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The Punic Wars and Roman Expansion throughout the Mediterranean
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

We turn now to the middle period of the Republic (264-133), when Rome succeeds in expanding its power throughout the Mediterranean. By the end of this period, Rome controls seven provinces:

These new territories vastly increase Rome's wealth and military power, while also providing a base for the further extension of its economic, political, and military "influence" abroad. As we shall see, the effect on Rome's domestic economy, politics, and social structures is less happy. Eventually, the changes wrought by this rapid growth of Rome's wealth and power lead the Republic to collapse under its own weight.

The immediate occasion for Roman expansion consists of a series of three wars against Carthage — the so-called Punic Wars: [FN 1]

Depending on one's perspective, the first two of these wars were either unfortunate conflicts in which the Romans found themselves entangled against their will, or convenient excuses for the Romans to pursue their imperialistic designs. By contrast, the Third Punic War was, by common consensus, a cynical means for the Romans to wipe out an inveterate enemy once and for all, to their own benefit.

The First Punic War (264-241)

As often in such cases, the initial conflict between the two "super-powers" began with a minor incident in a region where their spheres of influence overlapped. In about 288, a group of Campanian mercenaries from southern Italy (the so-called "Mamertines" or "sons of Mars") seized the city of Messana on the northeast tip of Sicily. Their presence was viewed as a threat by Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse (the major independent Greek power in the region), who attacked the city in 264. Lacking confidence in their resources, the Mamertines called upon a nearby Carthaginian fleet for aid. The presence of the Carthaginians caused Hiero to withdraw, but raised a problem for the Mamertines, who then had to find some way to rid themselves of their "protectors": they decided to appeal to Rome for aid. At Rome, the people at length voted in favor of this venture, despite indecision on the part of the conservative Senate.

The Roman expedition easily secured Messana, but soon found itself confronted by a much larger coalition of Carthaginian and Syracusan troops. This led the Romans to send a proper force under the command of Appius Claudius, and the First Punic War commenced in earnest.

Appius Claudius quickly relieved Messana and, in 263, managed to win Hiero over to the Roman cause. In 262, on learning that the Carthaginians were intending to transport an army of 50,000 men from Carthage to the southern port of Agrigentum, he lay siege to the city and eventually sacked it. This loss convinced the Carthaginians that the best method of confronting the Romans was by sea, where their own superior experience gave them a decided edge.

Perceiving that the only way to defeat the Carthaginians and their well-developed navy was to take them on at sea, the pragmatic Romans built a fleet. Since they knew that they could never match the skill of the Carthaginian crews and commanders, they turned to technology to even the odds. They equipped their ships with a gang-plank, some 24 feet long, with hooks attached at the far end. (The device was known as the "raven" [*corvus]. [FN 2]) Rather than attempting to match the naval skills of their opponents, the Roman captains would merely ram an enemy ship and send this gangplank crashing down on its deck, where its hook would attach the two vessels firmly together. This allowed the Roman marines to cross over onto the enemy vessel and engage in hand-to-hand combat, at which they were quite adept.

The first major engagement occurred in 260 off the coast of Mylae (in northeast Sicily). The Roman fleet of some 140 ships confronted a Carthaginian fleet of about 130. Thanks in part to the corvi and in part to overconfidence on the part of the Carthaginians, the Romans emerged victorious, sinking or capturing some 50 Carthaginian ships. This victory gave the Romans temporary supremacy at sea and allowed them to consider taking the war into Carthaginian territory.

In 256 the consul *M. Atilius Regulus landed in Carthage with a modest force and enjoyed such immediate success that the Carthaginians entered into peace negotiations. Unfortunately, the Romans proposed such unreasonable demands that the Carthaginians resumed hostilities, with the aid of a Spartan military commander named Xanthippus, and in the following year nearly wiped out Regulus' force. A Roman fleet sent to reinforce Regulus' troops won a successful engagement with the Carthaginians and rescued the remainder of his men, but a storm on their return voyage destroyed some 250 of their ships, leaving a mere 80.

[Regulus became a Roman legend for the nobility of his failure. According to the story, he was sent to Rome to sue for peace on behalf of the Carthaginians, who hoped to employ Regulus' captured troops (some 500 in number) as hostages to compel the Romans to favorable terms. Rather than act as an agent for the enemy, he marched into the Senate, ignoring his wife and family, declared that peace was never to be negotiated on such terms, then insisted on returning to Carthage to die with his men. [FN 3]]

After a series of further set-backs the Romans enjoyed a decisive victory off the Aegates Islands (west of Sicily) in 241 that left Africa open to attack. Again peace negotiations were opened and this time the Romans' terms were accepted.

