Why did Carthage Lose the Punic Wars
The greatest naval power of the Mediterranean in the third century B.C. was the North African city of Carthage. From the earliest days of the Republic, Rome had been on friendly terms with Carthage. For centuries, the first had remained a land power and the second was a major naval power whose ships controlled the western Mediterranean; while Rome expanded for political reasons, trade and commerce motivated Carthage’s foreign policy. During the centuries of their earliest contact, Rome and Carthage had lived in harmony. Heichelheim and Yeo (1962, p.115) agree that prior to 264 B.C., relations between the two powers, if not friendly, had at least been diplomatically correct. Because they had shared a common enemy in the Greeks for two and a half centuries, neither side felt threatened by the other. However, suspicions and jealousies began to grow on both sides and in 264 B.C. the friendly relations between Carthage and Rome were disrupted by a seemingly unimportant incident in north-east Sicily.
For a lack of a common enemy in the Greeks and the fact that Roman power had reached southern Italy, war became inevitable (Grant, 1978, p.83). The determination of Carthage to protect her commercial and imperial interests was matched by the resolution of Rome in fighting for her honour, and so from a small incident their confrontation swelled into the titanic struggle which continued for a hundred and eighteen years. Known as the “Punic Wars”, the struggle between Rome and Carthage is considered to be one of the greatest wars in ancient history.
The Three Punic Wars encompassed incredible battles led by some of the greatest commanders ever. The challenge of these conflicts promoted creativity in producing new weapons and battle techniques. All these factors combined to create one of the pivotal points in history, when the balance of power shifted from Carthage to Rome.
Carthaginian errors, Roman development of a navy to control the seas and her persistence are the major factors that led to the defeat of Carthage in the First Punic War.
In the second Punic War Roman victory was attained through the strength of the Roman system. Rome’s allies remained loyal to her side even in her darkest hour. Hannibal’ s failure to break these alliances, the Fabian plan, as well as Carthage’s lack of commitment to send reinforcements to its forces in Italy were decisive factors for her defeat.
At the beginning of the First Punic War, Rome realized that a war in Sicily could not be won if the Carthaginian fleet was allowed to control the seas. Superior Carthaginian naval power could sever Rome’s lines of communication in Italy and starve her forces in Sicily into submission. The Carthaginian fleet would also be in a position to raid Rome’s cities along the Italian coast. Rome’s chances of subduing Sicily’s coastal cities were further limited if Carthage was allowed to control the seas (Freeman, 1996, p. 320). Following the capture of Acragas, the decision was made to build a Roman fleet.
Freeman (1996, p.320) writes that the decision to build a fleet is proof of Rome’s stubborn resolve and determination to win her war with Carthage. Using a grounded Carthaginian ship as a model (Polybius as cited in Crawford, 1982, p.78), the Roman senate authorized the construction of 100 quinqueremes which were supposedly constructed in sixty days (Polybuis as cited in Freeman, 1996, p. 320). The quinquereme was a single-decked vessel with 20 to 60 oars, five men to an oar. Unlike the outdated Roman trieme, where each rower had to be a skilled oarsman, on a quinquereme, only “one man directed the sweep and the other four had only to supply muscle power.” (Trueman, 1965, p.242). While crews had to be trained on mock ships on land, the quinquereme saved the Romans time because it did not have to train huge members of skilled oarsmen.
Although heavier and less maneuverable than Carthaginian ships, the Roman quinquereme contained one important military advantage. Each quinquereme was equipped with a corvus or ‘crow’. The corvus was essentially a gangplank hinged at one end and attached to the quinquereme. Roman vessels would manoeuver alongside a Carthaginian ship and the ramp, attached to a rope, running through pulleys fastened to the mast, would be released. The corvus or spike would penetrate the enemy ship’s deck so that both ships would be held fast together. This allowed Roman legionnaires to cross over to Carthaginian vessels and engage the enemy in close combat. In essence, the corvus allowed the Romans to convert sea battles into land battles where they could utilize their well-trained soldiers. This approach gave them superiority over the Carthaginians; once the Romans had boarded the enemy, they could engage in hand-to-hand combat, at which they excelled.
This is typical of the very pragmatic and ordinary ways in which Romans solved their military problems. It is typical, too, in that the Romans seemed always to have to lose a few battles before they would make a change; but, once they decided to change, their innovations were devastatingly effective.
By 242 B.C., and with both sides nearly exhausted from the war, the Romans won a major sea battle off the Aegates Islands. In effect, this meant that Carthage could no longer supply Sicily and she sued for peace (Heichelheim and Yeo, 1962, p.119).
