At the start of the third century BC the Republic of Carthage was the wealthiest and most powerful state in the Western Mediterranean. It had been founded, probably in the late eighth century, by Phoenician settlers from Tyre on the coast of modern-day Lebanon. The Phoenicians were the great maritime traders of the ancient world - the Romans knew them as 'Poem', hence Punic - and eventually Carthage came to control trade in the West, dominating the coasts of Africa and Spain as well as Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the lesser islands of the region. The scientific exploitation of the then fertile agricultural land of North Africa combined with the profits of trade to make the city fabulously rich. However, this wealth was not evenly distributed and remained almost entirely in the hands of the small number of Carthaginian citizens, and especially the aristocracy. Preserving their Semitic language, religion and culture, and jealously guarding the privileges of citizenship, the descendants of the Punic settlers remained a distinct elite. In contrast the indigenous population, especially the Libyans, were heavily taxed, exploited as agricultural labour and military manpower, and had no real share in the profits of empire.

View of the remains of great Circular Harbour at Carthage. This inner harbour was reserved for military use, and included ramps for 180 quinqueremes or ‘fives', the standard warship of the third- second centuries BC.

Until 265 BC Rome remained a purely Italian power, and had by this time subjugated all of the Peninsula south of the River Po. From very early in their history the Romans displayed a remarkable talent for absorbing others. Enemies defeated in war became subordinate allies and in future supplied men and material for the next generation of Rome's wars. The Romans were unique in the ancient world in their willingness to grant citizenship to outsiders. Some former enemies became full citizens or citizens with limited rights, whilst others were granted the lesser rights of Latins, each grade being a legal status, rather than reflecting actual ethnic and linguistic distinctions. Each community was tied directly to Rome in a treaty which made clear both its rights and its obligations. The allies helped to fight Rome's wars and shared, at least to a limited extent, in their profits. As Rome expanded its population grew. The total land owned by Carthaginian and Roman citizens respectively in 265 BC was probably roughly equivalent in size, but the numbers of the former were tiny in comparison to the latter. The obligation of all citizens and allies possessing a minimum property qualification to serve in Rome's armies gave the Republic immense reserves of military manpower.1

In 265 BC the Romans for the first time sent an army overseas, when an expedition responded to an appeal to intervene in the affairs of a Sicilian city. Carthage, who had long possessed a presence in the island, even if it had never managed to subjugate it completely, resented this intrusion and responded with force. The result was the First Runic War (264-241 BC), an arduous struggle fought on a far bigger scale than either side could have imagined when they so lightly entered the conflict.

The war was mainly fought in and around Sicily, with the most important battles occurring at sea, where fleets of hundreds of oared warships clashed in confused, swirling melees. In 256 the Romans invaded Africa and threatened Carthage itself, but the initial willingness of the Punic authorities to seek peace withered when faced with what they considered to be extremely harsh Roman demands. The Carthaginians fought on, and managed to destroy the Roman expeditionary force in battle, winning their only major victory on land in the entire war. In the naval war the Punic fleet proved unable to turn its greater experience to tangible advantage, losing all but one of the major battles. Losses were appalling on both sides, the Romans losing hundreds of ships to bad weather, although relatively few to enemy action. In the last years of the war both sides were close to utter exhaustion, their treasuries drained by the costs of maintaining the struggle. In 241 BC a Roman fleet, paid for largely by voluntary loans made by individuals to the state, defeated the last Punic fleet at the battle of the Aegates Islands. Carthage no longer had the resources to continue the struggle and had no choice but to accept peace on terms dictated by Rome, giving up her last territory and influence in Sicily and paying a heavy indemnity.'

Next page: The Mediterranean World in 218 BC was divided into many different states and kingdoms. ln the West Carthage still controlled North Africa and parts of Spain, although it had lost Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica to Rome after the First Punic War. In Northern Italy. Spain. Gaul, and lllyricum many small, but warlike tribal groups fought each other and their neighbours. The Eastern Mediterranean reflected the fragmentation of Alexander the Great's vast Empire with three main Kingdoms emerging in Syria, Egypt and Macedonia as well as many smaller communities. By the middle of the next century the entire Mediterranean would be dominated by Rome.


