The Punic Wars
The Roman Republic was a dynamic storehouse of constitutional power, which grew and evolved as Rome expanded its lands and society became more and more developed. As the Romans conquered more territories, they increased their wealth, recruited allies, and brought their laws along with them to these new lands. They would eventually extend the franchise of Roman citizenship throughout Italy and beyond, but not without some major challenges along the way.
Because of Rome’s many successes and rapid growth, there arose conflicts with powerful neighbors who were jealous of the Republic’s rise. After the invading Gauls torched Rome in 390 BCE, the Senate gave dictatorial power to the patrician Marcus Furius Camillus for a year, which he used to force the Gauls into retreat. This earned him the title “The Second Founder of Rome.”
By 264, the Romans were in control of Italy, which provoked international rivalry and then war with Carthage. Carthage was a city-state in modern-day Tunisia that was in control of vast territories and commercial networks in the Mediterranean region and beyond. In a series of three wars that became known as the Punic Wars, Rome and Carthage slugged it out. During the first of these wars, the Romans were initially severely mauled at sea by the superior Carthaginian navy – reportedly losing 700 warships. However, their willingness to adapt and endure ended up saving them. In 260, they used a captured Carthaginian ship as the basis for their own ship models. But the Romans went a step further by adding the corvus, a bridge with a spike on its underside that could attach to an enemy deck. This allowed Roman soldiers to board the Carthaginian ship and capture it through hand-to-hand combat instead of simply trying to ram the ship.
The tactic allowed Rome to transfer its advantage in land warfare to the sea, and by the 240s it was holding its own against the Carthaginians. Raising a new fleet, the Romans returned and decisively defeated the Carthaginian navy at the Aegates Islands off the western coast of Sicily in 241. Sicily then became Rome’s first overseas province.
But Carthage had colossal reserves and resources available to pursue its revenge, which brought the Roman Republic to the very brink of extinction. Under the leadership of Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginians conquered much of Spain and then in 219, deliberately provoking the Romans, they stormed Saguntum, a Spanish city allied to Rome. The Second Punic War had begun. Hannibal conducted a daring thrust into Italy by crossing the Alps in the north, winning a string of decisive victories at Trebia in 218, Lake Trasimene in 217, and Cannae in 216. In this third encounter, the Carthaginians reportedly killed more than 75,000 and captured 10,000 Romans, with as many as 80 senators being killed in the fray.
Rome was completely on the ropes. As a result of the decisive defeat at Cannae, many of its allies and colonies defected to the Carthaginian side. But the city of Rome, the core of the Republic, remained united against the invader. Using its power to conduct foreign relations, the Roman Senate flatly rejected Hannibal’s offer to return Roman prisoners in return for ransom money. This made it publicly known that Rome would refuse to ransom any Roman captured by the Carthaginians anywhere and any such attempts by private citizens were banned. This stern decision inspired the Roman soldiers to fight with a newfound urgency, knowing that they could not rely on anyone to save them if captured by the enemy. It also preserved the reputation of the Senate as a source of strong military leadership. The Senate was able to re-pivot the military with impressive speed. The soldiers were quickly organized into two legions that were sent to Sicily, banned from discharging their duties or returning to Italy until the end of the war.
The crisis of Cannae became a shining moment for the Republic in its efficient decision-making and mobilization of military resources. Former consul Quintus Fabius Maximus was appointed dictator in 217, and focused the Roman armies on harassing Carthaginian supply lines and avoiding major engagements, so as to gain strength and wear their enemies down by attrition. Profiting gradually from Fabius’s scattered warfare against Hannibal in Italy, the Romans went on the attack against the Carthaginians and their allies in Sicily, which had revolted against Roman authority. In 210, Roman forces captured the last major Carthaginian foothold on the island, and that same year Publius Cornelius Scipio led an attack on Spain. In 209, the year that Fabius reconquered Tarentum in Italy, Scipio took the major Spanish city of Carthago Nova in a surprise attack, providing a powerful base of operations. Through successful recruitment of local allies and subsequent victories, Scipio had ended Carthaginian dominance of the Iberian Peninsula by 205.
The Republic then sent Scipio to Sicily to ready a large invasion at the center of Carthaginian power in North Africa. Scipio’s invasion force, composed largely of the survivors of Cannae, landed in Africa in 204 and quickly made headway. Scipio’s gains convinced the Carthaginian Senate to recall Hannibal to Africa, and in 202 the generals faced each other for a showdown of epic proportions. In a closely fought battle, the Romans finally got the edge when their cavalry successfully attacked the Carthaginians in the rear. The Second Punic War ended shortly thereafter, resulting in Carthage surrendering control of Spain and ending its status as an imperial power.
Carthage wasn’t down and out quite yet though. It had something of a resurgence and, when Numidians plundered its territory in Africa, sparked the Third Punic War by raising an army to fight these incursions, even though its peace treaty with Rome forbade such a measure without Roman permission. The war, which began in 148, culminated with the Romans capturing and burning Carthage to the ground in 146. That same year, a Roman force also sacked the city-state of Corinth. These events, marking the spread of Roman dominance to North Africa and Greece, were major turning points for the Roman Republic. With the smashing of Carthage’s naval dominance in particular, the entire Mediterranean became accessible to Roman soldiers and merchants. Riches from abroad poured into the capital city, and soon the citizens of the Republic began to expect bounties and indulgences from their politicians. Oligarchs and their partisans were soon able to influence Roman politics as never before – and in the process, they would shake the very foundations of Rome’s republican government.
Ok, before we go, here’s a quick recap to sum everything up.
The Punic Wars were a series of three wars fought between Rome and Carthage due to conflicts rising from Rome’s increasing expansion. This first war, started in 264, was fought to establish control over Corsica and Sicily, which led to Carthage surrendering in 240. The second war started after Carthage stormed Rome’s allies in Saguntum in 219. This ended with Rome taking power over the western Mediterranean region. The third and final war was caused by Carthage raising an army to defend its territories in Africa, which resulted in Carthage being burned to the ground.
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