Rome imposed a heavy indemnity on Carthage, to compensate her for her losses. She also forced Carthage to give up all claims to Sicily.
Rome learned some important lessons in this war. First of all, as already mentioned, Romans learned how to make war at sea and how to conduct naval warfare in an eminently Roman fashion. Rome learned, too, how to conduct war on a massive scale. The Senate learned how to finance such a war, how to find the men for the armies, how to find the supplies, how to build fleets, how to conduct politics on the home front in times of war. All these were lessons it would apply again in later struggles.
Rostovtzeff (1960, p.53) writes that Roman victory in the First Punic War was due mainly to a number of Carthaginian mistakes made at the beginning of the struggle. Despite their original superiority at sea, the Carthaginians made the strategic error of allowing the Roman army to cross the straits from Italy into Sicily. Heichelheim and Yeo(1962, p. 116) support this argument and state that Carthage’s naval forces should easily have prevented Appius Clauduis from moving across the straits. Failure to do so angered Hiero II which weakened his alliance with Carthage. Rostovtzeff (1960, p. 53) suggests that Carthage’s failure to retain Hiero’s support was another reason for her ultimate defeat in the war. According to Rostovtzeff (1960, p. 53), yet another reason for Rome’s victory was the fact that the Carthaginians failed to send a large enough force needed to destroy the first Roman detachments that had landed in Sicily.
Grant (1978, p.86) writes that a further reason for Carthage’s defeat was due to a lack of commitment by her government. Its ruling body was more interested in developing the continental territory of Africa than the war in Sicily. This lack of total commitment meant that Carthage’s commanders could not follow up on Roman losses and deliver a final knockout blow. Instead, they had to settle for a war of exhaustion.
“But in that sort of fighting they proved to be at a disadvantage against Rome, since their mercenaries lacked any patriotic incentive to fight: whereas the legions, on the other hand, were manned by men who belonged to a political system which Rome had welded into an effective unity.” (Grant, 1978, p.86).
The peace that ended the First Punic War was really only a truce (Cairns, 1970, p. 20). By 218 B.C., the western Mediterranean proved to be no longer big enough to avoid future clashes between the Roman and Carthaginian empires. While Carthage was busy building up a strong position in Spain, Rome annexed the islands of Sardinia and Corsica. It was only a matter of time before war would break out again.
When this happened, both powers decided on an offensive campaign. The Romans sent an army commanded by Gnaeus Scipio into Spain, while Hannibal chose a daring plan to cross the Alps and to strike with speed and surprise Italy “in the hope of humiliating Rome and destroying her links with her allies” (Freeman, 1996, p. 322). Hannibal believed that Rome’s power lay in the great reserves of manpower she received through her many alliances. His tactual superiority, the quality of his veteran army and a few early decisive victories, he reasoned would cause these allies to leave Rome’s side. Without their support, Rome would weaken and crumble. Cowell (1967, p. 33) writes that the element of surprise gained by Hannibal in crossing the Alps and his early successes are really in itself only a confession of Carthaginian weakness. Had the Carthaginians been able to retain control of the seas, then the arduous journey across the mountains which cost Hannibal nearly half of his army might not have been undertaken.
In 218 B.C., at the Trebia River and in 217 B.C. at Lake Trasimene, Hannibal inflicted two devastating defeats upon the Romans. Nevertheless, despite these brilliantly executed military victories, the political success that Hannibal sought in dislodging Rome’s allies eluded him. For the most part, Rome’s allies remained loyal.
In 216 B.C., at the Battle of Cannae, Rome suffered one of its most devastating defeats ever. However, despite this loss, only Capua and a few lesser cities defected to the side of the Carthaginians. It further became clear in the immediate aftermath of Cannae that Rome had no intention of surrender (Crawford, 1982, p. 58).
Roman persistence would prove to be a key factor in her ultimate victory over Carthage. Hannibal was now in a position to march on Rome but for the want of siege equipment, a nearby supply base and the numbers needed to attack its fortifications, he chose not to do so. Cowell (1967, p. 32) feels that Hannibal’s failure to capture Rome was a mistake that ultimately hurt his chances for final victory.
As well as avoiding an all-out confrontation with Hannibal, Roman strategy worked to keep the Carthaginian army confined to the south so that she would not be united with the Gauls in the north. Fields and vineyards were burned in an effort to starve Hannibal out of Italy. In seven years, Rome’s new war policy had recovered most of her losses since Cannae.
