Follow TV Tropes


Useful Notes / Punic Wars

Go To
Hannibal crossing the Alps

"The great Carthage waged three wars. It was still powerful after the first, still habitable after the second. It was untraceable after the third."

No, not wars of Puns.

A series of wars fought between The Roman Republic and Carthagenote . The Romans called the Carthaginians Poenics (Punic) which is Latin for Phoenicians, of which Carthage seems to have been their latest, most profitable and as it turned out, last offshoot and settlement. (The word Carthage comes from Qart-ḥadašt "new city"). The wars developed organically as a result of competing foreign policies of two major Mediterranean powers, driven by trading routes, and commercial hegemony. But these economic goals eventually mixed with regional, political, and personal grudges and rivalries. The simple explanation seems to be that there were only two major powers left, after the decline and splintering of the Macedonian Succession Wars (which overlapped with this conflict) and this led to a potential realignment of the Balance of Power, and the Mediterranean sea just wasn't big enough for both.


The wars lasted for more than a hundred years (264-146) and it's analogous in many respects to later great hegemonic rivalries like the Anglo-French Rivalry of the 18th Century and the Cold War, filled as it is with military arms-race, proxy-wars, attacks on regional states, at the end of which there was only a unipolar political landscape.

  • The First Punic War (264-241 BCE): A group of mercenaries around what is now Messina in Sicily called the Mamertines declared themselves an independent pirate kingdom and asked for protection from Syracuse. Their critical strategic position drew in both Rome and Carthage as patrons. Weak diplomacy and paranoia sparked into a war. The Romans succeeded on land making themselves the dominant power in Sicily. At sea however, the Romans were weak against the Carthaginian naval powers, who were recognized as a Badass Navy. Still the Romans were quick learners and developed tactics to counter the Carthaginian's advantage (mostly by getting their own Badass Army from their ships to those of their enemies via a drawbridge-like device known as the corvus). Hamilcar Barca proved to be one of the few commanders who won regularly against the Romans, but ultimately the war was going so long and draining too much coffers, that the Carthaginians decided to sue for peace and offer Romans reparations to ultimately bribe them, as they saw it. This didn't fit well with Hamilcar Barca needless to say.
  • Advertisement:
  • The Second Punic War (218-201 BCE): By this time, the Barcid Family had more or less become a Renegade Splinter Faction of the Carthaginian State, and had established a powerful base in Hispania. Hannibal, Hamilcar's son and heir, reigned in Hispania and was more or less building an army to eventually fight against the Romans. The immediate cause this time the city-state of Saguntum, which was supposed to be on the side of the Carthaginian border on the Ebbro River as negotiated at the end of the First War. Hannibal built a disciplined army buttressed by local tribesmen, mercenaries and Gallic tribesmen chafing under Rome. Hannibal led them in the greatest military campaign since the death of Alexander the Great, leading to proverbial incidents such as: The surprise march over the Alps, the victories at Lake Trebia and Trasimene, and finally Cannae, a battle which is still a catchword among connoisseurs of tactical virtuosity. The Romans literally panicked with "Hannibal at the Gates" but the former dragged his feet and did not march on Rome, leading to a decade of proxy-war of attrition during which Hannibal tried to draw Italian clients to his cause (some accepted, others didn't) while the Romans preserved their advantages, until they managed to strategically take the fight back to him, with Publius Cornelius Scipio invading and attacking Hannibal's base in Hispania, and Marcellus leading a punitive expedition to Sicily, both of which diverted Hannibal's strategic position. The Romans then forced a Decisive Battle at Zama leading Hannibal to leave Italy and return to North Africa to defend Carthage. After a hard-fought battle, the Romans won after pulling their "own Cannae" by attacking Hannibal's rear. This war was the last time Carthage could ever challenge Rome on an equal footing and it was the closest Rome ever came to defeat. After it, Rome on both the West and East would never face another rival and threat in the Mediterranean until it's Crisis and Decline six hundred years or so later.
  • The Third Punic War (149-146 BCE): More than fifty years after the Second War, by which time, Hannibal Barca had died in exile, spending his retirement as a freelance mercenary and military adviser. Scipio Africanus had likewise also died in retirement outside Rome, hounded away by the corrupt Senate oligarchy who were no fans of the latter's doling out land settlements to his soldiers. Carthage had more or less decided to quit the empire game. The terms at the end of the Second War, was that Carthage would surrender its foreign policy to Rome, and pay even more reparations and tribute than the first time. Carthage was reduced to the city-state of Carthage and outer-environs, and it lost more and more territory to Numidians and regional rivals who could attack with impunity, since any attempt to defend itself would be seen as an act of war by Rome. Yet, despite this, by 151 BCE, Carthage paid off its reparations and fulfilled its treaty obligations, by which time they could conceivably go back to business as usual. The Romans had become greedy for land and riches in the meantime, and they were no longer the small Italian-City State that had been the underdog. They liked the new status-quo and would have liked Carthage to keep paying them even if they no longer had to. Furthermore, the city-state of Corinth in Greece and other towns were trading with the city when the Romans felt that the Mediterranean was "Mare Nostrum" (Our Sea). As such, the Romans decided to Make an Example of Them. The casus-belli was an attack by the Numidians, the Carthaginians were defending themselves from, and so the Romans claimed they were there to help their clients and allies. They laid siege on Carthage, and the former chose to resist rather than surrender. The siege saw atrocities on both sides (with the Carthaginians skinning Roman POWs on the ramparts of the city-gates in front of Roman soldiers' views. As such the Romans responded with extreme prejudice and destroyed the city to its foundations, massacring most of the populace, and making the rest into refugees, slaves or exiles. According to legend, the Romans supposedly "sowed the fields with salt" to keep anything from growing but that's just a legend. Carthage would in fact be earmarked as Roman overseas territory and the question of when to resettle and who to distribute that land with became a political issue that in time led to Civil War in Rome. The Romans also followed Carthage with the equally brutal sack of the city of Corinth to Make an Example of Them to other states in the Mediterranean. The destruction of Corinth, according to legend, melting much of the steel and iron work in the city into Corinthian Bronze, and filled with much destruction of Greek art.

