Ancient History & Civilisation


The Legacy

He who conquers is not the victor unless the loser considers himself beaten

CARTHAGE DID NOT survive the struggle with Rome. Aspects of its culture persisted in the region, influencing the language, religion and architecture of the Numidian kingdoms which briefly flourished until they too came into conflict with Rome. Some cities were still styling their senior magistrates as 'suffetes' centuries later, when the region had long since become a Roman province. Religious and linguistic survivals continued in the area till at least the end of the Roman Empire in the West. Such continuity is fairly typical of the Roman presence in most provinces of the Empire. The Romans had not fought to destroy Punic culture; nor indeed had the wars ever been a struggle between conflicting ideologies, political systems, religions or cultures, but rather a simple contest for domination between rival states. Rome had waged war to subdue and finally to destroy another city state whose interests conflicted with its own and which was perceived to be a threat. This enemy, Carthage the political entity, source of its population's identity and their focus of loyalty, was utterly destroyed in 146.

The Punic Wars marked a crucial period in Rome's history, as she changed from a purely Italian power in 265 to the dominant force in the Mediterranean by 146, a process which Polybius' History was intended to explain. By this time six permanent overseas provinces had been created: Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica ruled as one, Nearer and Further Spain, Africa and Macedonia. All but the last named of these were acquired as a direct result of the conflict with Carthage. Two more provinces, Asia and Transalpine Gaul, were established by the end of the century. Even where the Romans did not rule directly, as in Greece itself and much of the East, Roman influence was far greater than that of any other state. Carthage proved to be Rome's last serious rival, for the Hellenistic kingdoms lacked its great resources and were rapidly overrun.

Roman imperialism was not a creation of the Punic Wars, but the process was certainly accelerated by the conflict with Carthage, as Roman armies were drawn further and further afield. The First and Second Punic Wars accustomed the Romans to massive long-term commitment of men and resources to overseas campaigns. Although after 201 the Republic gready reduced the number of men under arms, this was never to fall back to the level normal before 265. The change was marked by the eventual rise in the number of praetors from one to six, as well as the extension of their role to include military command as a matter of course. Prior to 265 the Senate had on an annual basis decided where to send the two consuls and how many troops were to be raised and placed under their command. In the second century the process was essentially the same, but carried out on a much wider scale. Now the Senate needed to appoint governors for a growing number of provinces, deciding whether to send out one of the newly elected magistrates or extend the imperium of the current governor. In addition it had to judge whether or not the governor needed an army or naval forces, and if so of what size. The number of foreign embassies seeking an audience with the Senate increased dramatically as Roman influence spread, smaller states realizing that friendship with the new power could bring them great advantage. The Roman system adapted to deal with this situation without changing its fundamental nature. The number of magistrates, although not the consulship, was increased to cope, but otherwise political life continued to be much the same. For a while at least, it seemed to work well.

Their vast reserves of military manpower had allowed the Romans to persevere in spite of the colossal losses they suffered in the First and Second Punic Wars. In the ten years after Cannae there were regularly more than twenty legions in service, supported by as many, if not more, allied soldiers. Such a high level of mobilization could not have been maintained on a permanent basis, and was anyway unnecessary in the conditions of the second century. It is unlikely that there were ever more than thirteen legions in service in the twenty years after 201 and the average for each year was less than ten, and dropped further as the century progressed. Rarely, if ever, were there more than two legions and two alae operating in a single province at any time, although this did occasionally occur in Cisalpine Gaul. However, those legions raised did tend to remain in service for much longer than had ever been the case before the Hannibalic War. No other ancient state was ever able to combine such an extensive mobilization of its citizens with the level of military efficiency achieved by the legions. 2

