Carthage during the Punic Wars

Carthage during the Punic Wars

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Could Carthage have won the Punic Wars?

Like the title. Were there any events that could have changed that would be in Carthage’s favour or were they simply doomed from the beginning? Why were Carthage and Rome so different and why was Rome proven to be more powerful than Carthage?

Edit: It’s my first time posting on reddit, and I really want you know what you guys think about this :)

If you had been a betting man in the 3rd century BC, the smart money would have been on Carthage. They boasted the greatest fleet in the Western Mediterranean. Rome was almost exclusively a land power. Carthage was richer. She could afford to hire and retain massive mercenary armies. Considering that the theatre of war (at least in the 1st Punic War) was Sicily, Sardinia/Corsica, and the straits, these advantages probably looked insurmountable.

So how did the Roman’s manage to adapt and overcome Carthage’s massive navy? Did they just decided “Hey let’s just build more ships”? And in your opinion, did you think this war determined Rome as a supreme force in the Mediterranean?

So what might be an interesting consideration is thinking about the battle of Cannae.

Even though the Romans lost the battle of Cannae with staggering amounts of casualties, they were still able to recover. So in a way the loss at Cannae showed not only the brilliance of Hannibal, but also the durability of the Roman Empire.

Ask yourself how many empires could lose around 60.000 soldiers in a day and still be able to continue hostilities.

And Cannae was the third battle in a row where the Romans had basically lost the entire army (although Cannae was the biggest). And yet they kept going.

This number is comparable to to the number of killed/injured german soldiers at Stalingrad (around 300.000). They couldn't recover, Rome could.

Just riffing off of previous comments: indeed, I think Carthage had the best shot in the 1st Punic War. Hadsdrubl fought a masterful guerrilla war in Sicily and at that time, Carthage’s naval advantage was absolute. If the Carthaginian senate had given Hadsdrubl proper reinforcement and actually seriously prosecuted the war after the setbacks it suffered, it could have turned out very differently.

Rome’s greatest asset at that period of time was its ability to “take a punch.” Oh, I lost 12 legions, well there’s more where that came from. They had a population and resilience advantage over Carthage at the time and during the 2nd and 3rd wars, a money advantage too. The rulers of Rome also had a stake in military victory for their own political advancement/cultural pride in a way that the rulers of Carthage did not.

An interesting note that is purely opinion for me but..a huge reason Rome could take a punch is that they were so Hyper ambitious. If one consul or general failed there was always one more charismatic leader who just KNEW he could do better. And often did

No. Carthage lacked the social organisation that spurned Roman tenacity.

It could perhaps by the virtue of her resources/means in theory pull it off, heck, her cards werent even bad and at times iy may have looked even better (think First Punic Wat). But in all honestly, those who are posing it could are playing a simplified numbers game of history that simply fails to grasp the subtler intricacies of what happened. The flimsy argument that Hannibal could have taken Rome holds little flair and is a circular argument that lacks the appeal to both convince or disproof. Had Hannibal been a Roman he would have conquered the Med. Had Scipio been a Carthaginian heɽ have ended up in Bithynia himself.

At the end of the day, the Carthaginian sociopolitical framework was no match for that of Rome. A thousand Hannibals or Scipios couldnt have changed that.

At the end of the day, the Carthaginian sociopolitical framework was no match for that of Rome. A thousand Hannibals or Scipios couldnt have changed that.

No. Carthage lacked the social organisation that spurned Roman tenacity.

At the end of the day, the Carthaginian sociopolitical framework was no match for that of Rome. A thousand Hannibals or Scipios couldnt have changed that.

How much do we know about the sociopolitical structure of Carthage that doesn't come from Roman sources?

Pure rubbish. No offense, but there were no 'sociopolitical' traits that prevented Carthaginian victory.

Nothing is ever set in stone. There were plenty of chances during the Punic Wars for Carthage to seize the day. If Philip had linked up with Hannibal successfully after thwarting the Aetolians, if the Hanno faction didn't have such a hold in the Council of Elders to prevent the reinforcement of Hannibal, if Hannibal marched straight to Rome after Cannae or linked up with Hasdrubal.

Your point on Roman tenacity is correct, but it by no means meant Carthaginian victory couldn't have been simply achieved. The entire narrative of the Punic War is that Rome had never been pushed so close to defeat, you seem to understand this with your second paragraph which is why its troubling to see you push such a black-and-white definitive response like 'no' point blank.

Not the 3rd Punic War. That one was just mean it was Rome deciding to crush Carthage forever just from resentment from the first two wars.

Carthage could have won in the first or second punic wars if its noble and wealthy families had put more into the war effort, and if it hadn't relied so heavily on mercenaries. Rome ended up being much more willing to engage in 'total war' however. Rome was also much better at adapting and learning, and got better at the fighting as it went on, while Carthage did not (such as the Romans improving their naval skills and inventing the Corvus to help them board other craft in naval battles).

Could Carthage have put more into the war effort and improved it's navy? Theoretically, sure. Could they have won some additional battles on land with better tactics? Theoretically, sure.

Could they have won in the 2nd Punic War? yes, if Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus hadn't been around to implement his strategies, or if Hannibal had succeeded in getting more allies in Italy.

2 Answers 2

During the Punic Wars, the Macedonians allied themselves with the Carthaginians with the expectation they would be the victors of the war and therefore be on good terms with them in the future. In order to cement this, the Macedonian–Carthaginian Treaty was signed in 215 BC as recorded by Livy.

On this contest, between the two most powerful people in the world, all kings and nations had fixed their attention. 2 Among them Philip, king of the Macedonians, regarded it with greater anxiety, in proportion as he was nearer to Italy, and because he was separated from it only by the Ionian Sea. [3] When he first heard that Hannibal had crossed the Alps, as he was rejoiced that a war had arisen between the Romans and the Carthaginians, so while their strength was yet undetermined, he felt doubtful which he should rather wish to [p. 876]be victorious. [4] But after the third battle had been fought, and the third victory had been on the side of the Carthaginians, he inclined to fortune, and sent ambassadors to Hannibal. Livy 23.33

With the alliance in place, the Romans would have to further stretch their forces and resources to the east so as to counteract any possible Macedonian offensive.

