The Punic Wars

Greece had long been the Phoenicians’ rival for power in the Mediterranean, and were continually at war with Carthage throughout the 4th and 5th centuries BC, particularly over Sicily. But by the 3rd-century BC, the greatest threat came from a new Mediterranean power, Rome. Three major conflicts fought over the next century, known as the Punic Wars, resulted in the downfall of Carthage.

The First Punic War (264-241 BC) began when Rome and Carthage were drawn into conflict in Sicily. Carthage lost most of its territory on the island and was also driven out of Corsica. In 256 BC the Romans launched an attack on Carthage itself, but were repelled by an army of mercenaries composed of Berber cavalry, Spanish infantry and war elephants. But in 242 BC the Romans defeated the Carthaginian navy and exacted a large war indemnity. This left Carthage with no money to pay its mercenaries. The resulting rebellion was savage and took three years to put down.

The general Hamilcar Barca emerged from the conflict as the ruler of Carthage. In pursuit of riches to restore the national coffers, he set up a new base in Spain and expanded Carthage’s domain. His son Hannibal succeeded him in 221 BC.

Two years later, Hannibal engaged the Romans at Saguntum, setting off the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). As Rome controlled the seas, Hannibal marched north on his famous siege of Italy, crossing the Alps with a huge force of infantry, cavalry and war elephants. He held sway in Italy for the next 15 years, wiping out the Roman army at Cannae in 216. But Rome, under the leadership of General Publius Scipio, eventually captured Spain. Scipio then attacked the Carthaginian homeland in 204 BC, forcing Hannibal to return to North Africa, where he was defeated at Zama by the Romans and their Numidian allies in 202 BC. Hannibal escaped with a price on his head, taking refuge in Izmir. In 183 BC he was betrayed to the Romans and took his own life to avoid capture.

Despite severe restrictions from Rome and the loss of territory to the Numidian king Masinissa, Carthage rebuilt its commercial strength over the next 50 years. In 149 BC, Rome decided to destroy the threat once and for all, and launched the Third Punic War with an attack on the city. The siege lasted three years, but Carthage finally fell. Most died in battle, the few survivors were sold into slavery. The city was burned, razed and sprinkled with salt as a curse so that nothing could grow there again. The Carthaginian territory became a Roman province, called Africa.