Big army with elephants marching through the mountains

The Punic Wars

When we left off, Rome had gone from a small independent city-state to what is starting to look very much like an empire! All of the Italian Peninsula is under Rome’s control, and they show no sign of slowing the expansion.

But Rome wasn’t the only major force in the Mediterranean.

Across the sea, on the northern coast of Africa, was a city called Carthage. It had been around for hundreds of years and had come to power by making a fortune from the trade routes it controlled within the Mediterranean. These rich merchants and sailors had set up shop in a well connected location, and from there expanded their territory to control much of the Northern coast of Africa, and many of the islands within the Mediterranean.

Map of North Africa & Europe, with North Africa in yellow and Italy in red + yellow trade routes connecting Carthage with islands and other cities

With two mighty powers expanding and growing closer to each other it was only a matter of time until there was a showdown.

Which brings us to….


The First Punic War

Although they had been peaceful towards each other up until this point there was a high level of distrust on both sides. Carthage was already well-established, and Rome was growing in size and power. Eventually they would find something that they don’t agree on.

The ‘something’ in this case just happened to be Sicily:

Image of the Mediterranean map with Sicily and Corsica circled all scribbly

As we’ve mentioned, Carthage had established itself through shipping routes in the Mediterranean, so it pretty much ran the seas with ease. Then Rome came along with a plan to take over Sicily (an island) controlled by an empire with a massive navy (Carthage). You’re not going to pull that off without a few warships… something that Rome had exactly zero of.

Romans standing by a vast expanse of empty water
The Roman Navy

But did that stop the Romans?! Hell no!

They raised a navy! They built warships! They trained sailors!

… and they got the snot kicked out of them. Absolutely wrecked. The Romans were completely new to this whole naval battle thing and they stunk at it. Eventually they’d start to use that classic Roman cunning to their advantage. They realized they aren’t great at sailing, but they kick ass at land battles, so they would devise a way to get Roman soldiers on Carthaginian ships.

They built more warships, but these ones would ram into the enemy’s ships and drop a bridge down so the Romans could board!

Plans For Corvus Boarding Device

This evened out the playing field, and the First Punic War turned into a battle of attrition. For 23 years Rome and Carthage fought in Sicily and the surrounding sea area to try and determine who would be the dominant force in the Mediterranean.

Sicily map with soldiers and ships

Slowly but surely Rome got the upper hand in Sicily. In the sea both sides were nearing exhaustion. The final push came when Rome was able to look to its richest citizens to personally fund the building of more warships in order to overrun the enemy fleet. Carthage tried to pull the same move, but its citizens didn’t want to risk their personal fortunes for the war effort.

Rome controlled the seas, and won the war.

With that bit of unpleasantness out of the way both sides regrouped and continued to expand (this time in different directions). Rome went North and East, and Carthage went West into the Iberian Peninsula, where modern day Spain is. Carthage didn’t have a navy anymore, so instead of sailing, the Carthaginian general who was doing the invading had to march over there and conquer the neighboring tribes.

Updated Map. Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica now in red. More of Spain in Yellow.

This general, named Hamilcar Barca, had commanded troops in Sicily during the First Punic War and had lost to Rome. He had a son named Hannibal, and he made Hannibal swear that he would forever hate Rome and continue the fight against them. Hannibal swore… and before long he would become a nightmare for the Romans… A nightmare with war elephants.

Hannibal eventually took over Carthage’s armies after his father died, and that’s when he was like, “yeah, I really hate the Romans. I think it’s just about time to do something about it.” So when the Romans made friends with Saguntum, a city within Carthage’s new territory (the place where Hannibal’s armies were) Hannibal had the excuse that he needed! “It’s an act of aggression,” he said, “we shall attack Rome!”

The Second Punic War

Carthage was still angry about the result of The First Punic War. They’d gotten their butts kicked and had to pay Rome a huge lump of money for starting the war in the first place. Carthage was still large and powerful, but there were people (like Hannibal) who had visions of returning the mighty empire to its former glory.

