ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS            home | history

The Punic Wars and Imperialist Expansion

MAP: the Western Mediterranean and Sicily – 264 BCE

To protect their community the Romans wanted to please their gods with their devotions and rituals. They believed they were a virtuous people. The chastity of the four virgins that tended their sacred fire at the Temple of Vesta they saw as important to that virtue. They saw themselves as virtuous also in how they conducted themselves on the world stage.

Their most powerful neighbor was Carthage, on the coast of North Africa (today Tunisia), founded by Phoenicians. Carthage was an empire. It dominated the entire coast of North Africa as far east as Egypt. It held the southern coast of Spain, half of Sicily, and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. Rome had an agreement with Carthage: Rome recognized Carthage as the dominant power in Sicily, and Carthage promised not to extend itself across the narrow channel between Sicily and the toe of the Italian peninsula.

Rome was challenged during a conflict between two of Sicily's cities: Messana and Syracuse. A faction in Messana requested help from Carthage. Another faction distrusted Carthage and requested help from Rome. Respecting its treaty with Carthage, Rome's senate chose to ignore the call for help. But vanity intervened: one of Rome's two consuls was eager for military action that would give him distinction. His vanity was mixed with demagoguery. He described reluctance to send help to Messana as weakness. He aroused Romans who identified with and were emotional about Rome's power. The Senate gave into the aroused emotions and sent a force to Messana.

Carthage was annoyed by Rome having ignored its treaty, but it tried conciliation. It asked Rome to withdraw its troops. Proud Romans siding with what they viewed as strength called on their city to stand up to Carthage, and they claimed that Carthage was a danger to Rome's security.

There was among the Romans little caution about war, its enthusiasts believing it would be a short war. But Rome's goal — securing the strait between the Italian Peninsula — would soon be forgotten. Greed for plunder arose, and there was other mission creep. It became a war for driving Carthage out of Sicily and then a war for all of Sicily.

Carthage used Greek mercenaries, with minimum risks to Carthaginians and with half measures. During the war, Rome built its first great navy, which won spectacular victories, first in 260 and then in 241. With Rome as master of the Mediterranean, Carthage decided that the price it had to pay for ending the war was better than the cost of continuing it. Carthage agreed to pay Rome a huge sum of money and to give Rome the islands of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia. Rome accepted, and many Romans saw confirmation that their city had been called on by the gods for a special destiny.

Roman soldiers were sent to Corsica and Sardinia. Islanders retreated inland. Soldiers with trained dogs hunted them down, and the islanders were sold for a profit, ending up on Rome's gutted slave market at a price that many Romans could afford.

More than a decade after the end of the First Punic War, Rome became involved in another quarrel between two towns – this time in what in modern times would be Spain ( on the Iberian Peninsula). This again was in Carthage's neighborhood. A Carthaginian military commander by the name of Hannibal didn't accept the outcome of the first war with Rome. Hannibal started another war two decades after the first war had ended. He sent armies to Sicily and Italy by sea and a force with cavalry and elephants through the Alps and down into in northern Italy.

Hannibal won Rome's old enemy the Gauls to his side. He described the Romans as "a pernicious and rapacious race intent on enslaving the world." He won a big battle at Trebbia in late December 218, his 30,000 men and 37 elephants against Rome's 42,000 and an incompetent general. The Romans lost many men, but there was a retreat and many were to live to fight another day.

Rather than an effort to win allies among the Italians, Hannibal burned and destroyed as he worked his way south. At Cannae in 216 he had another big victory. It seemed Rome was on the verge of defeat. The city of Syracuse (on the island of Sicily) went over to the side of Carthage. Macedonia's king Philip V offered Carthage an alliance, and Italian cities opened their gates to Hannibal. But Rome was fighting closer to home and had access to more manpower. And Carthaginian politics came to the fore: Carthage's oligarchs feared that Hannibal as a hero-victor would jeopardize their positions of power and were reluctant to send him reinforcements.

A Roman army from the Iberian Peninsula threatened Carthage, and Hannibal returned to Carthage to save the city. There he advised surrender. A council of twenty Roman priests — which governed treaties with foreigners — went to Carthage to present Rome's demands. The priests called on the god Jupiter to witness that the demands were just. Carthage agreed to reduce its territory to an area that approximates what today is Tunisia. It agreed to withdraw from participation in the affairs on the Iberian Peninsula, to pay Rome a huge indemnity and to surrender to Rome all but twenty of its warships. Rome also wanted Hannibal's head, but he found refuge with the Seleucid king, Antiochus III.

The Second Punic War was followed by a horrific spread of Rome's empire. In Greece, Rome was viewed as the world's policeman. Wealthy Greeks asked for Rome's help against men advocating reforms. Some Romans wanted their city to avoid further entanglements and to avoid contacts with philosophies they believed would corrupt their fellow Romans. Some other Romans bought the policeman idea and argued for selective intervention beyond Italy as a service to humankind, and they spoke of Rome's destiny and of triumphs yet to come.

Roman soldiers were sent to Greece to keep order, and local conservatives gave to the Romans reports as to who was anti-Roman. The Romans deported the denounced people in great numbers. In one city, Roman soldiers invaded an assembly and murdered five hundred office holders who had been reported to be anti-Roman. The Romans rounded up close to nine hundred leaders and intellectuals on the Peloponnesian Peninsula, including the historian Polybius, and shipped them back to Italy, keeping them for a trial that was never to be held.

Rome took power in Caria and Lycia (both in southwestern Turkey), and they took control of the island of Delos (in the Aegean Sea between Caria and the Peloponnesian Peninsula). Rome sent an army to keep the Macedonians in line, and it began a permanent rule and military occupation there, Macedonia becoming (in 146 BCE) the first Roman province east of the Adriatic Sea.

A neighbor of Carthage, Numidia, took advantage of Rome's hostility toward Carthage by making encroachments. Rome sided with Numidia and followed a drumbeat of hatred against Carthage and a call for its destruction. There was a continuing rebellion against Rome on the Iberian Peninsula, and some in the city of Corinth saw Rome burdened by another war with Carthage as an opportunity to stand up against Rome's pretensions of authority over Greek cities. A leader from the city of Corinth traveled from town to town in Greece calling for debt reform and opposition to Rome. The Romans retaliated, and to warn others they slaughtered all the men they found in Corinth. They enslaved the city's women and children, and they shipped Corinth's treasures to Italy and burned the city to the ground.

Greek cities hostile to Rome had their walls demolished and their people disarmed. The Romans found the city of Thebes entirely empty of people, its inhabitants having fled to wander through mountains and wilderness. According to the Greek historian Polybius, people everywhere were throwing themselves "down wells and over precipices."

Rome dissolved the Achaean League (on the Peloponnesian Peninsula) and had its leaders put to death. Rome's governor to Macedonia became governor also of the entire Greek peninsula. In Greece, Rome would now allow only local city politics dominated by wealthy elites, and all border disputes were to be settled by Rome. Rome was now, without challenge, the greatest of empires.

CONTINUE READING: Road to Dictatorship (the republic ends)

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.