Ancient History & Civilisation


THE STRUGGLE BETWEEN Rome and Carthage spanned over a century from the first clash in 265 down to the final destruction of Carthage in 146. The First and Second Wars were fought on a scale seldom rivalled until the modern era. Fleets of more than 300 oared warships, crewed by over 100,000 sailors, were employed by both sides in the First War, and in the Second War hundreds of thousands of men were recruited to fight in the rival armies. The cost of constructing so many galleys, and paying, equipping and feeding so many men consumed a great part of the resources of the two most powerful states in the western Mediterranean. The human cost was even higher. In one battle alone in 216 the Romans and their allies lost around 50,000 dead. During the Second Punic War a sizeable part of Rome's adult male population perished, mostly in the first few years of the conflict. Casualties were not restricted to soldiers. Many civilians were massacred when one of the armies stormed a town or city, others were killed by the raiding bands which ravaged the fields and villages controlled by the other side, and, although the evidence for this is poor, we must assume that many, many more died from disease or starvation. Others were captured and enslaved, living out the remainder of their lives in squalid drudgery.

By the end of the conflict Carthage was in ruins, its life as a state ended and its culture almost totally extinguished. Between 265 and 146 Rome rose from being a purely Italian power into a position of unrivalled dominance throughout the Mediterranean basin, and was well on her way to creating the Empire which would control Western Europe, North Africa and the Near East for more than five centuries. The intervention in Sicily which led to the confrontation with Carthage was the first occasion that a Roman army was sent outside Italy. Roman imperialism did not begin with the Punic Wars, since by 265 Rome had already absorbed all of the Italian

Peninsula south of the River Po, but it was greatly accelerated by the struggle with Carthage. The Punic Wars accustomed the Romans to waging war on an enormous scale, sending armies further and further afield to fight in several widely separated theatres simultaneously. The eventual victory over Carthage confirmed the deep-seated determination with which the Romans waged war and which was to make them so difficult to defeat. Had the Romans lost the Punic Wars then the history of the world would have been very different. At the very least such a defeat would have seriously retarded Roman expansion, and it might well have ended it for ever. The centuries of Roman rule had a profound effect on their Empire, especially in Western Europe, both directly and through the revival of the Renaissance. As Europeans colonized America and established great overseas empires, they spread their Latin-based languages, legal systems and culture throughout the rest of the globe. None of this need have happened if the Romans had lost in 241 or succumbed to Hannibal's onslaught.

The Punic Wars marked an important phase in the history of Rome and the rise of the Roman Empire. Probably the largest conflict of the ancient world, the century-long struggle is also one of the best documented, although even so there remain some significant gaps in our knowledge. The three wars fought between these two great cities were epic in their scale, intensity and drama, and were filled with remarkable characters. On the Roman side were such men as Fabius Maximus, the man who saved the Republic by avoiding battle, and Marcellus, his far more aggressive contemporary who had killed a Gallic king in single combat. Then there are the many members of the Scipio family, most notably Publius Scipio Africanus who won Spain and invaded Africa, and his grandson by adoption and namesake, Scipio Aemilianus, who presided over Carthage's destruction in 146, weeping as he wondered whether the same fate would one day overtake his own homeland. Set against these heroic figures are the buffoons and incompetents, men like Appius Claudius Pulcher and Caius Flaminius who ignored both auspices and common sense to lead their men on to disaster. Some figures so rapidly became surrounded by myth that it is difficult now to know the full truth of their actions. Marcus Regulus was captured by the enemy and tales told of how they sent him to urge the Roman Senate to make peace, first binding him with savage oaths to return to Carthage. Regulus advised the Senate to continue the fight until victory and then returned to Africa, where he suffered death by torture. On the Carthaginian side the most charismatic figures were all members of the Barcid family, notably the father, Hamilcar, who kept the First Punic War going in Sicily and avoided battlefield defeat, and most of all Hannibal.

Hannibal has the sort of glamour which only surrounds those military geniuses who won stunning victories but ultimately lost the war, men such as Napoleon and Robert E. Lee. The march of his army from Spain via the Alps into Italy and the battles he won there were all epics in themselves. Not all the main figures of the conflict were either Carthaginian or Roman. There were Greeks too, like Hiero the wily ruler of the great Sicilian city of Syracuse, and his relative Archimedes, the geometrician who designed fabulous war engines and is said to have been killed when he refused to be interrupted in the middle of a mathematical problem. Then there was Masinissa, the Numidian king who was still fathering children and riding into battle at the head of his men as he approached his ninetieth year.