The Macedonians had numerous things to gain from the defeat of Rome:

It would curb Roman expansion efforts into Illyria which had been happening prior to the Punic wars and threatened the borders of Macedon

it would stop the Roman money coming into the independent Greek Poleis which had been used to foster opposition towards the Macedonian kings and weakened their military supremacy in Greece.

And furthermore, the treaty assured that once all of Italy was under Carthaginian rule, the Carthaginians would aid Macedon subdue her enemies in the east:

That when Italy was completely subdued they should sail into Greece, and carry on war with such nations as the king pleased. That the cities on the continent and the islands which border on Macedonia, should belong to Philip, and his dominions.”

The carrying out of a Macedonian-Carthaginian alliance was heavily promoted by the court councilor Demetrius of Pharos who had been the last ruler of Illyria before the Romans defeated him in 229BC. Demetrius according to Polybius had much influence on the Macedonian king and urged him to invade Illyria to re-establish him since the Carthaginians had been defeated.

Demetrius has been recorded saying to Philip V:

For Greece is already entirely obedient to you, and will remain so: the Achaeans from genuine affection the Aetolians from the terror which their disasters in the present war have inspired them. Italy, and your crossing into it, is the first step in the acquirement of universal empire, to which no one has a better claim than yourself. And now is the moment to act when the Romans have suffered a reverse. Polybius, 5.101

So it was Demetrius and Phillip's threat to Roman occupied Illyria and also to Italy itself which prompted the Romans to intervene militarily.


Ancient Carthage (814–146 BC)

The Punics, Carthaginians or Western Phoenicians were a group of peoples in the Western Mediterranean who traced their origins to the Phoenicians. Founded around 814 BC as a colony of Tyre by the legendary queen Dido, Ancient Carthage was one of the richest and most powerful cities in antiquity, and the centre of a major commercial and maritime empire that dominated the western Mediterranean until the mid third century BC. By 300 BC, the now independent Carthaginian Empire spanned a patchwork of colonies, vassals, and satellite states that constituted more territory than any other polity in the region. Carthage's wealth and power rested primarily on its strategic location, which provided access to abundant fertile land and major trade routes. Its vast mercantile network, which extended as far as west Africa and northern Europe, provided an array of commodities from all over the ancient world, as well as lucrative exports of agricultural goods and manufactured products. This commercial empire was secured by one of the largest and most powerful navies in the ancient Mediterranean, and an army composed largely of foreign mercenaries and auxiliaries.

As the dominant power of the western Mediterranean, Carthage inevitably came into conflict with many neighbors and rivals, from the indigenous Berbers of North Africa to the nascent Roman Republic. Following centuries of conflict with the Sicilian Greeks, its growing competition with Rome culminated in the Punic Wars (264–146 BC), which saw some of the largest and most sophisticated battles in antiquity, and nearly led to Rome's destruction. In 146 BC, after the third and final Punic War, the Romans destroyed Carthage and later established a new city in its place. All remnants of Carthaginian civilization came under Roman rule by the first century AD.

Notwithstanding the cosmopolitan character of its empire, Carthage's culture and identity remained staunchly Phoenician, or Punic. Like other Phoenician people, its society was heavily urbanised and oriented towards seafaring and trade, reflected in part by its more famous innovations and technical achievements, including serial production, uncolored glass, the threshing board, and the cothon. The Carthaginians became distinguished for their commercial ambitions and unique system of government, which combined elements of democracy, oligarchy, and republicanism, including modern examples of checks and balances.

Roman Carthage (146 BC–700)

After the destruction of Punic Carthage, a new city of Carthage (Latin Carthāgō) was built on the same land in the mid-1st century BC. By the 3rd century, Carthage had developed into one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire, with a population of several hundred thousand. It was the center of the Roman province of Africa, which was a major breadbasket of the empire. Carthage briefly became the capital of a usurper, Domitius Alexander, in 308–311. Conquered by the Vandals in 439, Carthage served as the capital of the Vandal Kingdom for a century. Reconquered by the Eastern Roman Empire (later known as the Byzantine Empire) between 533 and 534, it continued to serve as an Eastern Roman regional center, as the seat of the praetorian prefecture of Africa (after 590 the Exarchate of Africa).

Independent Carthage (700–1378)

In the late 6th century, the Carthaginian province rebelled against the Eastern Roman Empire, starting the Carthaginian War of Independence (689–700). The campaign was successful, and Carthage gained its independence on January 1st, 700 AD. The new state was modelled after Ancient Carthage and adopted many symbols and customs of the period. Its government was very similar to the Punic government, in which the Senate of Carthage ruled for most of the time, and a dictator was put in charge during state emergencies or other grave situations.

First dicatorship (1378–1410)

The government remained the same until 1378, when a group of Senators installed a dictator-for-life, similar to Julius Caesar. Himlico the Dictator ruled Carthage with an iron fist from 1378 to 1407, when he was murdered by the very same senators who installed him. Many Carthaginians consider this bloody event a déjà vu, to say the least.

Hanno dynasty (1410–1849)

After the death of Himlico the Dictator, a large power vacuum took over. Some people believed that the son of the late dictator should inherit his position, while others believed the Senate should be restored. A short civil war took place, the First Carthaginian Civil War, which resulted in Hanno, the nephew of the late dictator, inheriting the post.

Hanno ruled as dictator for less than three years before he declared himself Emperor of Carthage. A strong nationalist, he attacked Egypt. Egypt retaliated, surrounding the capital of Carthage, and forcing the emperor to surrender. Minor borderlands were ceded to Egypt, Hanno demoted himself from emperor to king, and was forced to invite the Senate to rule with him.

From 1410 until 1849, the House of Hanno ruled over the Kingdom of Carthage. During these years, trade opened up and diplomatic relations started with neighboring nations, such as France, Spain, and Egypt. It was also during this time that the Carthaginian industrial system grew. War was odd for the nation, and most of the time, the Carthaginians were at peace.

