General Summary of Roman History, 264BC-14AD

Page 2 of 4 — The Punic Wars were a series of three major conflicts between Rome and Carthage, a city in North Africa (modern day Tunis) settled by Phoenicians centuries before. Often reviled by the Romans as barbaric and perfidious, the Carthaginians were great explorers, merchants, and even warriors - although it is hard for any people to appear militarily competent next to the Romans. They dominated the Mediterranean before the First Punic War, and in fact had signed a number of peace treaties with the young Republic. All this changed when the rulers of Messana, a city in Sicily inhabited to Greeks, ended up through a series of confusing events appealing to both the Romans and Carthaginians for protection against their local enemies. After a bloody struggle lasting over two decades, during which both sides lost hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men, the Carthaginians were forced to sue for peace, giving up their influence in Sicily, which the Romans soon occupied entirely. Over the next decade Sardinia and Corsica also came under their sway.

Hostilities were resumed twenty years later thanks to one of the most remarkable military leaders ever to have stepped on a battlefield. Hannibal Barca, as the story goes, was made as a child to swear an oath of eternal enmity towards Rome by his father Hamilcar, a famous general in his own right. Hannibal made good on this promise when he led an army of over 100,000 men out of Carthaginian territory in Southern Spain in 218 BC. Attacking the city of Saguntum, a Roman ally, was as good as a declaration of war. But few expected Hannibal to do what he next did - take his entire army through the Alps in the depth of winter, emerging in Northern Italy a few months later with less than half his original force (all but one of Hannibal's famous elephants died during this journey, incidentally).

For the next few years, Hannibal easily slaughtered anything put into the field against him. Reinforcing his troops from the Gallic tribes who were perennial enemies of Rome, he defeated three gigantic Roman armies in less than a year, marched all over Italy capturing city after city, and generally appeared invincible. The Romans were forced to adopt a policy of attrition, slowly chipping away at Hannibal's forces, recapturing cities while he was on the other side of Italy, and so on. Many times during these years the Republic was close to collapse; its allies abandoned it, its generals died like flies, and it was forced to sell temple ornaments to pay its troops. Even without any support from the government in Carthage, it appeared Hannibal had finally succeeded in defeating Rome.

Yet the Republic did not give up, for surrender was not a word the Romans understood. And at long last, the scales began to tip, with the appointment of Publius Cornelius Scipio, later known as Africanus, to the Spanish command. In the course of a few years, Scipio completely destroyed the Carthaginian presence in Spain, eventually moving on into North Africa itself. Hannibal was forced to return home, and defeated in the Battle of Zama (202 BC). With this the power of Carthage was effectively destroyed forever, although it took another fifty years before the Romans were able to find an excuse to destroy Carthage and sell its people into slavery.

Slowly, Rome began to expand westwards, their influence reaching first Greece and Macedonia, then Syria. It is interesting to note that at first the Romans preferred not to actually rule these distant states, but merely expected them to follow instructions when they were given. However, the Republic eventually lost patience with the constant political intrigues in the Eastern Mediterranean, and divided them into Roman provinces. These distractions could not be tolerated, for there were more important things at home that needed to be dealt with... Continued...

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