To do this, Rome had to go.

So from his base camp in Spain, Hannibal packed up his soldiers and said we’re marching on Rome. Not only was Rome an incredibly long way away from where Hannibal was, but in order to get there he would need to go through hostile territory fighting local barbarian tribes, pass through valleys, and cross rivers while battling heat, cold, and hunger. And then when all that was done he’d need to get his army over the Alps… as in… the gigantic mountain range North of Italy. That’s tough enough as it is. To make things more complex, he had 90,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry, and 67 war elephants. Not to mention supply wagons and pack animals. Craziness? Damn right. Did it stop him? Well there wouldn’t have been a Second Punic War if it did…

So Hannibal and his army marched East.

Big army with elephants marching through the mountains

While all this was going on, the two Roman consuls, setting aside their role as politicians and taking up their charge as generals, were planning on bringing the fight to Carthage. One consul, Sempronius Longus was heading to Africa, and the other, Publius Scipio, was heading to Spain. Neither of them realizing that Hannibal was well on his way to Rome.

It would have come as something of a shock when the Romans got the news that there was a Carthaginian army marching out of the mountains and heading their way.

The Romans mobilized legions to intercept Hannibal’s forces, but when they faced the invading army they got beaten again and again. Hannibal always seemed to find a way to outsmart the Romans and lure them into a trap, which often involved cavalry strategically hidden out of sight. At Carthage’s disposal was cavalry from their allied territory of Numidia, and it was some of the finest in the world (in strength, speed, and skill). That may not seem like an important point at the moment, but keep your eye on the Numidian cavalry, they’ll play their part in this war.

For the Romans, this war was off to a bad start, and it was about to get a lot worse…

At a big open field near the town of Cannae the Romans had set up their army in preparation for a major battle. Lots of room to fight and nowhere to hide any cavalry or any other tricky business. But Hannibal had set up the tricky stuff right in front of their eyes! Instead of putting his strongest forces in the middle, as the Romans had (and as was conventional at the time), he put his lighter, less experienced troops in the middle, and his hardened veteran fighters on the outside.

When the two met in battle the Carthaginian light forces were pushed back in the middle, as the Roman veterans pushed forward in the middle. This meant that Carthage’s experienced troops on the sides had outflanked the Romans even though they hadn’t even moved yet!

The Roman soldiers were completely surrounded with no means of escape. According to the sources of the time, anywhere from 50,000 – 70,000 Romans were killed in what amounted to one of the worst military disasters in all of Roman history. Approximately 600 Romans were killed every minute. The nightmare that was Hannibal Barca was tearing through Italy and it seemed there was no stopping him.

While Hannibal continued to smack the Romans around in their own territory, over in Spain the Romans were losing battles to Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal. Publius Scipio, the general we met before (his term as consul had ended)  and his brother Cornelius Scipio were both killed battling Hasdrubal’s forces in Spain. This will be important for the final chapter of this war. But for now, the Romans couldn’t seem to beat the Carthaginians anywhere in the world!

Back in Italy, still unable to win any battles, the Romans started to avoid direct combat with Hannibal and instead tried to take back territory that he had taken. And the war went on like this for years and years. Hannibal would take a Roman town and the Romans would follow and take it back. Hannibal would move on to a different town or retake the same town Rome just did…

It all seemed hopeless for the Romans…

Until a young man came on the scene who would eventually earn the title that history would remember him as, Scipio Africanus. The Senate would turn to him in their time of desperation and greatest need to save them from impending doom. Not because they liked him… Not because he was the best man for the job… Simply because he was the only guy who actually volunteered to go to Spain and try to turn this war around.Scipio With Sword In The AirHe was young, charismatic, and had unconventionally long hair. You can just imagine the stinky looks he would’ve gotten from the old farts in the senate and the retired generals with their short hair and shaved faces. But hey, what did they have to lose? If this crazy guy wants to go lead the battle in Spain, go for it.