As per Polybius, Rome triumphed because of its Republican institutions which somehow managed to bring all the people together under the cause of defending its institutions. The culture of civic patriotism and the citizen-soldier also gave the Romans advantage over the Carthaginians merchant-oligarchy who more or less depended on mercenaries to fight their wars, and moreover faced many mercenary revolts and defections (over being strapped for cash by Roman reparations according to the oligarchs). The Punic Wars were the Glory Days for the Republic and in the views of Roman writers and historians themselves, the beginning of its end, since by the end of it, the city-state governed a huge swathe of territory and land it had no idea what to do with. Almost every conflict that followed can trace itself to the Punic Wars. The grandsons of Scipio Africanus were the Gracchi who wanted to settle Roman Carthage with the poor and likewise extend citizenship outside of Rome. The Senate's murder of the Gracchi and refusal to do the same led to the Socii Wars where the Italian tribes who had allied with Rome and loyally supported the Republic against Hannibal experienced severe buyer's remorse launching a bloody war which killed people in large numbers (300,000), with some arguing it was only slightly less bloody than Hannibal's onslaught. Scipio Africanus arguably codified the model for the political general (Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar) since in his campaigns against the Carthaginians and afterwards, he took it upon himself to pay his soldiers, train and equip them and settle them in land, which made the soldiers loyal to the commander rather than SPQR and likewise created a Cult of Personality around him by investing in art, culture and patronizing Greek ideas in Rome.

Most sources for the history of the Punic Wars are either Roman or Greek. The earliest known source is Polybius, a Hellenistic Greek who became part of Scipio's circle and was an eyewitness to the Third Punic War and the Fall of Carthage. After him, you have Sallust, a corrupt governor and an ally of Julius Caesar who wrote the earliest surviving Latin histories and then we have Livy, Augustus' court-historian. Still shipwrecks from the Punic Wars have been discovered as recently as 2010. Technically it was the longest war in history, due to the mayors of Rome and Carthage (which by that point was a ritzy suburb of Tunis) signing a peace treaty in 1985 "officially" ending the war.

The first two punic wars are clearly illustrated here.

Tropes for this page:

