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Background of The Punic Wars


The Punic Wars were a series of battles fought between Rome and ancient Carthage between 264 BCE and 146 BCE. The term ‘Punic’ derives from the word ‘Phoenician’ as the Carthaginians were of Phoenician descent. Through the series of three wars, Carthage, from a thriving city-state with tremendous naval power ceded her position as the most power city in the Mediterranean region to Rome. These wars were one of the biggest in terms of size with proportion to the time period - as two of the largest powerhouses in the region were neck to neck in battle for more than a 100 years.

Rome was then only primarily involved in conquering nearby states as Roman consuls only had a one-year terms, as covered in the lecture of Rome in Class 16. The consuls were the highest positioned politicians in the office of the Roman Republic and the consulship was deemed the most prestigious. Appointed by the Senate yearly (unless they died during battles), two consuls would be elected together to serve their terms which included both political and military duties. Therefore, these consuls sought to achieve as much as possible within a year, aiming to claim glory over other preceding consuls. More often than not, renowned consuls had to have performed well in both spheres to be deemed successful (Spillan, Edmonds, & McDevitte, 1861). 


First Punic War (264 - 241 BCE): Sicily, The Mamertines and the Battle of Agrigentum

  "Naval battle from the First Punic War" - Radu Oltean   Retrieved from

"Naval battle from the First Punic War" - Radu Oltean

Retrieved from


The small island of Sicily between Rome and Carthage was the battleground for the First Punic War and the first full-fledged military engagement between the two powers, apart from some minor squabbles like Carthage destroying all of Rome’s lousy ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Prior to the war, Sicily was partially under control between Rome and Carthage. Through the First and Second Punic War, this island became highly contentious due to its strategic location in the Mediterranean Sea. The conquest of the island allowed Carthaginian ships to dock and replenish their supplies. As for the Romans, however, the possibility of a successful conquest of Sicily was impending trouble as it was too close to their territory. (Goldsworthy, 2007).

The Mamertines were Italian mercenaries who were once hired by King Agathocles of Syracuse (Livius, 2015). However, after his passing, the Mamertines were discharged unwillingly. Not settled with their status, the Mamertines raided the town of Messana, which had hosted them during their term of service to Agathocles. Using Messana as a base, the Mamertines began engaging in piracy and raided nearby towns for loot. Ten years later the Mamertines were besieged by the tyrant of Syracuse, causing them to seek assistance from Carthage whom they had a treaty, as Carthage were dominate in the sea trade and they were pirates. The Mamertines began to grow wary of the Carthaginians and turned to the Romans for help: the Romans agreed to assist the Mamertines in response to Carthage's presence. Betrayed, the Carthaginians allied with Hierro II against the Mamertines and Rome, signalling the start of the First Punic War in 264 BCE (Lazenby, 1996). 


The war began on the island of Sicily and began to move its way into naval warfare after four pitched land battles, of which the Battle of Agrigentum was one of the victories that prompted the Romans to engage in further warfare at sea.

Despite Rome’s epic failure in their first naval encounter in the Battle of the Lipari Islands, they were able to reverse engineer a Carthaginian warship that was washed ashore, creating hundreds of quinqueremes and achieving victory for most of the subsequent naval battles under Roman general Gaius Duilius (Sidwell & Jones, 1997).

In 241 BCE, the Carthaginian fleet (about 250 warships) was launched under the command of Hanno to bring relief to Hamilcar Barca who had claimed victory at the Battle of Drepana. The Roman consul, Gaius Lutatius Catulus, who had his fleet blockading the supply and communication of Hamilcar, spotted Hanno’s fleet and intercepted their relief efforts. With Hanno’s quinqueremes overloaded supplies and under equipped with manpower, most of their vessels were rammed by the Roman warships. This led to Carthage’s concession of defeat and a peace treaty signed with unfavorable conditions to Carthage, bringing the First Punic War to its end (Hoyos, 2003). 

