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Punic Wars

(264-146 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Punic Wars were armed conflicts between the Roman Republic and Carthage. Fighting was fought for dominance in the western Mediterranean.

Background of events

Carthage, which was founded according to tradition in 814 BCE gradually began to play an increasingly important role in the Mediterranean. Having mastered its western part, it did not allow any competition to appear, effectively eliminating the threat. Therefore, initially supporting the young Roman state, it tried to weaken Greek cities in this region. However, over time, the situation reversed. Dangerously developing current ally, who managed to finally subordinate in 272 BCE Tarent, expanded his sphere of influence. Carthage, which helped Greek cities in the war against Rome.

The conflict was caused by the conflict of interests between the two countries in the Strait of Sicily. The mercenaries of the later King of Syracuse, Agathokles, who captured the port city of Messana, successfully maintained their influence for a period of time. However, the unexpected defeat of the mercenaries called the Mamertines in the battle of the Longanos River with Hieron’s army forced them to seek help from both Carthaginians and Romans. The Roman state initially ruled out intervention, fearing conflict with Carthage. However, when it turned out that the rival had sent his troops to control the strait, the Romans had no choice. However, as it turned out, the Roman army, perfectly commanded, managed to defeat the Carthaginians and oust them from under Messana. The Roman intervention in Carthage was considered a declaration of war. Its result was to determine the rule of the Mediterranean.

Dido building Carthage, William Turner

As a result of three Punic wars in 146 BCE, the Romans captured Carthage. The city was demolished, and the land on which it stood, ploughed and cursed (sprinkled with salt was to give birth to nothing). 90 percent of the city’s inhabitants died during the siege and assault. The rest of the Romans sold them into captivity. However, several dozen years later, a Roman colony existed in Carthage, and Caesar in 44 BC. restored its old name. During the Empire, the city flourished as the centre of the Senate province Africa Proconsularis – which was the granary of Rome. On its decline, it became the centre of Christianity which was rapidly spreading in northern Africa.

Cause of conflict

Ancient historiography could not clearly determine on whose side was responsible for the Punic wars, or what was the direct reason for the outbreak of the conflict. The most famous story of the beginning of the Punic War is the story quoted by Polibius, a historian of Greek origin, residing in Rome in the 2nd century BC and associated with the Scipio’s family. His interpretation indicates a desire to defend the Roman case.

The Mamertines had previously, as I above narrated, lost their support from Rhegium and had now suffered complete disaster at home for the reasons I have just stated. Some of them appealed to the Carthaginians, proposing to put themselves and the citadel into their hands, while others sent an embassy to Rome, offering to surrender the city and begging for assistance as a kindred people. 3 The Romans were long at a loss, the succour demanded being so obviously unjustifiable. For they had just inflicted on their own fellow-citizens the highest penalty for their treachery to the people of Rhegium, and now to try to help the Mamertines, who had been guilty of like offence not only at Messene but at Rhegium also, was a piece of injustice very difficult to excuse. But fully aware as they were of this, they yet saw that the Carthaginians had not only reduced Libya to subjection, but a great part of Spain besides, and that they were also in possession of all the islands in the Sardinian and Tyrrhenian Seas. They were therefore in great apprehension lest, if they also became masters of Sicily, they would be most troublesome and dangerous neighbours, hemming them in on all sides and threatening every part of Italy. That they would soon be supreme in Sicily, if the Mamertines were not helped, was evident; for once Messene had fallen into their hands, they would shortly subdue Syracuse also, as they were absolute lords of almost all the rest of Sicily. The Romans, foreseeing this and viewing it as a necessity for themselves not to abandon Messene and thus allow the Carthaginians as it were to build a bridge for crossing over to Italy, debated the matter for long, and, even at the end, the Senate did not sanction the proposal for the reason given above, considering that the objection on the score of inconsistency was equal in weight to the advantage to be derived from intervention. The commons, however, worn out as they were by the recent wars and in need of any and every kind of restorative, listened readily to the military commanders, who, besides giving the reasons above stated for the general advantageousness of the war, pointed out the great benefit in the way of plunder which each and every one would evidently derive from it. They were therefore in favour of sending help; and when the measure had been passed by the people they appointed to the command one of the Consuls, Appius Claudius, who was ordered to cross to Messene. The Mamertines, partly by menace and partly by stratagem, dislodged the Carthaginian commander, who was already established in the citadel, and then invited Appius to enter, placing the city in his hands.

Polybius, The Histories, I, 10-11

Polybius tried to explain the intervention of Rome in Messana with fear of the expansion of Carthage. His story, however, is not entirely convincing, contains many understatements and misrepresentations, and above all, he does not mention the will of Rome itself to extend its influence to Sicily. The Romans sent troops to help Memertinians, despite the fact that they were not bound by any treaty and that they were in no way provoked by the Carthaginians. As for the outbreak of the Second Punic War, the ultimatum they brought to Carthage in 218 BCE Roman deputies were unacceptable to Carthage, whose negative answer was, therefore, predictable. The Carthaginians believed that by attacking Sagunt, they did not break the peace pact of 241 BCE, nor the one concluded by Hazdrubal in 226 BCE, which marked the border between powers on the Ebro River, located north of the city. It should also be remembered that the protection granted to the city of Sagunt by Rome was also not compatible with these pacts.

  • Historia Powszechna t. 4. Konsolidacja hellenizmu. Początki Rzymu i przemiany świata klasycznego, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, Upadek Kartaginy, Warszawa 2021

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