Carthago Delenda Est!
“Ceterum autem censeo Carthaginem esse delendam!”
“Futhermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed!”
These words were very popular in the Roman Republic during the 2nd century BC. Senator Cato the Elder used them to end his every speech, no matter the topic, as he was one of the most passionate advocates of the genocidal policy against Carthage. During the previous century, Rome fought two major conflicts against the seafaring Carthaginians, the First and Second Punic Wars. Soon it would fight another, the Third Punic War, which would conclude with the utter destruction of Carthage.
The First Punic War
The First Punic War lasted for almost two decades (264 – 241 BC) and it was mainly fought at sea. It started as a local conflict in Sicily, initially involving the Greeks of Syracuse and the Mamertines of Messina. The Mamertines were Italic mercenaries from Campania who had been hired by the Greeks of Syracuse a century earlier (4th century BC), in order to aid them against the Carthaginians in the Sicilian Wars. After the Third Sicilian War ended in 307 BC, Messina was ceded to Carthage and the fighting stopped. Many Mamertines made their way back to Campania, but a handful remained in Sicily where they eventually captured Messina for themselves.
Upon learning that the Mamertines had not only taken Messina but also massacred most of its Greek population, the Syracusans mobilized an army against them. Hiero II, the Tyrant of Syracuse, was determined to retake the former Greek city. The Mamertines suffered a heavy defeat, but responded swiftly by placing themselves under Carthaginian “protection”, which made Hiero and his Syracusan forces retire. The Greeks did not wish to enter into another conflict with Carthage: the Sicilian Wars – or Greco-Punic Wars – had just ended, after 335 years of fighting over Sicilian supremacy.
The Mamertines soon grew uneasy under Carthaginian “protection” and decided to appeal to Rome instead. Initially, the Senate had serious doubts about the Mamertines, since they were the aggressors who started the conflict. It was them who unjustly captured Messina by butchering its rightful owners. Geopolitics, however, determined the Senate to intervene, as the Romans were not very thrilled about Carthage’s influence expanding over all of Sicily, which was in turn so close to Rome. Thus, the Romans entered an alliance with the Mamertines and Syracuse responded by entering an alliance with Carthage.
With Rome and Carthage dragged into this otherwise minor conflict, tensions escalated into a full-scale war for the control of Sicily and the Western Mediterranean. In 264 BC, the Mamertines expelled their former Carthaginian allies from Messina, while Rome mobilized an army. Two legions landed in Sicily and reinforced Messina to protect it from the imminent Carthaginian-Syracusan counter-attack. After breaking the enemy forces, the Romans marched on Syracuse itself and laid siege to it. Shortly afterwards, Hiero II sued for peace and allied himself with Rome. This was an important strategic victory for the Romans, as it solved most of their logistics problems.
The first major confrontation between Carthage and Rome occurred in 262 BC, when the Romans laid siege to the Carthaginian city of Agrigentum. Carthage dispatched a relief force tasked with breaking the siege, but failed deplorably. The garrison of Agrigentum made a desperate attack and managed to break the Roman line in order to escape Sicily. Left defenseless, Agrigentum was seized without opposition. The Romans plundered the city and sold at least 25,000 of its inhabitants into slavery. The taking of Agrigentum marked the beginning of Roman dominance in Sicily.
After this harsh and humiliating defeat on land, the Carthaginians focused on naval warfare, where they thought they held the upper hand. Initially, the Roman Navy was overwhelmed (Battle of the Lipari Islands, 260 BC), but Rome responded swiftly by expanding her fleet. Unlike Carthage, Rome had no strong navy and little experience in naval warfare. Within a couple of months, however, the Romans built over a hundred warships. These new vessels were based on the more advanced Carthaginian triremes and quinqueremes which the Romans managed to capture in battle.
Knowing that they had little chance of success in defeating the Carthaginians at sea due to their lack of experience in the traditional tactics of ramming and sinking enemy warships, the Romans added a special assault engine to their ships – the corvus. The corvus was essentially a hinged bridge with a sharp spike that was dropped on the enemy vessels. This immobilized them and allowed the superior Roman troops to quickly storm the enemy vessels and slaughter their crew. The corvus ultimately proved instrumental in the First Punic War, turning the odds in Rome’s favor. The naval engagements at Mylae (260 BC), Sulci (258 BC), Tyndaris (257 BC) and, most importantly, at Cape Ecnomus (256 BC) all ended in Roman victory and opened the way for a Roman invasion of Africa.
