Click here for the home page 

The Xenophile Historian

The future flag of Europe? Albania Andorra Austria Belgium Bosnia
Bulgaria Croatia Czech Republic Denmark Finland France
Germany Greece Hungary Iceland Ireland Italy
Kosovo Liechtenstein Luxembourg Macedonia Malta Monaco
Montenegro Netherlands Norway Poland Portugal Romania
San Marino Serbia Slovakia Slovenia Spain Sweden
Switzerland United Kingdom Vatican City      

A History of Europe


753 to 27 B.C.

This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

The Etruscans
The Founding of Rome
The Roman Monarchy, 753-509 B.C.
The Roman Republic: The Early Years
Rome Becomes the Capital of Italy
The Samnite Wars

Part II

The First Punic War
Hannibal and the Second Punic War
Roman Intervention in the East
The Third Punic War
Go to Page Navigator

Part III

Growing Pains
The Reforms of the Gracchi
The Social War
Pompey's Campaigns and Spartacus
The Catiline Conspiracy
The Rise of Julius Caesar
The Gallic Wars
Caesar Rules Alone
The Second Triumvirate

Top of the page


We saw in Chapter 1 how Rome's archenemy, Kar-Hadasht (Carthage in English), got started as a Phoenician colony in Tunisia.(18) By 300 B.C. Carthage ruled not only North Africa but also the southern coast of Spain, Sardinia and Corsica, the Balearic Islands and the western part of Sicily. In humbler times Rome had signed three treaties (510, 348 and 306 B.C.), which acknowledged Carthaginian supremacy and promised that beyond Italy, Rome would only trade with Carthage.

Carthage's early constitution provided for a king, aristocratic senate, and popular assembly. Perhaps originally hereditary, the kingship was generally elective but was held for life. In the 3rd century BC the king was replaced by two chief magistrates, called shophets(19), elected annually from the aristocracy, and by elected generals who held long-term commands and were often highly professional and successful. They needed to be successful, because Carthage had a nasty habit of executing generals and admirals who lost more than one battle! Membership in the senate, which was several hundred strong and discussed all important business, was for life. The assembly voted only on great issues such as war and peace or on issues that the other branches of government failed to resolve. In the mid-5th or early 4th century BC, a body of 104 senatorial judges was created to oversee the king. They later oversaw the magistrates and generals, but a reform of Hannibal, as shophet (c.196 BC), mandated their annual election and forbade consecutive terms.

The Carthaginian government was less stable than that of the Romans. In fact, it was a plutocracy (government or rule by the richest), whose main policy always seems to have been "let those in charge get more money." Around 520 B.C., Carthage abandoned a citizen army and began to rely heavily on mercenaries. Modern historians often criticize this shift, but Carthage's small population base forced it. By contrast, the Romans had been brought up on the virtues of pietas, simplicitas, gravitas (dignity), and civic responsibility, so they saw the Carthaginian way of life as disgusting. It also didn't help that the Carthaginians worshiped Phoenician deities like Baal, Tanit, and Melkart, and often sacrificed their children to them. In 153 B.C., the Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato visited Carthage, and was so horrified by their lack of morals that from then on he finished every speech with the words "Delenda est Carthago!" (Carthage must be destroyed).(20)

Rome & Carthage
Rome (red) and Carthage (purple) before the Punic Wars.

Top of the page

The First Punic War

War between the two western republics was probably inevitable, because after the war with Pyrrhus, Rome and Carthage thought the world was no longer big enough for both of them. It all started on the island between them: Sicily. In 289 B.C., a group of Samnite mercenaries fled to Sicily, swore an oath to the war god Mamers (Mars), and offered their services to the city of Syracuse. Then the Mamertines took the town of Messina, slaughtered the men, married the women, and became pirates. Syracuse decided it didn't want these thugs around anymore, and attacked them; in response the Mamertines asked Rome and Carthage for help. Both sent men; Carthage because it disliked Syracuse, Rome because it thought a Carthaginian camp in the northeast corner of Sicily was too close for comfort.

On Sicily the two forces clashed, beginning the First Punic War in 264 B.C..(21) The Romans managed to get across the strait of Messina, despite a Carthaginian blockade, and they spared no expense; both consuls and four legions--the whole levy of troops for that year--took part in the crossing. Hiero, the tyrant of Syracuse, decided to ally himself with Carthage, but he was defeated in the first battle. Very lenient terms persuaded him to switch sides; all he had to do was pay a hundred talents to Rome, and provide supplies for the Roman army. Hiero supported the Romans for the rest of the war, and they used Syracuse as their port when shipping reinforcements.

The Romans were better fighters on land, no question about that, and they overran the interior of Sicily within a year. The only Sicilian city which put up significant resistance was Acragas, which fell after a five-month siege. Carthage, however, had ruled the sea for centuries, meaning their fleet could go anywhere at will and supply their coastal forts indefinitely. Although they were landlubbers, the Romans overcame this disadvantage with luck and a clever invention. One of the mainline Carthaginian fighting ships, a quinquereme, ran aground on an Italian beach. The Romans captured it, hired some Greek naval architects to show them how to build ships, and used the wreck as their model to build a hundred quinqueremes in two months. Then for good measure, they also built twenty of the smaller Greek-style warships (triremes). To offset their lack of sailing skills, the Romans made the hulls thicker to increase protection, and fitted a boarding apparatus on the mast of each quinquereme. This device, called a corvus ("crow"), was a drawbridge which they dropped on the enemy's deck when the ship got close enough (it had a beak-shaped spike on its underside to keep the two ships together). Once the bridge went down, Roman legionaries rushed across and did the rest; because there were few armed men on the Carthaginian ships, the battle was as good as over when that happened. This simple way of turning a sea battle into a land battle made it possible for the Romans to destroy the Carthaginian navy.

The corvus had its biggest success the first time it was used, at the battle of Mylae (260); Rome sank fourteen ships and captured thirty-one. Four years later (256) came the battle of Ecnomus, which may have been the greatest naval battle of all time; more than seven hundred ships and 200,000 men participated, far more than those who took part in the famous battle of the Spanish Armada (see Chapter 10). At Ecnomus the Carthaginians out maneuvered the Romans, but showed they learned nothing from the first disaster; the Romans sank thirty ships and captured sixty-four.

Sicily. Source: Carthage, A History, by B. H. Warmington, New York, Barnes & Noble Books, 1960.

Even with command of the sea the Romans found the struggle hard and long. The fleet that won the battle of Ecnomus was commanded by Marcus Atilius Regulus, a former consul and veteran of the Pyrrhic War. Regulus followed up Ecnomus by sailing the fleet to Africa. The troops the fleet carried landed fifty miles from Carthage, marched on the capital, and succeeded in capturing Tunis, only five miles short of their goal. Suddenly, five hundred Greek mercenaries showed up on the scene and offered their services, led by a Spartan named Xanthippus. We saw in Chapter 2 of this work that if you lived in ancient times and somebody needed a good beating up, the Spartans were the folks you called to do it. Carthage did more than hire them; they put Xanthippus in command of the Carthaginian army when he persuaded his patrons that their cavalry, infantry and elephants were good enough to defeat the Romans, provided they had the right leadership. Meanwhile on the other side, Regulus was told to avoid battle with the Carthaginians until reinforcements from Italy arrived in the spring of 255, but he was eager for a fight, and concerned that if he waited for the reinforcements, whoever commanded them, and not him, would get the glory for winning the campaign. His ego was his undoing. When the battle came, the combined force of the Carthaginian army and Greek mercenaries threw the invaders back into the sea. Five hundred Romans were captured, including Regulus.

On the way home from this disaster, the Roman fleet was caught in a terrible storm, which wrecked 284 ships and drowned 100,000 men; this was the worst sea disaster in history. Galleys are easy to capsize because they have holes on their sides for the oars; the weight of the corvus on the Roman ships may have made them difficult to handle in stormy weather, too. Rome replaced them by building 140 ships in three months, but in 253 a second gale sank the Roman fleet; this time 150 ships were lost, and since each quinquereme typically had three hundred oarsmen and a hundred soldiers on board, this set the Romans back considerably, leaving them in as bad shape as the Carthaginians were in.

Though the war was costing them dearly, the Romans weren't going to quit while they were ahead, so they sent reinforcements to Sicily and renewed the offensive, taking the cities of Thermae (252), Kephaladon (251), and finally Panormus (modern Palermo, 251), which has the finest harbor on the island.(22) The Carthaginians thought this would be a good time to end the war, before they lost everything on Sicily, and they sent Regulus to Rome as their negotiator. They told Regulus that if he did not present the Carthaginian terms of peace, he would have to return to Carthage to be put to death. Instead, Regulus felt that upholding Roman virtues, especially patriotism, was more important, so he exorted the Romans to continue the war until they had smashed Carthage; after all, if Carthage wants peace, press it a little more and it will probably give up. Then Regulus went back to Carthage. The people of Rome wept and pleaded for him not to go, but Regulus said he made a promise, and had to keep it. The Carthaginians kept their promise too, executing him by slow torture. For that reason, we don't remember Regulus for being a war hero (though he was), but for being the most loyal diplomat who ever lived.

Activity now shifted to the last Carthaginian fort, Lilybaeum. Carthage won a great naval battle in the vicinity (the battle of Drepanum, 249); Rome lost 93 ships and 28,000 men (8,000 killed, the rest captured). The Carthaginians followed this up by attacking Agrigentum, a city on Sicily's south coast that the Romans had captured early in the war. They did not believe they could hold Agrigentum, though, so they burned it and withdrew. Before the year was up the Romans also lost another fleet of 120 warships and eight hundred transports, partly in battle and partly in yet another storm.

For seven more years the nearly exhausted combatants fought a war of raids and sieges. Rome did not replace the ships and men lost previously, so Carthage had a better time of it at sea. When Rome realized it was caught in a stalemate, it exerted enough effort to build one more fleet, of two hundred vessels. You can tell the Roman state must have been under serious strain because the last fleet was financed by wealthy private individuals, not by the government. This fleet was sent to Lilybaeum, and at the battle of the Aegates Islands, they won the victory they needed, sinking 50 Carthaginian ships and capturing 70 (242). Carthage couldn't take any more, and sued for peace. Rome's first overseas venture had been a success, won by her usual method of grinding down the enemy. In the treaty ending the war (241), Carthage agreed to evacuate Sicily, and pay an indemnity of 3,200 talents (about $20 million in 1990s dollars); Syracuse became a Roman client while the rest of Sicily became a conquered province.

Top of the page


The next twenty-two years were a time without prosperity. Both sides suffered from the usual hardship and disorganization that comes after a big war. Carthage in particular suffered from violent disorder; being a nation of merchants, it always paid attention to the bottomline, and decided that in order to recover, it would not be able to pay the mercenaries their full salary. How the Carthaginian leaders got the idea that they could get away with this is a mystery. As you would expect if you know anything about mercenaries, the returning soldiers mutinied and looted. While they were in revolt, much of the land went uncultivated. This was a greater threat to Carthage than Rome had been in the recent war, so Carthage scrounged up enough cash to hire some new mercenaries, to fight the angry ones. Hamilcar Barca, the Carthaginian general, was put in command, and he used horrible cruelties to suppress the uprisings, crucifying more than a thousand troublemakers by 237. In the end, the new mercenaries and the uprisings cost Carthage more than the back pay of the original mercenaries would have cost.

Meanwhile Corsica and Sardinia revolted, and Rome used that as an excuse to annex them in 241 and 238 B.C., respectively. A decade later, Rome decided to conquer the Po River valley; this caused a bloody six-year war with the Gauls, in which Rome killed 40,000 Gauls and pushed the Roman state's northern frontier to the Alps (226-220).(23) To the east, the Adriatic swarmed with Illyrian pirates, which caused so much trouble for Greece and Italy that Rome would be forced to annex Illyria before long (219).