The Roman military system in this period was unique, but it is easy in focusing on the vastness of the pool of citizens and allies available for military service to ignore the economic strength underlying Rome's successful war-making. Roman armies needed to be paid, equipped, clothed and fed, tasks all made more difficult as they campaigned further and further away. Traditionally legionaries were recruited from those possessing enough property to equip themselves, but the great expansion in legionary numbers during the Second Punic War makes it very likely that more and more men were being equipped by the State. In the crisis after Cannae the trophies had been taken from Rome's temples to provide weapons, shields and armour for the penal legions, but this was a short-term measure. In the longer term the State either purchased or arranged the manufacture of the equipment and clothing needed by the armies, although the burden was sometimes spread by requiring Rome's allies to provide such things. An even greater burden had been imposed on the State's finances by the massive shipbuilding programme undertaken during the First Punic War. If the figures provided by our sources are at all accurate, then the Romans constructed nearly 1,000 warships between 260 and 241, the majority of them the large quinqueremes. This was an effort requiring immense resources and a considerable labour force, the cost of which was almost entirely paid for by the State. The scale of this expenditure was emphasized when the final fleet had to be, at least in part, paid for by loans from private citizens, the Treasury no longer being able to cope. 3

Rome had long ago accepted its responsibility to issue rations of food to both citizen and allied soldiers. Soldiers were provided with grain, cavalrymen receiving more to provide for their mounts, and probably small amounts of meat and wine. The rise in the number of legions vastly increased the amount of grain which had to be found and then transported to each army. The Senate drew upon supplies from as far afield as Egypt as the demand increased and some productive areas of Italy were denied to them by Hannibal. In 265 the Romans had no experience of feeding an army campaigning outside Italy and the supply lines of the legions in Sicily proved precarious at best. Publius and Cnaeus Scipio complained of similar problems and lack of resources in the early years in Spain, and later there was the scandal involving companies contracted to supply the legions there, but by the end of the Second Punic War a highly effective system of supply had evolved to support Roman armies in the field. For the invasion of Africa, Scipio Africanus massed huge reserves at depots in Sicily, drawing grain from Italy and Sardinia as well as the island itself, and organizing a system of convoys to transport it across to the bridgehead established near Utica. Preparations began over a year before the actual invasion and continued till the very end of the war, although in the final months the burden was somewhat relieved when the Carthaginians agreed to feed the Roman troops in the months before the Peace Treaty was confirmed. The Romans' ability to project their military force throughout the Mediterranean in subsequent decades was made possible by the logistical arrangements developed during the Punic Wars.4

The economies of ancient States such as Rome have proved very hard for modern scholars to study, although there is general agreement that these must have been very different from those of modern industrialized nations. There is very little hard evidence for the workings of the Roman economy at any period, so that economic historians have tended to resort to the use of theoretical models, which are inevitably far too simplistic and often downright impractical. We can say with certainty that the Roman war effort in the First and Second Punic Wars imposed a massive strain on the Republic's finances, which on several occasions it was only narrowly able to bear. Around 213 the Roman coinage was debased, lowering the content of precious metal in each coin, but this proved a disastrous failure and in the next two years an entirely new currency was created based around the silver denarius. These changes can only have been prompted by the huge expenditure on Rome's war effort. It is extremely difficult to say what long-term effects this was to have on the Roman economy and in turn what impact it had on society as a whole. Some sections of society, notably the contractors supplying the army, may well have profited from the conflicts and the conquests of the following century. Rome emerged victorious from the struggle with Carthage not simply because she possessed great resources of men and wealth, but because of her willingness to expend these in great quantities, persevering in a conflict which must at times have seemed hopeless. These resources had steadily increased as the Romans absorbed the Italian Peninsula into their network of allies, so that former enemies came to contribute to future Roman wars. The Roman Republic's war-making assets were huge, but it took the pressure of the struggle with Carthage for the Romans to realize their potential. 5

Between 265 and 146 the Romans established themselves as the supreme power in the Mediterranean, greatly increasing the territory which they ruled directly, and spreading their influence even more widely. In the subsequent 120 years the Republic was thrown into turmoil as its politics became increasingly violent and rivalry between prominent senators was commonly decided by civil wars. Stability only returned when Augustus, Julius Caesar's adopted son, defeated his last rival in 31 BC and replaced the rule of the Senate and annually elected magistrates with a form of monarchy known as the Principate. In an apparent paradox, this period of internal chaos witnessed the most intensive period of Imperial expansion, which ended only with the death of Augustus in AD14, by which time the Empire had reached substantially the size which, with few additions, it would maintain for the next four centuries. It would be inappropriate here to consider the reasons for the collapse of the Roman Republic, but it is worth pausing to ask whether some of the trends causing this decline were apparent in 146 and whether the struggle with Carthage had contributed to them.

