A hundred years of intermittent conflict with the north African city of Carthage - there were three Punic Wars - saw Rome's rival for dominance of the western Mediterranean eliminated. And Rome with her first overseas possessions.


The spark which ignited the metamorphosis of Rome from an Italian to a Mediterranean power was a small enough incident. The Greek city of Messana, on the north-eastern tip of Sicily, had in 289 BC been seized and occupied by the Mamertines, a notorious gang of retired Campanian mercenaries. They were still there in 264 BC, when the king of Syracuse, the significant Greek stronghold lower down the coast, decided to winkle them out. The mercenaries asked the Carthaginians, who occupied parts of the west coast of Sicily, to send a fleet and raise the siege.

The Carthaginians obliged, but their fleet stayed on in the harbour. The mercenaries then appealed to Rome to rid them of the Carthaginians, on the somewhat specious grounds that their Campanian blood entitled them to the same protection as the Campanian allies of Rome on the mainland.

The senate havered and passed the buck to the comitia tributa, which voted if not actually for war, then at least for the dispatch of an expedition against the interfering Carthaginians to restore Messana to its criminal element. The arrival of the expedition so surprised or unnerved the Carthaginian commander at Messana that he embarked and took his ships home. The Carthaginian government, however, humiliated by what they saw as a defeat, resolved to recapture Messana.

Thus was started, by accident, the first world war in history to be contested on principles. It was fought to the finish, and to the death. It lasted, in three “bites” totalling 42 years, for well over a century. When it ended, Carthage, which at one time had three hundred cities and seven hundred thousand people in its own capital, was a smoking heap of rubble.

Carthage was originally a colony of Phoenicia, the Mediterranean power along the west coast of Syria: hence the Latin name for a Carthaginian, Poenus, from which comes the adjective “Punic”. The language of the Carthaginians was Semitic, and their gods, too, were those of the Phoenicians.

The key strategic position of Carthage in the Mediterranean governed its military tactics and economic policy. Carthage was a sea-going nation, using its fleet, which was manned by its citizens, virtually to close the western Mediterranean to other nations, to wage war, and to trade in goods all round the Mediterranean and down the west coast of Africa as far as Guinea - gold, ivory, bronze, tin, pottery, grain, perfume, dyes, and, of course, slaves.


Roman black-and-white mosaic of Carthaginian merchant ships; between the fish is a grain measure. (VRoma: Ostia, Square of the Guilds: Susan Bonvallet)

Carthage also founded colonies along the north African coast as far as Cyrenaica, in southern Spain, Corsica, and Sardinia, and on the western tip of Sicily. Carthaginian citizens did not normally fight in the army, which was composed mainly of African conscripts and mercenaries from round the Mediterranean - and Carthage could afford to employ the best. This multi-racial army, however, still had to be forged into a coherent fighting force, which was the responsibility of its commanders, who were Carthaginians and professional career soldiers.

The First Punic War (264-241 BC) was largely fought at sea. The Romans purpose-built a series of fleets to match the Carthaginian numbers and manned them with marine commandos trained in hand-to-hand fighting - in an age of rudimentary artillery, the standard naval tactic was to attach grapples to an enemy ship and then overwhelm its crew by superior numbers. The losses on both sides were enormous, but the Romans were better at unearthing and deploying ever more resources, and finally the Carthaginians sued for peace and agreed to withdraw all claims to Sicily. Shortly after hostilities ceased, however, the Romans took advantage of the temporary preoccupation of the Carthaginians with a revolt of their mercenaries to annex Corsica and Sardinia.


Hannibal, one of a line of gallant and spectacular military commanders whose efforts finally ended in failure but whose exploits are remembered better than, or at least as well as, those of the men who finally defeated them. (Acknowledgment Hannibal Barca and the Punic Wars web site)

Carthage retaliated by increasing its empire in another quarter: the whole of southern Spain, with its potential wealth and manpower, was overrun. This Spanish campaign was led successively by a brilliant family trio of generals: Hamilcar (d. 229 BC), his son-in-law Hasdrubal (d. 221 BC), and Hamilcar’s son Hannibal (247-182 BC). It was so successful that in order to prevent Carthage extending its influence still farther north, the Romans were forced into a diplomatic manoeuvre. The river Ebro was to be regarded as the boundary between the interests of the two powers, but the town of Saguntum would remain nominally under Roman protection. When in 221 BC Hasdrubal was murdered by a slave whose master he had put to death, Hannibal succeeded to the command. He started the Second Punic War (218-202 BC) by attacking and capturing Saguntum. It was a deliberate ploy. The Carthaginians were motivated to set up this new confrontation by a desire for revenge and by their fear of Roman incursions into their newly won territory.

