In a nutshell: the Punic Wars

For nearly 80 years, Rome and Carthage fought for supremacy at sea, on land and from the backs of elephants.

In a nutshell: the Punic Wars © Getty Images

What were they and who fought them?


The Punic Wars were a series of conflicts fought by the powerful cities of Carthage and Rome between 264 BC and 146 BC. The period is usually split into three distinct wars – the First was from 264-241 BC, the Second between 218-201 BC and the Third started in 149 BC and ended, bringing the Punic Wars to a conclusion, in 146 BC.

Why ‘Punic’?

The word ‘Punic’ actually comes from the word ‘Phoenician’ (phoinix in Greek or punicus in Latin), and refers to the citizens of Carthage, who were descended from the Phoenicians.

How and why did they begin?

Rome in 264 BC was a relatively small city – a far cry from its later superiority – and it was the city of Carthage (located in what we now know as Tunisia) that reigned supreme in the ancient world.

Tensions arose between the cities over who should have control of the strategic island of Sicily. Although relations were generally friendly, Rome’s intervention in a dispute on the island saw the cities explode into conflict. In 264 BC, war was officially declared for control of Sicily. Rome built and equipped over 100 ships to take on the Carthaginian navy and finally, in 241 BC, was able to win a decisive victory against the Carthaginians at sea. In the peace treaty, Rome gained Sicily, its first overseas province.

Hannibal leads his Cathaginian army during the Second Punic War © Getty Images
Hannibal leads his Cathaginian army during the Second Punic War © Getty Images

Who were Hannibal and Scipio and what were their contributions to the conflict?

In 219 BC, Hannibal (son of Hamilcar Barca, a Carthaginian general during the First Punic War) broke the tentative peace between the two cities and laid siege to Saguntum (in eastern Spain), then an ally of Rome. Furious at Hannibal’s audacity, the Romans demanded that he be handed over for punishment. This order was ignored by the Carthaginian senate, and so the Second Punic War began.

Roman General Publius Cornelius Scipio, later known as Scipio Africanus, emerged in opposition to Hannibal during this conflict. Famously, the Carthaginian proceeded to march his forces over the Alps, along with his elephants, and conquered much of northern Italy.

Hannibal faced the Romans, including Scipio, at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC – he won a great victory that saw some 70,000 Romans killed compared to just 6,000 Carthaginians.

Not a man to be beaten, Scipio – a admirer of Hannibal – turned the situation around at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC. Hannibal’s elephant charge was deflected back into the Carthaginian ranks, followed by a combined cavalry and infantry advance, which crushed Hannibal’s forces.

Carthage was ordered to surrender its navy, pay Rome a war debt of 200 talents of gold every year for 50 years, and was prevented from waging war with anyone without Roman approval.

The army, and war elephants, of Hannibal cross the Rhone River. © Getty Images
The army, and war elephants, of Hannibal cross the Rhone River. © Getty Images

If Carthage had been crushed, why did war break out for a third time in 149 BC?

Carthage paid its war debt to Rome over 50 years, until 149 BC. Then, deeming the treaty to be complete, the city went to war against Numidia, in what is now Algeria.

Not only did they lose the war, but Carthage incurred the wrath of Rome, who again deemed its old foe a threat. This time, Carthage was to be put down permanently.

That same year, a Roman embassy was sent to Carthage to demand that the city be dismantled and moved inland away from the coast. When the  Carthaginians refused, the Third War broke out. Roman forces besieged Carthage for three years, until it finally fell in 146 BC. The city was sacked and burned to the ground where it lay in ruin for more than a century, with its inhabitants sold into slavery.

What were the long-term implications of the wars?

By the time the Punic Wars ended, Rome had blossomed from a small trading city into a formidable naval force. With no serious threat coming from Carthage, the Romans had the power to expand into an empire that would rule the known world.


This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of History Revealed