It was the Punic Wars which first led the Romans to begin writing the history of their people, first in Greek and then in Latin. Others too realized the importance of this conflict and many Greek writers produced narratives of the struggle, trying to explain the Romans' rapid rise to power. These wars which began twenty-two centuries ago have continued to receive considerable attention to this day, and Cannae is one of the few battles before the eighteenth century AD to merit attention in modern military academies. Napoleon numbered Hannibal amongst the 'Great Captains' of the past whose campaigns could teach much to modern commanders. In the nineteenth century AD German academics and soldiers studied the Second Punic War in great, sometimes obsessive detail, and Von Schlieffen, the architect of the offensive which was launched into France in 1914, consciously attempted to reproduce the genius of Hannibal's battle tactics on a vast scale. Liddell Hart and Fuller, two of the leading British military theorists of the first half of the twentieth century AD, likewise commented upon and drew inspiration from the third century BC conflict. The First and Second Punic Wars seemed especially relevant in the twentieth century, with its World Wars fought on an unprecedented scale, the outbreak in 1939 growing directly from one side's dissatisfaction with the treaty ending the 1914-18 conflict, in the same way that Carthage had renewed the war with Rome in 218 apparently because of its resentment of the harsh Treaty of 241. As recently as the Gulf War in AD1991, the UN commander claimed to have drawn inspiration for his swift and highly successful operation from Hannibal's campaigns. Experienced soldiers are still drawn to write about the Punic Wars, using their own practical knowledge to gain new insights and often seeking lessons for modern strategy and tactics. Others, both soldiers and civilians, remain fascinated by the route followed by Hannibal's army and elephants across the Alps and the debate on this subject still rages fiercely. New books appear and many of the older works are reprinted.1

Military history is no longer fashionable in the universities of the West, and relatively few studies of Roman warfare are produced by academics. The majority of the most influential works dealing with strategy, tactics or the locations of ancient battlefields were written in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries AD. In political, social and economic history the studies produced in that era have long since been supplemented or supplanted, sometimes several times, by more recent works. Yet even though little military history is now produced by ancient historians, it is rare when a year passes without the publication of a book or article dealing in some way or other with the Punic Wars. Some of this work is prompted by new archaeological evidence, but the vast majority consists of fresh interpretations of the existing evidence. There still seems to be a particular interest in Punic culture in France, a result in part of the exciting archaeological discoveries made on the site of Carthage itself which began when the area was under French rule and have continued to this day. For a while, the inhabitants of nineteenth-century France had the same sort of appetite for anything Carthaginian that they and many other countries developed for Ancient Egyptian culture. Gustave Flaubert's savage novel Salammbo was one product of this interest.

Much has been written about the Punic Wars, and it might well be asked what more can be added. Certainly some areas have been debated so thoroughly that it is very difficult to say anything new Yet in some respects the wars have not been properly treated. Few studies have attempted to cover all three conflicts; most concentrate on just one of the wars, usually the Second Punic War. The First Punic War can perhaps with some justice be treated in isolation, although in fact it has received little attention and only recently has an up to date account in English appeared, but the Second and Third Wars arose directly from the earlier conflict. The three wars were episodes in the longer, ongoing struggle between Rome and Carthage and need to be understood in this context. The causes, each side's war aims and the course of both of the later wars were directly determined by the outcome of the previous encounters. A few accounts have dealt with all three wars, but none are entirely satisfactory. Many of their faults are shared with much of the literature dealing with aspects of the conflict, for instance viewing Roman politics as dominated by clearly defined factions, an interpretation no longer accepted by mainstream studies of the politics of this period. Even more importantly, they have tended to analyse the campaigns on the assumption that they were fought in obedience to essentially the same rules of strategy and tactics as more recent wars. This view has always been especially favoured by the experienced soldiers who have studied the wars of the past in order to understand how better to fight the wars of the present day. Such studies inevitably focus their attention on the aspects which the warfare of all periods has, or appears to have had, in common. Therefore it is assumed that army commanders in all periods of history do essentially the same job in much the same way, making it entirely valid to judge Roman or Punic generals by the standards of Frederick the Great, Napoleon or Rommel. The very title of Liddell Hart's book, A Greater than Napoleon - Scipio Africanus(1930), assumed the validity of such a comparison.2

There is no question that some aspects of warfare have changed little over the centuries. The practical problems of moving large numbers of troops, feeding and supplying them, conveying orders, and the restrictions imposed by natural obstacles and terrain remain the same as they did in the