Political violence began in 133 when the tribune of the plebs, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, and many of his followers were lynched by a mob of senators. Grandson of the man who had led the slave legions so successfully in the years after Cannae, son of the man who had brought a generation of peace to Spain earlier in the century, Tiberius fought with some distinction at the storming of Carthage in 147-146 and subsequently in Spain. In Africa he had served under the command of Scipio Aemilianus, his cousin as Tiberius' mother was Cornelia, the daughter of Scipio Africanus. In 121 his younger brother Caius, who had also tried to use the office of tribune for an ambitious series of reforms, was in turn killed in a spate of even more open fighting. Both of the Gracchi had been concerned with the decline of the rural poor and the implication this had for the recruitment of Rome's militia armies. Caius had also introduced a highly controversial bill establishing a new colony on the site of Carthage, although this was abandoned following his death.

Rome's vast reserves of military manpower had made possible her success in the First and Second Punic Wars, yet in the decades after 146 the Romans certainly believed that the class of small farmers on which the legions most relied was in decline. The poor performance of Roman armies evident from the 150s continued until the end of the century, nearly every conflict opening with embarrassing defeats and scandals. Some of the defeats were on a very large scale, notably the disaster inflicted by migrating German tribes at Arausio in 105, where the casualties are claimed by a late source to have rivalled those of Cannae. Concern over legionary recruitment was made especially relevant in the context of such military failures. This eventually led to the creation of a professional army in the last years of the century. Recruits were no longer required to possess a minimum level of property and as a result tended to come from the poorest classes for whom the army's steady, if low, pay offered an attractive living. The greater permanence of the new legions allowed them to retain the experience which had invariably been lost when the old militia armies were demobilized, and eventually led to the marked rise in the average effectiveness of Roman armies during the first century BC. However, these poorer recruits had little to return to in civilian life after their discharge, and the Senate, which continued to maintain that military service was the patriotic duty of all propertied Romans, refused to take responsibility for these men and provide them with some sort of livelihood. This encouraged a trend whereby legionaries became more loyal to popular commanders than they were to the State itself. The Roman army had ceased to be the entire State under arms, each class serving in accordance with its wealth so that men fought to preserve a community from which they benefited, and became something outside normal society. This was the change which allowed successive Roman generals to lead their armies against each other and Rome itself. Scipio Africanus could not even have dreamed of turning to the men who had served under him to bring armed force to bear against his opponents in the 180s.6

The rise of the professional army was a major factor in the Fall of the Republic. It is therefore important to understand to what extent the class of peasant farmers, which had traditionally provided the bulk of the legions, was really in decline during the second century BC and ask why this process occurred. The scale of the problem is now impossible to assess with any certainty, for our only evidence consists of occasional comments in our written sources and often suspect census figures. Archaeological evidence for this period is available for only a tiny fraction of rural Italy and although this sometimes suggests the survival of small farms throughout the period, we can never know whether this reflected general trends or the peculiar conditions of a small area. One view sees the falling numbers of peasant farmers as a direct consequence of the Second Punic War. For fifteen years Hannibal's army had marauded through Italy, burning or consuming crops, laying waste to fields and villages and killing the population. As a deliberate tactic, Roman commanders such as Fabius Maximus had laid waste to their own territory to deny the Punic army food and fodder. The devastation was particularly bad in the southern corner of Italy, where Hannibal's army had been confined for over thirteen years and which had been raided and thoroughly plundered by both sides.

