Your guide to the Punic Wars

For nearly 80 years, Rome and Carthage fought for supremacy in a series of wars that saw Hannibal lead elephants over the Alps and Rome suffer one of its worst military defeats at Cannae. Find out how Rome eventually triumphed in the Punic Wars, and why they began in the first place

Print of Hannibal ferrying his elephants over the Rhone on rafts during the Second Punic War

Who fought in the Punic Wars and how many were there?

The Punic Wars were a series of conflicts fought by the powerful cities of Carthage and Rome between 264 BC and 146 BC.

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The period is usually split into three distinct wars – the First Punic War was fought from 264–241 BC, the Second Punic War from 218–201 BC and the Third Punic War from 149–146 BC.

If these were wars between Rome and Carthage, why are they called the Punic Wars?

The word ‘Punic’ derives from the word ‘Phoenician’ (phoinix in Greek or punicus in Latin), and refers to the citizens of Carthage, who were descended from the Phoenicians.

How did the First Punic War begin?

Rome in 264 BC was relatively small  – a far cry from its later superiority – and it was the city of Carthage (located in what we now know as Tunisia) that reigned supreme in the ancient world. Tensions arose between the cities over who should have control of the strategic island of Sicily. Although relations were generally friendly, Rome’s intervention in a dispute on the island saw them explode into conflict.

In 264 BC, war was officially declared for control of Sicily. Rome built and equipped over 100 ships to take on the Carthaginian navy and finally, in 241 BC, was able to win a decisive victory against the Carthaginians at sea.

In the peace treaty that followed, Rome gained Sicily – its first overseas province.

A 16th-century painting of the Tower of Babel

Why was there a Second Punic War?

In 219 BC, Hannibal (son of Hamilcar Barca, a Carthaginian general during the First Punic War) broke the tentative peace between the two cities and laid siege to Saguntum (in eastern Spain), then an ally of Rome.

Furious at Hannibal’s audacity, the Romans demanded that he be handed over for punishment. This order was ignored by the Carthaginian senate, and so the Second Punic War began. Roman General Publius Cornelius Scipio, later known as Scipio Africanus, emerged in opposition to Hannibal during this conflict.

Is this where the elephants come into it?

Yes. Famously, the Hannibal proceeded to march his forces over the Alps, along with his elephants, and conquered much of northern Italy. Hannibal faced the Romans, including Scipio, at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC – he won a great victory that saw some 70,000 Romans killed compared to just 6,000 Carthaginians.

Not a man to be beaten, Scipio – an admirer of Hannibal – turned the situation around at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC. Hannibal’s elephant charge was deflected back into the Carthaginian ranks, followed by a combined cavalry and infantry advance, which crushed Hannibal’s forces.

Carthage was ordered to surrender its navy, pay Rome a war debt of 200 talents of gold every year for 50 years, and was forbidden from waging war with anyone without Roman approval.

How Hannibal beat the Alps but couldn’t beat Rome

Robin Lane Fox explains how the classical general, famed for his crossing of the Alps, was defeated because he couldn’t fulfil his promise of liberation from Rome…

Hannibal’s war elephants are defeated at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC. (AKG)

If Carthage had been crushed, why did the Third Punic War break out in 149 BC?

Carthage paid its war debt to Rome over 50 years, until 149 BC. Then, deeming the treaty to be complete, the city went to war against Numidia, in what is now Algeria. Not only did they lose the war, but Carthage incurred the wrath of Rome, who again deemed its old foe a threat.

This time, Carthage was to be put down permanently. That same year, a Roman embassy was sent to Carthage to demand that the city be dismantled and moved inland away from the coast. When the Carthaginians refused, the Third Punic War broke out.

Roman forces besieged Carthage for three years, until it finally fell in 146 BC. The city was sacked and burned to the ground where it lay in ruin for more than a century, with its inhabitants sold into slavery.

What happened after the Punic Wars?

By the time the Punic Wars ended, Rome had blossomed from a small trading city into a formidable powerhouse. With no serious threat coming from Carthage, Rome had the opportunity to expand, eventually becoming the empire that would dominate the known world.


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This content first appeared in the February 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed