Second Punic War took place in the years 218-201 BCE between Carthage and Rome. The conflict decided about the primacy in the Mediterranean.
Background of events
Humiliated after the First Punic War, Carthage thought of taking revenge on the Romans. After losing the war, Carthage lost its influence in Sicily, and later also in Sardinia and Corsica. Rome strengthened its rule in the western Mediterranean and significantly limited the hegemony of the Phoenicians, who had to additionally pay off a huge compensation – 3,200 talents. Despite the harsh conditions of peace, Carthage still remained a strong player in the region and sought to expand its spheres of influence in the Mediterranean basin and create a hinterland in the event of a war with Rome. The Carthaginian family of the Barcids played an important role in regaining strength in Carthage after the First Punic War.
The head of the Barcids family during the first Roman-Carthaginian conflict was Hamilcar Barkas. This talented leader and an important figure on the Carthaginian political scene was never defeated in an open battle by the Romans. Despite his relative successes, however, he could not come to terms with the defeat of Carthage and the shameful terms of peace. Certainly, his aversion to the Romans had a large impact on the further policy of Carthage, as well as the attitude of his sons towards the Roman state.
Carthage directed its expansion to the Iberian Peninsula, which became for it a source of mercenaries and income. She conquered its south-eastern part, and the acquired loot and mines allowed the Romans to pay off a huge contribution in record time. Naturally, Rome was anxiously watching the events in Spain and the growing influence of the Carthaginians. Rome established strategic alliances with several tribes and cities, incl. Sagunt and defined the Ebro River as the boundary of the Roman and Carthaginian spheres of influence.
Outbreak of the Second Punic War
The immediate cause of the new conflict between the states was the siege and the capture of Saguntu, a city in alliance with Rome, by Carthaginian forces. The Romans, who had been preparing for the conflict for a long time, demanded the release of the chief provocateur – the Carthaginian chief, Hannibal, son of the aforementioned Hamilcar, who became after his and his uncle’s death head of the Barcids family. In the event of failure to fulfil its obligation, Rome threatened to declare war on the Carthaginian state. However, the ultimatum was refused.
The plan, prepared in detail by the Roman command, assumed a simultaneous attack on Carthage in North Africa and Spain (with the help of a strong fleet), which was the granary of the African state. These plans, however, could not come into force because the initiative was taken over by Hannibal. He was aware of the small Carthaginian fleet compared to the Romans, and could only count on his well-trained ground army, which over the years had led to the expansion of the Carthaginian state in Spain.
His plan was to quickly transfer hostilities to Italy and threaten Rome directly. Unable to transport troops directly by the sea, he decided to reach Italy by land via Spain and the Alps. He also hoped that he would be able to win over to his side the Gallic tribes of northern Italy, Latin vassals of the Romans and Greek cities in the south of the Apennine Peninsula. Hannibal realized that the loss of southern Spain to Rome would mean the definitive defeat of Carthage. It was certainly the weakest point of the Carthaginian state, which, as it turned out, was later ruthlessly used by the Romans. Hannibal, in order to secure Spain during the campaign, left troops led by the brothers Hasdrubal and Magon.
In 218 BCE Hannibal, at the head of his great army of nearly 60,000 soldiers, crossed the Ebro and headed for the Pyrenees. After crossing the mountain massif, he found himself in unfamiliar territory, belonging to the arrogant and distrustful Gallic tribes. Hannibal had to use his command skills and wits to defeat the brave, though undisciplined Gallic troops. In the vicinity of Massalia (today’s Marseille in the south of France), the first clash between the Punic and Roman armies took place, but it brought nothing more than that the Romans realized how close the enemy army was to Italy.
Then Hannibal, with a smaller army, entered the Alps. It should be noted that both the Romans and the Carthaginians did not have much to do with the mountains and the harsh conditions that prevail there. This is how Hannibal’s expedition is described by the Roman historian Titus Livius:
From the Druentia, by a road that lay principally through plains, Hannibal arrived at the Alps without molestation from the Gauls that inhabit those regions. Then, though the scene had been previously anticipated from report, (by which uncertainties are wont to be exaggerated,) yet the height of the mountains when viewed so near, and the snows almost mingling with the sky, the shapeless huts situated on the cliffs, the cattle and beasts of burden withered by the cold, the men unshorn and wildly dressed, all things, animate and inanimate, stiffened with frost, and other objects more terrible to be seen than described, renewed their alarm. To them, marching up the first acclivities, the mountaineers appeared occupying the heights over head; who, if they had occupied the more concealed valleys, might, by rushing out suddenly to the attack, have occasioned great flight and havoc. […]
On the ninth day they came to a summit of the Alps, chiefly through places trackless; and after many mistakes of their way, which were caused either by the treachery of the guides, or, when they were not trusted, by entering valleys at random, on their own conjectures of the route. For two days they remained encamped on the summit; and rest was given to the soldiers, exhausted with toil and fighting: and several beasts of burden, which had fallen down among the rocks, by following the track of the army arrived at the camp. A fall of snow, it being now the season of the setting of the constellation of the Pleiades, caused great fear to the soldiers, already worn out with weariness of so many hardships. On the standards being moved forward at daybreak, when the army proceeded slowly over all places entirely blocked up with snow, and languor and despair strongly appeared in the countenances of all, Hannibal, having advanced before the standards, and ordered the soldiers to halt on a certain eminence, whence there was a prospect far and wide, points out to them Italy and the plains of the Po, extending themselves beneath the Alpine mountains; and said “that they were now surmounting not only the ramparts of Italy, but also of the city of Rome; that the rest of the journey would be smooth and down-hill; that after one, or, at most, a second battle, they would have the citadel and capital of Italy in their power and possession.
– Titus Livius, Ab urbe condita, XXI.32-35
Hannibal’s expedition (the crossing of the mountains took 15 days), which lasted from May to October 218 BCE, became legendary for posterity, and Hannibal’s boldness and military genius continue to delight today.
The quick crossing of the Alps was a complete surprise for the Romans, who were preparing to implement their own plan. In this situation, the Romans were forced to defend Italy in the north. Commander-in-chief of the Roman army, consul Publius Cornelius Scipio (father of the later victorious commander Scipio Africanus the Elder) sent his brother Gnaeus to Spain in order to cut off the way back for the great Carthaginian army, and thus force Hannibal’s tired army into a battle in northern Italy.
It should be noted that the harsh conditions of the march led to large losses in Hannibal’s army, which was additionally abandoned by newly recruited soldiers with low morale. Hannibal, however, managed to obtain reinforcements, backed by staunch rivals of the Romans – the Gauls.
Battles in Italy
The first step after crossing the Alps was to break the camp and allow the troops to recover after a hard march. Then Hannibal headed for the lands of the Taurines, who were hostile to him. After conquering their main centre and a short rest, the Punics set off to the lands of the allied Insubres and Boii.
After gathering an army, Consul Publius Cornelius Scipio set out to the armies of Hannibal to cut his way. To the surprise of the Senate and the Roman people, Hannibal managed to win further victories over the River Ticinus and Trebia in 218 BCE, and in the first clash, Consul Scipio was badly wounded, rescued according to one source by his son, the future winner Hannibal. Subsequent defeats forced the Roman army to abandon the defence line on the Po River in northern Italy. The next blow struck the Roman legions in 217 BCE, when consul Gaius Flaminius, wanting to prevent the looting of Hannibal’s army, was ambushed in the narrow passage between the mountain range and Lake Trasimene.
The defeats of the Roman army forced the Senate to act violently. It was decided to appoint Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator. He adopted a new way of fighting – avoiding direct clashes with the enemy – which was aimed at rebuilding the morale of soldiers and gathering forces for a decisive battle. This tactic was effective for a certain period of time, but with time it ceased to appeal to the impetuous aristocracy, which lost its fortune as a result of the plunder of Carthaginian soldiers. The Senate decided that the time of manoeuvres was over and we should strive for the fastest possible victory. The power over the army was taken over by: Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paulus. Success was to be ensured by the largest army that was established in the history of the republic. They were ordered to finally liquidate Hannibal’s army. Both commanders: Paulus and Varro, led by their mighty army, marched to the city of Cannae (Cannae) in Apulia, in the south-eastern part of Italy.