When the Senate began to discharge soldiers and encourage a return to agriculture in the final years of the war, many of the owners of small properties lacked the wealth to restore their farms and begin to produce a viable crop once more. Most abandoned the countryside and migrated to the big cities, especially to Rome, where the profits of conquests were increasingly spent on lavish entertainments and public buildings. Their farms, along with large areas confiscated from the rebellious Italian communities and added to Rome's publicly owned land, were absorbed into large estates owned by the wealthy. Purchased with the profits of overseas expansion, these were worked by slaves captured during the same wars of conquest. Gradually these latifundia came to cover much of the most fertile land in Italy. Although there were fewer legions and alae in service in the second century these were recruited from the already reduced citizen and allied peasantry, and were now likely to spend even longer in distant service. Five to ten years on garrison duty in one of the Spanish provinces could well spell ruination for a small farmer whose land fell into neglect during his absence. In the long run this process swelled the urban poor, who were reliant on handouts and casual labour, frequently in debt and inclined to support any radical politician who offered them something better, whilst large parts of the countryside came to be worked by an almost exclusively servile population. Rioting in the city, disorder in the country and a widespread slave revolt were all to feature in the disturbances of the first century BC. The falling numbers of citizens eligible for military service set against the growing demand for long-term overseas garrisons eventually prompted fundamental change in the Roman army. In an extreme view, this process has been seen as a major factor not just in the end of the Republic, but in the later decline of the Roman Empire, and even in the poverty of southern Italy compared to the north still visible in the twentieth century AD.

Most of the longer-term claims for the impact of Hannibal's invasion have rightly been rejected. It is for instance highly questionable that it created factors prompting an inevitable collapse of the Roman Empire, more than six centuries later. Some have attempted to minimize the damage inflicted between 218 and 203, arguing that the literary accounts of widespread devastation are grossly exaggerated and even contradictory. In addition, the area of Italy which suffered most heavily from the depredations of both sides was the south, a region where the proportion of land owned by Roman citizens was relatively small. The consequences of the war should not as a result have had a major impact on the number of citizen farmers qualified for military service. In this view, the decline in the Roman peasantry was primarily a result of the increasing duration of legionary service resulting from overseas expansion in the second century BC. However, whilst it is probable that the extent of agrarian damage caused by the war in Italy is exaggerated by our sources, such exaggeration is entirely understandable and cannot be taken to mean that no significant hardship resulted. At least some areas farmed by Roman citizens had been directly affected by the campaigns against Hannibal and it must always be remembered that the decline in the free peasantry was also a problem for Rome's Latin and Italian allies. At least to some extent the Gracchi and later reformers attempted to relieve the plight of allied as well as citizen poor. It is more likely that a combination of the devastation caused by the Hannibalic invasion and the heavy demands of military service in the second century BC ruined many small farmers, and produced a shift in population away from the country to swell the urban poor. This was not universal. In some areas small farmers were able to survive and prosper for several centuries. Slave-worked latifundia were already in existence before the Romans intervened in Sicily, but the disturbances caused by the Hannibalic War and the wealth and slaves produced by subsequent conquests greatly encouraged their spread.7

The Punic Wars were not the sole cause of the major changes in Roman society in the mid to late Republic, but they were a highly important episode in Rome's history. During these conflicts the Romans mobilized massive human and economic resources to wage war with relentiess determination. In doing so they were drawn into close involvement all around the shores of the Mediterranean, so that much of the fighting in the second century was a direct result of this contact. Rome was already an active imperialist, warfare an inseparable part of her political system, before the struggle with Carthage, but this produced a permanent increase in the scale and intensity of Roman war-making. The Romans became accustomed to maintaining a large army and governing and exploiting overseas provinces. The Romans, and most especially their elite, had profited from expansion for many years, but as the rate of expansion quickened, so the scale of the spoils massively increased. Rome was flooded with wealth, luxuries and slaves, as well as new ideas and cultural influences. Most of the problems which beset the Republic in the century before its end - increasingly fierce aristocratic competition; the rapidly escalating costs of a political career; the decline of the rural population and the dramatic increase of slavery, urban poverty and debt; the difficulties of recruitment which led to the creation of a professional army - were all directly or indirectly the consequences of imperial expansion. Ultimately the Republic failed to cope with these problems and a monarchy was created. Some would argue that the Republican system relied too heavily on outmoded institutions, perfectly adequate for a city state but utterly incapable of ruling a massive empire. The weakness of this view is that the institutions of the Principate remained for many years essentially those of a city state. Perhaps the Republican system in the second and early first centuries BC had simply become too inflexible to adapt as it had in the past to changing circumstances. Maybe the changes produced by Rome's rapid overseas expansion simply occurred too quickly for the state to deal with effectively. If this was so, then the Punic Wars had played a part, for they had undoubtedly accelerated Roman expansion.

