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Rome And Carthage: Punic Wars

public domain work of art
Depiction of Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps during the Second Punic War.

The three wars between Rome and Carthage span more than a century (264-146 BC). They are known as the Punic Wars because the Carthaginians are in origin Phoenician (punicus in Latin).

The first war (264-241 BC) flares up in Sicily, an island disputed between Greek colonies at its eastern end and Carthaginian settlements in the west. Rome's involvement begins with a request for help from the Greek colony of Messina, on the Sicilian promontory nearest to Italy. The inhabitants of Messina turn out to be uncertain whether they need help mainly against the Carthaginians or against their neighbouring Greeks in Syracuse. But the conflict soon escalates into a straight clash between Rome and Carthage.

The Romans rapidly capture Messina (called Messana in Latin) from a Carthaginian garrison. The event demonstrates that Carthaginian officers accept alarming terms of employment. The commander of the garrison is recalled home and is crucified for incompetence.

During 262-1 Roman armies advance through Sicily, capturing Agrigentum after a lengthy siege. But they gain no convincing advantage over the Carthaginians, whose warships enable them to recover coastal regions from the Romans and even to plunder the shores of Italy. As a result, in 260, the senate takes a momentous decision. Carthage will be challenged on her own terms. Rome, until now purely a land power, will build a fleet.

During the opening skirmishes of the first Punic War the Romans capture a Carthaginian warship which has run aground. It is of a kind only recently introduced in Mediterranean navies. As a quinquereme, with five banks of oars (rowed by 300 oarsmen), it is larger and heavier than the triremes which have been the standard ship of Greek warfare. Since victory at sea involves ramming other ships, the extra size is important.

Rome's new navy is to consist largely of quinqueremes, copied from the captured Carthaginian example. The senate orders 100, together with 20 triremes, and sets the astonishing delivery time of two months. Even more astonishing - the order is apparently met. A few skilled oarsmen are available, from Rome's allies around the coasts of Italy, but more than 30,000 men will be needed to row these vessels. They are rapidly trained on land, in ship frames constructed for the purpose. Even so, the skills of hand-to-hand fighting at sea, to be carried out by 120 marines on each warship, cannot be quickly learnt.

Instead the Romans pin their hopes on a device which has already featured briefly in Greek naval warfare, but not to much effect. It is designed to give Roman soldiers, trained in the legions, a more stable platform from which to attack. This device is a hinged drawbridge which can be released to crash down when an enemy ship is alongside. On its underside is a metal point, which will pierce the deck of the vessel and hold it fast while the Roman troops storm aboard. The lethal peck from this sharp beak gives the device its familiar name among the crews. It is a 'raven'. And it wins them battles.

The first such victory comes as a major shock to the Carthaginians. They have an advantage of thirty ships over the inexperienced Romans when the fleets meet in 260 BC off Mylae (now Milazzo), a few miles to the west of Messina. But the ravens enable the Romans to destroy fifty Carthaginian ships before the rest flee in panic.

The new Roman confidence at sea prompts the building of a massive fleet to invade Carthage herself. It sails in 256 BC. About 250 quinqueremes, with some 30,000 marines on board, accompany eighty or more transport ships, carrying 500 cavalrymen and their horses together with food for the entire army. This force defeats another Carthaginian fleet before landing safely in Africa. On land there are early successes too, but eventually Carthaginian elephants and cavalry inflict a heavy defeat in 255 on the Romans. Only 2000 Romans escape. Another vast fleet of 350 ships is sent out. It wins a victory at sea against the Carthaginians, but on the return journey a gale dashes the Roman ships against the rocky south Sicilian coast. Only eighty limp home to safety.

The massive loss of life - probably almost 100,000 oarsmen and soldiers in this storm alone - reduces Roman enthusiasm for naval campaigns. Instead the conflict returns to the island of Sicily, where it becomes a long slow war of attrition. Gradually the Romans cut off the supply routes of the Carthaginian towns, completing their stranglehold with a naval victory in 241 at Trapani in the northwest tip of the island. The Carthaginian commander, another Hanno (there are confusingly few Carthaginian names), must know what is awaiting him at home. He is crucified.