Carthage no longer had control of the sea, but it saw new opportunities on land. By strengthening control over Algeria and Morocco, it established a base to conquer the interior of Spain. Spain's treasure hoard of metals allowed Carthage to pay off its debt to Rome on time (which is why Rome permitted the Carthaginians to invade Spain in the first place), and hardy men of Celtic and Iberian stock filled the ranks of the depleted army. To lead the troops and govern the new territory, Carthage sent Hamilcar in 237 B.C., and he brought his nine-year-old son, Hannibal. In fact, using Spanish silver to pay the debt was Hamilcar's idea, and Carthage felt embarrassed about having him around, because during the First Punic War, the empire had not given him the full support he had requested.(24) Agreeing to the plan would not only make Carthage richer -- it would also get Hamilcar out of town.

In the parts of Spain he conquered, Hamilcar had as much power as a king; you could say he was building his own kingdom within the Carthaginian Empire. If he had gained control over the whole Iberian peninsula he would have had the resources to either start a new war with Rome, or to declare independence from Carthage; we don't know which would have been his first choice. In 228 Hamilcar drowned in a river during a battle, and his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, took his place. Hasdrubal built up the expeditionary force until it numbered 50,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and 200 elephants, and founded a second city named Carthage--modern Cartagena--to serve as the capital of Spain (the Romans called it Carthago Nova, meaning New Carthage). Then Hasdrubal was murdered in 220, and command passed to young Hannibal.

Left to themselves, the Carthaginians probably would not have challenged Rome again. But the Romans were not prepared to leave any potential rival or enemy alone. When Rome seized Corsica and Sardinia, it fined Carthage an additional 1,200 talents to cover the cost of pacification. In 225 the Romans got concerned about the safety of Massilia and northwest Italy, and made Hasdrubal promise not to cross the Ebro River. In 221 Rome decided to extend protection to Saguntum (modern Valencia), a Spanish town that lay south of the Ebro and was pro-Roman in its sympathies.

The Carthaginians realized that it was now or never. Hannibal was given the go-ahead and he took Saguntum with a siege that lasted seven months (219). The Romans did not assist the defenders, because both of their consuls were busy in Illyria at the time, but still Carthage expected another war with Rome. According to one account, an embassy went to the Carthaginian senate to demand that Hannibal be turned over to Rome for punishment. When Carthage refused, an elderly Roman named Fabius Buteo grasped the part of his toga over his breast, and said that from its folds, he could shake out either peace or war. The Carthaginians left the choice to him, and Fabius let go of the folds, shouting, "We give you war!"

Top of the page

Hannibal and the Second Punic War

The Romans raised six legions when the Second Punic War began. Their plan was to keep two at home, send two to Spain and invade Africa with the remaining two. They must have thought this war would be easier than the first one, because the Carthaginians were far from Italy and Rome had control of the sea. However, they did not factor Hannibal into the equation. He started marching before they did, and at the Rhone River his army turned north, instead of attacking Massilia. Three days later the Roman force on its way to Spain arrived at the Rhone, commanded by one of the consuls, Publius Cornelius Scipio; Hannibal had given him the slip completely. By the end of the year he was over the Alps.(25)

Hannibal in the Alps.

Of the 46,000 men Hannibal started with, only 26,000 survived to gaze on the Po River. The local Roman commander took one look at the survivors and declared: "They are the ghosts and shadows of men already half dead. All their strength has been crushed and beaten out of them by the Alpine crags." He was badly mistaken; this part of Italy had only recently been conquered by Rome and Hannibal starting recruiting the local Gauls to replace the men he had lost. The strength of his army grew until it was equal to that of the four legions the Romans now hurriedly concentrated against him (the two on their way to Africa were recalled when they got as far as Sicily). Scipio also returned, when he realized that Hannibal was headed for Italy, not Massilia. He assembled 20,000 men at the junction of the Po and Ticino Rivers, near modern Pavia, and got the worst of it when Hannibal attacked with his cavalry. Scipio was wounded in the battle of Ticinus; he only survived because his son, also named Publius Cornelius Scipio (we will call him Scipio Africanus after this), led the party that rescued him. The unexpected Carthaginian victory had a huge effect on their opponents; e.g., 2,000 Gauls who were supposed to be on the side of the Romans killed the Romans in their camp, cut off their heads and took them to Hannibal. Scipio had to withdraw downstream and wait for the other consul, Tiberius Sempronius Longus, to bring the legions from Sicily.

Because Scipio was recovering from his wounds, Longus took command, and let politics dictate his strategy; his term as consul was almost up, and in the time he had left, he wanted to win a battle, which would give the Roman people something to remember him by. Meanwhile, Hannibal told his brother Mago to choose a spot behind enemy lines, and conceal some picked cavalrymen there. Then he provoked the reconstituted Roman army into crossing the Trebia River to attack him. It was December, so it was cold enough that sleet was falling that morning, and the hotheaded Longus was so eager to fight that he led the troops from their camp before they had eaten breakfast; imagine how miserable and ill the troops must have felt! Several hours later, while the legions were reorganizing themselves on the other side of the river, Hannibal's army struck. The Romans advanced to the Carthaginian center where Hannibal had placed his Gallic recruits, but Hannibal's veteran cavalry closed in from the sides, and Mago attacked in the rear. Trapped on the riverbank, the Roman army was massacred.

After this the Romans took Hannibal more seriously. They rebuilt their northern army to its original strength of four legions and raised five new legions for the defense of Rome (2), Sicily (2) and Sardinia (1). They were not entirely on the defensive; at the mouth of the Ebro, Cnaeus Scipio (the brother of Publius) won a naval victory that was as good as Hannibal's victory at the Trebia. Even so, in Italy all they could think of was defense, so they split their northern army into two forces: one guarded Etruria, the other the Adriatic coast.

Hannibal slipped between the two and turned southeast. The two legions defending Etruria followed him, just a day behind. He marched along the road that leads past Lake Trasimene, stopped there, and waited for them to catch up. They found Hannibal's infantry standing fast in the foothills on the opposite side of the road from the lake; his two cavalry wings moved in to block the road in front of and behind the Roman column. This time there was no escape; both legions were annihilated.(26)

From Lake Trasimene Hannibal continued moving east until he reached the Adriatic. Then he turned south for Apulia. The Romans built up their main army in Italy to four legions again, and by the summer of 216 they were ready for another battle. Once more they let Hannibal choose the place--at Cannae--though this time they made sure they had no water at their backs.