The Romans began by assuming that tactically this war would be a continuation of the first, and prepared a fleet in which they could cross to Carthage and this time take the city itself. Hannibal confounded them (and the rest of the world then and since) by doing not just the unexpected, but the impossible. He marched his army - infantry, cavalry, baggage train, and his famous elephants - out of Spain and across the river Rhône on a flotilla of boats and rafts, against continual opposition from native Gallic tribes.

crossing the Alps

Crossing the Alps. (Acknowledgment Hannibal Barca and the Punic Wars web site)

He then invaded Italy by a route which took him over, and through, the Alps; at one point he had to blast away a wall of solid rock by heating it with fires and then dashing on to it quantities of raw wine. It is said that he entered Italy with twenty thousand foot and six thousand cavalry, having lost eighteen thousand infantry and two thousand horsemen since crossing the Rhône. With these and the surviving elephants, he soon gained control of northern Italy, having outflanked one Roman army before the river Trebia, and trapped another by Lake Trasimene.

Roman soldiers

Gold stater, c. 217 BC, from the war against Hannibal: Roman soldiers with captive. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Rome was too tough a nut for Hannibal to crack, so he bypassed the city and went on into the south, where at Cannae he outmanoeuvred a numerically much stronger Roman force under the consuls, Lucius Aemilus Paulus and Gaius Terentius Varro, and virtually annihilated it.

For fourteen years after that, Hannibal and his army rampaged around southern Italy before being lured back to Carthage, and to defeat at Zama in 202 BC, by a splendid campaign conducted by Cornelius Scipio, who had already driven the Carthaginians out of Spain. In particular Scipio managed at Zama to neutralize Hannibal’s tactic of opening the battle with a frontal charge of his eighty elephants. Hannibal survived the battle, only to end his life in exile in Asia, having failed in his attempt to rebuild his country’s fortune by political means.


Publius Cornelius Scipio (234-183 BC) was awarded the honorific surname of Africanus after his campaign against Hannibal in Africa. (Acknowledgment Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples)

After the Second Punic War, Rome confiscated Spain, leaving Carthage just with its north African colonies, and promptly waded into local Spanish conflicts to keep the tribes there in order, besides being involved in full-scale wars in Macedonia, Asia Minor, and Syria. In spite of the sanctions and conditions of peace which had been imposed, there was the possibility that Carthage might rise again and try to take revenge. Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BC), also known as Cato the Elder, saw this more clearly than anyone else. Whatever question was being addressed in the senate, the 85-year-old politician incorporated into his speech the words, “In my opinion, Carthage must be destroyed.”


Cato (Picture acknowledgment Fenrir DK history web site)

The Carthaginians were finally manoeuvred into having to defend themselves against Numidian invasions of their territory. This was technically a breach of the treaty of 201 BC, under which they were forbidden to take up arms without Rome’s permission. The senate, which, egged on by Cato, had made plans for just such an eventuality, voted for war once again. A trained army of eighty thousand infantry and four thousand cavalry was dispatched under the command of the consuls, who had orders not to discontinue the war until Carthage had been razed to the ground. The Third Punic War lasted for three years. That it continued so long was due to a heroic Carthaginian defence of their city, which was duly destroyed. The fifty thousand survivors of the siege were sold into slavery.


Med map

The western Mediterranean. The Ebro is the river which flows in a north-westerly direction from the coast north-west of the main Balearic island. Saguntum is farther down the coast, due west of the Balearics. Rhodanus is the river Rhône. (Ancient World Mapping Center)


was elected censor in 184 BC. He took his duties as guardian of public morals very seriously, expelling Manilius from the senate for embracing his wife during the day in front of their daughter. He imposed taxes on the rich, and even heavier taxes on the very rich, and introduced regulations to restrict luxurious living. He compiled the earliest Roman encyclopaedia, and wrote a medical work, a history of Rome, and a treatise on agriculture, which is the oldest surviving complete prose work in Latin.

"Carthago delenda est"

See also Cato the Censor timeline.

Battle of Cannae

For a detailed account of the battle and a plan click here.

Believe it or not:

The Latin proverb, Hannibal ad portas (Hannibal is at the gates), means that some disaster is imminent. It was also used to frighten naughty Roman children.