Once again, the sheer doggedness of the Romans had won the day — that, and their superior resources. Unlike the Carthaginians (who relied on mercenaries), the Romans were repeatedly able to call up fresh troops, despite their numerous losses, while the forests of Italy provided them with ready access to the material needed to rebuild their fleets. In all, the Romans lost some 600 ships in the course of the war — an enormous number by ancient standards.

One of the terms imposed upon Carthage was withdrawal from Sicily, which now became the first of Rome's provinces: a region of independent city-states, each of which had its own independent government, its own traditions, and its own particular relation with Rome, but all of which were compelled to pay tribute to Rome and to submit to the authority of a Roman provincial administration. A Roman governor was appointed annually to oversee this administration — usually one of the consuls or praetors of the previous year, who was invested with imperium and therefore enjoyed the same powers and authority as a military commander in the field.

After the truce, mercenaries in Carthage revolted due to lack of pay, further weakening Carthage's position. When Carthaginian mercenaries on Sardinia became embroiled in a dispute with the local population, the Romans used it as an excuse to seize both Sardinia and Corsica, which came to be administered jointly as the second of Rome's provinces. The Carthaginians were in no condition to contest this action, but it added to their bitterness against Rome.

[In the years that follow, the Romans found themselves dealing with the Gauls to the north and Illyrian pirates, who impeded trade and travel to the east.]

*The Second Punic War (218-201)

Eventually, Carthage began to get back on its feet again. Under the general Hamilcar (238-228) and his son-in-law Hasdrubal (228-221) it turned to Spain in an effort to open a new realm for trade (Sicily and the central Mediterranean now being firmly in the Roman sphere). In 221, Hamilcar's son *Hannibal (246-183) assumed control of the Carthaginian forces in Spain, by which time the territory under Carthaginian control extended north to the river Ebro, which became the dividing line between the Roman and Carthaginian spheres of influence in the region. (As when thinking of Italy or Sicily, it is important to remember that the region would have been dotted with various city-states and peoples who were not so much governed by the super-powers as allied with them, in varying degrees of harmony.)

Again, it is a local dispute that provides the casus belli. In 221, civil discord in Saguntum (on the east coast of Spain) led one party to turn to the Romans for help. Their intervention was looked upon askance by Hannibal (who saw a repeat of what had occurred in Messana and Sicily) and in 219 he lay siege to the city, counting on the Romans to be too busy in Illyria to respond. When Saguntum fell in 218, the Senate sent an embassy to Carthage demanding that Hannibal be surrendered for punishment; when this demand was rejected, war was declared.

Rome sent two legions to Spain under the elder P. Cornelius Scipio, and two others to Africa under Sempronius Longus. They seem to have expected a repeat of the First Punic War: while keeping Hannibal locked up in Spain, they would take the battle to Carthage itself and force both an end to the war and a Carthaginian withdrawal from Spain.

Unfortunately, Hannibal declined to follow the Roman plan: instead of waiting to be engaged in Spain, he made a daring march through the Alps (April-September, 218) and took the war into Italy. (Like Julius Caesar later, Hannibal's success as a general was due to a great degree on his speed, daring, and surprising tactics.) The march was a difficult one. Hannibal's forces were under constant attack by hostile Celtic tribes and had to deal with wintry conditions (including avalanches) and very rough terrain. (The expedition quickly assumed the status of myth, with tales of Hannibal dissolving boulders with vinegar in order to allow his exotic army of elephants to pass, etc. In part such tales reflect the terror that Hannibal inspired, quite deliberately, among the Italians during the course of the war.) It is likely that this maneuver cost Hannibal as many as 20,000 men out of an original 46,000. This left him with a relatively modest force: in the end, however, he nearly succeeded in compelling the Romans to capitulate, thanks to his skill as a general and, still more, overconfidence and incompetence on the part of Rome's military leaders.

Upon perceiving HannibalŐs strategy, Scipio split his troops in two, leaving part of them to maintain order in Spain and cut off any possible line of supply for Hannibal from that end. He himself directed the remaining troops back the way they had come, in the hope of intercepting Hannibal before he could descend into Italy; he also recalled Sempronius and his troops. (Thus Hannibal achieved his first objective, momentarily stymieing the Romans' intention to attack Carthage.)

Crossing the river Trebia (in northern Italy), Scipio's and Sempronius' combined forces attacked Hannibal just as he descended from the Alps. They were taken by surprise when Hannibal employed hidden reserves to attack their flanks and, cut off by river, lost about 75% of their original force of 40,000. The victory gave Hannibal access to Italy and encouraged the ever-recalcitrant Gauls to flock to his cause.