The Punic Wars in Perspective

The world today would be a very different place if Carthage had won the struggle with Rome. The Romans would only have conceded defeat if their enemy had inflicted considerable real damage upon them; more, certainly, than they proved capable of doing. Defeat in such a large-scale conflict might have been enough to cause the collapse of Rome as a state. Roman expansion would have slowed for a very long time and perhaps never happened. The Graeco-Roman culture of the empire which covered much of Europe, North Africa and the Near East for more than 500 years had a profound influence on the subsequent development of the Western world in particular, and through this spread throughout most of the globe. A significant proportion of the world's countries now speak Latin-based languages, or languages heavily influenced by Latin, and use a version of the Latin alphabet. Many legal systems are based on Roman law. The existence of the Roman Empire, and the relative ease of travel it permitted, gready facilitated the spread of Christianity and of course the creation of a Roman Catholic Church. Would any of this happened in the same way if the Romans had lost?

The Romans came close - we will never know how close - to defeat on very few occasions in either the First or Second Punic Wars, and never in the Third War. They did not lose because they refused to admit defeat in spite of enormous losses, and won through sheer determination and the willingness to expend massive resources in their war effort. The solidarity of all classes at Rome was remarkable, especially in comparison to other ancient city states, and, more often than not, their allies, Latin, Italian and overseas, were also inclined to remain loyal. The entire Roman state went to war, mobilizing an exceptionally high proportion of its manpower, marshalling all of its wealth and resources to pay, feed, clothe and equip its armies, and to construct great fleets of warships. Once (and for whatever reasons) the Romans came into direct conflict with Carthage they did everything necessary to achieve victory, grimly building new fleets or raising fresh legions to replace the ones they had lost, private individuals assisting when the State's finances ran low. The Romans took great pride in their ability to learn from their enemies, copying weaponry and tactics from successive opponents and often improving upon them. This characteristic was amply demonstrated in the Punic Wars by the speed with which Rome turned herself into a great naval power in the First War, or the steady improvement of her armies and generals during the Second.8

The Carthaginian war effort was never so wholehearted, and most of the State did not directly participate in the conflict until 149 when they were faced with the extinction of their city. This less determined approach to warfare was not because the Carthaginians remained at heart a nation of merchants, who viewed every enterprise in terms of profit and loss. It was the normal attitude towards warfare of every civilized state in the Mediterranean world. Only the Romans viewed every war as a life and death struggle, refusing to consider defeat whilst they had any means of carrying on the fight, and always pursuing total victory. The Carthaginians, and especially Hannibal, put the Romans under greater pressure than any other single foreign opponent. That they survived this ordeal confirmed their distinctive attitude towards warfare, until the changing conditions of late antiquity made it impossible to maintain. The Romans' relentless attitude to warfare was one of the most important factors in the creation of their Empire, combined with their remarkable talent for absorbing other peoples which gave it such stability. The same attitude to war tended to breed more conflict after an initial clash, and the differences between the Romans' and Carthaginians' expectation of how a beaten enemy should behave contributed in no small way to the renewal of war in 218 and 149.9

