Ancient History & Civilisation


Rome, the Beginnings of Empire

The Reckoning

FROM THE BEGINNING the Second Punic War was a far more serious struggle than the First, which began in Sicily and remained primarily a struggle for control of the island. Regulus' invasion pushed the Carthaginians close to capitulation, but resulted in defeat and was never repeated by the Romans. The conflict became one of endurance, decided eventually when the last Punic fleet was destroyed at the Aegates Islands. The resultant Peace Treaty left Carthage strong in Africa and still capable of expansion in Spain, but came to seem more harsh after the Roman seizure of Sardinia.

The Second Punic War was a much simpler struggle for dominance in which territory was only ever of secondary importance. The Carthaginian attempt to retake Sardinia was feeble, and the moves against Sicily did not begin until several years into the war. In each case the initiative came from leaders on these islands and not from Carthage. Land was taken from the enemy and allies persuaded to defect as a means of exerting pressure, not as an end in itself. The treaties guaranteeing the independence from Carthage of states like Capua and Tarentum make it clear that a permanent Punic province in southern Italy was not anticipated. The war was fought to force the other side to submit and accept a treaty greatly favouring the victor. In 218 both sides planned to strike at the enemy's heartland, the Romans in Africa and Spain, and Hannibal in Italy. Despite setbacks, distractions and disagreement amongst the rival leaderships, these aims remained until the end, Hasdrubal and Mago renewing the invasion of Italy, and Scipio ending the war in Africa. The war extended into other theatres as each side seized opportunities to mount additional attacks on the enemy and so apply more pressure, but these were always subordinate to the main effort.

The greater intensity of the Second Punic War is illustrated by the balance between the three main types of fighting, battles, sieges and raids. Massed battles were far more common, although naval encounters were few and small-scale, none rivalling the great fleet actions of the First War. There were about twelve pitched battles from 218 to 202, which is three times the number fought between 265 and 241; and perhaps two dozen other sizeable actions. The brief accounts of many encounters make it difficult to be certain of their scale, nature and sometimes even their outcome, forcing these figures to be a little rough. Just over half of the major battles were fought in Italy, the remainder in Spain and Africa. As in the First War, the terrain in Sicily did not favour formal pitched battles and this was also true of much of Spain, Illyria and Greece, but in addition to the concentration of massed clashes to certain regions, they also tended to occur in brief, highly intense periods of campaigning. Hannibal fought three major battles and several sizeable actions between 218 and 216 and far fewer in later years. Scipio Africanus fought a battle in Spain in 208, tried unsuccessfully to force one in 207, and completed his victory with a final encounter in 206. In Africa he repeated this pattern, fighting major actions in both 203 and 202. Battles were most likely to occur when one commander acted exceptionally aggressively, usually by penetrating deep into enemy territory, for instance in the initial invasions of Italy and Africa, or Scipio's deep forays into the Punic province in Spain. The Roman response in particular was to meet such threats in open battle and it was only after successive defeats that commanders like Fabius Maximus injected a degree of caution into Roman operations in Italy. Such a high degree of mutual consent was required to produce a massed battle that even such able commanders as Hannibal and Scipio were frequently incapable of forcing an unwilling enemy to fight. This makes Scipio's decision to attack such a formidable position as Hasdrubal's at Baecula as remarkable as its success.1

The Romans lost several smaller actions, but were only defeated in a pitched battle by Hannibal in Italy. The defeats of Publius and Cnaeus Scipio in 212 occurred in a series of scrambling fights produced by a markedly unfavourable strategic situation. Elsewhere Roman armies displayed a marked superiority in open battle against all the other Punic armies and commanders. There is no doubt that Hannibal's army in Italy was the best ever fielded by Carthage, due to a combination of his charismatic leadership and the long years of campaigning in Spain. Another advantage came from its exceptionally high cavalry to infantry ratio, which reached between 1:3 and 1:4 at its peak, more than double the average for both sides. Hannibal's continued successes over the Romans gave his army an advantage in morale which it never really lost to the very end of the Italian campaign. Other Punic armies had a similar mix of nationalities and troop types, but performed very poorly on the battlefield. Most other commanders were far less able leaders and tacticians than Hannibal, and did not have the opportunity to turn the disparate contingents under their command into a cohesive unit through a combination of long training and successful operations under familiar officers. Frequently a single element is presented in our sources as the only truly reliable and efficient part of an army, for instance the Libyans at Ilipa or the Celtiberians at the Great Plains. Even Hannibal failed to weld together the three armies in Africa for the Cannae campaign in the short time he had available.

