Punic Wars and Hannibal

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20120208-Hannibal Tarentum_.jpg
The Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage were pivotal in making Rome a great empire. They began in 264 B.C., and lasted for 118 years with Rome ultimately prevailing. There were three Punic wars. They are regarded as the first world wars. The number of men employed, the strategies and the weapons employed were like nothing that ever been seen before. "Punic" come from the Roman word for "Phoenician, " a reference to Carthage.

When the wars began Rome and Carthage were the two most powerful states in the Mediterranean. They both began as small cities and emerged as major powers around the 5th century B.C. They were briefly allied against the Greeks but later fought one another over lucrative trade routes.

Rome became the major power of the Mediterranean after it defeated Carthage, annexing territory in Sicily, North Africa and Spain. While fighting against Carthage the Romans also amassed large amounts of territory as spoils from wars against Macedonia, the home of Alexander the Great.

Book: “The Punic Wars” by Andrian Goldworthy

First Punic War

Carthage challenged Rome for domination of the Mediterranean. One of the consequences of this was three Punic Wars. Bertolt Brecht once wrote: Great Carthage made war three times. After the first, she was powerful. After the second, she was rich. After the third no one knew where Great Carthage had been."

African Scipio, the Roman general who defeated the Carthaginians

In the First Punic War, 264-241 B.C., Carthage initially had the upper hand. They controlled the seas with 98-foot war galleys, outfit with up to 170 oars and battering rams that could sink any Roman ship, and made advances on land with a mercenary force made up of Gauls, Numidians, Iberians, black Africans and Mauritanians.

Rome began to make inroads against the Carthaginians after salvaging one of their ships and copying the design for their own ships. The Romans added a devise called a “ corvus” , a special boarding ramp with a point that could be driven into enemy ships. With the corvus, superior Roman soldiers were able to board the Carthaginian ships and slaughter their crew.

In 240 B.C., the Romans defeated the Carthaginians at sea off Mylae in the Aegates Islands using ships outfit with corvuses to board the Carthaginian ships. It was the first Roman naval victory of the Punic Wars. Several dozen warships that went down during the battle off the coast of Sicily have been discovered under fine sand in the Stagnone Lagoon at Marsala. Instead of raising them to the surface, and risk damaging them by exposing them to the air, scholars hope to create a unique underwater museum. Archaeologists and looters working around the Aegates Island have found artifacts possibly connected with the battle.

After Mylare a peace treaty was signed that gave Rome some of Carthage's former territories: Sardinia, Corsica and Sicily. They became the first Roman provinces. When the war was over 20,000 Carthaginian mercenaries were stranded in Sicily. After Carthage paid Rome huge reparation the mercenaries were sent home but Carthage didn't have enough money left to pay them. The mercenaries went wild and nearly destroyed Carthage. This is now known as the Revolt of the Punic Mercenaries (241-237 B.C.). Sicily officially became the first Roman province after the Carthaginians were defeated there in 227 B.C.

Carthaginian Attack on Sicily in 480 B.C.

Describing the Carthaginian Attack on Sicily in 480-81 B.C., Herodotus wrote In “Histories” Book VII.165-167: around 440 B.C: .“ They, however, who dwell in Sicily, say that Gelo, though he knew that he must serve under the Lacedaemonians, would nevertheless have come to the aid of the Hellenes, had not it been for Terillos, the son of Crinippos, king of Himera; who, driven from his city by Thero, the son of Ainesidemos, king of Agrigentum, brought into Sicily at this very time an army of three hundred thousand men — Phoenicians, Libyans, Iberians, Ligurians, Helisykians, Sardinians, and Corsicans, under the command of Hamilcar the son of Hanno, king of the Carthaginians. Terillos prevailed upon Hamilcar, partly as his sworn friend, but more through the zealous aid of Anaxilaos the son of Cretines, king of Rhegium; who, by giving his own sons to Hamilcar as hostages, induced him to make the expedition. Anaxilaos herein served his own father-in-law; for he was married to a daughter of Terillos, by name Kydippe. So, as Gelo could not give the Hellenes any aid, he sent (they say) the sum of money to Delphi. [Source: Herodotus, “Histories,” translated by George Rawlinson, (New York: Dutton & Co., 1862)]

“They say too, that the victory of Gelo and Thero in Sicily over Hamilcar the Carthaginian fell out upon the very day that the Hellenes defeated the Persians at Salamis. Hamilcar, who was a Carthaginian on his father's side only, but on his mother's a Syracusan, and who had been raised by his merit to the throne of Carthage, after the battle and the defeat, as I am informed, disappeared from sight: Gelo made the strictest search for him, but he could not be found anywhere, either dead or alive.

“The Carthaginians, who take probability for their guide, give the following account of this matter: Hamilcar, they say, during all the time that the battle raged between the Hellenes and the barbarians, which was from early dawn till evening, remained in the camp, sacrificing and seeking favorable omens, while he burned on a huge pyre the entire bodies of the victims which he offered.