The Romans hoped to block Hannibal's path south, but left a key pass unguarded. When the Romans pursued him, he took them by surprise as they were marching along the shore of Lake Trasimene (217) and virtually wiped them out.

Hannibal had hoped to inspire a general uprising among the city-states of Italy. Unfortunately, this did not happen: not a single city joined his cause. Although he was virtually unopposed in Italy, he had no base for supplies and no defensive stronghold to use as a base. With what was still a relatively modest force, and no firm lines of supply, he moved south into Apulia and Campania to begin what he hoped will be a war of attrition: so long as he could continue his military successes, Rome could not mount an expedition against Carthage and (he hoped) would soon be confronted with enough domestic discontent to sue for peace.

Meanwhile, *Q. Fabius Maximus assumed the command against Hannibal. Seeing that Hannibal's strategy required a series of Roman disasters in order to succeed, he resolutely refused any large-scale engagements, choosing instead to hound Hannibal's forces and keep them foraging for supplies. (At one point he actually cornered Hannibal, but the latter escaped during the night by sending out a herd of oxen with torches affixed to their horns in order to mislead the Romans while his forces departed by another route.)

Fabius' strategy (which is commemorated today by the term *Fabian tactics) was exactly what was called for but, unfortunately, offended the Roman sense of self: to allow an undermanned foreign enemy free rein within Italy itself was disgraceful and smacked of cowardice. Accordingly, Fabius was recalled in 216 and replaced by L. Aemilius Paullus and C. Terrentius Varro. (In effect, Fabius is the mirror-image of Regulus: the former succeeds but is condemned for being unmanly; the latter allows his army to be wiped out, but is lionized for his willingness to face death — and allow his men to die! — with the requisite dignity and panache.)

Under their fresh command, the Roman troops immediately took on Hannibal at *Cannae (in Apulia), pitting some 50,000 Roman forces against a slightly smaller Carthaginian contingent of some 40,000. Again, Hannibal managed to outflank the Romans and virtually annihilated their army.

Once again Italy was left unprotected, and at this point various cities of southern Italy did begin to join Hannibal's cause, the most important being Capua. Moreover, various other powers began to see the opportunities afforded by the Romans' weakness, raising the specter of a much broader conflict. A particular threat was posed by Philip of Macedon, who entered into an alliance with Carthage following the Roman disaster at Cannae but was prevented from bringing substantial aid by the presence of a Roman fleet in the Adriatic. (To ensure that Philip could not look abroad, the Romans fomented and helped to conduct a series of conflicts in Greece proper, known as the First Macedonian War [214-205].) A second threat was posed by Syracuse. Although the tyrant Hiero had remained a staunch ally of Rome, his son Hieronymous decided to cast his lot with Hannibal following Cannae. Hieronymous was assassinated before he could act on his intentions, and the republican government that took control initially refused to get involved in the war. The Romans' heavy-handed response to the threat in Sicily, however, soon led to all-out war there, with a protracted seize of Syracuse (which was virtually unassailable, in large part due to the cunning war machinery contrived by the mathematician Archimedes) and the landing of a considerable Carthaginian force in southern Sicily. A combination of daring, luck, and treachery eventually delivered Syracuse and Sicily into the Romans' hands.

Meanwhile, in Italy Hannibal enjoyed some further successes, taking the city of Tarentum in 212, but soon saw the tide turn against him. Capua fell to the Romans in 211; Tarentum was recaptured in 209. Then, in 207 Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal was defeated and killed in Spain.

The defeat of Hasdrubal was a serious blow. Not only did it mean the loss of a brother and the fall of Spain, but it freed the youthful *P. Cornelius Scipio [Africanus] [FN 4] to undertake operations elsewhere. His father, the elder Scipio, had been given the initial command in Spain and, following the disaster at Trebia, had had the task of keeping Hasdrubal engaged and making sure that no reinforcements could be provided Hannibal from that region. On the death of the elder Publius and his brother Gnaeus in 211, reinforcements were sent to Spain in 210 under the command of Publius' son and namesake. The younger Publius was only 25 at this time and had held no office above that of aedile (i.e., he had been neither praetor nor consul and therefore did not have proconsular or propraetorian imperium). Moreover, he was given this command by the people, via the comitia tributa — an indication both of the popularity of the Scipios and of the waning authority of the Senate in the wake of the numerous debacles for which it had borne responsibility in the course of the war. (The fact that the people could undertake to ignore tradition in this way is troubling and will have ominous consequences later on, as we shall see.)