The Roman militia system produced armies which were far more homogenous in terms of language, command structure, drill and organization. This made it far easier to integrate legions from different commands into the same force. Prolonged service steadily increased the effectiveness of a Roman army, but the process occurred far more readily than with a Punic force of mixed nationalities. The legions in the Second Punic War served for far longer than any Roman troops before this date, so that by the latter stages of the war many were as well-trained and confident as any professional soldiers. The tactical flexibility shown by the Romans at Metaurus, Ilipa and Zama was the tangible evidence of this. Both men and their officers were now capable of feats unimaginable in 218. Such armies were far superior to most Punic forces and could defeat significantly more numerous enemies, as Scipio was to demonstrate. As the war progressed, the disdain which the Romans had shown for all Carthaginian armies and commanders apart from Hannibal began to be based more and more on reality.

Despite the large number of battles and sizeable actions fought in the Second Punic War, they were still rare events in the experience of most soldiers, who far more often took part in raids or sieges. Raiding was not primarily intended to provide food for an army, although it could be combined with this activity. Its main objective was to inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy-held countryside, killing or capturing the population, destroying farms and villages, burning crops and stealing livestock. All of these activities took time and effort, whilst some, for instance the destruction of crops, could only be done for a brief season of the year in the weeks immediately before harvest. Damage tended to be confined to a small area and had little long-term effect, although it was doubtless appalling for those immediately affected. Yet if raids continued over a long period they could have serious consequences for a region. Losses amongst the rural workforce to capture, death or conscription, and prolonged damage to fields, crops and livestock reduced productivity and created a shortage of food which in turn weakened the population and encouraged disease, resulting in further declines in production. Some areas, especially Bruttium and the other parts of southern Italy where Hannibal and his army were confined for years, were repeatedly raided by both sides and must have suffered greatly. One of the major controversies of the Second Punic War, which we shall discuss in a later chapter, is its impact on the population and rural economy of Italy.2

The most immediate consequence of raiding was damage to the enemy's prestige for failing to defend his territory. The sight of burning farms left in the wake of Hannibal's march in 217 incited Flaminius to pursue him incautiously, eager to avenge this humiliating display of Roman weakness. Later in the same year Fabius Maximus became very unpopular because he refused to act and prevent such depredations. A state which proved unable to defend its allies against enemy depredations lost face and was likely also to lose its allies. This was especially true in areas such as Sicily and Spain where the communities showed understandably little strong commitment to either side. Hannibal's failure to protect many of his Italian allies from raiding was a major factor encouraging their inexorable drift back to Rome.

Walled cities were safe from raiding, and only the smallest were ever likely to fall to direct assault. For most of the peoples involved in the conflict, towns and cities provided their political centres, controlling wide areas of the surrounding land. Raiding could intimidate the population of a region, but only the occupation of their important strongholds allowed their permanent control. The Roman victory in Sicily came from the capture of the two main enemy strongholds at Syracuse and Agrigentum. Neither side was capable of ending the entire war by capturing the enemy's capital, which were too large and too well protected, although on several occasions both Rome and Carthage believed themselves to be under direct threat. The capture of fortified positions has always been extremely difficult, one of the main reasons for the prominence of sieges in the propaganda of 'Great Kings' from the Pharaohs onwards. Only when the professional Roman army combined engineering skill with a willingness to accept the casualties inevitable in an assault did the balance shift away from the defender. As we have seen, direct attacks on a large city were only successful when they combined surprise with treachery from inside or special knowledge of a weakness in the defences. Blockades took much longer and required a large force to remain in one place for months or years, increasing the problems of supply. The Romans' superiority in numbers and ability to feed their armies allowed them to mount the long and ultimately successful sieges at Capua and Syracuse.3

The devastation of the countryside, the capture of towns and open battles were the three main ways of eroding the enemy's will to fight on. The balance between the three varied from theatre to theatre, but everywhere a major defeat in battle had the greatest impact. The war was finally ended by the Roman victory at Zama, as the First War had been ended by the Aegates Islands. Other battles provided more complete tactical victories, but failed to have such a decisive affect. This is especially true of the series of overwhelming battlefield victories which Hannibal won in Italy and which forced the Romans to admit that they could not face him in the open field. He devastated the lands he passed through and persuaded many of Rome's allies in the south to defect. In spite of all this the Romans refused to seek peace, as any other contemporary state would have done, so Hannibal continued to apply pressure on them by the same methods, although his successes were never again to be quite so spectacular. Still the Romans refused to give in. By the time that Capua and Tarentum, the most important of the defecting states, had been recaptured by the Romans, Rome had also regained the larger part of the areas which had defected and Hannibal's power in Italy was in decline. No Latin city ever joined him. Attempts to reinforce him with new armies failed and it became clear that he could not win. In the meantime the Romans had regained Sicily, expelled the Carthaginians from Spain, and established themselves in Africa.

