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Punic Wars

Updated on November 1, 2009

Punic Wars, three wars between Carthage and Rome in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. The final outcome of these wars was the triumph of Rome and the destruction of Carthage. By eliminating this powerful rival, Rome took a decisive step forward in its march toward becoming an empire.

First Punic War

In 264 B.C. a crisis over control of Messana (now Messina), Sicily, brought Roman and Punic, or Carthaginian, troops into conflict. By 263 B.C. the Roman army controlled most of Sicily. In 260 B.C. the experienced Punic navy suffered a crushing defeat at Mylae (now Milazzo). The Roman navy was destroyed by storms, but, rebuilt with private funds, it again defeated Carthage in 241 B.C. Carthage agreed to cede Punic Sicily and the Lipari Islands and to pay a large indemnity. In 238 B.C., Carthage, weakened by a revolt of its mercenary soldiers, also ceded Sardinia and Corsica to Rome.

Second Punic War

Following the first war, Hamilcar Barca established a Punic base in Spain. In 218 B.C. his son Hannibal seized the city of Saguntum (now Sagunto), a Roman ally, and Rome declared war. Because Rome was now powerful on the sea, Hannibal chose an overland route. He outwitted the Roman army, and in the fall of 218 B.C., using elephants, he led his army across the Alps. A few months later, aided by friendly Gauls, he scored a decisive victory over the Roman army on the banks of the Trebia (now Trebbia) River. In the spring of 217 B.C. he was victorious at Lake Trasimenus (now Trasimeno), and in August 216 B.C. he overwhelmingly defeated a larger Roman army at Cannae. However, the divided counsels in Carthage and the difficulties of naval transport hampered Hannibal, and his final hope for aid vanished when his brother, Hasdrubal, was killed after invading Italy. Hannibal slowly retreated to southern Italy. In 205 B.C., Scipio Africanus the Elder completed his five-year conquest of Spain. The following year he landed in Africa and defeated the Punic army. Hannibal was recalled to Carthage and in 202 B.C. was defeated by Scipio at Zama (now Jama). The peace treaty of 201 B.C. disarmed Carthage, forbade the Carthaginians to wage war in Africa, and, as in the first war, forced them to pay a large indemnity to Rome.

Third Punic War

During the next 50 years, Punic commerce revived, much to Rome's dismay. Cato the Elder urged war, and Rome encouraged its ally, Numidia, to seize Punic lands. In 151 B.C., Carthage resisted and thus violated the terms of the earlier treaty. Rome blockaded the city and in 149 B.C. began a siege of Carthage. In 146 B.C., under the command of Scipio Africanus Minor, the Romans finally captured Carthage. The inhabitants who were not killed were sold into slavery, the city was razed, and in a gesture of contempt, salt was spread over the ruins. Thus, by 146 B.C., Rome had gained complete control over the Mediterranean Sea.

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