Ancient Rome—Punic Wars

274 to 146 B.C.
First Punic War to Destruction of Carthage

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Punic Wars

At the dawn of the First Punic War, in 264 B.C., Rome was master of Italy, but controlled no colonies or provinces outside of the Peninsula. Although many coastal towns in Italy had significant fleets and trading networks, Rome, the capital city, did not command a significant navy and its economy was not dominated by merchants. One hundred and twenty years later, Rome had entirely subdued both the Carthaginian empire in the west and the Macedonian empire in the east. She had provinces and allies throughout the Mediterranean and was the undisputed master of the seas. Although it took another century to expand and consolidate her power, by the time Rome finally vanquished, she was in command of a vast empire and the only question that remained was how it was to be governed.

After Cannae

The Punic Wars, which raged between the city of Carthage and Rome for over a century, were so named because the Carthaginians were of the Phoenician (or Punic) race. The Phoenicians were a fascinating but perfidious people, who had dominated trade in the Mediterranean nearly a thousand years. They were however, a merchant rather than a military power, and they relied on bribery and mercenaries rather than citizen soldiers for their defense. As long as Rome could resist the allurements of gold, and maintain its martial virtues, it was well-matched against Carthage. But the Phoenicians were Canaanites; they worshiped vile gods and had a decadent influence on most cultures in which they came in contact. (see unit 8: The Phoenicians for more info.)

Punic Wars: 264-145 B.C.—There were three Punic Wars, but the second was by far the greatest threat to Rome and the most transformative. The first Punic War lasted 24 years, and forced Rome to establish itself as a permanent Naval power. It was won primarily by perseverance: Rome gained some Carthaginian territory during the conflict but failed to achieved a decisive victory. Carthage capitulated as much because of internal troubles as due to pressure from Rome. The best known Roman hero of the first Punic War was Regulus, and the best known Carthaginian heroes were Xanthippus and Hamilcar.

The second Punic War was a catastrophe for Rome and all of Italy. The early part of the war was fought entirely on Italian soil at great cost to Rome and its allies. The Battle of Cannae was the worst loss in Roman history, yet it was only one of several disastrous defeats inflicted on Rome by its implacable Carthaginian foes. Eventually the tide of war turned when Rome attacked Carthaginian strongholds in Spain and Africa. Again, perseverance through great difficulties changed the fortunes of Rome from great peril to ultimate victory. This time Rome continued the fight until it won a decisive victory against Carthage and eliminated its threat as a military power. The outstanding character of the Second Punic War was undoubtedly the Carthaginian Hannibal, who is universally acknowledged as one of history's greatest generals. Some of the Roman generals who opposed him over the years included Cornelius Scipio, Fabius Cunctator, Aemilius Paulus, Varro, and Marcellus, but it was Scipio Africanus, who drove Hannibal out of Italy, defeated him on Carthaginian soil, and brought the bloody war to a final close.

The third Punic War was fought without serious provocation, for the purpose of destroying Carthage altogether. Although Carthage had been eliminated as a military threat, the ruling classes in Rome desired to exterminate it, partly out of concern over its continuing commercial success, and partly out of contempt for its culture (which did involve some heinous elements, such as human sacrifice.) The Romans correctly saw Carthage as an existential threat, but destroying the capital of the Carthaginian trading network failed to eliminate its influence. Phoenician colonies, mines, trading stations, and merchant alliances were spread throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. When their capital city was destroyed many Carthaginians simply migrated to other towns and colonies where they continued to oppose the Roman government through bribery, corruption, and duplicity.

Roman Macedonian Wars: 209-146 B.C.—The Roman Macedonian Wars in the east were not as protracted or ruinous as the Punic Wars, but resulted in territory and plunder for the Romans. The Romans valued many elements of Greek civilization, unlike the Carthaginian civilization, which they despised. Therefore they preserved or imitated much of Greek culture rather than destroying it. Captured Greeks were the most valuable of all slaves and were frequently employed as teachers, tutors, or household servants rather than laborers.

The first Roman campaign against Macedonia was fought during the second Punic War, after king Philip V of Macedonia took advantage of the disruptions in Italy to seize some contested territory on the North Adriatic. Two subsequent campaigns fought over the next thirty years resulted in much plunder, which helped re-invigorate Rome after its losses in the second Punic War. The Battle of Pydna in 168 B.C. destroyed the power of the Macedonian kingdom in Greece and the subsequent destruction of Corinth, following a rebellion of some Greek city states, ushered in the Greco-Roman, or Hellenistic era.