After the Battle of Adys (256 BC), the first Roman victory on African soil, Carthage sued for peace; negotiations failed and the war continued for fifteen more years. The Carthaginians eventually employed a Spartan general called Xanthippus to defeat the Romans. Xanthippus quickly reorganized the defense of Carthage and forced the Romans to fight on open ground in the Battle of Bagradas (255 BC). This allowed the Spartan to enhance the effect of the Carthaginian war elephants and 4,000 strong cavalry. The Romans lost 12,000 men, while the Carthaginian casualties were estimated at around 800. It was a devastating defeat which demoralized the Romans and rekindled the Carthaginians’ fighting spirit.
The 3,000 Roman survivors were evacuated by a fleet, but a terrible storm destroyed them on their way back to Sicily. From this incident until the end of the war no major battles were fought; both the Romans and the Carthaginians focused on raiding and low-intensity fighting. Towards the mid-240s BC, however, Carthage could not sustain the war effort any longer. In an attempt to save some money, a large part of the Carthaginian navy was demobilized. In contrast, Rome was building fleet after fleet.
Carthage was eventually defeated and forced to sign a peace treaty in 241 BC after suffering one final naval defeat in the Battle of the Aegates. Besides having to pay Rome a large war indemnity, Carthage also had to pull out of Sicily. In addition, Carthage lost Corsica and Sardinia to the Romans a few years later. After the first Punic War, Rome became the most powerful state in the Western Mediterranean. Destabilized from the First Punic War and the Mercenary War that ensued after her defeat at the hands of Rome, Carthage looked to restore her influence and power by expanding her colonial empire in silver-rich Iberia. The campaign was led by the Barcid family.
Hamilcar, the family patriarch, was a general in the First Punic War and hated the Romans with a passion. He made his eldest son Hannibal swear a solemn, sacred oath before the gods “to never be a friend of Rome”. Hamilcar died in Iberia, drowning while crossing a river in 228 BC. His son-in-law, Hasdrubal the Fair, was killed by a Celtic assassin in 221 BC. This left Hannibal in command of the Iberian campaign, which would immediately take a turn for the worse. In 219 BC, he attacked Saguntum, a city allied to Rome. This incident reignited old hatreds and precipitated another Punic War.
Hannibal was the greatest and most brilliant general Carthage ever produced, but he would also prove to be the catalyst of Carthage’s ultimate demise. Upon igniting the Second Punic War, which lasted for almost twenty years (218 – 201 BC), Hannibal left his younger brother Hasdrubal in charge of the defense of the Carthaginian cities from Iberia, while he marched on Rome. During this conflict, Hannibal achieved the extraordinary, unprecedented feat of crossing the Alps with a large army, including war elephants. However, he lost his siege engines and most of the war beasts along with a considerable number of troops across the icy mountainous paths.
After successfully crossing the Alps, Hannibal launched his invasion of the Italian Peninsula. In order to rebuild his army and replace the forces lost in the mountains, the Carthaginian general hired mercenaries along the way. Besides the Numidian cavalry which played a key role in the battles of the Second Punic War, Hannibal also employed Celtiberian and Celtic warriors, who were eager to fight the Romans. Rome was taken by complete surprise and suffered a chain of crushing and humiliating defeats at Trebia (218 BC), Lake Trasimene (217 BC) and most famously at Cannae (216 BC).
The Roman armies were obliterated and Hannibal eventually reached the gates of Rome. Lacking the siege weapons and supplies he needed, he failed to take the city and conclude the conflict. Despite his brilliant military victories, Hannibal’s long-term strategy proved to be frail, and failed. Hannibal tried in vain to turn the Italian allies against Rome, just as he tried in vain to convince Carthage to send him reinforcements and supplies. Carthage only sent aid to Iberia, where Hasdrubal’s success was changing.
