What were the Punic Wars?

We explain what were the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, their causes, consequences and events of each of them.

  1. What were the Punic Wars?

It is known as the Punic Wars to a series of three military conflicts that confronted the Republic of Rome and the Empire of Carthage . Its name came from the term that the Romans used to refer to the Carthaginians and their Phoenician ancestors: punici , so the Carthaginians themselves referred to this conflict as the “Roman wars.”

These clashes occurred between the years 246 a. C. and 146 a. C. , when Rome and Carthage were the two main powers of the Mediterranean. The Punic Wars are famous because they were definitive in the establishment of Roman supremacy in the Mediterranean , along with the subsequent Macedonian Wars and the Roman-Syrian War.

  1. Background of the Punic Wars

The antecedents of this series of conflicts must be sought in the expansion of the Roman Republic , which towards the third century BC. C. had already conquered Magna Grecia. In this way, it controlled an important Mediterranean region.

On the other hand, the Phoenicians founded their city in the coast of Tunisia in 264 a. C. This urban center, Carthage, quickly became a commercial empire , owner of the most powerful army of the moment.

The Romans, on the other hand, possessed the most powerful army of the time, at the service of their fierce conquest interests. For centuries the patricians had adopted an imperial culture, which allowed them to better deal with the social tensions of the Republic, seeking a common external enemy.

Thus, Rome began to act as an incipient empire, distributing the spoils of its many conquests among its citizens.

  1. Causes of the Punic Wars

Punic Wars Rome Carthage Causes Mediterranean Map
Rome and Carthage competed for control of the Mediterranean.

The confrontation between these two powers was simply inevitable , considering the threat that Roman expansion meant for the Carthaginian commercial dominance of the Mediterranean.

However, the initial trigger for the conflict was the invasion of Messina . This Greek city was held by the pre-Roman Italian people of the Oscos, by the tyrant of Siracusa Hierón II, who had the support of the Carthaginians.

As the Sicilian Greeks denied their help to the Oscans, they turned to Rome for help, which produced that, for the first time, Rome and Carthage were seen as rivals , albeit in a local and minor conflict. The defeat of Hierón II against the Romans and their negotiation with them led to the breaking of their alliance with Carthage.

Thus, Rome, seized in the successive years of formerly Carthaginian territories , thus unleashing the Punic Wars properly.

  1. First Punic War (264-241 BC)

This was an eminently naval war , which was a very high cost for both Romans and Carthaginians. He was born from the local conflict between the Oscos and the invasion of Syracuse. The war began with the defeat of the Carthaginians in Agrigento , which convinced them to better retain their maritime advantage, since they possessed a more numerous and experienced army.

However, their small victories as in the Aeolian Islands, led to Rome dedicated its entire production capacity in favor of a new and massive army , obtaining in less than two months about 100 ships.

These new ships also had technological incorporations that allowed them to deal with the most agile and fastest ships of Carthage. From that moment, in addition to the heavy infantry that was his specialty, Rome acquired techniques to board enemy ships.

The result was an overwhelming Roman victory , except for the battles of the Bagradas Plains, in Africa, or those of the Aeolian Islands and Drépano. In the midst of an almost unbroken streak of defeats, Carthage signed in 241 a. C. a peace treaty , in which Sicily delivered in its entirety to Roman rule.

This left Carthage deeply weakened. In 240 a. C. his mercenary troops rebelled, unleashing the so-called Mercenary Wars. Rome took the opportunity to intervene quickly and also seized control of Corsica and Sardinia in 238 BC. C., since then speaking of Mare nostrum (“Our Sea”) to refer to the Mediterranean Sea.

  1. Second Punic War (218-201 BC)

Punic Wars Rome Carthage Hanibal Elephants Alps
The Carthaginians crossed the Alps over elephants to attack Rome.

The Second War between Rome and Carthage is perhaps the best known of the three. It was unleashed by the Carthaginians who attacked the Hispanic city of Sagunto , allied to the Republic of Rome. General Aníbal Barca was in charge of the Carthaginians, considered one of the best military strategists in history.

This conflict had apparently been foreseen by Rome after the end of the First Punic War, since it proceeded to open and rearm. In addition, it had expanded to Hispania (name of that time of the Iberian Peninsula), allying itself with traditional enemies of Carthage.

Hannibal, ignoring the threats of Rome, led his army north of Hispania, and from there on a daring invasion course to Italy, crossing the Alps with his army mounted on elephants.

Thus he reaped an important series of victories on italic soil, such as the battles of Ticino, Trebia, Trasimeno and Cannas, crushing two entire consular armies. The Carthaginians gave Rome the most humiliating defeat in its military history since the sacking of the Gauls in the fourth century BC. C.

However, the crossing of the mountains and the subsequent battles left Hannibal without strength to besiege Rome, although with enough to resist his attempts at expulsion. Under Hannibal’s command, Carthage’s army was in Italy for sixteen years .

Meanwhile, his Roman enemies were also fighting against Carthage in Sicily and Hispania, and at the same time against King Philip V of Macedonia, an ally of Hannibal, thus unleashing the First Macedonian War in Greece.

However, this situation was resolved after the Roman victory in Hispania and the return to Sicily of the Roman legions, in charge of the famous Roman commander Publio Cornelio Escipión, “the African.”

This was followed by the intention of assaulting Carthage itself . To do this, Scipio landed in Africa and allied Prince Numida Massinissa, at war at the time against Carthage’s allies, the numada king Sifax.

Hannibal then had to return to their lands, to be defeated in the battle of Zama in 202 a. C. This new defeat before Rome deprived Carthage of its commercial colonies and forced it to sign a peace treaty in which its empire was reduced to little more than the city of Carthage.

  1. Third Punic War (149-146 BC)

The third and last of the wars between Rome and Carthage consisted of little more than the siege of the city of Carthage, which culminated predictably with its plunder and total destruction.

The conflict was due to the Roman desire to placate the growing feeling against him that arose in Greece and in Hispania . He agreed with the announcement of Carthage that, having already settled the debts imposed by the peace treaty of the Second Punic War, they were considered free of the terms of the same.

Eager to set the example, Rome began in 149 a. C. a series of claims to Carthage, each more demanding than the previous one, hoping to incite the Carthaginians to another open military conflict, but lacking casus belli , that is, a public reason to start the war.

Rome unleashed the war with the demand that Carthage be demolished and moved to a farther point on the Mediterranean coast in the African continent. Given the obvious refusal of the Carthaginians, Rome declared war. Thus began a first site that the Carthaginian people heroically resisted, involving even women and children in the struggle.

But a second offensive by Publio Cornelio Escipión Emiliano, political grandson of Escipión “the African”, defeated the Carthaginian defenses after 3 years of siege. Carthage was sacked, burned to the ground , and its citizens arrested and sold as slaves .

  1. End of the Punic Wars and consequences

Punic Wars Rome Carthage Consequences Ruins
As a result of the Punic Wars, Carthage was destroyed.

The end of the Punic Wars came along with its main consequence, which was the total destruction of Carthage and the absorption of its commercial empire by the Roman Republic. After also defeating the Macedonians and the Syrians, Rome has since been established as the supreme power of the Mediterranean Sea .

The myth of the city of Carthage, its courageous general Hannibal and its tragic disappearance, however, lasted over time and is still a source of inspiration for works of art and historical epics.

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