  • Absent-Minded Professor: Archimedes. According to tales, when the Romans were doing their Rape, Pillage, and Burn in Syracuse, a legionary came upon him while he was doing math problems in the dust. Archimedes barely bothered to notice him so the soldier killed him. Marcus Claudius Marcellus, the Roman General, was greatly annoyed as he had wanted Archimedes alive, either because the Roman general was a Cultured Warrior or Archimedes might be useful (Given that Marcus had been awarded the Spolia Optima, and was regarded before Scipio Africanus as Rome's foremost General, it's very likely to have been the former.)
  • The Alliance:
    • Rome's strength was that it led a large one that provided huge allied contingents and defended it. Hannibal's strategic requirement before being able to directly attack Rome was to break it, and it was precisely his failure to get the Etruscan, Latins and Umbrian (the largest allies and the one directly surrounding Rome) to switch side that ultimately caused his defeat.
    • Invoked by Hamilcar, Hannibal's father: realizing Rome's strength, he went in Spain to create one for Carthage and hired more or less everybody who wanted to work for him, including Lusitanians, Celtiberians, Cantabrians and all their allied tribes, also including the Numidians for their cavalry. Differently from Rome's, however, Carthage's alliance fell apart: the Spanish tribes were either conquered or convinced to switch sides by Scipio, and the Numidians changed sides after Scipio inflicted them a Curb-Stomp Battle rivaling Cannae (using the survivors of Cannae to boot) and replaced their king with a Roman-friendly one in the wake of this victory.
    • Rome and Carthage were this from the Phyrric Wars until the First Punic War.
  • Ambadassador: Scipio was about as good at diplomacy as in war and the two reinforced each other.
  • Arc Words: "Never be a friend to Rome" for Hannibal according to Livy.
  • Arch-Enemy: Rome and Carthage.
  • Athens and Sparta:
    • It's common to see this as the Roman analogue to The Peloponnesian War, with Rome represented Western civilization (Athens) against the brutish war-like human sacrificing weird Carthaginian East (cf, Cabiria). Likewise, just like the Peloponnesian War, the island of Sicily was a major area that tipped the scales one way or another.
    • On the other hand, the Romans are the Spartans and the Carthaginians are the Athenians. The Romans were a land-army built on discipline and worship a war god (Ares/Mars), while the Carthaginians were a bunch of pleasure-loving rich oligarchs who were primarily a naval power and whose fortunes largely changed because allies kept changing sides, as well as distrust to a talented Military Maverick (Alcibiades/Hannibal, albeit-more-loyal).
    • The Romans at this time practiced human sacrifice as well, and they were more or less seen as the Lower-Class Lout of the Mediterranean. Indeed, Polybius in his histories more or less saw this as a Slobs vs. Snobs conflict with the former winning out decisively over the constantly in-fighting Hellenistic kingdoms and the pleasure loving sybarites of Carthage. This is most apparent in the siege of Syracuse where Archimedes' legendary inventions was no match for Roman tenacity and cunning, and the great scientist died, according to Plutarch, in the middle of a geometric invention, at the end of a Roman spear.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Everyone remembers Hannibal's war elephants, right? Shame they cost a huge amount of money to feed and often trampled their own side when panicked. The same with Archimedes' famous super-weapons, impressive and managed to scare a few Romans but not sufficient in power and implementation to tip the balance.
  • Back from the Brink:
    • The Roman Republic bounced back after Cannae, going from the edge of defeat to an astounding comeback.
    • Incidentally, the Romans felt this way about Carthage as well. After the first Punic War, they imposed ridiculously punitive reparations on Carthage despite being co-aggressors in Sicily but still, the Carthaginians were not defeated and destroyed, and still a major power, and under the Barcid family in Spain, became a force that came inches to wiping out the Republic.
    • Likewise, after the Second War, the Romans destroyed Carthage because they feared this would happen again. Scipio was perceived by the Senate to have been too moderate on the Carthaginians, and moreover did not execute Hannibal and allowed him to rule in Carthage extracting only tributes in exchange for being Demoted to Extra to the Romans. But Carthage was still a bustling trade port even after being a Vestigial Empire and moreover the city-state of Corinth was growing wealth in trade with Carthage, breaking an unstated Roman embargo. In order to prevent another Hannibal or future threat to them, well, "Carthago delenda est."
  • Badass Army: Most obviously the Roman legionaries, but Hannibal's army in Italy qualifies, what with Hannibal managing to out-strategize Rome for 16 years after losing almost half his army in the Alps.
  • Badass Creed: The Mamertines, whose name means Children of Mars (the war god). In other words they were the "Children of battle".
  • Badass Family: The Barcids (Hannibals family). Several families in Rome including the Scipiones of whom Scipio Africanus was best remembered.
  • Badass Grandpa: The King Masinissa of Numidia. He led his troops up until his death at an impressive 90 years old!
  • Battle Chant: The Spaniards at Carthage's side apparently were fond of chanting war hymns and pounding their shields as drums before the battles to encourage themselves and psych their enemies out.
  • Batman Gambit:
    • Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae - Hannibal intentionally had his troops placed at his center give way to bait the Romans into pushing in that area, which caused the Romans to let Hannibal's men surround them.
    • Scipio did a similar thing against Hannibal's elephants at the Battle of Zama. Knowing they'd be the first to charge in to cause gaps in the Romans' lines but wouldn't turn around easily, Scipio had his infantry intentionally open ranks to let the elephants pass through basically harmlessly while using projectiles to kill the elephants.
  • Beast of Battle: Hannibal's elephants, which are among the only things most people remember about the Punic Wars. Too bad they had a tendency to panic in battle.
  • The Brute: According to the poet Silius, Hannibal's army included a Cantabrian mercenary contingent led by a huge bruiser named Larus who wielded a two-handed axe with a single arm and hunted bears as a pastime. After his entire unit was killed, he kept covering the field with corpses by himself and had to be put down by Lucius Scipio, who only overpowered him after chopping his axe arm.
  • Blood Knight: Hannibal's Spanish mercenaries, almost to Psycho for Hire levels. They are consistently described as the most eager to attack and the least willing to retreat in the Carthaginian side. The Gauls at his service were also often more interested in chopping heads than surviving to enjoy their payment.
  • Boarding Party: The Romans stopped losing sea battles once they stopped trying to use traditional tactics (which didn't work, since the Carthaginians were better at it) and started using these, relying on their trusty legionaries to serve as ad hoc marines. This accomplished by the corvus ("crow"), which was named after the bird beak spike. The corvus was swung via a pole and as system of pulleys and dropped onto the enemy ship, holding fast with it's spike. Since Rome was a land-locked town this let their troops fight on their own terms.
  • Boring, but Practical: Fabius' "war of attrition" tactics. Didn't win him any friends, was way more effective than than just just charging at Hannibal. Figuring out a way around the Fabian strategy was something the Carthaginians did by the skin of their teeth, and mainly consisted of "trick Fabius' men into attacking oxen," because by that point Hannibal was surrounded.
  • The Cavalry: The Romans' cavalry at the Battle of Zama was a textbook example of this trope. They charged against the Carthaginian cavalry on both wings, and had to chase them for some time as the Carthaginian's cavalry retreated to draw them away from attacking the infantry's rear. During this time, the Romans' infantry against sees some success against Carthage's, but the infantry of Carthage reforms and a stalemate occurs in the subsequent clash until the Roman cavalry returns after routing their opposite to attack the Carthaginian infantry in the rear.
  • Cincinnatus: Fabius and Scipio. Scipio could conceivably have made himself a Glorious Leader. Fabius was a "dictator" (in the Roman sense it was a legitimate office appointed by the Senate in emergency in a decree of what moderns would call martial law) for awhile and left dutifully when his time was up.
  • Climbing the Cliffs of Insanity: Crossing the Alps with elephants.