Second dictatorship (1849–1960)

In 1849, King Hasdrubal VI died without an heir. The people, having grown nationalist, took over the Senate and established a military dictatorship. The new government closed down foreign relations and destroyed the lives of many Carthaginian citizens.

Democratic republic (since 1960)

On the 12th of March 1960 a few disappointed law students formed the Democratic Party to oppose the People's Party, which was a famed puppet party of the dictator. After a student rebellion was brutally put down, a rogue bodyguard blew himself and the dictator's family up. Soon, elections were held with the Democrats becoming the Prime Minister and President they held these positions until 1972. The movie industry blew up with hits like Zorba the Greek (based on the book), Doctor Zhivago (Romantic epic) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (family comedy).

A decade after the Democratic Party, the Republican Party emerged from a small town. They took the presidency and the premiership for four years before losing the presidency. During this time the movie industry died down and they became heavily focused on European diplomacy. In late 1989 a third party came in the form of the Moderates. It swept the major mayoral elections and made the other parties nervous about the 1991 General Election. It was around this time that the Communist Party died after last holding the Mayor of Tunis in 1967. Carthage became a major tourist hotspot due to its nice climate and famed movies. This era is seen as the Carthaginian blooming.

After an early start with the major mayoral elections, the Moderates swept the premiership. Since their policy is to have minimal economic interference, the economy thrived for two years until Italy became the biggest tourist spot. With no backup industry the economy crashed and did not recover until 2002. An American businessman managed to buy up most businesses and for a while his friends ran the nation until his assassination in 1993. During the coronation of King Manuel IV of Portugal, the Prime Minister was assassinated and the Carthaginians demanded reparations, to no avail. A trade blockade started and lasted for a year until US President Gary Hart reached an agreement which got him a Nobel Peace Prize. This was a dark time for Carthage as its seemingly steel proof economy crashed.

After the 1980s, Carthage focused on rebuilding its economy. During this time, the American businessman was assassinated and his friends collapsed from power. The Republican party gained traction as the Moderates' popularity crashed thereafter. The government established very good relations with Italy, and this time saw some cultural reawakening with an Academy Award-winning movie. Malta was the first to become an economically stable province of Carthage. Judaism was more present in that decade's generation. People went into the next millennium with economic, cultural and political hope for it.

Second Punic War—Early Battles : 218 to 216 B.C.

The Second Punic War, from first to last, was driven by one man, Hannibal Barca. Soon after gaining command of his fathers army in Spain, Hannibal began planning for an invasion of Italy by crossing the Alps. His plan was to ally himself with the Gauls and other enemies of Rome in the north and then descend upon Rome itself. The government of Carthage did not support these plans and when he instigated the war by attacking the Saguntum, a Roman Ally in Spain, they ordered him to desist. He avoided the ambassador, and continued with his activities until Rome declared war on Carthage, at which point he was given leave to defend Carthage's interests. He did so by raising a large army and in quick succession, crossed the Ebro, the Pyrenees, the Rhone and finally the Alps. The story of his march is an adventure in itself, but shortly after reaching Italian soil he fought his first battle against Rome, after meeting up with a scouting force led by an elder Scipio, at Ticinus River. This was followed by a much larger and more disastrous engagement at Trebia. Hannibal, as was his custom, laid an ambuscade and betting on the impetuosity of the Roman General, routed the Roman army with tremendous loss. He then spent the winter in Gallic territory, resting his troops and planning his next move.

Rome was in an uproar over this wretched turn of events. Politically, it was divided between a "cautious" faction, exemplified by Scipio, and an "urgent" faction, exemplified by Sempronious, the consul who had run his army into Hannibal's trap at Trebia. The Roman habit of choosing two consuls, one from each faction, worked to disastrous effect in this case, since Hannibal could easily discern which consul to lure into a trap. In the case of Lake Trasimene, the stooge was Flaminius, and the cost was 30,000 men killed or captured to Hannibal's loss of 1,500. At this point, Rome appointed Fabius, as dictator of the "cautious" persuasion and thereby gained a year reprieve from devastating attacks, and was able to hold together most of their Italian allies. Hannibal spent the time consolidating support among the Gallic tribes and establishing himself in Southern Italy. The only bright spot for Rome, other than a temporary succession of the slaughter of their legions, was a few victories in Spain by the elder Scipio brothers, which prevented Hannibal from receiving reinforcements from that area.

A full year after Trasimene however, Hannibal was still in Italy, Fabian's term as dictator was up, and Rome elected two more consuls and raised several legions to drive Hannibal out of Italy. The result was the debacle of Cannae, where Hannial once more, used his wiles to draw the less patient of the Consuls into battle. This time Rome lost at least 60,000 men killed and captured (including 80 senators), the most crushing defeat ever suffered by the city.

Hannibal and the Punic Wars: Synopsis and Historical Background

Carthage was founded by Phoenicians in 814 BCE, on the coast of what is now Tunisia. It grew to become a resplendent commercial metropolis with a glorious dual harbor—an architectural marvel for all to see. At its zenith its population may have approached a million. Contrary to popular myth and the fantasies of Flaubert in Salammbo, the Carthaginians did not engage in child sacrifice. The tophet in Carthage was a cemetery for children, but recent research by M. H. Fantar and others has revealed that the bones are of children of various ages, including many fetal remains, with no evidence that they were sacrificed—clearly the result of the infant mortality of the times. (More in another article.)

Carthage was not a militaristic city-state, and did not maintain a regular army. Mercenaries, serving under Carthaginian and, sometimes, Greek officers, were hired to defend the city when circumstances required it. Nevertheless, out of this relatively peaceful mercantile society emerged a family, the Barcas, that would produce some of the greatest generals and warriors that history has ever known.

Three long wars, from 264 to 146 BCE, pitted Carthage against the militaristic and expansionistic power of the emerging Roman Republic, founded in 753 BCE, and which, unlike Carthage, required compulsory long-term military service of its landed citizens and its allies, and made social advancement contingent on military experience and distinction.