Second Punic War (218 - 202 BCE): Hannibal, Scipio and Elephants

  Battle of Zama by Henri-Paul Motte, 1890   Retrieved from

Battle of Zama by Henri-Paul Motte, 1890

Retrieved from


Hamilcar Barca’s contribution to the Carthaginian empire did not end in the First Punic War (Lancel, 1999). Eager to build back what she had lost, the Carthaginian Senate gave permission to Hamilcar to recruit and equip a new army with the intention of conquering the African domain of Carthage. With his son-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair commanding the naval fleet that went along the coast with supplies and elephants, Hamilcar was able to secure the west of Carthage without serious opposition. 

Over the next 8 years, Hamilcar secured much territory in Hispania via both diplomatically and military might, evading the occasional Roman ambassadors sent to Hispania, often citing his conquest as a means to simply pay off their war debts but with the intention of rebuilding the Carthaginian empire. However, this was not the end of Hamilcar Barca’s legacy as his son, Hannibal Barca, would go on to be regarded as one of the world’s greatest military strategists.

There is an account of Hannibal at a young age pleading with Hamilcar to bring him on a war, of which Hamilcar agreed only after lifting his son over a sacrificial fire chamber to never ally with the Romans (Dodge, 1995).

After Hamilcar’s death during a conquest in Hispania and Hannibal’s brother-in-law’s (Hasdrubal the Fair) assassination, Hannibal was proclaimed as the army general by the Carthaginian government. Through several successful campaigns and conquests in Hispania, Hannibal extended the Carthaginian Empire to Iberia with the intention of edging closer to Rome. Fearing the resurgence of Carthage, Rome made an alliance with the city of Saguntum with the intention of halting their further conquest. However, Hannibal deemed it as a breach of the treaty Rome had signed with Hasdrubal in a previous war concession, utilizing the Romans’ transgression as a rationale to lay siege to the city. The Romans objected to this and demanded the surrender of Hannibal from the Carthage government who refused, thereby beginning the Second Punic War (218 - 202 BCE).

With the information of impending Roman attacks, Hannibal moved his troops over the Alps and into northern Italy towards Rome, winning every engagement against the Romans. With most of the Roman troops being sent to Carthage and Iberia, Hannibal daringly pushes his army further towards the less-than-fortified Rome realizing that returning to defend Carthage’s empire in North Africa and Iberia would have resulted in his inevitable defeat.

The Iberia-bound Roman army led by consul Publius Cornelius Scipio come into brief contact with Hannibal’s army but due to insufficient resources, choose to continue in their planned conquest of Iberia while Scipio rallied back to Rome to prepare his troops. 

 Hannibal dismissed the less reliable members of his army at the foot of the Alps and began his ascent, resulting in an estimated 26,000 troops that survived the trek out of an initial 96,000. With Gauls supplementing forces, Hannibal pressed on.


In 218 BCE, Scipio manages to gather as much manpower and engages in a battle with Hannibal in the Battle of Ticinus. Scipio easily lost the battle with his inexperienced troops and nearly lost his life, only to have escaped with the help of his son, Scipio Africanus. News of Scipio’s loss began to spread around the tribes and the people started to defect from their Roman allies, increasing the tension on Rome. 

In 216 BCE, Hannibal seized Rome’s crucial sources of supply by capturing Cannae, which would result in one of the biggest loss for Rome and cement Hannibal’s status as a military genius (Cottrell, 1965). The Roman consuls at 216 BCE, Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus, combined their army which is said to have been of a strength of 50,000 – 86,400 men. However, the dual rule of the legions once again worked against the Romans when Hannibal slaughtered them with his army that was purportedly half of that of the consuls’. Using an envelopment tactic, Hannibal was able to trick the Romans and surround them despite the numerical disadvantage, resulting in the death of Lucius Aemilus Paullus, two consuls for the preceding year, two public officials, 29 out of the 48 military tribunes and 80 senators and somewhere between 40,000 – 60,000 men. Hannibal, on the other hand, lost about 8,000 of his men.


