.

Rather worrying for the Carthaginians, their foreign mercenaries began to rebel, so their attention focused on curtailing these mini uprisings. Rome sensed that the enemy was in a state of disarray, and in 238 BC seized the Carthaginian held Corsica.



Some in Rome thought this a cunning and daring move, but there were others who disapproved of such an act of bravado against a power of the strength of Carthage. Indeed, Hamilcar Barca, a Carthaginian General had retreated to the stronghold of Spain and was building up a huge army with the idea of exacting revenge on the Romans. Although Spain was a Carthaginian dominated area, one city, Saguntum, became allied with Rome. But the Carthaginians were unwilling to show their annoyance at this for fear of Roman reprisals, so the city was left to get on with its business. As the years passed though, Saguntum attempted to persuade other Spanish cities to pledge allegiance to Rome. The son of Hamilcar, Hannibal, had become leader, and upon hearing this, attacked and crushed the city. He had been warned by Rome not to do so, but hadn't listened. The Second Punic War had begun.

Subsequently, Hannibal formulated a highly ambitious plan to attack Rome from over land. If it worked they would have the element of surprise because Carthage was renowned for being a sea power, so it was assumed any attack would come from there. The Carthaginian leader set off with a vast but poorly equipped army across the Pyrenees and then the Alps. He crushed several Roman armies on his way across Europe and was considered by all to be a tactical genius when it came to warfare.

Hannibal quickly made progress across Northern Italy, destroying all in his wake. The problem was that his army wasn't big enough to lay siege to one of the bigger cities such as Rome, and the men were poorly equipped. Any reinforcements had to travel the arduous journey across two unforgiving mountain ranges. As a result, the Romans adopted the tactic of shadowing Hannibal's army, rather than all out attack. Eventually though, the masses became tired of this cat and mouse game and demanded firmer action. A huge army of 80,000 men was then deployed to fight Hannibal, but was swiftly destroyed by superior tactics on the battlefield.

Regions such as Sicily on the outskirts of the Roman Empire quickly pledged themselves to Hannibal and Carthage. Those nearer to the Italian capital were reluctant to do so, fearful of reprisals from the mighty Rome, should Carthage fail to be victorious. Ultimately, this meant Hannibal was unable to recruit enough men to conquer Rome.

The Romans had become quite tired of Hannibal rampaging through their country at will, pillaging the land. They appointed a man, Publius Cornelius Scipio, whose mission it was to conquer Spain, which he promptly did. This effectively cut off Hannibal's supply chain, and he was marooned on mainland Italy. Sensing a possible victory, the Romans attacked Carthage itself, which soon fell. Part of the new treaty drawn up as a consequence of the Roman victory stated that Hannibal must withdraw from the Italian Peninsula. He did, returning to Carthage, where he encouraged the inhabitants to rise up against the Roman army. However, the Romans subsequently vanquished Hannibal's army, the first time it had happened, and Carthage came under Roman rule.

The Third Punic War (149 146 BC) was in reality a final crushing of Carthage by the Romans. Carthage had never recovered to anything like its former power, but the spiteful Romans still remembered all the pain and suffering Hannibal had inflicted on them. The North African city was being regularly attacked by its neighbour, Numidia, and ultimately they retaliated. This was enough of an excuse for the Romans to once more declare war on Carthage. The Carthaginians surrendered immediately knowing that resistance would be futile. However, when the Romans insisted the inhabitants of the city should leave, and move further inland, they refused. As a consequence, the Romans destroyed Carthage, killing many women and children. They then sowed salt into the surrounding land to make it unworkable, and sold off the many prisoners into slavery.

Following on from the Punic Wars, Rome was to dominate much of the world with its empire. How different that might have been if Hannibal had been given the manpower and equipment he required.

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