The Roman army was larger than Hannibal's by a factor of four to three, but it was almost entirely infantry; the Carthaginian cavalry was larger and better. So Hannibal picked a flat, treeless battlefield, ideal for cavalry fighting. He knew that the Romans would try a frontal charge to break the Carthaginian center, and that his infantry would have a hard time holding back an attack from four legions. So he decided to let the Romans have their way--up to a point. For bait he put his least reliable troops, the Gauls, in the center and farthest forward, with the Spaniards on each side; behind them and on each flank were placed the Carthaginian heavy infantry; a cavalry wing on each end completed the formation. Because the Gallic and Spanish troops had lower morale than the veterans from Africa, Hannibal stood in the center with them, using his presence to keep them from breaking when the Romans attacked.

The first part of the battle went as both sides expected. The Carthaginian cavalry swept the weak Roman cavalry from the field while in the center the Gauls were forced back by the weight of all four Roman legions. Or so it appeared. Hannibal had ordered the Gauls to fall back slowly and shorten their line so that as they retreated their formation strengthened. The flanking columns of Carthaginian and Spanish infantry spread out to keep the Romans from getting around the Gauls.

The pace of the Roman advance slowed as they started bumping into each other on the narrowing front. Then it stopped. The Romans became uneasily aware that they were in a box, surrounded by infantry on three sides. They also realized that the Carthaginian cavalry was behind them, but it had not rushed off to loot the unguarded Roman camp (something soldiers will do when they get the opportunity). That was when Hannibal closed the lid of the box.

Surrounding a force larger than your own is always a risky move, and in some places the Carthaginian line was only three ranks deep, meaning that the Romans could have broken out if they had charged at one of those spots. Instead they panicked, being a force of mostly green troops (after Ticinus, Trebia and Lake Trasimene, veteran soldiers were hard to come by). The rest of the battle was a massacre. Exaggerating their defeat, the Romans claimed to have lost 70,000 men, which was probably twice the real number. Nevertheless it was the worst defeat Rome ever suffered; those four legions were all but destroyed.(27)

Cannae was a brilliant example of how to envelop an army; generals have studied it since then, looking for ways to do the same thing in their battles. The road to Rome was now wide open, but he could not clinch his victory by taking the city because his army lacked the food and equipment for a long siege. His brilliant Numidian cavalry commander, Marhabal, urged him to attack anyway, promising that, "Within five days, you will take your dinner, in triumph, on the Capitol!" Hannibal refused, and a disgusted Marhabal said, "You know, Hannibal, how to win a fight. You do not know how to use your victory." Later on, Hannibal would regret passing up his best chance to march on Rome.

Of course there was panic in Rome; nobody there expected four legions--fighting on their home ground, using superior weapons, massed in the largest formation seen in Italy so far--to be defeated, let alone obliterated. The Romans reacted with superstition, the way they had during the latest war against the Gauls, looking for a sign that the gods were angry with them. They learned that two of the Vestal Virgins, the famous priestesses who tended sacred fires in the temple of Vesta, had broken their vows of celibacy; one was entombed alive, while the other committed suicide. Then they consulted the Sibyline Books, the three-hundred-year-old Etruscan scrolls that we mentioned earlier in this chapter, to see what they had to say about this crisis, and sent an embassy to Greece ask the Oracle of Delphi what to do. Finally the population called for a human sacrifice, so two Gauls and two Greeks were buried alive.

Capua went over to Hannibal when he promised to make it the future capital of Italy. The southern tribes that Rome conquered a few decades earlier (the Samnites, Lucanians and Bruttians) also defected, but the rest of the Roman state -- especially its core territory of Latium -- held together. We already saw how Rome had more willpower than her opponents to endure a long war; Cannae would have caused most nations to sue for peace immediately, but it made the Romans want to beat Hannibal even more. Throughout the whole war, as Livy put it, the Romans "breathed not a word of peace" (22.61). When Hannibal offered to negotiate terms for the release of his prisoners, Rome refused to speak with him, though the prisoners included some badly needed soldiers captured at Cannae.

On the other side, Hannibal's brother Mago returned to Carthage in 215, to ask for money and reinforcements. There was a dramatic moment when Mago walked into the Carthaginian senate with a bag, and dumped the bag's contents on the floor--hundreds of gold rings taken from dead Romans at Cannae. Roman soldiers from upper class families wore gold rings to show their status (Cannae was so important to the Romans that a consul and some senators fought and died there), and these rings showed Carthage how much Rome had lost in that battle. The assistance Mago asked for was granted; it was the only time much aid from home successfully reached Hannibal, during his long sojourn in Italy.

After that the Romans pulled together, acting in unison for the common goal of defending their nation; the next few years were later remembered as Rome's darkest (and finest) hour. A temporary dictatorship was appointed for the purpose of replacing the four lost legions as fast as possible. To do it, the dictator, Marcus Junius, freed 6,000 convicted prisoners, bought and armed slaves, and accepted boys as young as sixteen. After that massive recruiting continued, until the Roman army had a total of 25 legions.

Nothing could persuade them to face Hannibal on the battlefield again, so for the next fourteen years the war in Italy was a cat-and-mouse game.(28) Hannibal shifted his attention from Campania to Magna Graecia, and took Tarentum in 212. This was the high-water mark of Hannibal's career. At this point, most of Spain and much of Italy was his; he had allies in southern Gaul and Sicily. Now that he stood on Italy's southern shore, if he could secure his control over Tarentum and the surrounding land, he would have a great port to bring in reinforcements from Carthage. But Hannibal could not be everywhere, and wherever he wasn't at any particular time the Romans were busy bringing part of the land back under their control. In 211 they recaptured Capua, in 209 Tarentum.