On August 2, 216 there was the battle of Canna. The Romans suffered a defeat that they had not experienced in their history so far. Their huge army, of at least 55,000 soldiers, was completely wiped out by half the size of Hannibal’s army. Despite the great victory, Hannibal could not use it strategically. He was too weak to continue the hostilities, and most of all he was unable to win Rome, the heart of Italy. The Romans, realizing that they would not be able to oppose the enemy in open combat, began to harass the enemy with short driveways and light infantry attacks, provoking the enemy to bolder movements. This tactic turned out to be very beneficial at this point in time when the Roman legions were “morally decayed” after a series of defeats.
Mago’s mission to Carthage with request for support for Hannibal
Despite the great victory of at Cannae in 216 BCE, Hannibal still needed both material and military support to defeat the Romans. To this end, Hannibal, before the battle, sent his younger brother Magon to Carthage to negotiate additional troops to Italy.
Mago asks the Carthaginian “senators” to supply Hannibal with grain, money, and military meals. Mago stresses the plight of Hannibal, who is at the heart of a hostile country and yet has won many victories so far, defeating six consular armies led by six different chiefs; moreover, he killed over 200,000 enemies and took 50,000 prisoners. In order to emphasize Hannibal’s achievements, Mago has the numerous rings obtained from his opponents thrown to the floor. Mago also points out that other peoples and cities of Italy, including some Samnites and Capua, are passing over to Hannibal.
As it turned out, Mago’s speech was successful, despite the objections of one of Hannibal’s opponents – Hannon. The Council of Elders unanimously agreed to send support to Italy: 4,000 Numidian cavalries, 40 elephants1 and money.
After the mission in Carthage, Mago went to Spain to organize a new army, thus becoming an independent commander.
Despite the difficult situation in which Rome found itself, no one thought of surrendering. A heroic effort was made to recreate the army – in a size that exceeded any mobilization achievements to date. New taxes were passed to support these efforts. When looking for reserves, it was even decided to enlist slaves to the army, who were guaranteed freedom, or criminals by offering amnesty. The abandoned tactic of Maximus was returned to – avoiding a clash with Hannibal, while trying to destroy smaller enemy groups, systematically cracking down on treacherous Italian allies; an example may be dealing with Kapua, who entered into an agreement with the Punics.
Rome’s position deteriorated further when the alliance between Carthage and Macedonia was formed. This forced the Romans to send an additional contingent to Greece and fight also outside Italy. In practice, however, the Romans supported only, for example, the Aetolian Union and Greek cities, and the battles between themselves were mainly fought by the Greeks. In addition, Hannibal, plundering Italy, encouraged other peoples and cities to rebel against Roman authority, promising protection and full freedom in exchange for military support and supplies. In this way, he managed to gain allies, and the Romans, beyond the control of Hannibal’s actions, were forced to suppress another arrogant former ally. Hannibal tried to involve Rome in various conflicts, reduce its combat strength and lead to destruction, and in the long run, force them to seek peace.
The economic situation of Rome also deteriorated. The financial system was undermined, forcing the Senate to increase taxes. Destroyed Italy was unable to produce the right amount of food. The main source of grain harvesting, Sicily was dominated by Carthage. This situation forced Rome to import grain from Ptolemaic Egypt. It is also worth mentioning the decline in the number of citizens able to bear arms following successive disasters.
Defensive actions were mainly carried out in Italy; there they tried to bind Hannibal’s forces and avoid open clashes with his army. The entanglement of the main Carthaginian forces in the Apennine Peninsula allowed the Romans to launch an offensive in Sicily, which was key to any plans to invade Africa. Within two years, from 214 to 212 BCE, Syracuse was captured, which was controlled by the allies of Carthage. There, the great ancient scientist and inventor Archimedes, who designed subsequent war machines, contributed to the effective defence of the city for a long time. The capture of Syracuse was a breakthrough in the fighting in Sicily and finally allowed the Carthaginian army to be driven out of the island.