Stone Age, and a soldier will often comment more practically on such issues than an academic whose life has been spent in universities. However, whilst the problems do not change, the solutions proposed for them vary enormously from one society to another and are not simply dictated by the restrictions of available technology. Peoples at the same technological level and with similar resources at their disposal do not necessarily wage war in the same way. Warfare is affected as much by culture as any other human pursuit. The Roman system of drawing commanders from men following a political career would make little sense in modern western democracies, who emphasize the professional training of their military leaders. The Romans would have not understood the clear distinction between military and political leadership maintained in these countries. A Roman senator was not either a politician or a soldier, but automatically both. Despite much modern criticism of this aspect of the Roman military system, it does seem to have worked very well for them. Not every society organizes its armed forces or fights in the precisely the same way. Even more importantly each culture tends to have its own concept of what war is, why and how wars are fought, how they are decided and what are the consequences of victory and defeat.3

This study will try to place the Punic Wars firmly within the context of the military theory and practice of the third to second centuries BC. It will examine the Roman and Carthaginian attitude to warfare, their military institutions and the political and social organizations which produced them, arguing that these shaped the conflict and that the differences between them ultimately decided its outcome. This is primarily a military history and will only touch briefly on the social and economic impact of the wars. It is not intended to provide a full year by year narrative of each campaign. In many cases the evidence is too poor to attempt this with any confidence, but even where it is, the account tends to become simply a catalogue of unfamiliar place names. Where campaigns occurred simultaneously in several different theatres, each will be dealt with in turn. Different types of fighting are examined separately, so that for instance the naval and land operations of the First Punic War each receive their own chapter. Certain episodes are examined in great detail, for instance Hannibal's campaigns from 218 to 216. These were important in their own right, but are also very well recorded and provide many insights into the formal battles of the period. The aim throughout is to examine how the armies and navies of the period operated, and how the different types of fighting had an impact on the wider war. The analysis is concerned with why a general made a decision and what consequences it had, and not with suggesting alternative and perhaps better courses of action. The armchair strategist who seeks to prove how Hannibal could easily have triumphed if only he had done things differently convinces only himself.

The Evidence

The study of any aspect of ancient history differs from that of more recent periods for the simple reason that the sources of information are far less plentiful and their interpretation uncertain. There is doubt as to whether some major events happened in one year or the next, whilst it is now difficult to say whether some incidents, including certain battles, occurred at all. We cannot say with any certainty how the quinquereme, the main warship of the Punic Wars, was designed and constructed, and there are numerous gaps in our knowledge of the equipment, organization, command structure and tactics of the opposing armies, most especially the Carthaginians. Sometimes it is a question of trying to work out a basic sequence of events before any attempt can be made at understanding it, a situation largely unparalleled by military history from the eighteenth century onwards. Nor is the evidence evenly distributed over the period. The Second Punic War is fairly well recorded by our surviving sources, but the Third and most of all the First War are more poorly covered. Overwhelmingly the evidence is drawn from the literary accounts of Greek and Roman authors. Archaeological excavation has told us much about the layout and defences of some cities, most notably Carthage and Syracuse, and provides information about Punic culture and settlement in Sicily and Spain. Yet archaeology is best at revealing long-term trends, and is too clumsy to tell us much about military operations. Direct archaeological evidence for warfare is very rare from the entire classical period.

History tends to be written by the winning side, but the situation is more extreme when the losers were utterly destroyed. No account exists describing any part of the conflict from the Punic perspective. Some Greek authors produced narratives favouring the Carthaginians, most notably those by the two historians who accompanied Hannibal on his Italian expedition, one of whom was his former tutor Sosylus.4 None of these accounts have survived although it is clear that they were known to and used by some of the surviving sources. Even these lost accounts were written by Greeks in the Greek language and thus by outsiders, who may not fully have understood Punic institutions and culture. It is therefore inevitable that we see the Punic Wars from either a Greek or Roman perspective and in the accounts of authors who knew that Rome would eventually prevail. It is impossible to write a Punic version of the conflict, since it would be as unwise automatically to discount every story favourable to the Romans and credit every incident favourable to the Carthaginians as to accept all of the Roman propaganda about Punic treachery. Ultimately, this must remain the story of Rome's wars against a Punic enemy, as the name Punic Wars implies, since the Carthaginians would hardly have thought of the conflict as wars against themselves.