Hannibal's biggest problem was getting fresh recruits; the cities he had liberated were only willing to send a few volunteers. He formed an alliance with Philip V, the king of Macedonia, promising him Rome's easternmost territories after he finished off the Republic, but Philip never got around to sending any Macedonian troops to Italy. A key factor at this stage was the Roman Senate's decision to leave the Scipio brothers in Spain, even when Hannibal threatened the heart of Italy; this deprived Hannibal of reinforcements from Iberia and Africa. In Spain Hasdrubal, Hannibal's brother, took command of the Carthaginian forces. He marched to the Ebro in 215 and tried the same formation that Hannibal used at Cannae; instead his center broke, causing a rout of the Carthaginian army. However, the Scipios commanded a small army, so after this they tried to win over the Spanish tribes by diplomacy rather than by force. They managed to capture Saguntum in 212, but that was the end of their winning streak. In 211 the Carthaginians managed to isolate and kill the Scipio brothers in two separate battles, and Rome lost everything it had gained south of the Ebro; only a quarrel among the three Carthaginian generals (Hasdrubal, his brother Mago and another Hasdrubal, the son of Gisgo), kept Carthage from invading Gaul at this point.

The Romans raised a new army for Spain in 210, and sent it under Scipio Africanus. This Scipio was only twenty-five years old, too young by law to be placed in command (the minimum age was 35), but his leadership skills were widely known; he also was a survivor of the battles of Ticinus and Cannae, and that gave him a unique understanding of Hannibal's skill with tactics, troops and terrain. In addition, he was very popular, so Rome let him lead anyway. He arrived to find the three enemy generals in different parts of Spain, trying to consolidate Carthaginian power over the whole peninsula. A surprise move by him shifted the situation back in Rome's favor; he made a forced march down the coast and captured Carthago Nova, which only had a small garrison to guard it because it was hundreds of miles behind the front lines. This gave Scipio a secure base and control over half of Spain's silver. Both sides stayed put until 208, when Scipio advanced into the Baetis valley. Hasdrubal the brother of Hannibal tried to stop him, but disengaged when he saw he was about to be outflanked by the larger Roman force; by the time he got away he had lost a third of his 25,000 men. Then he decided that he could do more good helping Hannibal, so he began the long march to Italy; Scipio had to let him go, because chasing Hasdrubal would have meant ending a successful campaign in Spain.

Meanwhile in Italy, the war became a war of attrition, with both sides suffering badly. Roman census figures give us an idea of how bad things were for them: in 220 B.C. they could call up 270,000 able-bodied men to arms, but twelve years later scarcely 130,000 were available. This meant that their legions would have to fight under-strength, unless they recruited enough non-Roman auxiliaries to make up the difference. Then came the news that Hasdrubal was on the way from Spain with a second Carthaginian army to reinforce the first. Hasdrubal rounded the west end of the Pyrenees, wintered among a tribe in central Gaul called the Arverni(29), and marched over the Alps in the spring of 207. His Alp crossing was a lot easier than Hannibal's because he did it at the right time of year, and because he had the cooperation of the natives. He descended into Italy like a snowball, his army swollen by the allies he had gathered on the way from Spain. This was Rome's worst nightmare. If the two brothers met, they would have a force big enough to make the long-delayed march on Rome, and that would be the end of the Republic.

Fifteen legions rushed north to deal with this new threat. The importance of this campaign is shown in that both of the current consuls, Caius Claudius Nero and Marcus Livius, went to lead it. They caught up with Hasdrubal on the Adriatic coast next to a small river called the Metaurus, about 200 miles north of Hannibal's current location. Hasdrubal heard they were coming and withdrew to more favorable ground the night before.(30) Both sides divided their forces into three parts; on the Carthaginian side Hasdrubal commanded the Spanish force on the right, while the center was made up of Ligurians and Gauls formed the left. At dawn Livius made a frontal attack on the Carthaginian right while Nero, instead of guarding the Roman right from the Gauls, sneaked behind the other Romans, outflanked the Carthaginian right and hit both Spaniards and Ligurians from the rear. The Carthaginians, completely demoralized by this surprise move, panicked. Hasdrubal's army was completely beaten, losing 10,000 men (including Hasdrubal); Roman losses were about 2,000 men. It was the miracle the Romans needed.

Rome finally felt confident enough to go on the offensive. While Hannibal was kept running circles in south Italy (and achieving less each year), Scipio won the decisive battle in Spain. In 206 he encountered a larger army, led by the other Hasdrubal, at Alcala del Rio, a few miles north of modern Seville. For several days the two sides maneuvered, each one drawing up formations that placed its elite force in the center; in addition, Hasdrubal kept the usual Carthaginian elephants in the front. Then one morning Scipio made his attack, moving so early that the Carthaginians did not even have time for breakfast. On this occasion he did the opposite of what he had done the other days, putting his Spanish troops in the center and the Romans on the wings, to encircle the Carthaginians. Hasdrubal found his cavalry neutralized by his elephants, which stampeded in the wrong direction to flee from the Roman cavalry. In the end Hasdrubal managed to get away with his best troops, the Africans, but otherwise the battle was another Cannae, this time with the Romans making the enveloping move.

Hasdrubal the son of Gisgo escaped by ship from Gades (modern Cadiz) to Africa. The remaining Carthaginian general, Hannibal's brother Mago, tried to take Carthago Nova, failed, and returned to find that the people of Gades had locked him out. Then Mago departed, and Scipio could claim that the conquest of Spain was complete. At the end of 206, Scipio sailed to Italy and got himself elected consul for the following year. Mago landed on the Ligurian coast of Italy with a new army in 205, but after the battle of the Metaurus, the Gauls no longer wanted to help, so his attempt to join Hannibal got nowhere; he died of a wound on the way back to Africa. After his term as consul ended, Scipio invaded Africa with 25,000 men (204). Within a year he captured Tunis, defeated the Numidian allies of Carthage, and broke the defending Carthaginian armies; only Hannibal's was left.