All three wars were initiated by Rome, the first (264-241) by sending an army to Sicily, under the pretense of defending renegade mercenaries at Messana, although Rome had severely punished a similar group that had taken over Rhegium across the narrow strait separating Italy from Sicily. The prelude to the second war (218-201) was the Roman annexation of Sardinia, a Carthaginian territory, at a time when Carthage was unable to respond due to the war it was forced to wage against its own mutinous mercenaries. When the Carthaginians expanded into Spain, Rome imposed the Ebro treaty limiting their advance, made an accord with Saguntum, south of the Ebro (and thus within Carthaginian territory), and encouraged the massacre of Carthage partisans and allies. When Carthage reacted, Rome used this as an excuse to declare war. The third conflict (149-146), waged against a Carthage that no longer posed any threat to Rome, led to the total destruction of the city after a three-year siege. In a vicious instance of ethnic cleansing, the city was razed and burned to the ground, the inhabitants slaughtered, and the survivors sold into slavery.

The first great general to emerge from the Barca family was Hamilcar, father to the more famous Hannibal and his brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago. He lived from ca. 275 to 228 BCE, and during the last six years of the first war waged successful guerilla operations against the Romans in Sicily. He remained unvanquished at the time Carthage was forced to capitulate following the naval defeat of the Aegates Islands in 241 BCE. In charge of Carthaginian withdrawal from Sicily, he sent back successive groups of mercenaries so that they could be paid separately. The magistrates of the city miscalculated, waiting until all mercenaries had returned, and then attempted to negotiate reduced pay. The ensuing mutiny threatened the survival of the city, triggering a war with atrocities on both sides until Hamilcar crushed the rebellion, at one point trapping enemy forces in a gorge and having them trampled to death by his elephants.

Following the loss of Sardinia, Hamilcar was put in command of Carthaginian expansion in Spain. His oldest son, Hannibal, then aged nine, asked to accompany him, and supposedly swore on a sacrifice to Baal to never be a friend of the Romans. This did not imply sworn hatred, but a determination not to accept subjection to Rome (more in another article). In Spain, Hamilcar expanded Carthaginian territory until his death in an ambush (in 228 BCE) where he sacrificed himself to save the lives of his sons.

Hamilcar’s successor was his son-in-law, Hasdrubal the Handsome, a skilled diplomat and negotiator, who continued the Carthaginian expansion and founded Carthago Nova (modern Cartagena). During his rule, in 226 or 225 BCE, the Romans sent a delegation to establish the treaty under which Carthage agreed not to cross the boundary of the river Ebro in arms. Hasdrubal was assassinated in 221, following which 26-year-old Hannibal was elected by acclamation the new commander-in-chief of the Carthaginian forces. While his younger brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago, also became competent generals, later defeating two Roman armies in Spain (in 211 BCE), it was Hannibal who was to prove himself a strategic and tactical genius of the first order.

Hannibal’s charismatic personality and character engendered admiration and devotion in his soldiers, who saw in him a Hamilcar reborn. An educated man, fluent in Greek, Latin, and several other languages, he shared the privations of his men, eating the same food, and even sleeping on the ground among them, wrapped only in his military cloak. He could endure extremes of heat and cold and was indefatigable. He took risks together with his men, demonstrating great bravery. During all his military campaigns, including the 16 years in Italy, when his army had to live off the land and he did not have the means to pay his mercenaries, his men followed him unquestioningly and he never experienced mutiny or rebellion.

Hannibal’s first military tests came during the two years (221-220) he spent expanding and consolidating Carthaginian control in northwest Spain. In his first campaign he defeated the Olcades, capturing their capital, and the following year battled against the Vaccaei, taking the city of Hermandica. On his return he was attacked by a Celtiberian confederation of Olcades, Vaccaei, and Carpetani, facing an army of 100,000 in central Spain. Here Hannibal demonstrated his genius for the first time, achieving an unlikely victory. Retreating with his much smaller army across the river Tagus, he took up a defensive position, and lured his opponents to cross the river in pursuit. Once they were midstream, his cavalry cut them down while the elephants trampled those who managed to reach the riverbank. Then the main army attacked, scattering the enemy in all directions. (More in another article.)

Following the Roman-inspired attack on Carthaginian partisans at Saguntum and the aggression of the Saguntines against the Turboleti, who were allies of Carthage, Hannibal marched against the city and took it by storm after an eight-month siege. Despite repeated entreaties, the Saguntines failed to get any help from Rome. When the city fell, in 219 BCE, the Romans sent a delegation to North Africa demanding that Hannibal be surrendered to them. Upon the refusal of the Carthaginian assembly, Rome declared war against Carthage.

The Romans controlled the Mediterranean and expected to be immune to attack by sea. Since the massive Alps in the north were believed to be impassable for an army, they were confident that the war would be waged in Spain and North Africa. Having defeated the Carthaginians before, they expected an easy victory. They were in for a big surprise, for they had never faced a military genius of Hannibal’s calibre.

Hannibal’s strategic thinking was sound. He would take the war to Italy arriving by the most unexpected route—directly across the impassable Alps. He would defeat the Romans in battle, demonstrating that they could be beaten and gaining support from the Gallic tribes. Rome’s confederation of allies—won by conquest and naturally resentful of their masters—would unravel as the result of Roman defeats on the battlefield. His goal was to liberate the oppressed peoples of Italy, including the Greek cities at the south of the peninsula. He did not intend to destroy Rome but to restrict the Romans to their domain around the Tiber, as evidenced by the text of the treaty he signed with King Philip V of Macedonia in 215 BCE. His plan almost succeeded, for a number of Rome’s allies did go over to Hannibal and at one point 12 of Rome’s Latin colonies refused to continue supplying manpower. The war could have been won had Hannibal received needed reinforcements from Carthage—the city leaders foolishly sent them to Spain, to defend their silver mines, rather than to Italy, where the key battles had to be fought. It was this miscalculation that resulted in their eventual defeat.