The young Scipio was up for going to Spain to take on Hasdrubal because it was his father and uncle who had fought and died there two years earlier. He also figured if he could snag a victory in Spain, maybe he could convince the senate to let him go to Africa and polish off the Carthaginians altogether.

So while the two armies in Italy were dancing around, Scipio sailed over to Spain. As if this guy wasn’t brazen enough, he didn’t start by taking a nice bit of land somewhere that was completely undefended. He started by attacking the main supply source for the Carthaginians in Spain, and the capital’s namesake, New Carthage. This is the last thing the Carthaginians would’ve expected from a Roman society that was close to defeat! A small group of Roman troops snuck into the coastal city at low tide and when they appeared on the other side of the wall the defenders thought the whole Roman army had gotten in! So the defenders retreated to the citadel, and the Romans let the rest of their army into the city. Just like that, the most important Carthaginian city in Spain had been taken by Scipio Africanus and Rome finally had a victory in this war!!

Scipio released the native Spanish hostages that Carthage had captured and held prisoner and the natives loved him for it. They weren’t fond of the Carthaginians to begin with, but with this act of kindness Scipio had found himself some new local allies. With his forces now strengthened with native support, Scipio battled Hasdrubal’s forces, and using similar tactics as Hannibal’s Cannae victory, beat Hasdrubal, and forced him to retreat out of Spain. In a desperate attempt to hold onto Spain, Carthage put together a new, even bigger army and sent it to oust Scipio from their imperial territory, but despite numerical superiority, they too were defeated by the new Roman upstart. This put an end to Carthaginian rule in Spain, and brought in new territory (and wealth) to the Roman Republic.

Back in Italy the two imperial powers were just trying to outlast the other. By now Hannibal had been in Italy for 10 years fighting this war and supply shipments and reinforcements were starting to run low. The last hope he had was for his brother Hasdrubal to link up his forces with Hannibal’s and create a Carthaginian mega-army.

The Romans got wind of this plan, and the two consuls for the year (yes, they still changed every year, and yes, they each still each had an army) knew they couldn’t beat a mega-army if they successfully managed to merge. So they planned to meet up in the North of Italy to cut off Hasdrubal’s arriving army before he could meet up with Hannibal. That’s exactly what they did, and on the banks of the Metaurus River in 207BC Hasdrubal’s army was again defeated, but this time it was for good. Hasdrubal was killed, and Hannibal was once more alone deep in Roman territory.

When Scipio heard that news it would have been music to his ears! The guy who had killed his father and uncle was now dead, and the war seemed perfectly teed up to take the fight to Carthage itself. See, Scipio needed the approval of the senate in order to attack Carthage, and there was no way they were going to approve that with losses in Spain and a mega-army wreaking havoc in Italy. But with Spain now conquered and Hannibal isolated and receiving less and less support from Carthage it seemed that now was the time to strike.

Scipio went to Rome, got the approval he needed, got the forces he needed, and headed off to North Africa to get payback for the previous 11 years.

When he arrived in North Africa he was met with fierce resistance. Although the Carthaginians weren’t the natural warriors the Romans were, they did have money. Lots of it. So they were able to buy armies, and mercenaries, and convince other civilizations to get involved and support them as long as the price was right.

Big bag of gold with an elephant symbol

Within the first year of Scipio’s African campaign he had defeated the Carthaginians twice. Nothing decisive, but good signs nonetheless. The real impact came when the King of Numidia (an ally to Carthage) was overthrown, and a new king (an ally to Rome) took control. This meant the Romans now had local support, and access to some of the finest cavalry in the known world. This also meant Carthage no longer had this support, and, in fact, did not have the finest cavalry in the known world.