Carthage called Hannibal home in 202 and staked everything on one last battle, to throw Scipio out of Tunisia. The day before the battle, Hannibal requested a meeting with Scipio, and incredibly, that meeting took place. The historians Livy and Polybius tell us that Hannibal tried to talk Scipio out of fighting, telling him that after Cannae, he was on the verge of capturing Rome, but look how far he had fallen since then. Scipio wouldn't budge, replying that Carthage could not be trusted. For the battle of Zama, Hannibal had 80 elephants, but otherwise Scipio's force was superior in every way. Scipio had a fine cavalry, recruited from the Numidians (until now the Numidian cavalry had been Hannibal's strong point), two veteran legions, and a cool head. When the pachyderms saw the Romans coming at them with spears they turned and trampled the infantry they were supposed to clear a path for. A step-by-step destruction of the last Carthaginian army followed. Carthage surrendered, gave up her empire and war fleet, and agreed to pay ten thousand talents (about $67.2 million). Most difficult of all, Carthage agreed not to go to war without Rome's permission, and to hand over Hannibal to the Romans.(31) Rome had suffered terribly as well; at the war's end, the treasury was drained, and the population had declined 17 percent, meaning one sixth of the Republic's people had died since the war began. The greatest rivalry of classical times was over.

Before we go on, a few words would be appropriate about the side show that went on in Sicily while the main events took place in Italy. Hiero, the pro-Roman ruler of Syracuse during the First Punic War, died in 215, and his successor Hieronymus switched to Carthage. A Roman fleet came to attack the port, and it held out for three years, due to the genius of one man, the Greek scientist Archimedes. Long-range and short-range catapults were used effectively, and Archimedes put huge pincers on the city walls to crush or capsize the ships that got too close. According to one account, he even invented a type of laser; large parabolic mirrors were used to focus sunlight on distant ships, setting them on fire. After that all Archimedes had to do was show a log or rope on the wall, and the Romans would flee in panic, thinking it was some diabolical new device.

Finally Syracuse celebrated a holiday, and the Romans used the occasion to sneak in through an unguarded tower on the wall, thus capturing the city. Archimedes was drawing a geometry problem on the dirt floor of his house when a Roman soldier burst in and ordered him out. Without looking up, Archimedes said, "Do not disturb my circles," and the impatient Roman killed the old scientist. Since then this incident has been used by those who want to contrast Greek high-mindedness with Roman heavy-handedness.

Top of the page

Roman Intervention in the East

The defeat of Carthage in the Second Punic War left the Romans without a rival in the western Mediterranean. Instead of resting and recovering from this terrible struggle, they spent the next dozen years becoming masters of the eastern Mediterranean, too.

Rome had made its first move in this direction just before the outbreak of the Second Punic War, when they occupied the part of the Illyrian coast nearest the heel of Italy (an area almost identical to modern-day Albania). Greed or a lust for conquest did not sponsor this, but the need to suppress piracy in the Adriatic. Then they lost interest in the east while Hannibal was threatening them at home, until they were invited by Pergamun, a city-state in western Asia Minor. It was the Pergamenes who talked the war-weary Romans into sending their legions east to overthrow first Macedonia, and then the Seleucid kingdom.

Recently those two kingdoms had agreed to cooperate in dismantling the empire of the Ptolemies, the Greek kings who lorded over Egypt, Cyrenaica, Cyprus and most of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard. In the same year as the battle of Zama, Macedonia's Philip V and Antiochus III of the Seleucid (Syrian) Greeks began the carving process. Pergamun saw that if Egypt fell, the little states of Greece and Asia Minor, located between the two victors, would soon be swallowed up by them. In 201 a Pergamene embassy went to Rome to ask the Senate for military assistance.

Persuading the senators to declare war on Philip wasn't very difficult. Philip was an open supporter of Hannibal and had made a sneak attack on Roman Illyria during the Second Punic War. The Romans never forgot this--nor did they forget that the Pergamenes had joined in the Roman naval counterattack that stopped Philip. Now the Romans sent Philip an ultimatum and when he rejected it, they dispatched two legions to Greece. As we saw in the previous chapter, Rome won a total victory in 197, at the battle of Cynoscephalae. The peace treaty they dictated was generous: Philip kept most of Macedonia while the rest of Greece was declared free. Grateful Greeks thanked the Romans with a eulogy that could apply to the present-day United States:

"There was one people in the world which would fight for others' liberties at its own cost, to its own peril, and with its own toil, not limiting its guaranties of freedom to its neighbors, to men of the immediate vicinity, or to countries that lay close at hand, but ready to cross the sea that there might be no unjust empire anywhere and that everywhere justice, right, and law might prevail."(32)

Antiochus III was impressed by the speed with which the Romans had disposed of his ally. But he had just chased Ptolemy V out of Israel and Lebanon, and was in no mood to let the Romans give him orders. Pergamun watched anxiously as the Romans offered to leave Antiochus alone if he kept out of Europe. Luckily for them he refused the offer. Because Rome had proclaimed Greece "free" after Cynoscephalae, but was now telling the Greeks what they could and could not do, the Romans were rapidly wearing out their welcome in Greece.

In 192 the Aetolian League moved against Sparta, a Roman ally, and Antiochus enthusiastically sent an army, seeing this as the opportunity to eliminate neutral or pro-Roman states in Greece. One of those states was Thessaly, and while marching against it, Antiochus came to Cynoscephalae, saw that the remains of the Macedonian dead were still unburied, and gave them a splendid funeral. However, Philip V stayed on the side of the Romans, having learned his lesson in the last war; so did the Achaean League.

