(Punic War Battle of Zama by Henri-Paul Motte c. 1890 [Public Domain], via Creative Commons)
The Punic Wars
The Punic Wars pitted Carthage’s Phoenician economic-based ideology against Rome’s expansionary ideology, but before discussing the war, itself; let us discuss the cultural influences that brought Rome to where it was at the time of the Punic Wars. It is true that the Etruscan peoples, who occupied the region north of Rome, were a very important influence on Rome’s ideology and culture. Don Nardo, an American historian and award winning author, stated in his book, (The Roman Republic), that the ancient Roman people originally wished to model themselves after the Greek and Etruscan cultures (1). He also states that Etruscan contributions improved Roman lives. Etruscan trade provided Rome with new resources, and Etruscan architecture provided Rome with arches and vaults (2). The Etruscan culture formed Rome into a city and gave the Romans many of the political, social, and philosophical ideals that would drive the Italian city-state into an empire. While the Etruscans provided the fundamental basis for the Roman way of life, the Punic Wars allowed Rome to spread traits the world now sees in modern societies.
The First Punic War was centered on Rome’s and Carthage’s competing interests in Sicily. The Greek city-state of Syracuse started the war by attacking pirates occupying Messina on the Sicilian coastline near the Italian peninsula. Sects of the pirates petitioned Carthage to join in battle, and others asked Rome. Rome and Carthage both took these events as an opportunity to gain control of Sicily. Thus, the First Punic War began. In (The Punic Wars), Don Nardo describes the two powers as being balanced in military might, even though he labels Rome as a small, mediocre, unattractive city when compared to Carthage, which was triple Rome’s size and stature (3).
Innovation saved Rome during the first Punic War. Carthage was an experienced naval power, while Rome focused its resources on land forces. To even the odds, Rome was able to mass-produce fleets by recreating captured quinqueremes, which were advanced galley ships with five banks of oars on each side used by the Carthaginian navy. The war favored the Romans when, in 256 BCE, one of the largest naval battle in all ancient times was fought. During the battle of Cape Ecnomus, the Romans brought around 140,000 men packed on top of more than three hundred ships, which was still less than the number of ships and men brought by the Carthaginians (4). Nardo states that, to this day, Rome is ranked highest in naval deaths, due to the First Punic War (5). This fact is intriguing when one considers that Rome had no navy before the Punic Wars. The Romans eventually isolated the Carthaginian holdings in Sicily from their African mainland, and Carthage admitted defeat. Hamilcar Barca, the leading general of Carthage, took his followers and founded Carthago Nova, and expanded the Carthaginian borders in Spain. While in Spain, Hamilcar fashioned his son, Hannibal, into one of the greatest military minds in history.
Rome’s victory over Carthage in the first war gave the Roman people confidence, Sicily, and most importantly, a navy. Don Nardo suggests that Rome’s creation of a navy, along with its ownership of Sicily, were key to its future successes (6). Rome’s true test began in 220 BCE, however, when Hannibal Barca attacked the city of Saguntum, a Spanish ally of Rome. Hannibal realized that to defeat Rome meant he had to take the fight to Italy. With this in mind, the Carthaginian leader gathered his army and marched toward the Alps.
In (The Punic Wars), Nardo states that Hannibal’s victories in mainland Italy gave Carthage a chance for a quick, crushing, victory (7). One of the worst defeats in all of Roman history occurred during the Second Punic War. Hannibal was able to surround a much larger Roman force with his considerably smaller army in the battle of Cannae in 216 BCE. The battle of Cannae saw the death of the Roman Consul Paullus, and around eighty senators alongside approximately 50,000 Legionaires, while Hannibal’s forces only suffered minimal losses (8). Hannibal’s overwhelming victories made many of Rome’s allies question their loyalty. The city-state of Syracuse, and the Greek power of Macedon, both joined Carthage when news of the massacre at Cannae spread. Hannibal, while very successful in his battles, lacked the resources to siege Rome. The necessary supplies never came – the Carthaginian people decided to fortify Spain rather than engage Rome’s navy, which left Hannibal without new rations or reinforcements. With this decision, the Carthaginian nation doomed itself.
Rome’s victory in the Second Punic war came when the Roman people designated Scipio, soon to be named Africanus, as military commander. Once Spain and Syracuse were no longer a problem, Scipio launched an invasion into Africa. This caused the Carthaginian council to call Hannibal back to Africa. Hannibal left his experienced men in Italy and had to defend Carthage with mercenaries and new recruits. The second war was decided at the battle of Zama, where Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal Barca. The Second Punic War gave Rome claim to Spain, and the defeat of Carthage left the Roman people as the up-and-coming dominant power of the Mediterranean.
The Third Punic War began when Carthage lacked the resources to pay its reparations, leading to its total destruction and the conquering of most of Carthage’s allies, including Macedonia. In the aftermath of the Punic Wars, the historian, Polybius, stated that Rome had conquered “nearly the entire civilized world” (9). Rome’s victories over Carthage, and the many Greek city-states, left very few nations in the ancient Mediterranean world that had any chance to challenge Rome’s might.
As a result of the three Punic Wars, the Roman Empire took Sicily, Spain, Carthage’s North Africa, and Macedon. With Carthage defeated, Rome was left as the sole superpower of the region, leading to its domination of all its neighboring nations (10). Rome defeated the only ancient Mediterranean power that could declare itself the equal of Rome. The Punic Wars left Rome free to conquer the known world, and left Carthage to fade into history.
The Etruscan people may have given the Romans a base from which to build their civilization, but the Punic Wars were the ultimate standoff between different dominant cultures. If Carthage had won, which it could have, the world would be a drastically different place. According to Nardo, the fundamental goal of the Carthaginian state was obtaining riches. While Rome would conquer to spread influence and gain glory, Carthage used force only to take advantage of economical opportunities (11). If the victor of the Punic Wars had been Carthage, then the world’s culture would be based on Carthaginian customs and accomplishments, and it may have been Rome that disappeared from the earth.
The Punic Wars spurred Rome on its path to conquer its known world. The wars between Carthage and Rome allowed Roman influence to expand rapidly, and left no opposition to halt the empire. Rome would never again be able to face a foe that could be seen as an equal militarily or culturally. After the Punic Wars, Rome was able to spread its culture and influence until the Empire’s collapse. The Punic Wars allowed for the modern Western world to become what it is today, a distant relative to the old Roman Empire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Don Nardo. The Roman Republic. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 1994. Pg. 20.
- Don Nardo. The Roman Republic. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 1994. Pg. 17.
- Don Nardo. The Punic Wars. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 1996. Pg. 23.
- Don Nardo. The Punic Wars. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 1996. Pg. 35.
- Don Nardo. The Punic Wars. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 1996. Pg. 10.
- Don Nardo. The Punic Wars. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 1996. Pg. 42.
- Don Nardo. The Punic Wars. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 1996. Pg. 51.
- Don Nardo. The Punic Wars. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 1996. Pg. 61.
- Polybius in The Romans : From Village To Empire by Boatwright, Mary T., Daniel J. Gargola, and Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2004. Pg 120.
- Don Nardo. The Punic Wars. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 1996. Pg. 12.
- Don Nardo. The Punic Wars. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 1996. Pg. 20-21.