Hannibal’s supreme tactical genius is undisputed, although its extent is often not realized. In 218 BCE, after crossing the Alps in an epic struggle, arriving with only 20,000 infantry and 6,000 horse, he defeated the Romans (who had a man power potential of 700,000) first at the Ticinus river and then at the Trebia, crushing the much larger combined army of consuls P. Cornelius Scipio and Sempronius Longus. The impulsive Sempronius was lured to attack in the early morning across the freezing river and his army was cut to pieces by a combination of infantry, cavalry, and elephants, plus an ambush from the rear led by Hannibal’s brother Mago. Incidentally, this is the only one of the famous victories of Hannibal in which elephants took part. Of the 37 elephants that accompanied Hannibal across the Alps, only one survived the winter.

At Lake Trasimene, in 217 BCE, Hannibal managed to hide practically his entire army in ambush and destroyed the legions of consul Gaius Flaminius, an experienced military officer who had previously led a successful campaign against the Gauls. But Hannibal’s battlefield masterpiece was Cannae, in 216 BCE, where he faced the largest Roman army ever assembled, consisting of 80,000 infantry and a cavalry contingent which recent research (details in another article) puts as high as 12,000, with his own army of 40,000 infantry and 10,000 horse. The battle was fought on a plain where no ambush could be hidden, but Hannibal was able to spring a deadly trap in plain sight. The total envelopment of the Roman army left 70,000 Roman dead on the battlefield, according to Polybius. Hannibal lost 5,000, mostly from the weaker Spanish and Gallic forces in the center of his formation, where he himself and his brother Mago commanded, and whose deployment was essential for the victory. Often criticized for not marching immediately against Rome following the battle, Hannibal’s decision was not a strategic error, as will be made clear in another article.

Claims that after Cannae Hannibal did not win any more battles because the Romans fought a war of attrition avoiding major clashes, and that his army was softened by wintering among the luxuries of Capua, are incorrect. Hannibal did achieve further victories every time some Roman general grew arrogant enough to think he could take on the great Barcid. For instance, in 212 he defeated consuls Q. Fulvius Flaccus and Appius Claudius at Capua, although the Roman army escaped. The same year he was the victor at the Silarus, where he destroyed the army of the praetor M. Centenius Penula in Campania, and at the first battle of Herdonea, wiping out the forces of Gnaeus Fulvius in Apulia, with casualties comparable with those at lake Trasimenus. In 210 the second battle of Herdonea took place, where Hannibal destroyed the army of Fulvius Centumalus, who was killed. Hannibal remained undefeated during his 16 years in Italy. (More in another article.)

Hannibal’s genius shone even in the final battle, the one he supposedly lost, at Zama, in 202 BCE, against Publius Cornelius Scipio the Younger. The information in the classical sources indicates that he almost won that one, too, despite having an inferior army and lacking the cavalry forces he had had in Italy, for he managed to lure the superior enemy horse from the battlefield and was in the process of crushing the Roman infantry when Massinissa and his cavalry returned to the field to turn the tables in favor of the Romans. Recent research by Abdelaziz Belkhodja and others has raised a number of questions concerning the authenticity of this final battle, to be discussed in another article.

After the end of the second war with Rome, Hannibal served as Carthaginian magistrate (suffete) and was able to eliminate corruption and restore the city’s shattered economy. During his years of exile that followed, he assisted Antiochus III of Syria, Artaxias of Armenia, and Prusias of Bithynia, and remained true to his ideals, steadfastly refusing to become a vassal of Rome. Some have called Hannibal the last hero of the free world of Antiquity. After his death in 183 BCE, taking poison in order to prevent the Romans from capturing him after being betrayed by King Prusias in Bithynia, nothing could stand in the way of the expansion of what would become the predatory Roman Empire.

Belkhodja, A. (2012). Hannibal Barca: L’histoire veritable. Apollonia (Tunis).
Fantar, M. H. (1998). Carthage, the Punic City. Alif, les Editions de la Mediterranee.
Faulkner, N. (2008). Rome: Empire of the Eagles. Pearson/Longman.
Lancel, S. (1998). Hannibal. Blackwell.
Mosig, Y., & Belhassen, I. (2006). “Revision and reconstruction in the Punic Wars: Cannae revisited”. The International Journal of the Humanities, 4(2), 103-110.
Mosig, Y., & Belhassen, I. (2007). “Revision and reconstruction in the second Punic War: Zama-whose victory?” The International Journal of the Humanities, 5(9), 175-186.
Mosig, Y. (2009). “The Barcids at war: Historical introduction.” Ancient Warfare, 3:4, 6-8.
Polybius (Patton translation). The Histories (Loeb Classical Library). Harvard.

© Yozan Mosig, 2012
(Note: A somewhat different version of this article appeared in Ancient Warfare magazine in 2009, and parts are used here with the kind permission of J. Oorthuys.)

How close did Carthage come to victory during the Punic Wars?

It seems that Carthage squandered many advantages in the First Punic War, including wealth, manpower, colonial assets, and a large navy. In the Second Punic War, Carthage obliterated Rome in battle after battle, but failed to gain a strategic advantage. The Third Punic War was essentially a siege, but the question remains how close to total defeat did Rome get, and what sort of terms would a victorious Carthage impose on a defeated Rome?

The closest they would've come would've been the First Punic War - before Carthage had to give up much of its overseas empire and before the Romans expanded its control into Spain and Sicily. The population and industrial capacity difference wouldn't have been as big as in the later wars.

By the time of the Second Punic Wars, Carthage was fighting an uphill battle (like Japan vs USA during WW2). I've read that the Romans had 850,000

770,000 people conscripted or on their conscription rolls during the Second Punic War, and this represented about 10% of their population. So the Romans had something like

8 million people and 300k+ male citizens in the city of Rome. Carthage, on the other hand, only had around 3-4 million people in their entire empire and only 160-180k male citizens in the city of Carthage around that time of the Second Punic War (according to Dexter Hoyos?). So by the time of the Second Punic War, Rome's population advantage was huge and even the string of victories by Hannibal couldn't reverse Carthage's fortunes when they got bogged down in a long war of attrition.

The fact that Rome was able to replace entire 50,000+ man armies back then still boggles my mind.