  • Cool Horse: The kingdom of Numidia was known for its cavalry and both sides desired their alliance eagerly. However, more famous were the Spanish horses employed by Carthage's Celtiberian mercenaries; some Roman chroniclers went to say they were literally the only reason Hannibal's cavalry was winning all the day.
  • Cool Ship: Quinqueremes, hexaremes and more.
  • Cool Sword: The gladius hispaniensis, the short sword wielded by the Spaniash mercenaries. Small and maneuverable, with an amazing cutting power and an equally good point for stabbing from behind a shield. Naturally, the Romans hurried to copy their design as soon as they saw what those things could do.
  • Cool vs. Awesome: Scipio versus Hannibal at Zama. It is not often we see two world class generals face to face.
  • Conscription: The reason Rome had a lot of reserves.
  • Cultural Rebel: Scipio Africanus was famously enamored with Hellenic philosophy, art, and fashion, which made him many enemies among the Roman conservative faction led by Cato the Elder. He was also magnanimous and merciful to a degree quite contrary to the Roman norm, urging restraint in dealing with the defeated Carthage, a plea that went unheeded when Rome would destroy the city fifty years later.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The infamous Battle of Cannae may be the single biggest curb stomp battle in recorded history. Using a vastly outnumbered army consisting of warriors from different lands, Hannibal managed to lure the tightly packed, phalanx-like formation of the Roman army into his deliberately weakened center. The Carthaginian army bowed backward as the Romans pushed in, the center falled back but the better Carthaginian infantry at the flanks never moved. Once the Roman army had completely waded into Hannibal's odd formation, he sent his cavalry around the back to attack the rear, completely encircling the Romans. Hannibal achieved something that was often termed impossible in the study of military tactics, the encirclement of a greater army by a lesser army. It was a total slaughter, hundreds of men were butchered every minute till sunset. Of the 86,000 romans that took the field that day; only 3,000 escaped. 70,000 Roman troops died; Carthage lost 5,700.
  • Defeat Means Friendship:
    • After the First War; Syracuse and Rome. During the second war the Romans weren't so merciful.
    • On a more personal level, Scipio and Hannibal later met after the war at the court of Antiochus in Syria, and despite a slight disagreement over their respective capabilitiesnote , the two actually hit it off quite well apparently.
    • Incidentally, Scipio was liked by the Carthaginians for treating them quite moderately after Zama, and was condemned by the Roman Senate for not sacking and destroying the city, and for also allowing Hannibal to be civic governor. Scipio spent the rest of his life trying to contain and moderate Roman bloodlust and advocating humane treatment for the Carthaginians but the Senate hated Scipio (led by Cato the Elder, who more or less wanted to destroy Scipio's reputation). Eventually Scipio retired and lived on the countryside, dying incidentally in the same year as Hannibal, who was also exiled from Carthage by the same senate.
  • Defeating the Undefeatable: Scipio's victory over Hannibal at the Battle of Zama, stopping Hannibal who defeated the Romans and pillaged Italy for over 16 years.
  • Demoted to Extra: After losing the battle of Zama in 201 BCE, Hannibal spent the first 8 years in the Carthaginian government as a reformer and statesman before the Romans forced Carthage to exile him. He then spent the rest of his life as an exile, mercenary, and military adviser, where on one occasion he supposedly told a Hellenistic king to throw baskets of snakes via catapults on Romans. The Romans kept chasing him out in the wild and hounded him till he was Driven to Suicide, even after he was virtually powerless.
  • Determinator:
    • Rome, as best shown by when its forces were defeated at Cannae: when asked if they wanted to have another go at defeating Hannibal, the survivors followed Scipio Africanus in Africa and actually defeated Hannibal.
    • Saguntum, a Spanish city whose siege by Hannibal caused the Second Punic War. Despite being less than half of the Carthaginian army surrounding the city, the Saguntines decided not to go gentle and initiated a resistance that lasted months and months. Even when the city was finally taken, Hannibal was forced to butcher many of the surviving Iberians because, instead of surrendering, they had started to destroy the city and dispose of their riches so the Punics would not have them.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Both sides fell victim to this. At Zama, the Roman soldiers that broke Hannibal's lines and defeated him were the survivors of the terrible Roman defeat at Cannae. In the siege of Carthage, the whole Carthaginian population, barely armed, fought to the last against the overwhelming Roman army, resisting for three years and inflicting disproportionate losses before the Romans could prevail.
  • The Dreaded: Hannibal and Marcellus:
    • Hannibal became this for the Romans after Cannae, to the point that some young Romans proposed to leave the city and found a new one elsewhere. It mostly subsided when the Romans realized Hannibal couldn't hope to win a siege or even come close to Rome, but they still feared him in open battle;
    • Marcellus earned this fame in the Sicilian Campaign by being so ferocious with the local cities that even the Senate (who usually didn't give a shit to what happened to rebels and traitorous allies like those that were dealing with Marcellus) considered him going overboard. At the start they just hated him, with even neutral and Roman-aligned cities declaring allegiance to Hannibal, as the bulk of his army was busy besieging the unconquerable Syracuse and all they had to deal with were raiding parties, but they started fearing him when the unconquerable Syracuse was stormed and sacked, to the point they immediately switched sides. And when Marcellus was elected governor of Sicily, the Sicilians sent envoys to beg and bribe the Senate to sent him somewhere else before he could even start the travel (the Senate, given what had happened in the past, sent him to Apulia, where he decided to go easy on the locals).
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: During the decisive Roman defeat at Cannae, one of the Roman consuls, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, was gravely wounded. Offered a horse on which he could escape the battle by one of the few surviving tribunes, Cornelius, he had only this to say:
    Lucius Aemilius Paullus: Long may you live to do brave deeds, Cornelius, but do not waste in useless pity the few moments left in which to escape from the hands of the enemy. Go, announce publicly to the Senate that they must fortify Rome and make strong its defence before the victorious enemy approaches, and tell Q. Fabius privately that I have ever remembered his precepts in life and in death. Suffer me to breathe my last among my slaughtered soldiers, let me not have to defend myself again when I am no longer consul, or appear as the accuser of my colleague and protect my own innocence by throwing the guilt on another.
  • Elite Mooks: The Spanish mercenaries were the nearest thing to modern Special Forces the Punic army had among their soldiers. Did you need someone to swim through the Rhone river, infiltrate the Volcae territory and get directly behind their freaking backs? Send in the Spaniards. Someone to feign deserting to the Romans at Cannae and then backstab them with hidden swords? The Spaniards. Someone to just jump on the Romans and kill until being killed? The Spaniards.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: "Cunctator" started out as insult—basically, the Romans were calling Fabius Maximus a coward for not facing Hannibal head-on. Then he started winning,and it wasn't an insult anymore.
  • Enemy Mine: They didn't like it, but when the Mamertines requested for an alliance with the Roman Republic, the Syracusans allied with their former enemy the Carthaginian Empire.
  • Even Better Sequel:
    • The Second Punic War. It's the one people pay the most attention to, and with good reason: Hannibal crossing the Alps, The Battle of Cannae, Fabian's tactics, Scipio Africanus invading Spain, Marcus Claudius Marcellus obtaining the spoila opima — claiming the armor of an opposing commander after killing him in single combat and The Battle of Zama.
    • Some historians feel that this is unfair. The first Punic War lasted for 20 years and included a million people, a scale we would never see until very recently in the Early Modern Era. The third Punic War saw street-fighting and Roofhopping Roman soldiers going block by block like something out of the 20th Century.
  • Evil Counterpart: Invoked by the Romans after Cannae. Having seen that Hannibal's Celtiberian mercenaries had been a huge factor in his victory, they resorted to hire their own Celtiberians. Not only that, the Romans would also use those new soldiers to negotiate with their countrymen from the opposite side, which served to make Hannibal wary than his mercenaries might betray him due to their tribal relations. As a consequence, he ended up not entrusting them with important roles anymore.