It is difficult to see what more Hannibal could have done to attain victory. We can never know how close the Romans came to conceding defeat. Perhaps a march on Rome after Cannae would have broken the Romans' nerve, but we cannot be sure of this and such a move would have been a great gamble. One major problem for the Carthaginians was that they had one superb commander with an excellent army, whilst elsewhere they had poor commanders with average armies or average commanders with poor armies. From the beginning the Romans were able to produce in considerable quantity armies which were average in their quality and the skill of their commanders, giving them an advantage over all but Hannibal. As the war progressed and Roman leaders and soldiers gained experience, their superiority over the other Punic armies became even more marked. Had the Romans not found the troops to fight and win the campaigns on the fronts outside Italy, then the outcome of the war would surely have been very different. It is to the immense credit of the Roman Senate that it continued to commit men and resources to distant theatres when disaster appeared to threaten in Italy.4

There was a fundamental difference in the behaviour of Rome and Carthage when under threat. When a Roman army appeared outside their walls in 255,203 and 202, the Carthaginian leadership responded by seeking peace. Livy believed that they were insincere in 203, and both then and in 255 they renewed the war after failing to win terms which they considered appropriate to their still considerable strength. In neither 216, 212 nor any of the other low points of the war did the Roman Senate or any Roman commander seriously consider conceding defeat and negotiating with the enemy. Despite their appalling losses, the string of humiliating defeats, the defections of some Italian allies and the continuing malevolent presence of Hannibal's army in Italy, the Romans simply refused to come to terms with the Carthaginians, as they had earlier refused to treat with Pyrrhus. They were then able to beat the enemy on every other front and force the undefeated Hannibal to evacuate Italy and return to protect Carthage. The Carthaginians expected a war to end in a negotiated peace. The Romans expected a war to end in total victory or their own annihilation, something which no contemporary state had the resources to achieve. This attitude prevented the Romans from losing the war and ultimately allowed them to win it.

Rome's huge pool of military manpower was probably the most important factor in allowing her to adopt such a rigid attitude. Her losses were appalling, far heavier than those of the First War, and this time fell especially heavily on the wealthier classes, the senators, equestrians and the yeoman farmers who served in the heavy infantry of the legions. Perhaps 25 per cent of the men qualified for military service were lost through casualties and defections in the first few years of the war, but in spite of this the number of legions in service increased. Some extraordinary measures were taken to replenish the pool of recruits, so that younger and older men than usual were enrolled, the minimum property qualification for service reduced, and legions of convicts and slaves formed. On the whole this expansion was made possible by the willingness of ordinary citizens to submit to years of harsh military discipline and extremely dangerous campaigning. It is vital to remember that all classes at Rome and amongst most of the allies felt very strong bonds of loyalty to each other and the State. There were some exceptions, most notably the refusal of the twelve Latin colonies to supply more men in 209, but they were extremely rare. It should also be noted that the colonies merely stated that their resources had been exhausted. They did not recommend a settlement with the enemy or make any move to defect. Similarly some men tried to avoid military service, others sought to profit at the expense of the troops they were supposed to be supplying, whilst a very few deserted and fought with the enemy, but the overwhelming majority did not and were led by fierce patriotism to sacrifice themselves for the State.

The Carthaginians suffered much lower casualties, both in number and in proportion of the total citizen body. Punic citizens only took the field in significant numbers in Africa, and their losses at the Great Plains and Zama were not high. Money never seems to have been lacking to hire more mercenaries, although time to recruit them and mould them into an effective army often was. Carthage was simply not geared to warfare to the same degree as Rome, where war-making was an integral part of the political system. Every year the Roman Senate decided on the allocation of commands and military resources and it was simply a continuation of normal procedure to do this throughout the Hannibalic war. It is questionable whether or not the Romans made war more frequently than other contemporary peoples, but they certainly did so with greater efficiency and wholeheartedness. Polybius was surely right to highlight Rome's political organization, social structure and military institutions as the keys to their victory over Carthage. During the Hannibalic War all of these had to be modified to cope with the crisis, so that multiple magistracies and pro-magistracies became common, the ranks of the Senate replenished en masse and slaves recruited into the army, whilst the legions were trained to an unprecedented level of efficiency. Each of these institutions had proved flexible enough to adapt without changing their essential nature. In the next half century they would give Rome mastery of the Mediterranean world.

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