Numidia in North Africa just south west of Carthage

At this point Carthage had one last shot at survival. In 203BC Hannibal was recalled from Italy to come back and defend his capital of Carthage. He’d been in Italy for 15 years, and after all that his hopes of conquering the Romans were well and truly gone…

In 202BC, with Hannibal back in Africa, the final battle of the Second Punic War would be fought. Scipio (soon-to-be) Africanus and his Roman troops were backed by the Numidian cavalry and Hannibal had his elephants, his veterans that fought in Italy, and a large number of fresh, untrained soldiers who had never fought before. Hannibal sent in the war elephants first, to try to create panic and chaos in the Roman ranks, but Scipio was ready for them. The Romans created lanes for the elephants to pass through and would separate them from the rest of the army, making them easy targets at the back of the Roman army. The experience of the Roman legions and the support of the Numidian cavalry meant the Carthaginians no longer had any chance of winning. The war was over. Carthage had lost… again.

The penalties were steep. Carthage had to pay a massive amount of money to Rome (due within 50 years), they had to give up all overseas territory (no longer had an empire), and they were no longer allowed to raise an army and go to battle without express permission from Rome itself.

Rome wanted to make sure there would be no Third Punic War…

The Third Punic War

Maintaining an empire is a costly business, especially when you’re on the losing side of long and arduous wars. But once Carthage no longer had that expense to deal with they found they had time to get back to doing what they do best… making money.

It had been 50 years since the devastating defeat at the hands of Scipio Africanus and Carthage had repaid its massive fine to the Romans. Everything was going well, but they had a problem with their neighbours, the Numidians. The Numidians had been raiding Carthaginian territory and taking land away from its borders. Carthage got sick of that pretty quickly and put together an army of fresh recruits to go out there and show the Numidians what’s what. The army had little to no experience in combat and the Numidians beat them to a pulp. But if the Carthaginians thought that was the worst of their problems, they were in for a rude awakening.

They had thought that by repaying the war indemnity (the massive amount of cash) to the Romans they had gotten past all the penalties and rules that the Romans had given them. Of course the Romans said they can’t raise an army without Roman permission, but surely if it’s to defend themselves against foreign invaders the Romans would understand, right?


Although the wars were over, Roman opinion of the Carthaginians was not a popular one. They had suffered some stunning defeats at the hands of their North African adversaries and many good Roman soldiers had been killed because of them. There were many who thought Carthage was preparing for further warfare and many more who thought, regardless, they should be shown no mercy. One such advocate was a senator by the name of Cato the Elder. He would finish every single one of his speeches in the senate, even if the subject was taxes, or roadworks, or public sewage systems, with “ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam“, or in English, “Moreover, I am of the opinion that Carthage ought to be destroyed.”

So when Rome heard that Carthage went to war against a Roman ally it was just what the senate needed in order to whip up a frenzy and remind the good people of Rome that the Carthaginian menace is still out there! The beast has awoken! Remember Hannibal?!

So it was decided that there could be no other course of action but to finish off Carthage… for good.

The consuls for the year brought their armies down to North Africa and ended up making a mess of the whole affair. That’s when the wise (and highly superstitious) Roman senate realized their mistake! The only way they could win victories in Africa was under the command of a Scipio! So they gave control of the war to Scipio Aemilianus, the grandson of the great general from The Second Punic War.

After 3 years of siege he successfully assaulted and defeated Carthage totally. The battle deteriorated into fighting street-by-street, but in the end the population of the city was either starved in the siege, killed in the battle, or sold into slavery. Then Carthage was burned to the ground.

The Takeaway From All This

Carthage was pretty much the last Mediterranean superpower that could stand up to Rome. After their defeat the known world would change completely as Rome became the dominant force. There wouldn’t be an external threat like Hannibal for another 700 years when Rome fell to the barbarians. Rome would now enter a phase where it’s existence wasn’t threatened by far-off wars with evil civilizations, but civil wars between ambitious men and internal chaos.