  • Fake Ultimate Mook: Scipio made this out of war elephants at the Battle of Zama. His troops were ordered, when charged by the elephants, to...just run away to the sides to avoid getting crushed, letting their forces' projectiles kill the creatures with little trouble.
  • Final Battle: Zama for the Second Punic War.
  • Folk Hero: Several. Hannibal was a heroic figure for the Carthaginians, the Macedonians and other enemies of the Romans (and even the Romans had some level of admiration for him). Scipio and Fabius Maximus for the Romans. Hieron II for the Sicilians and other Italian peoples.
  • For Want of a Nail: Alternate History buffs and others still wonder what would have happened had Hannibal marched on Rome and laid siege to it after Cannae. The reason why Hannibal never marched on Rome, is that his forces were too weak/disloyal (mercenaries, yanno?) to take it and he knew it, even though Romans suffered series of defeats they were far from defeated, they could still muster enough troops to repulse Hannibal, whose army at this point contained plenty of inexperienced and ill equipped Gauls. Hannibal's brother was actually coming to support him with another 50 000 troops, with whom Hannibal would have enough troops to take Rome, but Romans cut them off and destroyed this reinforcements, forcing Hannibal to fight guerilla war, never quite being able to take any city and constantly avoiding pursuing legions.
  • Forever War: The series of wars lasted over a century. Those around for the start of the first war were long dead by the time their grandchildren and great-grandchildren fought the third. Incidentally this would be among the shortest of Rome's protracted conflicts. The longest is the one with Persia (a whopping 683 years!).
  • Geo Effects: Hannibal used light Lusitanian mercenaries to outmaneuver enemies in rough terrains, as they were accustomed to navigate through their mountainous native lands.
  • The Glory That Was Rome: The Punic Wars were the finest hour of the old-school manipular legion, consisting of citizen-soldiers divided into hastati, principes, and triarii. It was also one of the events that forced Rome to move away from that system. The failure of post-war land distribution reforms had a direct hand in forcing military innovation away from the citizen-soldier structure, as many of Rome's fighting men were left homeless after the war and needed to pursue soldiering as a profession. In addition, massive losses of life meant that Rome found itself unable to mortgage its future with young recruits every time a military campaign took place.
  • Guile Hero:
    • Scipio is usually portrayed as this. Hiero II of Syracuse was definitely one cunning bastard. The whole First Punic War was a Batman Gambit he pulled on the Mamertines, and he played both Carthage and Rome against them. First by allying with the Carthaginians, then convincing the Romans after they won that he didn't had any real grudge against them, that he just wanted the Mamertines and that he would be a much better ally than them. Syracuse became a small superpower thanks to his diplomacy.
    • Also Hannibal himself. Cornelius Nepos refers to him as "callidissimus", or "most cunning" in his "Life of Hannibal". From Cannae to tricking the Cretans into thinking they had his fortune so they wouldn't steal it, the man always had something up his sleeve.
  • Honor Before Reason: The Roman general Regulus was captured by Carthage, but while a prisoner, he was sent back on the promise that he would advocate a peace favorable to Carthage. When he arrived in Rome, he urged the Senate to refuse any peace offers and continue fighting. Afterwards he voluntarily returned to captivity with the now irate Carthaginians, but according to legend, Regulus submitted to death by Cold-Blooded Torture rather than break his parole.
  • Hope Spot: Carthaginian commander Hasdrubal leaving the Iberian Peninsula with a large army and invading Italy late into the Second Punic War to join forces with Hannibal was this to the latter. Hasdrubal ended up defeated and killed by Romans in the battle of Metaurus River, and the Roman commander Gaius Claudius Nero had his head thrown into Hannibal's camp. Made even worse because Hasdrubal was Hannibal's brother.
  • Hopeless War:
    • The Third Punic War definitely. Rome surrounded Carthage, buttressed with former tribes who were now Roman clients angling to get revenge and reap rewards against Carthage.
    • The Second War is seen to have become this after Hannibal refused to march on Rome after Cannae. After a period of shock, the Romans pooled their resource base, its alliances with the Italian cities, and as per Fabian tactics, avoided giving battle to Hannibal in the period of its greatest strength. Hannibal was still a foreigner, far from home, and he represented an unknown quantity to the Italian clients who regardless of their grievances against the Republic, were familiar with the latter. The home-field advantage gave the Romans a better strategic position to take the war to Hannibal's territory (first Hispania, then Sicily, and finally North Africa).
    • After the Second Punic War, Hannibal continued to hound Rome at every turn. First, he became the de facto ruler of Carthage, reformed its democracy, managed to start a consistent repayment system for its indemnity to Rome, and helped it regained former glory. It was still too small to ever challenge the mighty Roman Republic and hope to win, but the Romans still considered it better to nip the city in the bud while it was still reeling from the war, so they pressured Carthage enough that Hannibal was forced into exile. Afterwards, he went east to the court of Antiochus III, king of the mighty Seleucid Empire that controlled most of Alexander the Great's former empire. He then fought the Romans and their client states for a few years, but despite some minor victories against Rome's allies, there was no chance of him really making a difference. In the end, he poisoned himself to avoid capture by the Romans in Bithynia.
  • Human Sacrifice:
    • Carthaginians famously sacrificed infants, offered to their gods cremated in urns.
    • According to Livy, after the disaster of Cannae, the Romans sacrificed two Greeks and two Gauls in the Roman Forum by putting them in a stone chamber and burying them alive. This according to Livy was an exception and not true Roman custom, but Livy was writing in the reign of Augustus several hundred years later, and it does smack a little of Suspiciously Specific Denial.
  • Humble Hero: Scipio Africanus rejected the honors offered to him after defeating the Hannibal "at the Gates", such as consul or dicator. He'd probably later regret this given the merciful terms he had granted to Carthage made Cato the Elder and other Ungrateful Bastards hate him.
  • I Warned You: Fabius's reaction to Cannae. After the defeat at Lake Trasimene, the Fabian strategy of attrition warfare was depriving Hannibal of resources, but the slow pace angered the more belligerent party in the Senate led by Terentius Varro and Aemillius Paullus. Elected consuls after Fabius's dictatorship expired, they assembled the largest Roman army ever, faced Hannibal in the open field — exactly what Fabius warned was a very bad idea — and promptly got most of it killed. With Rome itself exposed and a tenth of its male population dead, with much of Lucania and Bruttium rebelling, and Hannibal marching unimpeded through southern Italy, Fabius was again given supreme command and went right back to his attrition strategy — which eventually produced decisive results for Rome to win the war.
  • Improvised Weapon: During the final siege, Carthaginians made bowstrings out of their women's hair.
  • Land of One City: Most states were this. In the case of Rome and Carthage, they were each one city-state with a wide dominance of territory.
  • The Magnificent: Fabius Maximus Cunctator, Scipio Africanus.
  • Manly Tears: It has been told that Scipio Aemilianus, the commander of the Roman army in the Siege of Carthage, cried his eyes out when he witnessed the destruction, the slaughter and the looting his troops committed after they breached through the Carthaginians' defences. Although it is worth mentioning that it was partly out of horror, but also because Scipio Aemilianus mused on the mortality of all nations. He basically thought "this will happen to Rome one day". Fast forward roughly 600 years, and you see that it does happen. Thrice.
    • Similarly, Plutarch records that Marcellus, who commanded the Siege of Syracuse, also wept as he mused on how his own troops were about to loot the place. He also ordered his men to bring Archimedes to him alive. As mentioned above, one of Marcellus' soldiers murdered Archimedes, which upset the Roman commander.