The issue here compares the largely agrarian society of Rome vs the commercial Carthage. While the population of Rome would largely be expected to contribute to the war effort by serving, the Carthaginian uses mercenary, quite a lot of them. If you count the amt of forces under each commander, you don't really see too big of a discrepancy for both sides during the Second Punic War.

So it's not really fair to say that Rome's advantage in the numbers so long as Carthage can keep up with the mercenaries, and mostly Carthage did. Mago received a fat purse to hire locals, as well as a company of mercenary just before Carthage, recall Hannibal, not to mention the numerous times Hasdrubal and Mago got money and reinforcement or Sicily or Sardinia, and even Hannibal got reinforced a few times.

In hindsight perhaps never because fundamentally Rome & Carthage were fighting two different wars.

Carthage to a large extent acted in the traditional sense, with the war having to lead to some negotiated end. Rome on the other hand had that tendency to escalate conflicts and keep pushing for total victory. It is something few of her opponents did and faced with repeated setbacks, they were prone to just come back and turn conflicts into slugfests they eventually won. Pyrrhus (& the Samnites before him) was completely baffled by the Roman unwillingness to concede defeat. He lost interests, the war dragged on & Rome eventually won. Carthage similarly crashed against this unwillingness to concede.

Fundamentally Rome & Carthage were thus fighting an uneven war, victory was far more elusive for the Carthaginians since they fought on unequal terms.

(From: Kurt Raaflaub (ed.), “War & Peace in the Ancient World” Goldsworthy, “Pax Romana”)

Few wars ended with total annihilation. Other Mediterranean states in Rome's position at various points in punic wars would probably have sued for peace and given tribute, conceded territory etc. Rome had this thing where they only made peace after winning a major battle, and they basically kept the war going until they won.

There's debate about why/how which iirc mostly tends to come down to Rome's deep pool of manpower (partly because it got men rather than money from its allies) and/or cultural and political factors that made it especially stubborn (e.g. the consul system meant nobody wanted to be the one to surrender, the focus on honour, though that was big across the Mediterranean).

Another key factor is that Hannibal seems to have assumed that having defeated Roman armies heɽ flip other Italian confederates of Rome into allying with him against Rome. Very few did. I don't know how much this was love, fear or rational self interest.

Another key factor is that Hannibal seems to have assumed that having defeated Roman armies heɽ flip other Italian confederates of Rome into allying with him against Rome. Very few did. I don't know how much this was love, fear or rational self interest.

I don't think he held that belief post-Cannae, seeing how he no longer operates in these regions to flip the Latin communities. On the other hand, he fliped plenty of Italian confederates and Greek communities.

Carthage had a problem - its wealthy oligarchs, powerful merchant families involved in the Carthaginian trade across the Mediterranean that controlled the Carthaginian Senate - did not like funding the war. They repeatedly rejected Hannibal's requests for aid and more funds. The Oligarchs didn't really trust Hannibal (heɽ grown up campaigning with his father, mostly in Iberia, and they were worried about a powerful and victorious general coming back and taking power). Hannibal was also elected leader by the Carthaginian army in Iberia after his uncle, the former commander, was assassinated . So the oligarchs also felt that Hannibal wasn't "their man."

The Carthaginian Senate also never authorized Hannibal's initial attacks in Spain that started the war in the first place, and so were never really behind it. After that attack in Spain, Rome protested, and asked Carthage to choose war or peace Carthage said "why don't you decide?" and Rome chose war.

The key Roman leader, Quintus Fabius, recognized Carthage was never going to properly support Hannibal, which is one of the reasons he adopted a policy of delay to wear Hannibal's army out.

So if Carthage's oligarchs had mobilized to back Hannibal in the same way that Rome's mobilized to support Roman armies, Carthage could have won. After Cannae, there was a brief window where Carthage could have attacked Rome, but it would have taken months and months of a siege and the Romans likely would have rallied in time.

The Punic Wars and Expansion

In the 3rd and 2nd Centuries BC, Rome, after consolidating its hold on the Italian peninsula would soon come up against the power of the Mediterranean, Carthage. Carthage was Phoenician city founded in 814 BC, and the term Punic relates to the Latin and Greek words for Phoenician. From the founding of the Roman Republic, the powerful Carthaginians had long supported Rome in its bid to secure its own independence and strength in Italy. As late as 279 BC, the two states were allied against Pyrrhus of Epirus in order to contain his expansionist goals, but as Rome's strength grew as a result, so did the rivalry and animosity between the two.

Carthage was, in this time period, by far the greatest sea power on the Mediterranean. Naval authority and vast merchant routes brought wealth and power to the North African city. By the time Rome gained control of all of Italy, Carthage held sway over North Africa from Libya to Gibraltar, much of southern Spain and the islands of Corsica, Sardinia and part of Sicily. Contact prior to Roman control of Italy was limited, but with Rome now within striking distance of Sicily, conflict was inevitable. When the Sicilian city of Messana revolted against Carthaginian rule in 264 BC, the Romans, once again, jumped at the opportunity to expand under the guise of aiding another city.

This initial Roman invasion of Sicily touched off a series of three wars that would last over 100 years. Some of the greatest battles and commanders in world history were on center stage in the conflicts. Men such as Hannibal and Scipio Africanus were immortalized through the legendary achievement and by the end, the ingenuity and technology brought on by warfare advanced Rome to incredible power. Carthage would end up a blip on the radar of history, while Rome became the power of the western world through its victories.

Conflict with Carthage, however, was not the only source of strife for the growing Roman Republic. In some cases, Rome's expansion beyond Carthaginian territory grew as a direct correlation to the Punic Wars. Illyricum, on the Adriatic, Macedonia and Greece would all become the target of Roman domination and political whims. The years 264 to 146 BC, would transform Rome from a young Republic to a powerful Empire.

During the punic wars, how did the Romans continue to recruit armies after massive defeats like cannae where 50 to 70 thousand Romans died and why wasn’t Carthage able to do the same while having control over more resources than Rome?

