The Punic Wars were three wars fought between Carthage and Rome for control of the western Mediterranean Sea. The name Punic comes from the Roman word for the race and the language of the Carthaginians. Before the wars began in 264 B.C., the two cities had a peaceful and cooperative relationship. Rome controlled most of the Italian peninsula; Carthage, located in northern Africa, controlled trade in the western Mediterranean. At the conclusion of the third war in 146 B.C., Carthage was completely destroyed, and Rome was the greatest power in the region.

The First Punic War (264-241 B.C.) arose from a quarrel between Messana and Syracuse, two cities on the island of Sicily. When Syracuse attacked Messana, the rulers of Messana called on both Carthage and Rome for help. Although the Carthaginians arrived first and arranged a peace treaty between the two cities, they were eventually forced out by the Romans, who were fearful of Carthaginian control of the island. Rome and Carthage became involved in a full-scale war against each other. A Roman fleet, led by the general Marcus Atilius Regulus, landed an invasion force in North Africa in 256 B.C. The next year, the Carthaginian general Xanthippus defeated the Romans and took Regulus captive. Neither the Romans nor the Carthaginians, led by the general Hamilcar Barca, were able to control Sicily. After a long period in which neither side gained an advantage, a Roman fleet of 200 ships defeated the Carthaginians at sea in 241 B.C., and the Carthaginians asked for peace. They paid Rome a large fine and abandoned Sicily, which then became Rome’s first province*.

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

* orator public speaker of great skill

* blockade military means used to prevent the passage of enemy ships or troops into or out of a place

The Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) broke out when Hamilcar Barca’s son Hannibal seized the Spanish city of Saguntum, which was an ally of Rome. Although Rome had immense economic resources and a superb military organization, the Carthaginians had Hannibal, one of the greatest generals in history. In the winter of 218 B.C., Hannibal crossed the Alps into Italy with 40,000 troops and dozens of war elephants to attack Rome. During a 16-year presence in Italy, Hannibal and his army had several important victories, the most famous being the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C.,when Hannibal destroyed an entire Roman army. However, Rome and its Italian allies refused to surrender. The Romans had great reserves of manpower and were able to fight Hannibal in Italy while simultaneously conducting campaigns in other regions. In the late 200s B.C., Roman armies under Scipio Africanus drove the Carthaginians out of Spain. Cut off from their Spanish troops and resources, the Carthaginians were unable to defend North Africa from a Roman invasion. Hannibal returned to Africa to protect the city of Carthage, but Scipio defeated him at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. When the war ended the next year, Rome forced Carthage to surrender Spain and most of its North African possessions. After the defeat of Carthage in the Second Punic War, no other power was able to seriously threaten Rome’s power for centuries.

The Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.) broke out when Carthage attacked Masinissa, the king of Numidia, who was a Roman ally. Although Carthage was defeated, the Romans declared war on the Carthaginians, largely at the urging of the Roman orator* and statesman Marcus Porcius Cato (the Elder). When Rome demanded that Carthage be abandoned, the Carthaginians decided to fight. Carthage was cut off from its supply routes by a Roman blockade*. After a three-year siege*, the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus eventually conquered the city in 146 B.C. Only 10 percent of the population of Carthage survived, and the victorious Romans sold them into slavery. The Romans destroyed the city, and Carthage’s territory became the Roman province of Africa. But in the later years of prosperity under the Roman Empire, a new, Roman Carthage grew to become one of the greatest cities of the empire, second only to Rome itself. (See also Rome, History of; Spain; Wars an Warfare, Roman.)

* siege long and persistent effort to force a surrender by surrounding a fortress with armed troops, cutting it off from aid


The Roman orator and statesman Marcus Porcius Cato feared and hated Carthage. In 153 B.C. Cato served on a diplomatic mission to Carthage. He observed that the city had revived after the Second Punic War and had once again become a prosperous and powerful place. Cato believed that a revitalized Carthage was a serious threat to the security of Rome. From then until his death in 149 B.C., Cato concluded each of his speeches in the Roman Senate with the words "Carthage must be destroyed!"

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