The peace between Rome and Carthage lasted almost as long as the First War. From the very beginning some Carthaginians resented the surrender and believed it to be unnecessary. Foremost amongst these was Hamilcar Barca, the commander of the army in Sicily, who for nearly a decade had waged a war of skirmishes, raid and ambush with the Romans. Hamilcar had never fought a pitched battle, and his victories over the Romans were small in scale, but he believed, or affected to believe, that he could have continued to fight for years, and perhaps eventually worn the enemy down. Resigning his command in a public display of disgust at the surrender, he left others to disband his mercenary army. The task was botched, and the mercenaries first mutinied and then rebelled, taking much of the Libyan population with them, for Carthaginian rule, always harsh, had become especially burdensome as they struggled to fund the war with Rome. The resulting Mercenary War was fought with appalling cruelty by both sides and came very close to destroying Carthage. In the end it was ruthlessly suppressed by Hamilcar in a series of campaigns which demonstrated his skill as a commander far more clearly than had the fighting in Sicily during the war with Rome.

The Romans honoured the treaty and did not at first exploit the weakness of their former enemy, rejecting appeals for an alliance from Carthage's rebellious allies. However, in the closing stages of the rebellion, they seized Sardinia and threatened a renewal of war if Carthage resisted. The Roman action was blatantly cynical and emphasized just how far Carthaginian power had declined since their defeat. More than anything else, this added to the deep sense of humiliation and resentment felt by much of the population. In 237 Hamilcar Barca was given command of the Carthaginian province in Spain and immediately began a programme of expansion. Some areas, especially those containing valuable mineral deposits, were taken under direct rule, whilst others were brought under Punic influence. All of the campaigns and diplomacy were carried out by members of the Barcid family. When Hamilcar was killed in battle in 229, he was succeeded by his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, who in turn was followed by Hamilcar's son Hannibal in 221. It is now hard to know how much independence the Barcids enjoyed in Spain, so that they have been variously depicted as loyal servants obeying the instructions of the Punic authorities and as semi-independent Hellenistic princes. Expansion in Spain brought great wealth - the coins minted in considerable numbers by the Barcids have an especially high silver content - and increased access to the fertile recruiting ground offered by the warlike Spanish tribes. The campaigns to achieve this expansion helped to create the nucleus of a highly efficient army, hardened by long experience of fighting under familiar officers. Once again, it is difficult to know to what extent these benefits were to the Republic as a whole, or served to further the ambitions of Hamilcar and his family.

The Romans viewed the growth of Punic power in Spain with great suspicion. In 226 BC a Roman embassy forced Hasdrubal to agree to a treaty barring Carthage from expanding beyond the River Ebro. The border of the Punic province was still some way south of the river and thus this was not an especially harsh measure, but it demonstrated the Romans’ belief that they were free to impose restrictions on their former enemy whenever they wished. The treaty placed no restriction at all on Roman activity. In 220 Hannibal supported one of the tribes allied to Carthage in a dispute with the city of Saguntum. This was south of the Ebro, but at some point had become an ally of Rome, to whom the Saguntines swiftly appealed for protection. The Romans sent an embassy to instruct Hannibal to abandon his siege of the city, probably expecting him to back down as the Carthaginians had always done in the past. Hannibal continued the assault and finally captured Saguntum in 219 BC after an eight month siege, sacking it and enslaving the population. The Romans protested tc Carthage and, when the authorities there refused to condemn Hannibal and hand him over for punishment, declared war at the beginning of 218 BC.

A bust which may be a representation of Hannibal in later life, although there are no definite images of him. At Cannae he was still in his twenties, although he had already lost the use of one eye. In the same way that his appearance is uncertain, there is much about Hannibal's character which eludes us and, for all his achievements, he remains an enigmatic figure.

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