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Useful Notes / Punic Wars

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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 Carthage.note  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 in what is now Tunisia.note  (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 Western Mediterranean just wasn't big enough for both.

The wars lasted for more than a hundred years (264-146) and were 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 turned a dispute between the two into a war. The Romans succeeded on land in making themselves the dominant power in Sicily. At sea however the Romans were weak against Carthage's traditionally superior naval prowess. Still, the Romans were quick learners and developed tactics to counter the Carthaginians' 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 dragged on so long and cost so much money that Carthage ultimately sued for peace. Rome accepted, annexing Sicily and shortly after Sardinia and Corsica. The latter was seized under the flimsiest of pretexts and this, coupled with other affronts, led Hamilcar Barca to prepare for a rematch.
  • The Second Punic War (218-201 BCE): A generation later, 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 amassed an army to eventually fight against the Romans. The immediate cause this time was the city-state of Saguntum which, being south of the Ebro River, was meant to fall in Carthage's sphere of influence but tried aligning itself with Rome. Hannibal built a disciplined, multinational army drawn from all over the western Mediterranean, including Gauls and others with reason to hate Rome. Hannibal led them in the greatest military campaign since the death of Alexander the Great, leading to famous incidents such as the surprise march over the Alps, the victories at the Trebia River, Lake 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 because they retained a sizable manpower advantage even after Cannae, maintained interior lines of communication and supply in central Italy, and held the continued allegiance of their most powerful allies, Hannibal was never able to seriously attempt a siege of Rome itself. Hannibal recognized Rome's logistical advantages and changed tack to counter them. The Romans recognized the dire implications of another propaganda victory in Hannibal's favor and in turn resolved to avoid direct confrontation with his army unless absolutely necessary. A decade of attrition warfare followed Cannae, during which Hannibal tried to draw Italian clients to his cause. Hannibal's greatest success in this endeavor was in winning the allegiance of the powerful Magna Graecian cities of Tarentum and Capua, but because of their isolation from other Carthaginian-held areas in Italy, the Romans were able to defeat each in detail, while also launching counter-invasions of Hannibal's bases of support, sending Publius Cornelius Scipio to Hannibal's base in Hispania, and Marcellus on a punitive expedition to Sicily. In Italy, the defeat of a Carthaginian relief force led by Hasdrubal at the Metaurus destroyed any remaining forward initiative for the Carthaginian campaign in Italy, and with both Spain and Sicily lost, the Carthaginian Senate finally recalled Hannibal to defend Carthage itself. With their control over Italy restored, Scipio assembled an army for a North African campaign on Carthaginian home soil. Many of his troops, interestingly enough, were survivors of Cannae, and in this endeavor, he was supported by Massinissa, king of a rival faction of Numidians to those led by Syphax in support of Carthage. After victories at Utica and Cirta, the Romans forced a Decisive Battle at Zama, which 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 would come to defeat for centuries. After the Second Punic War Rome never faced an equal rival in the Mediterranean for six centuries and soon came to dominate most of the known world.
  • 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 to Carthage, which chose to resist rather than surrender (the "surrender" terms offered by the Romans were for the Carthaginians to destroy their own city anyway). 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 refusal to do so and murder of the Gracchi led to the Social War, taking its name from the Italian allies called the Socii, who as Roman vassals had loyally supported the Republic against Hannibal. Now they revolted against it, but the cause, however strangely, came not from a desire to be free from Rome, but rather Rome's refusal to integrate them further and give them Roman citizenship. They wanted to be vassals no longer, but equals. It was a bloody war which killed people in large numbers (possibly up to 300,000), with some arguing it was only slightly less bloody than Hannibal's onslaught. Rome crushed the rebellion, but wound up granting citizenship to its Italian vassals anyway, first as a reward to those who hadn't rebelled, and shortly afterwards even to those who did.

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 on 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.

