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The Punic Wars were a series of wars between 264 and 146 BC fought between Rome and Carthage. Three conflicts between these states took place on both land and sea across the western Mediterranean region and involved a total of forty-three years of warfare. The Punic Wars are also considered to include the four-year-long revolt against Carthage which started in 241 BC. Each war involved immense materiel and human losses on both sides.

The First Punic War broke out on the Mediterranean island of Sicily in 264 BC as a result of Rome’s expansionary attitude combined with Carthage’s proprietary approach to the island. At the start of the war Carthage was the dominant power of the western Mediterranean, with an extensive maritime empire, while Rome was a rapidly expanding power in Italy, with a strong army but no navy. The fighting took place primarily on Sicily and its surrounding waters, as well as in North AfricaCorsica, and Sardinia. It lasted 23 years, until 241 BC, when the Carthaginians were defeated. By the terms of the Treaty of Lutatius (241, amended 237 BC), Carthage paid large reparations and Sicily was annexed as a Roman province. The end of the war sparked a major but eventually unsuccessful revolt within Carthaginian territory known as the Mercenary War.

The Second Punic War began in 218 BC and witnessed the Carthaginian general Hannibal‘s crossing of the Alps and invasion of mainland Italy. This expedition enjoyed considerable early success and campaigned in Italy for 14 years before the survivors withdrew. There was also extensive fighting in Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal), Sicily, Sardinia, and North Africa. The successful Roman invasion of the Carthaginian homeland in Africa in 204 BC led to Hannibal’s recall. He was defeated in the battle of Zama in 202 BC and Carthage sued for peace. A treaty was agreed in 201 BC which stripped Carthage of its overseas territories and some of its African ones, imposed a large indemnity, severely restricted the size of its armed forces, and prohibited Carthage from waging war without Rome’s express permission. This caused Carthage to cease to be a military threat.

In 151 BC Carthage attempted to defend itself against Numidian encroachments and Rome used this as a justification to declare war in 149 BC, starting the Third Punic War. This conflict was fought entirely on Carthage’s territories in what is now Tunisia and centred on the siege of Carthage. In 146 BC the Romans stormed the city of Carthagesacked it, slaughtered or enslaved most of its population, and completely demolished the city. The Carthaginian territories were taken over as the Roman province of Africa. The ruins of the city lie east of modern Tunis on the North African coast.


Primary sources

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The most reliable source for the Punic Wars[note 1] is the historian Polybius (c. 200 – c. 118 BC), a Greek sent to Rome in 167 BC as a hostage.[2] He is best known for The Histories, written sometime after 146 BC.[2][3] Polybius’s work is considered broadly objective and largely neutral between Carthaginian and Roman points of view.[4][5] Polybius was an analytical historian and wherever possible interviewed participants, from both sides, in the events he wrote about.[2][6][7] Modern historians consider Polybius to have treated the relatives of Scipio Aemilianus, his patron and friend, unduly favourably but the consensus is to accept his account largely at face value.[2][8] The modern historian Andrew Curry sees Polybius as being « fairly reliable »;[9] Craige Champion describes him as « a remarkably well-informed, industrious, and insightful historian ».[10] The details of the war in modern sources are largely based on interpretations of Polybius’s account.[2][8][11]

The account of the Roman historian Livy is commonly used by modern historians where Polybius’s account is not extant. Livy relied heavily on Polybius, but wrote in a more structured way, with more details about Roman politics, as well as being openly pro-Roman.[12][13][14] His accounts of military encounters are often demonstrably inaccurate; the classicist Adrian Goldsworthy says Livy’s « reliability is often suspect »,[15] and the historian Philip Sabin refers to Livy’s « military ignorance ».[16]

Other, later, ancient histories of the wars exist, although often in fragmentary or summary form.[17] Modern historians usually take into account the writings of various Roman annalists, some contemporary; the Sicilian Greek Diodorus Siculus; and the later Roman historians[14] PlutarchAppian,[note 2] and Dio Cassius.[19] Goldsworthy writes « Polybius’ account is usually to be preferred when it differs with any of our other accounts ».[note 3][2] Other sources include coins, inscriptions, archaeological evidence and empirical evidence from reconstructions, such as the trireme Olympias.[20]

Background and origin

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The approximate extent of territory controlled by Rome and Carthage immediately before the start of the First Punic War.