Rome also displayed an incredible ability to recover from the succession of crushing defeats she suffered, mustering army upon army and keeping Hannibal’s forces cut off from any aid. To put things in perspective, Rome lost around 122,000 men in three years: up to 32,000 casualties at the Battle of Trebia, 15,000 killed and 15,000 captured at the Battle of Lake Trasimene, and up to 75,000 casualties at the Battle of Cannae. In contrast, the Carthaginians lost around 13,000 men in these three battles, half of which were African, Gaulish and Celtiberian mercenaries. What is truly impressive is that Rome managed to hold her ground against Hannibal’s assault, while also fighting against Hasdrubal in Iberia and against Philip V in Macedonia.
For fifteen years Hannibal was able to sustain his campaign throughout the Italian Peninsula, but without taking any major city. He managed to keep his army supplied by looting and ravaging the Italian countryside. However, when Rome finally realized that Hannibal’s army was outrunning its supply lines, she planned a counter-attack upon the city of Carthage itself in North Africa. A large army commanded by Publius Cornelius Scipio was immediately sent by sea to stop the flow of supplies and lay siege to Carthage. Hannibal had no choice but to abandon his Italian campaign and make his way back home before it was too late.
Hannibal faced Scipio in the decisive Battle of Zama (in 202 BC), where the Carthaginian forces were annihilated, despite their numerical superiority. Scipio studied Hannibal’s stratagems closely and was able to use his enemy’s tactics against him. Instead of massing his troops to counter Hannibal’s war elephants, Scipio ordered his men to form hollow squares. Once the elephants were close enough, the Romans opened their ranks and let the beasts charge through. Trapped, the elephants were quickly swarmed and pelted to death before they could inflict any damage on the Romans.
Horns and trumpets were used as well in order to strike panic into the animals, and before long most of Hannibal’s war elephants were either dead or running amok, crushing their allies and disrupting their formation. With the threat posed by the war elephants neutralized, Scipio’s forces overwhelmed and destroyed the Carthaginian infantry. Unlike their battle-hardened Roman counterparts, the Carthaginian troops were mostly comprised of fresh conscripts without any real combat experience.
Some credit must also be given to Masinissa, the Numidian commander who switched sides when he saw that Rome was winning the war. The Numidian elite cavalry, which proved so vital to Hannibal’s initial success, was now fighting with the Romans. Masinissa personally commanded the cavalry (6,000 Numidian and 3,000 Roman) at Zama, charging and routing the Carthaginian horsemen. Without any cavalry support, and with the war elephants neutralized, the Carthaginian infantry stood no chance. While being pushed by the Romans, Masinissa’s riders crushed them from behind. Hannibal’s army disinterested on the spot.
20,000 men of Hannibal’s army were slaughtered, while 20,000 others were taken prisoners of war and sold into slavery. The Romans only lost around 2,500 men and the Numidians about the same number. Defeated in their very home, the Carthaginian elite sued for peace and accepted Rome’s humiliating terms.
Hannibal became a statesman after the war, but his political and financial reforms made him greatly unpopular with the Carthaginian aristocracy. Fearing for his life, he fled to the Seleucid Empire where he found refuge at the court of Antiochus III the Great. Hannibal acted as military advisor to Antiochus who was at the time was engaged in war against the Romans. After Antiochus was defeated, Hannibal’s flight led him to Armenia, and later to Bithynia. There, he continued fighting the Romans and even managed to secure some victories against them. Hannibal was eventually betrayed and took his own life in 183 BC. His suicide letter read:
Let us relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced, since they think it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man’s death.
A Peace Meant to be Broken
In the aftermath of the battle which ended the war, Carthage cried for peace and Rome delivered. The peace treaty was very different from the one that concluded the First Punic War. This time, Rome wanted to make sure that Carthage would never rise to challenge Roman supremacy in the Western Mediterranean again. The terms imposed by the peace treaty bankrupted Carthage, neutered her military power and reduced her influence to the city of Carthage itself.
Moreover, the treaty didn’t allow Carthage to raise an army or wage war against anyone without Rome’s consent. This allowed Rome to get the pretext she needed to ignite the genocidal Third Punic War fifty years later, when Carthage raised an army to fend against Numidian raiders. Despite winning both wars, Rome would never get over the humiliation and damaging setbacks she suffered at the hands of Hannibal. The Punic Wars fueled Rome’s hatred towards Carthage until it grew into a genocidal obsession.
The third and last Punic War started fifty years after the Battle of Zama, in 149 BC. Unlike the previous conflicts which lasted two decades each, the Third Punic War was limited to a three-year siege of Carthage. The siege ended with a bloody massacre and the complete destruction of the city.
Carthage was not allowed to raise an army or fight even defensive conflicts without Rome’s consent. In the aftermath of the Second Punic War, however, the Numidians – allies of Rome – took advantage of this situation, and constantly raided the defenseless Carthaginian settlements. Eventually, Carthage raised an army of 25,000 men and tried – without success – to repel the Numidian marauders. This was the beginning of the end for Carthage.
Rome was furious: both the Senate and the public opinion expressed outrage at Carthage’s actions. By raising an army without Roman permission, even to defend herself, Carthage broke the peace treaty. Thus, having the pretext it needed, Rome declared war on Carthage in 149 BC. Despite Carthage’s desperate attempts to restore the peace, Rome kept making increasingly outrageous demands, including ordering the Carthaginians to burn their city to the ground and move sixteen kilometers inland.
The Third Punic War
The Romans were determined to precipitate an armed conflict and solve “the Carthaginian Question” once and for all. The Carthaginians on the other hand wanted peace, as they were in no condition to fight another war. Carthage agreed to Rome’s previous demands of sending 300 children of noble birth as hostages to Rome, as well as handing over all weapons and military equipment, but they would not agree to burn their city down.
In response, Rome dispatched Scipio Aemilianus (another member of the Scipio family) to destroy the city of Carthage. He quickly laid siege to it, officially starting the Third [and last] Punic War. Hasdrubal the Boetharch, the general who was in charge of the defense of Carthage, manned the city walls and brought out Roman prisoners in front of the besieging army. He ordered their eyes, tongues and genitals torn out with iron hooks and then flayed them alive. The prisoners’ still breathing bodies were thrown down the walls, at the feet of their comrades.
Carthage resisted the siege for three years until the Romans finally broke through the city walls in 146 BC. The following battle was bloody and brutal, as the Carthaginians fought to their last breath out of despair, like a cornered beast. Every structure within the city walls was transformed into a stronghold and every Carthaginian took up a weapon.
The Battle of Carthage is one of the earliest instances of urban warfare, since the Romans had to take the city street by street, building by building, house by house, room by room. Scipio Aemilianus ordered his men to set the buildings in which Carthaginians barricaded themselves on fire. He also formed “cleaning” squads which were tasked with keeping the streets clear by dragging away the dead and dying into large pits. The Roman soldiers showed no mercy and no respite – they slaughtered almost half a million Carthaginians, indiscriminate of age or sex. Most of them were civilians.
After hours upon hours of house-to-house fighting, the Carthaginians finally surrendered. Hasdrubal begged for mercy, an act which caused his wife and children to commit suicide. He was taken to Rome where he was paraded in chains during Scipio’s triumph, but later he was freed and allowed to live in peace. The rest of the Carthaginian survivors were not as lucky; over 50,000 of them were sold into slavery.
The city of Carthage was set ablaze and razed to the ground, being reduced to nothing but rubble, ruins and ashes.
Consulted Works and Sources:
- Lazenby, J. (2016). The First Punic War. Routledge.
- Lazenby, J. F. (1998). Hannibal’s war: A military history of the Second Punic War. University of Oklahoma Press.
- Hoyos, D. (Ed.). (2011). A companion to the Punic Wars. John Wiley & Sons.
- Goldsworthy, A. (2012). The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146BC. Hachette UK.
- Carey, B. T. (2007). Hannibal’s last battle: Zama and the fall of Carthage. Pen and Sword.
- Wise, T. (1982). Armies of the Carthaginian Wars, 265-146 BC(Vol. 121). Osprey Publishing.
- Healy, M. (1994). Cannae 216 BC: Hannibal smashes Rome’s army (Vol. 36). Osprey Publishing.
- Fields, N. (2010). Carthaginian Warrior 264-146 BC (Vol. 150). Osprey Publishing.
- Fields, N. (2007). The Roman Army of the Punic Wars 264-146 BC (Vol. 27). Osprey Publishing.