In the resulting treaty, Carthage agrees to abandon all her settlements in Sicily and to pay a large indemnity. No Carthaginian warships are to enter Italian waters. Neither power is to interfere in any territory of the other. It soon becomes evident that Rome has little intention of keeping its side of the bargain. When a rebellion breaks out in 238 in Sardinia, a Carthaginian island, Rome sends an army to assist the rebels. The result is that Sardinia falls into Roman hands to become in 227 the second of the Roman provinces (Sicily being the first). Corsica, nominally Carthaginian, is included in the eventual settlement - which includes, amazingly, another indemnity from Carthage.

With the major islands of the west Mediterranean seized by Rome, the obvious area in which Carthage might hope to compensate for these losses is Spain. The city of Cartagena, or New Carthage, is founded at this time. It has two advantages. It is a harbour on the coast of Spain opposite Carthage; and it is close to valuable gold and silver mines.

Carthaginian pressure northwards in Spain alerts Rome to the danger of a threat to southern France. In about 225 a treaty establishes the Ebro river as the dividing line between Carthaginian and Roman interests in Spain. It is so far north that it effectively acknowledges the Iberian peninsula to be a Carthaginian province.

The Carthaginian advance in Spain is vigorously pressed by a family of talented generals, who virtually become hereditary governors of the territory. The first is Hamilcar Barca, who dies in battle in 228 BC. His place is taken by his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, who is assassinated in 221. Hasdrubal is followed by his brother-in-law, a son of Hamilcar, who at the age of twenty-six is now proclaimed commander-in-chief by the army. He is Hannibal.

The young commander consolidates the Carthaginian presence in Spain until, in 218, Rome decides to pick a diplomatic quarrel over his siege of Sagunto, a town well south of the Ebro. The speed with which the crisis escalates into war suggests that both sides regard another conflict as inevitable. Hannibal forces the pace, taking the bold decision that his best chance of victory is to carry the war into Italy - where the ability to sustain a long campaign on Roman soil has been proved, in recent history, by Pyrrhus.

Pugnacious Pachyderms

Carthaginians first encountered war elephants in Sicily while battling Greek general Pyrrhus of Epirus in 278–276 BC. Daunted and impressed by the pugnacious pachyderms, they soon began importing North African forest elephants for their army, using Indian mahouts hired through Egypt, as well as riders from Syria, Numidia and other states. Tactical acumen in their use, on the other hand, took years and heavy casualties to perfect.

In 255 BC the Spartan mercenary general Xanthippus opened the Battle of Bagradas with a charge of some 100 elephants in the Carthaginian stomp of Consul Marcus Atilius Regulus' Roman army. From then on both the Carthaginians and Romans overestimated the animal's martial abilities. Four years later at Panormus (present-day Palermo), Sicily, Roman Consul Lucius Caecilus Metellus directed his entrenched light troops to harass the Carthaginian elephants with a rain of arrows and javelins, which caused the beasts to panic and turn on the Carthaginian troops, resulting in a rout that restored Roman confidence about facing elephants.

While Carthage ultimately raised a force of 300 war elephants, Hannibal took just 37 of them on his legendary 218 BC traverse of the Alps. Though most survived the arduous trek, they only figured significantly at the Battle of the Trebbia in December, when they panicked the Roman horses and auxiliaries. Many died in battle, and a subsequent cold snap killed all the rest but one.

When he returned to Carthage in 202 BC to face Consul Publius Cornelius Scipio at Zama, Hannibal gathered 80 elephants, though neither they nor their mahouts were experienced. Scipio sought to eliminate them as a factor by leaving lanes between his maniples, through which the beasts, lured by skirmishers, might charge without breaking up the Roman line. Scipio succeeded in his ploy and won the battle.

In May of 218 Hannibal marches north from Cartagena with an army of perhaps 32,000 infantry, 8000 cavalry and thirty-seven elephants. His ferrying of the elephants across the Rhone on rafts, then getting them through the icy passes of the Alps, in both cases in the face of hostile tribesmen, has provided the basis of popular tales ever since. By October Hannibal's army is in north Italy.

Battles with Celtic tribesmen and the hazards of the journey have taken a heavy toll. The army now numbers only 20,000 infantry and 6000 cavalry (the ancient historians fail to report how many of the thirty-seven elephants have survived).