The Roman Republic had been aggressively expanding in the southern Italian mainland for a century before the First Punic War.[21] It had conquered peninsular Italy south of the Arno River by 270 BC, when the Greek cities of southern Italy (Magna Graecia) submitted after the conclusion of the Pyrrhic War.[22] During this period of Roman expansion Carthage, with its capital in what is now Tunisia, had come to dominate southern Iberia, much of the coastal regions of North Africa, the Balearic IslandsCorsicaSardinia and the western half of Sicily in a thalassocracy.[23]

Beginning in 480 BC Carthage fought a series of inconclusive wars against the Greek city-states of Sicily, led by Syracuse.[24] By 264 BC Carthage was the dominant external power on the island, and Carthage and Rome were the preeminent powers in the western Mediterranean.[25] Relationships were good and the two states had several times declared their mutual friendship via formal alliances: in 509 BC, 348 BC and around 279 BC. There were strong commercial links. During the Pyrrhic War of 280–275 BC, against a king of Epirus who alternately fought Rome in Italy and Carthage on Sicily, Carthage provided materiel to the Romans and on at least one occasion used its navy to ferry a Roman force.[26][27] According to the classicist Richard Miles Rome had an expansionary attitude after southern Italy came under its control, while Carthage had a proprietary approach to Sicily. The interaction of these conflicting policies caused the two powers to stumble into war more by accident than design.[28] The immediate cause of the war was the issue of control of the independent Sicilian city state of Messana (modern Messina).[29] In 264 BC Carthage and Rome went to war, starting the First Punic War.[30]

Opposing forces


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Detail from the Ahenobarbus relief showing two Roman foot-soldiers from the second century BC

Most male Roman citizens were liable for military service and would serve as infantry, with a better-off minority providing a cavalry component. Traditionally, when at war the Romans would raise two legions, each of 4,200 infantry[note 4] and 300 cavalry. Approximately 1,200 members of the infantry – poorer or younger men unable to afford the armour and equipment of a standard legionary – served as javelin-armed skirmishers known as velites; they each carried several javelins, which would be thrown from a distance, as well as a short sword and a 90-centimetre (3 ft) shield.[33] The rest of the soldiers were equipped as heavy infantry, with body armour, a large shield and short thrusting swords. They were divided into three ranks: the front rank also carried two javelins, while the second and third ranks had a thrusting spear instead. Both legionary sub-units and individual legionaries fought in relatively open order. It was the long-standing Roman procedure to elect two men each year as senior magistrates, known as consuls, who in a time of war would each lead an army. An army was usually formed by combining a Roman legion with a similarly sized and equipped legion provided by their Latin allies; allied legions usually had a larger attached complement of cavalry than Roman ones.[34][35]

Carthaginian citizens only served in their army if there was a direct threat to the city of Carthage.[36][37] When they did they fought as well-armoured heavy infantry armed with long thrusting spears, although they were notoriously ill-trained and ill-disciplined. In most circumstances Carthage recruited foreigners to make up its army.[note 5] Many were from North Africa and these were frequently referred to as « Libyans ». The region provided several types of fighters, including: close order infantry equipped with large shields, helmets, short swords and long thrusting spears; javelin-armed light infantry skirmishers; close order shock cavalry[note 6] (also known as « heavy cavalry ») carrying spears; and light cavalry skirmishers who threw javelins from a distance and avoided close combat; the latter were usually Numidians.[40][41] The close order African infantry and the citizen-militia both fought in a tightly-packed formation known as a phalanx.[42] On occasion some of the infantry would wear captured Roman armour, especially among the troops of the Carthaginian general Hannibal.[43] In addition both Iberia and Gaul provided many experienced infantry and cavalry. The infantry from these areas were unarmoured troops who would charge ferociously, but had a reputation for breaking off if a combat was protracted.[40][44] The Gallic cavalry, and possibly some of the Iberians, wore armour and fought as close order troops; most or all of the mounted Iberians were light cavalry.[45] Slingers were frequently recruited from the Balearic Islands.[46][47] The Carthaginians also employed war elephants; North Africa had indigenous African forest elephants at the time.[note 7][44][49]

Garrison duty and land blockades were the most common operations.[50][51] When armies were campaigning, surprise attacks, ambushes and stratagems were common.[42][52] More formal battles were usually preceded by the two armies camping two–twelve kilometres (1–7 miles) apart for days or weeks; sometimes both forming up in battle order each day. If either commander felt at a disadvantage, they might march off without engaging. In such circumstances it was difficult to force a battle if the other commander was unwilling to fight.[53][54] Forming up in battle order was a complicated and premeditated affair, which took several hours. Infantry were usually positioned in the centre of the battle line, with light infantry skirmishers to their front and cavalry on each flank.[55] Many battles were decided when one side’s infantry force was attacked in the flank or rear and they were partially or wholly enveloped.[42][56]

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