  • Money Is Not Power: The battle definitively proved this in the eyes of Polybius and others. Carthage was a fabulously rich and wealthy merchant-city state, who could hire and buy mercenaries and who could probably have in time absorbed and repaid the punitive reparations forced on them by the Romans after the first one. But no amount of money and bribes could attract Roman allies with strong traditions and commitment to loyalty. Nor is money sufficient by itself towards nurturing civic virtue since the Barcid family cared far more about defending the city-state and countering the Romans than the Carthaginian Senate did.
  • Moral Myopia: Romans called treachery "Punic Faith". You see, the only people who are allowed to be treacherous to the Romans are other Romans.
  • My Defense Need Not Protect Me Forever: The Roman strategy in the Second Punic War. Inspired by Fabius.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Scipio. He became an exemplar of Roman virtue for generations afterward. One story tells of him, having captured Cartagena, being brought a beautiful Spanish noblewoman as a prize by his men, who knew he had a weakness for beautiful woman. Instead of keeping her as a Sex Slave, he located her fiance and reunited the couple. The man turned out to be an important Iberian chieftain who promptly joined the Roman cause.
  • Overly Long Gag:
    • Famously, Cato the Elder often invoked his personal motto "Carthage must be destroyed," even in completely unrelated contexts. He continued to do this for many years until he died (shortly before the Third Punic War broke out).
    • The Third War qualifies in another way... a peace treaty was officially signed in 1985
  • Overshadowed by Awesome: All signs point towards Hasdrubal being a very capable general in his own right, and it was he who was placed in command of the Carthaginian holdings in Spain during the war to deal with the Roman invasion. He had them at such a stalemate that Rome was actually prepared to write off the entire theater as a lost cause if the last assault lead by an until then unproven nobody failed - a nobody who would become Scipio Africanus, whose until then thought impossible success against Hasdrubal lead to him becoming de facto leader of the entire war. Unfortunately for him, his older brother was Hannibal, and so he has been relegated to a historical footnote, known only as the first stepping stone to Scipio's rise to fame.
  • Paper Tiger: Amazingly enough, Hannibal's Badass Army was this, being very small and reinforced by allies of dubious loyalty, and completely useless in a siege or in any battle he couldn't outmaneuver the Romans. Hannibal's entire strategy was centered on hiding this weakness until enough of Rome's allies switched sides or the Roman morale broke down and they sued for peace. It nearly came to fruition after Cannae, but Fabius Maximus managed to stop the morale fall, and when Hannibal decided to offer them a chance to surrender at decent terms the Romans realized this, raised a bigger army... and demanded the rent for the public land occupied by his camp.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Romans had a lot of this. Carthage is said to have not so much.
  • Private Military Contractors: Carthage's army was composed of this:
    • After the first Punic War, Carthage faced a mercenary revolt over non-payment of soldiers. The government deferred payment citing Roman reparations as the cause, which led to a crisis that allowed Hamilcar Barca to pay the soldiers' debt and more or less make them loyal to him.
    • Over time, Hannibal tried to change the mercenary army from swords-for-hire to loyal followers of the Barca family. A fair number of these men served Hannibal during the Second Punic War, and even followed him in the gruelling march across the Alps. The real weak-link was the client states on Carthage's peripheries. The Romans managed to suborn him in the end, and this tipped the balance at Zama.
  • Proud Merchant Race: Carthage was this. Too proud and rich to build a proper army.
  • Proud Warrior Race: Many of Carthage's mercenary tribes, mainly Spaniards, Gauls and Numidians. Rome was more organized and was a Proud Soldier Race rather than a Proud Warrior Race.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn:
    • The sack of Carthage. And plenty of other times, obviously - it's ancient warfare.
    • The Romans were rightly infamous for systematically killing all the elders and nobles and enslaving everyone else upon storming a city, and adding all able-bodied men to the murdered people if the city was in rebellion or a former ally. This was crucial in the Sicilian campaign: upon realizing that not even the well-defended Syracuse could resist a Roman siege and that the Romans in Sicily were the supposedly cowards that had escaped Cannae, the other Sicilian cities begged for peace before the Romans could spare supposedly stronger troops. It helped that the Roman commander Marcellus had spent most of the Siege of Syracuse leading raiding parties to raze villages with such ferocity that even the Senate considered him going overboard.
  • Red Baron: Fabius, Marcellus and Scipio: Fabius was known as Cunctator ("delayer") and Shield of Rome for his guerilla tactics that screwed Hannibal's strategy and nearly annihilated him, Marcellus was known as the Sword of Rome for stalemating Hannibal every single time they fought and crushing any and all of Hannibal's allies who had the bad sense of not surrendering as soon as he showed up, and Scipio's nickname Africanus, while literally translated as "The African", was Roman slang for "he who went to Africa and kicked the ass of anyone who dared to not worship Rome, including freakin' Hannibal".
  • Refuge in Audacity: What happened right after Cannae. Hannibal, knowing his army was too small to have any hope to successfully besiege or storm Rome or even coming close to the city, sent an ultimatum threatening to take Rome by force. The Roman Senate, knowing they had no chance to collect, sent back a demand for the rent of the public land occupied by Hannibal's camp. That was when Hannibal realized the Romans knew the strategic situation perfectly.
  • The Republic: Both states had a republican form of organization, but the Romans had more civic patriotism and nationalism while Carthage was a merchant oligarchy bound on little aside from money and trade. At least that's how Polybius and the Romans framed it. The Carthaginians certainly did show very little of the self-preservation that comes with mercenary motivations during the Third Punic War, submitting to a three-year long siege in a Hopeless War and dooming their people to death and slavery.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Hieron II of Syracuse.
  • Screwed by the Network: Hannibal was unable to follow up his stunning victory at Cannae with an assault on Rome itself partly because he received very little support from Carthage. It's possible that this was because he had political opponents there, who not wanting him to achieve even greater glory, withheld aid.
  • Shocking Defeat Legacy:
    • The legions that survived Cannae were sort of an ugly duckling in the Roman Army, despite the fact that they had survived by a Let's Get Dangerous! moment of hacking their way right through the Punic lines to freedom. At Zama they redeemed their honor by being among the chief contributors to breaking Hannibal's line and ending the war.
    • On the opposite side, the Greeks cities of Sicily ceased all resistance after the fall of Syracuse, and the Hannibal-aligned cities in Southern Italy started surrendering to Rome after the fall of Capua, depriving Hannibal of the resources he needed to take on Rome.
  • The Siege: Many examples, the most notable being:
    • Syracuse, the only Hannibal-aligned city in Sicily that Marcellus could not take on the first assault. After three years, the Romans eventually broke through.
    • Capua, the second largest city of Italy next to Rome that had defected to Hannibal's side in 216 BC. Hannibal managed to lift the siege multiple times by forcing the Romans to retreat, only for them to return as soon as he was away, leading in 211 to his incursion toward Rome itself to try and lure the two consular armies besieging Capua into a trap and destroy it-and the surrender of Capua when the Romans only sent one of the armies, that, together with Rome's garrison, managed to force Hannibal to retreat away from Capua.
    • Placentia, a Roman colonia in Northern Italy that found itself surrounded by Hannibal-aligned Gauls in 218 BC. The siege actually continued after the war, going on for eighteen years before the Gauls managed to burn down the town.
    • Cremona, Placentia's twin colonia, found itself in the same situation, with the siege starting at the same time as Placentia-and successfully resisting until the Romans defeated the Gauls for good under its walls shortly after the fall of Placentia.
    • The Third Punic War was effectively the siege of Carthage, with some battles fought outside when the Romans tried to breach the harbor defenses or the Carthaginians launched some counteroffensives.