Scipio had a Napoleonic personality: he viewed himself as a favorite of Jupiter Capitolinus and the savior of Rome's fortunes. He also enjoyed an unmatched ability to draw people to him and command their loyalties. Relying on both of these traits, he undertook a drastic reform of the troops in Spain, subjecting them to rigorous training designed to bring them up to the standard of Hannibal's forces. He also reorganized their methods of fighting (in particular, he divided his forces into three independent lines in order to give them greater flexibility) and reoutfitted them with Spanish blades of the sort employed by their opponents.

By 206 Spain was under Scipio's control, in large part due to his mimicking of Hannibal's tactics. In 205 he was elected consul (having bypassed the formality of serving as praetor) and moved to take the war to Africa. Here he met with opposition: Rome and its allies were exhausted, physically, emotionally, and financially, while Hannibal was still literally at the gates (even if he did seem to have been stymied in his larger plans). When the Senate balked at Scipio's proposal, he again went before the comitia tributa and roused them to seek revenge against Carthage. Fearing loss of control, the Senate proposed a compromise: Scipio was given command of two disgraced legions in Sicily and the authority to employ them in an expedition against Carthage.

Again, we shall find that Scipio's actions foreshadow later events in ominous ways:

After training his forces, in 204 Scipio took the war to Africa. The Carthaginians sued for peace in 203, but once again the Romans were excessive in their terms. Hannibal was recalled to Africa and rejected all terms for peace. In the following year his was defeated at the battle of *Zama (202) and peace was finally established in 201.

The subjugation of the Carthaginian outposts in Spain led to the establishment of two new provinces there (Nearer and Farther Spain). Local resistance to Roman rule, however, led to a series of savage confrontations in the region that persisted until ca. 133.

The Third Punic War (149-146) and Developments in the Eastern Mediterranean

Even in its weakened state Carthage continued to be a threat and to offer unwelcome economic competition. A series of disputes between Carthage and the neighboring kingdom of Numidia eventually provided the Romans with a welcome excuse to obliterate its rival once and for all. (Numidia, under the control of Massinissa, was a client kingdom of Rome. Perceiving the Romans' hostility to Carthage, Massinissa deliberately provoked a war, expecting that he would be a principal beneficiary of any Roman action against Carthage.)

Urged on by hawks such as Cato the Elder (whom we shall meet again later) the Romans sent an expedition under the leadership of P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (the adopted son of the son of Scipio Africanus). Carthage was wiped out in relatively short order and its territory given over to the new Roman province of Africa.

In the meantime, in the course of the second century Rome found itself drawn into a series of brief, confusing wars in Greece and Asia Minor. As a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great (336-323), the eastern Mediterranean had long been under the control of a set of powerful dynasties and alliances. The main players were:

When Philip and Antiochus united to attack Ptolemy, Rhodes combined with the forces of Attalus in opposition. After an initial set-back, Attalus called upon Rome, which intervened with the goal of restraining Philip's ambitions. This led to two more Macedonian Wars (200-196, 172-167) and a war against Antiochus (192-189). Finally, a fourth Macedonian War concluded in 148/147 with Macedonia becoming a province of the Roman people. (When the Greek city-states resisted annexation, they were suppressed by force, with ancient Corinth being utterly obliterated by the general Memmius [146].) Depending on one's views, Rome either: (1) found itself drawn into an incredibly complex political and military situation against its will, eventually annexing Greece in an effort to bring order to a neighboring region and thus secure its own eastern border; or (2) gradually insinuated itself into affairs in the East with a view to extending its imperial domain.

As a result of these interventions, Rome became much more closely involved in the affairs of the eastern Mediterranean. Thus when Attalus III of Pergamum died in 133 and bequeathed his kingdom to the Roman people, the territory was readily annexed as the province of Asia.


[FN 1] The term "Punic" derives from the Latin term for "Carthaginian" (lit. "Phoenician"). [Return to text]

[FN 2] According to Polybius (1.22), it was an unnamed Greek who actually suggested this device to the Romans. Unfortunately, it made the Roman ships top-heavy and thus contributed to the large number of ships lost in storms during the course of the war. [Return to text]

[FN 3] For an account of Regulus' campaign in North Africa, see G.K. Tipps, "The Defeat of Regulus," Classical World 96 (2003) 375-85. [Return to text]

[FN 4] As a result of his victory against Carthage, Scipio is awarded the cognomen "Africanus." Thus he is usually referred to today as P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus or simply Scipio Africanus. [Return to text]

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