The historians of the twentieth century readily saw a parallel between the First and Second Punic Wars and the two World Wars of their own century. The struggle between Rome and Carthage was on an unprecedented scale and resulted in massive casualties just as the Great War shattered the European powers. The resentment of many on the losing side provoked the renewal of war and a wider, even more damaging conflict in both 218 BC and AD 1939. Some individual incidents seemed to have parallels between these conflicts separated in time by two millennia. In many respects the situation faced by Britain in the summer of AD 1940 was similar to that of Rome in late 216 BC. Both sides had suffered military disaster suddenly and unexpectedly, and it seemed only a matter of time before each would be overrun by the all-conquering victors. In each case the victors, intoxicated by the ease of their success, believed that all logic demanded that the other side admit defeat and come to a negotiated settlement. Yet Rome and Britain refused to seek peace and continued to fight, enduring further losses. Revisionists who have tried to argue that Hider's Germany was incapable of launching a successful invasion across the English Channel in 1940 miss the point as certainly as those who debate whether or not Hannibal could have taken Rome in 216. These operations would in practice have been extremely difficult and perhaps impossible with the resources at the Germans' and Carthaginians' disposal. What is far more important is that both the Romans in 216 and the British in 1940 believed that a direct attack upon them was perfectly possible and imminent, posing a real threat to their very existence. In spite of this each preferred to fight on rather than accept defeat and persisted in this resolve in the face of continued pressure from the enemy. For the Romans as much as the British the period was to become their 'Finest Hour', remembered as a time of great unity when all classes stuck together and endured great hardship for the common good. Perhaps the biggest difference is that whilst this occurred in the last days of the British Empire, for the Romans it marked the beginning of their rise to World Empire.

Successes on the battlefield do not automatically bring victory in the wider conflict. Unless one side was overwhelmingly strong, it was rarely possible in the pre-nuclear age to inflict so much damage that an enemy was incapable of fighting on. Wars ended when one side lost its will to continue the struggle and capitulated. Breaking the collective willingness of an enemy population to fight on was the ultimate goal of the theories of Strategic Air Power developed in the 1920s and 1930s AD. When these were put into practice in the Second World War, civilian populations proved far more resilient than the advocates of aerial bombing had anticipated. The bombing of cities did not cause the rapid demoralization of the population, leading to rioting and civil disorder which would force governments to seek peace. Supporters of Independent Air Power argued that the failure was not through any flaw in the concept, but due to a lack of resources, and ultimately such theories reached their culmination in the development of the nuclear arsenal.

It is not always easy to discover which events will trigger the collapse of the collective fighting spirit of any state or people. In AD 1991 the United Nations waged a brief and highly successful campaign against Iraq, but this failed to result in the removal from power by his own people of Saddam Hussein, a prospect eagerly anticipated by politicians and much of the media in the West. In the same way, NATO operations in the Balkans later in the same decade failed to destroy the hold on power of the leaders of Serbia. Battlefield success did not produce the political results widely broadcast in the public debate, although this outcome came as little surprise to most military analysts. Military defeat did not persuade the population of a country to realize the inequalities and unfairness inherent in their political system - at least by Western standards - and turn against their oppressive leaders. Instead the threat from outside tended to bring far greater unity to each country. In our eyes the Roman system of government might seem deeply unfair, concentrating power in the hands of a tiny elite, whilst the system of alliances through which the city controlled Italy was surely oppressive and deeply resented by Latins and Italians. Hannibal may have believed this to be the case when he marched to Italy in 218, although it is difficult to know just how well he understood the peculiarities of the Roman system. Yet his appeal to Rome's allies to throw off the oppressor's yoke fell overwhelmingly on deaf ears. No Latins joined him and the bulk of the Italians also remained loyal. Fear of reprisals played a part, as perhaps did suspicion of Carthage's motives, but on the whole we are forced to conclude that most of the Italian communities felt that it was in their best interest to support Rome. In the same way, even the poorer classes at Rome felt a strong enough bond to the community to sacrifice their lives for it.

In the Introduction I stated that it was not my intention in this book to seek in the Punic Wars military lessons of direct relevance to modern warfare. Others are far better qualified to discuss modern strategy and tactics. The aim of this book has been to set the conflict between Rome and Carthage firmly within the context of warfare in the third and second centuries BC. If we are to learn from the past then history must first be understood on its own terms. One general point is worth emphasizing, namely that each society and culture tends to have a unique view of warfare which affects how they fight and as a result how they may be beaten. This can be seen in most periods of history, but the difference between two philosophies of war has rarely been as clearly illustrated as it was during the Punic Wars.

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