The Romans elected Quintus Fabius Maximus, whose unpopular plan of waiting out the Carthaginian army worked. Fabius refused to engage in battle directly given the insufficient manpower, opting to see Hannibal’s army finish their supplies and be threatened with starvation, a strategy used even today but known as Fabian Tactics. Hannibal heard of the displeasure of the Romans of Fabius' seemingly inglorious methods and manipulated it by tricking the Romans to believe Fabius was in the pocket of the Carthaginians by destroying all land except those owned by Fabius (Livy, 1868).


The Second Punic War was unfortunately still not meant to be for Carthage as Hannibal was ultimately unable to overcome the lack of resources. After their major defeat at the Battle of Cannae, the Romans regrouped and managed to displace Carthaginian strongholds in Italy, Spain and North Africa under the command of Scipio, who later changed his name to Scipio Africanus. In 203 BCE, Hannibal was forced to abandon his conquests in Italy and return to North Africa to mount a defence before falling to Scipio’s forces the following year in the Battle of Zama. Hannibal’s losses were too great and this battle marked the end of the Second Punic War, leaving Carthage with its huge war debt to Rome once again in 202 BCE (Scullard, 2002).


The Third Punic War (149 - 146 BCE): Cato, Scipio the Younger and Annexation of Carthage

  Fall of Carthage.   Retrieved from

Fall of Carthage.

Retrieved from



The Third Punic war was partially the result of efforts by Cato the Elder to influence the Roman Senate to destroy Carthage, ending his speeches on any subjects in the Senate with the phrase ‘ceterum censeo Carthginem esse delendam’, meaning ‘Furthermore, it is my opinion that Carthage must be destroyed’ (P. & Hultsch, 1962). Another cause was due to Carthage breaking the peace treaty of the Second Punic War which required Carthage to not be allowed to wage any wars without the consent of Rome. Displeased at Carthage’s refusal to adhere to the terms when the neighboring Numidians raided Carthage in 151 BCE, Rome waged war against Carthage. While Carthaginian Generals Hasdrubal the Boeotarch and Himilco Phameas were able to repel the attacks of the Roman consuls, they eventually fell when Scipio the Younger, the adopted son of Scipio Africanus, came into consulship and laid siege on Carthage in 149 BCE. Carthage was gradually pushed back and destroyed in 146 BCE with many Carthaginians that starved to death. The remaining population were sold to slavery and Carthage was systematically burned for 17 days, wiping out any remnant of Carthage.  




  1. Ayrault Dodge, Theodore (1995). Hannibal: A History of the Art of War Among the Carthaginians and Romans Down to the Battle of Pydna, 168 BC. Da Capo Press.

  2. Cottrell, Leonard (1965). Enemy of Rome, Evans Bros, ISBN 0-237-44320-1

  3. Goldsworthy, Adrian (2007). The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146 BC. Cassell. ISBN 0-304-36642-0.

  4. Hoyos, D (2003). Hannibal's Dynasty: Power and Politics in the Western Mediterranean, 247-183 BC, p.89-91.

  5. Lazenby, John Francis (1996). The First Punic War: a military history. Stanford University Press. p. 59. ISBN 978-0-8047-2673-3. Retrieved 23 June 2010.

  6. L., Spillan, D., Edmonds, C. R., & McDevitte, W. A. (1861). The history of Rome. London: Henry G. Bohn.

  7. Lancel, Serge (1999). Hannibal. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-21848-3.

  8. Livius (2015). Mamertines. Retrieved October 24, 2016, from

  9. Livy, (1868). The History of Rome by Titus Livius: Books Nine to Twenty-Six, trans. D. Spillan and Cyrus Edmonds. London: Henry G. Bohn.

  10. P., & Hultsch, F. (1962). The histories of Polybius. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

  11. Scullard, Howard Hayes (2002). A History of the Roman World, 753 to 146 BC. Routledge, page 316. ISBN 0-415-30504-7

  12. Sidwell, Keith C.; Jones, Peter V. (1997). The World of Rome: An Introduction to Roman Culture. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-38600-4.



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