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264 - 146 BC - The Punic Wars

Punic Wars

The Battle of Zama

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“The Punic Wars” is the collective name for the wars between the people of Carthage and the Romans. The Romans used the name Poeni for the people of Carthage , a city state of in northern Africa outside modern-day Tunis , Tunisia . Carthage was the chief city-state and trading hub of the African territory controlled by the Phoenicians. The main reason the conflict began was the intense competition between Rome and Carthage , who both wanted to be the supreme trading empire of the Mediterranean Sea region. There were three separate, but related, wars that arose from this competition. The first war started in 264 BC, and the last war ended in 146 BC (a span of nearly 100 years!).


In the first half of the 3rd century BC, Carthage held many territories, making it easy for them to control and dominate the western Mediterranean Sea region. They even controlled a portion of the island of Sicily , just southwest of Italy , making them a rival of the Romans, who had gradually conquered much of the Italian peninsula.

In 264 BC, King Hiero II of Syracuse (a city-state in southeastern Sicily ) attempted to conquer the city-state of Messana (now Messina ) on the northeastern tip of Sicily . The residents of Messana asked the Romans and the Carthaginians to defend them from the invading Syracusans.

Seeing this as an opportunity to expel Carthage from Sicily , the Romans quickly answered the call for help from the people of Messana. Seeing this as a threat its control of Sicily , the city-state of Carthage declared war on Rome . The promise of glory and plunder was of great importance to the Romans, who responded to Carthage ’s declaration of war with their own declaration of war against Carthage .

This war was fought mainly at sea around the island of Sicily . Carthage , being perhaps the greatest sea-trading empire in the world at the time, was by far the stronger of the two in sea battles. True to the Roman desire for perfection, Rome met this challenge by starting a large-scale construction program to build its first naval fleet.

After building their navy, the Romans defeated a Carthaginian fleet off the Sicilian port of Mylae in 260 BC, but failed to capture the island of Sicily . In 256 BC, a Roman army under Roman general Marcus Atilius Regulus established a base in North Africa , but the following year the Carthaginian army under general Hamilcar Barca forced it to withdraw. For the next 13 years the war was fought in the area of Sicily . It ended with a major naval victory for the Romans in 241 BC in the Aegates Islands . Carthage was forced to give up its territory in Sicily to the Romans, who also captured the Carthaginian islands of Sardinia and Corsica in 237 BC.


Read a children's story about the 2nd Punic War written by Karissa A., Hope B., and Anna L.
Read a comic book about the 3rd Punic War by Mandi C. and Nick M.

Carthaginian bitterness over the loss of Sicily , Sardinia , and Corsica strengthened its desire to regain power in the Mediterranean . It also strengthened its hatred for the Romans. Hamilcar Barca, the distinguished Carthaginian general of the First Punic War, devoted the remainder of his life to building up Carthaginian power in Spain to make up for the loss of Sicily.

In 226 BC, an agreement with Rome set the northern border of the Carthaginian conquest to the Ebro River (in northern Iberia ). But the Romans themselves broke their agreement and crossed the Ebro river, heading south in their effort to take over the Iberian Peninsula . Hamilcar’s son Hannibal inherited control of the Carthaginian army in 221 BC and began to conquer parts of Iberia (now modern-day Spain ). Having the same fighting spirit his father once had, Hannibal decided to face the Roman army at Saguntum (now Sagunto, north of modern-day Valencia, Spain) in 219 BC. Saguntum was one of Rome ’s allies, so in 218 BC, the Romans again declared war on the Carthaginians.

In the spring of 218 BC Hannibal did something the Romans never expected. He swiftly marched a large army including several elephants through Iberia (now Spain ) and Gaul (now France ) and across the Alps to attack the Romans in Italy before they could complete their preparations for war. He crossed the dangerous mountains, where many of his soldiers and elephants died, and secured a firm position in northern Italy . By 216 BC he had won two major victories, at Lake Trasimeno and the town of Cannae , and reached southern Italy .

In spite of his requests, Hannibal received insufficient reinforcements and siege weapons from Carthage . So, he worked hard to recruit locals to join his army. In 207 BC, Hannibal ’s brother Hasdrubal left Iberia with an army to cross the Alps and join Hannibal in Italy . Hasdrubal crossed the Alps , but in a battle at the Metaurus River , in northern Italy , he was killed and his troops were defeated.

Meanwhile, the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, known as Scipio Africanus the Elder, had totally defeated the Carthaginians in Spain , and in 204 BC he landed an army in North Africa (in modern-day Tunisia ). The Carthaginians convinced Hannibal to return to Africa in 203 BC to defend them against Roman general Scipio Africanus and his very large army.

Leading an army of untrained recruits, Hannibal was decisively defeated by Scipio at the Battle of Zama (in modern-day Tunisia ) in 202 BC. This battle marked the end of Carthage as a great power and the close of the Second Punic War. The Carthaginians were forced to give up their land in Iberia ( Spain ) and the islands of the Mediterranean still in their possession. They were also forced to give up all but 10 ships in their large navy and pay a large amount of tribute money to Rome . These harsh terms of surrender led to continued tensions between Carthage and Rome .


In the 2nd century BC, however, Carthage managed once again to return too much of its former glory. Their economy prospered, their fleet increased. All of this really irritated Rome because there seemed to be nothing that could force Carthage to its knees. Also encouraging hatred between Rome and Carthage were the speeches of Cato the Elder, who demanded Delenda est Carthago (“ Carthage must be destroyed”).

The Carthaginians broke their treaty with Rome by extending their empire slightly beyond the treaty line established after the Second Punic War. This gave the Romans all the excuse they needed to begin the Third Punic War (149-146 BC).

Rome used its African ally, Masinissa, who ruled over the empire of Numidia to the west of Carthage , as a catalyst to begin the war. Masinissa deliberately provoked Carthage ; and in 149 BC, Carthage attacked Masinissa. Rome , claiming to come to the aid of its ally Masinissa, declared war on Carthage . The difference in military force was now to Rome 's advantage, and few battles were fought to decide who was the strongest.

At first a peace was agreed upon, but Rome increased its demands, decreeing that the Carthaginians must totally abandon their own city of Carthage . Rejecting Rome ’s harsh demands, the Carthaginians returned to the fight. The Romans, led by Scipio Aemilianus (known as Scipio the Younger), captured the city of Carthage after a 3 year siege. The Romans burned Carthage to the ground, sowed salt in the fields to poison the farmland, and sold the surviving inhabitants into slavery.

Punic Wars Outline (264-146 BC)

    • First Punic War (264-241 BC)
      • Syracuse
      • Carthage
      • Sicily
    • Second Punic War (218-201 BC)
      • Hannibal
      • Fabius Maximus
      • Scipio Africanus
    • Third Punic War (149-146 BC)
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