In fiction:

Anime and Manga:

  • Ad Astra - Scipio to Hannibal is a manga that ran from 2011 to 2018 depicting the Second Punic War, primarily from the viewpoint of the titular figures. It follows history very closely, as the author directly cites Polybius and other historians, with very few liberties taken but with the gaps in our knowledge filled with creative yet sensible interpretations of events and motivations.


  • Cabiria, a 1914 silent film which featured the fictional character of Maciste for the first time.
  • Hannibal (1959), starring Victor Mature and Gabriele Ferzetti. It's rather accurate to a lot of the general outline and contexts leading to the events of the Second Punic War and the Battle of Cannae.
  • Invoked in Patton. Patton is shown touring an ancient battlefield in North Africa which is implied to be Zama.
  • Invoked in Gladiator: One of the Gladiator Games is a recreation of the Battle of Zama. Maximus plays the Punic side, and unexpectedly to Emperor Commodus, wins.
  • 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.

Live-Action TV:


  • Roman writer Silius Italicus covered the Second Punic War in his Punica poem.
  • 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.
  • Gustave Flaubert's book Salammbô is set during the Mercenary War, between the First and Second Punic wars.
  • 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.
  • Spanish writer Santiago Posteguillo became famous with a trio of historical novels, the aptly named Africanus Trilogy, that deals with the Second Punic War, with Scipio Africanus as the protagonist. In general, if you don't look at his historical aspect with a magnifying glass, it covers the war with remarkable width.
  • 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.
  • Another Spanish writer, Luis de la Luna Valero, wrote the The Lion of Carthage trilogy about the life of Hamilcar and Hannibal Barca.
  • Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham (Arcadia) is a Historical Fiction novel detailing the life of Hannibal.


  • Spanish Folk Metal band Salduie has a couple songs mentioning the Punic Wars.


  • Dan Carlin's Hardcore History covered Hannibal and the Punic Wars in his Punic Nightmares series.
  • Mike Duncan's The History of Rome podcast, obviously, covered the Roman's wars with Carthage and Hannibal. The Battle of Zama being when Duncan says is the end of his personal favorite era of Roman history.
  • Twilight Histories had an episode, "Hannibal One", where Hannibal won the Second Punic War.

Tabletop Games:

  • In the Boundless setting of Claim the Sky, Scipio Africanus was able to conjure fire, and was able to use this ability to win the First Punic War. It is believed that Gaius Laelius crafted a device from Azari technology which gave him this ability.
  • 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.

Video Games:

  • The Imperivm videogame franchise features all the Punic Wars in its second installment, as well as a couple bonus missions of the Second in the third one.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • In Imperator: Rome, the start date is about 40 years before the start of the First Punic War historically, but Carthage has an interest in crushing the fledgling Roman Republic before she grows too strong. With the Punic Wars DLC enabled, Carthage also has a mission chain entitled "End the Roman Wolf".


Web Animation:

  • Oversimplified covered the first two Punic Wars, with the first having a two-parter episode going over how the Romans persevered in the face of adversity and unfavorable sailing conditions that killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers. And during the Second Punic War, the same Romans were portrayed as cocky Blood Knights that charge at any slight, even if it's obviously a trap set by a savvy Hannibal.
  • The Second Punic War is covered by the "Extra History" channel of Extra Credits in a four-part series. The first episode is mostly a brief recap of the First Punic War, then it segues into the circumstances leading up to the Second Punic War.
    • What Could Have Been: Extra History briefly examines the question of why Hannibal didn't go for Rome after his crushing victory at Cannae. Their theory is that Hannibal didn't think he had the troops or equipment to tackle such a heavily-defended city as Rome.
  • The Unbiased History of Rome did an episode on the Punic Wars, portraying them in part as a trial that the gods put the Romans through. After the First Punic War, the gods went to the vengeful Barca family and turned Hannibal into one of the few non-Roman Chads, making him a Worthy Opponent. The Third Punic War was simply a montage of images accompanying Carthage being burned and salted, with the city itself remaining a mountain of salt for the duration of the series.