Ancient History & Civilisation

5. THE PUNIC EMPIRE IN SPAIN

While Rome was engaged in Cisalpine Gaul and across the Adriatic, Carthage was fully occupied in the western Mediterranean. The friendly relations of Rome and Carthage during the war with the mercenaries were rudely shattered by Rome’s seizure of Sardinia, and at Carthage the party which stood for hostility towards Rome again climbed into the saddle. If Carthage ever again intended to cross swords with Rome, clearly she must train and keep a standing army like other nations. Hanno’s policy was to encourage expansion in Africa; and Numidia and Mauretania would have afforded good material. But there was better elsewhere. By reconquest and extended conquest Hamilcar proposed to make good the decline of Carthaginian influence in Spain, and thus to offset the loss of Sicily and Sardinia. In Spain Carthage could train and support an army with less fear of Roman intervention. It is unlikely that Hamilcar and the advocates of this policy of re-establishing Punic domination in the western Mediterranean aimed directly and deliberately at revenge. But certainly after Rome’s handling of the Sardinian question those who saw the future of Carthage in Africa had to give place to an expansionist group. The tradition that Hamilcar conquered Spain against the wishes of his government is absurd. He was in alliance with Hasdrubal, the leader of the democratic party, and when money and booty began to pour in from the Peninsula Hanno’s faction would become less vocal. The main part of the Punic government was behind the Barcids.

The cause, date and degree of the diminution of Punic influence in Spain is uncertain; but the application of the question cui bono would point to the implication of the Greek cities – especially Massilia. But Gades, at any rate, remained in Punic hands and thither Hamilcar Barca sailed in 237 with his nine-year-old son Hannibal whom he had just forced to swear that he would never be Rome’s friend; this anecdote, which seems authentic, shows something of the mind of the father. Based at Gades, he proceeded to reconquer southern and eastern Spain. Andalusia soon fell to his sword and he advanced the Punic frontier to Cape Nao, building a dominating fortress at Akra Leuke (White Rock; probably modern Alicante). In 231 an embassy came to him from Rome, whose ally, Massilia, could ill afford to see the Punic frontier creeping so far north. The Romans themselves probably cared little what happened in southern Spain and were contented with Hamilcar’s neat reply: that he was fighting the Iberians to get money with which to pay off the Roman war indemnity. But they had shown that they were keeping an eye on Carthaginian expansion and at some point they entered into friendly relations with the native city of Saguntum. Shortly afterwards Hamilcar, who was withdrawing from the siege of Helice (modern Elche) at the approach of the Orissi, met his death by drowning, but only after he had secured the safety of his son Hannibal and the officers with him (229–228). So fell a gallant soldier, of whom his country might justly be proud.

Hamilcar was succeeded by the leader of the popular party, his son-in-law Hasdrubal, who was chosen by the troops and afterwards received confirmation of his appointment from the people of Carthage. He avenged his predecessor’s death by an expedition against the Orissi, and thus reached the Upper Guadiana. Though his army was reckoned at 50,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry and 200 elephants, he achieved more by diplomacy than force. He married an Iberian princess and changed the Punic headquarters from Alicante to the site of Mastia, where he founded the city of New Carthage (Cartagena) on a peninsula which commanded one of the best harbours in the world; there were rich silver mines in the vicinity and the passage to Africa was easy. From this base he advanced up the east coast in the direction of the Ebro. In 226 he was met by ambassadors from the Romans, who feared that he might join hands with the rebellious Ligurians and Gallic tribes. A treaty was arranged by which Hasdrubal agreed not to cross the Ebro with an armed force and perhaps undertook not to help the Gauls; as a quid pro quo he possibly received the assurance that Rome would not interfere with his conquests south of the river. The attitude of Rome’s ally Massilia to this arrangement is uncertain; though doubtless it was she who had warned Rome of Hasdrubal’s encroachments. By the Ebro treaty she definitely lost her three colonies which the Carthaginians had taken: Hemeroscopium, Alonis and Alicante. But her two colonies north of the Ebro, Emporiae and Rhode, were saved from Hasdrubal’s grasp.13

In 221 Hasdrubal was assassinated by a Celt and his place was filled by Hamilcar’s twenty-five-year-old son, Hannibal, who was soon to enter the lists against Rome in one of the most epic struggles known to history. The new general reverted to his father’s warlike policy, though, like Hasdrubal, he married a Spanish princess from Castulo. He at once attacked the Olcades who dwelt near the Upper Guadiana, and after wintering at New Carthage he stormed the highland tribes of the central plateau. Advancing along the westerly route to Salmantica (Salamanca) he defeated the Vaccaei and on his return the Carpetani, thus advancing the standards of Carthage beyond the Tagus (220). Though many of the more distant tribes south of the Ebro (e.g. the Celtiberians of the Upper Tagus and Douro, and the Lusitanians) were still unconquered, and though some of the nearer tribes (e.g. the Vaccaei and Carpetani) were only prevented from revolting through the hostages they had surrendered, nevertheless the Barcid generals had won a great empire from which Carthage could draw immense supplies of manpower and mineral wealth: ‘an inexhaustible treasure-store for empire.’

But one city south of the Ebro still withstood Hannibal: the friend of Rome, Iberian Saguntum perched on its rocky plateau. When it became known that Hannibal intended to demand its surrender in the spring, Roman ambassadors ordered him to respect their ally. Receiving no satisfaction from the general, they proceeded to Carthage where they fared no better. The juridical aspect of their demand will be discussed later, when it will be seen that technically Rome was at fault and that Hannibal was under no obligation torespect their request. Further, he had been provoked by Rome. A quarrel of the Saguntines with the Torboletae, a neighbouring tribe, subject to Carthage, had led to political disturbances in Saguntum, and one party appealed to Rome to arbitrate (c. 221). The Romans, not unnaturally, decided in favour of the appellant party, which was put into power with some loss of life among the Punic faction. Disregarding Rome’s representations, Hannibal advanced against Saguntum and championed the cause of his subjects, the Torboletae (spring 219). Relying on help from Rome the Saguntines refused to surrender; but Rome was busy in Illyria, and Saguntum was left to face Hannibal’s assault unaided. For eight months the blockade continued without thought of surrender, though Hannibal was ready to offer comparatively lenient terms. Finally, after a desperate and heroic resistance, the town fell by assault from the least inaccessible side, the west.14

Hannibal had thrown down the gauntlet. The fall of Saguntum fanned the sparks of rivalry into a blaze and made war inevitable. During the siege the Senate was probably unable to decide what ought to be done, especially as both consuls were absent on the Illyrian campaign – a preoccupation which the wily Hannibal did not overlook. It was only the fall of Saguntum that made action imperative. Had it held out through the winter, as the Romans hoped, the Hannibalic War might have been fought out in Spain (Pol., iii, 15). As it was, they temporized till late in March 218 or even longer, when an ultimatum was sent to Carthage demanding the surrender of Hannibal and his staff; this was virtually a declaration of war.15 After some discussion the leading Roman envoy, the oldprinceps senatus, M. Fabius Buteo, held up two folds of his toga and cried: ‘Here I bring peace and war; choose you which you will.’ The Carthaginians bade him give them which he pleased; and Fabius dropping the fold of his toga replied: ‘Then I give you war.’ And the deadly gift was accepted.

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