The situation of the Romans in Spain was less favourable. The Roman armies were defeated and two Roman chieftains were killed. As a result, the command over the troops in Spain was entrusted to the young Publius Cornelius Scipio, who acted as proconsul in 210 BCE This decision turned out to be a brilliant solution for the rest of the war. First, the young commander trained and disciplined the soldiers, rebuilding the conviction of their combat value. His goal in the war was to drive the Carthaginians from the Iberian Peninsula, or rather brother of Hannibal, Hasdrubal. Scipio had a relatively small army – up to 30,000 men – which unfortunately was not able to compete with all three Punic armies at once. Luckily for the Roman leader, all armies were far away from the Carthaginian capital of the region – New Carthage. Scipio made the decision to boldly enter the hostile territory and besiege the city in 209 BCE, from which the Carthaginian chiefs drew their supplies. Using the information about the shallow lagoon, it was possible to lead an attack on the unprotected city ramparts and capture the city. The loss of New Carthage was a blow to the Punics. The Romans took the initiative; Scipio also managed to win the friendship of the Iberian tribes that were ready to support the Roman troops under his command.
There was also some success in Italy, where Hannibal had trouble securing and protecting many of the cities that passed over to his side. The Romans, instead of creating one large army, operated several armies at once, in different regions, gaining an advantage over their rivals. Capua was captured in 211, and then Tarentum was recaptured from the Carthaginians in 209 BCE, which allowed Hannibal to be pushed south and limited supplies from Africa.
The Romans gradually began to take the lead in the Second Punic War. The Carthaginians then decided to take the bold step of supporting Hannibal’s troops stationed in Italy. After the fall of New Carthage and the victory of the Romans in 208 BCE at Baecula, it was decided to send an army to Italy, headed by Hasdrubal – Hannibal’s brother. He set out with the troops by land, crossing the Alps along the path previously marked out by Hannibal. The Romans, however, took over the letters Hasdrubal had sent to his brother and learned about his plans. He was beaten in the summer of 207 BCE on the Metaurus River in Umbria. On his way stood the Roman army under the command of two consuls: Gaius Claudius Nero and Marcus Livius Salinator. The Carthaginian commander was killed in battle, his body was found on the battlefield and his head was cut off. Then she was thrown behind the embankments of the Hannibal camp. According to Florus, the Carthaginian chief was then supposed to pronounce the prophetic words: “I recognize the ill-luck of Carthage”2.
Eventually, the Carthaginians were expelled from Spain after the victorious Battle of Ilipa in 206 BCE, where Scipio defeated Hasdrubal Giskon. The advantage of the Carthaginian commander did not bring him victory, he had to flee to Africa after the battle.
Thanks to decisive successes, Scipio in 205 BCE received the governorship of Sicily, which was to serve him as a base for the planned invasion of North Africa. His idea of a direct threat to Carthage in Africa was not fully accepted in the Senate. It was still believed that Hannibal should be expelled from Italy first, as he still posed a real threat. Ultimately, however, there was a consensus and Scipio began preparations for the invasion. Supplies were collected, the army was supplemented and trained, the fleet was brought in, and alliances were concluded, among others with Massinisa, a contender to the throne of Numidia who previously fought for Carthage. Masinissa, noticing that the Romans had gained the advantage in the Punic War, decided to form an alliance with the “sons of the she-wolf” and promised Scipio to support him in the invasion of North Africa.
Interestingly, there were legions stationed in Sicily, which consisted of the surviving soldiers from Kann. After the defeat in 216 BCE, the Senate, as a punishment, sent fighting legionaries to the island to repent of their sins and regain Roman power in the region. Scipio in his invasion of Africa was to use the “Cannabis veterans”.
Scipio was elected the chief commander of the expedition and set off in 204 BCE for Africa. The consul used his experience and cunning to gain successive victories in Africa. In 203 BCE there was a Battle of the Bagradas River, defeated by Hasdrubal and Syphax, rivals to the throne of Numidia Masynissa.