Rome slowly but surely made its allies part of its system, for every defeat of a neighbouring village Rome allowed the defeated village to become a part of the Roman system. Subdued foes fought for it as part of the Roman army, and while subdued elites were not Senators and didn't have citizenship they still very much formed part of the Roman system and reaped the rewards from being part of it.

This gave the Romans a huge pool of manpower to play with compared to other states. Especially when Rome started to be willing to hand out citizenship.

Carthage on the other hand was a city state, it relied on a couple of field armies led by a small core if its citizens and never made any particular attempt to expand its citizenship or rights to its subjects. Allies served as just allies for the campaign or war they were involved in. Foreign elites were bribed and given gifts but never really integrated. Soldiers were hired as soldiers rather than serving as part and parcel of an integrated army.

Its also worth noting that territory is not equal to resources.

Lets take the Second Punic War as an example:

While on paper Carthage was larger in the Second Punic War you need to examine which bits were under actual control and how long that was the case.

Carthage controlled much of North Africa and Spain, however only a chunk of North Africa was actually Carthaginian territory by itself, the rest of it was held by subject Numidians who had a frequently antagonistic relationship with Carthage. Meanwhile in Spain it was Hannibals father who had done much of the legwork in turning it into "Carthaginian territory" if we look at Spain at the time though it was made of a plethora of tribes and villages who were locked into a raiding and prestige lifestyle. Again this ensured the territory was in no way actually Carthaginian. These people were fighters, they fought for honour and for money with each other and against the Carthaginians. As long as the Carthaginians could give them money and show they were strong they would fight for them, the minute weakness was shown then there would be no incentive to fight, which is just what happened when the Romans started to make inroads to the area.

Compare this to Italy where Rome controlled a much more dense web of allies in the Latin states immediately around it, these areas where very much part of the system and willingly sent men to fight for Rome and kept on doing so throughout the dark days of Hannibal right until there were literally no more men to send. Its in the South where Hannibal made some gains amongst the former Greek city-states but even then surprisingly few of them turned and none of them were especially useful at reinforcing Hannibal when they did turn. In a way they crippled him because the more defected the more Hannibal had to protect and he had only a single army to do that with. Rome could very much grind him down and take city after city and leave him with no good choices to make.

Couple that with the crippling logistics issues with trying to get Carthage to actually reinforce him and you see why he couldn't win.

On that note we'll move onto logistics and politics.

Now logistically sailing in the ancient world relied on access to food and water for the crews, any attempt to reinforce Hannibal in Italy would rely on sailing for several days via hostile territory and in the face of enemy resistance and landed a few thousand more troops. Not exactly the easiest thing to do.

Politically there was also the clear difference between the Roman and Carthaginian senate. Each year the Romans could and did give clear priorities to one theatre or another and allocate resources for the entire state, this was light years ahead of the Carthaginian effort which only seemingly knew what Hannibal was about to do when the Romans arrived and asked to them to ensure he didn't cross the Ebro and attack Roman allies. There was a distinct level of infighting and not knowing what the left hand was doing compared to the Roman method of clear allocation and command responsibilities in the war effort.

Main source: The Punic Wars - Adrian Goldsworthy

Regarding Carthage's control of Africa: The defection of Masinissa was a significant boon to Scipio's African campaign - Numidian cavalry was storied at the time for its mobility and skirmishing skill, as mentioned by Polybius and practiced to devastating effect at Trebbia and Cannae, for example - tipping, as it did, the cavalry balance that had often previously been in Carthage's favour.

Sorry if the sole reference to The Histories breaks forum rules, I intended this as an addendum as opposed to a full answer.

I think this comment broadly hits the spot, and that Rome for demographic and structural reasons, some of which are outlined above, had greater reserves of manpower than did Carthage. However, the Roman manpower advantage was not as crushing as you might think: Carthage fielded hundreds of thousands of men and could raise enormous armies repeatedly on very short notice, as they did several times over in Scipio's African campaign. Carthage's ability to raise good quality troops in large numbers from Spain was actually exceptional. Carthaginian effort between Ilipa and Zama (206-202) compares well with Roman efforts between Ticinius and Trebia and Cannae (218-216), especially considering the loss of Spain's enormous manpower and material resources in 206. Carthage may have even been able to field another army after Zama, but Hannibal understood that having lost his best troops, it wouldn't have helped.

Hannibal brings me to another important point, that the political fragmentation of the Carthaginian government is a bit exaggerated in the sources. Let's note that Goldsworthy is not a Punic expert (not that there is anything wrong with his book). Dexter Hoyos, however, is such an expert, and he argues that Carthage was not a Roman style oligarchy but almost a military dictatorship controlled by the Barcid family. The other major faction was that of the Hannonids, and it is these two factions that put forward the major generals of the war. The Carthaginian government was extremely supportive of Hannibal as the Senate was filled with his clients and supporters and the other various organs of state were also stacked with Barcids. Practical strategic difficulties prevented them from reinforcing Hannibal in Italy, but he was left to his own devices for over a decade while Carthage poured resources into tying up the Romans in Spain. Barcid political domination had been developing ever since Hamilcar went to Spain and was very secure by the crossing of the Ebro, so I don't think the fragmentation of Carthaginian government is a major factor. Note that even after Zama, Hannibal had to convince the Carthaginians to give up and not the other way around. There was no real lack of will or resources on the part of Carthage, just the practical realities of a long series of crushing defeats.

Regarding sources, I cannot recommend Hannibal's Dynasty by Dexter Hoyos highly enough, particularly in addition to Goldsworthy's general treatment mentioned in the above post.

Great answer. This guy knows his Punic Wars. It's a similar story with Pyrrhus and Rome. Pyrrhus was successful against the Romans initially, but he could not keep up with the Republic's ability to repopulate it's legions. There's obviously a lot more to the Pyrrhus /Rome story, but that's the salient aspect. If OP is interested in further reading, any of Dexter Hoyos' work on the Punic Wars is well worth looking into.