Greek and Roman historians did not aspire to the same ideals as their modern counterparts. History was a branch of literature intended to entertain - an idea which would be anathema to many academics today - as well as to inform and inspire. Convention permitted appropriate speeches to be invented and assigned to leading participants at major events, and encouraged the inclusion of familiar generic set-pieces, or topoi, in descriptions of such events as the sack of cities or the aftermath of a battle. Whether this meant that such incidents were invented or simply that these were the type of events which were automatically chosen by authors for inclusion is impossible to say. The ideal of ancient historiography was that it should be truthful as well as skilfully crafted, and it is probable that at the very least the bare narrative of their accounts conform closely to the actual events. There is anyway no real alternative to this view. If we reject the accounts of ancient authors altogether - an extreme view, but one which some scholars come close to - then there is nothing with which to replace them. Some authors are clearly more reliable than others and it is worth looking individually at the main sources for this period.

By far the most important was the Greek historian Polybius. An Achaean nobleman who fought against the Romans in the Third Macedonian War, he was one of a thousand hostages from the Achaean League taken to Rome at the formal end of the war in 167. There he became an intimate of a young Roman nobleman, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus who was later to destroy Carthage, and received preferential treatment. Polybius accompanied Scipio Aemilianus on campaign in Africa and Spain, as well as travelling widely in the western Mediterranean. It is uncertain precisely when he began to write his History, and what was its original scope, but it certainly came to include the Third Punic and Fourth Macedonian Wars which ended in 146. Its detailed narrative began with the Second Punic War and contemporary events in the Greek East, for Polybius aimed to write 'universal history' describing the events during the same period throughout the civilized world. The main theme was to explain to a Greek audience how the Romans had come to dominate the Mediterranean world in such a short time. The finished work consisted of forty Books, the first two covering the period before the Hannibalic war.

Book 1 as a result provides our most complete and reliable account of the First Punic War, despite the fact that Polybius covered this in far less detail than the Second and Third Wars. Sadly only a small part of the total work has survived. The narrative is complete down to 216, but exists only in fragments thereafter.

Polybius attempted to establish the truth of events and is scathing in his criticism of other authors who did not. He was able to speak to some surviving participants of the war against Hannibal, and was an eyewitness to the Fall of Carthage in 146. His association with one of Rome's great noble families placed him in a unique position to understand how the Roman political and military systems worked. Occasionally his theories of universal history may have led him to be over schematic in his interpretation of events, but on the whole he is sober and carefully analytical. Although a great admirer of the Romans, this does not prevent him from criticizing their behaviour on some occasions, or revealing them to have been sometimes duplicitous and incompetent. His association with Scipio Aemilianus did result in a very favourable depiction of the role played by his relatives in the conflict. Scipio Aemilianus had been adopted by the son of Scipio Africanus, the man who finally defeated Hannibal at Zama. He was the best Roman commander of the Second War and deserves at least the greater part of the praise which Polybius lavishes on him. Africanus' father played a far less distinguished role, but receives very favourable mention. Aemilius' actual father was Aemilius Paullus, son of the consul killed at Cannae. Polybius does much to exonerate the elder Paullus for responsibility for this disaster although, it should be noted, he does not go as far as other sources in this respect. Finally, Aemilianus' older brother was adopted by one of the descendants of Fabius Maximus, whose dictatorship in 217 and subsequent commands all seem to have received favourable treatment. Sadly we do not have Polybius' account of 205 when Fabius Maximus is supposed to have opposed Scipio's appointment to the African command.5

Polybius' account is usually to be preferred when it differs with any of our other accounts, but its fragmentary nature means that we are frequently reliant on other authors. The most important of these is Livy, who wrote in Rome during the reign of the first Emperor, Augustus, in the late first century BC and early first century AD. His History of Rome began with the mythical origins of that city and ended with Augustus. It was a fiercely patriotic account, intended to celebrate the virtues of former generations, explaining how all of Rome's problems were caused by declining morals and the actions of a few misguided, popularizing politicians. The mood was in keeping with the ethos of the Augustan regime which, despite its radical nature, claimed to have revived traditional piety and morality, and to be a proper successor to the strong Republic of the third century BC and before. Unlike Polybius, Livy had no direct experience of military or political life, and was far less discerning in his use of sources. His work originally consisted of 142 Books, but only Books 1-10, covering the period down to 293 BC, 20-30, dealing with the Second Punic War of 218-201, and 31-45, which continue the narrative down to 167, have survived. The other books, including those dealing with the First and Third Punic Wars, exist only in brief summaries of their contents.