“Here, as he poured libations upon the sacrifices, he saw the rout of his army; whereupon he cast himself headlong into the flames, and so was consumed and disappeared. But whether Hamilcar's disappearance happened, as the Phoenicians tell us, in this way, or, as the Syracusans maintain, in some other, certain it is that the Carthaginians offer him sacrifice, and in all their colonies have monuments erected to his honor, as well as one, which is the grandest of all, at Carthage. Thus much concerning the affairs of Sicily.

Second Punic War

Hannibal and the Second Punic War

Hannibal (247-183 B.C.) was a cagey strategist who came close to destroying Rome through his military skill and cheeky audacity. He played a pivotal role in one the greatest what-if moments in world history. Napoleon regarded Hannibal as the greatest military man of antiquity. Not only did he outmaneuver the great Roman legions, he managed the logistics of getting his army through the Alps to surprise Rome. Hannibal came within a whisker of defeating Rome. If he had won the world might have had a more difficult time spelling a Carthaginian Empire than a Roman one.

Hannibal was the son of Hamilcar Barca. Hamilcar Barca rebuilt Carthage after the first Punic War. Lacking the means to rebuild the Carthaginian fleet he built an army in Spain. Before taking power, Hannibal was reportedly required by his father to forever be an enemy of Rome. Reportedly he stood before an altar and swore: “I will follow the Romans both at sea and on land. I will use fire and metal to arrest the destiny of Rome.

Book: “Pride of Carthage” by David Anthony Durham (Doubleday, 2005), a historical novel about Hannibal

Hannibal Prepares His Army

When Hannibal was a young man he went with his father to Spain to help rebuild the Carthage army. After the death of his father, Hannibal took over command of the Carthage army. He spent three more years strengthening Carthaginian while the Romans were preparing to attack Carthage.

Hannibal was 25 when he took control of the Carthaginian army in 221 B.C. Within two years he was at odds with Rome after the siege of the Spanish town of Saguntum and showed his military skill early when he attacked the Romans directly not so much to conquer them but to weaken their allies. He began his campaign against Rome in the Second Punic War in 218 B.C. and would remain at war off and on for the next 30 years.

Hannibal donned a toupee before going into battle and commanded an immense army with 50,000 foot soldiers, 9,000 cavalry and 30 now extinct North African elephants. The soldiers were made up primarily of North African, Spanish and Gallic mercenaries recruited from the North African coast and paid for with money from it trading empire.

Hannibal crosses the Rhone by Henri Motte 1878

Hannibal Crosses the Alps and the Second Punic War

From his base in Spain Hannibal led a force of mercenaries with elephants through the south of Gaul (France), crossing the Rhone River, and then across the Alps in the winter of 218 B.C. This marked the beginning of the Second Punic War. The elephants had little impact on the fight but they scored a psychological blow for the Carthaginians giving them an aura of power and invincibility.

In the Second Punic War, 218-201 B.C., Carthage was anxious to get revenge after the first Punic War. But in the end Rome supplanted Carthage as the predominate power in the Mediterranean. The war was a major milestone in evolution of Rome from a republic into an imperial power.

Hannibal led 59,000 troops and 27 elephants across the Alps. His army crossed the bridge-less Rhone and likely endured snow storms and snow drifts when it crossed the Alps. In some accounts all but one of the elephants and half of Hannibal's soldiers were killed in the Alps. No one is sure what route Hannibal took. Much of what has been written about the elephants and Alps is speculation. On the subject of Hannibal's route, Mark Twain once wrote: "The researches of many antiquarians have already thrown much darkness on the subject, and it is probable, if they continue, that we shall soon know nothing at all." Much of the imagery of Hannibal and his elephants comes from Flaubert’s “ Salammbo” .

Hannibal Defeats the Romans

Hannibal won three battles in Italy but lost the forth. Most scholars believe he crossed the Alps near the source of the Po River at Col de la Traversette and caught Roman armies by surprise even though Hannibal's attack was forecast by the sacred of chickens of Claudius Pulcher. The Roman general Marcellus rode with blinds on his litter pulled down so he wouldn't send any bad omen. Early Carthaginian victories left 15,000 Romans dead in one place and 20,000 in another.

With their superior cavalry and what became textbook usage of bottlenecking tactics, Hannibal’s forces defeated the Roman force of Flamininius in 217 B.C. at Lake Trasimene. Next he humiliated the Romans, by coldly coordinating his infantry and cavalry attacks, at Cannae in northern Italy, where 60,000 Romans were killed. This victory drew the north of Italy from Rome’s sphere for some time.

These victories were followed by a massacre of 50,000 legionnaires (from an army of 75,000) at the Trebia River. Here the Roman were surrounded by flanking movements on both sides. Hannibal’s genius killed 6000 legionnaires in minutes.

After the stunning defeats, one Roman army was destroyed and one was nearly destroyed. The Romans were worried that Hannibal would take his revenge in most awful way. The statesmen Quintus Fabius Maximus was put in charge of the Roman army.