Characters—Punic Wars

Character/Date Short Biography

First Punic War

300–250 BC
Captured by Carthage in first Punic war; urged Rome keep fighting at cost of his own life.
~ 255 BC
Spartan mercenary general in first Punic War; captured Regulus, led Carthage to victories.
d. 229 BC
Carthage's most able general in first Punic War; father of Hannibal.

Second Punic War

247–182 BC
Carthaginian general, invaded and laid waste to Italy for sixteen years.
Fabius Cunctator
250–203 BC
Elected dictator to resist Hannibal; counseled delay, not direct assault.
Cornelius Scipio
d. 211 BC
Tried to intercept Hannibal in Gaul, but was defeated at Ticino River and Trebbia.
Aemilius Paulus
d. 216 BC
Consul at the Battle of Cannae; opposed the confrontation, but died on battlefield.
~ 216 BC
Led Rome to disastrous defeat at Cannae. Survived and tried to rally the troops.
268–208 BC
Besieged Syracuse during the second Punic War, but the ingenious war weapons of Archimedes frustrated the Romans.
Hasdrubal Barca
d. 207 BC
Fought against Scipios in Spain; killed after he crossed the Alps to aid Hannibal.
~ 150 BC
Commander of Carthaginian army during the third Punic War, and the Siege of Carthage..
238–148 BC
King of Numidia, allied with Rome against Carthage; fought at Zama.
Scipio Africanus
234–149 BC
Roman hero of second Punic War. Led armies in Spain and Africa. Defeated Hannibal at Zama.

Third Punic War

Cato (the censor)
234–149 BC
Roman censor, urged destruction of Carthage before third Punic War.
Scipio the Younger
185–129 BC
Led the siege of Carthage during the third Punic War.
203–120 BC
Taken as Greek hostage during Macedonian wars; historian of Punic Wars.

Macedonia Wars

230–175 BC
Led Rome against Philip V in second Macedonian War.
Aemilius Paulus
229–160 BC
Led Rome against Macedonia at the Battle of Pydna and was victorious.

Timeline—Punic Wars

BC YearEvent
264-242 First Punic War
264 Rome intervenes in a land war against Carthage in Sicily..
260 Roman naval victory at Battle of Mylae.
256 Roman victory at Battle of Ecnomus—the largest naval battle of the age.
253 Defeat and capture of Regulus at Battle of Bagradas.
250 Regulus defies Carthage and is murdered
219-202 Second Punic War
219 Hannibal lays siege to Saguntum, a Roman ally, on the coast of Spain.
218 Hannibal crosses the Alps and meets a Roman army at the Battle of Trebia River.
217 An Roman legion is ambushed and Consul is killed the Battle of Lake Trasimene.
216 Low point: Roman disaster at Battle of Cannae.
212 Death of Archimedes at the Siege of Syracuse.
207 Hasdrubal Barca killed at the Battle of Metaurus River.
202 Carthage decisively defeated by Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama.
214-205 First Macedonian War—Inconclusive
200-196 Second Macedonian War—Roman victory at Battle of Cynoscephalae.
190 Wars of Antiochus the Great—Antiochus III of Syria defeated at Magnesia.
168 Third Macedonian War—Roman victory at Battle of Pydna.
149-146> Third Punic War—Carthage destroyed
146 Rome destroys Corinth after putting down a rebellion of the Achaean League

Recommended Reading—Punic Wars

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Guerber - The Story of the Romans   Ancient Ships to Destruction of Carthage (7)
Macgregor - The Story of Rome   Romans Build a Fleet to Destruction of Carthage (28)
Abbott - Hannibal    entire book

Supplemental Recommendations

Harding - The City of the Seven seven   Rome and the Carthaginians to Rome Conquers the World (3)
Tappan - The Story of the Roman People   Romans Conquer Carthage to Rome Becomes the Capital (2)
Morris - Historical Tales: Roman   The Fate of Regulus to The Fate of Carthage (5)
Church - Lords of the World    entire book

Easy Reading Selections

Haaren - Famous Men of Rome   Regulus to Cato the Censor (3)
Dalkeith - Stories from Roman History   Of Hannibal to Of Scipio Aemilianus Africanus (5)
Church - Stories from Ancient Rome   The Beginnings of Empire to The Critical Struggle (cont.) (3)
Winlow - Our Little Carthaginian Cousin of Long Ago    entire book