Livy provides the longest and most complete account of the war with Hannibal and we must rely heavily on him for the war after 216 for which we have only a few fragments of Polybius. Livy's narrative is intensely dramatic and includes many of the most romantic stories associated with the war. He had access to the full version of Polybius' narrative and appears to have used it extensively in some sections. However, even with such a good source Livy could be guilty of fairly major mistakes. His narrative of the battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 BC reads in places almost like a translation of Polybius' account, which has survived intact. Yet where Polybius informs us that the Macedonian phalanx lowered its pikes from the marching position resting on the shoulder to the fighting position held level in both hands, Livy misunderstood the Greek text and informs us that the Macedonians dropped their pikes and drew their swords instead. Elsewhere Livy employed far less reliable sources, some heavily influenced by the traditions of Roman senatorial families which exaggerated the achievements of their own ancestors. Occasionally he lists different versions of a story given by various earlier authors, providing us with an impression of some of these lost works, but most often he presents us with a simple narrative. Livy provides more detail than Polybius concerning Roman politics, especially some of the controversial elections, and of Rome's state religion. All of his account, and the military narratives in particular, do need to be used with some caution.6

Most of our other sources are even later than Livy. Diodorus Sicuius was roughly contemporary and produced a universal Library of History in the last decades of the first century BC. It consisted of at least forty Books, but survives only in fragmentary form for this period. A Sicilian Greek, Diodorus drew somewhat ecletically on various earlier, lost sources, such as the pro-Carthaginian account of the First Punic War written by Philinus. Appian was an Alexandrian Greek and a Roman citizen who produced a twenty-four-book Roman History. The sections dealing with the Punic

Wars are intact, but vary considerably in their style. His description of the battle of Zama reads like an extract from the Iliad. However, he produced by far the best account of the Third Punic War and appears to have drawn heavily on Polybius' lost narrative. In the early third century AD, Dio Cassius, a Roman senator of Greek extraction, wrote an eighty-book History of Rome. Only fragments of this survive, but an epitome of the work produced in the twelfth century AD by a Byzantine monk, Zonaras, still exists as a continuous narrative. In addition to these historical narratives, there are the biographies of notable Roman figures produced in the early second century AD by Plutarch, a Greek from Chaeronea. Plutarch was more interested in the character of his subjects than in providing a detailed narrative of their careers, but nevertheless includes much useful information. Brief biographies of Hamilcar and Hannibal were also produced in the later first century BC by Cornelius Nepos and preserve some information not included by any of our other sources.

Most of our sources were written long after the events that they describe. Polybius witnessed the Third Punic War and spoke to men who had fought in the Hannibalic War, but no participants in the First War were still alive by the time he arrived in Rome. How much information about these conflicts was available to our sources? Mention has already been made of some Greek accounts sympathetic to the Carthaginians, notably the Sicilian Philinus for the First War and the Spartan Sosylus for the Second. In the late third century BC the Romans themselves began to write history, largely because they realized the importance of their victories over Carthage. Quintus Fabius Pictor and Lucius Cincius Alimentus, both of them distinguished senators, wrote histories in Greek, and in the second century Marcus Porcius Cato wrote the first Latin prose history. Polybius noted that such accounts consistently tended to favour their own side and that sometimes they directly contradicted each other. In addition to the written accounts there were memories preserved by the great families in Rome, although these were often little more than propaganda, and far more reliable documents such as the Treaties between Rome and Carthage which Polybius consulted and inscriptions such as the Lacinian column set up by Hannibal. There was clearly far more documentation available for the Second Punic War than the more distant First Punic War. Polybius mentions that he was even able to read a letter in which Scipio Africanus described the planning of his Spanish campaign to the Macedonian King Philip V. No such direct sources existed for the earlier conflict.7

We can be fairly confident that our narratives of the Second War are on the whole reliable and that most of the detail in the better accounts was drawn from contemporary or near contemporary sources. The situation is less certain with the campaigns of 265-241BC. The basic outline of events is likely to be correct, but many of the details remain questionable. Readers will note that our lesser sources are mentioned far more often in the discussions of this period than for the operations between 218-201 where the main emphasis is on Polybius and Livy. The Third Punic War is almost totally based upon Appian's account, supported by the few surviving fragments of Polybius. Where several parallel accounts exist of the same period it is possible to compare them and decide which author was most likely to have supplied the most reliable information. When only a single narrative exists there is little choice but to accept it as long as it seems reasonably plausible, since if it is rejected there is nothing with which to replace it. On many occasions in the following chapters it will be noted that doubt exists about some of the events described. The numbers supplied by even the most reliable sources need always to be treated with caution since numbers, especially Roman numerals, were one of the easiest things to be corrupted as manuscripts were copied and recopied by hand over the centuries. Even so, the modern historian must be very cautious before suggesting more 'plausible' alternatives.

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