The Carthaginian authorities, terrified by the turn of events, forced Hannibal to leave Italy and return with the army to his homeland in 203 BCE. Italy, devastated after almost 16 years of Hannibal’s presence, was finally in the hands of Rome again. After arriving in Africa, the invincible Carthaginian commander gave the young Roman consul a fighting battle. That battle was the battle of Zama in 202 BCE
The meeting of the two armies took place exactly on October 19, 202 BCE, on the plain near Zama, south of Carthage. Hannibal was aware of the weakness of his cavalry and the poor training of most of the soldiers but accepted the fight. Before the clash, he met with Scipio. The greatest commanders of the time looked at each other for the first time. We know this conversation from Livy’s message, which probably reflects its content well. Carthaginian tried to convince the Romans to make peace, arguing that Carthage had already been defeated and that Scipio’s victories so far and the fact that he, Hannibal, asked for a truce, ensured sufficient fame.
Hannibal was to address Scipio:
[…] Peace once established is a better and safer thing than hoping for victory; that is in your hands, this in the hands of the gods. Do not expose so many years’ good fortune to the hazard of a single hour. You think of your own strength, but think too of the part which fortune plays and the even chances of battle. On both sides there will be swords and men to use them, nowhere does the event less answer expectation than in war. Victory will not add so much to the glory which you can now win by granting peace, as defeat will take away from it. The chances of a single hour can annihilate all the honours you have gained and all you can hope for. If you cement a peace, P. Cornelius, you are master of all, otherwise you will have to accept whatever fortune the gods send you. […]
– Titus Livius, Ab urbe condita, XXX.30
Roman commander replied:
Our fathers were not the aggressors in the war for Sicily, nor were we the aggressors in Spain, but the dangers which threatened our Mamertine allies in the one case and the destruction of Saguntum in the other made our case a righteous one and justified our arms. That you provoked the war in each case you yourself admit, and the gods bear witness to the fact; they guided the former war to a just and righteous issue, and they are doing and will do the same with this one. As for myself, I do not forget what weak creatures we men are; I do not ignore the influence which Fortune exercises and the countless accidents to which all our doings are liable. Had you of your own free will evacuated Italy and embarked your army before I sailed for Africa and then come with proposals for peace, I admit that I should have acted in a high-handed and arbitrary spirit if I had rejected them. But now that I have dragged you to Africa like a reluctant and tricky defendant I am not bound to show you the slightest consideration. So then, if in addition to the terms on which peace might have been concluded previously, there is the further condition of an indemnity for the attack on our transports and the ill-treatment of our envoys during the armistice, I shall have something to lay before the councils. If you consider this unacceptable. then prepare for war as you have been unable to endure peace
– Titus Livius, Ab urbe condita, XXX.31
The last attempt to make peace has failed. The chiefs returned to their armies and began to form lines.
Scipio used a tactic almost identical to that used by Hannibal in the battle of Cannae. Using the help of the Numidian prince Masinissa, in the form of Numidian cavalry, he managed to outflank the Carthaginian army and then destroy it. During the battle, Hannibal had war elephants at his disposal, which, however, did not do much harm to the army, as they ran through specially designated streets in an array of manipulators.
Carthage, after losing the battle, was no longer able to wage war. In 201 BCE, peace was signed under which the Carthaginians could only keep their possessions in Africa. They could not wage wars without Rome’s consent, and moreover, they were forced to pay a gigantic contribution of 10,000 silver talents in 50 years and had to hand over their entire fleet to Rome, except 10 guard ships, and give hostages as a guarantee to fulfil the conditions of the treaty. The actions of Carthage in Africa were to be guarded by Masinissa, king of Numidia, who assisted Scipio in the battle of Zama.
The fate of Hannibal himself is interesting. For some time he remained in Carthage:
Well, after this as if the last act of his valour, Hannibal took refuge in Hadrumetum and from there was summoned to Carthage. He returned to her in the thirty-sixth year after he had left her as a child. Here in the Carthaginian Senate he openly confessed that he had lost not only this battle but the entire war and that there was no hope of salvation other than peace.
– Titus Livius, Ab urbe condita, IX.35
Ultimately, Roman intrigues forced Hannibal to flee. He took refuge in the court of the Seleukid ruler, Antiochus III the Great. After Antiochus’ defeat in the war with Rome in 189 BCE, he fled to Bithynia, where he committed suicide, drinking the poison he had received from his father and always carried in a ring so as not to fall into the hands of the Romans and be put in a cage during his triumph. Before he died, he said, “Let us now relieve the Romans of their fears by the death of a feeble old man”.