The Romans did not take the Seleucid threat lightly. They sent an army of 20,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalvy and a few elephants; the commander was one of the consuls for 191 B.C., Manius Acilius Glabrio. This force was more than twice the size of what Antiochus had, so remembering history, he decided to meet the Romans in the most defensible spot in Greece -- Thermopylae. Because Leonidas and his 300 Spartans had held off a Persian army too big to be counted at Thermopylae, Antiochus reasoned that his ten thousand Greeks could do better than that, and maybe even win. Unfortunately, he did not consider three other factors:

  1. Man for man, the Romans were tougher fighters than the Persians.
  2. Likewise, the Greek soldiers of the second century B.C. were nothing like the Spartans of old.
  3. The Spartans were defeated because their enemies found a way around Thermopylae, and the Romans knew that.
The result: When the Romans encountered the Seleucids and Aetolians, the latter fell into confusion. Rather than becoming another famous last stand, the second battle of Thermopylae was an easy Roman victory. Classical-era historians reported that only 200 Romans were killed or wounded, while the anti-Roman coalition was virtually wiped out. Next, Scipio Africanus led the Roman counterattack into Asia Minor; at the battle of Magnesia he destroyed the main army of Antiochus (190). The peace terms that came after the war forced Antiochus to get rid of most of his fleet, and yield his holdings in western Asia Minor to Pergamun and Rhodes. This blow to the Seleucid kingdom was mortal; it could never take on any state its own size after that. The Seleucids were checked again in 168 B.C., when a Roman ultimatum halted their invasion of Egypt. A year later Rome declared that it would support the Jews in their successful revolt against the Seleucids, by sending this message to the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes:

"Wherefore hast thou made thy yoke heavy upon our friends and confederates the Jews? If therefore they complain any more against thee, we will do them justice, and fight with thee by sea and by land."(33)

Until now Rome had acquired no new territory in Macedonia or Greece, just protectorates. Roman idealism turned sour when more anti-Roman sentiment arose in Greece, particularly among the radical masses who resented Rome's support of conservative governments and the status quo, as opposed to socialist revolutions like those recently attempted in Sparta. In 171 Perseus, the new king of Macedonia, started making alliances with the other Greek city-states to throw off the Roman yoke. This resulted in the Third Macedonian War; with some help from Pergamun, Rome annihilated the Macedonian army again, took Perseus to Rome as a captive, abolished the Macedonian monarchy and divided the kingdom into four states (168). A second Macedonian uprising occurred when a pretender appeared and reunited the country, causing Rome to march in and turn Macedonia into a Roman province (148). Two years later the Greeks caused unrest, so Rome destroyed Corinth, a hotbed of anti-Romanism, as a lesson to the rest of Greece.(34) Then they turned Greece into the province of Achaia, with a rebuilt Corinth as its capital, and placed it under the watchful eye of the governor of Macedonia.

Top of the page

The Third Punic War

In the same year that Greece was taken, Cato finally got his wish. As noted previously, Carthage had been stripped of its empire following the Second Punic War, leaving only its core territory of Tunisia. Spain went to Rome, while the North African hinterland became the independent kingdoms of Numidia (Algeria) and Mauretania (Morocco). Finally, Carthage was not allowed to have an army. Because of the last item, Carthage could afford to pay its debt to Rome; it did so in fifty years, and began to prosper again in the 150s. This wasn't the type of prosperity that could threaten Roman commerce, but certain members of the Senate got jealous anyway. They encouraged the king of Numidia to nibble at the Carthaginian remnant, until Carthage was forced to raise a new army and strike back in 151. Rome pounced on this: Carthage had broken the treaty, by making war without Roman permission!

The Carthaginians sent the hostages Rome demanded, surrendered their arms and expected to surrender territory. In return Rome declared that Carthage must be abandoned, and its people must move to a spot no less than ten miles from the sea. This was too much for a people who lived on overseas trade, so the Carthaginians called back their exiles and grimly prepared to resist.

The dirty fight which followed is dignified by the name "Third Punic War." It lasted for three years (149-146) because the Roman army had gotten rusty in the half century since Hannibal. The first attacks on Carthage almost ended in disaster, because of a disease epidemic in the Roman ranks. The only officer who distinguished himself was Scipio Aemilianus, a grandson by adoption of Scipio Africanus. These defeats threw the Senate into a panic, and it behaved as if Hannibal had risen from the dead to lead a new army into Italy. By now there was a popular superstition going around which said that only a general named Scipio could succeed in Africa, and this helped make the current Scipio look better than he already was. Although Scipio was too young to be a consul, Rome made him one anyway and sent him back to Africa to save his country.

Scipio applied a dreadful siege to Carthage for most of the war. The Carthaginians suffered horribly from famine, but held out until the town was stormed. Finally there were six days of street fighting, at the end of which only 50,000 inhabitants (one tenth of the city's original population) were left; the rest were dead or had fled. The Romans enslaved the survivors, tore down and burned the city, sowed the ground with salt so that nothing would grow there, and turned Tunisia into the Roman province of Africa.(35)

This is the end of Part II. Click here to go to Part III.


18. The traditional foundation date of Carthage is 814 B.C., supposedly by a queen named Dido. The story of Carthage before the Punic Wars is featured in Chapter 3 of my African history series.

19. From the Hebrew shaphat, meaning judge; the Romans called them suffetes.

20. At the end of one speech, Cato also showed a fat, ripe fig; he told the audience it had been sent from Carthage three days earlier. Because the fig was still fresh, this appealed to the Roman desire for security, reminding the Romans that Carthage wasn't very far away.
Despite Roman propaganda, the Romans did find some things they liked in Carthaginian culture. From Carthage they learned to execute criminals by the long and excruciating process of crucifixion, for starters. Then when they leveled Carthage, they found a Carthaginian slave-owner's manual, which they translated into Latin. This book went through many editions, and was read by both Europeans and Arabs who practiced the African slave trade. Since America's founding fathers knew Latin and had a classical education, many of them must have read it too, allowing one Carthaginian institution (slavery) to become established in the antebellum South.

21. "Punic" is a shortened form of Punicus, the Latin word for Phoenician.

22. 104 elephants were captured in that siege and sent home to amuse the Romans.

23. At one point, the Gauls got as close as ninety miles from Rome, and the Romans resorted to human sacrifice to get the gods on their side.

24. Hamilcar hated the Romans badly, because in the First Punic War they marooned him on a mountain in Sicily for several years, making him look silly. Legend has it that just before they went to Spain, Hamilcar took Hannibal to the temple of Baal in Carthage and made him swear never-ending hatred to Rome. Thus began the career of the most dreaded enemy the Roman Republic ever faced.