End and Legacy of of the Second Punic War

Hannibal spent a total of 15 years in Italy and although he was able to defeat the Romans in key battles he was ultimately defeated because the Romans had a large population to draw new recruits from and Carthage’s mercenary forces shrank as time went on. The Roman armies under Fabius followed the Carthaginians and wore them down with delaying and harassing tactics. During the Battle of the Metaurus, Hannibal and his brother were defeated at the Meataurus River by 7,000 Romans.

The Second Punic War ended when Hannibal was defeated by the Roman general Scipio who counterattacked in Northern Africa and routed the Carthaginian army at the Battle of Zama in 2002 B.C. in Tunisia where the Romans employed a checkerboard formation to absorb an elephant charge and then counter-attacked. This was Hannibal’s waterloo. Hannibal received asylum in Bithnynia (now Turkey). His time ran out in 182 B.C. when the potentate of Bithynia gave him up. To avoid capture by the Romans, Hannibal committed suicide while in exile near present-day Istanbul by taking a poison.

According to a peace treaty that ended the second Punic War, Carthage had to promise forever to refrain from capturing and training North African elephants. The entire Carthaginian fleet was towed out to see and burned and Carthaginian aristocrats were forced pay reparations out of their own pockets.

After the Second Punic War, Carthage turned its attention to trading and became rich and prosperous once again.

Third Punic War

In the Third Punic War, 149-146 B.C., Rome destroyed Carthage. The conflict was inspired by the Roman diplomat Cato the Elder, who wrote in 175 B.C.: Carthage was "teeming with a new generation of fighting men, overflowing with wealth, amply stocked with weapons and military supplies...and full of confidence at the revival of its strength." Whenever he gave a speech in the Senate, Cato reminded Rome "Carthage must be destroyed." Cato’s warning stirred the Romans to do just that.

final assault on Carthage

The Third Punic War began when a pro-war party came to power in Rome and took up arms under the pretext that the Numidians were seizing Roman land. By this time Carthage was no match against Rome. It attempted to avoid war by handing over heavy tributes to Rome. But on top of that Rome then demanded Carthage turn over all of its weapons and give up international trade.

These terms were too hash for the Carthaginians and they unified against Rome even though they probably knew they had little hope of winning. But the Romans were slow to attack and the Carthaginians increased its weapons output to 300 swords and 500 spears a day, fortified their city with 65-foot-high and 98-foot-deep walls and built facilities for 300 elephants and 4,000 horses.

Defeat of Carthage in the Third Punic War

When the Romans finally invaded, it took them three years to breach Carthage's walls and from there it was street to street, house-to-house fighting that resulting in huge losses for both sides. The Romans finally prevailed after a bloody six-day assault led the Roman general Scipio Aemillianus on Byrsa Hill. After the victory he said, "I feel terror and dread. lest someone someday give the same order about my own native city."

Some 50,000 Carthaginians surrendered and many of them ended up being sold into slavery. Everyone else in a city had been home to several hundred thousand people was dead. One of the last to die was the wife of a leader who, after holing herself up in a temple, grabbed her two children and leap to her death on the flaming Temple of Eshumun rather than surrender.

Appain wrote: “The fire spread and carried everything down.” Archaeologists have found layers of black char in the excavations which date the conflagration. In the 2nd century B.C. the Romans rebuilt their own Carthage on the same spot.

End of Carthage and the Phoenicians

Hannibal's death
Carthage and Phoenician civilization died when Carthage was sacked by Romans under General Scipio in 146 B.C. The entire city was raised (but the crop fields were not salted as some books allege) and the entire city was abandoned for more than a century. Rubble was imported to Rome and used as building material.

Carthage was the only city that was entirely destroyed by the Romans. This was because it was the rival that Rome considered a real threat. Other rival states were generally defeated and then absorbed. Surviving Carthaginians were to forced learn Latin and give up human sacrifices but the continued to worship Ba'al as incarnation of the Roman god Saturn.

In 44 B.C., Julius Caesar decided to build a new city on the site of destroyed Carthage but he was assassinated before his plan could be realized. Beginning in A.D. 31 his successor Augustus reduced the height of Byrsa Hill by 16 feet by removing 245,000 cubic meters of rock, earth and ruins and built a Roman city on the resulting plateau with, according to one Roman historian, seven story buildings. The city expanded under Hadrian and Antonine.

In the early centuries of the Christian era, Carthage was a great center of Christian learning , second only to Alexandria. It was occupied by the Vandals and prospered under the Byzantines. In A.D. 698, Carthage was seized by the Arabs. After that Carthage declined while new cities such as Tunis appeared and prospered. After centuries of neglect the bishopric of Saint Cyprien was restored and a massive basilica was built on Mount Byrsa by the French. Some development occurred when a rail line was built between the coast and Tunis.

In A.D. 193, Rome had a North African Emperor, Septimius, who reportedly spoke with a Phoenician accent. See Romans

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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