The defeat at Zama marked the end of the strong Carthaginian state. Thanks to the reform of the Roman army by Scipio, it became almost unbeatable from that moment. Rome became the greatest power in the Mediterranean and having no worthy competitors, it began its expansion to become the great Roman Empire in the future.
Important battles of the Second Punic War
218 BCE – battle of the Ebro River
218 BCE – battle of the Rhone
218 BCE – Battle of Marsala
218 BCE – battle of Cissis
- The Romans of Gnaeus defeated the Carthaginians
218 BCE – battle of the River Ticinus
- Carthaginian victory over the Romans Publius Scipio
218 BCE – battle of Trebia
217 BCE – battle on Lake Trasimeno
217 BCE – naval battle at the mouth of the Ebro
- Gnaeus Kornelius Scypion defeated the Punic fleet capturing several ships
216 BCE – battle of Gerunium
- Hannibal ambushed Rufus’s army, inflicting great losses on her
216 BCE – battle of Cannae
- great victory for Hannibal
215 BCE – battle of Grumentum
- Longus’s Romans won the Carthaginians
215 BCE – battle of Nola
- The Marcellus Romans beat up the Hannibal Carthaginians
215 BCE – battle of Cagliari
- 22,000 Roman infantry and 1,200 cavalry led by Torquatus defeated
Hasdrubal’s Carthaginians who were captured
215 BCE – battle of Iberia
- Hasdrubal Barkid defeated by Scipions
218 BCE – battle of Iliturgi
- 16,000 Romans won 60,000 Carthaginians
218 BCE – battle of Intibili
- Roman victory over Carthaginians
214 BCE – Battle of Beneventum
- Romans of Gracchus beat Carthaginians of Hanno
214 BCE – battle of Nola
- Romans of Marcellus won the Carthaginians of Hannibal
213 BCE – battle of Munda
213 BCE – battle of Aurinks
- The Romans of Gnaeus Scipio defeated Carthaginians
212 BCE – Battle of Kapuwa
- Carthaginians beat the Romans
212 BCE – battle of Herdonea
- Carthaginians of Hannibal won 18,000 Romans of Fulvius
211 BCE – battles of Himera, Lorca, Porta Collina
210 BCE – naval battle of Sapriportis
210 BCE – Carthaginian massacre in Akragas
210 BCE – battle of Herdonea
- Hannibal’s Carthaginians defeated the Romans of Gnaeus Fulvius Centumalis who was killed
210 BCE – battle of Numistro
209 BCE – battle of Canusium
- Carthaginians of Hannibal defeated the Romans of Marcellus
209 BCE – The Romans conquer New Carthage
209 BCE – capture of Caulonia
208 BCE – battle of Petelia
- 5000 Carthaginians killed 2,000 Romans in ambush and 1,500 were captured. Short
then in the same area, two consuls ambushed during a reconnaissance, which
was accompanied by only 220 horse riders. Claudius Marcellus died, seriously injured Quintius
Cryptus was ambushed but died of wounds.
208 BCE – battle of Baecula
- defeat of Hasdrubal
208 BCE – battle of Venosa
- Numidians defeated Romans Marcellus (died) and Crispinus (wounded)
208 BCE – naval battle of Kelibia
- The Romans of Valerius beat the Carthaginians
207 BCE – naval battle of Aspis
- the largest naval battle during the war. 100 Roman ships under Lewinus defeated 83 Carthaginian units.
207 BCE – battle of Metaurus
206 BCE – battle of Ilipa
- defeat of Hasdrubal Giskon’s troops
206 BCE – naval battle of Carteia
- Laelius Romans defeated Adherbal Carthaginians
204 BCE – battle of Itike
- Scipio’s Romans beat up the Hanno Carthaginians who died
204 BCE – battle of Croton
- pending clash of Carthaginians Hannibal and Romans Sempronius
203 BCE – battle of Bagradas
203 BCE – naval battle of Itike
- Carthaginians won the Romans
203 BCE – battle in the Great Fields (Souk-el-Kremis)
- defeat of the Punicians
202 BCE – battle of Zama
- the final, great victory of Scipio Africanus over Hannibal