25. Hannibal surprised the Romans because both sides didn't think a supply line could be stretched from Spain to Italy, and the Romans didn't think he would try marching without one. Indeed, at a council meeting before they moved out, Hannibal Monomachus, one of Hannibal's officers, suggested that because the Carhaginian army would have to live off the land, they ought to teach the soldiers to eat human flesh, even if it comes from their fallen comrades, and to get used to it; that would be the only way to complete the march without starving. Of course nobody else wanted to go this far!

Today we mainly remember Hannibal for the opening phase of the war, the march over the Alps with 37 war elephants leading the way. This is odd, because it wasn't his best moment. Elephants are very unsuitable for climbing mountains, far less sure of their footing than burros or goats, and too sensitive to cold weather. Moreover, they made little difference in the battles. Hannibal lost seven elephants in the Alps, and most of the rest perished either in the battle of the Trebia, or from the winter weather of north Italy. By the time the army got to Lake Trasimene, only one elephant was left, a male with one tusk named Surus. Hannibal made this elephant his personal mount, so that when they were on the march, his troops would always know where he was. So when Hannibal won his greatest victories, at Lake Trasimene and Cannae, the elephants were not a factor. Actually, crossing the Alps was an avoidable mistake; when he dodged the Roman army heading for Spain he went far enough north to get lost.

According to the Punica, an epic Roman poem, most of the casualties suffered by the Carthaginians in the Alps happened when Hannibal rammed his staff into the snow, to prove it was safe to walk past a certain cliff. Instead, his action caused an avalanche which killed 18,000 men, 2,000 horses, and an unspecified number of elephants. I don't believe the story myself, but if such an Alpine disaster took place, then by moving more cautiously, Hannibal could have made it to Italy with most of the army he started with, and he could have marched on Rome immediately, instead of wandering around the Italian countryside for years, waiting for his brother Hasdrubal. And the rest of this chapter would cover what happened in Europe after Carthage smashed Rome; just imagine how different history would be then.

In the early 1930s, Richard Halliburton, a famous American travel correspondent, re-enacted Hannibal's expedition by riding an elephant named Miss Elisabeth Dalyrimple through Switzerland, by way of the St. Bernard Pass. On the other side he blundered into the war games of the Italian army's mountain division. Exploding shells caused the elephant to panic, and she charged the soldiers, who likewise ran away. No doubt they must have thought that Hannibal was back!

Historians have never agreed on which mountain pass Hannibal used, or for that matter what route he took over the Alps. A recent (2016) expedition by geochemists concluded that he took the Col de Traversette pass, on the present-day Franco-Italian border. What kind of evidence did these scientists use to find Hannibal's trail? They looked for the same evidence somebody in ancient times would have looked for to prove an army passed through a certain area -- the presence/residue of large amounts of dung!

26. The Roman commander at Lake Trasimene was Flaminius; he was killed in the battle, and his body was never found. Before that happened, though, he built Rome's second major highway, the Via Flaminia. It ran northeast over the Apenines from Rome to Rimini.

27. By this time a legion's official strength was 5,000 men, but it was always accompanied by an equal number of auxiliaries (non-combatants plus troops supplied by Rome's allies), so at Cannae the army of four legions totaled 40,000 men.

28. A Roman dictator named Quintus Fabius Maximus won the nickname Cunctator, meaning the Delayer, because he never fought a battle with Hannibal, preferring instead to pick off isolated units and let time work in his favor. Since then the avoidance of pitched battles has been called the Fabian strategy. It was very unpopular among those who wanted to beat Hannibal while he was in Italy, but in the long run, it saved Rome.

29. Modern Auvergne; this would be the home of another famous enemy of Rome, Vercingetorix, 150 years later.

30. Hasdrubal brought ten elephants with him, but during the battle they behaved so badly that they had to be killed by their own side. So much for the idea that elephants can win battles!
There are a few reports of ancient soldiers defending themselves from war elephants by smearing pigs with phosphorus, tar or resin, setting them on fire, and turning them loose on the enemy. Pliny the Elder, a writer from the first century A.D. (see the next chapter), claimed this bizarre tactic worked because "elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of the hog." We know of at least one case where it was a success: when the Macedonian king Antigonus II attacked the Greek city of Megara in 266 B.C., the defenders sent flaming pigs to drive off his elephants. Despite this, "war pigs" were not used often, for two reasons. First, a pig wasn't likely to run far (100 yards at the most) before its bacon was cooked, so for the pigs to be effective, the enemy had to be within range of a thrown spear when you released them. Second, frightened pigs cannot be controlled, and like panicked elephants, are just as likely to charge their own side as they are to charge the enemy line.

31. Hannibal stayed in Carthage for a few years, trying to organize the city's finances so it could pay the new fines imposed on it. When Rome asked for him, he spared his country further humiliation by escaping to Syria. Soon after that his host, Antiochus III, went to war with Rome (see the next section), and as you might expect, Hannibal offered to lead an army in what he saw as a rematch. But the only use Antiochus made of his services was to put him in command of the small fleet used against Rhodes. This was defeated in a battle on the Cilician coast, near the mouth of the Eurymedon River (190). After the war the Romans demanded the surrender of Hannibal again, and this time he fled to the small state of Bithynia. Because the Bithynians were allies of Rome, he became an embarrassment to them. When he learned in 183 B.C. that they were planning to turn him in to the Romans, he took poison.

32. Livy, Roman History 33, trans. E. T. Sage, The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), vol. 9, p. 367.

33. 1 Maccabees 9:31-32, King James Version.

34. One of the reasons why the Greeks disliked the Romans was the Roman taste in sports; they deplored the amount of fame and money that went to successful gladiators. The Greek idea of a sporting event was wrestling, a chariot race, or a track & field competition.

35. Today there is a suburb of Tunis named Carthage. In 1985 A.D., 2,130 years after the original Carthage was destroyed, the mayors of Rome and Carthage signed a treaty declaring the Punic Wars over (It was a stunt to promote tourism to both cities.). Oh well, better late than never . . .

Support this site!

© Copyright 2021 Charles Kimball

Top of the page



A History of Europe


Other History Papers

Beyond History