  • Silly Reason for War: A small local conflict between a Greek city and a small horde of unemployed mercenaries escalated into three wars that were the ancient history's versions of World War I, II and III. Obviously both sides found other reasons related to trade, Greed and geopolitical ambition, as well as personal ambitions of individuals like Hannibal, Scipio and the Roman Oligarchy.
  • Simple, yet Awesome: The Roman corvus bridge. Four feet wide, thirty-six feet long, and built with a short parapet on the sides this bridge allowed the Romans to play to their strength as a land-locked city state and slaughter Carthaginian sailors who were expecting traditional attacks. The bridge held fast via the beak-shaped spike thence the name. The drawback is that it only truly worked on calm seas; rough weather threatened to break apart the ships. Additionally the added weight may have caused the ships to become more unstable as the corvus added weight to the bow. Regardless, the corvus gave the Romans and their allies an advantage against Carthage during their early naval years before tactics improving and the need for a corvus became redundant.
  • Single-Issue Wonk: Cato the Elder. That quote in the Quotes page? He used it to finish every speech, regardless of subject, which was annoying to the Romans to no end. There's a reason why they didn't destroy Carthage, the latter still owed Rome money in reparations. Cato wanted to destroy the Carthaginians before they paid back. There's a reason Carthage was destroyed fifty years later, by that time they paid back and were once again a prosperous city-state. So the Romans decided to destroy Carthage then and rob and pillage it rack and ruin, and then earmark the land for future Roman settlement.
  • Slave Galley: Averted. Galleys on both sides were usually rowed by freemen.
  • The Spartan Way: The Roman Army. Most definitely.
  • Storming the Castle: Scipio's attack on Cartagena. He actually did it marching across the harbor, after learning from intelligence about tidal quirks in the area that allowed that in places.
  • The Strategist: The Spartan mercenary Xanthippus during the First Punic War. Before him, Carthage's armies were based on the Hellenic hoplitic phalanx and were little more than training exercises for the Romans, as most conclusively shown when the Romans invaded Africa and at Adys easily routed Carthage's strongest army, the one kept back to defend Carthage itself, getting routed with embarrassing ease at Adys when the Romans invaded Africa. A few months later Xanthippus led Carthage's army, reorganized on the Hellenistic model, and annihilated the Roman army in Africa, before going back home for fear of political assassinations and leaving behind an army that, as proven by Hannibal, had the potential of defeating Rome.
  • Troll: Rome before the start of the Third Punic War, though they were more than likely trying to provoke Carthage. After Carthage raised an army without its permission in order to try and drive off marauding Numidians, Rome declared that it would need to "appease the Roman people", by giving 300 children from high-up families to be raised in Rome. Then hand over all of their armor and weapons. Then move ten miles inland and burn the city.
  • Trope Namer: "Fabian tactics", so called after Fabius Maximus Cunctator.
  • Undefeatable Little Village: Cremona, a small Roman colonia in Northern Italy that was besieged by rebelling Gauls for twenty years before the Romans wiped out the main Gaulish army under its walls, is the oldest example on record.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: How Scipio came to regard the Roman Senate after he defeated Hannibal at Zama. They were angry with him for not destroying Carthage and for, in their eyes, being too lenient towards his enemies. As he got on in years, they made several attempts to ruin his reputation, culminating in a public show trial that would have been the death of him had they not (unwisely) conducted it on the anniversary of his victory at Zama. He milked this fact for all it was worth and secured an acquittal, but left the city afterwards and died in exile. Reportedly, his last words before he died were a big middle finger to the nation he had saved: "Ungrateful Fatherland, you shall not have my bones!" His remains are lost to this day.
  • Victory by Endurance: The Fabian Strategy in a nutshell. The Roman leadership, for the most part, knew that the strategic situation meant that Rome had time on her side. All they had to do was slowly grind Hannibal and the Carthaginians in a war of attrition, rendering Hannibal's superior tactics useless.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: Roman historians such as Sallust and Livy more or less felt this way about their victory over the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War. They noted that it made them the superpower of the Mediterranean, and allowed them to take over all of Italy, Greece and the North African coast, but it also meant that the institutions of the Republic and its civic culture faced challenges and questions that it was not equipped to meet. Issues about soldiers' pay, settlement and land distribution in new towns, and how to distribute the wealth from these conquests polarized and divided the Republic and in a century or so, it collapsed utterly.
  • We Have Reserves:
    • Rome's army was essentially a citizen militia, supplemented by troops from its vassals allies. This gave Rome a significant manpower advantage over Carthage, which relied on mercenaries. The decisive factor in the wars was Rome being able to replace its losses, which were at times quite staggering.
    • In the First Punic War, the Romans lost almost their entire fleet in a storm off Sicily in 255 BC (280 ships, about 100,000 men). They built and manned a new one, which perished in another storm en route to Africa in 253. Then they lost a third fleet in another storm off Sicily in 249. Finally rich merchants, citizens and shipowners built a fourth fleet, which pulled off the decisive victory of the Aegates Islands in 241.
  • Worthy Opponent:
    • Seven years after Zama, Hannibal was in exile at Ephesus, where he was honorably received by Antiochus III of Syria, who was preparing for war with Rome. At one stage, Scipio Africanus came to Ephesus with some others to hold talks with Antiochus, but he was elsewhere, so Scipio and his colleagues had to wait. An amusing, but likely apocryphal anecdote recounted in several histories has Hannibal and Scipio meeting here, and amicably discussing the greatest military commanders of all time. Hannibal and Scipio were, of course, both able to agree on the greatest - Alexander the Great. Scipio then asked Hannibal who he considered the second greatest. It seems Scipio expected himself to be named second greatest, as he was quite nettled when Hannibal gave his answer: Pyrrhus of Epirus - he of the Pyrrhic Victory (who was actually a formidable general, his only problem being dealing with someone who could raise more armies than he could destroy). So he asked who the third greatest was, expecting that that title, at least, could be awarded to noble Scipio. But it was not to be; Hannibal named himself the third greatest, and gave several reasons why. Scipio, seeing that Hannibal was likely to go on for a while, laughed, asking Hannibal where he would rank himself if he had not been defeated by Scipio. Hannibal replied "In that case I should have put myself before Alexander." (That said, Hannibal's failing to place Scipio on the aforementioned ranks has been interpreted as him subtly regarding Scipio as beyond compare.)
    • Also, Hannibal considered Marcellus as this, due to the Roman general having stopped his advance five times and single-handedly ruining Hannibal's strategy to try and break Rome's Federation by personally retaking or destroying a number of key cities that had defected and scaring into surrender the entirety of Sicily (the latter stopped Carthage's attempts at supporting Hannibal, as they now had no foothold from which to send troops). It's said that, upon his death when a recon patrol he was personally leading was ambushed by Numidian cavalry, Hannibal gave Marcellus a military funeral before sending his ashes back to his son.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Scipio's invasion of Africa, once the Numidians switched sides: whatever happened, Rome had won the war. Carthage was conquered before Hannibal could be recalled? Hannibal and his army would have suffered a devastating morale blow and found themselves with no way to receive meaningful reinforcements, making easier to finally destroy them. Hannibal was recalled? He had to go by ship and the Roman navy ruled the Western Mediterranean, meaning there was a good chance Hannibal and his men would get sunk during the voyage. Hannibal returned to Africa and defeated Scipio? He still had to deal with the Numidians, and would have no chance to invade Italy again, especially as the Romans would finish his allies in Italy. In fact, Scipio's victory at Zama just served to make the Carthaginian Senate realize they had lost (Hannibal already knew and was just following orders and trying to earn a favorable treaty).