To my mind, the decisive difference lies in morale. While it is difficult to know with certainty the exact percentage of the Carthaginian army that was made up of mercenaries, as the extant histories of the Punic War (particularly Polybius in this case) are all from Roman or pro-Roman authors, a telling difference can be seen in the conflicts that arose among the respective soldiers of both armies around the time in question. In Carthage's case, the Mercenary War erupted in the aftermath of the first Punic war over a payment dispute. By contrast, after the Second Punic war, Rome became a major world power, and in the campaigns that followed, the soldiers were in many ways pressed on both sides, with the land of the still largely unsalaried citizen militia being forced to go further and further afield in campaigns of conquest that they themselves reaped little from as their fields back home went fallow. Yet when open revolt did break out among the Roman forces a little over a century after the Second Punic war, it was over the citizenship status of the allied cities on the Italian mainland.

This points to a major disparity between the two groups of soldiers. One was motivated to fight largely by promises of material gain, while the other was a part of a culture that placed great emphasis on patriotism, honor, and sacrifice pro patria.

In terms of how this difference effected the actual recruitment ability of the Roman army as compared to Carthage, it can be helpful to look at the big picture. Mercenary armies, with the occasional exception (like the Swiss Guard), tend to be much less inclined to fight against heavy odds when compared to people defending their homeland or otherwise motivated by the above mentioned factors. The wars and strategic changes of the twentieth century have underscored the importance of these distinctions in the mindsets of soldiers, and it would be inconceivable for a modern nation to begin a conflict without serious consideration of how to best destroy the psychological drive to continue fighting in the adversary. For the Romans and their allies the fact that they stood underneath something bigger than themselves allowed them to hoist themselves upright after losses that would have devastated nearly any other army from the period.

Sources: Polybius - The Histories Stephen Dando-Collins - Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of Every Imperial Roman Legion Garrett G. Fagam - History of Ancient Rome (TTC Course)

This points to a major disparity between the two groups of soldiers. One was motivated to fight largely by promises of material gain, while the other was a part of a culture that placed great emphasis on patriotism, honor, and sacrifice pro patria.

This sounds good, but I’m a bit uncomfortable with it. Your point about Rome’s armies makes sense for Roman citizens, but it seems to neglect the Italian allies. What motivated them? Why did so many switch sides after Cannae?

It seems rather simplistic to apply such motivations to extremely diverse coalitions of allies who underwent constantly shifting fortunes over such a long war.

citizen militia being forced to go further and further afield in campaigns of conquest that they themselves reaped little from as their fields back home went fallow.

There's not really very much evidence to support this view anymore, although a few people like Keaveney still cling to it. We hear about a few very unpopular wars in the wake of the Hannibalic war. The Spanish Wars weren't very popular, for example, and famously the assembly voted "no" when asked to go to war with Macedon again in 200 and had to be asked to change their mind. But these actions were taken in the decades immediately after the war with Hannibal, when Italy was exhausted and generally unwilling to commit to further wars. The idea as forwarded by Brunt that the Roman soldier went off for years at a time for campaign and coming back to find his farm deserted and his wife and infant children (now grown up) homeless and in poverty doesn't really seem to fit social or economic models as we understand them. Rosenstein points out that the evidence seems to suggest strongly that Roman peasants married later than we might expect, in their late 20s or early 30s (which apparently is paralleled in other pre-industrial societies), well after their major campaigning years were over. Moreover, the idea of the individual and his nuclear family owning a farm seems to be anachronistic. More likely Roman peasants lived and worked on the same land as extended families, with several generations occupying the same or adjacent plots, and Rosenstein (or is it De Ligt? I always forget which says what) actually argues that military campaigning would have been an economic advantage to those families that had the opportunity to yield a son up for military service. The agricultural season is uneven in its workload, and Cato famously says that he prefers to hire free workers during busy times like the harvest than to buy more slaves, since the slaves will have nothing to do in the off season and he'll be feeding idle workers. For much of the year these extended families likely put pressure on their means, since while they had plenty of workers for busy periods they likely strained the capacity of the land in the slower seasons. Military service, in this view, would be a way to offload some of the surplus local population and, importantly, provide the family with much-desired plunder--contrary to the belief that they "reaped little," the Roman soldier and his family benefited rather greatly from plunder, a major motivator in enlistment and campaigning as far back as the existence of the Republican state.

Those like Keaveney that still cling to the view that soldiers were being impoverished by long campaigning mostly do so because what the texts actually describe is not a demographic crisis in which people are not enlisting or not turning up for the census (the natural conclusion if we combine the findings above with the odd census figures of the second half of the second century) but rural Italians straight up not having homes. Keaveney points out that Plutarch's Ti. Gracchus laments that while the wild animals of Italy have shelters the Italians themselves have no homes, and Plutarch says that Ti. (or rather he says that C. Gracchus says that he Ti. Gracchus did) observed while traveling through Etruria a shortage of free workers. Which is a little weird, since Etruria is not usually identified with the large estates that Ti. is usually associated with. There was no ager publicus in Etruria, and archaeological surveys have turned up no reason to suppose there was a sharp decline in small-time farming plots in the region. The texts don't actually say, though, that small farmers were heading off to war and coming back to ruin, as Brunt described. Appian says that estate-holders preferred to hire slaves rather than pay for free workers who might get called off to war (which runs contradictory to the preferences Cato expresses) and that the Italians were pushed off their land and melted away under the pressure of tribute and military service. There's a great controversy right now over whether Appian and Plutarch are reporting a state of events that was actually real, or whether they were just reporting what Ti. Gracchus and others thought was the problem. I'm not so sure the two views are incompatible. After all, what Keaveney and Brunt describe is not strictly what the texts say happened. Our major traditions are in agreement that the issue was Italians and free Roman farmers being pushed off their land by large estate-holders, not that military service was causing them to go bankrupt, which seems contradictory to what we know about peasant society and the agricultural economy.

The Takeaway From All This

Carthage was pretty much the last Mediterranean superpower that could stand up to Rome. After their defeat the known world would change completely as Rome became the dominant force. There wouldn’t be an external threat like Hannibal for another 700 years when Rome fell to the barbarians. Rome would now enter a phase where it’s existence wasn’t threatened by far-off wars with evil civilizations, but civil wars between ambitious men and internal chaos.


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