The Punic Wars (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.5)

The Romans very quickly came to dominate the Italian peninsula. By about 200 BC, the Romans had conquered all of Italy and began to expand to other areas around the Mediterranean. In 218 BC, they conquered the Iberian Peninsula, where Spain is. In a series of battles fought between 215-148 BC, the Romans conquered the city-states of Greece as well as the region of Macedonia, where Alexander the Great had come from. Eventually, the Romans and their powerful legions would dominate the entire area around the Mediterranean Sea, which the Romans called “Mare Nostrum,” meaning “Our Sea.”

In order to take over the Mediterranean, though, the Romans had to fight a long and bitter war with another important power, the Carthaginians. The Carthaginians lived in Northern Africa just across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy. The Carthaginians had been a nation for almost as long as the Romans and, like the Romans, had been steadily increasing in power. Now, these two rising empires found themselves in a conflict over who would dominate the Mediterranean Sea. Only one of the two empires would survive the conflict.

This conflict, called the Punic Wars, began in 264 BC over a dispute concerning which of the two powers would be in charge of Sicily. Sicily is an island in the Mediterranean Sea between the Italian peninsula where the Romans were and the northern part of Africa where the Carthaginians were.

At first, the Punic Wars went terrible for the Romans. Because this was a war about who would dominate the Mediterranean Sea, most of the fighting took place on the water. The Romans, however, were more used to fighting on land. They had a very weak navy with badly built boats and inexperienced sailors. The Carthaginians, on the other hand, had been fighting on water for a long time. The Carthaginians had developed the fastest and most powerful ships in the world and their sailors, strong and experienced, knew how to use them well.

Through hard work and creativity, however, the Romans were able to recover in just a few years. They began by copying Carthaginian naval technology and tactics. They then used their own ingenuity to improve on these. Within a short time, the Romans were able to defeat the Carthaginians in naval battles.

The Carthaginians then decided to change tactics and attack the Romans on land using their most powerful weapon: armies of elephants. A Carthaginian general named Hannibal came up the idea. He brought the elephants as well as a large army of men with him from Africa by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, the narrow part of the Mediterranean Sea between Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. He then marched the men and the elephants all the way from the Iberian Peninsula to Italy. The most difficult part of his journey was passing the Alps, the mountain range filled with very tall mountains just north of the Italian peninsula. Getting hundreds of elephants through a mountain range was a challenge, but Hannibal was able to do it.

In 218 BC, Hannibal launched his first attack on a Roman city in Italy. The people were terrified of the size and strength of the elephants. They Romans had never seen animals that large before. Hannibal spent years taking his army and its elephants all over the Italian peninsula, destroying Roman cities and crushing Roman armies. The Romans believed he was undefeatable. They were afraid that he would eventually come to the city of Rome itself and destroy the Roman people forever.

A Roman general named Scipio came up with a plan, however. Rather than trying to drive Hannibal and his army out of Italy by attacking them as other Roman leaders had tried to do, Scipio decided to take a Roman army across the sea to Carthage, the capital of the Carthaginian Empire. In 203 BC, Scipio and his men travelled to Africa and attacked the Carthaginians there. The capital had been left without many soldiers to defend it because most of the soldiers had gone to Italy with Hannibal.

Hannibal and his soldiers rushed back to Africa, moving as fast as they could to protect their capital city. They were too late, however. By the time they returned Scipio had already destroyed the few Carthaginian soldiers who had remained in Africa. Scipio then turned and quickly defeated Hannibal and his exhausted soldiers. Eventually, the Romans decided to complete destroy the entire city of Carthage. They burned all of the buildings to the ground and enslaved all of the people who lived there. Later, a Roman city was built over top of it. When the Punic Wars ended in 146 BC Carthaginian civilization ceased to exist and the Romans were left as the only group of people powerful enough to control the entire Mediterranean Sea.

 

 Review Questions

 1. What Carthaginian general led the attack on Italy? What did he do to terrify the Romans?

2. What Roman general led the attack on Carthage? What did he do to surprise the Carthaginians?

3. Who won the Punic Wars?

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