Hannibal’s chances for victory in Italy were hampered by the weakness and inefficiency of Carthaginian rulers at home. Despite his military genius, without supplies and reinforcements he was destined for failure (Cowell, 1967, p. 33). Because the Carthaginians no longer controlled the sea, they controlled no major ports in Italy (Freeman, 1996, p. 324). According to Cowell, even if the genuine will at home had existed to re-supply Hannibal, the huge amount of manpower and supplies needed could not have been achieved without control of a seaport to receive these resources.
By 208 B.C., Hannibal’s army in Italy was in dire need of help. Word was sent to his brother, Hasdrubal, to come to Italy with reinforcements and join Hannibal. Hasdrubal’s defeat at the Metaurus was a huge blow to Carthaginian hopes for victory in Italy. This proved to be the last major battle of the Second Punic War on Italian soil. The Roman victory left Hannibal ‘bottled up’ and unable to break out of southern Italy (Freeman, 1996, p. 324).
In the end, although Hannibal had taught the Romans a lesson in military tactics, Rome’s Fabian strategy of destroying the Carthaginians by slow attrition and her superior human resources carried her to victor. Rome’s superior human resources were the result of the wise treatment she afforded her defeated neighbours and allies. The terms of Roman rule were generally acceptable to its subjugated people. Dorey and Dudley (1972, p. xvi) state that there were two main reasons for this acceptance. First, Rome was willing to extend some form of modified citizenship to its peoples and second, Rome avoided the burden of extracting heavy tributes from its subject allies. This ensured their loyalty to Rome and prevented Hannibal from breaking the alliances he needed to secure Carthaginian victory. According to Crawford (1982, p.58) this loyalty remained the most important factor in deciding the war’s outcome.
“…. victory had only been won by feats of unprecedented endurance. In spite of initial disastrous defeats, the Italian dominion built up with such patience by Rome had, on the whole, resisted the temptation to defect, fully justifying the Roman system. Even in the gravest peril Roman and Italian morale and discipline had stood firm. For the solid virtues of many Romans and Italians, working together as loyal, obedient partners within a tradition built up over many generations, had prevailed and won the day.” (Grant, 1978, pp. 106-107).
Freeman (1996, p. 325) further agrees that much of the credit for Rome’s victory in the Second Punic War is also owed to the unshakeable resolve of its senate. Despite its military’s many defeats, its calmness and strength as a ruling body held firm.
In 206 B.C., Publuis Corneluis Scipio defeated the last Carthaginian army in Spain and Carthage’s Spanish empire collapsed. Scipio next invaded Africa and Hannibal was called to defend Carthage. At Zama, in 202 B.C., Scipio defeated Hannibal’s forces and the Second Punic War came to a close.
Although it had been stripped of its empire and saddled with a huge war indemnity after the Second Punic War, Carthage managed to regain much of her wealth and commercial activity. She had scrupulously met her treaty obligations and been an obedient, submissive client of Rome. In 151 B.C., however, the Carthaginians, frustrated by Masinissa’s repeated aggressions had entered into war with Numidia. This action held dire consequences for Carthage. It not only violated the treaty of Zama, but also gave Rome the pretext it sought, not just to punish her, but to needlessly destroy her. Revenge and hatred had so twisted the Roman senate that they had deliberately allowed the balance of power in Africa to be destroyed.
Hallward (1970, p.12) writes that for a long time Rome had been content to allow Numidia’s expansion because it had suited Roman interests. Under the pretext of the fear of a great Numidian power being established in Africa, the senate took action to prevent this event by destroying Carthage. Carthage’s final destruction had not only partly become an issue of cold policy, but also partly the desire of unsated revenge (Hallward, 1970, p.73). Carthage made the grievous error of failing to gauge Rome’s hatred toward her, and the Third Punic War can be considered as a huge massacre more than a struggle. The long war lasted more than a century was now over, and Rome had become the only master of the Mediterranean.
In considering the causes that led to the final defeat of Carthage, Caven (1980, p.291) argues that Carthage’s preoccupation with commercial considerations was a fatal limitation, as it blinded her to the different motives and more far-reaching ambitions of others, so that she failed to insure herself effectively against them.
Throughout the 118 years of the Punic Wars the Carthaginians never perceived that a war against Rome could not be won unless they abandoned the thinking habits of the marketplace.
Adherence to these habits had helped them to build up their commercial and maritime empire. They appraised each situation in terms of economic cost, expenditure, profit and loss. These were the considerations that operated in their dealings with barbarians and their contact with the Greeks, with their interest in trade and their limited resources, encouraged them to believe that this approach was universally valid. The rulers of Carthage identified the interests of the community with their own single-minded pursuit of wealth and comfort, and they closed their eyes to the importance of imperial insurance.
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