Yet by December, two months later, after the defeat or tactical withdrawal of various Roman forces, the Carthaginian army has swelled again to 28,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. The reason is a significant one in the development of this war. With each indication of Roman weakness, large numbers of Gauls (or Celts) abandon their allegiance to Rome and join Hannibal. Hannibal is banking on this being the pattern throughout Italy.

After wintering in Bologna, Hannibal moves south in the spring of 217. In May he lures a Roman army into a trap. On a misty morning the Romans move into a narrow plain beside Lake Trasimene. Unknown to them the surrounding hills are occupied by the Carthaginian army. When they swoop down, the Romans are unprepared and defenceless. Many are driven into the lake. As many as 15,000 are killed. Even with this psychological advantage, Hannibal decides against marching on Rome. Instead he moves to the south of the peninsula, hoping that his success will persuade many of the often discontented Italian allies to join him.

The year 216 brings Hannibal his greatest victory, in one of the famous battles of history. The armies meet near the east coast, at Cannae, on an open plain which Hannibal has chosen as good ground for his cavalry - a section in which he outnumbers the Romans (by perhaps 10,000 to 6000), whereas his infantrymen are fewer than theirs (35,000 to at least 48,000).

Hannibal's tactics are a classic case of enveloping an enemy. The centre of his line yields slowly to the Roman assault, thus forming a crescent - which becomes a complete circle when his cavalry gallop round from the wings. The Romans, constricted in space, are fighting in all directions. Only about 10,000 escape from this disaster.

After this victory many of Rome's allies in southern and central Italy desert to Hannibal's cause. But a majority stand firm in their allegiance. To that extent his strategy has failed. He commands the most powerful army in the Italian peninsula but even so is not strong enough to besiege Rome into submission.

Rome, in her turn, now has a devastating strategy, pioneered by Fabius. The success of his policy wins him the title Cunctator, the 'delayer'. His technique is for Roman armies to pester Hannibal continuously, denying him supplies or easy passage but wherever possible avoiding direct engagement.

Gradually, over twelve years, this strategy succeeds. Hannibal becomes like a bull in the ring, tormented by lesser beings while his strength slowly ebbs away. The extraordinary fact is how long he remains within Italy as an alien force, almost totally isolated (reinforcements sometimes come from Carthage, but few and infrequently).

Having arrived through the Alps in 218 BC, he does not finally depart until 203. The eventual reason is the need to defend Carthage, which is now threatened by a Roman army. Hannibal meets it in 202 at Zama, an unidentified site in northern Tunisia. For the first time in his life he is decisively defeated. Rome is at last in a position to impose terms.

The treaty after the second Punic war (218-201 BC) is even more damaging to Carthage than its predecessor. She must surrender Spain and all her remaining islands in the Mediterranean. She is to hand over her warships to Rome. She is to pay, over the next fifty years, a massive indemnity of 10,000 talents. And she is to submit to Rome in all matters of war and foreign policy.

Politically this represents the end for Carthage. But commercially these people, true to their Phoenician origins, prove irrepressible. By the middle of the century they are again exciting Roman jealousy. Delenda est Carthago (Carthage must be destroyed) becomes the obsessive refrain of Cato, a leading orator in Rome.

Rome picks a quarrel in 150 BC on the basis of an infringement of the treaty's terms; the Carthaginians have taken up arms against an invading neighbour (and have been defeated), so technically they have gone to war without Rome's permission resultig in the third Punic War (149-146 BC). Rome's vindictive attitude is evident in the terms offered in 149. The Carthaginians will be spared reprisals if they abandon their great city, of which the walls and harbour are to be destroyed, and move to an inland site well away from the sea where trade of any kind will be impossible.

Carthage prepares itself for a siege.

The city's defences are so strong, and the resistance of the Carthaginians so desperate, that the siege lasts for three years. When Carthage is finally starved into submission, in 146 BC, a population of 250,000 has been reduced to 50,000. These survivors are sold into slavery. The city burns for seventeen days, after which the ground is cleared and ploughed. Salt is scattered in the furrows, and a curse is pronounced to ensure that neither houses nor crops ever rise here again. This obsessive frenzy of destruction has a sting in the tail for the Romans. When they later wish to found a new city on this strategic site, the curse proves something of a psychological obstacle for potential settlers.

Bamber Gascoigne. HistoryWorld.

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