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The Punic Wars: Fighting Carthage for Control of the Mediterranean

It’s true that conflict defines us. While we strive to eliminate war from our future, there’s no doubting the role it’s played in shaping our past. 

Some wars are big. And some are smaller. But no war is without its impact. 

Therefore, when it comes to the story of Rome and its rise to dominance, we cannot overlook the influence of war. Right from the very beginning, Rome was nearly always at war, fighting to defend itself and also to expand its influence. 

Butting Heads With Carthage

One of the first major wars Rome fought was with its neighbor to the south, with a city called Carthage. 

At the time, Carthage, which is located on the northern coast of modern-day Tunisia, in North Africa, was the dominant city in the Mediterranean world starting in 500 BC.. 

The Mediterranean Sea brought together many different cultures: the Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, and more. Controlling it meant controlling trade: demanding tribute and charging taxes. 

In other words, being dominant meant being the richest. 

In the first two centuries of the Roman Republic (509 BC — 48 BC), Carthage was in control of the Mediterranean.

It held control over most of northern Africa, as well as the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, which extend off the “toe” of the Italian peninsula. It also had a considerable presence on the Iberian peninsula, where we can find the modern nations of Spain and Portugal. 

But as Rome grew, it too sought control of the Mediterranean. 

To settle this dispute, war broke out. In fact, three wars broke out. 

Rome emerged victorious all three times, and in the process it took a giant step towards becoming the ancient superpower we all know it to be.

First Punic War (264 BC —  241 BC)

The first of the three conflicts between Rome and Carthage broke out in 246 BC. Rome had been eyeing the island of Sicily, and to try and win it from Carthage, they gave support to a rebellious group in Sicily. 

This did not sit well with Carthage, and so they declared war. 

At first, things were not going well for the Romans. The Carthaginian navy, which was considerably powerful thanks to all its time dominating the Mediterranean, had a serious advantage on the Romans. Mainly, they were better sailors. 

This played to their advantage because at the time naval battles were fought by ships ramming into one another. Therefore, being able to skillfully maneuver your ship was essential for victory. And so, against the Romans, Carthage had a significant advantage. 

Eventually, though, Rome turned the tables by developing a type of ramp that could be lowered onto enemy ships, giving Roman soldiers the chance to board and fight hand-to-hand. 

This was what they were good at, and using this method allowed them to beat the Carthaginians back out of Sicily and into North Africa. 

Overall, the conflict lasted 23 years, but it came to an end in 241 BC when the Roman army began marching towards Carthage. 

Seeing their defeat already written in stone, Carthage sued for peace. Rome agreed, but they were far from kind. Through the Treaty of Lutatius, Rome imposed hefty fines on Carthage and also forced them to evacuate Sicily. 

In the end, Rome accomplished their goal of taking Sicily. But their treatment of Carthage meant another round in the Punic Wars was soon to come.

Second Punic War (218 BC —  201 BC)

After getting their butts kicked in the First Punic War, Carthage had to do something to try and rebuild. Not wanting to irritate the Romans any further, they sent their armies to the Iberian peninsula. 

There they conquered lands that brought them a great deal of silver and other luxury goods. As a result, these new territories in the Iberian became extremely important to Carthage almost as soon as they acquired them.

Rome, seeing this happen and not wanting to let Carthage get too comfortable, began to interfere. They started by making a deal with Hasdrubal, one of the sons of the legendary Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca. The agreement? Carthage can do whatever it wants, so long as it doesn’t cross the Ebro River. 

The Ebro is the largest river on the Iberian peninsula and runs not too far from modern-day Barcelona. 

This wasn’t such a bad deal for Carthage. It gave them the space to expand on the Iberian while also keeping Rome happy. But Hasdrubal’s brother, Hannibal Barca, wasn’t a fan. So what did he do? He ignored his brother, crossed the Ebro, and laid siege to the city of Saguntum, which was an ally of Rome.

In response, the Romans immediately declared war on Carthage and began attacking them on the Iberian Peninsula. Back in Carthage, everyone was starting to panic, for the Iberian had become essential to their survival.

Hannibal Crosses the Alps

All of this went down in 209 BC. And that winter, the season when fighting typically slowed down, Hannibal took his army across what is now southern France, crossed the Alps, and began marching, with his infamous war elephants, south through Italy towards Rome. 

This move totally shocked the Romans. Such a journey was thought to be too difficult for an army to manage, and so Rome was not in a position to defend itself. In fact, it’s army was still in Spain!

So, when Hannibal went on to win two decisive victories in Italy, first at Cannae and then at Lake Trasimene, everyone was starting to freak out. Hannibal and his army had a clear path to Rome! But for reasons that still remain a mystery, he hesitated. And this changed the course of the war. 

Rome managed to regroup and began fighting using the “Fabian strategy,” named after the consul and general who designed it. In short, this meant fighting only small battles meant to delay a bigger one. It angered the people of Rome (they were desperate for victory) but also kept Hannibal at bay. 

The Battle of Zama

At the same time, the Romans put together a force to attack Carthage itself. A few quick victories in North Africa forced Carthage to recall Hannibal and his army, which all but squashed their chances in Italy. 

This led to the Battle of Zama, which Rome won decisively under the leadership of Publius Cornelius Scipio, renamed later Scipio Africanus thanks to his success in the region. 

Once again, Carthage was on the brink of destruction and had no choice but to surrender. And this time, Rome was even harsher. 

Not only did it impose hefty fines as peace terms, but it also forbade Carthage from going to war without Rome’s consent. It also put Rome in charge of all disputes Carthage had with its neighbors. Often, as a form of revenge, the Romans would side with Carthage’s enemy.

This not only irritated the Carthaginians, but it also reduced Carthage to a barely independent city. They were technically separate from Rome. But they had very little freedom to determine their own affairs.

But give it another fifty or so years and even this would change. 

Third Punic War (149 BC —  146 BC)

Although Carthage tasted victory briefly during the first two Punic Wars, it was eventually defeated soundly. And after the Second Punic War, the city was heavily in debt and almost entirely beholden to Rome. 

Naturally, this didn’t sit too well. So, in 149 BC, just 52 years after the Second Punic War, when the Numidians, Carthage’s neighbor to the north, started settling on Carthaginian lands, things got ugly. 

In other words, Carthage summoned its army and went to war. But they weren’t allowed to do this without Rome’s permission. 

Rome really didn’t like this, and so they too declared war. 

The End of Carthage

This time, the conflict between Rome and Carthage was a blowout. Carthage just didn’t have the money or the men to put up a good fight. But since this was the third time fighting broke out between the two cities, Rome didn’t bother with a peace treaty. And considering Carthage had broken the other two, can you blame them?

Instead, Rome sacked the city and sold the surviving citizens into slavery. Legend has it that they poured salt on the farmland to ruin it. 

However, If they did actually do this, they did it to a small portion of land. We know this because Carthage was annexed as a Roman province and became a major grain producing region as the Republic grew and eventually morphed into an empire. 

Rome Dominates the Mediterranean 

The Second Punic War was the conflict that really gave Rome control over the Mediterranean. However, it was also the time when Rome was closest to defeat. 

In fact, to this day, scholars debate what would have happened if Hannibal had not hesitated and had instead marched on a vulnerable Rome. 

But he didn’t. And the result was that Carthage was forced to give way to Rome. The extra territory, plus control of the seas, gave Rome even more power, which it used to wage war against the rest of the ancient world. 

Over time, it emerged as the region’s super power and went on to entirely reshape the course of human history. A journey that began when Rome picked a fight with its neighbor.

Written by Matthew Jones