In fiction:

  • Gustave Flaubert's book Salammbô is set during the Mercenary War, between the First and Second Punic wars.
  • There was an Italian/American film called Annibale. Released in 1959, it starred Victor Mature and Gabriele Ferzetti.
  • Vin Diesel's project about Hannibal Barca.
  • Cabiria, a 1914 silent film which featured the fictional character of Maciste for the first time.
  • Invoked in Gladiator: One of the Gladiator Games is a recreation of the Battle of Zama. Maximus plays the Punic side, and unexpectedly he wins.
  • Spanish writer Santiago Posteguillo has a trilogy of historical novels with Scipio Africanus as the protagonist that deals with the Second Punic War. (Africanus: Son of the Consul, The Accursed Legions and The Betrayal of Rome)
  • Invoked in Patton. Patton is shown touring an ancient battlefield in North Africa which is implied to be Zama.
  • Not fiction, but Niccolò Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy and The Prince deals heavily with the Punic war and draws many examples from it, not least of all because Livy had.
  • Hannibal Ante Portas by Slavomir Nastasijević is a fictionalized account of the Second Punic War. The novel skillfully blends hystorical accuracy, fast-paced action and gore. Since it was first published in Yugoslavia in 1971, it is often overlooked.
  • Hannibal: Rome's Worst Nightmare is a made-for-TV movie produced by the BBC that retells the story of Hannibal with refreshing accuracy. Not exactly fiction, but worth mentioning.
  • Ross Leckie's Carthage Trilogy retells the story of the Second and Third Punic wars from Hannibal's perspective.
  • In Poul Anderson's Time Patrol story "Delenda Est", tampering with the Punic Wars produced an Alternate History and the Time Patrol must straighten out the battle that the Scipios should have survived to put it back.
  • Recreated in the videogames Centurion: Defender of Rome and Caesar, in which Carthago is the main enemy of Rome and the player.
  • One of the wars most commonly simulated by the Grand Strategy / Alternate History game Europa Universalis: Rome
  • In Vampire: The Masquerade, the Punic Wars served as a backdrop to and was to some extent engineered by two warring clans of vampires, the Brujah in Carthage and the Ventrue in Rome.
  • Rome: Total War and Total War: Rome II allow you to reenact the wars in their Grand Campaigns and have several famous battles as separate scenarios. The latter also has a DLC campaign called Hannibal at the Gates centered around the Second Punic War.
  • The Imperivm videogame franchise feature the Punic War in its second and third installments.


Example of: